Tag Archives: Terry Tempest Williams

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

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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.

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.