Jane Addams: Citizen

On Election Day, it’s never a bad idea to revisit the larger consequences and historical stakes behind our democratic sweepstakes. Jane Addams (1860–1935)—sociologist, author, philosopher, suffragette, Nobel Peace Prize–winner, and founder of Hull House—felt frustration during the Progressive Era, in part because of the conditions affecting the working class, women, and children, but also because of the moral failings of industrial capitalism, which she attributed less to the system and more to the foibles of individual capitalists. She strove to view the labor movement not as a one-armed political struggle, but as a lens through which we might attempt to unify our sympathies for the suffering of others. In this excerpt from Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy, Louise W. Knight explores how Addams’s experience with the Pullman Strike in 1894 led her to question—and later, so eloquently articulate—the dangers of moral absolutism to democratic citizenship.


Jane Addams’s contribution to Maps was her essay “The Settlement as a Factor in the Labor Movement.” Her intention was to give a history of Hull House’s relations with unions as a sort of case study and to examine why and how settlements should be engaged with the labor movement. The piece is straightforward in tone, nuanced, not polemical. In it she settles fully into the even-handed interpretive role she had first attempted in her speech on domestic servants eighteen months earlier.

But the essay also burns with the painful knowledge she gained from the Pullman Strike. She wrestles with the tension between the labor movement’s loyalty to its class interests and her own vision of a classless, universalized, democratic society. And she probes the philosophical question she and [John] Dewey had been debating: Are (class) antagonisms inevitable? Are antagonisms useful? The resulting essay was the most in-depth exploration of the subject of class that Addams would ever write. She was trying to find her way back from the edge of the cliff—class warfare—to which the Pullman Strike had brought her and the nation.

On the question of what the strike accomplished, her thoughts had shifted somewhat. Although she had told Dewey that antagonism was always useless, she argues in “The Settlement as a Factor” that strikes, which were certainly were a form of antagonism, can be useful and necessary. Strikes are often “the only method of arresting attention to [the workers’] demands”; they also offer the permanent benefits of strengthening of the ties of “brotherhood” among the strikers and producing (at least when successful) a more “democratic” relation between workers and their employer. Perhaps Dewey had been more persuasive than he realized.

She still felt, however, that personal emotion was the main cause of antagonisms, including strikes. She admits that labor has a responsibility to fight for the interests of the working people (that is, more leisure and wealth) but only because achieving them would help the workingman feel less unjustly treated. She charges labor with storing up of “grudges” against “capitalists” and calls this “selfish.” She ignores the question of whether low wages and long hours are fair. Social justice is not a touchstone for her arguments in this essay.

Instead, Addams stresses the ideal she had emphasized since coming to Chicago: that of a society united by its sense of common humanity. She writes prophetically of “the larger solidarity which includes labor and capital” and that is based on a “notion of universal kinship” and “the common good.” One might read into her argument the conclusion of social justice, yet the principle remains uninvoked. Instead, Addams stays focused on feelings. She is calling for sympathy for others’ suffering, not for a change in workers’ physical condition.

Addams disapproves of capitalism but not because of its effects on the workers. The moral failings of the individual capitalist trouble her. She slips in a rather radical quotation by an unnamed writer: “The crucial question of the time is, ‘In what attitude stand ye toward the present industrial system? Are you content that greed … shall rule your business life, while in your family and social life you live so differently? Shall Christianity have no play in trade?’” In one place, although only one place, she takes workers’ perspective and refers to capitalists as “the power-holding classes.” (Here at last was a glancing nod toward power.) The closest she comes to making a social justice argument is in a sentence whose Marxist flavor, like the previous phrase, suggests Florence Kelley’s influence, yet it, too, retains Addams’s characteristic emphasis on feelings. She hopes there will come a time “when no factory child in Chicago can be overworked and underpaid without a protest from all good citizens, capitalist and proletarian.” While Debs had wanted to arouse middle-class sympathies as a ways to improve the working conditions of the Pullman laborers, Addams wanted the labor movement to cause society to be more unified in its sympathies. Their means and ends were reversed.

Addams found the idea that labor’s organizing efforts could benefit society compelling. “If we can accept” that possibility, she adds, then the labor movement is “an ethical movement.” The claim was a startling one for her to make. It seems the strike had shown her at least one moral dimension to the workers’ struggle. The negative had become the potentially positive. Instead of seeing labor’s union organizing as a symptom of society’s moral decay, as she once had and many other middle-class people still did, she was considering the hypothesis that labor organizing was a sign of society’s moral redemption.

