Monday, November 30, 2009

Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens

The University of Minnesota Press has collaborated with International Arts & Artists to distribute Wendy A. Grossman's Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens, which features more than 70 photographs by the American artist and uncovers a virtually unknown chapter in his inventive activities.

An exhibit at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, is currently ongoing until Jan. 10, 2010. The exhibit features more than 100 photographs (many of which have never before been exhibited) and 20 African art objects. Here is a video preview of the exhibit:

Have you visited the exhibition? Please leave us a comment!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Author Q&A: On Gilles Deleuze, philosophical tools, and "Political Affect"

John Protevi, a professor of French studies at Louisiana State University, is author of Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic, which is the 7th installment in the University of Minnesota Press's Posthumanities series. In this book, Protevi applies his concept of political affect to show how unconscious emotional valuing shaped three events: the Columbine High School slayings, Hurricane Katrina, and the Terry Schiavo case. Here is a preview from a recent Q&A with the author. You can read the full text of his Q&A here.

Q: Political Affect looks at three case studies: the Terri Schiavo case, the Columbine High School shooting, and Hurricane Katrina. How did you decide on case studies as a method of doing philosophy?

A: I think case studies are an important and under-used tool in philosophy, as opposed to thought experiments. As generations of philosophy students know, one of the most famous of all philosophical concepts, Descartes’s cogito (“I think, therefore I am”), is arrived at via the thought experiment of the evil genius, who can fool you about the real reference of all your ideas. But he can’t fool you that you’re thinking while you’re being fooled. (You can be mistaken that you’re sitting at your computer, but you can’t be mistaken that you think you’re sitting at your computer.)

Contemporary philosophy has lots and lots of thought experiments: not just the brain-in-a-vat, which updates Descartes, but also zombies, teleportation, Twin Earth, Swampman, a whole bestiary and cartography of strange beings and places! But it has very few case studies. Why is that?

I think it’s because much of contemporary philosophy is still basically “essentialist.” That is, thought experiments aim at identifying the necessary and sufficient conditions for an essential distinction. With a thought experiment you try to find the core unshakeable idea that provides the criterion for membership of a thing in a category. What properties does this thing share with other things, but only those other things, in this category? Thought experiments want to end with a particular type of “eureka,” the classifying eureka: Aha, this fits here, and that fits there!

But with case studies we’re not after essential distinctions at the borders of categories. Instead, we’re trying to explore concrete situations and the “problems” they express. Here is where my reliance on the thought of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze comes in. Deleuze did not think in terms of essences that would slot things into categories, but thought that events are the points of intersection of “multiplicities.” That’s a technical term for Deleuze which roughly speaking means a field in which several processes meet to produce events, much as a crystal or a lightning bolt or a hurricane forms out of a field of multiple processes. In dealing with analogous multiplicities in our social fields we see that (1) any one move changes the conditions for future moves and that (2) no one solution exhausts the potentials for future creatively different solutions.

Now to express the sense of this irreducible complexity, Deleuze thought multiplicities formed “problematic” fields, and these Deleuzean problems, the problems of life, cannot be "solved" once and for all; they can only be dealt with. My friend James Williams uses this example of a problem: “should we raise the interest rate?” You can see how any one move here will change the condition for future moves and that no one move will ever exhaust the problem: we’ll still have to think what we should do with the interest rate, always – or at least until the economic system changes so drastically that other pressures produce other problems. A problem might cease to be a problem, but the world will always be problematic.

So using case studies we come to realize that concrete situations are “problematic” in this sense. The more we explore the Schiavo case, the Columbine case, the Katrina case, the more we realize that concrete situations are “crystallizations” of a problematic field, and that a change here or there, if it occurs at a critical point, might make all the difference in the world.

Q: What do you mean by 'critical point'?

A: Good question. The real issue at stake is that thought experiments looking at essences have a basically static image of the world. Things have properties, and our job is to find the essential distinctions that enable us to group them with other things with the same core set of properties.
But Deleuze thinks we need to look to the processes that produce things with properties. And those processes have “singularities” or turning points.

