Thinking and Acting in Grief
Dark thoughts on a bright Friday morning
It has been a week of trying experiences and dark thoughts at Public Seminar and The New School. Jeremy Safran, a deeply respected colleague and wonderful person, was senselessly murdered. To make matters worse, the executive leadership of our beloved institution is fighting too vigorously in a labor dispute with our beloved students, who as teaching and research assistants, as tutors and teaching fellows, contribute so much to our distinctive intellectual community. And the local, national and international news have been relentlessly depressing.
Nonetheless, at Public Seminar, we have, thus far, been able to continue working, a gift of inertia. We continue working on our immediate projects: the publishing of the daily posts, the editing and writing of new pieces, and the very hard work of following through on the publishing of our first three books projects. We continue planning for the upcoming year. In grief, we continue thinking and acting.
I find solace in writing. The day after Jeremy’s murder, I put together a post of remembrance, including my observations of a community gathering and Jeremy’s contributions to Public Seminar, a quote from the chairs of the psychology department, Bill Hirst and Howard Steel, on Safran’s scholarly and pedagogic accomplishments, and ending with a personal note and one from Ali Shames-Dawson, a Public Seminar editor, who was also Jeremy’s student.
Today some more gray thoughts, focused on some recent pieces.
Public Seminar publishes posts that I find illuminating and confirming, but also ones with which I disagree, such as An Open Letter to Alice Goffman. Publishing pieces I don’t agree with, but think are valuable to be considered, is at the center of our project, openness to a variety of different perspectives and opinions. In fact, I find this letter to be deeply problematic, even though I know and respect the informed intellectual and political grounding for it. While I hesitate presenting a full critique, because it is a letter from students, I find it necessary to write something, because the principles involved are so fundamental.
In the letter, Goffman’s book, On the Run, is harshly condemned and dismissed. It is criticized for being written by a white women of privilege, daughter of a famous sociologist, addressing an audience of privilege, not aiming to benefit the poor black community studied, potentially harming that community. Further, Goffman is criticized because she complies with the current scholarly standards of “neoliberal white supremacy” (whatever that may be). The students assert that the book should never have been written at all because it does not draw upon “the politics of knowledge production in the academy from an anti-colonial standpoint,” as they condemn readers of Goffman if they don’t draw upon this politics. The aggressiveness of the open letter is notable, as is the authors’ confidence that they know the truth. I find this confusion of truth with interpretation worrisome, to say the least. By the way, I also know that there are many problems with the book.
Nonetheless, I note how the students’ criticisms mirror their ideological opposite, as is revealed in Claire Potter’s “Understanding Conservative Political Incorrectness.” While the students know that identity is the key to understanding, that the identity of an observer defines, in a significant way, the meaning of observation, the conservative history Potter considers is aggressively based on the principle that identity should not matter at all. Liberals and leftists obsess about identity, conservatives judge, while they bend over backwards to demonstrate that identity politics is the root of all that is dangerous in our political culture, perhaps even evil. With concern over identity, America has lost its way. Escaping identity politics makes it possible to make America great again.
I have a lot more empathy for the students, but I recognize two sides of a logically problematic coin, applied to problematic politics. Texts should not be identified with context, as context cannot be dismissed in the pursuit of understanding. The warriors against political correctness obviously, at least to me, and likely anyone to the left of the reactionary right, use their campaign against political correctness to justify racism, sexism, homophobia and other kinds of hatefulness. But the students’ position also has its dangers. Their certainty about the link between identity and knowledge, and their confusion of interpretation with truth, yield interpretations of suspicion of others and certainty of self, making it difficult for people with differences to meet and engage each other with respect, as equals. This suggests to me that they are contributing to a weakening of a free public life, undermining both the possibility of a free public for democracy and for a free intellectual and cultural life, for the arts and sciences. I know that such freedom is never fully realized, but suspicious interpretations and self – certainty are significant obstacles to any practical, limited, indeed gray, approximation of the ideals. I think we must confront the complex tension between text and context, and teach our students this. We must confront the difficult tasks of not reducing texts or dismissing contexts, and always understand the difference between opinion and truth.
That leads me to applaud the illuminating essay by Brandi Thompson Summers “Black Aesthetic/Aesthetic Black” that examines the subtle relationship between how the notion of blackness is mobilized in aesthetic practice, with focus on Washington D.C. I won’t be able to think about the daily experience of gentrification again in the same way, thanks to this subtle account of the relationship between black bodies and public expression. I also note with satisfaction Siobhan Dougherty’s appreciation of Shireen Hassim’s work, one of the visitors to the Women and Men in Dark Times class, showing how identity can be used to bridge differences, rather than create walls.
Elżbieta Matynia and I were not able to meet that class one last time, another challenge of this difficult week, because of the strike. We didn’t cross the picket line, and the TAs in the class were on strike. Anticipating this, we offered a different presentation last week. Yet, though I support the strike and hope a just agreement comes sooner, rather than later, I do regret not meeting with the students of “dark times” class one last time, talking with them about how my ideas about “the politics of small things” and “reinventing political culture” shed light on the visitors whose work we have studied together. I would have explained that the course itself presented what I mean by the politics of small things, as the visitors helped to reinvent political culture. Teaching this course has been a wonderful experience. It became clear that when we, students and faculty, have had some time to spend with people who have made a difference, who have illuminated the darkness in their corners of the world, education of a profound sort becomes a possibility. Thinking about that possibility helps with the grief.
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.