Category: Literary studies

Joseph North Six–Latour and Aesthetic Judgment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph North Four—The Aesthetic

I thought I was only going to have three posts on the North book, but find I must add a fourth. (Warning: a fifth is now lined up.]

North, basically, accuses the baby boomers of abandoning the aesthetic when they moved over to historicist critique.  Just as he wants to reclaim a distinctive disciplinary status for literary studies, he wants to reclaim a distinctive identity for the aesthetic.  And he then wants to claim that establishing that separate category of “the aesthetic” has “radical” political consequences.  He makes two fuzzy steps along the way to this position.  The first is his continual claim that his aesthetics are “materialist” in a way that liberal aesthetics are not.  What he means by materialist is far from clear.  He certainly can’t (or certainly shouldn’t) mean that aesthetics are materially or economically determined—because if that is the case aesthetics would be hard-pressed to be radical.  They would just (in a vulgar Marxist determinism sense) serve the dominant class.  So he must mean something like: aesthetics are a manifestation of certain concrete practices that either stem from a collective aiming to resist the dominant economic order or aesthetics are instrumental in the formation of a resistant collective.

The second leap, of course, is the idea that aesthetics are inevitably “radical.”  This position, it seems to me, is akin to the leftist insistence (in some quarters) that if we had “true” democracy, a really fair expression of the people’s will, that will would turn out to be socialist.  In other words, there is a refusal to credit that the people might not desire socialism; that its will is accurately reflected in the current unsatisfactory (from the leftist point of view) state of affairs.  In this scenario, the left refuses to accept that it has rhetorically failed to make its case, and blames a corrupt democracy for its failure.

The parallel here is to think a “true” aesthetics must needs be radical.  But that is to assume a much more direct link between the aesthetic and the political than actually exists.  That link—if it is to exist—must be forged.  And it must be forged in a context where other links to other political positions is possible—as is the absence of any link at all (i.e. an apolitical art).  In short, no guarantees.  Everything must be produced—and produced in a field rife with competitors and obstacles.  No bridges without hard labor—and the bridges require constant defense against those who would dismantle them or turn them to other uses.

All that said, what I really want to do in this post (and it is going to require two posts) is consider the nature of the aesthetic.  Because I am one of those baby boomers who has found the category of the aesthetic so befuddling that I have found it easier to do without it.  I have never found it analytically useful to identify some phenomenon as “aesthetic” in some way that is denied to other phenomenon.  Yet I haunt art museums and read bushels of novels.  So perhaps I really need to come to terms with the aesthetic.

As should be clear from the previous posts, I cannot locate the distinctiveness of the aesthetic in a certain kind of object. Anything and everything is a possible object for “close reading,” I have argued.  Instead, I am inclined to evoke Wittgenstein’s notion of “seeing as.”  He writes: “I contemplate a face, and then suddenly notice its likeness to another.  I see that it has not changed; and yet I see it differently.  I call this experience ‘noticing an aspect’ (Philosophical Investigations, p. 193.)  He goes on (after giving us a figure that could be viewed in two different ways—not yet the famous duck/rabbit which comes on the next page): “we can also see the illustration now as one thing now as another. –So we interpret it, and see it as we interpret it”(p. 193).

This way of “saving” the aesthetic is familiar enough.  It is possible to see things “aesthetically.”  Traditionally, to see something aesthetically has usually been categorized as abstracting away from its uses or its consequences to focus solely on its appearance and its form.  Thus, the painter who thrills to the majestic vision of the building on fire without a thought to the people who are perishing within is seeing aesthetically.   The aesthetic in this sense has often been accused of a cold-blooded heartlessness, a kind of narcissistic monomania on the part of the artist, who abstracts away from ordinary human cares.

I am inclined—in this book about meaning that I keep claiming I am going to write—to say (instead) that seeing something “aesthetically” is to focus on its meaning.  The aesthetic, first of all, is a call to focus.  The aesthetic says: “pay particular attention to this thing, to this phenomenon” and let’s consider what it means.  The aesthetic enhances what it touches (makes it more significant, more worthy of attention) by augmenting its meaning.  If we take the time to pause over this thing, we will discover depths (I find myself pushed to use this word even though I hate the surface/depth metaphor) we did not previously suspect.  The artist makes us notice things we hadn’t seen before.  Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi”:

God’s works—paint any one, and count it crime

To let a truth slip. Don’t object, “His works

Are here already; nature is complete:

Suppose you reproduce her—(which you can’t)

There’s no advantage! you must beat her, then.”

For, don’t you mark? we’re made so that we love

First when we see them painted, things we have passed

Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;

And so they are better, painted—better to us,

Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;

God uses us to help each other so,

Lending our minds out. Have you noticed, now,

Your cullion’s hanging face? A bit of chalk,

And trust me but you should, though! How much more,

If I drew higher things with the same truth!

That were to take the Prior’s pulpit-place,

Interpret God to all of you! Oh, oh,

It makes me mad to see what men shall do

And we in our graves! This world’s no blot for us,

Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:

To find its meaning is my meat and drink.


We, of course, hardly share Lippo’s faith that “it means good.”  But it is, I think, fair to say that aesthetics is committed to the insistence that “it means intensely.”  The aesthetic vision intensifies—or, as I said two posts back about close readings, that vision quickens.

Is that quickening radical?  I think that it, at least, provides another stance to assume.  Commercial culture is reductive and rushed.  Reductive in the sense that things are processed in terms of their equivalence, their exchange value.  Rushed in the sense that “getting and spending” is a frantic business.  We don’t dwell on things, and we don’t focus on their singularity, their difference from the other things on offer in the market.

Perhaps even more important is (going back to what I said about judgment in the previous post) the way the aesthetic calls us to contemplate alternatives.  A “creative” artist surprises us, projecting meanings and possibilities that had not previously occurred to us.  There is more here than I, at first, thought there was.  We could move on from here along an unexpected path.  To the forces of necessity, the stern taskmasters who assure us “there are no alternatives,” the aesthetic says, “not so fast.”  It refuses to tolerate the failures of imagination that offer “false necessities” in the stead of proliferated possibilities.  It helps us to “go on” (Wittgenstein’s phrase) otherwise.