So what we’re doing with a case study is seeing what processes have come together to form this concrete situation and in so doing we find their singularities, those places where if things had been different, the process and hence the situation which is the product of those processes, would also have been different.

Q: But you use a thought experiment in your Schiavo chapter, don’t you?

Yes. At the end of the Schiavo chapter I propose a thought experiment: how would you want your loved ones to feel if you were in a PVS (Persistent Vegetative State)? I'm not asking what you would do for a loved one in a PVS, but what you would want them to do if you were in a PVS. The difference of this from a standard thought experiment is that it’s singularizing, not universalizing. I’m not asking what “someone” or “anyone” or “everyone” should or must do in an abstract situation of “a” PVS case. I’m asking readers to imagine their family members with all the intensity such a singular experience brings with it.

As points of contrast with some well-known thinkers on death, such a thought experiment would be not Heideggerian, for it does not concern the impact of the thought of your death on your actions; nor is it Levinasian, for it does not concern the effect the death of the other will have on you. The thought experiment will however (we would expect) knock you out of your habits of thought—the intensity and accuracy of the experience would "shock you to think" as you think about how your loved ones would feel. (Deleuze always thought it was somewhat unnatural, so to speak, for us to think: we prefer clichés. So you have to be shocked to think by an encounter, he would insist.) Such a shocking encounter would perform what Deleuze would call a “depersonalization.” It sounds paradoxical, but for him, the less you are a “person” in the sociological sense (that is, a person just like everyone else is a person), the more open you are to your singularity, your uniqueness. And it’s that unique position in the concrete situation, I claim, that grounds the “right to privacy” that’s such an issue in our political and legal institutions.

Q: Your emphasis on the concrete situation sounds like what analytic philosophers call “moral particularism.” Do you agree?

I do agree. Deleuze makes a distinction between “morality” as applying principles and “ethics” as navigating situations. I think this notion of navigating a concrete situation by trying to find its singularities matches quite well what my analytic colleagues call “moral sensitivity” and “moral particularism.”

Q: In general, how do you see your book in relation to the “divide” between analytic and continental philosophy?

A: I very consciously wrote the book trying to appeal to both analytic and continental philosophers. The division between these two “camps” is a very complicated historical situation, and I can’t really do justice to it here. I do have a series of posts on this topic on my blog.

Briefly, I don’t think you can come up with a conceptual distinction between analytic and continental philosophy. (I had better not think that, after all that stuff above on case studies and particular processes and singularities!) However, it’s clear that the terms “analytic” and “continental” philosophy have been used as labels for a certain sociological reality of citation and hiring networks. What that means is that neither side cites the authors or questions of the “other side” and that neither side hires the other side’s students, except perhaps as a token. I think this is a wretched state of affairs and has caused a lot of damage to the philosophy profession as a whole.

The key to getting out of it requires a little bit of give and take for both sides, a little professional respect, and a lot of work to find topics that can be approached by philosophers with different training. I think that the “embodied mind” school of cognitive science I deal with in Political Affect is a great candidate for bridge-building between analytic and continental philosophy. First, the authors in the embodied mind school (people like Hubert Dreyfus, Francisco Varela, Alva Noë, Evan Thompson, and many others) have always read the great phenomenologists (Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty), and every continental philosopher has studied them intensely. So that’s a point of intersection; what I try to do in Political Affect is to show how Deleuze can move the discussion along, supplementing the phenomenological approach with his “neo-materialist” approach. And secondly, the neuroscience and biology at the base of the “embodied mind” school is thoroughly “differential,” that is, has dispensed with any notion of a controlling center, either in the brain or the genome. And what more could a continental philosopher raised on a steady diet of Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze ask for than that?


This Q&A appears in its full form here.


John Protevi is professor of French studies at Louisiana State University. His other books include Political Physics: Deleuze, Derrida, and the Body Politic and Time and Exteriority: Aristotle, Heidegger, Derrida.

