Category Archives: Metacommentary

for splendor, for extent

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

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar”

“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?”

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

The open space of democracy is a busy place. I created a Reading page that lists all of the reading you have completed in the course. After you pat yourself on the back, and consider the formidable power of your democratic literacy having read this material, I would like you to keep this network of ideas alive as we move into the second part of the course.

In the weeks following our spring break, we will talks about the relation between government and art, particularly the question of government-sponsored creativity. We will be throwing around (and learning to use) terms like”socially engaged art,” “relational aesthetics,” “cultural acupuncture,” and “civic stimulation” with the help of Pablo Helguera and Doris Sommer, among others.

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More importantly, you will be descending into (designing) a proposal for a project that will celebrate, and investigate, examples of cultural production in which art and interpretation find a form. Your project will involve, in every case, either an object (or collection of objects) or a project or performance or social interaction of some kind. Can life, as Foucault suggests, or living, take form in public experiences that we might call art?It is a challenging and fascinating question. As your creative process unfolds, you will be defining the form of art-making or social practice, gathering materials or examples, describing the materials and/or practice, interpreting, and curating, perhaps in an open exhibit of some kind. More on the final product will come into view as our discussions unfold, and we determine together where we want to end up.

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As you begin thinking about your project, some of the materials we have close to home may spark your interest. If you are drawn to the idea of a project that involves primary materials in the Keene State College collections, here are some of the materials you will have the opportunity to consider.

Ed Hogan Small Press Collection Includes small press publication and literary magazines from the 1960s-1970s

Charter Weeks Photography Collection Documentary photographer work include documenting social and political life in New Hampshire; photographed African American tenant farmers in the South in the late 1960s.

Rev. John Crocker, Jr. Papers Papers of the Civil Rights and Peace Activists and Episcopal Minister; he participated with the Freedom Riders and was arrested in the South for his civil rights work.

Doris “Granny D” Haddock Papers Papers of the political activist who at age 89-90 walked across the U.S. in support of campaign finance reform; ran also for U.S. Senate.

Christine Sweeney Papers Papers of Dr. Christine Sweeney who sued Keene State College for discrimination in awarding tenure based on gender; the case went to the Supreme Court where Sweeney prevailed.

Louis de Rochemont Collection Papers and films relating to the academy award winning NH film director whose work included the March of Times and a number of films like, Lost Boundaries, that address race and class.

Here I Am, Send Me: The Story of Jonathan Daniels Collection Records related to the PBS documentary film about Jonathan Daniels, the civil rights activist and Episcopal seminarian; includes several raw footage interviews and transcripts with Stokely Carimichel, John Lewis, among others.

Barry Faulkner Portfolios Barry Faulkner (July 12, 1881 – October 27, 1966) was an American artist (from Keene, New Hampshire) who was primarily known for his murals. His murals depicted scenes of everyday life in America (there is a mural in Eliot Hall and Cheshire County Historical Society) and of historical scenes. During World War I, he and sculptor Sherry Edmundson Fry organized artists for training as camouflage specialists (called camoufleurs), an effort that contributed to the founding of the American Camouflage Corps in 1917.

George and Florence Stoff Letters Collection of WWII era love letters that offer an insight into the life of Jewish American family at the home and warfront.

We will visit the archives again after spring break and have a look at these materials.

Two Jobs of Work

You have two jobs of work to complete before spring break: curating your blog and working on the Aspect Magazine project.

Curating Your Blog It is imperative that you are working on your writing. The schedule for this work is up to you. But you need to keep in mind that between class on Thursday March 2 and class on Tuesday March 7 we will all be annotating your blog with our thoughts and suggestions.

We have had a late February thaw, and the rivers in New England are at flood stage. Yet a few of you appear to be caught in an eddy. You need to get back out into the flow. Please read the most recent posts, “Linguists and Contenders” and “Feeling Thinking Doing.” These posts are offering some organizing commentary and metacommentary on our intellectual work. We have read a lot of material, and there are stories to tell about those materials. As you go back over your writing, makes notes on what you wrote and how you can now see what you have written differently. You have read a lot. You have been thinking. And we have talked about your writing–in class and in our conferences.

To borrow a formulation from the poet Ezra Pound: You have broken wood. Now it is time for carving.

Your reflection (reading over what you have completed) and shaping, or curating, the writing on your blog will prepare us for 1) reading all the course blogs and annotating them using “Open Space of Democracy” group on Hypothes.is and then 2) participating in a “Blog Charrette” where we will exchange ideas, play with options, and further refine your writing.

