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The View From My Sick Bed

Reflections on an Illness, a Family Photo, the Social Condition and Public Seminar

I have not been feeling well recently. I don’t believe it’s serious. But I am moved today, on yet another hot and humid New York Friday, to use my maladies to think out loud about their connection with some of my theoretical concerns, taking advantage of the perspective my mini-health crisis is affording. To be clear, I have a stomach ulcer, which left untreated had some pretty nasty consequences, though now I seem to be on the mend. I don’t exactly know what caused my present difficulties (and I very well may never know) and I don’t yet know what their consequences will be (though I have every reason to be hopeful). Will I be able to compete in one last triathlon? What dietary restrictions must I follow? Is an occasional glass of wine with a meal in my future? These are my questions. This is not a profound crisis, though it is a gentle reminder of mortality.

I find that my experiences over the past couple of weeks reveal clearly Hannah Arendt’s notion of the present moment as being “between past and future.” I have been animated but suspended, reflective about the past, imagining the future, but not able to act for the moment. I also thought of this as I was perusing, in my present imposed slowed down state, some old family photos, including this one.

The photo was taken in late 1949 or early 1950, my first year. I am the baby on the lap of the family patriarch, Zayde (grandpa), the man with the pure white beard and the dapper hat. His first journeys to America were in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He earned money and sent it home to what was then Russia, now Ukraine. He went back and forth a couple of times himself, according to my father who told me about such things years ago, and my grandfather, who wrote about them for our family newspaper (the precursor of Public Seminar?).

Through his labors, Zayde brought his extended family over. Sometimes children came to never again see their parents (the case of my grandmother). Laborer and peddler, he traveled as far west as Chicago seeking work, and repeatedly walked from New York City into New Jersey and Pennsylvania with goods on his back, selling necessities to immigrant communities. Eventually, the family opened a dry goods store on the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border, where my father was born.

As I look at the photo, I think of this and much more. It is a frozen moment. I know bits and pieces of the time that precedes it. My grandfather’s grandfather’s wishing that one of his grandchildren would be left behind to be with him, according to an essay by my grandfather. My father’s memoirs depicting the way they lived in Alpha, New Jersey and his experiences in the South Pacific, no glorification of the greatest generation from him. (Bruce Williams would have approved.) The days my father (three heads above mine) first met my mother (the woman to his right, your left) and their experiences of anti-Semitism one weekend in New Jersey (with hotel signs announcing “no dogs or Jews allowed”).

I know much more about what follows the photo. I grew up and became who I am, as did my sister (not born for another five years) and my many cousins: doctors, lawyers, professors, a Hollywood producer, NGO activists, secretaries, a watchsmith/diamond cutter, teachers, retailers; some quite pious, some doggedly secular and radical; Jewish weddings with men and women separated, and weddings, heterosexual and lesbian, between my Jewish relations and Christians, Buddhists, ex-Catholics and atheists. The immigrant struggle was very much in the room when that photo was taken. It is now dimly remembered.

I see connection and disconnection. I loved those who are in the photo, but are long gone, and have loved the generations who were yet to come. They are all with me. What my cousins and I do, who we are, has been shaped by the world depicted in the photo, but not determined. The photo reveals possibility. There was no necessary development, and we developed in different and sometimes opposing ways. Some of the children and grandchildren of the people in the photo would not attend my children’s “mixed marriages.” I have returned the favor at their ultra-orthodox events that symbolically exclude me and my convictions. The politics of this family has ranged from the religious conservatives to liberal democrats to Trotskyists and Communists. In an irony of history, the family rumor mill has it that a couple of the latter were among the retirees in Florida who mistakenly voted for Pat Buchannan, instead of Al Gore, contributing to the election of George W. Bush and subsequent global disasters.

I think of this as I have wondered in the last few days what happens next. Illness, as does the photograph, freezes the zone between past and future: the shared view from a hospital bed and an old photo. Usually that zone speeds by unnoticed. In the past weeks, I have been not only returning to the past, but also anticipating the future, thinking, more deliberately than usual, about what the future will bring in these unsettling times.

The fleeting zone between past and future is at the center of my explorations of the social condition. Iddo Tavory and I have just completed our reworked paper on the topic. We are trying to develop a theory focused on the way dilemmas with uncertain outcomes are knitted into the social fabric, presenting a sympathetic critique of pragmatism’s focus on problem solving. We recognize that the social world includes many unresolvable systemic tensions, and that much of social practice is dedicated to addressing these one way or another, with no easy or final answers. We, along with colleagues and students, have published a series of posts on this already here on Public Seminar. A key to the formulation is an understanding of the gap between past and future. Personal photos and sick beds highlight this taken-for-granted dimension of social life.

At home and mostly recovered, I have been catching up on my Public Seminar readings, noting how they present struggles over the dilemmas of the social condition, people working to come to some understanding about how to proceed given what has been happening.

I read with appreciation Ronald Tiersky’s beautiful “Simone Veil: A noble Frenchwoman is laid to rest in France’s Pantheon,” a tribute to a woman who faced the dilemmas of her times with consistent dignity and humanity. As President Macron said at the Pantheon, “[h]er whole life was an illustration of an invincible hope … that, in the end, humanity will triumph over barbarism.” Oddly, it was just after my first meeting with Ron that I became sick. I read his piece during my recovery.

Emily Breitkopf’s reflections on “a gender reveal party failure” is illuminating. She shows how this odd, previously unknown to me, ritual of socially constructing gender assignment works, and shows how the solidity of such social construction is both very real and can be melted away in a disruptive moment.

It has long intrigued me that as we tell stories to ourselves, about ourselves, we confront the ongoing dilemma that as we remember some things, we must forget others. I, therefore, found fascinating an account that considers the psychological implications: therapeutically addressing this after trauma is the challenge not only for individuals during their lifetimes, but also across generations. This is examined in Wounds of History: Repair and Resilience in the Trans-Generational Transmission of Trauma, edited by Jill Salberg and Sue Grand. We have published Karen Hopenwasser’s contribution to volume. Dealing with present problems requires work on linking the connection between past and future in productive ways, she advises, drawing upon her own experiences.

This has political implications. Elena Gagovska’s call for international solidarity for migration rights and dignity, is drawn from her personal experiences on borders, and leads her to public demonstrations. Claire Potter’s discussion with John Lawrence about the congressional class of 1974, reconsidering the challenges it faced as we look forward to the upcoming elections of 2018, draws from his writing a history of this class and his long experience as an aid to Nancy Pelosi. And Dubra Mitra’s interview of Catharine MacKinnon about #MeToo, considers MacKinnon’s decades long activism and writing on sexual harassment, prostitution and pornography. In each of these cases, there is an attempt to reconsider the taken for granted present, by critically considering the link between our memories with our prospects. This is dramatically evident in Jeffrey C. Isaac’s Blue Monday post this week. As he reported and reflected on the escalating political repression in Romania, he presented a group of colleagues’ immediate responses to the brutal violent police actions that followed nationwide protests, prose snapshots taken between an escalating repressive past and an uncertain future.

My sick bed and a family photo gave me some free time to notice more deliberately than is usual the underdetermined connection between past and future. Returning to my Public Seminar reading, I am reminded how important it is to pay attention to how people bridge the gap, both intentionally and unintentionally.

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.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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