by Daniel Garrett
I. Practice Makes Perfect.
II. Ideas, Unapologetically (Documents).
III. A Simple Conclusion.
I. Practice Makes Perfect
Knowledge, discourse, friendship, and social responsibility has been the motto of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group, an organization I began in summer 1989. The mission has been to create a space for public discourse on cultural, intellectual, and political ideas and realities, participated in with insight and passion by people of diverse perspectives—a democratic, multicultural collective. We met first weekly, and later monthly, to discuss a wide-ranging series of subjects, using specified reading material as a jumping off point. A single moderator would often be responsible for this reading material and the initial direction of the discussion—and would work with an idea to involving everyone in a thoughtful, mutually respectful exchange as we looked at all sides of a question and tried to locate the most progressive analysis and practical response. Over time, we had guest speakers—including Stanley Aronowitz, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Akeel Bilgrami—as well as public readings and performances, occasional writing workshops, dinners, music listening, and film screenings. These have all been gestures toward an American utopia.
From summer 1989 to fall 1989, we met at ABC NO Rio, an alternative art space in Manhattan’s lower east side, a dilapidated building that featured theatrical plays, visual art shows, and rock music shows. “We” consisted mainly of me, Rebecca Terner, Tom DiLillo, Randy Marx, and sometimes David Means and a few others who visited periodically during the summer. Stanley Aronowitz was the guest at the first session, which focused on postmodernism. Other topics that summer included women and film; whiteness as ethnicity; the craft of writing; family dynamics; feminism; Nietzsche’s ideas on art; the press; sexuality; the Arab image; environmentalism; and community. At the end of the summer session, I asked for and received written analyses and responses to the series from participants. Rebecca, who was, for me, an ideal participant, brilliant and enthusiastic, wrote, “I love the material the group covers, the challenge of addressing new and sometimes difficult subjects and I even appreciate the personal complexity of the group.” She added, “We must challenge ourselves to go deeper and farther than we are comfortable with, hence there will be problems and conflicts. I see this as positive, for me it represents growth.”
Tom and Randy said similar things. Tom said, “We come together from a diversity of backgrounds and opinions, and climb aboard for a rollercoaster ride through a given topic.” He concluded, “In a sense the discussion group allows us to reinterpret ourselves by contrasting our knowledge, beliefs, and opinions with those of others. It allows us to shatter our old illusions and misconceptions and learn about others and ourselves. It is this awareness that keeps me going back.” This affirmation from Tom, a bright, skeptical, passionate young man, was great to get. Randy, a very sensitive young man, wrote, “Our ability to grow and fight the constant threat of routine is the key to our survival. As Stanley Aronowitz said at the first meeting, in a postmodern world, routine is death. In order to be viable as a group and a center for learning, we must constantly seek new ideas and perspectives.”
In fall 1989, we moved to Poets House, an independent poetry center then located on 18th Street in the Bayard Rustin High School for the Humanities. We got some new regular members—Larry Langham, Stephen Cardella, and Katie Yates, as well as occasional visitors. As before, I organized many though not all of the sessions. For several instances—Larry, a musician, organized a session on rock and popular music, utilizing magazine articles and his own lyrics. Katie organized a session on writing, sharing her own work, comments by writers and critics, and leading us through a writing exercise. Tom organized sessions on American Indian (Native American) philosophy, and on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. By fall 1990, our weekly discussions had included the poetry of Octavio Paz; Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle,” Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Montaigne’s essay on friendship, Pasolini’s Roman Poems, black British and continental African film; Henry Louis Gates and African-American literary theory. The writers read included J. Hillis Miller, Nancy Hartsock, Linda Hutcheon, James Baldwin, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Jeffrey Weeks, Richard Dyer, Wendell Berry, Michel Foucault, Cornel West, and more.
It took effort to organize sessions, maintain a mailing list of over 100 names and addresses, send notices to publications, and all the rest involved in maintaining a non-profit organization. The attendance of some sessions was about ten, others had as few as three—Rebecca, Tom, and myself. That last—in terms of the smallness of the number—was painful, even as it reiterated the value of Rebecca and Tom to me. By fall 1990, after over a year of weekly encounters, we all needed a break—and took one. The group would begin again in spring 1991, with mostly new members.
