Author: john mcgowan

Justice and American Politics

I want to open by saying (which will prove ironic in light of what I want to say) that I am currently reading Dante’s Divine Comedy for my sins.

I have elsewhere said that I think the fundamental dividing line between right and left in US politics can be quickly characterized by their different understandings of what justice means.  To be blunt: I think this is one of the two or three most cogent and valuable insights I have had in my life.  So I violate my usual rule of not repeating myself to express the basic idea again in this post.

It’s not like anything I have ever proposed in print has been taken up by others.  But this one insight I do think could be of use, so it disturbs my sangfroid in ways the general disregard for my writings does not.

Here’s the basic idea—and how it relates to Dante.  In the Paradiso, Canto 7, Dante is at pains to explain the logic of the Crucifixion.  Basically, he says that forgiveness of an offense is not enough.  Justice is not served unless there is also “atonement.”  Some price must be exacted in order to cancel the debt the offense has created.  (These economic metaphors are completely and utterly inescapable once some “payment” is required for having done wrong.  Similarly, one cannot avoid talking about “reward” for good deeds when operating within the same paradigm.)

Of course, Dante’s Inferno is the place for individualized atonement—and Dante can barely conceal his glee that the big reprobates have to pay the price forever.  No atonement can suffice in their case.  The Crucifixion is about atonement for original sin, for the whole mass of human sins. Canto 7 explains why only the suffering of Christ could erase that stain. God can’t just forgive mankind its misdeeds. (Of course, it’s easy to ask “why not?” And it won’t surprise you that Dante’s answer to that question is tortured and not very convincing. His answer: humans, via Adam’s sin, had fallen from the perfection with which they were created. Being imperfect, humans could not themselves restore their perfection. Only God could do that–and he could only do it be becoming human himself and “atoning” for Adam’s sin by suffering death by Crucifixion. And answer that raises more questions than it answers–in my humble opinion.)

When it comes to individualized punishment in hell, Dante is usually a bit too human to rejoice in the sufferings endured by those he encounters, but he has no doubt of the justice of their being there, as stated (among other instances) in lines 10-12 of Canto 15 of the Paradiso.  “It is well the he grieve without end who, for love of a thing that does not last eternally, divests himself of that other love” (where the “other love” is the love for and of God, a love that does last eternally.) There is just no atonement at all available for some people.

In short, there is always a soupcon of sadism and of self-satisfaction in the justice that motivates the right: people should get what they deserve.  So the bad guys should be punished, and the good guys (me!) deserve all the rewards you can pile up.  Meritocracy with a vengeance (quite literally).

The harshness is the point; it cannot be siphoned out to create some sort of “compassionate conservatism.”  Even if the paternalism imagined in compassionate conservatism were to be enacted, it would be within the strict limits of the family (i.e. citizenry).  Dubya may actually have been a sincerely compassionate guy, a true believer in No Child Left Behind (a noble slogan after all).  But the compassion was certainly not going to extend to Afghans or Iraqis.  The right is fueled by righteous indignation—and the desire to meet out punishment to those who “deserve” it, while augmenting the spoils divided up among the blessed. 

That’s why American conservatism is shot through and through with a certain version of Christianity.  Meritocracy—and the outraged sense that taxes take my hard-earned and well-deserved wealth and give it to the unworthy—is just another version of a religion built upon dividing sinners from non-sinners, and equating justice with the sinners getting hell and the non-sinners getting heaven.

Leftists are talking of something altogether different when they talk of justice.  Maybe you could torture the left wing notion of justice into the language of “desert.”  But the idea centers on what people deserve by the basic fact of being human.  What we owe to one another as humans.  Some basic set of ways to satisfy fundamental material and psychological/social needs.  The things required to render a life worth living.  The means to forging a flourishing life.  Shame unto the society that begrudges those things to any in its midst. Such a society is unjust.

The left’s idea of justice has some Biblical sources as well (of course).  But as Dante’s poem reminds us: ministers of vengeance and cupidity seem to usually have the upper hand in the Christian churches.  There are always heathens and heretics at the door—and surely god does not want you to extend a helping hand to them.  All that love your enemies stuff is overwritten by the doctrine of god’s eventual justice, of the fact of hell. If even God can’t love wicked humans, but sends them to hell, then there is a definite limit to what enemies you are enjoined to love.

So the two sides talk past one another.  The right sees threats, enemies, and (simply in some cases) the undeserving.  The reprobate not only bring suffering upon themselves,  but it also outrageous if society does not act to punish them, to make them pay for their waywardness. Why leave punishment to the next world when you can get the jump of divine vengeance in this one?

The left (bleeding heart liberals) saves its indignation for the cruelty of a society that treats those it deems unworthy so harshly.  Its cries for justice are for society to do right by these neglected souls, not to heap more suffering upon them.

What Can Poetry Do?

Here’s a review I wrote of a book on modernist art by Charles Altieri. Of interest because Altieri is a vigorous opponent of the notion that art can be directly political, even as he offers a distinctive vision of what art does have to offer us in the way of resources to reflect upon and act within the present moment. The review appears in symploke Vol. 30, Nos. 1-2 (2022) ISSN 1069-0697, pp. 335-341.

Review of Charles Altieri, Modernist Poetry and the Limitations of Materialist Theory: The Importance of Constructivist Values (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2021), viii + 280 pp. 

