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Freedom and Dialogue in a Polarized World

Sharon Schuman

Freedom and Dialogue in a Polarized World argues that our most cherished ideas about freedom—being left alone to do as we please, or uncovering the truthhave failed us. They promote the polarized thinking that blights our world. Rooted in literature, political theory and Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories of language, this book introduces a new concept: dialogic freedom. This concept combats polarization by inspiring us to feel freer the better able we are to see from the perspectives of others.

To say that freedom is dialogic is to apply to it an idea about language. If you and I are talking, I anticipate from you a response that could be friendly, hostile, or indifferent, and this awareness helps determine what I say. If you look bored or give me a blank stare, I might not say anything at all. In this sense language is dialogic. The same can be said of freedom. Our decisions take into account the voices of others to which we feel answerable, and these voices coauthor our choices.

In today’s polarized world, prevailing concepts of freedom as autonomy and enlightenment have encouraged us to take refuge in echo chambers among the like-minded. Whether the subject is abortion, terrorism, or gun control, these concepts encourage us to shut out the voices of those who dare to disagree. We need a new way to think about freedom.
Freedom and Dialogue in a Polarized World presents riveting moments of choice from Homer’s Iliad, Dante’s Inferno, Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Melville’sBenito Cereno,” Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” and Morrison’s Beloved, in order to advocate reading for and with dialogic freedom. It ends with a practical application to the debate about abortion and an invitation to rethink other polarizing issues.

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University Press Copublishing Division / University of Delaware Press
Pages: 268Size: 6 x 9
978-1-61149-462-4 • Hardback • December 2013 • $84.00 • (£54.95)
978-1-61149-602-4 • Paperback • February 2016 • $39.99 • (£24.95)
978-1-61149-463-1 • eBook • December 2013 • $37.99 • (£24.95)
Sharon Schuman taught literature and interdisciplinary seminars at Deep Springs College, Willamette University, University of Oregon, and Oregon State University.

1. Introducing Dialogic Freedom
2. A Father Begs for his Son’s Corpse in the Iliad
3. Passion and Freedom in Dante’s Inferno
4. Deaf to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice
5. The Virtuosity of Satan in Paradise Lost
6. Shaping the Master’s Vision in “Benito Cereno”
7. The Grand Inquisitor’s Silent Christ
8. Goading a Reader of “In the Penal Colony”`
9. Freedom Under Impossible Conditions in Beloved
10. Freedom Under Construction in a Polarized World
Appendix A: Theoretical Roots of Dialogic Freedom
Appendix B: Discussion Guide for Teachers, Students, and Book Groups
"To see true dialogue as a way of allowing conflicting voices to hear and understand one another is to offer hope of some resolution in our current world of polarization and impasse. Sharon's book on Freedom and Dialogue in a Polarized World does just that, by taking us back to some great debates of literary art, like Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, in which dialogic freedom takes the liberating form of seeking out a continuum of layers of knowing, as Portia and Shylock fail to navigate a way of transcending the hostility and cultural deafness that holds them apart. This thoughtful book is timely in the best sense."
David Bevington, Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, University of Chicago

“In 1919, a dark year for Europe full of dire pronouncements on the ‘crisis of culture,’ Mikhail Bakhtin began to develop an arsenal of precious philosophical ideas by which civilization might better live: intuitive empathy, dialogue, a carnival fearlessness and sense of the cosmic whole, the unfinalizability of consciousness. Over the next three decades he illustrated their dynamics through the literary genius of Dostoevsky, Goethe, Rabelais. Sharon Schuman’s book adopts a similar technique. In successive chapters, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Toni Morrison provide the lens and morally textured background for the “life of an idea” that Schuman has fashioned out of Bakhtinian materials to address our present culture’s crisis of freedom. It is a conceptual crisis peculiar to a free society (in Stalinist Russia, Bakhtin would have gazed on it in wonder). The two definitions Schuman considers foundational in the West—freedom as autonomy and freedom as enlightenment—must be supplemented by a concept less devoted to the static comfort zone of each person’s individual rights and belief. Moving with the dissonant other, she suggests, is possible, interesting, and wise. Decision-making and freedom are both “two-sided acts.” An outsiderly or “alien” view on things is essential to our own. As the reader gradually and gratefully comes to see, assimilating these insights through literature makes them not just politically relevant, but immortal.”

Caryl Emerson, A. Watson Armour III University Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Princeton University