Seeing aesthetically, then, I am saying consists in a) a call to attend closely to this thing or situation, b) an attempt to call forth—through an act of imaginative interpretation—“aspects” of that thing or situation hitherto unnoticed or neglected, and c) the projection of “an attitude” (now I am drawing on Kenneth Burke) toward the thing or situation in question.

Burke calls art “the dancing of an attitude” and every attitude “an incipient action.”  The artist is not indifferent to the meanings her work displays; the work stages an attitude, a stance, toward its subject matter—whether that be delight, indignation, curiosity, or a fascination with the technical difficulties of aesthetic representation itself.  And the work solicits a response from its audience.  It woos the spectator (to return to Arendt on Kant), inviting her to try on (at least for a time) that attitude as well.  And, thus, if Burke is right, to imagine the actions that would follow from adopting such an attitude in her own life.

Here we get to the crux of my position, the crucial crossroads where meaning passes over from import (what this situation conveys, the affordances and resistances it presents) to value (why I should care about and for this thing or situation).  The artist’s lack of indifference (the opposite: her passionate attachment!) is what she wishes to communicate, why she struggles to grab her audience’s attention.

That’s why “the aesthetic” as a category has no inherent politics.  It is the content of any particular artistic work, not the fact that it is art, that makes it “radical” or not.  Yes, I do think that art proposes an alternative form of valuation from that which prevails in the marketplace.  But that alternative need not be radical in any leftist sense.  There are, as I have argued in previous posts, worse things in the world than market societies.  And there have been artists passionately attached to those more terrible social orders.

Of more interest to me right now is this insistence that art involves values.  The art work makes a case about “what we should care about.”  It says: “here is significance, here is value.  Life will be enhanced by paying attention here, by caring for this matter, by pursuing the possible course of action suggested by these attitudes.”  A fuller, better life is what art seeks, what it (in its more confident moments) gestures toward, even (at its most manic) promises.  (I am, as always, influenced by my mentor, Charles Altieri, when dwelling on such issues.  For Altieri, the aesthetic approaches value through attention to “qualities.”  The meanings the aesthetic makes available are complex and non-reductive precisely because so attuned to the specific textures, emotions, and relations that constitute the “feel” [often hard to capture in any kind of direct statement or presentation] of an experience, a “feel” that potentially changes understandings of both self and world.)

I will end today by saying that aesthetic value is different from moral, economic, and political.  If, in a Nietzschean fashion, the aesthetic is in the service of a passionate, intense, fully lived life, then it (at best) may be tied to ethical value—where ethics is understood as concerned with the question of the “good life,” how best to solve the conundrum of how to live on this troubled planet.

I have already suggested how economic value is distinct from aesthetic value.  Political value (I would argue) concerns the creation and maintenance of a political community that manages to find a modus vivendi that serves needs well enough to prevent civil war. (Obviously, lots more needs to be said about this.)  The prime political values are freedom, justice, and security (peace); deny people freedom and they will take up arms; treat them unjustly enough and they will take up arms; fail to secure them the possibility of living their life and they will have no reason to accept the impositions of order.

Politics overlaps with morality, since I take morality to encompass the ways we organize our relations to others, both human and non-human.  Morality takes in relations that stand outside of politics per se, but most political questions (questions about how to arrange matters within the political community) are moral questions.

In sum, I have taken here the position that “the aesthetic” is the place where we attend to questions of value that pertain to the “meaning” of things, including the meaning of life.  That focus encompasses the questions of “what should I care about?”; “what possibilities does the life I have been given (into which I have been “thrown” as Heidegger puts it) afford me?”; and “how can I best live this life, to what should I attend; to what should I devote my energies; what should I strive to nourish, protect, and enable to flourish?”

All of this—and now I hate to tell you that I am not convinced this is an adequate account of the aesthetic.  It does two things I like: one, pushes the question of value front and center; and two, makes the aesthetic an attitude, or way of seeing, that refuses to locate it in a specific place, practice, institution, but disperses throughout all the sites of human life.

Which is not to say art should be anti- or a-institutional.  I have already argued that things we cherish sorely need institutions to sustain themselves, so I am all in favor of institutions that shelter the aesthetic attitude.  Similarly, I am not against identifying a range of practices that cultivate and enact the aesthetic attitude.  I am with North in believing that the aesthetic sensibility (and what have I been describing here except a sensibility?) needs to be cultivated; it is not “natural” any more that “trading and bartering” is natural.

But—I am not fully convinced I am on the right track here, so will try another version of “the aesthetic” in my next post.

Joseph North Three:  Sensibility, Community, Institution

Now we reach the point in my discussion of Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Harvard UP, 2017) where I mostly agree with him.  I am simply going to take up some of his key terms and goals and inflect them somewhat differently.  I think what I have to say runs parallel to North, not ever much meeting him on his chosen ground, but not running athwart his formulations either.

Here’s three of North’s descriptions of his project.

The first comes from a footnote on Raymond Williams and features North’s “scholarship/criticism” divide.  “Of course, none of this is to say that Williams was not deeply committed to ‘practice’ in other fields of endeavor; I merely mean to observe that he understood his disciplinary work in scholarly terms, as cultural analysis, cultural history, and cultural theory, rather than understanding it in critical terms as the systematic cultivation of sensibility.  Naturally the two are not finally distinguishable, and any powerful work of scholarship moves readers to try on different ranges of sensibility, etc. etc. But the ‘practice’ of scholarship, conceived of as cultural analysis, is necessarily neither direct nor systematic in this respect” (pg. 233, fn. 18).

