Aesthetic Education and Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forget Reason Even as We Focus on Judgment (Linda Zerilli’s A Democratic Theory of Judgment)

Nick Gaskill and I have been reading Linda Zerilli’s A Democratic Theory of Justice (University of Chicago Press, 2016).  It’s a good, thought-provoking book, especially valuable for its detailed engagements with Arendt, Kant, Wittgenstein, and Cavell.  It is, I think, finally disappointing because of some severe question-begging, but raises the right questions time after time even if its efforts to answer those questions are unsatisfying.  Or maybe my dissatisfaction stems from the way in which for me, even though her quartet of thinkers are central to my own way of thinking, I temper their work through my embrace of pragmatism.  Peirce, James, and Dewey are completely absent in her book, while Rorty only appears briefly to be dismissed, and Hilary Putnam is cited approvingly a number of times for his arguments against the fact/value divide.  In any case, the criticism of Zerilli’s book I will pursue in this post is, in my view, Rortyesque (with a soupçon of Barbara Herrnstein Smith).

Let me begin with what I think Zerilli gets right.  She writes: “What is ‘aesthetic’ in an aesthetic judgment is for Wittgenstein, as for Kant, not an object that is external and prior to judgment itself.  ‘Aesthetic’ is not an object but a mode of judgment” (81).The use of the word “aesthetic” here causes problems.  Why not just say “judgment” simpliciter constitutes its object?  Try substituting “scientific” for “aesthetic” in the passage from Zerilli.  Hasn’t Bruno Latour (and, for that matter, Dewey) shown us that the object in the lab also does not exist “ external and prior” to the operations of the bench scientist?  “Judgment,” in other words, precisely points us toward interaction—and those interactions promise to show us how a set of familiar dualisms (subject/object; reason/feelings; self/other; fact/value) belie the complexity of how the world appears to us, how it comes into sight.  This is the essential Arendtian point.  There is no world of any sort for the lone thinker, who communes only with himself.  It is only through interaction, through the encounter with plurality, with things and people who push back and impress (good Wordsworthian word) themselves upon me just as I impress myself upon them, that the world comes into view—and acquires enough stability within the flux of temporality, James’s “buzzing, blooming confusion,” to provide a place to stand, a space where I can appear and others can appear to me. 

Judgment, in short, is (as Zerilli helpfully stresses) “a way of seeing” (54).  She ties this understanding of judgment to Wittgenstein’s “seeing an aspect.”  Thus, the philosophical account of judgment (as we find it, especially, in Kant) should be seen (that is, grasped in this aspect) as a meta-description of what is entailed in that act of seeing.  One puzzle here is whether the term “judgment” is all-encompassing.  We stand in relation to the world and to others (basic pragmatist starting point).  Does the term “judgment” simply alert us to the multiple ways we constitute, we “see,” those relations?  Or are there other ways of standing in relation that are not “judgments,” but some other kind of thing?  Perhaps relations of brute force are entirely different.  I discover I have cancer.  I will have various attitudinal responses to that fact; I can view it, see it, in different ways that will constitute my relation to the fact.  But there are limits, which will play out over time, to the extent that my relation to the cancer will influence its development. 

In Kant, there are three kinds of judgments, but there doesn’t seem to be something other than judgment on the human side.  There is the determinative judgment that this is a case of colon cancer, not prostate cancer. (First critique; the way of seeing here is the way of science and it functions under the sign of natural necessity.) There is the practical judgment of what is the properly moral way to act in response to the fact of having colon cancer. (Second critique; the way of seeing here is moral and it functions under the sign of freedom.) And there is the affect-laden “aesthetic” judgment which describes my cancer in terms (“disaster,” a “blessing in disguise,” “just retribution for my bad habits,” and the like) that indicate my possible response to the fact, my Wittgensteinian ways of “going on” from here, perhaps my Deleuzian “lines of flight.” (Third Critique; the way of seeing here is aesthetic and it functions under the sign of feeling or sensation.) The processes of judgment differ in the three cases, but they are all called “judgment” because they leave me with a way of “seeing” the situation and of gauging appropriate responses to it.  I have judged that this is the situation, that this is the way to characterize, view, understand it.  And from that judgment, I project possible ways of acting from where I currently see myself as standing.  (All of this Zerilli’s work brings me to see. For Arendt’s relation to this tripartite Kantian division, see my end note to this post.)

The philosopher, then, describes these different modes of judgment, the difference between how the doctor encounters cancer from the way the patient does.  Cancer means different things to the two of them—and suggests different ways of proceeding, of going on.  Zerilli adds the Arendtian point that cancer’s reality is undergirded by the fact that it appears to both the doctor and the patient, even though it appears from a different perspective for each of them.  This difference of perspective, she insists throughout her book (following the work of James Conant), attests to the object’s reality even as it indicates the different positions (different “points of view”) occupied by the various selves who see the object.  For Arendt, the “common world” is constituted out of plurality, out of the different viewpoints that converge on that common object.  My feelings of bodily discomfort and pain are confirmed by the doctor’s diagnosis of cancer.  That the doctor can see the “same thing” even though his viewing of it is through a battery of tests and not through my bodily experience substantiates that cancer’s existence.  It is not a figment of my imagination, my hypochondria, but a real thing. In this case, my view is not necessarily “corrected” by the doctor’s, but it is certainly augmented, and also given greater precision and specificity. But my first-person experience of the illness is hardly negated.

