Reading for Culture

“Do we dare to step back—stretch—and create an arch of understanding?”

—Terry Tempest Williams

De we dare

In class we have been talking about the activities, and the products of those activities, that constitute a culture understood as an individual and collective project. This way of talking has roots in Emerson and Whitman’s argument that each generation must rewrite history. The corollary to this claim is that activity of reading the “mind of the past” can be an act of “self-renovation,” to use Emerson’s words. These activities, to call on a late twentieth-century formulation that echoes Emerson, ensures “that no fixed view ever prevails and that each generation must read texts anew, interrogate them from its own perspective, and find itself concerned, in its own fashion, by the works’ questions” (41). This might be one of the most precise formulations of the democratic culture envisioned in Whitman’s “Democratic Culture” and the aspirational rhetoric of what I will call here “democratic literacy.”

That is to say, this description aligns with the various calls for engagement that echo through the writings of Emerson, Whitman, Rich, and Williams. I take this particular description from the chapter “Reading for Culture” in Wlad Godzich’s 1994 book The Culture of Literacy.

to step back

Another writer, the philosopher Richard Rorty, in his William E. Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization, published in the 1998 book Achieving our Country, offers a useful way of thinking about stepping back—an activity we surely value as participants in the academic humanities. “A humanistic discipline is in good shape only when it produces inspiring works and works which contextualize and, and thereby deromanticize and debunk, those inspiring works” (134). Rorty’s lecture is an extended critique of an approach to culture that begins with a knowledge of what culture is, a “knowingness” that has a minimum tolerance for imaginative literature among subjects in a “corporate, collectivized, post-individualistic age” (Jamison qtd. in Rorty 126).

Stretch and create

It is not surprising that Rorty’s story of democratic thought in Twentieth-Century America begins with Walt Whitman and John Dewey. But for our purposes Rorty’s words may also be useful as meta-commentary: for as we read together in an academic context it is important to create, as Emerson has already reminded us, in the context in which we find ourselves. One unfortunate tendency of professionalism and academic work, as most of you know from your experiences in school, “is to favor a talent for analysis and problem-solving over imagination, to replace enthusiasm with dry, sardonic knowingness” (135). The challenge is to work toward understanding by placing texts in context without losing our capacities to celebrate the artifacts that we might agree are exceptional.

But how does one sustain creative intellectual work in a product-based academic institution? In a discussion of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics, and Hans Robert Jauss’ claim that literary texts can alter our “horizons of expectations” Godzich outlines an assumption that the practice of reading literature is, “a strong liberating force that works both upon the recipient, for it frees her or him from the views s/he held without necessarily being aware of them, and upon literature. . .for it permits us to recover its initial impact, which as been eroded by centuries of veneration and monumentalization” (41).

The word “stretch” strikes me as a precise and apposite term for what you are doing as you read, think, and write. As you take up this work, you stretch, to articulate, and move beyond, as it were, your current range of motion. To endorse articulation is to make room for process and to value more than the articulated product of your thinking. The five commentaries and three research installments on your blog, then, will be evidence of what you are doing (and able to do)—and why in making this process visible we are endorsing the active (democratic?) work of reading, thinking, and writing.

an arch of understanding

Another responsibility is response-ability: to challenge yourself to reach an understanding through the labor of writing. For this reason, I have suggested that you move your first thoughts about the readings to a page on your blog and then leave as your sequence of blog posts the product you are able to produce between Tuesday and Sunday. Our class sessions, as well as your (re)ading and (re)thinking, are designed to help you move to a provisional understanding—the best you can do as you work to get it right.

While it is true that each of your pieces of writing is a discrete effort, it is also the case that together your essays represent a whole—an understanding of the open space of democracy and some of the thinking about democratic culture. Your blog is in this sense a collection of essays, a published work that properly put together is substantive, and that has integrity.

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