     What can modernist art offer the present?  Over the past thirty years, many readers have sought to mine that art for insights into the conditions of modernity and the forces that shape those conditions.  Art represents or reflects the society in which it is produced—and thus enhances our understanding of the world and (perhaps) offers alternatives to taken-for-granted prevailing modes of existence.  More recently, this brand of political materialism has morphed into a “new materialism” that purports to replace sociology with ontology.  The world is replete with active forces whose interaction produces  specific situations.  Capacious art works capture the constant flows and surprises of the dynamic scenes we all inhabit. 

     In both cases, critics look to the descriptive power of the arts to deliver insights into the world.  In his new book, Charles Altieri sees this “descriptive, epiphanic” mode as dominant within contemporary poetry specifically and in what literary studies generally looks to the arts to impart.  Altieri’s goal is to offer a strong alternative, one that depends on an allegiance to the non-representational work done by the modernist artists (Braque, Picasso, Malevich, Pound, Moore, Stevens, Eliot, Ashbery, and Geoffrey O’Brien) he calls “constructivists.”   These artists explore how “objects and persons might be able to display the force of their presence, and they establish a range of subject positions for which finding the appropriate concepts was less important than imagining how a responding consciousness might cooperate in making those modes of presence emerge.  This imagining had to orient itself toward a questioning of who members of the audience might become by virtue of participating in what the making elaborates as possible distributions of subjectivity” (22).  It is what the arts can create, the possibilities that they can open up, rather than any report about the way things are that is important. 

     Not all artists are constructivists; it would be foolish to deny that many works of art do aspire to some version of realism, to tell us something about the world. (In what follows, then, take every statement about “art” to only apply to constructivist art.) But Altieri thinks we lose perhaps the most valuable and distinctive thing the arts can do if we neglect how the arts can exemplify and celebrate the creative powers of the imagination.  In addition, the arts display the various subtle ways that self-consciousness registers its encounter with the world and its experience of its own capacities.  Political materialism, he believes, is mired in an inescapable ironic dissociation from a world identified as cruel and unjust, thus missing the affirmations that art can offer.  Here is Altieri at his most exalted and most inspiring: “Poetry as a theory of life involves demonstrations that the imagination is not an evasion of the real but a way of complementing it by aligning it with our most intimate structures of desire.  Such demonstration has to replace interpretation by celebration, or, more accurately, by the performance of celebration that aligns our capacities for affirmation to the world of fact” (150).  Against the world-weariness and despair generated by our political obsessions, Altieri wants to offer the triumphs of art’s engagement with its materials and its successes in constructing those materials into works that astound and delight us even as they invite us to join in the creative process. 

     The new materialism, with its focus on activity, might seem more aligned with Altieri’s constructivists.  Certainly, in the current debates about “critique,” writers like Bruno Latour and Rita Felski mobilize the new materialism to distance themselves from the kinds of political criticism that Altieri also wants to decenter from prevailing critical modes.  But Altieri argues that the new materialism is reductive.  It simply has no vocabulary or theoretical armature to handle the intricacies of consciousness and self-consciousness.  No third person scientific account can capture “the phenomenal awareness of what it is like to be in a given state” (231); “what is known [on the basis of that phenomenal awareness] cannot be reduced to the result of a cognitive judgment” (233).  We enter deep waters here—and I will only cite Altieri’s allegiances rather than detail the arguments he advances for them.  He is committed to the view that the arts can deliver experiences that are not well understood if we try to assimilate our “take away” from such experiences to models or modes of cognition.  And he is committed to a base level humanism: we cannot do justice to human experience if we do not attend to “how the mind can structure what it confronts” (230) and how consciousness can experience phenomenally the emotions and pleasures that its structuring exercise generates.  Furthermore, the artist can then develop modes of expression that display that structuring activity, modes that invite an audience to participate in that structuring, and that call self-conscious attention to the emotions, pleasures, and difficulties that accompany that activity.  These human expressive and conscious capacities are not shared by creatures or objects that do not produce art works.  Any materialism that does not take into account what art displays about these capacities fails the test of inclusiveness.  There is a vital part of human phenomenal experience that such materialisms miss. 

     Wisely, Altieri devotes himself almost exclusively to elaborating his alternative instead of getting mired down in polemics against materialism. (The polemics are offered only in the Introduction and the Epilogue.)  What the reader mostly gets is a bracing and thrilling articulation of an aestheticism that aims “to model the force of self-conscious affirmation” (154).  Where many contemporary readers turn to the arts for a denunciation of modernity and all its works, Altieri looks to the arts to mobilize powers of imagination that simultaneously celebrate human capacities and “enable us to participate in establishing a full sense of the real” (155).  The encounter of selves with “the necessities of living” (154) is the scene for a poiesis that activates emotions and apprehensions that the artist composes self-consciously into a relationship to the non-self (the real and others).  “[T]he imagination becomes simply a means of attending to possibilities inherent in observation and dwelling on them as opportunities for adjusting one’s sense of an inner life” (155).  Through this second-order artistic exploration of the meeting of self and non-self, both are articulated, are intensified, come into focus.   