Zerilli puts a huge amount of stock (in some ways her whole argument hinges on this point) on the insistence that “whatever distortions arise from viewing the object from one perspective can be corrected by viewing the same object from other perspectives” (5).  This is the “enlarged” or “representative” thinking that Arendt highlights in her reading of Kant’s third Critique and that Zerilli (following Arendt) declares is indispensable to any politics at all.  “[U]nderstanding the democratic problem of judgment” entails recovering “the ordinary concept of perspective, according to which perspectives are perspectives on something and are corrigible by other perspectives (through representative thinking)” (267).  The problem that Arendt identifies is that we no longer share a common object, a common world, and this loss of multiple perspectives leaves us unable to talk together, to share anything, or to act in concert.  (Action in concert constitutes the space of appearances, the common world, in which freedom can then be realized.)  For Zerilli, it is this loss of a common world that afflicts us today, not irreconcilable clashes in values.

But that diagnosis is unclear.  Does she mean that the lack of a common world is prior to value disputes?  That is, once we do at least reestablish a basis for talking (for knowing/acknowledging that we are talking about the same thing), the value disputes will follow.  Or does she think that establishing a common world somehow mitigates value disputes—or translates them into a different register?  Even more fundamentally, what’s the difference between losing a common world and unbridgeable value disputes?

In other words, could this book have been written in 2020?  Is the way some Americans understand the 2020 election or the Covid virus as contrasted to how other Americans view what is ostensibly the same object a matter of different realities or different values? Is this a difference with any difference?  And absent any detailed description of the process by which one perspective can be corrected by another (a concrete description that Zerilli never provides), how exactly are we to proceed when faced with someone who says the virus is a hoax?  Retreating to Wittgensteinian ground at this point—here my spade turns, or the hoax theorist just occupies another form of life—is no help at all, just a fancy way of throwing up one’s hands. 

After 2020, Zerilli’s conclusion to her book looks naïve and irrelevant as a response to the ills of democracy in today’s United States.  “Judging is a continual testing of ‘what we say’ to find the always contingent limits of democratic community as they exist for us right now” (280).  Who is the “we” here and who, in our present moment, feels any ability to either designate or shape/revise a “democratic community” that is in tatters?  Plus I thought the non-existence of that community, of the common, was Arendt’s point.  We need to learn (in concrete terms) what is required to reconstitute that community (if it ever did exist) not to hear about judging within its confines. 

Zerilli bravely marches on from that statement, acknowledging the inequities generated by political and economic power—inequities that generate oppositional visions of what is right and just.  “Let us put forward substantive public visions of what we hold to be right and just and debate these without the aid of newfangled democratic criteria created in the academic laboratories of ideal theory” (281).  Well and good if Zerilli means we cannot expect the adjudication of the debate coming from standards (criteria) held to transcend (be external to) the debate itself.  There is no impartial judge of the sort that Habermas (Zerilli persuasively demonstrates) wants to employ.  If one of our speaking points in the debate is to point toward “systematically distorted speech,” we need to use an understanding of “distortion” understandable to all its participants. In other words, any standards for judging must be immanent, internal to the community and the practices it shares. Of course, our problem is that we don’t seem to have that community or its practices in common.

But there, of course, is the rub.  Zerilli wants (desperately and at all costs) to avoid the pessimistic Weberian conclusion that we are destined to [she quotes Weber] “’the unending struggle between . . . [the] gods ‘ of the different systems and values or worldviews” (266).  She wants to find a path toward some kind of fundamental agreement—that world held in common so that when we debate we are at least talking about the same things.  And she seems to think that once we get that common world the problem of conflicting values will sort itself out.  Just how is not clear, since she scorns empathy as a solution, even while it requires an act of imagination to, in Arendt’s phrase, “think where one is not” (i.e. occupy in representative thinking the perspective of the other).

In any case, Wittgensteinian musings about “form of life” are not going to do any good at all.  That move is just a sleight of hand to explain intractable differences—neither an explanation of or solution to problems of conflict.  It is just a way of registering incomprehensibility.  The person who truly believes (not the self-serving politician who lies) that the 2020 election was stolen is like Wittgenstein’s lion.  I cannot understand him, so let’s label him as occupying a different form of life.  The label tells me nothing, just marks the gap.

The same, I think, holds for Gadamer, whom Zerilli discusses in Chapter Four. The appeal to “preunderstandings” or “tradition” is precisely what I mean by question-begging. “The formulation in speech of how things appear for us is no private langauge but an expression of common sense, of what I share with others by virtue of belonging to a particular sociohistorical culture” (129), But what agitates Arendt (as Zerilli makes abundantly clear) is the loss of “common sense.” The question is how to create that common sense, a question that can’t be solved by retreating to a ground where it always already exists.

Similarly, appeals to Cavell’s “agreement in patterns of support” (271) can’t do the trick since that assumes the existence of precisely what is lacking.  Not surprisingly (it is one of the occupational diseases of philosophers), Cavell links that notion of “patterns of support” to “rationality”—and Zerilli commits herself wholeheartedly to that project.  She is bound and determined to show that judgment of the aesthetic sort is just as rational as other modes of judgment.  The corrigibility of one perspective by another through the process of enlarged thinking counts as “rational revision of our beliefs” (40) and she insists, along with Cavell, “that aesthetic (and moral and political) arguments are not conclusive and rational in the same way [that arguments in science and logic are], and yet they can be conclusive and rational” (67).

Zerilli never in her long book shows us in what way aesthetic judgments are “conclusive.”  We are told that “quarrels” about aesthetic judgments will only end when I “bring someone to share my judgment [which] . . . must be a matter of getting the person to see what I see, to share, that is, my affective response” (55).  So, perhaps, “conclusive” in bringing this particular “quarrel” to an end, but “conclusive” for all who have a perspective on that object? 

