Summary (TLDR Version)

The original ran six pages, apparently; it could have stayed that long.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Richard McGuire’s (2014)[2] Here

I have been reading books but not writing replies and more and more feel pressed to “catch up”. This makes me want to have less to say than I might. All the same, of this book, the publisher tells us:

Richard McGuire’s Here is the story of a corner of a room and the events that happened in that space while moving forward and backward in time. The book experiments with formal properties of comics, using multiple panels to convey the different moments in time. Hundreds of thousands of years become interwoven. A dinosaur from 100,000,000 BCE lumbers by, while a child is playing with a plastic toy that resembles the same dinosaur in the year 1999. Conversations appear to be happening between two people who are centuries apart. Someone asking, “Anyone seen my car keys?” can be “answered” by someone at a future archaeology dig. Cycles of glaciers transform into marshes, then into forests, then into farmland. A city develops and grows into a suburban sprawl. Future climate changes cause the land to submerge, if only temporarily, for the long view reveals the transient nature of all things. Meanwhile, the attention is focused on the most ordinary moments and appreciating them as the most transcendent.

More ad-text assures us that readers have waited twenty-five years for the expansion of the original piece (now fifty times longer), which supposedly exploded the comic form by depicting the events over time that all happen in the same place.

This “joke,” which doubtless seems striking, and remains striking in the first couple of pages of the present version—and by “joke” I mean that in the most favourable sense of the word—quickly loses its traction however, and it seems instructive to wonder why.

From the publisher’s blurb, while “A dinosaur from 100,000,000 BCE lumbers by, while a child is playing with a plastic toy that resembles the same dinosaur in the year 1999” makes a possibly compelling image, that sort of significance does not, and in fact cannot, continue to resonate in the same way over a 300-page text. Everything depends in this book upon the various ironies of co-occurrence. One might imagine the human lives that all intersect at a given street corner over the course of a century, but if person A and person B have some sort of ironic or poignant connection, and so do person C and person D, what does the first couple have to do with the second?

Ultimately, any sense of the “history” of the place becomes nothing but a jumble of unrelated events, and this becomes very clear when pseudo-realistic depictions of the planet in some of its earlier eras linger in the background. This does not succeed in making human life tiny but, rather, simply detaches the sense of a place, a here, from the story. I doubt very much McGuire intends this.

I suspect that, ultimately, the very brevity of the original not only forced McGuire to more carefully integrate all of his material into something more like a single narrative, however spread out in time, but even if not, it certainly allowed the reader to make more of a single narrative of it. The expansion of the idea kills that possibility, essentially—like a full-blooded short-story tortured on a narrative wrack into an anaemic novel, or what we saw happen to the latest Hobbit movie.

Also—memory being treacherous at this point—it would appear that in the billion or so years of this room, the only sex that ever occurred here involved the rape of a Native American woman by a Native American male. That seems trashy and gratuitous, and it especially points out—since that narrative has no follow-up—how selective the book gets about what narratives it depicts at some length. The last gesture of the book, providing a kind of tidy tie-up, answers a woman’s question posed much earlier; she can’t remember why she has come into the room, looking for something, and at the end she remembers.

So McGuire implies, accidentally or not, that the book concerns memory, but this does not seem convincing. The only “history” of the place truly constructed comes from the reader (of the book). Only the reader has any access to the event-depth of the place, so that perhaps McGuire expects us to make something of the fact that a rape occurred and now the house stands on Native American burial grounds, or at least the site of a Native American culture depicted in only the most cursory of ways. One might call this invisibility deliberate or apposite—an official history that only takes note of what it choose to take note of (wandering dinosaurs, the Cainozoic era, &c). I certainly don’t find myself moved to a thoughtful consideration of “real” U.S. history by the only representation of Native American culture in this corner of the world as a rape. &c. He supplies nowhere near enough compositional intelligence to make such a reading likely, however much one could torture one out.

Also, the lack of an equal depth of field into the future seems a mistake. Apparently, the “act of imagining” required to supply images of the past represents a different faculty in the artist’s intentions. We do see some of the future, but only the extremely relatively near future—I think we get 10,000 years into the future at most, while the past goes back billions of years.

Endnotes

[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] McGuire, R. (2014). Here. New York, Pantheon, pp. 1–300.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Pragmatism made exciting, almost!

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: C.D. Tirres’ (2014)[2] The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought [Part 5a]

Someone asked me to read and reply to this book. And so, since this needs something more “formal” than my typical replies, the following provides the second part of a longer, more point by point reflection on the book. You may read part 1 and part 2 and here.

Chapter 5: Integrating Experience and Epistemology: Ivone Gebara’s Pragmatic Ecofeminism

This is an out-of-sequence reply to this book, which has fallen by the wayside over the past few months through no fault of its own.

In building upon Gebara’s pragmatic ecofeminism, as he describes it, Tirres offers a construction of pragmatism that makes it compelling. For instance:

Pragmatism stresses that human beings interact with and in nature and are not inherently set over-and-against it. As such, knowledge is less something that a “subjective” self applies to an “objective” or “outer” world, and more a mode of interaction that is part-and-parcel of the continual and close-knit interplay between the human organism and its environment (125–6).

