Category: Democracy

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.

Crisis–and Civil War

I have just finished reading Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society by Reinhardt Koselleck (MIT Press, 2000; although the book was published in Germany in 1959).  I was pointed to this book by my friend Philip Wilson; I would never have come across it otherwise.

Koselleck is a follower of Carl Schmitt and I may, in a future post, have something to say about the lineaments of conservative thought as found in Schmitt and as articulated in this book.

For the moment, however, I just want to pick up on two nuggets from the book that gave me new ways to think about the current mess in the United States.

First, Kosseleck’s definition of crisis.  “It is in the nature of crisis that problems crying out for solution go unresolved.  And it is also in the nature of crisis that the solution, that which the future holds in store, is not predictable.  The uncertainty of a critical situation contains one certainty only—that it will end.  The only unknown quantity is when and how. The eventual solution is uncertain, but the end of the crisis, a change in the existing situation—threatening, feared, and eagerly anticipated—is not” (127).

That the US is a society and a polity currently incapable of “resolving problems” seems obvious to me.  Environmental disaster is already upon us and only going to get worse.  Homelessness, childhood poverty, maternal mortality, and other symptoms of social and economic inequality go unaddressed.  A concerted assault on democratic procedures for the assignment and transfer of state power is underway in full view. And the scourge of racism continues to afflict just about every aspect of American life. 

On the one hand, what I see is a society that is paralyzed, frozen in stasis. The ability of government to act effectively—or even to act at all—has been undermined, partly deliberately by the party hostile to government, partly by a kind of bureaucratic sclerosis.  Institutional inertia makes change just about impossible. Transmitting directives down through the multiple capillaries of huge corporate or governmental structures means constant watering down or simple evasion of new initiatives.  The operative metaphor has always been turning around an ocean liner.  Settled habits, routines, prejudices, combined with resistance to doing things in new ways, all work against solving the problems that stare us in the face.

In short, I don’t share Kosseleck’s confidence (very German; think of Hegel and Marx) that a society that can’t solve problems in unstable and doomed to a short lifespan.  Muddling along through a combination of willful blindness, aggressive denial that the problems exist, calculated distractions of public attention to other issues (rising crime!; immigrants!; inflation!; transgender people!; welfare cheats!), and simple economic interest (changed policies will threaten your livelihood) are more than enough to stabilize dysfunction.  Jared Diamond’s tragic view that societies will obstinately stick to their prevailing practices all the way to extinction seems apposite.

And yet.  It would be very foolish to think nothing has changed since 1980.  Even as government has been paralyzed (unable to address even obvious problems like gun control, massive tax evasion, and securities fraud along with other forms of corporate malfeasance), change initiated by non-governmental agents has been everywhere.  The shifts in economic production (global supply chains, outsourcing, the destruction of unionized labor, the creation of precarity and the gig economy, the full emptying out of economic activity from rural America, the continued growth of industrial agriculture, the movement of vast amounts of commerce on-line) and in social organization (the “big sort” which clusters people in like-minded communities; the increasing segregation of public schools along with the growing private education sector; the outsized influence of Fox News; the privatization of various parts of “the commons”) have hardly been insignificant.  The world my children (now in their early 30s) have had to navigate differs greatly from the one I encountered in the late 70s leading up to 1983 (the year I turned 30).

So the crises of 2022 America is not exactly about standing still.  It seems more to be a crisis generated by a) a failure to come to terms with several looming problems through either ignoring their existence, or denying their existence, or by adopting a cynical/fatalistic conviction that nothing can be done about them and b) the loss of any sense of a collective agency that identifies the government as the place where that agency can be mobilized.  Instead, everything is left to non-governmental actors, who (predictably enough) pursue their own interests, grabbing from the commons whatever they can.  The American version of kleptocracy.

