Flattering the Demos: Fiction and Democratic Education

HomeArticlesFlattering the Demos: Fiction and Democratic Education

Storytelling is universal; a constitutive, definitive part of human nature.[1] We imagine our earliest ancestors sitting around the fire telling tales of heroic adventures and otherworldly interventions. Examples of our earliest extant written texts are epic poems likely derived from oral storytelling. We become fascinated by stories that happened long ago or far away as children. Until the development of rational argumentation in philosophy and much later in modern empirical science, poetry was primary means of educating the community. Even after the development of philosophy and science, human beings still depend on stories for the purposes of raising children and forming shared commitments and a sense of belonging.[2] Yet, over the last several decades, there has been increasing pressure to steer students away from studying literature and other forms of narrative storytelling toward STEM-related (science, technology, engineering, and medicine) disciplines. Several states have gone as far as to debate terminating funding for literature programs as their graduates are considered less competitive on the job-market and earn comparatively less than STEM graduates. This trend continues, despite the growing concern from employers that current graduates lack the so-called “soft” skills, such as critical and creative thinking, complex problem solving, and interpersonal management, that are vital in any profession.

Ironically, the focus on developing these “soft skills” has long been associated with targeted liberal arts and humanities curricula. The broader purpose of literature and liberal arts education was not simply to develop job-training skills, but to enrich democratic debate by fostering thoughtful and informed democratic citizens. A free society is one in which persuasion is preferred to compulsion in public affairs; but that requires a population that is able to think imaginatively and exercise practical judgment in persuading and being persuaded. Persuasion and deliberation regarding the just and the beneficial alike require modes of communication that do not rely on scientific proofs or technological implements. The real question at the heart of this debate is what happens to a democracy when a society no longer values or fosters a literary education? What is it that literary sources, such as found contemporary in novels, films, and television series, contribute to a democratic education?

Although this question is not new and was at the heart of the “Great Books” debate, the current context has sharpened the focus on the importance of literature and other forms of storytelling for a democratic education. Does the decline in emphasis on literature and other forms of storytelling contribute to escalation of incivility in the age of social media? Does it diminish the ability of citizens to distinguish and evaluate sources of political information amid accusations that the news is fake? Such questions are particularly salient for political science, a discipline which straddles the boundaries between the humanities and social sciences. While many theorists in the history of political thought, such as evidenced by Hegel’s famous analysis of Sophocles’ Antigone, do take seriously the political thought found in literary sources,[3] it is far more common for political theorists to prioritize rational argumentation, such as is found in philosophical treatises.[4] Thus, similar to the epistemology of the positivist methods found in the empirical social sciences, the theoretical understanding of politics has tended toward the rationalistic.[5]

This philosophic rationalism can be traced all the way back to a literal interpretation of Plato’s critique of poetry, presented in the Republic and elsewhere. Plato entertained the claim that poets do not possess any real knowledge; rather, they only compose on account of divine inspiration.[6] Furthermore, poetry contained no real truth and was corruptive of the soul. Hence, Plato’s reference to an “ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry” is interpreted to create a dichotomous account of the truth regarding the human condition, making reason and imagination into rivals or antagonists. In modern times we are familiar with how this attitude manifests itself in the supposed necessity to choose between reason or faith. From the perspective of heightened rationalism, poetry and other forms of narrative, at best, possess no real knowledge and lack any real benefit for politics or for a life well-lived. At their worst, they are only manipulative and fraudulent means by which those who prove superior at abusing speech acquire and secure greater power with which to dupe and abuse their inferiors.

