Category: The professions

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. “


Trying to Understand Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A former student got in touch to talk about “institutions”—which are important in Latour’s work, but rather “undertheorized” (as we used to say in the 1980s).  At least not much discussed in An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence, even as he chides “baby boomers” (278) for their knee-jerk hostility to them.  The boomers “accuse” institutions “of being routinized, artificial, bureaucratic, repetitive, and soulless,” fatal “to the initiative, autonomy, enthusiasm, vivacity, inventivity, and naturalness of existence. . . . [T]here is life only on condition of getting out of institutions, even destroying them, or, short of that, getting as far away from them as possible in order to subsist on the periphery” (278).  He locates institutions in the mode of existence called Habit—and sees them as a source of continuity and, hence, subsistence.  To be hostile to institutions is to end up throwing away a focus on subsistence in order to pursue that phantom: substance. The hostility to habit partakes of the characteristic “iconoclasm” of the moderns, who keep thinking they can get behind appearances to reality, can pierce through the “Shows” of the world to the “thing itself.”  We need (Latour argues), rather,  to develop the healthy regard for habit we find in William James, recognizing its benefits, its ways of making us at home in the world.

So the moral for Latour is “that we should ‘learn to respect institutions.’  [Otherwise], it will be impossible to know, given that habit has so many enemies, whether you want to protect a value by instituting it or, on the contrary, whether you want to betray it, stifle it, break it down, ossify it.  Now we baby boomers have drained that bitter cup to the dregs.  Confronting the ruins of the institutions that we are beginning to bequeath to our descendants, am I the only one to feel the same embarrassment as asbestos manufacturers targeted by the criminal charges brought by workers suffering from lung cancer?  In the beginning, the struggle against institutions seemed to be risk-free; it was modernizing and liberating—and even fun; like asbestos, it had only good qualities.  But, like asbestos, alas, it also had disastrous consequences that no one had anticipated and that we have been far too slow to recognize” (278-79).

For all this, Latour has little to say about how we are to think about institutions, how we are to describe them and what they do (or don’t do).  Maybe he does elsewhere.  I will have to take a look.

In the meantime, here is what I wrote to my student as a first stab of thinking about what institutions are:

My latest blog post (thanks for reading, by the way) does a little Latour stuff that points toward institutions.  I think, in fact, that what you can glean from his Science in Action or Reassembling the Social is most likely the best bet.  In short, Latour is great in getting us to think about all “the players” that contribute to the production of something.  Of course, he is interested in both human and non-human “actants” (to use his term).  Institutions, then, are formal structures within which actants operate (establishing hierarchies, differential access to resources, lines of authority and of connection), but which also represent an effort to stabilize and enable the continued existence of networks that spring into existence and act in relation to some specific end.  Institutions, in other words, put a public face on, and identity to, what might otherwise be ephemeral relations formed in the heat of action.  The institution tries to enable repetition–the gathering of these actants in the next instance, the next attempt to produce something.  This formalization of the actant network has its dangers/downsides (sclerosis is always a threat), but also its upsides (establishing relationships and procedures, so that re-invention of the wheel is not always necessary, and garnering resources).  A continuing presence, an institution can also bridge the gap between one instance of action and the next.  Finally, institutions can accumulate and store authority and/or prestige.  They can become a name-brand, thus attracting resources and attention.


As I thought more about this, I found myself troubled by the thought that most of what I say about institutions could also be said of “organizations.”  Yet in ordinary language, we do distinguish between the two.  Congress is a political institution; the Democratic Party is a political organization.  Amazon, Amnesty International, the New England Patriots, and the Modern Language Association (MLA) are all organizations.  To my ear, at least, it would be odd to call any of them “institutions.”  The Catholic Church, the University of North Carolina, and the Supreme Court are institutions.  In common parlance, we can also say that “Harriet Jones is an institution in these parts,” but we would never call her an “organization.”

