Democratic Culture: A Critical Prospectus

Democracy + Culture I: the gradual domestication of the idea

“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.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar”

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”

“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

By the time Whitman began composing the words that would find their way into his 1871 essay “Democratic Vistas,” America was experiencing an unprecedented historical transformation. As Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner note in their 1873 novel The Gilded Age, the “eight years in America from 1860 to 1868 uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations.” Indeed, as the cultural historian Alan Trachtenberg has suggested, the stakes of Whitman’s essay are high as he uses the word culture “as a pivot on which he sharply and decisively departs from the genteel sense of the word” (Democratic 22). In fact, Whitman’s assessment of the cultural conditions in America is acute. “We had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face like a physician diagnosing some deep disease,” he advises. “Never more was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States” (PW 2: 369). Whitman’s use of a corporeal metaphor organizes the interiority of America’s anxieties. But what may first appear as Whitman’s lack of sympathy with social and political life is a deeper and more complex response. For the true measure of Whitman’s political engagement in “Democratic Vistas” is his embrace of the idea of democracy. For despite the fact that political Reconstruction remained “still in abeyance, the United States appeared to his eyes “far less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come” (362).

Whitman’s equivocation is notable, even extraordinary, in its articulation of the need for a commitment to the idea of democracy—a commitment to a belief in democratic ideas, values, and practices. One hears a similar commitment in the writing of another nineteenth century writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as in the words of Abraham Lincoln in his “Second Annual Message” (in which he articulates the proposed policy of Emancipation):

It is not ‘can any of us imagine better?’ but ‘can we all do better?’ The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is now, we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

The philosopher Stanley Cavell has described this commitment in simple terms: the inevitable struggle “to keep the democratic hope alive in the face of disappointment with it” (Conditions 56–57). Democracy in these terms is a constitutive process that depends upon forms of critical and creative engagement. This experimental process of democratic culture is what John Dewey described, in an essay we read together this semester, as a “creative democracy”— a provisional, open-ended, and imperfect process that make possible communal decisions while giving equal consideration to individuals.

This conception of democratic culture as something to be achieved resonates in the literary and cultural history of the United States. “I have always believed democracy is best practiced through its construction, not its completion—a never-ending project where the windows and doors remain open, a reminder to never close ourselves off to the sensory impulses of eyes and ears alert toward justice,” writes Terry Tempest Williams. Dewey’s critical optimism, and the utopian pragmatism of those who embrace democracy as an evolutionary process, are useful: they can help us understand democratic ideas and ideals, on the one hand, and come to terms with the less lofty and brutal realities of lived experience in the United States, on the other.

In Whitman’s struggle to reconcile culture with democracy, he makes a case for what the critic Horace Kallen would call in the twentieth century “cultural pluralism.” In an 1883 letter (Whitman: Poetry and Prose 1170) Whitman explains his position:

We Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them out, to unify them. They will be found ampler than supposed, and in widely different sources. Thus far, impress’d by New England writers and schoolmasters, we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only—which is a very great mistake.

Whitman would echo this sentiment in an essay first published in the North American Review in March 1891, “American National Literature,” asking his reader, “What is our Country itself but an infinitely vast and varied collation.”

Kallen’s 1970 Culture and Democracy in the United States rejects the “superimposed unity” of a national culture but instead unities that are “eventual, not primary; mutual adjustments, not regimentations of superior force” (179). The problem of cultural pluralism as a feature of democracy in the United States, for Kallen, is that democracy has become “a eulogium applied variously—to an article of political faith, abstract and metaphysically grounded; to an attitude of mind; to a program of reform. It is simultaneously and successively an engine accessory to the class struggle; a process of social conflict and readjustment; and a formulary sanctification of the status quo” (191). (The note below offers a useful lead for anyone who might be interested in situating Kallen and the idea of cultural pluralism in the racial politics of the twentieth century.) It is not surprising that the phrase democratic culture is contested ground.

The Democracy + Culture Project takes as inspiration a model of democratic culture described by Walt Whitman in “Democratic Vistas.” In his reflection on the word “culture” he writes,

I do not so much object to the name, or word, but I should certainly insist, for the purposes of these States, on a radical change of category, in the distribution of precedence. I should demand a programme of culture, drawn out, not for a single class alone, or for the parlors or lecture-rooms, but with an eye to practical life, the west, the working-men, the facts of farms and jack-planes and engineers, and of the broad range of the women also of the middle and working strata, and with reference to the perfect equality of women, and of a grand and powerful motherhood. I should demand of this programme or theory a scope generous enough to include the widest human area. . . .

