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Diffusion and Politeness in Democracy in America

In this passage from Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1840 survey of American society, Democracy in America, he predominantly draws on Michael Warner’s model of “diffusion,” although there are still emergent aspects of “politeness” within the text.

Within Warner’s Letters of the Republic, there is a prominent focus on the idea that diffuse letters create equality of rank, and this focus percolates throughout this passage of de Tocqueville’s text. “As soon as land began to be held on any other than a feudal tenure, and personal property could in its turn confer influence and power, every discovery in the arts, every improvement in commerce of manufactures, created so many new elements of equality among men.” During the era of early national discourse, when feudalism had died out, all components of art and capitalism worked to create equality. They were “steps towards a general leveling.” De Tocqueville speaks of the “pages” of history, which “promoted equality of condition.” This reference to literary pages which uphold equality supports the prevailing themes of “diffusion” in the passage.

Another idea of “diffusion” that features prominently in this Democracy in America passage is the accessibility of diffuse letters to all citizens. “From the time when the exercise of the intellect became a source of strength and of wealth, we see that every addition to science, every fresh truth, and every new idea became a germ of power placed within the reach of the people.” Information, the in form of diffused letters, becomes the source of power that every individual person, theoretically regardless of ranking, can access. This passage can be seen as congruent to Benedict Anderson’s idea about “horizontal comradeship” (Anderson 4). The social organization of egalitarianism is correspondent with “diffusion” in Anderson, as it is for De Tocqueville and Warner. De Tocqueville discusses the point when “literature became an arsenal open to all.” This is a clear understanding of literature in terms of diffusion.

In the model of “diffusion,” there is no distinction between politics and print. This point is extremely evident in the passage. De Tocqueville’s passage presents literary art as “turned to the advantage of democracy.” Warner asserts that diffusion is a “politicized understanding of letters” (Warmer 123). The “political utility of letters” does not impart significance on “great literary acquirements,” but rather on their social distribution (Warner 123). Warner exemplifies several acts of legislation to show how “republican categories of literature and diffusion were finding their way into law” (Warner 127). Lawmakers understood the power that newspaper circulation had over the public arena. Thus, the emphasis in this passage on the facilitation of democracy by the distribution of ideas is impeccably in sync with Warner’s model of diffusion. In the republican ideology of literature, “its conquests spread, therefore, with those of civilization and knowledge.”

The emphasis in diffusion is on public participation rather than private appropriation – and the passage thoroughly supports this mode of thought. De Tocqueville imagines literature as “an arsenal open to all.” Warner’s model of “diffusion” likewise examines letters as widespread throughout citizens. This is Anderson’s “mass ceremony” of reading (Anderson 35). “Literature is possessed not just by persons, but by peoples” (Warner 122). Therefore, diffusion sees literature as a tool of the public citizen rather than the private person. According to Warner, the value of literature is “distributive rather than proper, general rather than private” (Warner 122). Unlike politeness, in which personal and exclusive modes of reading are accentuated, diffusion gives merit to the public contribution and utilization of letters. “The values of literature were defined in opposition to private appropriation and distinction” (Warner 131-2).

This passage also corresponds with the conception that the diffusion of letters renders the prevalence of civic virtue. Warner writes about the ignorant, whom “are necessarily minds without letters,” and details the existence of an anxiety over this idea (Warner 126). This anxiety exposes a concern “that the public sphere be identical with the realm of letters” (Warner 126). The virtue of the community is highlighted over the virtue of the individual. “The emphasis is on ‘useful’ knowledge and on the socializing influence of letters” (Warner 127). Literature in terms of diffusion is social, broad, and general, rather than individualized.

On the other hand, there are also spots of the model of “politeness” in de Tocqueville’s text, although they are minimal in in comparison to the dispersion of “diffusion.” The passage speaks of “poetry, eloquence, and memory, the graces of the mind, the fire of imagination, depth of thought, and all the gifts which Heaven scatters at a venture.” These are all ideas of fine writing, which is against the “antiaesthetic tendency” of “diffusion.” Politeness uses literature as a standard of artistic appreciation, with an emphasis on luxury and leisure. The value of letters is so intertwined with public benefit that it is easy to see how “fine writing could come to be associated with the dangers of luxury” (Warner 127). This section of the passage seems to draw upon the polite model of stylistic achievement and artistic finesse, despite the overriding prevalence of “diffusion.”

This passage of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is therefore an amalgamation of a preponderant idea of “diffusion” and a lesser but still extant idea of “politeness.” It compellingly demonstrates Michael Warner’s portrayal of “diffusion” as equalizing, accessible, political, and communal. Although this passage also touches upon the contrasting model of “politeness” in its aesthetic tendency, it is effectively relevant to “diffusion.”