“Hollywood” is a collective noun that designates the film industry; the “studio system” refers to a particular way that industry was (is?) organized.  But I don’t think we would normally call Hollywood an institution or an organization.  It is a loose affiliation of various actors—sometimes interconnected enough for us to speak of “networks”—with (perhaps) habitual ways of doing its self-appointed tasks.  But somehow it doesn’t rise to the status of “institution.”

Yet I feel as if Major League Baseball is on the cusp of being an institution—and is certainly an organization.  Even as I feel that the National Football League is definitely an organization, but nowhere near being an institution.  So can I make any sense of these contradictory intuitions?

Here’s a try before I go to the dictionary.  An institution is the framework within which a variety of actants can practice (in any variety of ways, including cooperatively or competitively).  The institutions lays down protocols—canons for a specific action being counted as an instance of the “practice” that the institution shelters/enables/presides over.  The authority of the institution faces two ways: 1. Inwardly toward instances of the practice itself, judging the status and quality of those instances. And 2. Outwardly toward the world as it makes the case for the general benefit that practice can provide to non-practitioners.  [In short, I am stealing here Bruce Robbins’ understanding of professionals; their guild establishes and maintains “professional standards,” even as their guild must legitimate to a wider public the usefulness of “professional practices.”]

Within that institutional setting, there can be a wide variety in the ways its practices are put to use—and there can be widespread disagreement and contestation about substantive matters.  The institution provides “the rules of the game” and the certification of who gets to be “a player.”

And something, like Major League Baseball, becomes “an institution” when the it garners a widely acknowledged “authority” and respect in relation to its wider legitimating function.

An organization may establish a “brand” that is well-trusted, seen as reliable.  But it will not have the “authority” that an institution has.  Why?  Because an organization is put together to facilitate the more efficient accomplishment of a single purpose.  Everyone in the organization must get with the program; all of the members of the organization must contribute to its achieving its goal.  The organization is not a framework for multiple uncoordinated actions; just the opposite.  Its whole point is coordination, in making sure that actants work in sync, in tandem.  An organization is never, like an institution, “above the fray.”  It is never the enabler of the varieties of practice; instead, it harnesses energies toward a goal.

Hence, if the Supreme Court becomes the tool of one political faction, it loses its “authority” as the institution that enables political contestation, becoming instead just another piece of an organization.  So maybe I can say that organizations exist to produce something; but institutions exist to enable the production of things, but do not produce things directly themselves.

Major League Baseball allows for the playing of numerous games of baseball; it does not do the playing itself.  It is the integrity with which it plays that role, as guardian of the practice, that gains it the “authority” that leads us to think of it as an institution.  But if the single-minded organizational goal of making money comes to dominate, then Major League Baseball will only be an organization, not an institution.  Football seems much more directly commercial than baseball—and hence the National Football League is not an institution.  This may be pure sentimentality, but it also has to do with how differently the two professional sports are related to the history of their games, and to the ways in which football players are interchangeable parts and constricted to a communal project.  Baseball is much more individual, much less faceless (it takes a truly devoted fan to know the linemen on a football team.)

Anyway, I could be totally wrong about this baseball/football divide.  More important is to recognize that the issue is not commercial versus non-commercial.  Amnesty International is an organization because devoted to a specific goal.  It is working for something substantive, not providing a framework within which a practice can unfold in myriad, even unexpected, ways.  But Amnesty is not commercial.  So the distinction I am trying to probe is not about the presence or absence of a profit motive.

It turns out the dictionary is not much help.  Here’s my Random House dictionary on “institution”: 1. An organization or establishment devoted to the promotion of a particular object.

But # 4 might help us some: Sociology, a well-established and structured pattern of behavior or of relationships that is accepted as a fundamental part of a culture, as marriage.

Followed by # 5: any established law, custom etc.  and #6: any familiar practice or object.

Whereas the definitions offered for “organization” are not very useful either.  #1 is “the action or process of organizing.”  #5 is “a body of persons organized for some end or work.”

