Category Archives: Reading

Helguera: Process & Product

In the Introduction to Art and Citizenship, a special issue of artpractical, the editor Kara Q. Smith writes that the seven contributors “consider how citizenship relates to cultural and political systems as they intersect with artistic practices, institutions, and diverse publics.” This statement is useful as we move into the second half of the semester: it brings into focus the relation between social institutions (such as politics), institutions (such as art), practice (making), and audiences (the public).

Before class on Tuesday you will have read two brief pieces, the Blog Entry “Education for Socially Engaged Art” by Pablo Helguera and Interview with Pablo Helguera. In the excerpt from Education for Socially Engaged Art, he gives examples of art that is politically or socially motivated but that acts through the representation of ideas or issues. A useful distinction for us is between actual vs. symbolic practice. His interest is in works that are not about social change but rather embody social change. He is creating space to describe cultural activity that, in his words, “exists somewhere between art and non-art.”

Another way to describe this distinction is between process (the actual practice) and product (symbolic practice). He goes on to say,

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.

Helguera then elaborates an intellectual genealogy for this distinction:

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)

It may also be  useful to reference an interview with Helen Reed, A Bad Education, in which Helguera explains further the problem with creating a restrictive definition of art:

Art, for better or for worse, continues to be this playing field that is defined by its capacity to redefine itself. You cannot say, “This is not art!” because tomorrow it could be, or “It can be art,” because I say it is. Art is a space, which we have created, where we can cease to subscribe to the demands and the rules of society; it is a space where we can pretend. We can play, we can rethink things, we can think about them backwards.

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.

One of the most useful ways to think with Helguera is to discover his productive relationship to institutions and systems. So much of our language and discourse about art and social practice assumes an oppositional stance. You will hear people talking about critiquing and “blowing up” institutions or whatever. (By the way, as readers of what Emerson says about institutions you have an intellectual context for these thoughts.) In an Interview with curator Yulia Tikhonova published in Idiom, Helguera is asked whether it is possible to work in an institution such as a museum and at the same time be engaged in institutional critique. Here is his response:

I believe that institutions are nothing but collections of individuals. If you would agree with that, then you would need to agree that because one can be critical with oneself, of course there could be criticality within institutions too. It’s true that one lacks perspective, but at the same time internal debate is key to informing our decisions–which also applies to individuals and institutions. Otherwise we would just behave erratically being told what to do by a wide random group of opinions.

Furthermore, I would argue that inasmuch as we are implicated in a system–in this case the art system–we all belong to the larger institution of art. To behave like an absolute outsider is an illusion. Just think about what we say to people who hate contemporary art who have absolute no background or knowledge: we simply dismiss them as ignorant. I believe that complete outsider-ness in the field of art is an illusion. Finally, the notion of institution is relative: some major artists are institutions, and in fact their staff in their studios is larger than the staff of a small museum. Yet we maintain the myth that artists are lone rangers and museums are monolithic, faceless and powerful forces.

Before we gather on Tuesday please do the reading, give these ideas some thought, and fold these ideas into your thinking about a final project.

Fascinated by this conversation, and want to read more? Have a look at the Blog Posts by Helguera on the Inside/Out Blog at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) that he wrote as Director of Adult and Academic Programs.

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Spring and All

I’m grateful for your dedication to exploring the materials we have been studying together since late January. I am feeling the need to recount exactly what you are responsible for at the midterm break. And I am going to share some of my thoughts on reentry as we are going to hit the ground running when we gather again on Tuesday, March 21.

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We know that it takes forty gallons of sap to render one gallon of sweet maple syrup. Might this process be a useful way for us to think about our work?

Most of you will have already completed most everything below. If not, here is everything I have asked for

  • Aspect Metacommentary First a clarification. . . . Send me your final edited version by email. An attachment is best but you can also just paste your work into the body of the email:
  • Move your draft version on the blog to a “drafts” or “process” or “thinking” or “ephemera” page on your blog. You might put DRAFT at the top of the page.
  • Below is an example from Savannah’s commentary that does an exemplary job with a descriptive accounting of each piece of writing with a concise description of the pieces. This is a good model:

This issue contains poetry from M. T. Buckley, Christine Smith, Jeffrey Katz, Barbara A. Holland, Sterling Kelly Webb, Andrew Darlington, Doris Wight, Joan Colby, Dennis Nicholas Hoppin, Karen Solstad, and Rick Smith.  It contains art work from Jean Segaloff, Marjorie Masel, Roger Camp, and one anonymous piece that was with permission from the Manchester Central Library.  This piece is a photograph taken by a freelance photographer in Manchester, England.

