Morton Schoolman, Professor in the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the State University of New York at Albany, has published a new book that explores the idea of democratic enlightenment in the United States, and the way that we may want to consider both how to achieve this enlightenment and how we can be guided by our literary and philosophical traditions. Schoolman explains that we need to come to democratic enlightenment through a process of reconciliation, and that this concept of reconciliation is at the heart of the work by Walt Whitman and Theodore Adorno.
The centerpieces of A Democratic Enlightenment: The Reconciliation Image, Aesthetic Education, Possible Politics (Duke UP, 2020) are explications of how Whitman and Adorno each, separately, approach this need and capacity for reconciliation, and how they delineate it in their work, and finally, how it is vitally important to democracy. Schoolman’s reading of Whitman notes that this is what Whitman set out to do with his poetry, to teach or guide the capacity to reconcile identity, especially with all those who are different. Whitman’s work and his reflection on this need for reconciliation was written during the period of Reconstruction, and he saw the need and the means to provide a path towards healing America’s differences through the democratic media of his time, poetry. Theodore Adorno is pursuing a parallel concept in his work, examining modern artwork as the fulcrum for reconciliation, explaining that these images, while they may be static in some form, are, in fact, images in motion—all visual works of art are in motion. Thus, both Adorno and Whitman provide Schoolman with an aesthetic space and definition for the place where democratic reconciliation can and does occur. But Schoolman builds on the foundation provided by these two theorists, himself constructing the place where he thinks it is most likely that citizens will experience and engage with this idea of reconciliation, especially around those who have been othered or prevented from inclusion by American politics and culture. Schoolman centers this space in film, in part because films are accessible by so much of the populace, and because they provide the aesthetic images, not only the narrative framework, to confront and engage democratic reconciliation. A Democratic Enlightenment: The Reconciliation Image, Aesthetic Education, Possible Politics is a fascinating and complex exploration of how aesthetic education has an important role in democratic politics, especially in regard to the function of the reconciliation image as a dynamic component of that education.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet to @gorenlj.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.