The O.O.P.S. courses, Rethinking Capitalism and Feminism, Capitalism and Social Transformation, share a critical understanding: capitalism, as we are experiencing it, is undesirable and not the only political economy possible. They also both analyze how major social problems are directly linked to the present order of capitalism, from sexism, to racism, to climate change, and much more. While my Social Condition course shares a critical approach with these two courses, it is with a significant difference. The critical focus has not been specifically on capitalism, even as my students and I have been examining existential and political conditions of social continuity and transformation that are clearly connected to the present state of the political economy. Ours is a different kind of course, developing a new mode of critique and analysis. The course starts with its focus on the sociological complexities knitted into the social fabric, with a proposal for a unique, underdeveloped research and theory project. It extends exploratory work I am developing with my friend and colleague, Iddo Tavory, who has occasionally joined us for sessions of the class, including this past week’s session on tragedy and comedy and the social condition. In our research and writing, and in the course, instead of focusing on social effects or social construction, the dominant intellectual projects in sociology, we are studying the complexity of interaction, between past and future: uncertain, existential, and political, interrogating that part of the human condition that is social, exploring individual problems as examined by Sartre and the part of the vita activa that Hannah Arendt understood as action.
The first part of the course has been dedicated primarily to understanding the intellectual project. We reviewed the sociology classics, examining how they have illuminated (Weber and especially Simmel) and ignored (particularly Durkheim) the social condition. We explored the work of Hannah Arendt as her theory suggested our topic, though she certainly would not have accepted all our intellectual moves. We have considered the sociology of my teachers, Donald Levine, my mentor and dissertation supervisor at the University of Chicago, and Robert Merton, one of the dominant figures in sociology when I was a student (and ironically the chair of my tenure review committee). Merton, on ambivalence, and Levine, on ambiguity, are the two thinkers who most directly addressed key aspects of the social condition.
Our task now, in the second half of our seminar, is to apply the developed shared understanding of our theoretical approach to problems and challenges of the class’s specific interests. I illustrated this when I shared with the seminar, and with Public Seminar readers, my previously unpublished “Hannah and Me,” in which I reflect upon how her understanding of the human condition has informed much of my sociological inquiries as I have tried to confront problems of our times. And now the students are joining in. Zachary Sunderman considered how Arendt’s understanding of the social condition is suggested in the way she approaches plurality. He has additionally reflected upon how the life of the ghetto and its music is illuminated by social condition theory (his term that I initially like). Josephine Ott is working from a fundamental observation of Simmel: that we uniquely face tensions and dilemmas as social beings by being both subjects and objects in our social life. She considers this problem as it has to do with modern youth identity. I am looking forward to posts on vegetarians in South Korea and gay marriage also in South Korea; on art, music, high fashion, and their audiences (three different posts); on the dilemmas and tensions of a woman taxi driver in Afghanistan; the post-communist experience (with focus on the work of Adam Michnik); and on incarceration, race and gender, and consumerism. Not all the students will publish their work. It will depend on their willingness to go public, but I am hopeful that most will, as I provide for them the editorial support to make their ideas clear so that they can effectively reach a broader public beyond the student-professor interaction.
The three initial O.O.P.S. courses speak to each other in telling ways. The kind of work that the lecturers are presenting in the Rethinking Capitalism course is a pre-condition for the work of the Feminism, Capitalism and Social Transformation course. On the other hand, in order to rethink capitalism, it is required to understand how gender relations and sexuality contribute to, indeed form, the configuration of capitalist relations. The interaction between the economic, the political, the social, and the cultural make up the order of things, and these courses work to examine exactly this interaction. And the Social Condition course suggests that this interaction be considered in its indeterminacy, as opening up occasions for creative individual and group actions, with no clear positive outcome or program. We are exploring how matters of existential and political challenge cannot be decided by an easy theoretical insight. If the students and professors taking part in the O.O.P.S. classes discussed the details of their inquiries, there would be, no doubt, much that confirms the inquiries in each of the courses with the inquires in the others. But there also would be intriguing matters up for debate — a debate I hope we can develop, moving between the classes and beyond. This is the goal of the O.O.P.S. project.