Category: Meaning and Life and the Humanities

Trying to Understand Practice

I think it fair to say that the rejection of the term “experience” in favor of talking about “practices” is motivated by the worry that “experience” does not take the social dimensions of human being-in-the-world adequately into account.

A preference for the term “practices” can often be traced back to the influence of Wittgenstein.  Certainly, many of the puzzles surrounding practices were enunciated by Wittgenstein and still trouble those who want to use that concept.

I don’t think Wittgenstein uses the term “practices” himself.  He talks of “forms of life” and “language games” in ways that would align with some understandings of “practices.”  I don’t know where the current use of the term “practices” comes from.  Kant wrote about the difference between “theory and practice” and Marx used the term “praxis,” but those usages are not quite the same as the full-blown “social theory of practices” (the title of a useful book by Stephen Turner (University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Important for me is that a reliance on the concept of practice goes hand-in-hand with pluralism.  There are multiple practices—and that would be one objection to the Deweyean concept of “experience.”  Dewey seems to insist that all experiences have the same basic traits, which is why (for instance) he tries to make the “esthetic” (in Art As Experience) continuous with experience tout court instead of deeming the aesthetic a distinctive kind of experience with its own features.

My understanding of practice is derived from Wittgenstein, Bourdieu (key texts: Outline of a Theory of Practice [Cambridge UP, 1977] and The Logic of Practice [Stanford UP, 1990]), John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality [Simon and Shuster, 1995], Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice [University of Chicago Press, 1995], and Bruno Latour, Science in Action [Harvard UP, 1987]. I also learned a lot from a collection of essays gathered together under the title of The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, ed. by Theordore Schatzki et. al. [Routledge, 2001].  As you can tell from the dates on these sources, I was working on this topic in the 1990s—and taught a grad seminar on theories of action in 2002.  That work culminated in my essay “Action as Meaningful Behavior” (which can be accessed through the “Public Essays” tab on the front page of this blog)—an essay that does not use the term “practice” but which does touch on some of themes I will consider in this post.

Enough throat clearing. What is a “practice”?  Not an easy question to answer since there are some very different things that can be collected under the term.  Let’s start with a fairly straight-forward example: playing the piano.  This is an activity that takes place within a structured field.  The “social” element of the practice, then, is the existence of that field.  There has to be the edifice of Western music, with the way it organizes sound into notes and also motivates the production of the instrument, the piano, that produces the appropriate notes. (Chinese music is differently structured and the piano is an instrument that is irrelevant to, useless for playing, Chinese music.)

There also has to be a practitioner—the one who plays the piano.  Crucially, there also has to be a process of education.  You can’t just sit down to a piano and play it.  It takes years of training—and of practice.  You can’t learn to play the piano by reading a book.  You need to actually physically do it, moving from a starting point of almost complete ineptitude toward dizzying heights of proficiency on the part of those who become virtuosos.

The practice of piano playing spawns various social formations.  There will be professional organizations of practitioners; there will be institutions like conservatories; there will be networks of managers, agents, impressarios, philanthropists, and others who arrange for and publicize performances. There will be concert halls.  There will be critics who evaluate performances, scholars who study the history of the practice, and theorists who try to determine its enabling and generating conditions.  This is Latour territory, thinking about the multiple agents, with varying roles, required to maintain a practice—where “maintain” also entails a certain kind of communal policing of “what counts” as a valid example of the practice, what innovations are accepted, which ones rejected, and which enactments are deemed “better” or “worse.”

Dewey’s notion of “experience” fails to take into account what we might call the inevitable human audience for our actions, for our ways of interacting with the environment.  We are judged constantly by others—and the standards for that judgment are relative to the practice we are seen as participating in.  A good parent is distinct from a good piano player.  It is within the understood parameters of the relevant practice that a performance is understood (i.e. the very meaning of the performed action only makes sense in relation to the practice) and judged.  In other words, we have to name what the action is in general terms—parenting, playing the piano—before we have any way of assessing it, or even comprehending it.  What is she doing?, we might ask in puzzlement.  The answer to that question will (in most cases) gives us the name of a practice.

For Bourdieu (and many others, going back to Wittgenstein’s interest in games), the best way to think about practices is through the example of games.  A game is an activity that is structured by rules, but (crucially) not governed by rules.  The rule in baseball is that three strikes and you are out.  But the rules say nothing about the strategies, the techniques, a pitcher might employ in the effort to achieve a strike-out.  And the rules are not the source of the motivation.  The players play to win—and there are various socially provided rewards for winning—but the degree of compulsion leveraged to make someone play a game and care about its outcomes differs from one social setting to another.  Students are often forced to engage in athletic games they would rather give a miss.  More broadly, the structured field of economic competition for incomes within a capitalist society is a game few can avoid playing.

