DECEMBER 30, 2018
Timothy Aubry responds to Jean-Thomas Tremblay’s review of his Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures (December 12, 2018):
WHEN I BEGAN working on Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures, a book whose central claim is that the turn to political criticism in literary studies has masked an investment in aesthetic pleasure, I was hoping it would provoke debate. But upon reading Jean-Thomas Tremblay’s review of it I had to wonder, is this what I wanted? A colleague quipped, “You’re the dog who finally caught the car!” Fair enough, and now that I’m here I may as well leap into the car, as it were, and keep the debate going. But to do so, I need to clarify what my book argues and what it doesn’t.
The history of literary criticism told by Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures, according to Tremblay, is disappointingly cyclical. The chapters all feature a “shared argumentative structure,” “a game of fort-da: he kicks the aesthetic away, announces its return, and reminds us that we’ve needed it all along. The revelation that in its evidentiary quest literary criticism counts on aesthetics is never surprising because, well, it’s called literary criticism.” Though offered as a complaint, I regard this as a compliment, since the structure is deliberate. The game of fort-da, the alternation between denying and embracing aesthetic pleasure, is a pattern that has shaped literary studies since at least the 1930s, and the structure of my book aims to mirror this pattern. Where Tremblay errs is their assertion that I am the one kicking the aesthetic away in order to make it reappear in a kind of cheap Viennese magic trick. It is, in fact, academic literary scholarship that has kicked the aesthetic away over and over, and most emphatically in the final decades of the 20th century. Indeed to suggest that aesthetics is obviously and uncontroversially a central subject of literary criticism (“because, well, it’s called literary criticism”) is to conflate the aesthetic and the literary and to ignore practically every academic argument about literature made between 1985 and 2000, and many arguments still made today.
If aesthetics is, in Tremblay’s account, simply what all literary critics do, because it’s literature, stupid, there is apparently something peculiarly retrograde in my approach to the same subject. Tremblay’s effort to summarize my book’s sense of what a critic should do, pieced together from fragments taken out of context, resembles one of F. R. Leavis’s phlegmatic pronouncements: “A literary critic’s tasks are to identify works with aesthetic value, meaning works whose perception or contemplation ‘produces satisfaction,’ and to make judgments or ‘[explain] why a given text or passage produces satisfaction, pleasure, exhilaration, and the like.’” The urge to dress me in tweeds and elbow pads here leads to a gross mischaracterization. Never do I advocate for restricting literary criticism to assigning and explaining aesthetic value; nor do I question the validity of ideology critique. An argument for critical pluralism, Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures merely encourages readers to take seriously the multitude of distinct functions literature performs, both ideological and aesthetic, and to sort through the mixed bag of motives that continue to drive literary studies today. Indeed doing so, I contend, can make for better political criticism by allowing scholars to see how their attachment to irony, ambiguity, and paradox (an inheritance from New Criticism) might cause them to privilege certain political gestures that satisfy unacknowledged aesthetic criteria and to disregard other less intellectually satisfying but potentially more effective modes of engagement.
The real problem with my book, according to Tremblay, is that it reduces all aesthetic experience to pleasure. This is a reasonable point. But when Tremblay argues that my definitions “bracket countless feelings that are not isometric with pleasure but might just as well dominate aesthetic experiences: confusion, anxiety, frustration, revulsion, sorrow,” they neglect to mention the definition I offer early on: “In the course of considering different methodologies, I should note, pleasure will become a fairly broad category of experience, one that involves masochistic moments of confusion, abjection, and self-denial.”
I go on to discuss deconstruction’s celebration of bewilderment and uncertainty and New Historicism’s attraction to “the rough, the fragmented, the myriad, the unpredictable, and the opaque.” And while Tremblay faults me for not considering “relations between pleasure and structures of domination and liberation” in black feminist criticism, I discuss exactly those relations in Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection, whose analysis of the coercive modes of recreation forced upon African Americans during slavery and Reconstruction asserts a counter-aesthetic of the “ambiguous, the unassimilable, and the unenjoyable.” Most puzzling of all is Tremblay’s claim that “not even the Kantian sublime, with its mix of awe and horror, makes the cut.” In fact, my book argues that the transfer of power from New Criticism to deconstruction represents “a shift from an aesthetic of the beautiful to an aesthetic of the sublime” — the latter persisting as the aesthetic experience privileged by almost every approach I consider after New Criticism. The only explanation I can think of is that in seeking to cast me as the exhumed corpse of a midcentury curmudgeon, Tremblay is making the unwarranted assumption that I am lamenting the turn away from sweetness and light that I describe.
Tremblay’s larger point is that not all experiences that qualify as aesthetic should be forced into the category of pleasure, and I agree. My book focuses on pleasure primarily in order to explore the experiences that draw people to literary studies, that scholars and students find fulfilling for their own sake. This does, admittedly, entail exclusions. But Tremblay’s suggestion that focusing on pleasure makes the reading experience predictable presupposes a narrow conception of pleasure, a failure to recognize the diversity of strange, unlikely, and unconventional forms that pleasure can assume.
Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures also offers, according to Tremblay, a reductively pragmatic account of the political. They’re right: I do at times rely upon an overly restrictive definition. My goal was to initiate a thought experiment. Suppose, for heuristic purposes, we put limits on the breadth of phenomena that we consider political. What do we discover outside those limits? Might we identify values, feelings, and ideas that the political discourse we have been trained to deploy doesn’t fully capture? The aim of this exercise was not, then, to discredit political criticism but to enable new vocabularies for registering the multiple modes of response that literature elicits. Tremblay and I agree that examining any actual reading experience will reveal a snarl of aesthetic impulses and ideological pressures; I simply think it’s worth trying to articulate the specificity of the various strands without automatically translating one into the other.
Tremblay’s most caustic observation is that my chapter on Beloved treats Toni Morrison as worthy of inclusion only because she has been “escorted” there by two white men, Slavoj Žižek and Walter Benn Michaels. To be clear, the reason I decided to examine Beloved, as I state, is that it is “not merely canonical but in fact the recipient of more accolades than any other work in recent history.” Beloved is a touchstone within academia — one whose stylistic ingenuity in depicting slavery and its aftermath raises numerous questions about the relationship between aesthetics and politics. (Since I’m a proponent of aesthetic appreciation, I will also say that it is a book I happen to love.) Thus a good portion of the chapter seeks to deal both with the novel and a wide swath of academic responses to it. The chapter ends, however, with a long section devoted to Žižek and Michaels. I focus on them because their responses to Beloved exemplify the way that disavowals of aesthetic pleasure can serve covertly as its incubator, and because their prominence suggests that their work reflects broader disciplinary tendencies. But of course one reason Žižek and Michaels have achieved such prominence is that they are white men who never have to worry that their work will be unjustly coded as marginal or parochial. Thus I have concluded that it was a mistake to give them disproportionate attention in a chapter focused on a major black woman author. There’s no good defense I can offer, and so I will simply say that I’m sorry and I will try to do better in the future.
The charge Tremblay directs at my chapter on Beloved is in support of the general claim that defending aesthetic pleasure is inevitably a way of “protecting elite interests over those of the underserved or marginalized.” This, I think, is worth questioning. As my book argues, aesthetic experience is not merely a luxury enjoyed by the privileged but can also be a resource for the disempowered. Part of my motivation for embarking on this project was a consideration of how people outside academia approach literature. In studying the Amazon customer reviews of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner for an earlier project, I was surprised by how few reviewers mentioned the book’s politics — half-a-dozen out of a thousand — compared to how many commented upon the readerly pleasures it elicited. My CUNY students are no different. In their view, reading a great novel can, in many instances, be a pleasure uncomplicated by politics. Indeed I often find myself working hard to demonstrate that more things are ideologically driven than they are willing to recognize. This is not to say that they are right and academics are wrong. It just means that a commitment to aesthetic pleasure without regard to its politics is not a mark of elitism; but the view, fostered within upper-level college and graduate seminars, that even one’s private reading pleasures are shaped by ideological forces, probably is.
I want to close this already overly long response by thinking a bit more about my students, since my defense of aesthetic value is among other things an effort to justify the work I do as a teacher. I’m an English professor at Baruch College (CUNY), a business school where a large percentage of students come from immigrant and/or working-class families. Generally highly motivated, they hope that their education will lead to a remunerative career. At times I struggle to explain why I think they should take literature courses. Ideally, I am helping them improve their writing and critical thinking skills, which will certainly serve them later on, but I know they could probably learn what they need to without ever opening a novel. I also hope to make them more thoughtful about politics and more tolerant of cultural differences. But when I ask, what is the most palpable thing I offer them, I usually come up with the following: if I’m doing my job well, my students get to have absorbing aesthetic and intellectual experiences that are rewarding for their own sake, in class and elsewhere — experiences I hope they will continue to seek out for the rest of their lives.
Teaching Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, I asked my students to leave the class one day, walk around Manhattan for 30 minutes, pay attention to everything they observed, felt, and thought, and then write about it. Afterward, they told me they were surprised by how much seemed to happen during the interval: time stretched out, individual moments thickened, and they noticed things a block away that they had never seen before. Several commented that they generally spend too much time trying to get places and not enough time appreciating the world around them. It’s a clichéd idea, but their experience of it, apparently, wasn’t. I know my students are under all kinds of pressure from their families, from the bartending or retail jobs they take to pay tuition, and from their own desire to overcome the myriad obstacles this country is putting in their way. And I know they have more important things to do in their busy lives than indulge in seemingly useless aesthetic experiences. But I also believe they have just as much right to those experiences as more privileged students who have far less to worry about than they do.
Timothy Aubry is the author of two books, Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures (Harvard University Press, 2018) and Reading as Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Americans (University of Iowa Press, 2011), and the co-editor of Rethinking Therapeutic Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2015).
Banner image by Kenneth Lu.
Source: Los Angeles Review of Books