From spring 1991 to winter 92/93, the group met at the new location of Poets House, on Spring Street in Soho, a lovely center, full of light and bright primary colors. The spring 1991 series consisted of six discussions and one performance event, with these discussions extending through the summer. Typically, there were about ten to twelve people, sometimes more at each session. Topics included multiculturalism; land and community; war and the roots of aggression; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance; and gender and sexuality. The energy level was high. Regular participants often included Peter Seekamp, Alfredo Garcia, John Carter, Phyllis and Sy Krauth, Charlie Harker, Paul Zakrzewski, and Curt Bertschi. Paul would be instrumental in organizing a series of writing workshops. Curt’s searing intelligence and deep commitment to broad political issues made him a significant comrade and good organizer. He would later organize and moderate sessions on work, economics, and New York City politics.
After that series in spring 1991, attendance would rise and fall. New members like Jessica Ruskin and David Hanen would add new insights and tones to the sessions. By winter 92/93, we had discussed the responsibilities of intellectuals; Denise Levertov’s poetry; Pirandello; Freud; feminism for men; bisexuality; Alain Locke and the Harlem Renaissance; and the black feminist essays of Bell Hooks. We closed the winter series in December 1992 with a performance event featuring participants in the group, as well as people I’d met throughout my decade in New York, such as Eugene Lovick, a friend from college still pursuing interests in art and philosophy. It was an evening of poetry, dialog, and fiction, read and performed by men and women, black and white, gay and straight, another gesture toward an American utopia.
II. Ideas, Unapologeticaily (Documents)
The following articles——(lettered A to E) on literary criticism, feminism for men, Jewish modernity, Pirandello, and John Stuart Mill’s work on political liberty—offer some documentation of the kinds of comments and questions articulated at the beginning of each session. These influenced—though never constricted-— the discussions. All but one of these articles is by me, and in certain cases I would have preferred that to be different. Specifically, for the sessions on Pirandello and John Stuart Mill, I did ask participants to draft notes on their responses to the subject and reading material, as affirmations of individual responses and of written criticism. However, no one wrote on Pirandello, and a couple of people said they preferred oral criticism, which they experienced as more open. Curt was the only one to write on Mill, other than me. Typically the discussions are (were) full of fun as much as seriousness, with references to our own lives and education. Here are concrete contributions and remnants of those discussions.
CULTURAL POLITICS DISCUSSION GROUP
Topic: Literature and Literary Criticism
Moderated by Daniel Garrett
September 13, 1989
The purpose of the discussion group is to discuss ideas, events, and subjects which involve culture and politics and impact on our lives and work. Literature—writing charged with meaning, beauty, relevance—is important to us for pleasure and wisdom; and literary criticism evaluates writing with an eye to how it utilizes and creates ideas of meaning, beauty, and relevance. Literary criticism gives us practical insight into the workings of a piece of writing, whereas literary theory tells us something about how literature works in the world in general—how a piece of writing relates to other writing, to criticism, to society, and to the history of writing and the history of the world. Deconstruction is a literary theory, an interpretive theory that acknowledges and accentuates the prevalence and importance of different readings of any given text (piece of writing): more than one meaning, even contradictory meanings, can be located in a text.
Deconstruction is part of what is generally called postmodernism. Modernism articulated ideas of self-consciousness, industry, and progress; postmodernism critiques our notions of a knowable and easily coherent self, and points out the limits of industry and the contradictions of progress. Ideals and absolutes are revealed as ideas, not realities, and unlikely ideas at that. Still, postmodernism acknowledges the presence of modernism in postmodernism. Postmodernism emphasizes criticality, the importance of difference, specificity of context, blending of high and low cultures, and our creation of history—we write it. Postmodernism acknowledges the prevalence of narratives which seek to explain the world—stories (his-stories) which suggest origins, evolutions, and explanations (and justifications) for current power relations. These stories can be regressive /repressive (Hitlerian) or progressive (Marxist). It is the critique of both right and left—critique of everything—which makes some progressives disdainful of postmodernist thinking, and yet it is this criticality which makes it radical and useful to previously marginalized persons who need to critique everything and participate in restructuring the world. As J. Hillis Miller said in his essay, “Critic As Host,” deconstructive is constructive as well—it elaborates new connections, new meanings.
