Category Archives: Metacommentary

A Brief Debrief

 As students of literature and culture well know, one way to make sense of experience is through poems.

Here is one by Gary Snyder, from his collection Left Out in the Rain, that invites one way of making sense of the course called The Open Space of Democracy:

The Trail Is Not a Trail

I drove down the Freeway
And turned off at an exit
And went along a highway
Til it came to a sideroad
Drove up the sideroad
Til it turned to a dirt road
Full of bumps, and stopped.
Walked up a trail
But the trail got rough
And it faded away—
Out in the open,
Everywhere to go.

The poem moves from declarative certainty (“is not”) to a journey that involves mechanics and turns. Things (cars, freeways and highways, sideroads) drop away. Full stop. Walking. A trail. Fading away. And then. . . .

Debriefing The Open Space of Democracy began for me with rereading the blogs as well as spending time with the individual projects you developed over the second half of the semester. Most of you commented on the open and integrative pedagogical elements of the course. Here are some of the elements you mentioned:

  • learning to shape your thinking in writing in a public forum using a blog and wrestling with questions of genre and audience;
  • taking up (or not) the invitation to annotate, a way to “read aloud” and to read together;
  • adapting to the class method of a professor who composed thirty posts across the semester to tell a story, thinking with the words and ideas of authors who have generated and sustained an engaged audience—a story that that would otherwise be delivered in a lecture format;
  • using classroom time each week to organize what each of you appeared to be interested in through generating key terms and project ideas in a “collaboratory” setting that made it possible to spend our face-to-face meetings learning how to use appropriate methods for studying different kinds of cultural artifacts, including verbal and visual texts, experience, story, and discourse;
  • conducting archival work, practicing archival methods and, receiving credit as a contributing editor to a published work
  • learning through experience to engage yourself in the rigorous process of producing intellectual work with purpose and integrity.

The responses to these elements were not all positive. Nor should they be. A few of you mentioned the challenges of sustaining engagement with a literary and cultural tradition, locating the survey of literature in historical and cultural context, adapting to the changing timeline and deadlines of the course, and navigating the self-directed model of project-based learning. There were also close to a half dozen comments on how a practice that was at first unfamiliar and challenging (writing on a blog, for example) became something that was more familiar, more interesting, more useful.

Course Outcomes

Your debriefing came to me in a number of forms: reflective commentaries and meta-commentaries during the course, the learning outcomes you composed during the final examination period, the “dear Mark” letters, and other notes that have come to me. Your insightful comments took a number of forms and I have shaped below into a take-away list that will be useful for all of us. I ask you to write the learning outcomes at the end of the course because, as the list below will demonstrate, the outcomes for each of you are not necessarily the same.

The list is organized into three categories. Almost every outcome in the list below was mentioned in one way or another by more than one student in the class. I hope that my translation of the outcomes and their listing is useful in some way for each of us. For it is helpful to know what you know so that you can do things well.

Understanding of Democracy and Culture

An understanding of the history and evolution of democracy as an organizing idea/ideal/ideology for organizing human experience in the United States

An understanding of the concept of democratic culture that emerged in the nineteenth century and the development of this concept through the present

An understanding of democracy as a process that is dependent upon diverse and creative human practices

An understanding of democracy as at once a dream and a nightmare—an inspired aspiration and a haunting contradiction

Reading, Thinking, and Writing

An ability to read in and across multiple and intersecting literary and cultural products in cultural, historical, and literary contexts

An ability to use a social annotation platform ( to annotate texts and to read and discuss a text in a digitally-mediate format

An ability to think with the thoughts of others who have contributed to the ongoing conversation about literary and cultural production in the United States

An ability to think about reading and writing (in this case writers and artists thinking about democracy) that invites the integration of learning in other courses and experiences outside of school

An ability to read, understand, and apply ideas in literature, political philosophy, and theories of socially engaged art

Project-Based Learning and Digitally-Mediated Intellectual Work

An experience working on a self-defined and self-directed intellectual project that is part of a collective project of making visible the creative and critical work of the classroom

An understanding of how to use technological tools (Word Press) to build a project that includes a range of textual forms: writing and other materials: individual experiences, socially engaged practices, photographs, letters, newspaper articles, etc.

An ability to use archival methods of descriptive commentary and metadata in cataloguing primary documents

An ability to practice writing as a public activity for different audiences using language that will engage different kinds of people

An understanding of writing as a process and that curating writing and ideas is ongoing work that involves other writers and readers

An ability to formulate a concise statement of purpose and a method of organizing and developing writing in the public domain

An understanding that meaningful intellectual work that has integrity begins with discovering what you are doing and then working hard to do it well

An understanding of the exacting skills of revising, editing and proofreading written work that is published in a public and open network





Take Me to the River

The individual projects are gathering and tracing a way, tributaries spilling into a river, a watershed of democratic activity!


