The School for Social Hackers
The European Graduate School and its legacies: A place for philosophers, hackers, and healers to build and think.
I was numb after reading the email.
Our esteemed professor and generous friend Jean Baudrillard died yesterday. He has been a role model as an independent thinker for our program and his many books have changed how we perceive our world. His Saas-Fee seminars will be remembered as deeply moving — serious, irreverent and challenging at the same time.
We all were looking forward to working again with Jean in Paris on Monday, but this will not happen – a loss influencing us all.
In remembrance of a great philosopher I will meet with EGS students who happen to be in Paris on that Monday.
Prof. Dr. W. Schirmacher
Program Director, Media & Communications Division
European Graduate School
Jean Baudrillard was dead. The email arrived in my inbox at 1:59pm on March 6, 2007. The words immediately knocked the wind out of me in the way that only the irreversible can do. Baudrillard was the reason I had an itinerary sitting on my desk and TGV tickets arriving overnight. I was to be in France to spend a week with Baudrillard in Paris and then training to La Rochelle to be with his close friend, the philosopher of speed, Paul Virilio. But now Baudrillard was dead.
I still boarded the plane to Paris. It was my first trip having to do with EGS and it started me down a path that would unexpectedly change my life. Unlike most people, I began with EGS outside of the normal seminar system in Switzerland. It was in France that I first encountered the uncharacteristically warm camaraderie and passionate thinking that characterize this school. There were twenty of us that ended up at Baudrillard’s wake. We met in Le Marais and walked together down Rue Vieille du Temple, across the Seine, and through the winding city streets toward Cimetière du Montparnasse. With Beckett and Beauvoir we found Baudrillard amidst the imposing stones marking the dead. Interned in an unmarked grave we found a tree on a slab and a note.
“L’existence n’est pas tout.
C’est même la moindre des choses.”
Memory was a rite we stumbled to enact together. Flowers. Words. Uncorked bottles. Cigarettes lit for the dead.
Soon after our time at Montparnasse this now intimate cohort rode the TGV to the coastal town of La Rochelle to spend the week with the urbanist and cultural theorist Paul Virilio — a student of Matisse and Merleau-Ponty.
This was my orientation to this uncharacteristic grad school. It exuded an immediacy and intimacy that I had not expected. Despite the majority of my time in the program being spent in Switzerland, I returned to France to continue working with Paul Virilio three times over the years, and once found myself in the wonderful world of Hélène Cixous and the magical Théâtre du Soleil (one June session when she was unable to travel due to the illness of her mother and instead had her stipend pay for her students to come to work with her in Paris). This is how EGS works: Scholarship that is intimate, serendipitous, and always at work building something.
The Mechanics of Insurrection
When the British Pop duo Wham! needed a pristine location to film their quintessentially 80's music video for the George Michael-penned holiday song “Last Christmas (I Gave You My Heart)”, they chose a sleepy village in the Swiss Alps named Saas-Fee. Two hours from Geneva, in the German speaking canton of Valais (known in some circles as the final home of Theodor Adorno and relatively proximate to Sils Maria, to which Friedrich Nietzsche escaped for his health), Saas-Fee is a mountain village (pop. 1,700) that does not allow cars in its streets and is surrounded by thirteen peaks.
In 1994 Saas-Fee also became home to the European Graduate School. The EGS, as it is often referred to, is a private, not-for-profit, start-up school with no institutional pedigree or outside University affiliation. Founded by the psychotherapist and artist Paolo Knill and The New School Professor and German philosopher Wolfgang Schirmacher, EGS has become something of a legend in theory, therapy, and activist circles (while being regularly ridiculed during job interviews and tenure reviews for “not being a real school” — despite having graduates in prestigious PhD programs and tenured positions in some of the most competitive environments). In a world of corporate run education, rampaging tuition, and pervasive grade inflation not being a real school may be something to aspire to.
The school is one part rugged individualism and two parts collective idealism poured through the sieve of social and technology theory. You can think of EGS as a hybrid of the European research degree and American classroom education. EGS is rooted in the Western philosophical project, but is characterized by the living thinkers of this tradition who teach their own work to learners who are more colleagues and collaborators than students.
