Democratic Vistas

In his 1872 essay “Democratic Vistas” the poet Walt Whitman writes that “democracy is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.” This course tests Whitman’s supposition through diverse cultural practices, with a special focus on the relationship between art and democracy.

We will read and consider the formative ideas about democratic culture that emerged in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. We will then trace the literary aspirations and social contradictions of American democracy in a series of case studies, including debates in the twentieth century about art and public engagement that arose in response to John Dewey’s ideas about what he called “creative democracy,” and the singular cultural work of Adrienne Rich, focusing primarily on her essays published in the collection Blood, Bread and Poetry and her poems from the late 1980s in An Atlas of the Difficult World.

Terry Tempest Williams’ appeal to democratic engagement in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001 will offer a conceptual framework for the second half of the course. “In the open space of democracy,” Williams writes in a commencement address she presented at the University of Utah, “we are listening–ears alert–we are watching–eyes open–registering the patterns and possibilities for engagement” (76). In the spirit of commencement, we will consider more contemporary cultural projects that challenge formal conventions and unsettle institutionalized practices, and that enlarge our understanding of art as social and communicative action.

During the final weeks of the course students will contribute to a collaborative project in the Keene State College archives and will design and pursue an individual research project. Student projects will draw on primary materials, in library-based and digital archives, to further develop research experience and methods in defining, organizing, and elaborating the significance of these materials in the public domain.

Required Reading A good deal of the reading in this course is accessible through the Schedule page. The Reading page is the reading list for the course. In addition to the digital materials, we will be reading three books that you are required to purchase.

Robert A. Dahl. On Democracy. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998. ISBN 978-0-300-084559

Adrienne Rich. An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991. New York, Norton, 1991. ISBN 0-393-30831-6

Doris Sommer. The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities. Durham: Duke UP, 2014. ISBN 978-0-8223-5586-1

A Brief Debrief

 As students of literature and culture well know, one way to make sense of experience is through poems.

Here is one by Gary Snyder, from his collection Left Out in the Rain, that invites one way of making sense of the course called The Open Space of Democracy:

The Trail Is Not a Trail

I drove down the Freeway
And turned off at an exit
And went along a highway
Til it came to a sideroad
Drove up the sideroad
Til it turned to a dirt road
Full of bumps, and stopped.
Walked up a trail
But the trail got rough
And it faded away—
Out in the open,
Everywhere to go.

The poem moves from declarative certainty (“is not”) to a journey that involves mechanics and turns. Things (cars, freeways and highways, sideroads) drop away. Full stop. Walking. A trail. Fading away. And then. . . .

Debriefing The Open Space of Democracy began for me with rereading the blogs as well as spending time with the individual projects you developed over the second half of the semester. Most of you commented on the open and integrative pedagogical elements of the course. Here are some of the elements you mentioned:

  • learning to shape your thinking in writing in a public forum using a blog and wrestling with questions of genre and audience;
  • taking up (or not) the invitation to annotate, a way to “read aloud” and to read together;
  • adapting to the class method of a professor who composed thirty posts across the semester to tell a story, thinking with the words and ideas of authors who have generated and sustained an engaged audience—a story that that would otherwise be delivered in a lecture format;
  • using classroom time each week to organize what each of you appeared to be interested in through generating key terms and project ideas in a “collaboratory” setting that made it possible to spend our face-to-face meetings learning how to use appropriate methods for studying different kinds of cultural artifacts, including verbal and visual texts, experience, story, and discourse;
  • conducting archival work, practicing archival methods and, receiving credit as a contributing editor to a published work
  • learning through experience to engage yourself in the rigorous process of producing intellectual work with purpose and integrity.

The responses to these elements were not all positive. Nor should they be. A few of you mentioned the challenges of sustaining engagement with a literary and cultural tradition, locating the survey of literature in historical and cultural context, adapting to the changing timeline and deadlines of the course, and navigating the self-directed model of project-based learning. There were also close to a half dozen comments on how a practice that was at first unfamiliar and challenging (writing on a blog, for example) became something that was more familiar, more interesting, more useful.

Course Outcomes

Your debriefing came to me in a number of forms: reflective commentaries and meta-commentaries during the course, the learning outcomes you composed during the final examination period, the “dear Mark” letters, and other notes that have come to me. Your insightful comments took a number of forms and I have shaped below into a take-away list that will be useful for all of us. I ask you to write the learning outcomes at the end of the course because, as the list below will demonstrate, the outcomes for each of you are not necessarily the same.

