Category: Teachers

Meaningful

It is hard, but not impossible, to disentangle the aesthetic from the meaningful.  Clearly, aestheticism tries to drive a hard boundary between what is aesthetic and what conveys meaning.  But since the aesthetic always entails a relationship between a perceiver and the thing perceived, it seems “natural” (i.e. to occur almost automatically and seemingly of its own accord, unwilled) to ascribe some significance to that relationship.  When the thing perceived it itself “natural” (i.e. not human made, but—for example—a mountain landscape), we get the kinds of “oceanic” sensations of harmony or of the self melting into the non-self that are associated with romanticism.  When the thing perceived is human made, an artifact, it is difficult not to view it as an act of communication.  This thing is offered or presented by one human to another—and we presume that the offering has some meaning, is thought of as being significant.

Meaning and significance are not exactly equivalent.  I can discern the meaning in a banal sentence, but deem it insignificant.  When the artist presents something to an audience, she (it would seem) is making an implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim of significance.  This is worth paying attention to.

On what grounds can that claim to significance, importance, be made?  Either the artist claims to have something important to say, some message we need to hear.  Or the artist is offering a valuable experience.  Now that word “valuable” has snuck in.  “Meaning” and “significance” are synonyms when they refer to sense (i.e. what does that sentence mean; what does that sentence signify); but then both words move from reference to the sense something (a sentence, an event) makes to intimations of “worth,” of importance, of value.  Something is meaningful as opposed to trivial or meaningless; something is significant as contrasted to not worth paying any mind. 

The aesthetic, then, seems pretty inevitably engaged in pointing to something or some event as worthy of our attention—and then has to justify that pointing in terms of importance or significance or meaningfulness.  It seems a very short leap from that kind of justification to making claims about what does or should hold value for us as humans beings living a life.  It seems difficult to avoid some kind of hierarchizing here.  These activities or these insights are valuable; they contribute to leading a good or worthwhile life.  Those activities and beliefs are, at best, a waste of time, or, at worst, pernicious. 

Yes, certain modern artists (although far less of them than one might suppose) wanted to get out of the value game.  But it was awfully hard to present your art work in a “take it or leave it” way, utterly and truly indifferent as to whether anyone found it worthy of attention.  A sense of grievance, a denunciation of the philistines, is much more common when the artist fails to find an audience.  People have bad taste, have a misguided sense of what is valuable and should be valued. 

I suspect that even as the arts were trying in the early 20th century to escape meaningfulness, to simply offer experiences that were their own end and carried no message, that the humanities were going in the opposite direction.  The humanities are devoted to uncovering the meanings of cultural artifacts and events.  This is partly because the humanities are an academic pursuit—and thus tied to models of knowledge that were developed in reference to the “hard” sciences.  Just as science should explain to us natural events, the humanities should explain cultural ones.

But, as people (like Dilthey) quickly noted, scientific explanations were causal.  It was not very clear how the explanations offered by the humanities could (or even should) be causal.  You could say that, as a communicative act, the art work causes the audience to receive a certain meaning.  And certainly that kind of approach to the problem of meaning has figured fairly prominently in the philosophy of language and in certain forms of literary theory.  So, for example, the philosophers struggle mightily with metaphor and irony because it undermines any kind of direct mapping of semantic sense to conveyed meaning.  And then someone like Wayne Booth, a literary theorist, comes along and tries to provide a list of the textual markers that allow us to see when irony is being deployed.  Vague terms like “tone,” “implication,” and “connotation” are trotted out—and interpretation (even when given a jargony, snazzy name like “hermeneutics”) quickly begins to seem too seat of the pants, too ad hoc, to really qualify as science.

The alternative is to try to explain how and why “interpretation” is different from “explanation.”  For starters, interpretation is not trying to explain how this thing we are perceiving was produced.  (There are other branches of humanistic inquiry that do try to answer that question.)  Interpretation is trying to suss out the meaning conveyed to the perceiver.  The movement, we might say, is forward not backwards.  The interest is not in the causes of this artistic artifact or event, but in its effects. 