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Working on Aspect Magazine On Friday I met with the College Archivist, Rodney Obien, who is looking forward to welcoming you to the Keene State College Archives. On Tuesday Rodney is going to talk about his work as an archivist and talk about cultural work of archives. And he will introduce you to some of the materials in the Social Justice collection. (Remember, class will meet in the Mason Library Archive.)

We will also turn our attention to Aspect Magazine. We will make the paper copies of the journal available for browsing on Tuesday and Thursday. You will also receive a digital copy of two issues of the journal. We will then introduce you to a method of abstracting information from a document in an archive.Using a template I will provide, you will be responsible for creating “metadata” for two issues of the journal. The document you produce for each journal will be published with the digital copy of the journal. Your work will be available for anyone, including graduate students, professors, and independent scholars, doing research in the archive. And you will receive credit as a Contributing Editor on the web site.

Before Tuesday have a look at the Description of the Aspect Magazine project on the Projects Page. Reading the materials on the Aspect Magazine Project site before we meet will give you additional context for your work. In brief, Aspect magazine (1969-1980) was the creation of Edward J. Hogan, of Somerville, Massachusetts. Hogan was a history major at Northeastern University in March of 1969 when he launched a magazine featuring social and political commentary by a small group of university students. Hogan subsequently expanded that magazine to include poetry, fiction, graphic design, and literary news and reviews. Aspect published many writers, poets, and artists that represented the “Boston Scene” of the late 1960s and 1970s.

For Thursday I have assigned some reading that will further your understanding of the intellectual and creative collective of people involved in Aspect, Leora Zeitlin’s compilation of materials in “Remembering Ed Hogan” (1998)

Linguists and Contenders

Closer yet I approach you
. . .
We understand then do we not?
What I promis’d without mentioning it, have you not accepted?
What the study could not teach—what the preaching could not accomplish is accomplished, is it not?

—Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”

On Tuesday I planned to debrief the individual conferences—sharing some of the conversations about the thinking and writing you are doing in this course. When I arrived in class Mitchell and Kerrin were talking about the challenges of wrestling with the archive of documents assembled for the course, on the one hand, and composing a well-put-together short-form essay that will engage a reader, on the other hand.

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It was a productive place to begin. What followed was a question. I asked, “What useful information about thinking and writing did you take away from our first conference last week?” What I recall bringing to the table was Savannah’s note to self. She told me in our conference that she has read one of blog posts in the category “Method,” titled Habits of Mind. In that post I talk about the kind of intellectual habits that can lead to productive work:

Success in this class begins with an interest in what you are doing. Once you get interested you will be ready to think about what and how you are learning in school.

I go on to say that “effective writing is a product of interest and engaged learning and below you will find five areas of work for you to consider as you write.” These areas of work include curiosity, creativity, openness, and persistence. Approaching learning in these ways, Savannah reminded herself, can make all the difference.

Such an approach is not unfamiliar to us, linguists and contenders, as you will remember:

Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption 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. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not on a few coteries of writers.

This passage from the end of “Democratic Vistas” is a touchstone for your work this semester. The work of meaningful reading, thinking, and writing calls for students with “supple and athletic minds, well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves.” Meaningful work is engaged work, and engagement leads to agency.

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What I attempted to explain in response to Kerrin and Mitchell is that the tension between process and product, between learning and sharing what you have learned, is inevitable and productive. That is, the challenge of writing weekly blog posts is the challenge of integrating your process of discovery—the quickening of mind when you make a personal connection, the thrill of immersion in thought—with the satisfaction of finding a form for your thinking.

My challenge to you as thinkers and writers in an upper-level college course is to build on what you have learned as writers in school. The opportunity for you now is to build from a more responsive or reactive mode of intellectual engagement (say, responding to an assignment prompt that I create) to identifying your own assignment, task, or purpose.

***

This is a blog post about method-a way of doing intellectual work. It is a blog post about taking seriously this kind of work and that makes visible the constraints both students and teachers face when trying to do this work in classrooms and institutions. And it is an emerging essay that in inspired by one of the touchstones of our work together, Walt Whitman, in this case from Section 4 of the poem “Song of Myself”:

Trippers and askers surround me,
People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward and city I live in, or the nation,
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new,
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am, Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.

-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

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Your blog is a powerful tool not because it is technology or even because it is a kind of bridge between your thinking and your readers. It is a passage where you will meet head on your challenge of claiming thinking and writing as your own.

But to release the potential of this idea suggests an additional step. One way to take this step is to begin with a series of questions. What would a writing class look like without assignments? That is, is it possible to imagine a college-level class with no assignments? How would you keep your mind humming? How would you move your mind and motivate your writing? Your role as student would surely look different. Might we be imagining the “the difference between acting and being acted upon” Adrienne Rich elaborated in her commencement at Douglass College in 1977, “Claiming an Education”? Might we be making the connection back to Emerson’s song of self-trust, or between your responsiveness and your ability? Here is Rich again:

Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.

