Now we reach the point in my discussion of Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Harvard UP, 2017) where I mostly agree with him. I am simply going to take up some of his key terms and goals and inflect them somewhat differently. I think what I have to say runs parallel to North, not ever much meeting him on his chosen ground, but not running athwart his formulations either.
Here’s three of North’s descriptions of his project.
The first comes from a footnote on Raymond Williams and features North’s “scholarship/criticism” divide. “Of course, none of this is to say that Williams was not deeply committed to ‘practice’ in other fields of endeavor; I merely mean to observe that he understood his disciplinary work in scholarly terms, as cultural analysis, cultural history, and cultural theory, rather than understanding it in critical terms as the systematic cultivation of sensibility. Naturally the two are not finally distinguishable, and any powerful work of scholarship moves readers to try on different ranges of sensibility, etc. etc. But the ‘practice’ of scholarship, conceived of as cultural analysis, is necessarily neither direct nor systematic in this respect” (pg. 233, fn. 18).
The second is notable for its raising the issue of institutions. “I only want to add that the problem facing the discipline is not an entirely new one, for in a broad sense it is much the same problem that the critical revolution of the 1920s managed to solve: the problem of creating a true paradigm for criticism—the problem of how to build an institution that would cultivate new, deeper forms of subjectivity and collectivity in a rigorous and repeatable way” (126-27).
In the third passage, he faults the work of D. A. Miller and Eve Sedgwick for its “lack of any prospect of a true paradigm for criticism—the lack of any hope of putting together a paradigmatic way to use the literary directly to intervene in the social order” (173). Two pages earlier, he describes what I think he means by “direct” intervention. “My point is simply that it really does make a difference to the character of the work produced by an intellectual formation when those involved feel strongly their responsibility to the needs of a fairly well-defined larger formation beyond the academy—a larger formation defined not simply by its ‘identity’ but by its character as a living movement—which is to say, really, a formation defined by its always limited but nevertheless real ability to define itself by determining, collectively, the trajectory of its own development” (171).
I can’t resist, of course, registering where I disagree with these statements. I have already made clear my skepticism that there is a rigorous or systematic way to cultivate a sensibility. I am also astounded that North does not recognize feminist literary criticism of the period from 1975 to 1995 as a paradigmatic case of academic work tied “to a fairly well-defined larger formation beyond the academy.” And if Sedgwick’s relation to the gay liberation movement isn’t a similar instance, may the Lord help the rest of us. And North’s repeated (as much a tic as his use of the term “rigorous”) use of the words “true” and “really” make him appear more Stalinist than I think he really is. Does he really intend to shut down the pluralism of intellectual work in favor of the one true path? Re-education camps for the critics so that they get with the program—and are taught the methods of the new systematic pedagogy. Surely, one of the delights of the aesthetic sensibility is its anarchism, its playfulness, its imaginative ingenuity, excesses, and unruliness. I suspect that “systematic,” and “repeatable” and “direct” aesthetic education would prove counter-productive in many cases. At least, I hope it would–with teachers and student both summoning enough gumption to rebel against the indoctrination.
Finally, I want to quibble with his description of “direct” intervention. Work that stands in support of, proves useful to, “larger” social movements is not direct—at least not directly political. Here’s Judith Butler in a 1988 essay offering a straightforward description of political acts. “Clearly, there are political acts which are deliberate and instrumental actions of political organization, resistant collective interventions with the broad aim of instating a more just set of social and political relations” (“Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” Theater Journal 523). That cultivating an aesthetic sensibility might play a role in encouraging someone to join that social movement is not the direct political intervention that the movement attempts through quite different means and actions than what the critic does in the classroom or in her written work. To confuse the two does no one any good—especially if it lets the teacher/critic deem herself sufficiently political as she advances her academic career. The teacher/critic’s contribution is valuable, but it also indirect.