EGS is a living tradition school. As such, faculty teach the work they have underway: The book yet to be written, the film yet to be made, the process yet to be perfected. The pedagogy follows a lab model where living thinking is itself the domain of inquiry. To get into the program students and professors have to present a distinctive, vigorous view of the world and a keen sense for their contribution to it. It is a liberal arts program in the most classical sense, but one where independence and impact are demanded above all else.
No one meets you when you get off the bus for the first time in Saas-Fee or Valletta (the two official campuses of EGS). Like entering Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross station to board the train to Hogwarts, one must be able to find their way to Brig where the final ascent to Saas-Fee begins. Most students originate in or transit through one of the major cities in Europe—Berlin or Geneva, Zurich, Paris or Rome—where they board a train to the Alps, switch to a bus into the village of Saas-Fee, and then walk the final leg of their journey to a place they’ve never been. Valletta too can be reached from any of these cities directly by plane or via Sicily by ferry, and upon arrival a bus takes one into the heart of the ancient city where the EGS experience begins.
Finding the way is part of the program itself. You may stumble into other students on the train or sleeping on a bus station bench (how I first met many EGS people). The journey is one that you know others are making with you and because of this it takes on the character of a pilgrimage.
The thinking that is done at EGS is distinctive in that it is always deeply embedded with cultural production. This is a theory-in-practice school. On the same day, Judith Butler and Elia Suleiman may each work with your cohort on matters of violence and the subject — but in totally distinct ways. Žižek may extemporaneously work through Hegel and Ben Bratton the geopolitics of planetary-scale computation. Jean-Luc Nancy may carefully extend the question of collectivity through a deconstruction of Christianity and the sculptor Antony Gormley may bring a mountain of clay to be worked together or demand blind self-portraits be drawn with charcoal. Alain Badiou may sketch out set theory while teaching on computational phenomenology and love. Catherine Breillat may ask you to work through a problem visually; Philippe Beck poetically; Anne Dufourmantelle or Bracha Ettinger psychoanalytically; Lev Manovich computationally. At every turn someone is asking something new and unexpected of you in a way that turns the questions faced into far more supple, evolving entities that require more than a smart response. An answer requires thinking with your whole being — your body, your commitments, your life — and doing so with others. These interventions are engaged collectively, through your cohort, and without you being able to choose your coursework. In a beautifully shocking turn away from consumer choice, a student at EGS chooses only three things: to apply, to contribute, and to complete.
A significant part of contributing and completing at EGS is the project that is at the center of your work. As a result, the EGS program runs on an unconventional academic calendar. Students spend about a month each year in Switzerland or Malta— April, June, July or August — in which they live beside, eat with, learn from, and contribute to the projects of accomplished artists, philosophers, poets, computer scientists, political theorists, filmmakers, sculptors, and other scholars representing a broad array of cognitive diversity. These weeks are a bubble of intellectual incubation that feel like a democratized TED summer camp or an intellectual Makerspace.
The weeks in the mountains or at the sea are just the beginning. These days and nights on pilgrimage inspire and launch participants into a year of working their own projects with new insight and creativity. Throughout the year short courses and meetups take place in the home cities of professors and alumni (and sometimes in their actual homes). My mid-year seminar work was spent in Hélène Cixous’s and Wolfgang Schirmacher’s homes in Paris and New York, and in beautiful historic spaces with Paul Virilio and Brian Massumi in La Rochelle and Toronto. These events stitch together a unique cadence of intensities that interweave the unfolding year with new thinking and collective encouragement to get one’s work into the world.
Learning Through Impact
Like building muscles through cycles of breakdown and repair, EGS spaces out classroom learning around just living. Between summer and mid-year seminars, in the best tradition of unschooling, there is ample time to experiment, to work, to write, to travel, to think. In many ways, EGS may be the graduate school of the Uncollege movement. You learn while you build: your company, your party, your press, your movement, your body of work — everything is implicated.
