Category: the ordinary

Futility and Despair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph North Six–Latour and Aesthetic Judgment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph North Two—Rigor and Memory (Oh My!)

It must be something in the water in New Haven.  North deploys the term “rigor” as frequently as Paul DeMan, with whom he has just about nothing else in common.  I will just offer two instances.  The first comes from his closing exhortation to his readers “to secure a viable site within the social order from which to work at criticism in the genuinely oppositional sense” (211).  Success in this effort would requires “a clear and coherent research program together with a rigorous new pedagogy, both of which, I think, would need to be founded on an intellectual synthesis that addressed the various concerns of the major countercurrents in a systematic and unitary way’ (211).

In the Appendix, the issue is described in this way:  “How does one pursue the tenuous task of cultivating an appreciation for the aesthetic without lapsing into mere impressionism?  How does one pursue this task with a rigor sufficient to qualify one’s work as disciplinary in the scientific terms recognized by the modern university” (217).

[A digression: nothing in the book suggests that North takes an oppositional stance toward the “modern university”—or to its notions of what constitutes a discipline, what “counts as” knowledge, or its measures of productivity.  Rather, he is striving to secure the place of literary studies within that university in order to pursue an oppositional, “radical” (another favorite word, one always poised against “liberal”) program toward modern, capitalist society.]

Rigor, as far as I am concerned, is a half step away from rigor mortis.  When I think of brilliant instances of close reading, rigor is just about the last word that comes to mind.  Supple, lively, surprising, imaginative, even fanciful.  In short, a great close reading quickens.  It bring its subject to life; it opens up, it illuminates. The associative leaps, the tentative speculations, the pushing of an intuition a little too far.  Those are the hallmarks of the kind of close reading that energizes and inspires its readers.  What that reader catches is how the subject at hand energized and inspired the critic.

Similarly, a rigorous pedagogy would, it seems to me, be the quickest way to kill an aesthetic sensibility.  The joyless and the aesthetic ne’er should meet.

Not surprisingly, I have a similar antipathy to “method.”  Close reading is not a method.  To explain why not is going to take a little time, but our guide here is Kant, who has wise and very important things to say about this very topic in his Critique of Judgment.  Spending some time with Kant will help clarify what it is the aesthetic can and can’t do.

But let’s begin with some mundane contrasts.  The cook at home following a recipe.  The lab student preforming an experiment.  The young pianist learning to play a Beethoven sonata.  The grad student in English learning to do close readings.  Begin by thinking of the constraints under which each acts—and the results for which each aims.  The cook and the lab student want to replicate the results that the instructions that have been given should lead to.  True, as cooks and lab students become more proficient practitioners, they will develop a “feel” for the activity that allows them to nudge it in various ways that will improve the outcomes.  The map (the instructions) is not a completely unambiguous and fully articulated guide to the territory.  But it does provide a very definite path—and the goal is to get to the designation that has been indicated at the outset. Surprises are almost all nasty in this endeavor.  You want the cake to rise, you want the experiment to land in the realm of replicable results.

The pianist’s case is somewhat different, although not dramatically so.  In all three cases so far, you can’t learn by simply reading the recipe, the instructions, the musical score.  You must actually do the activity, walk the walk, practice the practice.  There is more scope (I think, but maybe I am wrong) for interpretation, for personal deviance, in playing the Beethoven.  But there is limited room for “play” (using “play” in the sense “a space in which something, as a part of a mechanism, can move” and “freedom of movement within a space”—definitions 14 and 15 in my Random House dictionary.)  Wander too far off course and you are no longer playing that Beethoven sonata.

Now let’s consider our grad student in English.  What instructions do we give her?  The Henry James dictum: “be someone on whom nothing is lost”?  Or the more direct admonition: “Pay attention!”  Where do you even tell the student to begin.  It is not simply a case of (shades of Julie Andrews) beginning at the beginning, a very good place to start, since a reading of a Shakespeare sonnet might very well begin with an image in the seventh line.  In short, what’s the recipe, what’s the method?  Especially since the last thing we want is an outcome that was dictated from the outset, that was the predictable result of our instructions.