I don’t want to get into the tangles of trying to differentiate “explanation” from “interpretation.”  This is mostly from cowardice.  I do think there is a methodological distinction to be drawn between the sciences and the humanities, but I have not been able to draw that distinction in a way that is even minimally plausible or satisfactory.  So I have nothing ready for prime time on that topic.

Instead, I want to end this post with two observations.  The first is that the humanities, I think, are always pulling art works back into the realm of the meaningful even in cases where the artists themselves are determined to escape the nets of meaning.  In such cases, the humanities will often then give us the meaning of the attempt to escape meaning.  And it is worth adding here that history is one of the humanities when it considers the effects of events as opposed to trying to trace the causes of events.  That history is pulled both toward causes and to effects is why it is often considered one of the social sciences.   But, then again, it would be silly to say the natural sciences don’t, at times, pay attention to effects as well as causes.  And, as I have already said, some branches of literary criticism (although not very prominent) do attend to causes.  So the difference here can’t be grounded on whether causes or effects is the focus.  (This is a taste of the muddle I am in about these things.) 

Instead, perhaps the key difference is meaningfulness itself.  The natural scientist tracing causes and effects of a natural process does not have to assign that process meaningfulness apart from what transpires.  But the humanities, it seems to me, always consider the further question: how is this event or object meaningful for some group of humans?  The “uptake” by some human community is almost always part of the humanities’ account of that event/artifact; that community’s paying attention to and its ways of elaborating, playing out, its relationship to the event/artifact and to the humans involved in the making of that event/artifact, is a central concern for the humanities.

The second point need not be belabored since I have already made it above.  It seems to me only a short step (and one almost impossible not to make) from considering the meanings that people have made of an event or an artifact to considering what things are or should be valuable.  At the very least, the humanities declare: this is what these people valued.  But to look at what they valued is to think about what can have value, and to consider what I value.  Furthermore, for many devotees of the humanities, that reflection on values is precisely what is valuable about novels, historical narratives, anthropological investigations. 

This interest in questions of value can be formal or substantive.  I think most teachers of literature (just to stick to that limited domain for the moment) pursue both.  They are committed to what usually gets called “critical thinking,” which means a mode of reflection on received ideas and values, a way of questioning them in order to examine what I will still believe after doing that reflecting.  The examined life and all that.  But literary works often advocate for specific substantive values: sympathy, justice, the alleviation of suffering and/or of inequalities (or, on the conservative side, reverence for tradition and established authority).  And teachers often choose to have students read works that promote values the teacher values. 

I don’t think the humanities can get out of the values business (even if some of the arts can).  There is no fact/value divide in the humanities—and, thus, the humanities are going to be embroiled in endless controversies so long as values themselves are a site of dispute.  You can’t, I believe, wipe clean the substantive bits of the humanities, leaving only a formal method that has no concrete implications.  As current controversies demonstrate, “critical thinking” and “open-mindedness” are themselves deemed threatening in certain quarters because they imply that various sacred cows are not sacred, are open to dissent.  Any approach that refuses to take things on authority is suspect. The arts may (although usually don’t) sidestep issues of authority by just saying this is one person’s take on things—and you can ignore it as you wish.  But the humanities don’t have that escape route; they are committed to the view that only things and beliefs that have been examined are worthy of authority and credence—and they, in their practice, are inevitably involved in considering what things/activities/beliefs about what is meaningful, what is valuable, one should adopt. Every formal methods, in other words, has substantive consequences, so formalism of any sort is never going to be value-free.

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.

Crisis of Conscience in the Arts and Humanities

The current crises (multiple) in the US and the world has generated a very specific crisis of conscience among practitioners in the arts and humanities.  From the Mellon Foundation’s shift in funding priorities to my daughter-in-law’s small theater company and the anguished discussion on Victorian studies listservs about justifications for teaching/studying Dickens, those practitioners are agonizing over how their work (which they enjoy and want to continue doing) contributes to social justice.  “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem” troubles people of good will with special urgency in the current moment.

