The Child of the Marketplace Metaphor

Since the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, organized in covenants as a joint stock company, imagined themselves a mystic brotherhood reborn in the body of Christ, American history has progressed under the sway of two, conflicting vocabularies. One, the language of exterior, marketplace relations, takes the contract as its master symbol. The other, the language of interior religious and psychological experience, centers around regeneration. The first vocabulary is economic,the second is familial.

At first both vocabularies defended the Puritan community against an alien wilderness. In time, however, American identity shifted from the Puritan God and his European interests to new world nature and her products. The search for visible signs of God’s grace, combined with the material reality of nature, turned the Puritans toward economic acquisition on the one hand and the American landscape on the other. The original religious communities disintegrated in the process. What happened to the two vocabularies of American self-image, and what role does nature play in their development?

Political science is the child of the marketplace metaphor, and finds the religious language of inner division and rebirth an alien one….

Contractual relations in society have formed the classics of American politics, rebirth in nature the classics of American literature. The political tradition that comes down to us from Franklin and Madison to such moderns as Daniel Boorstin and Robert Dahl pictures an America of individual and group conflicts, rational bargaining, and the struggle for concrete, material interests. This tradition ties the special destiny of America to politics, but politics of a peculiarly narrow sort. Derived from economic categories, it is characterized by economic and ethnic conflict,racial, sexual, and philosophic uniformity.

The literary tradition evolves from Charles Brockden Brown through Cooper, Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, and Twain, to such moderns as William Faulkner and Norman Mailer. Here the major actions take place not insociety but in nature, and racial division and emotional intensity replace social interdependence. Here the asocial innocent, searching for a lostpastoral idyll, encounters despair, nightmare, and wilderness apocalypse.Here America’s special destiny is fulfilled in nature. Richard Hofstadter’s American Political Tradition is the best description of the one America; D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature is the seminal exposure of the other.  The two books seem to describe entirely different countries.


Thus begins an academic paper by Michael Paul Rogin titled “Nature as Politics and Nature as Romance in America” published in Political Theory in 1977.  Don’t you want to read more?  Fascinating right?  I mean, if you look at it as Rogin presents above you’d have to say that a vast amount of Americans sing only one song–the economic one that is sung to them from birth and still finds lyric resonance in our “Lemonade Day” celebrations of the marketplace metaphor.

Where is your artistic, psychological, familial regeneration, America?  Why have we sublimated and repressed a deep current in our human (and national) being?

Read a book not written by a founding economist but one written by a founding artist.  Turn off the digital imaging memory eraser and open up a novel or short story or book of poems.  Then, you know, maybe talk to somebody about it.

If you don’t you are only singing one song, only hearing one song….


Two bleak poems by Mark Strand

“The One Song”

I prefer to sit all day
like a sack in a chair
and to lie all night
like a stone in my bed.

When food comes
I open my mouth.
When sleep comes
I close my eyes.

My body sings
only one song;
the wind turns
gray in my arms.

Flowers bloom
Flowers die

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More is less.
I long for more.


“Coming to This”

We have done what we wanted.
We have discarded dreams, preferring the heavy industry
of each other, and we have welcomed grief
and called ruin the impossible habit to break.

And now we are here.
The dinner is ready and we cannot eat.
The meat sits in the white lake of its dish.
The wine waits.

Coming to this
has its rewards: nothing is promised, nothing is taken away.
We have no heart or saving grace,
no place to go, no reason to remain.

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  1. meech May 20, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    I saw a pileated woodpecker while mountain biking in the woods of Brown county this evening. Mr. Paul Zimmer would label him a contender, as he writes in this entertaining piece:

    Old Woodpecker

    Mr Zimmer also writes about other birds:
    A Romance for the Wild Turkey

    Which leads to this hearty recommendation for fathers of all species:


    1. Douglas Storm May 21, 2012 at 6:47 am

      That documentary looks very interesting, Meech. Thanks for the links–more than one song indeed!

  2. focus May 20, 2012 at 11:44 pm

    I remember the “One Song” poem. Very bleak and stark.

    It is easy to stay with one song–the hard part is finding other melodies or going as far as choosing to sing the harmony–so out of the ordinary. The daily grind shackles. It is the brief excursions out of the mundane day to day sameness that elevate the experience–your music class picnic for example.

    1. Douglas Storm May 21, 2012 at 6:50 am

      And as “meech” notes in his biking through nature. But he knows too that on his metal machine (though powered by his body) in the woods he is a stranger in a strange land and that he is there to visit and not to BE.

      how do we gather these “excursions” (wordsworth, focus?) into full time living?

      1. focus May 21, 2012 at 10:12 pm

        I think in many ways it comes back to time. We seem to never have enough of it. We have found so many activities that waste time. In our never-ending search for more conveniences to save time we have ended up with poorer use of the time we have (which is only shrinking as we are distracted more and more.)
        Fast food–is it better to wait in line for pre-cooked, adulterated garbage or spend that same amount of car-sitting allotted time making a sandwich the night before? Is it better to shop at the gargantuan grocery store that sells everything from tires to cereal and spend hours to buy in large quantities to “save trips” to the store or better to spend a small amount of time in a quality local market interacting with local farmers and buying just what you need? We have smart phones so we can check email, internet at any time or place. We can have games, movies etc. on the tiny handheld screen at any time. What purpose interaction with another person when I have all the entertainment I need on my phone? I am “connected” to so many “friends” in a virtual relationship– why spend the time on the ones I can actually see face to face? The excursions must be chosen wisely and the distractions shunned. Then the ratios must be changed to favor the excursions over the distractions. Paraphrase Leary– tune out (the distractions), turn off (the internet) and drop in (on some friends.

  3. meech May 21, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    I think we did that in the ’70’s. I’m not sure what the result was but we gathered them and it felt good and then we became the most obese nation on earth. We’re very clever really. Big brains. These vast distances don’t take a lot of work and after a while we forget they’re even there.

    1. Douglas Storm May 21, 2012 at 10:14 pm

      wisdom. a diet of nothing but corn by-products delivered in corn cardboard and corn and oil based plastics makes Jack Sprat and his wife quite fat…even if they were mobile they might still be packing on the diabetes laden pounds.

      What is there to do when there is nothing left to do?

  4. dpopp May 22, 2012 at 9:03 am

    Nothing left to do is unsustainable.

    1. Douglas Storm May 22, 2012 at 9:44 am

      and here I thought that was true sustainability!


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