Towner Fellows’ Lounge
This seminar has been postponed due to Covid-19.
Emerson on the Role of the Critic and Audience Agency, Lisa Gilson
Theorists of social criticism have long explored the interconnection between personal and social transformation. Yet the critic’s work to transform society can, at times, chafe against the audience’s development of their own critical capacities. This article uses the writings of the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson to better understand how this tension might arise and to offer a potential remedy. As Emerson interacted with a variety of Antebellum social reformers, I show, he came to see the relationship between critics and their audiences as fraught. In his view, these reformers not only failed to support what he called ethical self-education, but actively undermined it. I argue that Emerson developed his own practice of criticism in order to nurture his audiences’ self-education – first, by motivating them to take responsibility for their own critical development and, second, by allowing them to participate in his practice of criticism. Despite important limitations to his approach, I contend that Emerson’s critical adaptations remain relevant, as the aims of mobilizing protest movements and cultivating self-critique continue to stand in tension with one another today. Overall, Emerson’s writings both reveal what is valuable about self-initiated development and why this social-critical aim must be supplemented by others, using different modes of critique.