Two generations ago I sat in a classroom in what is now named George Mosse Hall on the University of Wisconsin, Madison, campus listening intently to a short, stocky, coke-bottle bespectacled Jewish intellectual explain how he was a “happy bourgeois.” This was the same “happy bourgeois” who, two generations ago, introduced me to Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, to Herbert Marcuse and (a still young) Jürgen Habermas. It took hutzpah for this instructor to introduce undergraduate students to the writings of intellectuals who would be among the most challenging they would ever read. Though I don’t know for sure, I suspect that many of his students found his lectures incomprehensible. And, yet, it was these lectures, two generations ago that ignited a movement and two of that movement’s leading journals—Telos and New German Critique—edited all by his students. The lecturers name, which would become the name of the Hall in which he lectured, was of course George Mosse.
On Thursday, January 23, 1999, I received a letter from Professor Mosse, apologizing that he could not keep our dinner-date as planned. I was home for the holidays, home from studies inspired, in part, by Professor Mosse, with a scholar, Moishe Postone, whose research and career Professor Mosse had also inspired. That same morning, however, I had read an Obituary in the New York Times. So I of course knew already that he could not keep his date.
I am thinking of Professor Mosse this evening because I know that most of those who are participating in the current movement are, like George, “happy bourgeois,” which is to say not only that they come from families that bequeathed to them the benefits of leisure time, education, and culture, but also that they do not fault themselves or their families for this bequest. They know—as Professor Mosse must have known—that the knowledge bequeathed to them, this debt, comes at a price. They know, as Walter Benjamin so aptly put it, that
there is a secret protocol [Verabredung] between the generations of the past and that of our own. For we have been expected upon this earth. For it has been given us to know, just like every generation before us, a weak messianic power, on which the past has a claim. This claim is not to be settled lightly.
When we set our knowledge before power and when power recognizes that this is our weapon, we know that it is not only our weapon. For the knowledge we possess, which we have shaped, is not only ours. It is also a bequest, an understanding, an agreement, a Verabredung between generations. We can no more lay down and walk away from this knowledge than we can desecrate the graves of those who have gone before us; or those who are yet unborn, whose very hope depends upon our willingness to bear our knowledge forward. We possess, as Benjamin reminds us, “a weak messianic power.”
The enemies of knowledge, the dumb and deaf embodiments of mere particularity, wish to silence us, wish to reduce us to a special interest. To which I respond that I, too, am a happy bourgeois. But unlike those who wish to silence us, I have not mistaken my leisure. health, wealth and education for a privilege, for a private law offered to the few, but denied to the many.
There is a line of knowledge that the UC President and Regents want to silence. This line of knowledge is the life-blood of our university. But, we have been expected on this earth.