Whitman’s project or program begins in the inclusive idea that the scope of creative and critical practice would extend to practical life. It replaces an abstract understanding of citizenship with the common practices through which individuals and collectives create and negotiate cultural life and meaning. That is, it pivots from the deliberative political mechanisms of classical liberalism, as well as the social and political hegemonies of cultural institutions, the vocabulary of mass culture, and the practices of consumption that organize and constrain the creative and critical practices upon which the idea of democratic culture is built.

The idea of a constitutional democracy as a cultural artifact has a story 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). Doris Sommer adds that a constitutional democracy remains open to performative intervention—an echo of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s comment on political institutions, that “they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better.” For Sommer, the point is the inherent obligation for “citizens to cultivate their creativity and criticism” in the open space of a democratic culture.

The pedagogical work of the arts and the humanities is an essential resource and a space for exploring the practices that make up culture. With text-based interpretation as one among many ways to engage, the Democracy + Culture Project takes the practices of democracy as an artifact that incites creative engagement, exploration and expression, and transformation. Critical and creative explorations at the intersection of art, literature, and engagement open up areas for human agency and reinvest in the prospects and promises of democracy.

Note and Further Reading: The production of racial and cultural identity is beyond the scope of this essay. Further reading on this subject might begin with Walter Benn Michaels’ argument in Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (1995) in which he argues that cultural pluralism is a form of racial pluralism. For Michaels, “cultural pluralism” is an oxymoron; its commitment to culture is contradicted by its commitment to pluralism. For, on the one hand, the pluralist claim that our practices are justified only because they are better for us requires us to be able to say who we are independent of those practices and so requires us to produce our racial identity. But, on the other hand, the cultural claim denies the relevance of race and so leaves us unable to appeal to facts about who we are as justifications for what we do. Cultural pluralist are forced to choose between culture and pluralism” (140-41). Michaels points out, however, that it is essential to see that “pluralism can no more be thought of as a simple extension of racism than it can be thought of as a repudiation of racism since,” as he argues, “it produces a fundamental change in what racism is.” It is also important to note, as Michaels adds, “that the substitution for race (the idea that ethnic identity is culturally rather than genetically transmitted) can never, as long as cultural identity counts as anything more than a description, be complete (161).

Democracy + Culture II: “Catch if you can your country’s moment, begin”

Culture is the name for what people are interested in, their thoughts, their models, the books they read and the speeches they hear, their table-talk, gossip, controversies, historical sense and scientific training, the values they appreciate, the quality of life they admire. All communities have a culture. It is the climate of their civilization.

—Walter Lippman, A Preface to Politics (1913)

It is a terrific problem that faces the poet today—a world that is so in transition from a decayed culture toward a reorganization of human evaluations that there are few common terms, general denominators of speech that are solid enough or that ring with any vibration of spiritual conviction. The great mythologies of the past (including the Church) are deprived of enough façade to even launch good raillery against. Yet much of their traditions are operative still—in millions of chance combinations of related and unrelated detail, psychological references, figures of speech, precepts, etc. these are all a part of our common experience and the terms, at least partially, of that very experience when it defines or extends itself.

—Hart Crane, “General Aims and Theories,” included as an appendix in Phillip Horton’s Hart Crane (1937)

The arts have a complex relation to society. The poet isn’t a fixed phenomenon, no more is his work.

—William Carlos Williams, “Introduction” to The Wedge (1944)

What should the artist be today? What must he be? What can he do? To what purpose? What does he effect? How does he function? What enters into it? The economic, the sociological: how is he affected? How does his being a man or a woman, one of a certain race, an American enter into it?”

—William Carlos Williams, Against the Weather: A Study of the Artists” (1939)

The poet and doctor William Carlos Williams once described how in finding itself, “as a democracy, unable to take up the moral and economic implications of its new conditions, which Jefferson lived and proposed, America slumped back to fashion on the one, favored side, and, having slighted the difficult real, it fell back at the same time to unrelated, crazy rigidities an imbecilities of formal pattern” (139). The contrast Williams makes here is between people “taking up” what he calls “the intrinsic elements of an as yet unrealized material . . . the actuality of their lives” and “slumping back to” the cultural inheritance of the past.