What keeps this situation stable, it seems to me, is that the kleptocrats let enough crumbs fall off the table to keep lots of people in fairly decent economic shape.  The mystery of the years since 1980 is that the kleptocrats are so unhappy; they keep yelping that their haul isn’t big enough.  Being a millionaire no longer counts for anything.  Only a billion will do.  To increase their haul, they have beaten down wages, ended anything like job security, and taken ever larger chunks of any profits resulting from increased productivity.  One effect of increased economic insecurity for wage earners (a result of “loss aversion”) is the desperate attempt to cling on to what I have—making me fearful of change, liable to vote for the shitty status quo rather than take the risk of endorsing change.  So sclerosis can be endorsed at the voting booth.  But you would think there would have to come a tipping point, a moment when the steady immiseration of the wage earners would generate a backlash against their economic overlords.

We seem further than ever from that tipping point—which is why I am saying we live in a crisis that seems to be unending.  Yes, as Kosseleck says, we have multiple and highly visible “unresolved problems,” but that doesn’t seem to be unsustainable.  We can—and probably will—fail to address them (imagining “solving” them seems laughably naive) for quite some time to come.

As a conservative, Kosseleck identifies that tipping point with “revolution,” an event he deeply deplores.  He does so by deploying an interesting distinction between “civil war” and “revolution’—even as he eventually undercuts the difference between them (pp. 160-62, especially the long footnote on p. 160).  Basically, a civil war is when two factions fight over assumption of power within the current political structures.  Revolutions, by way of contrast, aim to abolish the current structures and replace them with something entirely different.  In Kosseleck’s mind, that means revolutions are always Utopian, trying to create a new social and political reality out of whole cloth and according to a blueprint that has been imagined in the isolation of the study.  Revolutionary dreams are delusory—and here’s where the distinction from civil war breaks down: revolutions always spur civil wars (think of the French, Russian, Chinese, even Irish, revolutions).  From the Utopian heights of revolutionary dreams are born the more mundane, but usually horrific, war of factions that is civil war. 

What Kosseleck comes close to saying, but never quite does, is that civil wars are reactionary (initiated by a faction that feels threatened by change and wants to insure that established privileges and possessed power/property are not undermined) while revolutions stem from the dispossessed, those at the bottom in current arrangements.  So, if revolutions cause civil wars, it is because those currently on top won’t go down without a fight. 

The American case seems more like Spain of the 1930s than either France in 1792 or Russian in 1921.  Our nineteenth century civil war was instigated by reactionaries who felt slavery was threatened even as the North (and Lincoln) told them slavery was constitutionally protected.  They thought they saw the writing on the wall in the efforts to keep slavery out of new territories and the growing demographic and economic strength of the North.  So they forced the issue long before they needed to if their aim was to preserve slavery—and foolishly started a war they could not win (except if they could convince the other side not to fight it).

The similarity to 1930s Spain stems from the fight of 1861 being waged against a legitimately elected government—and was made in the name of anticipated horrors that that government would enable, not anything that government had actually done.  And our current situation feels the same.  What did Obama’s government do that would justify the belief that a Democratic administration would be such a disaster that it must be fought at every level—to the point of overturning election results to insure that only Republicans take office?  [“Fought at every level” is meant to include: a congressional veto by Republicans on any measure, not matter how anodyne, that Democrats initiate; endless trumped up congressional investigations of supposed malfeasance on the part of the administration; attempted judicial nullification (sometimes successful) of any measures Democrats do succeed in establishing; rabid right-wing promulgation in various media (talk radio, cable news, on-line channels) of baseless accusations; aggressive gerrymandering and other ways of distorting actual voter preferences; the list could go on.]

As with the behavior of the kleptocrats, the question becomes where will the tipping point be reached.  We have the obvious political crisis of Republicans putting the machinery in place to steal elections.  Will they, by these “legal” means (since passed by state legislatures and unlikely—it would seem—to be overturned by the Supreme Court), install themselves in power without triggering a vehement response?  In other words, will they be able to achieve a bloodless coup—avoiding civil war.  Or will the power grab generate a more dramatic response?

Back to crisis.  We have, then, three sets of unresolved problems: 1. The threat to the democratic peaceful transfer of power from one faction to another. 2. The undermining of government as the agent of collective decision-making and action, thus leaving the powers that are transforming our society in the hands of private actors, including corporations, philanthropic foundations, and the like. And 3. The inability to address the looming problems of climate change, destruction of the commons, economic inequality and precarity, and the gap between whites and people of color. 