Some have said that EGS is Davos for the Occupy set. In fact, Occupy Wall Street was one of the projects started by EGS students during the course of their study. One of the school’s alumni, Micah White (2012), was the Adbusters editor who kicked off OWS with the iconic call to gather in New York for an occupation on September 17, 2011. Related to Occupy Wall Street is the debt incineration project Rolling Jubilee started by EGS alum Chris Casuccio (2011) among others. In the EU, EGS alumnus Pablo Iglesias (2011) started the political party Podemos soon after he graduated and has been at the forefront of the anti-austerity movement in Spain and across Europe. These three contemporary political projects are in the headlines and are great examples of the social hacking — design, technology, and theory skillfully woven together — that EGS exudes.
Though the examples above are extremely visible political projects, the work that is gestated at EGS, or launched in its aftermath, is achieved across a vast manifold of domains. Tina Rahimi (2013), a game designer, has brought significant critical theory texts into Farsi. Summer-Joy Main (2010) founded the Latino Film Fund and is an active film director and producer. Jason Adams (2012) founded The New Centre for Theory and Practice. Vincenzo Di Nicola (2012) developed evental psychiatry and Cultural Family Therapy. Programmer, designer, and MMA fighter Robert Cooksey went on to lead Intel’s RealSense Experience Design in their perceptual computing area. Composer Peter Price (2009) founded Fidget. Jamie Allen (2015), Paul Boshears (2015), and Nico Jenkins founded the para-academic journal Continent. Publisher Jason Wagner (2009) founded Univocal along with the founding editor, and translator extraordinaire, Drew Burk (2011). Elizabeth Travelslight (2008) is an accomplished artist in San Francisco, and her partner Eric Talbert (2008) is the Executive Director of the medical NGO Emergency. Mark Stevens (2008) went on to do some amazing things with the Institute Without Boundaries and has been directing his own design firm in Copenhagen for nearly a decade. Philosopher, philologist, and conceptual artist Vincent Van Gerven Oei founded Departamenti i Shqiponjave and Uitgeverij (following these five maxims)and now co-directs Punctum Books.
Traditional academic paths were also taken by EGS alumni from my era. Garrison LeMasters (2010) is Assistant Professor at Georgetown University. Brian Willems (2010) is a professor at the University of Split. Matthew Giobbi (2009) teaches at Rutgers. Gregg Bray (2011) at SUNY. Finn Brunton (2006) and Andrew Spano (2011) are professors at NYU. Manuel De Landa (2010) teaches at Princeton. Jean-christophe Plantin (2009) at LSE. Adam Groves (2011) and Jeremy Fernando (2009) at National University of Singapore. And future academics are also doing well. My friend Katie Kohn went directly from her EGS MA (2010) into her Harvard PhD (currently in dissertation phase) and Ben Woodard from his EGS MA (2010) into his UWO PhD (2015 — hire him!). John van Houdt went on to KU Leuven and Tilburg. The stories, even just from my time at EGS, go on and on.
Black Mountain College is often invoked as the institutional cousin of EGS (EGS is at times explicitly called “White Mountain College”). Black Mountain was known for bringing in acclaimed faculty and artists, as well as a diverse student body, during its all-too-short institutional existence. In these things EGS is very much akin to Black Mountain. But more than being able to bring in accomplished professors and practitioners to teach and diverse students to learn, EGS is a place for radical accomplishment. Students and alumni in dozens of countries are right now teaching, producing films, practicing medicine, recording music, doing physics, building societies, creating companies, forming publishing houses, writing code, starting political parties, making art, taking over university departments, founding journals, directing NGOs, and forming their own schools. Yes, the EGS faculty is extraordinary, but the real stories begin where the faculty ends.
There have been charges of elitism and celebrity mongering leveled at EGS in the past. What critics miss in this hasty, superficial critique is that the success and sustainability of the school is in its students, not its faculty. A school is what it produces. EGS has consistently produced interdisciplinary scholar-practitioners of the highest calibre over the past twenty years, and it has done so in an era of pedagogical flattening and tuition inflation across higher education — without itself succumbing to the financialization of the university. An entire degree at EGS costs less than one year of tuition at most schools. The independence, rigor, and value of the EGS experience is one of the unsung successes in a difficult time for educational institutions globally. That the best students from dozens of countries are able to learn with the best scholars and practitioners from key fields is not an elite structure, but one of skill encountering opportunity. That it can be done cost-effectively, even in a tuition-supported institution, is nearly unheard of.
