Small Things, Deep Resonance


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October 18, 2022

Small Things, Deep Resonance

My Response

  • Democracy
  • politics of small things
  • sociology

A conference in my honor, “Small Things, Deep Resonance: The Sociology of Jeffrey C. Goldfarb,” was convened at the New School for Social Research on April 30th. It was planned as a meeting of my colleagues, many former students, on the major themes of my life’s work. As it was being organized, I tried to convince myself and the organizers that it should not be envisioned as a retirement party, even as they joked with me that sometimes we don’t want to name things for what they are. 

But I am just too busy to accept the notion that I have retired. Although I realize that I have stepped down from my tenured position at the New School, and this is a significant change, I am still working hard: day by day, in keeping the Democracy Seminar going, as we face the ascendance of authoritarianism, at home and abroad, and the profound consequences of the pandemic, and the long-term challenges of climate change, and the immediate catastrophe of the Russian war on Ukraine. I also have a book brewing using three key concepts: a theoretical investigation of what I call the “social condition,” colored by my commitment to a “gray is beautiful” political aesthetic, attempting to demonstrate the importance of “the radical center.” I have been writing short posts about these related terms for the past decade and believe I have a responsibility to make my position clear at this “anomic moment” (another idea I have brewing). I am also now teaching a course for the American University of Afghanistan on these themes.

Yet, the conference did mark a turning point, though more a matter of re-direction than of retirement, and I think it was a re-direction not only for me personally, as I will attempt to demonstrate in this response. I had a sense, noted by many of the presenters and attendees, that the gathering was especially meaningful. The participants appreciated that we together have been forming over the years a special intellectual community that values the critical power of the relatively autonomous arts and sciences, that understands and studies the relationship between cultural and political freedom and democracy, and that directs its attention not only to the academy and its disciplines, but also to broader audiences, recognizing the public responsibilities of democratic intellectuals. 

As the pandemic has continued to wax and wane, we saw our community at the New School, face to face, for the first time. We embodied a commons that cuts across the years and settings of our work. The participants in this commons had never before seen each other together, and we all were obviously moved to be able to speak with each other, get to know each other for the first time, or for the first time in a long time. This was especially sweet after the isolation we have all been experiencing in covid times. 

Over the past two years plus, my colleagues and I have learned and flourished through virtual connection. Zoom meetings and webinars have become the basic lifeline of the Democracy Seminar, and will continue to be after the pandemic, if there is ever really an after. Our daily life has included many global discussions, among others: on anti-gender politics and populism and gender and violence with colleagues in Central Europe, on media and democracy, with media makers and observers in Sub-Saharan Africa, on collaboration and democracy with discussants from Afghanistan, Brazil, Poland, South Africa, and the United States, and on the post truth problem in Russia as seen from Georgia and Ukraine. We’ve also had discussions with colleagues in Ukraine, after the military invasion there, and in Afghanistan before and after the Taliban victory (in meetings that we don’t have permission to share on the web). And all of this and more has informed a steady stream of essays published on the Democracy Seminar platform.

Yet, despite all this illuminating virtual activity, there was something about physical proximity and embodied, face to face interaction. Together at the “Small Things” conference, as well as a hybrid conference of the Democracy Seminar the day before, the gift of unmediated gathering was very sweet, indeed among the sweetest moments in my public life. We felt close again in the presentations of ourselves in an extraordinary day in our lives, as Erving Goffman might put it. Continuing with his lens: our nonverbal affective communication was more clearly expressed. Our demeanor was more easily read, and our deference more easily conveyed. Our common ideals were more directly experienced. 

And I came to understand myself and what I have been doing as a critical thinker, teacher, writer, and engaged scholar more clearly than ever before. I saw continuities that I hadn’t realized, connections that have been there in practice, though I never was fully aware of them. This illumination was shared by those who participated in the conferences.

It’s strange. As a teacher, I always thought that my primary obligation was to nurture students’ interests as they studied a curriculum, to help them discover the key questions they wished to address in their term papers, dissertations, and publications for readers of specialized professional journals and for the general informed reading public, and to guide them in developing the tools to answer their questions. Unlike some of my more disciplinary focused colleagues, I did not seek to develop disciples constituting a school of thought. Yet, at the “small things” conference, it became clear to us that we have been forming such a school together that included those who have found each other over the years, often facilitated by my research, teaching, and writing, and my convening through the workings of Deliberately Considered, Public Seminar and the Democracy Seminar. We have been constituting a school of the social inquiry, addressing pressing cultural and political problems, seeking to engage a broad public.


Theater brought me to Poland, and it was the quality of the theater there that led me to my studies of the critical power of culture, as the relatively autonomous arts and sciences. I observed this with my dear friend and colleague, Elżbieta Matynia, first in Polish in Poland and then for many years after she was exiled in the United States, where we eventually joined each other in the sociology department of the New School. We both wrote our dissertations on the sociology of theater, and it was because of this common interest that we were introduced and have been developing our approaches to a wide range of sociological topics, moving from “the sociology of theater to a sociology through theater,” notably the title of my job talk at the New School forty-four years ago. 

Elżbieta’s notion of “performative democracy” and my “the politics of small things” have their roots in this theoretical move, as we have been trying to make sense of the challenges of our times. Our work is grounded in the theater in Poland in the 1930s (for her) and the 1970s (for me). It was with such grounding that she presented her lecture at the conference on a small thing, using a literary work to make connections between the public spaces dramaturgically constituted in all sorts of places, including the projects she directs, the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies and its amazing summer Democracy and Diversity Institute, and the project I have coordinated, the Democracy Seminar and its various off shoots. 

