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Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Donald Trump, the Cowboy

In America, American History, Art, Arts & Letters, Conservatism, Film, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Politics on March 22, 2017 at 6:59 am

Allen Mendenhall

This article originally appeared here at The Daily Caller. 

Americans love film, a medium we’ve popularized across the globe. We’re home to Hollywood; we pioneered cinema as an industry and an art form.

Film has enabled cultural memory and iconography to survive in residual form from generation to generation. Since early motion pictures, images that flashed across our screens have become part of our communicative coding, manifesting themselves in political discourse in subtle, unexpected ways.

Perhaps the most foundational figure in American cinema is the nomadic cowboy, that romantic hero of the frontier whose moral ambiguity thrills and troubles us. Frederick Jackson Turner announced his frontier thesis in 1893, drawing attention to the rugged individualism and westward expansion that characterized American liberty and differentiated the New World from Europe.

The masculine figure of the cowboy embodies this thesis. He’s an archetype. Garbed in buckskins and spurs, he conquers the wilderness and the Indians, exacting ruthless revenge on his foes and exercising his menacing skills to achieve justice, at least his notion of it.

But he has a dark side. One is never certain whether he’s a bad guy with good qualities or a good guy with bad qualities. He can be, like Wyatt Earp, both lawman and outlaw, and his very presence creates dysfunction, jeopardizing the harmony of the community and the stability of the nuclear family. Even Shane, the most impeccable of cowboys, endangers the affection between Joe Starrett and his wife and risks undermining the sense of corporate community he’s fighting to uphold.

The cowboy is a paradox: heroic yet savage, mannered yet unruly, tamed yet wild, gentle yet violent. He’s a beloved and mysterious loner, reckless in the pursuit of civilized life. There’s dissonance in his desire to establish domestic settlement and close the frontier while exploring nature, roaming the open range, and maintaining noble independence. With his code of honor, he’s the American version of the brave and chivalrous knight who rides off on quests and adventures.

Former presidents have sought to embed themselves in the Western genre, troping the image and lore of the cowboy. President Reagan, a friend of John Wayne, acted in Westerns and was known to clad himself in big shiny belt buckles and Stetson hats. George W. Bush played up his Texas swagger, wore boots and shot rifles, vacationed on his ranch and applied the pioneering spirit to foreign affairs.

Unlike his immediate predecessor, Donald Trump is a cowboy, or the semiotic mutation of one. That’s why he appeals to so many Americans. This may come as a surprise. He might seem more like the cowboy’s close cousin, the urban gangster. After all, he’s a New York casino and real-estate magnate who wears dark suits and bright ties and displays his money and wealth. He’s gaudy and flashy like Tony Montana, and a wealthy patriarch like Vito Corleone. He’s charismatic and travels in groups, and there’s a noirish quality to his messaging, which the media keeps calling “dark.”

Yet his narrative arc is not one of dramatic rise and inevitable fall.  Nor is he an immigrant figure with ties to drugs and organized crime. He is, instead, the brawling gunslinger, marked by vanity and bravado, irresponsible in his boastfulness. He speaks for a community not his own, glamorizing his triumphs and victories. His bombast and boisterousness have an inexplicably moral feel, as if he represents more than himself and speaks for others—the common man, the forgotten man, the ranchers and laborers.

The cowboy stands up to cattle-baron cronies, just as Trump takes on leading news outlets and the so-called “establishment.” He portrays himself as an outmatched Will Kane, ready to confront gangs of rivals against all odds—as he did in the election when he knocked off his primary opponents and then the presumptive Democratic president, proving an entire class of pollsters and the commentariat wrong.

Like Old Rough and Ready, Trump is vague on political positions and policy prescriptions. His supporters speak of the “Trump Train,” a phrase suggestive of the nineteenth-century railroad, which dominated American industry. His derogatory comments about Mexicans and immigrants are alike in kind if not degree to those of Ethan Edwards regarding the Comanche. Think John Wayne in The Searchers.

Trump is married, but not domesticated. He blurs the lines between truth and embellishment, decrying and creating fake news in the same breath. He harnesses the power of the maxim from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Trump’s high-soaring rhetoric is reminiscent of an earlier moment in American history when there were, in the American psyche, clear winners and losers. The slightest insult can cause him to seek revenge that’s both personal and heedless, having something of the showdown about it.

