In Memoriam

Bernhard Giesen (1948-2020)

University of Konstanz, Germany (CCS Senior Fellow)

Memories of Bernd Giesen
 
Bernd Giesen was fearless, a ferociously brilliant intellectual, a fiercely adventurous, lust-for-life, joy-loving man. He demanded beautiful objets - sleek cars, very old wines, African masks that filled his See Strasse living room. Bernd had the most capacious mind I have ever encountered, roaming freely among ancient and modern history, art, philosophy, social theory, micro-sociology and cultural sociology. His writing was almost freakishly creative, leaping with daring confidence toward the unknown; yet, it was also tightly argued. If his theorizing was unapologetically abstract, his empirical discussions were thick with the texture and stuff of social life, the illustrative, the everyday, the empirically concrete. 
 
I had the great good fortune to have been close to Bernd, both to the mind and the man, for four decades. We met as barely 30-somethings at a small, generationally-defining German conference on Marx and Weber in 1979. At the Mexico ISA World Congress in 1982, Bernd walked up to Neil Smelser and me and proposed a series of German-American Theory Conferences. This idea launched three intensely compelling meetings that stretched over the next decade, demonstrating the common grounding of sociological theory, laying to rest sterile disputes from the 60s and 70s, and setting new agendas. The contributions to the first and the best of these meetings were published as The Micro-Macro Link (1987), which Bernd and I edited along with Smelser and Richard Munch. After agreeing to write the Introduction, Bernd announced he would be coming to Los Angeles for two weeks to do it in person. I was not entirely comfortable with this prospect. Wouldn’t it be difficult to write general theory with another person, I wondered, especially somebody who was a demanding and sometimes impatient peer? It turned out to be thrilling. I sat in front of the computer, and Bernd sat at my side. Running through the wide range of macro and micro debates like the black and white keys on a piano keyboard, we composed a new piece of intellectual music.
 
The sometimes tawdry, sometimes starkly beautiful pop culture weirdness of Los Angeles fascinated Bernd, and he returned several times, the longest visit with his wife Chrissi, who worked in Berlin as a high level simultaneous “interpreter.” She prepared haute cuisine meals, kept up on high culture and haute-couture, and explained that English, which she spoke perfectly, was just her 4th best language. I visited Bernd several times in Giessen and later at the EUI in Fiesole outside Florence. On one of those visits, in the gathering dusk of a late spring evening, Bernd and I confessed to one another that, in recent years, quietly and without public fanfare, each of us had turned away from the clarity of mainstream sociological theorizing and entered into the opaque, mysteriously exciting world of cultural theory and social meaning. We talked, almost in whispers, about this secretly shared cultural turn, and our ambition to make use of it to radically change sociology. 
 
Our first chance to work on this together came in 1998. With the support of Neil Smelser, then Director of CASBS (Center for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences), I was able to invite Bernd, along with Ron Eyerman, Piotr Sztompka, and Bjorn Wittrock to work on a special project in Palo Alto. Meeting weekly over many months, we created our theory of cultural trauma, which in the years since has spawned a global research program. Bernd often inspired me during these months at CASBS. I remember him grabbing a piece of chalk and leaping to the blackboard to synthesize our thinking at some critical juncture, then walking back to take his seat, his exquisite black Japanese suit covered in chalk dust. Even as Bernd and I, along with Ron Eyerman, worked to develop the analytical threads that became trauma theory, we bonded spiritually as we deployed the new theory to our respective sides of the Holocaust, he the trauma of German perpetrators, I the trauma of Jewish victims. These eventually became chapters in our co-authored Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity (with Eyerman, Smelser, Sztompka, and Wittrock, 2004).
 
After that year in Palo Alto, Bernd moved south to Konstanz and I moved East to Yale, and the most productive period of our collaboration unfolded. It began with another conversation, this one long-distance. In the summer of 2001, during one of our every-few-months-catch-up conversations, I mentioned my new interest in theater and drama theory, and Bernd responded, “I’ve been moving there too.” Over the course of the next four years, our German and American professor-student “teams” met for intense, enlightening, and sometimes fractious discussions about performance, once at Yale, where Bernd, Ron Eyerman, and I taught a course on performance together, and twice in Konstanz. The sometimes conflicting but broadly complementary ideas and case studies that came out of these discussions were published in Social Performance: Symbolic Action, Cultural Pragmatics, and Ritual (co-edited with Jason Mast, 2006). In the second half of that decade, Bernd and I moved on, with different but overlapping personnel, to the topic of materiality and iconicity. Once again, this cooperation triggered both a satisfying meeting of the minds and productive intellectual friction. The results were on full display – especially if you read between the lines – in our co-edited Iconic Power (with Dominik Bartmanski, 2012).
 