Kant is wonderful on this very set of conundrums.  So now let’s remind ourselves of what he has to say on this score.  We are dealing, he tells us, with two very different types of judgment, determinative and reflexive.  Determinative judgments guide our practice according to pre-set rules.  With the recipe in hand and a desire to bake a cake, my actions are guided by the rules set down for me.  Beat the batter until silky smooth (etc.) and judgment comes in since I have to make the call as to when the batter is silky smooth.  In reflexive judgment, however, the rule is not given in advance.  I discover the rule through the practice; the practice is not guided by the rule.

Kant’s example, of course, is the beautiful in art.  Speaking to the artist, he says: “You cannot create a beautiful work by following a rule.”  To do so, would be to produce an imitative, dispirited, inert, dead thing.  It would be, in a word, “academic.”  Think of all those deadly readings of literary texts produced by “applying” a theory to the text.  That’s academic—and precisely against the very spirit of the enterprise.

Here’s a long selection of passages from Kant’s Third Critique that put the relevant claims on the table.  We can take Kant’s use of the term “genius” with a grain of salt, translating it into the more modest terms we are more comfortable with these days.  For genius, think “someone with a displayed talent for imaginative close readings.”

Kant (from sections 46 and 49) of the third Critique:  “(1) Genius is a talent for producing something for which no determinative rule can be given, not a predisposition consisting of a skill for something that can be learned by following some rule or other; hence the foremost property of genius must be originality. (2) Since nonsense too can be original, the products of genius must also be models, i.e. they must be exemplary; hence, though they do not themselves arise through imitation, still they must serve others for this, i.e. as a standard or rule by which to judge. (3) Genius itself cannot describe or indicate scientifically how it brings about its products . . . . That is why, if an author owes his product to his genius, he himself does not know how he came by the ideas for it; nor is it in his power to devise such products at his pleasure, or by following a plan, and to communicate his procedure to others in precepts that would enable them to bring about like products” (Section 46).

“These presuppositions being given, genius is the exemplary originality of a subject’s natural endowment in the free use of his cognitive powers.  Accordingly, the product of a genius (as regards what is attributable to genius in it rather than to possible learning or academic instruction) is an example that is meant not to be imitated, but to be followed by another genius.  (For in mere imitation the element of genius in the work—what constitutes its spirit—would be lost.)  The other genius, who follows the example, is aroused to a feeling of his own originality, which allows him to exercise in art his freedom from the constraint of rules, and to do so in such a way that art acquires a new rule by this, thus showing that talent is exemplary” (Section 49).

Arendt on Kant’s Third Critique.  Cavell on It Happened One Night.  Sedgwick on Billy Budd.  Sianne Ngai on “I Love Lucy.” I defy anyone to extract a “method” from examining (performing an autopsy?) these four examples of close reading. Another oddity of North’s book is that for all his harping on the method of close reading, he offers not a single shout-out to a critic whose close readings he admires.  It is almost as if the attachment to “method” necessitates the suppression of examples.  Precisely because a pedagogy via examples is an alternative to the systematic, rigorous, and methodical pedagogy he wants to recommend.

But surely Kant is right.  First of all, right on the practical grounds that our student learns how to “do” close reading by immersion in various examples of the practice, not by learning a set of rules or “a” method.  Practice makes all the difference in this case; doing it again and again in an effort to reach that giddy moment of freedom, when the imagination, stirred by the examples and by the object of scrutiny, takes flight.  Surely “close reading” is an art, not a science.

And there, in the second and more important place, is where Kant is surely right.  If the very goal is to cultivate an aesthetic sensibility, how could we think that the modes of scientific practice, with its vaunted method and its bias toward replicable and predictable results, would serve our needs?  The game is worth the candle precisely because the aesthetic offers that space of freedom, of imaginative play, of unpredictable originality.  If the aesthetic stands in some kind of salutary opposition to the dominant ethos of neoliberalism, doesn’t that opposition rest on its offer of freedom, of the non-standard, of the unruly, of non-productive imaginings?  Why, in other words, is the aesthetic a threat and a respite from the relentless search for returns on investment, for the incessant demand that each and every one of us get with the program?  That they hate us is a badge of honor; being systematic seems to want to join the “rationalized” world of the economic?  [Side note: here is where critique cannot be abandoned.  We must keep pounding away at the quite literal insanity, irrationality, of the market and all its promoters.  But the aesthetic should, alongside critique, continued to provide examples of living otherwise, of embodying that freedom of imagination.]