This issue has two essays, the first is titled “Corliss, Master of Power” by Frank J. Jones.  This brief piece offers a point of view into mechanical engineer, George H. Corliss’ power and public influence due to his invention, the steam engine in the mid-1800s.  The next essay, “Winning in the Sierras by Robie Darche,” is a bit longer.  It discusses the position of women in casinos as changegirls and cocktail waitresses, with discussion of keymen as well.  Another version of this piece is also found in Canadian Woman’s magazine, BRANCHING OUT.

A description and method of treating ­­­­­­“Sore Nipples” from Dr. Willich’s Domeftic Encyclopedia is found, as well as a place to order Edcentric Magazine.  Another advertisement for a monthly newsletter named Recon is included on the back page.

Some brief works of fiction are included including “Paradise,” by Gudanowska and “Karla in the Dark,” by Bettina Barrett.  Politics include Bureaucracy, Reform, and Intervention in Czechoslovakia. This is by George Shaw Wheeler, Lawrence Hill & Co, and focuses on events during 1968, including the goals of Czechoslovakian reformers and economics.

Still some sentence-level copy editing needed here. But a fine example of a balance between the specific and the general.

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This is where we will be in April
  1. Blogs You have at a minimum six blog posts
  • Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
  • Walt Whitman “Democratic Vistas”
  • Commencements (Emerson, Rich, Williams)
  • Adrienne Rich essays and Atlas of the Difficult World
  • Aspect (a research installment)
  • A final blog post on something that captures your learning arc in the first half of the course

You have been invited to curate all of your writing. Write in your voice, show your intelligence. Get away from general and flat words like “response” in your titles. “Know what you are doing and do it well.” (Remember, too, that the hypothes.is annotations you did/are doing on your peers’ blogs are designed to give audience feedback but also for you to look at other blogs and writing and to “resee” what you are doing in relation to others.)

On Tuesday I will read your blogs and assign each member of the class a midterm grade.

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Looking Ahead On Tuesday March 21 we will do the first of two classes designed to help you write out a project statement. Our class will be dedicated to sorting ideas and fielding questions about the final project. We will draft a project description and a schedule and our outcomes for the project. Before we meet, make sure you read the Blog Entry “Education for Socially Engaged Art” by Pablo Helguera, the Interview with Pablo Helguera, and look over the materials on Art and Citizenship at PracticalArts.

On Thursday March 23 we will do the second project statement workshop. Read Doris Sommer, Prologue, “Welcome Back,” 1-13, and Chapter One: “From the Top: Government-Sponsored Creativity,” 15-48, in the book you purchased for the course, The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities (2014). With the Helguera, and the readings you did before break on government arts programs and sponsorship, this writing will give you a theoretical vocabulary and practical ideas for your work.

While brainstorming session yesterday Savannah raised the challenge of working without an assignment. That is, she suggested the need for some structure. That will be our work the week we return. We have some fabulous ideas (that kept a few of us talking for 30 minutes after class!) My goal for us at the end of our first week back is to have a very clear set of objectives for the seven weeks we will be working on the final project.

For now, my response to Savannah’s question: In general, our project will celebrate, and investigate, examples of cultural production in which art and interpretation are flourishing in the open space of democracy. Each of you will be working with an object (or collection of objects) or a project or performance or social interaction of some kind. Our work is to build a language through which we can represent, celebrate, and consider the place of this work.

Enjoy spring break!

 

Feeling Thinking Doing

We do the things we do and feel what we feel essentially because we must—we are responsible for our actions, but we rarely understand them. It goes without saying, I believe, that if we understood ourselves better, we would damage ourselves less. But the barrier between oneself and one’s knowledge of oneself is high indeed.

-James Baldwin, “The Creative Process”

Over the past seven weeks we have been reading writers who are preoccupied with the question of democracy. There are many stories embedded in this literary and cultural history, of course, and our reading list has been built around writers dedicated to the open-ended, and imperfect, process of democratic culture: of the struggle to enact the democratic ideals of egalitarianism and pluralism.