The list is organized into three categories. Almost every outcome in the list below was mentioned in one way or another by more than one student in the class. I hope that my translation of the outcomes and their listing is useful in some way for each of us. For it is helpful to know what you know so that you can do things well.

Understanding of Democracy and Culture

An understanding of the history and evolution of democracy as an organizing idea/ideal/ideology for organizing human experience in the United States

An understanding of the concept of democratic culture that emerged in the nineteenth century and the development of this concept through the present

An understanding of democracy as a process that is dependent upon diverse and creative human practices

An understanding of democracy as at once a dream and a nightmare—an inspired aspiration and a haunting contradiction

Reading, Thinking, and Writing

An ability to read in and across multiple and intersecting literary and cultural products in cultural, historical, and literary contexts

An ability to use a social annotation platform ( to annotate texts and to read and discuss a text in a digitally-mediate format

An ability to think with the thoughts of others who have contributed to the ongoing conversation about literary and cultural production in the United States

An ability to think about reading and writing (in this case writers and artists thinking about democracy) that invites the integration of learning in other courses and experiences outside of school

An ability to read, understand, and apply ideas in literature, political philosophy, and theories of socially engaged art

Project-Based Learning and Digitally-Mediated Intellectual Work

An experience working on a self-defined and self-directed intellectual project that is part of a collective project of making visible the creative and critical work of the classroom

An understanding of how to use technological tools (Word Press) to build a project that includes a range of textual forms: writing and other materials: individual experiences, socially engaged practices, photographs, letters, newspaper articles, etc.

An ability to use archival methods of descriptive commentary and metadata in cataloguing primary documents

An ability to practice writing as a public activity for different audiences using language that will engage different kinds of people

An understanding of writing as a process and that curating writing and ideas is ongoing work that involves other writers and readers

An ability to formulate a concise statement of purpose and a method of organizing and developing writing in the public domain

An understanding that meaningful intellectual work that has integrity begins with discovering what you are doing and then working hard to do it well

An understanding of the exacting skills of revising, editing and proofreading written work that is published in a public and open network





Take Me to the River

The individual projects are gathering and tracing a way, tributaries spilling into a river, a watershed of democratic activity!


As promised, I am passing along our end-of-the-semester checklist. It is offered to help you complete your work. The primary impulse behind the elements checklist below is to help you keep moving toward “completion.” The checklist is also establishing a baseline of elements for the collective/shared project we are doing on Democracy + Culture.

Please complete all of the elements by Wednesday May 3rd and send to Mark and Kerrin no later than 8 AM. Post the materials on your process blog, send as email attachments, or make arrangements to give me a thumb drive. If you are creating your own project site, or modifying your process blog into the project site, then complete all of these elements on your site by Wednesday morning

If you need more time, please let me know as soon as you are able.

Project Elements Checklist

Each project will have the following elements: Title, Tagline, Introduction/Abstract, List of Primary or Secondary Sources, Further Reading, Bio and Image.

The draft models in the portfolio part of the home page of Democracy + Culture will help you visualize one way these elements will work. Of course you are welcome to organize these elements in the way you believe work best, and please see these elements as a minimum as there may be other elements you may want to include

  • Title Make it count. Call it a project, such as “the politics and popular culture project,” or give it a title of its own, such as “Tattfolio: Memoirs of a Living Canvas”
  • Tagline Pin the tail on the donkey. Express exactly what you know you are doing. Give the reader a reason to read on.

The tagline may be the first sentence a reader encounters in the project space you create, the abstract, or it can be a mission statement for the project. If you have a separate site/blog, please use the Word Press tagline feature so that the title and tagline give someone who comes to your site an orientation

  • Introduction or Abstract Do it well. This is the elaboration of the title and tagline. It is a paragraph that will include your purpose Here are two examples from project sites I asked you to look at earlier in the course and that are listed on our Open Space of Democracy Practice list

The Mojave Project is an experimental transmedia documentary and curatorial project led by Kim Stringfellow exploring the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Project reconsiders and establishes multiple ways in which to interpret this unique and complex landscape, through association and connection of seemingly unrelated sites, themes, and subjects thus creating a speculative and immersive experience for its audience.

