Author: john mcgowan

Leftist Sensibility

As I already mentioned, this one is harder for me because it is my own sensibility.  Thus, I am biased.  The right wing sensibility, in my view, is always going to end up pathologized.  While the left-wing sensibility description will veer toward the panegyric and the self-congratulatory.  That warning stated, let’s plunge ahead.

I have always been attracted by Richard Rorty’s claim that liberalism, when it comes down to it, is simply “bleeding-heart liberalism.”  The core of the leftist sensibility is compassion.  I want to approach this historically.  “Sympathy” was the core of morality for Adam Smith and David Hume.  It was the basis from which they could explain why any human would care about the plight of any other human.  They, of course, thought sympathy was “natural”—and thus the place to begin when trying to construct a morality.

Cruelty (in all its forms from jeering and insulting to torture) tells us sympathy has its limits.  A delight in the suffering of others seems just as natural to humans.  There is something to be said, I think, for the Steven Pinker (stated positively) and Hannah Arendt’s (stated negatively) arguments that “compassion” is actually a fairly new phenomenon—dating from the Enlightenment century, the 18th.  For Arendt, the entrance of compassion ruins politics.  It leads to the collapse of politics into economics, into placing politics at the service of alleviating poverty.  (The argument is central to her book On Revolution, with its comparison of the American and French revolutions.)

It does seems to me that Arendt is on to something (even as her contempt for compassion is the hardest thing in her whole corpus to swallow).  Were their wars (or violence) prior to the American and French revolutions fought for the ideal of equality?  Maybe the Dutch war for independence from Spain?  And there were peasant revolts.  But mostly there were wars of conquest, not wars for the freedom to forge one’s own life.  The “left” after all comes into existence as a political category with the French Revolution.  And so does the modern right—which must find new ways (not based on the claim that God just made it that way) to justify inequalities of wealth, political participation/power, and status.  This battle between left and right is often fought on the grounds of “rights”—to whom should various rights be extended, and what things should be covered by rights.  (Is there a “right” to health care, a “right” to a job, a “right” to old age pensions?)

It seems weird, of course, in light of Christianity and Buddhism to say compassion is an 18th century novelty.  But I think we need to see the novelty as compassion plus rationalism/secularism.  Prior to the Enlightenment, poverty was the result of “fortune.”  It was not something that resulted from human actions or arrangements—and thus not something that could be alleviated by human action or that was a moral outrage (when and if humans refused to do anything to try to alleviate it.) Charity to the poor was encouraged, but that didn’t come with the idea that poverty could be eliminated and that the failure to try to eliminate was a moral failure.

The leftist sensibility, then, is a mixture of compassion with the belief that different social arrangements than the status quo (effected by either reform or revolution) would be preferable and are feasible.  As Steven Lukes has put it, the left is committed to a project of “remediation.”  It points to unjustified poverty and unjustified inequalities, claiming that these sufferings are not necessary (they could be otherwise), and that there are reasonable plans for remediation.

The left’s notion of justice, therefore, is built upon the notion of equality—of the idea that everyone is entitled to an equal chance for a flourishing, satisfying life.  No person should have a life that only serves to provide others (and not him- or herself) with the means for flourishing.  In short, Kant’s kingdom of ends where no person is ever only a “means.”

I think that this commitment to equality and to the understanding of justice that follows from it entails universalism to the extent that all humans must be accorded the same right to the necessities for a good life.  From that conviction comes the idea of “effective freedom” (i.e. that freedom is only “real” when a person has the means to act on freely chosen alternatives).  It seems to me that contemporary critiques of universalism are always complaints that the various versions of universalism on offer are not universal enough.  And I think that Sen and Nussbaum’s “capabilities approach” offers a good way to reconcile respect for and attention to differences while holding on to the broad commitment to a universalism that can be all-inclusive.  But I am not going to get into the weeds of that argument here today.

The formula of compassion plus reason runs into serious trouble when Romanticism comes onto the scene.  The Romantics keep the compassion, but are suspicious of reason.  Nationalism is the Romantic passion par excellence on the political front.  And nationalism limits compassion to one’s compatriots even as it eschews a rationalist approach to social policies.  American health care: the best in the world, says the patriot, wonderfully immune to all the facts that clearly indicate otherwise.  Romanticism, in short, is not necessarily leftist or rightist.  It is wildly overstating the case to say that Romanticism leads directly to Hitler, just as it is a wild exaggeration to say that rationalism leads directly to Stalin.

Still, it does seem we have leftists (like Blake and Shelley) of the romantic stripe and leftists (Bentham and Marx) of the rationalist stripe, and that the romantics are more likely than the rationalists to think art is crucial to the leftist cause.  It is also worth saying that, generally speaking, the rightist sensibility comes across as aggressively masculine while the leftist position (with its compassion and desire to care for the well-being of all) is feminized.  Within that framework, the rationalist leftist position can look like a compensation against the feminization of a leftist sensibility.  Poetry is for sissies–so either men worried about their masculinity must eschew it or write like Ted Hughes as over-compensation.

The leftist sensibility I would recommend features compassion connected (tempered) by rationalism.  It is that mixture that has led contemporary leftists to be extremely wary of violence in all its forms, opting instead for various modes of non-violent action to effect political change.  The argument is, on the compassion side, that violence harms people, and on the rational side, that violence only unleashes more violence and thus cannot effect the kinds of changes that it aims for.  Yet (as I have agonized over on this blog) eschewing violence seems to place leftist reformers in a very weak place in relation to those in power who are determined to hold onto that power and are not shy of using violence to maintain that hold.

Because the left has so often been ineffective (especially over the past forty years—since 1980—of the right’s resurgence), the right accuses it of hypocrisy.  The left parades its bleeding heart in public (especially since the chattering classes are full of leftists) while leading very comfortable lives under current arrangements.  The left never really puts its money where its mouth is. I know of a professor whose grad students called her a Neiman Marxist.

Meanwhile, the left itself splits between the so-called “liberals” who work for reform within the “system” (i.e. accept democratic electoral politics and some version of the market) and the “radicals” who express contempt of the ineffectual liberals at every turn (but remain muddle headed about what means of change they actually endorse—since very few of them openly call for violence.  Terry Eagleton may be the exception in his attitude toward violence, but I can’t tell for sure because his books on tragedy and “radical sacrifice” become obscure—in contrast to his usual bracingly direct style—precisely at the point where the question of political violence arises.)  For the most part, the argument between the “left” and “liberals” seems to be an argument about rhetorical style, with the left scorning liberals for their mamby-pandy refusal to denounce capitalism and Western perfidy, and the liberals scorning the left for their gestural politics of absolute purity that has little relation to facts on the ground or any possible political constituency.

More germane to this ongoing thread in the blog is the connection of the leftist sensibility to an aesthetic sensibility.  Where am I headed with this?

