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Finding Romantic Commonplaces: An Interview with Jerome Christensen

Site Four: Romantic Populism and
Insurgent Civil Society

Steve Newman, Temple University

Mural picture      The Getty Museum
[left] A Mural from South Central Los Angeles: ‘Riot is the language of the unheard.’
[right] Approaching the Getty Museum (courtesy of Elizabeth N. Leatherbury)

  1. Steve Newman: We didn’t directly talk about the picture of the Microsoft campus that’s the icon for the previous site—its relevance to the question of "using" will, I hope, be evident to the reader. But Microsoft might be thought of as the silent partner of this concluding site as well. What I had initially planned to do was to juxtapose pictures from the on-line tour of the Getty Museum with those from the Los Angeles riot/uprising, an admittedly crude diptych designed to picture two possible directions for the Romantic classroom. Not that we would be starting riots but rather that we would be studying them more, in light of the recent move toward cultural studies. How, I wanted to ask, should we deal with the split that many see between elite and popular culture?

  2. But I was quickly reminded of the fact this question of cultural value is not independent of issues having to do with intellectual property. The Getty wanted to limit the length of my hyperlink to a few months, which, of course, negates the use of a hyperlink; and The L. A. Times wanted to charge me an exorbitant fee to rent its pictures of the Riot (or, as some refer to it, Uprising) for 90 days and informed me that they simply do not allow hyperlinks. After consulting with the editors of Romantic Circles, it became clear that we could either use the images anyway and expose the site to litigation that, even if we won (as the case law would seem to indicate), would prove awfully expensive and perhaps open the site to further suits or we could try to find a way around it. So we found a way around it: A cousin of mine in L. A. was kind enough to take some photos of the Getty and Professor Roger Keil graciously agreed to allow me to use his picture of the mural from his book, Los Angeles.

  3. I mention this because I know that you have run into similar difficulties in your own work in digital media/CD-ROMs as you’ve attempted to depart from the Microsoft model of motivating workers by fear instead of co-operation — difficulties that couldn’t be so easily resolved.

  4. Jerome Christensen: Yes, trying to do Raisin in the Sun, the second CD in our projected series of interactive editions of modern dramas. When considering possibilities for a major project that would give coherence and continuity to the Digital Media Center, my partner and I decided to follow the initiative of Michael Kohler, a grad student at the time, who suggested we undertake a series of digital editions of modern dramatic works. There were two potent reasons for undertaking that project. First, it was clear that multi-media technology would not be merely supplementary or illustrative, as it would have been had we sought to do a digital edition of The Prelude or Ulysses, but it would solve a long-standing pedagogical problem: the separation of the text from performance. The second reason was our anecdotally informed conviction that modern drama is not being taught as much in secondary or even college classrooms as it used to be. It’s no longer the lively art.

  5. We thought that the pedagogical virtues and the techie sexiness of CD-ROM would enhance the accessibility of texts that could seem abstract and remote. We tried to use as many texts as possible from the public domain and had great success in assembling a CD-ROM edition of Ibsen’s Doll House with the support of Annenberg/CPB, which now distributes the title.

  6. The edition uses a theatrical interface to integrate video annotation and text, to access archival material and critical commentary available nowhere else. The extended classroom project involved faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates, scientists and humanists. None of us was a specialist in modern drama. In planning the edition we had to teach the play to each other and, in the process, learn how to use it so that we could imagine diverse users of our finished edition. It was the most satisfying educational experience of my career, and I’m very proud of what we accomplished.


  7. We next wanted to do Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, both for its cultural importance and its manifest excellence as a drama. The rights to the play, to the biographical materials, and to one of the two major cinematic adaptations are owned by an heir. At the outset of the project our agent was assured by her agent that the project would somehow work out but that the rightsholder wanted to see more of the project before she signed off. But a year later, when we were ready to assemble all the collected materials, she decided, as she had in previous cases, not to approve the project, that our vision was not her idea—the one she was deluded into thinking she had in her head simply because she happened to own the intellectual rights. End of story. We had been savvy enough to realize we needed to work with dead authors, we had failed to realize that we also needed to work with dead heirs. I can’t tell you how discouraging it was to be utterly blocked from use of a play that should be part of the legacy of every American by some person who had no stake in the property except her own vanity and greed.