Cultural Agents is an interface between academic learning and civic engagement. The Initiative promotes the divergent thinking of arts and humanities in the service of solutions to real life problems.

Also have a look at another model, the introduction to the recently published Issue 8.3 of Art Practical, Art can’t do anything if we don’t

  • List of Primary and Secondary Resources Embed your work in the cultural conversation from which it arises. It is important that you include a list of resources, a works cited, bibliography.

This information need not be cluttered. What you need is author (if there is one) or authors, the source (italics for books and films, quotations for articles, book chapters, poems). One convention we can use is to dispense with the “” when using links to a web-based text. Like what we are doing on the Readings page of the Open Space of Democracy web site.

  • Further Reading Give the reader places to go. Include a list of relevant reading or web sites or archives or projects. You can do this as a list at the end of what you are writing; or you can use the “blogroll” or “links” section of your separate site. The idea here is to connect your reader with the people/resources/materials for further work in this area.
  • Bio Statement and image for the “Who We Are” page A one sentence bio—or, if you can’t do one, no more than two! Include a “headshot image” that we can include with your bios.

These will appear on the Who we Are page. Our class project is one form of democratic engagement. And we want to expand our audience. For this reason, think about the bio and the image as a “professional” statement of you, and of us. Of course if you choose not include your face send along an image/avatar that fits with your project.

Take Me to the River Monday is reading day. Or talking day. Or working day. Make an appointment if you would like. I will be in the office between 9-3. Share any drafts of the project or elements above with me and/or our project coordinator Kerrin. I’m looking forward to our final examination time block on Thursday between 1-3. No need to prepare for that session. I just need you to bring your body and your mind.

Roads to Take


About a month ago we were writing metadata for issues of Aspect magazine. Working with our archivists Rodney and Zach, you were learning how to work with print materials in the archive. One of the interesting challenges for many of you was writing descriptive commentary. We then had a discussion in class about an image on the cover of the November 1971 issue of Aspect.

Screenshot 2017-04-16 09.58.21

Following our conversation I received a letter from Seal Beach, California. The Letter from Roger Camp began by telling me that he had read notes from our discussion posted on our blog “regarding the cover photograph by Roger Camp. I enjoyed reading the comments and wanted to add my own since I took the photograph.” You will remember that I was asking us to distinguish between interpretive comments (about an image that “looked like a moon” to descriptive comments about an illuminated circle. Roger continued, “The woman in the photo was my wife and the ‘moon’ was a hanging lamp in the shape of a ball.”

Roger and I exchanged a couple of letters. In the Second Letter from Roger he shared some of his memories of working with Ed Hogan:

At that time, I used to send out about five photos at a time. They were 5×7 prints and labeled on the back with a title and my name and address. What people don’t realize is that the prints themselves were made to the same high standards as an art print which as a fine art photographer I would be making for exhibitions or gallery sales. I still have a few of those 5×7 prints in my files (in fact three different versions of the hands/light (moon) shot. Magazines at the time rarely returned photos even though I supplied them with SSAE. A couple of years ago I got in touch with the editor of Truck, one of the few journals of the 1970’s that was non university affiliated and was perfect bound printed. He still had drawers of my photos!

He also shared additional information that is useful for our understanding of literary journals in the 1960s and 70s:

Another aspect of literary magazines at the time was what we would now find as primitive means of printing. But they were typical because professionally bound and printed journals were horribly expensive. There was no such thing as color images at the time. To give your students an example. To have a color postcard of an exhibition announcement printed even in the 1980’s was a $1,000 dollars. The same postcard today would be $50-100. Printing costs have declined 90% in the digital age, one of the few things I can think of that has gone down in price! A color image printed in the 1970’s was probably double that.

One of the developments that revolutionized submission to little magazines was Len Fulton’s Directory. I suspect I was one of his earliest subscribers. Prior to that my only resource were the stacks of various University Libraries. I would look at the various magazines on the shelves for ones that might publish my photos. He made it so much easier to submit both photography and later poetry.

This correspondence exemplifies how questions (about the difference between interpretive and descriptive commentary) and a research project (on primary materials in an archive, in this case Ed Hogan’s Aspect magazine) begin to take shape. And the correspondence, and what might follow, affirms a model of open learning and teaching that can make use of the affordances of digital technology to facilitate research into American literary and cultural history.

Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 8.36.58 AM

There are roads to take when you think of your country, to once again borrow the words of the poet Muriel Rukeyser. After we talked about another cover photos in Aspect Magazine, January 1972 by Roger, a rocking chair, Roger and I kept talking and he sent a note about his earlier comment. “I wanted to make one correction. I substituted Evanston for Charleston, Ill. which is where the abandoned railroad hotel was located.” He also sent along his Photography Web Site.

So where might a student of American studies go next? A quick online search will remind you of the good fortune we have to be living in a world with digital tools and digital archives. For in fact  The Online Archive of California (OAC) will take you to the University of Santa Barbara Special Collections Roger Camp Collection. The metadata includes a descriptive summary and the size of the collection (9 linear feet: 7 boxes, 7 oversize boxes, and 1 map folder) and an abstract:

Correspondence, mainly editors’ letters of acceptance or rejection, to poet and photographer Roger Camp, copies of poems by him, and issues of literary and poetry journals and reviews, usually containing poems or photographs by him. Correspondents include Ansel Adams, Robert Bly, Thom Jones, and Lawrence Willson (UCSB English professor).

The collection includes, more specifically, a collection of forty-eight letters between Camp and UCSB English professor and friend of Camp’s family Lawrence Wilson written between 1968 and 1995. The archive includes notes with advice about writing poetry from Robert Bly; a letter regarding a story by Thom Jones in the New Yorker, short story writing, and possible novel about Vietnam, 1992; a letter from the photographer Ansel Adams admiring a color image (including one postcard with typescript message thanking Camp for the color photo he sent, noting that he usually does not enjoy color prints but does this one, Oct. 24, 1978); and “issues of literary and poetry journals and reviews, usually containing poems or photos of Camp’s, along with typescript copies of poems, and editors’ letters of acceptance or rejection.”

 You can access the Guide to the Roger Camp Collection. But were we to spend time with the materials, we would need to go on a field trip to the library at UC Santa Barbara.

Following Through

I accept this idea of democracy. I am all for trying it out. It must be a good thing if everybody praises it like that. If our government has been willing to go to war and sacrifice billions of dollars and millions of men for the idea I think that I ought to give the thing a trial. The only thing that keeps me from pitching head long into this thing is the presence of numerous Jim Crow laws on the statute books of the nation. I am crazy about the idea of Democracy. I want to see how it feels.

-Zora Neale Hurston, “Crazy for This Democracy” Negro Digest (December 1945).

You have your project. You have your materials. You have key terms. You have questions. And you have two classroom sessions this week in which to work.


On Tuesday and Thursday we will use both classrooms. The big classroom will be the workspace for everyone and the small seminar room will be for the meetings. See the Schedule page for details.

Processed with Rookie Cam

The most effective way to prepare for the meetings is to make progress on your project. We will prepare by reading all of your “Field Work” posts. At this point, you should know what you are doing—even if you do not yet know exactly where you are going to end up. We will ask about your primary materials as well as the secondary writings you are using, whether from our reading list, other classes, or your research. We are interested in the questions you have and the challenges you are facing as you work on your project. We are interested to hear from you, too, about your plan for getting the work done before the project charrettes on Tuesday April 25th and Thursday April 27th.


The second way to move your project forward, and get the most out of this week, is to think about how you are doing your work. Are you mapping empirical changes in culture and society on to how individuals and groups live through and make sense of change? Are you looking at how individuals are reflecting on how they live through and make sense of an experience? Are you focusing your attention on the processes of making cultural products in cultural industries, and/or of the process of consuming and assimilating these products by audiences and fans?


Last week you talked about questions and we listed some of those questions on the board. there were other questions, too, some of which were explicit and some of which were implicit.

What is the text? A set of material objects, verbal texts, digital artifacts, a set of social relations, a life, lived experience? Everyday practices, whether past and /or present?

If I take a social practice as my text, for example a festival, then how do I “read” the text—that is, identify discrete practices, structural agencies, institutional features, that constitute the individual and/or collective social practice?

How do stories help us make sense of individual and collective experience? How does narrative stich together the present and the past using recognizable features such as action, characters, plot, complicating actions, resolutions?

How do narratives circulate in a culture? How are they reproduced? How are they changed?

Am I studying the social effects of the text? If so, how do I go about examining and offering commentary on the individual or cultural forms a text makes available—such as narrative, ideology, subject position?

What social dynamics and struggles are fundamental to the social text—for instance, power asymmetries between and among people, the circulation of racial categories, class formations, and relations?