Enough with the dissents. I completely agree with North that “sensibility” is the crucial concept for the “hearts and minds” side of politics. Cultivating a leftist sensibility is necessary, although not sufficient, to creating the kind of society we leftists want to live in. The caveats here are familiar. There is no guaranteed path from an aesthetic sensibility to a leftist politics. [Let me also note that the practice of close reading is also not the only, or even the royal road, to acquiring an aesthetic sensibility. Lots of people got there other ways, which casts doubt of the “systematic” and “rigorous” pedagogy, and on the fetishizing of close reading.] For many aesthetes (Nietzsche, Yeats, and Pound among them), the vulgarity and bad taste of the masses drives them to anti-democratic, autocratic visions of strong, masterful leaders of the herd. For others (Wordsworth and Coleridge for example), reverence for genius promotes a kind of over-all piety that leads to a quietist respect for everything that is, investing tradition and the customary forms of life with a sacred aura it is impious to question or change. (This is the aesthetic version—articulated by T. S. Eliot as well—of Edmund Burke’s conservatism.)
But the larger point—and now we are with David Hume and William James in contrast to Kant—is that our political ideas and principles (and our ethical ones as well) are the products of our sensibility. It is the moral passions and our moral intuitions that generate our political commitments. James (in the first lecture of Pragmatism) talks of “temperament”—and throughout his work (from The Principles of Psychology onwards) insists that our stated reasons for doing something are always secondary; there was the will to do something first, then the search for justifying reasons. Indignation at the injustice of others (or of social arrangements) and shame at one’s own acts of selfishness are more secure grounds for conduct than a rationally derived categorical imperative.
James seems to think of temperament as innate, a fated from birth. North’s point is that education—a sentimental education—can shape sensibility. I agree. My daughter was in college at George Washington University when Osama bin Laden was killed. Her classmates rushed over to the White House (three blocks away) to celebrate when the news was heard. She told my wife and me that she didn’t join the celebration. It just felt wrong to her to dance in the streets about killing someone. Her parents’ reaction was her Friends School education had just proved itself.
Sensibility is akin to taste. The leftist today finds it distasteful, an offense to her sense of how things should be, to live in Trump’s America. I will use my next post to describe the sensibility of the right in that America. But for the left, there is outrage at the caging of immigrant children, and at the bigotry that extends to non-whites, women, non-Christians and beyond. Fundamentally, it is the shame of living in such a needlessly cruel society, with its thousands of homeless and millions of uninsured.
I don’t know exactly how a specifically “aesthetic” sensibility lines up with this leftist sensibility. And as I have said, there is certainly no sure path from one to the other. But I am willing to believe (maybe because it is true at least for myself) that the aesthetic stands at odds with commercial culture, attending to values and experiences that are “discounted” (in every sense of that word) in the dominant culture. Being placed at odds, in a spot where the taken-for-granteds of one’s society are made somewhat less self-evident, has its effect. If what one has come to appreciate, even to love, is scorned by others, new modes of reckoning (again in every sense of the word), and new allegiances (structure of feeling) may beckon.
Here is where Hume is preferable to James. Hume (Dewey and Mead follow Hume here in a way the more individualistic James does not) portrays sensibility as shaped through our communal relations and as reinforced by those same relations. In other words, even non-conformity is social. It is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible (akin to the impossibility of a “private language” in the Wittgenstein argument) to be a solitary “enemy of the people.” There must be resources—from the tradition, from received works of art, criticism, and cultural analysis, from a cohort—on which one can draw to sustain the feeling that something is wrong in the dominant order.
Education, in other words, can play a major role in shaping sensibility—and it is the community the school offers is as crucial as the educational content. Young people discover the courage of their convictions when they find others who feel the same way, who have the same inchoate intuitions that school (in both its formal and informal interactions) is helping them to articulate. The encouragement of teachers (yes, you are on the right path; keep going; keep probing; keep questioning; trust your instincts) and of peers (those famous all-night bull sessions after our student finds her sympaticos).
Communities are, famously, ephemeral. We can idealize them (as arguably Hannah Arendt does in her definition of “the political”—a definition that seems to exclude everything except the excited talk among equals from the political sphere). Societies are corrupt, impersonal, hierarchical, mechanical, not face-to-face. Communities are “known” (as Raymond Williams phrased it), informal and intimate. A familiar narrative of “modernity” sees communities as overwhelmed by society, by the depredations of capitalism, war, and the ever-expanding state. (Tonnies)
This romanticism does not serve the left well. Communities are not sustainable in the absence of institutions. And they certainly cannot withstand the pressures of power, of the large forces of capitalism and the state, without institutional homes. There must (quite literally) be places for the community to gather and resources for its maintenance. Make no mistake about it: neo-liberalism has deliberately and methodically set out to destroy the institutions that have sustained the left (while building their own infrastructure—chambers of commerce, business lobbying groups, the infamous think tanks—that provide careers for the cadre of right-wing hacks). Unions, of course, first and foremost. When did we last have a union leader who was recognized as a spokesperson for America’s workers? But there has also been the absorption of the “associations” that Tocqueville famously saw as the hallmark of American democracy into the services of the state. Outsourced welfare functions are now the responsibility of clinics first created by the feminist and gay liberation movements to serve the needs of their communities. Financial stability has been secured at the price of being experienced as embedded members of the community; now those organizations are purveyors of services begrudgingly offered by a bureaucratic state that always put obstacles in the way of accessing those benefits.