As promised, I am passing along our end-of-the-semester checklist. It is offered to help you complete your work. The primary impulse behind the elements checklist below is to help you keep moving toward “completion.” The checklist is also establishing a baseline of elements for the collective/shared project we are doing on Democracy + Culture.

Please complete all of the elements by Wednesday May 3rd and send to Mark and Kerrin no later than 8 AM. Post the materials on your process blog, send as email attachments, or make arrangements to give me a thumb drive. If you are creating your own project site, or modifying your process blog into the project site, then complete all of these elements on your site by Wednesday morning

If you need more time, please let me know as soon as you are able.

Project Elements Checklist

Each project will have the following elements: Title, Tagline, Introduction/Abstract, List of Primary or Secondary Sources, Further Reading, Bio and Image.

The draft models in the portfolio part of the home page of Democracy + Culture will help you visualize one way these elements will work. Of course you are welcome to organize these elements in the way you believe work best, and please see these elements as a minimum as there may be other elements you may want to include

  • Title Make it count. Call it a project, such as “the politics and popular culture project,” or give it a title of its own, such as “Tattfolio: Memoirs of a Living Canvas”
  • Tagline Pin the tail on the donkey. Express exactly what you know you are doing. Give the reader a reason to read on.

The tagline may be the first sentence a reader encounters in the project space you create, the abstract, or it can be a mission statement for the project. If you have a separate site/blog, please use the Word Press tagline feature so that the title and tagline give someone who comes to your site an orientation

  • Introduction or Abstract Do it well. This is the elaboration of the title and tagline. It is a paragraph that will include your purpose Here are two examples from project sites I asked you to look at earlier in the course and that are listed on our Open Space of Democracy Practice list

The Mojave Project is an experimental transmedia documentary and curatorial project led by Kim Stringfellow exploring the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Project reconsiders and establishes multiple ways in which to interpret this unique and complex landscape, through association and connection of seemingly unrelated sites, themes, and subjects thus creating a speculative and immersive experience for its audience.

Cultural Agents is an interface between academic learning and civic engagement. The Initiative promotes the divergent thinking of arts and humanities in the service of solutions to real life problems.

Also have a look at another model, the introduction to the recently published Issue 8.3 of Art Practical, Art can’t do anything if we don’t

  • List of Primary and Secondary Resources Embed your work in the cultural conversation from which it arises. It is important that you include a list of resources, a works cited, bibliography.

This information need not be cluttered. What you need is author (if there is one) or authors, the source (italics for books and films, quotations for articles, book chapters, poems). One convention we can use is to dispense with the “” when using links to a web-based text. Like what we are doing on the Readings page of the Open Space of Democracy web site.

  • Further Reading Give the reader places to go. Include a list of relevant reading or web sites or archives or projects. You can do this as a list at the end of what you are writing; or you can use the “blogroll” or “links” section of your separate site. The idea here is to connect your reader with the people/resources/materials for further work in this area.
  • Bio Statement and image for the “Who We Are” page A one sentence bio—or, if you can’t do one, no more than two! Include a “headshot image” that we can include with your bios.

These will appear on the Who we Are page. Our class project is one form of democratic engagement. And we want to expand our audience. For this reason, think about the bio and the image as a “professional” statement of you, and of us. Of course if you choose not include your face send along an image/avatar that fits with your project.

Take Me to the River Monday is reading day. Or talking day. Or working day. Make an appointment if you would like. I will be in the office between 9-3. Share any drafts of the project or elements above with me and/or our project coordinator Kerrin. I’m looking forward to our final examination time block on Thursday between 1-3. No need to prepare for that session. I just need you to bring your body and your mind.

Roads to Take


About a month ago we were writing metadata for issues of Aspect magazine. Working with our archivists Rodney and Zach, you were learning how to work with print materials in the archive. One of the interesting challenges for many of you was writing descriptive commentary. We then had a discussion in class about an image on the cover of the November 1971 issue of Aspect.

Screenshot 2017-04-16 09.58.21

Following our conversation I received a letter from Seal Beach, California. The Letter from Roger Camp began by telling me that he had read notes from our discussion posted on our blog “regarding the cover photograph by Roger Camp. I enjoyed reading the comments and wanted to add my own since I took the photograph.” You will remember that I was asking us to distinguish between interpretive comments (about an image that “looked like a moon” to descriptive comments about an illuminated circle. Roger continued, “The woman in the photo was my wife and the ‘moon’ was a hanging lamp in the shape of a ball.”