  8. When you enter the area in which demand really counts, you have to expect to run up against people, profit despots, who are going to be able to pre-empt your access, whether or not they actually intend to develop the resources for use. Let me underline that point: the reason that there is no multimedia edition of modern dramatic works and that there may never be is because given the expense of permissions to use materials that the rightsholders, such as Columbia Pictures, have no intention of exploiting, for there is no way to make a profit on such a product. We could hope to succeed because we were working with student labor in a non-profit, educational cocoon, cutting the cost of the project by about 60 to 75%.

  9. But for the very reasons that we could hope to succeed in the short run, we were likely to fail in the long run because we could never be sufficiently capitalized in order to overcome a setback such as that we experienced with Raisin. Yes, I would do things differently if I had them to do over again. But the conditions of production in a corporate capitalist culture insured that one instance of misjudgment would make it impossible to apply what one had learned to a new effort. We lost no profit because none was in the offing. But I do think that the loss to students and to the cause of modern drama is worth noting, even if there is no spreadsheet on which it could be indicated.

  10. SN: I have two more questions. The first involves the juxtaposition of the pictures for this site. In the Getty’s hypertour, the picture I wanted to use, with the city far off in the distance, has the caption: "The Getty center is surrounded but yet slightly removed from the City, evoking both urbanity and peaceful contemplation. It’s an experience you’ll want to repeat time and time again." The second is from Roger Keil’s recent book on Los Angeles,9 which is where the mural I’ve chosen comes from.

  11. Keil introduces a term that appeals to me —"insurgent civil society." There, he’s talking about activists from a wide variety of communities who have gathered together to protest, for example, the closing of the GM plant at Van Nuys, fighting against environmental racism, etc. It seems to me that one of the things about "The Romantic Movement at the End of History" is that it imagines a space out of which a Romantic politics might emerge. The fact that it’s Romantic means that you can’t tell, exactly, what that politics is, but it does have the effect of producing communities that resist easy administration. What I’m curious is about where the Romantic classroom stands in relation to these spaces. On one hand, you could imagine the spectacular space of the Getty Center as one model, dedicated to the preservation of high cultural artifacts and more than "slightly removed" from the city, and on the other the noisy praxis of "insurgent civil society." But this easy binary is complicated by, among other things, the implications of "Using." That is, it’s not that the politics of the street that you allude to in "The Romantic Movement" has vanished but the computer seems to be an interstitial space between, on one hand, a heavily capitalized world like that of the Getty and the computer industry and, on the other, something more demotic and fluid. Is that one of the things that attracts you about the computer?

  12. JC: I am a student of M. H. Abrams, and I do think that, in an alternative history, The Mirror, the Lamp, and the Computer would have been a perfect title for that book. And that insofar as I can imagine adding anything to his legacy is to add a footnote, that the computer is a metaphor for a different way of understanding what poems can do rather than what poems are. And that, in fact, as I’ve long said, if Hartley had been able to imagine the computer, we could have just skipped the nineteenth century. Having said that, it just seems like an easy thing to say. It’s non-falsifiable. I’m not quite sure whether the computer is simply a metaphor. That’s why I use the word "digital" rather than "computer." I want to focus on the medium rather than fetishizing the tool and those who hold the licenses that inhibit use.

  13. I tend to think I’m more humble in my teaching than I was, and what I can expect to teach. That’s a real change, and I think it’s a good change. In part, it’s based on a certainty that anyone who is teaching now will inevitably learn more from the students than they will learn from them. And that if we don’t, we’re lost. Because what we have to struggle for is a modus viviendi and docendi that emerges out of a corporate experience that is not subject to those who cook the books at Price Waterhouse. The university is a place where that struggle can work. It doesn’t require new forms of social organization in order to get that done, just intelligent exploitation of the one we have.

