The Aesthetic

This will be the first in a long thread on the aesthetic.

I may be misreading Dom Lopes’ Being for Beauty, but I come away with a definition of the aesthetic that he, very likely, does not intend to offer.  To wit: the aesthetic is excellence in any human practice whatsoever.  We take pleasure in seeing something well done.  That super-competence is above and beyond functionality.  There are many ways to put the ball in the basket in a basketball game.  Some are workmanlike; they get the job done.  Other ways are surprising, graceful, acrobatic, have panache etc.  It’s those “extras” that are aesthetic.  We call someone an excellent musician or speaker or teacher when they do more than just deliver the goods.  They elicit a response that exceeds communicating to an audience the content of the deed or the recognition that the deed has achieved its intended outcome.  Mere effectiveness, functionality, is not aesthetic.

For starters, then, we should probably resist nominalization here.  “The aesthetic” is exactly the wrong phrasing.  Better to see the aesthetic in terms of adverbs (especially) and adjectives.  The aesthetic resides in how a thing is done, not in what is being done.  The nouns can take care of the what.  We use the adverbs and adjectives to qualify the nouns—which leads us directly to the common notion that the aesthetic has to do with qualities, not quantities, not with the bare facts, but with elaborated facts.  We enter the aesthetic when we take basic functions—eating, having sex, dressing, communicating—and make them elaborate.  We explore the various ways of doing something—and take pleasure in playing with the possibilities. 

Thus, from one point of view, the aesthetic is not cost-effective.  It asks us to expend more time and energy in doing something than is required to simply get the job done.  The aesthetic, this is hardly a new thought, is unnecessary.  From a utilitarian point of view, it looks frivolous.  There are even cases where a concern with style, with doing something in a way that will impress and please others (or oneself), detracts from achieving the practice’s goal.  The aesthetic is a luxury, one that always implies the existence of a surplus.  I have the time and energy to not drive directly to the goal in the most efficient manner possible.  There is always the hint of the aristocratic here, the supercilious manner that says I don’t have to take achievement of the goal all that seriously.  I am more invested in the presentation of the self in a certain stylish way than I am in vulgar achievement.  Wanting something, grasping for it, is déclassé.

Utilitarians, those relentless accountants of human life, are forever telling us we cannot afford the aesthetic.  Somewhere there is someone in desperate need and you are wasting precious resources on your frivolities.  This is basically Peter Singer’s argument.  How dare you spend $150 at a fancy restaurant when there are people starving?  Only in the utopian achievement of all of humanity’s basic needs could the aesthetic be justified.  The same basic puritanism is displayed in Thomas More’s Utopia, where the aesthetic is just about completely banished not only because the focus is on providing for everyone’s needs, but also because the display side of the aesthetic, its striving for excellence as a way to impress, threatens egalitarianism. 

There have generally been two ripostes to the utilitarian distrust of the aesthetic, both captured in familiar Shakespearean tag lines.  The first comes with Toby’s plea for “cakes and ale” in Twelfth Night.  What a dull world it would be if we never played, never elaborated, but stuck to doing our tasks with metronomic regularity and efficiency. All work, and no play . . .

The second is more grandiose, enunciated in Lear’s anguished “O, reason not the need.”  Here the aesthetic becomes the very ground of humanness.  “Man’s life is cheap as beasts’” if we are bound to needs, to the necessary.  From being elaborate play, the aesthetic gets transformed, in one giant leap, into the very space of freedom.  This line of thought is particularly potent in German philosophy, running from Kant and Schiller directly to Arendt and Marcuse (among many others).  For Schiller, the aesthetic is what makes us human, because it means we are not tied to the actual, to what today presents to and demands of us.  We are human because we can entertain possibilities, imagine futures, that transcend current circumstances.  The aesthetic is the realm of the virtual, of the unrealized imaginative, contrasted to what stands in front of us right now.  And it is precisely that ability to transcend the here and now that provides the freedom that, for him, is essential to being human, not animal. 

You can see what has happened here.  We have gone from the aesthetic being unnecessary, a playful elaboration of things that need to be done, to that unnecessity become the bedrock of the aesthetic’s becoming just about the most important thing about us as human beings.  Our very humanity is at stake.