     Crucially, for Altieri, this exploration is dynamic and open-ended, manifested as a process not a product in the modernist works he cherishes.  In displaying this process, the work invites the reader/audience to participate in it.  The work does not deliver a message; it explains nothing.  Rather, it displays or exemplifies modes of relating selves to otherness (of all kinds)—and offers the satisfactions of what those modes enable in the way of felt emotions and/or the pleasures of activating, putting into practice, our imaginative powers.  “Construction must elaborate fields of relation that can align imaginative labor with what would be without it utter poverty” (166).  Art vivifies the world and the human in that world, thus providing the grounds for affirming the world and our habitation in it.  Constructivist artists highlight “the satisfactions of a freedom of mind seeking to play a fuller part in how the world emerges” (167). 

     If all this sounds vaguely (or even precisely) Hegelian, that’s because it is.  Altieri clearly believes that the non-human only comes to realization through the apprehensions of consciousness.  His explicit invocation of Hegel comes in a somewhat different register.  The modernist artists he calls “constructivist” “dramatized the power to make meaning” by foregrounding “’the powers that do the forming’ rather than ‘the final forms themselves’”(74; the quoted passages are from Paul Klee). “And these modes of significance depend in turn largely on how the work invites self-conscious identification with the force of that making” (74).   

     Altieri mobilizes Hegel’s concept of “inner sensuousness” (from Hegel’s Lectures on Fine Arts) to capture this focus on the mind’s activity of composing the work.  What constructivist artists do is try to make concrete, try to embody in apprehensible forms and images, the invisible work of mind, of imagination, of self-consciousness. Such art makes “the process of reflection both the subject and sensuous object that we produce as readers” (205). We might want to think of “objective correlatives” here, but that would miss just how “sensuous” Altieri finds the exercise of mental capacities and the emotions that such exercise unleashes.  Inner sensuousness is achieved by a work when that work “so embodies the activities of the maker that the making itself takes on a concrete objecthood available to all those willing to participate in how the work organizes its energies” (44). The great pleasure and great triumph of Altieri’s book comes in his intricate and thrilling readings of selected paintings and poems, his way of tracking the artist’s way of organizing energy and the ways in which the artist invites us to participate in that work of organization.  What those readings invariably impart is the full glory of stretching oneself to the limits of one’s abilities.  The poverty of a life in which one doesn’t participate in the making of meanings and the elaboration of possibilities shadows the exuberance of the play in which artists engage. 

     In his eleven previous books, most of them focused on twentieth-century poetry, Altieri has amply demonstrated his ability to illuminate even the most difficult material.  Stevens might be called Altieri’s lodestar, bringing out his best, while surely no commentator makes a better case for Ashbery’s claim on our attention.  In his current book, to accompany Altieri as he reads Moore’s “A Grave” is to follow a master in slow motion so as to savor every move.  The characteristic Altieri reading identifies what the poet is striving to attain, and then explains the poem’s twists and turns in relation to the obstacles that must be overcome to achieve the desired end.  Of course, not all poems get what they want, but their dynamism, their energy, the logic of their unfolding rests in their striving, and readers best enter into the poem when they follow the path of those efforts while identifying (if only provisionally) with its aims.  When he turns to Eliot, Altieri eloquently shows how Eliot’s religious poetry aims to make “Christian principles visible as concrete states of self-consciousness, despite the domination of secular attitudes toward what constitutes experience” (116).  The “post conversion poetry and plays” foreground “the capacities of self-consciousness to establish relational fields responsive to something other than any natural order shaping the contours of experience” (117).  Hence Eliot partakes in the more general dilemma of the limits of a stringent naturalism.  Nature gives us hurricanes and cancer, so it cannot itself serve as a standard for what one values and what is good.  But developing other grounds for judgment is not easy and, under modern conditions, does not yield any stable foundations.  The poet must work his way to his values laboriously and tentatively—and the reader is invited along on the journey.  Altieri’s chapter on Eliot made at least this reader more open to the strivings of the portentous Four Quartets than ever before.  

     The “high modernists” (Frank Kermode’s term) Altieri finds inspiring have not had a good run lately.  They are accused of a multitude of sins, some of which they actually committed, and attention has shifted to less canonical figures or to readings that don’t take the high modernists on their own terms.  And Altieri’s brand of aestheticism can look both all too familiar and depressingly inadequate when posed against the challenges of our bleak time.  His insistence that art should eschew “practical understanding” can look like Auden’s defiant insistence that “poetry makes nothing happen”—a position that can seem to doom art to ineffectual irrelevance.  Certainly, many modernist artists and (arguably) most contemporary literary critics are trying to secure art’s practical significance, not its non-practicality.  Altieri insists that “we submit to practical understanding only at a substantial cost” (11).  We lose art’s ability to “disrupt” the “smooth flow from particular to concept to action” (11).  An art that doesn’t aspire to “guide action” is always throwing sand in the gears, endeavoring to get us to attend to what in the situation might not “fit our conceptual schemes” while also inviting self-conscious attention (and possible revision) of “guiding attitudes and investments” (11).  Art of the kind Altieri favors makes us pause, makes us re-think and re-evaluate and reconsider our received opinions and feelings.  Art’s distance from the practical can make what seems “poverty . . . become a virtue if the poets produce modes of attention to how language might fuse with experience to provide momentary senses of liberation from our fate as social beings” (181).  We can wriggle out from under—if only momentarily—the weight of received meanings and attitudes. 

