Home » Theory

Category Archives: Theory

When the map seems larger than the territory

On one of the websites for students of rhetorical theory, conversation has recently focused on the status of psychoanalytic criticism and the question of whether its insights are being willfully ignored by the larger field.  Josh Gunn kicked off the discussion, in part, by noting that despite recent interest, “rhetorical theory — at least on the communication [studies] side – is hampered by a certain blind spot caused by the avoidance of psychoanalysis, and more specifically, the inadmissibility of the category of the unconscious.”  Gunn rightly wonders at the absurdity of this given how many revered figures in rhetorical theory have been explicitly influenced by or have reacted against Freud, Lacan, Klein, Jung and others.

In the ensuing back-and-forth a range of perspectives have been expressed:  some writing to agree that psychoanalysis does seem to provoke unique antipathy from students assigned to encounter it, others speculating on the causes (is it because communication was more a journal than a book field?  did the discipline’s work in response to behaviorism inoculate scholars against its insights?  has psychoanalysis been more widely tainted, thus deterring investigation from the outset?), and so on.  Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the explanations veer to the therapeutic – several responses convey anecdotes of a visceral (and by implication anti-intellectual) refusal to take psychoanalytic work seriously:  sneering senior scholars, wink-wink-nudge-nudge sorts of boundary policing behavior, and the (not-so-)subtle steering of graduate students away from the theoretical insights of psychoanalysis.

As I’ve been thinking about all this I don’t find myself in particular disagreement except that I don’t think this phenomenon is unique to psychoanalysis.  Rather, I think what we are seeing are the ongoing consequences of theoretical hyper-specialization, where these are simply several of many local occurrences.  By contrast to those who continue to announce the Death of Theory, it seems to me that we are still working to live with the consequences of having at our disposal So Many Seriously Elaborated Theories, which in turn gives rise to a mostly frustrating situation where the maps seem richer, or at least larger, than the territory.

I do not note this to endorse hostility to the elaboration of theoretical sophistication, but simply to note how glutted we are with it.  I think the symptoms of this, at least in communication studies, are everywhere:  A more ready willingness to abandon the mega-conferences in preference for more intimate niche meetings where one can burrow in and keep up.  The tendency to assign secondary sources even in doctoral seminars, or, when primary works are struggled with, to isolate them from the conversations in which they participated (which results in an alternative tendency to see originary controversies, such as the big arguments between Foucault and Sartre, or Fraser and Habermas, as pretty much settled history to be filed in the same category with “the earth is round”). A growing impatience with efforts to provide arms-length or peer review or other gate-keeping work undertaken in the effort to make comprehensible the incoming ocean of new material, and a more widespread corrosive cynicism about the larger enterprise.  The increasing frequency of major conference presentations, even given by serious senior scholars, that don’t seem to say much of anything new but mostly offer a repetition of the theoretically same.  An inclination to see friendly work as fully appreciating the rich nuance of my own tradition, and hostile work as reducing my tradition to caricature.  A wider tendency to see the dissertation not as evidencing a student’s ability to undertake a serious research project, but as an indication of the project whose trajectory will forever define a career.

Another key marker is the level of defensiveness, sometimes veering into animus, I hear often expressed by the advocates of every perspective who feel their work is under siege:  Marxist theory, argumentation studies, close textual analysis, historical/archival work, postcolonial and queer theory, cultural studies, feminist scholarship, and the list could be considerably lengthened.  All feel under attack and to some extent sustain intellectual solidarity by insisting enemies are at the gate.  And within these traditions fragmentation continues apace – a longstanding theme in a number of the convention conversations I hear is how scholars who for many years have labored to make visible the cultural contributions of gays and lesbians see themselves as today marginalized by queer theory, and in turn how queer theory seems to be marginalizing bisexual and transgendered approaches.  This is a theme not limited to rhetorical studies but is more widely sensed within the broader inquiry of communication scholars:  the television studies people feel like they aren’t taken seriously, and so do the performance theorists, the cinema studies scholars, the interpersonal researchers, the quantoids, the public opinion theorists, those who first encountered communication through forensics or theater, the TV and film production faculty, ethnographers, organizational communication scholars, mass communication empiricists, public relations practitioners, and those who teach students for industry work.

As my career has taken me in the direction of administrative work, I see the same trends more widely as they shape conversations within the humanities and beyond.  When I first had the audacity in a meeting of chairs from the full range of disciplines to say that external resources are harder to find in the humanities – I thought everyone agreed with that – I was surprised that the most assertive push-back came from a colleague in biology, who was there to argue in detail his relative deprivation within the wider university.  His case was not absurd:  it is hard to argue anyone is properly supported in the modern public research university.

I don’t see this defensiveness as a reflection of bad faith or of animus.  For in a sense all of us are right – one does have to exercise eternal vigilance in defending one’s research perspective, because in a universe of so many well-elaborated accounts of human behavior the most likely danger is being forgotten or overshadowed given the broader cacophony.  Thus the paradox that while more journals are now published in the humanities than ever before, the individual researchers I talk with see fewer and fewer outlets available for their sort of work.  Or, to further mix the metaphors, there are not only more intellectual fortresses today, but they are better fortified against attack and protected against the wandering tourist and amateur dabbler than ever before.

It is true, I suppose, that within each theoretical community are some who treat, say, Anti-Oedipus or Lacan’s seminars or the Prison Notebooks or the Rhetoric as holy scripture.  But the issue is less that each theorist has induced a cult than that, in general, scholars who are otherwise persuaded they cannot possibly know every perspective well, tend to stick with the one rich approach into which they were first acculturated.  And so what was and is seen by some as a sort of happy theoretical pluralism, a view still promoted by the wider impulses to boundary-cross and be interdisciplinary and all the rest, has devolved into a more frequently expressed surliness about colleagues who “won’t do the work to stay current,” a wider reliance on secondary sources like the Dummy guides and Cambridge Companions, the more frequent play (in responding to outsider critics) of the “you don’t appreciate the subtlety of my theory when it comes to ___” card, and an even more common resort by the basically friendly to the tactic of heavy-note-taking silence or the helpful “you should really read [insert my theorist],” or, more generally, “have you thought about this?” conference response or query.  One of the most common questions i hear my colleagues ask of one another is one I often ask myself:  “If you could recommend three or four short and accessible overviews to ____ that would help me get up to speed, what would you suggest?”  It’s asking for an academic life preserver.

Less of all this is sparked by ill will or ideological refusal than by the simple unwillingness to confess “I am unable to offer a thoughtful response to your read of Ranciere because I didn’t know he would be discussed today and so I didn’t have the chance to beef up on my Ranciere for Dummies, and because it takes every minute I have available for intellectual work just to keep up on my Burke.”  The eye rolling response is sometimes thus less reflective of substantively well-grounded opposition than the expression of a weirdly humble recognition of the game we think everyone is playing: the gotcha strategem of “there s/he goes again showing off everything s/he knows about Cicero.”  At a time when credible humanistic research is said to be impossible apart from mastery of all social theory, all of the philosophical and aesthetic traditions, and (increasingly) the life sciences (cognitive theory, evolutionary psychology, accounts of chaos and networks and more), and the globalized set of artifacts that underwrite comparative work, the task seems overwhelming.

My point is not to be alarmist or defeatist about the enterprise.  Specialization is not new, and has elicited expressions of concern for generations.  To some extent the theoretical proliferation is self correcting – people participating in a bounded academic conversation do move on and not every carefully enunciated perspective finds a following.  There remain exceptionally skilled intellectuals who seem to know everything and who are apparently able to keep up with all the wider literatures.  And too often the expressed difficulties in “keeping up” exaggerate the challenge in an age when more resources than ever are available to enable one’s informational literacy, and when “I don’t have the time to understand [feminist] [critical race] [queer] theory” is a too-convenient excuse to ignore perspectives that elites brushed off even when Renaissance Giants Walked the Earth and only had to stay current on the sum of human knowledge contained in fifty books.

And because the challenges of surfing the sea of new literature and getting others interested in one’s work are by now so universal, I have little to offer to the range of problematic correctives.  The idea of reinstating a common canon holds little appeal, and for good reason.  Nor is announcing the Death of Theory, or insisting on the Priority of the Local or the Case, especially compelling.  My own preference, given a background in debating, is to “teach the controversies,” but that approach isn’t ideologically innocent either.  If book publishers survive, I think the impetus to anthologies that now characterizes cinema studies is likely to expand more widely within communication scholarship.  But there are dangers in too readily recommending hyper-specialization in doctoral students, paper writing revved up out of fast tours of JSTOR and Project Muse, and too quickly acceding to happy talk about theoretical pluralism.  Better, in our own intellectual labors, to insistently listen to and reach out to other perspectives and work like hell to keep up with the wider world of humanistic scholarship.

And sometimes, if only as a mechanism to preserve one’s sanity, a little eye rolling may also be in order.  Just keep it to yourself please.

The future of globalized literary history

A 2008 special issue of New Literary History (vol. 39) is focused on the future of literary history (and, relatedly, comparative literary studies) given globalization.  To some extent one can track the complicated history of World Literature through the early and influential essays of Rene Wellek, who advocated for comparative scholarship even as he warned against the dangers of investing disciplinary energy in the search for covering laws and causal relationships between literature and the wider society.  The titles of Wellek’s much-cited 1958 talk, “The Crisis of Comparative Literature,” and his 1973 essay “The Fall of Literary History,” convey some sense of his pessimism about the prospects for defensible work.

Of course the very term World Literature has to be carefully used since one must always demarcate the multiple possibilities implied by the phrase.  Some use World Literature to reference all the literature produced in the world, some see it as referring to Kant and Goethe’s dream (Goethe in 1827:  “a universal world literature is in the process of being constituted”) of an international body of transcendently superb literature, and still others to reference those few novels that have found truly international fame.  And so some who are invested in comparative work today, often undertaken to throw American cultural productions into a wider perspective of circulation and resistance, prefer terms like transcultural literary history (Pettersson).  In the context of the theoretical care one must take even to begin this kind of work (the complications of which are unwittingly revealed in Walter Veit’s summation of Linda Hutcheon’s call for a “new history of literature” which “has to be constructed as a relational, contrapuntal, polycommunal, polyethnic, multiperspectival comparative history”), the project remains inherently appealing:  who would oppose the idea of research that induces cross-cultural sensitivity and understanding, even realizing its final impossibility?