The reactionaries who are bringing us to the brink of civil war by undermining democracy (number 1 in the paragraph above) do so in service of resolutely ignoring numbers 2 and 3—the crippling of government’s power to act effectively and the continued refusal to face up to looming problems.  In fact, they want to hasten the crippling of government, and they, at times, aggressively want to exacerbate racial tensions/inequities, along with enabling the kinds of economic practices the increase inequality and precarity.  And they have no desire to acknowledge or do anything about climate change.

All of this in a world where the dream of revolution seems entirely dead.  The left is adrift because it cannot imagine—or find a way to work toward—effective collective action.  But that’s a topic for another day—and another post.

Reading Group Thoughts

I have mentioned before that I am a member of a reading group comprised of political theorists and literary studies folks that has been meeting once a year since 2012.  We missed 2020 completely—and gathered virtually this past Friday for the first time since June 2019.

Our reading for this meeting was five essays written by members of the group that appear in the recently published African American Political Thought: A Collected History, edited by Melvin Rogers and Jack Turner (University of Chicago Press, 2021).  The five essays were: Robert Gooding-Williams on Martin Delany; Nick Bromell on Harriet Jacobs; Jason Frank on Langston Hughes; Lawrie Balfour on Toni Morrison; and George Shulman on Bayard Rustin.

The conversation was far-ranging, but I want to record here four issues that stirred my imagination.

  1.  We spent a lot of time considering how the figure, metaphor, trope of “fugitivity” recurs in black thought and literature.  For starters, it is obvious that an emphasis on fugitivity leads to very different configurations of black experience than an emphasis on slavery.  (Fair to say, I think, that slavery and its after-lives is central to the work of Sayida Hartman, Christina Stead, and many other contemporary black writers in the US.)  The fugitive is more active than the slave, having moved himself or herself into that condition by a chosen action—as contrasted to the passive suffering of the condition of slavery.  Of course, there are possibilities for action (and forms of resistance) within slavery, but the fugitive has made a more dramatic move, one that lends itself to the romanticization of fugitivity.

     But within the shadow of the Fugitive Slave Law, romanticization is forestalled by the ever-presence of insecurity, exposure, and violence for the fugitive.  He or she is always aware of being hunted down, of being on the lam.  There is no safe place—a fate that resonates with the current prevalence of violence in black lives, the absence of any refuge.  Hence the quest for safe environments—and the sense of being constantly under surveillance in most public settings—for blacks in the US.

     George Shulman had taught a class on fugitivity—and his black students protested against the use of that condition as a trope or figure.  This led the group into a long discussion of the tension between abstraction (after all, most of us are “theorists” of one sort or another) and the concrete.  I think there was general agreement that a) some kind of abstraction is necessary for any kind of thinking, any kind of reflection on concrete conditions on the ground; b) that allowing a metaphor to exfoliate is one way of getting thought to move off well-worn tracks, to gain fresh purchase or insight into specific situations; c) that the tension between the generalities of theory and attention to the specifics of actual relationships/conditions is always going to bedevil thinking that aims to intervene in those present conditions; and d) that the resistance to abstraction by those trying to find ways to live in challenging (euphemism alert!) circumstances is completely understandable and to be expected.  How, then, to honor that resistance while still doing some kind of abstraction was not a tension we knew how to resolve.  But perhaps acknowledging and describing the tension could help some.

      All of this was complicated by the fact that Sheldon Wolin’s notion of “fugitive democracy” has been very appealing to and formative for the political theorists in the room.  In the light of the black students’ objection to the metaphor, Wolin’s appropriation of the image of the “fugitive” does seem very romantic.  Wolin’s ideal democratic actors are hardly in significant danger from the powers that be, hardly being hunted down.  It does come to seem blinkered to move the image of the fugitive from its historical grounding in the Fugitive Slave Act to an image of a kind of underground, outlaw democratic practice.  More on that in a minute (under #2).

