Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Getting Past Form: on the Value of Literary Ideas



What follows is a guest post by Patrick Fessenbecker.

In a recent column in The New York Times, Ross Douthat contends that English professors aren’t having the right kind of arguments. Reflecting on the analysis of the decline of the humanities in a series of essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education over the last year, Douthat makes a familiar diagnosis: the problem is that we literature professors no longer believe in the real value of the objects we study. Engaging Simon During’s account of the decline of the humanities as a “second secularization” in particular, Douthat argues that secular attempts to defend the humanities will fail just as surely as secular attempts to defend religious ethics and norms did: it doesn’t work unless you really believe in the thing. Correspondingly, the debates literary scholars are having about how to expand the range of texts and subjects we teach are premised on a basic mistake about what such an expansion involves. As he puts it:

This should, by rights, be a moment of exciting curricular debates, over which global and rediscovered and post-colonial works belong on the syllabus with Shakespeare, over whether it’s possible to teach an American canon and a global canon all at once. Instead, humanists have often trapped themselves in a false choice between “dead white males” and “we don’t transmit value.”

In other words, we ought to be in the business of considering how our conceptions of value and their application should change as scholars recognize the incredible cultural wealth inherent in the diversity of the world. But instead we’re caught between reactionary conservatism and nihilistic critique.

Taken as practical advice for rescuing and renewing the humanities, this account of their decline is severely lacking in evidence. Institutional and economic pressures have had a much clearer impact on the disappearance of jobs in the humanities and the dropping enrollments in humanities classes than any belief on the part of humanities professors has. I suspect that Douthat knows this: he admits that a “thousand different forces are killing student interest in the humanities and cultural interest in high culture”, and limits himself to the claim that the humanities “depend at least” on the idea “that certain books and arts and forms are superior, transcendent, at least on the belief that students should learn to value these texts and forms before attempting their critical dissection.” It’s tough to know what the force of the word “depend” is here: logically? Politically? Socially? Certainly there are vigorous defenses of contemporary humanistic study that don’t invoke those beliefs; see for instance Natalia Cecire’s point that it is precisely the immediate relevance of the knowledge the humanities produces that has put them in crisis. The humanities are in peril not because students find them uninteresting or irrelevant, but because humanities scholarship threatens the status quo.

Clearly Douthat isn’t persuaded by those defenses, and admittedly they don’t seem to have done much good in preserving the institutions of literary study against the current onslaught. But without evidence it’s unclear why Douthat thinks restoring a firm commitment to the value of literary works would do better. The debate about the crisis of the humanities in general and of literary studies in particular is by now quite mature, as reflected in the extensive database on the “Why English?” question compiled by Nathan Hensley and several collaborators (available here); one can find versions of Douthat’s argument in the accounts from James Hankins, Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, and John Agresto. At this point, then, the suggestion that the problem is fundamentally about the attitudes and approaches literature professors take towards the objects of their study should at minimum explain the mechanism by which their recommendations would change the facts on the ground. Is the thought that a commitment to literary value would bring more students to literature classes and the English (or Spanish, or French) major? Or perhaps that such a commitment would make humanities professors more effective advocates in approaching university board members, or state legislators, or voters? What evidence is there to suggest that the reasons such constituencies currently have for their skepticism about literary study would be addressed by an enthusiastic affirmation of artistic value? I suppose it is possible the Scott Walkers of the world—the Walker, one might recall, who tried to eliminate the “search for truth” from his state university’s mission in favor of an overt declaration that schools would meet the training needs of employers—would be brought around by paeans to beauty. I am, however, skeptical.