The second is notable for its raising the issue of institutions.  “I only want to add that the problem facing the discipline is not an entirely new one, for in a broad sense it is much the same problem that the critical revolution of the 1920s managed to solve: the problem of creating a true paradigm for criticism—the problem of how to build an institution that would cultivate new, deeper forms of subjectivity and collectivity in a rigorous and repeatable way” (126-27).

In the third passage, he faults the work of D. A. Miller and Eve Sedgwick for its “lack of any prospect of a true paradigm for criticism—the lack of any hope of putting together a paradigmatic way to use the literary directly to intervene in the social order” (173).  Two pages earlier, he describes what I think he means by “direct” intervention.  “My point is simply that it really does make a difference to the character of the work produced by an intellectual formation when those involved feel strongly their responsibility to the needs of a fairly well-defined larger formation beyond the academy—a larger formation defined not simply by its ‘identity’ but by its character as a living movement—which is to say, really, a formation defined by its always limited but nevertheless real ability to define itself by determining, collectively, the trajectory of its own development” (171).

I can’t resist, of course, registering where I disagree with these statements. I have already made clear my skepticism that there is a rigorous or systematic way to cultivate a sensibility.  I am also astounded that North does not recognize feminist literary criticism of the period from 1975 to 1995 as a paradigmatic case of academic work tied “to a fairly well-defined larger formation beyond the academy.”  And if Sedgwick’s relation to the gay liberation movement isn’t a similar instance, may the Lord help the rest of us.  And North’s repeated (as much a tic as his use of the term “rigorous”) use of the words “true” and “really” make him appear more Stalinist than I think he really is.  Does he really intend to shut down the pluralism of intellectual work in favor of the one true path?  Re-education camps for the critics so that they get with the program—and are taught the methods of the new systematic pedagogy.  Surely, one of the delights of the aesthetic sensibility is its anarchism, its playfulness, its imaginative ingenuity, excesses, and unruliness. I suspect that “systematic,” and “repeatable” and “direct” aesthetic education would prove counter-productive in many cases.  At least, I hope it would–with teachers and student both summoning enough gumption to rebel against the indoctrination.

Finally, I want to quibble with his description of “direct” intervention.  Work that stands in support of, proves useful to, “larger” social movements is not direct—at least not directly political.  Here’s Judith Butler in a 1988 essay offering a straightforward description of political acts.  “Clearly, there are political acts which are deliberate and instrumental actions of political organization, resistant collective interventions with the broad aim of instating a more just set of social and political relations” (“Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” Theater Journal  523).  That cultivating an aesthetic sensibility might play a role in encouraging someone to join that social movement is not the direct political intervention that the movement attempts through quite different means and actions than what the critic does in the classroom or in her written work.  To confuse the two does no one any good—especially if it lets the teacher/critic deem herself sufficiently political as she advances her academic career.  The teacher/critic’s contribution is valuable, but it also indirect.

Enough with the dissents. I completely agree with North that “sensibility” is the crucial concept for the “hearts and minds” side of politics.  Cultivating a leftist sensibility is necessary, although not sufficient, to creating the kind of society we leftists want to live in.  The caveats here are familiar.  There is no guaranteed path from an aesthetic sensibility to a leftist politics. [Let me also note that the practice of close reading is also not the only, or even the royal road, to acquiring an aesthetic sensibility.  Lots of people got there other ways, which casts doubt of the “systematic” and “rigorous” pedagogy, and on the fetishizing of close reading.] For many aesthetes (Nietzsche, Yeats, and Pound among them), the vulgarity and bad taste of the masses drives them to anti-democratic, autocratic visions of strong, masterful leaders of the herd.  For others (Wordsworth and Coleridge for example), reverence for genius promotes a kind of over-all piety that leads to a quietist respect for everything that is, investing tradition and the customary forms of life with a sacred aura it is impious to question or change.  (This is the aesthetic version—articulated by T. S. Eliot as well—of Edmund Burke’s conservatism.)

But the larger point—and now we are with David Hume and William James in contrast to Kant—is that our political ideas and principles (and our ethical ones as well) are the products of our sensibility.  It is the moral passions and our moral intuitions that generate our political commitments.  James (in the first lecture of Pragmatism) talks of “temperament”—and throughout his work (from The Principles of Psychology onwards) insists that our stated reasons for doing something are always secondary; there was the will to do something first, then the search for justifying reasons.  Indignation at the injustice of others (or of social arrangements) and shame at one’s own acts of selfishness are more secure grounds for conduct than a rationally derived categorical imperative.

James seems to think of temperament as innate, a fated from birth.  North’s point is that education—a sentimental education—can shape sensibility.  I agree.  My daughter was in college at George Washington University when Osama bin Laden was killed.  Her classmates rushed over to the White House (three blocks away) to celebrate when the news was heard.  She told my wife and me that she didn’t join the celebration.  It just felt wrong to her to dance in the streets about killing someone.  Her parents’ reaction was her Friends School education had just proved itself.

Sensibility is akin to taste.  The leftist today finds it distasteful, an offense to her sense of how things should be, to live in Trump’s America.  I will use my next post to describe the sensibility of the right in that America.  But for the left, there is outrage at the caging of immigrant children, and at the bigotry that extends to non-whites, women, non-Christians and beyond.  Fundamentally, it is the shame of living in such a needlessly cruel society, with its thousands of homeless and millions of uninsured.

I don’t know exactly how a specifically “aesthetic” sensibility lines up with this leftist sensibility.  And as I have said, there is certainly no sure path from one to the other.  But I am willing to believe (maybe because it is true at least for myself) that the aesthetic stands at odds with commercial culture, attending to values and experiences that are “discounted” (in every sense of that word) in the dominant culture.  Being placed at odds, in a spot where the taken-for-granteds of one’s society are made somewhat less self-evident, has its effect.  If what one has come to appreciate, even to love, is scorned by others, new modes of reckoning (again in every sense of the word), and new allegiances (structure of feeling) may beckon.