In her presentation, “On Bridges and Bridge Builders”, Elzbieta examined Ivo Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina and its Kapia, in Bosnia, illuminating how it was a special place for people to see and hear each other, providing a space of appearance, making acts of democratic performance possible. Her interpretation of a work of art illuminates the shape of a public life in miniature, providing the grounds for her meditation on the importance of such spaces.

This is a foundation of my approach to the sociology of culture: the publics that the arts form and are formed by the arts. In my dissertation, which was publish as The Persistence of Freedom: The Sociological Implications of Polish Student Theater, I show the conditions that supported the development of an independent, aesthetically innovative, and politically challenging theater movement, and then proceeded to show what the works of the leading theaters in this movement had to say about Polish society. There were many details, concerning the tensions built into the institutional structure of cultural institutions, the cultural dynamics of national and international cultural traditions, and the critical dynamics of official ideology. The general implications of these I spelled out in my first and only publication in the American Journal of Sociology, written, submitted, and accepted for publication when I was still a student at the University of Chicago, published during my first year at the New School. This led to a more systematic approach to an understanding of the struggle for cultural autonomy, developed in my second book On Cultural Freedom, in which I present a critical sociological definition of freedom in seeking to understand public life in the United States and Poland.

I came to an understanding that a culture is free when it develops according to its own logic, as contemporary scientists and artists manage to respond to the work of their predecessors and contemporaries, despite the external economic and political constraints and controls, reaching a public interested in their work. I noted how easily challenging innovative theaters’ fully completed works found a public in Poland, when and if they had circumvented the censor. They were subjected to ideological supervision and suppression. Those who crossed a never clearly demarked line that separated the politically correct (I think the true origin of this term as I explain in my book Beyond Glasnost) were silenced. Yet, gaming the censor was possible, and when the game was played with success, an audience, indeed a public, was easily reached. The situation in New York, my hometown, was quite different. In lower Manhattan, there were then dozens, if not hundreds, of experimental theaters. They included most prominently: The Bread and Puppet Theater, The Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and The Living Theater. They could do their work with little interference, but attracting an audience, reaching a public was much more problematic. Marketing a performance, therefore, was often as important as creating it.

I was trying to account for an apparent anomaly emerging from my study of theater that started in New York City and continued in Poland. The experimental theater in Poland was aesthetically and politically just as challenging, and of apparently greater public significance, even though it was subject to censorship and repression. David Ost, who also is an American scholar on the left long engaged in things Polish, gave a fine presentation at the conference explaining how our comparative inquiries there and my investigation of cultural freedom in 1980 illuminate problems of public life today.

Of all my students and colleagues, no one has exceeded Nancy Hanrahan’s grasp of the significance of an autonomous culture. She is a lifelong participant observer of the world of music. As she recalled in her presentation at the conference, she came to her first class at the New School, as the managing director of the music program at the New York Public Theater of Joe Papp in the late 1980s. She wanted to understand the weakness of music criticism of jazz and alternative music. She wanted to discern the sociological grounds upon which such criticism could be sustained and flourish. While also engaging other topics in her sociological investigations over the years, she has been examining this one ever since. 

At the conference, she presented her most recent inquiry, “Democratization Without Democracy: Musical Discourse in the Digital Age.” She sought to illuminate what she takes to be “democratization without democracy,” in which democracy is operationalized through technological protocols and metrics of engagement, rather than through contestation, deliberation, or struggle. She explained how the democratic dimensions of American music have long been musically explored. In the 19th century, classical musicians and commentators mused over the distinctive national identity in the relationship between music and democracy. They sought to contrast emerging American practices with the more hierarchical European traditions, drawing upon the vernacular. And in the 20th, century, jazz was used as an instrument for State Department propaganda about democratic freedom, as it also was, more significantly, the grounds upon which the contradiction between the ideal and the reality in racist America was interrogated in performance and writing during the civil rights struggles and their aftermath. 

In the music world, major problems of American political culture have been represented and debated, empowering the making of music. Yet, given changes in the music industry, and the society at large, this strong democratic public role diminished, Nancy noted. This brought her to The New School and her investigation of the hollowness of criticism, the topic of her first term paper submitted to me. This also is the background for her investigation of digitalization and democracy, with inclusion and popularity replacing judgment. The demise of cultural and political judgment, indeed, has been Nancy’s primary concern, a concern that led her to study with me. I have been, in turn, informed by her investigations as I think about the arts and politics.


Through my study of Polish theater, combined with reading Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik, I developed my appreciation of the potential and vulnerabilities of democratic politics, large and small, and its culture. I have accounted for this appreciation in my books and other writings, starting with Beyond Glasnost. That book first brought me in contact with Jeff Isaac, now one of my closest friends and colleagues, though we actually first met in person only recently, and have been in the same place, at the same time, just two other times before the conference. Ours has been a virtual friendship, at first through snail mail, then through email and Facebook. We corresponded through an exchange of letters in the early 1990s and then again at the turn of the century. He sent me a note of appreciation for Beyond Glasnost, with a re-print of a related article he had recently published. Then, I helped him contact Adam Michnik, who he wanted to invite to Indiana University in the early 2000s. We started our close collaboration in 2015: he emailed me an essay he wrote on a political crisis in Romania. I published it in Public Seminar, Subsequently, we published dozens of his essays on the crisis in American democracy before, during and after Trump’s presidency, and also his book, Against Trump. Our friendship deepened. 

