Randy Martin’s death leaves a considerable void in cultural studies, the sociology of financialization and the debt economy, dance theory, labor studies, art and politics, and Marxist theory. The range of his work is extraordinary and its influence is felt in a number of disciplines, including especially sociology, geography, politics, and the arts. Randy and I got together the week before his death, and spent three hours discussing his most recent work and what he would have liked to do if he had more time. He spoke in detail about what would have been his next major project: to think of certain aspects of urban life in choreographic terms, perhaps expanding on the main part of his first book, Performance as Political Act, in which he discussed the construction and realization of a dance performed in New York, taking account of the complex and evolving interactions among the dancers, the physical properties of the setting, and the choreographer. As he spoke, it was clear that his mind was as disciplined and fertile toward the end of his life as it had always been. From a different point of view, not only were his comments on my recent work engaged and precise, but his way of seeing more of my intentions than what was written and immediately accessible, displayed the same generosity that animated his teaching and his relations with his colleagues, friends, students, and everyone lucky enough to know him.
Randy was part of the group that launched Socialism and Democracy. He was one of the editors of a volume published by Monthly Review Press and still in print, New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism, and he wrote or co-wrote a number of articles for S&D on the end of the USSR and its significance to Marxian thought and radical politics. Randy and I believed, at the time, that the Left had rejected its own past in the hyper-criticism of the Soviet Union and the communist movement in general, and that the journal might make a major contribution to shifting from an emphasis on the negative to a more constructive emphasis on the very idea of communism and on its meaning to theory and practice in the present. This involved an emphasis on method and theory – the method of analyzing the Soviet experience and the theory appropriate to a Left conscious of its history and not bent on dismissing it. Two articles co-written by Randy and me illustrate this interest and one perspective we felt might be promoted by the journal. These were re-published in 2009, as chapters in my book, The Historiography of Communism. Randy’s contributions to S&D exemplified his way of thinking beyond what seemed to be given, of expanding rather than contracting concepts, and of appreciating differences within the Left without attempting to resolve them according to a specific line.
As far as I know, Socialism and Democracy and the Monthly Review book remain two of very few attempts to reinstate the problematic of communism in the discourse of the Left. It wasn’t until 2010 that “the idea of communism” was again placed on the agenda by Slavoj Žižek and Constas Douzinas in two volumes entitled The Idea of Communism, the second volume of which was edited by Žižek alone. Randy was also an editor of the interdisciplinary journal, Social Text, as I was, and he was able to go beyond the topics we covered in S&D. He published a number of books, including On Your Marx, while working on Social Text. His basic approach to intervening in Left discourse involved attempting to keep alive the political aspect of the Marxist understanding of capitalism and its project of globalization. His latest work, beginning with Financialization, was aimed at illuminating the political opportunities brought into play by the neo-liberal generalization of debt to the global order it envisions. Consistent with this approach – and with the emphasis, shared by Frank Rosengarten, George Snedeker, and me, on exposing different versions of Left thought – was his willingness to publish works that were not strictly Marxist but were nevertheless consistent with a radical idea of socialism, including liberal critiques of capitalism. One of Randy’s important contributions to Left thought was his establishment of a program at New York University on art and politics that brought Marxist thought together with film theory, performance art, and cultural studies. What follows below is more personal, but it is also an attempt to emphasize what Randy was able to accomplish not merely as a thinker, but as an activist, teacher, colleague, and artist.