Here is where Hume is preferable to James.  Hume (Dewey and Mead follow Hume  here in a way the more individualistic James does not) portrays sensibility as shaped through our communal relations and as reinforced by those same relations.  In other words, even non-conformity is social.  It is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible (akin to the impossibility of a “private language” in the Wittgenstein argument) to be a solitary “enemy of the people.”  There must be resources—from the tradition, from received works of art, criticism, and cultural analysis, from a cohort—on which one can draw to sustain the feeling that something is wrong in the dominant order.

Education, in other words, can play a major role in shaping sensibility—and it is the community the school offers is as crucial as the educational content.  Young people discover the courage of their convictions when they find others who feel the same way, who have the same inchoate intuitions that school (in both its formal and informal interactions) is helping them to articulate.  The encouragement of teachers (yes, you are on the right path; keep going; keep probing; keep questioning; trust your instincts) and of peers (those famous all-night bull sessions after our student finds her sympaticos).

Communities are, famously, ephemeral.  We can idealize them (as arguably Hannah Arendt does in her definition of “the political”—a definition that seems to exclude everything except the excited talk among equals from the political sphere).  Societies are corrupt, impersonal, hierarchical, mechanical, not face-to-face.  Communities are “known” (as Raymond Williams phrased it), informal and intimate.  A familiar narrative of “modernity” sees communities as overwhelmed by society, by the depredations of capitalism, war, and the ever-expanding state. (Tonnies)

This romanticism does not serve the left well.  Communities are not sustainable in the absence of institutions.  And they certainly cannot withstand the pressures of power, of the large forces of capitalism and the state, without institutional homes.  There must (quite literally) be places for the community to gather and resources for its maintenance.  Make no mistake about it: neo-liberalism has deliberately and methodically set out to destroy the institutions that have sustained the left (while building their own infrastructure—chambers of commerce, business lobbying groups, the infamous think tanks—that provide careers for the cadre of right-wing hacks).  Unions, of course, first and foremost.  When did we last have a union leader who was recognized as a spokesperson for America’s workers?  But there has also been the absorption of the “associations” that Tocqueville famously saw as the hallmark of American democracy into the services of the state.  Outsourced welfare functions are now the responsibility of clinics first created by the feminist and gay liberation movements to serve the needs of their communities.  Financial stability has been secured at the price of being experienced as embedded members of the community; now those organizations are purveyors of  services begrudgingly offered by a bureaucratic state that always put obstacles in the way of accessing those benefits.

North is right to see that the neoliberal attack on institutions extends to the university.  The aesthetic sensibility (since at least 1960) has been bunkered in the university, having failed to sustain the few other institutional structures (little magazines, the literary reviews it inherited from the 19th century) that existed in the early 20th century.  Reading groups are well and good (they are thriving and I hardly want to belittle them), but have no institutional weight or home.  Humanities departments are about it, except for the arts scene (again, mostly woefully under-institutionalized) in some major cities.

So there is every reason to fight hard to keep the humanities as an integral part of the university.  I personally don’t think taking the disciplinary route is the way to fight this fight—but maybe I am wrong.  Maybe only claims to disciplinary specificity and expertise can gain us a spot.

More crucially, I think North is absolutely right to believe that our efforts as critics are doomed to political ineffectiveness if not tied to vibrant social movements.

[For the record, here is where I think North’s criticism/scholarship divide really doesn’t work.  Efforts along both lines can prove supportive or not to social movements.  It is the content, not the form, of the work that matters.  And I also think work that is apolitical is perfectly OK.  It is tyrannical—a mirror image of the absurd regimes of “productivity” that afflict both capitalism and the research university—to insist that everything one does contribute to the political cause.  Life is made worth living, in many instances, by things that are unproductive, are useless.]

The problem of the contemporary left is, precisely, the absence of such social movements.  The civil rights movement had the black churches, and then the proliferation of organizations: SNCC, CORE, SCLC, along with the venerable NAACP, and A. Philip Randolph’s labor organization.  It sustained itself over a very long time.  The feminist movement had its clinics, and NOW.  The anti-war movement had A. J. Muste and David Dellinger, long-time veterans of peace groups.  The Democratic Party is obviously no good unless (except when) it is pushed by groups formed outside the party, groups that act on their own without taking instructions from the party. The Bernie Sanders insurrection will only reshape the Democratic Party when it establishes itself as an independent power outside the party–with which the party then needs to come to terms.

The trouble with Black Lives Matter, ME Too, and Occupy is that they all have resisted or failed (I don’t know which one) to establish any kind of institutional base.  Each of these movements has identified a mass of people who share certain experiences and a certain sensibility.  They have, in other words, called into presence (albeit mostly virtually—except for Occupy) a community.  That discovery of other like souls is comforting, reassuring, even empowering.  I am not alone.  But to be politically effective, these movements need legs.  They need to be sustained, in it for the long haul.  And that requires institutions: money, functionaries, offices, continuing pressure at the sites deemed appropriate (for strategic reasons) for intervention.

In short (and now I am the one who is going to sound like a thirties Marxist), the left needs to make the long march through the institutions—a march begun by creating some institutions of its own on the outside to prepare it for the infiltration of the institutions on the inside.  That’s what the right has been doing for the past forty years.  While the left was marching in the street on the weekends with their friends, the right was getting elected to school boards.  Protest marches feel great, but are ephemeral, easily ignored.  Our society’s shift rightwards has come through a million incremental changes wrought on the ground by somebody in an office somewhere, by right wing hacks and business lobbyists writing legislation, by regulators letting oversight lapse, by prosecutors and courts looking the other way at white collar and corporate crime. During the Obama years, the left paid almost no attention to state-level races, ceding those legislatures to the right almost by default–with grievous consequences (not the least of which is a weak bench, unable to provide any potential national candidates between the ages of 45 and 65).

We need leftist social movements that pay attention to the minutiae, that are not addicted to the large dramatic gesture, that don’t engage in the magical thinking that a piece of legislation or a court decision solves a problem once and for all.  It’s the implementation, the daily practices of state, corporate, educational, regulatory institutions (as Foucault should have taught us) where change takes place, in often silent and difficult to perceive ways.  That’s the room where it happens—and the left has all too often failed to even try to get into the room.

