AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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JAMES WOOD ON HOW CRITICISM WORKS

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Photo credit: Claire Messud

What follows is an interview of writer and literary critic James Wood, who is Professor of Literary Practice at Harvard. He is interviewed by Becca Rothfeld, a PhD candidate in philosophy at Harvard, and an essayist, literary critic, and contributor to The New Yorker, the New York Times Book ReviewThe Atlantic, and more. 

James Wood is Professor of Literary Practice at Harvard, a staff writer at The New Yorker, the author of two novels and six books of criticism, and the most exhilarating literary critic alive. He made his name writing long, ambitious, and often searingly negative essays, among them his famed takedown of so-called “hysterical realists”  and his evisceration of Paul Auster’s hypermasculine posturing. But I know Wood primarily as a lover of literature, and in recent years, he has done much to champion contemporary novelists, among them Ben Lerner and Teju Cole. Wood is a voracious quoter, and in his pieces he allows the works he loves to speak in their own voices. I love Wood for many reasons, some of which I fleshed out in my review of his latest essay collection, Serious Noticing. By way of summary, I love his beautiful prose, his appreciation for well-wrought sentences, and his argumentative and philosophical acumen. My favorite essay of his—perhaps my favorite piece of literary criticism in the world!—is his ravenous take on Moby-Dick and God. (The son of a minister, Wood’s vexed atheism rears its head in many of his essays.) In this interview, I spoke to him via email, initially about why he prefers to do interviews via email, ultimately about both his broader aesthetic commitments and what he thinks criticism amounts to.

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GETTING PAST FORM: ON THE VALUE OF LITERARY IDEAS

 

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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. Continue reading


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CULTURE WARS AND NATIVE AMERICAN LITERATURE IN LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS

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Adrian L. Jawort, a Northern Cheyenne Two Spirit journalist and writer, has written a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books in which they reflect on the critical reception of two young adult novels by Native American author Rebecca Roanhorse.

The controversy: Roanhorse is a member of the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo tribe, but her novels feature a Diné (Navajo) protagonist, and center on events in Dinétah, the traditional land of the Diné people. The problem came in the form of a 2018 letter, signed by 14 Navajo writers, that accused Roanhorse of appropriating another tribe: “Trail of Lightning is an appropriation of Diné cultural beliefs.” Continue reading


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READING PROJECTS: HISTORICAL SCHEMES AS LITERARY ARTIFACTS

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What follows is a guest post by David Alff.

Last year I finished writing a book about projects. Not art projects or housing projects or chemistry projects, but the idea of projects itself. I wanted to learn how humans came to organize their lives and worlds through discrete endeavor. I wanted to understand how enterprise became such a widespread vehicle for ambition that we seldom notice its existence. What are projects anyway? Why are we always doing them? How else could we spend our time? These questions drove me to see the project as a distinct form with a traceable past rather than as a daunting abstraction or the container of something more salient. Studying projects on their own terms, I thought, would give me fresh vantage on the history of ideas. My book set out to reveal nothing less than the basic unit by which anything has ever been done. Continue reading


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STERLING HOLYWHITEMOUNTAIN ON BLOOD QUANTUM, “NATIVE ART”, AND CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

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“Entrenched” by Evan Thompson

Sterling HolyWhiteMountain interviewed by Matt Strohl for AFB

Sterling HolyWhiteMountain grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwest Montana. He holds a BA in English creative writing from the University of Montana and an MFA in fiction from the University of Iowa. He was also a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin. His work has appeared in volumes 1 and 2 of Off the Path: An Anthology of 21st Century American Indian and Indigenous Writers, The Montana Quarterly, ESPN.com and The Atlantic. Prior to being a Stegner Fellow he directed the writing center at Blackfeet Community College. He is currently at work on a collection of stories. Continue reading


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WHAT MAKES KAFKA PHILOSOPHICAL?

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What follows is a guest post by Espen Hammer on his recent edited volume Kafka’s The Trial: Philosophical Perspectives.

When reading works of literature, philosophers often look for very general assertions of a quasi-theoretical nature. Thus, Camus’s The Stranger – to pick an obvious example  ̶  is supposed to demonstrate the absurdity of human existence. Or, if that doesn’t satisfy them, they typically start discussing entirely abstract questions of meaning, representation, and reference – of interest to academics steeped in Frege, Russell, and Davidson yet devoid of any concrete relation to actual texts of literary significance.