One may read this as merely “holistic,” but it also rests on an iterative process that takes art as its model.

In all cases, the process both begins with the question of quality and ends with it. It begins with a quality that is aesthetically “felt” or “given” before it is rationalistically “known.” The process of reflective inquiry reshapes and reconstructs this immediately “given” quality in such a way that it becomes a meaningful, “reconstructed” quality. In one sense, we could consider this reconstructed quality to be a new “end.” However, just as soon as we reach this point, the “end” becomes a potential new “means” for the reconstruction of further qualitative ends (127–8).

And so:

If, within the basic structure of experience, the dynamic growth of the organism–environment transaction yields immediate and qualitative moments of “fulfilment” and “consummation,” then, so too does consummation happen within the context of reflective inquiry. Consummation becomes “meaning.” In short, pragmatists like Dewey have no reason to turn to a priori or transcendental accounts of experience, since experience, as it is actually “had,” already supplies us with its own rich standards of value (126–7).

The attraction and strategic value of avoiding transcendental categories—or at least seeming too—spares the philosopher having to somehow ground those categories; a necessity that belligerent scepticism shall no doubt find a way to undermine, as it always does. At the same time, however, appealing to the self-evidence of experience—not, mind you, how it might come into being but the absolutely undeniable occurrence of the presence of the experience in consciousness itself—radically detaches all human beings from one another. Or, more precisely, it begs the question how or why experience for you in any way resembles experience for me.

Again, in claiming that experience “already supplies us with its own rich standards of value,” this does not point to how any such values “got into” that experience, i.e., where they come from, &c., but simply to the fact that the person having the experience will consult precisely the content of that experience—here claimed as having its own rich standards—in order to make their next lived iteration in the world. Of course, an observer may readily connect part of the content of that experience back to the environment/culture surrounding the one having the experience but, again, these does not constitute any of the “rich standards of value” locatable in the experience. Why? Because that content provides a negatively subjective part of the experience—by negative, I mean non-social or merely personal.

In saying this, I have made no effort to try to understand what the “rich standards of value” might legitimately consist of in this immediately given experience Tirres refers to. At the risk of the perils accompanying the distinction, I could locate those rich standards in the “form” of experience itself, not the “content”. Any values, if they would warrant the term and actually constitute values sharable between human beings and thus a part of the basis of any human culture or society, would have to reside not in the content of experiences per se but in the fact of having experiences at all, wherein the structure of experiences becomes (or seems) the shared element.

This may sound hopelessly abstract, but we often experience this. If a friend claims to have seen a ghost, and we don’t believe in such things, we may generous not simply laugh in our friend’s face for making such a ridiculous claim and say something instead like, “I believe you believe you had that experience.” The point of connection between the two people here occurs not in any consensus about the content of the experience but rather in the recognition (by the disbeliever) that experiences feel “real”. This recognition proceeds from the disbeliever’s own experience of experiences as well, and not from any specific “content” of those experiences. She can recognise times when she experienced something non-credible, for instance, but cannot in the same breath deny that she had the experience.

Behind this point lurks the observation that “knowledge is less something that a ‘subjective’ self applies to an ‘objective’ or ‘outer’ world.” Occidental philosophy often runs aground on the subjective/objective dichotomy, because in its main professions it fails (or refuses) to acknowledge the subjectivity of the objective as well as the objectivity of the subjective. The more usual sceptical complaint points out—again and again—that subjective perception can claim to hoist itself by its own petard; subjective judgments get taken as validation for claims about objective “facts”.

But what seems truly self-evident about experience hinges on its self-evidence. We feel we look “out” into a world and thus overlook that our consciousness has constructed something out of disparate neural firings. We say that our nerves experience impingement from energy sources “outside” of those nerves, but we do so on judgments from within those conscious constructions, &c. But even on these grounds, scientific studies demonstrate that the supposed “inputs” don’t correlate to (much less match) the “outputs”. Colour, for instance, constitutes no property of Nature but arises as an artefact of our mental functioning. And whether any one-to-one correspondence prevails between “inputs” and “outputs,” we have no external third point to make that judgment from.

At the same time, whatever presents to us in consciousness—ostensibly in some “subjective” way—has nothing subjective about it. Look around. Nothing you see has anything to do with your “subjective” desiring or wanting. If you see these words, you have no say in that. You choice exists solely in no longer reading, but this does not negate the “objectivity” of experience. And in fact, all of the markers we ascribe to supposedly “objective” reality actually better describe our experience of perception. Quantum mechanics assures us that “reality” in no way resembles, even a little, how we think it does; “objective reality,” then, denotes more our projection of our perception of experience; or, as Piaget (1972)[3] put it: the individual emerges as an object within a universe of objects experienced as external to itself. The “as” here (not “as if”) matters crucially; we experience the world “as” external to ourselves, rather than experience a world external to ourselves.