  1. The aesthetic sensibility as currently exhibited seems to me to share Romanticism’s suspicion of reason. (Maybe that’s why North has to fixate on “method” and “rigor.”  He’s trying to get rationalism back into the aesthetic, from which is has mostly been banned.)  So the aesthetic sensibility shares the compassion for the excluded and down-trodden.  But it is less attuned to reformist projects or prospects.  I will want to say more about how the aesthetic expresses its compassion, its solidarity with those unjustly treated.
  2. I don’t think there is any direct path from the aesthetic to the leftist sensibility—or that there is any necessary connection between them. To the extent that those who go in for aesthetics in the current moment also tend to be leftists of some variety, I think that’s because of a political education, not an aesthetic one. In short, it has been hard to get an aesthetic education since 1970 without getting a political one alongside it.  The relation between the two is neither necessary nor direct (as I have said), but their adjacency has been almost universal.  I believe it is sloppy thinking to believe there is a deeper connection between the two.
  3. The million dollar question remains: how do you instill a sensibility? What kind of education does the trick?  If sensibilities really are the fundamental drivers of moral/political commitments and of actions undertaken, then how are they formed?  What are the crucial sites of intervention?  Is there a formula?

Right-Wing Sensibility

“You cannot greet the world in the morning with anything less than ferocity, or be evening you will be destroyed.”  Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light, p. 543.

What I want to do here is characterize right-wing sensibility. I will, in a subsequent post, try to characterize left-wing sensibility, which I find much harder to do.

I think Dick Cheney, more than Donald Trump, is a good exemplar here.  Recall his one-percent doctrine.  “If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis … It’s about our response.”

For the right-winger, it’s a dangerous world out there, full of enemies.  If you let your guard down, you are toast.  Pre-emptive violence (another doctrine of the Bush years) is best, but hitting back with ferocity is second best.  The “bad guys” are everywhere and eternal vigilance is required to keep them in check.  Conservatives are always the “party of order” because the challenges to order are everywhere.

The difference between us—the guardians of order—and them, the sowers of chaos—is, inevitably moralized.  They aren’t called the “bad guys” for nothing.  The maintenance of order becomes the maintenance of moral order.  And that requires punishment.  Justice for conservatives is “people getting what they deserve.”  It has nothing to do with equality, since some people are better, more worthy, than others.  Hayek wrote that the whole notion of equality is a travesty of justice.  How could equal treatment be just, he wrote?  The whole point of justice is to discriminate between the guilty and the not-guilty. A justice system that treated everyone the same would not be just.

Because it is a dangerous world, the conservative wants a strong military, a strong national security apparatus, and a strong leader.  The niceties of democracy, the rule of law, and tolerance are distractions, even hindrances, when it comes to securing the nation against enemies external and internal.  The moral division between good and bad translates fairly directly into strong-in-group bias.  The members of my group—the nation—are good; the outsiders are, at best, never to be trusted, and, at worst, dangerous foes incessantly plotting against us.

Obviously, this mind-set encourages paranoia, the continual identification of new groups that are a threat to my group.  Right-wing movements of the past two hundred years have always traded on identifying an “internal” enemy as well as an external one.

The moral component of conservatism rests on a strong sense of “desert” (less politely called “entitlement.”)  My standing in the world, the goods I possess, are deserved—and for that reason it is fully just to deny those goods to the undeserving.  The right-wing fury about the “nanny state” is about taking what I have earned and giving it to those too lazy or otherwise too morally deficient to have earned something for themselves.  A very basic sense of justice is the source of the indignation against the welfare functions of the modern liberal state.  (I believe that the fact that conservatives and liberals mean absolutely distinct things by “justice” goes a long way to defining the political divide between the two camps.)

There is, undoubtedly, a tension between the individualism that celebrates moral responsibility and what one has earned for oneself and the willingness to submerge the self in the larger group of the morally just.  (The group of the saved, of the elect.)  The aggression of a conservatism that is always on the lookout for enemies is complemented (perhaps even washed clean) by a concomitant willingness to sacrifice the self for the group in the event of violence.

Right-wing thought, because so focused on good guys versus bad guys, tends to the Manichean, toward moral absolutism, and, thus, to the conclusion that there is no compromising with the devil.  Negotiation is a sign of weakness—and every weakness with be exploited.  Strength is the only source of security in this dangerous world.  The evil are just evil; their badness is not to be explained away, and the idea that they can be rehabilitated is sentimental liberal claptrap.  For this reason (its inability to detect middle grounds), conservative thought is particularly attracted to slippery slope arguments.  Medicare is Socialism and we are on the road to serfdom.  Give them an inch and they will take a mile.  Hysteria about drastic consequences to even the mildest of reforms goes with the territory.

In certain strains of right-wing sensibility, there can be a strong sense of one’s own potential depravity, an Augustinian sense of all humans as weak, sinful creatures.  In that case, the appeal of a strong leader and an authoritarian social order extends to the need for external constraints to rein in one’s own tendency to sin.  We are in superego territory here, where the masochistic desire to submit to a strong hand flips quickly and almost seamlessly into the sadistic need to punish depraved others.  [This dynamic is very complex in US conservatism; it seems to play no role at all in the many shameless right-wing moralists.  But it runs through various sites of evangelical fervor, where drinking, domestic violence, drug abuse, and covert hetero- and homo-sexual behavior co-exists with a deep attachment to “saving grace.”]

I do think attitudes toward the necessity of punishment—and to the severity of the forms it should take—are central here.  Conservatives (Kipling is a great instance, but think of most policemen and many soldiers) hate liberals because liberals (in the conservative view) leave the dirty work of punishment and the enforcement of order to “the thin blue line.”  The liberals benefit from the police and from prisons, yet not only refrain from doing the dirty work themselves, but also disdain those who do that work.

Here we tap into another feature of the right-wing sensibility: a sense of grievance.  Their own rectitude, their doing the essential work society requires, is never appreciated, while the spongers, the eggheads, the chattering classes, not the mention the Jews, the blacks, and the immigrants gather in all the spoils.  Society rewards the wrong people—a proof of society’s corruption and of the need for a strong leader to pull it back onto the right path.

In short, something is wrong somewhere—and that wrongness is either the product of evil people or of a fundamental, unchangeable fact, of a dangerous world replete with people out to get you.  In either case, aggression is the best response.  As my conservative students tell me, the Machiavelli of The Prince basically has it right.

Conservatives are capable of exemplary generosity to those in their in-group.  That generosity, you might say, matches their ferocity to those deemed outside the pale.

Given the priority conservatives place on security, it was one of the great intellectual coups of history when the neo-liberals (Hayek and Friedman in particular) captured the word “freedom” to describe what capitalism delivered—and, on that basis, make a defense of unregulated capitalism the hallmark of late-twentieth-century conservatism (Thatcher and Reagan).  Traditional conservatives (Burke and Carlyle) saw capitalism as destroying communal solidarity by pitting each individual against the rest in endless competition.  They associated capitalism with the destruction of social order.

Hayek and Friedman, in contrast, correctly recognize that capitalism (because of the coercive force of economic necessity for most people) poses no danger to order.  Assured that order is not threatened, they can undertake their propaganda campaign for “free” markets by insisting that government is the source of coercion (as well as the source of inefficiency) while the market will set us free.  Ignore the fact of economic necessity—or of the disastrous results of profitable enterprises always shifting the costs of “externalities” elsewhere—and their argument makes some sense.  And it fits perfectly (Hayek’s work is the perfect model here) with right-wing Manicheanism.  The market all good; any efforts to regulate the market (either by states or by unions) all bad.

