Photo credit: Ingrid Balabanova/Shutterstock.com
Jeff Goldfarb has been my teacher, colleague, and friend: our conversations about culture, politics, democracy, and activism—through reading and writing, in public and private forums—have continued since I began as a student in the Department of Sociology at the NSSR.
From and with Jeff, and by studying sites within which democracy is articulated, I learned to think about memory and politics. I learned to understand how societies move toward, and away from, democracy. Together, we read theory, poetry, fiction, and journalism. We discussed, amongst ourselves and with our students, the tensions and dilemmas these works encapsulated. We debated the conversations they carried forward, and what we ought to carry away from them. Some of these conversations were extended in writing towards a varied audience as in Jeff’s first blog, Deliberately Considered, and later in Public Seminar. Jeff invited many colleagues onto these virtual stages, and along the way created more: all emanated from his original Democracy Seminar network in Eastern Europe. I am grateful for them.
Then there were the live events that these platforms supported and promoted. In 2002, during the Democracy and Diversity Seminar in Krakow, Jeff and Elzbieta Matynia invited a group of students and faculty to attend a special literary event with poets who had returned to Poland after the fall of the Soviet bloc. The late Adam Zagajewski, Czeslaw Milosz, and others read their poetry in Polish and in English.
It could have been there that Zagajewevski, who later visited Democracy and Diversity Institutes in Wroclaw, first read his poem ‘Try to Praise the Mutilated World.’ It begins with this stanza:
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
Jeff taught me to understand poetry as a site for political analysis: because of this, a much-recited poem by Yehuda Amichai “We have no unknown soldiers” (1969) kicked off my attempts to understand how the Israeli ethos of sacrifice and collectivism was changing. This journey began in that Summer 2002 seminar with Jeff and others, where a space for thinking and writing was carved out. In analyzing the topos of the unknown soldier that Amichai writes against, I pointed to its use as a cultural symbol in three mythological domains. First, there was the revisionist, which praised personal sacrifice for the nation. Second was the radical socialist, with its call to stop and guard from war. Finally, there was the heroic call for sacrifice, but not as one of the unknowns.
From the Yishuv period onward, myths of the unknown soldier continued to work on both sides of a contradiction. They preserved these contradictory positions, cultivating a national ethos, while simultaneously spurring subversions and defiance of the sacrifices that ethos demands. I suggested that recognizing an overdetermined symbolic language that tightens an ethnonationalist grip on politics could teach us about the rise of militarism and the changing conditions for individuality in such a regime. This interpretive work may also help us understand the turn of segments of Israeli Jewish society to a universalistic ethics and, as Tamar Katriel has recently argued, grassroots resistance to violence and injustice.
With Jeff, I learned to analyze social change minutely, without losing sight of its large-scale implications; and the dialogue about witnessing, social positions, and action with Jeff, Robin Wagner Pacifici, and Richard Bernstein was formative for me. At the time I was developing my own ideas, Jeff was working on similar questions in The Politics of Small Things (2004). To study “the politics of small things” is to gain insight into the power of the insightful few, and how they can promote ideas that larger movements may not be able to. It is the study of taking responsibility over one’s actions. It recognizes when a work of prose, or a film, turns actors and publics into witnesses who can later on co-author events in a way that includes otherwise excluded viewpoints.
Jeff often speaks in praise of grey colors, and of finding a common ground between the polar opposites on which politics has increasingly depended. While thinking about memory, for example, he would begin with the liberating possibility of forgetting. Jeff contributed an essay to a special issue of the European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology I co-edited with Anna Lisa Tota (2017), “Claims to Truth: Authenticity in Aesthetic Paths to Justice and Public Memory” where this position is perfectly articulated. In it, he illuminates the intricate relations between aesthetic and artistic paths to justice, which provide modes of obtaining knowledge about the past that have not been, or could not be, accessible otherwise.
Similarly, the study of memory representations—understood from the vantage point of their shortcomings as sites of possible articulation—has been my own undertaking. Observing moral transformation in the performance of memory at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin during and after my dissertation research directed by Jeff, Vera Zolberg, and Oz Frankel, I began my research with the actors (political and education agents), public responses, and the media voiced about the Memorial’s brokenness of form.
In ethnographic research, I tried to understand the German discourse about the memorial as it called for special attention and care, and in the occasional concern about physical cracks, which I thought symbolized the visibility of moral shortcomings. With Jeff’s careful guidance, I examined aesthetic depictions of the site in the local German media, using them to study the political language of Holocaust memory.
Today, I continue my study of this phenomenon through notions of witnessing, as well as the transformation of memorialization from a public drama that focuses on ‘doing Holocaust memory right’ into one that focuses on antisemitism and protecting ‘Jewish Life.’ I also participate in an important conversation that crosses scholars and actors in civil society, one that has larger implications for understanding racism and ethnic minorities’ roles in opening up discussions that reckon with genocidal pasts. It considers the ebbs and flows of public dramas as sites for understanding and defending social plurality and democracy, in contemporary Central Europe and elsewhere.
Zagajewski’s ‘Try to praise the mutilated world’ ends with
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
The art of sober praise mixed with lamentation, of the civility and subversion, that Jeff led readers, colleagues, and students to in 1998, is one a critical contribution to our thought, not just about Poland, but the US as well, in his readings of feminist and Black authors such as Toni Morrison. His analysis is accurate and strong precisely because, in the tradition of Hannah Arendt, it seeks complexity and specificity while also trying to understand the human condition more broadly.
I am grateful for having been given access to Jeff’s analytical sensitivity and the commitments that come with it: I look forward to continuing this conversation for many years to come.
Irit Dekel is Assistant Professor in Germanic Studies and Jewish Studies at Indiana University- Bloomington.