     Wolin’s appropriation becomes even more remarkable—and more suspect—when Patchen Markell told the group that Wolin’s dissertation advisor was associated with the Southern Fugitives in the 1930s.  (Sorry that I don’t have the name of the advisor handy.  I will try to track it down.)  Our discussion made clear just how remarkable it is that that group of Southern white guys (intellectuals who also liked to fancy themselves Agrarians as well as fugitives) appropriated to themselves the label of fugitive.  I can only marvel at the constancy with which the conservative and privileged make themselves out to be the victims of progress and threatened by the unwashed masses.  The “real” victims here are not oppressed black people, but we whites whose “way of life” is endangered.  Aggrievement is, I come more and more to believe, the one sine non qua of the reactionary sensibility—and what passes for “thought” in conservative circles.

2. Talk of our students and the difficulties of teaching in our politically fraught moment (all moments are politically fraught, but I don’t think it unfair to see 2020—with the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and then the election and its aftermath—as especially intense) led, inevitably I would suppose, to Lawrie Balfour commenting on the “skepticism about democracy” in the current moment.  For the theorists in the room—as for me personally ever since I wrote Postmodernism and its Critics in 1988-89—“democracy” has always been that place of refuge, that site where not only could political aspirations be articulated through developing an account (a theory) of democracy, but (crucially) a value that we could see as embedded in American political culture.  We theorists on the left, if we appealed to democracy (as contrasted to socialism for example), were not importing something into the US, but only striving to activate energies and commitments and values already present (even if sometimes more latent than manifest) in the sensibilities of the citizenry. (This is not to deny that appeals to democracy often served to camouflage smuggling in various commitments indebted to Marx and other non-American socialist writers.)

                   But maybe (probably?) we were fooling ourselves.  A commitment to democracy does not run  deep in the culture.  It hardly seems present at all.  Obviously, this is true of the right wing, a fact we should have known before four years of Trump made is patently obvious.  But it begins to look true of the younger generation of left-inclined students.  This has nothing to do with the fake outrage over “cancel culture.”  That whole charade is just another example of reactionaries (who use their power to cancel votes, and to censor school curricula) accusing their opponents of their own crimes in order to invert who the victims of oppression really are.  No, it is not some kind of phantom anti-liberal left, the bogies of an imagined anti-fa (whose numbers pale in comparison if put up against membership in right-wing militias), who embody a loss of faith in democracy among the young.

                     The problem (or cause) is our utterly broken political system.  There is absolutely no accountability.  Substantial majorities want gun control, action on climate change, increased taxes on the obscenely wealthy, etc. etc.—and our system is completely unable to deliver.  Thus, many among the left are finding themselves in agreement with black thinkers like Fred Moten and Christina Stead, whose loss of any faith in political solutions I have discussed in this blog.  “Democracy” as an idea and as a practice comes to look like the football Lucy keeps enticing Charlie Brown with.  Why place any faith in democracy?  It has not proved up to the task time and again.  Isn’t it simply foolish to think it will work this time after its repeated failures.  Better to walk away than to take another run and attempt to kick the ball, especially since the fetishism of a non-existent and non-attainable “democracy” keeps us from attending to and doing other things.

            What to do if there is this loss of faith in government’s ability to act effectively?  Localism.  Retreat into local communities and try to make life better there.  For some in our group, not surprisingly, such an approach smacks of “participatory democracy,” of what they might even be tempted to call “real” democracy, where the people take power into their own hands and work together for ends forged in common.  So democracy is not voting and not asking a government to do things for you.  It is doing things for yourself.  So, for example, Christina Beltran in our group saw her students as divided between those who were in despair (not just about political, but also about personal, prospects in a declining and increasingly cruel America) and those who were energized activists throwing themselves into various nascent social movements (BLM, climate change activism, LBGTQ groups, and the like).

              This is not the time and place to consider the promises and perils of local, participatory activism—or its relation to what we might theorize as “democracy.”  But it is worth noting that Christina also pointed to the appeal, in our dark times, of work like Anna Tsing’s that meditates on what it means to carve of a way to survive, to live, in the “ruins.”  Our prospects in every way—politically, economically, ecologically—look so bleak that stories about foraging a minimalist existence within worlds that barely offer the means to sustain life have a deep emotional appeal right now.