The Pullman Strike also cracked her moral absolutism. In “The Settlement as a Factor” she argues for the first time that no person or group can be absolutely right or absolutely wrong. “Life teaches us,” she writes, that there is “nothing more inevitable than that right and wrong are most confusingly mixed; that the blackest wrong [can be] within our own motives.” When we triumph, she adds, we bear “the weight of self-righteousness.” In other words, no one—not unions and working-class people, not businesses and middle-class people, not settlement workers and other middle-class reformers—could claim to hold or ever could hold the highest moral ground. The absolute right did not exist.

For Addams, rejecting moral absolutism was a revolutionary act. She had long believed that a single true, moral way existed and that a person, in theory, could find it. This conviction was her paternal inheritance (one recalls her father’s Christian perfectionism) and her social-cultural inheritance. Moral absolutism was the rock on which her confident Anglo-American culture was grounded. (It is also the belief that most sets the nineteenth century in the West apart from the twenty-first century.) Now she was abandoning that belief. In the territory of her mind, tectonic plates were shifting and a new land mass of moral complexity was arising.

In the fall of 1894, as she was writing “The Settlement as a Factor,” this new perspective became her favorite theme. In October she warned the residents of another newly opened settlement, Chicago Commons, “not to be alarmed,” one resident recalled, “if we found our ethical standards broadening as we became better acquainted with the real facts of the lives of our neighbors.” That same month, speaking to supporters of the University of Chicago Settlement, she hinted again at the dangers of moral absolutism. Do not, she said, seek “to do good.” Instead, simply try to understand life. And when a group of young men from the neighborhood told her they proposed to travel to New York City that fall to help end political corruption and spoke disdainfully of those who were corrupt, she admonished them against believing that they were purer than others and asked them if they knew what harm they did in assuming that they were right and others were wrong.

What had she seen during the Pullman Strike that led to this new awareness? She had seen the destructive force of George Pullman’s moral self-righteousness. It seemed to her that his lack of self-doubt, that is, his unwillingness to negotiate, had produced a national tragedy; his behavior and its consequences had revealed the evil inherent in moral absolutism. In Twenty Years she writes of how, in the midst of the strike’s worst days, as she sat by her dying sister’s bedside, she was thinking about “that touch of self-righteousness which makes the spirit of forgiveness well-nigh impossible.”

She grounded her rejection of absolute truth in her experience. “Life teaches us,” she wrote. This was as revolutionary for her as the decision itself. In “Subjective Necessity” she had embraced experience as a positive teacher in a practical way. Here she was allowing experience to shape her ethics. The further implication was that ethics might evolve, but the point is not argued in “The Settlement as a Factor.” Still, in her eyes ideas no longer had the authority to establish truth that they once had. Her pragmatism was strengthening, but it had not yet blossomed into a full-fledged theory of truth.

The Pullman Strike taught her in a compelling way that moral absolutism was dangerous, but she had been troubled by its dangers before. She had made her own mistakes and, apparently, a whole train of them related to self-righteousness. The details have gone unrecorded, but they made her ready to understand, and not afterwards forget, something James O. Huntington, the Episcopal priest who had shared the podium with her at the Plymouth conference, had said in a speech at Hull House the year before the strike. “I once heard Father Huntington say,” she wrote in 1901, that it is “the essence of immorality to make an exception of one’s self.” She elaborated. “[T]o consider one’s self as … unlike the rank and file is to walk straight into the pit of self-righteousness.” As Addams interpreted Huntington, he meant there was no moral justification for believing in one’s superiority, not even a belief that one was right and the others wrong.

A deeply held, central moral belief is like a tent pole: it influences the shape of the entire tent that is a person’s thought. A new central belief is like a taller or shorter tent pole; it requires the tent to take a new shape. The tent stakes must be moved. Jane Addams had decided there was no such thing as something or someone that was purely right or purely wrong, but the rest of her thought had yet to be adjusted. Among other things, she still believed that a person of high culture was superior to those who lacked it; that is, she still believed that cultural accomplishment could justify self-righteousness.

Some hints of this can be found in the adjectives Addams attaches to democracy in “The Settlement as a Factor.” After proposing that the workers might lead the ethical movement of democracy, she anticipates the fear her readers might feel at this idea. “We must learn to trust our democracy,” she writes, “giant-like and threatening as it may appear in its uncouth strength and untried applications.” Addams was edging toward trusting that working-class people, people without the cultural training in “the best,” could set their own course. Such trust, should she embrace it, would require her to go beyond her old ideas—her enthusiasm for egalitarian social etiquette, for the principle of cooperation, and for the ideal of a unified humanity. Not feeling such trust yet, she was unable to give working people’s power a ringing endorsement. The essay is therefore full of warnings about the negative aspects of the labor movement.