This happens objectively, not subjectively. And since my consciousness and your consciousness remain incommensurable, if we get into a dispute about the external world either of us experience, we have to negotiate that difference, often by making insistences about how the world “is”. We accuse one another of “subjectivity” then but both do so from an unswervably, innegatably objective experience of that external world. If I persuade you to my view (or you to mine), this does not involve making your previous experience into something else, except in the sense that you reinterpret it in a different way. You abandon your previous view, or modify it, but even then, the operations you perform on the “clay” of that experience can only start from and work with that specific clay.

So, indeed, as Tirres notes, experience never proceeds by a “subjective” imposition upon an “objective” or “outer” world. Rather, the structure of experience itself seems equivalent to any objective world. Again, the fact that we differ (or that anyone could differ) in experience does not “disclose” a subjectivity at work. Whatever consensus or sheer numbers I drum up to support “my” contention about “the world” can rest only on one of the more familiar logical fallacies as an argument for the truth of my contention. At the same time, the authority Copernicus cited against the ad populam of the general public also didn’t make his claim “true”; it only made it more adequately fit for explaining the disparate, phenomenal experiences of human beings.

And thus, to understand science as simply one of several forms of reflective inquiry, to contextualize science as one, not the only, form of reflective inquiry makes for a valuable reminder as well.

Nonetheless, what lingers in all of this involves a resistance to the word “pragmatism” and the crass unimaginativeness it invokes; a crassness Tirres acknowledges, even while trying to save the word from its current degradation. One wonders why? It would seem smarter to re-name the term more intelligently; not to do so has an air of secretly co-signing the frameworks and projects of the crass exponents.

Endnotes

[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] Tirres, C. D. (2014). The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought. Oxford University Press, i–xi, 1–223.

[3] Piaget, J. (1972). The principles of genetic epistemology. New York, NY: Viking.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: C.D. Tirres’ (2014)[2] The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought [Part 3]

Although I got out of the loop with this book, someone asked me some time ago to read and reply to it; I suspect I might just start over, especially since I have had such an oppositional attitude to much of what Tirres writes, which strikes me as curious, since often Tirres gets into terrain I remain sympathetic to. In any case, since this needs something more “formal” than my typical replies, the following provides the second part of a longer, more point by point reflection on the book. You may read part 1 and part 2 here.

Before Going On

I want to add before continuing, my previous posts about this book may seem too harshly framed, and I apologise if it comes across that way. And as soon as (more or less) empowered representatives take it upon themselves to describe the “poor” or to speak on their behalf, the poor have a right to react cagily and circumspectly to such representations, even when meant in a “helpful” way—principally because the history of even well-meant representations have typically gone problematic. In this way, to take up talking about an “aesthetic turn” (even in the critical way Tirres does) while people starve to death can quickly and easily look ethically repugnant. An example, from a seemingly unrelated domain, will illustrate this.

Some time ago (more or less in 2002),[3] a sort of public debate took place over cosmopolitanism versus patriotism. A lot of hay got threshed about this by a number of academics; and then the lead organizer of the discussion offered her rebuttal. From my previous blog:

Earlier, I noted Putnam’s [2002][4] seeming lack of concern for the poor even as he employed them as an example, and especially his preface “I believe”; “I believe that we need to condemn the conditions that poor people everywhere daily experience as unjust” (96). Here, Nussbaum asks in a similar way:

May I give my daughter an expensive college education, while children all over the world re starving and effective relief agencies exist? May Americans enjoy their currently high standard of living, when there are reasons to think the globe as a whole could not sustain that level of consumption? These are hard questions, and there will and should be much debate about the proper answers (137).

Just as Putnam arrogates to himself an end of responsibility by proposing merely to pay lip service to condemning the poverty, here Nussbaum asserts that posing the question suffices. We may rest very assured that the answer to the tritely rhetorical questions Nussbaum proposes came as a resounding yes, all the more so when a supposedly cosmopolitan response fins sufficient to pose these “hard questions” and to insist that the course of action “will and should be much debate about the proper answers” (137).

Are you shitting me? The next section of her text begins, “As we pose these questions, we should value human diversity” (137)—Nussbaum has segued in matter of sentences from any kind of relevance into the depths of imperialist apologetics, illustrating Wallerstein’s (2002) warning that cosmopolitanism may as much abet as challenge privilege. Espousing a (justifiable) concern for hierarchy, Nussbaum insists that “some forms of diversity are clearly separable from hierarchy: most religious and ethnic differences” (138). Numerous wheels might get pitched at this, but I simply here want to underscore again—because Nussbaum’s effort of reply here keeps trying to get to the “basics” of human experience as a ground for her argument—that “religion” does not constitute a human universal, so long as one neglects to address atheism.[5] This point matters because Nussbaum cannot conceptualize matters outside of “the profound importance of religion, and respect for religious difference, in a just society” (137). The possibility that religion amounts to a socially destructive, and ultimately antisocial, superstition does not seem recognizable to Nussbaum as she characterizes her views here.