Roger and I exchanged a couple of letters. In the Second Letter from Roger he shared some of his memories of working with Ed Hogan:

At that time, I used to send out about five photos at a time. They were 5×7 prints and labeled on the back with a title and my name and address. What people don’t realize is that the prints themselves were made to the same high standards as an art print which as a fine art photographer I would be making for exhibitions or gallery sales. I still have a few of those 5×7 prints in my files (in fact three different versions of the hands/light (moon) shot. Magazines at the time rarely returned photos even though I supplied them with SSAE. A couple of years ago I got in touch with the editor of Truck, one of the few journals of the 1970’s that was non university affiliated and was perfect bound printed. He still had drawers of my photos!

He also shared additional information that is useful for our understanding of literary journals in the 1960s and 70s:

Another aspect of literary magazines at the time was what we would now find as primitive means of printing. But they were typical because professionally bound and printed journals were horribly expensive. There was no such thing as color images at the time. To give your students an example. To have a color postcard of an exhibition announcement printed even in the 1980’s was a $1,000 dollars. The same postcard today would be $50-100. Printing costs have declined 90% in the digital age, one of the few things I can think of that has gone down in price! A color image printed in the 1970’s was probably double that.

One of the developments that revolutionized submission to little magazines was Len Fulton’s Directory. I suspect I was one of his earliest subscribers. Prior to that my only resource were the stacks of various University Libraries. I would look at the various magazines on the shelves for ones that might publish my photos. He made it so much easier to submit both photography and later poetry.

This correspondence exemplifies how questions (about the difference between interpretive and descriptive commentary) and a research project (on primary materials in an archive, in this case Ed Hogan’s Aspect magazine) begin to take shape. And the correspondence, and what might follow, affirms a model of open learning and teaching that can make use of the affordances of digital technology to facilitate research into American literary and cultural history.

Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 8.36.58 AM

There are roads to take when you think of your country, to once again borrow the words of the poet Muriel Rukeyser. After we talked about another cover photos in Aspect Magazine, January 1972 by Roger, a rocking chair, Roger and I kept talking and he sent a note about his earlier comment. “I wanted to make one correction. I substituted Evanston for Charleston, Ill. which is where the abandoned railroad hotel was located.” He also sent along his Photography Web Site.

So where might a student of American studies go next? A quick online search will remind you of the good fortune we have to be living in a world with digital tools and digital archives. For in fact  The Online Archive of California (OAC) will take you to the University of Santa Barbara Special Collections Roger Camp Collection. The metadata includes a descriptive summary and the size of the collection (9 linear feet: 7 boxes, 7 oversize boxes, and 1 map folder) and an abstract:

Correspondence, mainly editors’ letters of acceptance or rejection, to poet and photographer Roger Camp, copies of poems by him, and issues of literary and poetry journals and reviews, usually containing poems or photographs by him. Correspondents include Ansel Adams, Robert Bly, Thom Jones, and Lawrence Willson (UCSB English professor).

The collection includes, more specifically, a collection of forty-eight letters between Camp and UCSB English professor and friend of Camp’s family Lawrence Wilson written between 1968 and 1995. The archive includes notes with advice about writing poetry from Robert Bly; a letter regarding a story by Thom Jones in the New Yorker, short story writing, and possible novel about Vietnam, 1992; a letter from the photographer Ansel Adams admiring a color image (including one postcard with typescript message thanking Camp for the color photo he sent, noting that he usually does not enjoy color prints but does this one, Oct. 24, 1978); and “issues of literary and poetry journals and reviews, usually containing poems or photos of Camp’s, along with typescript copies of poems, and editors’ letters of acceptance or rejection.”

 You can access the Guide to the Roger Camp Collection. But were we to spend time with the materials, we would need to go on a field trip to the library at UC Santa Barbara.

Culture | Art | Engagement

Walt Whitman, “Democratic Vistas”

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

“Carlyle from American Points of View” (1881)

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.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar”

“This revolution is to be wrought by the gradual domestication of the idea of Culture. The main enterprise of the world for splendor, for extent, is the upbuilding of a man. Here are the materials strewn along the ground.”

(Emergence of democratic culture as alternative to a hierarchical and exclusive (Whitman called it “feudal”) definition of culture)

James Baldwin, “The Creative Process”

This continent now is conquered, but our habits and our fears remain. And, in the same way that to become a social human being one modifies and suppresses and, ultimately, without great courage, lies to oneself about all one’s interior, uncharted chaos, so have we, as a nation, modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history. We know, in the case of the person, that whoever cannot tell himself the truth about his past is trapped in it, is immobilized in the prison of his undiscovered self. This is also true of nations. We know how a person, in such a paralysis, is unable to assess either his weaknesses or his strengths, and how frequently indeed he mistakes the one for the other.

Doris Sommer, The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and the Public Humanities

“Constitutional democracies are themselves collective works of art accountable for their constructions. And constitutions remain open to performative interventions, obliging citizens to cultivate their creativity and criticism” (104).

(Metaphor of the state as a work of art)

Michel Foucault, “On the Genealogy of Ethics: Report on a Work in Progress.”

