From Bayreuth to New York
An interview with Prof. Dr. Katharina Schramm, Chair for Social and Cultural Anthropology at Bayreuth and currently Theodor Heuss Professor in New York.
Since October 2022, you have held the Theodor Heuss Professorship at the New School in New York, a U.S. university with a special tradition: founded in 1919 as the New School for Social Research, after 1933 it gave numerous persecuted social and political scientists who had emigrated to the U.S. the opportunity to continue their research work in exile, including Alfred Schütz, Wilhelm Reich, Karen Horney, Karl Löwith, Hannah Arendt and Hans Jonas. Against this background, the Federal Republic of Germany has sponsored the Theodor Heuss Professorship, named after its first Federal President, since 1962. The professorship is awarded for one year at a time to scholars from Germany, primarily in the fields of philosophy, psychology, and the social, political, and economic sciences. As Theodor Heuss Professor, you have had prominent predecessors, such as Jürgen Habermas, Iring Fetscher, Niklas Luhmann, and more recently Rahel Jaeggi and Richard Rottenburg. Is the great tradition of the New School with its academic connections to Europe still noticeable on campus today?
Katharina Schramm: The New School is not a traditional American campus university, rather the buildings are located in the middle of the city around Union Square. That means the intellectual activities are also scattered, and the effects of the pandemic are felt beyond that. It is only this semester that academic activity is slowly going back to “normal.” The New School nowadays consists of several departments, including the Parsons School of Design and the Mannes School of Music. The Heuss Professorship is located at the New School of Social Research (NSSR). Here, there are still numerous connections to Europe and also to Germany. This is evident not only in concrete research collaborations, but also in the special appreciation for critical theory as well as in the New School's rather progressive, left-leaning political self-image, which is based on these critical traditions.
What topics will you be addressing in your research and teaching in New York in the coming months?
K.S.: Currently, I am teaching an undergraduate course on conceptualizing race in science & technology studies (STS). This is an area I have worked in for the past decade, and it is interesting to discuss these issues with students here. By the end of the year, I would like to complete an edited volume that I am co-editing with Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, who holds the chair in Epistemologies of the Global South at the University of Bayreuth. In this publication, we address questions of knowledge and decolonization. Then, starting in January 2023, I will be teaching a course on "Methodologies of Care." In this, I would like to discuss with the master’s students and PhD students how we can develop new empirical research formats to address the challenges of decolonial knowledge production. In this second half of my residency, I will be working on a book project on the problem of race.
Looking back at the European-influenced social sciences at the New School, how would you situate your own research projects on racism and decolonization here? Could one generalize and say that a social research influenced by Western ways of looking at things, politically predominantly located in the progressive-liberal spectrum, is today not only complemented but also fundamentally changed by new research approaches from the Global South?
K.S.: Scholarship that sees itself as a critical examination of the world, should be fundamentally open and flexible. In this respect, the process of change is inevitable. This process concerns not only epistemological and institutional issues, but also the relationship between the university and society: What role should and can the university play here? I absolutely advocate maintaining and cultivating the university as a critical space for discussion and reflection. The humanities and social sciences have a particularly important role to play here. But professors don't have all the answers either; at best, they are learners as well. And learning includes listening. Decolonial approaches to research such as “pluriversity”, which emphasize the multiplicity of forms of knowledge and expertise, can and should change the way we research, teach, and learn.
How would you describe the diversity of students, faculty, and researchers at the New School? Do many of them have a migration background, and how does this affect your courses on issues of racism research?K.S.: It's interesting that you talk about "migration background" here - in the U.S., a country of immigration, this vocabulary is not common. However, race and racism are ubiquitous. The students I currently teach in the undergraduate programme are predominantly from the U.S., but they bring with them very different experiences and backgrounds – through their families, their communities, their everyday lives, and, of course, their position within a society marked by racism. When we discuss in class how race is inscribed in medical technologies, for example, students relate it directly to their own realities. They are also very interested in how racism is discussed in Germany and Europe.
