U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Margaret Fuller’s “Conversations” for a Digital Age?

Reading the two volumes of Charles Capper’s marvelous biography of Margaret Fuller was a little bit like reading the first two volumes of an unfinished triple-decker novel.   That’s not a knock on Capper, whose portrayal of Fuller and/in her milieus is perceptive and profound, thorough and enthralling.  One just has the sense that Margaret Fuller’s life wasn’t finished when it ended.  She was grappling all her life with the relationship between mind and body, intellect and gender, thought and love, carving out a space as a woman intellectual in a culture that by and large did not see the need for such spaces.  And now she was coming back to America with her lover-husband and her child and her book manuscript, finding room in her life for all three and perhaps ready to find room in her own society for her increasingly capacious life and so make room for other women who might follow.  As she was denied the chance to struggle and triumph, denied the (perhaps more likely) chance to struggle and succumb to the weight of convention, so we all are denied the chance to know what Margaret Fuller would have made of her life as a sensual Romantic maternal American intellectual.

But that’s a selfish and deeply unhistorical thought.  Human lives are not novels, nor are people obliged to carry some plotline to its conclusion or some conception to its fulfillment.  Plotlines, trajectories of development, ideas that shape lives, lives that advance ideas – these are how we frame and demarcate and resize our historical subjects so that they fit within the pages of a book.  But even the most self-consciously literary lives are not so amenable to neat narration, nor can narrative encompass all that someone was or is.  “A formula, a phrase remains – but the best is lost.

In some ways, to say that “the best is lost” would be particularly true of Margaret Fuller – and not just in the sense of lost potential, a lost future. One of the motifs that emerges in both volumes of Capper’s biography is the image of Fuller as a brilliant conversationalist.  Her most admiring friends and most astute intellectual companions found that her writing, as acute as it often was, rarely matched the virtuosity and range and exquisite perspicuity and pleasingly profound (or profoundly pleasing) beauty of insight and expression that characterized her conversation.  She was a remarkable thinker, and she did her best thinking, it seems, off the cuff and on the fly, provoking others with her observations and responding to their provocations in turn.

Fuller “institutionalized” this talent through her famous “Conversations,” a series of seminars – perhaps somewhat like graduate seminars in German universities at the time — she offered for women (and, as an experiment once, to a mixed audience of women and men) on various topics.  Here’s how Capper sets up his discussion of the Conversations:

Of course these were not “conversations” in the ordinary sense.  The ideal of a conversation as a critical intellectual method derived from Plato, whose Socratic dialogues Fuller read and reread and came more than ever to admire in the months before she began her meetings.  (“I have been reading Plato all the week,” she would write to Emerson before one meeting, “hop[ing] to be tuned up thereby.”)  The Romantic Age was itself the age of the conversation, and de Staël, Coleridge, Goethe, and many other great Romantic talkers must have given Fuller further stimulus for developing intellectual conversations among her women.  Finally, Transcendentalism’s own great Platonic-Romantic talker Bronson Alcott not only had promulgated the idea of the conversation as a revolutionary educational tool, which Fuller had put into practice in her Greene Street classes, but more recently had begun to tout the conversation as a potentially powerful popular cultural force.  For Alcott, as for many European devotees of the form, that power resided in its capacity for revealing profoundly subjective truths.  If to outsiders these “conversations” sounded more like collective monologues than traditional intellectual discourse, this was precisely the point.  Also American Transcendentalists like Alcott admired these kinds of conversations for specific intellectual reasons – because their spontaneity and fluidity seemed to them to mimic the deeper spiritual truths that written or “frozen” language could never capture, and because, unlike the passive medium of the popular lecture, they promoted originality and intellectual self-reliance.  Personal and practical factors undoubtedly also played a part in attracting Fuller to the conversation form.  These included her lack of opportunity, as a woman, to lecture; her talent for informal talk; and probably, too, the example of Alcott, who while preparing the previous fall to give up the last of his schools, had launced a series of moderately successful traveling conversations in various towns in eastern Massachusetts. (vol. 1, p. 296)

As I read about the epistemological underpinnings and pedagogical rationales of “the conversation” as a genre of intellectual discourse, it occurred to me that our current cultural moment seems to feature a renewed (?) appetite for this Romantic form, or a modern version of it:  everybody and his brother, everybody and her sister, is either making a podcast or listening to one.  I am disinclined to do either one of those things, but I am very happy for my friends who are making the most of this form of expression.

