5 QUESTIONS to a Scholar: Jeffrey Goldfarb

This is the beginning of a new RevDem series where we talk with academics in the field of democracy studies and inquire about their most formative cultural experiences. For our first installment, RevDem Editor Kasia Krzyżanowska invited Professor Jeffrey C. Goldfarb to explain which films and books have impacted him throughout his life.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology Emeritus at The New School for Social Research, a Senior Fellow at the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies, the Founding Editor of Public Seminar, and Chair of the Democracy Seminar.

What were the books/movies that inspired/formed you in your early years?

Being a pretty old guy, my early years is pretty long and deep.

As a high school student, I vividly remember reading, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I doubt I really understood it. I remember pushing through my confusion, but it awakened a curiosity about good and evil, about the absence of god, led me to question everything. The film, The Graduate, spoke to me directly as I was trying to figure out what’s next for me.

At university, I became a sociology student, via interests in history and philosophy. Key to my entrance into the world of sociology were G.H. Mead’s Mind, Self and Society and Peter Berger’s Invitation to Sociology, key to my identity as a critical sociologist who wished to link his political commitments to his academic pursuits was Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man. It was the tail end of the Civil Rights movement. I read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man for the first time. A novel I have returned regularly throughout my life, as it illuminates the lived experience of racism and hatred in everyday life.

I am an American sociologist who became of age intellectually in Central Europe, specifically Poland. Key books included Czeslaw Milosz’s Native Realm & Captive Mind, the novels of Milan Kundera, especially A Book on Laughter and Forgetting, the plays of Vaclav Havel and his essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” and Adam Michnik’s “The New Evolutionism.” Others including those I write about in my book: Beyond Glasnost: The Post Totalitarian Mind.

What was the most recent book you’ve read or movie you’ve seen? What kind of impression did it leave on you?

Maggie O’ Farrell’s Hamnet. It’s a remarkable historical fiction about life, death, plague and love between Shakespeare (without never being named), the improbable love between a man and a woman, and their relationships between them and their parents, local world and art.  It is a remarkable book with beautiful depictions of a remote past, which speaks to enduring and very present concerns. It’s a remarkable demonstration of the power of art and its relationship with human struggles, as it is about the mysterious source of this power.

What are you looking for in literature/movies? And what can literature/movies capture that academic writing misses?

I have long been very critical of the thinness of social scientific approaches to the human condition, and the pressing challenges of the day. Macro-historical approaches haven’t taken into the account the richness is human experience and its uncertainty. Micro approaches have ignored the way everyday life is shaped political and economic forces that individuals are all too often unaware or misperceive how they shape them. Great literature and movies reveal the complexities. The problems they pose and the way people successfully deepen my understanding. I also depend on them for the way they pose dilemmas without hastily presenting solutions. I explain my position in an essay, “Poetry After the Holocaust is (NOT!) Barbaric” reflecting on the Polish film Idea, the American novel, Beloved and The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C..

What is the most important book on democracy you have read?

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I have written a great deal about this. My book The Cynical Society is my own response to it as I tried to understand the crisis of democracy in American in the 1980s. It is ever more relevant now. I have taught many courses focused on this classical text, including once with the Polish philosopher, Marcin Krol, once of the most illuminating teaching experiences in my life.

What are you going to read/watch in the near future?

This is hard to answer. I don’t have any big plans. I read what presents itself day by day. I just received a birthday gift from my sister: Elif Batuman’s The Idiot and Ali Smith’s Autumn.

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