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My research shows that one key value guides thinkers as different as Lionel Trilling and Fred Moten, Theodor Adorno and Gloria Anzaldúa, Stephen Greenblatt and Bill Brown. It is so pervasive across our fields that it seems to speak for itself. And so, like all norms, it carries its own limitations, repetitions, and exclusions. The name I will use for this value here is anti-instrumentality.
Max Weber and, later, the thinkers of the Frankfurt School made a powerful case against what they called instrumental rationality — Zweckrationalität. They argued that capitalism and totalitarianism rest on a kind of means-ends thinking that calculates value according to the efficient, rationalized achievement of economic and technical progress. Instrumental rationality emerged out of modern Europe, feeding the “hungry furnaces” of capitalist accumulation by turning the world into objects for its own use and profit. For centuries, Europeans and their white inheritors have used instrumental rationality to justify themselves as the only real subjects of history and to treat non-European people and homelands as objects to be exploited for their ends.
And so, across politically minded scholarship in the humanities — including Marxist, deconstructive, critical race, postcolonial, queer, environmental, and feminist criticism — scholars have sought to unsettle and resist Western assumptions about the human subject: implicitly white, straight, adult, able-bodied, European “Man,” who invokes his exclusive capacity for rationality to exploit all others.
This critique has been persuasive and significant. But the argument against instrumentality has gone further. The most influential theorists in the aesthetic humanities have warned against all instrumentality — not just Western-style instrumental rationality but all means-ends thinking. All plans and programs are dangerous. Even the most utopian visions of a revolutionary future, we are told, only re-entrench existing dominations.
As Michel Foucault puts it: “To imagine another system is to extend our participation in the present system.” Theodor Adorno, though deeply unlike Foucault in many ways, shares this position: “One may not cast a picture of utopia in a positive manner,” he writes. What is productive instead is to draw attention to what’s “missing”: “the determined negation of that which merely is” which “always points at the same time to what should be.” According to this logic, we do our best political work when we dwell in restless negativity, using imperfections to point beyond themselves to something other, the undefined to-come.
This argument still holds force. For Fredric Jameson, it is crucial:
To bring home, in local and determinate ways and with a fullness of concrete detail, our constitutional inability to imagine Utopia itself: and this, not owing to any individual failure of imagination but as the result of the systemic, cultural and ideological closure of which we are all one way or another prisoners.
Jared Sexton argues against praxis, prescription, and prognosis in favor of reaching for “an indiscernible something beyond” Being: “imagining it in and as the ruins of Being, after the end of the world, in an entirely other relation to the nothing from whence it comes.” Or as Jack Halberstam puts it,
Revolution will come in a form we cannot yet imagine … We cannot say what new structures will replace the ones we live with yet, because once we have torn shit down, we will inevitably see more and see differently and feel a new sense of wanting and being and becoming.
From Marxist critique to Black and queer studies, and from deep ecology to aesthetic autonomy, the logic of anti-instrumentality connects otherwise conflicting schools of thought. And so, if you look at almost any essay or book in the aesthetic humanities, it will conclude with a kind of deliberate open-endedness — a soaring refusal to spell out the future.
Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt write: “We sincerely hope that you will not be able to say what it all adds up to; if you could, we would have failed.” Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion closes this way: “Justice involves feelings … Where we go, with these feelings, remains an open question.” For Derek Attridge, “the opening up of possibilities that had remained closed, is — however risky — a good in itself, particularly when the process is a continuous one, allowing no permanent settling of norms and habits.” Dora Zhang reclaims the political potential of description on the grounds that it challenges “teleology and instrumentality.”
Peter Boxall invites us to “think our way into the unpictured world to come” by way of literature’s “unthought conjunctions.” At the end of Black Aliveness, Kevin Quashie issues “a call that exists and vibrates beyond the scope of the rule of the world as we know it — an imaginary that inflects how we can behold ourselves and each other.” And for Timothy Bewes, the novel as a form is uniquely important because it gives us “access to a thought that, in its essence, refuses the ideological formulations of our world.” In other words, critics of all stripes refuse the entrenched dominations of the status quo by beckoning to the indefinite, unmappable possibilities beyond.
Anti-instrumentality has proved an unusually tough and resilient underpinning for the study of art and culture, its basic presumptions uniting critics who fiercely disagree with each other about everything else. But there is trouble lurking in these arguments. Anti-instrumentality may seem to do the heroic work of uniting political revolutionaries and defenders of the aesthetic, but in fact it falls short on both sides. First, because autonomous art serves political ends. And second, because anti-instrumentality does not in fact yield the revolutionary justice critics have so often hoped and claimed for it.