A truly gifted intellectual and fascinating personality, Bernd was also a talented academic entrepreneur and an electrifying and charismatic performer on the academic stage. Each of these qualities was fully evident in the annual Meister Class that Bernd and his team organized in the gorgeous early summers at Konstanz. Every year, two or three legendary social and cultural theorists, social scientists, and literary scholars were the hardworking guests of honor. It was a thrill to witness Bernd’s high wire act as he cajoled, inspired, and challenged, not only the “masters” he’d assembled, but the 20-plus students he’d invited to learn from and engage them. Most students were from Europe, but Bernd would be sure to reserve 2 or 3 slots for Yale CCS doctoral students, among whom the Meister constituted an annual pilgrimage to a sacred center of cultural thinking.
 
Bernd Giesen was a comet that blazed across the intellectual universe. He was also a dear friend and an inspiring colleague. His like will not soon come again, and never for me.
 
Jeffrey Alexander, January 3, 2021
 
 
 

Hayden White (1928-2018)

University of California, Santa Cruz (CCS Senior Fellow)

Hayden White obituary, The New York Times

Hayden White was Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. His books have had a profound influence on the practice and conceptualization of all the humanities disciplines: Metahistory: The Historical Imagination (Johns Hopkins, 1973), Tropics of Discourse (Johns Hopkins, 1978), The Content of the Form (Johns Hopkins, 1987), and Figural Realism (Johns Hopkins, 1997)


Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017)

Universities of Warsaw and Leeds (CCS Senior Fellow)

Zygmunt Bauman obituary, The Guardian

Zygmunt Bauman was known throughout the world for works such as Legislators and Interpreters (1987), Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), Modernity and Ambivalence (1991) and Postmodern Ethics (1993). He was the author of some 21 books in English and of numerous articles and reviews. His reputation, although already well-established by the 1970s in Western Europe and North America as well as throughout the then Eastern Bloc, grew at an especially rapid rate in the late 1980s, and today he is described variously as one of the twentieth century’s great social theorists and the world’s foremost sociologist of postmodernity. Suffice it to say that his undeniable success was built not only on his powers of creative thought and analysis and his superb sociological acumen, but also on his literary skill as a writer and expositor. Zygmunt Bauman was awarded the Amalfi European Prize in 1990 and the Adorno Prize in 1998.


Michael Holquist (1935-2016)

Yale University (CCS Senior Fellow)

In memoriam: J. Michael Holquist, scholar of Slavic language and literature, Yale University Office of Public Affairs

Comments by Jeffrey Alexander and Philip Smith, June 2016:

Michael Holquist was a scholar who made noted contributions to Slavic studies, literary criticism and the history of structuralism. Those were his fields of original research. His contribution to cultural sociology takes a different form. Arguably without Holquist we would not have Bakhtin. Or only some of him.

Bakhtin had been exiled to Kazakhstan in the 1930s and was only rehabilitated by the Soviet establishment in the 1960s. He died in 1975. He could easily have been forgotten or become a figure of only historical interest or regional influence. It was Holquist’s work as an explicator, translator and apologist that did the most to bring Bakhtin to the attention of the Anglophone world. He was an early adopter. For example his translation of four essays entitled “The Dialogic Imagination” was published only six years after Bakhtin’s death. It is now an established classic with 26,000 citations on Google Scholar.

Today Bakhtin is a pivotal figure in the humanities and in cultural theory. His influence also extends to empirical cultural sociology. His work provides essential tools for understanding the complexity and dynamism of meaning and communication in social life. The chances are that any scholars in our discipline citing Bakhtin and making use of his concepts such as ‘speech genres’; ‘center and periphery’; ‘centrifugal and centripetal’; ‘heteroglossia’ and ‘the dialogical’ are doing so with reference to Holquist’s work, not to the original Russian texts. They are probably also including quotations from Holquist’s translations.

