Category: Democracy

The Aesthetic (Six)

Today’s post will introduce three additional features/effects often attributed to the aesthetic.

 

  1. The aesthetic has the effect of widening our sympathies because it bring us into contact with a diverse range of content—and allows us to “get inside” the motives and ways of being of that diverse content. George Eliot offers a much-cited version of this argument in her writing about the novel, and this assertion also figures prominently in Martha Nussbaum’s work.  If it is true, as I argued some posts back, that compassion (which grows out of sympathy) is a key feature of left/liberal sensibility, then the connection between the aesthetic and a leftist politics is fairly direct if the arts do make us more sympathetic.

 

Dewey offers his own version of  the “sympathy” assertion (even though only in passing and even though that assertion would not seem connected—or even compatible with—the main argument about consummatory experiences.)  Here’s Dewey (once again downplaying “knowledge” in favor of a more emotion-laden relationship to the thing beyond the self that is to be known).  “Friendship and intimate affections are not the result of information about another person even though knowledge may further that formation.  But it does so only as it becomes an integral part of sympathy through the imagination.  It is when the desires and aims, the interests and modes of response of another become an expansion of our own being that we understand him.  We learn to see with his eyes, hear with his ears, and their results give true instruction, for they are built into our own structure” (336).  This kind of relationship to others’ “modes of response” (a good synonym for sensibility, I think) is “instruction in the arts of living (336)” Dewey writes.  This instruction is “something other than conveying information about them [the arts of living].  It is a matter of communication and participation in values of life by means of imagination, and works of art are the most intimate and energetic means of aiding individuals to share in the arts of living” (336).

To put it crudely, imagination allows us to walk a mile in another way of life’s shoes.

The flaws in the sympathy theory are obvious.  There are whole realms of art—classical music for instance—it seems to neglect altogether.  Does a Mozart symphony introduce us to “an art of living”?  To a “mode of response” maybe, insofar as it shapes or alters our abilities to hear, but a way of life?  And the notion that the arts foster compassion runs us into too many counter-examples to hold much water.  Are aesthetes really consistently better people than those indifferent to the arts?  And are those aesthetes more likely to be bleeding heart liberals than hard-hearted Scrooges?

Finally, and more substantially, the sympathy assertion requires a robust account of imagination and how it works.   We are in the realm of “faculty psychology” at this point: the psychology that divides up mental functions by positing something that thinks (cognition), something that wills (desires), something that feels (emotion), something that judges (phronesis), and something that images (imagination).  The adequacy of faculty psychology to actual mental functioning is pretty doubtful; it is a kind of high-level “folk psychology” that doesn’t fit with current developments in neurology or cognitive science.  But questions of adequacy aside, the “imagination” as a mental capacity/act is very hard to pin down, since it gets appealed to every time artists want (as I talked about in the last post) to posit “ways of knowing,” and forms of apprehension, not covered by traditional canons of rationality, evidence, and knowledge formation.   Certainly Dewey does not come close to offering a full scale account of imagination in Art As Experience.

And yet.  At issue (recall) is if the arts shape sensibility—and, if so, how?  The sympathy assertion has going for it the fact that it addresses sensibility (openness to and sympathy for other ways of being in the world) and offers an account of how that sensibility is fostered by (at least some) art.

 

  1. An alternative version of how the arts shape a certain kind of sensibility is offered by Dewey just a few pages later, once again with imagination doing the heavy lifting. The arts alert us, “not directly, but through disclosure, through imaginative vision addressed to imaginative experience . . . possibilities that contrast with actual conditions” (346). “Only imaginative vision elicits the possibilitis that are interwoven within the texture of the actual” (345). [I don’t see how this version of what the arts do can be anything but contradict the main argument of the book, which seeks to embed the aesthetic in “actual conditions.” But let’s leave that aside to pursue the account of the arts suggested here.]

 

Because the arts provide a place where unrealized possibilities can be imagined, Dewey even goes so far as to say that tomorrow’s realities can be found shadowed forth in the arts of today.  “Change in the climate of the imagination is the precursor of the changes that affect more than the details of life” (346).  Thus, Dewey ends his book with an engagement with Shelley’s apology for poetry.  The poets are the unacknowledged legislators not only because they imagine what has not yet been accomplished, but also because they avoid having “their vision of possibilities . . . converted into a proclamation of facts that already exist and hardened into semi-political institutions” (348).  “Art has been the means of keeping alive that sense of purposes that outrun evidence and of meanings that transcend indurated habits” (348).

What gives art this power is precisely its separation from facts on the ground.  We can imagine what does not exist—and meditate on “purposes” and “meanings” apart from their entanglement in the institutions of socio-political life and the habits of the daily grind.  Art exists in the realm of the hypothetical, not the actual.  We can try things on for size (in imagination) in that realm.  This appeal to the advantages of art’s “fictional” nature has been fairly common in accounts of the aesthetic—and often is linked to an ability to consider alternatives to prevailing customs and social arrangements.  The artist is a dreamer.

Dewey gives this idea a pragmatist twist.  The artists is someone trying to play out—in thought—the consequences of particular possible courses of action.  As such, that artist looks like the scientific experimenter who figures so prominently in all of Dewey’s work.  Yet Dewey, for the most part, doesn’t take this path in his book on aesthetics.  Why?  I think it is because he dislikes pretty heartily thought experiments.  They smack too much of the spectator theory of knowledge.  For him, experiments are very much about working materially and concretely with things.  The experiment is a motivated and controlled, but real, interaction with the stuff of the world.  Experiments are not conducted by armchair cogitating.