His presentation at the conference was an account of this friendship, filled with very generous words about me, which lifted my spirits. More crucially, he highlighted our shared indebtedness to the democratic sensibilities and judgments exemplified by such anti-totalitarian thinkers as Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik, György Konrád, Miklós Haraszti and their colleagues, authors I analyzed in Beyond Glasnost, and Hannah Arendt and Albert Camus, authors he analyzed in his book, Arendt, Camus and Modern Rebellion. Our friendship has become intimate, but it’s an intimacy grounded in an intellectual tradition and how it enables us to consider the prospects for Democracy in Dark Times, the title of another of his books, or as I put it “the power of the powerless in dark times,” the subtitle of my The Politics of Small Things. 

The sensibilities Jeff and I share were nicely described by a former Dean of the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science (now identified as “the New School for Social Research, “the original name of the university as a whole). He, along with the former New School president, Jonathan Fanton, approved my senior colleagues’ recommendation to grant me tenure many years ago.

Ira Katznelson, in his presentation, “Reflections on Democratic Reason,” thanked me by describing three sensibilities that he asserted I taught him: “realistic utopianism,” “imaginative pragmatism “and an “understanding that things don’t always get better; they can get worse and that therefore we are guardians of what is precious to us. Imagining the future but protecting the gains.” I am flattered, but I think, rather, that these are sensibilities that I share with my students and colleagues, including him – the left, right and center of our work, that has informed our common endeavors, leading us in different, but complimentary directions. 

At the conference, Ira explored what he took to be three big challenges to democratic reasoning: the challenges of making justice and utility compatible, of maintaining some separation between the state and the economy and other social institutions, and of dealing with the potentially unlimited power of the state when its security is attacked. He recognized that I work, along with many of my students and colleagues, on the creative ways that people attempt to deal with such fundamental challenges to liberal democracy. I see the challenges as manifestations of what I believe are intrinsic to the social condition, tensions knitted into the social fabric, posing dilemmas for democratic practice, that don’t have formulaic resolutions (which theorists and social scientists often assert), dilemmas that call for creative action, such as those was examined at the conference by other presentations at the conference.

Ira and Jeff are political scientists, and their focus is on explicit political institutions and movements: the state, political parties and government policies, and public responses to these. I and many of my students, on the other hand, have been focused on the actions of people on the margins, who work against the state and the powers that be, challenging the state and the prevailing order of things, sometimes through distinctly non- or even anti-political activities. The divide between sociology and political science is not a clear and distinct one, but I think this is one of the instances where a creative division of labor is noticeable. 

The Politics of Small Things

This division of labor was highlighted in Zachary Metz’s presentation, “The Politics of Small Things and the Possibilities of Transformation and Peace Building.” He has long experience as a conflict resolution practitioner, having worked in Burma, East Timor, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel – Palestine and Northern Ireland on intractable, often violent, conflicts. He came to the New School with extensive practical experience, seeking to understand the significance of his work in a deeper theoretical and historical context. His dissertation draws upon his experience, analyzing the dimensions of what he describes as the democratic power of “the intimacy of enemies” and what he calls “peace writ small” (an alternative to the notion in conflict resolution studies of “peace writ large”), informed by my understanding of “the politics of small things.”

At the conference, he opened his talk by recalling our first meeting, during which I first suggested to him that he look beyond the U.N., states, and other hegemons in his search for potential agents of peace, and focus on situations he has observed firsthand, which he described to me vividly back then and to the conference audience in April. Zach told the story of how a group of Iraqis, from conflicting groups, speaking different languages, sat down together, trying to understand each other, recognizing their differences and their equal dignity, and developing a capacity to work together, as the war in Iraq waged on. 

Of course, such actions in and of themselves, don’t create major social and political change. Zach and I know that the workable peace established in Northern Ireland, for example, occurred on the central stage, but he and I also understand that for such peace agreements to be successful, they need to be built upon the social infrastructure of interactive politics, that first developed in miniature and then expand. We also know that big successes, the peace in Ireland, the democratic aftermath of Communism in East and Central Europe, are momentous, rare, and fragile, as we have seen in recent years. Yet, the importance of his analysis of “the intimacy of enemies” does not rest upon such successes. Rather, the creation of alternative forms of interaction in a society, more peaceful, plural, and tolerant than is otherwise prevalent, changes the society immediately, however small or marginal they may be. A society with such zones of decency is qualitatively different than one where they don’t exist. This Zach described at the end of his presentation, and I return to regularly in my writing. Other speakers at the conference also described and demonstrated this.

Krzysztof Czyżewski is a veteran of the Polish theater movement I studied in the early 1970s. He became active a few years later, in the famous Gardzienice Theater, a group that traveled to towns, and created performances built around local customs, doing an ethnography of the customs, transforming them into refined art. Theirs was a radical vernacular theater, a product of the cultural freedom and alternative public spaces that existed before the momentous changes of 1989. After the changes, Krzysztof and his colleagues went one step further. They didn’t just visit a small town, but in the aftermath of the collapse of the old regime, they settled in one, Sejny, on the Polish – Lithuanian border, divided between Polish and Lithuanian nationals, haunted by Jewish ghosts, working in a renovated Jewish study house, performing in a respectfully transformed synagogue. 

