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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Scruton's Aesthetics and the Need for Historicism

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Over at the American Spectator, the British philosopher Roger Scruton has been having an eloquent grumble about the state of the humanities, entitled Farewell to Judgement.

Scruton complains that in an attempt to justify their coexistence with the sciences at universities, the humanities have faced a crisis of legitimation. If the sciences offer knowledge that explains the world, what can the humanities present as their raison d'etre? The response has been an ideological turn, with the humanities justifying themselves by their political radicalism. As Scruton notes, this led to a problem for English studies, which is the informed cultivation of something that might otherwise be seen as a leisure interest:
Unlike women's studies, which has impeccable feminist credentials (why else was it invented?), English focuses on the works of dead white European males whose values would be found offensive by young people today. So maybe such a subject should not be studied, or studied only as a lesson in social pathology.
The brave new world faced by English studies is not one recognised by Scruton's generation. For him, literature offers a way of perceiving those human universals that, in a writer like Shakespeare, transcend historical circumstances to sympathise with a deep human nature, even if the superficial politics look very different to ours. When Shakespeare invites judgement, it is not a political one. Instead:
We judge Shakespeare plays in terms of their expressiveness, truth to life, profundity, and beauty. And that is how you justify the study of English, as a training in this other kind of judgment, which leaves politics behind.
Scruton says that the other aim of English studies was the judgement of "taste," established through careful emotional criticism, taught by the likes of R. P. Blackmur, F. R. Leavis, William Empson and T. S. Eliot, "who had raised the study of literature to a level of seriousness that justified its claim to be an academic subject." Now, however, Scruton laments that:
When judgment is marginalized or forbidden nothing remains save politics. The only permitted way to compare Jane Austen and Maya Angelou, or Mozart and Meshuggah, is in terms of their rival political postures. And then the point of studying Jane Austen or Mozart is lost. What do they have to tell us about the ideological conflicts of today, or the power struggles that are played out in the faculty common room?
Scruton seems to have things both ways. On the one hand, he argues that literature offers access to human universals, whilst on the other he complains that because Jane Austen cannot tell us about contemporary ideology or power struggles, the point of studying Austen - if we are going to focus on political rather than aesthetic values - is lost. Resolving this double standard of universality points us to the factor Scruton overlooks in his lament about the state of the humanities.

Whereas Scruton perceives that judgements of value and politics must be mutually exclusive, so that Jane Austen both is and is not universal in her value depending on which side you come from - the political or the aesthetic - I do not see any such binary. I do not see the binary because I am, in my own critical and teaching approach, a historicist. Historicism allows one to perceive the universality of underlying aesthetic or humanistic values, without this entailing that political values must be similarly universal; or, to look at it another way, just because political values today are historically different does not automatically mean that the work must be aesthetically compromised.

Take the case of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. As most famously expressed by Chinua Achebe, this novel that has come in for a great deal of political criticism, because of its alleged racist tendencies, as Conrad refuses to offer black characters a voice, other than those of cannibal grunts. It is an ideal case of Scruton's "dead white European males whose values would be found offensive by young people today."

Except my students - like myself - do still read and enjoy Conrad today. They are very adept at perceiving that even if Conrad's political values may be suspect, this is not to say that his aesthetic values should automatically be condemned. Students generally recognise that his artistic techniques in representing Africa as an inscrutable, dark place of the Earth - what Leavis called Conrad's "adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery" - must be held in aesthetic admiration, even if the political work to which those techniques are directed, the denigration of Africa as a "dark place of the Earth" and the consequent elevation of European culture as one of enlightenment, may be troublesome from a postcolonial point of view. Students appreciate that Conrad's stylistic traits, such as "delayed decoding," his use of a frame narration, and metafiction, are a masterful way of allowing Conrad to represent Africa in his own way, and to convey his personal, sensual impressions to us as readers who have not necessarily travelled up the Congo. We may not like what he says, or allegedly says, about blacks, but we can admire the way he says it as part of the wider impressionistic purpose of the novel. The crucial intervention here, between political and aesthetic values, is historical awareness, the understanding that Conrad was operating in a different political framework to our own time and that, because we could not have expected him to be of a postcolonial mindset in the late nineteenth century, we can accept that he did the best possible aesthetic work he could under his different circumstances. What would be most surprising of all about Heart of Darkness is if a novella first published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, read solely by European civilised males, were to be actively anti-colonial. I should add, as a caveat, that I do not agree with Achebe that Conrad was a racist, and my own view - which I will not elaborate on now - is that he very cunningly undermines the status of his anticipated readership. But even if a modern student or Achebe do think Conrad's political values were wrong, and are inscribed as such in the novel, that does not preclude one holding a different view of his aesthetics. To keep the aesthetic and political in mind simultaneously, what is required is a historical consciousness, as well as a critical acumen.