After buzzing along for decades, or at least since the 1950’s when the International Comparative Literature Association first met to debate the potential for doing literary historical work, new attention has been given to transcultural literary studies thanks to two much-discussed interventions:  Franco Moretti’s essay, “Conjectures on World Literature” (which forms the anchor for a 2004 anthology on Debating World Literature released by Verso and which formed a sort of introduction to his widely read book a year later) and Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters (trans. M.B. DeBevoise; Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard UP, 2004).  Moretti’s work has gotten a lot of attention given his heretical view that the sheer quantity of the world’s literature, which now escapes the possibilities of close textual analysis, now requires distant reading, which is to say sophisticated forms of macro-data analysis that can reveal patterns of novelistic diffusion worldwide.

But things get tricky fast.  Fredric Jameson, who leads off and who has long expressed skepticism about the work of literary historians (noting in an address to a 1984 Hong Kong conference on Rewriting Literary History that “few of us think of our work in terms of literary history,” and having subsequently called repeated attention to the essentially ahistorical nature of postmodernity), argues that the dialectical impulses of economic globalization simultaneously promise cultural liberation even as the economic chains are slowly tightened, and in ways that finally limit the range of cultural productions as well.  To be concrete, Jameson highlights how global capital appears to open all cultures to all populations, even as, over time, a shrinking number of transnational conglomerates end up ultimately stifling all but the handful of mainly English-language novels able to turn a profit.  He is especially keen on Michael Mann’s argument that the global economy is “encaging” – that is, as Jameson describes it, “the new global division of labor is” organized so that “at first it is useful for certain countries to specialize…. Today, however, when self-sufficiency is a thing of the past, and when no single country, no matter what its fertility, any longer feeds itself, it becomes clearer what this irreversibility means.  You cannot opt out of the international division of labor any longer” (376).

The cage ensnares more tightly – and not only because “smaller national publishers are absorbed into gigantic German or Spanish publishing empires,” but because a handful of mega-publishers end up publishing all the textbooks kids read even as budding authors everywhere are subtly persuaded to buy in because of their “instinctive desire to be read by the West and in particular in the United States and in the English language:  to be read and to be seen and observed by this particular Big Other” (377).  So what are literary historians to do that will not invariably make them simply complicit in all this?  Jameson, a little bizarrely I think, argues for a sort of criticism that imagines the world-making possibilities of novels-yet-unwritten-that-one-imagines-as-ultimately-failing-to-liberate.  This sort of creative criticism “raises the ante,” according to Jameson, because it helps its audiences recognize the actual “persistence, if insufficiently imagined and radicalized, of current stereotypes of literary history” (381).

Brian Stock, at the University of Toronto, reads the current scene from within the larger new traditions of developmental and cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience.  What work done in these areas suggests is that reading has a profound cognitive (and universal) influence on human beings, whose plastic minds are essentially reconfigured by repeated participation in practices of literacy.  As Stock see is,”the only way in which reading can be related to the ubiquitous problem of globalization in communications, without running the risk of new types of intellectual colonization, is by demonstrating that it is in the genetic inheritance for interpreting language in its written or ideographic form that is the truly ‘global’ phenomenon, since it is potentially shared by everyone who can read…  [I]f this approach can be agreed upon, the natural partner of globalization will become a scientifically defended pluralism” (406).

Walter Veit, at Monash University, sees the interpretive key as residing in temporality, which can never be linguistically articulated (Paul Ricouer:  “temporality cannot be spoken of in the direct discourse of phenomenology”) except in novelistic narrative, where the arc of the narrative makes some sense of time’s passage and where, following Hayden White, the linguistic operations of rhetorical tropes and figures provide metaphorical access to the otherwise inexpressible.  One is left with a more sanguine sense of the future within these terms:  both for an analysis of the multiple ways in which the world’s literatures construct time and its passing, and with respect to literary criticism, which is always embedded in the particular and always changing practices of its time and audiences.  Such a view is well supplemented by Nirvana Tanoukhi’s claim that the challenge of understanding transnational literature is also foundationally a question of scale and locale and spaces of production.

The work of literary history, and the conceptualization even of its very possibility, is, finally,  a representative anecdote for the broader work of the humanities.  This is a theme apprehended both by Hayden White, who notes that the questions raised in the symposium reflect the larger conditions of historical knowledge as such, and by David Bleich, who notes the close affinity between the work of literary historians and the broader work of the university (where “scholars have always been involved in the mixing of societies, the sharing of languages and literatures, and the teaching of their findings and understandings,” pg. 497).  The university plays a culturally central role in translating other cultures (for students, for the audiences of its research) that is fraught with all the perils of the work of writing intercultural history – hubris, caricature, misapprehension.  But the effort to make sense of the wider world, however risky, is also indispensable, if only because the alternatives – unmitigated arrogance and blinkered ignorance – are so much worse.

The death of the literary critic

I’ve just finished Rónán McDonald’s little book, The Death of the Critic (London: Continuum, 2007), the broad point of which is to decry the diminution of the literary critical role in society that was formerly occupied by well trained readers like Calvin Trilling, Matthew Arnold, F.R. Leavis, and writers who also produced criticism, like T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag.  Criticism has been democratized by the blogosphere, mostly in ways McDonald sees as insidious; as he puts it, We Are All Critics Now (4).   And academic attention to literature, he argues, has been dominated by cultural studies perspectives that mostly insist on reading novels as symptoms of capitalism or patriarchy or racism, and in ways that have made criticism less linguistically accessible to a wider readership.  To those who might counter that criticism is more ubiquitous than ever, and who might immediately think of the New York and London book review publications and others, McDonald replies, but “how many books of literary criticism have made a substantial public impression in the last twenty years?”  “Academics in other subjects with a gift for popularizing their subject, like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, Simon Schama and A.C. Grayling, command large non-academic audiences and enjoy high media profiles.  However, there are very few literary critics who take on this role for English” (3).

McDonald sidesteps a lot of the traps characterizing other work critiquing academic literary studies.  He is not defending a return to a Great Books Canon or to the pure celebration of high culture.  His review of the historical debates over the value of criticism make clear that he grasps the complexities in the longer tradition.  He is not hostile to Theory, but rather sees it as having made important contributions that now can be superceded not because theory should be rejected but because its central insights have been mainly and rightly accepted.  McDonald sees the value in the proliferation of critical methods (genre, psychoanalytic, Marxist, formalist, semiotic, New Historicist) even as he argues that this expansion was mainly driven by the demands of 20th-century university culture to devise rigorous quasi-scientific perspectives.  He does not by and large (a notable exception is at pgs. 127-129) disparage cultural studies either substantively or by painting with too broad a brush (in fact, he spends some time defending Raymond Williams as doing the very kind of theoretically informed but also interesting work he would like to see more of).  And he is not finally a doomsayer about the culture; in fact the book closes with a sense of optimism that the attention to literary aesthetics he desires is making a sort of comeback.

Having said all this, McDonald still takes a pretty hard line, especially with respect to the culture war debates of the last half century, which in his view too readily dispatched even the merits of a long tradition of debate over the rightful role of criticism.  He thinks Matthew Arnold has been cartooned, at the expense of his insights about the way an intelligent culture of criticism can produce more interesting art.  Arnold’s defense of critical “disinterestedness,” he notes, has been almost absurdly distorted. The quote most often used to beat Arnold over the head (that criticism’s role is “to make the best that has been thought and known in the world everywhere,” a sentiment that reads like pure colonialism) is usually cited without its introduction, which says that true culture “does not try to reach down to the level of inferior classes but rather seeks to do away with classes; to make the best…”).  The correction obviously doesn’t let Arnold off the hook, but read as against the grain of the broader prejudices of his time, his perspective elaborates a more compelling vision for criticism and the capacity of art to undo elitism than a reading that sees him as simply advocating snobbery.

The case against the blogs and the kind of “thumbs up” criticism that characterize so much newspaper book reviewing and the Oprah Book Club is for McDonald situated in his recognition that the institutional practice of criticism arose under peculiar circumstances that are now being transformed.  As capitalism developed (and here he is following Habermas’ claims about the short-lived emergence of a bourgeois public sphere) and industrialization created new middle classes with leisure time and an interest in cultural elevation, a demand was created for sophisticated taste makers.  There is a tendency today to forget how radically democratic these impulses were:  “this early development was an intellectual movement from below, a way of appropriating and redistributing cultural authority from the aristocracy and land-owning classes” (54).

What is today at risk, in McDonald’s perspective, is the essential role critics can play in challenging popular preconceptions and making the world safe for difficult artworks as they defend or enact idiosyncratic perspectives and nudge or argue audiences toward controversial but potentially essential ways of seeing.  This role requires critics who are educated to the possibilities of literary and artistic generation and who are willing to make and defend evaluative judgments about what art is worthwhile or worthless.  His attack on the bloggers and academic critics is that they either insist on reading new work through existing prejudices or refuse to make evaluative claims at all, not wanting to seem elitist or read as disparaging popular culture.  Critical practice has thus been transformed from offering acts of thoughtful judgment into offering acts of clever insight, where the question implicitly answered is not so much what makes this work aesthetically rich and worth your time? and more did you notice such-and-such about this novel/TV show/film?  Skills of observation are thus elevated over skills of interpretation, and the outcomes of critical engagement are more likely to center on how interesting (or not) a text is, at the expense of how engagement with it might better educate its audience.  Taste has trumped judgment, and the demand for books is more than ever driven by the marketing of a dwindling number of books and the ever-tightening circle of I saw Ann Coulter on Fox and she was nasty and funny and so I think I’ll buy her nasty and funny new book.

