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The Life of the Mind Online

The Politics of Small Things, Civility and Subversion and Public Seminar

This post introduces a new feature of Public Seminar: reviews of the week from Jeffrey Goldfarb, Founding Editor of Public Seminar

The future of scholarly and intellectual life will be decided on the web. The values of scholarship and the application of the fruits of scholarship to the problems of our times will thrive or wither online. It was out of a desire to test this judgment that I started dabbling with online publishing seven years ago with Deliberately Considered, which proved to be a kind of practice run for Public Seminar. Although this judgment is now not a very bold one, it did, at first, meet with significant criticisms from many of my friends and colleagues.

I vividly remember Ken Wark, Trebor Schultz, Michael Schober and I giving presentations on online scholarship to the faculty of The New School School for Social Research in the Spring of 2012. After presenting our observations and ideas at the General Seminar, which has been functioning since refugee scholars from Nazi Europe constituted The New School’s University in Exile, many of our colleagues attacked: concerns about frivolousness, declining literacy, challenges to scholarly books and peer review journals, and to the life of the mind most broadly were expressed. They understood that the world was radically changing, and they were right about that, but the most vocal among them allowed their fear of change to blind them to new possibilities — possibilities such as those revealed in the work of Ken, Trebor, Michael and myself; possibilities that have become Public Seminar.

Which is not to say that my colleagues concerns failed to resonate with me. In fact, I came to the project of online publishing with both a critical judgment and critical nostalgia. I agreed with my colleagues that much of “the stuff” on the web was junk. Blogs and social media postings often radicalize all that has been self-indulgent and vacuous in self-publishing: people writing more than they read, “venting,” turning narcissism into a threat not only to civilization but to the survival of the species (most tragically exemplified by our Twitterer in Chief).

But I also saw an opening for a kind of writing and publishing that I had long admired but feared was being lost: the publishing in the small magazines of the first half of the twentieth century, exemplified by the Partisan Review, and The Criterion, and the letters that 20th century intellectuals exchanged among themselves, writing to each other while knowing that readers were likely to be looking over their shoulders, such as the correspondence of Hannah Arendt with Karl Jaspers, with Martin Heidegger and with Mary McCarthy. As I watched them dying in old formats, I wanted to develop a platform that could preserve the best qualities of these kinds of less-formal writing, precisely because I had learned so much from them. I wanted to demonstrate that there were new opportunities the web provided to keep these forms alive.

And mine weren’t only aesthetic and cognitive concerns. I saw an opportunity to put into practice ideas I developed in two of my books, The Politics of Small Things and Civility and Subversion — books very much motivated by the political challenges of our times.

I think, following the political theory of Hannah Arendt, informed by the sociology of Erving Goffman, and the practical actions and reflections of Vaclav Havel, that there is a “power of the powerless” to constitute alternatives to the prevailing institutional power of the state and the market. When people come together, speak and act in each other’s presence, and develop a capacity to act in concert, they create their own power, and can constitute alternatives to the prevailing order of things, revealing the power of “the politics of small things.”

We have been working to do this here at Public Seminar. It began as a project emerging from the intellectual traditions of The New School, supported by students and faculty of The New School, but was not a formal organ of The New School. Further, most of the posts we publish have been written by persons outside our institution, by our colleagues around the world who do work that harmonizes with the kind we have long done here together in New York. They and we form a kind of invisible college of The New School, one true to its traditions and ideals. Keeping this college on course was, at first, primarily my job, but it is now shared with a group of senior editors and editors, colleagues and students and faculty.

Civility and Subversion: The Intellectual in Democratic Society has informed my judgment as the founding editor of Public Seminar. In that book, I maintain that intellectuals, and intellectual life, make key contributions to the development and continuity of democratic society. Intellectuals play a democratic role when they inform public discussion about pressing problems of the day and enduring problems of the human condition, but they move against democracy when they provide and enforce their own answers to problems that should be properly decided politically, by citizens together using their judgment. We intellectuals play the democratic role by civilizing conflicts among people who have profound differences, enabling them to talk to each other so that enemies become opponents, and opponents become potential colleagues and collaborators, and also by subverting the kind of civil commonsense and propriety that covers up serious conflicts and which masks serious problems that too-often go unrecognized and unexamined.

I think, perhaps ironically, of our enterprise at Public Seminar as a kind of global, open conspiracy of democratic intellectuals fighting for democratic ideals, building upon the portrait of intellectuals I depicted in Civility and Subversion:

The intellectuals are special kinds of strangers, who pay special attention to their critical faculties, who act autono­mous­ly of the centers of power and address­ a general public, playing the specialized role in democratic societies of fostering informed discussion about pressing societal issues (p. 41).

Strangers, not foreigners: Georg Simmel highlighted the condition of people who are of a place but also go through their lives on a daily basis, unlike their neighbors, with reference to people from elsewhere (Simmel, 1971). He had in mind tradesmen, more specifically Jews of the Middle Ages.

Being both here and there, strangers look at things differently. They have a more objective view. They have a more cognitive and critical approach to the taken for granted. They look at the ways of doing things as they appear, but they know that elsewhere things are done quite differently. Strangers can critically appraise, while their neighbors can’t.

It is intellectuals who cultivate this approach. In a sense, they are professional strangers. Their elsewhere is their knowledge of history and theory. They are of the same world as others, but they have the “elsewhere insights” that others do not. They therefore can address the problems of the day with unique perspective and voice. This is the perspective and voice of Public Seminar.

That said things are different now. I wrote Civility and Subversion twenty years ago, before intellectual life migrated to the web and before the global authoritarian turn which recent years have presented to us. Our challenge at Public Seminar in our daily publishing is to respond to these new challenges. We work to make a place for intellectuals and their foreign, “elsewhere,” perspectives in our radically changed circumstances — to provide light to these dark times.

Starting with this post I will be presenting weekly updates on how I think we at Public Seminar are doing, as I review our work, and critically reflect on pressing issues of the day and fundamental problems of the human condition.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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