Despite the dominance of rationalistic approaches in political theory, the “ancient quarrel” has always remained an open dispute. From the beginning of political theory, it was not clear that Plato’s critique of the poets is really a clear or categorical rejection of poetry. Writing in the dialogue form, Plato composes narratives between Socrates and his interlocutors that are not “without imagination,” reflecting the very kind of poetry Socrates suggests should be banned from the city.[7] The very fact that Plato challenged the poets is itself an indication of how seriously he took the poets as “educators of Greece.” Adding to this debate, Aristotle suggests that one main role of poetry is as a kind of “cathartic” emotional release, he similarly identified poetry, rather than history, as philosophy’s principal competition in the Poetics.[8] In perhaps the most profound example, the Epicurean Lucretius’ beautiful poem On the Nature of Things proposes among its many scientific ideas a well-developed version of a theory of atoms.[9] In this poem, Lucretius reminds us that, similar to doctors who disguise bitter medicine with honey to ensure bodily health, poetry sweetens with words that allow our minds to learn and understand the complexity of nature, including human nature, and utility of all things. As a final philosophical example, centuries later in The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu further recognized that popular fiction best reveals the morality that prevails among the masses: “in the theaters: one is sure to please people by the feelings that morality professes, and one is sure to offend them by those that it disapproves.”[10]

Thus, poetry and other forms of narrative storytelling have long offered an alternative or complementary epistemological approach to strict rationalism in understanding the human being within his or her socio-political context. The various contemporary (non-philosophic) humanities disciplines, such as classics, literary studies, art history, and theological studies, continue to recognize the pedagogical importance of narrative storytelling.[11] Although these disciplines have no agreed-upon literary theory and employ multiple and diverse approaches, they tend to be united by a focus on the exegesis or interpretation of narration. Literature and other forms of language-based art are understood, for the most part, by contemporary literary studies as products of cultural conventions that both reinforce and challenge community norms. In addition, since storytelling is necessarily creative and imaginative, storytelling is a corrective to a “monoscopic vision” that subjects knowledge to a strict logical and empirical categorization and generalization; instead, narrative of all forms and genres can explore and reflect the tensions, conflicts, and paradoxes of the fluidity of human social and political experience.[12] Hence, from the literary perspective, it is through stories that human beings perform thought experiments such as imagining a world where peasants become kings or young girls lead revolutions. In other words, rather than presenting logical arguments, storytelling is a “questioning medium” that leads people to wonder what might be important to think about, rather than simply telling people what to think.[13] Whereas the poetical, especially when it takes the form of revelation, is often caricatured as if it foreclosed thinking by providing prefabricated answers to which one is supposedly obliged to simply submit, ironically, in a technologically-oriented age, strict logic and the scientific method might be depicted more accurately as endeavoring to determine definitive answers to what might be done, without an openness for negotiation.

Support for the relevance and importance of storytelling as an epistemological medium comes from several other different approaches. In another example of a challenge to dominant rationalism, the relevance of a storytelling epistemology has also been stressed by contemporary indigenous scholars who argue for the importance of storytelling as an alternative or complementary methodology to rational empiricism.[14] Instead of insisting on generalizability as a necessary criterion for knowledge or learning, indigenous storytelling is understood as embedded in relationality and recognized as the primary means for transmitting knowledge. Thus, rather than dismissing stories as merely subjective and personal (and, hence, not a form of knowledge), this perspective recognizes the multifaceted ways in which narrative is central as both a method and a means to communicate meaning. In the indigenous context, there is a relationship between storytelling and research, as well as researcher and audience. Storytelling also exposes and explores the purpose or reasons behind research. Stories are, as Kovach notes, “the relational glue in a socially interdependent knowledge system.”[15]

From a completely different point of view, support for the crucial role of narrative is actually found within an empirical scientific perspective. The growing approach of literary Darwinism draws from a diversity of disciplines from traditional humanism to cognitive poetics and evolutionary psychology.[16] Rejecting the view that storytelling should be understood from a purely culturalist approach or as a product of culturally-specific norms, literary Darwinism uses the scientific method as a way to understand literature and other forms of narrative (as well as the other arts) as adaptive functions of evolved human nature. Although there is no consensus as to what evolutionary functions human storytelling might perform, one perspective suggests that it developed as one way human beings learned to think about and solve the challenges of living together in complex communities. Regardless of the form that any particular political regime takes, fictional narratives are essential to all human communities because shared stories help forge a common identity, teach community values, and prove necessary for both maintaining cultural continuity and changing prevailing beliefs. Stories about overcoming hardship and confronting danger serve especially well in building communal bonds and cultivating a people’s sense of pride.