However, Williams’ interest in his 1934 essay “The American Background” is “something much deeper: a relation to the immediate conditions of the matter in hand” (143). He proposes that the “burning need of every culture” is to lift the qualities of a place into an intelligible whole. For Williams, a culture must not be handed down but taken up—that is, culture is an activity, a process:

It has to be where it arises, or everything related to life there ceases. It isn’t a thing: it’s an act. If it stands still, it is dead. It is the realization of the qualities of a place in relation to the life which occupies it; embracing everything involved, climate, geographic position, relative size, history, other cultures—as well as the character of its sands, flowers, minerals and the condition of knowledge within its borders. It is the act of lifting these things into an ordered and utilized whole which is culture, It is not something left over afterward. That is the record only. The act is the thing. (157)

This definition of culture will recall for readers of Williams a method of history he enacts in his 1925 book In the American Grain, a method that contrasts the static order of historical “facts” with the activity of ordering historical material—“to rename the things seen, now lost in the chaos of borrowed titles.”

For Williams, the making of history is analogous to the making of art: for in both cultural contexts the ground of understanding must always be reimagined to accommodate the changing conditions of human experience. The more ambitious claim is for a culture of democracy: a culture in which a literary and cultural inheritance is precisely not incorporated into what H.L. Mencken called a “civilized aristocracy.” Rather it is a cultural program that, in the words of Walt Whitman, would “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.” As Whitman elaborates in his 1881 essay, “Carlyle from American Points of View,” “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.” Citizens in a modern democratic culture would take up the “claims and general movement and result of ideas” in the prospective work of democratic life.

Cultivating what Williams calls “the growing edge in every culture” begins with democratic literacy—the creative and critical engagements in a democratic culture. These engagements, in Doris Sommer’s more recent definition, begin with an embrace of critical thinking as “both a condition of and a complement to art making-world making in [John] Dewey’s pragmatic and democratizing sense of art as experience-that sparks more exploration and more experience” (10). The very idea of democratic culture becomes possible when we understand ourselves as creative artists and citizens in the creative democracy Dewey imagined, and that we continue to struggle to enact every day.

The idea of democratic culture in the work of Emerson, Whitman, and Williams begins in the struggle to realize an ideal in a less-than-ideal world. As the political philosopher Robert A. Dahl explains, gross inequalities and persistent contradictions have posed “enormous challenges to democracy” in the United States:

Differences between the rights, duties, influence, and power of slaves and free men, rich and poor, landed and landless, master and servant, men and women, day laborers and apprentices, skilled craftworkers and owners, burghers and bankers, feudal lords and tenants, nobles and commoners, monarchs and their subjects, the kings officials and those they ordered about. Even free men were highly unequal in status, wealth, work, obligations, knowledge, freedom, influence, and power. And in many places the wife of a free man was regarded by law, custom, and practice as his property. Then, as always and everywhere the logic of equality ran head-on into the brute facts of inequality. (23)

What Whitman called in “Democratic Vistas” the “conflicting and irreconcilable interiors” are for James Baldwin amplified by the social process through which “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. (“The Creative Process”)

For Baldwin, we too often don’t want to know what we need to know, a call to engagement that reverberates in the poems Adrienne Rich includes in her 1991 book An Atlas of the Difficult World:

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)

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, in the words of the poet Muriel Rukeyser, when you think of your country.

Democracy + Culture III: There are Roads to Take

I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ’d in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ’d in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout.

       —Walt Whitman, “Democratic Vistas,” 1871

Democratic culture depends upon not only engagement and persistence but also diversification, argues Horace Kallen in 1970. “Cultural growth is founded upon Cultural Pluralism,” Kallen insists in Culture and Democracy in the United States. It is only in “manyness, variety, differentiation,” he elaborates, “only in a democratic society whose institutions encourage individuality in groups, in persons, in temperaments, whose program liberates these individualities and guides them into a fellowship of freedom and cooperation” (43). The corollary of pluralistic democratic culture is democratic literacy. In the “Prologue” to The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities, Doris Sommer refers to the “long tradition of democracy that develops side by side with aesthetics” (1). Sommer points to the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010) to reinforce the case that democracy becomes tenuous when education is designed merely to produce economically productive workers.

The argument is that the cultivation of those critical and creative capacities—the capacity to be active, thoughtful, engaged— make possible a democratic culture. Fredrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794) and Viktor Shklovsky’s Shklovsky Art as Technique (1913), Antanas Mockus and his “por amor al arte” (For the Love of Art) platform in Colombia, for Sommer, are models for thinking about creative social practice.

