It’s been a tough week: the Boston Marathon Bombing on the public stage, and closer to home, the death of a friend, colleague and great scholar, Aristide Zolberg (I will be publishing tributes, including my own, later this week), and a memorial service for my wife’s uncle Ed Gruson.
“Uncle Eddie” was an extraordinary man, sophisticated and warm, a bit of a rascal, but also a man of high moral principle in his private and public affairs (dating back to his marching in Selma, Alabama as a young man). My special relationship with Ed: he was the ideal reader, with a deep commitment to understanding the world, a trained biologist and urban planner, author of the birding book Words for Birds, who read broadly and seriously, with a sense of responsibility. Anticipating the end about a year ago, he gave me his complete collection of the works of Isaiah Berlin. Making sense of the chaos, while thinking about meaningful lives, is a challenge. Ed knew that thinkers like Berlin and Hannah Arendt, thinkers in dark times, to paraphrase Arendt’s most beautiful book, are important guides.
And as it happens, I did have a related treat planned for myself at the end of the grim dark tunnel of a week: off to see a movie, the Arendt biopic. It is a good movie, though it’s far from perfect. It powerfully and accurately depicts passionate thought. That is a real accomplishment, pushing the film form: “filmed thinking.”
As I prepare this post, I read two very good positive reviews, one in the distinguished Der Spiegel, the other in the more bohemian, Bitch Media. They highlight the film’s accomplishments, recognizing the great direction of Margarethe von Trotta and the superb performance of Barbara Sukowa, and they applaud how the film tells the story of the great controversy surrounding Arendt’s writing, her account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann and her invention . . .
Read more: Reviewing Hannah Arendt, the Movie; Thinking about the Boston Marathon Bombing, Ary Zolberg and Ed Gruson
I recently returned from a very enjoyable and very fruitful week in Paris, combining business with pleasure. I spent time with family, and also enjoyed a series of meetings with my dear friend and colleague, Daniel Dayan. We continued our long-term discussions and debates, moving forward to a more concerted effort, imagining more focused work together. His semiotical approach to power will inform my sociological approach and visa versa, with Roland Barthes, Victor Turner, Hannah Arendt and Erving Goffman as our guides. At least that is one way I am thinking about it now. Or as Daniel put it a while back in an earlier discussion: my politics of small things will combine with his analysis of the politics of even smaller things.
We had three meetings in Paris, a public discussion with his media class at Science Po, an extended working breakfast and lunch at two different Parisian cafés, and a beautiful dinner at his place, good food and talk throughout. I fear I haven’t properly thanked him for his wonderful hospitality.
At Sciences Po, Dayan presented a lecture to his class and I responded. This followed a format of public discussion we first developed in our co-taught course at The New School in 2010. He spoke about his theory of media “monstration,” how the media show, focusing attention of a socially constituted public. He highlighted the social theory behind his, pointing to Axel Honneth on recognition and Nancy Fraser’s critique of Honneth, Michel Foucault on the changing styles of visibility: from spectacle to surveillance, Luc Boltanski on the mediation of distant suffering and especially J. L. Austin on speech acts.
At the center of Dayan’s interest is his metaphor of “the media as the top of the iceberg.” He imagines a society’s life, people showing each other things, as involving a great complexity of human actions and interactions, mostly submerged below the surface of broad public perception, not visible for public view. The . . .
Read more: Spring Break with Daniel Dayan: the politics of small things meets the politics of even smaller things
To skip this introduction and go directly to the In-Depth Analysis, “Reinventing Democratic Culture: Then and Now,” click here.
It is odd in the extreme to read about a devastating storm in New York, listen to my local public radio station, WNYC, from Paris and Rome. It took a while to find out how my son in Washington D.C. and his wife, Lili, in Long Island City were doing. I also have been worried about my mother and sister and sisters-in-law, and their families, in their homes in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx. All seems to be OK, with very significant inconvenience. My friends and neighbors, my house and my community center, these I don’t know about and am concerned. The Theodore Young Community Center, where I swim and where I have many dear friends, in fact, is still without its basketball court after the devastation of tropical storm Irene. All this while I have been enjoying my family just outside Paris, taking a beautiful stroll in Paris on Monday and having a nice first day in Rome. I hurt for my friends and family as I am enjoying European pleasures topped off yesterday with a wonderful dinner with my dear colleague, Professor Anna Lisa Tota of the University of Rome.
