Mel Pollner Eulogies

In Memory of Mel Pollner
November 5, 2007

Jeff Prager

There is no place where I would rather not be than here, today, speaking in memory of Mel. And before this past April, when he was diagnosed with cancer, it was unimaginable to me that the friendship that we had forged over the past 30 years might be severed, and that I might be without the person who had become part of the fabric of my almost daily life, and that I might someday have to contemplate, even speak to others about, how important Mel has been in my life and to reflect on Mel without his being here to hear it. At the very least, none of us imagined that this day would be upon us so quickly, and so unfairly. It will be a long time, I believe, when I won’t automatically reach out to him, and to look not for just a wonderfully receptive and affirmative ear, as his was, but also to gain from him a capacity for me to see, hear and understand experiences differently, to see the world through his extraordinary lenses of insight and observation—and thus to amplify and enrich my own. Mel’s death, like for so many of us here, has made me feel very much more alone.

I have my own ways of dating or marking my relationship with Mel. There was its pre-history, when I only knew of Mel, through his reputation. As an undergraduate and as a graduate student at Berkeley, I became interested in—blown away by might be the more apt description—ethnomethodology, and I read the work of Harold Garfinkle. But, for me, the real excitement was to learn about, and finally get my hands on, many of the underground papers that were circulating—papers that weren’t published but were products of young Turks who were taking the work and moving it along. No paper was more exciting to me than the mimeographed copy of a paper circulating underground by Zimmerman and Pollner, “The Everyday World as Phenomenon,” and no person, to my mind, was more charismatic in this intellectual movement than Mel. So, it was really a wonderful honor for me to find myself in the same Department. I wasn’t hired as an ethnomethodologist, but Mel was the star here whose work I was most in awe of.

When I arrived Leslie was just two years old, and Adrian had just been born. I also date my relationship with Mel from the time, early on in my move here, when I felt a little slighted by Mel—during my first year at UCLA—for he and Judy did not invite me to Adrian’s Bris. That was about 30 years ago. But I got over that, and since then our relationship has deepened both intellectually and personally. Many in the Department won’t remember that Mel and I taught together for a couple of years the two-quarter 202--Introductory Graduate Course, and spent many hours, really until only very recently, imagining the courses that we could jointly offer. In a now sad denouement, Mel and I this past academic year were together again working on Graduate Admissions, when we would spend even more time together over the details of the process, the applicants, etc. I could never have thought that I would treasure my work on the Admissions and Awards Committee, but right now, because of the added time I was able to spend with Mel, that is exactly how I feel. Beyond that, Debby and I have always loved having Mel and Judy, Leslie and Adrian in our lives, and hope, despite this horrible loss, that will remain forever true.

But, alas, Mel has given us all he had to give, and, in his fashion and through his example, has done what he could to instruct all of us on the virtues of living a coherent life modestly, vibrantly, wryly and subversively. This is what he offers us, the lesson his life presents, and now the ball has been thrust into our court—to honor his memory by trying to better realize his vision of a life worth living.

To those close to him and to those more removed, Mel wore his scholarship lightly but his work has been so important, and so much expressed not simply sociological truths but human ones as well. He collaborated with Bob Emerson, which marked his deep intellectual connection to Bob and which continued to the end of his life, and also that reflected a friendship as long-standing and deep as any I have ever witnessed. Mel’s work on the everyday, and the need to subject the seemingly apparent to depth analysis, deeply influenced a broad swath of late 20th century social thought, including the writings of Bourdieu and Habermas, and many others who focused on the role of human practices and categories in shaping social worlds that only appear to be immaculately conceived. I remember when Mel published his book Mundane Reason. It was a book long in coming, deeply appreciated, but produced by him not just with great apprehension and also with grave reservation. Had he gotten it right? Couldn’t it have been said better? Didn’t he need to think through the ideas a little more completely before subjecting others to this version of things? This, we might say, was characteristic of Mel and his self-doubt (and to all of us around him, often very frustrating), but the questions that Mel directed to himself were really more profound than that. Mel’s work represented a plea to all of us to understand that all things social are more than what they seem, different than what we take-for-granted, a product of human communities with all their limitations constructing worlds as if there were certain knowledge and absolute truths. And here Mel was taking on the core value of the Western world—reason—and insisting that its human and social roots needed to be underscored. His was a subversive read on reason, but not to challenge it, or to undermine it—but to quietly, modestly and insistently assert that its strength and forms derive from the social world that produces it. And Mel’s more recent work on Virtual Communities, some of us remember all too well Mel’s infatuation for a time with Iomega, was a similar exercise documenting the ways various human communities of interpretation and discourse—fallible and with incomplete information—affect economic outcomes, appearances notwithstanding, rather than the other way around.