Krzysztof’s journey mirrored a broad social transformation I had studied in the 1970s and ‘80s. Studying the politics of non-political institutions and movements, I focused on free public life, first formed by developments such as the Polish theater movement and then expanding to a deep alternative social and cultural world, then to the broad labor movement, Solidarność, ultimately developing to the point that the oppositional public overwhelmed the previously existing socialist order. The kind of independent public space that the theaters helped produce step by step came to prevail. This step-by-step approach was anticipated in Adam Michnik’s classical essay, “The New Evolutionism.” 

Krzysztof has been a distinguished social and artistic practitioner moving the evolution forward in his artistic and social activism. In his presentation to the conference, “In the Light of Small Things,” he described his practice and our relationship at the conference: the creation of the extraordinary Borderlands Foundation. Experimental theater drawing upon the story of their town is produced in Sejny. A Jewish presence is cultivated in the shadows of 20th century horrors. The foundation first published the pathbreaking book, enemy #1 of Polish nationalists, Jan Gross’s Neighbors documenting active Polish complicity in the Shoah. The foundation organizes klezmer classes and festivals, along with hip hop classes and concerts, poetry and prose readings by locals and world renown poets and thinkers, on the grounds of the former country villa of the family of Czeslaw Milosz, the foundation’s earliest supporter. 

Krzysztof framed his presentation, “In the Light of Small Things,” as a response to my introduction to The Politics of Small Things, “In the Shadow of Big Things.” He reminded me of the of the depth of our friendship, a depth I felt with so many of the participants at the conference, as with Jeff Isaac, including our shared personal experiences, and grounded in the fruits of our intellectual labors that beautifully speak to each other, even when we are not fully aware of this.

Irit Dekel was my research assistant when I was finishing The Politics of Small Things. Along with my dear friend and colleague Vera Zolberg, I co-chaired her dissertation, published as the book Mediation at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. It is an elegant ethnography of how a monument of great aesthetic appeal is used by the people who work in and visit it. She demonstrates the heterogeneity of collective memory as a matter of contemporary practice and how a dynamic public is constituted. 

At the conference, Irit presentation, “Reflections on Writing Together About Politics and Small Things,” the case study of the International Women’s Space in Berlin, created by a group of women, exiles, refugees, migrant from trouble places around the world, living in Berlin. As she tells their story, using the lens of the politics of small things, the primary end of the “IWS” is to make its members and their stories visible to themselves and to the broader public. They are an outgrowth of a refugee movement’s occupation of a school in the Kreuzberg section of Berlin. During the occupation, they created the woman’s space that has persisted in revealing the link between fights against racism and sexism. After the eviction, the movement IWS has persisted, with creative protests. 

Irit gave a close reading of “the occupation of a tree,” on the site of the previous school occupation, and the publishing of books, and radio broadcasts. Women have constituted their power by speaking and acting together, overcoming their invisibility as migrants and refugees, and as women. They create a public among themselves and among those they immediately touch and engage, but also, they make it so that the broader public and state agencies cannot ignore them. They make clear links between past atrocities and present discriminations. They are not state or major political actors, but they make it so that their experiences cannot be ignored. They have power. Berlin, Germany and Europe are different places with the exercise of such power, than they would be without it, like the intimate enemies of Matz’s study and the practices of Czyżewski.

Yifat Gutman, in her presentation, “What If: Fictionality as an Activist Strategy,” closely examined how fictive imagination can help constitute this power. She was expanding upon the findings of her dissertation, published as the book Memory Activism: Reimagining the Past for the Future in Israel-Palestine. Fictive techniques are used to create enriched conversations about the past as it colors present harsh realities. The goal is to inspire reflection and enrich debate. She demonstrated this with the case of creative activists in ‘the binational city of Jaffa.” What if the Nakba hadn’t happened? What if Israel Palestine were fully and peacefully embedded in a completely different Mediterranean world? What if Palestinian Arab dignity were equal to Jewish Israelis in the binational city of Jaffa? Yifat shows how such imaginative questions are used by activists to challenge the collective memories and common sense of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. She demonstrates how this kind of innovation, adding fiction to inform the understanding of the relationships between the past, present and future, has become a tool of activists not only in Israel-Palestine, but elsewhere as well. I can imagine that their work could be shown at the Borderland Foundation someday.

I see this as an interesting advance, having worked with students and colleagues on collective memory and public life for many years. I started with an understanding that the memory of artists about their relationship with the artists that preceded them is a most fundamental grounds of cultural creativity and freedom. I was later moved by Milan Kundera’s provocative assertion “the struggle of man against power is the struggle between memory and forgetting.” Collective memory, it seemed to me, was a key in the pursuit of decency in the former Soviet bloc. But as collective memory was becoming a distinct interdisciplinary field of study, with New School students and professors playing a key role through annual interdisciplinary conferences, starting in 2008, with broad international participation, including Yifat and Irit, and Amy Sodaro, Bill Hirst, Elżbieta Matynia and Vera Zolberg, I had reservations. 

My relationship with the group went something like this. At the first New School memory conference, while I fully appreciated the work presented, I voiced from the audience reservations. It seemed to me that the papers that considered the political dimensions of collective memory were too positive. They were indeed informed by Kundera’s proposition. Yet sometimes, indeed quite often, memory fuels barbarism, as was then becoming evident in the post-Soviet landscape and in the former Yugoslavia. This led me to contribute to the second annual conference a paper entitled “Against Memory,” and then, to my satisfaction, the theme of the third annual conference being, “The Limits of Memory.”