McDonald does not do enough to specify exactly what sort of criticism he seeks.  He argues for criticism that makes aesthetic judgments and dismisses those who simply connect novels to the broader culture, but he seems to celebrate Virginia Woolf for doing the very thing he dislikes (in fairness to McDonald, he tries to defend Woolf as striking a sensitive balance between these tendencies).  He argues that criticism that takes an evaluative stand will attract readers, but the argument slides around a bit:  at pg. 130, where this claim is articulated, he starts by noting that boring academic writing turns readers off.  Then he says “those critics who examined popular culture alert to its pleasures found the wider public more ready to listen to what they had to say,” though that seems to imply that audiences are best found when one cheerleads (a position I take as antithetical to his larger purposes).  And then he shifts into a case for critics who write “about the value and delights of art” (note how evaluative judgment, which so far did not play in his perspective on attracting readers, is now slipped back in).  But it isn’t clear how critics who defend judgments are supposed to attract audiences in a world where enthusiastic reviews are likely to be more contagious than briefs for the defense.

But even if the cure is underspecified, I found it hard not to be persuaded by McDonald’s broader diagnosis, and the case for more fully reconnecting academic and popular cultures.

On the relevance of Lionel Trilling

I am aware of no specific anniversary that has prompted the spat of recently revitalized interest in the life work of Lionel Trilling, the legendary Columbia University professor and author most famously of The Liberal Imagination (1950).  But suddenly his writing has sprung back into intellectual circulation:  the first third of an unfinished novel, The Journey Abandoned, has been published this year, and New York Review Books has just reissued The Liberal Imagination.  Read by today’s lights, which is to say to read it outside the culturally dominant frame of the Cold War and American anti-communism that shaped its production and Trilling’s world view, it is hard to imagine what made it a national bestseller (more than 100,000 copies were sold in paperback).  All the essays had previously appeared in print, many in the Partisan Review to which Trilling was long attached, and many of the essays engage particular novelistic texts in ways one would assume rather inaccessible to the wider reading public.  Still, I have found myself attracted to Liberal Imagination (and have been recently reading my way through it), in part because of the way it has been described as a “monument of humanism” (McCarter) but also just to gain purchase on the basis of his enormous influence in American literary critical circles.

Louis Menand’s introduction to the new reprint, which has been strongly attacked by Leon Wieseltier (a Trilling student) as misconstruing Trilling’s sense of the relationship between art and literature and thereby demeaning the sense of urgency Trilling saw in the literary critical enterprise, nonetheless rightly calls attention to a combination of humbled arrogance I find attractive in his work.  Trilling did not mainly want to be remembered as a critic (he wished most of all to be considered a novelist); in fact, because he only knew the English language he expressed the concern that he was not even properly a scholar.  “But,” writes Menand, “although he may not have wanted what he had, and he may not have understood entirely why he had it, he appreciated its value and tended it with care.”  The result is deeply polished prose that, if it fails, likely does so because Trilling’s work is saturated by the expression of dialectical tendencies that can become sources of frustration when one seeks to finally understanding his position, more than any sense of overweening arrogance in his compositional style.

The central theme of the book, which was also a central problematic of Trilling’s lifetime critical production, strikes me as possessing a profound continuing relevance even if Trilling’s own position reads as less coherent than it would have more than a half century ago.  Trilling was concerned to specify and sometimes to ambiguate the relationship between literature and liberal politics.  Liberalism, whose ideological impulses (and this is true of all ideological formations) can lead to an inevitable oversimplification of the human condition (in the case of liberalism by reducing the aim of all politics to the attainment of equality and freedom, which when applied risk doing violence to the rougher edges of the polity that should by liberalism’s own lights be tolerated), required reflective challenge if it was to survive without lapsing into empty and dangerous dogma.  Because conservatism seemed to Trilling an unavailable corrective in producing morally mature individuals (as he famously put it in the preface, “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.  For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.”), it fell to the novelist to interrogate the tendency to empty certitude to which liberalism in all its American variations was prone.

Why literature?  Because great novels (and for Trilling this mainly meant stories to some extent historically distant from contemporary culture) offer representations that invite critical speculation and open ethical vistas.  This is so because the novelist situates moral and political struggle within characters, imagined persons who make ideological abstractions concrete and on account of their embodiment reveal the limits of theory (Donald Pease has suggested that Trilling’s main contribution was to “elevate the liberal imagination [and the liberal anticommunist consensus] into the field’s equivalent of a reality principle”).  Literature, Trilling wrote, is “the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.”  And all this is accomplished in a manner assured to interest and engage readers able to connect emotionally to vivid and rich scenes of imagined human interaction.  The novel thus possesses the twin capacity to enact moral ambiguities while also attracting the interest of audiences more numerous that those who would ever read theology or philosophy or other theory. (Ironically, perhaps, John Vernon criticized Trilling’s later writing as suffering because it offered a wholly disembodied and thus cold analysis, which is to say his criticism lacked the formal virtues of the novel he so regularly praised).

Trilling did not believe that literature always apprehends or represents or has some unique insight into the Truth.  He understood that not all writers see themselves as working in explicit opposition to liberalism, which for him was beside the point since any rich ethical interrogative novel poses an useful if implicit challenge to ideological certitude.  Nor did he believe that writers have (either on account of their separation from the wider culture or their innate madness) special access to privileged knowledge.  He simply believed that writers who attempt to offer richly plotted stories recognizable to their readers will necessarily induce critical analysis and reflection.  As Menand notes, referring to Trilling’s famous essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” Trilling

…had come to believe that “art does not always tell the truth or the best kind of truth and does not always point out the right way, that is can even generate falsehood and habituate us to it, and that, on frequent occasions, it might well be subject, in the interests of autonomy, to the scrutiny of the rational intellect.”  …Humanism might be a false friend. This willingness to follow out the logic of his own premises, to register doubts about a faith for which he is still celebrated by people who are offended by attempts to understand books as fully and completely implicated in their historical times, is the finest thing about his work.

Along with mass culture, literary criticism can too easily become a culprit in degrading the complexity proper to a well-functioning liberalism as well, for if the critic tries to ignore the broader culture and its history altogether (and this was the major shortcoming Trilling saw in the work done under the name New Criticism), or insists on applying the strictures of scientific covering laws or a predetermined ideology, all the richness of the realist novel is erased, thereby simply opposing liberalism’s potential platitudes with the verities of alternatively over-basic theories of collective life.

In judging the contemporary relevance of Trilling’s case for high literary culture one immediately wonders if a position so intimately connected to 1950’s hyper-ideological Cold War culture makes sense given today’s arguably post-ideological times.  Here is the case made by McCarter:

The “Stalinist-colored” ideas that Trilling sought to rebuke are now tough to spot, unless you’re a Fox News contributor.  But even as some liberal excesses have receded, the book has lost none of its urgency.  For it celebrates something that is imperiled in our high-speed, always-on media culture:  imagination itself.  Trilling foresaw the threat:  “The emotional space of the human mind is large but not infinite, and perhaps it will be pre-empted by the substitutes for literature – the radio, the movies, and certain magazines,” he wrote, prophetically.  A shrinking national attention span and eroding reading habits aren’t just bad news for liberal politics.  The moral imagination excited by good books, he argues, teaches us sympathy and a respect for variety:  the waning novel leads to “our waning freedom.”

Such a position is not altogether self-evident, especially given the manner by which popular culture has been vigorously defended in the last quarter-century (or more) as enabling vernaculars both of understanding and potential resistance to the stultifications of ideology.  To specify the point by asking a rather mundane question: why is it that the nation’s critical faculties are raised by reading an E.M. Forster novel (a writer Trilling praised) but not by seeing A Room With a View in the cinema multiplex?  I have not encountered a fully elaborated critique of popular cultural mass mediation so far in Trilling, but can imagine some lines of argument he might attempt.  He might first call to mind his often articulated view that the historical distance created by great novels is required to counteract the tendency to revert to current ideological accounts, possibilities subverted by necessarily simple film or journalistic treatments that translate rich novels into the contemporary vernacular.

Trilling might also evoke the long-standing case against mass culture as inevitably inclined to conformity and utopianism, versions of which often start with the view that, organized as they are by the desire for lowest-common-denominator mass audiences and controversy shyness (since controversy can be a stigma that suppresses profits), mass cultural artifacts will inevitably lapse into intellectual quietism or outright boosterism for self-satisfying verities.  As Hersch puts the potential case, “while literature encourages critical reflection, mass culture produces a predetermined emotional and intellectual response in the reader, discouraging and atrophying the ability to think independently.  Such pseudo-literature encouraged passivity, paving the way for totalitarianism.”  Agree or disagree, it should be noted that this view of mass culture may have contributed to Trilling’s own late-in-life pessimism even regarding the capacity of literature to break through, since (again quoting Hersch), “in a conformist culture, literature presents minority views that are likely to be scorned by the majority” (99).

Even conceding Trilling’s case, which many thoughtful observers of contemporary culture would never do (Herbert Gans and Raymond Williams would stand near the head of a long line), LT is often attacked for his tendency to read liberalism as wholly shaped by a now nonexistent monolithic middle class (that if it existed in the 1950’s certainly does not today, a point that underwrites part of Cornel West’s critique), which given current conditions of fragmentation does not exist in any meaningful way and probably cannot be rearticulated.  Another common criticism is that in developing his case for interrogating liberalism Trilling only paved the way for neoconservatism (a cottage industry continues to debate whether Trilling was a closet case neoconservative:  his wife Diana has adamantly refused the possibility, while Irving Kristol has claimed that LT was simply a neocon lacking the courage to say so in print).

Both arguments, it seems to me, miss the deeper commitment in Trilling’s work to a messy and complex humanism, and his recognition that for societies to proceed thoughtfully requires both a sense of common vision and purpose and also an always acknowledged sense that ideologies cannot be permitted, in the name of such commonalities, to erase or suppress what he called the “wildness of spirit which it is still our grace to believe is the mark of full humanness.”  As Bender has argued, “Trilling’s very middle classness – by providing the perspective of distance – ends up, however paradoxically, providing contemporary American culture with a radical challenge, urging critics to find some space among nostalgia, politicized group identities, and specialized academic autonomy for the creation of a public culture” (pg. 344).