While these stand as Mel’s intellectual and moral commitments, they were invariably practiced in all of his interactions with each of us. I don’t believe that there is a single person on earth with whom Mel interacted from whom he didn’t elicit a laugh, or at least a smile. To say that I will miss the numbers of ways he would make me laugh somehow seems to trivialize how much laughter and humor was part of Mel, and part of our relationship. His connection to humor was no less profound than were his intellectual commitments, for they expressed for Mel a way-of-being in the world, one in which no situation, no matter how difficult, earned a status of being above humor. It was, again, Mel reminding us of the human, and therefore, fallible and contingent character of the social world—one that always merited different ways of thinking about it, experiencing it, of looking at it. Like humor, his intellectual armor demanded constant deflation of any pretense to certainty, against any posturing of absolute knowing, while encouraging toward the world relentless re-engagements and new takes. Mel’s humor was always wry; it was never cynical. In these last months of Mel’s life, and the last days, humor became a little more forced for him, a little less natural. But even then it never abandoned him, up until the very end. He was always reminding us, as he would make us smile, that as much as he loved life and wanted to be among us, even life’s story presents untold complexity, and is not always what its cracked up to be.

Mel, finally, was a deeply spiritual person. Some of us would witness this as he attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at UCLA’s Hilllel. He would be there earlier than us, stay there later, and be deeply engaged in the various readings, singings and teachings. This may seem incongruous, for Mel was not an especially religiously observant person, but his quest to understand the range of unknowables in the world was here very clear and completely consistent with who he was. These religious days were especially important for him, and when this past September he was unable to attend because of his illness, all of us close to Mel felt that our world was closing down a bit, because he wasn’t there. This spiritual quest for understanding really defined Mel, his work, his values, his character.

Mel had to have died knowing one thing for certain: He taught his family well. I was privileged in these last several months to witness the love and care that Judy, Adrian and Leslie were able to bestow on Mel, in just the way that he would have wanted. All of the doctors and his medical team were confronted by the formidable Pollner community, a family who in an opening and questioning way knew that choosing one way of responding to the illness might not be the only way. Not only would they seek from Doctors and others explanations for their decisions of treatment but Adrian, in particular, would propose possible alternative ones. This was always done, as Mel would have himself, forever respectfully of the medical team, knowing full well that they all shared the common goal of defeating the disease. Theirs was an extraordinary example of an engagement with Mel’s life, according to the very principles that he stood for. In this last period, Judy, Leslie and Adrian showed how they were each of Mel, including their capacity at times to laugh while crying, and their recognition that it was time to let him go. For those of us who witnessed the care Mel received from them, the dignity and love with which they enveloped him, and even the beauty, as they all describe it, of Mel’s last breaths, it is genuinely inspirational. And, there too, we have Mel to thank for what he made possible.

In the end, words now won’t heal the breach we all feel, certainly I feel. The truth is I still fully expect to talk to Mel about all of today’s events. I expect to receive wonderfully warm words of praise and admiration from him, in my mind, excessive but, given my own worry, not unwelcome. I anticipate his saying that he never could have prepared remarks like this in such short notice. I would then think that I know that it is not true—that if Mel would only allow himself to let go a little bit, he would be able to better show himself and others his really extraordinary mind. I probably would have said something to that effect. And I know I would have left the conversation, finally, thinking that he would have been able to do all of this with a lot less heavy hand, and with a lot more humor. I hope, in time, that I will be able to deal with the loss I feel by becoming a little more like Mel.