3. We spent a fair amount of time considering this issue of the kind of stories we tell ourselves—and the kinds of stories that are appealing, that do seem to speak especially profoundly to the moment.  George Shulman, in his essay on Rustin, invokes the notion of “organizing fantasy,” a term that manages to merge both the sense in which “ideology” is used to characterize a worldview based on falsity and a sense that imagination (as the projection of a possible future not determined, but not utterly ruled out, by current facts on the ground) offers ways forward.  Kelvin Black put a more positive, less ambivalent, spin on this (inevitable?) reliance on stories that orient us within a social world and in our relations to others.  Kelvin referenced the notion of “moral ecology” and expressed the hope that an established ecology could ground “good judgment” and a way to move toward some kind of collective understanding of what the situation is and how to address it.  This appeal to judgment—as well as seeing judgment as emanating from the stories we tell—clearly resonates with Zerilli’s attempt to activate Arendt’s thoughts on judgment.

The hope that stories can build community connects with Nick Bromell’s interest (in his essay on Harriet Jacobs) in second-person address—those moments in a narrative where the narrator breaks the frame to address the reader directly.  These moments are a dramatic “call” to the reader, a solicitation of participation, or (at least) of an “amen, brother” (thinking of African-American church practices here).  Nick then connected this kind of appeal to the “deep relational organizing” that has emerged out of Stacy Abrams’ work in Georgia.  As this was explained to me recently by someone here in NC who is part of the effort to replicate Abrams’ work in NC, the basic idea is to embed black activists in various communities so that they are a long-term presence and able to build relationships with the people who live there.  My NC activist-friend said there are one million unregistered black voters in North Carolina.  But you are not going to get them registered (and actually to go to the polls) through one—or even three– encounters.  “Outside agitators” (all right-wing fantasies to the contrary) don’t actually succeed in moving anyone to action.  Shared lives and shared stories are needed, not just the arguments you can set out in bullet points on a piece of campaign literature.

4. Within this talk of despair, or impasse, and of the continual experience of feeling unsafe (the ever-presence of premature death in the black community—attested to in Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, which I will discuss tonight with my UNC alumni reading group), George Shulman (picking up a theme from Jason Frank’s essay on Langston Hughes) pointed out the vitality in black expressive culture that flows forth from the continual encounter with “mortalism.”  Danger and death are generative—certainly aesthetically, and perhaps politically.  George Floyd’s death (as Vincent Lloyd in our group pushed us to consider) proved generative. 

I have what I guess are the predictable worries.  Freedom in expression is tolerated because it is mostly not a threat.  Yes, fanatics on the far right are agitated (and Fox News strives to stoke the outrage), but non-censorship of expressive content can co-exist fairly easily with the retention of political and economic power in the hands of whites.  The entertainment industry is full proof of that.  The prominence of black musicians, novelists, poets, even actors, doesn’t put a dent in the ownership (and most of the profits) of those businesses going to whites.  I always suspect (as someone devoted to literature only can) that expressive culture simply doesn’t much matter.  It is mostly powerless—and thus safely ignored by the economic and political power-holders, mostly convenient to them as a way of stirring their base.

It is true that the crazies out on the fringes of the right could upset this whole set-up.  It is instructive, I believe, that the American Civil War was instigated by the far right crazies, who couldn’t take Yes for an answer.  Lincoln made it clear that he wasn’t going to abolish slavery—that, in his reading of it, slavery was constitutionally sanctioned and that his oath was to uphold the Constitution.  But the fanatics couldn’t be satisfied with that; they (apparently) wanted the nation to affirm that slavery was a good thing, a righteous and Christian thing.  Our current right wing may similarly overplay its hand—going in for high-handed censorship where an easy-going tolerance would better suit its ends.  Maybe there are outrageous Supreme Court decisions coming—including ones on abortion and gun ownership—that will upset the current political stalemates, the odd and uneasy equilibrium that makes our politics completely static without ever pushing any of our numerous crises to becoming a tipping point toward undoing our multiple dysfunctional institutions and practices. 

Tipping points are never recognized until they suddenly are upon us.  And that’s where expressive culture does seem to do important work of “softening” people up.  Changes in sensibility, in the kinds of stories that people see as making sense of themselves and the circumstances in which they live, do register in altered practices as well as altered attitudes and aspiration.  I just am very impatient for the concrete pay-offs.