The fairly recent ubiquity of the podcast as a genre of intellectual expression cannot be explained by technological determinism.  It’s not simply the case that “the technology” has now made it possible, so now people are doing it.  Podcasts have been around for at least a decade, maybe fifteen years, and anybody with the ability to record an audio file on a computer and upload it to the internet could have been making podcasts all this time.  Some people – or media organizations — have been making podcasts all this time.  But, as I stand on the sidelines and observe this phenomenon, it seems to me – and this could just be my limited perspective – that we are witnessing a veritable podcasting movement.

Why?  Why now?  What is it about the orality and aurality of podcasting that particularly appeals to the people who produce podcasts and to those who listen to the podcasts?  Is it the aspect of embodiment, the tactile reach of the human voice?  Is it the contagious conviviality of a podcast crew, the pleasure of listening to conversationalists who know how to bring out the best or worst in one another?  Is it the price and privilege of time:  the time invested in production, the time invested in listening?  Is there perhaps a more general aspect of temporality at play here?  Informal writing is still writing, “stillborn and complete,” as Faulkner said of words on the page, and one can skim or skip to the end.  A podcast, as a spoken form, is a text that unfolds in real time. (Of course one could fast-forward or sample, and perhaps that’s how a lot of people engage with podcasts – but my sense is that people generally play them from beginning to end, whether they listen attentively throughout the entire episode or not.)

Some of the appeal of podcasts may be very similar to the appeal that Conversations had for Fuller and her participants.  Fuller was a true scholar and critic and, it seems, a gifted teacher, yet there was no place for her within established structures and organizations where a scholar-teacher might find fulfilling work.  She was not going to be leading a discussion section at Harvard or giving a lecture as part of her duties as a professor in an endowed chair.  Conversations allowed Fuller to be a kind of professor and allowed her subscribers to participate in a kind of university course.  Similarly, podcasts can make available to their producers and their listeners the conversational practices of the seminar room.  The difference, I think, is that the listeners to a podcast are in a primarily spectatorial mode – though, as Capper explains, that was also the case many times for the subscribers to Fuller’s Conversations.  Sometimes she drew them forth in discussion, but sometimes she simply held forth.  In any case, the current profusion and multiplication of podcasts may be inversely related to a corresponding paucity and reduction of academic positions.  Is podcasting partly a response to the casualization of academic labor?  If so, is it a way of countering or exacerbating the effects of that casualization?

Maybe – maybe not.  I expect a lot of podcasters would say that they’re not particularly interested in being part of academe to begin with, and I believe them.  Moreover, a lot of people who produce podcasts and listen to them are very much plugged in to academe.  So podcasting isn’t some compensatory alternative to engagement with university life.  On the other hand, if lots of people who are plugged in to university life find it important to invest their time in podcasting, as either participants or listeners, then it seems that podcasting is providing something that other forms of intellectual engagement are not offering.  Fun? Camaraderie? An end-run around gatekeeping?  A respite from metrics of productivity?  An opportunity to engage with a broader audience?

However, as many of you know, these are some of the “compensatory” pleasures of writing for a group blog.  So perhaps podcasting is simply a manifestation of that same “group blogging sensibility” via a different medium, a new means for some old ways of meaning-making.

I’m really not invested in any of these potential explanations for this new kind of intellectual engagement and community-building, and I would welcome any insights or suggestions people may offer.

But if podcasts are all the rage right now – and I think they are, at least in my little corner of the internet – then there must be a whole host of factors contributing to that phenomenon.  And I wonder if one of those factors may be that podcasting speaks to (!) the yearnings of a Romantic age that has never entirely left us, that we have never entirely left.

“The best that we receive from any thing,” Fuller wrote in her journal, “can never be written.  For it is not the positive amount of thought we have received, but the virtue that has flowed into us, and is now us, that is precious. If we can tell no one thought yet are higher, larger, wiser the work is done.  The best part of life is too spiritual to bear recording.”

Maybe so. Still, Fuller wrote that thought down.  Perhaps podcasting holds out the promise of enjoying “the best part of life” – the wildness and freedom of ideation in the moment, in the round, in community with others — while also bearing its recording.

5 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. This is a terrific post, in part because it went in an entirely different direction from where I was expecting it to go about halfway through. I was anticipating you to turn to Twitter (a medium that you participate in a lot more than I do) rather than podcasting (a medium of which I am a more avid listener than you are).

