My mentor, close friend, and former PhD and dissertation advisor, Michael A. Weinstein, passed away yesterday. I know that myself and the many other people whose lives he changed will be tottering somewhere between a numb shock and open grief. How could he die? He was one of the most alive people I’ve ever met, exuding enthusiasm for everything and devouring what the world had to offer, even if that world was both “a pleasure palace and a torture chamber”. He was a powerful teacher, prolific scholar, photography critic, and frontman for a punk band into his 60s. He overflowed with compassion and love for his students and friends. He possessed an intellectual nimbleness, acuity, and profoundly deep storehouse of both knowledge and wisdom (his “underground workshop”) that I sincerely doubt I will ever see again. Accompanying these virtues, he possessed a magnetism and pedagogical skill in the classroom that could draw students in, undo their worlds, and then give them another that was clearly alien, and yet somehow familiar and truer. While death was always near to the surface of his philosophical projects, it never really seemed like it could touch him.
Mike’s philosophical work is difficult to encapsulate in any simple fashion. His project of “critical vitalism” captures much of his work, but this is an arc of inquiry that evolved over time and spanned the work of Mexican finalists, American pragmatists, process philosophy, privatism, existentialism, Sufi mysticism, German post-Hegelians, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, and a long list of others. His is a philosophy of life and the structure of lived experience, grasped from the inside. Rather than with abstract ideal political subjects, his life philosophy has dealt with the many irresolvable tensions within our concrete lived experience: the desire for security as well as recognition from others; for individuation and belonging; the fear of finitude and death and the search for assurance and meaning; the desires for uniqueness and pleasure against the functionalist demands of technical rationality within complex organizational societies; the place of individuated virtue amidst the eroded faiths and solidarities of modernity; ressentiment and the tragic imperfection of ourselves and our existence, and so much more. His later projects were also varied and eclectic, ranging from international political analysis (especially of Somalia and its civil war) to philosophical NASCAR commentary. He was multitudes, “everybody’s homie”, and could see other people empathetically, from the inside-out, like few others.
Robert Oprisko and Diane Rubenstein brought together a magnificent edited collection (Michael A. Weinstein: Action, Contemplation, Vitalism) assessing and explaining Mike’s life’s work, with Mike’s own reflective assessments included, and to which I was able to contribute. It demonstrates how the depth and complexity of Mike’s thought has itself been refracted and filtered through the experiences of those he has touched. We “represent each other to ourselves”, as he showed us in his Meaning and Appreciation. The lives he helped individuate and shape in the classroom, personal discussions, and walks across campus are as much a part of his true vitae as the voluminous ink he put to paper.
A Weinstein class was one unlike any other. There was no syllabus to speak of (a fact that sometimes bristled students who had spent their lives growing accustomed to operating within more traditional and authoritarian classrooms). Sometimes, the students would be asked on the first day to discuss what they were curious about and want to better understand that semester. They might suggest an author that had caught their attention, or an idea, or experience. After teasing out the kernel of their interest, Mike would take everyone’s proposals and in about five minutes spin them into a cogent and utterly elegant arc of inquiry into political life and the human condition. The rest of the semester would unfold as a dialogic exercise between students and Mike, with him embodying the discourse and ideology of whomever we were reading, whether it be a classical liberal, Sufi saint, French post-structuralist, Public Enemy lyrics, anarcho-communist, or Third Reich propagandist. Alternatively, some semesters he would use a single text, or even a single essay (Guy Debord’s essay on the dérive was a memorable one) as a seemingly bottomless trunk from which he drew out semester long cross-connections and wisdom.
I was sitting in on and observing one of his undergraduate classes on political ideology three or four years ago. It was one of his final ones of the semester, and the topic had wandered to consciousness and death after discussing Freud. Normally, Mike would not reveal what his philosophical and political frameworks were during a semester (although all of the undergrads always concluded that he obviously must agree with them, since he understood their vantage points so well). At that point, though, the students really wanted to know what he thought and were pestering him for it. One student finally asked him what he thought about consciousness and death, and what he thought our purpose was. He smiled a bit, and said (roughly) “Oh my god, you’ve got me started… we are strange primates. What purpose? We blink into consciousness, and we blink out. In, out, in, out, in, out. And we have convinced ourselves, in our fragility and need for recognition, that our temporary bouts of consciousness and rationality are our truer selves. It’s a crock. While I am blinking in, I want to suck the pleasure out of life and consume every core experience that I can. Death is just one more dreamless sleep, one more blinking out. I used to hate it and fight it. I can’t anymore. I have burned it out of me. I live, I love, and one day I won’t. That’s all.”
Mike, as a lived center of creative intelligence and bubbling vitality and kindness, is gone. His influence is not. The memories and effects of his life will reverberate and extend as a bundle of material processes in the world of his loved ones, friends, students, and others for some time yet. In confidence, he would surely smile slyly at me for making such an appeal to continued effect postmortem, and prod me about the existential implications and illusory time-binding functions of this. No worries, Mike. I know that there is nothing for us after we enter the long dark. I just wish I could have thanked you once more for keeping this side of the dark so well lit.