The Meaning of Recognizing Difference

But if Douthat is wrong at the level of institutional tactics, he nevertheless has a point at the level of literary theory. Reading his argument charitably, it’s a condensed version of Charles Taylor’s 1992 analysis in “The Politics of Recognition.” There, Taylor contrasts two different ways of understanding a new and important claim: “all cultures are equally valuable.” The first way of construing the claim is to say that because recognition is an essential part of constituting identity, everyone one deserves to have their culture recognized as worthy, via among other things inclusion on syllabuses. The second is to say all cultures are equally valuable in that there is no cultural tradition that can be excluded prima facie from the analysis of artistic value, presumed without study to be uninteresting. Nor, indeed, can any judgement be made without a reconsideration of the criteria involved. As Taylor writes,

We learn to move in a broader horizon, within which what we have formerly taken for granted as the background to valuation can be situated as one possibility alongside the different background of the formerly unfamiliar culture. The “fusion of horizons” operates through our developing new vocabularies of comparison, by means of which we can articulate these contrasts. […] So that if and when we ultimately find substantive support for our initial presumption, it is on the basis of an understanding of what constitutes worth that we couldn’t possibly have had at the beginning.

But this evaluative transformation is not a relativism, because while we begin with the presumption of equal value, we do not necessarily end with it: “Either we will find something of great value in culture C,” Taylor writes, “or we will not. But it makes no more sense to demand that we do so than to demand that we find the earth round or flat” (69). If values genuinely reflect something about the objects involved and not just our own choices, then they cannot be dictated by a moral principle about the equality of cultures. Instead, while acknowledging that our values may change in the process of deciding whether an unfamiliar work is valuable—the criteria shifting in the middle of their application, as it were—nevertheless the meaningfulness of the evaluative process depends on the extent to which it reflects something other than just an arbitrary choice to regard a work from another culture as equal. Indeed, a deeper kind of recognition and appreciation of cultural differences is made possible precisely by the fact that it reflects something other than the shallow positing of equivalent worth simply on the basis of difference: it is the recognition that comes in establishing a criterion one can identify with and then understanding yes, this is a great work by my own definition. Thus while the first way of construing the claim “all cultures are equal” might seem more powerful, since it posits a radical equality in worth among all cultural products, ultimately the second affords a much more thorough acknowledgment of genuine difference.

Putting it this way, though, makes things a little abstract. It’s unclear what the fusion of horizons actually entails, other than perhaps walking into an art museum and trying to keep an open mind. Then, too, it runs into sort of an immediacy problem. Perhaps one reads a work from another culture’s textual history—say, Evliya Çelebi’s Seyahatname, a narrative of his 17th-century journeys across the Ottoman Empire—while doing one’s best to appreciate what the work has to offer. Although it seems mostly confusing and boring at first, you push through and finish, and perhaps after reading some helpful scholarship it becomes clear how someone might find this kind of thing interesting. That isn’t exactly the same, though, as valuing it. Valuing it yourself would seem to involve experiencing it as valuable, and you can’t do that, because you’ve already read it and you found it boring. Rather, you got to a place where you could understand how someone else would, and how a different you, one who had known a little more before you read the Seyahatname in the first place, might enjoy it. But that isn’t you, now, and so it’s less clear than one would like whether we’re talking about anything that matters.

And that leads to a rather darker question, a version of Susan Sontag’s admonition against interpretation: what after all is the point of literary criticism? If one agrees with Douthat that literary value is important and that critics ought to be returning to it, what should we be actually doing? Because even if we did write scholarship explaining the beauty of some poem, it’s not obvious that would help anyone experience it as beautiful who didn’t already see it that way. Here is where it’s useful to take a small detour into literary theory, splitting what Douthat correctly calls a false choice between the canon of “dead white males” and the nihilism of “we don’t transmit value,” and suggest that the destabilization of traditional aesthetics has actually made it easier to understand how and why literary works are valuable—and how and why readers come to experience them that way.

The Audacity of Reading for the Ideas

At one point in the new book Character: Three Inquiries in Literary Studies, Toril Moi points out the startling gap between the way literary critics present the themes of a literary text and the worldly problems their students are confronting. She writes:

Most of us are simply better at teaching students how to analyze narrative structures than how to think about love. Yet “love” has a long, deep, and complex history in philosophy and theology, a history containing ideas that are no less challenging than theories of narrative structure.