And might these reflections shift my role as teacher? Well, they do. And they have. This is why I was motivated on Tuesday to go back over the weekly writing schedule I set up for us this semester:

  • On Tuesday you are responsible for writing about what you are reading. However I have challenged you to do much more than “respond” to the reading. Instead you are finding and pursuing a question or questions that you have identified in the readings, or as a result of the course readings; and you are attempting to establish yourself in the ongoing conversation about the experiences of living in a society ostensibly organized around democratic ideals and norms
  • In the luxurious span of time between Tuesday afternoon and Sunday evening you are in conversation, with yourself, with others. You have space to engage in your own conversation with yourself as you reflect on what you have written, and allow your thinking to develop—clarifying your thought and its significance (for you and others who might read what you have to say), contextualizing your thinking (in the text, across texts, in social and cultural and historical contexts), and building confidence (authority) for what you have to say. You also have our conversations in class to situate, inform, and complicate your emerging stake in the conversation
  • And by Sunday you should have come closer to getting it right. The “it” here is your thinking as well as the form of your thought in writing: to challenge yourself to make a contribution to (and not incidentally to enact) the ongoing conversation about democratic culture

Yet the schedule includes one more step, a step we talked about in class on Tuesday: building your sequence of short-form essays into a body of work—a sequence, collection, or anthology of writing that has consistency and integrity.

For this reason, over the final two weeks before spring break, your work will involve reflection (reading over what you have completed) and shaping, or curating, the writing on your blog. And to this end, before we meet on Tuesday March 7 we will read all the course blogs and annotate them using “Open Space of Democracy” group on Hypothes.is. The Tuesday class will be a “Blog Charrette” where we can exchange ideas, play with options, and work toward your own integrated intellectual digital space.

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First and foremost this work is designed to sharpen your tools, or passing along tools you might not have been fully aware are in your workshop: reading, thinking, writing, collaboration, and so on. We are using the blogs to enact an extended conversation about protocols of study, or methods of doing work with texts and cultural contexts. We are reading documents and probing the intellectual and cultural history of the United States, making connections, “upbuilding” to borrow a word from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

You are also, finally, participating in a course that begins with a less familiar idea: that a course in College is an ongoing intellectual project. This is why the course is organized around more than a list of texts, questions, ideas, and histories, as all good humanities courses are. It is organized around your contributions to an ongoing cultural project of understanding and making meaning.

Another way of saying this is that we are doing the work of democracy-“Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.”

Reading for Culture

“Do we dare to step back—stretch—and create an arch of understanding?”

—Terry Tempest Williams

De we dare

In class we have been talking about the activities, and the products of those activities, that constitute a culture understood as an individual and collective project. This way of talking has roots in Emerson and Whitman’s argument that each generation must rewrite history. The corollary to this claim is that activity of reading the “mind of the past” can be an act of “self-renovation,” to use Emerson’s words. These activities, to call on a late twentieth-century formulation that echoes Emerson, ensures “that no fixed view ever prevails and that each generation must read texts anew, interrogate them from its own perspective, and find itself concerned, in its own fashion, by the works’ questions” (41). This might be one of the most precise formulations of the democratic culture envisioned in Whitman’s “Democratic Culture” and the aspirational rhetoric of what I will call here “democratic literacy.”

That is to say, this description aligns with the various calls for engagement that echo through the writings of Emerson, Whitman, Rich, and Williams. I take this particular description from the chapter “Reading for Culture” in Wlad Godzich’s 1994 book The Culture of Literacy.

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Another writer, the philosopher Richard Rorty, in his William E. Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization, published in the 1998 book Achieving our Country, offers a useful way of thinking about stepping back—an activity we surely value as participants in the academic humanities. “A humanistic discipline is in good shape only when it produces inspiring works and works which contextualize and, and thereby deromanticize and debunk, those inspiring works” (134). Rorty’s lecture is an extended critique of an approach to culture that begins with a knowledge of what culture is, a “knowingness” that has a minimum tolerance for imaginative literature among subjects in a “corporate, collectivized, post-individualistic age” (Jamison qtd. in Rorty 126).

Stretch and create

It is not surprising that Rorty’s story of democratic thought in Twentieth-Century America begins with Walt Whitman and John Dewey. But for our purposes Rorty’s words may also be useful as meta-commentary: for as we read together in an academic context it is important to create, as Emerson has already reminded us, in the context in which we find ourselves. One unfortunate tendency of professionalism and academic work, as most of you know from your experiences in school, “is to favor a talent for analysis and problem-solving over imagination, to replace enthusiasm with dry, sardonic knowingness” (135). The challenge is to work toward understanding by placing texts in context without losing our capacities to celebrate the artifacts that we might agree are exceptional.