Kant, of course, famously resists the idea that lack of method, praise of an originality that gives the rule to itself, means that anything goes.  Genius is to be disciplined by taste, he writes.  We judge the products produced by the would-be genius—and deem some good examples and others not so good.  I am, in fact, very interested in the form that discipline takes in Kant, although this post is already way too long so I won’t pursue that tangent here.  Suffice it to say two things:

1. The standard of taste connects directly to Kant’s fervent desire for “universal communicability.”  He fears an originality so eccentric that it places the genius outside of the human community altogether.  If genius is originality, taste is communal (the sensus communis)—and Kant is deeply committed to the role art plays in creating and sustaining community.  The artist should, even as she pursues her original vision, also have the audience in mind, and consider how she must shape her vision in order to make it accessible to that audience.  So we can judge our students’ attempts to produce close readings in terms of how they “speak” to the community, to the audience.  Do they generate, for the reader, that sense that the text (or film or TV show) in question has been illuminated in exciting and enlivening ways?  There is an “a-ha” moment here that is just about impossible to characterize in any more precise–or rigorous–way.

2. Taste, like genius, is a term that mostly embarrasses us nowadays. It smacks too much of 18th century ancien regime aristocrats.  But is “aesthetic sensibility” really very different from “taste”?  Both require cultivating; both serve as an intuitional ground for judgments.  In my next post—where I take up the question of sensibility—I want to consider this connection further.

But, for now, a few words more about “close readings.  Just because there is no method to offer does not mean we cannot describe some of the characteristics of close reading.  I think in fact, we can call close readings examples of “associative thinking.”  A close reading (often, hardly always) associates disparate things together—or dissociates things that we habitually pair together or considered aligned.  So Arendt shows us how Kant’s third Critique illuminates the nature of the political; Cavell enriches a meditation on finitude through an engagement with It Happened One Night; Sedgwick’s reading of Billy Budd illustrates how homosexuality is both acknowledged and denied; Ngai associates a situation comedy with the nature of precarious employment.  In each case, there is an unexpected—and illuminating, even revelatory—crossing of boundaries.  Surprising juxtapositions (metonymy) and unexpected similarities where before we only saw differences (metaphor).  Which takes us all the way back to Aristotle’s comment “that the metaphorical kind [of naming] is the most important by far.  This alone (a) cannot be acquired from someone else, and (b) is an indication of genius” [that word again!] (Sectoin 22 of the Poetics).  There is no direct way to teach someone how to make those border crossings.

How is this all related to judgment?  Both to Aristotle’s phronesis (sometimes translated as “practical wisdom”) and to Kantian judgment.  (Recall that morality for Kant is too important to leave to judgment of the reflexive sort; he wants a foolproof method for making moral judgments.  Aristotle is much more willing to see phronesis at work in both ethics and aesthetics.)  We get wrong-footed, I think, when we tie judgment to declaring this work or art beautiful or not, this human action good or evil.  Yes, we do make such judgments.

But there is another site of judgment, the one where we judge (or name) what situation confronts us.  Here I am in this time and place; what is it that I am exactly facing?  Here is where associative thinking plays its role.  How is this situation analogous to other situations I know about—either from my own past experiences or from the stories and lessons I have imbibed from my culture?  Depending on how I judge the situation, how I name it, is what I deem possible to make of it.  Creative action stems from imaginative judgments, from seeing in this situation possibilities not usually perceived.

That’s the link of judgment to the aesthetic: the imaginative leaps that, without the conformist safety net of a rule or method, lead to new paths of action.  If we (as teachers in the broad field of aesthetics) aim to cultivate an aesthetic sensibility, it is (I believe) to foster this propensity in our students for originality, for genius—in a world where conformity (the terror of being unemployable, of paying the stiff economic price of not following the indicated paths) rules.  Judgment, like metaphorical thinking, is an art, not a science—and cannot be taught directly, but only through examples.  It’s messy and uncertain (expect lots of mistakes, lots of failed leaps).  And it will exist in tension with “the ordinary”—and, thus, will have to struggle to find bridges back to the community, to the others who are baffled by the alternative paths, the novel associations, you are trying to indicate.