For myself, I think there is much to be said about the arts occupying a hypothetical space.  Accounts of the arts that neglect their fictional nature miss something important.  The arts do seem to allow for a certain kind of reflection, a certain kind of stepping away from immediate demands.  But I share Dewey’s uneasiness with extracting the arts too far from the daily chore of getting on with a life.  That said: I do think it part of an aesthetic sensibility to be especially alert to alternatives to current modes of being.  Attuned (because of stepping aside into a hypothetical space?) to other possible ways to live, the aesthetic sensibility pushes against the taken-for-granted.

Whether this belief that things could be different is more a left than right wing outlook is a different question.  I am tempted to say that when the vision of a different life is located in a lost past we should recover, then we have a conservative or right-wing sensibility.  When that alternative is located in a future we should strive for, then we have a left-wing sensibility.  In both cases, the present is unsatisfactory and to be transformed into something else. The arts do seem to provide a particularly suitable place for displaying that possible transformation.

 

  1. These first two ways of describing what the aesthetic does—or what it affords—rest on the level of content. The aesthetic presents another way of life and elicits our sympathy for it through enhancing our understanding of it.  Or the aesthetic presents possibilities that lead us to question the forms life in the present takes.

 

But there is another route to take, one that places the emphasis on the Form, not the content, characteristic of the aesthetic.  This approach is the dominant one in Dewey’s book, even though he slips in all these other ways of thinking about what the aesthetic is or does.  This is where Dewey aligns with the modernists—at least insofar as certain modernists wished to downplay the representational content of art in favor of an emphasis on form.

This is where (if I understand him correctly) Nick wants to plant his flag.  The “ordered intensity” art creates is an effect of form, not content (or message).  The arts are emotionally compelling, capture our attention, sharpen our focus, and provide satisfactory experiences through the intensities of form’s elegant constraints.  Think of water collected into a container and then heated.  Instead of dissipating (flowing away) as uncontained water does, contained water acquires a shape while heated water reaches the consummation of boiling (if enough heat is applied).

Dewey, then, like the modernists, wants to focus not on what the art work says, but on the experience it offers both the artist and her audience. In his own key, he is actually not that far from Adorno, who also wants to locate art’s importance—and its political effects—on its form (since form is what makes something, in Dewey’s terms, “an experience”).

How does this work?  For Adorno, artistic form offers a riposte to the “damaged life” offered by modern capitalist societies.  Dewey in the 1930s, influenced by the economic conditions of the Depression and by leftist responses to that catastrophe, offers an argument not that far removed from classic Marxist accounts of alienation.  (In his biography of Dewey, Robert Westbrook suggests that Sidney Hook was a key factor in Dewey’s adoption of various left-wing arguments.)  On pages 341—344 of Art As Experience, Dewey offers his version of the Marxist argument that a more equitable distribution of the products of economic activity will not suffice in curing the ills of capitalist productive and social relations.  “Production of objects enjoyed in direct experience by those who possess, to some extent, the capacity to produce useful commodities expressing individual values, has become a specialized matter apart from the general run of production.  This fact is probably the most important factor in the status of art in present civilization” (341).

Hardly the clearest statement in Dewey’s corpus, famous for its many obscurities.  My translation: we get here a mixture of Ruskin and Marx.  The artist has the privileged experience of “producing” objects “that express individual values.” (Nick and I will be exploring Dewey’s understanding of art’s connection to “expression” in our next meeting, so I will hold off on that topic.)  Most workers, by way of contrast, just follow orders. Their work cannot be satisfactory because, even if they are helping to produce well-formed objects, “there is esthetic form only when the object having this external form fits into a larger experience” (341).  The aesthetic, in other words, stands for the possibility of a satisfactory experience, for an undamaged life.

Access to that undamaged life requires workplace democracy and some workplace autonomy.  Dewey is always insistent that democracy is judged by the quality of the individual lives it makes possible—and his model of artistic creation and the enjoyment of artistic experiences is primarily individualistic.  (Importantly, he does insist continually that democracy is a mode of sociality, and that individuals can only find fulfillment in “association” [a favorite Dewey term] with others.)  We will only have access to the kinds of satisfactory and consummatory experiences that constitute “the aesthetic” for Dewey when we stand in the proper relation to the activities (of which work is a crucial one) that make up our daily existence.  That proper relationship requires a sensitivity to the possibilities of harmonious form (a sensitivity the aesthetic can impart) and an individual investment/ownership of our daily activities that strive to achieve that harmonious form.  Current social arrangements make that individual investment/ownership only available to a privileged few.

To sum up this post: the aesthetic may develop one’s sensibility through the messages it communicates.  It may promote sympathy/compassion and it may shape a habit of considering alternatives to what the present offers and an expanded sense of possible paths out of the present.  It may also be the case that even when the message to be offered is fairly straight-forward and easily conveyed by non-aesthetic means (sermons, moral treatises, political platforms, sociological studies, statistical demonstrations), that the aesthetic is more effective because pitched at an emotional level that resonates more than more “rational” or argumentative discourses.

In short, when we consider the sources of one’s sensibility, to what extent has it been shaped by aesthetic works as contrasted to non-aesthetic ones?

But Dewey’s primary focus (and I think Nick’s) is not in such a direct, message-driven, attempt to shape sensibilities.  Rather, the idea is that the aesthetic models a form of unalienated existence; it offers and instantiates the possibility of the “equilibrium” and “harmony” that would constitute an undamaged life.  Dewey thinks this desire and striving for a satisfactory, consummatory experience is built into human nature.  So it is not as if the aesthetic has to teach us to want it—and that there are sensibilities which forego (or even condemn) this endeavor.