How has EGS been able to accomplish this? Institutional simplicity. While schools across the planet are stripping out teaching positions and building ever-bigger campus facilities, the leaders at EGS are intentionally seeking to build the minimum necessary conditions for inspired learning. The creative constraints of a Minimum Viable University are what hold out the possibility for the event of learning. An MVU is built by saying “no” so that what is left has the character and teeth to achieve what the institution is solving for. This is what has made EGS different (love it or hate it). While most universities are docile and decorative as they solve for mediocre excellence, EGS is a lean school, a fighting institution, that asks, “What are the simplest possible organizational conditions that educate for impact without creating dead weight or becoming an echo chamber?”
When “Lean University” (in the Japanese management theory sense) is finally written, EGS will be a case study.
The European Graduate School and the University to Come
The European Graduate School is a place for thinkers and creatives who are already doing something in the world, want to be more, and have the drive to become it. EGS filters for people who are willing to risk who they are to be formed by a rigorous demand/freedom to think. Trending toward the International University that Max Scheler called for a hundred years ago, the European Graduate School has already defied the odds and become the Black Mountain College of Europe. What is next has yet to be seen.
Seldom can radical institutions find their home in the world. In the end, this White Mountain College may very well go the way of its spiritual namesake. The struggle to give birth to a revolutionary change of conditions cannot be maintained indefinitely. It takes a generation of heirs ready to be the stewards and sustainers of the institutional mission for insurrection to take root as generative conditions. As Ethan Zuckerman of the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab recently said in an address at Syracuse University, “Effective insurrection breeds institutions”. This is right.
EGS is an insurrectionary institution. This is difficult to deny. Whether such an institution can survive, that is, whether said insurrection continues to remain effective, is up to the collective that recreates and sustains it over time. Whether a new season is beginning, or the time has come for the remains to be plowed back into the earth, the fruit of this insurrectionary institution lives on. The legacies of the European Graduate School are her students. The heritage it leaves are the projects and transformed lives that these artists and scholars bring into the world as the world itself is remade.
It is a rare thing — particularly in an age of hedge fund institutions of higher education offering inch deep knowledge transfer in the name of learning — for one to encounter the pedagogical call to put something fundamental at stake. EGS sounds such a call with its high-touch, vigorously independent, theory-oriented critical engagement with the materials of personal and social change. What does fidelity to such a call produce?
Transformed people who are the rare conditions that change the world.
Post-Script: “Ideas are free”
What can theory do?
“Ideas are free” — so goes the saying. Among those looking to build something, this truism summarizes Marx’s famous maxim: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Amidst the 21st century malaise of would-be experts writing “think pieces” for disposable publishers in the business of clickbait at scale, is it any wonder that people the world over look to the material evidence of ideas in actions to discern how much attention should be paid to any given thing? The implicit question is simple:
“What can theory do?”
The question of ideas in action, of thinking, raised among hand-wringing and pragmatic business leaders, academics, and politicians alike, is at the heart of our contemporary dis-ease regarding education. How do ideas change things? Do ideas change things?! Why would one waste years studying and developing skill in dense, specialized analysis when there is so much to be done?
What can theory do?
Thinking is the engine of science and the arts. It is the work of imagination. Theory is not any given state of knowledge. Theory is thinking: Ideas in action. When Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge, it is this of which he spoke. It is not a dismissal of disciplinary knowledge and skills to advocate for such a thing, but a demand that these states of knowledge not be taken at face value. It is not simply that Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) need the Arts (STEAM): It is that they all need thinking. They all need imagination to propel them past cycles of self-evidence and into wielding the conditions through which they come.
“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” — Albert Einstein
This imagination that propels one past self-evidence is the event of learning.
What can theory do? Inspire. Catalyze. Renew.
Below are a few projects built by some stellar people from my time at EGS. These projects are some of what theory can do. They embody the imagination that stimulates progress. For every project below that gets some measure of notoriety there are literally thousands of local, grassroots, independent, and institutional undertakings that are underway around the world by thinkers inspired by this simple school.
Cultural Family Therapy and Evental Psychiatry
…many, many more (sorry if I didn’t mention you!)