Which leads me on to another problem I have with Scruton's argument. Scruton later laments that:
Departments of musicology are now “into” pop music and Heavy Metal, and refrain from creating the impression among their students that they regard the Western canon as anything more than a piece of musical history. I recently had the experience of teaching a course on the philosophy of music to young people in a British university, and was acutely aware at every moment of the resentment that now greets any criticism of pop.
This is symptomatic of the humanities' opening of that door to modernity labelled "cultural studies," where instead of looking at dead, white artists, literature, music, art departments encourage their students to look at what is going on in the contemporary cultural world. The problem with cultural studies is its tendency to conflate popularity with quality. Further, as Scruton shows, because pop music is popular amongst those studying it critically, any suggestion that it might not be as good as Bach or Beethoven is taken as a personal affront, thus making judgements of value very difficult. The only thing that can be done is the relative comparison of one pop artist against another - which students readily do in pubs and bedrooms - rather than saying with critical acuity that this pop artist is inferior to Bach.

I appreciate Scruton's criticism here, but his view is based on an experience of cultural studies done badly. There is nothing in principle wrong with studying the contemporary. However, it is only by tapping in to the historical moment in which a particular work of art is produced - asking, why this piece of art, why this style, why now? - that we can hope to perform the separation of politics from value that Scruton desires. Politics can be taken more broadly than just ideology, to mean the social, technological, economic factors that inform a person's beliefs and experiences in any given moment. At its best, the aim of cultural studies should be not primarily to look at what is popular per se, but to ask how that popularity acts as an indicator of what is significant in a culture at any given time. This allows cultural studies to model a moment clearly, and to use this as the basis for making value judgements.

Given the things that matter and inform a contemporary society, which works are doing the best job at this time of responding to, elucidating and - if politically radical - seeking to change that moment? Scruton is right in that cultural studies can fall for the trap of thinking that if something is popular, it must be good. But if, as I believe it should do, cultural studies makes its first point of attention the historical circumstances of the time, and only then asks what works are doing the best job within these circumstances, it can achieve the aesthetic value judgements which literature, music or art departments used to do in the days of Leavis, Eliot et al. Whether looking at canonical works, or looking at the present time, then, the important factor that Scruton overlooks in perceiving a tension between politics and aesthetics as the subject of study is the way in which the historical can mediate between the two objectives. It provides a bedrock from which value judgements of older works can be made, even if their politics seem alien, and from which value judgements of the contemporary can be made more objectively, even if they seem too familiar and a part of who we are, and thus beyond any potentially stinging aesthetic criticism.

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Posted by Alistair at 7:12 pm


Blogger Anthony Levings, MA, PhD said...

I personally find Conrad an intriguing example of the way in which readers interpret texts and all the myriad of variables and biases that we bring to them. I remember as an MA student hearing people talk of the author's racism, where I had read irony, satire and comedy. Was I right or wrong? It is not a question with an answer, because a work of literature is something more than simply the opinions of its author. And certainly more than our two-dimensional interpretation of those views. We must, as you write, take into account the circumstances of the writing and publication, but still ultimately confess that there is no definitive answer to what Conrad thought when he wrote. For, we only need to consider our own selves as writers to know that all that we think when writing could never be captured so simply. Let alone captured by someone living in the next century.

10:42 am  
Blogger Ishmael said...

Anthony, I think you are entirely right about the relativity of readers' responses - and Scruton's article was, frankly, a bit bizarre and presented a caricature of English Studies that I just don't recognise. I cannot think of a single tutorial, seminar or conference I've been to where readers unanimously felt a book was good, whether popular or not; and the example of Conrad does show it is still possible to have problematic elements - if not full blown racism - present in a work, but for that work still to take its place as the subject of debate. I guess Scruton must have had a nasty experience at the music department he mentions, and extrapolated his view of the humanities from there. Nevertheless, his new book on "Beauty" sounded interesting when I heard about it on the radio, so I may just have to take him a bit further.

8:11 am  

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