What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?

Pablo Helguera, “Interview”

These are works that are designed to address social or political issues only in an allegorical, metaphorical, or symbolic level (for example, a painting about social issues is not very different than a public art project that claims to offer a social experience but only does so in a symbolic way such as the ones just described above). The work does not control a social situation in an instrumental and strategic way in order to achieve a specific end. This distinction is partially based on Jurgen Habermas’s work The Theory of Communicative Action (1981). In it Habermas argues that social action (an act constructed by the relations between individuals) is more than a mere manipulation of circumstances by an individual to obtain a desired goal (that is, more than just the use of strategic and instrumental reason. He instead favors what he describes as communicative action, a type of social action geared to communication and understanding between individuals that can have a lasting effect on the spheres of politics and culture as a true emancipatory force. (6-7)

(Production and reception of culture and cultural performance: socially engaged art as less confined to the distinctions between creative and critical cultural work, making and thinking, producer and consumer)

Terry Tempest Williams, “Commenement”

When minds close, democracy begins to close. Fear creeps in; silence overtakes speech

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World and Me

The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing (50).

Key Questions: Call and Response

 What is democratic culture? How is it (or how might it be) different from other forms of culture?

 What opportunities, roles, responsibilities and/or obligations are associated with life in a democratically organized society?

 In what forms do we find expression of democratic ideals, values, and practice?

 How do individuals come to organize their lives around a belief in the ideals of democracy?

 How do we live with the ideal and the fact—the possibilities, for example, of the logic of equality and the persistent fact of inequality?

 Adrienne Rich, An Atlas of the Difficult World

I don’t want to know

wreckage, dreck and waste, but these are the materials

and so are the slow lift of the moon’s belly

over wreckage, dreck and waste, wild treefrogs calling in

another season, light and music still pouring over

our fissured and cracked terrain”(4)


I promised to show you a map you say but this is a mural

Then yes let it be  these are small distinctions

Where do we see it from is the question (6)


“using the poems to talk to each other” (9)


Waste.          Waste. The watcher’s eye put out, hands of the

builder severed, rain of the maker starved

those who could bind, join, reweave, cohere, replenish

now at risk in this segregate republic

locked away out of sight and hearing, out of mind, shunted aside

those needed to teach, advise, persuade, weigh arguments

those urgently needed for the work of perception

work of the poet, the astronomer, the historian, the architect of

New streets

work of the speaker who also listens

meticulous delicate work of reaching the heart of the desperate

Woman, the desperate man

—never-to-be-finished, still unbegun work of repair—it cannot

be done without them

and where are they now? (11)


Catch if you can your country’s moment, begin (12)


There are roads to take she wrote

when you think of your country           driving south

To West Virginia Gauley Bridge silicon mines the flakes of it

heaped like snow, death-angel white

—poet journalist pioneer mother

uncovering her country:           there are roads to take (13)


I honor your truth and refuse to leave it at that (19)

What’s the Story?

“Constitutional democracies are themselves collective works of art accountable for their constructions. And constitutions remain open to performative interventions, obliging citizens to cultivate their creativity and criticism” (104).

-Doris Sommer

The idea that a constitutional democracy is a cultural artifact has a history that the cultural historian Eric Slauter shares in the Introduction to The State as a Work of Art: The Cultural Origins of the Constitution (2009). Sommer’s adds that a constitutional democracy remains open to performative intervention—a reminder of the essential lesson of Emerson’s comment on political institutions, that “they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better.” For Sommer, though, the point is the inherent obligation for “citizens to cultivate their creativity and criticism” in the open space of a democratic culture.

This week we continue reading of The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and the Public Humanities, specifically chapter five, “Play Drive in the Hard Drive: Schiller’s Poetics of Politics.” In chapter four, you will recall, Sommer advocates an “integrated approach to literacy, art, and civics” to develop “personal faculties and collective disposition for democratic life” (112). A productive way to consider the cultural activity you have taken as the subject of your project is to think about it in these terms: That is, what might happen when you think about the cultural activity as pedagogical—as a method of engaging the creative and critical faculties, stimulating the imagination, promoting the freedom to speculate?

Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Sommer argues, provides a way of seeing the labor of creative work as engaging individuals in making judgments, speculating, exploring, and testing possibilities, “disarming hierarchies through cultural interventions” (149). These interventions, by reformers, artists, educators, citizens, as we talked about last week, disconnect us from routine habits, preconceptions, and expectations.

Another way to think about the cultural activity you have chosen is to think about it as a story or narrative. What’s the story? As the psychologist Jerome Bruner points out in The The Narrative Construction of Reality (1991), narratives are a form of describing and a form of constructing and understanding reality. As Kerrin might remind us, Bruner is a “constructivist,” and indeed his thinking about education may be useful.