To think of the market economy as a game brings up many of the complications of “practices.”  Yes, there are identifiable rules in such a society—starting with the legal definition of and protection of “property.”  There is also the social institution of money itself.  Searle, in a formula I adapt in my essay on action, says that fields are structured in the following way: A counts as B under conditions C.  Searle mostly applies this formula to the establishment of social institutions, but I use it somewhat differently.  Money is a key example for Searle.  This piece of paper only counts (only functions) as legal tender under very elaborate conditions. There is a kind of magic about the social transformation that turns something into something else.  Games make this magic very obvious.  I step across a line carrying an oblong ball.  A perfectly ordinary action.  But under a set of very elaborate conditions that action “counts” as a touchdown.  The conditions?  I have to be playing a game of American football; time must be “in,”; the “play” has to have been “run” within the rules (no penalty flags), etc. etc.  Football, like money, is socially instituted.

Practices, then, are actions taken within conditioned circumstances, where the conditions are socially generated.  Searle focuses on the structure of that conditioning.  Latour focuses on the multiple agents and their ongoing actions required to keep the conditioned field operating.  Bourdieu focuses on two things: the strategies employed by agents to gain prominence, acclaim, financial rewards and the like within the game, and the ways agents are habituated to the games they play, taking them mostly for granted.  He adapts from Aristotle the term habitus, which he defines as a primarily unconscious “disposition” carried in our very bodies.  Thus, the trained pianist doesn’t think about her performance.  In fact, thinking most likely would only lead to mucking things up.  She has to let her body take over.

More generally, within a society’s field of social interactions there are unwritten rules, but they are clearly perceptible to one who looks, rules about tone of voice, how close to stand to some one else, how loud to talk etc.  The discomfort generated by some one who breaks that rules—or the embarrassment felt if one breaks them one self—are instances of the body’s having acquired the habits, or dispositions, appropriate to a set of social norms.  Thus, our interactions with the environment are mediated through socially generated notions of decorum, just as the scientist’s interaction with nature is mediated through her long training in the protocols of her disciplinary practice.  The internalization of those protocols is what Bourdieu calls “habitus.”  They become “second nature,” barely registered, taken for granted.

Several problems arise at this point.  For starters, few practices have a clear initiating moment when the rule book, the foundational conditions C, are enunciated.  Basketball is the exception, not the rule.  (Basketball was invented out of whole cloth by a man named Naimsmith—although the game he devised has been fairly radically altered over the years.) The US Constitution is a similar exception—and runs alongside common case law in its setting of legal/political conditions.  Much more frequent is an activity taking and changing shape through the course of actual interactions.  The game of baseball existed long before its rules were codified and formalized.  But if that is the case, then how can we say the practice is dependent on the structuring conditions—since the practice seems to predate the structure?

This puzzle also afflicts the use of language.  A child certainly has to learn how to speak.  But that learning does not appear dependent on knowing the structures of language or the rules for correct usage.  The child “norms” herself—in terms of pronunciation, and using words the ways others use them—through various feedback received from other users, not through being versed in the “rules.”  In fact, a good case can be made that there are no rules of grammar.  The so-called rules of grammar are just reports on the regularities that have emerged through speakers of a language “norming” themselves to one another in order to facilitate communication.  And that absence of rules explains why languages are constantly changing even if the pace of change is slowed down by the contrary pressures of conformity in order to enhance mutual comprehension.

In short, there is no instituting moment for a language, in which it was laid down that the pronounced sound “dog” (A) would count as referring to a particular sort of animal (B) under the condition that we were speaking English (C).  The same applies to syntactical rules.  In this vision of language, it is all pragmatics—with “rules” (regularities plus all those troublesome “irregular” verbs and other forms) generated by usage, not the other way around (i.e. usage enabled and generated by the structuring rules).  Hence Wittgenstein’s emphasis on “use” and his general skepticism about “following a rule” as any kind of explanation for how one proceeds, how one “goes on.”  (I am pushing here a contested reading of Wittgenstein since various commentators read him in exactly the opposite way, seeing him as determined to identify the rules underlying practices such as language use.  I think those commentators are hostages to the tradition’s search for certainty and transcendental conditions—exactly the parts of the tradition that I think Wittgenstein [like Dewey] was trying to overcome.  I take it as ironic—and evidence of the tradition’s mesmeric powers—that Wittgenstein’s critique of it is read as yet another engagement with its obsessive concerns.)

