Headnote: I was scheduled to present at the American Comparative Literature Association meeting in Chicago on March 20th. Obviously, the meeting got cancelled. The session was on “Aesthetic Education” and the panel members were all asked to read Joseph North’s recent book Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Harvard UP, 2017) and an essay by Michael Clune entitled “Judgment and Equality” (Critical Inquiry, 2018). After reading the Clune essay, I was moved to write the response posted below. I think it is fairly self-explanatory, even if you haven’t read the Clune essay. After writing this response, I discovered that Clune had offered a shorter version of his plea for the authority of experts (and polemic against equality in matters of judgment) in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece that generated a fair amount of hostile response. (You can easily find these pieces on line by googling Clune’s name.) In particular, the hostility came from the fact that conservative New York Times pundit, Ross Douhat, wrote favorably about Clune’s position on the op-ed page of the Times. Doubtless, Clune was chagrined to see his argument, which he thought was radically leftist, embraced by a right-wing writer. But I don’t know that he should have been particularly surprised; to question–or to think about limiting–the claims of democratic equality is always going to play to the right’s fundamental commitment to reining in equality and democracy wherever it rears its dangerous head. In any case, it is to the anti-democratic implications of Clune’s argument that my piece responds to. I will post some thoughts on North’s book in the next few days.
In November 2008, a week after the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, I was in a New York city room full of bankers and hedge fund managers leading a discussion on the implications of that election. The financiers were horrified; they earnestly told the gathering that Obama and a Democratic Congress, led by Nancy Pelosi were know-nothings who, through their ignorant meddling, were about to ruin American economic prosperity. These men—and of course they were all men—were completely unshaken in their conviction of their competence even following the financial collapse of the previous month. A portrait of expertise in action, offering a strong case for why the rule of experts must be tempered by the oversight of the demos. Every profession is a conspiracy against the laity, George Bernard Shaw famously warned us.
Democracy means many things, but one of its many entailments is that elites must subject themselves to the judgment of the masses. As experts we can deplore the ignorance of the non-initiated, but in a democracy authority is not to be had as a gift but must be earned. Democracy is a supremely rhetorical political form. Any one, including the expert, who has a position they want the polity to act upon must convince a majority of her fellow citizens to endorse that policy. Persuasion is the name of the game; and saying it again, just louder this time and standing on my credentials as an expert, is not a very effective rhetorical move. There is a deep anti-authoritarian bias in the demos—and we should celebrate that fact. Democracy, as Winston Churchill said, has some very obvious flaws, but it sure beats all the alternatives.
The right has eaten the left’s lunch for some forty years now. We people of the left can scream that it hasn’t been a fair fight, but that still doesn’t provide any justification for retreating from the democratic arena into a petulant insistence on our being correct and the misled masses being wrong. The technocracy of the EU may be somewhat preferable to the plutocracy of the US, but the “democratic deficit” is real in both cases. Maybe democracy is always a battle between elites for endorsement from the general populace. If that is the case, and if violence is not considered a viable or desirable alternative, then the rhetorical battle for the hearts and minds of the people is where all the action is. It makes no sense in such a battle to begin by maligning the judgment of those people. Depending on the capacity of the people to judge for themselves is the foundational moment of faith in a democratic society. Yes, as Clune reminds, us, Karl Marx refuses to make that leap of faith. Do we really want to follow Marx down that anti-democratic path?
Marx, after all, also warns us that every ruling elite indulges itself with the sweet conviction that it acts in the interests of all. We, those business men I spent the evening with told themselves, are the “universal class” because we bring the blessings of economic plenty to all. In their utter belief in their own goodness, I saw a mirror image of myself and my leftist friends. If we don’t for a moment want bankers to avoid accountability to the people they claim to serve, why would we think we deserve an exemption. Listen to your academic colleagues rant about the vocabulary of assessment and outcomes when applied to what happens in the classroom—and you will hear an echo of what I listened to that night in New York. Who dares to question the effectiveness of what transpires on our college campuses?