SOURCES:  Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society, intro. by Louis Menand (New York:  New York Review Books, 2008 [1950]); Jeremy McCarter, “He Gave Liberalism a Good Name,” Newsweek, 6 October 2008, pg. 57;  Leon Wieseltier, “The Shrinker,” New Republic, 22 October 2008, pg. 48; Louis Menand, “Regrets Only: Lionel Trilling and His Discontents,” New Yorker, 29 September 2008, pgs. 80-90; Russell Reising, “Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, and the Emergence of the Cultural Discourse of Anti-Stalinism,” boundary2 20.1 (1993): pgs. 94-124; Donald Pease, “New Americanists: Revisionist Interventions into the Canon,” boundary2 17 (1990);  Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989); Thomas Bender, “Lionel Trilling and American Culture,” American Quarterly 42.2 (June 1990): pgs. 324-347; John Vernon, “On Lionel Trilling,” boundary2 2.3 (Spring 1974): pgs. 625-632; Charles Hersch, “Liberalism, the Novel, and the Self:  Lionel Trilling on the Political Functions of Literature,” Polity 24.1 (Fall 1991): pgs. 91-106; Robert Genter, “’I’m Not His Father’: Lionel Trilling, Allen Ginsberg, and the Contours of Literary Modernism,” College Literature 31.2 (Spring 2004): pgs. 22-52; T. H. Adamowski, “Demoralizing Liberalism:  Lionel Trilling, Leslie Fiedler, and Norman Mailer,” University of Toronto Quarterly 73.3 (Summer 2006): pgs. 883-904.

Are there images we ought not see?

If memory serves, I’ve attended at least five academic presentations spread out over the last six years or so where brutal photographs of racial lynchings were splayed onto a big PowerPoint screen as the objects of critical analysis.  These are terrifying images that reveal acts of horror:  bodies twisting at rope’s end, defaced and sometimes castrated, victims often killed for crimes they did not commit by vigilantes milling around in the picture apparently oblivious to the atrocity and acting more like attendees at a company picnic.  And of course it is this very casualness of the crowds that compounds the shock value of these photographs.

Such images have been long available to historians of visual culture, but were launched into wider circulation in 2000, when an archival collection of lynching photographs that had been mainly assembled by James Allen was organized into an exhibition at the Ruth Horowitz Gallery in New York City.  Soon afterward (or perhaps fully contemporaneous with the exhibition, I don’t know which) the display was organized into a book and bundled together with essays by Allen, Hilton Als, Leon Litwack, and John Lewis under the title Without Sanctuary (Twin Palms Publishers, 2000).  The New York exhibition toured several American cities, and I first encountered it when it came through Atlanta.

I struggled with the decision to see the exhibition, and although I finally found it carefully contextualized and deeply educational, it also raised serious reservations for me then that have only been compounded in the years since.  The issue is complicated, and in trying to sort through my own thoughts I mean no insult to the very careful and rightly motivated presentations I’ve seen that relied in part on lynching images.  In fact, I think some measure of my confusion is revealed by my own hypocrisy – while I mainly question the use of lynching photographs in this entry, I also illustrated an essay I wrote a couple months ago on this site on the topic of Civil War battlefield deaths (I had just read Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering:  Death and the American Civil War [Knopf 2008]) with a gruesome Matthew Brady battlefield photograph.

The arguments for showing such photographs is often persuasively made.  A great part of lynching’s brutality resides in the fact that the evidence of the crime was so often obliterated or kept secret, and so the act of publication can be thought an important historical corrective, and especially so for younger students for whom lynching is too easily considered an abstraction.  It is also true that the real depravity of racism may only be convincingly communicated by way of the visual evidence:  the sheer shock of seeing that a lynching photograph has been made into a postcard (a postcard!), and that the correspondent has written on the other side to a family relative, “this is the barbeque we had last night,” instantly focuses the mind.  I think it was Patricia Williams who at the time of the touring exhibition said that for her, attendance was required as a kind of historical pilgrimage, necessary to set the rosier picture of American history into its true and murkier context.  Seeing the range and grotesque similarity of so many of these images (which quickly disabuse one of the notion that these were singularly unique or the bizarre work product of a sadomasochistic subculture) has undeniably produced (in a phrase that pops up pretty frequently on the web) an “important reflective learning experience” of America’s racial history.

All this seems compelling when brutal images are wholly contextualized in a well organized gallery exhibition or in a museum – in such cases the viewing experience is so totally controlled as to avert the risks I see – but I am currently skeptical whether building lynching images into a academic conference lecture Powerpoint is ever finally justified.

Part of my reaction is admittedly visceral – when the slide changes and it’s a lynching photograph up on the big screen I admit I become nauseous, actually for a moment sick to my stomach.  I find myself turning away because I cannot resist the thought that this murder victim is someone’s grandfather or aunt, and I wonder how any of us would feel to have so brutal an image of, say, a loved one displayed even for well-intentioned academic purposes.  The murders are public, and awfully so, but I can’t help feeling I’m violating the victim’s privacy by scanning the picture, even at a century’s remove.

But for me the real problem is that when a lynching photograph is shown to a group of academics, too often (and I think perhaps inevitably) the audience is unwillingly made complicit in the violence.  At the Madison conference I attended last weekend, as the one slide was held in view, the almost wholly white audience variously attended with total seriousness to the image, while some (a vanishingly small minority to be sure, since the talk was compelling and smart) passed notes, did email, drank coffee, slipped out to run an errand or make a call – which is to say, we had become a modern day live enactment of the picnic-going spectators in the postcard.  I found myself resenting my own insertion into the lynch mob even though these normal audience behaviors are not the fault of the speaker.  Made to be a modern-day voyeur to the murder, in a situation where the presenter will invariably speak for a moment about the crime scene and then move on to something else, I wonder if there is any proper response in such a setting that does not compound the complicity.

Audience members who seriously and intently stare at the photo end up grouped with the majority of the actual bystanders photographed, who also stare at the swinging bodies, fixated for whatever reason.  Those who let themselves be moved onto the next slide or who lapse back into their normal behaviors end up not unlike the chatting and bizarrely happy people also evident in the postcard.  And if one turns away from the screen or because s/he cannot stomach the violence leaves the presentation one is simply reenacting the erasure of the victim that makes these images so noteworthy in the first place.  Which is to say:  there is no adequate viewing response, at least in the context and given the typical decorum of the conference lecture hall, which I think transposes any viewer into either a voyeur or a bystander, just like the people milling around in the photo who are being condemned from today’s lecture podium.

I do not think it simply reflects a too-fragile psyche to note that inducing this audience/subject position inflicts damage that is not necessarily undone by the self-reflective moment when one realizes s/he has been interpellated as one of the brutalizers.  At least in my own experience, and I do not normally consider myself easy to offend, the fact of having been interpellated in such a way proves quite difficult to walk back.

And I wonder too if there are any speaking behaviors that sidestep these risks either.  I’ve seen several strategies, all of which felt a little flat.  One presenter I saw a couple years back simply noted that the audience “should be warned that this material is very disturbing,” but such a warning only accentuates the voyeurism when the photograph is finally presented.  And at least in my case I found that the warning sounded (again, this clearly wasn’t the intention of the speaker) like language whose main consequence is simply to normalize the shock value; like the “don’t try this at home” warnings whose main benefit is to let the speaker off the hook but that for many listeners only produce an inducement to the horror, the warning can easily sound more like an unserious gesture than an engagement with the true difficulties yet to be presented in the talk.  The damage was in that case compounded when the lynching Powerpoint slide was kept up on the screen long after its purpose was passed and the Q&A (mostly centered on other issues) was well underway.

At a more recent conference talk, the presenter argued that only by posting the lynching image could the audience see the formalistic properties of the photograph that linger in more subtle but dangerously racist modern photographs, such as the famous picture of Elizabeth Eckford walking through an angry white crowd in Little Rock after she was briefly denied admission to the school building.  I found the speaker’s point well taken until I realized that in calling attention to the lynching photograph’s formal properties (where is the eye led to focus?  how is the event framed?  who is centered and who is marginalized?) I was being (innocently) led to see right past the corpses.  I was attending to the aesthetic dimensions of the photograph at the expense of the victims whose awful stories faded right out of mind.

Because I know that many of my colleagues in these academic audiences interpret their own viewing experiences very differently and more positively than me (my impression is that some insistently stare at the photographs for as long as they remain on screen as a way of bearing witness), perhaps the totalizing concerns I assert (that such images should never be used in an academic research talk) would be satisfied were scholars to agree not to show such images unless they are either specifically mobilized to induce sentiments of specific mourning/remembrance or audience outrage.  Such an exception does not admit very many research talks back into defensibility, if my own experience is characteristic, because the normal modes of academic research presentation are not normally given over to, say, moments of silence or explicit agitation.

But these, after all, are the affective responses appropriate to lynching images, for only by responding in sorrow or in anger might one do real justice to the victims and the danger that in reshowing the image one is simply reenacting the crime.  And the uses of lynching photographs that seem most effective are those designed with sorrow or outrage in mind.  One northern newspaper mainly produced for African American readers agreed to print the famous lynching photograph taken in Marion, Indiana but only by adding a caption that (paraphrasing) described the standers-by as a “a party of unknown identity.”  The caption is brilliant because it quotes the police report seeking to explain why no arrests had been made, connecting it to a photograph that clearly provides the evidence needed to identify many of those present.  The juxtaposition (again, one hard to achieve in a traditional academic talk) can only arouse anger at the injustice.

I close by reiterating my own uncertainty on these matters and also my respect for scholars who are navigating them as best they can.  But I also would caution against those who might be tempted to dismiss concerns about how lynching photographs position their viewers as nothing more than the assertion of too delicate a sensibility.  More serious matters are I think also in play.  Some of these are engaged in a recent book by Martin Harries, Forgetting Lot’s Wife:  On Destructive Spectatorship (Fordham UP, 2007).  Harries, using the story of Lot’s wife (who in the Old Testament account was punished, turned into a pillar of salt, for looking back at God’s fire and brimstone judgement of Sodom and Gomorrah when warned not to), notes that while the sublime and terrorizing image can be engaged as a mode of witness bearing, there is also some reasonable risk that the sight of historical catastrophe risks destroying the spectator.  Harries deploys the Biblical account metaphorically – it would be exceptionally rare that staring into the imagistic abyss actually savages the psyche – but as he argues, we must neither ignore or downplay the real possibility that “after some contemplation, one emerges a little destroyed.”

