Online Edition: Fall 2004

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Emancipating Pragmatism

Michael Magee

University of Alabama Press ($27.50)

by Jefferson Hanson

Emancipating Pragmatism focuses most specifically on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ralph W. Ellison, Frank O'Hara, and Amiri Baraka, none of whom explicity define themselves as pragmatists. Nonetheless, Magee sees a definite link between their work and that of the avowed classic pragmatists John Dewey and William James.

Viewing the work of Emerson and Ellison as the foundation of a multi-cultural pragmatist strain in American literature, thinking, and music, this book is important reading for those interested in the relationship of African-American music and literature to pragmatism and experimental poetry. Each chapter of this book provides valuable and provocative insights into its specific subject matter.

Magee's key phrase throughout the book is "democratic symbolic action." He believes that it is a rhetorical tactic developed by Emerson for a "specifically American version of pragmatism." It entails manipulating cultural symbols—myths, documents, words—so as to expose and create the maximum difference between cultural symbols and the social structure which organizes actual behavior. The most important cultural tactic seems to be developing alternate vocabularies. In doing so, the inequities of the social structure become apparent and the society can move toward more liberty.

Magee traces the beginnings of pragmatism to the work of a reconsidered Ralph Waldo Emerson, one whose gradually heightening and more dedicated abolitionism in the course of the 1840s and 1850s caused him to develop trenchant critiques of the way writing, reading and politics are usually understood. The second chapter of the book, entitled "Emerson and the Collaborating Reader," shows convincingly how Emerson anticipated some post-structuralist ideas in his attempt to write essays that unseated him, the author, from a place of authority and into a discursive space with his readers. Emerson distinguished this type of "democratic reading and writing" from the South's "immemorial usage" of language, which was decidedly aristocratic. In support of this argument, Magee quotes Emerson as writing, "Books belong to the eyes that see them."

As he became more involved in abolitionism, Emerson came to see "that reading was taking place on an incredibly large scale." Magee argues that Emerson began to see much of the world, and especially political documents such as the Declaration of Independence and Constitution as open to "reading"—that is, to continuous reinterpretations. As history alters the context of our lives, we must discuss among ourselves how we will view history. Great texts become not the authority; rather, the authority, if the word can even be used, is in the very discursive process itself.

Emerson was not patronizing about African-Americans when it came to his abolitionist views, unlike most of his fellow white people in the movement. Emerson argued that the most articulate statement about abolition yet made was the determination to become free on the part of fugitive slaves. He recognized "the agency of those slaves in the battle for their own emancipation." Emerson also argued that the true American type was a Negro soldier in the trench with a rifle and a book he was reading. He would be a symbol of determination and ingenuity that flies in the face of racist dogma. In addition, he would be the first "American" reader because he would be coming fresh and new to the printed word on American soil, unlike those of European descent.

While I find Magee's take on Emerson convincing and refreshing, one claim I cannot accept is that Emerson's emphasis on "the contingency of language" is coterminus with the early Derrida's notion of the ad infinitum interplay of signification. Emerson's notion seems to be grounded specifically in contexts that include language, action, and social engagement and always begin in medius res. Derrida's differance is an abstract tool used to expose the slips, rough edges, and omissions necessary for a strictly philosophical argument to come into being. If Magee is accurate in claiming that Emerson is a pragmatist—and I think he is—then Emerson would be paying attention to life, not teasing out the seemingly marginalized but actually needed complexities of esoteric philosophical arguments.

The writer who further develops Emerson's pragmatism and his brand of symbolic democratic action is his namesake, Ralph W. Ellison. Magee first shows, again convincingly, Ellison's debt to Emersonian thinking. Ellison's largest debt, ironically, is to replace his middle name with an initial. By doing so he erases Emerson and initializes his own writerly trajectory, and this is precisely what Emerson wanted younger writers to do: not to set him up as a monument for posterity, but someone who provided a group of fluid cultural moves, some of which will be useful to younger writers.

Magee then goes through a "genealogy of those characters in Invisible Man who signify on Emerson." Early in the novel, the white trustee, Norton, plus the black leaders at the college—the Founder, Bledsoe, Homer Barbee—all try to control language, an act that is as tyrannical as it is impossible. Sadly, their rhetorical abilities are strong enough to prevent Invisible Man from seeing through them until well into the book. Magee argues that the vets that Norton and Invisible Man encounter at the Golden Day saloon signify on "both Emerson and African-American aesthetic traditions," seeing them "as a dialogic continuum functioning to expand democracy." Rinehart's multiple identities and Clifton's playing with the sambo doll initially confuse Invisible Man, but by the end of the book he comes to see their masks—Rinehart's multiple identities on the one hand and Clifton as the puppeteer on the other—as ways of responding to and challenging symbolic economy.