But I do think a position that wants to use the aesthetic to re-form the experiences available under current “damaged” conditions will end up with some version of an alienation argument.  We have become “alienated” from the appreciating (even recognizing?) consummatory experiences, often embracing pale substitutes for it. Our aptitude and appetite for such experiences needs to be “awakened” in contemporary life—and the arts can do that awakening work.

However, that brings us back to the better/worse judgments discussed in the last post.  Only some of the arts can do this job because contemporary culture also offers a multitude of degraded aesthetic experiences.   The trick will be to make these judgments of satisfactory versus unsatisfactory aesthetic experiences without falling into the mandarin contempt of Adorno.  Snobbishness is not only a hallmark of the inegalitarian right. The damaged life argument doesn’t belong exclusively to either the left or the right since T. S. Eliot offers an obvious example of a conservative version.  But whether deployed from the left or the right, it always entails judging some forms of life damaged even if participants in that form do not themselves register it as unsatisfactory.

The Lowliest Duties

In his sonnet, “London, 1802,” William Worsdworth praises John Milton in the following terms:

“So dids’t thou travel on life’s common way,

In cheerful godliness, and yet thy heart

The lowliest duties on herself did lay.”

In the leftist/liberal circles in which I mostly travel, Ursula LeGuin’s novel The Dispossessed  is much loved.  The novel depicts a radically egalitarian society whose social arrangements are a response to sever environmental conditions.  Scarcity of the means to sustain life concentrates society’s mind wonderfully—and everyone chips in to insure survival, understanding that taking too much for oneself threatens not just the lives of specific others but the fate of the whole society.  The communitarian solidarity of this society (not without its problems of enforced conformity) are contrasted to a bloated, consumerist society that deploys its plenty to disagreeable ends.

My university has just announced, as part of its re-opening plan for the fall, that teachers and students will be responsible for cleaning each classroom after its use, in order to sanitize it for the next group that will enter.  You can imagine (I am sure) the howls of outrage that have greeted this suggestion.  Howls that, to some extent, reveal how inegalitarian most contemporary sensibilities are, even among those with a sentimental attachment to egalitarianism.

Let me be very clear.  Colleges across the US have been stampeded into announcing that they will open for the return of students in the fall. Apparently, in order to secure student commitments, they feel they need to tell everyone what they will do for a fall semester—even though, in reality, they do not know in our still fluid circumstances. Many colleges, like my own, in fact plan a fairly early August opening in order to finish up the fall semester by Thanksgiving.  Once having made that commitment, the colleges are then required to create some kind of plan for how they are actually going to do this safely.

This is insane.  First, we currently do not have a good read on what the situation will be like two months from now.  The announcement of re-openings are wildly premature.  Second, bringing students from across the nation and from around the world back on campus—and having them once again live and socialize together—is a formula for disaster even if you can make (the very limited) time they spend in class safe.  Add the notion that classes will be “hybrid,” with some students accessing them virtually and others in person, and the full impracticality of the proposed schemes becomes fully apparent.

It would, at the very least, be honest for colleges to admit they are flying blind and that any and all plans are contingent on the changing facts on the ground.  But, apparently, honesty is no longer possible in the world.  Pretense is everything.  As if anyone is fooled.

All that said: I am still interested in the outrage generated by the suggestion that the “lowliest duties” be shared.  Under what conditions, I want to ask, could we achieve communal solidarity instead of a fierce holding on to the privileges of one’s status and an equally fierce sauve qui peut attitude? Global warming is the most obvious case in point.  But this pandemic could be another such case—except that the emphasis on “social distancing” pushes in exactly the opposite direction.  It isn’t about rolling up your sleeves and joining a communal effort to avert the danger, but about running away from everybody else, stockpiling necessities, and protecting yourself from the general contagion.

At my university, the failure to get “buy in” for a communal effort stems, in part, from the heightened attention to status built into university careers (at least at “research” universities.)  It is why such faculty are allergic to unions and fervently support differential pay, with the more productive “star” faculty commanding significantly higher salaries (and often also getting various special perks, including lighter teaching loads).  The university (again, despite the announced allegiances of many of its faculty) is neither democratic nor egalitarian.

It seems to me there are only three ways to produce communal solidarity.  The first is through a democratic process by which all are consulted and all agree to take on those lowly duties.  As has often been noted, that process is time consuming (too many meetings) and often frustrating.  Reaching consensus is very, very hard.  Getting a majority vote is easier, but then you have to have some way to bring those who lost the vote along.  Furthermore, the maintenance of democratically produced solidarity proves very difficult.  Communities fall apart.

The second method is compulsion: the group effort is generated in a hierarchical structure with sanctions for those who don’t pitch in.  The go to model here is often the building of the pyramids.  With enough violence, people can be made to contribute to the communal project.  Economic necessity is somewhat nicer than slavery, but it is still compulsion that is doing much of the work in getting the factory hands to do their bit.

Finally, there is the Ruskinian dream (where the building of medieval cathedrals is contrasted to the building of the pyramids) of a collective enterprise that is hierarchical through and through, but in which the authority of the leaders is respected by the commoners because they are convinced of the overall project, of the commitment of the leaders to that project, and feel enabled, even liberated, by their own participation in the project. (The key texts are “The Nature of Gothic” and Unto this Last.)