     Hardly a satisfactory formulation of art’s political impact if you say you want a revolution.  I think Altieri’s book strongly implies, without ever explicitly stating, that asking art to be directly politically effective is to court inevitable disappointment.  Contemporary literary studies wants the wrong thing from art—and thus misses the wonderful, precious things art can deliver. But there are moments when Altieri hopes for something more from art than momentary liberation. In stressing the way that the works he discusses invite “participation,” Altieri reprises another familiar modernist concept that can be traced back to Eliot: “impersonality.”  Despite their concentrated attention to the self’s (to a particular mind’s) encounter with the world, Stevens, Eliot and the others he discusses, in Altieri’s view, reach for articulations that cross the boundary between self and other.  They do so by “treating the work as involving participation in the activity of the maker” (17).   

     “Impersonality” limns a desirable politics in two ways.  First, the imperative of impersonality is embedded in any artist’s need to use forms and materials (words, color, canvas, poetic forms etc.) that pre-exist her and are socially (i.e. non-individualistically) possessed.  The purely private can make no claim on an audience’s attention—and certainly will have great difficulty in inviting that audience’s participation.  It seems fair to say that all the modernists Altieri celebrates were “devoted to displaying how the private in fact can become a public force” (96). Thus, Marianne Moore’s use of quotations in her poems offers “a striking emblem of sociality, since the world experienced is a world held self-reflectively in common with numerous other commentators” (99). 

     The second point is related to what we might call the problem of “uptake.”  If the poet activates meanings that depart from practical and received understandings, will those alternative meanings be picked up by readers? Once taken up by others, those meanings are no longer personal or idiosyncratic.  Because he emphasizes so strongly the co-production of meaning by writer and reader, Altieri builds in a model of how the arts might create new social relations.  Altieri touches very, very lightly on this possibility, as if nervous of making too extravagant a claim about art’s powers at a time when we commonly ask the arts to do too much.  His modest account of how poetry might be political comes through his discussion of Geoffrey O’Brien’s method and aspirations.  O’Brien writes of an “’immaterial commons’ in which ‘we read not of things but of dispositions toward the thingly.’”  Altieri comments: O’Brien “sees himself facing two antagonists—a capitalist social system that wants to repress the effects of inequality by treating injustice as written into something like historical necessity, and an engaged poetry that makes promises of political effectiveness it cannot sustain.  Poetry might be able in the long run indirectly to influence social change because we can find in that commons the sense that our cares and responses to those cares have a great deal that is shared.  And we find in this space the possibility of celebrating one another’s freedom because these freedoms are grounded in this group awareness” (210). 

     Poetry, then, can contribute to the creation of a commons, to the establishment of a magnanimous sociality, only by being impersonal and intersubjective—not the word handed down by the poet, but in the words co-created by poet and reader in a process of coming to meaning.  It is not what the poet tells us (hence Altieri’s resistance to seeing art as representative and to approaches that emphasize art’s cognitive benefits for understanding the world), but the activities to which the poet invites us.   

     Put that way, Altieri’s vision seems anything but modest, even if it is not directly or particularly political.  He is at one with the most exalted modernist aspirations to re-word the world even as their work would re-establish basic social relations on an entirely new basis.  This project lies somewhat buried in Altieri’s book because he slides from “meaning” to “value” occasionally, but never takes up their relation explicitly.  I think, however, that basically he believes that what we find meaningful, what we deem worthy of attention and appreciation, is what we affirm as valuable.  The invitation that the modernist poets offer us, in his view, is the opportunity to self-consciously consider our values and the processes (pleasurable in themselves) by which we create those values.  And the hope is that participating together in those processes will lead us to recognize what we hold in common and to cherish/promote the goods required to make participation available to all.  We don’t need artists to tell us the world is unjust.  We have ample evidence of that fact all around us.  We need artists to introduce us to the joys of exercising our imaginative capacities and, through that exercise, to discover our deep connections to, and care for, others with similar capacities. 

Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary

Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary

I have just finished reading Victor Serge’s “memoir” (New York Review Books, 2012; written in 1941-1943; originally published in 1951).  Perhaps I will have more of my own thoughts about it to record in the coming days.  But right now, I just want to offer three fragments, the relevance of each of them seems obvious to me, not requiring any immediate commentary or interpretation on my part.

Its opening paragraph:

Even before I emerged from childhood, I seem to have experienced, deeply at heart, that paradoxical feeling that was to dominate me all through the first part of my life: that of living in a world without any possible escape, in which there was nothing for it but to fight for an impossible cause.  I felt repugnance, mingled with wrath and indignation, towards people whom I saw settled comfortably in this world. How could they not be conscious of their captivity, of their unrighteousness? (3)

Many years and pages later, Serge reflects on the smear campaigns of the 1930s, highlighted by the Moscow Trials of 36-37, the destruction of the POUM in Spain by the Communists, and the Nazis’ vilification of the Jews:

This uninterrupted avalanche of delirious outpourings in the papers, the radio, at meetings, even in books, were on precisely the same level of psychological appeal as the Nazi agitation against the “Judeo-Masonic plutocracy, Marxism, Bolshevism,” and, occasionally, “the Jesuits”!  We are witnessing the birth of collective psychoses similar to those of the Middle Age, and the creation of a technique for stifling critical thought, so laboriously acquired by the modern mind.  Somewhere in Mein Kampf there are twenty exquisitely cynical lines on the usefulness of slander accompanied by violence.  The new totalitarian methods for dominating the mind of the masses incorporate the devices of mainstream commercial advertising, amplified by violence and frenzied irrationality.  The defiance of reason humiliates it and foreshadows its defeat.