Kenneth Burke picked up the term “professional deformation” from John Dewey. He used it to highlight the blindness that accompanies immersion in a discipline. I think Clune is right to present judgment as emerging from the practices and institutions of a discipline. (“[T]o show someone the grounds of a given judgment is to educate them in the field’s characteristic practices,” he writes .) The oddity of his position, it seems to me, is that he takes this Kuhnian point as a reason to enhance our faith in the judgments of those encased in a paradigm. That strikes me as a very odd reading of Kuhn, taking his book as a celebration of “normal science” instead of a meditation on the difficulty of intellectual revolution because of the blinders normal science imposes. It is only a bit exaggerated, in my view, to see Kuhn as telling us that textbooks devour their readers and turn them into mindless conformists. Yes, Clune nods to the fact that communities of practitioners “can and do manifest bias and thus serve as sites of oppression” (918), but he seems to think acknowledgment of that fact is enough to render it harmless, appealing to an unspecified “broad range of measures” (919) that can compensate for the potential oppressions. But I read Kuhn as suggesting that it is precisely the young, the uninitiated, the outsiders (in other words, those who are least embedded in the community of practice, or even non-members of it), who are most likely to disturb its complacency, its confidence in its judgments and its blindness to its biases and oppressions. Let’s remember Foucault’s lessons about the power of disciplines. All concentrations of power are to be distrusted, which is another reason (besides a discipline’s in-built blind spots) to advocate for the subjection of expert judgments to external review—and not simply external review by other members of the community in question. I am a firm believer in the 80/20 rule; spend 80% of your effort in mastering your discipline; spend 20% of your time in wide-ranging reading and activities that are completely unrelated to that discipline. And then use that 20% to break open your discipline’s inbreeding.
I am fully sympathetic with Clune’s desire to find in aesthetics an alternative to the norms and values of commercial society. And that position does seem to entail a commitment to aesthetic education as the site when that alternative can be experienced and embraced. I also believe that the democratic commitment to the people’s right to judge the prescriptions and advice of the experts does make the need for an educated citizenry a priority for our schools and universities. The liberal arts curriculum should be aimed at making citizens more competent judges. It is a strong indication of the right wing’s rhetorical triumph with a section of the populace that a majority of Republicans in a recent poll agreed that universities did more harm than good. I don’t need to tell this audience that the liberal arts and the arts are under a sustained rhetorical attack.
What drives people like me and you crazy is that the attitudes adopted by the right are impervious to facts. Climate change denial has become the poster child for this despair over the ability of the demos to judge correctly or wisely. It is worth mentioning that the denigration of the liberal arts is equally fallacious, at least if the reasons to avoid humanities or arts classes are economic. All the evidence shows that humanities and arts majors, over a lifetime, do just as well economically as science and engineering and business majors. The sustained attack on the arts and humanities has more to do with a distaste for the values and capacities (for critical thinking, for sophisticated communication) they promote.
So what are we, the defenders of the aesthetic and the humanities (along with the world-view those disciplines entail), to do? Saying our piece, only louder this time, and with a statement of our credentials as experts, won’t do. Declaring our inequality, my superiority to you, should be a non-starter at a moment in history where increasing inequality is among our major problems. I, frankly, am surprised that Clune is even tempted to take that route. It comes across as pretty obvious petulance to me. Why isn’t anyone paying any attention to me? I know what’s what and they don’t. Listen up people.
In short, I stand with those who realize that judgment needs to be reconceived in ways that render it compatible with equality. Clune is undoubtedly right that some writers have failed to face squarely the fact that judgment and equality are not easily reconcilable. The problem, to put it into a nutshell, is that judgment seems to entail right and wrong, correct and incorrect, true and false. To make all judgments equivalent is akin (although it is not actually that same as) total relativity, the idea that every judgment is “right” within a specified context. Contrasted to that kind of relativism, the acceptance of the equivalence of all judgments can look even more fatuous, marked with a shrug and a “whatever.” No point arguing since there is no accounting for tastes, and no one gets to dictate your tastes to you even if they are weird, incomprehensible, obnoxious, disgusting. One’s man’s meat is another man’s poison.