It is easy to call Ruskin utterly deluded.  But at least let’s try to take seriously some of the issues his position highlights.  (To be concrete for a moment, all trust in or respect for that authority of the leaders on my campus has been seriously eroded over the past ten years by a series of actions by those in charge.  That’s why my campus in particular is in an especially tough spot when trying to get faculty and staff “buy-in” to the reopening plans.)

But back to Ruskin. 1.) Is there something like “authority” which gains allegiance and cooperation, even obedience, apart from threats of direct violence or economic deprivation?  Do we really want to say that the notion of this kind of authority is a complete illusion, that all cooperation and obedience stems, in the last instance, from compulsion?

2.)  Do we want to deny that participation in a communal effort, where concern for self disappears in the pleasure of contributing to the joint enterprise, is viewed (and experienced) by many as just about the greatest satisfaction available?  Self-forgetfulness can be bliss, can seem the most intense, most meaningful, most fulfilling experience of one’s life.  The urge to actually find the opportunity for such experiences can be a strong motive, aside from any kind of compulsion, for joining a team, a community, a project.  In short, immersion of the self in the communal is liberating in many (hardly all) instances.

3.) Do we want to deny that we admire the competence, integrity, virtuosity, and achievements of others—taking them as models for our aspirations for ourselves?  We apprentice ourselves to those we admire in this way, submitting to their authority precisely in order to learn how to become a person like them.  Yes, and this is where Ruskin seems most blind, this relationship opens the way to all kinds of abuses—but, still, must an egalitarian insist all such relationships are poisonous and unproductive?

4.)  Do we want to say work is always an evil, always something we would shun if possible?  Work can be a means of fulfillment—and much work requires collective effort.  How to think about the terms—and structures—within which work takes place? To what extent are hierarchies, authority, and coordinating direction required?  In addition, I would argue that we need to think about the enabling effects of constraint.  The sonnet form imposes various constraints on the poet; but those constraints are productive, even liberating.  They are not (or, at least, not in all instances) oppressive.  Constraints experienced as enabling are akin to authority accepted because it allows various desirable things to happen.

Ruskin, in other words, can seem a retrograde apologist for the established order.  But, if taken at least a bit seriously, he pushes us to think past individualism, past an assumption that any collective enterprise is a threat to freedom—and that a person is a dupe who submits himself to authorities beyond the self.  That’s the real rub, it seems to me.  Even the liberal/left, when its own positions are challenged, retreats (in too many cases) to the neo-liberal sensibility that equality is a threat to freedom because equality pushes us toward a conformity imposed from outside the self.  Getting with the program, cheerfully laying on ourselves the lowliest duties in union with others who do the same, is not experienced as a self-generated choice, but as acceding to an external charge.

We can’t (I believe) make political progress until that sensibility is revised.  We need to find a way to endorse, even embrace, cooperation–and it seems to me that cooperation is only sustainable where all are seen (even if there is some division of labor, of responsibility) as equally foregoing individual need/rewards for the sake of the common goal.  Everyone has to pitch in, and those with the most should give the most.  (The justification for progressive tax rates among other ways of taking into account unequal capacities to contribute.)

So this post returns us to the question of sensibility.  I am talking, partially at least, about esprit de corps.  The mystery (to me) of the military is how it utilizes harsh compulsion (in boot camp) to forge (in many cases) a deep commitment to the “unit,” to the communal.  Football coaches obviously strive to emulate the military’s methods.  How do you create this ethos, this acceptance of the group’s priority over the self, this willingness to take upon oneself the “lowliest duties”—where that willingness is not a loss of caste, but in fact a source of pride?

The military seems particularly apt for thinking about all this because it is, in my view, both admirable and terrifying.  Its inculcation of blind obedience, its strict hierarchies, are the antithesis of the kind of egalitarian social relations I favor.  In some ways it wants to prevent any soldier thinking for himself (in every sense of that phrase).

But—at the same time—it can encourage creative thinking about what steps will best serve the good of the whole, and it inspires a kind of egalitarianism found just about nowhere else in our society.  No wonder, then, that Fredric Jameson in his An American Utopia looks to the creation of a “universal army,” the conscription of all, as the way to create a communitarian sensibility.  Where else, he asks, are the classes so radically mixed as in the army?  And where else are all the members of a group subjected to the same treatment?

The paradox, of course, is that this egalitarianism is embedded within a highly hierarchal institution.  But that’s why Ruskin seems apposite.  We need to think the ways in which hierarchy, based in authority, can foster equality (in the commitment of all to a common project) and even liberation (in that the self finds fulfillment through the enabling provided by constraint, through its submission to the common.)

I ask myself: “have I ever been caught up in a larger project in which I ‘lost’ my self?”  I have to say the answer is No.  But surely I am not alone in devoutly wishing I could have that experience.  I often say that in retirement I want to find an organization that is doing real good in the world—and offer them my services.  I want to be part of a group that is working together and making something I value happen through that collective effort.  That heady feeling is what had made war so exhilarating for so many.  Certainly, my parents experienced (in their early twenties) World War II that way—and remained nostalgic for those years the rest of their lives.

William James famously told us we need to find a “moral equivalent of war.”  What he meant is we need to find a positive, world-enhancing (rather than world-destroying) project that would inspire the same kind of enthusiasm and dedication that war calls forth.  The failure of global warming and now the pandemic to inspire cooperation makes The Dispossessed look mistaken in its plausible (at least to me) supposition that a crisis will rally a society to a cooperative effort to solve it.  Our sad experience these days suggests the opposite: a crisis only leads to people doubling down on their efforts to save themselves, letting the devil take the hindmost.  And if the crisis is one that no one can, in fact, evade, so much the worse for humanity because the conviction that one can personally outrun the danger will triumph over any recognition that we are all in this together.  Only a human enemy bearing down on us, weapons in hand, seems to inspire that more collective response.