Kafka, however, on which a recent edited volume of mine entitled Kafka’s The Trial: Philosophical Perspectives (OUP, 2018) focuses, is peculiar in that his texts so vigorously seem to resist such general accounts. To be sure, many philosophers have tried to see in Kafka a kind of visionary thinker either of human existence as such or under specific circumstances, in particular those of modernity. Classical accounts of The Trial have focused on theology (“this is what the human condition looks like without God”), psychoanalysis (“this is what guilt and paranoia looks like”), and sociology (“this is the fate of the individual in a society integrated through anonymous, bureaucratic measures”). The list, of course, could be made very long. Note, though, that all the suggested interpretive keys stand in danger of violating our sense of Kafka’s mystery and ineffability. They all do what philosophers too often do: they reduce the text to a unified set of graspable, general meanings. Continue reading


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ARTIST INTERVIEW: SIMON MORRIS

Conceptual Artist Simon Morris interviewed by philosopher Darren Hudson Hick

Though he seems to spend most of his time playing with cats, Darren Hudson Hick is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Texas Tech University, where his research focuses on the ontology of art, philosophical problems in intellectual property law, and related issues. He is the author of Introducing Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art (Continuum, 2012). For more on Darren, go to www.typetoken.com.

Simon Morris (b. 1968) is a conceptual writer and teacher. He is a Reader in Fine Art at the University of Teesside in the UK. His work appears in the form of exhibitions, publications, installations, films, actions and texts which all revolve around the form of the book and often involve collaborations with people from the fields of art, creative technology, literature and psychoanalysis. In 2002, he founded the publishing imprint information as material. He is the author of numerous experimental books, including; Bibliomania (1998); The Royal Road to the Unconscious (2003); Re-Writing Freud (2005); Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head (2010); and Pigeon Reader (2012). He is an occasional curator and a regular lecturer on contemporary art and also directed the documentary films sucking on words: Kenneth Goldsmith (2007) and making nothing happen: Pavel Büchler (2010). Further information can be found here: www.informationasmaterial.org

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Are There No Fictional Truths?

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What follows is a guest post by Roy T. Cook. Roy is an extremely nerdy associate professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, a resident fellow of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, and an associate fellow of the Northern Institute of Philosophy – Aberdeen, Scotland. He has published over fifty articles and book chapters on logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of art (especially popular art). He co-edited The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012) with Aaron Meskin, and his monograph on the Yablo Paradox is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. He is also a co-founder of the interdisciplinary comics studies blog PencilPanelPage, which recently took up residence at the Hooded Utilitarian, and hopes to someday write a book about the Sensational She-Hulk. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife, two cats (Freckles and Mr. Prickley), and approximately 2.5 million LEGO bricks.

Standard approaches to the interpretation and evaluation of a work of fiction have it that some claims are true-in-the-fiction, such as “Sherlock Holmes lives on Baker Street”, and other claims, such as “Sherlock Holmes is a Martian”, are false-in-the-fiction. Put simply, they adopt an alethic approach to fiction. In this post I want to challenge that assumption, and propose an alternate, probabilistic account.

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Catharine Abell Asks Some Silly Questions

What follows is a guest post by Catharine Abell. Catharine is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at The University of Manchester. She has published work on various topics in aesthetics, including pictorial representation, the nature of art, expression in art, and genre. She is currently trying to develop solutions to a range of philosophical problems posed by fiction.

In this post, I want to discuss how we should understand the content of works of fiction. Their content is philosophically puzzling because, to understand a work of fiction, one must usually do more than just grasp its literal content. A fiction may implicitly convey, rather than explicitly represent, some aspects of its content. Let us call the literal content of a work of fiction its explicit representational content. Let us call the content of the story told by a work of fiction “what is true according to the fiction”. What is true according to a fiction can outstrip its explicit representational content and can also exclude certain aspects of its explicit representational content. For example, in The High Window, Raymond Chandler writes, “there are ratty hotels where nobody except people named Smith and Jones sign the register and where the night clerk is half watchdog and half pander.” Here, what’s true according to the fiction outstrips explicit representational content, because it is true according to the fiction that the hotel is used to conduct illicit affairs, although this is not part of its explicit representational content. What’s true in a fiction also excludes aspects of its explicit representational content: it is part of the novel’s explicit representational content that the only people who sign the hotel register just happen to be named Smith or Jones, although this isn’t true according to the fiction. The philosophical challenge is to provide an account of truth in fiction that is able to explain how it differs from explicit representational content.

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