The enormity and wildness of such accusations take the average person by surprise since he cannot imagine that he can be lied to on such a scale.  The outrageous language intimidates him and in a way redeems the imposture: reeling under the shock, he is tempted to tell himself that there must, after all, be some justification for this madness, some justification of a higher order surpassing his own understanding.  Success is possible for these techniques, it seems clear, only in epochs of confusion, and only if the brave minorities who embody the critical spirit are gagged or reduced to impotence through reasons of State and their own lack of material resources. . . .

Totalitarianism has no more dangerous an enemy than the spirit of criticism, which it bends every effort to exterminate.  Any reasonable objection is bundled away with shouts, and the objector himself, if he persist, is bundled off on a stretcher to the mortuary.  I have met my assailants face-to-face in public meetings, offering to answer any questions they raised.  Instead, they always strove to drown my voice in storms of insults, delivered at the tops of their voices. . . . [Not] a single line [of my published work] has ever been contested, or a single argument adduced in reply—only abuse, denunciation, and threats. (393-94).

Serge’s faith in critical thought (a faith at least in its integrity if not in its efficacy) never left him, and is the source of his moving conclusion to his story of the failure of socialism in his lifetime, most particularly the descent of the 1917 Revolution into totalitarian despotism.

Early on, I learned from the Russian intelligentsia that the only meaning of life lies in the conscious participation in the making of history. The more I think of that, the more deeply true it seems to be.  It follows that one must range oneself actively against everything that diminishes man, and involve oneself in all struggles which tend to liberate and enlarge him  This categorical imperative is in no way lessened by the fact that such an involvement is inevitably soiled by error; it is a worse error to live for oneself, caught within traditions which are soiled by inhumanity.

A French essayist has said, “What is terrible when you seek the truth, is that you find it.”  You find it, and then you are no longer free to follow the biases of your personal circle, or to accept fashionable clichés.  I immediately discerned within the Russian Revolution the seeds of such serious evils as intolerance and the drive towards the persecution of dissent.  The evils originated in an absolute sense of possession of the truth, grafted upon doctrinal rigidity.  What followed was contempt for the man who was different, of his arguments and way of life.  Undoubtedly, one of the greatest problems which each of us has to solve in the realm of practice is that of accepting the necessity to maintain, in the midst of the intransigence which comes from steadfast beliefs, a critical spirit toward those same beliefs and a respect for the belief that differs.  In the struggle, it is the problem of combining the greatest possible practice efficiency with respect for the man in the enemyin a word, a war without hate. . . .

Many times I have felt myself on the brink of a pessimistic conclusion as the function of thinking, of intelligence, in society.  Continuously, over a quarter of a century, that is since the stabilization of the Russian Revolution just before 1920, I have found a general tendency to the suppression of percipient thinking. . . .

The relationships between error and true understanding are in any case too abstruse for anyone to regulate them by authority.  Men have no choice but to make long detours through hypotheses, mistakes, and imaginative guesses, if they are to succeed in extricating assessments which are more exact, if partly provisional: for there are few cases of complete exactness.  This means that freedom of thought seems to me, of all values, one of the most essential.

It is also one of the most contested.  Everywhere and at every time. I have encountered fear of thought, repression of thought, an almost universal desire to escape or else stifle this ferment of restlessness.  . . . .

The role of critical intelligence has seemed to me to be dangerous, and very nearly useless.  This is the most pessimistic conclusion to which I have felt myself drawn.  I am careful not to state it finally; I blame the feeling on my personal weakness, and I persist in regarding critical and percipient thought as an absolute necessity, as a categorical imperative which no one can evade without damage to himself and harm to society, and, besides, as the source of immense satisfactions.  Better times will come, and perhaps soon.  It is a matter of holding fast and keeping faith until then. (439-442)

Teaching the Art of Judgment

Here’s the text of a short essay of mine published in the most recent issue of PMLA. (My apologies for some of the funky formatting.)

As a teacher, I have no right to tell my students how to vote or what
religion to practice. I don’t see that telling them to prefer Mrs.
Dalloway to The Da Vinci Code is any different. My job is to enhance
my students’ abilities to judge, not present authoritative judgments to
them.(1) Any student, even one in kindergarten, has already developed
preferences, even if the reasons for those preferences are mostly
inchoate. Articulating those reasons—submitting them to scrutiny
through public conversation—should be one aim of aesthetic educa-
tion. In this essay, I consider what teaching the art of judgment
entails. Working from and through the example of an aesthetic object
is particularly effective in leading students to understand the processes
of judgment formation and to consider the bases of their own

Traditionally, judgment names the ability to recognize the full
nature and import of something encountered in experience. Thus,
the teacher is aiming to enhance powers of apprehension. But appre-
hension bleeds inevitably into selection. One chooses to spend time
with this object, experience, or person, not that one. Criticism, the
articulated response to the encounter with an aesthetic object, is
often thought to invariably involve a judgment about whether that
object is any good. Statements like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is better
than Moby-Dick” litter works of aesthetic theory from David Hume
on despite being just about meaningless absent the specification of
criteria. Particular qualities, contexts of use, and purposes must
underwrite any judgments of worth—and those criteria simply are
assumed to be held in common with others when blanket statements
of value are offered. That readers in 1856 would have preferred
Stowe’s novel to Melville’s, while “settled opinion” by 1956 gave the
palm to Moby-Dick, tells us about revaluations of sentimentalism,
of direct versus indirect political rhetorics, and of melodrama, not about something eternally true.