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Our story began with “Literary Characteristics of Democratic Times,” a chapter from the second volume of Democracy in America, in which Alexis de Tocqueville argues that the exclusive literary culture in American democracy appears to value literature with a practical use.

We thought with Emerson and Whitman about cultural production—both in terms of making democratic literature, as well as in cultivating the idea that the creative arts are useful for what I called democratic literacy-the idea that the arts provide a means to wrestle with a general language and discourse that works against democratic ideals such as equality, diversity, and justice.

The writing of the political scientist Robert Dahl offered insight into the tensions and paradoxes of these democratic ideals. At the same time, we discovered that Emerson and Whitman were engaged with questions posed by historians, philosophers, and theorists of democracy. That is, their literary work is dedicated to not only realizing the possibilities of democratic literature but to thinking about the problem of defining, building, and sustaining a democratic culture.

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The process of democratic culture is what John Dewey called “creative democracy,” a provisional, open-ended, and imperfect process that make possible communal decisions while giving equal consideration to individuals. Dewey’s cultural contributions are difficult to measure in a general survey. However, his critical optimism, and utopian pragmatism, furthered our story of democratic ideas and ideals, on the one hand, and the less lofty social realities of lived experience in the United States, on the other.

In tracing the story of the artist’s reception of and engagement with democratic thinking we considered two case studies. The first case is the institutional ritual and the cultural occasion of commencement. We read commencements by Ralph Waldo Emerson at Harvard, “The American Scholar” (1837), Adrienne Rich at New Jersey’s Douglass College “Claiming an Education” (1977), and Terry Tempest Williams’ commencement at the University of Utah, “The Open Space of Democracy” (2003). The second case was poetic theory and practice. We read Claude McKay, “America” (1921), Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again” (1936), Alan Ginsberg, “America” (1956), and Naomi Shihab Nye “United” (2016).

We turned our attention to the singular project of Adrienne Rich. We read two essays— “Blood, Bread, And Poetry: The Location of a Poet” and “Notes Toward a Politics of Location”—from Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose: 1979-1985 (1986) and her collection of poems in An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991.

And we moved from the practice of poetry to the experience of art, and the role of the artist. We read “Having an Experience” from Dewey’s Art as Experience (1934) and his essays “Creative Democracy” (1939), originally delivered by Horace Kallen and published in the Promise of America (1939), and “Democracy is Radical” (1936). We also looked at a cultural commentary less sanguine about Dewey’s participatory aesthetic, “The World Outside And The Pictures In Our Heads,” from Walter Lippman’s influential study Public Opinion (1922). Finally, we considered a definition and defense of the role of the artist in a democracy, James Baldwin’s 1962 address “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” and his essay “The Creative Process.”

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A history of writers engaged with the question of democracy, as this sequence of reading is designed to suggest, is at the same time enacting democratic thought. It is a history of writing as inquiry, as an investigation through words—or even an “interrogation,” to borrow words from a writer who some of you already know, Ta-Nehisi Coates—of drawing us into consciousness. Here is how James Baldwin names this interrogation in the essay we read together last week, “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.

From James Baldwin and Adrienne Rich we can move to a more recent engagement with these questions, the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates. In his 2015 Between The World and Me Coates unravels his own discovery of reading and writing. Coates writes, “The pursuit of knowing was freedom for me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through with all manner of books” (48). The poets he was reading in college were moving him from something like what Rich called in Atlas “the burnt out dream of innocence.” Coates tells of the moment when these writings became, for him, “notes on how to write, and thus notes on how to think.”

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And he goes on, describing the consequences of not thinking, of abandoning the creative process, of “living the Dream”:

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).

We will keep these words in mind as we turn our attention to the Keene State College Social Justice Collection and our studies to the literary and cultural work of Aspect magazine . You might also keep these words in mind as you continue to use your writing to think for yourself-as you continue to (re)claim your education, to take responsibility for what you are feeling, thinking, and doing.

After all, this is one of the responsibilities we talked about with Adrienne Rich. “Responsibility to yourself,” Rich writes, “means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.”

