Tag Archives: Ralph Waldo Emerson

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?

 

 

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Open Space

In class on Tuesday Tori said that for her, reading Terry Tempest Williams’ commencement address, delivered to the class of 2003 at the at the University of Utah, offered welcome clarity. Such moments of clarity come to us differently, and are difficult to predict. These are points of entry, moments of insight that suggest a way forward. Remember Emerson’s saying in “The Poet”:

This insight, which expresses itself by what is called Imagination, is a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees, by sharing the path, or circuit of things through forms, and so making them translucid to others.

We are where we are and you see what you see: That is to say, you are now in an ongoing conversation about democracy and culture. Make of it what you will. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman’s writings are working through the concept of culture, and their minds are grappling with the work of imagining what Whitman was working toward—let us call it a democratic theory of culture. This week we moved to occasions of commencement or convocation to trace some the implications of this idea: Emerson’s oration delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard College on August 31, 1837, “The American Scholar,” Williams’ 2003 commencement speech, “The Open Space of Democracy,” and Adrienne Rich’s 1977 convocation speech at Douglass College.

My intent in bringing these texts into conversation is to give you resources to address the questions we are thinking through

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? And so on.

With Tori, I discovered in Williams and Rich a way of (re)reading Emerson and Whitman. Who does not hear, having read Whitman, a process of reading and thinking described as a struggle in the opening of Rich’s remarks:

Responsibility to yourself 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.

And who does not hear, as her essay unfolds, the self-trust so passionately advocated by Emerson echoed in Rich’s call for an active and engaged life:

The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.

In calling on women to embrace active as opposed to passive learning she brings her audience into an argument for access, equity, and justice in educational institutions. For as Rich says, the student must come to see herself

engaged with her teachers in active, ongoing struggle for a real education. But for her to do this, her teachers must be committed to belief that women’s minds and experience are intrinsically valuable and indispensable to any civilization worthy the name: that there is no more exhilarating and intellectually fertile place in the academic world today than a women’s college—if both students and teachers in large enough numbers are trying to fulfill this contract. The contract is really a pledge of mutual seriousness about women, about language, ideas, method, and values. It is our shared commitment toward a world in which the inborn potentialities of so many women’s minds will not longer be wasted, raveled-away, paralyzed, or denied.

This is the mind at work—in this case bringing to mind the proposition that “women’s minds and experience are intrinsically valuable and indispensable to any civilization”—work that Emerson calls the imagination, that comes “by the intellect being where and what it sees, by sharing the path, or circuit of things through forms, and so making them translucid to others.”

Emerson’s call for self-trust in the aftermath of the financial panic of 1837, Rich’s summons to engage in the democratic struggle to align ideals with reality, Terry Tempest Williams’ insistence on questioning, standing, speaking, acting—these are the voices filling the open space of what we might come to call democracy.

Emerson, History, Politics

In a series of lectures at Boston’s Masonic Temple in 1836 and 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson worked through the ideas that would in appear in the essays we are reading this week from the First Series, “History” and “Politics.” In class we began talking about reading Emerson. Here I want to offer a few notes on Emerson’s intellectual preoccupations, the ideas he is thinking with and through.

Emerson questions the value of what he called “the barren and wearisome chronicle” of events and people that we call history. He also questions the individual as central to the story we call history. In fact he begins the lecture series “Lectures on the Philosophy of History” with the claim that “we arrive at the great discovery that there is one mind common to all men: that what is individual is less than what is universal.” He goes on to say that “Every being in nature has its existence so connected with other beings that if set apart from them it would instantly perish.” He will repeat this formulation be claiming that the individual is diminished when separate from. “Insulate a man and you annihilate him. He cannot unfold, he cannot live without a world.” In his lecture “Art,” he goes so far as to say that in creating a work of art the artist must “deindividualize” him or herself.

To think with Emerson about history is to turn over the soil in the seedbed of American individualism. Often Emerson is understood as the father of this idea and his essay “Self Reliance” cited as its gospel. Indeed, in the essay “History,” Emerson appears to endorse a subjective approach to knowledge, to knowing the past. However in these lectures, as an attentive reader of Emerson will notice, Emerson is working out a distinctive theory of democratic individuality that does not begin with a defense of individual self-determination under threat by an external force, such as a government.

