Category: political theory

Morality—and the State

In The View from Nowhere (Oxford University Press, 1986), Thomas Nagel writes: “moral requirements have their source in the claims of other persons” (197) and that “the basic moral insight is that objectively no one matters more than anyone else, and that this acknowledgment should be of fundamental importance to each of us” (205).

This seems to me both pretty accurate—and utterly wrong—about what morality is and what it does.  Morality, I want to say, is a two-edged sword.  And that makes it very hard to decide whether, in the final analysis, morality is a good thing or a bad one.  Does it do more harm than good in the world?  I don’t think that is an easy question to answer.

Why?  Because morality attempts to order the relationships among people—and between people and other inhabitants of the globe. What is the right way to interact with others?  What attention, consideration, and resources do I owe to others—and they owe to me?  What actions and attitudes do I find admirable, even worthy of imitation as well as esteem?  What actions and attitudes, all things considered, make things go better in this sublunary world—reduce suffering, promote happiness and flourishing?  It is unthinkable that humans would not ponder such questions—and attempt to provide answers.  Nagel seems to think that if we ponder these questions—taking into consideration the claims of others and our own claims on others—that we will, in Kant-like fashion, reach a radical version of egalitarianism.  No human matters any more than any other.  I cannot make an exception of myself (or of my family, or of my compatriots); I am to be treated the same as everyone else.  What I feel due to myself is due to them.

Now Nagel does take seriously Bernard Williams’ objection that Kantian universalism asks something that is not only impossible to achieve, but in actual practice would be fairly objectionable, perhaps even monstrous.  Any morality that asks us to treat our mother or our spouse exactly as we would treat everyone else in the world flies in the face of human psychology—and of human flourishing (since rich particularized relationships with a small set of others are essential to flourishing).  Nagel’s response is that the “gap” between universalist (“objective” in his terms) morality and personal partiality cannot be closed.  It is a tension we must needs live with—and negotiate on a case by case basis.

My concern is rather different.  I do think a moral politics looks something like Nagel says it does.  “An important task of politics,” he writes, “is to arrange the world so everyone can live a good life, without doing wrong, injuring others, benefiting unfairly from their misfortunes, and so forth. . . [The best would be a world in which] “the great bulk of impersonal claims were met by institutions that left individuals . . . free to devote considerable attention and energy to their own lives and to values that could not be impersonally acknowledged” (206-207).  In other words, a social democracy that served the resource needs of all while regulating against exploitation and other forms of special privileges as the public business of politics, while leaving individuals both free and resource-enabled to pursue their individualized, private visions of the good life.  Again: a vision premised on the notion that all are equally entitled to the means for flourishing, and that many different versions of how to flourish are to be tolerated.

The problem is that there is a very different view of what morality entails.  This other morality is more prescriptive (more restrictive) in its vision of the ways one might choose to flourish—and still be found morally acceptable.  Even more crucially, this second “other” morality is not based on a vision of the equality of all.  Just the opposite.  This morality divides between the worthy and the reprobate—and feels fully justified (in fact finds the grounds for that justification in morality itself) to deny to some what is granted to others.  Sinners are not entitled to anything; they deserve nothing, except to be punished.  Far from being an equalizer, morality is deployed to be a great divider.  It gives us the means to identify those who are not equal, who are not worthy of consideration and respect and a sufficient share of the world’s goods.

In other words, it seems like the height of wishful thinking for Nagel to say that the (objective, impersonal”) view of morality leads to the conclusion that all are equal.  It is pretty implausible, it seems to me, that even 25% of humanity holds to that conclusion as a moral demand upon themselves—and, as Williams points out, even that 25% makes exceptions to equal treatment all the time.  More obvious is that the vast majority of humans distinguish between worthy and less worthy people—and use morality to both make that distinction and to justify treating the unworthy in various differential ways, ranging from indifference to and lack of sympathy with their troubles to active deprivation and punishment as what they deserve.

This divisive use of morality—accompanied as it often is with a distasteful, sanctimonious self-righteousness—is more than enough to give morality a bad name.  Many have argued that morality is the source of more harm to humans than any absence of morality.  In morality’s name, we meet out punishment, deprivation, contempt, and hate-filled condemnations. 