Hayek and Friedman also have to ignore all the evidence that capitalists hate risk.  Security remains the watch-word.  Capitalists always try to minimize competition, to shift costs and risks elsewhere, to never face personal bankruptcy. That’s why capitalism tends toward monopoly.  Competition (just like economic downturns) does not spur risk-taking; it spurs ever more ingenious ways to mitigate risk.  Innovation occurs within secure environments—like research tanks and universities.

Conservatives hate liberals—and the most common charge is that liberals are hypocrites.  Somewhere in the conservative psyche (maybe I am giving them too much credit) there are guilt feelings about their aggressive, uncharitable relation to their fellow human beings.  I would think there is a similar guilt about the costs of aggressive behavior (both military and economic) on the world and its inhabitants.  Such massive destruction (of cities, of the environment, of the people trampled by military and economic adventurism) is hard to justify—and do-gooder liberals keep pointing out that unpleasant fact.  For a conservative like my father, that finger-pointing spurred rage.  In his milder moments, he would brand war a sad necessity, taking a tragic view of what this world inflicted on us, these constantly fighting human animals.  But in less mild moods, the rage generated fantasies of violence against those liberals, the desire to place them in the front lines of battle, to have them subjected to violence.

Because determined to defend their own rectitude (no matter the deep, hidden doubts or guilt feelings that make liberal accusations sting), conservatives respond with similar rage to accusations of racism.  They will fall back on “desert”—which is why a certain kind of Darwinian and/or free market fundamentalism is so appealing to the right wing.  There has to be a mechanism (shades of Calvinism) to separate out the “elect” (the deserving) from the “damned” (the undeserving).  And it is much better if that mechanism can be demonstrated as “natural,” as a process uncontrolled by human hands and, thus, unbiased in any way.

Hayek himself avoided the crude claim that the market’s creation of winners and losers was just.  Desert, he was willing to concede, played only a small role in market success.  But Hayek was adamant that the processes of the market were beyond human control—and that all efforts to control them would lead to worse results than laissez-faire.  The point is that the conservative is going to strive to avoid taking any responsibility for the ills the liberal harps on (poverty, racism, environmental degradation, workplace dangers etc.)

Three final thoughts.  One, I don’t know what to do with people like the Koch brothers.  Their animus against workers, environmentalists, and any kind of regulation is so over the top, so relentless, and so directly hostile to the well-being of millions of people even as their own wealth is beyond what could be spent in a thousand life-time, that I cannot fathom their motives or sensibility.  What is at stake for them?  They have been given a sweet, sweet deal by this world—and yet are filled with rage against it and a desire to do hurt.  What’s their beef?  It’s baffling.  As Gary Wills put it many years ago (reporting on either the 1992 or 1996 Republican convention in the New York Review of Books), what explains all these aggrieved millionaires?  It is one thing for politicians (eager for power) to exploit the sense of grievance among those the economy has not served well, providing those souls with enemies to focus on.  But why would a millionaire fall for that poison?  And I end up thinking (simplistically, but with no place else to go) that even as there are souls for whom no amount of power will ever suffice, there are souls for whom no amount of money will ever suffice.  Just greed simpliciter.

The second thought is spurred by Walter Benjamin’s insight that the logical end of fascism is war.  At the extreme right, the only plausible response to the identified enemies is extermination, and the only way to offer “the masses” participation in power (the opportunity to exercise that strength, that “ferocity,” that insures survival into the evening—to recall my opening quote) is to put a gun in their hands and march them off the battle.  Trump’s America has not reached this point; the undercurrent of violence in his politics is unorganized at the moment, only inspiring lone shooters, not para-military or official violence.  With the courts increasingly in right-wing hands, most of the contemporary conservative movement (especially its “respectable” political and business wings) is willing to effect its coup through the law.  And liberals have been hand-tied by this strategy, with its vote suppression, roll back of regulations, business friendly court decisions etc.  The left, I believe, will eventually have to resort to defying court decisions–the way much of the South defied the Brown decision.

Third:  I have deliberately not talked of Trump in this post.  I don’t think him easily exemplary of the right-wing sensibility.  His craving for attention, his obvious insecurities, his participation in the pursuit and circuits of “celebrity” make him a rather different animal.  There are overlaps of course, but better not to be confused by thinking there is a perfect match.

On Judgment

In an essay on Gerhard Richter entitled “The Master of Unknowing” [New York Review of Books, Volume LXVII, No. 8, May 14, 2020], Susan Tallman quotes Richter:

“Pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures.”  A good picture “takes away our certainty, because it deprives a thing of its meaning and its name.  It shows us the thing in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that preclude the emergence of any single meaning and view” (4).

Tallman then writes: “Richter is contemporary art’s great poet of uncertainty; his work sets the will to believe and the obligation to doubt in perfect oscillation. . . . Though his influence has indeed been profound, it has played out in eyes rather than hands, shifting the ways in which we look, and what we expect looking to do for us” (4).  She concludes her essay by saying that Richter’s art is “an assertion of endless possibility” (8).

I read this assessment of Richter as pointing toward an attempt to suspend judgment.  The aim is to arrest the movement from perception (‘looking’) to naming—what Kant calls “determinate judgment.”  Judgment, it would seem, can not be avoided altogether.  Notice how Richter’s statement—with its hostility to “meaning”—reintroduces “significance” in the very next sentence.  The real stakes rest (it seems to me) on the contrast between the “manifold” (a pluralism that generates multiple possibilities) and the singular (a “name” that would designate the object as one, and only one, thing, with a clear and determinate “meaning”).

The hope of arresting judgment, of deliberately frustrating our habitual rush to designate some thing as this or that, does seem characteristic of much modern art.  First, there is the continual desire for “pure”perception, for a perceptual experience that is not directed or shaped by conceptual judgment.  Second, there is the attraction to difficulty and ambiguity, both of which make a singular judgment difficult to make.  The artist wants to resist having his work easily digestible, easily categorized.  A glancing look should not suffice.  We should be made to pause before the work, to see its multiple possibilities.  It should arrest the eye—but, even more importantly, arrest the mind.

Is judgment just slower to arrive in such cases—or can the urge/need to judge (to name) be frustrated altogether?  Can we just have the “looking” and stop there?  A perceptual experience relieved of any act of naming what we are seeing/touching etc.?  Perhaps that perceptual experience is linked to an inchoate emotion, a kind of “raw feel” to go with the “pure perceiving”—and we get no further, not naming the experience and not feeling any need to name it, just resting in it.

In any case, that seems to me one version of the modern artist’s hostility to—or, at least, suspicion of –“meaning.”  And one version of the strategies adopted to frustrate the processes through which “meaning” is assigned.