So it is not a question of reaching the right judgments of value, but
of understanding what underwrites particular judgments of value.

Crucial to any evaluation of an object is the ability to discern its features and its relation to me and
others who encounter it. Just what is this thing and how does it move its potential audiences? Judgment
thus names both the power of discernment, the capacity to apprehend the thing in all its multitudi-
nous variety and complexity, and a similar capacity to discern the complexities of my responses to it—
and the responses of others. Following Hannah Arendt’s reading of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of
Judgment, I want to emphasize this last bit (hearing and understanding the responses of others)—and
take it as the foundation stone for aesthetic education.

Like Kant, Arendt distinguishes between determinative and reflexive judgments. Determinative
judgments are noncontroversial and simply involve determining the category to which something
belongs. Speakers of the same language rarely dispute whether something is a chair or a sofa.
Judging whether this thing I sit on is one or the other is obvious. Reflexive judgments, however,
are disputable. What a chair indicates about the personality of its owner is not immediately apparent—
and will generate varying judgments. A case will have to be made to my interlocutors about the
owner’s love of luxury or, alternatively, the owner’s austere puritanism. Even more dramatically, my
encounter with the chair and my articulation of its relation to personality may lead to my re-forming
my understanding of the very category of personality and its entanglements with objects. Kant’s pri-
mary example of a category that can be re-formed in this way is “beauty.” One might argue that a pain-
ter like Vincent van Gogh transformed the category of “beauty” in Western art.

That Van Gogh did not live to see that transformation indicates the crucial fact that categories
are communal and intersubjective, not personal. Only in the dialogue with others do judgments
acquire any stability. This fact underwrites Arendt’s distinctive understanding of “the world.” Judgment involves an assertion of what a thing is, of what it can be seen as, but also what its singular character-
istics are. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Moby-Dick are both novels that revise our sense of what novels
can be and do. They are also distinctive individual works that call for detailed descriptions of their sin-
gularity. Judgment is much less about seeing one as “better” than the other than about understanding
each novel’s peculiar characteristics and virtues—and the distinctive ways they have moved some
readers and failed to interest other readers at all.

Such categorizations and characterizations become significant, constituting a world of things
and situations that transcends the self, only when ratified in conversation with others. We constitute
a world that becomes our “common sense” (Kant’s sensus communis).

Arendt writes:

[N]o one can adequately grasp the objective world in
its full reality all on his own, because the world
always shows and reveals itself to him from only
one perspective, which corresponds to his standpoint
in the world and is determined by it. If someone
wants to see and experience the world as it “really”
is, he can do so only by understanding it as some-
thing that is shared by many people, lies between
them, separates and links them, showing itself differ-
ently to each and comprehensible only to the extent
that many people can talk about it and exchange
their opinions and perspectives with one another,
over against one another. Only in the freedom of
our speaking with one another does the world, as
that about which we speak, emerge in its objectivity
and visibility from all sides. Living in a real world
and speaking with one another about it are basically
one and the same. . . . (“Introduction” 128–29).

It is only through talk with others that anyone can achieve the “enlarged” or “broadened” viewpoint
that Kant recommends in his discussion of “sensus communis”: “a power to judge that in reflecting
takes account in our thought of everyone else’s way of presenting” something (442). Judgment,
Arendt insists, is social through and through. “One judges always as a member of a community”
(Lectures 75), and the practice of judgment estab-
lishes the “sociality” that Kant calls humanity’s “highest end” (73). The key Kantian concept here is
“communicability”: “Communicability obviously depends on the enlarged mentality; one can com-
municate only if one is able to think from the other person’s standpoint; otherwise one will
never meet him, never speak in such a way that he understands” (74). Sensus communis, our living in
a world of shared objects, is constituted through communication.

Aesthetic objects offer an almost perfect laboratory for experimenting with communicating one’s
opinions and discernments with others who aredoing the same. Sociological phenomena, historical
events, and philosophical arguments can also serve to develop powers of judgment through practice.
The advantage of using the aesthetic object as an example to teach judgment is its materiality (it can
be physically present to all participants in the dialogue) and its relative boundedness compared with
other possible examined objects. Most importantly, the aesthetic object (almost invariably) is itself a
communicative act. It is already trying to get its audience to see things in a certain way, to direct
the audience’s attention in a particular direction. Thus, students all have their eyes turned toward an
object that confronts each of them—and that is directly aiming to elicit a response from them. The
students can be immediately set the task of describing what this thing is—and learn together just how
differently an object can be viewed and just how detailed a comprehensive description (of an object
and of responses to it) can be. In this way, the encounter with aesthetic objects dramatizes the whole
process of judgment. Students have a particular response (intense or not) to an object—and then
test that response in dialogue with others’ responses to the same object. Examples get the whole operation
moving; they are, Arendt translates Kant as saying, “the go-carts of judgment” (Lectures 84).