Not to take on the role of kill-joy, but when Nussbaum inserts as an intentionally humorous aside that “this does not mean that the world citizen cannot believe that the Bulls are better than all other teams. World citizens never deny was is self-evidently true” (138), this exemplifies the underlying falseness of Nussbaum’s view, just as surely as her trite rhetorical questions that we should debate how to address the question of world justice while children simultaneously starve for our benefit. In a pathetic footnote to this piece of cultural chauvinism by Nussbaum, where one hopes to find a proper measure of apology for this ridiculous incursion, instead she writes, “Marcus Aurelius did say that Stoicism required one not to be a partisan of the Green or Blue teams at the games—but he was speaking of a Roman context in which such rivalries gave rise to delight in the murder of human beings” (150).

In general, the supposed discussion conducted here amounts to little more than pious masturbation, a bunch of lip service paid to the right notions: that “there will and should be much debate about the proper answers” rather than any course of action right now to help people being destroyed at this very second. In one of the briefest replies in this discussion recorded by Nussbaum, brief perhaps because the respondent sees through this empty, academic twaddle, Wallerstein (1994)[6] bluntly remarked:

Those who are strong—strong politically, economically, socially—have the option of aggressive hostility toward the weak (xenophobia) or magnanimous comprehension of “difference” [largesse]. In either case, they remain privileged … ¶ In 1945, the United States become the hegemonic power in the world-system—by far the most powerful nation economically, militarily, politically, and even culturally. Its official ideological line was threefold: America is the world’s greatest country (narrow nationalism); America is the leader of the “free world” (the nationalism o the wealthy, White countries); America is the defender of universal values of individual liberty and freedom of opportunity (justified in terms of Kantian categorical imperatives). ¶ The United States government and moral spokesmen saw no difficulty in making all three assertions simultaneously. Most persons were unaware of the internal inconsistency of this triple stance (122–3).

In this kind of (imperial) context—the current one that we live in—it seems perfectly apposite (or at least reasonable) to demand some clear sign that any discussion (of liberation theology) serves first and foremost as a staging ground for some helpful action on behalf of those represented, rather than on the kind of self-serving “debate” Nussbaum finds so necessary (in order that she keep her job and that her daughter gets go to a fancy college denied to those that Nussbaum “represents”).

I recognise, and have defended, the necessity of having a proper or helpful frame on an issue as a prerequisite to moving forward, but very few circumstances have such critical stakes that we must stop all progressive action while we figure out what next needs doing. In other words, it seems perfectly reasonable to expect that any liberation theologian shows in his or her actions a material solidarity and activity with those represented. At the very least, this signals the authenticity of the concern for those represented, the poor. Certainly, almost all of the Latin American liberation theologians showed this; some were murdered or imprisoned as a sign of their material solidarity with those they represented.

At the beginning of this chapter, Tirres frames his concern that US Latino/a liberation theologians have too complacently converted the option for the poor into the option for culture, essentially making liberation theology into an academic problem one might make a career of proposing to solve, no doubt by the kind of “debate” (rather than action) Nussbaum proposes. I want to emphasize that this seems promising—and his exposure of Vatican arguments against Marxism also suggest a promising stance—but if in the final analysis the corrective that Tirres proposes lacks sufficient signs of material solidarity with those represented (and spoken for) by liberation theologians, then he will have legitimately earned scepticism of my earlier posts and he will have placed himself squarely in a comprador intellectual position, betraying his race not only locally (in the US) but internationally as well (in South America).

Chapter 3: Liberation in the Latino/a Americas

As something to note right off, although Tirres does not enclose the word liberation in quotation marks in this chapter’s title, for the headers on each page have the word as “liberation”. I doubt Tirres decided this, and the scare quotes undermine the chapter’s credibility by making it seem he denies any reality to liberation in the Latino/a Americas.[7] Definitely something to edit for the second edition.

He begins by showing how from the Eighties onward the dominant Vatican response to South American liberation theology consistently (if not deliberately) misread the movement as a mere reduction to politics. He also underscores the Vatican did not limit itself to talk but systematically replaced Latin American ecclesiastics who supported liberation theology with those who did not. Of course ,this all has an obnoxious or hypocritical element in it, since the Vatican clearly arrogates to itself the right to declare that this kind of politicking on its part represents an integral theology itself, rather than a reduction of theology to politics. Tirres lets this irony speak for itself and does not underscore it, but it still elides the fact that the Vatican both debated and acted (acting here providing the sign of no mere masturbatory twaddle in the debate involved). An obvious point, perhaps, but in a context of liberation theology, we see the Vatican understanding (or at least taking seriously) that the faced a “movement” (in the literal and figurative sense of the word) and not just a “debate”.