J. Hillis Miller’s essay “Critic As Host”
J. Hills Miller discusses deconstruction as a literary theory aware of the history of words, the intertextuality of literary works (books speak to books). He states the importance of the inherent contradictions (internal differences) of any given text, stressing the importance of language and the possibility for a multiplicity of meaning. What is the “other” of what is considered natural, logical, and dominant? How are opposites dependent on one another for definition? He reminds us that we use language to describe language (in the way that Wendell Berry in his essay, “Unspecializing Poetry,” asks us how can we comprehend what comprehends us?). Miller reminds (us) that we would like settled meanings but meanings are never settled—they remain open to interpretation, they remain to be created (or recreated). Important words for deconstruction, and Miller’s essay, are: concept, figure, narrative, repetition, substitution, trace and displacement. Language—words are substitutions, representations, and often representations of other representations.
Important Quotations from Miller’s essay:
“Deconstruction is neither nihilism nor metaphysics but simply interpretation as such, the untangling of the inherence of metaphysics in nihilism and of nihilism in metaphysics by way of the close reading of texts.”
“Criticism is a human activity which depends for its validity on never being at ease within a fixed ‘method.’ It must constantly put its own grounds in question. The critical text and the literary text are each parasite and host for the other, each feeding on the other and feeding it, destroying and being destroyed by it.”
“The ultimate justification for this mode of criticism, as of any conceivable mode, is that it works. It reveals hitherto unidentified meanings and ways of having meaning in major literary texts. The hypothesis of a possible heterogeneity in literary texts is more flexible, more open to a given work, than the assumption that a good work of literature is necessarily going to be ‘organically unified.’ The latter presupposition is one of the major factors inhibiting recognition of the possibly self-subversive complexity of meanings in a given work.”
Wendell Berry’s essay “Notes: Unspecializing Poetry”
Wendell Berry’s essay—in the form of aphorisms and short paragraphs—encourages us toward a practical (informed, useful) poetry and criticism. He states “Reality is in the study of dependences,” and asks us to imagine reality—to see into it, to see the connections that are there. This sense of interrelationship is shared by Berry, Miller, and Adrienne Rich (in her essay “Blood, Bread, and Poetry”). Berry considers context and use important to the nature of process and end product. He states, “No product can be the equal of its source.” Berry in this essay, as in his other essays, emphasizes the importance of community and sees alienation as a negative thing which limits knowledge and impoverishes human life and activities. He sees excellence as overlapping—the craft that goes into one activity can be brought to another. “The right use of any art or discipline leads out of it.” Though this is a time in which poetry and other art is a commodity passively received, Berry reminds us of its potential—it, poetry, is full of memorable insight, phrases, events, and at its best it has a sense of music, balance, and proportion.
Adrienne Rich’s “Blood, Bread, and Poetry”
Adrienne Rich’s essay is infused with personal, political, and literary references and raises a host of questions. The essay takes off from the poet’s visit to Nicaragua, the needs of a changing society, how poetry is used to connect people and facilitate change there. This visit causes her to question the (role of the) poet and poetry’s place in the United States.
Can one be a poet exclusive of being other things? Or does being a poet demand that one is many things? Poetry in the U.S. is marginalized as aesthetics, as an apolitical realm. At one point, Rich asks, “Can’t I travel simply as an American radical…?” (What is simple about that?) The media brings us knowledge of other lands but this knowledge is often superficial—not cultural, but simply a concern for money and war. The poet’s visit forces her to go beyond this superficiality, to become aware of real differences, leaving behind—no, questioning—assumptions about universality and immortality. The overwhelming intensity, the seductive/rhetorical language of poetry, can lead to a belief in its power as mightier than it is. Poetry is sound, image—sensual, also, wisdom. The poetry canon often exists to reinforce the status quo—giving images and words which explain and justify the dominant classes’ impulses and politics. Valuing other cultures, knowledge of other cultures, would remind us of the relativity of culture and cultural interpretation. Rich acknowledges this as a kind of oppression, and recognizes the parallel existence of various oppressions—class, race, gender, and sexuality. Rich, like Berry, wants us to know reality. Passion is often connected to a recognition of the real potential of reality and the slights of reality—this passion, this knowledge, makes those who engage it exciting, necessary, and dangerous (even to themselves). (Rich describes her great gay, socialist professor—who later kills himself.) The priority of professionalism over passion is similar to choosing stasis over change, or alienation over community. Rich reminds us that we are not prepared for radical work; society does not train us for this—if we choose this, we must train ourselves, and possibly, each other. We must locate useable models for poetry and politics. We must be honest about who we are and where we stand—now.