Importantly, the civic role of storytelling may be even more essential to democratic politics because democratic citizenship requires individuals to understand, think through, and participate in political decision making. In a democracy, it is not only the legislators, but also those who select them who must think about what justice means and whether a particular decision is best. Citizens certainly find sources of information to make informed evaluations through news media, the output of scholars and other experts, social media, and even townhall meetings. Yet, as literary studies have long maintained, and the quote by Montesquieu above stresses, the sources of norms, values, and political ideas are reflected and reinforced in our language-based cultural products. In addition, if stories are also a way to communicate knowledge and connect us to our community as well as imaginatively think through complex social problems, then citizens come to understand politics as well as engage with each other through common shared stories. In other words, our storytelling contributes significantly to the way in which democratic citizens relate to or think about political institutions and actions, and how they approach major moral questions, such as the meaning of heroism, technology’s challenges to freedom and equality, or the characteristics of a just society.

The core purpose of this volume is to explore and contribute to the growing interest in the importance of fictional sources to important questions of political thought and the role of storytelling in the political imagination of democratic citizenship.[17] It examines the contribution of storytelling and literary sources to understanding crucial and enduring questions of political theory, especially regarding democratic politics and citizenship. The various contributions in this volume focus on how narrative across genres contributes to our understanding of democratic impulses in culture and political memory, technology and the human condition, and literature as a form of civic education and engagement.

Reflecting the differing perspectives, genres, and source material of this questioning medium, a second goal is to clarify how citizens learn about and are encouraged to engage in democratic politics. This engagement is simultaneously two-sided: literature is both a kind of civic education which functions as a means of promoting the values of democratic governance as well as an important means of critique and protest against abuses of power within democracy. As such, literature and other forms of storytelling engage citizens in thinking about complex social, ethical, and political issues. As several contributions will highlight, this second reason has potential implications for broader debates on how to understand civic education, offering new insights into the ways in which our culturally shared stories encourage greater sophistication in political thinking.

The edited volume is organized in four sections. The first section, “Historical Explanations” explores the contribution of two works of dramatic tragedy to exploring enduring political questions. In the first chapter, Marlene K. Sokolon examines the ancient political question “what is the best regime?” as found in the debate between two characters in Euripides’ Suppliant Women. The dispute in this play, intended for a broad citizen audience, reflects fifth century philosophic and cultural debates on the strengths and weakness of democracy. What is significant is that, as a play, Euripides is able to bring a third dimension to the debate by using his main character to reveal the tension between what leaders say and what they do. As such, the play reveals the complexity of the theatre as crucial for early democratic civic education. The second chapter on Richard III, by Derval Ryan, argues that Shakespeare anticipates Nietzsche’s analysis of guilt and bad conscience in the Genealogy of Morality and demonstrates the possible consequences of the politicization of guilt. Documenting how Richard consciously manipulates the consciences of other characters, this Nietzschean reading of Richard III draws attention to a mode of rhetoric that can exert powerful, and sometimes pernicious, claims upon the consciences of individuals and the demos.