"Are you bored with both a social science that runs from complexity theory in neuroscience and biology and an interpretive approach that either brackets nature and bodies or reduces social communication to organic process? If so, Political Affect is the book for you. John Protevi not only draws Deleuze and complexity theory into fruitful conversations about affect, attractors and emergence, he carries the result into valuable explorations of recent events. A timely and compelling book."
—William E. Connolly, author of Capitalism and Christianity, American Style

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Vikings Reader Challenge!

So you think you know your Minnesota Vikings trivia? Then we have a challenge for you.

Armand Peterson, editor of The Vikings Reader, has compiled this quiz for those who dare to put their Vikings knowledge to the test.

E-mail your quiz results to by Monday, December 7th (subject line: The Vikings Reader Challenge), and your name will be entered in a drawing to win one of two $25 gift cards to the Minnesota Vikings Locker Room, the official team store. One entry per player, please. Winners will be notified via e-mail by Dec. 9th, 2009.

Let the games begin!

Mister Satan's Apprentice: A Preview

Adam Gussow, author of Mister Satan's Apprentice: A Blues Memoir, has created the first of a few planned video previews of his book. Here he reads a few passages from his book, splicing these with photos and, of course, the harmonica:

As he puts it: "This is a story about a white kid from the New York suburbs, wild at heart, who teams up with Sterling Magee on the streets of Harlem ... and makes it to the big time, or the semi-big time."

Friday, November 20, 2009

On the rise of the "birthers" and Tea Party movements

Dartmouth College has collaborated with Donald E. Pease, author of The New American Exceptionalism, on this video about the book and its notion of "state fantasy." He describes how recent events such as the "birthers" and Tea Party movements are "designed to take the basic elements of George W. Bush's war on terror and redescribe them as applicable to Barack Obama," and points out how President Obama can reclaim the public sphere.

Cafe Brenda will soon close

Minneapolis chef and longtime business owner Brenda Langton has announced plans to close Cafe Brenda, which opened in the Minneapolis Warehouse District in 1986.

Langton, who opened her first restaurant in St. Paul in 1978, said in today's Star Tribune:
"Everything has its time ... I'm having a great time moving into other arenas, and I just don't have time for it all," she said. One such project is a Spoonriver cookbook, being published by the University of Minnesota Press. Langton also serves as a senior fellow at the U's Center for Spirituality and Healing where she teaches a course on "Healthy Eating/Healthy Living."

Cafe Brenda will stay open for about two more weeks.

Fans of Cafe Brenda: You can find your favorite recipes by Langton in The Cafe Brenda Cookbook: Seafood and Vegetarian Cuisine, published by University of Minnesota Press.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Single Man: Readers' Forum

Dear readers,

Welcome to the discussion forum for Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man. With this forum, the University of Minnesota Press invites you to leave a comment and chat with other readers about all things A Single Man and Isherwood: Your favorite passages of the book; your thoughts on how the book and the film align; your reactions to UMP's Reading Group Guide discussion questions; and anything in between.

James J. Berg, editor of Isherwood on Writing and co-editor (with Chris Freeman) of Conversations with Christopher Isherwood and The Isherwood Century, has agreed to help jump-start discussion. Here are a few questions complementary to those found in the Reading Group Guide:

1: Isherwood called his novel "A Single Man." We know that George has lost his partner, Jim, in a car accident. But is that the only way in which George is "single"? How else does the title apply to the character?

2: The novel presents a day in the life of George. There are some famous examples of novels like this -- James Joyce's Ulysses and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. One common interpretation of this type of novel is that the main character is meant to be an Everyman (or Everywoman) that all readers identify with. In what ways can you identify with George? In what ways is this story one of everyday people, not just George, but Jim, Doris, Charlotte, etc.?

3: Edmund White, author of A Boy’s Own Story and The Married Man, called A Single Man “One of the first and best novels of the modern gay liberation movement.” One of the things that makes the novel significant is that George’s sexuality is never in question. It is not a problem for him to “deal with” -- it is simply a part of his life. How does this novel differ in its handling of George’s sexuality from other books that you’ve read? What do you think about the way the movie handles George’s sexuality? What surprises you about George as a gay man in the 1960s?