After this, Tirres first takes issue with García-Rivera’s (1999)[8] construction of the “beautiful”; he “utilizes [Charles Sanders] Peirce’s and [Josiah] Royce’s logic and their metaphysics of relations. Whereas Peirce’s study of signs speaks to a ‘community of the true’ and Royce’s idea of loyalty points to a ‘community of the good,’ García-Rivera sets out to construct a ‘community of the beautiful’” (56). For Tirres, “the question is not so much: how do aesthetic objects and practices point to a presumed universal quality of Beauty, but rather, how can and does aesthetic meaning emerge organically within everyday experience, and how may it be further shaped and refined through creative, human action?” (57).

To put this matter too bluntly, Tirres rejects García-Rivera’s thoughtful attempt here as academic twaddle, i.e., too divorced from actual human experience. And he further rejects the notion of a too narrowly imagined theological aesthetics (an object of García-Rivera’s work) in favour of a religious aesthetics. Or, again to put it more politically, a Catholic or Protestant aesthetics won’t cut it as necessarily hobbled (if not disingenuous in a way even). Rather, the starting point for religious aesthetics “has more to do with the way that we ascribe aesthetic and/or religious significance to human experience and practice than with any a priori idea of Beauty, the Sacred, or the Divine” (57), i.e., the undesirable a priori here meaning any specifically Catholic (or Protestant) construction of what Beauty, the Sacred, or the Divine already means. And while, in one respect, this question almost hopelessly involves nothing more than academic twaddle, Tirres at least stands up here for a broader understanding of aesthetics than anything compassed by theological aesthetics. And even more generally than this, Tirres would place the notion of aesthetics on a generally wider footing than perhaps most (academics) think of it these days.

Thus, an experience may be deemed aesthetic even if it has nothing formally to do with art. The same logic applies to Dewey’s theory of ‘the religious,’ which may be seen as an intensification of the aesthetic and which may apply to experiences that are not formally connected with institutional religion (58).

Here, I would defend his point against accusations of academic twaddle (although wrapping this point up in Dewey seems gratuitous), because what he points to involves a recognition that human beings have access to profound (aesthetic or religious) experiences not only potentially through any experience but also, and specifically, not only in the sanctioned or approved (established) religious channels. As a particular earthy example of the former, people (often women) in India will place a piece of cow dung outsider the house and worship this as an embodiment of Ganeṣa; as a case of the latter, the visions of Brother Klaus (or any number of other Christian mystics) offered an extremely heterodox version of Christ (one not recognised by an Orthodox interpretation), but his vision still consisted of Christ (a sanctioned religious symbol). Finding the face of Jesus in a piece of toast marks a case of the latter as well.

All of this points, implicitly, to the question: who gets to define what constitutes a valid (aesthetic or religious) experience, and Tirres here weighs in less to say “everyone can decide for herself” and more to question “why does the religious Authority (or the Vatican) get to act as the sole arbiter of this question?” And, of course, this question of who validates aesthetic or religious experiences opens up as well into the broader question of who gets to validate experience in general. Consequently, when an experience happens to you, who has the right (or simply the power) to declare, “Your experience doesn’t count or is wrong?” Under a theological aesthetics, which he rejects, the answer to the question comes down to, “The religious authority decides.”[9]

Still, having said this, to contrast theological and religious aesthetics gives us a false dichotomy, since either choice leaves us in the domain of “religion”. Nonetheless, Tirres still points in a historically useful footnote to a broader vision of aesthetics:

If this sounds like a radical departure from the way what we tend to think about aesthetics today, we would be well served to recall that the modern discipline of aesthetics, as initiated by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten in the 1730s, began as the “science of sensory knowledge” of any and all experience. It was only later theorists, most notably Kant and Hegel, who approached aesthetics as a pure judgment of taste and who restricted Baumgarten’s inquiry to exceptional pieces of fine art. Although subsequent thinkers like the Romantics would revivify Baumgarten’s understand of the wide reach of aesthetics, as witnessed by their fascination with the beautiful and sublime features of nature and the human body, aesthetic theory since the late eighteenth century continues, unfortunately, to be premised on the more limited idea that aesthetics is a matter of art proper and that art is to be contemplated by a perceiver in a disinterested and detached way. See Tirres [2009],[10] “Aesthetics,” 1:6–11 (n42, 58).

This question of aesthetics, which indeed has transformed largely into a piece of masturbatory academic twaddle precisely to the degree that it gets taken as “a matter of art proper and that art is to be contemplated by a perceiver in a disinterested and detached way” (58), has served in that respect as a piece of political neutralisation, i.e., whatever Baumgarten hoped to accomplish with his science of sensory knowledge,[11] the sort of use it got put to in the exemplary cases of Kant, Hegel, and subsequent commentators lost touch with the radically transformative possibilities in aesthetic experience (and Art) that Schiller still saw for it near the end of the eighteenth century. It surprises me, in fact, that Tirres makes no mention of Schiller, who represents perhaps the most significant philosopher on the value of aesthetic education in history. Academia seems to have chosen to forget this.

