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.