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I taught with Jeff Goldfarb for many years, mostly at the New School, but also at  Sciences Po, in Paris.  Sometimes, as part of a curriculum, and some times for the mere pleasure of debating. It was a pleasure we pursued almost uninterruptedly for more than I0 years, inviting ourselves to each other’s lectures or seminars;  inviting our students to join in a civilized debate; inviting them sometimes to witness a nuanced disagreement. We had many reasons to become friends: As teachers, we both like telling stories; Both of us are adept at picking up on some small situation—what I would call a “Hieroglyph— We then unfold its dramaturgy until it reveals its political, sociological, and aesthetic implications. Also, the two of us started with theater, which is perhaps why we feel concerned by the power of gestures, the realm of “doing-as-if.”

On the power of doing as if

Many years ago  I wrote a book about a turning point in Television history. This was probably one of the last monumental performances of what has been called the “television of the center.” It was almost the   “swan song”  of network television. Grand political dramaturgies were performed for millions of spectators around the world.

Curiously, the offered performances were nothing but gestures, or—one might say— “gesticulations “. Yet the status of their performers and the role adopted by the media allowed them to change history, or at least, to validate in a dramatic way, changes that were about to emerge; changes whose acceptance required a  momentous expression.

The television performance of such gestures gathered the largest audiences known at the time and being witnessed by such immense crowds and sponsored by the highest world officials made us forget they were gestures. (Think of Sadat in Jerusalem or the Pope in Poland). In fact, the events  I was observing were nothing but what Huizinga would have called “mimicry.” Yet they were sometimes capable of changing history. Thinking of JL Austin, I was left wondering: Can you change History just by gesturing?

Then one day, I heard a lecture given by an American scholar based in New York, on a book that he had just written and whose cover carried an elegant, intriguing title:  The book was called The Politics of Small Things. The American scholar was  Jeffrey Goldfarb.  From now on  I’ll call him Jeff.

To my surprise, Jeff’s book was almost a response to my own. It also addressed the power of gestures, but it was not interested in top-down gestures, in gestures performed for the world at large; in gestures accomplished by institutions of power that had just converted to some newer version of their doxa.  Jeff was not interested in gestures granted from above.

His book was about the performing and consequences of bottom-up gestures;  of gestures that quietly ran against the grain of political regimes; of gestures that were radically subversive while seemingly inconsequential; of gestures that were not advertised,  supported or amplified by a media fanfare;  of gestures that were just small.

Jeff’s dramaturgies were beautiful because they were essential. They were something like the materialization of thought. Thus  Polish dissident intellectuals were able, in their dealings with each other,  to act as if they already were standing on a national stage. They anticipated a freedom they would eventually gain by enacting it even when they merely gathered around a kitchen table. They were  “ doing as if.“

Day in and day out, from kitchen table to kitchen table,   a free society maintained an interstitial, almost invisible existence, an existence made of gestures  Jeff’s book was a treatise in resilience, a reminder of the power of maintaining a tradition alive until the advent of better days… This is how in other times, concentration camp inmates lectured or read poetry to other inmates, for the sake of their fellow prisoners, but also for their own sake,  since performing in such circumstances was an act of faith in the survival of certain forms of civilized interaction. This sort of faith is what Jeff has in common –say –with the great French historian Marc Bloch.

On the danger of certain gestures

Of course, the politics of gestures is not doomed to be sublime. It can repudiate the sublime, move in darker directions, pursue goals that are not only tactical but ominous. Thus the monumental television events that I have been studying (many of which heralded the end of interminable conflicts )  had their sinister counterparts in the mass meetings of the Third Reich.   Thus  Goldfarb‘s  «politics of small things»   soon found itself flanked by other sorts of small things; by unexpected doppelgangers.

Many of the gestures favored by the  «Woke» and  «Cancel» cultures display an uncanny resemblance to   Orwell‘s  I984. I am specifically thinking of the intensive production of new vocabularies, or of the very principle of reaching into the past and reorganizing it, since «who controls the past, controls the future». Yet there is an enormous difference. Orwell’s famous book describes a   society shaped by a  revolution. When Orwell‘s novel starts, the various decisions affecting meaning, language, thought, and the control of memory, have already been taken, and there is a power that is eager to enforce them.   By contrast, the powers that surround the «woke» and «cancel» cultures are mostly hostile to these movements. No «Big Brothers»  have emerged,  except in miniature form and in circumscribed institutions such as university departments or film festivals.  Society is still largely the same.

