Category: Meaning and Life and the Humanities

On Judgment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph North Seven—Two Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Problem Number Two:  The Humanities

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph North Six–Latour and Aesthetic Judgment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph North Five—The Aesthetic (Interactive Version)

My first stab at characterizing the aesthetic gave us a weak version of pluralism.  The aesthetic viewed things in a particular dimension, it “saw them as” meaningful, where that term covered their import and their importance.  Significance in both senses of the term: what some thing meant or conveyed and how (why?) that thing was of significance or value, worth caring about and for.

Such an understanding leaves the thing itself untroubled.  In Nicholas Rescher’s book Pluralism (Oxford UP, 1995), he accepts that there are multiple possible descriptions of a thing, what Wittgenstein calls its “aspects,” but insists there is still only one “reality.”  You and I are both seeing the same thing when I marvel at the color patterns in the fire and you worry about the people who might be trapped inside the building.  We are both responding to the fire.

I think (I’d have to go back and check the relevant texts carefully) that Richard Rorty, the most notorious anti-realist of late 20th century philosophy, would still hew to Rescher’s position.  Rorty focuses on “redescriptions” as a site of creativity, and as proof that “reality” under-determines the ways that human understand it, utilize it, and can creatively re-script their relations to it.  As Nick Gaskill points out in his essay on Rorty, one particularly dominant theme is Rorty’s work is anti-authoritarianism.  And that theme extends to “reality.”  Rorty writes against the authority that “reality” acquires in more traditional philosophical metaphysics.  He denies to “reality” the last word; humans can always—and are constantly—saying new things about the world.  And, following Kenneth Burke, we can claim that new things said open up new possible courses of action.

But what if we take a more radically interactive approach?  Such an approach is certainly suggested in the pragmatism of James and Dewey.  Debates about the “two pragmatisms” (H. O. Mounce’s term) in fact often center around the extent to which pragmatism is “realist.”  For Mounce, Rorty is the enemy, and we must return pragmatism to Charles Sanders Peirce’s metaphysical realism. [Howard Mounce, The Two Pragmatisms (Routledge, 1997).]  (Peirce, by the end of his life, was very close to a Platonic realist.)  This battle then gets fought over the body of Dewey; was Rorty’s radical reading of Dewey accurate or not?  And in most of these debate, James (and his radical empiricism) barely figures at all.  He is not taken seriously as an epistemologist or an ontologist.

Today, however, James’s radical empiricism has come to seem a fruitful approach to a variety of writers, none more prominent than Bruno Latour.  In his recent major tome, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (Harvard UP, 2018), Latour offers what we might call radical pluralism.  “Modes” is, in fact, a slippery term—and Latour himself often seems unsure just how far he wants to push his ontological claims.  There are mountains of books trying to figure out what Spinoza meant by “modes,” although I think it fair to say there is general agreement that his “modes” are secondary to, dependent upon, “substance.”

Latour quite clearly wants to jettison the notion of “substance” altogether.  But still the term “mode” is never in and of itself sufficient.  It must be a mode of something.  And what we get is “an inquiry into modes of existence.”  But to what does “existence” refer?  The general metaphysical condition (i.e just another name for “reality,” even if that reality is more inchoate, more open to various manipulations, multiple shapings than some other versions of “reality.” It is unclear, since despite the prominence of the term in the title, Latour never explains to us what he means by “existence.”) But he does rely heavily on the term “existents,” and its meaning is quite clear.  Latour wants to substitute “subsistence” for “substance”—and refers throughout his book to “existents” (y which he appears to  mean “things that subsist.”) There are identifiable things (existents) that subsist.  (It seems to me, although Latour only mentions this term once, that he has his own version of Spinoza’s conatus.  Latour seems to posit a fundamental drive to subsist, a fundamental energy devoted to subsisting.)  In this framework, “a mode of existence [is] a way of being that cannot be substituted for any other and that no other can replace” (268).  “A way of being” for what?–presumably for “an existent.”