In April, Yifat, one of the memory group’s founders, went one step further. She provocatively exhibited a modification of Kundera’s assertion: the struggle of people against power is the struggle of imagination against domination, justified by both forgetting and memory. This has a seamy side, to be sure. Imagination fuels not only democracy, but also autocracy, and racism, along with anti-racism, both opening and closing public life. This applies to the conflicting parties in Israel-Palestine and to the opposing parties in Central Europe, places where Yifat is doing her research, and also to the country where almost half the citizenry are seeking to “make it great again.” Imagination, like memory, like reason, doesn’t resolve political problems. Rather, it informs the approaches to them for better and for worse.

Zach Metz and Krzysztof Czyżewski have opened the possibilities for political deliberation and contestation, by creating space for this to happen. Irit Dekel and Yifat Gutman have documented how the perspectives of the previously invisible and the excluded have entered public spaces. All four show how social actors outside political institutions, parties and movements can and do provide the means to address the kinds of political issues that Katznelson and Isaac raise. 

Gutman and I have given a general account of this in our “The Cultural Constitution of Publics” in The Routledge Handbook of Cultural Sociology. It is in a sense an overview of the work of many of the participants at the conference, among the speakers, but also the audience, such as Amy Sodaro, the author of a superb book, based on her dissertation, Exhibiting Atrocity, who added a few words of thanks in April, focusing on our work together on collective memory. The work of these students and colleagues, extend and develop my work, demonstrating that a democratic public life is not just about rational deliberation, but also expressive exchanges and affect. Our work also recognizes that the identity of the participants in public life matters. We understand that they cannot be bracketed, as Jurgen Habermas believes they should be in his work on the transformation of the public sphere. We further judge that such bracketing is undesirable. With this in mind, we lean more toward Hannah Arendt’s account of public life than Habermas’s and draw upon the insights Erving Goffman account of public interaction. 

I try to explain why in my chapter “Theorizing the Kitchen Table and Beyond.” I believe it is one of the two or three most consequential pieces I have written, providing the theoretical argument of the book it introduced, The Politics of Small Things, as it gave a theoretical accounting for much of my earlier work, as well as to the subsequent work of many of my students. The chapter, and the investigation it introduced, also was the starting point of my work with Daniel Dayan, a collaborator with Elihu Katz on their classic study. Media Events The Live Broadcasting of History.

Media and Very Small Things

Daniel jokes that while I study the politics of small things, he studies very small things, and we both analyze the big consequences, both intentional and unintentional. (One title of the book we imagined co-authoring was to be “the ironies of consequence.”) I study the interactions among people and their developing capacity to act in concert, as a political force for and against the order of things. He studies small gestures, particularly as they appear through media, and what they reveal about big cultural and political questions. 

At the conference, Daniel gave his account of our first meeting In April, 2004 in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University. I was giving an overview of the soon to be published The Politics of Small Things. He explained that he came at the suggestion of Katz, and recalls: my criticism of Michel Foucault, my appreciation of Arendt along Goffman, and my understanding of the power of “as if,” specifically the deep significance of acting “as if one lives in a free society,” no matter how insignificant the field of such action appears to be. 

He asked the first question after I completed my presentation, as I recall, concerning the importance of gestures and how my talk could be interpreted through the perspective of John Austin’s theory of speech acts. Although questioners were supposed to introduce themselves first thing, I did not catch his name before he began by thanking me with his French accent, “for my elegant presentation.” When the second comment came from Katz, (I believe it was about how small things gain broader significance), I realized who they both were. 

I only remember vaguely how I responded to their questions then. But I remember vividly that Daniel and I arranged to have a lunch together the day after the lecture to continue discussing matters of mutual concern, specifically about their two questions. We have since been discussing them for nearly twenty years. We have been meeting regularly for informal discussions over coffee and meals and have lectured in each other classes in Paris and New York. We have taught New School courses on media and publics in New York and Wroclaw. And since the pandemic hit, we have been speaking weekly through Zoom. Almost all our discussions have been about how small things have big consequences, both anticipated and unanticipated. We have been so excited about our exchanges that we keep on promising ourselves that we should write a book together. We have outlined a number of possibilities, but somehow, they never get beyond the outline stage. Yet, we have a sense that our conversations have a value beyond what it provides for the two of us. I therefore have been recording our discussions, which I think of as the equivalent of the exchange of letters of times past.

Daniel expanded on weekly discussions in his presentation in April. I found his theoretical position and analysis illuminating, and in some ways an application of my own, but I did have reservations about the political implications of his analysis. That’s the general pattern: agreement on analysis, disagreement on politics. While our disciplinary perspectives complement each other, the sociological and the semiological, on politics, we have competing political judgements with him leaning right (or at least against much that goes under the banner of the left). I lean left and think his criticisms of the academic left go too far. Yet, even in politics we find a most fundamental common commitment, agreeing that there should be principled political debate, against certainty, aware that clean black and white solutions are suspect: in his terms, against “either or-ism,” in mine, with full appreciation that “gray is beautiful.”

In his conference presentation, “Victimism in the Public Sphere of Gestures, From Arguments to Posts, From Narratives to Snapshots, From Debate to Puppet Theater,” he argued that “victimism,” is a major problem of our times. It’s an ideology predicated on a cult of a heterogeneous set of others. Social justice has become the quest to recognize and address suffering. He sees this ideology as being created through a concert of gestures, a dialogue of gestures fighting other gestures. Some others are more worthy than others. They are recognized, given greater deference, more regard. This is purported to be progressive, but it is focused on the past injustices of racism, nationalism, xenophobia, sexism. The ideology of victimism replaces an awareness of suffering near and far. It starts with compassion, for the victims of one sort of domination and oppression, or another: racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and then turns into resentment and rage, loaded with negative feelings. There is a set of paradoxes. Victims replace heroes. What is asserted as progress is focused on the past. Some victims are more worthy than others.