However, as detailed in Florian Klinger’s essay “To Make that Judgment: The Pragmatism of Gerhard Richter” (in Judgment and Action: Fragments Toward a History, ed. by Vivasvan Soni and Thomas Pfau [Northwestern University Press, 2018], 239-67], Richter does expect “judgment” to play a crucial role in the act of creation and the act of reception when it comes to works of art.  Richter’s method (as he describes it) is “to paint without a plan,” “to smear anything I want on it [the canvas].”  But as the process continues, “each step forward is more difficult and I feel less and less free until I conclude there’s nothing left to do.  When, according to my standard, nothing is wrong anymore, then I stop.  Then it’s good.” (249).   The criteria is not meaning, but some sort of aesthetic quality.  There is a “standard” of judgment, even if that standard is vague.  When his interlocutor tries to press him to be more specific about what “good” means, Richter replies: “It just doesn’t look good. Then it’s wrong.”  The interviewer presses on: “Can we dig deeper than looking good or bad?”  to which Richter responds:  “It’s extremely difficult.  We’re all completely equal here.  The producer and consumer, artist and observer, both must have one quality: to be able to see if it’s good or not.  To make that judgment” (249).

I don’t really know what to do with this, except to make three observations.  First, the issue of “taste,” or “sensibility,” keeps rearing its (ugly?) head.  What’s this “quality” of being able to see if something is good or not?  Where does it come from?  How do you tell when someone has it—or does not have it?  Classical conundrums that keep recurring.  Presumably there are many ways to be “good”; that’s why one keeps producing new works—or keeps going to view new ones.  But still there is dichotomous judgment to be made.  This one is good; that one is not.  And we receive little guidance as to how that judgment is to be made.

Second, Richter (throwing up his hands; “it’s extremely difficult”) asserts an equality between artist and audience (even as his words acknowledge a distinction of roles).  The judgments made by the artist is the process of creation are guided by the same standard—of goodness—that guides the spectator’s response to the work.

Third, can this judgment of goodness occur without a judgment as to meaning?  Can there be that suspension of interpretation, of naming, that seems to be the goal?  It seems easier to say that it is not the artist’s business to concern herself with the meaning of what she produces.  The question of meaning may never arise in her practice—and the possible meaning of her work for its audience may be of no interest or concern to her.  It is also possible to say that the meanings that her finished work calls forth for its audiences were not consciously controlled or produced by the artist.  The work encompasses things outside that artist’s control; part of the pleasure of artistic creation is precisely that.  As Richter puts it, “Something happens spontaneously. Not by itself, but without plan or reason” (249).  [Here we get the “interactive” understanding of artistic creation.]

Still, even if we can see the process of artistic production as unfolding apart from the question of meaning, can we say the same of the process of reception by the audience?  Can the audience judge the work good or not apart from also judging what kind of thing it is (naming) and understanding its significance in relation to that name?  We are in Kant’s territory again since it would seem a judgment of goodness in the absence of any act of naming would be a “reflective judgment” (not a determinate one) because the work would be viewed as utterly singular (the only one of its kind, thus not “a kind” at all. Only a proper name, not a generic one, would be adequate to it).  And to finish up by returning to the Tallman passage: it would seem that to have no determinate name, to have no determinate meaning, would be to have multiple possible significances.  The paradox would be that the “singular” (by escaping categorization) becomes plural.   It gets to be a shape-shifter.


A former student got in touch to talk about “institutions”—which are important in Latour’s work, but rather “undertheorized” (as we used to say in the 1980s).  At least not much discussed in An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence, even as he chides “baby boomers” (278) for their knee-jerk hostility to them.  The boomers “accuse” institutions “of being routinized, artificial, bureaucratic, repetitive, and soulless,” fatal “to the initiative, autonomy, enthusiasm, vivacity, inventivity, and naturalness of existence. . . . [T]here is life only on condition of getting out of institutions, even destroying them, or, short of that, getting as far away from them as possible in order to subsist on the periphery” (278).  He locates institutions in the mode of existence called Habit—and sees them as a source of continuity and, hence, subsistence.  To be hostile to institutions is to end up throwing away a focus on subsistence in order to pursue that phantom: substance. The hostility to habit partakes of the characteristic “iconoclasm” of the moderns, who keep thinking they can get behind appearances to reality, can pierce through the “Shows” of the world to the “thing itself.”  We need (Latour argues), rather,  to develop the healthy regard for habit we find in William James, recognizing its benefits, its ways of making us at home in the world.

So the moral for Latour is “that we should ‘learn to respect institutions.’  [Otherwise], it will be impossible to know, given that habit has so many enemies, whether you want to protect a value by instituting it or, on the contrary, whether you want to betray it, stifle it, break it down, ossify it.  Now we baby boomers have drained that bitter cup to the dregs.  Confronting the ruins of the institutions that we are beginning to bequeath to our descendants, am I the only one to feel the same embarrassment as asbestos manufacturers targeted by the criminal charges brought by workers suffering from lung cancer?  In the beginning, the struggle against institutions seemed to be risk-free; it was modernizing and liberating—and even fun; like asbestos, it had only good qualities.  But, like asbestos, alas, it also had disastrous consequences that no one had anticipated and that we have been far too slow to recognize” (278-79).

For all this, Latour has little to say about how we are to think about institutions, how we are to describe them and what they do (or don’t do).  Maybe he does elsewhere.  I will have to take a look.

In the meantime, here is what I wrote to my student as a first stab of thinking about what institutions are:

My latest blog post (thanks for reading, by the way) does a little Latour stuff that points toward institutions.  I think, in fact, that what you can glean from his Science in Action or Reassembling the Social is most likely the best bet.  In short, Latour is great in getting us to think about all “the players” that contribute to the production of something.  Of course, he is interested in both human and non-human “actants” (to use his term).  Institutions, then, are formal structures within which actants operate (establishing hierarchies, differential access to resources, lines of authority and of connection), but which also represent an effort to stabilize and enable the continued existence of networks that spring into existence and act in relation to some specific end.  Institutions, in other words, put a public face on, and identity to, what might otherwise be ephemeral relations formed in the heat of action.  The institution tries to enable repetition–the gathering of these actants in the next instance, the next attempt to produce something.  This formalization of the actant network has its dangers/downsides (sclerosis is always a threat), but also its upsides (establishing relationships and procedures, so that re-invention of the wheel is not always necessary, and garnering resources).  A continuing presence, an institution can also bridge the gap between one instance of action and the next.  Finally, institutions can accumulate and store authority and/or prestige.  They can become a name-brand, thus attracting resources and attention.


As I thought more about this, I found myself troubled by the thought that most of what I say about institutions could also be said of “organizations.”  Yet in ordinary language, we do distinguish between the two.  Congress is a political institution; the Democratic Party is a political organization.  Amazon, Amnesty International, the New England Patriots, and the Modern Language Association (MLA) are all organizations.  To my ear, at least, it would be odd to call any of them “institutions.”  The Catholic Church, the University of North Carolina, and the Supreme Court are institutions.  In common parlance, we can also say that “Harriet Jones is an institution in these parts,” but we would never call her an “organization.”

“Hollywood” is a collective noun that designates the film industry; the “studio system” refers to a particular way that industry was (is?) organized.  But I don’t think we would normally call Hollywood an institution or an organization.  It is a loose affiliation of various actors—sometimes interconnected enough for us to speak of “networks”—with (perhaps) habitual ways of doing its self-appointed tasks.  But somehow it doesn’t rise to the status of “institution.”