Brunner’s thinking is useful for the study of lived experience, as well as for examining ways of being in and ways of knowing the world. Here is Brunner explaining the importance of narrative:

Another domain that must be widely (though roughly) shared for a culture to operate with requisite effectiveness is the domain of social beliefs and procedures—what we think people are like and how they must get on with each other. . . . These are domains that are, in the main, organized narratively. What I have tried to do in this paper is to describe some of the properties of a world of “reality” constructed according to narrative principles. In doing so, I have gone back and forth between describing narrative mental “powers” and the symbolic systems of narrative discourse that make the expression of these powers possible.

To make experience and to describe the world we subjectively construct a story of that experience and the world—both in terms of what it is, and what we think it ought to be. As Paulo Freire explains in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “To deny the importance of subjectivity in the process of transforming the world and history is naïve and simplistic” (qtd. in Sommer 139). At the same time, cultural narratives determine through discourse stories that help us make sense of our experience. For Sommer, however, creative activities and interpretation must engage individual citizens. “No enlightened masterpiece of the legislation can move people to identify with the state, unless each participant is already educated in the spirit of freedom that the state presumably represents.” This statement echoes Emerson, in the 1844 essay “New England Reformers,”

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

The call to cultivate creativity, and criticism, is a call for “self-renovation.”

What is the story? What is the cultural practice or performance or engagement and how does it make possible creativity and criticism?



Creativity and Critique

Patrick and I were in the archive this morning looking at the papers of the Reverend John Crocker. Rodney printed out Bryan Marquand’s 2012 obituary of Reverend Crocker that was published in the January 6th edition of The Boston Globe. The obituary includes a comment Crocker made to a Globe reporter in 1976. “We are responsible for what happens in this world,” he says. “It is possible for people to change, and there is time to change.”

This investment in the possibility of change not only animates the idea of democratic culture but is implied in what I am calling democratic literacy. What is it? How do we cultivate it?

9780813343297-400x600Reading Doris Sommer we are reminded of a Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, who took these questions seriously. His wonderful little book Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach makes a case that teachers, and the institutions in which they work, are responsible for cultivating democracy. One of the most inspiring dimensions of Freire’s pedagogy was his suspicion of “the pedagogical populism that prefers easier engagements, because full citizenship requires high-order literacy” (112).

But how do we cultivate creativity and criticism in the open space of democracy?


One working answer is to explore the relationship between art and democracy, between creativity and criticism. I’m going to read ahead to the chapter in Sommer we will consider on Thursday where she addresses the relationship:

. . . .democratic life depends upon the dynamic between art-making and humanistic interpretation. This is no exaggeration. A disposition toward creativity and critique resists authoritarian single-mindedness; it acknowledges different points of view and multiple ways to arrange available material. Constitutional democracies are themselves collective works of art accountable for their constructions. And constitutions remain open to performative interventions, obliging citizens to cultivate their creativity and criticism (104).

The idea that a constitutional democracy is itself is a collective work of art, accountable to its making, calls attention to participatory and performative cultural activities—the “venture into the multifarious practices that make up culture, the range of cultures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Two Three


Begin with the idea that creativity and aesthetic experience constitute what we have been calling democratic culture—an idea that emerges in the United States during the nineteenth century and that remains a vital element in our cultural life today.

As you work on your project statements and work plans for the next seven weeks it is important that you think with the awesome archive of reading you have completed this semester. Our class yesterday helped surface a range of project ideas that have potential. But it is imperative that you begin and then proceed with the idea of democratic culture that we have been defining and elaborating together for seven weeks.

Two weeks ago I posted For splendor, for extent, that begins with two epigraphs. The first, from which I take the title of the post, Emerson’s “The American Scholar.” The second is from Michel Foucault’s “On the Genealogy of Ethics: Report on a Work in Progress.” Both Emerson and Foucault are questioning cultural institutions and the horizons those institutions set for human life. Here is Foucault:

What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?

One of the challenges you are having is precisely this: wriggling out from under the domain of art as an exclusive place, of artists and experts. You will remember Whitman’s enacting precisely the answer to Foucault’s questions. Not that this is easy! Recall how Whitman framed the challenge of defining democratic culture. “We find ourselves abruptly in close quarters with the enemy,” he writes in “Democratic Vistas.” “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.”

The word engagement has surfaced again and again in our reading—in the words of the philosopher John Dewey, in the essay and poems of Adrienne Rich, and in the commencement address Terry Tempest Williams delivered to the graduating class at the University of Utah in May of 2003.



In the “Prologue” to the book you are now reading, The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities, Doris Sommer refers to what she calls “a long tradition of democracy that develops side by side with aesthetics” (1). In a footnote to refers to the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010). One of the arguments in that book is that democracy becomes tenuous when education is designed merely to produce economically productive workers. What is lost is the cultivation of those critical and creative capacities that make possible a democratic culture—the capacity to be active and thoughtful, or engaged.

