Yet such judgment violates the principle of equality. So humanists have to pretend we’re not doing it. The entry on “Evaluation” in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics
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Yet such judgment violates the principle of equality. So humanists have to pretend we’re not doing it. The entry on “Evaluation” in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics reads: “Evaluation was once considered a central task of criticism, but its place in criticism is now contested, having been supplanted to a large degree by interpretation.” Sam Rose, in his survey of recent work in aesthetics, describes a consensus among critics and philosophers against the “authoritarian,” “elitist” character of aesthetic judgment.
This eschewal of hierarchy appears eminently progressive. Who am I to say that one book is better than another? Why should I tell you what you should read? Everyone’s taste is equal. No one’s judgment is any better or worse than anyone else’s. Thus, in a curious development, progressive English professors have come to join populist Fox News pundits in railing against the elitism of aesthetic judgment. This position looks better on Fox than it does in the classroom. The abdication of professional judgment throws all questions of value into the marketplace. The free market is where consumers, whose preferences are all accorded equal status, exercise their cultural choices.
Perhaps, in this era of regressive populism, Karl Marx’s perception of the limits of equality contains a valuable lesson for us. He framed his famous slogan, “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs,” as an alternative to an equal distribution. People have different abilities, and different needs; a rigid commitment to equality erases these differences. Marx railed against egalitarian concepts as examples of “dogmas, ideas which in a certain period had some meaning but have now become obsolete verbal rubbish.” Starting in the late ’70s, scholars like G.A. Cohen sought to align Marx with traditional liberal values. But, as a new generation of progressives is reminding us, Marx perceived the limits of the principle of equality. Equality is the liberal capitalist value par excellence. While crucial for the kinds of liberation struggles at which liberalism excels — ensuring equal access to the market and the voting booth — it isn’t so useful in the struggle against the penetration of markets into every sphere of life.
Tyler Cowen, in his defense of “commercial culture,” quotes Orson Welles to draw a connection between market choice and democratic process: “The audience votes by buying tickets … I can think of nothing that an audience won’t understand. The only problem is to interest them. Once they are interested, they understand anything in the world.” Welles, Cowen writes, is arguing “for the supremacy of consumer opinion in judging aesthetic value.” As an index of the actual choices of individuals, a best-seller list is a far more egalitarian register of value than a literature syllabus, which encodes professional judgment.
In the early 20th century, the critic I.A. Richards already perceived the tension between equality and judgment. “The expert in matters of taste is in an awkward position when he differs from the majority,” he wrote. “He is forced to say in effect, ‘I am better than you. My taste is more refined, my nature more cultured, you will do well to become more like me than you are.’” By the waning years of the 20th century, professors concluded they needed to reframe their expertise in order to align it with egalitarianism. Therefore, they bend over backward to disguise their syllabi as value-neutral, as simply a means for students to gain cultural or political or historical knowledge.
Our work is to show students forms of life and thought that they may not value, and to help them become the kind of person who does.
But this stance is incoherent. It’s impossible to cordon off judgments about value from the practices of interpretation and analysis that constitute any viable model of literary expertise. If I judge that a certain poem contains a historical insight that can’t be captured by a history textbook, or that a particular novel knows something about political dynamics that a student can’t get from a work of political theory, then I’m making a literary judgment. I’m saying that it has value, not just for me, but for everyone. This belief is what justifies my requiring students to read it. If I think students can get the same insights from a history or economics or sociology or philosophy course, then why should they bother with my class at all? Even a project as ostensibly value-neutral as a study of the material composition of the paper that composes a Shakespeare folio is indirectly dependent on our sense of the value and interest of Shakespeare’s writing.
But the egalitarian stance isn’t simply a case of risking incoherence for good political reasons. Professors’ commitment to equality actually undermines their politics. Many professors believe they are trying to contest that intrusion of markets into every sphere of life that goes by the name “neoliberalism.” In my experience, the professors most strident about refusing value judgments are also most committed to resisting neoliberalism. But they can’t have it both ways. The literary scholar Joseph North has written movingly about aesthetic education. Yet he speaks for many when he identifies “the left proper” with “those whose commitment to equality runs beyond the boundaries set by the liberal consensus,” and proceeds to reject judgment in the name of equality. The paradoxical effect of a total commitment to equality is to imprison value within the boundaries of the market.
There’s a basic problem with the capitulation of cultural education to consumer preference. Dogmatic equality tells us: There’s nothing wrong with your taste. If you prefer a steady diet of young adult novels or reality TV shows, so what? No one has the authority to make you feel bad about your desires, to make you think you should want something else.
Such statements sound unobjectionable, even admirable. But if the academy assimilates this view — as it largely has over the past three decades — then a possibility central to humanistic education has been lost. The prospect that you might be transformed, that you might discover new modes of thought, perception, and desire, has been foreclosed.
Agnes Callard has given us a wonderfully lucid description of the aspiration at the core of nonvocational education. “When one teaches art history or physics or French at the college level, one is trying to give students access to a distinct domain of aesthetic, scientific, or literary value. We aren’t selling them something they already want; instead, we are trying to help them learn to want something, or to strengthen and deepen a pre-existing but weak desire.” Our work as educators is to show students forms of life and thought that they may not value, and then to help them become the kind of person who does value them.
We must distinguish between a dogmatic view that takes equality as the starting point of education, and a view that sees equality as the goal. The first-year literature student doesn’t begin my class with a capacity to judge literature equivalent to mine. He doesn’t like the Gwendolyn Brooks poem I assign. He’d rather read To Kill a Mockingbird again, or better, Mockingjay. Hart Crane is not relatable. And Sylvia Plath just looks insane.