I am uncomfortable with the swing from frivolity to the ground of humanness.  I find the frivolity position more plausible, but do think it neglects the fact that every culture we know of displays aesthetic elaborations.  That fact suggests there is some core of necessity in the aesthetic.  It is not ever dispensed with.  If it has no functional pay-off, then (paradoxically) the lack of functionality must be playing some role that humans cannot jettison.  On the other hand, trying to colonize imaginative endeavors that strive to creatively rewrite possible futures under the flag of the aesthetic looks like special pleading to me.  Humans exercise their imagination in all sorts of ways—including when they devise more efficient ways to do things as well as more elaborate ways to do them.  Our freedom (conceived as the effort to transcend necessities) is manifest in utilitarian endeavors as well as aesthetic ones.  The Wright brothers were utilitarians through and through.  They weren’t looking for style points; they were just trying to overcome what had been a necessity in human life until they came along: we were tied to the ground. 

Maybe that simply means we are not humans without imagination.  But it also seems a bad idea to trot out this whole notion of “humanness” at this point.  Better, it seems to me, just to talk about instances where imagination is deployed—and not be bound to some dubious claim that non-human animals lack imagination, or to insidious assertions that some non-imaginative humans aren’t fully human.  In other words, let’s just skip tying the activity of imagining to some status of being.

Returning to the aesthetic, and the extremes that arguing along the lines of necessity/freedom gets us into, I am inclined to want to shift the terms.  What happens if we think of the aesthetic under the general rubrics of experience and communication. On the experience side, aestheticization is way of ratcheting up intensity. That intensity can be one of pleasure—but pleasure seems way too blunt a term to capture the subtleties aesthetic elaboration can provide. Again, we are on familiar ground here.  The connoisseur or epicure is often suspect, especially to the puritanical utilitarian, because the intensity is excessive to function.  And some of the intense experiences the aesthetic offers have no apparent function at all except to provide that intensity. 

So maybe we haven’t escaped the necessity/freedom issue at all.  Certainly, aestheticists have always championed the freedom of doing something for its own sake, with no concern for a return on investment for the time and energy spent.  Wouldn’t it be lovely to be able to talk of these things without slipping into economic metaphors?  Still, focusing on the range of experiences the aesthetic might offer does allow us to avoid talk of “humanness,” while affording a pluralism that lowers the stakes considerably.  We are not talking any longer of some sort of “freedom” that makes us human, or is necessary (sweet paradox) to living a full, satisfactory, or flourishing life.  Instead, we are just talking about a wide variety of intensities and pleasures that some people might pursue even if those same experiences leave others indifferent.  Why would the entomologist scorn the novelist—or vice versa?

 Aesthetic elaboration makes for more effective communication.  Making something intense, memorable, distinctive etc. are all ways of grabbing and focusing attention.  Elaboration, in other words, may not just be pleasing, but also serve to grease the movement of thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and other content from one person to another.  I think those of us devoted to the arts—and committed to having the arts take up some space in any educational curriculum—are most often attached to the messages, the content, we see art works as attempting to convey.

This is a vexed topic.  Aestheticism had as its very goal to strip the arts of all content.  Art with a message is often condemned as tendentious and, thus, inferior.  But it seems simply wrong to dissociate the arts from either an attempt to provide an intense perceptual experience (an event) as in non-representational music or painting.  Or to provide a meditation on the meanings and feelings that certain kinds of experiences elicit.  The literary arts, to a very large extent, try to explore the complex ideas and emotions that surround various situations—complex ideas and emotions that direct namings (anger, love) do not adequately capture. The elaboration in these instances is in the service of more adequate representation of things that resist such representation.  That’s one reason metaphors and other figures of speech become so central to literary practice.  And that’s why literary works can often strive to evoke an emotion instead of try to describe or represent it.  I still think either strategy can be called an attempt at communication. 

I will end here for today.