Sommer’s thinking (alongside Pablo Helguera’s thinking) will help you think as you write your project statement. Consider these statements from the “Prologue”:

Through art we reframe experience, offset prejudice and refresh our perception of what exists so that it seems new and worthy of attention

Critical thinking is both a condition of and a compliment to art-making—world making in Dewey’s pragmatic and democratizing sense of art as experience—that sparks more exploration and more experience

Every project in this class will describe how something (object, practice, project, performance) does something, “reframe,” “offset,” “refresh,” to use a few of the many words we will use to describe the impact of creative social practice. Public art, food, music, wall murals, social movements, body art, artist collectives, art or cultural projects, built environments, natural landscapes, performances—in every case the question is the same: what it is the creative practice? What is the impact of the creative social practice?

Sommer is helpful for you in another way as well. In the context of Fredrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794) and Viktor Shklovsky’s Shklovsky Art as Technique (1913) her case study of Antanas Mockus and his “por amor al arte” (For the Love of Art) platform in Colombia offers a way of thinking about creative social practice. The idea here is that art is a way of intervening in normative practices or habits (perhaps think of the pantsuit flash mob) and so that people are thinking adaptively and creatively. In the chapter on Mockus and relational art Sommer elaborates on the idea of “defamiliarization”:

This is why bilingual and bicultural games are a source of endless fun and wisdom as they track the artful failures of language. Misunderstanding, intentional or not, is also why foreigners help keep democracy dynamic, by asking unlikely questions that stimulate justification or reform (27)

Are you tracking? Can you explain this insight? Social and cultural change is not here defined as a cause and effect, an instrumental solution to a discrete and definable problem. Rather the fun, in this case, or the stimulation, is precisely the point. Another way of talking about this is to hear the echo here of Dewey and his more capacious definition of art as a critical and creative activity. “Art thrives on nonconformity, exploration, expression, and the development of individuality” (48), with the qualification here (back to Foucault, Baldwin, Dewey, Whitman, Emerson, etc) that “art” is an experience available to all.


What you proposed to do in class is in no way binding. Your project proposal for next Tuesday, however, is going to set your course.

Your project is as easy (and as difficult) as one two three.

One: the idea of democratic culture. We have been circulating in this line of thinking since January.

Two: creative social practice. You have been wrestling with this idea for weeks and we now have dozens of examples that can help us to explain the places of art of interpretation in the public sphere.

Three: you are in the position of feeling the excitement of defining the social practice—whatever it is, a group of texts, the enactment of an idea, an urban space, a human practice such as eating together—and discovering the creative elements that promote the democratic arts of exchange, communication, and understanding.

For Tuesday, March 28, read Richard Rorty, Education as Socialization and as Individuation, from Philosophy and Social Hope (1999) and Sommer, Chapter Two: “Press Here: Cultural Acupuncture and Civic Stimulation,” 49-79, and Chapter Three: “Art and Accountability,” 81-105. These readings suggest the pedagogical element of creative social practice. Also remember your assignment: you will hand in a one-paragraph project description and a work plan for each of the weeks 11-16.

Do send ideas and thoughts my way. I’m here to help you move from where you are to where you are trying to be. I can also meet with anyone who would like to talk more about your project ideas.






Method Imagination Inquiry

Over the next few weeks our work will be defining and pursuing a project that will represent and discuss the impact of creative social practices in the open space of democracy. We will also be reading and discussing your work with theorists and practitioners who have thought about these questions, including Doris Sommer and Pablo Helguera, to refine the method we are using to conduct our intellectual work.

On Tuesday of this week we need to get to work on outlining our work and setting up the relationship between individual and collective responsibilities. And by Thursday (or Friday) we want to have in place a concept and an outline for completing our work.

Our reading in Sommer and Helguera provides a stimulating context for what you decide you are going to do. Your efforts, as I have  explained on a number of occasions, is to bring to light the practice of democratic culture. A focus on the “work of art” in the world should not trip you up, as we are moving to find examples of what Sommer calls Schiller’s  “daring proposition” that “creativity and aesthetic judgment are foundations for democracy” (9). Over the next few weeks we will be apprentices to this idea that Sommers connects to Fredrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794).

Among the reasons we are reading Sommer is that she is really clear about the contribution of the kind of critical work we are practicing as students of culture. She quotes Dewey, in fact, the memorable last words from a book we sampled, Art as Experience,

We lay hold of the full import of art only as we go through in our own vital processes the processes the artist went through in producing the work. It is the critic’s privilege to share in the promotion of this active process. His condemnation is that he so often arrests it

The other thing we are doing, of course, is American Studies. This work is examining subjects and problems that normally belong to other disciplines.  Helguera elegantly, and for me convincingly, explains how art as social practice involves community engagement, dialogue, and conversation. Examples of this kind of practice involve pedagogy (Paulo Friere, in this case), performance and performance studies, sociology, ethnography, literary studies, cultural studies, women’s studies, linguistics, art and art history, political science, and the public humanities.