Aesthetic Education and Democracy

I have just participated in a terrific three day seminar on Aesthetic Education as part of the 2021 ACLA (American Comparative Literature Association) conference.  I got caught up in (instigated?) a debate about expertise in which I think I failed to clarify my position or, more importantly, what is at stake for me in taking the position I did.  I think it likely that I misunderstood the paper by Michael Clune that I was over-reacting to.  At the very least, I need to wait until I read Michael’s forthcoming book on judgment and Michael Polanyi’s The Tacit Dimension before pursuing that quarrel.  Clune thrillingly described the ways in which subject and object can be co-constituted through their encounter, especially (it was implied) when the object is an aesthetic one.  “The work organizes our experience of the world” and “the subject is shaped by the work” are two phrases from his talk.  One is changed by this encounter; one’s world is enriched. 

Inspired by this account, I wanted to say that such meaningful encounters are open to all.  Everyone has aesthetic experiences from an early age. Aesthetic education can (I hope) heighten or intensify those experiences and (at a high school and college level) make students more reflective about the nature of their aesthetic experiences and the reasons/causes for their tastes. (Mark Wollenberg in his talk introduced me to the wonderful notion of a “taste journey,” the narrative of one’s evolving tastes.) But I want us to understand aesthetic experience as utterly normal and as universal as the ability to speak a language. One acquires aesthetic sensibilities and aesthetic tastes pretty much the same way one acquires a language or one acquires a set of moral commitments: through the give and take with others and the world, shaped by feedback loops that point in one direction as the way to “go on” and tell us that other directions are inappropriate, non-fruitful, or actively harmful. 

The barrier to entry into language, into aesthetic experience, and into morality is incredibly low.  As Kant says, we expect these competencies of everyone past a certain age (probably four years old).  We expect people will become more adept at all three practices as they grow older—and education aims to facilitate that enhancing of competence.  But there is no clear threshold between the expert and the novice, only a continuum because from a very early age people are always already linguistic beings with a sense of right and wrong and with a sensuous engagement with worldly objects that shape their selves and their selves’ understanding of the world. To put it a little differently, one’s way of being in the world (one’s character in an Aristotelian sense) is a product of one’s interaction with others, with the language into which one is born, with the prevailing mores of one’s society, and with the sensuous apprehension of worldly objects, situations, and events.  And lest that list look too sanguine and ethereal, let’s make sure to add the society’s compulsions, the things it demands of its members in terms of norms of productivity and accountability.  Systems of debt are omnipresent as David Graeber taught us, and Kristen Case’s talk at the conference introduced me to the notion of chrono-normativity, the ways in which our time is structured for us by social demands. 

So, in this post, instead of pursuing what quickly became a muddled and unhelpful debate over the term “expert,” let me try to articulate the positive vision that was behind my inclination to instigate that debate.  Of course, the clarity of this positive vision only came to me after the fact—and so is a good result (at least I hope so) of the ruckus.  Thinking it all through afterwards helped to clarify for me why I think aesthetic education and democracy can (and should) be deeply intertwined.

My position is an unholy mixture of Arendt, Dewey, Wittgenstein, Kant, and Latour.  The best way to start is with Arendt’s insistence that truth and politics don’t mix.  Here’s a simple way to illustrate her point.  The local river does not have a bridge over it.  That’s a fact and is pre-political for Arendt.  If we can’t agree that there’s no bridge, we’ve got nowhere to go.  A scary thought in this day and age when millions deny the fact that Biden won the 2020 election.  Fact (the truth about the way things are) is compulsive for Arendt.  There is no room for negotiation or compromise; that’s why it is not political.  I can only insist that the election was fair and won by Biden. 