The remainder of Tirres’ chapter digs deeper into the work of García-Rivera and R.S. Goizueta. He specifically finds Goizueta’s work to miss its mark of integrating the aesthetic and the ethical, and a couple of tendencies come out in this. First, Tirres exposes what I would call an authoritarian tendency in both of these authors; in other words, he shows the links between these authors’ criticisms of South American liberation theology and Vatican critiques, all of which boil down to anti-Marxist. In both a Vatican and a US context, an anti-Marxist stance certainly dovetails neatly with the prevailing capitalist discourse, but anti-Marxism itself serves as a mask for borrowing the authoritarianism of the Vatican in the first place. As Tirres makes clear, he shows how a certain stripe of US Latino/a critics of South American liberation theology either (1) resort to vulgar embodiments of Marxism, (2) ignore the broader tradition of Marxist analysis that avoid such vulgarity, or (3) selective read (or misread) certain “non-vulgar” Marxists. Hence, “While Goizueta’s critique of Marxism here may hold true in terms of more reductionistic, orthodox, and vulgar forms of Marxism, the critique does not hold in light of more nuanced, non-sectarian, and ‘open’ forms of Marxism, with which [one writer] himself associates” (66).

To represent by synecdoche Tirres’ point overall (particularly with respect to Goizueta’s work in this chapter), he interrogates the stark distinction between “praxis” and “poiesis”—or, specifically, operatio-poiesis in Goizueta’s use. This distinction hinges on the difference between praxis (as a doing that serves as an end in itself) versus a poiesis (as a making that serves some end other than the doing itself). To give a familiar example from the domain of aesthetics, the critic will note the difference between art as an end in itself versus art that serves some non-artistic end, and thus smacks more of propaganda.

So, even as this distinction may seem like academic twaddle, behind it we may discern the intention of the actor (the artist)—does she offer the work of art as a disinterested emblem of some universal human truth, which culture ostensibly hails as the most worthwhile thing of all, or does it serve the squalid, narrow end of “mere politics” (serving the interests of a single, narrow class, whether the rich or the poor). In this, you should detect again already the same complaint directed against Latin American liberation theology; it gets too involved in “vulgar and narrow politics” rather than remaining oriented toward universal (human) truth, as the most worthwhile thing of all. Thus, these aesthetic gestures either represent the author’s intended gesture of liberation (from narrow political milieus) or it represents an attempt to delimit and control people (into a narrow political milieu). This latter attempt might arrive in reactionary form or revolutionary form, but one of Tirres’ main objections to Goizueta points to the too stark distinction between praxis and poiesis, between “doing” and “making”. For him, “In pragmatism, human knowledge, imagination, and creativity are ‘instrumental to’ the qualitative enrichment of experience. One cannot life as an ‘end in itself’ without such means. Both the product and the process are integral to one another” (64).

A point lacking in Tirres’ analysis: while he readily digs out how García-Rivera and Goizueta rely upon vulgar Marxism (or cherry-pick less vulgar Marxist analyses), he has yet to acknowledge that pragmatism too must have its own vulgar pragmatists. Or somewhat more to the point, except in the case of ideological tools, presumably such “vulgar” Marxism rests on some specific desire the proponent of it felt needed making. A point that would apply to vulgar pragmatists as well.

Or to put the matter still another way, the historically ubiquitous contending between (for want of a better term) absolutist framings of issues in contention versus “shades of grey” framing begs the question why this contention recurs. Those of a fundamentalist or orthodox orientation deem those advocating “shades of grey” heretic, traitors, compromiser, ell-out, while those advocating an integral or moderate view see others as zealots, fanatics, narrow-minded, and the like. Hence, of course Goizueta might harp on vulgar Marists to make his point, while Tirres cries foul and objects one may find any number of sophists, excuse-makers, or simply cleverer or more obfuscating proponents (of Marxism) that the ones Goizueta focuses on. Similarly, then, we might expect Tirres to avoid citing any vulgar pragmatists in his own analyses, but we have no reason to believe simply on the face of it that this means their arguments can’t be disingenuous, &c.

Also, it becomes hard to ignore, as Tirres treats García-Rivera’s and Goizueta’s arguments, in a strictly right or wrong contrast how this runs at odds with his insistence, on multiple levels, to reject stark dichotomies and instead pursue “integral’ positions. One may locate occasional disclaimers that keep Tirres’ exposition from becoming what one might call ‘vulgar rejectionism,” but these disclaimers finally do little to forestall the impression that Goizueta has nothing to offer and that one need pay attention to his work. I’d like to think this amounts to an overstatement, but I doubt it does.

However, as a qualifier on this: Tirres starts by dismantling the Vatican critique of Latin American liberation theology. The unstated part of this—as also the unstated part of the Vatican critique—seems an a priori advocacy for or opposition to Marxism itself. Seeking to condemn or defend Marxism in general, it seems as if the lens of liberation theology (whether pro or con) serves as a distraction for that fact. The situation resembles Bakhtin hidden polemic, except that the object of the hidden polemic (Marxism) seems very poorly hidden. Hence, just as Goizueta (at least in Tirres’ construction of his argument) takes up the Vatican charge of “covertly” bashing Marxism, so Tires similarly sets out to dismantle Goizueta’ argument as a way to un-discredit Marxism. Accusing Goizueta of resorting to vulgar Marxism especially points to this.