Daniel’s presentation was abstract and subtle. I know it was motivated by his conviction that the academic left has betrayed the ideals of academic freedom and that the leftist and official state biases of the French media, especially when they focus on the questions of anti-Semitism in France and the Israeli – Palestinian crisis. I defer to him on the situation in France, and I know that some of our political differences have to do with our very different experiences, his in North Africa and France, mine in Central Europe and the U.S. I tend to think that the excesses of the academic left are marginal. He thinks they are more central, crystalized in his critique of victimism. But I must concede a central theme of my life’s work: not infrequently, apparently insignificant words and deeds on the margins have big consequences. New academic orthodoxies concerning identity and notions of progress have pernicious aspects. Insightful theories concerning the post-colonial, and the dangers of white supremacy, patriarchy, and sexism, have sometimes substituted cliched thought for critical insight. Daniel and I disagree about the dimension of this problem. 

This is where our mutual interest in media and publics comes in. We think not of the public sphere as Habermas does in his classical investigation The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, or even “multiple public spheres,” i.e., the proletarian, feminist, African American, etc., as developed by many of Habermas’s appreciative critics do, such as Nancy Fraser. Rather we think together about a “sphere of publics,” with some spheres more central than others, and with an ongoing struggling of public actors and their publics for wider attention, within and between publics, i.e., through media.

Media Events is an account of how in societies with dominant network television create a center, but Daniel knows well that in our present media environment, such centering is no longer possible. I have written about this in my essay “Solidarity and the Rise and Fall of the Public Sphere,” which examines the continuing significance of Media Events, along with Habermas’s work, in the present media environment. At issue is how social order and the grounds for democratic social change are possible in our times and what is our role as intellectuals? Daniel and I continue to discuss this. 

Much of my online publishing first in Deliberately Considered, then in Public Seminar and then in the Democracy Seminar is about putting my answers to these questions into practice. While Daniel has contributed to platforms, Claire Potter, also at the conference, has been my publishing collaborator. She also has thought seriously about the issues involved, as a critical historian and a media innovator. 

Daniel and Claire are my two closest colleagues who work on media. Daniel’s work on mediated gestures, particularly as they are shown (or monstrated as he would put it) through photography, film and television, illuminates how publics and their relationships are formed. Claire is a media practitioner, an innovative and provocative blogger, The Tenured Radical, my Public Seminar co-conspirator and now substack newsletter writer, who is keenly attuned to how web facilitated communications has changed public life.

Her presentation, “I Can’t Believe You Said That: What Facilitates and Impedes Public Intellectuals in the Digital Age,” was ripped from the headlines of the last week of April, concerning Elon Musk’s on again, off again, on again acquisition of Twitter. Liberals and leftists were in despair, threatening to abandon the platform, conservatives and rightist were jubilant, seeing a libertarian promised land on the near horizon. Claire, as a seasoned online intellectual, more soberly noted how inadvertently Twitter and social media, more generally, have become significant forms of politics, and in the end argues for continued engagement on Twitter because it is a significant part of the online public square. But this square has different dimensions, problems and perils. Claire believes that while Twitter is essentially totalitarian, academic blogs of the recent past were essentially democratic. She demonstrated this assertion through a neat comparison on the meaning of the term “I can’t believe you said that” in the two media forms.

I was intrigued, especially when she pointed to a need to update The Politics of Small Things, a need I had already recognized in a post on the Democracy Seminar platform. In 2004, I had made the strong argument that talk radio, a media form of dogmatic assertion, was authoritarian, while the internet, with its interactive potential, was more dialogic and democratic. This was before social media, especially the wild Twitter world, took off. Claire and I have been observing the same thing. At certain time, certain media seem to shape politics in a democratic or anti-democratic direction, depending on how people use them. Certain forms have potential to facilitate the kind of interaction that supports democracy, but it ultimately depends upon how people use the form. As a historian she observed how the bloggers of the early 2000s, i.e., when I was developing my chapter on the politics of small things and the internet and analyzing the connection between the web facilitated anti-war movement and the Howard Dean’s campaign for President. As I have argued for over forty years, democracy is in the details of the social interaction, media both help and hurt this. I was especially intrigued how Claire in her talk gave account of the bloggers using my portraits of the kitchen table, the clandestine bookstore and apartment literary salon. 

In the end, Claire observes that the big goals of the academic bloggers were not achieved. The most fundamental problems of the academy continue and are getting worse: colleges and graduate schools are becoming unaffordable, the exploitation of graduate student cheap labor continues, the tenure system protects the privileges of senior faculty, as it constrains the academic freedom of their juniors, and sexism and racism have far from disappeared. The bloggers did not become the public intellectuals of their dreams: Hannah Arendt, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, et al. 

But they did create a small public, that illuminates as Krzysztof Czyżewski described in his presentation and creates in his borderlands works. The bloggers created a democratic space in the universities. They created an alternative public sphere; the undiscussable became discussable. They were intellectuals in search of a public, democracy, and democratic freedoms. They acted as if they were supporting that and when the time came, in 2016, Claire observed, they were prepared to respond to the challenge to American democracy that they and we face. They found their voice even if they weren’t heard much beyond the academy. She and I know this through our work together on Public Seminar and our other publishing efforts. And I must add, with the discussions I have had with Daniel Dayan in mind, “acting as if” we were public intellectuals, made it so.