The Rorty response to this hope for conclusive judgments is simple. To paraphrase Lincoln, you can persuade some of the people some of the time, but hardly expect to convince all of the people all of the time. Rorty would agree it’s about getting other people to see what I see, feel what I feel (for example, that women’s unpaid domestic labor needs to be acknowledged and compensated; if not, we have a case of injustice). But there is no pathway (Arendt would agree) to a conclusive judgment about such matters. And Rorty would add that there is no conclusive way to rule out certain kinds of arguments, reasons, or appeals in the rhetorical effort to convince others. Anything goes. We can’t stop politicians from lying about the 2020 election; efforts at censorship are notoriously ineffective and have side effects that are arguably worse than what can be achieved. I can only counter forms of speech (and actions tied to that speech like the recent Georgia law curtailing voting) I detest with speech of my own–and various actions (ranging from boycotts, demonstrations, court challenges, libel suits, and legislation all the way to secession and civil war). Politics is precisely about such public contestations–and there is no formula for bringing such contests to a conclusion. We just try to keep the contests to the realm of peaceful persuasion, in the awareness that violent confrontation is always possible (and may even prove in some cases unavoidable). There are no holds barred in these contestations, and the proof of a judgment is in the pudding, in how successfully it wins adherents, with very few judgments getting anywhere close to unanimity.

Zerilli, then, needs to provide us with a concrete example of how Arendtian judgment in practice would bring us to something like common sense. The fullest example she offers is of the Bush and Blair administrations’ lies leading up to the Iraq War. The argument is that the facts were known, but were not “acknowledged” (working with Cavell’s distinction between knowledge and acknowledgment), were not discussed in the public sphere in such a way as to make them “politically significant” (139). So the example shows how we lack a common world, a robust form of pluralistic discourse about actions and events. But we don’t get an (admittedly counter-factual) account of how, if the polity engaged in such discourse, it would reach a “conclusive” judgment about the two governments’ actions.

In other words, the diagnosis is convincing enough (albeit rather over-elaborate), but how we move toward a solution is not clear. To take my example from above: no one disagrees about the fact that women’s domestic labor is unpaid. But whether that fact is “politically significant” is disputed, and the best action to take in response to the fact (even if we agree it is politically significant) is also under dispute. Arendtian judgment points to a desirable political process of opinion-articulation about the issue, and recommends a good faith effort to understand others’ (opposing or different) opinions. But such efforts offer no guarantee of any conclusive result to that discussion. That we share a minimally common vision of the basic fact of unremunerated labor does very little to help settle the other questions. And when we disagree about the basic fact–i.e. that Biden won the 2020 election–the sharing of opinions and the effort to see where the other is coming from in his opinion gets us (as far as I can see) nowhere at all. We rely instead on court rulings and taking a vote (the January 6th vote in Congress) to bring the matter to a conclusion–and those procedures are adversarial, more likely to highlight the absence of conclusive judgments than their achievement.

Two further oddities to note here: 1) why the rush to collapse the plurality of perspectives into agreement? General agreement on electoral procedures may be necessary and certainly seem desirable in relation to issues of legitimacy and fairness. But it is not clear that conclusive judgments are desirable in aesthetic cases. The richness of aesthetic experiences is enhanced by different affective responses to those experiences—responses that are then articulated and even passionately defended by different members of the audience.  I might understand your response as you describe it, and even find my response shifted by yours, but need I come to “share” that response?  Might I not hold on to my different reading of this aspect or that of the experience?  Does “seeing an [one] aspect” preclude also seeing others?  After all, it is a duck/rabbit, not just a duck even when my seeing focuses in on the duck aspect.  And even if it is “conclusive” that it’s a duck/rabbit, not just a duck, it is not true in every case that assembling all the aspects gives us the proper result.  Zerilli quotes approvingly Arendt’s [and Kant’s] scorn for simply counting votes; the conclusive result is not aggregative.

My point is that both the need for a conclusive result and the means toward achieving it remain mysterious in Zerilli’s work.  At least on some points, non-conclusiveness (as Arendt knew and stressed) is preferable to an indisputable conclusion.  As for how much agreement is needed for a society to avoid secession and/or civil war (the ultimate forms of conflict), I think that’s an empirical question.  Procedures like voting exist precisely because there are conflicts that debate will not resolve.  Consensus about what is conclusive will not be reached, so “we” agree to move forward by holding a vote.  But, of course, agreement about this pragmatic procedure can also collapse—and the community fall apart.  There is nothing conclusive about the procedure.  It is simply a mechanism, contingent through and through upon acceptance by those who utilize it, for not letting conflict get out of hand.

In short, Zerilli seems, in her own way, to desire some solution to the conflict view she finds in Weber—and in that search hardly seems very different from Habermas.  She is saying that we can’t import the mechanism for alleviating conflict from outside the community.  Instead, we must create agreement through the processes by which we come to share affections, come to see things in the same way.  There I think she is absolutely right: agreement is utterly contingent, and completely fragile, and must be created and re-created continually through our interactions with one another and with the world.  That’s the part of Zerilli’s book I find clarifying and inspiring.  We do, as Arendt insists, create our space of appearances and our common world through “concert in action,” which I understand as those daily interactions.  And it is the fact, as Arendt makes clear and as Cavell sometimes affirms, that those interactions are utterly contingent and without foundation.  We can descend into civil war as well as hold our communities together even as we quarrel.  Nothing in principle, or in ideal theory, or in the realm of necessity influences whether we muddle on or fall apart.  That’s why Arendt on promises and forgiveness has more to offer us than Cavell on attunement, agreement, forms of life or (especially) rationality.