    (My anticipation of a discussion of Twitter may also have had to do with the fact that I keep bumping into discussions of Romantic authors as Twitterers avant le tweet. But that’s clearly a topic for another day.)

    Podcasting is like a conversation because it’s oral (and aural). But, unlike a conversation, a podcast is a monologue (at least relative to its audience). Twitter, though not in main oral or aural (attachments and links aside) is conversational in that sense: it’s essentially dialogic.

    Both podcasting and Twitter, unlike Platonic dialogues and Fullerian conversations, are very public media. It seems to me that the private and unrecorded aspect of Fuller’s conversations was an essential component of them. Then again, Plato’s dialogues are (eventually) public, written records of (probably imaginary) private and oral conversations. And the questions of the private vs. the public and of the oral vs. the written are themselves topics that Plato takes up.

    It seems to me that public statements have never been been easier to distribute than they are today, while truly private statements have arguably never been more difficult to make.

  2. Ben, thanks for this great comment — and I very much agree on the dynamics of private/public in podcasting and Twitter.

    One of the reasons that I would be disinclined to participate in a podcast is precisely because it publicizes something that, if not precisely private, is at least rather personal: the sound of one’s voice. I think I’ve written before at this blog about the intimacy of the human voice. A voice is a real physical presence, it is an expression of one’s embodiment still reverberating in the air, and it feels different to “share” that than it does to share words on a page. It also feels different to listen to someone’s spoken voice than it does to read their words on a page — it brings one very near to another, almost within reach, and vice versa. I don’t know if my disinclination to listen to podcasts is because of the “almost” or because of the “within reach” — but either way, the sensorial aspect of podcasting gives me pause. (Another factor: it is never logistically easy for me to carve out a few hours of quiet in my day. Solitude in perfect silence — this is my white whale.)

    And I think you’re very astute to point out the key difference between Fuller’s “Conversations” and podcasts. Fuller’s work was no less “performative” than a podcast, but there was a complete overlap between participants, performers, and audience. That is, everyone present was part of the conversation, and it was a conversation that took place among them and for them in that moment. They might report on it later or write about it later — but to enjoy it, they had to be there. Podcasting is a participatory conversation among friends/colleagues that is also a performance for people who can’t participate in the conversation itself (though they can respond to it elsewhere, in comments or in writing or, I guess, in their own podcasts). In that sense, podcasting is an imperfect substitute for the “in the round” experience of Fuller’s conversations, and for their spontaneity. On the other hand, Fuller could speak with a few dozen discussants at a time — a podcast could make such conversation audible, if not fully accessible, to a nearly limitless audience.

  3. Thanks for making this connection and the reflection attached to it. I’ve not read Capper’s works on Fuller, but am now intrigued because of your post. That’s something.

    Otherwise, I appreciate Ben’s comment and your reply. Like you, it’s been almost impossible, recently, to carve out requisite quiet, silence, and/or solitude. That’s hurt my writing a great deal, and I value my writing over getting my voice “out there” via a podcast.

    I listen to podcasts that are conversational and academic (e.g. In Our Time, Past Present, and few of David Sehat’s). But I find the desire to reply powerful, and the lack of outlet disappointing. That’s why, like you, I return to the blog format, or Twitter, or Facebook (still). – TL

  4. As one who contributes to podcast programing at New Books Network I can only speak for myself. The reasons I am a podcast host are simple. ( I am not a podcast entrepreneur having no intention of building a business that’s why I am with NBN, they take care of the business). As an independent scholar who lives in rural America podcasting is extremely valuable for me. I get free books (more than I can cover), a chance to make connections with scholars all over the country and the world, I can offer something valuable to authors, it feeds my own research and I love to having conversations with interesting people. I would have loved Margaret Fuller since I crave good conversation. On top of that, authors appreciated some one reading and engaging their work. That is satisfying. Podcasting has created opportunities for me like conference collaboration and publishing. I try to remember the audience and ask the questions that they might be interested in and never forget that they are there and their time deserves respect. I usually don’t listen to podcast myself because I am a reader. If you had told me five years ago I would be doing this, I would had told you were crazy. Never saw myself as “communicator” and it took me about 20 podcast before I got comfortable with the role. Now it’s just part of my work. Thank you to all the S-USIH authors who have shared in my podcast conversations. Lacy was the first one!

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