But let’s go back to our bridge-less river.  Should we build a bridge over it or not?  That’s a matter of opinion—and the very stuff of politics for Arendt.  The political community should meet together as equals, with everyone’s opinion heard.  In this agonistic understanding of democracy, some opinions may, in the course of the debate, prove more persuasive than others.  But the community is engaged in a fundamental process of asking for and giving reasons—and of weighing those reasons.  Chances of reaching consensus are pretty slim.  We live in an irreducibly plural world, ranging from the mysteries of individual idiosyncrasies (evident to any parent who has more than one child) to different social positionings, to different life experiences.  Where a decision has to be reached, a vote is a way to cut off discussion.  But in aesthetic matters we don’t take votes.  We simply let the discussion, with the different judgments about an aesthetic experience’s worth, and different descriptions of its distinctive qualities, roll on.  In fact, those endless disagreements are much of the fun, a point to which I will return.

Once the community decides to build the bridge, we exit politics again and call in the expert.  Everyone’s opinion is not equally entitled to be heard and respected when it comes to the question of how to build the bridge.  We are back in the realm of positive knowledge, where only certain trained persons know how to build bridges that won’t collapse.  Because any debate on that subject will not be between equals and only among a small group of qualified people, the debate (if there is one) is technical, not political.

My positive point overlaps with Nick Gaskill’s wanting to identify plural modes of apprehension, although I don’t know enough Whitehead to be sure.  Still, I like the idea that science as a mode of knowledge deals in facts ranging from the river has no bridge to assertions about the stress loads a particular bridge can hold.  Aesthetics is more attuned to the “qualities” of things—more properly the qualities of experiences since I want to hold on to the interactive emphasis I saw in Clune’s talk.  As Kant tried hard to explain, aesthetics is about the self’s engagement with the non-self, and the non-self meant not only nature but also one’s society, as represented by the sensus communis.  Everyone is engaged with the world and others—and they are the best witness to their own understandings and judgments of that engagement.  And surely we wouldn’t want to have it any other way.  The only thing worse than a world in which everyone disagreed with me all the time would be a world in which everyone agreed with me.  The parent delights in the child’s first signs of willfulness, of independence, just as the English literature teacher delights when students discover pleasure in a Browning poem.  In the case of the poem, the teacher can lead the student to water, but can’t make him drink.  The class can be the occasion for discovering how the self can be shaped by the work, but the occasion is non-compulsive, and there is no single or right way for that shaping to occur.  Mathematics is compulsive, aesthetic experiences are not.

Thus, when aesthetic education fosters the formation of aesthetic opinions, reflection upon the reasons and felt experiences that underlie those opinions, and debates with others about them, it is a simulacrum of democracy itself. 

This linking of aesthetic education with democracy (as Arendt envisions it) entails that the job of the aesthetic ed teacher is 1) not to claim his students begin in ignorance; 2) not to disparage the views they currently hold; and 3) not to intimate in any way that his views are preferable in any way to those of the students.  But that last point is outrageous!!!!

[Digression #1: it seems to me no surprise that when aesthetic education and aesthetic educators are threatened, it will seem particularly foolhardy to downplay our expertise and our contributions to positive knowledge since those are the coin of the realm. But I agree with Nick Gaskill that we aren’t going to fool anybody, including ourselves, by trying to assimilate what we do to the knowledge producing protocols of the natural or social sciences. Better to grab the nettle and explain how and why we are doing something different.]

Not so outrageous if you consider how seldom we offer to students the experience of equality.  If, as I believe is true, democracy is dependent on all members of society taking equality utterly seriously, then why would we think that depriving people (in the workplace as well as the classroom, not to mention the patriarchal family, and hierarchical stigmas of race, profession, wealth etc.) of any experience of equality would redound to the health of democracy?  I am suggesting that the aesthetics classroom is an ideal place (and currently one of the few places) where equality can be the norm.  Dare I say that’s because so little is at stake, that in the last analysis aesthetic disagreements have very few consequences, that (as I have already suggested), disagreements are what give flavor to aesthetic debates. The aesthetic is a safe space in which to practice the democratic ethos of meeting with one’s peers in equality to debate about things on which you disagree, but where there is never a conclusive, knock-down argument to be had, one that brings the debate to a halt because now everyone agrees or because we have reached a disagreement about fact that is conversation-stopping.