And I push on, talking about my work with colleagues and students first here in Italy and next week in Poland. This morning, I am off to give a lecture at the University of Rome to a group of film and media Ph.D. students, on media, the politics of small things and the reinvention of political culture. I decided to post today a lecture I gave in Gdansk last year which was a variation on the same theme: the project of reinventing democratic culture. The lecture highlights the links between my political engagements of the past and how they relate to the political challenges now. I will return to Warsaw and Gdansk with a follow up next week. In all the meetings and in the “in-depth post” . . .
Read more: Thinking About the Storm and Political Culture: An Introduction to my Solidarity Lecture
A Paper Prepared for Presentation for The European Solidarity Center, Gdansk University, Gdansk, Poland, October 6, 2011
It’s good to be back in Gdansk. It is especially good to be invited by The European Solidarity Center to give this lecture at the All About Freedom Festival. It’s a visit I’ve long wanted to make, and an occasion that seems to be particularly appropriate.
The last time I was here was in 1985. I was on a mission in support of Solidarity, to observe the trial of Adam Michnik, Bogdan Lis and Wladyslaw Frasyniuk. Adam had written an open letter to “people of good will” in the West to come to the trial, published in The New York Times. He also earlier through The Times Warsaw correspondent, our mutual friend, the late Michael Kaufman, asked me personally to come. It was a request I couldn’t refuse.
When I arrived I was under constant surveillance. I was denounced by Trybuna Ludu [the Communist Party official organ] for not understanding the nature of socialist justice, when I tried but was refused entry into the courtroom. It wasn’t a leisurely visit. I communicated with Adam through his lawyers. We planned together a strategy to keep going an international seminar on democracy we had been working on before his arrest. He asked for books. I did not have the occasion to go sightseeing. And the sights to be seen weren’t as beautiful as they are today.
That was one of the most dramatic times of my life. Not frightening for me personally (I knew that the worst that was likely to happen to me was that I would be expelled from the country), but very frightening for those on trial, and for the mostly unrecognized heroes of the Solidarity movement, the workers, the union leaders, the intellectuals and lawyers who during my visit helped me move through the city and make my appearance, and who risked imprisonment for their everyday actions in making Solidarity. While I then met Lech Walesa, as well as Father Jankowski [a Priest associated with Lech Walesa, who after the changes became infamous for his anti-Semitism], I was most impressed by those who acted off the center stage. They were . . .
Read more: Reinventing Democratic Culture: Then and Now
“All truths – not only the various kinds of rational truth but also factual truth – are opposed to opinion in their mode of asserting validity. Truth carries within itself an element of coercion, and the frequently tyrannical truthtellers may be caused less by a failing of character than by the strain of habitually living under a kind of compulsion.” – Hannah Arendt (Between Past and Future. 1954, p. 243)
During the period immediately before someone leaves one city and moves to another, they seem to liberate themselves and experiment with abandon during that window of freedom, or fearfully adhere to the tired routines of a forgone order. Having witnessed the Eurocrisis unfold over the past two years from a window in Berlin, I recently thought I would have to move elsewhere due to conflict with the archaic hierarchy of a German university. I naturally rebelled and charged heedlessly into the freedom inherent in a contingent situation – refusing to comply with the hierarchy and arbitrary exercise of power so prevalent in the German university. With the comfortable order of my German life on the brink, I attempted to understand my position in German academia, as well as the European position under German hegemony. In so doing, I came to discover that the latter is not a debate between Keynesianism vs. neoliberal austerity, but a particularly virulent condition of wider academic and German culture: the need for truth.
If a traditional German university is a window into German culture as a whole, then the problem of truth becomes immediately apparent. Imagine riding horseback through the patchwork of political entities in medieval Germany, each with an independent lord holding absolute power over a small slice of territory, beholden only to the good grace of a distant and disinterested central authority. While riding through this landscape, the casual observer cannot help but notice that when moving from one lordship to another, the organization of labor and adherence to a unifying conception of community is entirely dictated by the lord. Some territories have jovial lords who interact with their subjects, interested . . .
Read more: The Truth in Germany – from University to Euro