Taken seriously, there is an almost breathtakingly arrogant claim buried in this contrast. How dare your English professor, after all, tell you anything about how you should think about love? Why would English professors think they know much worth sharing on the topic, indeed so much so that they should be paid for offering their wisdom? Who do they think they are?

And yet. Such a professor might reasonably counter that it is not as if there are many better resources on offer to the average eighteen-year-old. Undoubtedly the question of how to love is an important one. The places, objects, activities, and people one that we love have an enormous impact on the direction and quality of our lives. And the world is not overrun with experts on the diversity of ways of loving and the many different conclusions thoughtful people have come to about their nature in love’s long history. If we conceive of the English professor not as a minister sharing doctrine but as an informed guide to making up one’s own mind in a complex and intense arena of human experience, then such an attitude towards literature and its teaching begins to seem much less like arrogance and more like a basic acknowledgment of why one might care about books in the first place. As Amanda Anderson, a co-author of Character, puts it in a Ted talk, the humanities do not directly impress values upon students. But the humanities in the contemporary university are nevertheless deeply connected to questions of value; they are the one place in such institutions that enable “an appreciation and an understanding of the centrality of questions of value to the human experience, and they help one begin to grapple with those questions.” Regarded this way, one might move from thinking it arrogant for the literary humanities to deal with the practical question of what one should do with one’s life and with questions of value more broadly to wondering how they could have ever forgotten their importance.

Moi places a significant portion of the blame on “formalism.” Although it has now morphed into an astonishing variety of approaches to cultural study, “formalism” as originally expressed by writers like Roger Fry, T.S. Eliot, and Monroe Beardsley is a linked thesis about (a) what art is, (b) what artistic experience is, and (c) how to evaluate works of art. Through its unique combination of parts (whether those parts are words, musical notes, strokes of paint, or pieces of stone) into a single “form”, the work of art offers a unique kind of experience; the amount or depth of this experience determines the value of any given work of art. The basic intuition motivating the formalist thesis is captured well in two dicta from some of Anglophone culture’s most prominent critics:

All art aspires to the condition of music.” –Walter Pater
A movie is not about what it is about, but about how it is about it.” –Roger Ebert

Pater and Ebert are making similar points about the (supposed) irrelevance of content to artistic quality. To assess a work of art on the basis of its informational content or representational truth, the formalist contends, is simply to miss its genuinely artistic qualities. Art is not actually about what it’s about: what makes it art is the way it goes about being about it. A good song is not one that accurately portrays the nature of love, but one that sounds good.

The reason literary critics are good at talking about narrative structure and not very good at talking about how to make difficult decisions in a mature and thoughtful way is that they are above all trained formalists, trained in studying the various structures that have seemed to make artworks distinct things. The assumption that a work is literary insofar as it has a certain formal structure still undergirds many practices of literary criticism, even after the early twentieth-century movements in art and aesthetic theory that gave such practices an avant-garde enthusiasm and a rich theoretical framework have been assimilated, overthrown, and forgotten. And no formalist practice is as dominant as the assumption that literary works do not say things: invariably literary critics present “close reading”—the discipline’s constitutive technique—as if it consisted above all in paying more attention to how a thing is said as to what it actually says, as if the careful consideration of an idea was not itself a form of close examination.

Moving past these practices is the major project in the recent research of Character’s final co-author, Rita Felski, whose forthcoming book Hooked: Art and Attachment starts from the premise that there are all sorts of ways readers get “attached” to works of literature, and that formalism by itself will not do a very good job of explaining those attachments. In my own book, Reading Ideas in Victorian Literature, I call this “the formalist attitude”: an assumption that experiencing a text as an instance of form is more sensitive and attentive than other ways of reading. And no reader has earned the contempt of formalists as much as the reader who paraphrases, looking for an idea she might agree with, as if the work were (God forbid) a parable.