Reciprocity and 21st century liberalism

In Madison, Wisconsin this weekend for the biennial Public Address Conference, I had the pleasure tonight to hear a most interesting keynote address given by John Murphy, a communication scholar at the University of Illinois, as well as responses given by two of the field’s most productive scholars.  The talk was aimed to respond, one might say, to Danielle Allen’s Talking to Strangers:  Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education (University of Chicago Press, 2006), which has gotten a very friendly reception in rhetorical studies because of the way in which she offers norms of reciprocated dialogue as a corrective to what she sees as increasingly extreme political practices of exclusion and polarization.  Allen’s argument sees such reciprocation as part of the solution to an increasingly problematic paradox of democratic politics:  even while democratic politics depends on “good losers” who will stick with the system and remain committed to its overall legitimacy even when they don’t win (elections, federally allocated benefits, and so on), liberalism also cultivates a tendency to a hyper-competitiveness so extreme as to deny the possibility of good losers.  More often, and this is in my view a fair diagnosis of the American political scene, individualistic competitiveness leads to triumphalism for the electoral victors and causes us to actually “loath the losers.”

The problem this creates is the emergence of now-significant segments of the national electorate who, having borne a disproportionate share of the burdens of representative government and having been long denied real access to electoral power (e.g., African Americans), are disillusioned with the whole system, distrustful of government, and unwilling to play a game they find forever rigged for the benefit of others.  Allen blames a lot of this on what she sees as the too-ready acceptance of the political theories of the Germans (Kant, Habermas, etc.), who incline commentators on the American political scene to see the problem as “too little deliberation,” who often disdain the everyday practices of political persuasion, and who seem to simply prefer a system that attains consensus (even at the expense of broader legitimation).  Allen sees the result as a kind of stunted liberalism, bleeding away its legitimacy, and in need of a good (small-r) republican dose of what she calls a “citizenship of friendship” that would commit either to a reformed Aristotelian republicanism (stripped of its historical disdain for public persuasion) or Habermasean deliberative democracy (stripped of its strong interest in consensus formation as the central purpose of political interaction).

If I’m rightly recalling Allen’s position (and in Madison I’m away from my copy of the book), and if I understood him correctly, Murphy agrees with Allen on the diagnosis (liberalism has inclined too far in the direction of hyper-individualism), but not with her solution.  His concern is that scholars like Allen (and, he says, a number of communication theorists) revert to conceptions of engaged citizenship that require levels of attention and engagement that are simply unrealistic, and perhaps even unnecessary, in a frenetically globalized 24-7 information glutted world.  Far better, he argued, to reclaim the rhetorical resources of liberalism itself – the mechanisms by which speech can induce identification and empathy, both at the level of content and form – for the purpose of redeeming the American polity.

Kennedy’s summer speeches at American University, where he called for a new conception of Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, and regarding events at Little Rock, which articulated a case for racial civil rights, provide for Murphy exemplars for such a purpose.  Resisting interpretations that read Kennedy as either enacting Cold War realism or performing America’s civil religion, Murphy rightly focused on the norms and tropes of reciprocity that might induce a level of trust sufficient to adequate self-government.  In articulating the norms of respective engagement with racial difference, for Kennedy to invite his circa 1960’s white audiences to imagine themselves as African American was not an empty thought experiment but a striking challenge to the national imagination and a provocation to political transformation.

Professor Murphy’s address invited a wide range of questions:  Was Kennedy’s rhetoric truly exemplary of liberalism as inflected by the American experience, or were the features of his public addresses simply idiosyncratically Sorenson?  Was the potential effectivity of Kennedy’s mode of address fulfilled or obliterated by the rhetorical practices of Lyndon Johnson?  Is the sort of reciprocity Kennedy practiced suitable to the complicated challenges presented today by issues like same-sex marriage, and more broadly, the problem identity politics poses for a wider liberal politics?  Can rhetorical reciprocity ever actually give voice to the historically disenfranchised – to women, to blacks, to Native Americans?  Or is even well-intentioned speech that tries to do justice to the experiences of marginalization suffered by others doomed to fail, since the actually resulting norms and legal regimes that seek to institutionalize equality are likely to favor the powerful who draft them?  Is the creation of public trust in government even desirable at a time when a politics of suspicion may be more suitable to the circumstances of insider government and barely concealed cronyism?  And would a rhetorical practice more fully committed to strategies of enacted reciprocity actually be effective?

I am both intrigued and unsure of whether the rhetorical resources of liberalism illuminated by John Kennedy’s speeches, even conceding the multiple strategies the ideology enables for creating community as opposed to simple hyper-individuality, are suitable to the changed conditions of public argument.  And this is a question that Prof. Murphy seemed to raise – I thought I understood him at one point to be claiming that a redeemed liberal rhetoric was more suitable to a populace too busy to engage in the time-intensive practices of debate and “good government” than the (potentially naive) campaigns to convert America’s citizens into full-time policy makers or investigative reporters.  Because that particular issue could not be fleshed out in the limited time allocated to the keynote, I won’t presume to speculate on how such a view might be fully defended.  But I confess to skepticism.

For example:  in a culture where a 24/7 media environment is dominated by commentators always at work to sow distrust about political opponents (I refer to the Ann Coulter strategy of equating liberalism with treason, although even more reasonable talking heads follow similar argumentative paths), is it reasonable to think that political speech emphasizing empathy for the other will succeed in inducing trust among endlessly distracted viewers?  Or, putting the same point differently, in a society whose hyper-busy citizens increasingly self-segregate (white middle class kids go to religious academies or charter schools or are home schooled with other white middle class kids, rich families live with other rich families behind secure iron gates, etc.), can we plausibly expect that even a radical shift in the nation’s public rhetorical culture might break through the tunnel vision perspectives that come from mainly living in the absence of strangers?

And would a more fully embraced norm of reciprocity be strong enough even to begin to compensate for trumped up climates of panic (such as the Communist scares), mortal dread (such as induced and then hyped by the Osama bin Laden attacks), and apocalyptic speaking-in-tongues fundamentalism (such as apparently shared by Gov. Palin)?  In an age where critical thinking and reasoning skills seem too often undernourished at the very time when the most vexing public policy matters require ever more sophisticated knowledge (climate science, financial market modeling, and so on), is the answer really to be found in rhetorical practices that might only further narrativize public controversy, perpetuating (in the name of reciprocity) the kind of vacuous I’m running for President for Bobby, who lost his legs because his insurance claim was denied appeals that seem to give voice to the powerless but mainly as a cheap campaign trick to tug at the heart strings?

Of course to frame the case for a more articulate liberalism within the contours of Allen’s book risks implying a binary choice that is recognizably false to students of rhetorical history.  That is, the strong case Allen makes for citizenship as (intensive) friendship, as opposed to citizenship as litigation or winner-take-all debating society, while it does evoke the apparently contradicting impulse to imagine a contrary citizenship based on empathy, implies a both/and logic foreign to a broadly humanistic rhetorical tradition that has always seen a place among the practices of persuasion for appeals both to rationality (logos) and reciprocity/empathy (pathos).  This point leads to a very modest quibble with Prof. Murphy’s strategy of evidencing the claim for rhetorical reciprocity based solely on a textual analysis of these two significant addresses.  For me it is telling that Kennedy delivered these speeches to academic audiences, before groups of students and professors for whom appeals to the shared human condition would typically be heard as supplemental to the critical-rational norms of university scholarship.  One might alternatively read Kennedy’s addresses less as posing a radically alternative liberal rhetorical practice than as offering a simple (but nonetheless effective) supplement to the norms of public deliberation that would have been familiar to the professors and graduates within earshot.

It is certainly the case that practices of public engagement that solely obsess over consensus formation and critical-rational argument will fail to redeem the promise of an authentically emancipatory liberalism, and it is right to criticize such an approach for making unrealistic demands on a frazzled and distracted citizenry.  But I wonder whether appeals grounded in empathetic reciprocity, especially if offered as fast decisional heuristics for viewers too distracted to explore the issue in-depth, will fare any better?  I’m skeptical in part because although the demands of rhetorical education are much higher when true deliberation is the goal, the possible payoff is greater too, for it may be easier finally to inoculate audiences against flawed reasoning than against endlessly nurtured and corrosive cynicism.

Eloquence and the iconic presidency

The scholarly conversation prompted by Jeffrey Tulis’ The Rhetorical Presidency (Princeton University Press, 1987) continues to animate research on the modern presidency, a fact confirmed by the wide range of essays published in a special issue on the topic last year in Critical Review (vol. 19:2-3, 2007).  The journal’s editor, Jeffrey Friedman, places Tulis’ claim in the historical context of the emergence of a late 19th century populist politics stymied by a corporatist lock down on critical-rational deliberation.  In a climate where financial interests had promulgated ideological acceptance of their worldview among political elites, only outside agitation could accomplish social reform, a fact well understood by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

The changes in American political culture resulting from the Roosevelt/Wilson decision to shift presidential address from mainly ceremonial and addressed to other elites into a practice that converted presidents into “quasi-religious figures, who (if they are successful) spark the zeal of millions with their ‘visions for the future’ and their ‘dreams of a better country’” (Friedman, pg. 198) are so profound as to have essentially produced a doubled constitutional order.  Tulis illustrates the transformational consequences of this shift by use of many examples; one is George Washington, who often gave public addresses but never in publicly consequential ways (his public remarks were dominated by the expression of welcome or thanks; his second inaugural address, which did address the electorate, was just a couple paragraphs long).  Another is Andrew Johnson, who was actually impeached (in part) for his use of presidential speech for public purposes; the tenth article of impeachment accuses Johnson of making and delivering “with a loud voice certain intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues… [which,] highly censurable in any, are peculiarly indecent and unbecoming in the Chief Magistrate of the United States, by means whereof…  Andrew Johnson has brought the high office of the President of the United States into contempt, ridicule, and disgrace, to the great scandal of all good citizens.”  These behaviors, first from a president and second from a Congress, would be incomprehensible today.

