By: Austin Bailey
My current project is for my seminar on American pragmatism and aesthetics with Joan Richardson. Though it’s “just” a seminar paper, I’d like to expand it into an article if I end up liking it.
My essay (which has yet to find a title) looks at Emerson’s essays on social reform within the context of the emerging industrial-capitalist nexus of the 19th century. As industrializiation occurred, the country and international markets went from agrarian based economies to more internationally trade-based, “itinerant” economies. This included an increase in paper currency and speculation as well as a ramping-up of slavery. These changes in the economic structures of society resonated in America, often in the form of deep anxieties about the current state of things and the future. The image and metaphor of the “paper men,” “ghosts,” and other specters of commerce became prevalent. These metaphors signaled a newly emergent form of personhood and economy based on rootlessness and invisibility. My essay argues that Emerson responded to these anxieties by advocating, through his transcendentalism, a more direct series of relations between individuals. While Emerson was obsessed with the idea of empowering the individual, he did not advocate intellectual hermeticism or aesthetic retreats from encroaching capitalist oppression. He instead believed that individuals should face each other. Facing one another has many resonances. I will focus on Stanley Cavell’s idea of condition as “condiction,” that is, our condition of speaking together. If our words are always already delimiting–putting us, as Cavell has suggested, into pre-arrangements and pre-agreements of our person, what Emerson calls “conformity”–they are also all we have. While Emerson advocates a materialist critique on the level of forming more direct relations and, in the Marxist sense, dereification, through an awareness of use value over and against exchange value and market fetish, he also advocates for an endless revisionism within democratic circles of conversation. This requires facing one another and speaking directly to one another–in other words, a kind of “reformist perfectionism.”
David Greenham. “The Skeptical Deduction: Reading Kant and Cavell in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 1.3 (2007): 253-281. Project MUSE. Web. 3 Nov. 2014. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.
Greenham has recently published a book on Emerson, Emerson’s Transatlantic Romanticism. It is an exploration of Emerson’s relationship and indebtedness to the British romantics but it brings in interesting cross sections of influence such as Mary Moody Emerson. It also places Emerson’s romanticism in dialogue with Stanley Cavell (currently a philosopher at Harvard and one of Emerson’s most influential contemporary readers) and Immanuel Kant. This article eventuated in one of the book’s chapters. While I didn’t take much interest in the book, I find this article to be extremely useful for my purposes. Greenham does the work no one else wants to do: he actually walks us through Kantian Transcendental Deduction and categories, showing how they relate to Stanley Cavell’s claim that Emerson ups Kant by suggesting that every word in our diction be placed under skeptical deduction. This is a very confusing concept and Greenham illuminates it very well. It will be central for my argument because I will talk about how Emerson goes beyond proto-Marxist structural critique, suggesting that our language be put under intense scrutiny as we face each other in conversation.
Naoko Saito. “Perfectionism and the Love of Humanity: Democracy as a Way of Life after Dewey, Thoreau, and Cavell.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 20.2 (2006) 93-105.
Not entirely sure if I’ll use this article but I loved it. It gave me the idea for thinking about conversation as endemic to Cavell and the transcendentalist aesthetic. This article talks a lot about Dewey. I don’t know if I’m going to bring Dewey into my paper, more than just a quick mention or two, but I may bring Saito’s article in for a guest appearance. I often look at articles for what they can teach me about approach on a structural level. When I was torturing myself over how I was going to talk about Emerson’s material-structural critique as well as his emphasis on individual and communal perfectionism–the two seemed so opposite to one another–I took a cue from this article’s combinatory approach. To sum up, it argues that through Cavell’s reading of Thoreau we can uncover an understanding of democracy as a way of life, which relates to Dewey, who posited democracy a way of life, as an ethics in our everyday conduct.
David Anthony. “Gone Distracted”: “Sleepy Hollow,” Gothic Masculinity, and the Panic of 1819. Early American Literature, vol. 40, number 1, 2005, p.111-144.
This article looks at the emergence of paper currencies, speculation, and the market panic of 1819. It draws connections to a crisis of masculinity represented in Washington Irving’s famous tale, “Sleepy Hollow.” This article is useful in terms of historical background, but it also shows how anxieties about industrial capitalist economy made their way into aesthetic practices. Emerson, a few decades later, dealt with a similar crisis in the panic of 1837, an event that informed his Phi Beta Kappa address, “The American Scholar.”
Capitalism Takes Command: The Social Transformation of Nineteenth Century America. Ed. Michael Zakim and Gary J. Kornblith. University of Chicago Press. 2012.
A collection of essays, this anthology looks at new perspectives on the emergence of industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century and how it affected slavery, the family, and American culture and sensibility. It comes on the heels of what historians in the late 90s/early 00s deemed “the second slavery”–slavery’s adaption to industrial market practices. While slavery has traditionally been understood by historians to be a hold-over from agrarian forms of 17th and 18th century capitalism, second slavery as a general historical recovery shows how slavery and industrial capitalism were mutually constitutive. These essays take this conversation further by exploring microhistories ,like that of a businessman and his son during the panic of 1837, showing how the economy went through a kind of bubble burst akin to the 08 bubble burst and tying this bubble bursting to slavery. It will be useful primarily as background and set up.
Emerson, philosophe transcendantaliste ou pragmatiste?” Gérard Deledalle.
Revue française d’études américaines, No. 91, Ralph Waldo Emerson: l’autorité du scepticisme (FÉVRIER 2002), pp. 80-86
I’m not sure if I’ll use this article for anything but it questions whether or not Emerson should
be understood as a transcendentalist or a pragmatist. The article argues that two traditions in
Emerson studies have emerged: the transcendentalist (the author curiously links this to
Wittgenstein) and the pragmatist (through James and Dewey).
“Pragmatismus, Dekonstruktion, ironischer Eklektizismus Richard Rortys Heidegger-Lektüre.” Philipp Burkard Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung, Bd. 51, H. 2 (Apr. – Jun., 1997), pp.268-284
This article is really interesting and makes me wish I read German. It examines pragmatism as it
relates to deconstruction through a lecture on Heidegger given by Richard Rorty. I’ve been
somewhat interested in the ways pragmatism can be put into dialogue with post structuralism.
Stanley Cavell. Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes. Stanford University Press. 2003.
This book is a collection of Cavell’s essays and lectures on Emerson. It’s generally a go-to book.
The essay I’ll be looking at is called “Emerson’s Constitutional Amending.” It argues that
Emerson’s essay “Fate” suggests that our “fate” is our diction. We are trapped in the
pre-formed agreements of language. In conversing with one another, then, we must apply
skepticism to our words in order to reaffirm their vitality as our only way of knowing one
another, darkly. I will use this essay to think through Emersonian reformist perfectionism.
Emerson asserts the need to face one another and speak in a way that puts our words under
tremendous scrutiny. As such, we come to know one another despite the socio-economic
forces that alienate ourselves from ourselves and from each other. What I will argue is that
Emerson suggests that this interpolated conversing and facing must happen in addition to
or despite any broader structural critiques. Ultimately, Emerson is not a systematizer but a
suggester. He does not tell us what we must do, only what we must start to do.
Stanley Cavell. The Senses of Walden. The University of Chicago Press. 1992.
This book I am only beginning to read but it’s where Cavell began his work on the
transcendentalists. (The book was originally published in 1972 by Viking Press). I think this book
may be relevant for my argument in the way that it talks about conversation and our use of
language. Also, Thoreau talks a lot about facing one another and staring into another’s eyes.
I may bring Thoreau’s Walden into the conversation, particularly the passage where Thoreau
talks about mutual gazing. How prominent these texts will be in my discussion remains open.
I’m excited to dip into this book. With Stanley Cavell it’s never a bad time. (Many would
The Other Emerson. Ed. Branka Arsic and Carey Wolfe. University of Minnesota Press. 2010.
There is simply no more important collection of essays on Emerson in the last ten years. The
aim of this collection is to reevaluate Emerson as a philosopher, marking a major
philosophic turn in Emerson studies that is just now, in my view, coming into maturation. I will
probably use or reference an essay in here by Eric Keenaghen called “Reading Emerson, in
Other Times: On a Politics of Solitude and an Ethics of Risk.” Keenaghen talks about “The
American Scholar” as a text that begins by addressing man’s ontological alienation within
market forces. Keenaghen, however, skips over talking about Emerson’s structural critiques
and talks more about citizenship through reading practices. While Keenaghen begins an
important “intervention”—that being a reevaluation of Emerson’s materialist thinking—I believe
he stops short of a necessary exploration of Emerson’s philosophical resistance to market
forces. I’m not sure to what extent this article will play a role in my project.
The Emerson Dilemma: Essays on Emerson and Social Reform. Ed. T. Gregory Garvey. University of Georgia Press. 2001.
These essays on Emerson and social reform are invaluable. T. Gregory Garvey’s introduction
sets the stage nicely, providing a comprehensive look at the salient themes of Emerson cum
social reformer. My argument assumes that Emerson was a social reformer, albeit in his own
way, that is, through lecturing and through political alliances as a public intellectual. This has
been the trend of recent scholarship and the view of Emerson as detached from social reform
has generally fallen by the wayside. This book will be useful more so for set-up and background
material. It will probably make its way into a few footnotes.