Yet I feel as if Major League Baseball is on the cusp of being an institution—and is certainly an organization.  Even as I feel that the National Football League is definitely an organization, but nowhere near being an institution.  So can I make any sense of these contradictory intuitions?

Here’s a try before I go to the dictionary.  An institution is the framework within which a variety of actants can practice (in any variety of ways, including cooperatively or competitively).  The institutions lays down protocols—canons for a specific action being counted as an instance of the “practice” that the institution shelters/enables/presides over.  The authority of the institution faces two ways: 1. Inwardly toward instances of the practice itself, judging the status and quality of those instances. And 2. Outwardly toward the world as it makes the case for the general benefit that practice can provide to non-practitioners.  [In short, I am stealing here Bruce Robbins’ understanding of professionals; their guild establishes and maintains “professional standards,” even as their guild must legitimate to a wider public the usefulness of “professional practices.”]

Within that institutional setting, there can be a wide variety in the ways its practices are put to use—and there can be widespread disagreement and contestation about substantive matters.  The institution provides “the rules of the game” and the certification of who gets to be “a player.”

And something, like Major League Baseball, becomes “an institution” when the it garners a widely acknowledged “authority” and respect in relation to its wider legitimating function.

An organization may establish a “brand” that is well-trusted, seen as reliable.  But it will not have the “authority” that an institution has.  Why?  Because an organization is put together to facilitate the more efficient accomplishment of a single purpose.  Everyone in the organization must get with the program; all of the members of the organization must contribute to its achieving its goal.  The organization is not a framework for multiple uncoordinated actions; just the opposite.  Its whole point is coordination, in making sure that actants work in sync, in tandem.  An organization is never, like an institution, “above the fray.”  It is never the enabler of the varieties of practice; instead, it harnesses energies toward a goal.

Hence, if the Supreme Court becomes the tool of one political faction, it loses its “authority” as the institution that enables political contestation, becoming instead just another piece of an organization.  So maybe I can say that organizations exist to produce something; but institutions exist to enable the production of things, but do not produce things directly themselves.

Major League Baseball allows for the playing of numerous games of baseball; it does not do the playing itself.  It is the integrity with which it plays that role, as guardian of the practice, that gains it the “authority” that leads us to think of it as an institution.  But if the single-minded organizational goal of making money comes to dominate, then Major League Baseball will only be an organization, not an institution.  Football seems much more directly commercial than baseball—and hence the National Football League is not an institution.  This may be pure sentimentality, but it also has to do with how differently the two professional sports are related to the history of their games, and to the ways in which football players are interchangeable parts and constricted to a communal project.  Baseball is much more individual, much less faceless (it takes a truly devoted fan to know the linemen on a football team.)

Anyway, I could be totally wrong about this baseball/football divide.  More important is to recognize that the issue is not commercial versus non-commercial.  Amnesty International is an organization because devoted to a specific goal.  It is working for something substantive, not providing a framework within which a practice can unfold in myriad, even unexpected, ways.  But Amnesty is not commercial.  So the distinction I am trying to probe is not about the presence or absence of a profit motive.

It turns out the dictionary is not much help.  Here’s my Random House dictionary on “institution”: 1. An organization or establishment devoted to the promotion of a particular object.

But # 4 might help us some: Sociology, a well-established and structured pattern of behavior or of relationships that is accepted as a fundamental part of a culture, as marriage.

Followed by # 5: any established law, custom etc.  and #6: any familiar practice or object.

Whereas the definitions offered for “organization” are not very useful either.  #1 is “the action or process of organizing.”  #5 is “a body of persons organized for some end or work.”

I would say that the dictionary’s deficiencies indicate a general difficulty in describing collective action.  Organizations, quite obviously, act.  Things get produced and decisions get made that could never be done by a single person acting alone—and the thing produced and the decision made is not fully controlled by one of the actors (actants) in the process that yields that result.

When it comes to institutions it can seem even trickier.  If we are talking “habit” or “custom,” we can seem to be identifying a force that has no obvious origin.  It is “just our way of doing things,” even as that “way” does not remain completely impervious to change. But the mechanisms of change are hard to identify and even harder to manipulate.  We like to think we can tell an origin story about our political institutions—and we even have mechanisms for their being revised/amended/reformed etc.

But when it comes to relations between the sexes or between the races, the dead hand of the past, of cultural mores, proves incredibly resistant to direct intervention even as those relations do not remain immobile.  If we deem racism “an institution,” then it is like the Supreme Court in that it provides a framework for a whole set of practices, but it is unlike the Supreme Court in that there are no procedures for adjudication among those practices.  Racism as “an institution” is a product of various actions/practices in the past; but none of those actions/practices in itself had the power to establish racism.  We have what is truly a collective product here, one that is only “deliberate” in a very attenuated way.  No wonder conspiracy theories as so appealing; at least they identify agents powerful enough to serve as the originators or perpetuators of a particular state of affairs.

All of this is inconclusive enough.  The term “institution” clearly encompasses apples and oranges.  The more fruitful approach might be a version of Latour: consider particular instances of something you are tempted to call an “institution” and try to trace the actions that lead to its production.  Then, “institution” is the end product, not the starting place, of an inquiry.  And we don’t assume from the outset that one institution has much in common with another one.  An escape from essentialism into particularities.


I will be 67 in July.  Most college professors (at least on my campus and among the ones I know elsewhere) do not retire that young.  Seriously thinking about retirement at 70—and often taking a year or two past that to pull the trigger—seems the norm.

I make a very good salary and have a research fund that pays for books and travel to conferences.  My students—god bless their cheerful hearts and inquiring minds—still seem to buy what I have to offer, even though I feel embarrassingly ancient as I stand before them.  I can avoid almost all the tedious committee work in my department and around the university because I am not a “player” anymore.  I cannot avoid the increasingly onerous paperwork, the endless forms and surveys required of us.

So why retire?  My job is not terribly difficult, and often very rewarding.  I still love the students (without reservation)—and my colleagues (in suitable doses).

For starters, I am tired.  I don’t work anywhere near as hard as I did fifteen, even ten, years ago.  I feel like I was a .290 lifetime hitter, with a few peak years at .310, and now I am batting .230.  It’s time to hang up my spikes, even though the club would keep me on indefinitely as a veteran presence.  He used to be something, so we tolerate him hanging around.  Giving less than my best feels cheapening, even fraudulent.  Better to walk away.

The tiredness manifests itself in various ways.  In the past, I was constantly changing the courses I taught, the books I had students read.  In the past five years, I have found myself stumped as to what to teach—and have resorted to recycling old standards.

When I had a year at the National Humanities Center two years back, I discovered that I didn’t want to write scholarly prose anymore.  I simply wasn’t going to do the homework necessary.  As any reader of this blog knows, it is hardly that I lack a continuing interest in intellectual questions.  But I am no longer willing to make myself acquainted with the vast literature—some of it awfully good—out there on any given topic.  I want to pursue my own lines of thought through writing, but I don’t want to bother to engage with the ongoing scholarly dialogue on my chosen interests.  In short, my scholarly career was obviously at an end—and it felt fraudulent to continue to draw a salary while not doing that part of my job.