Joan Didion

Dear Readers: Back after a very long hiatus, and with no promises that posting will be any more regular in the future than they have been in the recent past. But the tributes following Joan Didion’s recent death spurred me to the following reflection. As the post makes obvious, I found her authorial persona a bit much. My sense of her worldview is based primarily on the essays she would publish in the New York Review of Books on the culture/inner workings of Hollywood and of the American shenanigans in Central America and elsewhere.

The genre that best captures Joan Didion’s worldview is film noir.  She assigned herself the role of the tough, cynical but honest, detective; Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe.  The poor benighted souls driven by small-time greed and massive fear were accorded a measure of sympathy, but mostly deserved pity-inflected contempt.  The corrupt powers who pulled the strings behind the scenes were to be condemned as nefarious, but there was always a sneaking admiration for the grandeur of their schemes, the almost sublime scale of their desires.  That ambivalent attitude toward the powerful is one reason Didion slid so seamlessly from the political right to the left.  Her exposure, even condemnation, of the corrupt retained that slight hint of a desire to be one of their number.  And there was also the fact that the 1960s made it easy to trade in right-wing fantasies of communists in every cupboard for leftist obsessions (somewhat better founded) with the C.I.A., the Department of Defense’s funding of higher education, and corporate power along with bought politicians that did Big Business’s bidding.  “The Establishment” as con game, never showing the marks where the aces really were.  Didion offered to her readers the pleasure of being in the know, of joining the select few who knew the score. 

Reading Group Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My judgment questions are many.  I am interested in whether there are percepts without concepts.  You might say that is the Kantian question at its core. When we perceive something, are we also, simultaneously, “categorizing” it? Linda Zerilli and Suzanne Langer (and Nelson Goodman? and Brian Massumi?), among the people I have been reading recently, seem to take the Kantian view. Odd in Langer and Goodman’s cases because they are so interested in music, which is usually taken as an instance of non-conceptual perception. But Langer (at least) wants to claim their are non-discursive, non-representational concepts (or symbols).

Part of my problem is that I don’t really see what’s at stake. And I also don’t see how one would determine what is actually the case. I see twelve different shades of blue and can distinguish between them. I can certainly identify them all as instances of “color,” and even as shades of “blue.” But I haven’t got any clear designations for the twelve different shades even I as can see–and even recall–the distinctions among them. Something similar holds for tastes, where the general terms of “sweet,” “bitter,” and the like are obviously inadequate to the subtleties I can perceptually register. But: so what? What follows of significance in relation to anything we want to know about?

So that’s one puzzle. Another is that the term “judgment” gets used to cover a multiple of gaps in various accounts of cognition. Discussions of judgment tend to veer from judgment as 1)determinate in Kant’s sense: that is a tree; 2) indeterminate in Kant’s third critique sense; 3) assessments (is that a good tree or a good novel)–Michael Clune is interested in that kind of judgment; and 4) assessments of what it is possible and/or good to do in these circumstances (phronesis)–which then runs into distinctions between individual judgments and collective (democratic?) judgments. 

In cases, 2 and 4, the imagination tends to get invoked.  In cases, 3 and 4 (at least) judgment seems to entail questions of value.  So I feel like there’s a swamp there I am getting sucked into.

And all this is doesn’t even get to things like moral judgments or legal judgments.

Or to Arendt’s attempt to turn judgment into a way that the sensus communis gets enacted and reinforced, thus maintaining a common world. Her basic idea, I think, is this: we as a community discuss whether a Picasso painting is beautiful or sublime or some other set of more nuanced terms. The discussion establishes from the start the existence of that painting as an object in our common world. We are connected by our shared focus on that same thing. And then as the discussion proceeds, certain adjectives (qualities) of that thing also get held in common–that it depicts a guitar, that its style is Cubist, that it stands in contrast to more “realistic” kinds of painting–as elements of general (if not unanimous) agreement. There will still be plenty of things for us to disagree with and differing interpretations of the painting and differing judgments of whether one likes it or finds it significant etc. But we will be held together by the things we do agree on, the world that (in Arendt’s terms) exists between us, bringing us into relation with one another. Our actions both shift our relations to the others with whom we share a world–and contribute to that world’s “reality,” it persistence over time as the “in-between” which we occupy with others.