Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Beyond the System

A central goal of Eloquence and Reason is to uncover the cultural-legal process by which constitutional ideas emerge as governing ideals. The book necessarily focuses on the actions of those who participate directly in the system: judges, politicians, lawyers, and activists.

But it's fair to wonder about the processes that largely escape the control of political or legal institutions. One of those domains is art. To what extent does art inform or disrupt constitutionalism? The intersection of popular culture and law is well worth mining.

Artists such as Langston Hughes bore witness to the New Deal and America's participation in World War II, two of Franklin Roosevelt's greatest achievements. In a new paper, Langston Hughes: The Ethics of Melancholy Citizenship, I analyze this twentieth century figure's poetry as a theory of democratic participation.

The abstract follows:
As a body of work, the poetry of Langston Hughes presents a vision of how members of a political community ought to comport themselves, particularly when politics yield few tangible solutions to their problems. Confronted with human degradation and bitter disappointment, the best course of action may be to abide by the ethics of melancholy citizenship. A mournful disposition is associated with four democratic virtues: candor, pensiveness, fortitude, and self-abnegation. Together, these four characteristics lead us away from democratic heartbreak and toward renewal. Hughes’s war-themed poems offer a richly layered example of melancholy ethics in action. They reveal how the fight for liberty can be leveraged for the ends of equality. When we analyze the artist’s reworking of Franklin Roosevelt’s orations in the pursuit of racial justice, we learn that writing poetry can be an exercise in popular constitutionalism.
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