I would say that the dictionary’s deficiencies indicate a general difficulty in describing collective action.  Organizations, quite obviously, act.  Things get produced and decisions get made that could never be done by a single person acting alone—and the thing produced and the decision made is not fully controlled by one of the actors (actants) in the process that yields that result.

When it comes to institutions it can seem even trickier.  If we are talking “habit” or “custom,” we can seem to be identifying a force that has no obvious origin.  It is “just our way of doing things,” even as that “way” does not remain completely impervious to change. But the mechanisms of change are hard to identify and even harder to manipulate.  We like to think we can tell an origin story about our political institutions—and we even have mechanisms for their being revised/amended/reformed etc.

But when it comes to relations between the sexes or between the races, the dead hand of the past, of cultural mores, proves incredibly resistant to direct intervention even as those relations do not remain immobile.  If we deem racism “an institution,” then it is like the Supreme Court in that it provides a framework for a whole set of practices, but it is unlike the Supreme Court in that there are no procedures for adjudication among those practices.  Racism as “an institution” is a product of various actions/practices in the past; but none of those actions/practices in itself had the power to establish racism.  We have what is truly a collective product here, one that is only “deliberate” in a very attenuated way.  No wonder conspiracy theories as so appealing; at least they identify agents powerful enough to serve as the originators or perpetuators of a particular state of affairs.

All of this is inconclusive enough.  The term “institution” clearly encompasses apples and oranges.  The more fruitful approach might be a version of Latour: consider particular instances of something you are tempted to call an “institution” and try to trace the actions that lead to its production.  Then, “institution” is the end product, not the starting place, of an inquiry.  And we don’t assume from the outset that one institution has much in common with another one.  An escape from essentialism into particularities.

Response to Michael Clune’s “Judgment and Equality”

Headnote: I was scheduled to present at the American Comparative Literature Association meeting in Chicago on March 20th.  Obviously, the meeting got cancelled.  The session was on “Aesthetic Education” and the panel members were all asked to read Joseph North’s recent book Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Harvard UP, 2017) and an essay by Michael Clune entitled “Judgment and Equality” (Critical Inquiry, 2018).  After reading the Clune essay, I was moved to write the response posted below.  I think it is fairly self-explanatory, even if you haven’t read the Clune essay.  After writing this response, I discovered that Clune had offered a shorter version of his plea for the authority of experts (and polemic against equality in matters of judgment) in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece that generated a fair amount of hostile response.  (You can easily find these pieces on line by googling Clune’s name.)  In particular, the hostility came from the fact that conservative New York Times pundit, Ross Douhat, wrote favorably about Clune’s position on the op-ed page of the Times.  Doubtless, Clune was chagrined to see his argument, which he thought was radically leftist, embraced by a right-wing writer.  But I don’t know that he should have been particularly surprised; to question–or to think about limiting–the claims of democratic equality is always going to play to the right’s fundamental commitment to reining in equality and democracy wherever it rears its dangerous head.  In any case, it is to the anti-democratic implications of Clune’s argument that my piece responds to.  I will post some thoughts on North’s book in the next few days.


In November 2008, a week after the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, I was in a New York city room full of bankers and hedge fund managers leading a discussion on the implications of that election.  The financiers were horrified; they earnestly told the gathering that Obama and a Democratic Congress, led by Nancy Pelosi were know-nothings who, through their ignorant meddling, were about to ruin American economic prosperity.  These men—and of course they were all men—were completely unshaken in their conviction of their competence even following the financial collapse of the previous month.  A portrait of expertise in action, offering a strong case for why the rule of experts must be tempered by the oversight of the demos.  Every profession is a conspiracy against the laity, George Bernard Shaw famously warned us.