Currently, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing whether the affirmative action policy is constitutional. This refers to the widespread practice at U.S. universities of facilitating access to higher education for members of population groups that have traditionally been disadvantaged and discriminated against on the basis of their skin colour and ethnic origin. Does this debate also play a role at the New School?
K.S.: Absolutely. This ruling is being awaited with concern because it potentially joins several rulings that have reversed fundamental progressive gains of recent years, such as abortion rights. As a private university, the New School still has room to manoeuvre, and the president, Dr. Dwight A. McBride, has made it clear that the New School intends to adhere to policies aimed at anti-discrimination and increased participation for underrepresented minorities. However, it must also be said that the problem of unequal access to educational and life opportunities is much larger. It begins in the underfunding of public schools and continues in the privatized system of elite universities and their exorbitant tuition fees. Scholarship programmes and similar measures are more of a drop in the bucket here.
Today, civil society in the United States is divided into two major political currents that are growing ever further apart. There is occasional talk of a "cultural war" between conservatism and liberalism, and it seems increasingly doubtful whether representatives of these two camps can still agree on a common factual basis on fundamental issues. The election campaign in the run-up to the midterm elections has once again made this clear. How is this division reflected in scientific and research policy disputes that you are currently experiencing in New York?
K.S.: Today on November 8 is election day, and indeed the social divide is very palpable, especially in the media. The issue is not least about maintaining democracy as a model of society. As in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, the question of what kind of society we want to live in is being declared an identity issue, especially by conservatives. Demands for equal rights, for example by black people (Black Lives Matter) or trans*people, are perceived as a threat to the existing order. Of course, these debates are also reflected in the academic setting. Students put new questions on the agenda and demand a different academic culture – free of sexism, for example. I think it is the responsibility of us as teachers to respond to this and to create space for debate. However, I have not yet experienced a direct clash of the "camps" you outline here. But New York, as a cosmopolitan city, is also more of a "bubble," and so too is the New School. What is most noticeable here is the enormous economic pressure that people are facing to be able to afford to live in New York City at all.
Do you see fundamental differences between the societies in Europe and North America when it comes to dealing critically with colonialism and racism?
K.S.: There is a lot of overlap, but of course there are also massive differences in the approaches to these issues. The U.S. is a settler colony, and the question of land plays an important role. Even in the hallways of the New School there are posters reminding us that it was built on "stolen land". In addition, there is the legacy of slavery and racism that continues to shape U.S. society today – for example, in the disproportionality of prison sentences for Black people. Abolitionist scholars such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore therefore speak of a "carceral state" and call for the abolition of the prison system. In Germany, these discussions are also echoed, but there are also other constellations and subject areas. For example, it is only in recent years that there has been any growing awareness of Germany's own colonial past – with ethnological museums and collections and public remembrance, via street names or colonial racist symbols like „Moor pharmacies“ in Bayreuth and other German cities, becoming the main sites of debate. In addition, racism in Europe is often articulated in identitarian terms and with reference to cultural difference, for example in the anti-Muslim racism of Pegida and similar initiatives. In my eyes, it is important to work out these local specificities without losing sight of the larger contexts.
A few days ago, you gave your inaugural lecture in New York, with an unusual and somewhat provocative-sounding title: "Fire Is Good to Think With: Protest as a Mode of Theorizing". What was it about, and what was the response to your lecture?
K.S.: My lecture was specifically about the South African student movement Rhodes Must Fall / Fees Must Fall and the mobilization of fire as a form of critique. In it, I brought together theoretical considerations from postcolonial science & technology studies with approaches from political theory to think about the relationship between academic and activist practice. Fire is particularly interesting in this regard because it is contradictory, namely potentially at once destructive and generative, that is, giving rise to the new. In many cases, students were criticized for their impatience and their supposedly affect-driven actions – I was interested in finding a different approach to forms of protest as a knowledge formation in its own right. Many people came to listen, and the discussion was very stimulating. I look forward to further exchange in the coming months.