These radical claims—that the labor movement was or could become ethical, that the movement was engaged in a struggle that advanced society morally, that capitalists were greedy and ethically compromised, and that there was no absolute right or wrong—opened up a number of complicated issues. Addams decided she needed to write a separate essay—would it be a speech?—to make these points more fully and to make them explicitly, as honesty compelled her to do, about the Pullman strike. Sometime in 1894, she began to write it. A page from the first draft, dated that year, survives with the title “A Modern Tragedy.” In its first paragraph she writes that, because we think of ourselves as modern, “it is hard to remember that the same old human passions persist” and can often lead to “tragedy.” She invited her readers to view “one of these great tragedies” from “the historic perspective,” to seek an “attitude of mental detachment” and “stand aside from our personal prejudices.” Still grieving over what had happened, Addams was hoping that the wisdom of culture, of the humanities, of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy could give her the comfort of emotional distance. But she had pulled too far back. The opening was so blandly vague and philosophical that no one could tell what the essay was about. She set the piece aside.

On the Animated GIF and the V-P Debate

In On the Animation of the Inorganic: Art, Architecture, and the Extensions of Life, Sypros Papapetros argues for an abridged history of animated life, locating the “peripheral” and “eccentric” animated objects at the margins of modernism someplace between Freud’s overdetermined elements and diagrammatic, simulating metaphors of life and movement. He willingly takes on the complimentarity between subject and object that animation infers (at one point citing the response of a young victim to a kind of Pokémon hysteria induced by the rapid flashes and hypercolor intensity of the Japanese cartoon as a seizure both “spatiotemporal and epistemological”). Positing the animation of inanimate objects as part of a deeper project of how twentieth-century modernist culture repressed empathy, Papapetros suggests that the animation of the image comes at the expense of its human subject—which got us to thinking.

Watching the commentary—literally watching, since so much is the product of YouTube clips and re-Tumbled images—following last night’s vice-presidential debate has been a stupefying morning experience. My brain has long since been trained to ride the contours of Papapetros’s epistemological shockwaves—more often saturated than not by animated-GIF culture and the new media aesthetic, I’m more profoundly taken aback when my generation’s response to realtime socio-poliltical engagements takes a detour from fragmentation (screengrabs, Twitter), ornamentation (digital manipulation of images), repetition (memes), or juxtaposition:

Tumblr “live-GIFFED” the debate last night, and responses were immediate and forthcoming—part of this “new” aesthetic could be said to argue for the speed at which these GIFs circulate, displacing the circuits of a lost high-art superhighway, and discombobulating the relationships between animate and inanimate, subject and object. Papapetros writes on William Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy (1907), and like Worringer, cites the polarity between abstraction and empathy as “the product of two different external worlds, both of which appear to be equally treacherous.” In this sense, thinking about the rapidity of satirical GIF assemblages last night, I can’t help but consider its relationship to early Italian Futurism, with its peculiar patriotism, embrace of directional tendencies of an object through space, and the heightened emotions surrounding technology, speed, and “the smear of madness.”

The majority of GIFs circulating last night and this morning on Tumblr revealed a pro-Biden bias—so much so that part of what became jolting for me was the role of their obvious use of humor in caricaturing Paul Ryan. For turn-of-the-century thinkers like Worringer, Theodor Lipps, and Sigmund Freud, empathy is complicated perceptual process with an important and problematic relationship to our ability to abstract ourselves as subjects and negotiate otherness through shared acknowledgements that defer our own objectification. For Freud, especially, the relation between empathy and humor was incisive, if complicated. Worringer, though, thought our modern sensibility thrived in a climate of “empathic abstraction.” I follow Papapetros’s dismissal of empathy as the immediate channel of animation, and find myself taken up by his account of how “every instance of animation is complemented by an equivalent occurrence of paralysis.”

I wonder, then, if part of the har-har at Ryan’s expense is a coming-to-terms with our emotional surplus, in an era where we are pre-disposed into a cult of abstraction, or even distraction. The unfathomable navigation of internet channels—to blog and reblog, “like” and retweet—permits the image to perform a sort of infrastructural violence. At the same time, the animated GIF itself seems unlike the myth of Daphne cited by Papapetros, where excitation reaches such a level that the subject instantly freezes and is unable to react. Although in suspended motion, both Biden and Ryan can’t escape the truncated movements of these clips. Overwhelmed by the possibilities of the Internet but bound by its penchant for fragmentation, is this kind of animation, as Papapetros claims, at the expense of its subjects, no matter our own political position? Or does GIF culture, acting in its prescient sphere of spontaneity, abide by a different set of rules?