2) But one further point about judgment before finally getting to my critique of rationality.  Zerilli, I think, equivocates about judgment in ways that are not helpful.  Is judgment “a mode of seeing” (the Wittgensteinian path)?  Or is it a mode of evaluation (one way of reading Kant, and certainly a prevalent ordinary language use of the term, including by Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem.)  Or is judgment about decision-making, about figuring out what is appropriate to do in this situation (a common way of thinking about political judgment on the collective level and phronesis on the individual level)?  I think Zerilli embraces each of these possibilities at different points in her presentation.  I can see that she is wary of an apprehension/evaluation dualism, since that seems to accept a fact/value divide she is at pains to disavow.  I am sympathetic to that desire.  But still.  I see now (apprehension) that it’s a duck/rabbit.  Do I really (inevitable and inextricably) also simultaneously judge it a fine example of a duck/rabbit?  Do we never simply recognize a thing?  I am inclined to think we don’t, in every instance, have our evaluative hat on.  But this enters tricky ground—ground defined by Kant’s allegiance to “disinterestedness” and by the pragmatic insistence (hence Putnam’s attack on the fact/value distinction) that we are never mere spectators, that we always actively related to what we perceive.  In terms of Zerilli’s argument, if the fact/value dichotomy is spurious, then the Arendtian establishment of a common world is not so distinct from the value questions that agitate Habermas and Rawls as Zerilli wants us to believe.

OK.  So I have finally got to it: the critique of rationality.  Here’s what I see. Zerilli has made a compelling case that there are different forms of judgment. (I will return to the case she makes in my next post since that case raises its own thorny, and very interesting issues.) But then, even as she acknowledges that aesthetic judgment is different from science and logic, she works very hard to show aesthetic judgment is also rational.  To make that case, she has to appeal to tortured Kantianisms like “indeterminate concepts”  and “subjective validity” (Kant quoted in Zerilli, 257).  And then she has to show that these features of aesthetic judgment are rational?  What’s at stake?  What’s the value added (to be utterly crude about it)?  Zerilli looks utterly Habermasian to me at this moment.  She wants declaring aesthetic judgment “rational” to do some work I simply don’t think it can do—and precisely for the reasons she has outlined in her critique of Habermas. 

There are reasons, yes.  We offer and demand reasons in our interactions with others.  Reasons can serve to convince others—and, at times, oneself—about the fitness, the appropriateness, of one’s decisions and actions.  Such reasons are persuasive or not as the case may be.  They stand on their own ground as efforts at justification, at wooing (Arendt’s phrase in her lectures on Kant), at examining why and wherefore.  To call these reasons “rational” adds nothing.  It is just to make the empty claim that those reasons are good ones, worth paying heed.  But if the reasons themselves do not persuade, praising them as rational (or denigrating competing reasons as irrational) will not do the trick of gaining consent. 

Here are two further ways to make this point. First, the effort to expand our concept of Reason to include aesthetic judgments looks like semanticism, the vice philosophers (sometimes accurately) are always accused. Redefine Reason to be more capacious, so that it now includes what was formerly excluded. Does shifting the name and its range of reference really accomplish anything outside of the realm of words? Does it convince anyone that a set of arguments they used to find implausible are now, via the deus ex machina of redefinition, plausible? Second, is Reason a determinate or indeterminate concept? Zerilli, I think, must answer that it is a normative concept, like beautiful, and hence indeterminate. What are the consequences of that move? Basically, it means we must accept that norms are dynamic, ever open to revision and reformulation in unexpected ways. Our understanding of “beautiful” is transformed by the appearance of Van Gogh’s paintings. Using Raymond Williams’ useful terminology, the “dominant” understanding of beautiful could not encompass Van Gigh’s paintings as beautiful. But those paintings pointed toward an “emergent” understanding of beauty. Crucially, the example, the actual paintings and their growing appeal to certain viewers, comes first. The redefinition of “beauty” follows.

The same holds for Reason. What is deemed reasonable at any given moment depends of actual reasons, actual argumentative and demonstrative interactions that succeed in persuading. As Zerilli very helpfully and correctly puts it: “the locus of normativity is not rules, but our interests, purposes, and desires themselves” (26). I take it that this means that the articulation of the norm comes after the on-the-ground experience of the give-and-take of social intercourse that brings the norm into being. Norms are in flux; they emerge; they are, in certain moments of transition (or maybe at all times) a site of contestation. So you need to make your case for your understanding of the norm of “reasonable,” not just attempt to police the field by deeming this example reasonable and that one irrational. If Zerilli wants to plant her flag on “the rational revision of our beliefs” (40), she needs to work through concrete examples (as Kant and Arendt explain in their accounts of “exemplary validity”), rather than thinking that definition can do the work for her. (Arendt, it should be noted, is addicted to arguing via definitional distinctions, one of her greatest faults.) What is “reasonable” will be pragmatically determined (as the meaning of a word is) in “use” (Wittgenstein) as it is taken up by one’s auditors and points us toward ways to “go on.” But one’s auditors can also deny your normative indication of the proper (or best or most appropriate) way to proceed. They are not persuaded. They don’t deem your recommendations and representations “reasonable,” no matter how much you claim they truly are–a claim, I am saying, that will do nothing to advance your cause when the actual reasons you offer don’t do the job.

There are different styles of thinking, or argumentation, of coming to believe one thing rather than another.  We can, to some but a limited extent, articulate our “reasons” for our beliefs and decisions and arguments, but to collapse those different styles (processes) of thought under some general term Reason seems more an attempt to cover over differences we find embarrassing or threatening than to tell us anything substantial.  To call some beliefs rational and others irrational is empty name-calling.  It will not change my own or others’ relation to those beliefs.  Changing beliefs is a matter of the specific reasons and experiences and testimony offered in the give-and-take of interaction, not a matter of labeling one set of beliefs rational, an approach that actually abdicates from doing the work of specific reason-giving.  Or, as Mark Twain, put: “Man is the rational animal, and you can bet which animal said that.”