How are hierarchies and power relations reproduced or replicated or modified within particular cultural texts or practices?

Who are the cultural producers? Who are the consumers? What social and cultural systems mediate and distribute in an economy or ecology of culture?

What is the relationship between narratives of experience and the field of possibilities within the structure of a discourse?

How does one talk about the subjective dimension of experience when we recognize that what we call an “experience” is something that mediates what happens to us?

What, exactly, makes our perceptions, feelings, and actions (the ones we abstract from the stream of experience) meaningful?

What is the relationship between experience and knowing?

How is an experience described? In what ways are individual experiences always already situated in and mediated through specific historical and cultural contexts?

How do we think about experience as product and process? How we understand and talk about experience as transactional?

In what ways is experience structured by prior experience and cultural frameworks of understanding?

Culture | Art | Engagement

Walt Whitman, “Democratic Vistas”

We find ourselves abruptly in close quarters with the enemy. This word Culture, or what it has come to represent, involves, by contrast, our whole theme, and has been, indeed, the spur, urging us to engagement

“Carlyle from American Points of View” (1881)

My utmost pretension is probably but to offset that old claim of the exclusively curative power of first-class individual men, as leaders and rulers, by the claims and general movement and result of ideas. Something of the latter kind seems to me to be the distinctive theory of America, of democracy, and of the modern—or rather, I should say, it is democracy, and is the modern.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar”

“This revolution is to be wrought by the gradual domestication of the idea of Culture. The main enterprise of the world for splendor, for extent, is the upbuilding of a man. Here are the materials strewn along the ground.”

(Emergence of democratic culture as alternative to a hierarchical and exclusive (Whitman called it “feudal”) definition of culture)

James Baldwin, “The Creative Process”

This continent now is conquered, but our habits and our fears remain. And, in the same way that to become a social human being one modifies and suppresses and, ultimately, without great courage, lies to oneself about all one’s interior, uncharted chaos, so have we, as a nation, modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history. We know, in the case of the person, that whoever cannot tell himself the truth about his past is trapped in it, is immobilized in the prison of his undiscovered self. This is also true of nations. We know how a person, in such a paralysis, is unable to assess either his weaknesses or his strengths, and how frequently indeed he mistakes the one for the other.

Doris Sommer, The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and the Public Humanities

“Constitutional democracies are themselves collective works of art accountable for their constructions. And constitutions remain open to performative interventions, obliging citizens to cultivate their creativity and criticism” (104).

(Metaphor of the state as a work of art)

Michel Foucault, “On the Genealogy of Ethics: Report on a Work in Progress.”

What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?

Pablo Helguera, “Interview”

These are works that are designed to address social or political issues only in an allegorical, metaphorical, or symbolic level (for example, a painting about social issues is not very different than a public art project that claims to offer a social experience but only does so in a symbolic way such as the ones just described above). The work does not control a social situation in an instrumental and strategic way in order to achieve a specific end. This distinction is partially based on Jurgen Habermas’s work The Theory of Communicative Action (1981). In it Habermas argues that social action (an act constructed by the relations between individuals) is more than a mere manipulation of circumstances by an individual to obtain a desired goal (that is, more than just the use of strategic and instrumental reason. He instead favors what he describes as communicative action, a type of social action geared to communication and understanding between individuals that can have a lasting effect on the spheres of politics and culture as a true emancipatory force. (6-7)

(Production and reception of culture and cultural performance: socially engaged art as less confined to the distinctions between creative and critical cultural work, making and thinking, producer and consumer)

Terry Tempest Williams, “Commenement”

When minds close, democracy begins to close. Fear creeps in; silence overtakes speech

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World and Me

The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing (50).

Key Questions: Call and Response

 What is democratic culture? How is it (or how might it be) different from other forms of culture?

 What opportunities, roles, responsibilities and/or obligations are associated with life in a democratically organized society?

 In what forms do we find expression of democratic ideals, values, and practice?

 How do individuals come to organize their lives around a belief in the ideals of democracy?

 How do we live with the ideal and the fact—the possibilities, for example, of the logic of equality and the persistent fact of inequality?