So what’s the answer?  Does morality do any good at all—or should we dispense with it altogether? (Note here that I have loaded the question to the liberal, social democrat side.  The practitioner of divisive morality would say it does good; it is fit and proper that we identify sinners and deal with them as they deserve.  After all, isn’t justice getting what you deserve, not this namby-pandy liberal idea that everyone is deserving just by the fact of showing up?) In any case, I can only say that the Kantian, equality affirming morality has done good in the world; there has been progress toward increasing equality inspired by that viewpoint.  But there is no denying that divisive morality has justified great cruelty and massive exclusions.  So we can’t say morality is to be endorsed tout court.  It is an ambiguous—and very dangerous—tool that can be used in contradictory ways. 

Would we be better off without morality at all, without these attempts to delineate worthy ways of living and of arranging our social relations?  I am not prepared to go that far, but I do think we should be wary of any self-congratulation about our tendency to partake of such attempts to use morality to advance the egalitarian thesis.  Those attempts (as Nietzsche among others alerts us) might very well be more despicable than otherwise.

Reflecting on these matters led me to realize that much the same can be said about the State.  Let me explain.  Despite the resistance to this idea in certain leftist circles, I think there is little doubt that States work against pan-violence.  The historical record of pre-state societies is one unbroken litany of violence.  Hobbes was mostly right: the war of all against all (or, at least, of tribe/clan against neighboring tribe/clan) was endemic.  Men strove to grab what other men possessed.  (That all this is a pathology of masculinity seems indubitable.) Plunder and rapine were hardly abhorred; they were the source of honor even in Homeric epics that could also register their horror and insist that an unattainable peace would be preferable.

What some deny is that states bring this omnipresence of violence to an end.  “War is the health of the state,” Randolph Bourne proclaimed.  And that statement is hardly nonsense.  We can say of the Western states formed in the period from 1500 to 1900 that they 1) exported violence/war to the regions that became their “empires”; 2) that they exerted violence (in the form of various types of punishment) on their own domestic populations of criminals, religious and political dissidents, and those deemed mentally or morally deficient; and 3) that they fought one another with astonishing regularity.  Periods of peace and security for people trying to live out a normal life-span untainted by violence against them were short and uncertain. 

Furthermore, and this is usually the clincher in such arguments, is that (starting with the Napoleonic wars at the very least, but likely true of the earlier religious wars) the organizational powers of centralized states meant that violence was carried out at a scale impossible for the clashes between clans/tribes characteristic of pre-Columbian America, pre-monarchy in Scotland, or in various locales of the Middle East before the rise of the Ottoman Empire (to take just a few examples).

The State, in other words, is also double-faced: it suppresses one kind of anarchic and ever-present violence, the outright kleptocracy of pre-state conditions.  But in its gathering the means of violence to itself (partly as a way to cow other actors into non-violence) it periodically (and with depressing regularity) deploys that violence with results (in terms of deaths, suffering, and destruction) that dwarfs pre-state violence.  So the state, like morality, seems both a pathway to peace and forms of society that allow for peaceful co-existence—and the source of the most horrific violence.

Can you get one without the other?  The anarchist dreams that getting rid of the state will eliminate violence altogether as we live in ways that realize our mutual dependence on one another.  The Kantian dreams of a perpetual peace if only we can have one super state (thus eliminating in one fell stroke wars of one state against another and the violence of pre-state societies).  Like morality, the state delivers something that is good (control over omnipresent violence) and something terrible: the infliction of violence on vast numbers.

And there is more than just an analogy between that state and morality on the level of their doubleness.  There is also a clear connection in that both work to designate those who are legitimate targets of differential treatment—reaching all the way to killing them.  The reprobate for morality are the non-citizens for the state (even as the state will also treat citizens deemed reprobate differentially). 

I sometimes think it all comes down to punishment.  Both morality and the state identify those who should be punished.  These people deserve punishment, are worthy of being punished.  When it comes to the state, the justification is even more arbitrary than it is for morality.  The non-citizen can be legitimately deprived of various things simply on the basis of bad luck.  The non-citizen was born elsewhere, so has no claim to the state’s protection or its largesse. 

There are multiple ways to configure the assertion that some human being is not entitled to what I have.  Morality and that state (through the law and through the category of citizenship) enact that sorting function all the time.  It is to a certain extent their raison d’etre.  That an alternative morality aims to establish the equal entitlement of all, just as an alternative politics looks to use state power to distribute to all the resources needed to flourish, stands as one justification for holding on to morality and the state as necessary contributors to what this alternative vision wants to accomplish. But it’s such a steep climb because morality and the state are tainted with the ways in which they actively thwart what the social democratic, Kantian vision aims for.

Crisis–and Civil War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Group Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aesthetic Education and Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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