Wittgenstein thus leads us to the idea that we are making up our practices as we go along.  The image he uses is the repair of a ship even as it is sailing. There is no rule book for courtship, for economic activities (capitalist or otherwise), or for speaking a language the way that there are rule books for games. Games, it turns out, are a bad analogy for practices because practices are more chaotic, more free-form, more open, and more dynamic than structured fields.  Better to talk of a continuum here—and to locate the continual efforts (some more successful than others) to police practices, to gain some handle over their chaotic potential.  Thus, a “discipline” can be understood as a way of deploying authority (and/or power) to designate which activities “count” as legitimate within the relevant practice.  “Outlaw” or heterodox practitioners find it difficult to make headway against the organized forces of orthodoxy—and we can recognize the stratagems (from drastic to petty, yet cruel) used to stifle heretics (the inquisition, the denial of tenure, the cutting off of funding and access to jobs within the practice, the mocking of those who don’t exhibit good breeding or good usage). Of course, the heretics are often later hailed as “innovators,” as those who introduced needed reforms and novelties.

Thus, even in the absence of formalized and structuring rules, the notion of practice seems useful because it points us toward the organizations of practitioners (sometimes with credentialing powers and almost always with the power of accepting or rejecting someone as a fellow practitioner) and institutions that enable the practice to continue (by arranging for its public performances and garnering the financial and other resources –including physical spaces—for its enactments).  In short, unlike the term “experience,” practices points us toward all the social pieces that need to be in place for many (I don’t think all) interactions.

I will end with one recurring puzzle.  If, as I am inclined to believe, practices are not very rule bound, how does one learn them?  How does one acquire “a feel” for the game?  This brings us back to my quarrel with Joseph North.  There is no “method” for learning how to produce a compelling “close reading.” You don’t learn to play baseball by reading the rule book. And you certainly don’t find happiness in love or discover the secret to being a great writer by reading the manual.  (The wild success of self-help books attests to the unkillable wish that how-to guides could do the trick.)

There are techniques, tricks of the trade, that have emerged out of the ways previous practitioners have performed that activity. It helps to have a teacher who knows those techniques. But the only way to learn is to wade in oneself and have a go.  And then your performance will receive the feedback from others that leads you to do it somewhat differently next time around.  That’s how the child learns to speak.  By doing it—and by being corrected in some instances, understood in others, and even applauded in some.  Trial by doing—within a field with no set determinants, but with both centrifugal and centripetal forces influencing its present day norms and regularities.  That’s the field that Latour wants to describe in his work—taking into account what motivates scientists, the kinds of feedback they receive from both human and non-human interlocutors, the institutions within which the work takes place, the credentialing and other ways of distinguishing legitimate from unacknowledged work,  the instruments that mediate the interactions with the non-human, and the uses to which what scientists produce are put.

Dewey, Art As Experience (4)

I trust this is going to be my last post on Dewey, although Nick and I read the first and last chapters of Nelson Goodman’s Languages of Art for our most recent conversation—and I will write a post on Goodman that, in part, considers his affinities and differences with Dewey.

Auden famously said “poetry makes nothing happen.”  One way to read that statement is to return to the aesthetic’s “fictionality,” its taking up residence in a realm that is not real, but (rather) hypothetical or speculative.  No one is killed in King Lear—which is why theories of the aesthetic inevitably end up pondering the mysteries of representation.  Without a doubt, acts of inflicting death are represented in King Lear—and those acts of representation are patently different than real killings.  A real killing does not represent killing; it is (simply) killing.  Thus the killing done in King Lear, if it has consequences, does not have the consequence of some person dying.  We must look elsewhere for its consequences.

Pragmatism, of course, is all about consequences.  The famous “pragmatic maxim” tells us that the meaning of something rests in its anticipated consequences—and that human action (at least; no particular reason not to include animal action here) is guided by the forwardly projected imagination of those consequences in relation to the agent’s interaction with the environment.

Thus, the discontinuity between the aesthetic and ordinary experience appears heightened if we focus on consequences.  Art, if it makes things happen, does not, quite obviously, produce material consequences that align with those that follow action in the “real world.”

Dewey, of course, wants to describe the aesthetic as part and parcel of ordinary experience.  The aesthetic, for him, is any experience (whether writing/viewing King Lear or taking a stroll in the woods) that reaches “fulfillment.”  What specifically art works and the practice of art (taking “art” here in its most common ordinary language usage) do for Dewey is make us self-conscious about the pathways to fulfillment.  In art, we witness “a substance so formed that it can enter into the experience of others and enable them to have more intense and more fully rounded out experiences of their own.  This is what it is to have form.  It marks a way of envisaging, of feeling, and of presenting experienced matter so that it most readily and most effectively becomes the material for the construction of adequate experience on the part of those less gifted than the original creator.  Hence there can be no distinction drawn, save in reflection, between form and substance.  The work itself is matter formed into esthetic substance” (109).