Here are some recent links that address the film-vs.-book controversy:
-The Times (London) interviews Isherwood's surviving partner, Don Bachardy, who had a hand in the making of the film.
-glbtq: Claude Summers addresses the film's specific departures from the novel.

Q&A with Thomas Lamarre: How does anime speak to the world?

This week's Q&A is with Thomas Lamarre, professor of East Asian studies, art history, and communications studies at McGill University and author of The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation (November 2009).

Q: How does anime speak to the world?

A: Former Prime Minister Asô Tarô’s appointment of the beloved manga and anime character Doraemon to the position of Anime Ambassador in March 2008 made it seem that anime (and manga) speak the language of diplomacy. Anime appeared to offer Japan a way to speak to the world persuasively and even authoritatively but softly, gently, diplomatically. Anime appears as ‘soft power.’ While there has been much criticism of Asô’s constant evocation of manga and anime at the level of national and international policy, it seems to me that Asô’s gesture does not only reflect his personal tastes and neoliberal opportunism (building on the widespread popularity of Japanese pop culture or the contents industry) but also tells us something about anime.

Q: What is it about anime that allows its characters to become ambassadors?

A: This is the sort of question that interested me in writing about Japanese animation. It seemed to me that there is something about anime that encourages characters to break the frame of the entertainment and to leap into action, not only as diplomat, but also as companion, mediator, co-worker. I became interested in animation as a force, as a material impetus. It seemed to me that we cannot really grapple with what’s going on with anime in contemporary culture and politics without some understanding of anime. And it seemed to me that, as point of departure, cinema afforded a fine contrast, because so much has been written on the dynamics of moving image in the context of cinema.

Discussions of film have tended to call attention to the connections between images, both connections between frames and connections across larger units (sequences and takes). Such connections have been understood technically (continuity editing, eye-line matches, montage, etc.) and immaterially or subjectively (suture). Yet animations commonly work with movement and image at a different level. Animations are, like films, moving images, and yet animation procedures have tended historically to gravitate toward connections within the image first, and then to sort out connections across images second.

There are many consequences of this tendency of animation, which I discuss in detail in my book, with particular emphasis on the consequences for thinking technology. One important consequence is the tendency, prevalent in those forms of limited animation loosely called anime, to work with a multi-layered or multiplanar image, to unmoor the character from its background, to loosen the ties between character and world, while channeling the force of the moving image into the character.

Seen in this way, anime effects such as Ambassador Doraemon are not so surprising. Nor is it surprising that even though the current Prime Minister of Japan Hatoyama Yukio has reneged on some of Asô’s anime-related policies, Hatoyama has nonetheless appeared in the magazine Otaku Eriito (Otaku Elite), and his vision of Japanese power in the region refers constantly to multi-layered networks, offering an anime-like information imaginary. There are powerful discourses at work here, such as that of Japan as the knowledge base for development in greater East Asia (see his address in Singapore, November 15, 2009). Yet, as the image of Hatoyama among otaku elite suggests, there is also a material impetus that comes into play, a force of the moving image that exceeds these discursive articulations, which announces a new set of critical possibilities for thinking about Japan and the world today. This is one site where new ethics and politics are arising today, outside the frame of government policy.

-Click for details about The Anime Machine, including its table of contents. You can also find out more about author Thomas Lamarre here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Brand-new A Single Man site is live!

Visit the University of Minnesota Press's newly launched site for Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man at You'll find a reading group guide, book and audio excerpts, a Christopher Isherwood biography, links to more Isherwood books and the official A Single Man movie trailer from The Weinstein Company.

Please note that an A Single Man Readers' Forum is forthcoming this week.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Single Man, classic Avon paperback edition

Longtime Christopher Isherwood fans might remember this cover, of a classic Avon paperback edition of A Single Man. A UMP editor received this photo today, and we just had to share it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Announcing: A Single Man movie tie-in edition

The University of Minnesota Press is pleased and excited to announce that, in collaboration with the Weinstein Company, it has launched a movie tie-in edition of Christopher Isherwood's best-known American novel, A Single Man. The publication coincides with the December 2009 release of the critically acclaimed film of the same name, directed by Tom Ford and starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore.