A pessimistic ending–and certainly Ruskin’s own fate hardly offers much hope.  But I do think the pathway to hope lies along the lines he sketches out.  Cooperation needs both some kind of respected authority and a fervent commitment to a common cause.  The fulfillment, even pleasure, comes with a sense of contributing to the achievement of that cause, irrespective of more individual rewards (rewards understood as money, honor, acclaim, or anything else that marks the self as “more equal” than the others who are also pitching in).

R.I.P.: American Democracy

The flags should all be flying at half-mast today.  American democracy died last night.

I know many will say it has been on life-support for many a day now.  Others will say, “you fool, it never existed in the first place.”

But it did exist so long as the path forward, the way to bring about the changes and reforms one desired, was electoral politics.  If you could swing, through all the devices of persuasion, a majority to your side, you could take over the government and pass the legislation you deemed necessary.

Yes, that is simplistic and ignores all the veto points, all the obstacles put in the pathway of change.  And it ignores how the system always excluded certain people—people who had to resort to extra-electoral tactics (civil disobedience and its various forms of protest) to make their needs and desires felt.

But the great social movements of American history, the women’s movement and the civil rights movement, aimed for the vote.  They put so much emphasis on gaining the vote precisely because they associated the vote with power, the power to effect change.  They believed that we had enough of a democracy, no matter how imperfect, that it made sense to engage in electoral politics—and that electoral politics was the road to reform.

Perhaps that belief was a delusion, but 2006 and 2008 seemed to bear it out.  The country rose up against the lies and incompetence of the Bush administration—and grabbed the government back.

Now, however, we have a Republican Party in power that is determined to never let another 2006 or 2008 occur.  Their simple plan is to render “free and fair” (that old cliché) elections impossible. Emboldened by the nation’s acceptance of Bush v. Gore,  they have deployed every means at their disposal; they keep people from voting or nullify electoral results: voter suppression, gerrymandering, judicial or legislative over-rides of election results (taking away powers of elected officials if they are Democrats, as has happened in both Wisconsin and North Carolina).

Still, I will admit to having thought there was a limit to their willingness to turn elections into farces worthy of the so-called “people’s republics” of yore.  Surely, even the Republicans needed the cover of “legitimacy” that elections provide in a democracy.  Various pundits kept claiming that John Roberts was the bulwark against complete Republican destruction of our democracy.  He cared, they said, about the integrity of the Supreme Court, about its standing above partisan politics.

Quite evidently not.  The Supreme Court last night authorized a Wisconsin election in which thousands will not have their votes counted.  The situation is Kafkaesque: in order to be counted ballots must be returned before they have been received.  But the court’s decision is as straightforward as could be: we will validate election results even though thousands are prevented from voting.

I am heartsick.  If electoral politics are a sham, are rigged from the outset, the only way forward is non-electoral politics.  As Martin Luther King saw very clearly, that means either a “persistent and unyielding” non-violent mass movement or a resort (always, necessarily by a much smaller number) to violence.  King insisted that violence could not succeed; not only were the odds against it too great because you will never get large numbers to join your violent movement, but also because violence breeds more violence as it creates bitterness and the desire (almost impossible to ignore) for revenge.  It also turns off those sympathetic to your cause, but opposed to violent means. (I am channeling MLK’s essay, “The Social Organization of Nonviolence” here.)

The Republicans have learned (it would seem) over the past few years that they pay no price for their destruction of democracy.  I venture to guess that life for most people in this country is just comfortable enough to keep them from endangering what they have by devoting themselves to a long, persistent struggle.  Endangering their leisure time, their peace of mind, their jobs and livelihood.  The reasons may range from petty to dangers to economic and physical well-being.

It seems that the death of democracy will occur amidst various howls of protest, but little more than that.  The officials elected in today’s Wisconsin election will take office—and continue to wreak the damage that has been the platform of Wisconsin’s Republicans for the past ten years.

Unless a strong and effective dissent is lodged—and such a dissent will require sacrifices of time, comfort, and well-being—democracy will not return.  Or, if you prefer, democracy will not be seen for the first time in this land. I do not see where that dissent will come from, where that movement will arise.

Response to Michael Clune’s “Judgment and Equality”

Headnote: I was scheduled to present at the American Comparative Literature Association meeting in Chicago on March 20th.  Obviously, the meeting got cancelled.  The session was on “Aesthetic Education” and the panel members were all asked to read Joseph North’s recent book Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Harvard UP, 2017) and an essay by Michael Clune entitled “Judgment and Equality” (Critical Inquiry, 2018).  After reading the Clune essay, I was moved to write the response posted below.  I think it is fairly self-explanatory, even if you haven’t read the Clune essay.  After writing this response, I discovered that Clune had offered a shorter version of his plea for the authority of experts (and polemic against equality in matters of judgment) in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece that generated a fair amount of hostile response.  (You can easily find these pieces on line by googling Clune’s name.)  In particular, the hostility came from the fact that conservative New York Times pundit, Ross Douhat, wrote favorably about Clune’s position on the op-ed page of the Times.  Doubtless, Clune was chagrined to see his argument, which he thought was radically leftist, embraced by a right-wing writer.  But I don’t know that he should have been particularly surprised; to question–or to think about limiting–the claims of democratic equality is always going to play to the right’s fundamental commitment to reining in equality and democracy wherever it rears its dangerous head.  In any case, it is to the anti-democratic implications of Clune’s argument that my piece responds to.  I will post some thoughts on North’s book in the next few days.