Questions for “Men in Feminism”
By Daniel Garrett
March 10, 1992 Cultural Politics Discussion Group session
These questions are intended to stimulate thought (and action). If read at once, and quickly, and again thoughtfully, they might begin to suggest the complexity, intensity, and direction of male feminist consciousness; if they do not suggest this, which questions do, which actions do? (That is the purpose of the discussion.)
Do you think of feminism mostly as a philosophy or a political analysis, or a reform movement, an attitude, or a neurotic symptom?
Do you think feminist politics is as important as class, race, or electoral politics?
Does the sometimes-bland inattentive responses of men lead one to attempt, with them, a style of engagement rooted in aggression or seduction?
How have you tried to actualize your own progressive thinking about gender in the past, or present (how will you in the future)?
Is the male hesitance in directly exploring or expressing attitudes/feelings/experiences like affection, tenderness, uncertainty because of the vulnerability or unproductive (non-material) nature of them?
What efforts do you make to enlarge and diversify your sense of community? How is the conventional heterosexual family progressive or regressive?
Do you think there’s a connection between sexism and homophobia?
Are you comfortable with your own body, with the bodies of men and women? Or do you feel embarrassment, ignorance, shame, fear…?
Do you think sexual pleasure is genitally oriented, or do you see/experience the whole body as a site of pleasure?
Do you choose friends because of shared similarities—physical, emotional, intellectual or social similarities?
Do you see your own life as a process of learning and growing; or something else?
Do children belong to a family, a community, or a nation, or a combination of these? What kind of information should children be given regarding gender?
Does the corporate manner, and the bureaucratic manner, reflect aspects of masculinity or femininity?
How much time have you spent in the last year (or in your whole life) thinking, talking, or working about/for feminist politics?
Can you imagine giving a woman the kind of support you’ve received from women?
Do you think your own relationships with men have depended on equal sharing; or on female/male tolerance of male self-absorption, superficiality, and callousness?
Do you experience an ambitious woman as admirable or troublesome? (Does this depend on the nature of the ambition?)
How often have you been consciously changed by the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of women?
Which female authorities do you regard highly?
Regarding cultural rituals and cultural products, do you find yourself supporting values and qualities which are feminist or multicultural or focused on white male heterosexual identity and power?
Are there masculine values or qualities you think should be preserved in human behavior and culture? What are they?
Do you nurture anyone (child, woman, man)?
What are things you like/dislike about your own gender upbringing (childhood)?
What are the most important sources of intelligence, sensitivity, and knowledge?
Do you think the heterosexual male interest in lesbian sex is rooted in the objectification of women; sexual curiosity; both, either, or something else?
Do you think heterosexual male intolerance of homosexuality is rooted in fear of domination by another man; the ugliness of male genitals; a typical lack of regard for other men; discomfort with male beauty and tenderness; either, all, or something else?
Do you think bisexuality is a personal ideal, a perversion, a self-indulgence, a social hazard, a utopic impulse?
How much real work are you interested or willing to do to achieve any kind of social transformation?
How does the Cultural Politics Discussion Group contribute to consciousness raising and social change, and what can you do to make the group more responsible and relevant?
Does feminism’s motto “the personal is political” ever lead to an invasion of privacy; or a destruction of positive personal identity and affiliation?
Are you aware of the fact there are different kinds of feminisms (reform; liberal; radical; socialist; lesbian separatist; African-American; Latino; Third World; etc.)?
What are your thoughts regarding the motivation and meaning of the sexual politics of Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, Edward Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand; Madonna, Prince, Elton John and other political and cultural figures?
Do you know the feminist writings of Kate Millet, Gloria Steinem, Adrienne Rich, Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, and other feminists? Are you interested?
What are your own deepest questions, concerns, and fears about feminism?
Why are sports important for Americans—culturally, psychologically, economically?
How possible is it to advance new social values when the leading institutions are ranged against us?
How important is the friendship of men to you?
How often do you do personal, social, and institutional reconstructive work with those who may most need it—empowered white male heterosexuals?
Do you expect to see change regarding gender and sexual issues in the next decade?
What are you doing, everyday, with your life?