The book is now available in bookstores nationwide; you can also order it here. UMP has launched a new book website,, which includes reading group tools, excerpts (print and audio), lots of links, and other Isherwood information.

The film A Single Man opens in U.S. theaters on December 11 (limited) and December 25 (expansion). A Single Man, Ford's directorial debut, received rave reviews at its world premiere at the Venice Film Fest, earning an award for the best gay-themed film, and best actor for Colin Firth's lead performance.

For more information, please contact UMP publicist Heather Skinner at

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A second life after Vietnam

Once was enough.
After you make it through a tour of duty in Vietnam, the last thing you want to do is watch movies about it. Not that I haven't seen a few. Platoon wasn't bad — in terms of what it was like to battle mosquitoes if not the enemy. But I couldn't make it through We Were Soldiers. I just couldn't handle it.
A lot of veterans feel the same way, from what they tell me.
One of them is Len McLean. He finally got around to seeing Forrest Gump in 1998. He rented the video and watched it with his daughter. He was doing okay, he said, until he got to the part where Gary Sinise, as the wounded Lieutenant Dan Taylor, lights into Gump — who had saved his life.

Now, you listen to me. We all have a destiny. Nothin' just happens. It's all part of a plan. I should have died out there with my men. But now I'm nothin' but a goddamn cripple, a legless freak. Look. Look. Look at me! Do you see that? Do you know what it's like not to be able to use your legs?
Did you hear what I said? You cheated me! I had a destiny. I was supposed to die in the field with honor. That was my destiny and you cheated me out of it. Do you understand what I'm saying, Gump? This wasn't supposed to happen. Not to me. I had a destiny.
Look at me! What am I gonna do now?
What am I gonna do now?

McLean had never talked about the war, not really, not in any great detail. But now suddenly, there he was, telling his daughter about the Minnesota boy he had rescued — only to have him die at the 12th Evac Hospital in Cu Chi. The nineteen-year-old had lost an arm and a leg when the armored personnel carrier he was driving had hit an antitank mine. The force of the explosion had blown the engine half a football field away.
"I wonder how he would feel if he had lived," McLean said. "Would he thank me or hate me?"
"I think you're about to find out," his daughter told him the next morning.
Because there I was, on the front page of the Albuquerque Journal. The paper had done a big story on my reunion with my nurse, Kay Layman, who lives thirty minutes from McLean.
I had no idea the two were neighbors.
McLean had no idea I hadn't been dead for thirty years.

—Excerpt from Left for Dead: A Second Life after Vietnam, by Jon Hovde and Maureen Anderson. Hovde is a Vietnam veteran, and is WCCO's featured Veteran of the Month. He is a retired 3M executive and former president of the Minnesota School Boards Association. He is now a motivational speaker.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Historic Preservation and New York

Tomorrow night, on the heels of the anniversary of the original Pennsylvania Station's historic demolition (October 1963), Randall F. Mason, author of The Once and Future New York: Historic Preservation and the Modern City, will be giving a book talk at the Philadelphia Center for Architecture (1218 Arch Street, 6:00 PM).

Mason's book discusses how the demolition of Penn Station seems to have, in the popular imagination, given birth to New York City's historic preservation movement. Mason's book challenges several myths about historic preservation and documents its emergence in NY at the turn of the twentieth century. He focuses on three major projects: the restoration of City Hall Park, the ultimately failed attempt to save St. John's Chapel, and the construction of the Bronx River Parkway.

For more book information, check UMP's website (please note that our website is temporarily down. We apologize for this inconvenience). You can also check out Mason's interview with ROROTOKO and a review in the Englewood Review of Books. Further event info can be found here.

Related: Demolished! 11 Beautiful Train Stations That Fell To The Wrecking Ball from The Infrastructurist.

Monday, November 9, 2009

On NPR: Gay Life In Africa Met With Complexity

NPR's Michel Martin has interviewed Neville Hoad, associate professor of English at the University of Texas-Austin and author of African Intimacies: Race, Homosexuality, and Globalization, about homosexuality and African culture.