Joseph North Two—Rigor and Memory (Oh My!)

It must be something in the water in New Haven.  North deploys the term “rigor” as frequently as Paul DeMan, with whom he has just about nothing else in common.  I will just offer two instances.  The first comes from his closing exhortation to his readers “to secure a viable site within the social order from which to work at criticism in the genuinely oppositional sense” (211).  Success in this effort would requires “a clear and coherent research program together with a rigorous new pedagogy, both of which, I think, would need to be founded on an intellectual synthesis that addressed the various concerns of the major countercurrents in a systematic and unitary way’ (211).

In the Appendix, the issue is described in this way:  “How does one pursue the tenuous task of cultivating an appreciation for the aesthetic without lapsing into mere impressionism?  How does one pursue this task with a rigor sufficient to qualify one’s work as disciplinary in the scientific terms recognized by the modern university” (217).

[A digression: nothing in the book suggests that North takes an oppositional stance toward the “modern university”—or to its notions of what constitutes a discipline, what “counts as” knowledge, or its measures of productivity.  Rather, he is striving to secure the place of literary studies within that university in order to pursue an oppositional, “radical” (another favorite word, one always poised against “liberal”) program toward modern, capitalist society.]

Rigor, as far as I am concerned, is a half step away from rigor mortis.  When I think of brilliant instances of close reading, rigor is just about the last word that comes to mind.  Supple, lively, surprising, imaginative, even fanciful.  In short, a great close reading quickens.  It bring its subject to life; it opens up, it illuminates. The associative leaps, the tentative speculations, the pushing of an intuition a little too far.  Those are the hallmarks of the kind of close reading that energizes and inspires its readers.  What that reader catches is how the subject at hand energized and inspired the critic.

Similarly, a rigorous pedagogy would, it seems to me, be the quickest way to kill an aesthetic sensibility.  The joyless and the aesthetic ne’er should meet.

Not surprisingly, I have a similar antipathy to “method.”  Close reading is not a method.  To explain why not is going to take a little time, but our guide here is Kant, who has wise and very important things to say about this very topic in his Critique of Judgment.  Spending some time with Kant will help clarify what it is the aesthetic can and can’t do.

But let’s begin with some mundane contrasts.  The cook at home following a recipe.  The lab student preforming an experiment.  The young pianist learning to play a Beethoven sonata.  The grad student in English learning to do close readings.  Begin by thinking of the constraints under which each acts—and the results for which each aims.  The cook and the lab student want to replicate the results that the instructions that have been given should lead to.  True, as cooks and lab students become more proficient practitioners, they will develop a “feel” for the activity that allows them to nudge it in various ways that will improve the outcomes.  The map (the instructions) is not a completely unambiguous and fully articulated guide to the territory.  But it does provide a very definite path—and the goal is to get to the designation that has been indicated at the outset. Surprises are almost all nasty in this endeavor.  You want the cake to rise, you want the experiment to land in the realm of replicable results.

The pianist’s case is somewhat different, although not dramatically so.  In all three cases so far, you can’t learn by simply reading the recipe, the instructions, the musical score.  You must actually do the activity, walk the walk, practice the practice.  There is more scope (I think, but maybe I am wrong) for interpretation, for personal deviance, in playing the Beethoven.  But there is limited room for “play” (using “play” in the sense “a space in which something, as a part of a mechanism, can move” and “freedom of movement within a space”—definitions 14 and 15 in my Random House dictionary.)  Wander too far off course and you are no longer playing that Beethoven sonata.

Now let’s consider our grad student in English.  What instructions do we give her?  The Henry James dictum: “be someone on whom nothing is lost”?  Or the more direct admonition: “Pay attention!”  Where do you even tell the student to begin.  It is not simply a case of (shades of Julie Andrews) beginning at the beginning, a very good place to start, since a reading of a Shakespeare sonnet might very well begin with an image in the seventh line.  In short, what’s the recipe, what’s the method?  Especially since the last thing we want is an outcome that was dictated from the outset, that was the predictable result of our instructions.

Kant is wonderful on this very set of conundrums.  So now let’s remind ourselves of what he has to say on this score.  We are dealing, he tells us, with two very different types of judgment, determinative and reflexive.  Determinative judgments guide our practice according to pre-set rules.  With the recipe in hand and a desire to bake a cake, my actions are guided by the rules set down for me.  Beat the batter until silky smooth (etc.) and judgment comes in since I have to make the call as to when the batter is silky smooth.  In reflexive judgment, however, the rule is not given in advance.  I discover the rule through the practice; the practice is not guided by the rule.

Kant’s example, of course, is the beautiful in art.  Speaking to the artist, he says: “You cannot create a beautiful work by following a rule.”  To do so, would be to produce an imitative, dispirited, inert, dead thing.  It would be, in a word, “academic.”  Think of all those deadly readings of literary texts produced by “applying” a theory to the text.  That’s academic—and precisely against the very spirit of the enterprise.

Here’s a long selection of passages from Kant’s Third Critique that put the relevant claims on the table.  We can take Kant’s use of the term “genius” with a grain of salt, translating it into the more modest terms we are more comfortable with these days.  For genius, think “someone with a displayed talent for imaginative close readings.”

Kant (from sections 46 and 49) of the third Critique:  “(1) Genius is a talent for producing something for which no determinative rule can be given, not a predisposition consisting of a skill for something that can be learned by following some rule or other; hence the foremost property of genius must be originality. (2) Since nonsense too can be original, the products of genius must also be models, i.e. they must be exemplary; hence, though they do not themselves arise through imitation, still they must serve others for this, i.e. as a standard or rule by which to judge. (3) Genius itself cannot describe or indicate scientifically how it brings about its products . . . . That is why, if an author owes his product to his genius, he himself does not know how he came by the ideas for it; nor is it in his power to devise such products at his pleasure, or by following a plan, and to communicate his procedure to others in precepts that would enable them to bring about like products” (Section 46).