 

There are Roads to Take

Effort at Speech Between Two People

:  Speak to me.	 Take my hand.       What are you now?
   I will tell you all.	     I will conceal nothing.
   When I was three, a little child read a story about a rabbit
   who died, in the story, and I crawled under a chair   :
   a pink rabbit  :  it was my birthday, and a candle
   burnt a sore spot on my finger, and I was told to be happy.

:  Oh grow to know me.   I am not happy.      I will be open:
   now I am thinking of white sails againsta sky like music,
   like glad horns blowing, and birds tilting, and an arm about me.
   There was one I loved, who wanted to live, sailing.

:  Speak to me.		Take my hand.	    What are you now?
   When I was nine, I was fruitily sentimental,
   fluid   :   and my widowed aunt played Chopin,
   and I bent my head on the painted woodwork, and wept.
   I want now to be close to you.    I would
   link the minutes of my days close, somehow, to your days.

:  I am not happy.    I will be open.
   I have liked lamps in evening corners, and quiet poems.
   There has been fear in my life.     Sometimes I speculate
   On what a tragedy his life was, really.

:  Take my hand.    First my mind in your hand.       What are
      you now?
   When I was fourteen, I had a dreams of suicide,
   and I stood at a steep window, at sunset, hoping toward
      death   :
   if the light had not melted clouds and pains to beauty,
   if light had not transformed that day, I would have leapt.
   I am unhappy.	I am lonely.       Speak to me.

:  I will be open.	I think he never loved me:
   he loved the bright beaches, the little lips of foam
   that ride small waves, he loved the veer of gulls:
   he said with a gay mouth: I love you.      Grow to know me.

:  What are you now?    If we could touch one another,
   if these our separate entities could come to grips,
   clenched like a Chinese puzzle ... yesterday
   I stood in a crowded street that was live with people,
   and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone.
   Everyone silent, moving... Take my hand.    Speak to me.

-Muriel Rukeyser, from Theory of Flight (1935)

The Book of the Dead: The Road

These are roads to take when you think of your country
and interested bring down the maps again,
phoning the statistician, asking the dear friend,

reading the papers with morning inquiry.
Or when you sit at the wheel and your small light
chooses gas gauge and clock; and the headlights

indicate future of road, your wish pursuing 
past the junction, the fork, the suburban station,
well-travelled six-lane highway planned for safety.

Past your tall central city's influence,
outside its body: traffic, penumbral crowds,
are centers removed and strong, fighting for good reason.

These roads will take you into your own country.
Select the mountains, follow rivers back,
travel the passes. Touch West Virginia where

the Midland Trail leaves the Virginia furnace,
iron Clifton Forge, Covington iron, goes down
into the wealthy valley, resorts, the chalk hotel.

Pillars and fairway; spa; White Sulphur Springs.
Airport. Gay blank rich faces wishing to add
history to ballrooms, tradition to the first tee.

The simple mountains, sheer, dark-graded with pine
in the sudden weather, wet outbreak of spring,
crosscut by snow, wind at the hill's shoulder.

The land is fierce here, steep, braced against snow,
rivers and spring. KING COAL HOTEL, Lookout,
and swinging the vicious bend, New River Gorge.

Now the photographer unpacks camera and case,
surveying the deep country, follows discovery
viewing on groundglass an inverted image.

John Marshall named the rock (steep pines, a drop
he reckoned in 1812, called) Marshall's Pillar,
but later, Hawk's Nest. Here is your road, tying

you to its meanings: gorge, boulder, precipice.
Telescoped down, the hard and stone-green river
cutting fast and direct into the town.

-Muriel Rukeyser, from U.S. 1 (1938)

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.

We are in Thought

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

-Terry Tempest Williams, “The Open Space of Democracy”

One of the things that happened to me today when I was moved to include an epigraph for what I am writing here was that there were too many options to choose from. I took this to be a good sign.

I spent some time this morning reading through your blog posts. Each of you is thinking through, and with, the readings that have preoccupied us these past Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. I appreciate our efforts as we struggle to find words to express what is most often glimpsed and rarely expressed. We are demonstrating, at least to my mind, that thinking is something that we do together—that thought is not so much in our heads but that we are quite literally in thought. Might this be Emerson’s intimation in his riffs on “the mind of the Past”?