Champions of anti-instrumentality return, again and again, to the freedom that art brings. In The Poet’s Freedom, Susan Stewart argues that because art resists use, commodification, and mastery, the artist can embark on a “process of possibility without resolution.” For Attridge, it is the reader who is freed by the encounter with art:
To read a poem and feel one is entering a new world of thought and feeling, to find oneself laughing at a surprising passage in a novel, to have one’s breath taken away by a speech performed on stage — these are experiences of alterity, of the impossible made suddenly possible, of the mind, and, sometimes, the body being changed by new configurations, new connections, new possibilities.
For these scholars, art yields pleasures and thoughts and possibilities that push beyond dominant routines and assumptions. And as art breaks free from dogma and determination, it frees us from the torpid conventionality of the status quo. But this also means that we are already fully in the domain of the political. After all, freedom is nothing if not a political value. And that is why political and aesthetic arguments can so easily be yoked together.
In response, the strategists of the newly formed CIA launched a covert arts program. The Congress for Cultural Freedom funneled resources to the literary magazine Encounter and to the Chekhov Publishing House, which printed the works of Nabokov and other Russian émigrés. It supported the Nigerian magazine Black Orpheus, which published some of the most influential Négritude writers, including Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor. Mundo Nuevo, the Paris quarterly of Latin American writing, which published Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz, and Mario Vargas Llosa, was exposed as a CIA venture early on.
The Cold War Program for Cultural Freedom was a major source of support not only for artists and writers but also for the academic humanities. The CIA provided funding for programs in Asian and Latin American studies, foreign languages, and American literature. M.F.A. programs in creative writing drew support as weapons in the anti-Communist struggle. Richard Nixon poured vast sums into the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Cuts to the NEA and NEH began in 1990 — shortly after the Berlin Wall fell. In other words, the CIA instrumentalized — we might even say, weaponized — the anti-instrumentality of the aesthetic. They saw that difficult, experimental art could stand for freedom from political ends and then they put that freedom to political ends. And this was not a misuse or misunderstanding of artistic anti-instrumentality. Freedom is the value that underpins arguments for aesthetic autonomy.
And yet, how could the same politics possibly unite thinkers as radically different as Jack Halberstam and Richard Nixon, Susan Stewart and Aimé Césaire? The answer is that aesthetic autonomy goes hand in hand with a specifically indiscriminate version of political negation. Peter J. Kalliney shows that African writers in the middle of the 20th century embraced aesthetic autonomy for a wide variety of conflicting ends, including “emancipation from colonialism; independence from the postcolonial nation-state; avoidance of politics in order to foster collaboration among multiple constituencies; freedom from politics altogether as a professional disposition; and ideological neutrality in the Cold War.” Motivating anti-imperialists, nationalists, Cold War spies, and those keen to avoid politics altogether, anti-instrumentality can — and does — set itself against all constraints, all rules, all plans.
In recent years, it has become especially clear that a freedom from norms and constraints does not always align with the radical left or even with progressives. Authoritarian populist leaders have been celebrating resistance to rules in the interests — they say — of freeing people from state power. The Trump administration, for example, rolled back over one hundred environmental regulations, including fracking on Native lands, drilling in wildlife preserves, and dumping toxins in waterways. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro has gutted the environmental agencies that limit and penalize deforestation. And Narendra Modi in India has deregulated the sale of crude oil. From this perspective, the drive to resist norms has hastened the worst effects of climate catastrophe.
Climate denialism is itself oddly consonant with the humanistic values of opacity and open-endedness. Called “merchants of doubt” by the historians Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes, a small group of anti-communist strategists turned lobbyists set about undermining the policy prescriptions of scientists who had in fact come to a consensus about urgent dangers, their causes, and the need for government solutions: first tobacco, then acid rain and chlorofluorocarbons, and then, most destructively of all, climate change.
Tech companies, too, embrace open-endedness and disruption, claiming to free work from traditional office cubicles, regulations, bureaucracy, schedules, and hierarchies in favor of sharing, convenience, and “personal empowerment.” This emancipation from traditional constraints has brought with it a terrible precarity for much of the labor force, as workers struggle to make ends meet by stringing together multiple unpredictable “gigs.” “Neoliberal subjects,” as Wendy Brown puts it, “are controlled through their freedom.”
