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Taking a Step Back with Moishe Postone the Teacher

Tracey Rosen

“Ok, let’s take a step back.”

At the University of Chicago, Moishe Postone’s reputation as the university’s foremost expert of Marx was arguably superseded by his role as chair of the general education core course, “Self, Culture and Society” between 1990 and 2016. This is a year-long sequence that exposes second-year undergraduates to Adam Smith, Marx, Durkheim, Lévi-Strauss, Freud, the Frankfurt School, and others. It was only after my leaving the university that I’ve understood how widely known and revered the course is outside the University of Chicago. Teaching in a very similar sequence at Harvard University at the moment, it becomes only more clear that under Moishe’s stewardship, “Self, Culture, Society” was most likely the most rigorous and comprehensive undergraduate social theory course in the United States.

I went to the University of Chicago to pursue a doctorate in cultural anthropology. In 2006–2007 I spent a year “interning” with Moishe Postone, and then another two years working with him as a lecturer in 2007 and 2011. My “internship” or apprenticeship with him (note, we were not considered teaching assistants), gave me the opportunity to watch him teach twice a week, which was followed by informal discussions of his strategies and analyses of what students were getting, what they had a hard time understanding and the possible reasons why. I also joined him every week in a larger lunch group with other teachers and interns in the course to discuss the unique pedagogical obstacles and opportunities that each text posed.

Such a general education course that seeks to teach canonical works using primary texts approached in depth rather than in scope is a dying breed in the United States. Along with the increased professionalization and corporate organization of the university, introductory classes in the social sciences tend to be more and more specialized. Or, just as damaging, they incorporate only small selections of a dizzying array of texts. When quantity of texts is chosen over depth of engagement, students only achieve a spurious sense of mastery. It equips them with sound-bytes to casually cite at cocktail parties or other such social occasions. Moishe’s political/pedagogical program was anathema to this kind of conferral of “cultural capital” that elite students often seek out in order mark their distinction. Instead, his vision was intentionally democratic, teaching all students how to encounter and think through the complexity and elegance of persuasive arguments. Thus, instead of asking students to engage a broad survey of theorists, his aim was to give students the opportunity to see how a thinker builds their categories and their overall argument from the ground up. As I experienced it, the point was to challenge young people to inhabit each text’s logic on its own terms and within its historical context. Moishe prompted us to identify the weaknesses, strengths, contradictions and potentialities that lived within the world of the author’s argument. In short, he advocated for the generosity, open-mindedness, and intellectual rigor demanded by the instrument of immanent critique.

“Let’s take a step back.”

It’s a phrase that immediately pops in my head whenever I’m reminded of him. He used the phrase often in his lectures, in our weekly lunch-time pedagogical meetings, and in our one-on-one conversations. But I don’t think I associate him with this phrase simply because he used it a lot. Rather, I think it’s because it condenses and typifies much of how I came to understand him as a thinker, a teacher, and a human being. Intellectually, taking a step back prompts one to pause, to uncover what we have forgotten or perhaps never knew or couldn’t see. What categories are we working with?  Where do they come from? What can we observe if we take a walk behind the manifest, behind the fetish? What are the conditions of possibility that allow things to occur? The step-back—it’s the most important move in the history and sociology of knowledge in general. But it’s also a critical move for the psychoanalyst. (Psychoanalysis may not have been front and center in Moishe’s work, but I think it was always there in his thinking, living, and teaching.) 

The step-back also captures my experience of his personality and his impulse to widen his frame and take in his peripheral vision without losing focus. Methodical and deliberate in his words, responses and actions, he never rushed. Even his laughter took a thoughtful pause as a puckish smile would slowly spread across his face – making it such a delight to take in. The effect of such a demeanor was both soothing and liberating. It made me feel like I had space to think without the pressure of grasping something right away. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing? A family trait? Really, it was most likely just his individual temperament. Regardless, I can’t help but read into his unhurried and methodical habitus a rebellious defiance toward the contagion of capital as it speeds up our habits, including the way we walk, speak, and come to conclusions. To gently “take a step back” is to deliver an elegant but poignant “fuck you” to the M-C-M’ treadmill of ever increasing destruction and renewal. Such a gesture delivered within the corporate university says “fuck you” to academic fads and intellectual amnesia.