Democracy means many things, but one of its many entailments is that elites must subject themselves to the judgment of the masses.  As experts we can deplore the ignorance of the non-initiated, but in a democracy authority is not to be had as a gift but must be earned.  Democracy is a supremely rhetorical political form.  Any one, including the expert, who has a position they want the polity to act upon must convince a majority of her fellow citizens to endorse that policy.  Persuasion is the name of the game; and saying it again, just louder this time and standing on my credentials as an expert, is not a very effective rhetorical move.  There is a deep anti-authoritarian bias in the demos—and we should celebrate that fact.  Democracy, as Winston Churchill said, has some very obvious flaws, but it sure beats all the alternatives.

The right has eaten the left’s lunch for some forty years now.  We people of the left can scream that it hasn’t been a fair fight, but that still doesn’t provide any justification for retreating from the democratic arena into a petulant insistence on our being correct and the misled masses being wrong.  The technocracy of the EU may be somewhat preferable to the plutocracy of the US, but the “democratic deficit” is real in both cases.  Maybe democracy is always a battle between elites for endorsement from the general populace.  If that is the case, and if violence is not considered a viable or desirable alternative, then the rhetorical battle for the hearts and minds of the people is where all the action is.  It makes no sense in such a battle to begin by maligning the judgment of those people.  Depending on the capacity of the people to judge for themselves is the foundational moment of faith in a democratic society.  Yes, as Clune reminds, us, Karl Marx refuses to make that leap of faith.  Do we really want to follow Marx down that anti-democratic path?

Marx, after all, also warns us that every ruling elite indulges itself with the sweet conviction that it acts in the interests of all.  We, those business men I spent the evening with told themselves, are the “universal class” because we bring the blessings of economic plenty to all.  In their utter belief in their own goodness, I saw a mirror image of myself and my leftist friends.  If we don’t for a moment want bankers to avoid accountability to the people they claim to serve, why would we think we deserve an exemption.  Listen to your academic colleagues rant about the vocabulary of assessment and outcomes when applied to what happens in the classroom—and you will hear an echo of what I listened to that night in New York. Who dares to question the effectiveness of what transpires on our college campuses?

Kenneth Burke picked up the term “professional deformation” from John Dewey.  He used it to highlight the blindness that accompanies immersion in a discipline.  I think Clune is right to present judgment as emerging from the practices and institutions of a discipline. (“[T]o show someone the grounds of a given judgment is to educate them in the field’s characteristic practices,” he writes [918].)  The oddity of his position, it seems to me, is that he takes this Kuhnian point as a reason to enhance our faith in the judgments of those encased in a paradigm.  That strikes me as a very odd reading of Kuhn, taking his book as a celebration of “normal science” instead of a meditation on the difficulty of intellectual revolution because of the blinders normal science imposes.  It is only a bit exaggerated, in my view, to see Kuhn as telling us that textbooks devour their readers and turn them into mindless conformists. Yes, Clune nods to the fact that communities of practitioners “can and do manifest bias and thus serve as sites of oppression” (918), but he seems to think acknowledgment of that fact is enough to render it harmless, appealing to an unspecified “broad range of measures” (919) that can compensate for the potential oppressions.  But I read Kuhn as suggesting that it is precisely the young, the uninitiated, the outsiders (in other words, those who are least embedded in the community of practice, or even non-members of it), who are most likely to disturb its complacency, its confidence in its judgments and its blindness to its biases and oppressions.  Let’s remember Foucault’s lessons about the power of disciplines.  All concentrations of power are to be distrusted, which is another reason (besides a discipline’s in-built blind spots) to advocate for the subjection of expert judgments to external review—and not simply external review by other members of the community in question.  I am a firm believer in the 80/20 rule; spend 80% of your effort in mastering your discipline; spend 20% of your time in wide-ranging reading and activities that are completely unrelated to that discipline.  And then use that 20% to break open your discipline’s inbreeding.

I am fully sympathetic with Clune’s desire to find in aesthetics an alternative to the norms and values of commercial society.  And that position does seem to entail a commitment to aesthetic education as the site when that alternative can be experienced and embraced.  I also believe that the democratic commitment to the people’s right to judge the prescriptions and advice of the experts does make the need for an educated citizenry a priority for our schools and universities.  The liberal arts curriculum should be aimed at making citizens more competent judges.  It is a strong indication of the right wing’s rhetorical triumph with a section of the populace that a majority of Republicans in a recent poll agreed that universities did more harm than good.  I don’t need to tell this audience that the liberal arts and the arts are under a sustained rhetorical attack.