And then deeper still, this rather indirect squabbling over the quality of one’s Marxism does act as a further distraction from the underlying dichotomy tires frames North and South American liberation theology in: namely, the categories of the ethical (political) and aesthetic (spiritual). One finds an authoritarianism invoked on all three sides of this debate: (1) the unabashed authoritarianism of the Vatican, (2) the authoritarianism of Goizueta in attempt to “stifle” the open-endedness at work in Latin American liberation theology but also to provide his own end-all/be-all answer, and (3) the authoritarianism of Tirres who starkly deploys an either/or (that one should essentially reject Goizueta’s work wholesale) rather than identifying work of Goizueta’s sort as part of a continuum, as Tirres advocates for other either/or dichotomies. One feels in the presence of Berlin’s “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” where he tries to work through why people seem averse to a genuine (political) plurality in daily life. As Aileen Kelly (1979),[12] in her Introduction, so ably summarises (perhaps better even than Berlin):

Pluralism, in the sense in which [Berlin] uses the word, is not to be confused with that which is commonly defined as a liberal outlook–according to which all extreme positions are distortions of true values and the key to social harmony and a moral life lies in moderation and the golden mean. True pluralism, as Berlin understands it, is much more tough-minded and intellectually bold: it rejects the view that all conflicts of values can be finally resolved by synthesis and that all desirable goals may be reconciled. It recognizes that human nature is such that it generates values which, though equally sacred, equally ultimate, exclude one another, without there being any possibility of establishing an objective hierarchical relation between them. Moral conduct therefore may involve making agonizing choices, without the help of universal criteria, between incompatible but equally desirable values (Kelly, xv).

By this, we see Tirres advancing “a liberal outlook–according to which all extreme positions [like Goizueta’s] are distortions of true values and the key to social harmony and a moral life lies in moderation and the golden mean” (xv). Pluralism would have acknowledged an agonizing truth, that a circumstance like Goizueta’s stark dichotomy between “doing” and “being” might not have an establishable objective hierarchical relation between them. The two views, Tirres’ and Goizueta’s, might instead offer incompatible but equally desirable values.

Berlin discusses in part how it seems always easier to declare those who disagree with you simply wrong, rather than admitting their (baffling) point of view may have some merit after all. But—barring any sufficient evidence that Goizueta doesn’t simply play the part of a shill or a tool for himself, his career, or someone else, an accusation we might with equal irresponsibility at this point level at Tirres—then I have to say that Tirres’ dismantling looks like it accomplishes (by accident or deliberately) no “liberating” us from his own variety of critical monism—i.e., the insistence upon only one way of looking at things; the antithesis of what Berlin calls pluralism.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Tirres, C. D. (2014). The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought. Oxford University Press, i–xi, 1–223.

[3] Nussbaum, MC, and Cohen, J (ed.) (2002). For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism)Boston: Beacon Press

[4] Putnam, H. (2002). Must we choose between patriotism and universal reason? in Nussbaum, MC, and Cohen, J (ed.) (2002). For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 91–97.Boston: Beacon Press.

[5] The habit of treating atheists as a form of religious sometimes has merit, depending upon the atheist, but generally the move serves merely to misprision the atheist critique of theism.

[6] Wallerstein, I (2002). Neither patriotism or cosmopolitanism. In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 122–4,Boston: Beacon Press

[7] Although, which “America” this might point to (North, South, or Central) remains ambiguous, of course.

[8] García-Rivera, A. (1999). The community of the beautiful: a theological aesthetics. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

[9] Having encountered lately a bunch of “simple-minded” argumentation (excuse the judgmental tone please), I can only imagine that such folks would scoffingly declare that no one but the individual gets to decide on this matter. This self-congratulatory myth, of course, collapses as soon as (for example) you (1) become a heterodox Christian, bucking the authority and the community in your church, or (2) the police decide to arrest you and you get to offer excuses for your behavior to a judge who would sentence you to prison. &c. Both of these cases involve (I would say) a degree of an abuse of power, but the issue appears even in non-abusive cases. We only need admit that we sometimes get confused about our experiences so that an outsider might weigh in with a more apt description to get into this territory. Only if you believe you can never err in your interpretation of an experience could you possibly insist that you and only you can correctly describe that experience. This seems a piece of egregious entitlement (once again) characteristic of late-order capitalism.

[10] Tirres, CD (2009). “Aesthetics.” M. De La Torre (ed.) Hispanic American Religious Cultures, vol. 1, pp. 6–11. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO

[11] The topic may not have escaped the masturbatory in his work either.

[12] Kelley, A. (1979). Introduction: a complex vision. In I. Berlin Russian Thinkers. (eds. Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly). New York: Pelican.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Nostalgia in publishing doesn’t make for convincing work.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: F. Santoro’s (1995)[2] Storeyville

As usual lately, an acute awareness on my part of ad-text for a book upstages this graphic novel’s content.

