Criticism and resignation

Image: James Ensor


Considerations on Gabriel Cohn's book

At some point, we gave our first classes and, resting on the ones we are giving now, those seem subtly irresponsible compared to the last ones, solidly worked. How we would like to recover the quivering spirit that accompanied the hesitant quotations of those initiatory times. When I think of Gabriel Cohn, images of a teacher who is always starting out come to mind. The first class is the one that hasn't been given yet. The use of irony is what explains why everything seems to happen in an unrealized future.

Once, in a diffused afternoon, at the end of a postgraduate course, we were walking to the parking lot and Gabriel Cohn pointed out to me, at the exit of USP, a graffiti on the wall. It must have some antiquity. "Wednesday Assembly". What caught his attention? Probably at some time the phrase would have meant something. But now it meant every moment, für ewig. Every Wednesday, as in Morel's invention, could announce a cyclic ghostly assembly that, in its axiomatic condition, would annul time and the assemblies themselves.

Perhaps it is possible to say that no utterance corresponds to a living act that belongs entirely to it. Perhaps there is an overabundance of statements compared to the scarcity of lived actions. Each thing said would like to be in consonance with a piece of life that fits it in its completeness. But the impossibility of this being so, the disagreement between the phrase and the facts, motivates a discovery: reality is fissured between a statement that loses its vital root and the possibility that each of the statements is a permanent structure of human temporality. But are we in a position to afford this discovery?

For Gabriel Cohn, we can only express the reality of language through irony, that is, through a subtle reminder of the disagreement between words and their materialization in time. Was Max Weber an ironic thinker? We would like to believe so. The paradox of consequences is a form of irony. Every sociology student goes through these Weberian paragraphs. Action always displaces us, produces in us the feeling of being unattainable or lucky. Essentially, however, it displaces us, makes us uncomfortable, overwhelms us in the face of what we can receive in return for our movements. I can say that I went through that Weberian moment that coated our sociological existentialism with a certain rigor of a neo-Kantian university. I lived that moment under the gaze of Gabriel Cohn.

Before, I didn't know the sociological lineage of Gabriel Cohn well and I don't know if I know better now. First, he studied oil and communications, and then the world of tenuous values ​​of the "disenchanted realist". Being a foreigner, it was difficult for me to imagine this personal itinerary and the tragic scenario that the University of São Paulo had been before the existence of the campus apart from the city. Among other issues, there was Maria Antonia Street.

There was a time when I used to go there every day, but my efforts failed to intuit what had meant what was now a Court of Auditors or a Public Prosecutor's Office – many years later, the German artist Horst Hoheisel showed me how to obtain small traces of of the past occupations of the former and of the buildings in general. It was a way of thinking about Gabriel Cohn and so many of his colleagues, and, laterally, about myself. It's the little sacrileges we do to be able to think about the most elusive forms of the past.

Now, Gabriel Cohn's work achieved for me this same commitment to an elusive, ethereal subject. To think, to think about it, is a very modest secular form of sacrilege. I keep a clear excerpt from the work of Gabriel Cohn: the moment when, improvising a pantomime, Chaplin saved Theodor Adorno from an unsuccessful action: the attempt to shake hands with a one-armed man. Another sacrilege. This is a good portrait of the way Gabriel Cohn – he chose this anecdote as an ironic guide to outline his Adornian readings – approached the theme of action.

As a set of tensions of reason that are followed, like shadows, by pantomimes, amputated gestures, imitations, mockery of being that require superior subtlety to understand. The real action, with its load of novelty, its historical weight renewed and freed from ballast, perhaps should start from the understanding of the embalmed vestiges of life – “Wednesday assembly”, an involuntary way of making life receive the fossilized lesson of language – to then outline the way to unlock them, so that they are once again at the service of life.

I thought I understood this when I attended a lecture by Gabriel Cohn on the manners, at the Faculty of Social Sciences of Buenos Aires – headquarters of the Parque Centenario, an old abandoned factory, not exactly our “Maria Antonia” which, in fact, was number 400 on Viamonte Street, an abandoned historic building of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters . In Gabriel's view, this would mean the emancipation of action from its setting in education, in the social being, in the rituals of language, in the figures of reason, in short, in the structures that sociology wants to see in the permanence of history.

I believe that, for Gabriel, irony is the only way to release the weight that sinks the manners in social ontology. So we would have to do the assembly this Wednesday! We need to save the assemblies. Therefore, this very delicate thought about saving the original action as the initiating myth of the social bond may not be understood by the more ritualistic political modes, which do not consider the Gabrielian theme par excellence. The theme is the paradox of action, as it is about questioning whether there would be an ultimate precious value, the manners, to be protected by the general movement of changes in a society, whether they perceive themselves as revolutionary or not. None of this is foreign to Max Weber's 1919 Munich lectures.

Gabriel Cohn's thinking about Ma Weber starts precisely from the judgment that must be established about an ultimate value to be preserved, about the “last man” in terms of values. Criticism and resignation, the perfect synthesis of his interpretation, proposes the great cipher to enter the world of values. Not as the conservative or fearful would do, but as someone who sees the always mobile and founding values, but who poses a transcendent question to the social movement, without which these movements are not worthy of the name. Is it possible to save something? Is it worth it? The author of a question of this nature knows that he can be seen as a killjoy of the vertiginous and linear city. And he is prepared not to be understood, making resignation a Chaplinian, revolutionary value.

It brings with it, in fact, a revolutionary principle, that of the critical and also resigned question – an age-old conjunction – about what is worth preserving from the fragility of life. It is not about conservative preservationism, on the contrary, profoundly transformative, since, in principle, it transforms the person asking the question into a being willing to accept the regret of life in order to change it. The irony is this acceptance: it consists of acting with optimism in the midst of pessimism. Wednesday Assembly. Pichação persists, having already lost its vitality.

Finding it again is the passion of so many who, like Gabriel Cohn, read in the great classical sociology the recondite task of seeking the mimesis of lost action in a set of statements available on the walls of the contemporary city. On these walls we are always giving our first class.

*Horacio Gonzalez (1944-2021) was a professor at the University of Buenos Aires and director of the National Library of Argentina. Author, among other books, of What are intellectuals (Brazilian).

Translation: Alexandre de Oliveira Torres Carrasco e Ivony Lessa.


Gabriel Cohn. Criticism and resignation. São Paulo, WMF MartinsFontes, 3rd. Edition, 2023.

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