 

In November 2008, a week after the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, I was in a New York city room full of bankers and hedge fund managers leading a discussion on the implications of that election.  The financiers were horrified; they earnestly told the gathering that Obama and a Democratic Congress, led by Nancy Pelosi were know-nothings who, through their ignorant meddling, were about to ruin American economic prosperity.  These men—and of course they were all men—were completely unshaken in their conviction of their competence even following the financial collapse of the previous month.  A portrait of expertise in action, offering a strong case for why the rule of experts must be tempered by the oversight of the demos.  Every profession is a conspiracy against the laity, George Bernard Shaw famously warned us.

Democracy means many things, but one of its many entailments is that elites must subject themselves to the judgment of the masses.  As experts we can deplore the ignorance of the non-initiated, but in a democracy authority is not to be had as a gift but must be earned.  Democracy is a supremely rhetorical political form.  Any one, including the expert, who has a position they want the polity to act upon must convince a majority of her fellow citizens to endorse that policy.  Persuasion is the name of the game; and saying it again, just louder this time and standing on my credentials as an expert, is not a very effective rhetorical move.  There is a deep anti-authoritarian bias in the demos—and we should celebrate that fact.  Democracy, as Winston Churchill said, has some very obvious flaws, but it sure beats all the alternatives.

The right has eaten the left’s lunch for some forty years now.  We people of the left can scream that it hasn’t been a fair fight, but that still doesn’t provide any justification for retreating from the democratic arena into a petulant insistence on our being correct and the misled masses being wrong.  The technocracy of the EU may be somewhat preferable to the plutocracy of the US, but the “democratic deficit” is real in both cases.  Maybe democracy is always a battle between elites for endorsement from the general populace.  If that is the case, and if violence is not considered a viable or desirable alternative, then the rhetorical battle for the hearts and minds of the people is where all the action is.  It makes no sense in such a battle to begin by maligning the judgment of those people.  Depending on the capacity of the people to judge for themselves is the foundational moment of faith in a democratic society.  Yes, as Clune reminds, us, Karl Marx refuses to make that leap of faith.  Do we really want to follow Marx down that anti-democratic path?

Marx, after all, also warns us that every ruling elite indulges itself with the sweet conviction that it acts in the interests of all.  We, those business men I spent the evening with told themselves, are the “universal class” because we bring the blessings of economic plenty to all.  In their utter belief in their own goodness, I saw a mirror image of myself and my leftist friends.  If we don’t for a moment want bankers to avoid accountability to the people they claim to serve, why would we think we deserve an exemption.  Listen to your academic colleagues rant about the vocabulary of assessment and outcomes when applied to what happens in the classroom—and you will hear an echo of what I listened to that night in New York. Who dares to question the effectiveness of what transpires on our college campuses?

Kenneth Burke picked up the term “professional deformation” from John Dewey.  He used it to highlight the blindness that accompanies immersion in a discipline.  I think Clune is right to present judgment as emerging from the practices and institutions of a discipline. (“[T]o show someone the grounds of a given judgment is to educate them in the field’s characteristic practices,” he writes [918].)  The oddity of his position, it seems to me, is that he takes this Kuhnian point as a reason to enhance our faith in the judgments of those encased in a paradigm.  That strikes me as a very odd reading of Kuhn, taking his book as a celebration of “normal science” instead of a meditation on the difficulty of intellectual revolution because of the blinders normal science imposes.  It is only a bit exaggerated, in my view, to see Kuhn as telling us that textbooks devour their readers and turn them into mindless conformists. Yes, Clune nods to the fact that communities of practitioners “can and do manifest bias and thus serve as sites of oppression” (918), but he seems to think acknowledgment of that fact is enough to render it harmless, appealing to an unspecified “broad range of measures” (919) that can compensate for the potential oppressions.  But I read Kuhn as suggesting that it is precisely the young, the uninitiated, the outsiders (in other words, those who are least embedded in the community of practice, or even non-members of it), who are most likely to disturb its complacency, its confidence in its judgments and its blindness to its biases and oppressions.  Let’s remember Foucault’s lessons about the power of disciplines.  All concentrations of power are to be distrusted, which is another reason (besides a discipline’s in-built blind spots) to advocate for the subjection of expert judgments to external review—and not simply external review by other members of the community in question.  I am a firm believer in the 80/20 rule; spend 80% of your effort in mastering your discipline; spend 20% of your time in wide-ranging reading and activities that are completely unrelated to that discipline.  And then use that 20% to break open your discipline’s inbreeding.

I am fully sympathetic with Clune’s desire to find in aesthetics an alternative to the norms and values of commercial society.  And that position does seem to entail a commitment to aesthetic education as the site when that alternative can be experienced and embraced.  I also believe that the democratic commitment to the people’s right to judge the prescriptions and advice of the experts does make the need for an educated citizenry a priority for our schools and universities.  The liberal arts curriculum should be aimed at making citizens more competent judges.  It is a strong indication of the right wing’s rhetorical triumph with a section of the populace that a majority of Republicans in a recent poll agreed that universities did more harm than good.  I don’t need to tell this audience that the liberal arts and the arts are under a sustained rhetorical attack.

What drives people like me and you crazy is that the attitudes adopted by the right are impervious to facts.  Climate change denial has become the poster child for this despair over the ability of the demos to judge correctly or wisely.  It is worth mentioning that the denigration of the liberal arts is equally fallacious, at least if the reasons to avoid humanities or arts classes are economic.  All the evidence shows that humanities and arts majors, over a lifetime, do just as well economically as science and engineering and business majors.  The sustained attack on the arts and humanities has more to do with a distaste for the values and capacities (for critical thinking, for sophisticated communication) they promote.