The humanistic value of open-endedness has become perilously congruent with neoliberal precarity and onrushing climate catastrophe. And it is troubling, in this context, that scholars across the environmental humanities have been especially insistent on celebrating breaks and openings. Stacy Alaimo invites us to “dwell in the dissolve.” Donna Haraway urges us to recognize our complex mutual entanglements with a range of beings — from pigeons to estrogen — in order to refuse the usual “dictates of teleology, settled categories, and function” and shift us instead to “the realm of play.” Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing argues strenuously for open-endedness, deliberately refraining from identifying any particular plans or programs in favor of “an aimless aim, or a project with no goal.” And in A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, Kathryn Yusoff urges a “destabilization of the mode of encounter” and “an insurgent geology for the end of the world.”
What has come to concern me, however, is that these have become their own common sense across the aesthetic humanities. I myself wrote three books that revolved around unsettling dominant structures before realizing how strange it was that I had never even imagined a different set of purposes. And as soon as I began to think directly about them, they seemed limiting and partial. And disturbing. What if open-endedness justifies an avoidance of planning and building, and reinforces the notion that it is not our job to find practical strategies to work against anthropogenic climate change and its calamitous and uneven consequences? What if it disempowers all of us who are working across the aesthetic humanities?
I am now, like other humanists, struggling to find alternatives to systems that re-entrench injustice. But it is my hypothesis that the practice of concluding with calls to ever more complexity and possibility instead of sketching out plans of action feeds the logic of climate denialism and neoliberal atomization. It supports collective inaction. As long as the aesthetic humanities stress humility, wild imaginings, the unmaking of prevailing values, and dense entanglements, we push off the work of organized collective action to another moment. Barbara Leckie argues that while this “preparatory work” can be rightly “slow and laborious,” there comes a moment when “both individuals and collectives need to transition to ... action.” But how? So far, the daily work of teaching and writing in the aesthetic humanities remains overwhelmingly caught in the pause before action, rarely focusing on how to gather forces, how to plan and strategize for a different set of conditions, how to face the tough, imperfect struggle of making collective decisions and reclaiming public goods.
The first step is to reframe the problem of instrumentality. Anna Tsing distinguishes between two models of use — one that is necessary to ordinary survival, “eating and being eaten,” and the other, a specifically capitalist instrumentality, that turns all kinds of lives into “resources for investment.” Ordinary survival cannot dispense with use. In fact, anti-instrumentality may be itself a product of the Western mind-body split. The Indigenous peoples of the Columbia River Valley both recognize water as a value in itself and understand it as useful for the preservation of human life and health. For “the people of the river,” writes Elizabeth Woody, “there is positively no concept of water as nonutilitarian.”
What I propose, then, is an affirmative instrumentality for the aesthetic humanities. I turn here to the Potawatomi philosopher Kyle Powys Whyte’s concept of “collective continuance,” a framework for justice that does not dispense with use. Whyte defines collective continuance as “a society’s overall adaptive capacity to maintain its members’ cultural integrity, health, economic vitality, and political order into the future and avoid having its members experience preventable harms.” This definition allows Whyte to specify the injustices of settler colonialism. Colonizing forces destroy “the capacities that the societies that were already there — Indigenous societies — rely on for the sake of exercising their own collective self-determination over their cultures, economies, health, and political order.”
“Collective continuance” points to a kind of means-ends thinking that does not immediately fall back into the trap of instrumental rationality. Collective continuance is a just end that is also an ongoing means. That is, collective continuance is the establishment of political, cultural, environmental, and economic conditions that allow collective life-worlds to flourish over time: It is a set of enabling conditions — an infrastructure. To reject all ends as constraining and oppressive is to miss the ways that some fundamental material conditions — clean water, fertile soil, breathable air — are the preconditions for all other activity. Or to put this another way: Collective continuance is a capacitating end, a crucial means of affording a range of other ends.
Another term for collective continuance might be “sustainability.” This term has long drawn fire. As often embraced by businesses as by environmental activists, sustainability implies the continuation of life as we know it, which for many in business and politics includes expectations of ongoing economic growth, competition, and accumulation. Yet in fact, these dominant systems are dramatically unsustainable. I think we should recast sustainability as a neutral term: It refers to the capacity to keep any state of affairs going over time, just or unjust. And what climate change has made suddenly clear is that sustaining must be a goal for social and racial justice. Collective continuance describes a genuine sustainability — the vast and urgent project of sustaining collective life over generations. And for that work, we are going to need to start planning and building.
This essay is adapted from The Activist Humanist: Form and Method in the Climate Crisis (Princeton University Press).