The old constitutional order that was displaced by these presidential rhetorical practices (and the cult of personality they set in motion) was explicitly designed with very different purposes in mind, centered as it was on a logic seeking to insulate legislative activity from outside demagoguery so that rational debate could settle disagreement.  One of the most significant consequences of what Tulis argued was a new constitutionalism was the resulting shift in governmental authority to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue in the direction of the White House and its message managers.

The Tulis thesis has been interrogated, affirmed and attacked on many fronts.  Some argue that he incorrectly sees the Roosevelt/Wilson use of presidential eloquence as a fundamental break when the antecedents for “going over the heads of the Congress” may reach further back in time and more closely align with the emergence of national mass communication networks (especially the 18th century formation of a national newspaper and literary culture) that both enabled and gave preeminence to presidential declaration.  And perhaps the most considerable attention has been given to the question of how consequential this change, even stipulating the Tulis account, has been.  Responding to critics like George Edwards, a political scientist who has documented the often very limited shifts in public opinion and legislative outcome accomplished by even strenuous presidential suasory activity (On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit, Yale UP, 2003), others insist that the main effectivity of presidential address is not issue-by-issue swings but rather the more subtle shifts in public thinking achieved when presidents frame issues of identity and character in ways that recast the larger scene of public deliberation (a compelling example of this is Mary Stuckey’s Defining Americans: The Presidency and National Identity, UP of Kansas, 2004).  The American president, in such a view, becomes an Every(wo)man who implicitly teaches the rest of us to see through his eyes and to respond in some cases empathetically (or harshly) and in other cases to not see something at all.

Still others insist that the principle effectivity of presidential discourse is not so much its ability to sell Americans on certain policies or to affirmatively frame national questions in certain ways, as to frame the discussion in a way that removes certain policies from the range of acceptable discourse (two political scientists have regularly presented this thesis at the American Political Science Association conference); an example would be how Bill Clinton’s discourse on Social Security, although failing to notably advance his own reform agenda for the program, did nonetheless inoculate American public opinion against the privatization agenda of the new Republican congressional majority.

For me the contours of this broader debate over rhetorical effectivity turn on a question raised by George Edwards but, in my view, never satisfactorily answered in his work; namely, if presidential rhetoric matters so little in shaping the contours of public policy, why do American presidents spend so much time and energy working at it?

The contributors to the Critical Review symposium come at these issues, as one would expect, from many directions.  Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Jeffrey Gottfried explore the question of whether Tulis’ central claims work in assessing the reach of an increasingly rhetorical judiciary (they find confirming evidence for Tulis’ prediction that judges would more often publicly defend their actions but disagree with his forecast that the confirmation process would wholly descend into empty demagoguery).   Richard Pious (Barnard), following the old predisposition to juxtapose rhetoric and reality, sees the rise of a rhetorical presidency as creating an inevitable legitimacy problem cyclically enacted as presidential performance inevitably falls shorts of rhetorically hyped campaign expectations.  Nicole Mellow (Williams College) notes how the rise of a more rhetorical legislature has only compounded the political echo chamber. Thomas Pangle (UT-Austin) wonders why Tulis resists endorsing the Theodore Roosevelt middle way when he clearly seems to prefer it to the Wilsonian model now dominant.  For Mel Laracey (UT-San Antonio), the Tulis claim must be bifurcated (at least in historical terms), since he finds far more compelling the evidence that Democrats gravitated to public rhetoric than Republicans or Whigs or Federalists.

One of the most compelling of the contributions, though placed late in the collection, is Diane Rubenstein’s “Allegories of Reading Tulis” (447-460).  Rubenstein, author of a deeply fascinating new book entitled This is Not a President:  Sense, Nonsense, and the American Political Imaginary (NYU, 2008), whose cover image of Hillary Clinton and the cursive rendition of the title allegorically evoke Magritte’s painting Leci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe) and Michel Foucault’s later commentary on it, sees Tulis’ work less a statement about rhetoric than an oblique but necessary commentary on republican government and the inevitable double binds it creates for public figures.

Terri Bimes, a Berkeley political scientist, argues for another revision.  In her view, what Tulis sees as the effective imposition of a second (or new) constitutional order is something less than that; what Wilson and Roosevelt set in motion was less an upheaval in constitutional government than its clarification (here she is disagreeing with Tulis’ argument that the constitution wholly constrained presidential rhetorical practice; while she agrees that the original vision of the Framers did seek to protect the presidential selection process from demagoguery and its consequences, she argues that otherwise the relationship between president and public was left unspecified).  Thus the Framers did not foreclose a rhetorical presidency but rather, “by creating a single officer as the head of a representative government, and by allowing for a popular role in that officer’s selection, they created an opportunity for presidents to exert popular leadership…  [and] these opportunities, evidently, were irresistible” (Bimes, “The Practical Origins of the Rhetorical Presidency,” pg. 254).

David Crockett, a political scientist from Trinity University in Texas, reads Tulis in opposition to Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power (Free Press, 1990) alternative (and institution-centered) analysis, finding in Tulis’ “layered text” metaphor evidence that in this case a full appreciation of presidential power requires attention to eloquence and organizational structure and institutional lines of authority and historical constraint.  Susan Herbst, a mass communication scholar now holding a senior administrative appointment in the University System of Georgia, takes an arguably opposed view, arguing that presidential discourse and its preeminence in the American political system is being eclipsed as new media practices (especially 24/7 news and the blogosphere) have produced new and pluralized megaphones harder for any administration to manage even as the American president continues to embody the nation (Herbst, “The Rhetorical Presidency and the Contemporary Media Environment,” pgs. 335-343).

Tulis’ original claim, of course, was a bit different than any of these specific theses, centered as it was on the shift that made soft demagoguery (the kind that operates under the rubric of my friends consensus building talk and that succeeds mainly by flattery while insistently sidestepping critical-rational deliberation) suddenly acceptable after the long standing acquiescence to a constitutional regime that found demagoguery inherently subversive of the task of completing the nation’s business.  Read by the lights of the current McCain versus Obama campaign, where rhetorical effectiveness has become an issue and where Senator Obama’s skill at making a compelling speech is itself read as suspicious and (in a bizarre formulation) his ability to move large crowds read as evidencing his elitism, what Tulis’ original argument calls to mind most is actually how wholly the culture has internalized the idea that presidential candidates on all sides are expected to offer visions and programs and bring people together, and how such articulations so wholly sidestep judgments about a candidates actual capacity to implement their views on arrival.  The wholesale change in how citizens judge candidates for high office is perhaps best evidenced by the odd standards now in use as Sarah Palin is introduced to the American people:  for vast swathes of the American electorate a potential president’s capacity to maneuver through the institutional levels of power (that is, to know who does what in the federal government or the intricacies of this policy proposal versus that) do not matter at all compared to the symbolic triumphs of seeing someone (verbally) stand up to the Congress or take on the old boy’s network or fight for you and your families.  But Palin is only the most recent symptom; as John DiIulio argues, we have been living with a hyper-rhetorical presidency (where message management dominates everything else) at least since Clinton and more likely since Reagan.

In the wide sweep of these arguments, perhaps it best to give the last word to Tulis himself, who provides a closing commentary ending with this observation (“The Rhetorical Presidency in Retrospect,” pgs. 481-500):

[A]t bottom, modern constitutionalism – Federalist constitutionalism – is a form of indirect governance.  In this modern invention, the people are intermittent witnesses to governance, but are not truly part of the political order.  Wilson’s reforms and reinterpretations altered important political practices but could not escape the Constitution’s deeper design of depoliticizing modern life.  For Americans to become truly political beings, they would need a new kind of civic education, one that echoes ancient understandings of citizenship in modern circumstances.  This new kind of education, and the new understanding of leadership that it requires, would have Wilsonian aspects.  But it would be a far more ambitious enterprise than even Wilson, let alone TR, advocated:  an enterprise that goes beyond both the old and the new constitutional orders.

When humanistic scholarship is not beautiful

When Pablo Picasso first exhibited his work at the young age of eighteen, the reviews were not very promising.  His friends had found him a gallery space he could use for free, but there were also no funds available to properly mount the (mostly) bohemian portraits.  So the canvases were literally pinned to the walls, and in rows since there were more artworks to hang than the small gallery space allowed.  The main review in the Diario de Barcelona (dated 7 February 1900) was not kind:  Picasso was said to exhibit “an obsession with the most extreme form of modernisme… a lamentable derangement of the artistic sense and a mistaken concept of art.”

A decade or so later Picasso was first exhibited in the United States, and although he garnered early and strong enthusiasm in France and Germany, the American reception was also underwhelming.  Personally promoted by Max Weber (the artist, not the sociologist), the photographer Alfred Stieglitz exhibited Picasso in New York City in March 1911 at his 291 Gallery.  Although the show was later described as launching Picasso’s American career, it was something of a bust at the time – only one painting sold, and that for just eleven dollars.  Gertrude Stein was an early American advocate, but when she tried to interest her friends the Cone sisters in Picasso, they said no, on the grounds that his work was repulsive cubism (actually the specific word they used was tommyrot).

Picasso provides a ready example of a broader phenomena that subverts the public reception not only of twentieth century modernist art (and music and architecture) but also taints the wider scholarship of the humanities.  And I think this problem is more endemic to the so-called crisis of the humanities than its alleged inaccessibility to wider audiences, its failure to celebrate national cultures and literary traditions, or its increasingly distant relationship to the professional worlds of commerce and the professions.