“These presuppositions being given, genius is the exemplary originality of a subject’s natural endowment in the free use of his cognitive powers.  Accordingly, the product of a genius (as regards what is attributable to genius in it rather than to possible learning or academic instruction) is an example that is meant not to be imitated, but to be followed by another genius.  (For in mere imitation the element of genius in the work—what constitutes its spirit—would be lost.)  The other genius, who follows the example, is aroused to a feeling of his own originality, which allows him to exercise in art his freedom from the constraint of rules, and to do so in such a way that art acquires a new rule by this, thus showing that talent is exemplary” (Section 49).

Arendt on Kant’s Third Critique.  Cavell on It Happened One Night.  Sedgwick on Billy Budd.  Sianne Ngai on “I Love Lucy.” I defy anyone to extract a “method” from examining (performing an autopsy?) these four examples of close reading. Another oddity of North’s book is that for all his harping on the method of close reading, he offers not a single shout-out to a critic whose close readings he admires.  It is almost as if the attachment to “method” necessitates the suppression of examples.  Precisely because a pedagogy via examples is an alternative to the systematic, rigorous, and methodical pedagogy he wants to recommend.

But surely Kant is right.  First of all, right on the practical grounds that our student learns how to “do” close reading by immersion in various examples of the practice, not by learning a set of rules or “a” method.  Practice makes all the difference in this case; doing it again and again in an effort to reach that giddy moment of freedom, when the imagination, stirred by the examples and by the object of scrutiny, takes flight.  Surely “close reading” is an art, not a science.

And there, in the second and more important place, is where Kant is surely right.  If the very goal is to cultivate an aesthetic sensibility, how could we think that the modes of scientific practice, with its vaunted method and its bias toward replicable and predictable results, would serve our needs?  The game is worth the candle precisely because the aesthetic offers that space of freedom, of imaginative play, of unpredictable originality.  If the aesthetic stands in some kind of salutary opposition to the dominant ethos of neoliberalism, doesn’t that opposition rest on its offer of freedom, of the non-standard, of the unruly, of non-productive imaginings?  Why, in other words, is the aesthetic a threat and a respite from the relentless search for returns on investment, for the incessant demand that each and every one of us get with the program?  That they hate us is a badge of honor; being systematic seems to want to join the “rationalized” world of the economic?  [Side note: here is where critique cannot be abandoned.  We must keep pounding away at the quite literal insanity, irrationality, of the market and all its promoters.  But the aesthetic should, alongside critique, continued to provide examples of living otherwise, of embodying that freedom of imagination.]

Kant, of course, famously resists the idea that lack of method, praise of an originality that gives the rule to itself, means that anything goes.  Genius is to be disciplined by taste, he writes.  We judge the products produced by the would-be genius—and deem some good examples and others not so good.  I am, in fact, very interested in the form that discipline takes in Kant, although this post is already way too long so I won’t pursue that tangent here.  Suffice it to say two things:

1. The standard of taste connects directly to Kant’s fervent desire for “universal communicability.”  He fears an originality so eccentric that it places the genius outside of the human community altogether.  If genius is originality, taste is communal (the sensus communis)—and Kant is deeply committed to the role art plays in creating and sustaining community.  The artist should, even as she pursues her original vision, also have the audience in mind, and consider how she must shape her vision in order to make it accessible to that audience.  So we can judge our students’ attempts to produce close readings in terms of how they “speak” to the community, to the audience.  Do they generate, for the reader, that sense that the text (or film or TV show) in question has been illuminated in exciting and enlivening ways?  There is an “a-ha” moment here that is just about impossible to characterize in any more precise–or rigorous–way.

2. Taste, like genius, is a term that mostly embarrasses us nowadays. It smacks too much of 18th century ancien regime aristocrats.  But is “aesthetic sensibility” really very different from “taste”?  Both require cultivating; both serve as an intuitional ground for judgments.  In my next post—where I take up the question of sensibility—I want to consider this connection further.

But, for now, a few words more about “close readings.  Just because there is no method to offer does not mean we cannot describe some of the characteristics of close reading.  I think in fact, we can call close readings examples of “associative thinking.”  A close reading (often, hardly always) associates disparate things together—or dissociates things that we habitually pair together or considered aligned.  So Arendt shows us how Kant’s third Critique illuminates the nature of the political; Cavell enriches a meditation on finitude through an engagement with It Happened One Night; Sedgwick’s reading of Billy Budd illustrates how homosexuality is both acknowledged and denied; Ngai associates a situation comedy with the nature of precarious employment.  In each case, there is an unexpected—and illuminating, even revelatory—crossing of boundaries.  Surprising juxtapositions (metonymy) and unexpected similarities where before we only saw differences (metaphor).  Which takes us all the way back to Aristotle’s comment “that the metaphorical kind [of naming] is the most important by far.  This alone (a) cannot be acquired from someone else, and (b) is an indication of genius” [that word again!] (Sectoin 22 of the Poetics).  There is no direct way to teach someone how to make those border crossings.

How is this all related to judgment?  Both to Aristotle’s phronesis (sometimes translated as “practical wisdom”) and to Kantian judgment.  (Recall that morality for Kant is too important to leave to judgment of the reflexive sort; he wants a foolproof method for making moral judgments.  Aristotle is much more willing to see phronesis at work in both ethics and aesthetics.)  We get wrong-footed, I think, when we tie judgment to declaring this work or art beautiful or not, this human action good or evil.  Yes, we do make such judgments.

But there is another site of judgment, the one where we judge (or name) what situation confronts us.  Here I am in this time and place; what is it that I am exactly facing?  Here is where associative thinking plays its role.  How is this situation analogous to other situations I know about—either from my own past experiences or from the stories and lessons I have imbibed from my culture?  Depending on how I judge the situation, how I name it, is what I deem possible to make of it.  Creative action stems from imaginative judgments, from seeing in this situation possibilities not usually perceived.