Retirement is a time for reflection.  I think of what I have done with my life, of the choices I made.  Those choices were, in one way, quite haphazard.  I did not have a plan; I was opportunistic.  I knocked on the doors that presented themselves and walked through the ones that opened. I almost never turned down an invitation to do something—and one thing led to another.  All of it, however, was within the structures of an academic career, and constituted advances along fairly clearly mapped out career paths.  Once having secured tenure, the choices I made were all safe ones.  I never put myself at serious risk in terms of financial and career security, even as I did not stick to a field or a discipline.  I was more of a free-floating intellectual, but within an institutional place where that carried no significant risks.  In that sense, I was less “careerist” than many academics, but my being a bit of a maverick came at no cost and was hardly anything like significant rebellion.  I maintained a steady distaste for, even contempt of, much academic business as usual, but let my colleagues go their way so long as they let me go mine.

What did I accomplish besides garnering my fair share of rewards?  Not much.  Tops among the rewards was working with students—and enabling some of them to go on to their own successes.  When the fairly obvious paths for a career began to close down, making the possible way forward to students increasingly murky, much of the joy of my work began to dissipate.  I couldn’t justify what I was doing in terms of the ways it provided opportunities for my students to advance.  And while the scholarship itself (as evidenced by this blog), my engagement with ideas and arguments, continued (and continue) to interest me, that pursuit seemed more and more like self-indulgence.  It does no good to anyone—a fitting way to spend my retired time if I wish, but hardly an activity that society should feel any need or responsibility to support.  I am cultivating my own garden, which seems a betrayal of our needy world.  But I can’t figure out where my efforts could be better directed.

All of this as a long preamble to an email I recently sent to a former student, now a professor of Victorian studies, when she wrote to me about the current discussion on those listserv about reading/teaching/studying Dickens.  Here’s what I wrote back”

 

“As for studying Dickens, I share your inability to think straight on the topic.  I have two fairly recent posts on my blog–the titles include the terms “cakes and ale” so searching that way will get you the posts–that are relevant.  I think people will keep reading Dickens in the wider world no matter what the academy does, whereas I think some authors–Smollett, Oliphant, Meredith–would disappear altogether if there weren’t scholars reading and writing on them.

But whether the academy should devote resources to scholarship on Dickens and have courses where students are made to read him is a much tougher question.  I do think it highly, highly likely that Victorian studies will slowly fade out of existence–and I do think that’s a mostly bad thing even though I also understand that Victorian studies does little, if anything, to address the massive problems that our world faces.  That’s the dilemma my posts try to address: how to justify activities and scholarship that are not necessary in the sense of not directed toward issues of social justice.  “Not directed” meaning that, even if that scholarship talks about social justice, it is not doing anything concrete to bring social justice about.

My advice for you remains the same.  Play the game by the rules that currently apply.  Get tenure.  And then, with that security obtained, consider what work you can do with a good conscience, making you feel you are contributing toward something you can affirm.  For me, that mostly meant helping my students make their way forward in the world while writing and reading about things I felt germane to articulating a vision of what we should want a democratic society look like.

But all that definitely often felt very removed from making the world a better place.  The helplessness of looking on, and the guilt of doing that looking on from a secure place, did often make me accuse myself of cowardice.  I should have been putting myself on the line and doing something direct instead of pursuing my very pleasant indirect path.

There is a question of temperament here–although it can also seem a question of selfishness.  I have worked in political campaigns since I was 18, and I find I am not suited to it.  I believe much of what campaigns do is futile make-work (phone banks and canvassing, of which I have done a fair amount without any sense that it is effective) and I also find the focus on winning the election at the expense of much investment in what one is winning the election to achieve troubling.  Finally, in my one experience dealing with Congress (I was part of a team trying to influence the writing of a legal aid bill), the compromises we had to swallow and the pettiness and ignorance of the representatives we had to deal with was a massive turn-off.  The political process–no surprise–is very broken.  So a retreat back into academia, where at least I could control my relations to my colleagues and students, and act in ways I could affirm toward them, was a huge relief.

More than you wanted to hear doubtless.  But how to make one’s way through a life lived in a corrupt and cruel society is a real dilemma.  How to maintain self-respect and some sense of investment in what one is doing day in and day out even as you bemoan the state of the world and feel you should contribute to making it better.  Not a trivial problem. “