The challenge is that the work product of the most brilliant scholars and artists laboring in the humanities (especially over the last half century), broadly defined, is often actually unattractive, sometimes even ugly:  jarring, intentionally disorienting, inelegant, apparently self-absorbed, tedious, at times even disgusting, and understandable only within the contours of a highly specialized and technically sophisticated audience whose reach (by definition) will be small.  By contrast to some other domains of human endeavor, where increasingly rigorous technical standards of evaluation have also been tightly wedded to sustaining standards of aesthetic elegance (I have in mind activities like figure skating and landscaping and perhaps even fields of study like mathematics, where the ideal achievement seems to remain the beautiful proof), work done by humanists is now widely dismissed as having abandoned its duty to actively attract audiences.

The viscerally negative reaction induced in many very bright students to some of the leading written works of humanist thinkers is better explained by this shock of first encounter than by its political agenda or by any innate inability to perceive its claims.  And the simultaneous public adoration and (for the most part) scholarly disparagement of the research published by the Joseph Ellises and David McCulloughs of the world (and one might add the Thomas Kinkades and John Williams of painting and movie soundtrack fame) only highlights the often intentional arms-length relationship sustained by serious humanistic heavyweights and their potential publics.

Now of course ugliness is not necessarily undesirable.  No imperative dictates that scholarship enact an aesthetic allure for its audiences, especially if it accomplishes other purposes (such as generating useful knowledge or essential insight).  Nor does the observation have universal relevance:  too many exceptions of elegant and even beautiful work are produced to launch this as any kind of generalized indictment and in fact it is a regular tactic of the humanities’ opponents to exaggerate the critique.

Meanwhile, a number of quite defensible factors have combined to lessen the perceived importance of beauty as a goal of, say, philosophical or literary production.  One is the raging debate over the status of aesthetics itself, which was sharply problematized under the emergence of modernism and structuralism, both often seeing surface appearance as a deceptive fraud masking underlying matrices of meaning and political signification, and beauty a concept more evasive than helpful.  (Of course considerable recent work has accomplished something of an aesthetic turn, as the pendulum swings back toward a view of aesthetics as empowering and not simply obliterative of difference; this is the point explored by Castiglia and Castronovo).

Jürgen Habermas argued some time ago that we are also seeing the inevitable outcomes of the specialization of knowledge accelerated by late capitalism; in contrast to an earlier Enlightenment view that the work of the scholar should culminate in findings that advanced the aspirations of Truth, Beauty, and Justice, today we inhabit a fragmented lifeworld where the philosophers fixate on truth and the lawyers fixate on their technically specialized concepts of justice (the wider complexities of Habermas’ views on aesthetics are elaborated by Duvenage).  One could actually trace such forces back as far as Rome; the Latin phrase pulchritudo splendor varitatis (“beauty is the splendor of truth”) is more than twenty centuries old.  Today, specialists in the humanities occasionally disavow the very idea of making their work accessible to wider literate audiences as antithetical to their projects, which they often reasonably argue obligate the use of difficult vernaculars.

Jerome McGann, the University of Virginia literary critic, has recently addressed the issue in a rather particular way.  Speaking of poetry he writes,

Poetry has become a byword for incomprehensible language.  It is our fault, scholars and educators, that poetry has acquired this reputation.  We have hyped its depth, profundity, importance…. We have some important unlearning to do.  We get into trouble, we get others into trouble, when we set either the criterion of “meaning” or the criterion of “beauty” as the measure of value for imaginative works.  Like theory, criteria are ponderous things, deadly to the imagination.  Yet these criteria pervade the discourse of culture, both inside and outside the academy.  On the contrary, poetry and at function at more fundamental, even primitive, levels.  Beauty and meaning, what the ancients called pleasure and instruction, are secondary constructions laid upon poetry by scholars who try to explain how poems work, how they arrest, astonish, reveal.

As one can see, McGann, despite his interest in the “death of beauty,” is not committed to a renunciation of poetry or criticism but rather to their reconceptualization.  And it remains important to insist on the often vital role paid by enactment of the grotesque in leading a society to a broader comprehension, and even to yield, in some cases, pleasure (Matthew Kieran:  “…even though an artwork may be constituted from repugnant materials, depict perverse scenes or people, we may be afforded pleasure by attending to them rather than being repelled by them”).

Still, even without judgmentalism, one might as well acknowledge that the intellectual currents that have produced increasing technical specialization in all of the humanistic endeavors have also necessarily come at the price of making them less attractive to those who encounter what will seem on first approach and to the uninitiated as impossibly obstuse and even repulsive scholarship.

All this is on my mind because of the recent controversy over the termination by Fort Hays State University of its debate coach on account of a screaming obscenity-laced argument he had after a debate round at the 2008 national tournament with the professor who directs debate at the University of Pittsburgh.  The YouTube video was painful to watch and of course has now been ridiculed on nationwide television as a kind of Professors Gone Wild.  The exchange was extreme and by my lights wholly uncharacteristic of the broader activity (at least with respect to its incivility, if not with respect to the passion all bring to their encounters).  But the commentary, and the schisms it has reawakened (or brought to public view) within the debate community actually are far older than the introduction of identity politics, performance activism, and philosophical argument to the activity that occurred in the 1990’s.

Academic debate is a paradigm instance of the phenomenon whereby a merged humanistic practice (rooted, after all, in the ancient art of rhetoric) of intellectual substance and eloquent (even beautiful) style has for the most part given way to the elevation of intellectualism over persuasion.  To the average person first encountering high level competitive policy debate, the experience is thus now most often unpleasant, and in fact, until thoroughly initiated, many are a little repulsed by the hyperfast screaming, inadvertent spitting, and red faced gasping characteristic of the activity.  Fortunately, for many that first encounter also conveys some sense of the incredible thinking and research skills needed to succeed in competitive debate.

Debate is an amazingly worthwhile intellectual endeavor and even as practiced at the most competitive levels still evokes a certain compelling though occasional persuasiveness.  Its participants develop astonishing aptitudes for critical thinking, the mastery of actually vast domains of public policy and philosophical literatures, and in part this is so because as an activity it has downplayed the conventional elements of recognizable persuasiveness.  But as with all the broader humanities, this extracurricular activity pays a price for its accentuated emphasis on particular and idiosyncratic modes of delivery that has for the moment made it (sadly) too easy to caricature.  And so even as brilliance regularly emerges, involvement (especially at the high school point of first entry) has dwindled.

I’m dismayed by the fact that beneficial co-curricular activities like intercollegiate debate are often outright opposed by faculty members who, in the name of abhorring its hyper-specialization, would never think for a second to discount their own scholarship for its arcane and limited and sometimes off-putting reach.  Such a reaction is, I believe, hypocritical.  But the fact of such hypocrisy should not be read as denying the importance of a discussion about whether the extent of intellectual specialization has too greatly come at the expense of the wider attractiveness of humanistic scholarship for intellectually literate audiences.

Ugly, perhaps, but true.

SOURCES:  John Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Prodigy, 1881-1906 (New York:  Alfred Knopf, 2007 edition); Richardson, A Life of Picasso:  The Cubist Rebel, 1907-1916 (NY:  Knopf, 2007 edition); Jerome McGann, The Scholar’s Art:  Literary Studies in a Managed World (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2006); Matthew Kieran, “Aesthetic Value:  Beauty, Ugliness, and Incoherence,” Philosophy 72 (1997): 383-399; Pieter Duvenage, Habermas and Aesthetics:  The Limits of Communicative Reason (Cambridge:  Polity, 2003); Christopher Castiglia and Russ Castronovo, “A ‘Hive of Subtlety’:  Aesthetics and the End(s) of Cultural Studies,” American Literature 76.3 (September 2004): 423-435.

On the limits of consumer culture critique

Beneath the understandable enthusiasm conveyed in the scholarship done by those who have documented the enormous and expanding activism opposed to neoliberal globalization lurks a palpable unease.  Partly I think this connects to the almost total failure of anti-globalization activism to accomplish more than successes at the margin, and as important as those are, global capitalism rolls right along.  And even for Marxists who might be delighted to see artful protests undertaken that reveal the absurdly contradicting impulses of worldwide state-sponsored capitalism, I often sense a concern even there that consumerist oppositional politics (that is, activity undertaken to modify materialism at the level of say, a Walmart boycott) risks diverting attention from the trade agreements and state-to-state deals that end up finally dominating the scene.  Such activities are thus often more praised for their solidarity-enhancing organizing benefits than for their actual victories.

Such a claim will seem a little outlandish to those who have organized and fought to protest against, say, the annual head of state summits that bring to isolated locations the world’s most exclusive club.  But even there the hosting nations seem to have become ever more clever at coopting and redirecting and marginalizing protest.  And some of this anxiety I think is reflected, too, in the divided reception to such works as Naomi Klein’s No Logo, a book that has found an internationally effusive following but also provoked often quite sharp criticisms that at the level of economic scholarship her sometimes totalizing claims are finally unpersuasive.

These concerns are given free rein and evoke interesting responses in the new issue of Cultural Studies just out (September 2008, vol. 22.5), which focuses on consumerism.  The authors in that special issue bring to bear a wide ranging set of theoretical material, a range that includes Klein but also Zygmunt Bauman’s longstanding and suggestive thinking regarding liquid modernity and Foucault’s thinking about ethics and governmentality (much reconsidered in the contribution by Barnett, Clarke, Cloke, and Malpass at pgs 624-653).  They are concerns explicitly foregrounded in Jeremy Gilbert’s essay (“On the Commodification of Everything:  Anti-consumerist Cultural Studies in the Age of Ecological Crisis,” pgs. 551-566).  To simply quote from the start of the essay’s abstract:

Cultural studies is in a difficult position if it wants to find itself on the side of democracy against neo-liberalism in this age of ecological crisis.  A great deal of the deconstructive, anti-essentialist, post-humanist, post-modernist thinking of recent decades has undermined the grounds upon which earlier generations understood the commodification of the world to be distasteful.  In the absence of any normative conception of humanity, community, or nature, why not succumb to the deterritorializing thrill which the marketization of everything promises?  The liberal defence of consumer culture which characterized a whole genre of work in cultural studies is clearly unable to answer this question, predicated as it is on a now wholly anachrionistic critique of mid-century discourses of austerity, restraint, and patriarchal normativity.  [How are those for fighting words?]