My first task is to say to this student: It doesn’t matter if you don’t like Brooks, or Crane, or Plath right now. Their value is independent of your preference. You’re going to spend some time with them because there are things in these works to be seen that will transform your vision; there are thoughts in these works that will make you think differently.
How does the student know that the work I’m showing him really does have the mysterious properties I claim for it? What proof does he have that he will be glad, in the future, that he’s taken this course, that his mind has been improved or transformed?
My authority can never take the place of a student’s experience, nor would I want it to. The point of literary education isn’t to venerate William Shakespeare or George Eliot or Biggie Smalls or Henry Thoreau. It’s to enable you to see things that were invisible, to hear new sounds, to understand what didn’t make sense. If, with my help, the student can’t prove to himself that Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” was worth reading, then no one else will. But as David Hume wrote: “Many men, when left to themselves, have but a faint and dubious perception of beauty, who yet are capable of relishing any fine stroke which is pointed out to them.” Every professor knows the sudden light in students’ eyes as they begin to see, as they begin to feel the contours of a mind, a way of sensing, they hadn’t imagined existed, as they begin to feel that this mind might be their own.
The first-year literature student doesn’t begin my class with a capacity to judge literature equivalent to mine.
Dogmatic equality blocks this possibility. The doctrine of the market — all desires are equal, all value is only opinion — blocks it. This is only one of the many ways untrammeled markets militate against better human lives. The struggle against the ills of the market requires the courage to defy the market’s ruling passion, dogmatic equality.
Scholars of politics and philosophy sometimes distinguish between “formal” and “substantive” equality. If you tell me my preference for young adult fiction or reality TV shows is neither better nor worse than a preference for Emily Brontë or Ralph Ellison, you are robbing me of the opportunity to enrich my life. You’re giving me a desiccated “formal” equality. On the other hand, “substantive” equality extends aesthetic education to everyone, regardless of class or race.
I prefer Marx’s term. “Dogmatic” equality expresses the religious intensity, the uncontrollable force of equality, its capacity to consume all differences and distinctions, along with any politics inassimilable to the dominance of markets.
Wall’s essay suggests a powerful question. How can we distinguish mere authoritarianism from valid professional judgment, judgment that seeks to counter the prejudices and blindnesses of individual experts? How can we know that when an expert tells us Emily Dickinson or Zora Neale Hurston are great writers, she isn’t simply expressing her subjective opinion?
One way to assure people of the validity of expert judgments is by making the reasoning behind them transparent. Yet expertise isn’t generally compatible with the capacity to show just anyone the evidence for our judgment. The opposite is more often the case. This is why theorists of academic disciplines from Northrop Frye to Thomas Kuhn point to the consensus of the community of experts as the standard for assessing the value of a given work, study, or claim. The fact that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is both real and human-caused is far more powerful than the description of any particular scientific finding. Even if those findings are described in terms superficially accessible to laypeople, we understand that the expert assessment of their value depends on a variety of background knowledges, practices, and norms that are concealed from us. Recent history has shown that it’s quite easy for nonexperts to examine various studies of vaccines, for example, and arrive at conclusions sharply distinct from those of experts.
The claim of an expert community’s judgments on nonexperts derives from the background knowledges, experimental procedures, norms of argument and evidence, and often-tacit skills that constitute expertise in a given field. Jerry Z. Muller has described how university administrators have fallen victim to the egalitarian fantasy that we can make the grounds of expert judgment accessible to just anyone. The dogmatic egalitarianism of what Muller calls “metrics fixation” conceals a struggle between administrators and a “professional ethos … based on mastery of a body of specialized knowledge acquired through an extended process of education and training.” Muller describes how the proponents of metrics understand professional judgment “as personal, subjective, and self-interested.” If you can’t immediately show me your reasons for your expert judgment, it must be because you have no reasons, or your reasons are bad ones. Perhaps you’re getting paid by the vaccine makers, or you own stock in wind turbines.
Literary expertise differs from scientific expertise in many respects. But in both cases we can distinguish professional judgment from mere private opinion. And, like scientific judgment, understanding the basis of expert literary judgment is a learning process. I think Bashō’s poetry is great. But this isn’t just my opinion. I didn’t discover the beauty of Bashō’s work on my own. And no one pointed at a poem and just expected me to get it. When I was 15, I discovered R.H. Blyth’s translation and commentary on Japanese haiku as I was bored one day in the library. I opened the book at random and came across these three baffling lines:
“The octopus trap:
Under the summer moon.”
It wasn’t the complexity of the poem that threw me. It was its stark simplicity. The poem didn’t seem to be saying anything. I was about to throw the book down, but then, curious as to why anyone would put such a stupid poem in a book, I scanned Blyth’s commentary. I read the following sentences: “The octopus lies as if asleep in the bottom of the jar which has trapped him, a float marking the place on the water above. Though the words do not express it, the verse seems full of light and color.”
Blyth’s brief gloss combines a useful piece of historical knowledge — the fact that 17th-century Japanese octopus traps were open jars — with the description of something that he notices about the poem. “The verse seems full of light and color.” How could this be? What is the source of the color in this extremely plain poem? How does the octopus relate to the summer moon? What is it like to be an octopus?
Over the following days and weeks, the poem recurred to my mind, along with Blyth’s gloss. Within me, Blyth’s teaching slowly passed Hume’s test of aesthetic expertise. Many people, “when left to themselves, have but a faint and dubious perception of beauty, who are yet capable of relishing any fine stroke which is pointed out to them.” Something that for me was unimaginable — what is it like to be an octopus? — became something I could begin to imagine.