Hello and welcome to The New School for Social Research. Congratulations.
If you’ve taken a look at the “About Us” webpage, then you already know that this university has a “commitment to progressive values, academic freedom, rigorous scholarship, and critical theory in the tradition of the Frankfurt School.” When I got here, I knew nothing of the Frankfurt School, Walter Benjamin was a mystery to me, and the hotdog, one of New York City’s most iconic foods, was the only real connection I had to Frankfurt.
I have, however, gotten to know Benjamin better along the way, and have found that I like him as much as everybody else does. I especially like how fidgety he gets when reflecting on how the rapid growth of information and technology is upending the auras of art and storytelling respectively. Art with aura comes from a period of origins, when each work had its own—just one—particular birth in a time and a place. In an age of mechanical reproduction, however, to speak of precious origins of this sort feels increasingly incorrect. “No event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation” he says in his essay “The Storyteller.”
Nevertheless, you are here, for a part of your life that is not yet shot through with explanation. Part of your work will be that of clarifying—clarifying your subject, of course, but also clarifying yourself, clarifying yourself to others, clarifying yourself to yourself—marching up to the gates of the FDA, as it were, and demanding clarification concerning the pink and grey slime of your psyche. Graduate life, it seems, still has some of the trappings of an old-fashioned aura—trappings that are not so dissimilar from the snappy synthetic casing of a Coney
The thing about the hotdog, though, is that there’s only so much you can clarify about it—only so much you can know about it by looking at its ingredients. Even the nice ones are comprised of “trimmings,” which can consist of a variety of things that you might not normally eat in their solid, individual forms: feet and heads, tails and toes. These discrete members disappear under labels like “all-beef” in the case of the famous New York hotdog, Nathan’s; or “mechanically separated turkey, chicken, or pork,” if you’re talking about something on the lowlier scale of an Oscar Meyer Weiner. When shopping for dogs, it’s difficult to know exactly what you’re looking at. This is not to incite skepticism though, but to reaffirm our belief in synergy—that the sum is greater than the parts, that what the FAO refers to as “meat batter,” the building blocks—or paste, rather—of the hotdog, is an everyday example of the power of togetherness.
“Special selected trimmings are cut and ground into small pieces and put into the mixer. Formulas are continuously weighed to assure proper balance of all ingredients” (hot-dog.org).
We graduate students are trimmings, anonymous bits of carcass, specially selected to shuttle nourishing thought from classroom to café to bar to curbside. Each of us have made an attempt to explain who and what we are, to the Dean and to the chairs of our respective programs, with statements of purpose and undergraduate transcripts; however, such meager labels like “philosopher” and “historian,” places of birth and awards won, reduce us as much as the ineffective descriptor “all-beef” reduces the high-quality frankfurter. Besides, even you have not yet realized the potential of your ingredient repertoire—otherwise you would not have come here. Make no mistake: each of you have been carefully selected for your particular intellectual trim; nevertheless, you are not yet the hotdog you imagine yourself to be.
The New School for Social Research is an especially good place for mixing with worthy peers—and peers of peers, within and beyond the artificial boundaries of your chosen discipline. Admittedly, there will be some differences in disposition. Philosophers, sociologists, and economists may be, on average, colder than anthropologists and creative journalists. We are, after all, in the City, surrounded by disinterested machinery, prodded daily to participate in a hustle beyond human tenderness, supported only by unfriendly, sun-drenched streets bogged down with hot, stinking trash. It is true that “the extraction of protein is most effective when the meat is near freezing point”(FAO). However, a balance must be struck, for it is also true that “the emulsification process is adversely affected by low temperature”(FAO). Keeping clear of your peers might be fruitful for research; however, it might also be detrimental to your ability to contribute to and take from the culture of sharing and intellectual community—a culture that distinguishes this place from others.
Not only does trimming ensure a more enjoyable eating experience for the customer, but also a less fussy mixing process for the dogs. Being trim, though, is not enough. It is only the beginning. “A high-speed stainless steel chopper blends meat, spices, and curing ingredients into an emulsion or batter” (hotdog.org) The technical word is comminution, and in New York it is facilitated by the MTA, the post office, and apartment-hunting.
Once you have been softened like fresh putty, you will be ready for step three, wherein “the emulsion is pumped and fed into a stuffer.” The stuffer marks your departure from mere mixing. It is crucial that you do not stay in the emulsion vat, indefinitely crashing about into other parts of batter, endlessly making lateral movements from one undeveloped glob of thought to another. Along with focusing on your studies, your studies should provide focus for you and direct you toward some final product. The batter is given a cellulose casing for form. Without this casing, the hot dog is as good as a bowl of porridge; and you would never put mustard on a bowl of porridge; nor would you ever go to Coney Island in search of a bowl of porridge.
Thus, it is important to find an advisor as soon as possible, someone who can make formal sense of your various ingredients. Remember, from the beginning, “Formulas are continuously weighed to assure proper balance of all ingredients,” and while the hotdog is the ultimate beneficiary of these formulas, it is not the hotdog alone that finds and employs them, but the hotdog maker—the hotdog advisor in your case. It should be stressed that “formulas are continuously weighed.” That is, the hotdog does not get a once-over review for next steps and then taken off the leash; rather, it is regularly in dialogue with the advisor for optimum development.
The cellulose casing—often called “skin”—is something that you and your advisor will fashion together. The goal is not to make something bulletproof; in fact, the casing should still be permeable to smoke and steam, cooking and flavoring from outside the skin itself. The hotdog must remain open to the world. Take advantage of the fact that you are in New York. Allow it to seep into your course of study. Allow your education to be a worldly one, because, you really don’t have a choice; influence will be inescapable. Your very understanding of what is possible in a week’s time will be largely informed by the company you keep. You will realize that you and your classmates are not as good at reading as you once thought. Do not despair: remember Montaigne who wrote, “If I encounter difficulties in reading, I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there, after making one or two attacks.” We students of the year 2017 are often scolded for our short attention spans, yet, here is Montaigne, who never saw the 17th century, saying without any trouble at all that Cicero is a boring writer and reading him for an hour is “a lot for me.”
Remember, what is more painful than reading bad writing is reading it by yourself. There are always at least eight dogs to a pack and it is good to share your boredom with someone more experienced in it, someone who has wallowed in these vacuum-sealed juices for longer than you have. Staying in contact with a faculty advisor is one of the most effective ways of not becoming as anonymous as a pile of trimmings. Take as much as you can and be shameless about it. You might be embarrassed from time to time for saying the wrong thing or for asking something that everybody already knows; but that is the joy of doing something not yet shot through with explanation. As hot-dog.org speculates, “While the hot dog’s precise history may never be known, perhaps it is this mystery that adds to the hot dog’s mystique.”
Remember that when I got here, I had never even heard of Walter Benjamin and now I am talking to you all about the aura of the hot dog. There will be plenty of time for blushing, and oftentimes you will find that to be the greatest advisor of all.
Aaron Newman is a graduate student, writer, and amateur potter. He lives in Brooklyn and is the student advisor for Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research. His work has appeared in the “Beautiful Things” column of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative.
Featured image via Flickr.