What drives people like me and you crazy is that the attitudes adopted by the right are impervious to facts.  Climate change denial has become the poster child for this despair over the ability of the demos to judge correctly or wisely.  It is worth mentioning that the denigration of the liberal arts is equally fallacious, at least if the reasons to avoid humanities or arts classes are economic.  All the evidence shows that humanities and arts majors, over a lifetime, do just as well economically as science and engineering and business majors.  The sustained attack on the arts and humanities has more to do with a distaste for the values and capacities (for critical thinking, for sophisticated communication) they promote.

So what are we, the defenders of the aesthetic and the humanities (along with the world-view those disciplines entail), to do?  Saying our piece, only louder this time, and with a statement of our credentials as experts, won’t do.  Declaring our inequality, my superiority to you, should be a non-starter at a moment in history where increasing inequality is among our major problems.  I, frankly, am surprised that Clune is even tempted to take that route.  It comes across as pretty obvious petulance to me.  Why isn’t anyone paying any attention to me?  I know what’s what and they don’t. Listen up people.

In short, I stand with those who realize that judgment needs to be reconceived in ways that render it compatible with equality.  Clune is undoubtedly right that some writers have failed to face squarely the fact that judgment and equality are not easily reconcilable.  The problem, to put it into a nutshell, is that judgment seems to entail right and wrong, correct and incorrect, true and false.  To make all judgments equivalent is akin (although it is not actually that same as) total relativity, the idea that every judgment is “right” within a specified context.  Contrasted to that kind of relativism, the acceptance of the equivalence of all judgments can look even more fatuous, marked with a shrug and a “whatever.”  No point arguing since there is no accounting for tastes, and no one gets to dictate your tastes to you even if they are weird, incomprehensible, obnoxious, disgusting.  One’s man’s meat is another man’s poison.

Faced with such epistemological throwing in of the towel, it is not a surprise that folks keep coming back to Kant.  Clune details how both Sianne Ngai and Richard Moran have recently tried to come to terms with Kant’s attempt to demonstrate that aesthetic judgments make a “demand” on others, thus raising our aesthetic preferences above a mere statement of personal taste and towards an intersubjective objectivity.  Ngai, Moran, and Clune all use the term “demand” and the three translations of Kant’s Critique of Judgment I have consulted also use that term.  But I will confess to preferring Hannah Arendt’s translation of Kant, even though I have never been able to find in Kant where she finds the phrase that she puts in quotation marks.  For Arendt, those making an aesthetic judgment, then “woo the consent” of the other.  Arendt, in other words, places us firmly back into the rhetorical space that I am arguing is central to democracy.  Surprisingly, Clune never recognizes the affinity between his “community of practitioners” and Kant’s sensus communis.  What Arendt calls our attention to—especially when she tells us that Kant’s Critique of Judgment is the “politics” critics claim he never got around to writing—is the fact that the sensus communis always needs to be created and its ongoing reconfiguration is the very stuff of politics.  Yes, judgments are deeply indebted to and influenced by the community from which they are articulated, but that community and its practices is a moving target.  Think of Wittgenstein’s image of language as a sea-going vessel that undergoes a slow, but complete, rebuild even as it never leaves the water for dry-dock.  The democratic community—and its judgments on the practices of its various sub-cultures and its elites and its experts—is continually being refashioned through the public discourses that aim to sway the public in one direction or another.