Yet once we abandon formalist assumptions, it’s clear that such readers are valuing the works, even valuing them as works of art. Let me stress that: enjoying a work of art for what it has to say does not somehow betray its artistic nature or violate a core sacred element of some distinct emotion the work of art inspires—“aesthetic phlogiston,” in Nelson Goodman’s inimitable phrase. The notion that it does is the reflection of a very specific and historically contingent theory of what art is, and once we move past it (as the vast majority of philosophers of art have) we’ll see that caring about works of art for what they say is just as much a way of respecting them as finding them beautiful would be. More than that, it suggests a place for literary criticism: in explaining how a work says something interesting and important, the critic helps readers who are initially confused and frustrated to experience a complex work as valuable. The criticism completes the work by connecting its thinking to the reader’s own reflections.

The Humility of Learning from the Great Books

In one sense, then, this is a radical break with the past and present norms of literary study, but it another sense it’s a call back to one of the twentieth century’s most influential ways of thinking about the value of the humanities. In Mortimer Adler’s description of the original “Great Books” curriculum, the “greatness” is firmly rooted in philosophy. The Great Books are great because they are the major participants in the “Great Conversation,” and the “Great Conversation” is great because it’s about the “Great Ideas.” The 1952 edition of The Great Books counted 102 ideas, ranging from “angel” to “world,” and including “democracy,” “mind,” and “love.” The overarching—and incredibly ambitious—thought was to try to articulate the major themes of human existence, and then put together a syllabus for reading the insightful works on each theme.

And it was a living tradition, too. As Tim Lacy explains in The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea, there was nothing especially sacred about the number “102.” Moreover the relationship between the thinkers in the “Great Conversation” was not “doctrinal” but “dialectic”: in a 1988 interview Adler contrasted his own approach to the “doctrinal method” of Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom (of Closing of the American Mind infamy), explaining that “Truth is certainly ascertainable, but both [Bloom] and his master, Leo Strauss…teach them as if the great books contain the truth. In my…60 years of experience, I find more error in the great books than truth” (194). For Adler we don’t read the Great Books believing that they have truths we need to memorize. We read them to think with them, because the questions they address are vital and important, and even if their answers are flawed they’re the best humanity has so far.

And on Adler’s view studying the humanities was a deeply humbling experience for everyone. In a piece entitled “Two Essays on Docility”—first written in 1940 and reprinted as part of Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind, his response to Bloom—he explains that the teacher who demands humility from students without deserving it is not really a teacher at all: “the doctoral office is truly emptied whenever students who have exercised docility discover its occupant to be unworthy.” How does one become worthy of this attitude? Revealingly, it is by being “docile” oneself:

It would be a mistake for those of us who are teachers to suppose that the problem of achieving docility is a problem only for our students […] On the contrary, a good teacher is usually one who is himself an active student of the subject matter in which he gives instruction. Authority and docility will be combined in him, for he is both a teacher of those who know less than himself and a student of the masters of his subject matter. One might even guess that there will be a certain proportion between his attainment of authority and his exercise of docility (26).

Teachers must earn their students’ willingness to listen by demonstrating the fact that they too seek to learn from those who know more. And the anti-elitist dimensions of this pedagogy are particularly apparent in Adler’s final sentence, which suggests that a teacher’s rightful authority is directly proportional to his own ability to listen to others. What arrogance humanities teachers show in assuming they can offer valuable insights to students, in other words, is only made possible by their humility in the face of the enormity of their topic.

Our Actually Existing, Problematic Canon

So at least in theory, Adler’s approach to the philosophical justifications for humanistic teaching is flexible and humble: open to the idea that there are many possible great ideas that capture the human existence, and insistent that the only way to teach those ideas is to admit how little one really knows about them and how much there is to learn at the outset. But in practice Adler was less supple, particularly at a crucial moment for the humanities in the early 1990s.