But how does one sustain creative intellectual work in a product-based academic institution? In a discussion of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics, and Hans Robert Jauss’ claim that literary texts can alter our “horizons of expectations” Godzich outlines an assumption that the practice of reading literature is, “a strong liberating force that works both upon the recipient, for it frees her or him from the views s/he held without necessarily being aware of them, and upon literature. . .for it permits us to recover its initial impact, which as been eroded by centuries of veneration and monumentalization” (41).

The word “stretch” strikes me as a precise and apposite term for what you are doing as you read, think, and write. As you take up this work, you stretch, to articulate, and move beyond, as it were, your current range of motion. To endorse articulation is to make room for process and to value more than the articulated product of your thinking. The five commentaries and three research installments on your blog, then, will be evidence of what you are doing (and able to do)—and why in making this process visible we are endorsing the active (democratic?) work of reading, thinking, and writing.

an arch of understanding

Another responsibility is response-ability: to challenge yourself to reach an understanding through the labor of writing. For this reason, I have suggested that you move your first thoughts about the readings to a page on your blog and then leave as your sequence of blog posts the product you are able to produce between Tuesday and Sunday. Our class sessions, as well as your (re)ading and (re)thinking, are designed to help you move to a provisional understanding—the best you can do as you work to get it right.

While it is true that each of your pieces of writing is a discrete effort, it is also the case that together your essays represent a whole—an understanding of the open space of democracy and some of the thinking about democratic culture. Your blog is in this sense a collection of essays, a published work that properly put together is substantive, and that has integrity.

We are in Thought

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

-Terry Tempest Williams, “The Open Space of Democracy”

One of the things that happened to me today when I was moved to include an epigraph for what I am writing here was that there were too many options to choose from. I took this to be a good sign.

I spent some time this morning reading through your blog posts. Each of you is thinking through, and with, the readings that have preoccupied us these past Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. I appreciate our efforts as we struggle to find words to express what is most often glimpsed and rarely expressed. We are demonstrating, at least to my mind, that thinking is something that we do together—that thought is not so much in our heads but that we are quite literally in thought. Might this be Emerson’s intimation in his riffs on “the mind of the Past”?

Let me begin this survey of your blogging by calling out Miles and Savannah for their exemplary use of tags. In “Fulfilling the Ideal,” Miles writes his way into Williams’ commencement speech “The Open Space of Democracy.” He calls attention to qualities of democratic life, including insecurity and vulnerability, mentioned by Williams, the messy and chaotic space of democratic life. But the post is really driving at the relationship of the terms Miles uses as tags: democracy, knowledge, empathy. Might this be a beginning, perhaps a new start? Miles quotes Williams: “Empathy is vital to a properly functioning democracy.” This is, indeed, the core of what Williams is asking her audience to consider. “I came to understand through an education in the humanities that knowledge is another form of democracy, the freedom of expression that leads to empathy,” she says.

Or consider Savannah’s post “The Man Thinking” and the tags “Commencement,” “democracy,” “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” and “Scholars.” This piece of writing begins with two paragraphs about the occasion and genre of the commencement or convocation (as we talked about in class). The essay then shifts to Emerson’s “The American Scholar.” I’m left wondering, though, what is it at stake here? One place to begin may be the quotation from Emerson about books. “Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this.” This might offer a way into talking about claiming (not receiving) an education and/or the interesting relationship between open minds and open hearts.

Another place to begin is with confusion. We are grateful to Ben for saying precisely this in his “Commencement Speech Response” (a title that might be on its way to another). He quotes Williams, “I have always believed democracy is best practiced through its construction, not its completion.” He then offers a reading that clarifies the conclusion. Perhaps a closer and more extended reading of this idea—construction, building, making as opposed to a fixed structure, completion, made? What does it mean to define democracy as a process and not something achieved? Did not Emerson and Whitman say much the same thing. . . ? And Patrick, in “Emerson Again: Beware the Emotional Response in Politics,” artfully selects a sentence vibrating with implications both past and present: “In the degenerate state, when (a man is) the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of another men’s thinking.” And Stephanie, in a delightfully titled post “Make us uncomfortable. Make us think. Make us feel” explores the meaning and implications of what Williams calls “Responsive citizenship.” There is a thread that might be an organizing feature of this blog post: the continuity between Whitman and Emerson’s call for thinking and feeling and response.

These are some of the examples we can learn from and build on as you continue reading, thinking, and writing.