That’s the link of judgment to the aesthetic: the imaginative leaps that, without the conformist safety net of a rule or method, lead to new paths of action.  If we (as teachers in the broad field of aesthetics) aim to cultivate an aesthetic sensibility, it is (I believe) to foster this propensity in our students for originality, for genius—in a world where conformity (the terror of being unemployable, of paying the stiff economic price of not following the indicated paths) rules.  Judgment, like metaphorical thinking, is an art, not a science—and cannot be taught directly, but only through examples.  It’s messy and uncertain (expect lots of mistakes, lots of failed leaps).  And it will exist in tension with “the ordinary”—and, thus, will have to struggle to find bridges back to the community, to the others who are baffled by the alternative paths, the novel associations, you are trying to indicate.

Joseph North (One)

One of the oddities of Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Harvard UP, 2017) is that it practices what it preaches against.  North believes that the historicist turn of the 1980s was a mistake, yet his own “history” is very precisely historicist: he aims to tie that “turn” in literary criticism to a larger narrative about neo-liberalism.

In fact, North subscribes to a fairly “vulgar,” fairly simplistic version of social determinism.  His periodization of literary criticism offers us “an early period between the wars in which the possibility of something like a break with liberalism, and a genuine move to radicalism, is mooted and then disarmed,” followed by “a period of relative continuity through the mid-century, with the two paradigms of ‘criticism’ and ‘scholarship’ both serving real superstructural functions within Keynesianism.”  And, finally, when the “Keynesian period enters into a crisis in the 1970s . . . we see the establishment of a new era: the unprecedentedly complete dominance of the ‘scholar’ model in the form of the historicist/contextualist paradigm.”  North concludes this quick survey of the “base” determinants of literary critical practice with a rhetorical question:  “If this congruence comes as something of a surprise, it is also quite unsurprising: what would one expect to find except that the history of the discipline marches more or less in step with the underlying transformations of the social order?” (17).

Perhaps I missed something, but I really didn’t catch where North made his assertions about the two periods past the 1930s stick.  How do both the “critical” and “scholarly” paradigms serve Keynesianism?  I can see where the growth of state-funded higher education after World War II is a feature of Keynesianism.  But surely the emerging model (in the 50s and 60s) of the “research university,” has as much, if not more, to do with the Cold War than with Keynesian economic policy.

But when it gets down to specifics about different paradigms of practice within literary criticism, I fail to see the connection.  Yes, literary criticism got dragged into a “production” model (publish or perish) that fits it rather poorly, but why or how did different types of production, so long as they found their way into print, “count” until the more intense professionalization of the 1970s, when “peer-reviewed” became the only coin of the realm?  The new emphasis on “scholarship” (about which North is absolutely right) was central to that professionalization—and does seem directly connected to the end of the post-war economic expansion.  But that doesn’t explain why “professionalization” should take an historicist form, just as I am still puzzled as to how both forms—critical and scholarly—“serve” Keynesian needs prior to 1970.

However, my main goal in this post is not to try to parse out the base/superstructure relationship that North appears committed to.  I have another object in view: why does he avoid the fairly obvious question of how his own position (one he sees as foreshadowed, seen in a glass darkly, by Isobel Armstrong among others) reflects (is determined by?) our own historical moment?  What has changed in the base to make this questioning of the historicist paradigm possible now?  North goes idealistic at this point, discussing “intimations” that appear driven by dissatisfactions felt by particular practitioners.  The social order drops out of the picture.

Let’s go back to fundamentals.  I am tempted to paraphrase Ruskin: for every hundred people who talk of capitalism, one actually understands it.  I am guided by the sociologist Alvin Gouldner, in this case his short 1979 book The Rise of the New Class and the Future of the Intellectuals (Oxford UP), a book that has been a touchstone for me ever since I read it in the early 1980s.  Gouldner offers this definition of capital: anything that can command an income in the mixed market/state economy in which we in the West (at least) live.  Deceptively simple, but incredibly useful as a heuristic.  Money that you spend to buy food you then eat is not capital; that money does not bring a financial return.  It does bring a material return, but not a financial one.  Money that you (as a food distributer) spend to buy food that you will then sell to supermarkets is capital.  And the food you sell becomes a commodity—while the food you eat is not a commodity.  Capital often passes through the commodity form in order to garner its financial return.

But keep your eye on “what commands an income.”  For Marx, of course, the wage earner only has her “labor power” to secure an income.  And labor power is cheap because there is so much of it available.  So there is a big incentive for those who only have their labor power to discover a way to make it more scarce.  Enter the professions.  The professional relies on selling the fact that she possesses an expertise that others lack.  That expertise is her “value added.”  It justifies the larger income that she secures for herself.

Literary critics became English professors in the post-war expansion of the research university.  We can take William Empson and Kenneth Burke as examples of the pre-1950s literary critic, living by their wits, and writing in a dizzying array of modes (poetry, commissioned “reports,” reviews, books, polemics).  But the research university gave critics “a local habitat [the university] and a name” [English professors] and, “like the dyer’s hand, their nature was subdued.”  The steady progress toward professionalization was begun, with a huge leap forward when the “job market” tightened in the 1970s.

So what’s new in the 2010s?  The “discipline” itself is under fire.  “English,” as Gerald Graff and Peter Elbow both marveled years ago, was long the most required school subject, from kindergarten through the second year of college.  Its place in our educational institutions appeared secure, unassailable.  There would always be a need to English teachers.  That assumed truth no longer holds.  Internally, interdisciplinarity, writing across the curriculum, and other innovations threatened the hegemony of the discipline.  Externally, the right wing’s concerted attack on an ideologically suspect set of “tenured radicals” along with a more general discounting (even elimination) of value assigned to being “cultured” meant the “requirement” of English was questioned.