By Daniel Garrett
May 12, 1992: Cultural Politics Discussion Group
What do we mean by ethnic identity? How important are ethnic identities?
How important is religious identity in a secular state?
Is Jewish identity perceptible as, predominately, ethnic or religious identity?
Tradition and modernity, in every society, throws up various kinds of issues—regarding values, behavior, aesthetics, morality, power, etc. How are these issues played out in our own society in general, and with regard to Jews?
Has Jewish identity become bland (in comparison to its traits, its expression, in the past)? Has Jewish identity become commodified? (In other words, has Jewish identity been processed in the way many other identities have been?)
What does Jewish identity mean to you?
Do you make an effort to learn about Jewish history? or even the contributions of Jews in this country?
Do you have friends who are Jewish?
When you hear an anti-Jewish remark, what do you think, what do you do?
Do you participate in any Jewish rituals?
What would you imagine as the ideal future of Jewish identity? Are you aware of the contradictions and conflicts within Jewish communities and what they might mean?
Do you think a religious covenant, or social group contract, affects how people participate in society? Does this make them (often) less or more likely to be good citizens?
What are some of the different kinds of social authorities, and what kind of allegiance are they owed (or given)? In the past, Jews have been accused of divided loyalties—and even today some have said that some (American) Jews have a greater loyalty to Israel than they do to the U.S., where they live. What do you think of this?
How important is memory? Do you think it’s important to remember tragic occurrences and integrate them into one’s consciousness; or better to forget? Do you think a sense of the tragic enriches or diminishes life?
How important is the history of Jewish suffering? Is this more important than Jewish survival and prosperity?
Is the Holocaust, in your mind, a uniquely Jewish tragedy, or a human tragedy? What are some of the ways the Holocaust has been treated in literature, film, art, music?
What’s wrong with these questions? What are they leaving out?
What is the value of social criticism and how can this be progressively extended to ethnic and religious identity?
Are humor and satire as helpful as piety when dealing with serious issues? Do you think of most instances of Jewish humor as friendly, liberating, scathing, or self-hating?
Do you think contemporary Jews are using their history and social position to advance progressive social change?
Marx and Freud are only two of the thinkers who are Jewish and contributed a great deal to twentieth-century thinking and culture (without explicitly invoking their own Jewish identity, i.e.. they contributed as thinkers, not Jewish thinkers). Is this a model for others? Or a failure? What, at this point, is the legacy of Marx and Freud (how much is still valuable)?
What are your questions about Jewish culture, history, and identity?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of group identity?
How do we assess the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians?
Where do we go from here?
Notes on Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author
By Daniel Garrett, 6/9/92
In literature, which I define: as lasting, meaningful writing, I expect to find eloquent though not necessarily elaborate language, language that speaks clearly, insightfully, and beautifully of human ideas, feelings, and actions. All these values are subjective. I expect in literature situations that embody recognizable social and symbolic encounters, and characters that represent, for me, ideal types: self-knowing people trying to achieve lives, love, creativity, and intellectual and social purpose. I expect from literature a sense of complexity and possibility. I like works which refer subtly or directly to other works. Regarding theater, I’ve probably read more plays, and certainly read more about plays, than have actually attended them. I wonder if I’ve gone to even twenty plays in the last ten years, and most of those have been off-Broadway experimental things, and the Broadway plays have been black musicals. From written plays, I expect what I expect from all literature; from performed plays I expect dynamic actors, smart and sensitive and witty dialog and something that makes the play-going experience an experience, complete in itself.
Pirandello’s play—about a theater troupe invaded by characters abandoned by their author—is a play which highlights our expectations regarding literature and reality, their similarities and differences. It is a play about itself. A play about the disintegration of family; moral dilemma; hypocrisy; the dangerous limits of love; the importance of the inner life and its self-respect and the necessity of its public articulation; and (it is about) philosophy. The father’s early comparison of life and the theater (p. 216) name what the substance of the play is: “Life is full of infinite absurdities which, strangely enough, do not even need to appear plausible, since they are true…I say to reverse the ordinary process may well be considered a madness: that is, to create credible situations, in order that they may appear true.” The play gives us some of the absurdities of life, and consciousness of them, though it’s a consciousness disputed within the play by the theater troupe and even one of the characters, the daughter (p. 230) when she says, “Oh, all these intellectual complications make me sick, disgust me—all this philosophy that uncovers the beast in man, and then seeks to save him, excuse him.” The father asserts that (p. 231) “The drama lies all in this—in the conscience that I have, that each one of us has…” and (p. 267) “I feel what I think; and I seem to be philosophizing only for those who do not think what they feel, because they blind themselves with their own sentiment.”