Says Martin:
We wanted to know more about how homosexuality is viewed throughout the continent of Africa, and we learned that in most African countries, homosexuality is a crime. One notable exception is South Africa, where discrimination against gays and lesbians has been prohibited in the constitution since 1996, and same-sex marriage has been legal since 2006. To find out more, we called Neville Hoad.

Listen to the story here.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Living Modena Loca!

Never Trust a Thin Cook--the video:

Click for more information about Never Trust a Thin Cook and Other Lessons from Italy's Culinary Capital, by Eric Dregni. You can also catch Dregni's interview with The Onion, the book's Heavy Table review, and more multimedia blog posts that feature this book (including a recent Minneapolis reading by Eric Dregni).

Books on race that also deserve "the treatment"

This week, The Root published a Top-10 list by John McWhorter on books on race that haven't received "the treatment" (Oprah, The New York Times, etc.), and that should be more widely read. Whorter writes:
And for every book on any subject that gets “the treatment,” there are a couple of others that get lost in the shuffle—and it’s not always because they aren’t equally worthy of attention. This is certainly true of race books.
Here are a few (among many) related UMP titles we recommend:

We Are All Moors: Ending Centuries of Crusades against Muslim and Other Minorities, by Anouar Majid. Argues that the roots of the current climate of xenophobia in America lies in the history of the conflict between Muslims and Christians in the U.S. and Europe. Majid places the figure of the Moor as a metaphor for all minority people on the margins of the political, cultural, and economic mainstream.

The New Nativism: Proposition 187 and the Debate over Immigration, by Robin Dale Jacobson. Examines the controversy and legacy of Proposition 187, California's ballot initiative seeking to deny social services to immigrants. Moving beyond inflammatory headlines and polarizing rhetoric, Jacobson reveals that it is not so much prejudice but the very act of defining race that lies at the center of modern American politics.

Jim Crow Nostalgia: Reconstructing Race in Bronzeville, by Michelle R. Boyd. Using two years of ethnographic research in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, Boyd examines how "blackness" is used by African-American community leaders in redevelopment efforts of the region and in prioritizing their interests in community conflicts. Boyd seeks to develop a framework for understanding the contemporary significance of blackness and its impact on politics. (2009 Best Book Award from the APSA Organized Section on Race, Ethnicity, and Politics)

Listen to the Lambs, by Johnny Otis, with foreword by George Lipsitz. In his foreword, Lipsitz illustrates connections between the lessons that could have been learned through Otis's account of the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles and the cost of that squandering evidenced in the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics, by Cedric Johnson. Exploring the major political and intellectual currents from the Black Power era to the present, Cedric Johnson reveals how black political life gradually conformed to liberal democratic capitalism and how the movement’s most radical aims -- the rejection of white aesthetic standards, redefinition of black identity, solidarity with the Third World, and anticapitalist revolution -- were gradually eclipsed by more moderate aspirations. (Winner of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists' W. E. B. Du Bois Book Award)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

2009 DAAD Book Prize of the GSA

Congratulations to Despina Stratigakos, whose book A Women's Berlin: Building the Modern City has been awarded the DAAD Book Prize of the German Studies Association. The prize is funded through the North American office of the German Academic Exchange Service and carries an award of $1,000.

Here's a mix of recent (and somewhat recent) articles and reviews on A Women's Berlin:

-Review in Times Higher Education.
-Rorotoko interviews Stratigakos.
-Review in German History by Kathleen James-Chakraborty.
-European Architectural History Network review.
-H-German review.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Reinvigorating Democracy: What "The People" Really Need

Today's post is by Dana D. Nelson, professor of English and American studies at Vanderbilt University and author of Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People (Minnesota 2008; paperback edition forthcoming in February 2010.

In the run-up to the first anniversary of President Barack Obama’s historic election, HBO is advertising a new documentary about that election. Titled By the People, the film promises to celebrate the democratic power of the people in the making of this event. Presumably, it aims to restore its viewers to the magical, lever-pull thrill of the moment, the extraordinary—if fleeting—sense of power his supporters felt on that night.