In the final chapter, "Tribes of New York: O'Hara, Baraka, and the Poetics of the 5-Spot," Magee discusses the poetry that was written in the milieu of the jazz being played at the 5-Spot in Greenwich Village in the late '50's and early '60's. John Dewey's book Art as Experience was a key work for most of the writers involved in the context. Dewey emphasizes that a poem not left in an opaque sphere but "grounded in events and doing is endlessly significant; it is set in unanticipated motion as a process that is doing something for the poet and his readers." Magee focuses on O'Hara's "Personism" non-manifesto and his poem "The Day Lady Died." The pragmatic elements in "Personism" are obvious. In the famous sentences that read, "You just go on nerve. If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don't turn around and shout, 'Give it up! I was a track star at Mineola Prep.'" His point is, of course, that poetry emerges from the tensions and contingencies of the moment, usually one involving a sense of both readers and the writers.

One of the contingencies on a national scale at the time was civil rights. By choosing to work with African-American jazz structures in their poetry, O'Hara, Creeley, and Baraka were simultaneously making a long over-due argument for the importance of African-Americans and African-American culture to American life. Magee makes some nuanced distinctions about O'Hara's relationship to jazz. He feels that he was leery of the jazz-poetry events so popular in the late '50s and early '60s, finding them "embarrassing." Magee argues that this notion of "embarrassment" stems from the way the beats were romanticizing "The Negro" and "Jazz" rather than responding to people and music. If jazz was treated as an object "fixed in its regal aloofness," it would be objectified and never addressed as art. In "The Day Lady Died," Magee believes O'Hara has achieved the necessary balance by treating Billie Holiday's death as one of a number of occurrences during the course of the day.

One of O'Hara's closest associates during this period was Amiri Baraka. Magee discusses how Baraka shows that Ornette Coleman's so-called free jazz "is democracy in action." This quotation is intriguingly close to how Ralph Ellison, generally considered a foe of Baraka, defines jazz: the jazz band puts democracy into action. Magee argues that for "democracy" we could substitute "pragmatism." And, each in his own way—Ellison, the avowed integrationist, and Baraka, the budding black nationalist—were pragmatists.

This is a fine book that has a lot to teach us about Emerson, Ellison, O'Hara, and Baraka, and their relationship to pragmatism and jazz music. The individual chapters, when taken alone, are superb. But the overarching argument left me unconvinced. Early on Magee quotes Emerson as writing "Slavery['s proponents] alone [are] inventive and aggressive. Slavery reads the constitution with a very shrewd and daring and innovating eye." Later in the book Magee quotes William James as arguing that "Truth happens to an idea." When put in the context of his famous essay "The Will to Believe" it becomes apparent that James is discussing the way will, determination, and confidence can create a true fact: if you don't like the way things are, work to change them, thereby creating new facts and new truths.

If we compare this Jamesian quotation to the way proponents of slavery read the constitution more forcefully than the abolitionists, we must ask, on Magee's own principles, if the conservatives are using pragmatic tools. I see no reason to believe otherwise. In his book Magee often assumes that pragmatists are progressive, and at one point he claims that he is discussing a "version of pragamatism," but he never distinguishes his version from the others. Why can't there be a conservative pragmatism? Magee provides no logical step between the rhetoric of "democratic symbolic action" and specifically progressive concerns.

Pragmatism is neither a good philosophical method nor a bad one. As William James points out, it is like the hallway in a hotel that links other ideologies: it is a tool. What is good or bad is the end toward which the tool is directed and the process of realizing this end. The belief that truth can be constructed is deep and abiding in America. We all buy into it to some degree or other. It has, in part, produced for us the wonderful intellectual and artistic tradition that Magee points out so well. It has also given us such innovators as Henry Ford. And many pragmatists do not believe in income equality at all; they see life as a pragmatic competition in which those winning out get the best prizes.

While all the figures that Magee discusses are worthy of sustained study, perhaps we could also emphasize other aspects of culture in America. Could a better appreciation for the pessimistic, the tragic, a better feel for what overweening pride, ambition, and heedlessness can do, create important "symbolic action"? Developing new vocabularies is not good enough. Vocabularies in the cultural realm can only impact a small portion of the social structure, namely, the linguistic. In addition to vocabulary we need a new drama, in all senses of the word, with new characterization and plot techniques, that will shake our beliefs in ourselves, and keep us and others from more harm.

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Fall 2004 Table of Contents