Blog Post

Air Guitar Hero

Ben Wolfson has a really great comment to my last post. Though I'm not so sure it really is a disagreement, he disagrees with my introspective but generalizing report of how a few literary and quasi-literary effects work. This made me think that I could do a brief year-end or year-beginning comment on what I blog about when I blog about literature.

Well I've already said it: I generalize introspection. I'm a big believer in generalizing introspection (which is, these days, a contrarian position). Wolfson's comment was chastening because he's so good, so much more eloquent than I am, at describing his own responses to a few great examples which he adduces. The greatness of the examples matters too. The first step towards introspection is collecting introspection-worthy examples. Or noticing why we like these examples, why it is "so wonderful [that] a part remains, of one's classics, to help one through the day."

So my first response is gratitude for the examples. Keep 'em coming.

But more generally I would like to say something about the legitimacy of generalizing introspection. The risk is the one that Burke describes and partly exemplifies in the quotation from his essay on taste that appears in my last post, that demonstrating fineness of judgment becomes an end in itself, rather than judgment's being one name for self-aware introspection. But let's say that judgment isn't an end in itself. This is an issue that Kant tries to finesse in the Critique of Judgement by calling aesthetic judgment "reflexive" as opposed to "regulative" (I alway quote from J.C. Meredith's great translation). In aesthetic judgment things stop at the moment of judging. Aesthetic experience is the experience of judging as it occurs, without that judgment being subservient to any later ends or goals. (This is true of both the sublime and the beautiful.) By calling such judgments reflexive though, and by describing our relation to those judgments as disinterested, Kant is forestalling the way that judging that you judge well could become a self-distorting end in itself.

But if the aesthetic experience is the private experience of judging aesthetically, what warrants the generalization of introspection? Kant describes this as the antinomy of taste: that we know all aesthetic taste is private and subjective, but that we still believe that we're right, and, more important, that anyone who disagrees with us is wrong.

This may be a self-contradiction in the assertion of objective truths, but it speaks to what makes judgment judgment, which is that we come to believe that something is true (or is the case). Harold Bloom's oxymoronic concept "strong misreading" is Kantian in the way it makes this antinomy central to literary experience. Moreover it pushes the insistence that we're right past Kant's stand-off, not in the direction of Burke's serenely anxious idea that educated taste really is more accurate, but the opposite way, towards making (convincing, persuading, pressing, even coercing) others see that one's own subjective experience is deeper and therefore truer than theirs is. (In Bloom you do this by writing well, that is by being a strong poet.)

Hannah Ginsborg says that one hallmark of an aesthetic judgment in Kant's sense is that if someone tells you that the house at the end of the road is blue, you will (usually) believe him without hesitation; but if he tells you that the house is beautiful, well, you won't know whether that's true or not unless you see for yourself.

I like that way of putting it, because it means that there's room for suggestion, for asking someone to see for herself. She might not look at the house at all, except that someone asserted as a truth that it was beautiful. She may not think that's true, or she may. If she does, it might now be the case that she saw something beautiful that she otherwise would not have. So that generalizing introspection might (I hope) ask others to introspect about the same thing too, and to consider whether their judgment agrees with mine, or with each other. This isn't a recipe for radical subjectivity in judgment. I take it (because I've experienced it so often) that just checking out an assertion or proposition of aesthetic judgment might bring it to notice, and make me see and feel something that I'd missed.

Again, for Bloom this is what strong reading or misreading does. It's also what joke-telling or riddling or rhyming does in miniature: sets and solves a problem for aesthetic judgment, where the solution is confirmed by the sense that our judgment has experienced itself coming to the solution. (Isn't this what mathematicians mean by elegance, or engineers or chess players by the solutions they call sweet?) But this means that aesthetic judgment, while highly subjective, is in no way solipsistic. It's fundamentally social. Lukács thought of Kant as a philosopher of tragically isolated individualism, But I think this is wrong, or too narrow. It misses his stress on how much we want to share our judgments with others, get other people to agree with our own, offer them the same pleasure we've had. And we're influenced by other people's judgments (for Burke we do learn to judge well). We blog about how it seems to us.

My work these days is a whole lot about what I call competing to cooperate. Possibly I put too much stress on the competition part of that, sometimes. So here it seems worthwhile to say that the kind of competition I was writing about in my last post is a competition not mainly for one's own account, but on behalf of the aesthetic experience we're promoting. To get and laugh at a joke, and to retell it, is an act of sharing (of competitive sharing, yes) of the aesthetic experience itself. The aesthetic experience seems worth championing. When I play the air guitar I act out how great the riff is -- I want other people to put together my body language and the music they're hearing. I want them to hear it my way, because I think my way is right, and so I want to play the air guitar better than they're playing it. But I'm doing it for them, performing for them. And vice versa -- many's the riff I've learned to love watching others respond to it, many's the poem I've learned to love because of the intensity of others' responses. Aesthetic judgments don't communicate themselves through the medium of truth. They communicate themselves through the medium of experience, through agreement in experience. When we generalize, all we're doing is noting our aesthetic experience, noting that it is an aesthetic experience, and opening our generalizations to countergeneralizations. It's by this means that aesthetic expansion can take place.

I feel that this is mostly obvious. But maybe that's just me.

William Flesch's picture

William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).