10.23.2008

More on (Not-) Talking Politics

If I had ever had a mystical experience, according to William James, that mystical experience would've included an overwhelming sense of the unity of all things -- I might describe such an experience as involving a boundless sense of "Oneness."  In this experience, which, according to reports, transcends religious nomenclature, all division is seen to be an illusion.

But of course, like James, I haven't had such an experience.  Still, the fact that others have weighs heavy in my conscience.  On the other hand, asked to imagine the experience of people whose experience apparently differs from my own, I have been encouraged to acknowledge difference by many learned people, by people I respect.  In my attempt to stay "true" to both of these demands on my consciousness (and conscience), as I have suggested before, I feel stretched.

According to W.C. Harris's book E Pluribus Unum, the tension I'm feeling is quintessentially American.  Harris argues that the tension has led certain thinkers to argue in favor of Union or Unity (Hamilton, Madison, Lincoln, MLK, Jr., etc.) and others to demand that diversity be acknowledged (Patrick Henry, Melville, Twain, Du Bois).  Responding to the pressures of their time, each of these writers can be understood as moving toward a "still-more-American" center, a center that, it seems, must always be shifting.  In Harris' view, then, the ancient philosophical problem, first made explicit in the Neoplatonic work of Plotinus (in the Enneads, which are awesome!), is anything but an effete abstraction when it comes to America.  Instead, according to Harris, this problem is at the center of what America is, and what it means.  Harris writes, for example,
Like Poe, Whitman, Melville, and James, [Frederick] Douglass understands that the problem is not just historical but profoundly structural: "The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham.... It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union."
In other words, "Difference" was not an antagonistic force that arose in opposition to a Union that was intended to be perfect -- instead, Harris writes, "Difference... was there from there start." (Harris points to the 3/5 clause that was in Article I of the Constitution.)

Let me reiterate: this tension between union and difference was created intentionally by our founders, and during the 19th century (at least), this tension was a profound source of cultural (and social) creation and change.

To all of this, Harris adds the point that the American literary project, which got underway serious in the 1830s, was a continuation of its earlier philosophical project -- that is, writers like Poe, Melville, and William James were trying to "reground" the Constitution.  Here's the critical point: America's 19th century writers must be understood as writing "supplementarily," as adding to and responding to an already-existing body of literature.  Harris writes,
What I am suggesting, then, is that the supplementary relation assumed by certain nineteenth-century literary texts toward traditionally nonliterary (political or theological) modes of social organization takes its precedent from the relation between America's operative documents of state formation, each of which (the Articles, the Constitution, its amendments, subsequent legislation, and judicial opinions) either replaces its predecessor text or omits or revises those passages that, by logical contradiction, block the full realization of some founding principle.
That's one poorly written sentence, no doubt -- but I believe understanding Harris' thought is profoundly important to understanding America.  For perspective, I might suggest that the American Legislative project might be best understood as a kind of continuation of the original Protestant revolution: just as Protestantism spawns renewed churches each generation, America would give rise to a perpetually revolutionized government.  Although Harris doesn't say it, I deduce the following "under-thesis": America is a kind of anti-Institution... it was intended to resist the natural processes of calcification, of ossification, of orthodoxification, or whatever.

Q: What does this have to do with refusing to participate in contemporary political discourse?

A: Partisanship has always been with America.  Pamphleteers and orators were no more scarce in 1851 than political bloggers and pundits are in 2008.  As if in spite of partisanship, however, American literature has tended toward Romantic or transcendental themes.  We know that Hawthorne supported Democrat Franklin Pierce.  Pierce defeated Winfield Scott, a Whig, in 1852.  By 2008, of course, Hawthorne's political affiliation seems unimportant precisely because it is -- it is unimportant because it is entirely without contemporary context.  And yet, somehow, The Scarlet Letter is still taught in American literature classes, and still seems (like Emerson's "Nature," and Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and Melville's Moby-Dick), to certain people, very important.

Needless to say, I'm one of these "certain people."  I don't go on quoting Whitman and Emerson because I assume my readers consider them to be authorities -- I do it because I consider them to be authorities, and because I'm far less eloquent than they were.  In withdrawing from political discourse for a season, I do not mean to suggest that anyone else should follow my lead, or to suggest that I am doing a noble thing.  I hope that much is apparent.

When we look at Obama and McCain, we see competing definitions of America.  Considered from a certain perspective, it is a minor difference.  That's the best I can put it.

5 comments:

fenhopper said...

I think we have a connection of ideas here. *Of course* we care about some of the same issues (Justice).

And something that I enjoy connecting to that issue (campaign rhetoric), you find tiresome. And something that gives you a zing (Dickinson) kinda bores me.

We're OK with that right? If I haven't convinced you that you're a descriptivist we have to admit that complete understanding is not a prerequisite to respect.

Casey said...

Yeah totally. Obviously.

I had a little burp of enlightenment yesterday while I was driving with Gretchen somewhere, trying to explain what I explained to my students about Plato's Cave (I thought I had a good class) -- you might get a feel for it from my "Cave" post above.

Anyway, the burp of enlightenment revealed to me that for some reason, I get a little more frustrated than I probably should when I can't convince someone to totally agree with me on this one point...

In other words, I genuinely do suspect that the frustration here -- if there is any -- is kind of my fault. It just feels like there's something I haven't learned yet, but no one (neither me nor you) seems sure what that is yet.

Anyway, yeah -- respect, respect, respect. And for me at least, respect, plus some excitement about whatever connection of ideas there was here recently...

clompec

Casey said...

But wait: I think I'd like to be convince that I'm a descriptivist... is that what I haven't learned yet? Does descriptivism oppose advocacy?

Wishydig said...

descriptivists need not be interested in advocacy but they function on a premise that makes them more likely than prescriptivists to recognize advocacy as a more well-founded pursuit than oppression if claims about language and history are the argument.

sorta

Gretchen Pratt said...

I wish I understood that.