Let me begin this survey of your blogging by calling out Miles and Savannah for their exemplary use of tags. In “Fulfilling the Ideal,” Miles writes his way into Williams’ commencement speech “The Open Space of Democracy.” He calls attention to qualities of democratic life, including insecurity and vulnerability, mentioned by Williams, the messy and chaotic space of democratic life. But the post is really driving at the relationship of the terms Miles uses as tags: democracy, knowledge, empathy. Might this be a beginning, perhaps a new start? Miles quotes Williams: “Empathy is vital to a properly functioning democracy.” This is, indeed, the core of what Williams is asking her audience to consider. “I came to understand through an education in the humanities that knowledge is another form of democracy, the freedom of expression that leads to empathy,” she says.

Or consider Savannah’s post “The Man Thinking” and the tags “Commencement,” “democracy,” “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” and “Scholars.” This piece of writing begins with two paragraphs about the occasion and genre of the commencement or convocation (as we talked about in class). The essay then shifts to Emerson’s “The American Scholar.” I’m left wondering, though, what is it at stake here? One place to begin may be the quotation from Emerson about books. “Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this.” This might offer a way into talking about claiming (not receiving) an education and/or the interesting relationship between open minds and open hearts.

Another place to begin is with confusion. We are grateful to Ben for saying precisely this in his “Commencement Speech Response” (a title that might be on its way to another). He quotes Williams, “I have always believed democracy is best practiced through its construction, not its completion.” He then offers a reading that clarifies the conclusion. Perhaps a closer and more extended reading of this idea—construction, building, making as opposed to a fixed structure, completion, made? What does it mean to define democracy as a process and not something achieved? Did not Emerson and Whitman say much the same thing. . . ? And Patrick, in “Emerson Again: Beware the Emotional Response in Politics,” artfully selects a sentence vibrating with implications both past and present: “In the degenerate state, when (a man is) the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of another men’s thinking.” And Stephanie, in a delightfully titled post “Make us uncomfortable. Make us think. Make us feel” explores the meaning and implications of what Williams calls “Responsive citizenship.” There is a thread that might be an organizing feature of this blog post: the continuity between Whitman and Emerson’s call for thinking and feeling and response.

These are some of the examples we can learn from and build on as you continue reading, thinking, and writing.

 

 

 

The Idea of Culture

“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”

—Walt Whitman, “Democratic Vistas”

“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.”

—Walt Whitman, “Carlyle from American Points of View” (1881)

In On Democracy Robert A. Dahl makes a distinction between the ideal and the actuality of democracy. He explains that his book addresses the form of actual democracy that took shape in the twentieth century. In the first two parts of his book he explores a series of questions. What is democracy? What does democracy mean? Put another way, what standards should we use to determine whether, and to what extent, a government is democratic?

These questions are useful, if not necessary, for a productive consideration of the questions we are thinking through with Emerson and Whitman. What is democratic culture? What would a democratic culture look like? This is why I am asking you to read Part One and Part Two (1-80) of Dahl’s book as a background for our continued study of the emergence of the idea of a democratic culture in nineteenth-century America.

Your work this coming week is to read, think, and write about Whitman’s 1871 essay “Democratic Vistas.” To prepare for your discussions of this text you need to do three things:

  • Read the essay: You might want to not read the essay in one sitting. Your reading should begin with the assumption Whitman himself calls for late in the essay, that “the process of reading is not a half sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay — the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does”
  • Annotate the essay: you will be working as a part of the “Open Space of Democracy” group in hypothes.is. Read the blog post on annotation so that your commentary is resourceful and useful and not merely “marginal” notes
  • Write a blog post: Due Tuesday at 10. Your essay on Whitman’s essay will features quotes from the essay that together account for Whitman’s emergent thinking about democratic culture. Consider the essay as a report on the discovery of something significant and worth knowing about Whitman’s thinking, what he calls a “programme or theory.” Writing is in an important way an act of rereading the essay. I encourage you to read through the annotations of your classmates as you prepare for our class on Tuesday dedicated to thinking together about “Democratic Vistas”

You can read the essay that in part incited Whitman to compose his response, Thomas Carlyle’s “Shooting Niagara—And After?” (1867). I have also provided relevant excerpts on the term and idea of culture from Emerson and Whitman’s writing on the Ephemera page of this blog