Emerson: philosophy of the street

September 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

Emerson’s “American Scholar” has long been thought as calling for a break with England and English literature–the symbolic beginnings of an American literature. Oliver Wendell Holmes, a contemporary of Emerson, referred to it famously as America’s “intellectual declaration of independence.” That received viewed tends to emphasize that Emerson’s argument is with English writers. I would argue, in fact, that his concern is with American schools and habits of learning that have (already by 1837) become institutionalized and deadened. For me, this is an argument about American education.

I hear echoes of this argument in Gerald Graff’s notion of “Hidden Intellectualism”: that there is a ‘vernacular’ or ‘street smarts’ that students have and that can be transformed by schools into ways of understanding academic writing and thinking–specifically, how we argue. Emerson gets into this sense of the vernacular at the end of the address–referring to the low, the familiar, the common. All of that, I suspect, is language that would have interested some of the graduating students (Thoreau, in fact, was one of them, though he most likely wasn’t in the audience–had already left) and ruffled the collars of some of the professors in the audience. I recently wrote a piece exploring some of Emerson’s interest in education (including a lecture he gives at a new, progressive school the month before he gave “American Scholar” at Harvard), Education after an Earthquake; if interested in this line of inquiry (Emerson’s vision of education and learning), we can talk more about a possible final project in this area later in the semester.

What about the view of the self/individual in Emerson’s vision of schooling? An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education considers the issue of academic scholarship and autobiographical perspectives. A recent book by Cynthia Franklin, Academic Lives, explores some contemporary examples of academic criticism written from a personal perspective; and also considers how such autobiographical perspectives have traditionally been shunned in the academy.

Emerson isn’t cited. But the author could have cited him, and easily. In fact, I think the reclamation of ‘scholar’ that Emerson is already after in the 1830s (and still at issue today) is to rethink the scholar as “first person.” Think of the passage from “Divinity School,” that comes out of the journal from the summer of 1837, and shows up in his “Greene Street School Address.” The preacher (wonderfully named Frost) he hears and calls a cold ‘formalist,’ he gives his audience no sense that he has actually lived–is less real than the snow storm outside. In the terms of “American Scholar,” this is not the way to “learn grammar,” the dictionary that is not related to life and the near and familiar.

I wonder about your own experience with autobiographical criticism and with hidden intellectualism. In what ways have the academic and the vernacular come together? Have you been taught to keep them separate: never to use “I”? Do you think Emerson is on to something, here? Does schooling, or rather, learning, need to give more thought to the “philosophy of the street”?


Emerson: Divinity School

September 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Emerson gave the “Divinity School Address” at Divinity Hall at Harvard, in the small room pictured here.

The address was considered by the faculty in the room heretical–the latest form of infidelity, as one critical review put it. I found a site that discusses this address, a Christian Minister who views it as a version of heresy still with us.

What gets Emerson into trouble–what language suggests heresy? Is it the same sort of argument that he makes in “American Scholar”? Do you think the more orthodox listeners in the audience get Emerson right or wrong in their understanding of this address and its vision?

emerson’s poetics of science, part 2

September 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

One of the words from Nature I looked up and copied into the last posting is “hieroglyphic.” We find that the 1828 Webster’s defines the word as a mystical character or symbol. It relates, certainly, to the other words that focus on the emblematic nature of Nature that Emerson locates in our language: that is, language is the vehicle of nature, which is itself symbolic of spirit–thus the words we find are analogy, allegory, epitome. And we saw in our discussion that early on this view of  symbolic relation has a spiritualist (and almost mystical) connotation: the occult relation between man and the vegetable world (ie, the living world other than man). Emerson’s tree-waving, as we put it, more so than tree-hugging. (It’s 11 am, have you spoken to a tree today?)

There is a spiritual component to this that makes its way directly into Emerson’s thinking in Nature. The most prominent source that Emerson is working from is Swedenborg, whom he cites at the end of “American Scholar” and in Nature refers to in quoting (without citing him): the visible world and the relation of its parts, is the dial plate of the invisible. This figure of the dial and the idea of what Emerson also calls “radical correspondence between visible things and human thoughts” is a key to Transcendentalism (and Nature is considered by many to be the ur-text of the transcendental movement in America). But it turns out that all this spiritual-mystical-philosophical-alchemical vision of nature is not just a 19thc. version of a seance. It is also the place, in the very same ideas of relation and correspondence and emblem, where Emerson engages in the science of his day.

This science, known as natural philosophy and natural history, does not rigidly separate (as we have done) study of the natural world with imagination or poetry or philosophy. So, it makes sense to speak of a ‘poetics of science’–though the combination of poetry and science is strange to our ears. I borrow this phrase from the Emerson scholar Laura Dassow Walls who wrote the book, literally, on Emerson’s significant interest in science and the way natural philosophy of his day informs his thinking: Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth. To pick up one piece from this exhaustive reading of Emerson’s work in relation to science: there is the figure of polarity and magnetism that appears throughout his writing; a metaphor that he borrows from his own readings and observations of experiments and discoveries in his day–but more than that (so I would argue): a metonymy that he focuses on, to the extent that his own thinking and writing is already (in his understanding of nature and writing both) related, correspondent, in a more than metaphorical sense of the word related.

We see this metonymyic (not just metaphorical) vision of nature and language in the “Language” chapter of Nature. We also see it in the lecture “Humanity of Science” where Emerson takes up a prominent theory from natural philosophy made famous by Goethe (a poet-scientist of interest to Emerson):

The order of the world has been wisely called ‘an open secret.’ And it is true that Nature’s mode of concealing a law is in its very simplicity; she hides facts by putting them next us.