Thinking with Emerson about the individual is to see the common sense notion that the individual is not all, and that the idea of individualism pure and simple (an idea often attributed to Emerson) makes it difficult to understand the ideal of an individual in a democracy. Consider what Emerson says about the relationship between imperfect institutions and the individual citizen 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.

In the essay “Politics” we are considering this week, Emerson begins with a description of this relationship between self “renovation” and the State or its institutions:

In dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institution are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born: that they are not superior to the citizen: that every one of them was once the act of a single man: every law and usage was a man’s expedient to meet a particular case: that they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better. Society is an illusion to the young citizen. It lies before him in rigid repose, with certain names, men, and institutions, rooted like oak-trees to the centre, round which all arrange themselves the best they can. But the old statesman knows that society is fluid; there are no such roots and centres; but any particle may suddenly become the centre of the movement, and compel the system to gyrate round it, as every man of strong will, like Pisistratus, or Cromwell, does for a time, and every man of truth, like Plato, or Paul, does forever.

The corollary of Emerson’s instance on self renovation is the contingent institution or the “flow” of society. The lesson is that both institutions and societies are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better.”

Another fascinating connection is between the individual and creative work. In a later essay, Emerson returns to the relationship between the present and the past, the individual and the tradition that constitute our lives. The passage is useful for us, too, as readers and writers in an age that prizes the idea of originality:

Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant, – and this commonly on the ground of other reading or hearing, – that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs, and laws; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs by imitation.

Interested in reading more from Emerson on the idea of the individual and originality? See Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Quotation and Originality,” Letters and Social Aims.

Emerson Reading History

“Let it suffice that in the light of these two facts, namely, that the mind is One, and that nature is its correlative, history is to be read and written”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

What are we to make of Emerson reading history? “There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time,” he writes in the third paragraph of “History,” the opening essay in in the First Series of essays published in 1841. His essay probes the relation between our lives and the past to build a case for reading and writing history “actively and not passively.”

For Emerson, the reading of history is an act designed to empower a reader, or in his words, “to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary.” This is a radical proposition—should we have the ability to read it. It is a proposition that was radical in Emerson’s time as well as our own. What it really means to “live amid hallucinations,” as Emerson will say in his essay “Illusions,” is to live a life of unrealized potential. We read history to know our selves.

Early in the essay Emerson appears to reduce history to the interpretation of a single person. “All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography.” Yet to presume that he is endorsing a subjective approach to knowledge, or to knowing the past, is to misread Emerson. For as the essay goes on to elaborate, history will only come alive when we make the past a part of ourselves—for we are defined through the ongoing process of relating to the world around us. “Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself, — must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know,” Emerson writes. The challenge is to bring history alive in the present, to make it an inseparable part of our experience in the world. As Emerson explains, “All inquiry into antiquity, — all curiosity respecting the Pyramids, the excavated cities, Stonehenge, the Ohio Circles, Mexico, Memphis, — is the desire to do away this wild, savage, and preposterous There or Then, and introduce in its place the Here and the Now.”

For Emerson, history is not limited to “the civil and metaphysical history of man.” For he also talks about natural history, the history of the external world:

But along with the civil and metaphysical history of man, another history goes daily forward, — that of the external world, — in which he is not less strictly implicated. He is the compend of time; he is also the correlative of nature. His power consists in the multitude of his affinities, in the fact that his life is intertwined with the whole chain of organic and inorganic being.

Whether or not we are studying cultural or natural history, we only come to know history when that knowledge becomes ourselves. “Civil and natural history, the history of art and of literature, must be explained from individual history, or must remain words.”

The essay “History” is a users guide to reading and writing history—to making history. For Emerson, in reading history actively we are engaging in the building of ourselves. That is to say, as a student of history, I release “the genius and creative principle of each and of all eras in my own mind.” When Emerson says at the end of the essay that a person is “a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world,” he means what he says.