I like the play tremendously, as it presents a great many things which interest me in a direct, philosophical way which pleases me, so I am thoroughly engaged, but it is hard for me to step back and be critical in a way which might point out the play’s shortcomings. Is the play too intellectual? (Not for me.) Are its explicit ideas merely the ones we take for granted when viewing more ordinary theater; and does this make the play more or less profound? (Yes, many of the ideas are the ones we take for granted, our unthought ideas, our assumptions, and Pirandello’s bringing them to consciousness makes the play more profound to me.) Who will this kind of theater appeal to—those already initiated, or a general audience? (Those already initiated, and possibly a general audience once it is in the theater.) Can this kind of theater become ordinary; and if it does, what are we likely to be then? (I don’t know.) An added note about the play’s importance: “Alienated labor” is a paradigmatic fact of capitalism, the situation in which we are hired for our (ability to) work, with our subjectivity becoming alienated. This situation is reproduced and extended in other social (and institutional) situations in which our consciousness is made irrelevant—a thing apart—so much so that consciousness itself can seem unnatural. The task then is the integration of consciousness in our living, in our work, in our art (or acceptance of this alienation). Although some degree of objectivity may be necessary for any society, capitalism seems to insist on alienation—or so it seems to me. Pirandello integrates consciousness and experience.
Notes on John Stuart Mill
By Daniel Garrett, 11/11/92
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), author of On Liberty, is interesting to me for different reasons. One, I think this, probably his most famous work, is a very logical, sensitive, and well-written document. Two, he is obsessed with a subject—or a complex of subjects—which I too find fascinating: roughly put, they are individuality, democracy, morality, power, knowledge, public opinion, and they seem to embody what we mean when we discuss the situation of modern men. Three, he had a long, passionate, and intellectual relationship with a woman which seemed mutually respectful, mutually beneficial—a lived ideal.
I think that I first read On Liberty in college, and re-read it sometime after, probably a few years after. For this session of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group, I only read the recommended chapter on the authority of society over the individual—which deals with, primarily it seems to me, the limits of public opinion as a social or legitimate (legal) power regarding individual action. When I first read this book, it was with great excitement as I felt Mill said so many important things so clearly. Recently, when reading from this work, I read it with a quiet contentment—as I have grown into these ideas. They are still worth quoting:
“Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter.”
“We have a right, also, in various ways, to act upon our unfavorable opinion of anyone, not to the oppression of his individuality, but in the exercise of ours. We are not bound, for example, to seek his society; we have a right to avoid it (though not to parade the avoidance), for we have a right to choose the society most acceptable to us.”
“The existing generation is master both of the training and the entire circumstances of the generation to come; it cannot indeed make them perfectly wise and good, because it is itself so lamentably deficient in goodness and wisdom; and its best efforts are not always, in individual cases, its most successful ones; but it is perfectly well able to make the rising generation, as a whole, as good as, and a little better than, itself.”
“…I am not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilized.”
One copies those words down feeling their truth, their utter rightness. One sees too that Mill’s words themselves embody the intelligence and morality he himself values. It’s a great thing when someone who hopes to better the world is himself better(ed) by those intentions. Through the use of easily discernible logic, and specific examples, Mill supports his very good ideas on individuality and society.
Two things I think of when contemplating the limits of society on individual action are drug use and education. Drug use is something which occurs, often, either in private when one is alone, or in socially sanctioned situations like bars or house parties. While we cannot, it seems, legislate against people using drugs in a way that might be harmful to themselves, we can legislate against their using drugs in ways that might be harmful to society, such as when a drug user is caught driving. I wonder about the possible wider dissemination of information on the negative effects of drug use, especially regarding the physical, mental, and moral effects on individuals and communities—which strikes me as being a valuable social goal. The individual could still make a choice about receiving the information and changing his personal habits, though public opinion against drug use would likely increase.
