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Today we are in conversation with Arjun Appadurai, Goddard Professor in Media, Culture and Communication at NYU Steinhardt, where he is also Senior Fellow at the Institute for Public Knowledge. He is currently in Berlin for a year and in this interview discusses how being there has informed his scholarship and vice versa.
How did you first come to NYU? What drew you to the institution?
I came to NYU in 2009 from the New School. So I was not physically very far away, but institutionally NYU is quite different. I had previously been provost at the New School for couple of years so was engaged with the large issues related to educational institutions. For various reasons I stepped down from that role to focus on my professorial work, but the transition was hard. I was not unhappy but it was a challenge, so when I received an offer from the Media, Culture, and Communication department at NYU Steinhardt, that seemed compelling. It offered a good opportunity to fully reenter the academic world in a very appealing department. NYU was just entering to its global phase so that was an added appeal for someone with my interests. The department seemed interesting, NYU’s global moves also seemed interesting. So NYU was a good place to shift to in 2009. I have not been disappointed.
How did you come to NYU Berlin? I understand that you received support from the Provost’s Global Research Initiatives program. I also understand that you are now a visiting professor at Humboldt University in Berlin. What work have you been focusing on while in Berlin?
I am on sabbatical for this year and was additionally supported with a GRI stipend for the autumn. I am here for the whole academic year – at Humboldt for the full year as a sabbatical and I remained linked to NYU through the GRI last term. My affiliation with NYU Berlin technically ended in December so I am now a just visiting professor at Humboldt. Throughout the year and with the various affiliations, I have been working on the same things: two very short book projects and one other project that has grown out of my time here. Starting with the latter, in response to news and recent current events in Europe, I was asked to a contribute to an edited book with eleven other authors about “the great regression’ – the global swing to right wing leaders. The book will be published in German and simultaneously translated into twelve other languages. This affiliation has lead to other contributions to the European media. I was recently interviewed by the French paper Journal du Dimanche. I also appeared on a German television program, Kulturzeit, which airs on an educational channel comparable to PBS in the United States. Because of the engagement with this book project, I have been able to participatee in a most interesting, unplanned public engagement while in Europe. My essay for that book is entitled “Democracy Fatigue.” I wrote it during the fall and finished it about three weeks after Trump’s victory in the US election. It has considerably broadcast my interests and arguments in the German and European press. In general over the eight months that I have been here, including during my time at NYU Berlin, I have had a considerable engagement not just in the academic world in Berlin but also outside Berlin, with quasi-public institutions, cultural institutions, and academic institutions concerned about my interests. Some of my long-term areas of interest – migration, refugees, globalization, the future of Europe, the future of nation states – are of great interest in Europe at the moment. So I find myself discovering and becoming part of the very wide flow of ideas and events that straddle academia and public institutions.
In terms of the two books I have been working on, one is related to this set of topics, the other less so. The one less related is a short book on failure – in design, technology, states, markets but also in life – careers, marriages, and such. What do we learn from failure that we do not learn from success? I raise that question and also consider how failure is historically and culturally defined. I ask what is failure and what is not; what parts of thinking about failure are interconnected and what are more idiosyncratic and particular to a particular place or moment in time.
The other book seeks to explore the prima facie contradiction between the ideals of enlightenment entitlement – freedom, equality, humanity – that took hold precisely as Europe went about mass colonialist projects that were racist, exploitative, and seemingly trampled the universalist values of the Enlightenment. Entitled Enlightenment and Empire, this work is a deeper historical look at how Europe has for a very long time had internal debates about itself and a certain measure of volatility about its identity or essence. I consider whether current concerns might be just a recent chapter in this history as opposed to a crisis in an otherwise settled European project.
How have you found the experience at NYU Berlin and at Humboldt University? How has researching Germany influenced your scholarship? What has been most challenging and what has been most rewarding?
I find that my stay in Berlin is particularly timely in relation to how my interests have evolved over a long time. I have come to be very interested in the European story itself – in terms of ideas, politics, the nation state, the economy. Earlier I saw this from an Indian or South Asian or “Third World” perspective which pre-disposed me not to look very carefully inside Europe. I saw Europe broadly and without nuance. Then I began to question how Europe made itself and to wonder what were and are the stresses or uncertainties of that enterprise. I had been doing this for a few years so when I had the opportunity to come here I had some hopes that the interest would find fertile ground. It has been much more fruitful than I had anticipated. In Berlin perhaps especially there is an active search for the hidden histories of Europe and a focus on Europe’s entanglements with the rest of the world. There is lots of active research at universities, think tanks, and other places exploring the histories that have been marginalized and seeking to bring them back to light in part to offer different alternatives for the present. So my timing in being here and my experience has been better than I had hoped.
