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The Creativity of Reform: Frederick Douglass’s Philosophical Imagination (2019-2021)

Dustin Breitenwischer, Research Area 1: "Competing Communities"
Postdoctoral Research Project

Centering on the idea of competing intellectual, political and cultural communities, this project investigates the philosophical imagination of Frederick Douglass, arguably one of the most influential and (in)famous voices in the long history of U.S. reform movements. The project essentially argues that Douglass understands social and political reform as modes of creative and aesthetic intervention, resistance, and, ultimately, transformation. "The Creativity of Reform” unfolds against the backdrop of late-twentieth-century debates about creativity in the social sciences and the humanities. However, while scholars in these fields have sought to delineate the cultural-historical origins of an all-encompassing modern imperative to be creative, the trans- and interdisciplinary analyses of creativity mostly remain to be restricted to a specifically romantic and/or utilitarian understanding of creative imagination and practice. In contrast, this projects adds to those studies in the fields of American cultural and literary studies that focus on the ways in which marginalized and essentially dehumanized subjects—figures like the African American reformer Frederick Douglass—have challenged, resisted, and revised romantic conceptualizations of poetic genius that have crucially shaped U.S. culture since the early and mid-nineteenth century. The project explores and reassesses the philosophical impact of Douglass's autobiographies, his speeches and lectures, his media-theoretical writings and the visual archive of his self-portraits. In in-depth 're-readings' of Douglass’s portraits and a vast number of his writings (including seminal writings of some of his philosophical contemporaries and successors), the project aims to carve out and potentially deconstruct the tense relationship between the aesthetic and anthropological premises of white supremacy on the one hand, and the improbabilities of Black ingenuity in the United States and beyond on the other. In this line of thought, "The Creativity of Reform” not only intends to illuminate a vital but insufficiently discussed facet of Douglass’s thinking. It furthermore seeks to enhance the composition of a comprehensive cultural history of reform and creativity in the Black diaspora.