So much for all the negative reasons.  Luckily, there are also positive ones.  The Covid-19 shutdown has made those all the more obvious.  Time is not hanging heavy on my hands—or on Jane’s.  Even isolated from all our friends, the days aren’t long enough to do every thing we want to do.  I am reading, writing, exercising, listening to music, tending to the daily chores of life; the need to finish out the semester on Zoom only distracts from all the things I want to be doing.

When I look back at my career as a professor, and at the life that Jane and I lived/created over the past thirty-plus years, I am astounded at how much we did.  I can’t imagine how we did it.  I want to say that the books wrote themselves; I certainly don’t see how it was possible, amidst everything else, to have put in the time and effort necessary to write them.  It’s as if someone else did it—or as if I wasn’t present to my own life.

That’s the overwhelming feeling—no regrets at all, but a sense of having missed my own life.  Was I even there?  Getting through each day, with its piled up responsibilities and commitments, was the priority.  There was no larger plan, no overall strategy.  Just survival, putting one foot in front of the other, dealing with each day and its demands.

I loved every minute of being a parent—and am blessed with an ongoing good relationship to Kiernan and Siobhan (in such sharp contrast to my relationship to my parents).  But it went by too fast—and they (I know) felt slighted at times in favor of all the other things I was also doing during those years.

That’s no way to live (really!).  The virus shutdown has slowed Jane and me down—and it’s wonderful.  We still have plenty to do, still have eyes too big for our stomachs.  But all the sense of urgency is gone.  We do the things we do out of pleasure, with all the pressure taken off. If something does not get done, so be it.  It’s glorious.  We should have retired years ago.  The work world is crazy and crazy-making, with its absurd norms of productivity and ritualized scenes of public humiliation called “evaluation” (annual reports, promotion and tenure, and all the rest).

I will admit to a fundamental selfishness as well.  A sense that it’s not my responsibility any more.  I fought the good fight while employed—and lost most of my fights (for interdisciplinary curricula, for support of collaborative work, for expanded notions of what should “count” for promotion, for UNC to face up to its racist past and to the unspeakable Republicans who are ruining our state).  Now I feel OK just washing my hands of it all.

I am going to spend my time in the ways I wish.  Others will have to carry on the fight.  I am tired of it in every possible way one can be tired.  Enough.  I have other—and I hope better—things to do.  Certainly more sane things, ones that don’t pull me into the orbit of the crazies.  (It is the relentless energy of those right-wing thugs, the way they work every angle and never let an opportunity to do harm pass them by, that amazes, frightens, and exhausts me.  Yes, I hate to let them win, but nothing I have done to date has kept them from winning and now, like Thoreau, I feel—at least at times—that I have other matters to attend to.)

The fact that I am deeply ashamed of UNC plays a role in my decision to retire.  I have given over 25 years of my life to this institution—and for most of those years, even as I fought those losing battles, I felt UNC had a fundamentally good heart, that it usually did the right thing when it came to the big issues.  I may have been very naïve about that—but our wonderful students, my conscientious colleagues, and an approachable administration that listened to (even when it ignored) advice made me love this place. I was given the freedom to do what I believed in during the time I directed the Institute for the Arts and Humanities. More generally, UNC was good to me and Jane, giving us scope to pursue out interests, and paying us generously.  We met (this is no exaggeration) hundreds of people—students, colleagues, alumni—during our years at UNC who inspired us in one way or another.

My work with interesting and committed donors contributed to my general sense of well-being.  But then the university’s response to the athletic scandal of fake classes, its failure to address forthrightly the racial legacy represented by Silent Sam, and its supine self-prostration before a Board of Governors determined to destroy public higher education made me want to walk away.  I made my public howls of protest, for which my fellow faculty thanked me and to which the administration turned a cold shoulder.  I had had enough.

I hope that UNC is on a better path now.  The current chancellor does understand how damaged the Carolina community has been by the events of the past eight years—and is trying to fix that damage.  I wish him luck.  But I am relieved to be walking away.  I don’t want to be part of that effort.  It’s been too discouraging to watch the lack of courage and honesty that got us to our current state.

So I retreat into a more private space.  Writing my blog, riding my bike, seeing friends and traveling.  Jane and I will become grandparents in the next few weeks, with our granddaughter in DC with her parents.  I am committed to helping my daughter-in-law keep her theater company, We Happy Few, afloat—and thriving.  We will also help with child care.  Return trips to Italy, Cornwall, and New Zealand are highest on the travel list.

Inevitably, I will become involved in some kind of political work.  I refuse (mostly) to give money to campaigns any more.  (I end up donating to down-ballot races when I get a direct appeal from a friend involved in that campaign.)  Contributions to the national races just seems like abetting a corrupt system.  And I hate the way I get blackmailed into giving because the other side is spending so much.  Instead, I give the money I used to throw at Democratic presidential and Senate candidates to local charities that I know are doing good work.  Maybe I will also work for that kind of charity instead of for a more directly political cause.  I would like to find something I believe in and that seems effective to throw myself into.  The theater company has that appeal.

And this blog.  It is strangely comforting to write posts that feel addressed to an audience out there, even if I know only a tiny few (ten or twelve maybe) are on the receiving end.  The pressure of an imagined audience puts a little spine into the writing.  But the knowledge that there isn’t really an audience (or certainly not a judging one) gives me the sense that I can write whatever I like, ramble, digress, indulge myself.  It’s the perfect form for me, not utterly solipsistic, but relieved of any need to please an audience.  I can just write to please myself—and let anyone who wishes listen in.

That’s the thing about writers.  They always write far more than any reader could ever possibly read.  Writing, a matter of so much pain and angst for many academics, is an addiction like any other for those of us who can’t stop pouring the words out.  The blog will abide.  It is pure pleasure, completely divorced from any sense of obligation or responsibility, just another indulgence in what I intend to be a blissful retirement in which I do the things I want to do. No more, no less.

Joseph North Seven—Two Problems

I see two substantial problems with the line of inquiry I have been pursuing in this thread.

Problem # 1:  A significant movement in the arts since at least 1860 hates tying art to “meaning.”  In various forms, the argument is made (or the position taken) that the arts should not deal in meanings, but in the creation of brute things, or an event, or an experience.  Meaning is perceived as ethereal, non-material, as something other than the work, something that gets substituted for the work.  William Gass’s “six regularly scheduled trains out of the text” is my favorite explication of this stance against meaning.  But there is Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” and the New Critics’ “heresy of paraphrase” and any number of other versions.  Jeff Nealon offers his own diatribe against meaning in his forthcoming book on the performative, wanting to shift the focus from meaning onto force, working from Austin and Derrida.

For starters, I want to endorse the pluralism of artistic practice.  So I certainly wouldn’t want to impose some kind of straight-jacket of meaning on the arts—or think that I could set up a theoretical account of “art” that would encompass everything that artists do.  Such a theoretical account would be vacuous if sufficiently general to cover the whole field.  All the interest would lie in the specifics that the theory would leave untouched.  If all works engaged meaning, that would tell us nothing about our judgments that some works are enlivening and others not.