Where Latour moves toward a more radical, ontological pluralism is in his insistence that to subsist requires change.  If there is a fundamental reality in Latour’s recent work, it is the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of ceaseless “flux,” a Jamesian conceit if there ever was one. [“in fact, there is neither real continuity of courses of action nor stability of subjects” (370).]  Against the relentless tide of time passing, an existent must exert itself to maintain itself.  It must be ever adapting to the novelties that time’s passage throws at it.  So are “modes” different strategies of subsistence?  Latour doesn’t go that way.

Instead—and here is where a Latour inspired version of “the aesthetic” would dovetail with North’s desire that the aesthetic provide us with images of and models for collectivity—Latour focuses on what “assemblage” of participants (“actants”) must work together to allow an existent to subsist. [The “malign inversion” that elevates a persistent “substance” over the struggle for “subsistence” is malign because it “loses the thread of the means that could have ensured subsistence” (279)] In the case of science, concentrating on “the means of subsistence” requires attention to the procedures, the instruments, the experiments—in short, the whole range of interactions between the scientist and both the “thing” studied and the scientific community.  Some existent is only “known” and only continues as an object of scientific discourse when it can be discerned by the procedures/instruments, fit into a causal story that the community (the peer reviewers in the first instance) buys, and remain an object of interest for subsequent inquiries.

Science, in Latour’s terms, grants us “access” to various existents—and it takes a village to secure such access.  But it remains unclear (at least to me) to what extent the “existents” pre-exist these interactions with them.  There seems to be some raw material out there, even if Latour is very specific that he wants to banish the reification called Matter (with a capital M).  Latour’s commitment to the primary flux is such that he battles against all reifications: Matter, Society, Truth, the Economy.  In their stead, he offers processes of assemblage in which “gatherings” (interactions) produce things. It would be better to say “produce states of affairs” (rather than produce things) because things always and only exist in relations. (That’s a major lesson of James’s radical empiricism.)

Thus, things emerge out of the flux, take on solidity as a result of interaction–and gain subsistence, plus any identity they might temporarily possess, in and through their relation to others.  Latour is insistent that the path to being is through the detour of otherness; I only become myself through my relations–which are never stable, always unfolding–to others.  But (here’s my nagging worry when it comes to science—and I think Latour actually is inconsistent on this score) what then are these existents, with their will to subsist?  It seems as if he posits not just an originary flux, but also some existents lurking within the flux.  Now we might say those existents are inchoate; he does at times use the term “articulation.”  So we could say that existents are articulated, take a specific form, through specific processes of assemblage.  And then we could say those specific forms are “modes.”  But that would still mean they are “modes of” something more primitive—of a non-solid stuff (substance?) that needs a lot of help to keep subsisting.  And that non-solid stuff has a will to subsist.  Specific objects emerge from communal processes, but those processes work upon some mysterious stuff called “existents.”

But the aesthetic (to get there at last) may not have science’s handicap.  There is little reason to think the aesthetic object pre-exists the act of artistic creation.  Certainly, in the kind of common sense view that Latour is at pains to validate against the wrong-headed metaphysics of “the moderns,” that artist works upon her material (words, musical sounds, marble etc.) and shapes it into her art work.  The interactive model works perfectly here.  The material offers various affordances and resistances.  It is hardly, as every artist knows, a passive participant, supine before the artist’s vision.  It has its own contributions to make, its own ways of frustrating or enabling the artist’s desires.  So this is not the Wittgensteinian interpreter who is seeing or highlighting “an aspect” of the finished thing he contemplates.  Rather, it is the very creation of that thing through an interactive process.  And it is not just the creation of the art work, but also the creation of this person as “an artist.”  You don’t get to assume the identity of artist until you have done the act of making.  It is not a pre-existent identity, but an emergent one–and it depends not just on the act of making but also on the community’s recognition of what you have made as a “work of art.”

Such a description immediately raises the question of whether or not there is a strong distinction between the aesthetic as experienced/practiced by the creating artist and the aesthetic as experienced/practiced by the audience.  I am going to leave exploring that question to my next post.