  14. SN: When you say that we don’t need new forms of social organization, I come back to Keil’s term "insurgent civil society" as a way to think then about the relationship between the university and the broader public. What we can do about that? For example, when I was at Hopkins, I was involved, though by no means a central player, in the Living Wage Campaign,10 which pitted very different visions of the university against each other. I mention this because I’m wondering what your response is to the split we often feel between the politics we want to profess and our job descriptions as professors of literature. Should the university be the site for producing an "insurgent civil society," and, if so, what should our role be in that production?

  15. JC: For me that would involve a strategic exploitation of the corporate status of the university, its exemptions and its powers. Johns Hopkins is incorporated in the state of Maryland, Vanderbilt chartered in Tennessee. As Hopkins is the biggest employer in Baltimore, so Vanderbilt is the largest employer in Nashville. We know that the corporatization of American life is the dominant social movement of the twentieth century. We know that the university has been a beneficiary and participant in that process. We also know, thanks to the work of scholars like William G. Roy, that there was nothing inevitable about the emergence to predominance of the large, privately owned corporation, which was a matter of particular political decisions taken at particular times. It should follow that there is nothing inexorable about the future, which may involve insurgency or may involve accommodation. My view is simply that we need to understand that the notion of the university as an adversary culture, responsible for sponsoring social change from somewhere outside is both outmoded and counter-productive. In my experience few faculty, even politically committed faculty, demonstrate interest in how the university works, which leaves them incapacitated when, occasionally, they have the opportunity to change how it might work.

  16. Thinking the ruin of the university should entail clarification of its actual corporate status, including the responsibilities the non-profit university acquires along with its immunities. Such clarification, spread among faculty, students, and staff would certainly produce universities harder to administer and, therefore, better, more justly administered. It is an open question whether that would entail a wholesale redescription of professionalism as an occupational norm. Right now, professionalism as a standard at a place like Hopkins works as a pretext to cling to a narrow, ever more jeopardized disciplinary autonomy while conceding governance to administrators whose values are more closely shaped by their corporate overseers on the Board of Trustees than by the faculty from whose ranks they have been sublimely elevated. . . . Campaigns for a "living wage" for university employees seem promising in part because it both exploits and critiques the professionalist mindset. Whether clarification would lead to any substantive result, such as the community that Keil endorses, I don’t know. But if it didn’t we’d have nobody to blame but ourselves.

  17. SN: One of the ways in which universities are not like corporations is that they can’t move around, so they’re great targets for a campaign like this. And they also produce a certain kind of humanistic rhetoric that other corporations do not. I think here of the ability of those involved in the Living Wage Campaign, including Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), to use Hopkins’s immobility and rhetoric against the administration’s dubious claims. The administration claimed that they couldn’t afford the minuscule amounts necessary to pay their workers a living wage, even though they had just completed a campaign that had raised over $1 billion for the endowment and had netted $250 million off their stocks in that year alone; that they couldn’t afford to provide anything like reasonable health benefits, even though they administered what is perhaps the best hospital in the world; and, when they were sufficiently agitated, that they simply weren’t going to cede managerial power to "outsiders," even though those "outsiders," as BUILD and its allies ceaselessly pointed out were the faculty, staff, and students at Hopkins, along with the community in which Hopkins supposedly dwelled.

  18. Another question here has to do with the relation between teaching and activism. The paradox that many of us have recognized is that the kind of teaching that seems to us emancipatory requires that we can’t control its outcomes — crudley put, the gap between a more open pedagogical stance and politics in its more restricted but more directly effective sense.

  19. JC: Right. But it does seem to me that insofar as it’s an abstract proposition and insofar as you place value on freedom and opportunity and capacity and equality is only important insofar as possibilities for self-development, which include the material and the social—

  20. SN: "Life chances"

  21. JC: —right, life chances. Then it seems you me you have to accept contingency as part of the deal. There’s no way for me to control the consequences.

  22. SN: Last question. In a footnote to the Romantic movement you "hazard the anachronistic claim in the spirit of Raymond Williams that in the long view, cultural populism is romanticism." I’d appreciate it if you’d flesh out this claim by addressing the role of film in your work, which we haven’t talked about much, since I don’t really have the expertise to ask you much about it. What does film have to do with cultural populism? It seems to me that the heavily capitalized structure of film production and distribution would seem to make it a difficult medium for the kind of motility you ascribe to demotic. Is it demotic in its consumption? Or could it be in the small laboratories you’ve worked with?.