More consequential, I think, is the question of whether there are purely perceptual objects.  That is, when I see the Ellsworth Kelly canvases, am I having a particularly intense perceptual experience that has no meaning at all?  It is just a sensual experience—thus referring back to the etymology of the word “aesthetic.”  Within my catch-phrase, “every thing is necessarily some thing,” the transcendental blackmail is to say that I judge the Kelly paintings as “art.”  I know that some things exist (and are created) to offer sensual sensations—and such things are called “art.”

That knowledge sets me up to view the Kelly paintings in the right spirit.  Art “means” sensual activation in a certain contemplative mode, without asking for anything further in the way of communication or purpose.  Without that identification of this thing as “art,” I would be disoriented, not knowing how to process or judge what I am seeing.  There must be some kind of “determination” (in Hegel’s sense of that term) in order for there to be understanding—and understanding guides perception.  This is the prison-house of language approach; no perception absent the categories supplied by language.  We must make a judgment about what something is before we can know how to view it.

Do I believe this?  I don’t know.  I certainly am attracted to the artists who want to get out from under meaning, who want to get to some kind of “innocent” or “primitive” sensual/perceptual experience.  But that effort to sidestep all mediation does also seem doomed to failure.  Modern art, especially, seems enthralled by constant efforts to do what is impossible.  As Clement Greenberg insisted and as Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas un pipe” wittily alerts us, modern art’s moves seem to announce continually: “this is a work of art.”  The rest, how we are to judge it etc., follows from that opening declaration.  In Latour’s language (borrowed in this case from Whitehead), modern art seems to think (at least in many cases) that the first move has to be to guard against “category mistake.”  The art needs to alert us that we are in the “mode” of aesthetics so that we know how to perceive it.

In a somewhat similar fashion (at least in the ballpark of similar concerns), much modern art tries to move things from one category to another.  “Alienation” (Brecht) or “defamiliarization” (Russian formalists) point to techniques that attempt to lead the viewer to see things differently, often by shifting the category in which that thing is placed.  A thing’s significance, its relation to the viewer is altered, if it is judged as an instance of this rather than that category.  Pushing against habitual (or received) categorizations is often the explicit goal.

One might object that this is an awfully attenuated concept of meaning.  The riposte would be: to change the viewer’s relation to some thing, to have him see that thing “as” this rather than that (back to Wittgenstein), is to change the thing’s meaning, since meaning is constituted through relationships.  We don’t need the thing to be conveying an elaborate message; the thing doesn’t need to be a “sign” of something or other; we just need to the thing to be a different thing, taken up in a different mode, for “meaning” to come into play.

Still, there seems something intuitively correct about saying that the Kelly paintings have no meaning.  They just are.  In a world “where the trail of the human serpent is over all” (William James), there can be a fierce hunger for reality, for some brute facts.  Paradoxical, of course, that these brute facts would be fashioned by human hands.  But a desire to confront “the thing itself,” divested of all meaning, makes sense to me.  Even if it is impossible to actually achieve.


Problem Number Two:  The Humanities

Here’s a definition of the humanities that I like:

The humanities study the meaning-making practices of human culture(s), past and present, focusing on interpretation and critical evaluation, with a special interest in particular instances and, thus, an ineliminable focus on the singular, the eccentric, the subjective.
–Helen Small, The Value of the Humanities (OUP, 2014), p. 6.


DIGRESSION: Small goes “meta” in her definition, which I think is a mistake.  Yes, the humanities ponder “meaning-making practices”—as these Joseph North posts do—but they also, more significantly in my view, also engage with first-order meanings per se, and aim to contribute to the stock of such meanings.  Because the real stakes, it seems to me, are always on the level of the first-order meanings.  The “meta” reflections are “academic” in the negative sense of that word if not motivated by a commitment to particular first-order commitments.  What commitment, what value, drives my speculations here?  Most generally, a refutation of individualistic models of creation, of significance, of social relations.  Our entanglement with others–our ongoing and inescapable vulnerability and precarity (to use Judith Butler’s terms or indebtedness (to use David Graeber’s terms) has direct political consequences in my view.

So what’s the problem?  I don’t know how to think about the belatedness that this definition establishes for the humanities.  “The meaning-making practices” must come first—and then the humanities study them.  The object/subject split here is too drastic.  I’d want to say something more Latour-like: meaning emerges as the humanities take up various cultural phenomena.  Or, to go back to my thoughts about close readings, the humanities “actualize” (even “realize”) their objects of study, creating meanings that were not evident before.  The idea (as with Kant’s claim that one example of “genius/orginality” spurs the originality of others) is that meanings produce meanings; of the making of meanings, there is no end.  Meanings proliferate.  No word is final—but (in fact) occasions the production of more words.  Bakhtin seems the best guide here, with his sense of how every word calls forth an answering word. That also means that we are always already immersed in a field of meanings–Kenneth Burke’s ongoing conversation.  So belatedness just comes with the territory.

Still, the problem is whether there is a distinction between the arts and the humanities.  As just described, the humanities could be seen as the same as the arts; it is just that the artist works with paint, and the humanist works with cultural meanings.

That doesn’t seem right to me: i.e. that the humanities are the same as the arts, just working with a different material.  The humanities do seem intensely meaning focused.  Their bread and butter is the elaboration of meaning—far beyond acts of mere categorization.  If the humanities entail getting you to see something “as” this rather than that, or in shifting an object from one “mode” into another, those alterations of how something is judged/understood require much more than simply changing the label from “painting” to “property.”  The relationships involved are entanglements that the humanist tries to trace in all their complexity.

Maybe that’s one place of difference.  The humanist complicates, bringing more and more things into dialogue with the object of study, almost always adding to the “context” that is deemed to constitute the meanings of the “text.”  But the arts are often (hardly always, but certainly sometimes) drawn to abstraction, to the intensification of our encounter with a thing by focusing on it, by taking it out of context in order to make it “stand out.”

The arts (again, in some instances) are interested in “singularity”—as part of that effort to get to the “thing itself,” its singular integrity, its being stripped of meanings piled onto it by its relations.  Escape from family (all those relations!) Conatus?  And maybe that’s why the humanist’s accounts of the artist’s work can so often be processed by the artist as a betrayal.  The humanist will pull the art work back into the circle of relations, will even dare to “explain” how and why the art work came to be what it is.  Those six trains out of the work that Gass deplores.  The humanist just can’t let things be.  She must pile more words on top of those things.

In short, the humanities cannot help but trade in meanings.  But it is not so obvious that the arts must do the same.  Certainly lots of modern artists have desired to side-step meaning altogether.  So an account of the arts that insists “the aesthetic” is the “mode” attuned to meaning can seem like foisting the priorities of the humanities upon the arts—or an attempt to claim the arts and the humanities are (basically) the same.  I find myself unable to untangle this knot.  I am, it seems, overly susceptible to Merleau-Ponty’s pronouncement that “we are condemned to meaning” and thus keep pulling everything back into processes that produce meaning.

Joseph North Six–Latour and Aesthetic Judgment

Clearly, Joseph North’s book has been left pretty far behind at this point.  But I will keep the heading in order to indicate that the thread, however tenuous, is still being pursued.  There will be a seventh post on this track—and then a stop.