Education, which we value in general, involves “knowledge,” “skills,” and “values,” and what these mean are very subjective, even though schools are established to convey them with the full assumption that their meanings are clear. Education itself conditions values and behavior. For me, an important question is how to broaden the educational experience so that diverse things—ideas, cultures, ways of living—are discussed. However, to implement this is to assume authority and set precedent. Radical ideology has been taught in places like Russia and China—with the result that many students are alienated from it, not only because they don’t see those ideas practiced in their own society, but because the official word is always boring. This is a reason why it’s important to present information as being part of a world of differing perspectives.
Mill’s work is obviously as relevant today as it was when he wrote it.
This is a summary of remarks by Curt Bertschi, not the entire text, for the Cultural Politics Discussion Group, 11 November 1992.
John Stuart Mill: “If civilization has got the better of barbarism when barbarism had the world to itself, it is too much to profess to be afraid lest barbarism, after having been fairly got under, should revive and conquer civilization. A civilization that can thus succumb to its vanquished enemy, must first have become so degenerate, that neither its appointed priests and teachers, nor anybody else, has the capacity, or will take the trouble, to stand up for it.”
Curt began his commentary with, “Mill makes this claim near the end of his chapter ‘Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual’ in On Liberty. It seems to me that this is particularly important to his argument, and contemporary debates, about the limits of the state’s encroachment into personal liberty. Often the position of those seeking further restraint on civil liberties, especially as they pertain to cultural matters, is exactly what Mill describes; the barbarians are indeed at the gates. The survival of Western Civilization is at stake and if we don’t defend it by enacting whatever measures are deemed adequate, all will be lost to the heathens. Or some such nonsense.”
Curt went on to say, “Mill’s analysis is just as alive in our own era as it was in his mid-nineteenth century and its application can be seen in some of the livelier contemporary social conflicts. I am thinking, in particular, of the brouhaha over political correctness and its implied ‘culture war’ and the resurgent prominence of abortion as one of the primary political issues.”
Curt noted the continuing interest and importance of the questions Mill raises in his book, especially regarding the need for the state to withdraw from matters of personal morality and individual liberty, though Curt remarked that Mill “doesn’t, however, let us know just where the state’s authority should be used and even extended.” Curt wrote, “Mill is deeply rooted in high-capitalism’s laissez-faire possessive individualism. And this is my biggest problem with him. Libertarians everywhere believe that the state should have a very small role in the everyday lives of individuals and society. And while this is an excellent counter to those who would use the state’s authority to restrict cultural expression it doesn’t wash when coming to address questions of justice and equality.” Curt also wrote that the distinctions between liberty and freedom, and the nature of liberty and its roots, were areas that he thought could be further clarified, and he closed with, “Mill rejects the notion of a social contract, but what does he posit in its stead?”
III. A Simple Conclusion
The strength of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group throughout its history has been the wide, deep range of its subjects, and the relaxed thoughtful openness of participants. Discourse is significant in itself. However, it’s unfortunate that the enthusiasm for the cultural and political never expanded to include publishing our own material or taking on any continuing social or political project (though some of us have been involved in publishing and political activities away from the group).
For myself, I have utilized the group to renew my own commitment to knowledge, discourse, friendship, and social responsibility.
I think the group is a model of human interaction and exploration for each of its participants—and it can be for others.
Daniel Garrett, January 1993
“Philosophy is a walk on the slippery rocks.”
—Edie Brickell and New Bohemians (“What I Am”)
I cannot account for anyone’s consciousness or commitments but my own. The Cultural Politics Discussion Group had more sessions after the above documentary essay was assembled, but the group did cease to meet in December 1993. I enjoyed it. I have sometimes found myself in disappointing situations that inspired despair, desperate to affirm something or someone so that the situation would not feel like a failure, and I ended offering acknowledgements and dedications to the best of a bad lot (or even the worst of a bad lot): there is no need to do that here. One of the things that I liked about the Cultural Politics Discussion Group was that the number and kind of participants was not limited by biological or social identity, nor by the usual intellectual prejudices—and most of the participants appreciated that fact. I cannot say that I knew each participant well or each knew me well, but it seems rare to me now, more than twelve years after the end of the regular discussions, for a man to have an experience that contains so much of what he wants, but that, obviously, was what the group meant to me. I was grateful for the group in 1989, in 1993, and then in 1996 when I considered starting it again, and in 2000 when it was a more distant but still valued memory, and now when I think of it in 2006. Reading over the range of material covered—sometimes deeply, sometimes glancingly—the project seems wild in its ambition—I really wanted a place where I could think and talk about the world with others, and for a brief time, I had that.