All honor to Zerilli for presenting such a thorough examination of the style of thinking we know as “reflective judgment” or “aesthetic judgment.” She has helped me clarify my allegiances and convictions on these issues. That style should not feel defensive in the face of science or in the face of restrictive understandings or “Reason.”  By attending to what actually convinces on the ground, on the actual processes of belief formation and of reason-giving, the phantasm of Reason can be returned to where it belongs—in company with Platonic forms, Being, the noumenon, and other metaphysical relics meant to relieve us from contingency and diversity/difference.  There is no good achieved by unifying the multiple practices of reason-giving under the term Reason, just as there is no good to come of unifying the multiple beings that inhabit the world under the term Being.

END NOTE on Arendt and Kant:

I have said the Kant gives us three specimens of judging and that all the forms of thought he describes appear (at first blush; I want to be tentative about this) to be species of judgment, if we take judgment to mean a sizing up, a way of seeing, the situation in which one finds oneself (using Heidegger’s resonant use of the word “find”). Does Arendt’s tripartite division in the Life of the Mind follow suit? Certainly not exactly. Pure reason (the thinking described in Kant’s first critique) has no place in Arendt’s final work. She is either not very interested in the forms of scientific thought–or she believes humans are so directly and obviously subject to the “necessities” of what she deems “life processes” that there is nothing of interest to say. All her interest is in forms of thought that promise some kind of freedom from necessity. So the Socratic “thinking” that occupies the first volume of Life of the Mind has nothing in common with Kant’s pure reason. Willing (the subject of the second volume of Life of the Mind), on the other hand, does chime in certain ways with Kantian practical reason and its focus on the “good will” and on the space of human freedom. I won’t pursue the limits of those echoes here.

Instead, I want to consider if it is possible to differentiate Socratic thinking from judgment (the proposed topic of Arendt’s third volume, one she discusses in several essays and in the Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy). Socratic thinking, unlike the “representative thinking” that characterizes judgment, is not irreducibly social, but consists instead of a internal dialogue with one’s self. Its focus is integrity, consistency, or “harmony.” It judges whether this belief or that action is one I can live with, one that I can affirm as who I am, who I am content to be. Arendt gets to this idea through her need to explain how some people (very few, but not no one) were able to resist changing their morals as easily as changing their table manners after the Nazis took power. So the distinction between this internal meditation and enlarged thinking (which takes account of the views of others) seems clear.

Except for three worries. 1. Isn’t it odd to ascribe this kind of internal thinking to Socrates when he constantly engaged in dialogue with others, when all his commitments were worked out through those conversations with others, with that soliciting of their views? He seems a terrible example of the dialogue of self with self. (Zerilli, pp. 121-24, points us toward places–especially in the Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy–where Arendt focuses in on the dialogical and public nature of Socrates’ thinking, which only makes the account of Socrates in Thinking all the more puzzling.)

2. Eichmann’s “thoughtlessness,” as Arendt characterizes it, is precisely his inability to think from the standpoint of the other. Eichmann, we are told, can’t think. Which suggests (very plausibly, I think) that internal, Socratic “thinking” is, in fact, impossible if not accompanied by judgment (understood as representative thinking). You can’t have one without the other; they are inextricably intertwined. Socrates needs those dialogues with others to do the kind of thinking he does when he is by himself. Conversely, Eichmann can do any internal thinking because he is incapable of any representative thinking.

3. The kind of integrity (harmony) achieved in the dialogue with one’s self is, it seems to me, inevitably responsive to outside pressures. That is, the very threat of non-integrity does not arise unless others are urging you to do something that threatens your harmony. It is this gap that makes thinking necessary, so that the internal dialogue is always already social, because referencing the external pressures working against one’s personal standards (of integrity, consistency, of proper or moral behavior). And if we accept Wittgenstein’s argument against private language (as I do), then it doesn’t even make sense to speak of “personal standards.” There are just different publicly available standards that are in conflict with one another–and which have been internalized in different ways. (Zerilli talks in places of “initiation into practices.” I want to hear more about that, especially in relation to a plurality of practices, some of which might conflict with one another, as contrasted to a monolithic, singular “form of life.”)

In sum, thinking and judging, which Arendt wants to keep distinct, seem to collapse into one another. Or, if they don’t quite collapse, they always appear in tandem. You can’t have one without the other. Which may just be a way of stating what I take to be an obvious truth: you can’t have an individual without a community to which she is bound.

Gridlock and Upheaval

Viewed one way, the world seems divided between the countries where everything seems locked into place and the countries undergoing constant upheaval.  In the United States, we seem unable to change anything.  Corporate power unchallenged; insane policies on gun ownership; a dysfunctional (inefficient, nontransparent, and grossly unequal) health care “system”; underfunded and segregated schools; homelessness; an addiction to automobiles that is subsidized by government funding of roads and the oil industry; environmental devastation of various sorts; increasing economic polarization; persistent racial disparities of every kind; a bloated military engaged in endless wars; and an intelligence “secret state” unaccountable to law.  All of these problems have been with us since at least the 1970s and we have made little to no progress in ameliorating them.  Hell, we can’t even address them within our political institutions—and they barely even register as topics of debate during our political campaigns.  What national politician over the past forty years has ever had anything to say about homelessness?  Why does Congress every year rubber stamp absurd military spending—the same Congress that hasn’t passed an actual, planned budget since 1996?

Such gridlock might pass as stability.  Certainly, stability is far preferable than conditions in a “failed state” like Somalia.  But the reality is that, absent a functioning government, other powers step into the vacuum.  By dismembering a regulatory state that actually oversees economic activity, Republicans have enabled the great wealth grab that has characterized US society since 1970.  There has been dramatic change—enabled by the very lack of action on the level of the state. 

