Though Whitman was long identified as a champion of liberal democratic individualism, many scholars during the past couple decades have argued that Whitman’s preference for synthesis rather than difference, a poetics of presence rather than absence, and above all, a mastering gaze, compromise his democratic social vision before he finishes articulating it. This essay turns to Whitman’s major meta-poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” in order to query both of these standard readings. It proposes, instead, that the relationship between Whitman’s poetics and politics be understood in terms of a social ontology that cedes the need to know others, which too easily can become an assertion of mastery, in favor of a proto-political being-with-others in the conceptual space of the poem and beyond. It contrasts Whitman’s concept of “eligibility” with Hegel’s concept of “recognition” (a concept that has continued to exert major influence over contemporary theorists of social ontologies like Judith Butler). Whitman affirms the “eligibility” of “any one” to “belong” without first being submitted to an epistemological process like “recognition.” This commitment to a form of being-with that accepts the other without insisting on first knowing or defining the other’s identity stands at the core of Whitman’s understanding of sociality and democracy.
""'We fathom you not – we love you': Walt Whitman’s Social Ontology and Radical Democracy","
Criticism: Vol. 56
, Article 3.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/criticism/vol56/iss4/3