The teacher, familiar with the history of responses to particular works and knowledgeable
about the kinds of questions that get asked about aesthetic objects, guides the dialogue, pushing stu-
dents to become more aware of and more articulate about their somewhat inchoate responses. Students
are being led on the “taste journeys” that MarkWollaeger describes as part of his classroom

The student is called upon “‘to give an account’—not to prove, but to be able to say how
one came to an opinion and for what reasons one formed it” (Arendt, Lectures 41). In this give-and-
take of asking for responses and reasons or grounds for those responses, one cannot compel agreement.
As Arendt puts it, “one can only ‘woo’ or ‘court’ the agreement” of others (72). Reciprocally, others’
comments may lead one to see aspects of the object or experience that had been missed. Superb critics
light up something, make us apprehend it in new ways that feel enlarging, enriching, and enlighten-
ing. The world emerges, moves from black and white into color, through these dialogic exchanges.

Arendt’s link between the dialogic practices of judgment and a robust democratic polity has been
most full explored by Linda M. G. Zerilli. She presents judging “as a democratic world-building prac-
tice that creates and sustains . . . the common space in which shared objects of judgment can appear in
the first place” (xiii). Following Arendt, Zerilli adopts a language of “loss” to describe our contem-
porary predicament. We are witnessing “the radical shrinkage of a public space in which various per-
spectives can attest to the existence of a common object” (36). I subscribe to the notion that the
dialogic classroom provides a model for the kinds of exchanges essential for a vibrant democracy. But
our current inability to create a common world—exemplified by the drastically different perspectives
on the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 US presidential election—seems less the result of a shrunken public sphere than the consequence of more voices being included. It is easy to have a common world
emerge when all the communicants are mostly cut from the same cloth.

It would be naive to believe that developing powers of judgment through dialogue could close
the rifts in a deeply divided society. The question of how much members of a society must agree on
to avoid civil war has an empirical answer. But a peaceful transition of power (to take just one
charged example) relies on some consensus about the legitimacy of the rules of the game. Zerilli is, I

think, right when she says that “to bring someone to share my judgment . . . must be a matter of getting
the person to see what I see, to share, that is, my affective response” (54). Arendt’s gambit is that par-
ticipation in processes of judgment will foster a particular sensibility—one that recognizes that I live
with others and that both my individuality and the world itself emerge and flourish through association
and communication with those others. Absent that sensibility, democracy is in peril. Linking aesthetic
education to democracy means hoping that the practice of judgments fosters such a sensibility.
Hope comes with no guarantees, but the absence of dialogic habits spells trouble.

The dialogic classroom stands as an example of a democratic way of being in the world, and the aes-
thetic object provides an occasion for practicing judgment. It is worth considering why working
through examples is a useful way to teach the art of judgment.

First, examples avoid the abstraction and generality of giving reasons for judgment. The example
gets us into the territory of affective response, of detailed engagement with the object. It is fairly com-
mon to link the aesthetic to the particular; aesthetic objects (at least since 1750 in the West, an important
qualification) aspire to originality, to uniqueness. To discern the features of an aesthetic object—and
the qualities of my response to it—means paying attention to the fine-grained details of this experi-
ence in all its dimensions. When my experience of the object shifts because of hearing others’ responses
to it or under the pressure of articulating my own responses, the holism that a word like sensibility
evokes comes into play. How the object “moves” me is the question, not simply how to describe its
defining features. It is that holism that advocates of aesthetic education often think justifies its place
in the curriculum.

The second reason to resort to examples leads to difficult issues about the relation of autonomy to
sociality in democratic polities. The route to one’s formed sensibility (of course never fully formed,
but still more solidly established and resistant to change at thirty than at sixteen) is, as Arendt’s
account of judgment would suggest, through one’s relation to others. Humans are imitative creatures.
Especially at first, we adopt the attitudes, tastes, habits, and beliefs of those we admire, of those
who seem to be the beings we would like to be ourselves. Other humans stand as examples to us of
ways of being in the world. The teacher (or peers) probably influences us more by the persona they
project than by any reasons offered up in dialogue. I came (at least at first) to love classical music less
through its intrinsic qualities and virtues than because certain people I admired clearly thought
there was something to it. Reasons are not utterly negligible, but we risk missing the full dynamic of
judgments of taste if we neglect questions of charisma, of admiration, of a desire to be more like
someone else. Perhaps judgment is clouded when influenced by others one admires, but any account
of judgment is deficient if it doesn’t take such influences into account.

In the classroom, I think it prudent to make the effects of charisma explicit—not to purge them (an
impossible task) but to highlight the extent to which one’s judgments entail attachments to certain ways of
being in the world. Judgments are invariably about value; discernment involves assessments of whether
this object, person, desire, ambition is worthy of sustained attention or is to be left aside in favor of
other pursuits. The teacher’s job is to give students the capacity to make such judgments by opening
up the terrain on which judgments are made—and providing as detailed a map of that territory as

Respecting and attempting to foster my students’ autonomy seem to me absolute responsibili-
ties. Democracy rests on the assertion that each person has the right to make judgments on their
own. The tricky part is to fully acknowledge (as I have been arguing) that judgment requires partici-
pation in a community, where reasons are offered, opinions expressed, and ways of being in the world
(living out one’s beliefs and tastes and moral sensibility) displayed. But one’s judgments are not to be
dictated by authoritative leaders or some kind of majority rule. Arendt’s entire attempt to work out
an account of judgment was a response to her experience of totalitarian society. Arendt had witnessed

a world in which a set of shared moral convictions about murder and decency “collapsed almost over-
night, and then it was as though morality suddenly stood revealed in the original sense of the word, as
a set of mores, customs, and manners, which might be exchanged for another set with hardly more trou-
ble than it would take to change the table manners of an individual or a people” (“Some Questions” 50).
The process of forming a judgment cannot become simply an adoption of prevailing beliefs or preju-
dices, or parroting the views of others. It should aim instead to establish one’s own convictions,
one’s own way of living in the world.

