ColumnsFeatureGray FridayLetters

Civility and Subversion in Dark Times

Answering the Question: Why Public Seminar?

Why Public Seminar? Over the past four years, the doubtful, curious, intrigued and impressed have asked me this question, people at my university and at others, academics and non-academics, young and old, New Yorkers, Americans and colleagues from abroad, interested readers and potential contributors. I have answered in various ways, all starting with a basic observation: the quality of public discussion about pressing issues of the day and enduring problems of the human condition leaves much to be desired. Public Seminar was created and has been developing to inform the discussion, using the full resources and imagination of its contributors, building upon the legacy of The New School for Social Research. I also add that our task now is especially critical with the global development of  post – truth authoritarianism  in these looming dark times.

That’s the start of my answer. Depending on who is asking the question and what are their concerns, I continue explaining more fully in slightly different ways.

My answer to colleagues takes two steps: the first theoretical, the second practical. I explain that I started working on Public Seminar, and Deliberately Considered before it, as an application of my work on cultural freedom, the relationship between truth and power in the United States and abroad, the pursuit of democracy after modern tyranny, the role of the intellectual in democratic society, the importance of small public activities and the details of public appearances and the centrality of the struggle over commonsense about the order of things. In brief, all of my research and writing point to the creation of Public Seminar, or something else very much like it. Also my understanding of the meaning of The New School for Social Research, demands, in my judgment, this publishing activity. I could explain more fully. I will if prodded. Here, I just note that this is the case.

The project has heightened importance because informed discussion about fundamental problems is particularly threatened these days. There is purported fake news as an epithet for factually truthful reports about the new authoritarians, Donald Trump and his peers around the globe. And, there are the post-factual assertions of this gang, using clever vernacular rhetoric that persuades by appealing to anti-elitist sentiment and resentment. There is a great deal of expression of alarm about this situation. Those who are expert researchers and analysts can and should add deliberative depth, moving beyond alarmism. I have a sense that otherwise public responses, focused as they are on the latest authoritarian outrage (in the U.S. often the latest Trump tweet), become little more than a debate between those who assert that big brother is ungood, or good, as Orwell imagined it would be in 1984. The depth of historical understanding and theoretical insight in the critical tradition of The New School is very much needed.

On a more practical level, I explain why my colleagues also need to get involved in this sort of publishing. Academics, junior and senior, graduate and undergraduate students, have something to say beyond their circle of friends and professional colleagues. When they publish in academic journals, they mostly are engaged in closed disciplinary development and deliberations, very important, to be sure. But how many people actually read their work and to what effect? If they want to have a more significant impact, both upon colleagues working in the disciplines and upon a broader public, they should consider publishing in the form we are developing at Public Seminar. I believe that the general public very much needs their contributions.

Many senior colleagues find this confusing. They are used to writing one way, and often don’t appreciate the fact that intellectual life, to a significant degree, has migrated to the web. Publishing on the web seems unserious. I faced this objection early on when I started publishing on the web eight years ago, not so much now. Junior colleagues, who are more likely to understand what we are doing, worry that this sort of writing doesn’t count as they are candidates for positions and are up for promotions. Ambitious students, children of the web all, are just thrilled to take part. They get it right away.

For those beyond academia, wanting to understand why this site of news and commentary is different from other sites of news and commentary (I have Passover on my mind this week), I emphasize that it systematically draws upon the expertise found among critical academics. Public Seminar is based in a very special university, with especially strong commitments to academic freedom and bringing historical and philosophical insight into public attention and discussion. This makes P.S. different. Even when publishing posts about events of the day, we do so drawing upon the depth of disciplined inquiry and learning.

Recently I was discussing the project with a group of scholars and designers as we embark on a redesign of the site to better show our work to the interested public and to interest a broader public in our work. I imagined an explanation both for potential academic and non-academic readers and contributors, thinking about my book Civility and Subversion: The Intellectual in Democratic Society. In that book I emphasized Socrates. Now as I think about our project in darkening times, Plato has been on my mind.

“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 a specialized role in democratic societies of fostering informed discussion about pressing societal issues.”

Socrates reasoned in the marketplace, as he addressed his fellow citizens. He was different from them because he was particularly disciplined in his critical thinking, but he went among them. In Civility and Subversion, I examined how such a presence was still necessary: intellectuals going to the public, interacting with people as equals, not as know-it-alls. even after the momentous year 1989.

When those with superior critical experience and insight enable people to talk about the problems they face, by civilizing differences, so that enemies can become opponents and talk to each other, they support democracy.

And also when intellectuals subvert civilized rules of interaction that hide repressed problems, so these problems can be publicly considered, they support democracy.

But when intellectuals know better than others and propose the answer to all history’s problems or even more technical models and formal accounts of social, cultural, economic and political development, ordinary folks suffer and the prospects for sound democratic polity diminish. This is what I observed in the tragedy of intellectuals in the twentieth century.

My major theme, then and now, intellectuals do not know better in the sense that they have the answers. They should be talk provokers. This informs the editorial policy of Public Seminar, combining a strong commitment to reach out to a broad non-expert public, while provoking discussion, by subverting commonsense, open to a broad range of judgment and commitments.

But I realize now that I missed something important in my study of intellectuals and democracy, having to do with the pursuit of truth as an end in itself, as a specialized vocation. Although I am not in any way a classicist, this gets me thinking about Plato’s academy and how todays academy, the modern university, needs to be involved in public life.

Plato’s academy was apart from the daily life of the city, outside the city’s walls. Academics, then and now, have separated themselves from the concerns of everyday life to pursue knowledge, as an important end in itself. Then and now, the democratic challenge, given this separation, is how to have this knowledge inform the more general public, and how the knowledge of the daily concerns, experiences and insights of non-academics can inform the pursuit of knowledge in the university. When the very ideal of the pursuit of knowledge and truth is under global attack, getting the university, the institution most directly committed to knowledge and the pursuit of truth, more involved in public life becomes especially important. This goes far beyond fact checking, important as that its, and it goes beyond the expression of alternative opinions. Rather, it is crucial now that the opinions are informed and the facts that are rigorously checked in the light that emanates from beyond the here and the now.

Thus, my answer to the question: why Public Seminar? It includes the ambition to inform public life, predicated upon the work of intellectuals, drawing on the resources of the university, making it possible for those who disagree to have a civilized interaction, facing inconvenient truths. This is the alternative to war, verbal or physical, which is the preferred mode of today’s authoritarians, demonstrated most clearly by Donald Trump’s speech and action, especially his tweets.

As I finish composing this answer on a gray Friday afternoon, I realize that my answer is a personal one. I first imagined Public Seminar and got it going. I am now its Publisher. But it has a life of its own, with many very creative people actively involved in constituting and re-constituting it. I am sure they would answer the question differently, or at least with variations on my theme. The form Public Seminar is taking is very much shaped by colleagues here in New York and, in fact, around the world. Each of their contributions, from the editing of the site, the verticals and the posts, to the designing of the way we present our work to the public, including our books, to the organizing of our public events in New York, and, crucially to the writing of texts, the making of videos, and the creation of podcasts, all contribute to a richer answer to the question. In my account, they all contribute to expanding the project of civility and subversion in dark times.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

Previous post

No Offense to Robert Musil, But...

Next post

March for Our Lives