As Lacy explains, matters came to a head in the 1990 edition of The Great Books, a new edition whose purpose was in part to include great works of the twentieth century (Adler stipulated from 1900-55). But as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. pointed out, there were no Black authors in Adler’s collection. Gates was troubled in particular by the exclusion of W.E.B. Dubois—in his opinion, “the most important African-American intellectual in history”—and concluded that “there’s still a ‘whites only’ sign on what precisely constitutes a great thinker.” Moreover the arbitrary nature of Adler’s criteria for exclusion were obvious to everyone except himself; as Lacy puts it, “Adler still could not, or would not, acknowledge the subjective decisions he and his staff had made in the construction of the Great Ideas and the Great Conversation” (204). His racism became particularly apparent in an interview with John Blades of The Chicago Times, in which Adler “insisted that there are no ‘Great Books’ by black writers before the 1955 cutoff.”

Incensed academics responded in a variety of ways; many responses were collected in the 19 November 1990 issue of JET magazine in an article entitled “Blacks Furious Over Exclusion from New ‘Great Books of the Western World.’” The Reverend James Mack, for instance, suggested like Gates that Du Bois’s work was obviously worthy of inclusion—he was a “scholar in the old European sense of the scholar.” But one of the most thoughtful responses was from Leon Forrest, then chair of the African-American Studies department at Northwestern University. In a December 1990 article in the Chicago Tribune, Forrest notes in particular how bizarre it is to think that Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”—published 1952—is not one of the great novels of the twentieth century. But, Forrest observes, probably Adler and his judges did read the book. What then happened was something like the following:

Upon reading a first-rate work by a black author, they discovered what often happens, that the black experience is always going to reveal to the reader the various meanings of the issues of slavery, white supremacy and racism, even as it deals with a range of so-called traditional verities. For Adler and associates, these thematic patterns are not universal enough. Yet any superb work by a black writer would of course challenge the very fabric of Western intellectual tradition, which to a large degree is steeped in the ideas of white supremacy, European intellectual superiority and Caucasian/Christian salvation.

In other words, it’s not ultimately surprising that Adler didn’t include any Black writers, because including them would have forced him to reconsider whether his list of “great ideas” was really universal. Of course a great work from a Black American author is going to deal with different themes, but then this raises the troubling possibility that perhaps the original list of great ideas itself reflects not universal features of human experience, but instead a historically contingent kind of subjectivity made possible by white supremacy.

It’s useful, I think, to distinguish a weak and a strong version of the objection at work here. The weak version is that Adler’s racism prevented him from seeing the radical potential of his own approach, which offered the possibility for developing a humanities canon that would combine a robust sense of value with the constant need to adjust to a changing world, and that if he had only applied his own criteria fairly, a more diverse canon would have appeared as a matter of course. This seems to be the point Reverend Mack was making: the Du Bois exclusion is a problem of application, since Du Bois is a scholar in “the old European sense,” and Adler just didn’t recognize that. In other words, we need not abandon the basic model of great ideas—great conversation—great books; we just need to recognize that what ideas are great will have to be updated from time to time, and that a diverse chorus of voices will be necessary in helping teachers to overcome their own inevitable biases apply the criteria fairly.

The strong version, though, undermines the foundations. Dr. Forrest’s critique implies that the whole notion of constructing “great ideas” makes a mistake at a basic level about what human experience is. There aren’t any great ideas fundamental to all of humanity, because there isn’t even close to any one thing we could call “the human experience”, and we’ll just confuse matters if we think that there is. What we ought to recognize instead is that which philosophical problems and themes seem striking to a given writer will arise out of her political and material conditions, and we understand such writers not by looking for ideas to apply to our lives but to understand how their ideas stemmed from and reflected upon their environments.