The consequence of art, then, is the way it teaches us to live—more intensely, more meaningfully.  Its impact, we might say, is on the audience, on the social, not on nature, the material.  Art’s material consequences are small-scale.  The sculptor does transform the stone; the poet and the composer do manipulate material sounds.  But there are no large-scale material changes; temperatures do not rise, trees are neither grown nor felled in large quantities, colonies are not founded or overthrown.  The artist himself may acquire fame or wealth as a result of his work, but those (it seems to me) are social, not natural, consequences.

Dewey’s position unfolds in three steps. 1. Art, by showing us those intense experiences, leads us to desire them.  It fosters a sensibility attuned to the possibility and desirabililty of such experiences.  2.  Once having awakened that desire in us, art shows us possible paths to its fulfillment.  3.  Add one and two together and art’s major consequence is in enhancing the quality of our lives.  (The fostering of that sensibility might be placed in relation to a modern world that leads us to expect too little, that lets the daily grind of “getting and spending” overwhelm our knowing about and desiring consummatory experiences.)

As I have already argued in previous posts,  I think this position entails associating art with a certain kind of self-consciousness about what one is doing and a certain kind of “work” done upon “experienced matter” (109).  That work requires, it seems to me, a stepping back from the flow of experience into an artificially framed space that also enjoys a limited immunity from temporality as it is ordinarily endured.

The way that art is well placed to demonstrate the pathway(s) to fulfillment is captured in Dewey’s most extended description of fulfillment in his book. This description is useful to me because he relies so heavily on the concept of “meaning” to make his case.  Thus, it offers clues for my own ongoing project of trying to understand the special relationship to meaning of the arts and humanities.

Here’s Dewey’ description; it depends heavily on the Hegelian insight that the encounter with obstacles external to the self is what generates self-consciousness.

“Whenever the organic impulse exceeds the limit of the body, it finds itself in a strange world and commits in some measure the fortune of the self to external circumstances.  It cannot pick just what it wants and automatically leave the indifferent and adverse out of account. . . . In the process of converting these obstacles and neutral conditions into favoring agencies, the live creature becomes aware of the intent implicit in its impulsions.  The self, whether it succeed or not, does not merely restore itself to its former state.  Blind surge has been changed into a purpose; instinctive tendencies are transformed into contrived undertakings.  The attitudes of the self are informed with meaning. . . . The only way it can become aware of its nature and its goal is by obstacles surmounted and means employed. . . . Impulsion from need starts an experience that does not know where it is going; resistance and check bring about the conversion of direct forward action into re-flection; what is turned back upon is the relation of hindering conditions to what the self possesses as working capital in virtue of prior experience.  As energies thus involved reinforce the original impulsion, this operates more circumspectly with insight into end and method.  Such is the outline of every experience clothed with meaning. . . . [W]hat is evoked is not just quantitative, or just more energy, but is qualitative, a transformation of energy into thoughtful action, through assimilation of meanings from the background of past experiences. The junction of the new and old is not a mere past experience, but is a re-creation in which the present impulsion gets form and solidity while the old, the ‘stored’ material, is literally revived, given new life and soul through having to meet a new situation” 59-60).

The aesthetic is not referenced at all in this description of the movement toward “thoughtful action” that “assimilates meanings” and “gives new life” to those meanings as it forges a “qualitative” relation between the self and its impulses, and between the self and the situations it encounters.  We get here Dewey’s commitment to the full continuity between what ordinary language calls the “aesthetic” and his insistence that any experience is potentially fulfilling.  The aesthetic, for him, is a quality of experience, not a separate class of objects or activities.  But, as the passage from page 109 that I quoted earlier shows, the aesthetic is a demonstration project that does show us the experiences can have that quality.  My argument has been—because sheltered from certain material consequences and from certain temporal pressures while able to employ the heightened effects generated by framing—the aesthetic does that demonstrative work under conditions not as continuous with ordinary experience as Dewey assumes.

I want to end with a thought taken from Nick—one that resonates with the long description of “thoughtful action” just quoted.  Dewey, like Goodman, is not at all interested in aesthetic judgment if that means making statements about whether an art work is good or bad—or beautiful or not.  On pages 129-30, Dewey explains (pretty convincingly) why “beauty” is not a very helpful concept or term in trying to describe the aesthetic or art works.  It is too non-specific, what Bernard Williams would call a “thin” as contrasted to a “thick” descriptor.  A judgment that a work of art is “good” or “beautiful” doesn’t get us very far; it might serve as an opener for a conversation, but unless we get down to brass tacks in that ensuing conversation, we haven’t gotten said anything particularly enlightening.  While Kant’s thoughts about the components of judgment are useful, his focus on judgments of beauty is not helpful.  It deprives his account of a concrete engagement with the material to be judged.