The work of criticism depends on thinking–creative, critical, however you want to describe it. For Sommer, critical thinking “is both a condition of and a complement to art making-world making in Dewey’s pragmatic and democratizing sense of art as experience-that sparks more exploration and more experience” (10). This is helpful information. It is one way around the debilitating arrest of thought that leaves us where we are. It is a reminder that all of us are creative artists and citizens, if we choose to be, in that creative democracy Dewey imagined, and that we continue to struggle to enact every day.

Helguera: Process & Product

In the Introduction to Art and Citizenship, a special issue of artpractical, the editor Kara Q. Smith writes that the seven contributors “consider how citizenship relates to cultural and political systems as they intersect with artistic practices, institutions, and diverse publics.” This statement is useful as we move into the second half of the semester: it brings into focus the relation between social institutions (such as politics), institutions (such as art), practice (making), and audiences (the public).

Before class on Tuesday you will have read two brief pieces, the Blog Entry “Education for Socially Engaged Art” by Pablo Helguera and Interview with Pablo Helguera. In the excerpt from Education for Socially Engaged Art, he gives examples of art that is politically or socially motivated but that acts through the representation of ideas or issues. A useful distinction for us is between actual vs. symbolic practice. His interest is in works that are not about social change but rather embody social change. He is creating space to describe cultural activity that, in his words, “exists somewhere between art and non-art.”

Another way to describe this distinction is between process (the actual practice) and product (symbolic practice). He goes on to say,

These are works that are designed to address social or political issues only in an allegorical, metaphorical, or symbolic level (for example, a painting about social issues is not very different than a public art project that claims to offer a social experience but only does so in a symbolic way such as the ones just described above). The work does not control a social situation in an instrumental and strategic way in order to achieve a specific end.

Helguera then elaborates an intellectual genealogy for this distinction:

This distinction is partially based on Jurgen Habermas’s work The Theory of Communicative Action (1981). In it Habermas argues that social action (an act constructed by the relations between individuals) is more than a mere manipulation of circumstances by an individual to obtain a desired goal (that is, more than just the use of strategic and instrumental reason. He instead favors what he describes as communicative action, a type of social action geared to communication and understanding between individuals that can have a lasting effect on the spheres of politics and culture as a true emancipatory force. (6-7)

It may also be  useful to reference an interview with Helen Reed, A Bad Education, in which Helguera explains further the problem with creating a restrictive definition of art:

Art, for better or for worse, continues to be this playing field that is defined by its capacity to redefine itself. You cannot say, “This is not art!” because tomorrow it could be, or “It can be art,” because I say it is. Art is a space, which we have created, where we can cease to subscribe to the demands and the rules of society; it is a space where we can pretend. We can play, we can rethink things, we can think about them backwards.

Instead of critiquing the current system, you have to make a new system that will render the previous system superfluous or irrelevant. So as artists we need to build institutions, we need to be institutional.

One of the most useful ways to think with Helguera is to discover his productive relationship to institutions and systems. So much of our language and discourse about art and social practice assumes an oppositional stance. You will hear people talking about critiquing and “blowing up” institutions or whatever. (By the way, as readers of what Emerson says about institutions you have an intellectual context for these thoughts.) In an Interview with curator Yulia Tikhonova published in Idiom, Helguera is asked whether it is possible to work in an institution such as a museum and at the same time be engaged in institutional critique. Here is his response:

I believe that institutions are nothing but collections of individuals. If you would agree with that, then you would need to agree that because one can be critical with oneself, of course there could be criticality within institutions too. It’s true that one lacks perspective, but at the same time internal debate is key to informing our decisions–which also applies to individuals and institutions. Otherwise we would just behave erratically being told what to do by a wide random group of opinions.

Furthermore, I would argue that inasmuch as we are implicated in a system–in this case the art system–we all belong to the larger institution of art. To behave like an absolute outsider is an illusion. Just think about what we say to people who hate contemporary art who have absolute no background or knowledge: we simply dismiss them as ignorant. I believe that complete outsider-ness in the field of art is an illusion. Finally, the notion of institution is relative: some major artists are institutions, and in fact their staff in their studios is larger than the staff of a small museum. Yet we maintain the myth that artists are lone rangers and museums are monolithic, faceless and powerful forces.

Before we gather on Tuesday please do the reading, give these ideas some thought, and fold these ideas into your thinking about a final project.

Fascinated by this conversation, and want to read more? Have a look at the Blog Posts by Helguera on the Inside/Out Blog at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) that he wrote as Director of Adult and Academic Programs.