The change has been both material and ideological (to use Marxist terms).  The ideological change might be summed up in the victory of Milton Friedman’s dictum that corporations have only one responsibility: to enrich their owners (shareholders).  Any level of profit is completely justifiable—as are any measures taken to secure profits.  Pollution, tax gamesmanship, off-shoring, driving down wages, various techniques to ratchet up “productivity” are all perfectly acceptable—since capital (investment) is going to flow toward those enterprises that best utilize all these means toward larger profits. 

The material changes have been in modes of production.  The productivity of the average American worker has risen dramatically.  Since 1979, according to the Economic Policy Institute, productivity has risen 69% while wages have only risen 11%.  (Link:

Any American worker can tell you where those productivity gains have come from: a bit from automation, but also from various “speed-up” techniques, including increased surveillance, unpaid overtime (in the US, 85% of men and 65% of women work more than 40 hours a week; link:, and persistent understaffing in relation to the work that must be accomplished. 

American workers notoriously do not take their vacations.  Why? For very paradoxical reasons: a combination of knowing all the work that won’t get done (and will be waiting for them) if they take time off (because of understaffing) combined with a fear that the business will be seen to survive while they are gone and, hence, they will be laid off.  The absolute loss of job security in the new dispensation of neoliberal economics combined with the knowledge that losing health insurance is the surest pathway to destitution keeps the worker at his or her job.  Yet they are also tied to their jobs by a laudable (but self-defeating) sense of responsibility, a desire to see that the work gets done and gets done well.  The struggle is to maintain self-respect even while trapped in a workplace that uses them up as ruthlessly as 19th century factory hands.

In short, even as nothing changes, there have been drastic upheavals in the terms of work for most Americans.  The relentless pursuit of productivity by American enterprises has made working conditions substantially worse and job insecurity much more prevalent than they were in 1970 even as wages have remained almost stagnant. 

What’s even more dispiriting is that much of this productivity is (on any sane, big picture view) worthless.  Not worthless in its ability to churn out profit, but worthless in any sensible account of social well-being.  We are in David Graeber “bull shit jobs” territory here.  Think of tax codes and a health care system (to take just two examples) so byzantine that tens of thousands of people are employed to work through their bureaucratic mazes.  We are overworked to produce things that do not, in John Ruskin’s memorable phrase, “avail life.”  American society, apparently so unmovable, has increasingly embraced “illth,” the opposite of that wealth that avails life.

I had coffee the other day with one of my favorite ex-students.  He is currently pursuing a PhD in the humanities—and was commenting on the academic version of insane productivity demands.  The response since 1970 to the decline of jobs in the humanities has been to up the demands for scholarly production required at each step of the process of trying to secure (and then keep) a position.  The inexorable logic of increasing demands appears unstoppable.  Even though every one knows it is insane.  Writing articles and books no one ever reads—and that have no impact on anything anywhere.  The only reasonable response seems to be to up and quit: to refuse to be exploited as a non-tenurable, under-paid part-timer, and to refuse to ruin ten to fifteen years of your life bound to the productivity wheel of fire.

The young academic’s dilemma is no different than that faced by the newly hired at Goldman Sachs who are required to work 100 hours a week. (Link:  These hazing rituals can be sustained because the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is open to so few even though so many desire it.  There is even the meritocratic pride of those who are tough enough to make it—and their corresponding contempt for the weaklings who drop out along the way.  Competition is glorified as the way to discover who is really the best, even as this fetishism of competition overwhelms any consideration of the quality or the larger worth of the work produced under these inhumane conditions.  Productivity has become like money—valued for its own sake, not for the things it enables.

What was most dispiriting in my conversation with my student was not his own dismal prospects—and the attempt to figure out a way for him to have a decent life doing the things he loved.  No, it was the larger view.  He has given up entirely on the United States.  We are a society in terminable decline, one that offers no prospects of a good life to his generation, and unable to summon the will, the know-how, or the vision to change course.  Crippled by our racial and culture war animosities (stirred up by politicians and a news media that has no interest—in every sense of that word—in addressing our society’s dysfunctions), the US (in this student’s eyes) has no path forward. 

Not that a future outside the US looks any better.  He was convinced China is the future—and it’s grim.  Twenty years ago, China at least made noises about being a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society, and its burgeoning economy appeared likely to produce a robust civil society.  But that proved a fleeting dream.  State capitalism is now joined to ethnic absolutism as China’s modus operandi.  The non-Han will be crushed along with any dissent (witness the crackdown in Hong Kong).  That the processes making life worse are driven by the state in China and by the abdication of the state in the United States makes China look stronger, but offers no consolation for those who lives are disfigured in both places.

It’s not that my student—or most people—can’t see what is happening to them.  A clear-eyed vision of what is wrong is widespread.  It’s the inability to locate any levers of change that paralyses. Stop the world I want to get off—because it is currently so obviously bad and hurtling toward worse. 

Anticolonial Aesthetics (2)

Here’s the question that J. Daniel Elam’s book (World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth: Anticolonial Aesthetics, Postcolonial Politics [Fordham University Press, 2021]) poses in stark terms: How to live in an insufferable present?  One answer is to work as a revolutionary or as a reformer to create a future that is better than this present.  That, we might say, is the traditional answer—and, as Elam is at pains to show, that answer is tied to a package of assumptions that he calls “liberal.”  I, of course, would quarrel with using the term “liberal” in that way.  But that’s irrelevant at the moment.  Let’s instead just identify the key features of the package: an investment in effective action, understood as the ability to envision something and then act in ways that bring that vision into existence.  Such a model of effective action is going to emphasize the will (hence a certain model of the controlled self dedicated to a coherent “project”), along with rational planning, and the capacity to command resources (both of human labor and of required materials).  In sum, a celebration and enactment of “mastery,” of shaping the world to fit one’s vision of what the world should be.  For Elam, mastery leads, just about inevitably, to tyranny.  The present is laid waste, is sacrificed, in the name of the future—a future that never arrives.

