Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sustainability Unbound (2)

         The first presentation at the “Sustainability Unbound” symposium, on March 21, offered a perspective from political philosophy. This was a welcome change as it proceeded from a set of assumptions concerning sustainability that I had not been paying much attention to.

         In asking how might a sustainable world be brought about, Melissa Lane, a professor of politics from Princeton, did not concern herself with diminishing natural resources, limits to growth, diversity, interconnectedness, management, social engineering, or stewardship. Instead, as one would expect, she focused on  how citizens could effect a sustainable world through political action. In her discipline of political science, this is a problem of individual agency. Why do people become political actors? Why do they not? A major obstacle to democratic political participation and action is that citizens do not think that they can make a difference. The “rational choice theory” that dominated political science in the previous century posited that under those conditions the sensible choice was not to waste one’s time in political participation. Citizens need a reason to participate, despite ignorance of how others may act, and despite the possibility that their actions may not make a difference. Rejecting rational choice theory, Lane proposed that citizens act based on who they think they are, not how they think others will behave. In short, the reasons for political participation come from one’s conception of one’s self. Lane went on to develop what she called a theory of “exemplarity” based on political action arising from self-conception. The exemplary self is a politically active agent who sets an example for others. She mentioned Gandhi and Emerson as exemplars. Although I have some reservations about Emerson here, Gandhi as exemplar makes perfect sense to me, as would Martin Luther King, Jr., and many other leaders.

         Until I heard Lane, I hadn’t been thinking about music and sustainability in terms of political action, but in terms of cultural policy instead. To be sure, the cultural policy I have in mind involves community partnerships, which is a form of bottom-up political action; but Lane’s talk was cast in more traditional terms, with political participation, public discussion and the vote as cornerstones. No cultural policy would have staying power without general public assent. The multicultural ideology that underlay the diversity initiatives in traditional and folk arts presentations in the US beginning in the 1960s will not endure if the US continues its movement—led by the Supreme Court, at the moment—against cultural equity and diversity. This conservative turn may be seen as the result of a concerted political effort among the Right since the Reagan era, with the Tea Party and its influence on the current Congressional makeup, particularly in the House, the latest manifestation. One may ask who are the exemplars for this movement?

         Certainly not Gandhi or Emerson. Reagan is one, to be sure; but perhaps the chief exemplars are the conservatives among the nation’s founders—the Federalists. Yet, for the Tea Party, all the founders are exemplars, insofar as they look to the American Constitution for guidance and truth. The parallels with biblical fundamentalists are striking: the Constitution becomes the Bible. Here exemplarity may become a little more complicated, insofar as it’s tied not only to particular founders (Washington, Hamilton, Franklin, Madison, and so on) but to a strict construction of a written document. The Constitution itself becomes an exemplar and its spirit lives within today's conservative political actor. In this way a particular construction of a document helps to construct a conservative self whose political action is based not on rational choice but on self-conception.

         I think it’s important to understand that the self which acts is not the Emersonian “aboriginal self” but, rather, an ideologically constructed one. Lane had pointed to Emerson an exemplar. For the Concord Transcendentalists, surely, he was, though when I think of political action among his cohort I think of Thoreau willingly going to jail for his beliefs and writing his influential essay on non-violent resistance, "Civil Disobedience." Emerson was a writer and lecturer, not a political actor; he believed in civil society, whereas Thoreau did not. Lane considered Emerson an exemplar in an additional sense, for he famously wrote about the self in his essay "Self-Reliance," a landmark in American intellectual thought; and self-reliance is key to Lane's explanation of political action based not on "rational choice" but on an individual's self-conception.

          Here, as I told Lane afterward when we had an opportunity to discuss her presentation, I wished she had not depended on Emerson's philosophy. His radical conclusions about one’s best and original self as an innocent, instinctive, uncorrupted (by civilization) single entity, do not (in my view, at least) provide a good foundation for Lane's exemplarity theory. Nor, of course, would a Freudian self be helpful here. Modern conceptions stress the social and ideological construction of the self, along with multiple, layered, and situational identities within a single human being. In that regard, Lewis Hyde (another one of the presenters at this symposium) had much to say about a “collective self,” quite in contrast to Emerson’s concept of individual self-reliance, and more in keeping with my own notions of the way traditions “text” the self. (See Jeff Todd Titon, “Text,” in Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture, ed. Burt Feintuch [University of Illinois Press, 2003]). It occurs to me now to ask whether political scientists posit a "political self" much as economists construct an ideal type of "economic man." This political self would be an independent agent, a political actor, whether choosing not to act (as a result of rational choice theory) or choosing to act based on a conception of who one is. If the "sustainability unbound" conversation continues as we all hope it will, this may be one of the questions discussed.

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