But autonomy, Arendt always insists, must be tempered with the recognition that I live in a world
also occupied by others. To learn that I am not alone in the world is an important lesson, absolutely nec-
essary, and as such underwrites the requirements to take the viewpoints of others into consideration
when forming my own convictions. And the ethics of sociality require communicability, of explaining
myself to myself and to others. There remain, however, duties to the self, ones Arendt saw dissolve in
front of her eyes in the 1930s. Balancing these two sets of responsibilities is no easy task, with no set
formulas or methods for success. But continual engagement in dialogue with others seems essential
to any effort to cultivate both. Democratic education (and this essay tries to enlist aesthetic education to
that cause) fosters the realization that individual style and opinions develop in association with oth-
ers, not in opposition to them. This does not take the sting out of various disagreements, but it does
provide a basic acknowledgment not only that others have an equal right to be here but that there is
no world and no self unless those others are here. We might call this “the democratic demand,” the
ethical imperative embedded in efforts to teach the art of judgment.

The example stands as a singular instance even as it also indicates possible ways forward, offering an
instantiation of certain choices guided by judgment.(2) As such it bridges singularity and sociality.
Kant’s comments on the use of examples in teaching capture the tricky balancing act in question. In the
arts (as contrasted to the sciences), what we want the student to learn “cannot be couched in a formula
and serve as a precept. . . . Rather, the rule must be abstracted from what the artist has done, i.e. from
the product, which others may use to test their own talent, letting it serve them as their model,
not to be copied but to be imitated. How that is possible is difficult to explain” (177). No kidding. That’s
why aesthetic educators are always on the defensivein a world determined to devise pedagogical
methods and measures. In the biology lab, you want students to produce exactly the same results.
In the literature classroom, you want students to produce their own distinctive responses to the works
they read, not to find their way to exactly the same conclusions. Aesthetic educators are not offering
recipes that result in a standardized product, but are (instead) trying to activate the distinctive talents
and sensibilities of each of their students. Seeing how others have done it provides a model, an
example. But imitating the model (to use Kant’s distinction between copying and imitating) entails
grasping the point of the enterprise (an engagement with the materials and situation at hand and a will to
communicate the particulars of that engagement to others) and attempting a similar enterprise on one’s
own behalf.

I think Kant’s emphasis on “abstracting a rule” from the example is misguided, but it highlights the
tensions at play. Not anything goes. “Since nonsense too can be original, the products of genius must also
be models, i.e. they must be exemplary” (175). The example communicates; it is not utterly trapped
in idiosyncratic, ineffable singularity, but speaks to others, displays a sensibility and its encounter with
the nonself. The aesthetic educator is trying to foster some kind of individual autonomy through
the examination of individual responses to what the world offers, responses tested against the ability
to communicate them. Autonomy and sociality develop as I see how others respond to my views
and also how those others respond to encounters with similar (or even identical) objects or situations.

Aesthetic education, in particular, seems suited to this effort to help students come into their own, to
discover their own voices and convictions, while remaining in touch with others. The means are the

public (through dialogue) testing of attitudes and beliefs. The thoroughness and persuasiveness with
which students communicate their views are the criteria of assessment—and what the teacher sets out to
cultivate—not specific content. Examples can give a sense of what can be accomplished in communication,
in a thorough and spirited presentation to others.

1. See Clune for a spirited argument that “expert aesthetic judg-
ment” (2) deployed in the classroom can “carve out a space beyond
the reach of market valuation” (3) in such a way that “aesthetic edu-
cation sets up a material barrier to market totalitarianism” (4). My
account of judgment in this essay both overlaps and disagrees with
Clune’s work in ways too complex to detail in this short space.

2. See Klinger for a detailed account of how judgment works in
the production of the individual instance.


Arendt, Hannah. “Introduction into Politics.” The Promise of
Politics, edited by Jerome Kohn, Schocken Books, 2005, pp.

———. Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. U of Chicago P,
———. “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy.” Responsibility and
Judgment, edited by Jerome Kohn, Schocken Books, 2003, pp.

Clune, Michael W. A Defense of Judgment. U of Chicago P, 2021.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Translated by by Werner
S. Pluhar, Hackett, 1987.

Klinger, Florian. “To Make That Judgment: The Pragmatism of
Gerhard Richter.” Judgment and Action: Fragments toward a
History, edited by Vivasvan Soni and Thomas Pfau,
Northwestern UP, 2018, pp. 239–68.

Wollaeger, Mark. “Taste, Value, and Literary Aesthetics.”American Comparative Literature Association conference,

Zerilli, Linda M. G. A Democratic Theory of Judgment. U of Chicago P. 2016.