The second section, “Technology and Heroism,” examines our continuing fascination with the use of science fiction and fantasy stories to explore the human condition by looking at our contemporary preoccupations with the subhuman robot and the superhuman comic book hero. In the third chapter, Kimberley Hurd Hale argues that Isaac Asimov’s collection of short stories, I, Robot, explores the development of increasingly human-like robots, and the corresponding degeneration of democratic politics in the human world. As the Earth becomes more automated, the value of human beings, with their accompanying frailty and propensity for error, is increasingly called into question. Using selected stories from the collection, she demonstrates that our pursuit of perfection, in ourselves, in our technology, and our society, leads us down a path of lost moral and political agency. In contrast, in the fourth chapter Travis D. Smith looks at whether it is proper to regard the superhero genre as works of comedy or tragedy. It considers this question in light of a depiction of modern society as an attempted reconciliation of the comical and the rational, built upon but requiring the suppression of fundamentally tragic premises regarding the nature of things and the origins of social conventions. Since they rely on recognizing and depending on significant superior qualities possessed by some individuals, superhero stories exhibit a problematic relationship with our contemporary egalitarian prejudices. Meanwhile, our continuing admiration for heroes is in tension with the technological project’s endeavor to end suffering and therefore the need for heroes, too.

The third section, “Demos in America,” moves to an exploration of contemporary television and film in order to reveal the tensions between competing beliefs and values at the heart of American democracy. In chapter five, Bruce Peabody focuses on the meaning and contextualization of expressions of paranoia or exaggerated, conspiratorial anxiety which have moved from the periphery to the center of public affairs and the electoral process. Drawing on the films Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and JFK (1991), this chapter posits that paranoia has developed in American political life as a means of reconciling discrepancies between a perceived tension in the revered and ideologically pure “constitutional system” and the compromised “Washington system.” The sixth chapter, by James Beneda, focuses on the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, which premiered in 2001, only thirty-six hours before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Beneda argues that the series’ narrative, which stressed the civic ideal of the ‘citizen-soldier’ and democratic citizenship earned through individual sacrifice for the collective good, was one of the defining elements of the cultural mobilization for America’s post-9/11 wars. Since this narrative was undermined by the strategic and tactical conditions of war, it concludes that the idealistic expectations of American soldiers collapsed in the cognitive dissonance of encountering a war they were neither ideologically nor institutionally prepared to fight.

The final section, “The Consequences of Interpretation,” turns to the question of the importance of literary sources in both theoretical debates and lessons that can be drawn from audience reactions to contemporary dramas of the political process. Chapter seven, by Alexandra Manoliu, focuses attention on the way in which television is implicated in the growing dissatisfaction with democratic politics, as it portrays corrupt politicians and a negative view of the political process. Applying cultivation theory, which predicts that television or other art forms cultivate audience opinions by presenting depictions of politics they will adopt as true, it investigates the way television series, such as House of Cards, share in the responsibility of the growing negative image of democracy. In the final contribution, Steven Orr returns to the question of rationalism in political theory. Exploring the implication of Leo Strauss’s seemingly casual assertion about the treatise as the “proper form of presenting political philosophy,” he argues that understanding the significance of this claim, and how it goes largely uncontested (and unnoticed), helps illuminate one of the key mistakes in the discipline of twentieth century political philosophy: insufficient attention to form, genre, and style.

 

References

Aristotle. The Poetics. Translated by W. Hamilton Fyfe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932.

            . The Politics. Translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1944.

Boyd, Brian. On the Origin of Stories. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009.

Carroll, Joseph. Reading Human Nature. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.

Deneen, Patrick J., and Joseph Romance, eds. Democracy’s Literature. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2005.

Garsten, Bryan. Saving Persuasion. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Goldhill, Simon. “The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology (Revised).” In Nothing to Do with Dionysus, edited by John J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin, 97-129. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Hegel on Tragedy. Edited by Anne Paolucci and Henry Paolucci. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1962.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edited by Edwin Curley. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994.

Honig, Bonnie. Antigone Interrupted. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Kovach, Margaret. Indigenous Methodologies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Lucretius. On the Nature of Things. Translated by Martin F. Smith. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1924.

Maurini, Alessandro. Aldous Huxley. Lanham: Lexington Press, 2017.

Meagher, Robert Emmet. The Essential Euripides: Dancing in Dark Times. Wauconda IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Press, 2002.

Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat, baron de. The Spirit of the Laws. Edited and translated by Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Plato. The Apology. Translated by Harold North Fowler. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.