No Salvation

Somewhere (of course I can’t find it now) in his An American Utopia: Dual Power and the American Army (Verso, 2016), Fredric Jameson tells us that utopia is merely our same human world with a slight difference.  One mistake (his book outlines legions of mistakes) is to think we can effect a total transformation of humankind and human society.  It is not that he eschews the ideal, the dream, of revolution; he only wants to downsize what we think a revolution could accomplish.  Basically, it seems he believes we can collectivize labor, but we cannot overcome social antagonism.  There is a primal fear/envy/hatred/aggression toward the Other that will persist.

I am not particularly interested in Jameson’s proposed utopia;  what interests me is the ramifications of taking the position that there is “no salvation.”  Let me try to state my position starkly.  (I will then complicate matters by exploring my uneasiness with that position.)  The stark formulation: there is no once-for-all, totalizing transformation for the various ills of our current lot.  No deus ex machina, no transcendence.  We are condemned to chipping away at things piecemeal, in making what small improvements when and where we can.  Such improvements are themselves never secured once and for all; there will be backslidings, unexpected twists and turns, unforeseen (and often deeply evil) consequences; the powers of darkness will be ever with us and ever fighting for their side.

This position fits with a robust pluralism; there is no totality, no overarching system, and hence no special point of leverage from which the whole world can be moved.  We have to work with the tools that are to hand and we have to work on the problems that are also to hand.  Successes will be hard won—and partial.  Reliance on a totalizing revolution, on salvation, is a species of magical thinking.  Worse, it is an abdication of involvement in the here and now, a religious focus on a “better world” elsewhere.  This world is all we’ve got, so hunker down and get to work on it.

I trust you get the idea. Radical secularism and anti-transcendentalism. But I want to combine those positions with a radical openness.  The idea is not to create constraints, not to say with Thatcher that there are “no alternatives,” or to adopt the kind of quietism that can go with Nietzschean affirmation.  No “amor fati” please, but a continual kicking against the pricks—and every attempt to think and act creatively.  The constant experimentation of James and Dewey’s pragmatism, where you don’t know what a situation might enable until you try it out, when you discover its affordances and resistances in practice.

I want to avoid every form of what I have called “transcendental blackmail,” meaning ontological or “realistic” claims that declare certain things impossible from the outset.  But I am contradicting myself because I have claimed total revolution impossible, based on an ontological claim of pluralism.  Why deny to the revolutionaries their right to experiment with the possibility of total transformation?  (This becomes like James’s notorious essay “The Will to Believe” with the revolutionaries being granted the right to believe that a revolution is possible.)

What is it about dreams of total escape from the human condition that I find objectionable?  Why do I want to shut down not only the hope, but the very vocabulary, of “salvation” and “redemption”?  I am, it seems to me, partly in Nietzsche’s camp; I want to reject nihilism’s negations of this world, of the here and now.  I want to articulate some version of “affirmation” that accepts where we are—even as it also endeavors to make our current condition better.  No fatalistic resignation to no change at all; but no dream of an utterly different way of life.  In short, Jamesian “meliorism,” which looks luke-warm (and therefore to be spewed from the mouth) by the zealot.

“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”  Attending to the ordinary slings and arrows of daily life, working to ameliorate them insofar as possible, is the recommended path.

But for many that is not enough, not sufficient.  They want grander progress, grander solutions.  My rejection of their negations seems to have three planks.

 

  1. The ontological claim that totalized solutions are not possible.
  2. The aesthetic (?) claim that total negation misses all that is beautiful and delightful in this imperfect world and society we inhabit. The perpetual sourpuss of puritanical absolutism (in whatever form it takes) is not a look I want to adopt for myself or countenance in others.
  3. The political claim that puritanical absolutism also makes its adherents condemn every reform, every change, as insufficient. Just as they cannot affirm any aspect of current life, they also cannot affirm any change in the conditions of current life.  Everything falls short of the desired total transformation.