In response, Elam wants to articulate a politics that does not bank (and the word “bank” is particularly apposite here, with its image of delaying present gratification in favor of future returns on investment) on any future at all.  This politics eschews utopian visions, even visions of reform, declaring them “sweet cheats” that devastate the present while never delivering the promised future.  To that extent, Elam is seeking the same golden calf I have been pursuing: a non-sacrificial politics, ways of being in the world with others (human and non-human) that don’t require victims. 

But there is a catch.  The present is itself unliveable, insufferable.  Completely and utterly.  Back to the affirmation issue.  What does it mean to live in a present that cannot be affirmed, that is a continual affront to every value and desire one holds dear—and to live in that present with no hope that the future will be any better.  To be blocked on all sides.  No exit.  Just a succession of present moments all as bad as this one.

It seems inevitable under such circumstances that the search will begin for “lines of flight.”  It is unimaginable (unless one sinks into the utter torpor of despair) that nothing will be done in an attempt to meliorate the situation.  Even if only in fantasy.  Shamed by the cruelty of American society and the puerility of American politics, I dream of moving to Canada.  I don’t do it, but the idea that an escape is possible offers some small consolation, some inkling that the present doesn’t have to continue utterly unchanged. 

The activists Elam discusses in his book are just that: activists.  They keep moving, keep acting, even though all ways forward are blocked.  What do they do, how do they live?  What choices do they make in a world that has denied them any meaningful freedom—if we take freedom to name the ability to make a choice and to act on that choice.  Elam downplays the political acts that these Indian activists performed.  That’s probably a weakness in his book.  But this downplaying has two functions: one, to starkly dramatize his central question of what to do when the future is foreclosed, and two, to allow him to highlight an alternative politics, a politics that is not oriented to actions designed to create a future.  A politics of living in the insufferable present, a politics “in the meantime” (3).

It is a politics precisely because it seeks an alternative to the regimes of mastery.  This politics turns its back on (even at times explicitly renounces and refutes) the marshalling of resources that yields the tyrannies of most political projects, including colonialism.  Against the command and utilize structure of efforts to produce a future, this politics aims for egalitarian moments of collective togetherness that produce nothing, that offer a fleeting experience of sociality for its own sake.  The model feels aestheticist because of this focus on the non-utilitarian, on that which is done for its own sake.  George Simmel thought of “sociability” in these terms.  Simmel was thinking about the person who loves to throw a good party (Mrs. Dalloway).  There is no thought of what is to be gained by throwing the party; it has no aim other than of bringing people together.  Mrs. Dalloway tells us that she throws her parties “for life,” as a tribute to life.  She has a “gift”—and fights back against those who consider calling her “a perfect hostess” is a sneer.  The present is all—although death does come to her party when she learns of Septimus’s suicide.  The party is not a denial of death, but a way of attending to the preciousness of each moment in the face of that inevitable future death.  Death—and other imagined futures that are less inevitable—do not justify sacrificing the present.

What practices embody this politics of the present? Elam’s quartet—Lala Har Dayal, B. R. Ambedkar, M. K. Gandhi, and Baghat Singh—didn’t throw a lot of parties.  What they did do, a lot, was read and write. Hence my unjust crack in my last post that when the going gets tough, the tough pick up a book.  Reading is certainly a line of flight, a way to escape the insufferable present into another place.  There is an imperative need to envision an elsewhere—be it Canada, a utopian future, or the world offered by a book—when present circumstances are soul- and life-destroying.  And Elam’s book brings home just how bookish radicals on the left are.  Even Stalin had pretensions to being a scholar.  Most revolutionaries read voraciously—and their revolutionary convictions stemmed almost as much from their reading as from their direct experiences of oppression and injustice.

Elam, however, is not interested in the convictions that underwrite one’s disgust with the present.  Rather—and this is his book’s greatest strength—he develops a particular ethos of reading.  It is not the only possible way to understand the practice of reading, but it is a way that he argues (persuasively) is shared by philology and anticolonial politics in the period between the two World Wars of the twentieth century.  Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis stands for Elam (as it did for Edward Said) as the exemplary text of a philological practice of reading that announces its own incompleteness, inadequacy, and non-totalizing, fragmentary forays into interpreting a world and its texts.  That world, those books, will always exceed any effort to comprehend it, so that the individual philologist is always already engaged in a collective project, contributing his or her mite, to a project that aims not so much at achieving comprehension (in every sense of that word) as at creating fellowship (“fraternity” in the work of B. R. Ambedkar) through the ongoing conversation.  We are all readers together, struggling to parse a difficult text, occupants of a kind of Borgesian library where the effort to understand does not generate despair and competition, but fellow feeling, cooperation, and (perhaps) delight in the world’s endless intricacies (good and bad).

One concrete form this practice of reading takes is the commonplace book (103-105).  As distinct even from the anthology (which is aggressively curated and annotated by its editors), the commonplace book simply presents snippets one by one in an egalitarian jumble.  We can identify the one who has compiled the commonplace book, but he or she is certainly not an author and only a very minimalist editor.  The compiler is assembling a fellowship—and joining its ranks.  Elam sees such work as “the assertion of one’s own radical inconsequentiality, commonness, and accessibility” (105).

And then proceeds to explain why this self-abnegation of the reader is political.