When Dewey feels constrained to appeal to beauty, he redefines it (by way of rhetorical questions) to align with his criteria for successful art.  “Is ‘beauty’ another name for form descending from without, as a transcendent essence, upon material, or is it a name for the esthetic quality that appears whenever material is formed in a way that renders it adequately expressive?  Is form, in its esthetic sense, something that uniquely marks off as esthetic from the beginning a certain realm of objects, or is it the abstract name for what emerges whenever an experience attains complete development?” (107, Dewey’s emphasis).

The passive construction here—“an experience attains complete development”—is unfortunate.  Form “emerges” in the interaction of agent and materials—as does “purpose” itself.  “Thoughtful action” is a product of interaction that feels its way forward, discovering its purposes and its abilities as it goes along, guided (at least in the cases Dewey wants to celebrate) by a desire for “adequate expression” and “complete development.”  Nick’s point is that judgment is located exactly in the process of feeling one’s way forward.  At every juncture, decisions must be made about the next step—and those decisions (as in my discussion of Gerhard Richter’s description of his process some posts back) are more like feelings or intuitions (Dewey’s “affective” or “qualitative” thought) than formulaic or logical applications of a rule or a deduction.

There is no pre-existing plan, no recipe to follow, no method. (Shades of my criticism of Joseph North’s fetishization of method and rigor.) I must admit that I waver inconsistently between embracing what seems to me this romantic, faintly irrational understanding of judgment and being irritated by its mysterious ineffability.  I want to nail it down better; to say, like Richter, that this just “feels right” seems to beg the question.  How do you know it feels right?  What is that feeling based on?  Give me your reasons.  I am fully willing to admit that good judgment is developed through practice and cannot be taught through a rulebook or method.  One has to develop a “feel for” the practice.  But I still long for more complete and specific articulation of the grounds for those feelings.

That said, I do think it absolutely right that the consequential stakes when it comes to judgment (the reason why trying to figure out judgment is important) are tied up with these decisions about how to “go on” (to use Wittgenstein’s phrase) and not with the relatively trivial issue of whether we judge this work good or nor, beautiful or not.

A Diminished Thing

 

Robert Frost’s sonnet, “The Oven Bird.”

 

There is a singer everyone has heard,

Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,

Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.

He says that leaves are old and that for flowers

Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

He says the early petal-fall is past

When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

And comes that other fall we name the fall.

He says the highway dust is over all.

The bird would cease and be as other birds

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.

 

 

The fit is hardly exact, but the phrase “what to make of a diminished thing” echoes in my head far too often these days.  The leftist dreams of a communist utopia died a slow and very painful death from 1920 to 1989.  But who would have predicted, as the Berlin Wall came down, that allegiance to and belief in “social democracy” would be on life support in 2020?  Among the kinds of intellectuals I hang around with, Elizabeth Warren is a sell-out and Bernie Sanders a tolerable compromise, but just barely.  All the talk—as in the novels I considered in the last post—is about the injustice and cruelty of capitalism, and the implacable racism of the United States.  That injustice and cruelty is endlessly documented; everywhere you scratch the surface, you find perfidy.  Corruption, betrayal, cover-ups, outright theft, and endless, ruthless exploitation. Even worse: the almost invisible “structural racism” that infects everything.  It all must go.  Only wiping the slate entirely clean will create a world we can affirm.

I can’t help but think that John Dewey nails it when he calls this kind of political rhetoric sentimental.  “[W]hen we take ends without regard to means we degenerate into sentimentalism.  In the name of the ideal we fall back upon mere luck and chance and magic or exhortation and preaching; or else upon a fanaticism that will force the realization of preconceived ends at any cost” (Reconstruction in Philosophy, 73).  No one is offering anything remotely like a blueprint for how to get from here to there.  We just get endless denunciations of here coupled with (in some cases) the vaguest gestures toward there.  Analyses of how fucked up everything is, coupled with stories of outrageous maltreatment, are a dime a dozen.

Recently there has been a revival of a cultural studies move familiar in the 1980s.  Basically the idea is to show that people are not passive victims and to celebrate their ways of resisting—or, if “resisting” is too strong a word, their way of surviving, of carving out a life under bad conditions.  Two fairly recent books, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (2015) and Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019) exemplify this trend.  Tsing’s book is wonderful in every way, an exhilarating read for its introduction of the reader into a sub-culture far from the mainstream and for its intellectual force and clarity.  I found Hartman’s book a harder go.  Hartman works diligently to find the “beauty” in the “wayward” lives that she tries to reconstruct from very scanty historical traces.  Her subjects are black women in northern US cities between 1890 and 1915.  For me, the lives she describes are unutterably sad; I just can’t see the beauty as they are ground down by relentless racism and inescapable poverty.  Let me hasten to add that it is not Hartman’s job to make me feel good.  The point, instead, is that she aims to present these tales as providing some grounds for affirmation—and I just don’t find those grounds as I read her narratives.