How does this understanding of the scene of politics help.  Clune, I think, provides a clue when he writes “For me to be convinced by the critic’s aesthetic judgment that James is interesting means not that I have evaluated the reasons for that judgment but that I’ve decided to undertake an education that promises to endow me with his or her cultural capacities” (926).  What gets under-thought here is what would actually motivate such a decision.  We need to invoke Aristotle in conjunction with Raymond Williams at this point.  The expert—be she a climate scientist, a heterodox economist, or a Proust scholar—wants, at a minimum, to inspire trust, and, at a maximum, the auditor’s desire to join her community of practitioners, to make its common sense his own.  It is not “reasons,” as Clune says, that are decisive here, but ethos.  I would be willing to be that almost everyone in this room could point toward a teacher who inspired them—and inspired them exactly as the kind of person I myself wanted to become.  What an aesthetic education offers is initiation into a particular “structure of feeling.”  It is the attractiveness of that sensibility that our political and public rhetorics need to convey.  Once again, Kant and Arendt help us here when they point to the crucial importance of the “example” to these attempts to “woo the other.”  Modelling what a life lived within that structure of feeling looks like is far more potent that pronouncing from on high that Moby Dick is superior to Star Wars.

Look at this concretely.  The rhetorical genius of the Republican party since Ronald Reagan has been to portray the professional, educated, upper-middle class left (who occupy then “helping professions” of doctor, lawyer, teacher, social work) as joyless scolds, continually nagging you about how all the things you do are harmful to the environment, to social harmony, to your own well-being.  They have made it a political statement to drive a gas-guzzling truck while smoking a cigarette in defiance of those pious kill-joys.  That’s the rhetorical battle that the left has been losing since 1980.  Yes, the populace scorns our expert judgments, but that’s because they have no desire at all to be part of the communities in which those judgments are common sense.  Our problem, you might say, is not how to educate—aesthetically or otherwise—those who make the decision to undertake an education, but is how to make the prospect of an education appealing to those who see it as only a constant repudiation of their own sensibilities and capacities.  In short, “structures of feeling” triumph over “interests” much of the time and the left has proved spectacularly inept at modelling positive examples of the sensibility we wish to see prevail in our society.

I shouldn’t be so overwhelmingly negative about the left.  The sea-change in attitudes (and public policy) toward LBGTQ citizens over the past thirty years cannot be overstated.  Of course, given that attitudes are, as I have argued, a moving target, changes in any one direction are never set in stone.  Constant maintenance, rearticulation, and adjustments on the fly are necessary.  The task of education, of initiation into a sensibility that has come to seem “common sense,” as both attractive and right, is always there in front of us.  I am simply arguing that the right wing has been more attuned to that educative task than the left.  Or as I am prone to say, the left goes out and marches in the street on the weekend before returning to work on Monday while the right gets itself elected to school boards.

As a teacher, I find Ngai’s focus on “the interesting” crucial and poignant.  When we call something “interesting,” we are saying it is something worry of attention, something worthy of pausing over and considering at more length.  And that plea for attention is certainly at the very center of my practice as a teacher.  When I declare in front of class that this or that is “interesting,” I am inviting students into a sensibility that wants to ponder the significance of the thing in question.  But I am also pleading with them to take that first step—knowing that for many of them I am just another professor who incomprehensively gets excited about things to which they are supremely and irredeemably indifferent.  You can’t win them all, of course.  But the effort to win some of them over is endless, never fully successful, and in competition with lots of other demands on their attention.

There is, I am arguing, no other course of action open in a democratic society.  We are, if you will, condemned to that rhetorical battle, attempting to woo our students, to woo the demos, to a particular sensibility, a particular vision of the good.  That, I will state it nakedly, is politics.  To dream of a world where expert opinion is accepted by the non-experts is to dream of salvation from politics, from its endless wrangling, its messy compromises, its inevitable mix of failures with successes.  It is to desire a technocratic utopia, in which the “administration of things” replaces the conflicts of political contestation.  No thank you.

Another way to say this is that politics is the inevitable result of living in a pluralistic universe.  There will never be full consensus, there will never be a single vision of the good to which all subscribe, there will never be an all-encompassing and all-inclusive sensus communis.  On the whole, I’d say that’s a good thing.  I would hate to live in a world where everyone disagreed with me about everything.  But I am convinced that a world in which everyone agreed with me about everything would be almost as bad.