For Holquist, Bakhtin was not just a singular thinker but represented the virtues of a larger school of thought – Slavic structuralism – about which he also evangelized. Most particularly, Michael championed Roman Jakobson, whom he lauded for providing a welcome antidote to Saussure. Indeed, Jacobson was much more interested than the Swiss founder of semiotics in the diachronic, in the historical variations and social effects of the relation between signifier and signified, an interest that blossomed into Jacobson’s model of communications after he emigrated from Europe and become a linguistics professor at MIT, facing pragmatism full blast. Jacobson’s attention to the differentiation between sender, message, and receiver adumbrated the analytical separation of the elements of performance conceptualized by cultural pragmatics fifty years later. Still, Michael was only half right. Jacobson was one of Saussure’s greatest fans. Not only did he introduce structural semiotics into the Slavic world, but he developed, even more fully than Saussure, the idea he called “binarism,” the notion that language and meaning are structured in tense opposition. Jakobson’s analytic style, which like that of his disciple Levi-Strauss tended at times towards a quasi-mathematical formalism, also puts him in the Saussure’s camp. In many ways he was a different kind of thinker from the more fluid and ‘literary’ Bakhtin.

In bringing Bakhtin, Jakobson and other thinkers to our attention and in providing translations as well as detailed exegeses and critique Holquist has left a legacy that will continue to inspire creative work in this and future generations. There is too little appreciation in academic life for the roles of the talent scout, translator, apostle and enthusiast. These tasks require scholarly judgment and deep theoretical skills. When it came to the Slavic structuralists Michael Holquist was just the man for the job.


Geoffrey Hartman (1929-2016)

Yale University (CCS Senior Fellow)

Born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1929, Geoffrey Hartman was placed on a Kindertransport to England in 1939. He spent the war years on the estate of James Rothschild in Waddeston with nineteen other boys. Reunited with his mother in the United States in 1945, he attended Queens College and earned his Ph.D. at Yale where he taught for almost forty years before retiring as Sterling Professor of English and Comparative Literature. Professor Hartman became acquainted with the Holocaust Survivors Film Project through his wife’s participation and recognized the research and educational value of the testimonies. With the support of Yale’s president, A. Bartlett Giamatti, almost 200 testimonies were deposited at the Sterling Memorial Library in 1981. As faculty advisor and project director to the Fortunoff Video Archive, Professor Hartman was actively involved in its growth and wrote extensively about the Archive and its work.


Robert N. Bellah

University of California at Berkeley (CCS Senior Fellow)

Jeffrey Alexander’s Comments on the Passing of Robert Bellah

Robert Neelly Bellah was an American sociologist and educator, who for 30 years served as professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. His books on the sociology of religion, including Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World (1970), The Broken Covenant (1975), Habits of the Heart (1985), and The Good Society (1991), have shaped the discipline. In 1985, Habits of the Heart won The Los Angeles Times Book Prize for “Current Interest” and, in 1986, was a Jury Nominee for the Pulitzer Prize in General Non-fiction. In 2000, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Clinton.


David E. Apter (1924-2010)

Yale University (CCS Senior Fellow)

In Memoriam: David Apter, Expert on the Birth of Developing Nations, Yale University Office of Public Affairs

New York Times obituary


Shmuel N. Eisenstadt (1923-2010)

Hebrew University of Jerusalem (CCS Senior Fellow)

Obituary by Jeffrey Alexander and Bernhard Giesen from the American Sociological Association Newsletter Footnotes


Mary Douglas (1921-2007)

University College of London (CCS Senior Fellow)

Dame Mary Douglas was a British anthropologist, known for her writings on human culture and symbolism. Her area was social anthropology; she was considered a follower of Durkheim and a proponent of structuralist analysis, with a strong interest in comparative religion.

New York Times obituary


Clifford Geertz (1926–2006)

Institute for Advanced Study (CCS Senior Fellow)

Clifford Geertz conducted extensive ethnographical research in Southeast Asia and North Africa. He also contributed to social and cultural theory and was influential in turning anthropology toward a concern with the frames of meaning within which various peoples live out their lives. He worked on religion, most particularly Islam, on bazaar trade, on economic development, on traditional political structures, and on village and family life. His latest work involved the general question of ethnic diversity and its implications in the modern world.

Comprehensive website on Clifford Geertz

New York Times obituary