Spring and All

I’m grateful for your dedication to exploring the materials we have been studying together since late January. I am feeling the need to recount exactly what you are responsible for at the midterm break. And I am going to share some of my thoughts on reentry as we are going to hit the ground running when we gather again on Tuesday, March 21.

We know that it takes forty gallons of sap to render one gallon of sweet maple syrup. Might this process be a useful way for us to think about our work?

Most of you will have already completed most everything below. If not, here is everything I have asked for

  • Aspect Metacommentary First a clarification. . . . Send me your final edited version by email. An attachment is best but you can also just paste your work into the body of the email:
  • Move your draft version on the blog to a “drafts” or “process” or “thinking” or “ephemera” page on your blog. You might put DRAFT at the top of the page.
  • Below is an example from Savannah’s commentary that does an exemplary job with a descriptive accounting of each piece of writing with a concise description of the pieces. This is a good model:

This issue contains poetry from M. T. Buckley, Christine Smith, Jeffrey Katz, Barbara A. Holland, Sterling Kelly Webb, Andrew Darlington, Doris Wight, Joan Colby, Dennis Nicholas Hoppin, Karen Solstad, and Rick Smith.  It contains art work from Jean Segaloff, Marjorie Masel, Roger Camp, and one anonymous piece that was with permission from the Manchester Central Library.  This piece is a photograph taken by a freelance photographer in Manchester, England.

This issue has two essays, the first is titled “Corliss, Master of Power” by Frank J. Jones.  This brief piece offers a point of view into mechanical engineer, George H. Corliss’ power and public influence due to his invention, the steam engine in the mid-1800s.  The next essay, “Winning in the Sierras by Robie Darche,” is a bit longer.  It discusses the position of women in casinos as changegirls and cocktail waitresses, with discussion of keymen as well.  Another version of this piece is also found in Canadian Woman’s magazine, BRANCHING OUT.

A description and method of treating ­­­­­­“Sore Nipples” from Dr. Willich’s Domeftic Encyclopedia is found, as well as a place to order Edcentric Magazine.  Another advertisement for a monthly newsletter named Recon is included on the back page.

Some brief works of fiction are included including “Paradise,” by Gudanowska and “Karla in the Dark,” by Bettina Barrett.  Politics include Bureaucracy, Reform, and Intervention in Czechoslovakia. This is by George Shaw Wheeler, Lawrence Hill & Co, and focuses on events during 1968, including the goals of Czechoslovakian reformers and economics.

Still some sentence-level copy editing needed here. But a fine example of a balance between the specific and the general.

This is where we will be in April
  1. Blogs You have at a minimum six blog posts
  • Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
  • Walt Whitman “Democratic Vistas”
  • Commencements (Emerson, Rich, Williams)
  • Adrienne Rich essays and Atlas of the Difficult World
  • Aspect (a research installment)
  • A final blog post on something that captures your learning arc in the first half of the course

You have been invited to curate all of your writing. Write in your voice, show your intelligence. Get away from general and flat words like “response” in your titles. “Know what you are doing and do it well.” (Remember, too, that the annotations you did/are doing on your peers’ blogs are designed to give audience feedback but also for you to look at other blogs and writing and to “resee” what you are doing in relation to others.)

On Tuesday I will read your blogs and assign each member of the class a midterm grade.


Looking Ahead On Tuesday March 21 we will do the first of two classes designed to help you write out a project statement. Our class will be dedicated to sorting ideas and fielding questions about the final project. We will draft a project description and a schedule and our outcomes for the project. Before we meet, make sure you read the Blog Entry “Education for Socially Engaged Art” by Pablo Helguera, the Interview with Pablo Helguera, and look over the materials on Art and Citizenship at PracticalArts.

On Thursday March 23 we will do the second project statement workshop. Read Doris Sommer, Prologue, “Welcome Back,” 1-13, and Chapter One: “From the Top: Government-Sponsored Creativity,” 15-48, in the book you purchased for the course, The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities (2014). With the Helguera, and the readings you did before break on government arts programs and sponsorship, this writing will give you a theoretical vocabulary and practical ideas for your work.

While brainstorming session yesterday Savannah raised the challenge of working without an assignment. That is, she suggested the need for some structure. That will be our work the week we return. We have some fabulous ideas (that kept a few of us talking for 30 minutes after class!) My goal for us at the end of our first week back is to have a very clear set of objectives for the seven weeks we will be working on the final project.

For now, my response to Savannah’s question: In general, our project will celebrate, and investigate, examples of cultural production in which art and interpretation are flourishing in the open space of democracy. Each of you will be working with an object (or collection of objects) or a project or performance or social interaction of some kind. Our work is to build a language through which we can represent, celebrate, and consider the place of this work.

Enjoy spring break!