The power of the people in U.S. democracy, though, is a momentary agency indeed. While the documentary might work as a temporary tonic (and a rather disingenuous one at that—every president and other governmental represented is installed in office “by the people”), what many supporters of Obama have been experiencing since summer are painful reminders of their lack of agency in our political system. Both in terms of health care reform’s public option and the war in Afghanistan, many regular citizens have been left feeling as though they can’t use their democratic muscle to make a meaningful impact in Washington.

Take the public option. Throughout 2009, poll after poll has documented consistently robust public support for a government plan that will force private, for-profit health care into some cost accountability. By mid-summer it was clear that not only Republicans were aiming to stonewall and defeat the public option, but so too were the so-called Blue-dog Democrats. Public fury began to simmer, and then boil. Despite endless big-lobby-conciliating “middle-of-the road” maneuvers from the White House and promises by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi that the public option “was not necessary” for “real” reform, regular citizens kept protesting and working to achieve this change.

Pelosi announced the public option was off the table on September 10th, and swiftly citizens uncovered that she was accepting a big fund-raiser from UnitedHealth, a health insurance lobby. Soon after, Speaker Pelosi refused the fund-raiser and mandated a public option for the House bill.  All eyes turned to the Senate where it seemed clear there would be less will to oppose the health-care lobbies. But lo and behold, late in October, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced to the surprise of many that the Senate version would include a public option. This announcement was instantly celebrated—and rightfully so—as the triumph of the people, who kept pressing for the public option for months after the White House and Congressional leadership had seemingly caved to the lobbies.

And then almost immediately, Joe Lieberman, the former Democrat and now Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, announced that he would join the Republican filibuster. One “Independent” standing up manfully to defeat The People. The irony.

At least part of the irony is that all the people who voted for Obama were hoping he’d heroically achieve health reform on their behalf (thereby achieving singlehandedly the opposite of what Senator Lieberman threatens). But when they realized that the new President wasn’t going to deliver, they slowly and then energetically mobilized to gain the change they wanted to believe in. People working together began—with real heroism and totally against the political odds of Washington—achieving the change they’d “hoped” for.

And now, that tidal change is being threatened by the “representative” senatorial power of a disappointed executive office aspirant from Connecticut.

Obama is not doing a great job paying out on the many progressive promises he campaigned on. But one of the primary appeals of his campaign, to reinvigorate democracy by improving the people’s access to a more transparent democratic promise, caught with his supporters.  These promises in fact ignited energies that do not depend on what Obama does. In the run-up to his historic election, many of his supporters remembered that democracy depends on the daily aspirations and work of regular citizens. They remembered that they can’t depend on any political representative to deliver on their promises, and that moreover, they don’t have to passively wait four years for the next moment to exercise the “power of the people.” They remembered that citizen involvement may be frustrating but can also be deeply satisfying.

So will the people be placated by the HBO tribute to their “power” and then resign themselves to politics-as-usual—the kind where their interests are shut out in favor of corporate welfare? I doubt it. Will we get the health care reform we want now? I don’t know. But I do know more and more regular citizens have started figuring out ways to exercise pressure and action to make more insistent demands about they want than simply voting—and this new citizen activism will go a long way toward fulfilling at least some of the promises Obama made, regardless of whether our latest superhero President is able or willing to deliver on them.


Dana D. Nelson is a professor of English and American studies at Vanderbilt University, where she teaches classes in U.S. literature and history, and courses that connect activism, volunteering, and citizenship. She has published numerous books and essays on U.S. literature and the history of citizenship and democratic culture. She lives in Nashville and is involved locally with a program that helps incarcerated women develop strong decision-making skills and with an innovative activist group fighting homelessness in the area.

"Dana Nelson argues provocatively—and persuasively—that the mythological status accorded the presidency is drowning our democracy. The remedy will not come from Washington. It starts with people rediscovering—then reclaiming—their birthright as active citizens, restoring meaning to the sacred idea of self-government."
—William Greider of The Nation magazine, author of The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy