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The Idea of Culture

“We find ourselves abruptly in close quarters with the enemy. This word Culture, or what it has come to represent, involves, by contrast, our whole theme, and has been, indeed, the spur, urging us to engagement”

—Walt Whitman, “Democratic Vistas”

“My utmost pretension is probably but to offset that old claim of the exclusively curative power of first-class individual men, as leaders and rulers, by the claims and general movement and result of ideas. Something of the latter kind seems to me to be the distinctive theory of America, of democracy, and of the modern—or rather, I should say, it is democracy, and is the modern.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annotation Inc. (etc.)

Because we will be working with web-based materials this semester and one of the tools we will be using to discuss, collaborate, and organize our thinking about what we are reading is an annotation tool called Most of you registered for in class on Tuesday. If you have not, to get started, you need to

  • Create an Account: The Quick Start Guide will guide you through the steps. All you will need is an email address and a user nam
  • Open and add an extension (if you are using Chrome browser, which is the optimal browser for the application) or make a bookmark
  • Annotate: navigate to web pages and activate the Chrome extension through the icon in the right side of your browser window

You will be annotating as part of the group “Open Space of Democracy.” I have sent you an invitation to the page and the URL will be the space where we can gather documents and annotate them as members of a common group.

Do you have questions about the annotation tool The tutorial Annotating with Groups should answer most of your questions.

A quick note on reading and making notes on a text

The activity of reading is a complex process. Making meaning involves the formation of and testing of inferences about the internal relations of the work and about the external relations between the work and the world. And much of the activity of reading remains tacit; that is, we do it for the most part without being conscious of what we are doing.

Reading as a Writer most often involves putting the process of reading to work in writing. The process can include a number of strategies: comprehension (summary), analysis (recognition and use of features of text), interpretation (construction of meaning from a text and recognize ways of reading), and evaluation (identifying and analyzing assumptions and judgments). Consider the following heuristic to help you think about the things you (can) do as a reader of texts:

Summary: a reader formulates a brief restatement that omits concrete details, in the case of a narrative, in order to isolate the significant actions and formal divisions in the work. We summarize a text so that we have a sufficient understanding of the character(s) and action(s) of the work.

e.g. (exempli gratia or for example) here is a schematic summary of Hart Crane’s The Bridge (a seventy-six page poem): The poem begins with an introductory proem and then is divided into eight parts. In the poem, a young man awakens at dawn, gazes out over the harbour and city, and then spends the day wandering in the metropolis, gradually becoming involved in its corruption, and, after agonizing disillusionment and drunkenness—a kind of spiritual descent into Hades—comes, in the final part of the poem, to an apparently illuminating vision of order or transcendence.

Marginalia: the reader is focused on her response to the work—what springs to mind and into body in the course of your reading. Its purpose is to register your feelings and thoughts as you read to examine, deepen and perhaps change them. We respond to texts in the mode of marginalia when we draw on our own emotions, life experience and intellectual competencies

Annotation: the reader brings to the work factual information from an external source. Its purpose is to clarify apparent ambiguities, obscurities and references. We annotate—or at least we should—when a term or reference in the text slows us down, confuses us or presents an interpretive problem

Explication: the reader proceeds word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase, line-by-line, with the intent of describing the work’s formal features—the lexical, grammatical, syntactic and sequential choices of an author. Its purpose is to generate awareness of the formal features of a work so as to be more accountable to how the work is put together.

We explicate to make explicit the immediate indices of our attention—the lexical, grammatical, syntactic choices of an author; we analyze, relying on all the previous modes—marginalia, annotation and explication—to communicate to your reader something interesting and significant about the passage(s) under discussion

Analysis: the reader isolates one or more elements of the work for closer attention. We use analysis to separate the work into parts, or into cause and effect relations, in order to probe different relations, to generate questions, and more fully understand the whole.

Interpretation: the reader sets forth one or more meanings of a work according to a programmatic set of assumptions or ideological beliefs. We interpret in order to make a persuasive case for a meaning of the work.

Emerson, History, Politics

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

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

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

Thinking with Emerson about the individual is to see the common sense notion that the individual is not all, and that the idea of individualism pure and simple (an idea often attributed to Emerson) makes it difficult to understand the ideal of an individual in a democracy. Consider what Emerson says about the relationship between imperfect institutions and the individual citizen in the 1844 essay “New England Reformers”:

The criticism and attack on institutions which we have witnessed, has made one thing plain, that society gains nothing whilst a man, not himself renovated, attempts to renovate things around him: he has become tediously good in some particular, but negligent or narrow in the rest; and hypocrisy and vanity are often the disgusting result.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Create Manage License

Create Your Blog Your blog is a process portfolio in which you will be thinking and writing in this course—a site where you will be sharing your intellectual work with members of the class, and other interested readers. You have created your digital portfolio using the open-source digital content management system (CMS) Word Press (WP). And you have begun the process of designing a space that will make visible your intellectual contributions

In creating a WP blog you are creating a space to gain some control over your digital identity. Using basic digital tools and technologies will allow you to share your ideas in a public space and to consider ways of using the web in meaningful ways

Manage Your Blog The first step in managing your blog is to experiment with digital tools—to take up design questions about organizing and presenting information, to play with the relations between text and image, to cultivate habits or protocols (using categories or tags, or thinking about style) when publishing a post. More broadly, in managing your blog you are exploring the implications of how you represent yourself in a public space—empowering you to move beyond the passive consumption and toward more active production of content in the digital commons

The checklist below will develop your skills (such as adding images and links) and establish habits, or protocols, (such as including categories and tags when you publish a post

  • Clean up your theme delete default pages, links that are not relevant, widgets in sidebars or footers that you are not using; organize the sidebar or footer to make the site easier to navigate, making sure there is a list of “Recent Posts” so that a reader has a table of contents; try a “sticky post” that will welcome readers to your site and will be “above the fold” for visitors of your site;
  • (Re)consider your theme You are welcome to experiment with different themes. Word Press has hundreds of free themes for you to try. Don’t worry: you can try one out and if it does not work you can always switch back to your original or default theme
  • Edit your “About” or “About page: Readers want to know who is writing and you are in control of what a reader will know. Remember that you want to be taken seriously and so what you say (or do not say) will shape a perception of you
  • Add an Image to your About page Consider Justifying image left or right and wrapping text using image editor. If you choose not to use an image of yourself, choose an appropriate image that you would like your readers to associate with you
  • Learn to use images in your posts Use your own. You can use Google Search to poke around on the web and find images that free to use.
  • Add or Modify your Blog Header You don’t have to have a header. And what you can do with a header is in some cases determined by the the theme you have chosen. Still, headers are attractive and can serve to reinforce or echo the blog theme.
  • Add a Links or Blogroll Widget (if you do not already have one) Delete default WP links that do not seem relevant or necessary. Consider context, perhaps adding the College home page (Title of the link should be the name of the College). Link to course web page. As your projects develop later in the course you will likely want to add to the list of links.
  • Consider conventions and style Practice and play with conventions of writing on a blog; consider microstyle, including brief but suggestive post titles, simpler sentences; when writing and curating your prose, find a voice less constrained by formality or informality, perhaps by questioning familiar distinctions between formal and informal distinction, but without going too far toward either pole; consider spaces (as opposed to indentation) to mark paragraph breaks; consider the use of bullets to organize information
  • Revisit and Revise Your First Post: To add a Category, open edit for your first blog post and add a category; Add Tags Go through your first blog post and identify key words and concepts, people, place names. Add no fewer than three Tags to the post
  • Add one or more LinksHighlight text > add a URL > save (or command + K on a Mac). Link to a text (de Tocqueville or another?)

License your Content Add a License to your blog As authors creating and publishing content on the web, you need to think about copyright and the commons, digital communities, collaboration and sharing. Here is what you need to do:

  • Choose a license. I recommend and use the least restrictive license. The 4.0 License  lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon our work, even commercially, as long as users credit us for the original creation. You retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make non-commercial uses of your work. Once you have chosen a license, add a Text Widget to your Blog. I recommend placing the text widget at the bottom of the widget sidebar or in the footer. Paste into the Text Widget Window the following code:

<a rel=”license” href=””><img alt=”Creative Commons License” style=”border-width:0;” src=”×31.png” /></a><br />This work is licensed under a <a rel=”license” href=””>Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License</a>.

Emerson Reading History

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

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting Out

All of the writing you complete in the course will be on a blog (an abbreviation of the phrase “web log”). We will be setting up your blogs during week one of the class. Your blog is a process portfolio–a working space for your reading, thinking and writing. The blog is a tool for making visible your thinking as well, for your peers and anyone else who might be interested. Finally, the blog is a product, a portfolio that I will use to assess your learning in the course.

Setting Up Your Blog Go to You will be prompted to move through a series of steps:

  • Let’s get started: choose the theme “A List of My Latest Posts.” Choose Twenty Sixteen as a theme. You will have the opportunity to change the theme later
  • choose a domain address: use the following convention (first initial + last name + democracy). If you are planning to use a pseudonym (pen name, nom de plume, or alias) use the first initial and last name of the pseudonym.
  • Select the Free option plan
  • Create your account

Once you have registered the blog, you will be prompted to give the site a title and a tagline (or subtitle). For now consider the course as a context for the title. For example, I might call my site “Thinking and Writing Democracy.” You will have the opportunity to revise your title, and add a tagline or subtitle, as you get further into the course.  If you have a laptop or tablet, please bring it to class on Thursday. We will talk about configuring and personalizing your blog, using the Reader feature to follow each other’s blogs, and answer other Word Press questions.

Write a Professional Bio Compose a 100-200 word description that represents you as a college student.

Once you have created the blog and written your bio, send an e-mail with the blog URL and the bio to Mark at Please send them no later than noon on Thursday.