Here, a work from 1995 gets bracketed by foreword and afterward both by different figures from the comics industry telling us in much gush how meaningful their experience of reading this text felt when it first came out.

But at least they also do, along the way, manage to make some claims about the graphic style of the work, but no shortage of it hinges on amazement over the use of a technique that by now—whether through Santoro’s influence or not—no longer seems striking.

Most of the back of the book gets similarly occupied with forms of nostalgia. Chris Ware’s confession about his first encounter with Storeyville gets repeated; Brian Chippendale assures us “Storeyville is … classic”; Seth begins by saying, “Of all the graphic narratives to appear in the last few decades …”; and Lauren Weinstein points not only to the bygone era of the Great Depression (where the book occurs) but also likens the art-style to the past of Matisse and Grosz. As a 2005 reprint, the book itself (now in a hard-bound cover) already reflects a retrospective look. And if an essential part of nostalgia involves homesickness for the place of one’s youth, then Weinstein’s expostulation, “Plus [Santoro] made it when he was just twenty-three” while the plot itself, the summary informs us, “follows the arc of a youthful adventure at the dawn of the twentieth century” both point to the past in that way that smacks of a desire to recapture one’s (lost) youthfulness.

We should do the artist the courtesy of assuming he means for the style to get blurry after a certain point, and not simply read it as laziness—though one might. Whatever else Ware reports from a long-time collaborator with Santoro about this change of style, it reads at its most obvious as the story (or narrative) becoming unclear for the protagonist. The key moment, Ware insists, occurs where the text reports, “I realize now that I, unsure of my own future, longed for the stability and camaraderie of their lives” (16). Ware claims the style radically changes after this, but that seems a hard sell to me. Things seem more consistently “unclear” or “blurry” more like twenty frames later after, “I was no longer sure in which direction my future lay” (17).

But whatever we might make of that, this blurriness does not linger. Soon enough, and without any clear development of narrative, the drawings have no more blurriness than at the outset. And Santoro then resorts to an abrupt point of view change, having the protagonist’s “saviour” (Rudy) appear gradually in four frames, intermixed with some drawings of birds, and in an otherwise empty page.

Ware remarks that “Will’s own relationship to the friend whom he’s chosen as his savior have been entirely subjective, if not illusory” (ii), which one could read as suggesting that the subsequent encounter between Rudy and Will happens only in his head. I don’t think Ware means this, but it at least makes artistic and narrative sense of the point of view break.

Yeah, you say: who cares about point of view violations? Besides that they seem to account for a very great number of cases where readers checkout-of or abandon a text? Besides that they most often read as simple errors? But seriously, if you simply want to insist that the text can have no errors, that it constitutes immortal genius worth of Matisse (forget Grosz), then why say anything at all?

An equal part awkward decision involves the reveal on the past disaster that befell Rudy and Will. The elliptical suggestions around this at the beginning do a nice job of seeming weird and unsettling and difficult for the main character. And if an author, having established this expectation, really can’t fail to make clear what did happen, it needn’t appear in a drunken reminisce by the main character. It would have come out more compellingly, I’d venture, if related to another person, even a stranger.

The main problem, however, comes out in the timing of the disclosure. To set up some of the dramatic irony in the text—and simply so we have some orientation for when Will and Rudy actually interact—this forces Santoro to plunk this narrative exposition down where he does. It comes after he has introduced us to Rudy (in the point of view break) and then has to happen before Will finds him—assuming, in fact, that we actually have to know the backstory. I doubt that, especially as it raises a number of logistical questions that seem to need answering, i.e., what prison or jail were Rudy and Will in that they escaped from, and why were they chained together at all. &c.

In a work so hemmed all about by nostalgia, a flashback like this at least makes a kind of formal sense (for the work generally), but flashbacks don’t move the story forward, they usually serve to clutter the narrative with exposition not at all necessarily necessary, and their “thematic” use in the text rarely comes out.

Santoro has already established Will remains haunted by the role Rudy had in his life; why actually doesn’t matter, not for the reader and not for the characters. The entire interaction between Will and Rudy consists most of all of Rudy saying, “You don’t need me anymore,” and only a little of Rudy implying, “Don’t talk to me now; I have to protect the secret of my/our past.” The specifics of their past interaction don’t bear on the scene, and finding out about it actually lessens, rather than exacerbates, the charge of the book.

Of course, ad-text can only misrepresent the book it plumps it seems. The striking thing involves less how relentlessly it lies as how the gesture persists. Maybe someone will read the book expecting “a perfect match of form and content” from Storeyville (as the ad-text claims); or maybe such a bold-faced lie functions to induces readers to read the book to prove such nonsense wrong. In advertising, whether an ad appeals or offends matters less than that you simply remember the product. Maybe something like that operates with book-text: whether it seduces you with outrageous claims or tweaks your nose in a way that makes you set out to prove it wrong, either way so long as you buy the book (never mind reading it), nothing else matters.

Endnotes

[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] Santoro, F. (2007). Storeyville, Brooklyn: PictureBox, pp. i–iii, 1–50.