He’s a tweet-dueler. The Internet being the new frontier, in an age when you can’t get away with gratuitous killing, he trades characters, not bullets. And he’s quick on the draw, able to unload rounds of tweets in mere seconds.

Like William Munny, the aging anti-hero in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Trump doesn’t drink. His infatuation with Mexico and insistence on building a wall across the Southern border recall the boundary disputes of a bygone era. Imagine Santa Anna and the Republic of Texas as historical antecedents to current border anxieties.

Trump’s carefully orchestrated press conferences, campaign rallies, and inaugural address suggest that he demands a spectacle that’s as visually magnificent as a John Ford film. He fancies the long-shot panorama with American flags in the background. He flies in and out of small towns, ever the roving myth, and he doesn’t have a single place to call home.

During a period of economic contraction, aging population, shifting demographics, and declining American power, ordinary Americans understandably look to a time of territorial growth, when heroes defeated “the Other,” solved their problems, and overcame adversity. With the advent of Google Maps and Street View, folks long for a past of exploration and geographic mystery—when there were borders between known and unknown lands. Trump talks about Greatness. Speaking in superlatives, he refers to things as Amazing, Huge, Tremendous, and Wonderful. His vision for America is as wide in scope as the Western landscape.

Trump is a construct of the mythic figure we’ve come to expect from viewing Western symbols, plots, and motifs. He reminds us of the William Faulkner line: “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” The cowboy is indeed alive and well, even if he’s a sign of the past. He comes in the improbable, astonishing form of Donald Trump. And he wants to win.

 

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Harold Bloom’s American Sublime

In Academia, America, American Literature, Art, Artist, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creativity, Emerson, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Philosophy, Poetry, Rhetoric, Scholarship, The Novel, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on August 12, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in the American Conservative.

What can be said about Harold Bloom that hasn’t been said already? The Yale professor is a controversial visionary, a polarizing seer who has been recycling and reformulating parallel theories of creativity and influence, with slightly different foci and inflections, for his entire career, never seeming tiresome or repetitive. He demonstrates what is manifestly true about the best literary critics: they are as much artists as the subjects they undertake.

Bloom’s criticism is characterized by sonorous, cadenced, almost haunting prose, by an exacting judgment and expansive imagination, and by a painful, sagacious sensitivity to the complexities of human behavior and psychology. He is a discerning Romantic in an age of banality and distraction, in a culture of proud illiteracy and historical unawareness. Bloom reminds us that to be faithful to tradition is to rework it, to keep it alive, and that tradition and innovation are yoked pairs, necessarily dependent on one another.

Bloom has been cultivating the image and reputation of a prophet or mystic for decades. His stalwart defense of the Western canon is well known but widely misunderstood. His descriptive account is that the canon is fluid, not fixed—open, not closed. It might be stable, but it’s not unchangeable. The literary canon is the product of evolution, a collection of the fittest works that have been selectively retained, surviving the onslaught of relentless competition.

Bloom’s prescriptive position is that, because human agency is a controllable factor in this agnostic filtering process, serious readers can and should ensure that masterpieces, those stirring products of original, even genius minds, are retained, and that the latest works are held to the highest aesthetic standards, which are themselves established and proven by revisionary struggle. The merit of a work is not found in the identity of its author—his or her race, gender, or sexuality—but in the text proper, in the forms and qualities of the work itself.

Bloom’s latest book, The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, examines ambitious and representative American authors, its chapters organized by curious pairings: Whitman with Melville (the “Giant Forms” of American literature), Emerson with Dickinson (the Sage of Concord is Dickinson’s “closest imaginative father”), Hawthorne with Henry James (a relation “of direct influence”), Twain with Frost (“our only great masters with popular audiences”), Stevens with Eliot (“an intricate interlocking” developed through antithetical competition), and Faulkner with Crane (“each forces the American language to its limits”). This mostly male cast, a dozen progenitors of the American sublime, is not meant to constitute a national canon. For that, Bloom avers in his introduction, he envisions alternative selections, including more women: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Marianne Moore, and Flannery O’Connor. Bloom’s chosen 12 represent, instead, “our incessant effort to transcend the human without forsaking humanism.” These writers have in common a “receptivity to daemonic influx.” “What lies beyond the human for nearly all of these writers,” Bloom explains, “is the daemon.”

What is this daemon, you ask. As always, Bloom is short on definition, embracing the constructive obscurity—the aesthetic vagueness—that Richard Poirier celebrated in Emerson and William James and Robert Frost, Bloom’s predecessors. Bloom implies that calling the “daemon” an idea is too limiting; the word defies ready explanation or summation.

The daemon, as I read it, is an amorphous and spiritual source of quasi-divine inspiration and influence, the spark of transitional creative powers; it’s akin to shamanism, and endeavors to transcend, move beyond, and surpass. Its opposite is stasis, repose. “Daemons divide up divine power and are in perpetual movement from their supernal heights to us,” Bloom remarks in one of his more superlative moments. “They bring down messages,” he intones, “each day’s news of the metamorphic meanings of the division between our mundane shell and the upper world.”

What, you might ask in follow up, is the American sublime that it should stand in marked contrast to the European tradition, rupturing the great chain of influence, revealing troublesome textual discontinuities and making gaps of influence that even two poets can pass abreast? “Simplistically,” Bloom submits, “the sublime in literature has been associated with peak experiences that render a secular version of a theophany: a sense of something interfused that transforms a natural moment, landscape, action, or countenance.” This isn’t quite Edmund Burke’s definition, but it does evoke the numinous, what Bloom calls, following Burke, “an excursion into the psychological origins of aesthetic magnificence.”

The Daemon Knows is part memoir, a recounting of a lifetime spent with books. There are accounts of Robert Penn Warren, Leslie Fiedler, and Cleanth Brooks. Bloom’s former students and mentors also make brief appearances: Kenneth Burke, for instance, and Camille Paglia. And Bloom doesn’t just analyze, say, Moby Dick—he narrates about his first encounter with that book back in the summer of 1940. He later asserts, “I began reading Hart Crane in the library on my tenth birthday.” That he remembers these experiences at all speaks volumes to Melville’s and Crane’s bewitching facility and to Bloom’s remarkable receptivity.

Bloom has not shied away from his signature and grandiose ahistorical pronouncements, perhaps because they’re right. Melville, for instance, is “the most Shakespearean of our authors,” an “American High Romantic, a Shelleyan divided between head and heart, who held against Emerson the sage’s supposed deficiency in the region of the heart.” Or, “Emersonian idealism was rejected by Whitman in favor of Lucretian materialism, itself not compatible with Indian speculations.” Or, “Stevens received from Whitman the Emersonian conviction that poetry imparts wisdom as well as pleasure.” These generalizations would seem to service hagiography, but even if they’re overstatement, are they wrong?

My professors in graduate school, many of them anyway, chastised Bloom and dubbed him variously a reactionary, a racist, a misogynist, a bigot, or a simpleton; they discouraged his presence in my essays and papers, laughing him out of classroom conversation and dismissing his theories out-of-hand. Or else, stubbornly refusing to assess his theories on their own terms, they judged the theories in the light of their results: the theories were bad because certain authors, the allegedly privileged ones, came out on top, as they always have. This left little room for newcomers, for egalitarian fads and fashions, and discredited (or at least undermined) the supposedly noble project of literary affirmative action.

They will be forgotten, these dismissive pedants of the academy, having contributed nothing of lasting value to the economy of letters, while Bloom will live on, continuing to shock and upset his readers, forcing them to second-guess their judgments and tastes, their criteria for aesthetic value, challenging their received assumptions and thumping them over the head with inconvenient facts and radical common sense. The school of resentment and amateurish cultural studies, appropriate targets of Bloom’s learned animus, will die an inglorious death, as dogmatic political hermeneutics cannot withstand the test of time.

Bloom, on the other hand, like his subjects, taps his inner daemon, invokes it and rides it where it travels, struggles against the anxiety of influence and displays all of the rhetorical power and play of the strong poets he worships. Dr. Samuel Johnson and Northrop Frye reverberate throughout his capacious tome, and for that matter his entire oeuvre. Bloom’s psychic brooding becomes our own, if we read him pensively, and we are better off for it.

Those who view literary study as a profession requiring specialized and technical training, who chase tenure and peer approval, publishing in academic journals and gaining no wider audience than groveling colleagues, do not possess the originality, the foresight, or the brute imagination necessary to achieve enduring appeal. Reading, done right, is a profoundly personal activity, an exercise in solitary contemplation and possible revelation; writing, done right, is transference: the redirection of complex states of consciousness and knowing from one person to another. A few sentences of Bloom’s contemplative questioning, such as the following, are worth the weight of whole academic articles: “At eighty-four I wonder why poems in particular obsessed me from childhood onward. Because I had an overemotional sensibility, I tended to need more affection from my parents and sisters than even they could sustain. From the age of ten on, I sought from Moyshe-Leyb Halpern and Hart Crane, from Shakespeare and Shelley, the strong affect I seemed to need from answering voices.” Here Bloom invites Freudian investigation of himself, summoning the psychoanalytic models he uses on others.

Bloom is now 85. He claims to have another book left in him, making this one his penultimate. His awesome and dedicated engagement with the best that has been thought and known in the world appears to have left him unafraid of the finish, of what comes next, as though literary intimacy and understanding have prepared him, equipped him, for the ultimate. It seems fitting, then, to quote him on this score and to end with a musing on the end: “We are at least bequeathed to an earthly shore and seek memorial inscriptions, fragments heaped against our ruins: an interval and then we are gone. High literature endeavors to augment that span: My twelve authors center, for me, that proliferation of consciousness by which we go on living and finding our own sense of being.”

Paul H. Fry’s “The Idea of the Autonomous Artwork”

In Academia, American Literature, Art, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Creativity, Essays, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Philosophy, Writing on May 21, 2014 at 8:45 am

Below is the fifth installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry.  The three two lectures are here, here, here, and here.

Photography by Eleanor Leonne Bennett, Part Two

In Art, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Humanities, Photography on June 7, 2012 at 8:00 am

Eleanor Leonne Bennett is a 16 year old internationally award winning  photographer and artist who has won first places with National  Geographic,The World Photography Organisation, Nature’s Best Photography, Papworth Trust, Mencap, The Woodland trust and Postal Heritage. Her photography has  been published in the Telegraph, The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines  in the United states and Canada. Her art is globally exhibited, having been shown in London, Paris, Indonesia, Los Angeles, Florida, Washington, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Canada, Spain, Germany, Japan, Australia and The  Environmental Photographer of the year Exhibition (2011) among many other locations. She was also the only person from the UK  to have her work displayed in the National Geographic and Airbus See The Bigger Picture global exhibition tour with the United Nations International Year Of Biodiversity 2010.

 

 

 

 

Photography by Eleanor Leonne Bennett, Part One

In Art, Arts & Letters, Humanities, Photography on June 6, 2012 at 8:00 am

Eleanor Leonne Bennett is a 16 year old internationally award winning  photographer and artist who has won first places with National  Geographic,The World Photography Organisation, Nature’s Best Photography, Papworth Trust, Mencap, The Woodland trust and Postal Heritage. Her photography has  been published in the Telegraph, The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines  in the United states and Canada. Her art is globally exhibited, having been shown in London, Paris, Indonesia, Los Angeles, Florida, Washington, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Canada, Spain, Germany, Japan, Australia and The  Environmental Photographer of the year Exhibition (2011) among many other locations. She was also the only person from the UK  to have her work displayed in the National Geographic and Airbus See The Bigger Picture global exhibition tour with the United Nations International Year Of Biodiversity 2010.

 

 

 

Emersonian Individualism

In America, American History, Art, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, Epistemology, Essays, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Santayana, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on April 4, 2012 at 6:48 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following essay originally appeared here at Mises Daily.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is politically elusive. He’s so elusive that thinkers from various schools and with various agendas have appropriated his ideas to validate some activity or another. Harold Bloom once wrote, “In the United States, we continue to have Emersonians of the Left (the post-Pragmatist Richard Rorty) and of the Right (a swarm of libertarian Republicans, who exalt President Bush the Second).”[1] We’ll have to excuse Bloom’s ignorance of political movements and signifiers — libertarians who exalt President Bush, really? — and focus instead on Bloom’s point that Emerson’s influence is evident in a wide array of contemporary thinkers and causes.

Bloom is right that what “matters most about Emerson is that he is the theologian of the American religion of Self-Reliance.”[2] Indeed, the essay “Self-Reliance” remains the most cited of Emerson’s works, and American politicians and intellectuals selectively recycle ideas of self-reliance in the service of often disparate goals.

Emerson doesn’t use the term “individualism” in “Self-Reliance,” which was published in 1841, when the term “individualism” was just beginning to gain traction. Tocqueville unintentionally popularized the signifier “individualism” with the publication of Democracy in America. He used a French term that had no counterpart in English. Translators of Tocqueville labored over this French term because its signification wasn’t part of the English lexicon. Emerson’s first mention of “individualism” was not until 1843.

It is clear, though, that Emerson’s notion of self-reliance was tied to what later would be called “individualism.” Emerson’s individualism was so radical that it bordered on self-deification. Only through personal will could one realize the majesty of God. Nature for Emerson was like the handwriting of God, and individuals with a poetical sense — those who had the desire and capability to “read” nature — could understand nature’s universal, divine teachings.

Lakes, streams, meadows, forests — these and other phenomena were, according to Emerson, sources of mental and spiritual pleasure or unity. They were what allowed one to become “part and parcel with God,” if only one had or could become a “transparent eyeball.” “Nothing at last is sacred,” Emerson said, “but the integrity of your own mind.” That’s because a person’s intellect translates shapes and forms into spiritual insights.

We cannot judge Emerson exclusively on the basis of his actions. Emerson didn’t always seem self-reliant or individualistic. His politics, to the extent that they are knowable, could not be called libertarian. We’re better off judging Emerson on the basis of his words, which could be called libertarian, even if they endow individualism with a religiosity that would make some people uncomfortable.

Emerson suggests in “Self-Reliance” that the spontaneous expression of thought or feeling is more in keeping with personal will, and hence with the natural world as constituted by human faculties, than that which is passively assumed or accepted as right or good, or that which conforms to social norms. Emerson’s individualism or self-reliance exalted human intuition, which precedes reflection, and it privileged the will over the intellect. Feeling and sensation are antecedent to reason, and Emerson believed that they registered moral truths more important than anything cognition could summon forth.

Emerson’s transcendentalism was, as George Santayana pointed out in 1911, a method conducive to the 19-century American mindset.[3] As a relatively new nation seeking to define itself, America was split between two mentalities, or two sources of what Santayana called the “genteel tradition”: Calvinism and transcendentalism.

The American philosophical tradition somehow managed to reconcile these seeming dualities. On the one hand, Calvinism taught that the self was bad, that man was depraved by nature and saved only by the grace of God. On the other hand, transcendentalism taught that the self was good, that man was equipped with creative faculties that could divine the presence of God in the world. The Calvinist distrusted impulses and urges as sprung from an inner evil. The transcendentalist trusted impulses and urges as moral intuition preceding society’s baseless judgments and prevailing conventions.

What these two philosophies had in common was an abiding awareness of sensation and perception: a belief that the human mind registers external data in meaningful and potentially spiritual ways. The Calvinist notion of limited disclosure — that God reveals his glory through the natural world — played into the transcendentalists’ conviction that the natural world supplied instruments for piecing together divinity.

The problem for Santayana is that transcendentalism was just a method, a way of tapping into one’s poetical sense. What one did after that was unclear. Santayana thought that transcendentalism was the right method, but he felt that Emerson didn’t use that method to instruct us in practical living. Transcendentalism was a means to an end, but not an end itself.

According to Santayana, Emerson “had no system” because he merely “opened his eyes on the world every morning with a fresh sincerity, marking how things seemed to him then, or what they suggested to his spontaneous fancy.”[4] Emerson did not seek to group all senses and impressions into a synthetic whole. Nor did he suggest a politics toward which senses and impressions ought to lead. Santayana stops short of accusing Emerson of advancing an “anything-goes” metaphysics. But Santayana does suggest that Emerson failed to advance a set of principles; instead, Emerson gave us a technique for arriving at a set of principles. Emerson provided transportation, but gave no direction. This shortcoming — if it is a shortcoming — might explain why Bloom speaks of the “paradox of Emerson’s influence,” namely, that “Peace Marchers and Bushians alike are Emerson’s heirs in his dialectics of power.”[5]

For Emerson, human will is paramount. It moves the intellect to create. It is immediate, not mediate. In other words, it is the sense or subjectivity that is not yet processed by the human mind. We ought to trust the integrity of will and intuition and avoid the dictates and decorum of society.

“Society,” Emerson says, “everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” Society corrupts the purity of the will by forcing individuals to second-guess their impulses and to look to others for moral guidance. Against this socialization, Emerson declares, “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.”

Emerson’s nonconformist ethic opposed habits of thinking, which society influenced but did not determine. Emerson famously stated that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. What he meant, I think, is that humans ought to improve themselves by tapping into intuitive truths. Nature, with her figures, forms, and outlines, provides images that the individual can harness to create beauty and energize the self. Beauty therefore does not exist in the world; rather, the human mind makes beauty out of the externalities it has internalized. Beauty, accordingly, resides within us, but only after we create it.

Here we see something similar to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism stripped of its appeals to divinity. Rand believed that reality existed apart from the thinking subject, that the thinking subject employs reason and logic to make sense of experience and perception, and that the self or will is instrumental in generating meaning from the phenomenal world. Read the rest of this entry »

BOOK REVIEW: Killing Time by John Holloway and Ronald M. Gauthier

In Advocacy, Art, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Creative Writing, Criminal Law, Fiction, Justice, Law, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Prison, Southern History, Writing on November 8, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Allen Mendenhall

The following review originally appeared here at The Southern Literary Review just over a year ago.  Click here to view the original version in PDF.

John Hollway and Ronald M. Gauthier have written a thriller.  Unlike other thrillers, Killing Time: An 18-Year Odyssey from Death Row to Freedom (Skyhorse Publishing, 2010) is not fiction.  It is, in the authors’ words, “a true story” told in “narrative style.”  There’s an old saying: reality is stranger than fiction.  Here’s a book that proves reality is not only stranger than fiction but also, in some cases, more terrifying.  

The plot is as chilling as it is plain.  Or perhaps it is chilling because it seems plain.  An unknown man murders an Italian-American hotelier named Ray Liuzza.  Police, witnesses, and prosecutors mistake the killer for an innocent man: John Thompson, a twenty-two-year-old African American.  The crime occurs outside Ray’s apartment.  The year is 1984.  The city is New Orleans.  What follows is the bulk of the book: a police investigation, arrest, trial, sentencing, conviction, appeal, and so forth. 

Using court transcripts, depositions, media reports, interviews, letters, and other records, Hollway and Gauthier piece together a stunning story of power, law, race, and justice.  The result is a book that increasingly calls into question the instrumentalities of our criminal justice system, redeemed, at last, by two Philadelphia lawyers, Michael Banks and Gordon Cooney, who undertake Thompson’s case pro bono and who spend millions of dollars in foregone legal fees. 

Without the intervention of these two men, Thompson, who was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death, might not be alive today.  Released from prison after his exoneration, Thompson resides in Louisiana, where he is involved with Resurrection After Exoneration (REA), an organization he founded.          Read the rest of this entry »

Habermas for Law Professors

In Art, Arts & Letters, Communication, Creativity, Essays, Ethics, Habermas, Humanities, Information Design, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on November 4, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Allen Mendenhall

This post is an adaptation of this printable, PDF document

This post is intended to assist law professors who wish to incorporate critical theory (in general) and Habermas (in particular) into their teaching.  This post addresses just one essay by Habermas that is representative of his thought.  It does not address other important areas of Habermasian theory such as the “public sphere” (a concept that the essay nevertheless implicates). 

This post should provide some basic insights into Habermas that could be incorporated into a law school classroom.  Contracts in particular would benefit from Habermasian analyses, which could just as constructively be applied to torts, evidence, constitutional law, or any course dealing with litigation and the courtroom.  This post provides basic information.  It does not tell law professors how to use the information.  The use will require creativity. 

 

Fundamental to the paradigm of mutual understanding is … the performative attitude of participants in interaction, who coordinate their plans for action by coming to an understanding about something in the world.  When ego carries out a speech act and alter takes up a position with regard to it, the two parties enter into an interpersonal relationship.  The latter is structured by the system of reciprocally interlocked perspectives among speakers, hearers, and non-participants who happen to be present at the time. 

        —Jürgen Habermas, “An Alternative Way Out of the Philosophy of the Subject”[1]

In a way, “An Alternative Way Out of the Philosophy of the Subject” is a response to Foucault’s theories of subjectivity that treat subjects as produced by forces of power.  Habermas seems to consider Foucault’s theories as so preoccupied with knowledge formation and structural preconditions for knowledge formation that they (the theories) become pseudoscience abstracted from practical realities.  A Foucaultian paradigm centers on subjectivity trained by mechanical forces whereas a Habermasian paradigm explores communicative reason in the context of discourse enabled by the ideations of individual subjects articulating their positions to one another in mutually intelligible utterances.       

Contra Foucault, Habermas submits that reason—articulated, assimilated, and mediated by language—must be understood as social.  For social interaction to be meaningful, its interlocutors must believe that their articulations are objectively “true” or sincere (I place “true” in quotations because the “pragmatically expanded theory of meaning overcomes [the] fixation on the fact-mirroring function of language”).  Speech must be governed by points of common understanding.  These points are reached when “ego carries out a speech act and alter takes up a position with regard to it.”  Ego, here, refers to a person’s conscious awareness that is capable of being conveyed in speech.  “Alter” does not refer to alter ego, but to some agent outside the subjective world of cognition, intention, and belief.  This “alter” is part of the external or objective world to which the ego can articulate feelings or thoughts, provided that ego and alter have in common a familiar discursive space (a lifeworld) for their subjective expressions.  By this reading, alter has an ego, and ego can be an alter.  The terms simply depend upon which subject is articulating his position in a given speech situation; the terms are merely descriptive.  

To claim that we can comprehend events or things in the world is to suggest that we can speak about them.  To speak about events or things in the world is to convey information about them from one party to another using shared vocabularies governed by rules that the parties accept unconditionally. The interpersonal relationship among or between parties, as Habermas suggests, is “structured by the system of reciprocally interlocked perspectives.”  The study of this relationship brings Habermas further away from the Foucaultian paradigms of subjectivity and towards the paradigm of mutual understanding that has come to mark Habermasian thought.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Emersonian Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

In American History, Art, Arts & Letters, Emerson, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Poetry, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, The Supreme Court, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 26, 2011 at 9:16 am

Allen Mendenhall

Writers on Holmes have forgotten just how influential poetry and literature were to him, and how powerfully literary his Supreme Court dissents really are.  The son of the illustrious poet by the same name, young Holmes, or Wendell, fell in love with the heroic tales of Sir Walter Scott, and the “enthusiasm with which Holmes in boyhood lost himself in the world of Walter Scott did not diminish in maturity.”[1]  Wendell was able to marry his skepticism with his romanticism, and this marriage, however improbable, illuminated his appreciation for ideas past and present, old and new.  “His aesthetic judgment,” says Mark DeWolfe Howe, author of the most definitive biography of Holmes and one of Holmes’s former law clerks, “was responsive to older modes of expression and earlier moods of feeling than those which were dominant at the fin de siècle and later, yet his mind found its principle nourishment in the thought of his own times, and was generally impatient of those who believe that yesterday’s insight is adequate for the needs of today.”[2]  Holmes transformed and adapted the ideas of his predecessors while transforming and adapting—one might say troping—milestone antecedents of aestheticism, most notably the works of Emerson.  “[I]t is clear,” says Louis Menand, “that Holmes had adopted Emerson as his special inspiration.”[3]      

Classically educated at the best schools, Wendell was subject to his father’s elaborate discussions of aesthetics, which reinforced the “canons of taste with the heavier artillery of morals.”[4]  In addition to Scott, Wendell enjoyed reading Sylvanus Cobb, Charles Lamb’s Dramatic Poets, The Prometheus of Aeschylus,[5] and Plato’s Dialogues.[6]  Wendell expressed a lifelong interest in art, and his drawings as a young man exhibit a “considerable talent.”[7]  He declared in his Address to the Harvard Alumni Association Class of 1861 that life “is painting a picture, not doing a sum.”[8]  He would later use art to clarify his philosophy to a friend: “But all the use of life is in specific solutions—which cannot be reached through generalities any more than a picture can be painted by knowing some rules of method.  They are reached by insight, tact and specific knowledge.”[9]     

At Harvard College, Wendell began to apply his facility with language to oft-discussed publications in and around Cambridge.  In 1858, the same year that Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. gifted five volumes of Emerson to Wendell,[10] Wendell published an essay called “Books” in the Harvard undergraduate literary journal.[11]  Wendell celebrated Emerson in the piece, saying that Emerson had “set him on fire.”  Menand calls this essay “an Emersonian tribute to Emerson.”[12] 

Holmes had always admired Emerson.  Legend has it that, when still a boy, Holmes ran into Emerson on the street and said, in no uncertain terms, “If I do anything, I shall owe a great deal to you.”  Holmes was more right than he probably knew. 

Holmes, who never gave himself over to ontological (or deontological) ideas about law as an existent, material, absolute, or discoverable phenomenon, bloomed and blossomed out of Emersonian thought, which sought to “unsettle all things”[13] and which offered a poetics of transition that was “not a set of ideas or concepts but rather a general attitude toward ideas and concepts.”[14]  Transition is not the same thing as transformation.  Transition signifies a move between two clear states whereas transformation covers a broader and more fluent way of thinking about change.  Holmes, although transitional, was also transformational.  He revised American jurisprudence until it became something it previously was not.  Feeding Holmes’s appetite for change was “dissatisfaction with all definite, definitive formulations, be they concepts, metaphors, or larger formal structures.”[15]  This dissatisfaction would seem to entail a rejection of truth, but Emerson and Holmes, unlike Rorty and the neopragmatists much later, did not explode “truth” as a meaningful category of discourse.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nietzsche on the Writer or Artist

In Art, Artist, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 5, 2011 at 9:23 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following post first appeared here at The Literary Table.

 

“[O]ne does well to separate the artist from his work, which should be taken more seriously than he is.  Ultimately, he is no more than its pre-condition, the womb, the soil, possibly the manure and midden upon which, from which it grows—and thus, in most cases, something which must be forgotten before the work itself can be enjoyed.  Insight into the origin of a work is a matter for physiologists and vivisectors of the spirit: but never one for the aesthetic men, the artists!”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

It’s easy, reading Nietzsche, to fall into anachronism: to consider his comments about divorcing the author from the text as indicative of something akin to the New Criticism, a hermeneutic that isolated texts from externalities such as authorial intent and that treated the aesthetic object as self-contained and autonomous.  That is not at all what Nietzsche meant.  For Nietzsche, the text, or the aesthetic object, is not isolated from externalities, but merely removed from and, in a way, prior to the author; the text is plugged into externalities, shaped and molded by them, so much so that the author is but the incidental medium through which the text speaks.  The text, in other words, has its own authority apart from its creator, who, through the will, channels social and cultural energies to generate aesthetic output.  The writer or artist is “no more than its pre-condition, the womb, the soil, possibly the manure and midden upon which, from which it grows.”  Discourse impregnates the writer or artist, who, thus implanted with ideas and alphabets, carries vocabularies through their prenatal stages and into a rebirth—or new expression—in the form of art.  

According to Nietzsche, the objects and ambitions of the writer or artist as a thinking actor are not, or ought not to be, overstated because the writer or artist is the ultimate example of the effect of action and will.  For the writer or artist is not independent from discourse and ethos—indeed, he is constituted by them, and so, by extension, is his textual production: the aesthetic object.  We may forget the author; if anything, he or she only impedes the pleasure we derive from texts and aesthetics.  The author is “something which must be forgotten before the work itself can be enjoyed.”

Why does Nietzsche posit this view?  What is he after?  Among other things, he’s criticizing the writers and artists who would have us believe that they are above and beyond others, somehow able to divine the real and the eternal.  These writers and artists treat the ascetic ideal as part and parcel of aestheticism—i.e., they conflate the ascetic with the aesthetic to maximize their feeling of power.  Although writers and artists promote themselves in this way, as if they had privileged access to universal yet remote knowledge, they realize, Nietzsche says, that on some level their ascetic ideal is an unreality or falsity—what Baudrillard might have called a hyperreality or simulacrum.  The ascetic ideal is escapism: a fleeting respite from the reality of the will to power, the impulse that the writer or artist seeks to evade, suppress, and disguise.  The conflict of the writer or artist lies in the desire to escape both to and from asceticism; for the intoxicating powers of the ascetic ideal are sobered by the boredom and angst of knowing that the ideal is but therapy and relief.  That realization means that therapy and relief are themselves, paradoxically, the grounds for further escapism—for further therapy and relief. 

All of this suggests that ascetic ideals do not signify.  As Nietzsche says, ascetic ideals “mean absolutely nothing!”  What is so remarkable about these ideals is that they are contingent and contextual such that they amount to nothing and everything at once, and that we will, despite ourselves, and despite our longing for meaning, chase after nothing rather than not chase at all.  That, alas, is why the artist lacks independence in this world.  That, alas, is why no artist is disinterested.

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