  23. JC: Was that comment supposed to be bleak or optimistic?

  24. SN: Hopeful, I think. Because then the kind of stereotypes and secret signs you see circulating among the working class in the early nineteenth century has passed into punk and other, more contemporary movements.

  25. JC: Oh! "Cultural populism"! For a minute there I thought you had said "corporate populism." My God, that would’ve been a bleak thing for me to have written. . . . I don’t know if I meant "Romantic" in the academic sense. To speak of "cultural populism" as "Romanticism" is to speak of it as a life form rather than a discipline and therefore just trying to stay ahead of the grim historical reaper by reformulating or reorganizing what one values in Romantic poetry in other media and other guises. There’s no way to think about Romanticism without thinking about poems. But there’s no way of thinking about poems without engaging in the activity of making poems. Not necessary lines across the page but poems can become HTML or can be, obviously, music or architecture or modes of organizing communities. And it is one of the fundamental mystifications of rhetorical criticism that there is no way to dissipate affect. It is always there for one to use. And all one has to find is the appropriate tools in order to apply it for use.

  26. SN: So film in this case would be one of the media. . .

  27. JC: Yes. The question of film is the question of whether or not corporate control will extend so far as to make individual creativity impossible. That’s always happening. That’s always happening. But for an industry that’s always been looking for a technological fix has gotten itself into a situation where their technological fix also looks like a potential undoing of corporate hegemony or a relaxation of it. In the near future there will be no film on film. Once film is eliminated for digital projection the newest innovation will be adopted without regard to cost and will open up opportunities for independent film makers. Not for all at once and maybe not for all ever. But for ever more filmmakers about to be, and in ways we can’t predict. An indie film like American Movie — well-financed independent film in the vernacular documentary style about a woefully financed demotic filmmaker using whatever money, people, and tools come to hand — remarks on the potency of class and the rarity of "life chances" while effectively prospecting forms and tools by which socio-economic "facts" can be deprived of their fatality.

  28. SN: You’ve focused in your response on independent filmmakers. The next step in what I was thinking that flows from "Film is cultural populism is romanticism" is that in what you call the loss of the common world is that film might give one a language to speak to anyone you meet on the street, despite the fact that it may be distributed in a certain way.

  29. JC: That’s true.

  30. SN: Even if we didn’t have the independent film industry, there would be no way to predict, for example, the Star Wars phenomenon. It seems from one standpoint to be a degraded sort of community, but the people who get together to talk about Star Wars have their own secret language. Does that world of fandom mark the limit of what you call "cultural populism"?

  31. JC: I couldn’t answer without seeing the Web page. But I can offer a kind of limit. What I mean by "cultural populism" would involve an experiment I’d love to try if I were mayor of Baltimore, where the police have intermittently sponsored markets in which people were invited to trade guns for money. I’d dish the money for guns business and invite folks, young and old, to bring in their guns or syringes in exchange for digital camcorders. I’d say to them: "Go, look for something that you cannot find. Frame it. Shoot it. And bring it back alive."

  32. SN: I guess we should conclude our discussion by saying that you will not, for better or worse, become the mayor of Baltimore any time soon, now that you’ve relocated to Vanderbilt. But perhaps Nashville could use some bold new leadership. Thanks.

  33. JC: My pleasure.


9 Roger Keil, Los Angeles: Globalization, Urbanization, and Social Struggles (New York: J. Wiley, 1998).

10For information on the Living Wage movement nationwide, see The Economic Policy Institute's website, at, and the New Party's website:

For accounts of the struggle to extend the Living Wage to Hopkins from the point of view of the Student-Labor Action Coalition and its allies, see: For the administration's official response — though those on the other side do not agree to the administration's claims that it has instituted a Living Wage see and For a recent editorial in Baltimore's City Paper, see For Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a member of the Industrial Areas Foundation that was instrumental in establishing the nation's first Living Wage ordinance, among other accomplishments, see their website:

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Published @ RC

June 2002