In Latour, the different modes constitute different quasi-objects and quasi-subjects.  Perhaps the “quasi” is meant to indicate that both objects and subjects under-determine their identities because nothing becomes a “thing” except through the relations in which it is entangled and the “paths” it traverses or the “scripts” to which it contributes.  The solidity of “thingness” is only a momentary achievement—or, perhaps, embalming.  There is more than a little here of Deluezean vitalism, of “flows” or energies taking form, but only briefly before dissolving back again into motion.

Many years ago I formulated the phrase: “nothing is necessarily anything, but every thing is necessarily some thing.”  I have never quite dared to use this potted metaphysics in print, although I do think I have used the phrase “metaphysical egalitarianism.”  The idea—very Latour—is to grant all the components of “a situation” or of a network equal status as contributors to how that situation is judged—or to what that network is seen to produce.

At the same time, the first statement points to the fact that the judgment, the act of naming, will take place.  We will refer to the product of the network; we will describe what we take to be the situation.  Coming into the network, no component is pre-determined to play any specific role; its possibilities are not infinite, not completely unconstrained, but they are plural, more than the “one” of “necessity.”  The “existent” will become “some thing” through its acting and being acted upon in the network—and the full ensemble of relations will constitute the “situation,” or the “state of affairs” the inquirer encounters.  (Latour’s use of the word “Inquiry” in his title comes straight from Pearce and Dewey; it is not a term as dear to James as to those two other pragmatists.)

To return to the aesthetic object, it is fairly easy to fit Van Gogh’s Sunflowers into Latour’s model.  The painting has its existence as a painting by virtue of a whole set of institutions, traditions, canons of evaluation, methods of reproduction and circulation, that are complicated, but can be traced.  It “subsists” as an art object in and through these relationships.  But it also exists as a legal object through a different set of relationships—those of property, provenance, copyright, plagiarism, inheritance etc.  It just a obviously exists in an economic mode: the art market, the auction houses, the thousands of objects on which it is reproduced for sale in museum gift shops etc.  And we can also imagine it in Latour’s “political” mode, being taken up in ways meant to reinforce or to dismantle the formation of a “we,” of a community united around common goals/aspirations/values, or as a weapon wielded to undermine a “we” that is experienced as oppressive, exclusive, or unjust.

My worry, just to repeat from last time, is that, no matter what the mode, there is still a recognizable object: the painting Sunflowers by the man we know as Vincent Van Gogh.  I don’t see how we get ontological pluralism here; there is one object.  That object can be “taken up” in various ways.  Multiple modes does not, as far as I can tell, yield multiple objects.  Yes, the painting has to be constituted as “an economic object.”  But there is still a stubborn persistence across modes.  I don’t know if we have to identify the source of that persistence as “substance.”  But I guess I do believe that there is a material presence there: a thing to be perceived, handled, “taken up.”

All this brings me back to “meaning” and “aesthetic judgment.”  My intuition (what I am struggling to cash out) is that the aesthetic is particularly focused on “meaning,” where meaning means both how this thing (or this situation) is understood at this moment and what this thing or situation “means” to me in terms of the intensity of my interest, my care, my need for it.  That we have a “judge” here does not, I think, doom us to a spectator theory of knowledge.  The judgment is produced from the interaction with the thing, from the immersion in the situation to be evaluated.  But the judge does stand in a particular location within the network.  I do feel it can make sense in certain circumstances for me to feel unworthy of a situation, to feel that the situation is judging me along with my judging the situation.  But I find it harder to believe that the situation can itself feel unworthy of me, that a painting (no matter how mediocre) can feel embarrassed by being in the same room as the Van Gogh.

There is also, when it comes to aesthetic judgment, the asymmetry between the artist and audience to consider.  Aesthetic judgment for the artist is fully interactive, is a perfect example of Dewey’s insistence that ends emerge through the engagement with means.  The artist makes a thousand small judgments as she proceeds in the act of creation—and those judgments are produced by the tensions experienced in her manipulation of her means and her projection of her audience’s reactions.  The work produced is never the work imagined at the outset.  In fact, if my own writing practice is any indication, at the outset there is a vague sense of ground to be covered, of ideas to be explored, but what is actually going to end up being said on the page is a surprise.  I don’t know where my train of thought will go; the act of writing brings those thoughts into existence.  The thousand of small judgments produces the final product.

It is different for the audience.  It is a cliché by now that the work is completed by its audience.  So we don’t have to see that spectator in the art museum as a passive observer—or the painting on the wall as a passive object.  And, in fact, it seems that “meaning” is more obviously involved in this interaction than in the work of the painter herself.  The painter is trying to create a thing; the relation of those difficulties of creation to “meaning” are not clear-cut or obvious.  (That will be the subject of my next—and final—post in this thread.)  But the viewer’s judgment is, inevitably I would say, one of value.

Traditionally, this has been said (by Kant and many others) to take the form: is this work beautiful or not?  That focus on “beauty” seems a very bad mistake.  For one thing, it sets up one standard of value where in fact there are many.  It is also leads, surprisingly quickly, to a connection between art and the numinous.  Art gets transported away from the ordinary—and is burdened with the expectation that it will somehow provide some special insight into realms of value normally hidden from us.  To invest the world we inhabit with meaning, with a vitality or glow, that attracts our interest, our attention, even our care (as in Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi”) is a very different matter than offering us intimations of some all-encompassing, all-explanatory account of it all.  Worst of all, is when that art-conveyed message is somehow meant to “redeem” this world, to “save” us from some projected despair of “meaninglessness,” or from the all-too-real fact of suffering.

Instead of beauty, I will settle for intensity and affirmation.  (Pater and Nietzsche are certainly lurking in the shadows here.)  If art alerts us as to what we might care for, then it is giving us specific instances of experiences, ideas, emotions, human achievement—in short, examples—that make life worth living.  Good art energizes; it awakens us (Pater’s metaphor) to what the world has to offer.  That’s how a work as dismal as King Lear can be utterly exhilarating to read.  To think that a human being was capable of producing such a magnificent work.

Here is where, following William James, I retain a stubborn, irreducible, subjectivism.  You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink—as every teacher knows.  Granting everything Latour has to say about the complicated networks and multiple interactions required to get King Lear into my hands; granting everything Bourdieu has to say about the social determinants of taste; there remains the fact that King Lear speaks to me in ways Hamlet does not.  I teach the one almost every year, and have taught the other twice, most recently over twenty years ago.  I can’t light up Hamlet for my students because it does not light me up.  And even when I feel like my classes on Lear have gone well, I know there are students that the play does not reach.  It leaves them cold (a great metaphor in this instance).

To repeat: I think I am on the right path to think that aesthetic judgment is not so much about beauty as it is about meaningfulness.  Some thing (and it does not have to be something deemed “a work of art”) is experienced as shot full of meaning.  That’s the aesthetic mode.  I want (like Dewey in Art and Experience) to make that judgment of meaningfulness mundane.  We are not being given some key to the universe, some access to the numinous, by the work of art.  We are simply (simply!) able to see, through the work, that our world (at some times and in some ways) is luminous.