Today I just want to finish up by expanding (as Latour would certainly urge us to do) our account of the interactions that characterize the aesthetic.  In order for even that basic act of artistic creation to occur, there needs to be much more in place than simply the artist sitting down to work.  That act hardly takes place in a vacuum.  The artist has been trained in her craft, has received feedback and encouragement (or discouragement) of various forms, has learned something of the tradition of that craft, and has some idea of the possible places for display of her work.  Once the work has been created, its subsistence is radically dependent on practices of display—and institutions (museums, schools, theaters etc.) for “showing” works.  Roland Barthes, in an epigram I love, said “Literature is what gets taught.”  The canon is one way works of written art subsist.  A poem is dead, has not succeeded in subsisting, if it never gets read.  Similarly, “the art world” is a subject of so much fear and loathing precisely because an art work lives or dies by its ability to negotiate the various intricacies, procedures, and institutions that characterize that “world.”

In short, as Latour is always trying to get us to see, the number of actants involved in the subsistence of any activity and its products is almost always more numerous than we first suppose.  And thus the outcome—the artistic work that emerges from this activity—is always shaped by inputs from all of these actants.  No wonder artists continually dream of “artistic freedom.”  Images of heroic individualism push back against the inevitable entanglement in complicated webs (networks) of relationships that defeat any idea of mastery, of sovereignty over, the field.

The aesthetic, precisely because it entails the creation of new objects, seems particularly suited to serve as an instance of radical pluralism.  Its conditions for creation can be specified—and can be seen as distinct from the conditions of existence in other fields (such as science or, to cite some of Latour’s other examples, politics, law, and economics.)  Those conditions can be described (Howard Becker’s work is exemplary here, but we can also think of Bourdieu as well).  And we can even take a stab at trying to describe the factors that contribute to making judgments about the quality, importance, and/or significance (in all its senses) of aesthetic works.  That’s where I want to start in my next post.

 

 

 

Today I just want to finish up by expanding (as Latour would certainly urge us to do) our account of the interactions that characterize the aesthetic.  In order for even that basic act of artistic creation to occur, there needs to be much more in place than simply the artist sitting down to work.  That act hardly takes place in a vacuum.  The artist has been trained in her craft, has received feedback and encouragement (or discouragement) of various forms, has learned something of the tradition of that craft, and has some idea of the possible places for display of her work.  Once the work has bene created, its subsistence is radically dependent on practices of display—and institutions (museums, schools, theaters etc.) for “showing” works.  Roland Barthes, in  a epigram I love, said “Literature is what gets taught.”  The canon is one way works of written art subsist.  A poem is dead, has not succeeded in subsisting, if it never gets read.  Similarly, “the art world” is a subject of so much fear and loathing precisely because an art work lives or dies by its ability to negotiate the various intricacies, procedures, and institutions that characterize that “world.”

 

In short, as Latour is always trying to get us to see, the number of actants involved in the subsistence of any activity and its products is almost always more numerous than we first suppose.  And thus the outcome—the artistic work that emerges from this activity—is always shaped by inputs from all of these actants.  No wonder artists continually dream of “artistic freedom.”  Images of heroic individualism push back against the inevitable entanglement in complicated webs (networks) of relationships that defeat any idea of mastery, of sovereignty over, the field.

 

The aesthetic, precisely because it entails the creation of new objects, seems particularly suited to serve as an instance of radical pluralism.  Its conditions for creation can be specified—and can be seen as distinct from the conditions of existence in other fields (such as science or, to cite some of Latour’s other examples, politics, law, and economics.)  Those conditions can be described (Howard Becker’s work is exemplary here, but we can also think of Bourdieu as well).  And we can even take a stab at trying to describe the factors that contribute to making judgments about the quality, importance, and/or significance (in all its senses) of aesthetic works.  That’s where I want to start in my next post.

 

’t go that way.

 

Instead—and here is where a Latour inspired version of “the aesthetic” would dovetail with North’s desire that the aesthetic provide us with images of and models for collectivity—Latour focuses on what “assemblage” of participants (“actants”) must work together to allow an existent to subsist.  In the case of science, that means thinking about the procedures, the instruments, the experiments—in short, the whole range of interactions between the scientist and both the “thing” studied and the scientific community.  Some existent is only “known” and only continues as an object of scientific discourse when it can be discerned by the procedures/instruments, fit into a causal story that the community (the peer reviewers in the first instance) buys, and remain an object of interest for subsequent inquiries.  Science, in Latour’s terms, grants us “access” to various existents—and it takes a village to secure such access.  But it remains unclear (at least to me) to what extent the “existents” pre-exist these interactions with them.  There seems to be some raw material out there, even if Latour is very specific that he wants to banish the reification: Matter (with a capital M).  Latour’s commitment to the primary flux is such that he battles against all reifications: Matter, Society, Truth, the Economy.  In their stead, he offers processes of assemblage in which “gatherings” (interactions) produce things (probably saying “produce states of affairs” would be better).

