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Ulf Schulenberg

Democratic Space and Poetic Agency -
From Emerson and Whitman to Rorty


The notions of liberal democracy, liberal individualism, and, above all, liberal consensus are indispensable if one wants to conceptually grasp the ideological and rhetorical complexity of the U.S. (see, for instance, Hartz 1955). One might feel tempted to advance the argument that the U.S. appears more and more like a total liberal democratic space that at least pretends to be governed by a sort of consensus which leaves no room anymore for voices of resistance, heterotopian desires, and rhetorical forms of dissent. That this development has gained additional vehemence since 9/11 goes without saying. In this context one ought to see, however, that it was Alexis de Tocqueville who, in Democracy in America (1835, 1840), already called attention to the danger of an intolerance of heterodoxy in the U.S. Liberal theorists, from John Locke to Richard Rorty, have always been enormously important for the development of the Left since they have been strong and creative proponents of the idea of liberal democracy and of the ideology of the free market, and thus critics of the notion of radical and fundamental social change. Leftist theorists, in other words, by criticizing and dialectically using the insights and suggestions of liberals, have been offered the possibility of clarifying their own position and of illuminating the contours of their program.

Since the early 1990s, no liberal has underlined the alleged triumph of liberal democracy more decidedly than Francis Fukuyama. In his neoliberal manifesto The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama maintains that liberal democracy “may constitute the ‘end point of mankind’s ideological evolution’ and the ‘final form of human government,’ and as such constitute[s] the ‘end of history’” (1992: xi). Moreover, he argues that liberal principles in economics have spread, and that the free market has “succeeded in producing unprecedented levels of material prosperity, both in industrially developed countries and in countries that had been, at the close of World War II, part of the impoverished Third World” (1992: xiii). Fukuyama’s political and economic liberalism, this very strange mixture of neo-Hegelianism, Christianity, and distortions of Nietzsche and Kojève, is clearly teleological and governed by the notion of clôture. Richard Rorty, seemingly in agreement with Fukuyama’s main suggestions, contends “that no more romantic prospect stretches before the Left than an attempt to create bourgeois democratic welfare states and to equalize life chances among the citizens of those states by redistributing the surplus produced by market economies” (1998: 229). Undoubtedly, there have been numerous attempts to attack or confront what I have termed the total liberal democratic space. As far as political activism is concerned, one only has to think of the various, partly very successful anti-globalization movements (see Schulenberg 2003a). With regard to leftist theory and the problem of space, a line of theorizing reaches from the Jamesonian idea of cognitive mapping to Hardt and Negri’s materialist mapping of the new global world order in Empire and Multitude.

Apart from political activism and leftist theorizing, there is another from of resistance which has hitherto been neglected and to which I thus want to call attention. This is what I call poetic agency. In this article, I wish to discuss the question of whether poetic agency, that is, the rhetorical work of the strong poet in the Bloomian and Rortyan sense, can effect forms of genuine change in the confrontation with the omnipresent ideology of American liberal democracy. I shall start my argument with a discussion of Rorty’s conception of a literary or poeticized culture. After that I shall seek to elucidate a main part of the history of the American strong poet by focusing on two authors of the American Renaissance: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. What do these authors write concerning the role of the American poet? It is not only the aforementioned question of whether the poet is given the possibility of uttering genuine dissent and resistance which is of primary concern here. It will be argued that it is of utmost importance to realize that even the strong poet is in constant danger of eventually ending up as part of the powerful liberal consensus which has granted him a place on the margin of society. To put this somewhat differently, it is crucial to grasp that the total space of American liberal democracy does not necessarily seek to repress or marginalize radical energies and gestures of resistance, but that it also attempts to creatively redirect those energies and gestures so that they will eventually, and paradoxically, strengthen that which they originally opposed and fought against.

What this seems to boil down to is the rather bleak suggestion that not even poetic agency, the work of the strong poet as romantic radical redescriber, creative innovator, or inventor of new sets of metaphors, is capable of effectively confronting the hegemony of liberal democracy in the U.S. The liberal consensus with its subtle instruments of liberal cooptation not only emphasizes that socialism, and maybe even radical democracy, is incompatible with the ideology and rhetoric of America, but it also forces one to understand that critique of its premises and theoretical foundations can hardly ever become a fundamental challenge to its existence since that critique will be redirected so that its position will always already be within the space of liberal democracy , and it will therefore not be given the possibility of demarcating a genuine outside. However, one might argue that it is precisely the power of liberal ideology, seemingly omnipresent and insurmountable, that urges leftist theoreticians to relentlessly pursue the goal of establishing counterhegemonic sites of discourse. It will be demonstrated that the creative and innovative work of the American strong poet, in spite of all the severe difficulties and obstacles it has to confront, can play a crucial role in the creation of the possibility of counterhegemony.