This way of thinking is that art is a way of intervening in normative practices or habits so that people are thinking adaptively and creatively. In the chapter on Mockus and relational art Sommer elaborates on the idea of “defamiliarization”: “This is why bilingual and bicultural games are a source of endless fun and wisdom as they track the artful failures of language. Misunderstanding, intentional or not, is also why foreigners help keep democracy dynamic, by asking unlikely questions that stimulate justification or reform” (27). Social and cultural change is not here defined as a cause and effect, an instrumental solution to a discrete and definable problem. Rather the fun, in this case, or the stimulation, is precisely the point. Another way of talking about this is to hear the echo here of Dewey and his more capacious definition of art as a critical and creative activity. “Art thrives on nonconformity, exploration, expression, and the development of individuality” (48), with the qualification that “art” is an experience available to all. Reading Doris Sommer, too, we are reminded of a Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, who took these questions seriously. His wonderful little book Teachers as Cultural WorkersLetters to Those Who Dare Teach makes the case that teachers, and the institutions in which they work, are responsible for cultivating democracy. One of the most inspiring dimensions of Freire’s pedagogy was his suspicion of “the pedagogical populism that prefers easier engagements, because full citizenship requires high-order literacy” (112).

But how do we cultivate creativity and criticism in the open space of democracy? Both the cultural critic Sommer and the artist Pablo Helguera offer reflections on modes of pedagogy and the theory and the practice that brings them to life. (See the 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 is 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. 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.

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 Ta-Nehisi Coates—of drawing us into consciousness.

In Between The World and Me (2015) 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 toward something like what Whitman calls at the end of “Democratic Vitas.” “Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not on a few coteries of writers,” what Rich calls in An Atlas of the Difficult World “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.” 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). Or, in the words of Adrienne Rich, “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.”

Whether in archives or outside of them, or whether in museums or in the streets, our cultural activities are constitutive of our democratic life. These activities made possible by an open cultural space and a spirit of creative interventions, critical conversations, and communicative actions. A vibrant democratic culture requires a continual effort to cultivate democratic literacy—the civic arts of creativity and criticism.

However, the conversation about democratic literacy raises questions about what we mean by learning, by education. Richard Rorty’s essay Education as Socialization and as Individuation, from his book Philosophy and Social Hope (1999), talks about the institutions that do this work, secondary schools and colleges. He talks about the cultural debates over cultural literacy and the confusion about a word “education” that refers to “two entirely distinct, and equally necessary, processes— socialization and individualization. Rorty then puts his cards on the table:

I think that the conservatives are wrong in thinking that we have either a truth-tracking faculty called ‘reason’ or a true self that education brings to consciousness. I think that the radicals are right in saying that if you take care of political, economic, cultural and academic freedom, then truth will take care of itself. But I think the radicals are wrong in believing that there is a true self that will emerge once the repressive influence of society is removed. There is no such thing as human nature, in the deep sense in which Plato and Strauss used this term. Nor is there such a thing as alienation from one’s essential humanity due to societal repression, in the deep sense made familiar by Rousseau and the Marxists. There is only the shaping of an animal into a human being by a process of socialization, followed (with luck) by the self-individualization and self-creation of that human being through his or her own later revolt against that very process.

He then draws out an interpretation of John Dewey’s contribution to our understanding of what education is, what it is for:

Dewey’s great contribution to the theory of education was to help us get rid of the idea that education is a matter of either inducing or educing truth. Primary and secondary education will always be a matter of familiarizing the young with what their elders take to be true, whether it is true or not. It is not, and never will be, the function of lower-level education to challenge the prevailing consensus about what is true. Socialization has to come before individuation, and education for freedom cannot begin before some constraints have been imposed.

We Deweyans think that the social function of American colleges is to help the students see that the national narrative around which their socialization has centred is an open-ended one. It is to tempt the students to take themselves into people who can stand to their own pasts as Emerson and Anthony, Debs and Baldwin, stood to their pasts. This is done by helping the students realize that, despite the progress that the present has made over the past, the good has once again become the enemy of the better. With a bit of help, the students will start noticing everything that is paltry and mean and unfree in their surroundings.

The challenge is to describe how creative cultural practices—let’s say art on a wall of the American University in Cairo, music festivals, urban architecture and design, identity formation in sport, social justice movements, writers collectives, body art, and so on—enact, intervene, construct, reveal, reframe the experience and the possibilities of democratic life.

Doris Sommer advocates an “integrated approach to literacy, art, and civics” to develop “personal faculties and collective disposition for democratic life” (112). One model is Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, in which Sommer argues, we can come to see 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 disconnect us from routine habits, preconceptions, and expectations.

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, then, is a call for “self-renovation.” And in the literary and cultural tradition of the United States one finds again and again the idea that the road begins with the movement of the self amidst the dark and turbulent waters of the present.


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