Against Ideology

Retirement and not redirection, that’s my sense of the moment, and, as I indicated at the outset of these reflections, it is not only about me. Patrick Gilger and Siobhan Kattago clarified this. 

Gilger’s is the last dissertation I supervised. It is a remarkable combination of ethnographic research and theoretical inquiry. It’s an empirical investigation of three ecclesial movements in the Catholic Church, and it also is an investigation of religious subjectivity in a post secular age. His is an exploration of how religious subjects can and do take part in a pluralistic public, and the implications of this beyond the religious. He has drawn upon my social interactionist approach to sociology, as his work critically advances the political sociology of religion of Jose Casanova, my former colleague at the New School, a crucial member of his committee, who was unable to be at the conference because of his exposure to covid in mid-April. 

Paddy is a critic of the hyper individualism of liberal society. As he observes traditional forms of community and solidarity being weakened, he explores new forms that may replace them. I share his concern and exploration. We have had, during his time at the New School, extensive sustained discussions about this, shaded by the fact that he, a Jesuit, is most certainly a believer, while I, with uncertainty, am not. We look for religious and secular grounds of solidarity, as it could make possible social order and change. We want to understand how a pluralistic public life can be sustained in the present social and media environment.

His presentation at the conference, “The Power of the Unfinished: Political Sociology for a Post-Secular Age,” was exactly about this. He gave an appreciation of my work, reading it through the lens of the theories of Zygmunt Bauman and Bruno Latour. Bauman, in his analysis of liquid modernity, and Latour, in his critique of critical theory, point to my intellectual contribution, Gilger maintains. He sees in my writing, and my engaged practical activities, explorations of the links between cultural accomplishments and the creation of independent critical public life, Bauman’s point. And I have demonstrated, observing such public life, and the political power it can generate, that that requires paying close attention to social interaction, as cultural freedom and an independent public life are sustained or undermined in social interaction, Latour’s point.

Gilger highlighted the importance of coupling civility with subversion to address the calls of Bauman and Latour. I wrote Civility and Subversion: The Intellectual in Democratic Society in response to the mistaken notion on both sides of the old iron curtain, that there was no longer a special role for intellectuals. Around the old “socialist” bloc, I had friends and colleagues who believed that it was then the time for entrepreneurs and policy experts, that the days of the critical democratic dissidents has passed. And in the former “free world,” there was an equivalent commonsense, sharply expressed in Francis Fukuyama’s notion of “the end of history.” My focus was upon the public challenges of the intellectual in democratic society. Gilger in his presentation underscored the deeper theoretical meaning and implications of my analysis.

Siobhan Kattago in her presentation, “Jeff Goldfarb and the Art of the Seminar,” attended to everyday practice, to the small things in seminars, actual and metaphorical. She focused on how what she calls my “art of the seminar,” specifically its interactive details. It was a flattering presentation, suggesting to me that I had succeeded in my teaching goals much more fully than I had realized. She showed how the everyday art makes possible not only successful educational and intellectual development, but it. as well, models a successful public life. Noting that while others had talked about bridges, democratic reason, and the public square, she would zero in on the table, using Arendt to reflect on the seminar table, as I had written about the kitchen table. The table relates and separates people at the same time. It brings different people together, but also always them to be apart, providing a space for them to share what they have in common and distinguish themselves in their differences. She emphasized listening carefully to those with whom we agree, but crucially also to those with whom we disagree, the importance of civility and subversion as a daily practice, and a Tocquevillian appreciation of democracy as a way of life. 

I think “The Art of the Seminar” presentation of Siobhan, and Paddy’s “The Power of the Unfinished: Political Sociology for a Post-Secular Age,” nicely complemented each other. They both emphasized the practice of convening people together, as a critical practice. And then they emphasized important themes, a skepticism about ideology and theories that close rather than open the possibility of discussion, (With this in mind, Siobhan even noted that I not only never used power point; I didn’t even use the blackboard.), the critique of cynicism in public life and the politics of memory, democracy and education, and crucially what Ira Katznelson recognized as one of my contributions to him: things change for better and for worse, and we, therefore, have a responsibility to not only criticize the present with a better future in mind, but we also have a responsibility to care for the gains of the past, so that they may be consolidated and defended. 

Given the global attacks on liberal freedoms and democratic self-governance, the latter is clearly an urgent task, and it reminds me of the long discussions I’ve had with Shireen Hassim, whose presentation, “The Public Intellectual Abroad: Jeff In South Africa,” at the conference reminded me of the tension between the pursuit of democracy and social justice, a major big issue that I address in my work and was discussed many times in the Democracy Seminar. 

As she recalled, we have worked together since 1999 when a branch of the Democracy and Diversity Institute was established in Cape Town, South Africa. Back then, there was great optimism in her country. It had a new progressive constitution, non-racialism was firmly rooted, and the leadership of Nelson Mandela appeared to model political leadership, then and into the future. And our institute benefited from this, with outside speakers across the political spectrum taking part. And in public life, the country focused on the big questions: revolution, justice, freedom and the people, or the masses as they were popularly referred to, and with a broad agreement that the new democracy could and would work. 

Shireen remembers my reservations, that my role was to remind people that democracy wasn’t just a set of beautiful public declarations and formal institutional arrangements, that it was predicated on the relationships between people. That official advances had to be constituted and re-constituted in the interactions between people. And she pointed out that this required stepping back from competing partisan resolutions to challenges of inequality, difference, and injustice, and working out concrete solutions face to face, beyond party positions and ideology. This is how she remembers my role, how it fit into the program of the institute. 