I don’t want to try a full engagement with Tsing’s book here.  (I am late to this party; her book, like Hartman’s work, has been much celebrated.)  The very short summary: she tracks the matsutake mushroom from its being picked in Oregon, Finland, Japan, and China to its ending up as a treasured (and expensive) delicacy in Japan.  The ins-and-outs of this story, from the mushrooms own complicated biology (it cannot be cultivated by humans and only flourishes in “ruined” forests, ones that have been discombobulated by extensive logging) to the long human “supply chain” that renders the mushroom a commodity, offer Tsing the occasion to meditate on ecology, human migration, the US wars in Southeast Asia, and global neo-liberalism.

But for my purposes, I simply want to record that Tsing is interested in how people cope in the “ruins” that the contemporary world offers.  The “ruins” of decimated, over-logged forests.  The “ruins” of lives by the American war in Vietnam (spilling over into Laos and Cambodia).  The “ruins” of a neoliberal capitalism that has made traditional jobs (with security, benefits, a visible line of command) obsolete. The “ruin” of all narratives of progress, of all notions that technology or politics is moving us toward a batter future.

For Tsing, at least in this book, there is no idea that this ruination can be reversed, or that there are political models (like social democracy), that might address these hardships and try to ameliorate them. Only someone hopelessly naive or delusional would credit any notion of possible progress. Instead, we just need to be getting on with the hard task of finding a niche in the interstices of this cruel world, whose mechanisms of grinding people and the environment to ruin will continue unimpeded.  She isn’t even indulging some kind of 1960s dream of “dropping out.”  We are all in the belly of the whale, so whatever expedients can be adopted to make the best of it are to be celebrated.

Here is Tsing’s summation of her vision, the last paragraph before her epilogue:

“Without stories of progress, the world has become a terrifying place.  The ruin glares at us with the horror of its abandonment.  It’s not easy to know how to make a life, much less avert planetary destruction.  Luckily there is company, human and not human.  We can still explore the overgrown verges of our blasted landscape—the edges of capitalist discipline, scalability, and abandoned resource plantations.  We can still catch the scent of the latent commons—and the elusive autumn aroma” (282).

Back to autumn, to the oven-bird with its determination to sing even as summer fades away, and we are left with “a diminished thing.”

Futility and Despair

Like Tristram Shandy, I can’t write fast enough to keep up with all the things swirling in my head.  So much is going in—all the reading I am doing plus the daily gleanings from the web—that I have lots that feels like it needs to go out.  I keep falling behind.

However, it is not the futility of my getting it all down or despair over time’s finitude (and its resultant cruelty) that is my topic today.  The topic is contemporary art.

Nick and I had our second zoom conversation about John Dewey’s Art As Experience on Monday.  Dewey argues (both in that book and in a chapter entitled “Qualitative Thought” in Philosophy and Civilization) that humans intuitively grasp situations in their “qualitative unity” before proceeding to any kind of analysis of the components of the situation.  He also (it seems to me, but Nick would disagree) appears to claim that situations actually possess that qualitative unity.  We have satisfactory or fulfilling experiences when we are best aligned with what the situation affords, or when we can work on what it affords to shape it to better suit our needs.  Art is important because it models this fulfilling alignment; it offers instances of creative interaction that brings “form” to the interaction, crafting the situation’s elements into “equilibrium” or “harmony.”

There are features of this view of what art does which, in fact, I find helpful to my ongoing desire to consider the connection between art and meaning.  But I am going to leave that aside for the moment in order to address a different point here—basically the observation that Dewey’s picture of art as stated in the previous paragraph seems utterly antithetical to much artistic practice since 1910.  (On or around 1910, Virginia Woolf told us, human nature changed.)

Much art—and most “high” or “serious” art—of the past 100 years has displayed the futility of all attempts to apprehend or craft “unity.”  “These fragments I have shored against my ruin” can be written over the portals of modern (and postmodern) art—an updated version of “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”  Dewey looks old-fashioned and naïve with his talk of unity and harmony.  Of course, that Dewey is old-fashioned and naïve is a standard critique.  Like Whitman, he lacks any idea of evil.

Many modern paintings are cluttered.  They are not “composed,” but scattered, with no clear pathway for the eye to follow, no “form” that brings all the elements into order.

But, for my primary example, I will take the contemporary “serious” novel.  Experimental fiction is pretty much dead, but those avant-garde narratives are all about fragmentation.  The same goes for avant-garde poetry.

More “realistic” fiction, it seems to me, comes in primarily two forms.  There are the domestic novels (think Julia Glass, Rachel Cusk, Tessa Hadley, Jonathan Franzen), rooted in upper middle-class life and its romantic and family problems.  Updated Updike and Cheever.

