Event—Scholarly Seminars

Lisa Gilson, Bates College, Tom Arnold-Foster, University of Cambridge, and Emma Rodman, Princeton University


The Democratic Role of the Social Critic: Emerson, Activism, and Audience Agency, Lisa Gilson

This essay makes a distinction between the roles that activists and social critics play in democratic societies and defends the separate tasks of the social critic. Drawing on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings, I argue that social critics are better situated than activists to cultivate certain democratic capacities and to preserve their audience’s agency while doing so. In Emerson’s case, his concerns about his activist contemporaries led him to craft new ways of critically engaging the public. At the same time, as Emerson’s life also illustrates, critics qua critics are limited by their social positions and must abandon their role as critics in order to do activist work. Clarifying the scope of the social critic’s role in this way helps critics to draw on the benefits of their station and avoid overstepping its constraints, thereby allowing them to more effectively promote political reform.

Social Psychology and Democratic Politics in Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion. Tom Arnold-Foster

This paper explores the origins and development of a prominent text in the history of American political thought: Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922). By examining a range of archival sources and contemporary authors, and by engaging closely with the text and its contexts, the paper offers new perspectives on Lippmann’s core argument. Departing from interpretations that emphasize his epistemological claims about technocratic government, the paper shows how Lippmann developed a social psychology of opinion formation to try to explain how democratic politics happened under modern conditions.

Nella Larsen on the Politics of Alienation in America, Emma Rodman

From Marx to Fanon, the concept of alienation has served a diagnostic role for theorists: there is something wrong with the structures of political life to the extent that people are alienated from themselves, one another, or society. Yet theorists who read alienation as solely an effect of society's ills have largely missed how the experience of alienation can itself cause political phenomena. In this paper, I argue that we can get traction on this theoretical lacuna from an unexpected source: in the fiction of Harlem Renaissance thinker Nella Larsen. Larsen vividly depicts the lived experience of alienation in America, characterizing it as a form of unfreedom. Exceeding other theorists of alienation, Larsen also charts the political effects of American alienation, exploring the goals and projects which alienated individuals are likely to pursue. Responding to the pain and despair of their alienation, Larsen's work shows that these individuals are drawn either to an espousal of the conservatively ordered power relations of the past or to a retreat from political life.