“An ethics rooted in inconsequence refuses future possible outcomes in favor of an investment in the secular (that is, non-transcendent) present.  For Leela Gandhi [from whom Elam derives his attention to “inconsequence’], this is a political gesture: “we democratize our consciousness by sacrificing our telos,” she notes.  If inconsequentialism names “ a force of interruption in the worldly drama of repetition, reproduction, and duplication, so that newness might reenter the world,” inconsequentialist reading  is the practice of a revolutionary anti-authorial recalcitrance that both inaugurates and is made possible by a certain worldly commitment to the common, the impossible, and the ephemeral present” (105).

A radical politics of renunciation.  The list of what is renounced is long: hope for a better future, faith in one’s self as an effective actor, surrender to the myriad voices of a multitudinous world, and acceptance (even affirmation?) of the massive territory of the impossible.  But where, Elam and Leela Gandhi ask, has our allegiance to schemes for betterment gotten us: just the deadly repetitions yielded by our efforts at mastery.

Mine is not a renouncing temperament.  And it is all too easy to sneer at the Western academics espousing renunciation even as they carefully build their CVs.  But Elam’s book brought home to me, in the starkest terms, the issue of how one lives (day to day in the most mundane ways) in a present one despises yet cannot escape.  The answer, at least for me if I am honest (and I suspect my case is not so different from many others), is that I read and write “against the day” since few other outlets for protest or action are open to me.  I do contribute to political causes (what Adrienne Rich called “checkbook activism”) and attend the odd protest or two. I agonize over the daily news, but somehow feel it a duty to keep up even while it does my spirits or the larger society no good. And I take lots of “moral holidays.”  The term is from William James—and he did not mean it negatively.  He simply wanted to note that all of us give ourselves breathers; we take a respite from worrying about or even suffering from the state of the world.  We go on a picnic and even manage not to feel in the least bit guilty about it.

For me, reading is very often one of those moral holidays.  It is not political in the ways that Elam describes.  But it is true that reading can offer the deep consolation of learning that there are others who feel as I do about the current state of things, and who have ways of articulating or explaining our mess that resonate with me.  Edmund White has written movingly about how his reading of Proust and Genet during his Ohio boyhood allowed him to understand there was not only nothing wrong with him as a homosexual, but that there was a world, a fellowship, out there that he could join.  Reading Hardy, Joyce, and Woolf as a teenager had the same effect on me; there was a world beyond the suburban desert of my hometown—and I was going to leave and join that world. 

The point is that reading is often very solitary—and an escape from one’s surroundings.  But that reading can also intimate that an “elsewhere” exists—and is already occupied by those one would like to have as fellows.  The politics therein focuses on the imagined “republic of letters,” or the “world literature” referenced in Elam’s title.  No matter that countless tales of disillusionment reveal that world to be petty, cutting, and back-biting once achieved.  In the space of reading, the fleeting utopian fellowship of equals that Elam invokes offers its escape.  I still think turning that image into a politics requires a way to get from here to there.  But it is, of course, just that kind of calculation that Elam rejects.  So: is reading just a “moral holiday” if we don’t try to make its egalitarian allurements, its invitation to join a world we want to belong to, “real”?  Are we to leave those awakened desires in the world of fiction, accepting they are impossible to realize in the non-fictional world?

A short digression: worth thinking about the ways in which the internet allows every sub-community discover that it has it adherents.  White, the isolated gay Ohioan, finds his similars through books.  Now deeply devoted fans of the Dick van Dyke Show discover they are not alone—and form chat rooms followed up by conventions.  No avocation is too obscure or too outré to not have its quorum.

Elam is striving to articulate an anticolonial politics.  On the one hand, that politics is trying to escape the massive damage that has been done by fantasies/practices of mastery and the infinite demands of productivity, accumulation, and the quest for profit.  On the other hand, he is trying to imagine a politics that deals with the ethical question of how to live in a world that refutes our most basic desires for justice, an end to suffering,  and love between one human and another. 

That second, ethical, question—how to live—can be put in stark existential terms that make it seem less political and more just a matter of responding to the human condition.  Elam hits that existential bedrock in the following passage:

“What does it mean to read in the face of death? What does it mean to read without seeking mastery or expertise?  What does it mean, therefore, to read without consequence?” (104). 

Most academics read in order to have fodder for their own writing.  They rarely read without thinking about how what they are reading is going to drive their own production of a new text.  Writers are harvesters from the books they read.  But there is a limit, there is an impossible future: namely the future of one continuing to live and write without end.  No one gets to cheat death—everything we might do to cheat death is inconsequential, cannot have the consequences those actions aim toward. 

So maybe one fundamental political question to ask is: how do we live together on this earth in face of the fact that the future for every single one of us is foreclosed?  If we accept our radical lack of mastery in the face of death, does that have consequences for how we should arrange our relations to one another and to the world we inhabit?  What would follow (and this is the burden of much of Judith Butler’s recent work) is we accepted our radical equality in this matter of dying (instead of seeing some people as less consequential, as more dispensable, as more acceptable victims of mortality)? I am trying to register here why Elam’s book moved me so deeply.  It goes against almost all of my instincts, but opening myself to his eloquent meditations, leads me to seeing how the pretension to mastery is just that: a pretension.  Elam adds that it is a pretension that only generates misery—in the short and the long runs.  So: can we abandon that pretension?  What does it look like to abandon it?  And what practices and politics follow if we succeed in this act or renunciation?  There are paradoxes here, to be sure, since to talk of “acts” and what “follows” them as I do in my last sentence returns us to the ground of the consequences of doing things, but Elam’s book has convinced me that the difficulties of thinking through impossibility and non-mastery should not short circuit the effort to do so