So what are we, the defenders of the aesthetic and the humanities (along with the world-view those disciplines entail), to do?  Saying our piece, only louder this time, and with a statement of our credentials as experts, won’t do.  Declaring our inequality, my superiority to you, should be a non-starter at a moment in history where increasing inequality is among our major problems.  I, frankly, am surprised that Clune is even tempted to take that route.  It comes across as pretty obvious petulance to me.  Why isn’t anyone paying any attention to me?  I know what’s what and they don’t. Listen up people.

In short, I stand with those who realize that judgment needs to be reconceived in ways that render it compatible with equality.  Clune is undoubtedly right that some writers have failed to face squarely the fact that judgment and equality are not easily reconcilable.  The problem, to put it into a nutshell, is that judgment seems to entail right and wrong, correct and incorrect, true and false.  To make all judgments equivalent is akin (although it is not actually that same as) total relativity, the idea that every judgment is “right” within a specified context.  Contrasted to that kind of relativism, the acceptance of the equivalence of all judgments can look even more fatuous, marked with a shrug and a “whatever.”  No point arguing since there is no accounting for tastes, and no one gets to dictate your tastes to you even if they are weird, incomprehensible, obnoxious, disgusting.  One’s man’s meat is another man’s poison.

Faced with such epistemological throwing in of the towel, it is not a surprise that folks keep coming back to Kant.  Clune details how both Sianne Ngai and Richard Moran have recently tried to come to terms with Kant’s attempt to demonstrate that aesthetic judgments make a “demand” on others, thus raising our aesthetic preferences above a mere statement of personal taste and towards an intersubjective objectivity.  Ngai, Moran, and Clune all use the term “demand” and the three translations of Kant’s Critique of Judgment I have consulted also use that term.  But I will confess to preferring Hannah Arendt’s translation of Kant, even though I have never been able to find in Kant where she finds the phrase that she puts in quotation marks.  For Arendt, those making an aesthetic judgment, then “woo the consent” of the other.  Arendt, in other words, places us firmly back into the rhetorical space that I am arguing is central to democracy.  Surprisingly, Clune never recognizes the affinity between his “community of practitioners” and Kant’s sensus communis.  What Arendt calls our attention to—especially when she tells us that Kant’s Critique of Judgment is the “politics” critics claim he never got around to writing—is the fact that the sensus communis always needs to be created and its ongoing reconfiguration is the very stuff of politics.  Yes, judgments are deeply indebted to and influenced by the community from which they are articulated, but that community and its practices is a moving target.  Think of Wittgenstein’s image of language as a sea-going vessel that undergoes a slow, but complete, rebuild even as it never leaves the water for dry-dock.  The democratic community—and its judgments on the practices of its various sub-cultures and its elites and its experts—is continually being refashioned through the public discourses that aim to sway the public in one direction or another.

How does this understanding of the scene of politics help.  Clune, I think, provides a clue when he writes “For me to be convinced by the critic’s aesthetic judgment that James is interesting means not that I have evaluated the reasons for that judgment but that I’ve decided to undertake an education that promises to endow me with his or her cultural capacities” (926).  What gets under-thought here is what would actually motivate such a decision.  We need to invoke Aristotle in conjunction with Raymond Williams at this point.  The expert—be she a climate scientist, a heterodox economist, or a Proust scholar—wants, at a minimum, to inspire trust, and, at a maximum, the auditor’s desire to join her community of practitioners, to make its common sense his own.  It is not “reasons,” as Clune says, that are decisive here, but ethos.  I would be willing to be that almost everyone in this room could point toward a teacher who inspired them—and inspired them exactly as the kind of person I myself wanted to become.  What an aesthetic education offers is initiation into a particular “structure of feeling.”  It is the attractiveness of that sensibility that our political and public rhetorics need to convey.  Once again, Kant and Arendt help us here when they point to the crucial importance of the “example” to these attempts to “woo the other.”  Modelling what a life lived within that structure of feeling looks like is far more potent that pronouncing from on high that Moby Dick is superior to Star Wars.

Look at this concretely.  The rhetorical genius of the Republican party since Ronald Reagan has been to portray the professional, educated, upper-middle class left (who occupy then “helping professions” of doctor, lawyer, teacher, social work) as joyless scolds, continually nagging you about how all the things you do are harmful to the environment, to social harmony, to your own well-being.  They have made it a political statement to drive a gas-guzzling truck while smoking a cigarette in defiance of those pious kill-joys.  That’s the rhetorical battle that the left has been losing since 1980.  Yes, the populace scorns our expert judgments, but that’s because they have no desire at all to be part of the communities in which those judgments are common sense.  Our problem, you might say, is not how to educate—aesthetically or otherwise—those who make the decision to undertake an education, but is how to make the prospect of an education appealing to those who see it as only a constant repudiation of their own sensibilities and capacities.  In short, “structures of feeling” triumph over “interests” much of the time and the left has proved spectacularly inept at modelling positive examples of the sensibility we wish to see prevail in our society.

I shouldn’t be so overwhelmingly negative about the left.  The sea-change in attitudes (and public policy) toward LBGTQ citizens over the past thirty years cannot be overstated.  Of course, given that attitudes are, as I have argued, a moving target, changes in any one direction are never set in stone.  Constant maintenance, rearticulation, and adjustments on the fly are necessary.  The task of education, of initiation into a sensibility that has come to seem “common sense,” as both attractive and right, is always there in front of us.  I am simply arguing that the right wing has been more attuned to that educative task than the left.  Or as I am prone to say, the left goes out and marches in the street on the weekend before returning to work on Monday while the right gets itself elected to school boards.