North describes this shift in these terms:  “if the last three decades have taught literary studies anything about its relationship to the capitalist state, it is that the capitalist state does not want us around.  Under a Keynesian funding regime, it was possible to think that literary study was being supported because it served an important legitimating role in the maintenance of liberal capitalist institutions. . . . the dominant forms of legitimation are now elsewhere” (85).  True enough, although I would still like to see how that “legitimating role” worked prior to 1970; I would think institutional inertia rather than some effective or needed legitimating role was the most important factor.

In that context, the upsurge in the past five years (as the effects of 2008 on the landscape of higher education registered) of defenses of “the” discipline makes sense.  North—with his constant refrain of “rigor” and “method”—is working overtime to claim a distinctive identity for the discipline (accept no pale or inferior imitations!).  This man has a used discipline to sell you. (It is unclear, to say the least, how a return to “criticism,” only this time with rigor, improves our standing in the eyes of the contemporary “capitalist state.”  Why should they want North’s re-formed discipline  around anymore than the current version?)

North appears  blind to the fact that a discipline is a commodity within the institution that is higher education.  The commodity he has to sell has lost significant amounts of value over the past ten years within the institution, for reasons both external and internal.  A market correction?  Perhaps—but only perhaps because (as with all stock markets) we have no place to stand if we are trying to discover the “true” value of the commodity in question.

So what is North’s case that we should value the discipline of literary criticism more highly? He doesn’t address the external factors at all, but resets the internal case by basing the distinctiveness of literary criticism on fairly traditional grounds: it has a distinct method (“Close reading”) and a distinct object (“rich” literary and aesthetic texts).  To wit:  “what [do] we really mean by ‘close reading’ beyond paying attention to small units of any kind of text.  Our questions must then be of the order: what range of capabilities and sensitivities is the reading practice being used to cultivate?  What kinds of texts are most suited to cultivating those ranges? Putting the issue naively, it seems to me that the method of close reading cannot serve as a justification for disciplinary literary study until the discipline is able to show that there is something about literary texts that make them especially rewarding training grounds for the kinds of aptitudes the discipline is claiming to train.  Here again the rejected category of the aesthetic proves indispensable, for of course literary and other aesthetic texts are particularly rich training grounds for all sorts of capabilities and sensitivities: aesthetic capabilities”( 108-9; italics in original).

I will have more to say about “the method of close reading” in my next post.  For now, I just want to point out that it is absurd to think “close reading” is confined to literary studies–and North shows himself aware of that fact as he retreats fairly quickly from the “method” to the “objects” (texts).  Just about any practitioner in any field to whom the details matter is a close reader.  When my son became an archaeology major, my first thought was: “that will come to an end when he encounters pottery shards.” Sure enough, he had a brilliant professor who lived and breathed pottery shards—and who, even better yet, could make them talk.  My son realized he wasn’t enthralled enough with pottery shards to give them that kind of attention—and decided not to go to grad school.  Instead, my son realized that where he cared about details to that extent, where no fine point was too trivial to be ignored, was the theater—and thus he became an actor and a director.  To someone who finds a particular field meaningful, all the details speak.  Ask any lawyer, lab scientist, or gardener.  They are all close readers.

This argument I have just made suggests, as a corollary, that all phenomenon are “rich” to those inspired by them.  Great teachers are, among other things, those who can transmit that enthusiasm, that deep attentive interest, to others.  If training in attention to detail is what literary studies does, it has no corner on that market.  Immersion in just about any discipline will have similar effects.  And there is no reason to believe the literary critics’ objects are “richer” than the archaeologists’ pottery shards.

In short, if we go the “competencies” route, then it will be difficult to make the case that literary studies is a privileged route to close attention to detail—or even to that other chestnut, “critical thinking.” (To North’s credit, he doesn’t play the critical thinking card.)  Most disciplines are self-reflective; they engage in their own version of what John Rawls called “reflective equilibrium,” moving back and forth between received paradigms of analysis and their encounter with the objects of their study.

North is not, in fact, very invested in “saving” literary studies by arguing they belong in the university because they impart a certain set of skills or competencies that can’t be transmitted otherwise.  Instead, he places almost all his chips on the “aesthetic.”  What literary studies does, unlike all the rest, is initiate the student into “all sorts of capabilities and sensitivities” that can be categorized as “aesthetic capabilities.”

Now we are down to brass tacks.  What we need to know is what distinguishes “aesthetic capabilities” from other kinds of capabilities?  And we need to know why we should value those aesthetic capabilities?   On the first score, North has shockingly little to say—and he apologizes for this failure.  “I ought perhaps to read into the record, at points like this, how very merely gestural these gestures [toward the nature of the aesthetic] have been; the real task of developing claims of this sort is of course philosophical and methodological rather than historical, and thus has seemed to me to belong to a different book” (109; italics in original).

Which leaves us with his claims about what the aesthetic is good for.  Why should we value an aesthetic sensibility?  The short answer is that this sensibility gives us a place to stand in opposition to commercial culture.  He wants to place literary criticism at the service of radical politics—and heaps scorn throughout on liberals, neo-liberals, and misguided soi-disant radicals (i.e. the historicist critics who thought they were striking a blow against the empire).  I want to dive into this whole vein in his book in subsequent posts.  Readers of this blog will know I am deeply sympathetic to the focus on “sensibility” and North helps me think again about what appeals to (and the training of) sensibilities could entail.

But for now I will end with registering a certain amazement, or maybe it is just a perplexity.  How will it serve the discipline’s tenuous place in the contemporary university to announce that its value lies in the fact that it comes to bury you?  Usually rebels prefer to work in a more clandestine manner.  Which is to ask (more pointedly): how does assuming rebellious stances, in an endless game in which each player tries to position himself to the left of all the other players, bring palpable rewards within the discipline even as it endangers the position of the discipline in the larger struggle for resources, students, and respect within the contemporary university? That’s a contradiction whose relation to the dominant neo-liberal order is beyond my abilities to parse.