Thus, things emerge out of the flux, take on solidity as a result of interaction.  But (here’s my nagging worry when it comes to science—and I think Latour actually is inconsistent on this score) what then are these existents, with their will to subsist?  It seems as if he posits not just an originary flux, but also some existents lurking within the flux.  Now we might say those existents are inchoate; he does at times use the term “articulation.”  So we could say that existents are articulated, take a specific form, through specific processes of assemblage.  And then we could say those specific forms are “modes.”  But that would still mean they are “modes of” something more primitive—of a non-solid stuff (substance?) that needs a lot of help to keep subsisting.  And that non-solid stuff has a will to subsist.  Specific objects emerge from communal processes, but those processes work upon some mysterious stuff called “existents.”

But the aesthetic (to get there at last) may not have science’s handicap.  There is little reason to think the aesthetic object pre-exists the act of artistic creation.  Certainly, in the kind of common sense view that Latour is at pains to validate against the wrong-headed metaphysics of “the moderns,” that artist works upon her material (words, musical sounds, marble etc.) and shapes it into her art work.  The interactive model works perfectly here.  The material offers various affordances and resistances.  It is hardly, as every artist knows, a passive participant, supine before the artist’s vision.  It has its own contributions to make, its own ways of frustrating or enabling the artist’s desires.  So this is not the Wittgensteinian interpreter who is seeing or highlighting “an aspect” of the finished thing he contemplates.  Rather, it is the very creation of that thing through an interactive process.

And it is not just the material the artist works with that is transformed in the process. So is the person doing that work.  Her identity as “an artist” only emerges through doing that work–and depends not only on what she produces, but also on how others are willing to view her.  We all know people who want to call themselves “writers,” but who do not feel entitled to claim that self-description because the community has not yet bestowed it on them.  That identity can only be achieved through the “means” of the others–the material worked on, the community to whom the work is presented.

Such a description immediately raises the question of whether or not there is a strong distinction between the aesthetic as experienced/practiced by the creating artist and the aesthetic as experienced/practiced by the audience.  I am going to leave exploring that question to my next post.

Today I just want to finish up by expanding (as Latour would certainly urge us to do) our account of the interactions that characterize the aesthetic.  In order for even that basic act of artistic creation to occur, there needs to be much more in place than simply the artist sitting down to work.  That act hardly takes place in a vacuum.  The artist has been trained in her craft, has received feedback and encouragement (or discouragement) of various forms, has learned something of the tradition of that craft, and has some idea of the possible places for display of her work.  Once the work has been created, its subsistence is radically dependent on practices of display—and institutions (museums, schools, theaters etc.) for “showing” works.  Roland Barthes, in  a epigram I love, said “Literature is what gets taught.”  The canon is one way works of written art subsist.  A poem is dead, has not succeeded in subsisting, if it never gets read.  Similarly, “the art world” is a subject of so much fear and loathing precisely because an art work lives or dies by its ability to negotiate the various intricacies, procedures, and institutions that characterize that “world.”

In short, as Latour is always trying to get us to see, the number of actants involved in the subsistence of any activity and its products is almost always more numerous than we first suppose.  And thus the outcome—the artistic work that emerges from this activity and “the artist” who also emerges from it—is always shaped by inputs from all of these actants.  No wonder artists continually dream of “artistic freedom.”  Images of heroic individualism push back against the inevitable entanglement in complicated webs (networks) of relationships that defeat any idea of mastery, of sovereignty over, the field.

The aesthetic, precisely because it entails the creation of new objects, seems particularly suited to serve as an instance of radical pluralism.  Its conditions for creation can be specified—and can be seen as distinct from the conditions of existence in other fields (such as science or, to cite some of Latour’s other examples, politics, law, and economics.)  Those conditions can be described (Howard Becker’s work is exemplary here, but we can also think of Bourdieu as well).  And we can even take a stab at trying to describe the factors that contribute to making judgments about the quality, importance, and/or significance (in all its senses) of aesthetic works.  That’s where I want to start in my next post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 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.