The near explains the far. This idea that shows up in “American Scholar” as a vision for American learning and poetry–a poetry and philosophy of the street, of the familiar, the near, the low–is thus also related to Emerson’s understanding of science. And, as Emerson will go on in the “Humanity of Science” lecture, poetry is important to remind science of this poetic/symbolic condition of nature–the open secret, nature as hieroglyphic, emblematic. In other words, to remind us that science needs help from poets to interpret and express nature’s secrets to the public. Emerson’s humanistic scientist sounds a lot like his poet from the later essays. It is a remarkable claim–one that seems very distant to our culture that splits science and poetry, but perhaps all the more relevant because of that.

I will try to make more sense of Emerson’s metonymy as we go on. One way I will do that: a lecture at the Lit House in November.

Electronic Emerson?

September 3, 2009 § Leave a comment


I took the title for this course blog, “luminous allusion,” from this section of Emerson’s “American Scholar.” Emerson’s re-visioning of the action of reading–of pages of books coming alive–has long made me think, or speculate, that he would have been interested in electronic text. Here is the original passage (copied in from Emerson Central):

One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world. We then see, what is always true, that, as the seer’s hour of vision is short and rare among heavy days and months, so is its record, perchance, the least part of his volume. The discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakspeare, only that least part, — only the authentic utterances of the oracle; — all the rest he rejects, were it never so many times Plato’s and Shakspeare’s.

Emerson–as we started to discuss in class Wednesday, initial response to “American Scholar”–is interested in dynamic reading. Books have, potentially, the same problem as other “forms” (systems, churches, institutions)–they fix and fossilize what was once alive. So, Emerson wants books, but wants them not to be just books. I hear in his notion of the “inventor” and in the idea of “creative reading” that the reader in some way has to reproduce the ideas in the book. And reproduction makes me think in terms more familiar to our digital age: the read/write web, for example, where digital publishing makes the distinction between reader and writer much more fluid.

Two questions we might consider as we move forward–and dig further into American Scholar, Divinity School, and this larger notion of Emersonian reading as inventing. First question: what does digital communication and technology (this blog, the web) have to do with Emerson writing in the middle of the 19th century? Second question: What can we, writing and reading in the beginning of the 21st century do to approach or ‘reproduce’ this idea of an electronic Emerson–how best to read Emerson today in an Emersonian spirit?

To start with, Emerson is interested in communication. This is a significant thread in his thinking, something I tracked and traced in my studies of Emerson’s interest in photography–one of the technological revolutions of his age (more on that later in the semester). The idea of communication technology might strike readers’s ears discordantly–given the stereotype of transcendental Emerson out in nature.crancheyeball But we already see important ways that he focuses on “communication” and wants us to re-vise the ways we traditionally think about it. Books are a technology, a medium of communication. And in “American Scholar,” Emerson criticizes the book (and the reader) for not being flexible and fluid. One must be an inventor to read well. In “Divinty School,” you will notice that Emerson uses the word “communicating” and focuses on the problem of “historical Christianity” as communication error. [the pulpit pictured above is from the room in the Divinity School where he gave the address] There, too, he has in mind a ‘book’ and a ‘form’ that would offer flexibility to its readers; a book–or perhaps a better word, a text–that would be based in language (in effect what Emerson means by tropes) but not remain with those tropes. [in Nature, we will see this as the problem of fossil poetry]. Emerson wants a form or medium, in this case, in which the dynamic and provocative (and provocational) language of Jesus would not loose its electric current–would continue to charge and spark. Thus, in a lecture on “Eloquence” Emerson writes of the power of communication (oral and written) this way:

We are such imaginative creatures that nothing so works on the human mind, barbarous or civil, as a trope. Consense some daily experience into a glowing symobl, and an audience is electrified.

But fix that imagination of the language into a book (and put it on the shelf, in the basement of a library, say) and the tropes become monstrous. As you read on in Emerson, you will see him use the image of electricity and electric charge–an analogy that interests him greatly from the emerging science and natural philosophy of his day: electro-magnetism, polarity. There is an essay by Eric Wilson that digs into this a bit–I linked it on  ‘research links’: “Emerson’s Metaleptic Style.”

Where and how, then, to take up this ‘electric’ current in Emerson today? My simple answer is that we can start to explore the potential for an Electronic Emerson. Later in the course, we will see the ways that Whitman scholarship is doing this, particularly through the Walt Whitman digital archive. For some reason (a question I am still asking Emerson scholars when I see them), Emerson scholarship has not followed suit in pursuing an Emerson digital archive. So, I am interested in exploring at least the question: if we were to do something digital with Emerson (create an Emerson 2.0)–what would you do and why? At a minimum, as you make your way into Emerson’s essays in the next few weeks, consider a simple way to track his electronic currents of thinking. You can use Emerson Central to keyword search through his texts, explore how certain words (luminous, form, inventor, thinking, divinity, character, inspiration) appear and re-appear in his texts. At the end of the Emerson writing project, my goal is for us to take advantage of some digital tools (still exploring how to do this–and hope you can help) that will enable us to (further) electrify your essays using an electronic medium.

Another experiment into flexible forms that might be of interest, if not use, for an Emersonian way of reading and writing and learning: I started a blog [learningmetonymy] that I use mostly to dumb research ideas and notes and texts, occasionally to send out ideas and see what happens; mostly to archive in a way that can begin to help me consider assocations and associational thinking (using the ‘tag’ feature of wordpress, for example). Here is a recent example in response to American Scholar, among other things. If you can make sense of what you see on the blog, by the way, do please let me know what that is.

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