 Adrienne Rich, An Atlas of the Difficult World

I don’t want to know

wreckage, dreck and waste, but these are the materials

and so are the slow lift of the moon’s belly

over wreckage, dreck and waste, wild treefrogs calling in

another season, light and music still pouring over

our fissured and cracked terrain”(4)


I promised to show you a map you say but this is a mural

Then yes let it be  these are small distinctions

Where do we see it from is the question (6)


“using the poems to talk to each other” (9)


Waste.          Waste. The watcher’s eye put out, hands of the

builder severed, rain of the maker starved

those who could bind, join, reweave, cohere, replenish

now at risk in this segregate republic

locked away out of sight and hearing, out of mind, shunted aside

those needed to teach, advise, persuade, weigh arguments

those urgently needed for the work of perception

work of the poet, the astronomer, the historian, the architect of

New streets

work of the speaker who also listens

meticulous delicate work of reaching the heart of the desperate

Woman, the desperate man

—never-to-be-finished, still unbegun work of repair—it cannot

be done without them

and where are they now? (11)


Catch if you can your country’s moment, begin (12)


There are roads to take she wrote

when you think of your country           driving south

To West Virginia Gauley Bridge silicon mines the flakes of it

heaped like snow, death-angel white

—poet journalist pioneer mother

uncovering her country:           there are roads to take (13)


I honor your truth and refuse to leave it at that (19)

April 6 Collaboratory

Critical thinking is both a condition of and a compliment to art-making—world making in Dewey’s pragmatic and democratizing sense of art as experience—that sparks more exploration and more experience

-Doris Sommer




Our “Open Space of Democracy Collaboratory” continues on Thursday with you working on terms and concepts. By noon on Thursday please follow the instructions (and the examples) on the Ephemera page of the course blog. Here is what you need to do:

Post on your blog a list of key terms/concepts in your individual project and at least three excerpts or quotations from our readings that explain or align with each term/concept.

The work here is 1) to define your terms/concepts and 2) to return to the Readings so that this archive of conceptual energy will continue to fuel your project. We will begin class on Thursday with what you discover in making these connections.

Our collaboration laboratory is designed to guide your research on and creation of projects that exemplify the practice of American Cultural Studies. Our “center without walls,” to borrow William Wulf’s words, will use our class time to interact, access, share materials and methods. The productivity of the collaboratory depends on your individual work, and the productivity of your individual work depends on the collaboratory.




Project Description

The Projects Page on the course blog now includes a rough draft of a project description. Kerrin and I will continue to work on this description as we continue our work.

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Field Work Posts

In addition to Nick’s post What am I doing. . . What am I doing? we talked about in class today, have a look at Tyler’s cross-cultural discussion of tattoo culture Tattooing should be Righteous, Miles’ idea about how to capture the creative space of the music festival, and Patrick’s emerging Reverend Crocker Project.

In Patrick’s case, note well how a short piece from The Providence Journal provides Patrick with a touchstone.(The scanned scrap is above is linked in the post)  The “winds of change” illustration suggest a “war of position” (Gramsci) playing out in the American south—evident in the final sentence of the news article. “Walls reared by hate are strong, but Atlanta is demonstrating that understanding, readiness to abide by law, and common decency can knock down the biggest walls without trouble.”

Knowledge – Tech – Identity

“The cleanest expression is that which finds no sphere worthy of itself and makes one”

-Walt Whitman, “Preface” the 1855 Edition of Leaves of Grass

“Instead of critiquing the current system, you have to make a new system that will render the previous system superfluous or irrelevant. So as artists we need to build institutions, we need to be institutional.”

-Pablo Helguera

Allow me to circle back to Nick’s question about Sommer’s reference to the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who used the terms ‘War of Position’ and “War of Manoeuvre” to describe two different phases in the class struggle. The “War of Manoeuvre” is a phase of open conflict between classes with the outcome determined by direct clashes between revolutionaries and the State. The “War of Position” is an incremental hidden conflict where forces seek to gain influence and power.

It is interesting to think with the war of position metaphor when considering the question of cultural agency and identity in digital networks. Interested? Well, consider this: on Thursday, April 6, at 4:00pm, in Rhodes S203, Dr. Bonnie Stewart, from the University of Prince Edward Island, will present “Digital Identities and Citizenship: Leading in the Open.” Here is a description of the talk, which I hope you will consider attending:

Today, the issue of digital citizenship is paramount to how we think about citizenship generally. How can we teach our students to utilize the web in addressing social and political problems and in creating healthy, responsible communities? How do we get our students to think about who they are when they are online? Who is responsible for teaching our students about web literacy and fact checking?