The Future of Canonizing

Obviously this is a large topic I’m not going to solve here. But let me suggest that the 1990 Great Books crisis is in fact surprisingly comprehensible in terms of the weak objection, and that once understood this way the strong objection looks less plausible. As Tim Lacy notes, one of the most striking features of Adler’s original 1952 list of ideas is that “equality” didn’t make the list. Yet surely this is one of the great themes of human life, especially in a democratic culture. In fact Adler himself came to recognize this: his 1981 book Six Great Ideas included five from the original 1952 list—truth, goodness, beauty, liberty, and justice—alongside a new entrant: equality. Here, “equality” appears (plausibly enough) as a core component of justice and as a recurring opposite of liberty. But as Lacy contends, this new category naturally enough suggests a reshuffling of the entrants in the “great conversation” and a natural place for Du Bois and Ellison: “several books by Du Bois met the threshold of great in that they provided numerous shades of nuance to exceedingly important and relevant great ideas: equality and racism” (211).

One can easily call this a failure of Adler’s approach, but it seems at least possible to think of it as a success, a dialectical progression of exactly the sort he thought an inevitable part of the Great Conversation. To put it briefly, over the course of the second half of the twentieth century the importance of the question of equality to the human experience and the philosophical difficulty of the topic became increasingly clear to Adler, not least because he and many other white Americans were undergoing the realization of how many forms of inequality persisted. And that realization made a gap in his canon of The Great Books particularly evident. One way to phrase the gap is to say that the 1990 edition had no Black authors, but another way is to say that it had no authors who had reflected upon the threat race and racism present to equality—or at least, none who had reflected upon it with the depth Du Bois and Ellison did. A fusion of philosophical horizons is possible, in other words: the force of the objection scholars were posing to Adler can be put in terms he shared or should have shared given his other philosophical commitments. Here is where it’s especially useful to think of literary texts as being valuable for what they have to say: we can now present the move away from definitions of artistic value centered on sophisticated formal structures and towards definitions that value art for its content as part of the transformation in evaluative criteria the encounter with global literatures should inspire.

To conclude, is this then to endorse a version of Douthat’s point, and to agree that we literary critics haven’t been having the right kind of debates? No and yes. No, because when one looks closely, it becomes clear that this is in fact what many critics have been doing all along. Part of what Reading Ideas uncovers is the long history of reading for the content: all through a century of debates about the importance of literary form, the ordinary practice of literary criticism plugged along by drawing connections between the intellectual content in literary texts and the problems readers were thinking about. Open any journal of literary criticism, and it usually isn’t hard to find an essay or two that connects a close reading of a work to some philosophical or theoretical issue. In the October 2019 issue of PMLA, for instance, John Brooks shows how Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure challenges the assumption that there is a “distinct and essential racial experience” of Blackness, presenting Blackness instead as a “fugitive mode” of thinking and being. There isn’t a tension between thinking of the novel as an intellectual project in this light and valuing it because it’s a work of art: in fact, to do the first is to do the latter. Making the case for the importance of a certain way of thinking about race and for the value of the novel turn out to be the same.

But yes, there is a sense in which we literary critics often have the wrong kinds of debates. Our theories of literary method imply that we have moved in many cases beyond questions of artistic value, but our practices are often saturated with it. While the justification for much of our criticism might at a superficial level seem to be theoretical or philosophical, in fact it’s artistic: showing how to value and how to enjoy books that we think are good. Admitting this—that the ideas in literary texts can be exciting, and that exciting ideas are part of what make them worth reading—harms nothing, and points towards a powerful way of reshaping the curriculum of literary studies for the twenty-first century.

Notes on the Contributor
Patrick Fessenbecker is an assistant professor in the Program for Cultures, Civilizations, and Ideas at Bilkent University.  His book Reading Ideas in Victorian Literature: Literary Content as Artistic Experience is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press in June. He is currently at work on a project about George Eliot’s moral philosophy.

Edited by Alex King.
Image credit: nate q via Flickr

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