[Digression #2:Joseph North and Kate Stanley in our seminar would point out how individualistic this account of aesthetic experience and aesthetic debate is. What about the ways that aesthetic experiences can foster, even generate, collective identities? Arendt seems to think that the ability to participate in the conversation as an equal, to be heard, is enough to underwrite a commitment to the necessarily collective action that establishes and sustains the conversation. In other words, our collectivity is enacted–performatively created–through our talking to one another even as the substance of that talk is often our disagreements. It is also the case if no one’s opinion was ever changed, if we never achieved some partial agreements, the conversation would seem utterly futile and would most likely come to an end. That attachment to the collectivity achieved through the conversation may explain why almost everyone in the seminar tried to say that Clune and I really didn’t have a deep, fundamental disagreement.]

I challenge your opinions and you challenge mine.  In that pragmatic give-and-take, that attempt to offer reasons and grounds for one’s opinion, opinions and even experiences are changed.  I come to see that I had failed to see some aspect (Wittgenstein) of a work that now leads me to reconsider my opinion of it.  But maybe not.  Maybe I still think it trite and meretricious.  In Arendt’s lovely phrase (which she claims she takes from Kant, but which I can’t find in Kant), my challenger can only “woo” my consent with her view, lacking any way to compel it. 

So what does the teacher of aesthetic education bring into the classroom?  Three things, I would hope. 1) An ability to facilitate productive conversations about aesthetic experiences. These conversations enhance our ability to reflect upon those experiences and (absolutely crucially as will become clearer in a moment) foster an ability to hear about other’s different experiences/values/tastes and accept the way their views challenge me to revise my own.  The teacher helps the student learn how to assemble (Latour) his reasons, his evidence, his articulation of his experiences in order to make an eloquent rendering of his opinion to himself and to his auditors.

2) The teacher can bring a trained eye or ear.  That is, the teacher has spent a lot more time around aesthetic objects and thinking about them, and thus may be in a position to enhance the students’ aesthetic experiences by pointing out features of the aesthetic object they may miss.  If this is what we mean by expertise, I’m down with it.  But with the important reservations that the teacher’s judgments, at the end of the day, are no more authoritative than the students’ judgments.  If someone still finds Shakespeare a bore after all I have done to make him more accessible and interesting, that student (once again) is fully entitled to that opinion.  We cannot expect to persuade everyone all the time—and it would in fact be a nightmare if we did persuade everyone to hold the same views.  Which is another way of saying that communicability (Kant), not assent, is what is crucial here.

3) Communicability means that success in articulating my position—and yours as I comprehend it—is the good the teacher should be aiming for.  Students are to be engaged in the language game of asking for and giving reasons.  The teacher has been around the block and so is familiar with many of the moves in reason giving, with various types of reasons, of evidence, of persuasive appeals, and can guide the students toward a recognition of those means, and work to enhance their abilities of expression and comprehension.  One way to say this (I would reference Nick Gaskill’s paper here) is that intelligibility, not knowledge, is what is at issue.  I don’t know definitively that Moby Dick is the greatest American novel ever written after talking to you; but I understand (you have made intelligible to me) your reasons why you think it is and the reasons you think I should agree with you.  You have done your wooing—and our teachers (and other exemplars in this art of reason giving) have helped me learn how to hone my reason giving. Communicability rests on the same feedback loops I keep invoking. I know I have to try again when my auditor says I don’t see what you are driving at. What we have here is a failure to communicate. That failure, not a failure to agree, is what is fatal to sociality–and any hope of democracy. Need I add that the person who believes the 2020 election was stolen is not intelligible to me–and apparently not at all interested in talking to me in an effort to make his views intelligible, or listening to my account of how his conviction threatens our polity. Which is why I fear for democracy.

There are other things aesthetic education can aim to achieve.  I don’t mean to slight the value of aesthetic experience in and of itself—its essential place in anything I would deem a flourishing life.  But I do think, if stringently tied to equality, that the aesthetic classroom can be a laboratory of democracy in a world where we talk democracy all the time but very rarely experience it, which is another way of saying that our social spaces and social interactions persistently infantilize people, belittling their own understandings of their experience, their confidence in their tastes, and their ability to articulate their opinions in the face of a healthy, but respectful, skepticism.