It was impossible for me to think of Randy during his illness as dying. He remained, as always, completely alive. It was Randy’s gift to be intensely engaged in whatever he was doing and with whomever he shared every moment. He was a creative teacher whose students were grateful for having been able to study with him. He was a colleague always open to collaboration and able to connect deeply with what others were doing. His work as chair, at Pratt, and as dean and chair at the Tisch School at New York University, were no less remarkable than everything else he did. One anecdote illustrates an important attitude Randy brought to his way of relating to colleagues. A faculty member at Pratt during Randy’s tenure as chair, stormed into Randy’s office complaining about the absence of some material or piece of equipment that he needed – I forget exactly what it was – and that had not yet been delivered. Without a moment’s hesitation, and regardless of considerations of convenience, Randy picked up his telephone and dialed the office responsible for the needed material, and arranged to have it delivered that day. The faculty member who told me the story said that the respect Randy showed by this gesture constituted a kind of turning point in his academic career. For readers of Randy’s book on higher education, Under New Management, the subversiveness of that small act in the context of his attempt to make critical thinking the center of education will appear as something quite large, a moment that highlights the neo-conservative disposition of university management and its emphasis on doing away with both critical studies and critical faculty in the name of efficiency and “outcome,” and the hollowness of the increasingly widespread managerial cliché, “excellence.” Randy’s pedagogy and administrative practice was in line with his critical analysis and his belief that theory is by its very nature practical and practice is by its nature theoretical.
Randy was a marvelous teacher, who read widely and in depth and was always prepared. He delivered his lectures with considerable room for discussion, without notes and in a way that acknowledged the possibility that each member of his class might have something to say that might fruitfully change the direction of discussion. His preparation was always aimed at expanding his knowledge of the various fields of his expertise. I was struck by the fact that he seemed to have read and thought about every book I mentioned and so many more. Our meetings often ended with my having a list of books he recommended. He read quickly but in depth, and was always able to connect what he read to other projects and to the possibility of radical change. I remember my first meeting with Randy, when he arrived at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York more than thirty years ago. Someone sent him to my office, probably because he had expressed an interest in sociological theory and interdisciplinary study. We decided to meet the following week to discuss a book I recommended, Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. He returned the next week with notes and a great deal to say. I was amazed at the intensity of his discourse and by the depth in which he had engaged so difficult and demanding a text, and at his ability, which I was later to realize was characteristic of Randy, to create the spirit of a dialogue in contrast with a student’s report to his teacher.
What was most evident to me then, as now, was that Randy almost never judged another’s work. Rather, he was conscientiously appreciative, so that every discussion was aimed at trying to see what was new and possibly systematic about the work. I believe that his creativity, as well as his special way of teaching so that students were encouraged to go beyond topics and whatever reading was required, was a result of this attitude. The capacity to appreciate rather than judge must have contributed to the fact that Randy never tried to advance himself over others, and to his refusal to think of intellectual work as combat or even debate. The few talks of his that I attended always struck me as musical as well as informative and generative –musical in the sense of being a complete gesture in which particular ideas and general design were integrated in the same way Schoenberg described Mahler’s symphonies.
One of the sadder moments of our friendship was when Randy told me that he was no longer sure that he could teach with the same spontaneity on which he had always been able to rely. It was sad not because he was any less interesting during his illness than he had always been, but because I sensed that he was reflecting on a difference between his life – which was one of appreciation, generativity, and love, in the universal and infinite sense of those terms – and his written work. The latter would certainly live beyond him as some consolation for us who remain, but not as moments in what was, to me, even more important than his books and articles, namely the sublime and irrepressible vitality that made every encounter with him an adventure, and for me one of the great joys of life.
Randy was a dancer, as was his wife, Ginger Gillespie, who was especially talented and accomplished and who is now a physician. He always spoke to me with admiration, appreciation, and love of Ginger and their children, Oliver and Sophia. He not only loved his children dearly, but learned from them, from the ways in which they were coming to terms with their own situations and lives and what they made possible for him to learn about his own. The depth and longevity of my friendship with Randy gave me an opportunity to appreciate his family and the sense he had of each member’s individuality and what made each of them so important to him.
I was with Randy and his wife, Ginger, in the hospital on the last day of his life. There was a copy of a book he edited that had just been released. He has two other books coming out this year. Ginger told me, a week before, that this final stage of his illness was the first time she had not known Randy to be writing.
It was impossible not to love him.