But, but, but . . . climate change.  Please recognize that climate change is just one in a long string of existential threats that democracy—slow, contentious, ruled by greed and passion—is deemed ill equipped to handle.  Authoritarians of whatever political stripe are always going to identify a crisis that means democracy must be put on hold.  The terrible attraction of war is that it negates the messy quotidian reality of pluralism.  The dream is of a community united, yoked to a single overwhelming purpose, with politics suspended for the duration.  Thus, that great champion of pluralism, William James, could also dream of a “moral equivalent of war.”  Perhaps democracy truly is unequal to the challenge of climate change, but then the desire/need to jettison democracy should be stated openly.  Otherwise, it is back to the frustrations of political wrangling, to the hard process of winning over the demos.

So, yes, I am in favor of an aesthetic education that aims to introduce students to a sensibility that finds commercial culture distasteful and (perhaps more importantly but perhaps not) unjust. And I want them to see that indifference to climate change is of a piece with the general casualness of our prevailing economic order to the sufferings of others. But I cannot endorse Clune’s picture of that educational process.  “[T]he significant investment of time and energy that this education requires—both at its outset and for a long time afterwards—is channeled in submission to the expert’s judgment that these works make particularly rewarding objects of attention.  The syllabi of an English department’s curriculum, for example, codify this submission” (926).  I have been fighting against my English department’s curriculum for twenty-five years.  The texts I want to teach in my classes are the ones I find good to think with—and I invite my students to join me in that thinking process.  (More Arendt here: her notion that judgment involves “going visiting” and you can know a thinker’s ethos by considering the company she wants to visit—and to keep.)  What I model is one person’s encounter with other minds—the minds represented by the books we read and by the people who are in the classroom with me.  My colleagues should have similar freedom to construct their courses around the texts that speak to them—and in which they then try to interest their students.

Fuck submission.  Maybe it’s because I teach in the South.  But my students have been fed submission with mother’s milk.  What they need to learn is to trust their own responses to things, to find what interests them, to find what moves them emotionally and intellectually.  They need to learn the arrogance of democratic citizenship, which arrogates to itself the right to judge the pronouncements of the experts.  Certainly, I push them to articulate their judgments, to undertake themselves to woo others to their view. They must accept that they too are joined in the rhetorical battle, and if they want allies they will have to learn how to be persuasive. But that’s very, very different from suggesting that anyone should ever take the passive position of submission.

Clune is scornful of Richard Moran’s “liberal” endorsement of freedom of choice.  So I want to end with a question for all of you as teachers.  Can I safely assume that you would deem it inappropriate, in fact unethical, to tell your students whether or not to believe in god, or what career path to follow, or for whom they should vote?  If you do think, in your position as a teacher, that you have the right to tell your students what to do in such cases, I would like to hear your justification for such interference.  Obviously, what I am suggesting here is that our sensus communis does endorse a kind of baseline autonomy in matters of singular importance to individuals.  I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a society where my freedom to choose for myself about such matters were not respected.  If some of you in the room feel differently, I am very interested in hearing an articulation and defense of such feelings.

Now we could say that our expertise as teachers does not extend to questions of career, religious faith, or politics.  But where we are experts, there we are entitled to tell a student he is wrong.  James really in interesting; Moby Dick really is better than Star Wars.  But surely such bald assertions are worthless.  How could they possibly gain the end we have in view?  Via the path of submission?  I can’t believe it.  Yes, we stand up there in our classrooms and use every trick we can muster to woo our students, to get them interested, and even to endorse our judgments after careful consideration; one of our tasks is to teach (and model) what careful consideration looks like.  And I certainly hope you are especially delighted when some student kicks against the pricks and makes an ardent case that Star Wars is every bit as good as Melville.  Because that’s the sensibility I want aesthetic education to impart.