Faced with such epistemological throwing in of the towel, it is not a surprise that folks keep coming back to Kant. Clune details how both Sianne Ngai and Richard Moran have recently tried to come to terms with Kant’s attempt to demonstrate that aesthetic judgments make a “demand” on others, thus raising our aesthetic preferences above a mere statement of personal taste and towards an intersubjective objectivity. Ngai, Moran, and Clune all use the term “demand” and the three translations of Kant’s Critique of Judgment I have consulted also use that term. But I will confess to preferring Hannah Arendt’s translation of Kant, even though I have never been able to find in Kant where she finds the phrase that she puts in quotation marks. For Arendt, those making an aesthetic judgment, then “woo the consent” of the other. Arendt, in other words, places us firmly back into the rhetorical space that I am arguing is central to democracy. Surprisingly, Clune never recognizes the affinity between his “community of practitioners” and Kant’s sensus communis. What Arendt calls our attention to—especially when she tells us that Kant’s Critique of Judgment is the “politics” critics claim he never got around to writing—is the fact that the sensus communis always needs to be created and its ongoing reconfiguration is the very stuff of politics. Yes, judgments are deeply indebted to and influenced by the community from which they are articulated, but that community and its practices is a moving target. Think of Wittgenstein’s image of language as a sea-going vessel that undergoes a slow, but complete, rebuild even as it never leaves the water for dry-dock. The democratic community—and its judgments on the practices of its various sub-cultures and its elites and its experts—is continually being refashioned through the public discourses that aim to sway the public in one direction or another.
How does this understanding of the scene of politics help. Clune, I think, provides a clue when he writes “For me to be convinced by the critic’s aesthetic judgment that James is interesting means not that I have evaluated the reasons for that judgment but that I’ve decided to undertake an education that promises to endow me with his or her cultural capacities” (926). What gets under-thought here is what would actually motivate such a decision. We need to invoke Aristotle in conjunction with Raymond Williams at this point. The expert—be she a climate scientist, a heterodox economist, or a Proust scholar—wants, at a minimum, to inspire trust, and, at a maximum, the auditor’s desire to join her community of practitioners, to make its common sense his own. It is not “reasons,” as Clune says, that are decisive here, but ethos. I would be willing to be that almost everyone in this room could point toward a teacher who inspired them—and inspired them exactly as the kind of person I myself wanted to become. What an aesthetic education offers is initiation into a particular “structure of feeling.” It is the attractiveness of that sensibility that our political and public rhetorics need to convey. Once again, Kant and Arendt help us here when they point to the crucial importance of the “example” to these attempts to “woo the other.” Modelling what a life lived within that structure of feeling looks like is far more potent that pronouncing from on high that Moby Dick is superior to Star Wars.
Look at this concretely. The rhetorical genius of the Republican party since Ronald Reagan has been to portray the professional, educated, upper-middle class left (who occupy then “helping professions” of doctor, lawyer, teacher, social work) as joyless scolds, continually nagging you about how all the things you do are harmful to the environment, to social harmony, to your own well-being. They have made it a political statement to drive a gas-guzzling truck while smoking a cigarette in defiance of those pious kill-joys. That’s the rhetorical battle that the left has been losing since 1980. Yes, the populace scorns our expert judgments, but that’s because they have no desire at all to be part of the communities in which those judgments are common sense. Our problem, you might say, is not how to educate—aesthetically or otherwise—those who make the decision to undertake an education, but is how to make the prospect of an education appealing to those who see it as only a constant repudiation of their own sensibilities and capacities. In short, “structures of feeling” triumph over “interests” much of the time and the left has proved spectacularly inept at modelling positive examples of the sensibility we wish to see prevail in our society.
I shouldn’t be so overwhelmingly negative about the left. The sea-change in attitudes (and public policy) toward LBGTQ citizens over the past thirty years cannot be overstated. Of course, given that attitudes are, as I have argued, a moving target, changes in any one direction are never set in stone. Constant maintenance, rearticulation, and adjustments on the fly are necessary. The task of education, of initiation into a sensibility that has come to seem “common sense,” as both attractive and right, is always there in front of us. I am simply arguing that the right wing has been more attuned to that educative task than the left. Or as I am prone to say, the left goes out and marches in the street on the weekend before returning to work on Monday while the right gets itself elected to school boards.
As a teacher, I find Ngai’s focus on “the interesting” crucial and poignant. When we call something “interesting,” we are saying it is something worry of attention, something worthy of pausing over and considering at more length. And that plea for attention is certainly at the very center of my practice as a teacher. When I declare in front of class that this or that is “interesting,” I am inviting students into a sensibility that wants to ponder the significance of the thing in question. But I am also pleading with them to take that first step—knowing that for many of them I am just another professor who incomprehensively gets excited about things to which they are supremely and irredeemably indifferent. You can’t win them all, of course. But the effort to win some of them over is endless, never fully successful, and in competition with lots of other demands on their attention.