And there are the novels about social injustice.  These novels (interestingly enough) are, more often, than not “historical”—and tell the tale of how the downtrodden are trodden down, with the rich and powerful escaping scot free.  Colson Whitehead (I have pasted at the end of this post the relevant passages from a recent interview with him) sums it up: “the guilty escape punishment, the innocent suffer.”  This glum conclusion fits any number of novels by Toni Morrison, Sebastian Barry, James Welch, Edward P. Jones, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and others; these victim tales appear to confirm Whitehead’s glum conclusion about “human nature” and the inevitable (?) “tendency” of the “powerful . . . to tyrannise and bully the weak.”  These novels are committed to witnessing, to telling the tales that the powerful would rather remain untold.  They can hardly be faulted for the desire to bring injustice to the light.  But they have nothing to offer beyond witness, beyond indignation.  They don’t imagine (because, it seems, they don’t believe in) any way to move beyond injustice.  Injustice is an old story that is bound to occur again and again.

I think these novels of despair come close to Nietzschean nihilism.  Nietzsche wants to enlist art in the difficult effort to “affirm” this life, even with all its imperfections.  Finding the grounds for affirmation is hardly easy, but giving into despair is, for Nietszche as much as for Christian orthodoxy, the ultimate sin.  For Nietzsche, the solution was the masochistic embrace of suffering, his amor fati.  But James Baldwin offers a different path; his story “Sonny’s Blues” displays his hope (his reliance) on love (a recurrent term in Baldwin) and on art to allow us to endure, perhaps even rise above, the inevitable suffering that life is going to deal out to us.

When talking about my frustration with these novels, Nick reminds me I am just repeating my desire for “liberal comedies.”  I want plots that move us toward more just, more humane societies.  Plots that imagine reform, melioration, in the right direction.  Steps toward a better world—an idea that fits not only with William James’ “meliorism,” but also with Dewey’s concrete account of adjustments to a situation.  The problem with despair is that it is too abstract; it insists that only a global transformation of the whole system (of “human nature”?) can do the job—and then hasn’t a clue about what steps might even be taken to get you closer to such a transformation.  It’s magical thinking, tied to an all or nothing vision.  Either we are living in hell or in heaven—and since it’s obvious we ain’t in heaven, we are clearly in the other place.

Among the non-realistic novelists the same despair is prevalent.  Salman Rushdie and J. M. Coetzee have an equally bleak view of human nature and certainly don’t offer any vision of more just or desirable social arrangements.   In speculative fiction (David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood), some grand catastrophe does bring about the kind of complete transformation more realistic fictions don’t dare to imagine.  But those transformations only deliver a world even worse than the contemporary one.  When it comes to imagining an alternative society, it seems variants of the one offered by The Lord of the Flies is the best we can do.  Ursula LeGuin’s work offers a welcome exception to this generalization about imagined post-catastrophe futures.

There have been some “serious” realistic novels that have attempted to locate their characters in contemporary political/economic context (unlike the domestic novels I mentioned above).  Sebastian Faulks, A Week in December; Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens; John Lanchester, Capital; Joseph O’Neill, Netherland.  The first three are “ensemble” novels, tracking a variety of characters.  And those characters end up with a variety of outcomes—which does avoid the powerful/victim dichotomy of the witness novels.  These novels seem less driven by a need to indignantly call out injustice and more focused on the multiple ways people survive or fail to survive contemporary conditions.

O’Neill’s novel is interesting because it combines the domestic novels focus on family relations with the more sociological interests that drive its portrait of post-9/11 New York City.  Liberal comedy (from Shakespeare to Anthony Trollope to 1930s screwball films and beyond) often rests on a homology between the central couple whose endangered love relationship is the focus of the plot and a reformed society.  If the couple can successfully consummate their love that is because the society which thwarted them has been reformed in the course of the play/novel/film.  (This is basic C. L. Barber and Northrop Frye on the theory of comedy.)

From the start (as recognized by Walter Scott in his commentary on his own novel Waverly), the great problem faced by the “historical novel” (or by any novel attempting to portray individualized fictional characters caught up in events of historical significance) was to make the connection between the character’s eventual fate and what those events wrought.  That Prince Andrei dies in War and Peace is fitting; to be in the Napoleonic Wars would very likely lead one to death.  That was the impact those wars had on individuals.  But the novelist can hardly just march all his characters off to death.

How, then to align the fate of the characters who survive with the state that society reaches after the events of the novel?  The happy marriage of Pierre and Natasha is discontinuous with the reactionary course followed by the Russian state after 1815.  They escape into a separate peace—and that kind of escape (also enjoyed by Waverly in Scott’s novel) becomes the norm in most realistic novels, even the ones that import historical events and historical figures into their plots.  The battle of Culloden destroys Scottish Highland society, but Waverly gives the battle a miss and his life is not destroyed. In O’Neill’s Netherland, the protagonist saves his marriage precisely by renouncing the public world of New York City’s financial industry.  He can have one or the other, but not both.  The corruption of the financial world makes a genuine and sustainable romantic relationship impossible.  The primary character who remains behind in that world after the protagonist abandons it is doomed.

One way, then, to describe the lack of unity that prevails in “modern” art is precisely the ever-widening gulf between public and private.  We live utterly fragmented lives.  Domestic comedy abounds; we can imagine the joys and tribulations of family life and friendship.  We can even imagine the joys and tribulations of the workplace (Parks and Rec; Thirty Rock; The Office), but we can’t translate the comraderies, the necessary tolerances of how others annoy us, the ability to shrug off (even enjoy) differences and eccentricities, into the public sphere.

We can’t connect, as E. M. Forster urged us to do in Howard’s End.  Forster at least had the country house—a domestic space that carries a larger social import—for his effort to bridge the gap between public and private.  We have no apparent bridges of any sort.  We stand dismayed by the nastiness of our politics and the brutalities of our economic order, even as we carve out loves and friendships we can affirm.  No wonder our art is all about disconnection.

Nick’s way of describing modern art’s lack of unity was very different from mine.  He attributed it to art’s becoming more and more entangled in, focused on, its own institutions.  Going that route also highlights disconnection—but now the alienation of art from the “lifeworld” (to resurrect Habermas’ way of talking about this issue).  The idea in Habermas was that modernity tended to segregate various activities (the scientific/technical; the aesthetic; the economic; the scholarly) into relatively autonomous spheres (we could call them “professions,” although he does not) which end up mostly speaking to themselves—and hence divorced from the “lifeworld” (understood as the daily life of social intercourse and domestic relations).  Certainly, Dewey is all about re-integrating the aesthetic back into the ordinary; he wants the aesthetic and the ordinary to be continuous, even though (the topic for a future post) he still wants the aesthetic to be distinctive.

So what Nick is pointing out is that artists speak more and more only to other artists, other insiders.  The practice of art is increasingly self-referential in the sense that works are best understood in dialogue with previous works, with prevailing discussions in the field. This self-enclosure is mirrored by the creation of institutions specific to the practice, and to a primary desire to impress (communicate with) those positioned within the field.

This development of specific institutions and a set of recognized practitioners fragments art in two ways: one, no work can be a self-sufficient unity because it refers to, stands in relation to, other works.  (Dewey actually seems to accept this fact since he is adamant that the present always stands in relation to the past; but that acceptance does seem a problem for his insistence on the “qualitative unity” of a situation.)

Two, more crucially, the more any pursuit becomes closed off from the comprehension of outsiders (the less it engages in fruitful interchanges with different pursuits), the less likely we are to find bridges across the divides between pursuits—and the divide from the lifeworld.  We get here another version of the old Lukacs and Jameson diagnosis: we (and the fate of the novel since Tolstoy and George Eliot is one symptom of this fact) are less and less able to comprehend totality—where “comprehend” means not just “to understand,” but also to capture or contain within any aesthetic or intellectual form.  Fragmentation is the order of the day because unity is now, quite simply, beyond our capabilities.

I have a bit more to say on this topic.  But will stop here for today.

Here is the interview with Colson Whitehead.  I have given you about half of it—but pretty much all the substantive parts.  But here’s the link to the whole thing.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/21/colson-whitehead-we-invent-all-sorts-of-different-reasons-to-hate-people

“It is a story,” says Whitehead, “about how powerful people get away with abusing the powerless and are never called to account.”

He uses the term “human nature” more than once and one senses that the writing of his past couple of books has reinforced his essential belief that, as he says at one point, “people are terrible – we invent all sorts of different reasons to hate people. We always have and we always will.” Does he really believe that? “Well, in terms of human nature, the powerful tend to tyrannise and bully the weak. I really don’t think that will change very much. In fact, I think we will continue to treat each other pretty horribly in the way I described in The Nickel Boys for all eternity.”

For all that, The Nickel Boys, despite passages of dark, almost gothic horror, is a tentatively redemptive fiction, a survivor’s story. I wondered if the creation of the wounded characters in his most recent novel and the tracing of their traumatised lives took a psychological toll on Whitehead.

He tells me that, throughout the writing of the book, he would open a file on his computer every morning and see a note he had posted there when he began. It read: “The guilty escape punishment. The innocent suffer.” He had put it there to remind him what the story he was telling was really about. “And yet,” he says, “the last third of the book is really about all the other stuff that is not in those two lines: what do you do with that? How do you live with that knowledge? And, how do you make a life?”