In other terms, what today’s victimist movements have at their disposal is essentially the power of gestures, their resonance, and the docility of targeted audiences. Of course, this does not make the nature of their gestures less tyrannical. But, whether democratic or tyrannical,   the emerging movements must content themselves with the power inherent in gestures.  As opposed to the Red Guards of  President  Mao who had an arsenal of coercive measures at their disposal,  today’s gesturing militants must make do with no army and no ruling party. For the time being, they must –satisfy  themselves  with  «doing as if»

Ironically, this does not mean at all that they are powerless. As the scriptures remind us, the walls of  Jericho were not destroyed by military means. They collapsed from the seemingly innocuous playing of trumpets. They collapsed from being exposed to a brass concert.  They collapsed –in a way —from their own will, thus illustrating a feature that is specific to the power of gestures, and that calls for reflection. Some well-placed gestures are endowed with an unexpected destructive power.

On tables and the subjunctive

Thus, if  “doing as if”   affects realities, it is not always in the way which Jeff would find desirable.  The gestures I  just described are not those he envisions when writing that «new interpretations of reality, are needed when existing descriptions of the world no longer fit …  whether it is entirely fake official newspeak, a language of military force, or a political vision which does not match the everyday struggles of the citizens…”(2011)…Jeff knows that the “new interpretations of reality”  are not to be found by listening to romantic intellectuals, by celebrating the cult of the great evening or by giving up to a  “Sturm & Drang” drudgery (and we also know that Newspeak is no longer a privilege of officialdom), where then would  Jeff seek them?

Jeff’s description of the  “Kitchen-table – of- polish- intellectuals – as – public -sphere “ has many features in common with Habermas ‘depiction of the eighteenth-century salons in which the philosopher situated the emergence of that civilized form of debate that led to his own conception  of a “public sphere.” To one of my masters in anthropology –Victor Turner –    both  kitchens  and salons   would  be   “subjunctive” spaces:   spaces in which reality stops to be merely  what it is,  in order to become also ” what it ought to be.“   Victor Turner was not ignoring the existence of other  “modes of culture”, like those involved in “social dramas.” In such dramas   —almost comparable to passion plays — failure to resolve the conflict could lead to the dismemberment of a society. My recent work made me increasingly aware of this agonistic, pessimistic, almost tragic dimension of  Turner’s work.  But this dark dimension does not obliterate the other, irenic one; that which allows  Subjunctive spaces to bring utopia on earth.    

 Jeff does not belong to Turner’s tradition. No less intense than my own,   his interest in dramaturgies, is rather inspired by the work of  Erwin Goffman and  Hannah  Arendt,  two authors who share a strong kinship both to him and to each other. “Appearing in Public” (in Arendt’s model of the politic) is done in specific circumstances. What is missing from such circumstances is precisely outlined  in   Goffman‘s discussion of “presentation of self.” But, in my view, Jeff’s moral grammar comes from neither of his favorite masters.  To me, his thinking rather points in the direction of  Turner’s work.  Jeff is someone who takes  Victor Turner’s  “subjunctive” mode of culture quite seriously.

As befits such a  wonderfully hospitable man, Jeff‘s life is surrounded with tables. First of all, there is the almost cubist table which   Hannah Arendt has turned into the emblem of her public sphere:  a table on whose surface we are meant to share the same facts, but in regard to which we are doomed never to share the same point of view.  Then there are the ubiquitous seminar tables. Then come kitchen tables in Poland, and café tables on thirteenth street, not to mention a couple of table corners used to jot down a few notes. Jeff‘s life is surrounded by tables: the high and the low,  the big and the small.  Yet,  no matter what the table is, Jeff   Goldfarb always entertains the same guest, a guest who returns from table to table, and from book to book. 

The guest’s name is Utopia. It never occupies the whole of the table. But it is never absent.

Daniel Dayan is a French social scientist born in 1943. A fellow of the Marcel Mauss Institute at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, and of the Levinas European Institute, Dayan has been Director of Research in Sociology, at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, professor of Media Theory at the Institut d’ Etudes Politiques,(Sciences-po) Paris.