I sometimes think my life story is the story of a reader; other times I think it is the story of a writer—and still other times I think it is the story of someone who watches, who sees things (such as nature, architecture, paintings, films). I began to read and write at an early age, and before I was eighteen enjoyed writers such as Woody Allen, Joan Didion, Ralph W. Emerson, John Steinbeck, Jean Toomer, Gore Vidal, and Richard Wright. In college I read poetry, plays, and prose of all kinds, loving Chekhov and Rilke and so many others, and I wrote for a college newspaper and participated in college writing workshops—and also I participated in a writing workshop called House of Poets in Harlem in the mid-1980s (I think it started in fall 1984), and took part in Kofi Natambu’s (East Village) St. Mark’s Poetry Project course in the late 1980s (about 1988), a course that involved writing and also consideration of modernist and postmodernist thinking, especially regarding African-Americans (a great pleasure for me). The Cultural Politics Discussion Group brought together a range of interests and possibilities (it was something I had wanted to do since the early 1980s—I think there had been a similar group at the New School for Social Research, though I did not participate in that). There have been groups that worked in and with thought, or in thought and deed, to create a utopic atmosphere—I think of Brook Farm and Black Mountain College. The 1841 Brook Farm experiment—affirming individuality, humanity, health, and spirituality—engaged American transcendentalists such as Emerson and it inspired Hawthorne to write his novel Blithedale Romance. The twentieth-century Black Mountain College was devoted to art, independent research, and experiments in teaching and living. Obviously, our project was not as vast, as lasting, or as significant: it did contain gestures in similar directions. There have been other utopic visions: Some of the eighteenth-century English Shakers—Quakers, known for shaking during religious servicesmoved to the northeastern United States, before moving west (they believed in the second coming of Christ, with one of its women believing she was the second coming); and the Shakers are known for their plain clothes, furniture, and music. The 19th-century German influenced the Iowa Amana society, of peaceful and pious religious orientation, was (and is) known for its hard work and furniture and natural products. There were American communes in the 1960s and 1970s, some of them made up of young people, some of economic and social radicals, and some of them made up of African-Americans. There are others, but Brook Farm and Black Mountain College are the ones, other than my own Cultural Politics Discussion Group, most in line with my intellectual interests.
The Cultural Politics Discussion Group met in 1993, and I wrote a short essay about it (June 1993). I clarified the name of the group: “Cultural—the arts, the way we live our lives, and the values embodied in art and in our actions; Politics—power sharing and power struggles regarding values and material resources, etc.; Discussion—talking over ideas and issues in an honest, organized way; Group—a collective, a community, a network of relationships with others.” I noted the contributions of various people—Curt, Jessica, Larry, Beth Broome, Michael Charney; and also noted the usually enthusiastic and respectful nature of our exchanges. I wrote that the group “is founded on the idea that there is valuable knowledge to be shared—old and new—and that we are each deserving of a listening.” However, the fall 1993 discussion series was announced with a subtitle “The Final Series?” I loved the project, but acknowledged the sometimes exhausting effort and the sometimes uncertain rewards, in terms of the diversity and frequency of others’ participation. The fall series included the reading of poetry and prose by participants such as Chris Homan and Amanda N. Gulla. Near the end of the fall series, I asked people to write about their response to the discussion group as part of an evaluation as to whether it should continue (I have on record two responses). John Azelvandre wrote, “The roundtable discussion of ideas is a wonderful way to learn and grow as thinkers, writers, and be-ings. As I see it, each person is a free interpretative agent who has something unique to say about any text, life experience or the world in general.” Jessica Ruskin wrote (in a multi-page letter), “On the whole, the group has provided a refreshing and stimulating forum for exchanging ideas, opinions, feelings, and writing. The group offered me a college class-like setting—the excitement of personal discovery, in-depth literary analysis, and the opportunity to learn from other people’s insights—without the stress of being judged, graded, tested, or confined…I’ve also enjoyed the level of diversity among discussion topics and attendees…On the down side, I was often disappointed by the inconsistent attendance of other group members.” The group’s last session was in December 1993.
Daniel Garrett, 2006