“Animism spiritualized the object, whereas industrialization objectifies the spirits of men,” wrote Adorno and Horkheimer. Papapetros takes on this notion, in a conclusion that might here be apt:

There are no truly animated objects in modernity, yet we are inundated by cartoons—mere semblances of animation that conform to Warburg’s “you live and do me nothing.” Perhaps then the paralysis or the “arthritic” effect of modern culture diagnosed by Horkheimer and Adorno is in the epistemological divisions that disallow all forms of being other than the human to live and have a language of their own.


What follows below is a list of proper nouns mentioned by Alan Gilbert, author of Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence, during an interview with 3 AM magazine:

Richard Gilbert, United States, Harvard, World War II, Wobblies, Schenley Industries, New York, Ayub Khan, Pakistan, Little Rock, Central High, New York Times, South Africa, Emma, Democrats, Taj, Americans, Adamjee, East Pakistan, West Pakistan, Ashraf Adamjee, Wouter Tim, Marx, Indian Ocean, Chestertown, Maryland, Freedom Summer, Walden School, New York, Andy Goodman, James Cheney, Michael Schwerner, Vietnam War, Bernard Fall, Denis Warner, Jean Lacouture, Stanley Hoffmann, Barrington Moore, French, German, English, Government 1a, Carl Friedrich, Max Weber, Adam Smith, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, David Hume, I. F. Stone, Herbert Marcuse, McGeorge Bundy, May 2nd Movement, London School of Economics, Ralph Miliband, Labour Party, Ecole Normale, Paris, Althusser, Montesquieu, Das Kapital, England, Michael Walzer, Dita Skhlar, Artistotle, Hilary Putnam, John Rawls, Dick Boyd, SDS, Alan Garfinkel, Forms of Explanation, Norm Daniels, Cornell, Nick Sturgeon, Richard Miller, David Lyons, American Council of Learned Societies, Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens, Leo Strauss, Karl Loewith, the Right, Adolf Hitler, Plato, Thomas Hobbes, J. J. Rousseau, Alex Rosenberg, the Iliad, Simone Weil, Chicago, Africa, Obama, Bin Laden, Goldman Sachs, Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Spain, Occupy, Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, Karl Loewith, Constitution, Bob Goldwin, Mike Malbin, Dick Cheney, Scott Horton, Eugene Shepperd, Michael Zank, William Altman, Shylock, Fagin, Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Brown vs. Board of Education, Charles Percy, Cuba, the American President, Bradley Manning, Iraq War, Americanism, Evangelicism, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Awlaki, Jack Balkin, Ron Paul, British Tories, Andrew Sullivan, Bob Barr, Condi Rice, Democratic Individuality, Magna Carta, Law Lords, Catholic Church, Spirit of the Laws, Gilbert Harman, Socrates, Meno, American South, Ku Klux Klan, John Woolman, John Laurens, Thomas Peters, Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence, Lincoln, Thomas Hobbes, George Washington, Gabriel Prosser, the Republic, Thrasymachus, the Adamjee Jute Mill, Brian Leiter, Bangladesh, Hilary Putnam, Democratic Individuality, Martin Luther King, Thich Nat Hanh, Vienna, Jean-Paul Sartre, Charles Taylor, Vichy, the Riviera, G. A. Cohen, the Communist Manifesto, Engels, the Eighteenth Brumaire, Genealogy of Morals, Politics as a Vocation, 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, Mayor Bloomberg, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, National Labor Relations Act, Flint, San Francisco, Harry Bridges, National Guard, Wisconsin, May Day, the Second International, Haymarket, Civil Rights Acts, Vincent Harding, Memphis, Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy, International Working Men’s Association, Hans Morganthau, George Kennan, Robert Gilpin, Robert Keohane, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Michel Foucault, A Theory of Justice, Rupert Murdoch, Jacopo Arbenz, Guatemala, ITT, Salvador Allende, Law of Peoples, David Levine, Blackwater, Xe Corporation, Yitzhak Perlman, Stradivarius, C. P. Snow, Henry Giroux, Max Planck, Denver, Koch Brothers, National Public Radio, Mitt Romney, Michigan, Libya, Hilary Clinton, Class Struggles in France, Gaza, Tom Farer, J. J. Cohen, Edward Said, Desmond Tutu, John Locke, Alexander Hamilton, the Alien and Sedition Acts, French Revolution, Saint Domingue, Bordeaux, Jacobins, Patriot Act, Andrew Goodman, Freedom Summer, James Cheney, Michael Schwerner, Toussint L’Ouverture, John Woolman, Quakers, Geneva, Continental Congress, Michelle Alexander, Samuel Hopkins, First Rhode Island Regiment, Moors, Federalist Papers, Shays Rebellion, Gary Nash, Race and Revolution, Barrington Moore, Robin Blackburn, Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, Noam Chomsky, Diane Coyle, Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness, Barbara Deming, Revolution and Equilibrium, Franz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Eyes on the Prize, Youtube.