“Let’s take a step back”

The last thing to note about this phrase is the inclusive nature of his use of the first person plural. “Let’s” the contraction of “let us” signaled not a command given on high from teacher to student, but rather a suggestion which communicated that we were all on the same path. There seems to be a promise contained in the phrase: “we will take steps both forwards and backwards, but we will do it together.” In class, I watched him use this phrase to corral those who rushed ahead and those who were straggling behind. Like all great teachers, he was a vigilant steward, continually ensuring that the group stays together on our journey.

This last point may counter an unfortunate reputation he had among some at the university for being dogmatic. My guess is that this was a reputation developed by those who didn’t have the opportunity to take a class with him or watch him teach. But I stand behind my words regarding his inclusiveness. He was a master; he held labor and mastery in high esteem. This rightfully includes an esteem of his own as he was passionate about developing the mastery of others. He unquestionably had strong positions, but he was very reflexive, aware that knowledge is about developing robust arguments from a particular historical position. For Moishe, knowledge did not work to establish the right vs. the wrong. Rather, it contained a judgment of what was more convincing and less convincing. In evaluating social theory, one of the criteria of a convincing argument is the extent to which it can account for the theorist and theory themselves. This is an extremely important lesson. If social theory isn’t reflexive, then we are no longer in the realm of social science, but have entered metaphysics.

The most unfortunate characterization of Moishe that I encountered comes from one of my anthropology professors who would refer to him as an “Orthodox” Marxist. It’s difficult not to see hints of anti-semitism in the word choice. Reading my professor more charitably, though, I can at the very least say that this characterization was both unfair and rather ironic. Moishe’s scholarly career was devoted to rescuing Marx from “traditional Marxists” by foregrounding the importance of “value,” “capital,” “labor” and “commodity” as categories that live in a historical system of meaning. Without this understanding, he demonstrated the potential for Marxism to be extremely regressive – most notably, the Eastern bloc and other repressive regimes which Moishe, echoing Marx, referred to as  “state capitalism.” In short, his emphasis on the ultimate importance of historical systems of meaning resonated with all of my training as an anthropologist and it was quite difficult for me to see how some of my colleagues and teachers couldn’t see this. To paraphrase Moishe’s direction to his theory obsessed students: “You can’t just know theory, you have to know the history.” Again, the phrase is apt: “let’s take a step back.”

I am aware that this meditation on Moishe’s influence on my life as a person, teacher, and thinker may come across with the kind of excessive adulation reserved only for those who have recently passed. I must admit that I didn’t know him very well on a personal level and can’t speak to his foibles and flaws. Since he was a human being, I am sure there were many. But when those who are passionate about teaching are given the opportunity to do what they love and excel at, it is their best selves that get put on display. And I feel exceptionally fortunate to have been part of that world. I will say that the one aspect that left me rather uncomfortable with Moishe’s presence is the very masculine following he had among students who were prone to the kind of dogmatism that Moishe was accused of. I haven’t thought this through enough to say what was it about him that cultivated such a male-dominant environment. He was charismatic and charming, and perhaps it was a kind of fatherly role that invited a bit of tribalism and divisiveness that could get ugly, even though it is par for the course in academic life. I have to take a step back and think about this.  

That said, as a woman I never felt anything but his utmost respect for me – and I observed the same respect in in his treatment of his students and colleagues. I continue to be devastated by his passing. I have so many questions that I won’t get to ask him, and I feel a bit rudderless without him. His scholarly work has been critical to my own work on Chinese entrepreneurs in 21st-century Europe. But it’s the human relationship I’ve had with him as a teacher that stands out to me, and much of who I am as a teacher today is modeled from him. I can say without hyperbole that among a crop of truly excellent and devoted teachers I have learned from throughout my life, he is the teacher who has left the most lasting imprint. Moishe was a man with uncommon integrity who deeply loved what he did and was deeply loved for it. I am and will be forever grateful for all the steps, back and forward, that I was able to take with him.



Tracey Rosen is a College Fellow and Lecturer in the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies at Harvard University. In 2018 she won the Levenson Memorial Teaching Prize.


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