Your last book, The Future as a Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition (2013), was the product of many years’ worth of research and writing and an important contribution to globalization studies. It has been described as laying the foundation for “a revitalized, and urgent, anthropology of the future.” Can you tell us more about this book? How do you see the future of higher education, and NYU’s global presence, in the context of globalization?
The book is indeed a collection of essays with some highly connected themes and it is in part a manifesto to say that anthropology has not paid sufficient attention to what is coming next. We usually look to custom, tradition, habit – the past – but all societies also have views about what is coming next – how to ensure it, realize it, achieve it. But the book also asks what are the lightest and darkest sides of current global horizons. It takes a generally hopeful view of the future, and for the anthropology of the future, focusing on ideas like design and research that need to be pursued in a global, cosmopolitan way that involves egalitarian transactions and interactions between institutions in other countries and the West. It is within our powers to put ourselves on the same plane. Although I am not an expert, having only been to Abu Dhabi and Berlin, my view is that NYU global has the potential for helping to create an egalitarian, mutually recognizing and affirmative climate for research, teaching, and learning. This requires a great deal of of commitment and value-driven institution building. This is happening at a time when the countries or regions that drove us in the past will not necessarily drive us tomorrow. China and India are powerful, as are Brazil, Russia, and Turkey. All are now facing some form of political dampening, but they will are major powers. But the idea of a university in which in undergrads, graduates students, and faculty are in different orbits but are circling the same globe while remaining connected vertically through interactions between research and teaching, is exciting. This is a most hopeful idea. NYU’s global locations can play an important role in trying to forge connections perhaps not so easily made at the home campus because it is so large and established. For example, getting US scholars to meet local scholars, having students meet local students. Having the single global umbrella is a terrific opportunity with a powerful potential. What makes NYU special is experimenting with how the university could or should work.
You are an acclaimed author and scholar who has not only lived a globalized life but thought critically about globalization and the serious issues of our time – design, planning, finance, and poverty. You have been described as embracing the “politics of hope.” Can you tell us what that means about what you are currently working on?
The idea of the politics of hope is tied up with another phrase I have coined – the capacity to aspire. That concept was my effort to intervene or contribute to a debate among scholars about inequality and how to rectify it. Some thinkers, for example Charles Taylor, focus on recognition, while others focus on redistribution.
To me, if you look at the capacity to think optimistically, to look ahead, to aspire, no one lacks that, but poorer populations lack the experiences upon which to build robust ideas about where they would like to go or what they would like to do or be. This is not an inequality of the mind, but of experience. They simply have a smaller stock of experiences to draw on in thinking about their own future. They lack, but need, the capacity to aspire and that is where we should focus our attention.
The capacity to aspire sets the foundation for the politics of hope, which endeavors to find methods to look for better solutions to our biggest problems. Problems like inequality, racism, exclusionary politics, and climate. And solutions that that include poorer populations and so are not merely solving them for the few. Such an approach emphasizes the capacity to look ahead, design, and plan in the long run. The politics of hope is made up of whatever methods can strengthen the capacity to aspire – the capacity to research, to design, to make your world more as you would like it to be – for all people.
Do you think that time abroad is valuable for students’ academic and personal development? If so, how do you think that value manifests?
I think it is not only valuable, but vital. However, the structure is very important which is why the nature of NYU Berlin and the other NYU programs is consequential. How you help students see their new situation and do your teaching and relating is vital. Having the best of human talent engaged in that really helps, and this is true at the NYU global sites. In our world this kind of education is urgent and indispensable because today time studying abroad has the capacity to do something that the cosmopolitan urge in earlier times did not. Earlier this was only a self- broadening endeavor – you become a fuller person. But today you develop the capacity to live with, recognize and address harsh realities for other people. Now the global study experience is about collective horizon expansion, not only about US students becoming more mature or wise. It builds their capacity to be global thinkers and doers. That is the gold standard and NYU is a part of it.