North is right to see that the neoliberal attack on institutions extends to the university. The aesthetic sensibility (since at least 1960) has been bunkered in the university, having failed to sustain the few other institutional structures (little magazines, the literary reviews it inherited from the 19th century) that existed in the early 20th century. Reading groups are well and good (they are thriving and I hardly want to belittle them), but have no institutional weight or home. Humanities departments are about it, except for the arts scene (again, mostly woefully under-institutionalized) in some major cities.
So there is every reason to fight hard to keep the humanities as an integral part of the university. I personally don’t think taking the disciplinary route is the way to fight this fight—but maybe I am wrong. Maybe only claims to disciplinary specificity and expertise can gain us a spot.
More crucially, I think North is absolutely right to believe that our efforts as critics are doomed to political ineffectiveness if not tied to vibrant social movements.
[For the record, here is where I think North’s criticism/scholarship divide really doesn’t work. Efforts along both lines can prove supportive or not to social movements. It is the content, not the form, of the work that matters. And I also think work that is apolitical is perfectly OK. It is tyrannical—a mirror image of the absurd regimes of “productivity” that afflict both capitalism and the research university—to insist that everything one does contribute to the political cause. Life is made worth living, in many instances, by things that are unproductive, are useless.]
The problem of the contemporary left is, precisely, the absence of such social movements. The civil rights movement had the black churches, and then the proliferation of organizations: SNCC, CORE, SCLC, along with the venerable NAACP, and A. Philip Randolph’s labor organization. It sustained itself over a very long time. The feminist movement had its clinics, and NOW. The anti-war movement had A. J. Muste and David Dellinger, long-time veterans of peace groups. The Democratic Party is obviously no good unless (except when) it is pushed by groups formed outside the party, groups that act on their own without taking instructions from the party. The Bernie Sanders insurrection will only reshape the Democratic Party when it establishes itself as an independent power outside the party–with which the party then needs to come to terms.
The trouble with Black Lives Matter, ME Too, and Occupy is that they all have resisted or failed (I don’t know which one) to establish any kind of institutional base. Each of these movements has identified a mass of people who share certain experiences and a certain sensibility. They have, in other words, called into presence (albeit mostly virtually—except for Occupy) a community. That discovery of other like souls is comforting, reassuring, even empowering. I am not alone. But to be politically effective, these movements need legs. They need to be sustained, in it for the long haul. And that requires institutions: money, functionaries, offices, continuing pressure at the sites deemed appropriate (for strategic reasons) for intervention.
In short (and now I am the one who is going to sound like a thirties Marxist), the left needs to make the long march through the institutions—a march begun by creating some institutions of its own on the outside to prepare it for the infiltration of the institutions on the inside. That’s what the right has been doing for the past forty years. While the left was marching in the street on the weekends with their friends, the right was getting elected to school boards. Protest marches feel great, but are ephemeral, easily ignored. Our society’s shift rightwards has come through a million incremental changes wrought on the ground by somebody in an office somewhere, by right wing hacks and business lobbyists writing legislation, by regulators letting oversight lapse, by prosecutors and courts looking the other way at white collar and corporate crime. During the Obama years, the left paid almost no attention to state-level races, ceding those legislatures to the right almost by default–with grievous consequences (not the least of which is a weak bench, unable to provide any potential national candidates between the ages of 45 and 65).
We need leftist social movements that pay attention to the minutiae, that are not addicted to the large dramatic gesture, that don’t engage in the magical thinking that a piece of legislation or a court decision solves a problem once and for all. It’s the implementation, the daily practices of state, corporate, educational, regulatory institutions (as Foucault should have taught us) where change takes place, in often silent and difficult to perceive ways. That’s the room where it happens—and the left has all too often failed to even try to get into the room.