Shireen went on to use my concerns to account for the crises of present day South Africa: increasingly polarized, with a politics of suspicion, conflicts between friends and enemies, denunciation, “calling out,” a standard rhetoric, with violence not only justified but celebrated, and the civility that is required for opponents to confront each other with peacefully dismissed as the politics of respectability. 

I know what she was saying related to the specifics of South Africa’s recent history, but I also recognized as she was speaking, and I suspect many in the audience also recognized, that her words applied to politics closer to our homes, around the world. Thus, she highlighted the pressing need for the Democracy Seminar, even as she acknowledged the challenges we face to understand and work with each other. 

Shireen’s talk reminded me of an ongoing debate we have had in the seminar. Indeed, Shireen elliptically referred to it as she opened the concluding session of the conference, introducing herself and Jeff Isaac, pointing out that in our sessions they often disagree: “when I say black, he says white.” Yet, their judgements are actually not that different, and their political commitments are nearly identical: leftist democrats, committed to social justice, with a deep appreciation of liberal freedoms, and socialist ideals of justice. Yet, for Jeff in the present political crisis, this means a primary commitment to defending liberal democracy, while Shireen is critical of actually existing liberal democracy. 

I’m involved in this disagreement. I remember talking with her as we were re-starting the seminar and asking her if she would agree that we should all now commit ourselves to defending liberal democracy. She hesitated, concerned as she was with liberal democracies’ tolerance of colonialism and neo-colonialism, economic inequality, racism, patriarchy, and sexism. She worries that a commitment to the primacy of liberalism and liberal democracy would undermine the struggles for social and economic justice. 

I have talking to Shireen about this for a long time and have supported Jeff in the development of his ideas, publishing his essays in Public Seminar and the Democracy Seminar, and his book Against Trump. I find myself agreeing with both of them, even as I know that their positions are apparently incompatible. This is because I believe their contrasting judgments are a matter of politics, not theory, and I believe that Jeff and Shireen know this.

Their differences in judgment are exactly what needs to be decided in a free public space. Shireen and Jeff both make an important argument. It is the responsibility of political actors to decide how to weigh them in specific political circumstances, related to specific issues. This has been my position (which I explored in an essay last year).

But thinking about this, in the aftermath of the conference, I believe I see another dimension of the relationship. “The small things with their deep resonance” that I have been exploring during the course of my intellectual journey and that the speakers discussed: the cultural freedom, the autonomous publics, the civility and subversion in social interaction together constitute more liberal societies and support democracy. Liberal democracy is a name that summarizes these practices with an emphasis on liberal freedoms, conceived differently depending on the person who is doing the naming. “Social democracy,” “democratic socialism,” and “socialist democracy” give priority to the social justice side of things. I do not feel at home under any of these banners, convinced as I am that democracy, with or without various adjectives, is in the details, but I agree with Jeff that the most basic minimal conditions of democratic governance with liberal freedoms must urgently be defended right now. And I agree with Shireen that the call to defend liberal democracy as it is, may too quickly overlook the insufficiencies that the label hides. And I think they would agree, as they disagree on the details.


As the conference reached its conclusion, Jonathan Fanton, the former president of the New School, added some kind words about our work together over the years, and a group of my former students added their memories of our work together. 

Jonathan was initially my boss. My fate was in his hands. As he noted in his presentation, his first major personnel decision as president was to grant me tenure. We subsequently worked together: after the New School gave Adam Michnik an honorary doctorate in 1983, working with the clandestine democratic oppositions in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. We traveled together, along with Ira Katznelson before 1989. I introduced them to key opposition figures. After ‘89, we, along with Elżbieta Matynia, worked together supporting democratic developments all around the former Soviet bloc, and then beyond. In recent years, he has been an active participant in the Democracy Seminar. His fundraising efforts, along with the generous support of Michael E. Gellert and his family and friends, have been crucial for our “worldwide committee of democratic correspondence.” 

One of the great good fortunes of my life was to be hired by the New School. The convening work I have done, and the way I have done it, noted and appreciated by many speakers at the conference, would not have been possible in any other institution. My research and writing would have been very different if I had been at any other institution. The New School has provided me with incredible opportunities to develop my ideas and actions dedicated to the cultivation of cultural freedom, the constitution of autonomous publics, on- and off-line, with the freedom to explore my curiosities and ideas, with few constraints and a great deal of support. Jonathan made this possible, as a steward of the traditions of the New School and as a supporter of my endeavors as I drew upon these traditions and helped keep them dynamic in my teaching, writing and public engagements. Ours has been an important collaboration, as he noted at the conference for him, but I want to note here for me as well. Our work together, further, stands as an example of the power of the politics of small things.

The day closed with statements from some former students and my final remarks. At that point, following Jonathan, the event felt more like a retirement party, but still what was said did add to the deliberations. The thematic topics of the conference, the study of the sociology of culture and media, intellectuals and public life, the politics of small things, and democracy and freedom, have been embodied by the work these former students and I, along with many others, have done together over the years, and the work they are now doing. It was exciting to see and hear from them and to have them see and hear each other. From Minas Samatas, the first person whose dissertation I supervised, to the second to last, Zachary Sunderman (the last, Patrick Gilger, presented his thoughts earlier). Their work with me spans four decades and many countries and cultures. I have learned from them, as they have learned from me. I hope somehow that we manage to work together in the near future, and I hope, without sadness, that they will work with each other without me as well.


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