            . Great Dialogues of Plato. Translated by W.H.D. Rouse. New York: Signet, 1999.

            . Republic. Translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925.

Scott, Ian. American Politics in Hollywood Film. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2011.

Scott, Kyle. The Limits of Politics. Lanham: Lexington Press, 2016.

Turner, James. Philology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

 

Notes

[1] The editors of this volume would like to thank Concordia’s Office of the Vice-President, Research and Graduate Studies for the support of the Aid to Research-Related Events as well as the Department of Political Science at Concordia University for making available the funds that allowed for convening a workshop on the theme of “Flattering the Demos: The Politics and Fictions of Democratic Citizens.” The contributions to this volume emerged out of that conference, held in Montreal, Quebec on March 3, 2017. The editors furthermore acknowledge the efforts of their research assistant, Eli Friedland, in making that workshop a reality and this volume a possibility.

[2] Thomas Hobbes, who is famous for lamenting the corrupting power of metaphors in politics and for advancing a modern science of politics, still admitted that “the most part of men” remain like children, given the degree to which their reasoning capacities tend to stay underdeveloped. As a result, Hobbes knows that it is too much to ask to expect the masses of even a society constructed along the lines of his science to think scientifically. His own dependence on metaphors therefore is not a contradiction or failing in his teaching; it’s a necessity. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), 26.

[3] Hegel’s interest in the Antigone is found in several of his texts, most notably in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Hegel on Tragedy, ed. Anne Paolucci and Henry Paolucci (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1962).

[4] It was clever of modern philosophers to pretend that their treatises were free from and even hostile to poetical or metaphorical thought. See Bryan Garsten, Saving Persuasion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), especially chapter 1 on Hobbes.

[5] For a discussion of the historical development of the humanities, and in particular the distinction of the rational focus of philosophy from the other humanities disciplines see James Turner, Philology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), especially 5-14; 380-86.

[6] For example, see Plato, The Apology, trans. Harold North Fowler (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 22a-d; Republic, trans. Paul Shorey (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925), 381a-404e; 595a-612a, especially 07b; Ion, trans. W.H.D. Rouse, in Great Dialogues of Plato (New York: Signet, 1999).

[7] Republic, 393c-97b.

[8] Aristotle, The Poetics, trans. W. Hamilton Fyfe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932), 1449b, 51b, 56b. For Aristotle’s discussion of catharsis see also The Politics, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1944), 1341a.

[9] Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, trans. Martin F. Smith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1924), 1.146-634; 4.10-30.

[10] Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, ed. and trans. Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 481; cf. Aristotle, Politics, 1281b5.

[11] Turner, Philology, 231-368.

[12] Robert Emmet Meagher, The Essential Euripides: Dancing in Dark Times (Wauconda IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Press, 2002), 535.

[13] Simon Goldhill, “The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology (Revised),” in Nothing to Do with Dionysus, ed. John J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 125.

[14] Margaret Kovach, Indigenous Methodologies (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 94-108.

[15] Ibid., 108.

[16] Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009), 129-208; Joseph Carroll, Reading Human Nature (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011), 3-54.

[17] For some examples of the recent growing interest in the political thought of narrative and literary sources, see Patrick J. Deneen and Joseph Romance, eds., Democracy’s Literature (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2005); Ian Scott, American Politics in Hollywood Film (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2011); Bonnie Honig, Antigone Interrupted (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Kyle Scott, The Limits of Politics (Lanham: Lexington Press, 2016); Alessandro Maurini, Aldous Huxley (Lanham: Lexington Press, 2017).

 

This excerpt is from Flattering the Demos: Fiction and Democratic Education (Lexington, 2018). Sean Steel’s review and Elizabeth Amato’s review are also available.

Marlene Sokolon and Travis D. Smith

Written by

Marlene Sokolon and Travis D. Smith are Associate Professors of Political Science at Concordia University in Canada and authors and editors of numerous works, including Flattering the Demos: Fiction and Democratic Education (Lexington Books, 2018).