The idea of a post-Philosophical culture has preoccupied Richard Rorty since his introduction to The Linguistic Turn (1967). It was central to many of the essays collected in Consequences of Pragmatism (1982), and it played a decisive role in the last chapter (“Philosophy Without Mirrors”) of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). In its most fully developed form the idea of a post-Philosophical culture as poeticized culture is one of the primary aspects of Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. The beginnings of this kind of culture can be detected at the end of the eighteenth century with the emergence of new vocabularies, yet it has not yet been fully realized. A liberal poeticized culture in its fully realized form would be antifoundationalist, antiessentialist, nominalist, fallible, and historicist through and through. Such a literary or poeticized culture urges us to grasp that only strong poets and Rortyan liberal ironists fully recognize the importance of contingency and the power of radical redescription. The most provocative, innovative, and stimulating heroes of a literary culture are strong poets in the sense of people who constantly long to redescribe things in new ways, who use words as they have never been used before, and who desire to expand the power of the human imagination. The strong poet, in other words, makes us realize the importance of self-creation, self-fashioning, and redescription. The strong poet as the creator of a new vocabulary can be P.B. Shelley elaborating on the power of “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (A Defence of Poetry), or it might be Hegel moving at the limits of syntax and letting us realize that it is perfectly legitimate to advance the argument that sublation is but a form of innovative redescription. It is interesting to see that in Rorty’s description of his ideal poeticized culture most of the crucial elements of his neopragmatist thinking come together: his antifoundationalism and antiessentialism, David-sonian and Wittgensteinian nominalism, Hegelian historicism, Darwinian naturalism, Nietz-schean and Proustian perspectivism, as well as his Freudian conception of the human self (see Schulenberg 2003b).

In one of his latest pieces, “Philosophy as a Transitional Genre,” Rorty states a thesis which he has been repeating since the 1970s: “It is that the intellectuals of the West have, since the Renaissance, progressed through three stages: they have hoped for redemption first from God, then from philosophy, and now from literature” (2004: 8). For our purposes, the following question is of utmost interest: How does Rorty define the members of a literary culture, the literary intellectuals? His understanding of the function of the literary intellectual combines a Bloomian interpretation of the autonomy of the self with Emersonian self-reliance. A literary intellectual has constant doubts about the (final) vocabulary she is currently using, she does not want to get stuck in it. She longs to become acquainted with other ways of speaking, other ways of interpreting the purpose of life. For that reason she reads as many books as possible. By becoming acquainted with so many alternative vocabularies and ways of being human, the literary intellectual enlarges her self. Because of her reading she is introduced to a great number of alternative purposes, and ways of expressing those purposes, and she is thus given the possibility of radically questioning traditional vocabularies and explanations. To put it simply, the literary intellectual’s reading leads to her self-creation, it offers her the possibility of creating an autonomous self. Rorty apparently agrees with Harold Bloom that the more books you have read, the more descriptions and redescriptions you have come across, the more human and at the same time autonomous you become (see Bloom 2000). A Rortyan and Bloomian autonomous self puts a premium on the attempt to creatively expand the present limits of the human imagination and it also seeks to demonstrate that the development from religion (God) to philosophy (Truth) to literature (novelty, imagination, redescription) is a story of increasing self-reliance.

It is crucial to understand that in a poeticized culture literary criticism is the presiding intellectual discipline. Liberal ironists think of literary critics as moral advisers because the latter have read many books and are therefore acquainted with many different vocabularies. Moreover, literary critics can offer new perspectives since they are often capable of bringing together books and authors which have hitherto been considered as incompatible. The critics’ syntheses of, for instance, Nietzsche and Mill or Marx and Baudelaire or Sartre and Proust are examples of the power of creative redescriptions. Yet Rorty’s contention is that the idea of ironist literary intellectuals governing a liberal poeticized culture and engaging in literary criticism in the broadest sense has to be problematized insofar as there is still a gap between those intellectuals and the public. They belong to a kind of avant-garde because they have the leisure and the money to spend most of their time reading books and redescribing persons and things. It is their job to convince the public, which consists mostly of metaphysicians, of the advantages of a nominalist and historicist literary culture. Rorty writes:

The rise of literary criticism to preeminence within the high culture of the democracies – its gradual and only semiconscious assumption of the cultural role once claimed (successively) by religion, science, and philosophy – has paralleled the rise in the proportion of ironists to metaphysicians among the intellectuals. This has widened the gap between the intellectuals and the public. For metaphysics is woven into the public rhetoric of modern liberal societies. (1989: 82)

The story I have been telling so far is one of increasing self-reliance, that is, it is an Emersonian story about the strong poet’s desire for self-creation in a liberal poeticized culture. However, one ought to see that this is not only a story that centers on self-reliance and self-creation but also on fear. One might even say that it begins with fear. Rorty apparently follows Bloom in arguing that poetry begins in fear. The profound fear of the poet is to awake one day and find himself in a world he has not made, an inherited world. To put it another way, the poet fears to end his days in a world to which he has contributed nothing of distinction and which he has not creatively changed. The story of the strong poet’s self-reliance begins with his “anxiety of influence,” that is to say with his “horror of finding himself to be only a copy or replica” (Bloom 1973: 80). The poet fears that his most important creations do not really belong to him, but that they are the results of unconscious impressions which a stronger, more radical and impressive poet has left on his mind. Continually anxious about these impressions and their destructive effects on his work, the strong poet has to decide that he wants to get rid of them and that he does not want to be influenced by other poets. He wants to create his own impressions and leave his own mark on the world. He desires to leave his impressions on others and to redescribe the idiosyncracies of his individual self in a way that makes it attractive to others.

The strong poet, fearing to be regarded as a mere copy or replica, eventually finds out that by describing himself in his own terms he creates himself. Confronting his own con-tingency, acknowledging and appropriating it, is synonymous with the creative invention of a new language or a new set of metaphors. Following Rorty, the final victory of poetry in its ancient quarrel with philosophy might also be interpreted as the final victory of idiosyncratic metaphors of self-creation over metaphors of discovery. Instead of the will to truth which governed a philosophical culture, a post-Philosophical or literary culture would be dominated by the Nietzschean will to self-overcoming and self-creation. It should have become clear from what I have said so far that the Rortyan literary culture is a liberal (utopian) space which defines radical change almost exclusively as radical and innovative redescription and/as self-creation.