Stewart’s work investigates the intersections of knowledge, technology, and identity, and what networks mean for institutions. She examines networked scholarship, digital literacies, the tensions between open and closed learning practices, and the changing realities of contemporary higher education. Her research also explores community and issues of equity and influence in digital networks and digital publics, and examines the implications of social media models for learning.

Stewart is a founder and leader of the Antigonish 2.0 movement– a global, networked project on community capacity-building through a lens of citizenship and media literacies to address the current information ecosystem. It’s a global, networked project, working to build an open resource hub and a model for community adaptation…anywhere, anytime. Antigonish2 is based in the adult education tradition of the Antigonish Movement in Maritime Canada. Also see Ragged University and the Babel Working Group for comparable models.

If you are second-guessing your project, there is definitely one lurking here!

What’s the Story?

“Constitutional democracies are themselves collective works of art accountable for their constructions. And constitutions remain open to performative interventions, obliging citizens to cultivate their creativity and criticism” (104).

-Doris Sommer

The idea that a constitutional democracy is a cultural artifact has a history that the cultural historian Eric Slauter shares in the Introduction to The State as a Work of Art: The Cultural Origins of the Constitution (2009). Sommer’s adds that a constitutional democracy remains open to performative intervention—a reminder of the essential lesson of Emerson’s comment on political institutions, that “they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better.” For Sommer, though, the point is the inherent obligation for “citizens to cultivate their creativity and criticism” in the open space of a democratic culture.

This week we continue reading of The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and the Public Humanities, specifically chapter five, “Play Drive in the Hard Drive: Schiller’s Poetics of Politics.” In chapter four, you will recall, Sommer advocates an “integrated approach to literacy, art, and civics” to develop “personal faculties and collective disposition for democratic life” (112). A productive way to consider the cultural activity you have taken as the subject of your project is to think about it in these terms: That is, what might happen when you think about the cultural activity as pedagogical—as a method of engaging the creative and critical faculties, stimulating the imagination, promoting the freedom to speculate?

Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Sommer argues, provides a way of seeing the labor of creative work as engaging individuals in making judgments, speculating, exploring, and testing possibilities, “disarming hierarchies through cultural interventions” (149). These interventions, by reformers, artists, educators, citizens, as we talked about last week, disconnect us from routine habits, preconceptions, and expectations.

Another way to think about the cultural activity you have chosen is to think about it as a story or narrative. What’s the story? As the psychologist Jerome Bruner points out in The The Narrative Construction of Reality (1991), narratives are a form of describing and a form of constructing and understanding reality. As Kerrin might remind us, Bruner is a “constructivist,” and indeed his thinking about education may be useful.

Brunner’s thinking is useful for the study of lived experience, as well as for examining ways of being in and ways of knowing the world. Here is Brunner explaining the importance of narrative:

Another domain that must be widely (though roughly) shared for a culture to operate with requisite effectiveness is the domain of social beliefs and procedures—what we think people are like and how they must get on with each other. . . . These are domains that are, in the main, organized narratively. What I have tried to do in this paper is to describe some of the properties of a world of “reality” constructed according to narrative principles. In doing so, I have gone back and forth between describing narrative mental “powers” and the symbolic systems of narrative discourse that make the expression of these powers possible.

To make experience and to describe the world we subjectively construct a story of that experience and the world—both in terms of what it is, and what we think it ought to be. As Paulo Freire explains in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “To deny the importance of subjectivity in the process of transforming the world and history is naïve and simplistic” (qtd. in Sommer 139). At the same time, cultural narratives determine through discourse stories that help us make sense of our experience. For Sommer, however, creative activities and interpretation must engage individual citizens. “No enlightened masterpiece of the legislation can move people to identify with the state, unless each participant is already educated in the spirit of freedom that the state presumably represents.” This statement echoes Emerson, in the 1844 essay “New England Reformers,”

The criticism and attack on institutions which we have witnessed, has made one thing plain, that society gains nothing whilst a man, not himself renovated, attempts to renovate things around him: he has become tediously good in some particular, but negligent or narrow in the rest; and hypocrisy and vanity are often the disgusting result.

The call to cultivate creativity, and criticism, is a call for “self-renovation.”

What is the story? What is the cultural practice or performance or engagement and how does it make possible creativity and criticism?