There is, I am arguing, no other course of action open in a democratic society. We are, if you will, condemned to that rhetorical battle, attempting to woo our students, to woo the demos, to a particular sensibility, a particular vision of the good. That, I will state it nakedly, is politics. To dream of a world where expert opinion is accepted by the non-experts is to dream of salvation from politics, from its endless wrangling, its messy compromises, its inevitable mix of failures with successes. It is to desire a technocratic utopia, in which the “administration of things” replaces the conflicts of political contestation. No thank you.
Another way to say this is that politics is the inevitable result of living in a pluralistic universe. There will never be full consensus, there will never be a single vision of the good to which all subscribe, there will never be an all-encompassing and all-inclusive sensus communis. On the whole, I’d say that’s a good thing. I would hate to live in a world where everyone disagreed with me about everything. But I am convinced that a world in which everyone agreed with me about everything would be almost as bad.
But, but, but . . . climate change. Please recognize that climate change is just one in a long string of existential threats that democracy—slow, contentious, ruled by greed and passion—is deemed ill equipped to handle. Authoritarians of whatever political stripe are always going to identify a crisis that means democracy must be put on hold. The terrible attraction of war is that it negates the messy quotidian reality of pluralism. The dream is of a community united, yoked to a single overwhelming purpose, with politics suspended for the duration. Thus, that great champion of pluralism, William James, could also dream of a “moral equivalent of war.” Perhaps democracy truly is unequal to the challenge of climate change, but then the desire/need to jettison democracy should be stated openly. Otherwise, it is back to the frustrations of political wrangling, to the hard process of winning over the demos.
So, yes, I am in favor of an aesthetic education that aims to introduce students to a sensibility that finds commercial culture distasteful and (perhaps more importantly but perhaps not) unjust. And I want them to see that indifference to climate change is of a piece with the general casualness of our prevailing economic order to the sufferings of others. But I cannot endorse Clune’s picture of that educational process. “[T]he significant investment of time and energy that this education requires—both at its outset and for a long time afterwards—is channeled in submission to the expert’s judgment that these works make particularly rewarding objects of attention. The syllabi of an English department’s curriculum, for example, codify this submission” (926). I have been fighting against my English department’s curriculum for twenty-five years. The texts I want to teach in my classes are the ones I find good to think with—and I invite my students to join me in that thinking process. (More Arendt here: her notion that judgment involves “going visiting” and you can know a thinker’s ethos by considering the company she wants to visit—and to keep.) What I model is one person’s encounter with other minds—the minds represented by the books we read and by the people who are in the classroom with me. My colleagues should have similar freedom to construct their courses around the texts that speak to them—and in which they then try to interest their students.
Fuck submission. Maybe it’s because I teach in the South. But my students have been fed submission with mother’s milk. What they need to learn is to trust their own responses to things, to find what interests them, to find what moves them emotionally and intellectually. They need to learn the arrogance of democratic citizenship, which arrogates to itself the right to judge the pronouncements of the experts. Certainly, I push them to articulate their judgments, to undertake themselves to woo others to their view. They must accept that they too are joined in the rhetorical battle, and if they want allies they will have to learn how to be persuasive. But that’s very, very different from suggesting that anyone should ever take the passive position of submission.
Clune is scornful of Richard Moran’s “liberal” endorsement of freedom of choice. So I want to end with a question for all of you as teachers. Can I safely assume that you would deem it inappropriate, in fact unethical, to tell your students whether or not to believe in god, or what career path to follow, or for whom they should vote? If you do think, in your position as a teacher, that you have the right to tell your students what to do in such cases, I would like to hear your justification for such interference. Obviously, what I am suggesting here is that our sensus communis does endorse a kind of baseline autonomy in matters of singular importance to individuals. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a society where my freedom to choose for myself about such matters were not respected. If some of you in the room feel differently, I am very interested in hearing an articulation and defense of such feelings.
Now we could say that our expertise as teachers does not extend to questions of career, religious faith, or politics. But where we are experts, there we are entitled to tell a student he is wrong. James really in interesting; Moby Dick really is better than Star Wars. But surely such bald assertions are worthless. How could they possibly gain the end we have in view? Via the path of submission? I can’t believe it. Yes, we stand up there in our classrooms and use every trick we can muster to woo our students, to get them interested, and even to endorse our judgments after careful consideration; one of our tasks is to teach (and model) what careful consideration looks like. And I certainly hope you are especially delighted when some student kicks against the pricks and makes an ardent case that Star Wars is every bit as good as Melville. Because that’s the sensibility I want aesthetic education to impart.