Some of the authors would most emphatically resist the arguable caricature I have laid out; Michele Micheletti and Dietland Stolle take great inspiration from the fact that global corporations can finally be shamed into doing the right thing.  Their essay (“Fashioning Social Justice Through Political Consumerism, Capitalism, and the Internet,” pgs. 749-769) praises the sometimes subtle push and pull pressures exerted on transnational companies that finally can yield to breakthroughs.  A key historical example for their position is the way global companies were finally shamed into abandoning the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. I think one can share their urgent enthusiasm for the innovative protest tactics used today by organized opposition to, say, sweatshops, and still rightly wonder whether multinational companies have been all that restricted after all – tactical concessions here and there, a photo op with movement leaders, and the company smells better than ever.  I don’t want to be cynical, and small gains might be stoked into broader progress, but, perhaps having reached my toleration limit for all those We Are the Happy Oil Company Here to Say How Much We Love the Environment commercials that form a tired soundtrack to the Olympics, it’s hard to take stock of the broader scene and declare victory for the protests.  Some of these downsides are explicitly conceded (“Interestingly, given these rises [in the use of the boycott], activists are, today, more hesitant about using them.  They find that boycotts may do more harm than good…  Experience also shows that boycotts can also be difficult to organize and frame properly and almost impossible to call off.  Their actual financial effect on targeted products and corporations is debatable…”  [751]).  But MM & DS insist that these downsides can be subverted given the tools of the new media and the potential for accountability afforded the kid with a cell phone camera and YouTube access.

Other contributors concede the difficulties up front, but argue that some theoretical modification can save the day and challenge neoliberalism without the downsides.  The Barnett et al. essay I mentioned (“The Elusive Subjects of Neo-Liberalism: Beyond the Analytics of Governmentality,” pgs. 624-653) starts by confessing the shortcomings of Marxism, a move followed by a case for an uneasy alliance between Marxism and Foucauldianism (I note that the traditional view of Foucault on governmentality has to be significantly recast, and self-consciously it is by the authors, to make such a marriage work).  The move basically leads one in the direction of organizing opposition to corporate practices by pointing to the contradictions established by a company’s rules and norms and institutionalized culture, seeking ways to put such arrangements under ethical interrogation.

In a very interesting essay, Kate Soper (“Alternative Hedonism, Cultural Theory and the Role of Aesthetic Revisioning,” pgs. 567-587) works through the contrary impulses of anti-consumerism.  A key is her term, alternative hedonism, which is her way of calling attention to how certain anti-consumerist activism ends up simply reinscribing a different and more sanitized form of hedonism (“I hate how those cars are polluting the planet, and so I’ve got to have the new sexy electronic/hybrid cars!”).  A potential corrective to this new hedonism is the work done by artists to lampoon or more simply call attention to the false utopia that may be offered in the name of green consumerism.

Following a similar track, Sam Binkley’s “Liquid Consumption: Anti-Consumerism and the Fetishized De-Fetishization of Commodities” (pgs. 599-623) follows Bauman to note the disconnection between the utopian identities argued for by followers of, say, the Slow Food or Feng Shui movements, and their actual track record of producing anything more than anti-corporate rhetoric (which in turn stymies the benefits of having enacted new identity formations).

Still others seem less sanguine altogether.  An interview with Juliet Schor (author of The Overworked American) lays out a wide-scale scene of devastation, where kids are being mind controlled into consumerism without real opposition, and where religion is being commandeered to the cause of profit.  Schor is finally not wholly given to fatalism (“I do think there are possibilities here”), but she also sees no apparent hope in the political classes of the richest countries.

I fear my readily expressed skepticism will be read as advocating wholesale dismissal of these projects, but of course the opposite is true.  It may be the best possible antidote to the cultural and political malaise of the left (which may be momentarily suspended by excitement over the Obama campaign, though even that seems to be suffering a bit lately) is work of this very sort:  theoretically engaged, attentive to the conceptual dilemmas, and on the hunt for actual evidence of successes at the transnational level.

Deliberation, disabled by group polarization

Scholarship centered on the final possibility of reasonable and efficacious public deliberation is often torn between two conflicting impulses.  One is the aspiration, which derives from the optimism inherent in the Enlightenment sense that collective human action might be plausibly freed from the arbitrariness of superstition and monarchical power, expressed by defenders of such institutions as trial by jury and Vermont town hall meetings.  Against such hopes are the often expressed skepticisms that deliberative democracy can ever be plausibly enacted in public.  Thus, to adapt a phrase used by Jacques Derrida, emerges the necessary impossibility of high functioning deliberative practice:  while the scale and complexity of the problems faced by humanity require well structured decision making, the obstacles to such behaviors only mount.

Beyond foundational attacks on the very idea of deliberative democracy (such as those well articulated by Nancy Fraser and others who noted that organizing societies to deliberate inevitably requires the artificial creation of leisure classes and the marginalization of large majorities away from actual and meaningful involvement), the expression of other impossibilities permeates the literature.  Deliberative practices that might be possible in very small and tightly knit communities (like small Vermont villages) may not be scalable large enough to enact at the level of the nation-state.  Those who attempt to interpellate civic involvement in public reasoning activities used to be able to assume a common vernacular and set of common values (speakers could, the argument goes, safely assume their listeners would understand the coded references in their speeches to the King James Bible), but no more.  And even when deliberative bodies are called into being, their work is invariably hijacked by elites and men-in-white-lab-coats and others who whether they explicitly try to or not end up shaming the less well educated or credentialed into silence.  And so on.

Cass Sunstein, the noted public intellectual and law professor who after many years at the University of Chicago is just this fall mainly jumping to Harvard faculty, has written a series of books that express additional concerns regarding the possibility of inducing widespread and intelligent deliberation.  A principal theme of this work reflects his rightful preoccupation with the ways by which contemporary populations are induced to self-sorting.  The richness of media content and the sophistication of media search protocols are thus a blessing and a curse, the latter because they seduce citizens into a heavy diet of information tilted to reinforce their preexisting biases.  Audiences thus end up trapped into a hall of mirrors where their ideological perspectives are never rattled, and because so much information from so many sources so regularly bedazzles, those who are trapped never have any reason to think they are only getting partial information.  To the contrary, their ideological soulmates reinforce in compelling and 24/7 detail the case for continuing solidarity.

Sunstein, in a recent lecture in Chicago, argued that these self-selecting behaviors have pernicious effects on collective decision making, because when individuals only associate with the like-minded, their views polarize further.  He laid out the results of three different research projects that confirm such suspicions.  In one, voters were prescreened so that focus groups would only contain those agreeing on the issue at hand (thus, all might be either opposed or supportive of abortion rights); after talking these homogenous groups expressed even stronger commitments to their preexisting perspectives.  In another, three judge panels were coded so that their collective decisions could be correlated to whether the panel was made up of all Democratic appointees (DDD), all Republican appointees (RRR), or some combination of greater diversity (RDD, DRR).  The findings show that when judges sit with the ideologically similar, their levels of agreement are startlingly higher than when some disagreement gets built into the mix.  The third study tracked mock jury behavior, concluding that similarly inclined (that is, more homogenous) juries also produced distorted and polarized decisions.

To scholars familiar with research done in the 1960’s and 1970’s in speech communication by small group communication scholars, these results come as no surprise.  Group polarization effects have been well documented for many decades.  In fact, for a comprehensive summary of the long tradition of research done on this topic, there is in my view no better guide than John Gastil, a communication scholar at the University of Washington, who has recently summarized all of it in his Political Communication and Deliberation (Sage 2008).

The much more difficult challenge is to offer proposals that might rectify the pessimistic diagnoses that emerge from all these research traditions.  Gastil does not lay out very elaborated options; at one point he says people interested in fixing things should consider hosting a National Issues Forum, and the closing chapter ends with a section dedicated this very issue but the absence of detailed political options makes an otherwise very impressive book end with a whimper.  In Republic 2.0, Sunstein offered a series of systemic proposals (which included the idea that the federal government should consider imposing viewpoint neutrality rules on advocacy-oriented websites, such as by mandating that websites link to alternative perspectives).  But so many weaknesses (moral, logistical, and legal) were identified by his readers than in the second edition of the same book Sunstein actually withdraws most of them.  What Sunstein discovered is that even if theoretically plausible answers can be identified, it will be hard to implement them in a culture like that of the United States where the legal constraints on mandated participation and expression are so significant.

Given the many indictments of political deliberation that now pervade the research and social theoretical literature, it may not be fair to expect authors to make the impossible into the inevitable.  One might rather choose to simply appreciate this work (Sunstein and Gastil) for calling attention to the shortcomings of deliberative practice, if only because doing so might inoculate elites against the utopian temptations of thinking that nostalgically attractive town hall meetings can save the day and prevent global warming and all the rest.  I confess to some surprise that Prof. Sunstein, addressing a group of mass communication educators, never advocated changes in pedagogical practices that might educate a new generation of media consumers against these dangers.  But even radical changes in educational practice would be hard pressed to correct for the many distractions  posed by the magical mass mediated hallucinations that bedazzle audiences and at the very moment when tragedy (Katrina, tsunami, 9/11, war) seems to focus social collectives on the need for reasonable systemic correctives to large scale threats, lure us too often into quietude.

Or would they?  A colleague of mine at Georgia State University, Carol Winkler, working with colleagues at Emory University and elsewhere, has introduced programs centered on teaching public advocacy and debating skills to kids struggling in underperforming schools.  Debate has many benefits, it turns out, for marginalized students:  the fact that debating is a competitive activity (there is a winner, there is a loser) grabs student’s attention and gives them a reason to attend to public policy complexities (if they don’t they will lose the debates).  Because debating requires students to absorb complex information and then articulate it publicly in their own words and in ways they can defend under questioning, students in these programs escape the shortcomings of a pedagogical model reliant on lecturing or one-on-one tutoring.  The educational gains are often remarkable: compelling literacy gains, major drops in truancy rates.  But perhaps more than all this is the value of inducing students into deliberative practices that end up making them interested in attending to the big issues we face together.  Such outcomes are so impressive that the Department of Justice has named these programs as among the most effective known interventions able to reach at-risk youth.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.