Mel Pollner wave line
A second service in memory of Melvin Pollner was held on Sunday, March 9, 2008 from 2-4 pm in the Sequoia Room at the UCLA Faculty Center.

Bob Emerson

Mel died a little more than four months ago. Since then the meaning and impact of his loss has come out in unexpected ways. I know this is true for Judy, Leslie and Adrian. And for me as well: I’ll be walking across Lot 5 or to the Rec Center pool and see in the distance some old bald white guy and flash -- “Hey, there’s Mel now-- ” Or I’ll leave a departmental faculty meeting or lecture and head back to his office to deconstruct some unexpected vote or emotional outburst; or to ask him something like, “what the hell is intransitivity?” Or I’ll be in the office after the weekend looking forward to his coming in to talk about the latest crises or achievements of family and kin. But these are only momentary flashes, and you immediately have to reorient yourself to the fact that that he will not be there, that he will not be coming in; and this hole in your life is driven home.

We are assembling this afternoon to share and reaffirm memories of and reflections on what Mel gave us, both intellectually and personally. I see friends and colleagues from all stages of his professional life here: -- Aaron Cicourel, the person who led him into the ways of ethnomethodology at Berkeley and then mentored his PhD dissertation at UCSB.
-- Marshall Shumsky and Bud Mehan, friends and peer from Aaron’s ethno mafia at Santa Barbara.
-- Steve Riskin, his TA his first year at UCLA (I remember meeting Steve as the token grad student on my first visit to the Soc Dept after being hired and being told, you’ve got to come to Pollner’s class today -- he’s amazing!)
-- Numbers of ethnomethodologists and conversation analysts whom he befriended and inspired over the years -- including Renee Anspach, Anita Pomerantz, Eric Livingston, ...
-- Former graduate students he supervised -- Mark Peyrot from the 1970s to Judith Richlin-Klonsky from the 80s.

We welcome you all, and hope that you will tell us about what you most remember or valued about your contacts will Mel.

Here’s our plan: After one musical number, we will begin with talks by Aaron Cicourel and Eric Livingston focused on Mel’s work in and contributions to ethnomethodology. The floor will then be open for any reflections, memories, or stories you would like to share. We should finish no later than 3:30, and will then turn to the refreshments in the back.

To warm you up before Aaron begins, Shed Antics will play one of Mel’s favorite songs -- Graceland, written by Paul Simon.


Mel was a complex person. He put himself out, enlivening our world with his interest, compassion, and humor. But his humor and warmth overlay a latent and often profound sadness. This sadness was not a reflection of unhappiness with his personal or his family life; quite the reverse, he was sustained and nourished by his home and family life. I think rather that this sadness was existential; Mel felt deeply the burdens of life and the world. These burdens became more marked and overwhelming for him as time passed. Perhaps these feelings underlay the appeal of “Graceland” to him.

I sense but have difficulty articulating that this sadness was connected with his work. To take a shot at it: I think Mel initially saw transcendent possibilities in analyzing mundane reason. In problematizing “reality” itself, he imagined radically alternate possibilities in and with “reality.” Delight and whimsy pervaded these imagined alternate (transcendent?) realities: One example might be the reality puzzle Eric has pointed to in Mundane Reason, when Mel entertained the possibility that a car could both be present and not present in front of the slow-moving camper. Another is my favorite: Examining the reality disjuncture when one person sees a pen on the desk and a second does not, Mel holds that the mundane resolution of this disjuncture (i.e., that the second person has “overlooked” the pen) will crowd out and displace the more radical possibility, that “pens have some hitherto unappreciatged properties such as differentially disclosing themselves to selected persons” (MR, pg.; 74) But with time the pervasive, impermeable force of mundaneity prevailed, diminishing these whimsical, magical, “crazy”, transcendent possibilities and disenchanting what he could imagine reality to be.

More probably Mel’s sadness grew out of recognition that the possibilities for radical social and political change that had that marked the 1960s had receded and collapsed. The coming of the current Bush administration made clear that regressive and irrational had rebounded with a vengeance. We thought the country has learned something fundamental from the Vietnam war, only to be disabused by the invasion of Iraq. Mel felt these currents deeply and personally, and followed political developments avidly, but with increasingly despair for the future world in which Leslie, Adrian and other young people would have to make their way.

That brings us to the last item on our program this afternoon: Shed Antics will play “Taking Care of Business.” Mel would have taken particular pride in this number: my son Ethan, whom he knew from birth, plays guitar and sings for this band. To introduce the other members of the band: Evan Span on keyboards; Tim Hafer on bass; and Sean Rosen on drums. Why “Taking Care of Business”? Because as Mel told Leslie and Adrian, when he was dragging, down and blue, hearing “Taking Care of Business” lifted his spirits and help launch him through his day.