Introducing Dixy Lee Ray (1914-94): marine biologist, professor, member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (appointed by Dick Nixon — she was a [very] conservative Democrat), governor of Washington state. Also? One-time inhabitant of “a 28-foot motor-home in suburban Maryland, with her deerhound and miniature poodle.”
(From Marcel C. LaFollette’s continuing series on women, science, and celebrity at the Smithsonian’s Bigger Picture blog)
This intrigued us — the deerhound, the motor-home, the Oppenheimer and Mount St. Helens overlap, the idiosyncratic politics — so we went on a Google-image search, which culminated in this 1977 op-ed political cartoon by Ray Collins, which styles Dixy as a Marge Schott qua Miss America, and her 1976 campaign poster, which offers a more feminist take on the day (O, the times! O, the eternities!):

Introducing Dixy Lee Ray (1914-94): marine biologist, professor, member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (appointed by Dick Nixon — she was a [very] conservative Democrat), governor of Washington state. Also? One-time inhabitant of “a 28-foot motor-home in suburban Maryland, with her deerhound and miniature poodle.”

(From Marcel C. LaFollette’s continuing series on women, science, and celebrity at the Smithsonian’s Bigger Picture blog)

This intrigued us — the deerhound, the motor-home, the Oppenheimer and Mount St. Helens overlap, the idiosyncratic politics — so we went on a Google-image search, which culminated in this 1977 op-ed political cartoon by Ray Collins, which styles Dixy as a Marge Schott qua Miss America, and her 1976 campaign poster, which offers a more feminist take on the day (O, the times! O, the eternities!):

image  image

… .

Enter Maria Wyke’s Caesar: A Life in Western Culture, which produces a Caesar for our own times: lustful, contested, and complicated; (im)postured by everyone from Tacitus to Mussolini to the directors of HBO’s Rome; a cipher as ever-changing as the times. For the ides, which we’re doing our best to beware, read an excerpt about Caesar in light of fame and fable.

“Been down the road to Damascus/The road to Mandalay./Met the ghost of Caesar on the Appian Way./He said, “It’s hard to stop this binging, once you get a taste./But the road to empire is a bloody stupid waste.”

There are worse things in life than to be quoted by the Eagles (?). One of these things might be NPR reducing the doyenne of modernism to her “Julius Caesar-style” haircut, but in 1934, while on a lecture tour of the United States, Gertrude Stein relegated her bob to that same description (as did Catherine R. Stimpson in the excellent short essay “The Somagrams of Gertrude Stein”).

All hail?                                                                                

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Recently, in light of the tenth anniversary of the events that unfolded on September 11, 2001, discourse in the American public sphere has centered on a remembrance of what was lost that day. Yet, at the same time, many darker elements of the national psyche have also been confronted: reckoning the health plight of rescue workers, for instance, and questioning exploitation of the events for any war or terror produced in their wake with a clarity produced in hindsight.

At Chicago, we bear in mind the lessons gleaned from David Simpson’s 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration, which examines the paradoxical nature of American reactions following the event, from angles of aestheticization, exploitation, and appropriation. Simpson’s book, which expands on several essays published in the London Review of Books, analyzes our responses to the events of that September morning with the persuasive sweep of humanities scholarship, ultimately using the tools of this cultural knowledge to help us digest the tragedy and its deep and wide-sweeping consequences.

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At the University of Chicago, the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) , a social science research group dedicated to advancing knowledge of international security and terrorism, has put together… .

Read more at the Chicago Blog.

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Just prior to the Labor Day holiday, Eric L. Santner, Press author and Philip and Ida Romberg Professor of Modern Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago, was in touch with some compelling observations on recent debates over taxation; the Republican penchant for religious thinking; and controversies over purity, job creation, and other new spirits of capitalism. Santner’s most recent book The Royal Remains: The People’s Two Bodies and the Endgames of Sovereignty (reviewed here at Bookslut) indeed touches upon the foundation of these issues, often in pursuit of the vital metaphor of the king’s lost body, throughout the difficult transition from subjecthood to secularity in the psyches of democratic societies. Read Santner’s essay in full at the Chicago Blog.