The Marvelous Hazlitt

I have, off and on, been dipping into Hazlitt over the past year.  And my “meaning project” (of which there will be much more anon on this blog) includes (at least in my mind’s eye) a chapter on the “meaning of life,” where the focus is on the many writers–Foucault, Arendt, Agamben, Charles Taylor–who express a hostility to those who try to establish “life” as the supreme value.  Ruskin’s “the only wealth is life” (from Unto this Last, a key text for me) epitomizes those who want to elevate life to that status.

Hazlitt, in the first passage below, offers an early rebuttal to the view that life is a dangerous standard to follow.  He is responding, with more than a little incredulity and irony, to Malthus.  The second passage announces Hazlitt’s allegiance to pluralism.  And the third passage enunciates what we might call the political consequences of a commitment to pluralism. First, that all concentrations of power are to be feared–and avoided.  Power needs to be distributed as widely as possible, since power in one hand is always abused, and because only power can check power.  To deprive some of power is to render them helpless in the face of tyranny.  Second, the abuse of power is worst when it is held by those who are also convinced they possess the sole conception of the good. Pluralism entails modesty–the recognition that many conceptions of the good exist and that I have no right to impose my conception on others.  Fear those who combine absolute conviction in their rectitude with significant power.

I take these various convictions of Hazlitt’s as central tenets of liberalism.  Hazlitt’s writings are exhilarating precisely because he offers a full-throated, eloquent, and passionate articulation of liberal decency, of its hatred of cruelty and tyranny in all its many forms, and its commitment to empowering all to live the life they choose to live.  I have argued previously on this blog that liberalism is not a coherent or systematic ideology.  Rather, I believe liberalism stems from a small set of convictions and intuitions–that then guide its adhoc judgments about the best course of action in various situations and its sense of the most acceptable institutional arrangements in particular historical moments, always open to revision of those judgments and that sense.  More about liberalism to come as well.

From the essay on Malthus (p. 67 in the Penguin Selected Writings):

“The common notions that prevailed on this subject, till our author’s first population-scheme tended to weaken them, were that life is a blessing, and the more people could be maintained in any state in a tolerable degree of health, comfort and decency, the better: that want and misery are not desirable in themselves, that famine is not to be courted for its own sake, that wars, disease and pestilence are not what every friend of his country or his species should pray for in the first place; that vice in its different shapes is a thing that the world could very well do without, and that if it could be rid of altogether, it would be a great gain.  In short, that the object both of the moralist and politician was to diminish as much as possible the quantity of vice and misery existing in the world: without apprehending that by thus effectually introducing more virtue and happiness, more reason and good sense, that be improving the manners of the people, removing pernicious habits and principles of acting, or securing greater plenty, and a greater number of mouths to partake of it, they were doing a disservice to humanity.”

From the essay “Character of Mr. Burke”:

“It is said, I know, that truth is one; but to this I cannot subscribe, for it appears to me that truth is many.  There are as many truths as there are things and causes of actions and contradictory principles at work in society.  In making up an account of good and evil, indeed, the final result must be one way or the other; but the particulars on which that result depends are infinite and various” (57).

From the essay “The French Revolution”:

“[D]o we not see the hold which the love of power and all strong excitement takes of the mind; how it engrosses the faculties, stifles compunction, and deadens the sense of shame, even when it is purely selfish or mischievous, when it does not even pretend to have any good in view, and when we have all the world against us?  What then must be the force and confidence in itself which any such passion, ambition, cruelty, revenge must acquire when it is founded on some lofty and high-sounding principle, patriotism, liberty, resistance to tyrants; when it aims at the public good as its consequence, and is strengthened by the applause of the multitude?  Evil is strong enough in itself; when it has good for its end, it is conscience-proof.  If the common cut-throat who stabs another merely to fill his purse or revenge a private grudge, can hardly be persuaded that he does wrong, and postpones his remorse till long after—he who sheds blood like water, but can contrive to do it with some fine-sounding name on his lips, will be in his own eyes little less than a saint or a martyr.” (93).