As a teacher, I find Ngai’s focus on “the interesting” crucial and poignant.  When we call something “interesting,” we are saying it is something worry of attention, something worthy of pausing over and considering at more length.  And that plea for attention is certainly at the very center of my practice as a teacher.  When I declare in front of class that this or that is “interesting,” I am inviting students into a sensibility that wants to ponder the significance of the thing in question.  But I am also pleading with them to take that first step—knowing that for many of them I am just another professor who incomprehensively gets excited about things to which they are supremely and irredeemably indifferent.  You can’t win them all, of course.  But the effort to win some of them over is endless, never fully successful, and in competition with lots of other demands on their attention.

There is, I am arguing, no other course of action open in a democratic society.  We are, if you will, condemned to that rhetorical battle, attempting to woo our students, to woo the demos, to a particular sensibility, a particular vision of the good.  That, I will state it nakedly, is politics.  To dream of a world where expert opinion is accepted by the non-experts is to dream of salvation from politics, from its endless wrangling, its messy compromises, its inevitable mix of failures with successes.  It is to desire a technocratic utopia, in which the “administration of things” replaces the conflicts of political contestation.  No thank you.

Another way to say this is that politics is the inevitable result of living in a pluralistic universe.  There will never be full consensus, there will never be a single vision of the good to which all subscribe, there will never be an all-encompassing and all-inclusive sensus communis.  On the whole, I’d say that’s a good thing.  I would hate to live in a world where everyone disagreed with me about everything.  But I am convinced that a world in which everyone agreed with me about everything would be almost as bad.

But, but, but . . . climate change.  Please recognize that climate change is just one in a long string of existential threats that democracy—slow, contentious, ruled by greed and passion—is deemed ill equipped to handle.  Authoritarians of whatever political stripe are always going to identify a crisis that means democracy must be put on hold.  The terrible attraction of war is that it negates the messy quotidian reality of pluralism.  The dream is of a community united, yoked to a single overwhelming purpose, with politics suspended for the duration.  Thus, that great champion of pluralism, William James, could also dream of a “moral equivalent of war.”  Perhaps democracy truly is unequal to the challenge of climate change, but then the desire/need to jettison democracy should be stated openly.  Otherwise, it is back to the frustrations of political wrangling, to the hard process of winning over the demos.

So, yes, I am in favor of an aesthetic education that aims to introduce students to a sensibility that finds commercial culture distasteful and (perhaps more importantly but perhaps not) unjust. And I want them to see that indifference to climate change is of a piece with the general casualness of our prevailing economic order to the sufferings of others. But I cannot endorse Clune’s picture of that educational process.  “[T]he significant investment of time and energy that this education requires—both at its outset and for a long time afterwards—is channeled in submission to the expert’s judgment that these works make particularly rewarding objects of attention.  The syllabi of an English department’s curriculum, for example, codify this submission” (926).  I have been fighting against my English department’s curriculum for twenty-five years.  The texts I want to teach in my classes are the ones I find good to think with—and I invite my students to join me in that thinking process.  (More Arendt here: her notion that judgment involves “going visiting” and you can know a thinker’s ethos by considering the company she wants to visit—and to keep.)  What I model is one person’s encounter with other minds—the minds represented by the books we read and by the people who are in the classroom with me.  My colleagues should have similar freedom to construct their courses around the texts that speak to them—and in which they then try to interest their students.

Fuck submission.  Maybe it’s because I teach in the South.  But my students have been fed submission with mother’s milk.  What they need to learn is to trust their own responses to things, to find what interests them, to find what moves them emotionally and intellectually.  They need to learn the arrogance of democratic citizenship, which arrogates to itself the right to judge the pronouncements of the experts.  Certainly, I push them to articulate their judgments, to undertake themselves to woo others to their view. They must accept that they too are joined in the rhetorical battle, and if they want allies they will have to learn how to be persuasive. But that’s very, very different from suggesting that anyone should ever take the passive position of submission.

Clune is scornful of Richard Moran’s “liberal” endorsement of freedom of choice.  So I want to end with a question for all of you as teachers.  Can I safely assume that you would deem it inappropriate, in fact unethical, to tell your students whether or not to believe in god, or what career path to follow, or for whom they should vote?  If you do think, in your position as a teacher, that you have the right to tell your students what to do in such cases, I would like to hear your justification for such interference.  Obviously, what I am suggesting here is that our sensus communis does endorse a kind of baseline autonomy in matters of singular importance to individuals.  I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a society where my freedom to choose for myself about such matters were not respected.  If some of you in the room feel differently, I am very interested in hearing an articulation and defense of such feelings.

Now we could say that our expertise as teachers does not extend to questions of career, religious faith, or politics.  But where we are experts, there we are entitled to tell a student he is wrong.  James really in interesting; Moby Dick really is better than Star Wars.  But surely such bald assertions are worthless.  How could they possibly gain the end we have in view?  Via the path of submission?  I can’t believe it.  Yes, we stand up there in our classrooms and use every trick we can muster to woo our students, to get them interested, and even to endorse our judgments after careful consideration; one of our tasks is to teach (and model) what careful consideration looks like.  And I certainly hope you are especially delighted when some student kicks against the pricks and makes an ardent case that Star Wars is every bit as good as Melville.  Because that’s the sensibility I want aesthetic education to impart.