Monday, August 1, 2011

Aesthetics and the Environment

First, before I go all theoretical, let me say that I want stories from you.  What kind of story will become clear as we go.

In my work on Virginia Woolf's use of form to engage readers in a kind of meta-reading of her novels and essays, I have suggested that the reader's attempt to discover what her form means creates a kind of "hinge" between an autonomous work of art and the world we live in.  It's the place where we are the most active and engaged interpreters of her work.  Ever since Kant, in his Critique of Judgement, talked about the disinterestedness of the beautiful, philosophers and lovers of art have tended to see a work of art as living autonomously in its own world, unsullied by politics or our daily cares.  To some degree, this is supported by the way we experience art:  we go to art galleries and concert halls--places we don't normally frequent--to look at paintings or hear music.  Because most of us don't use paint or song to communicate in our daily lives, we'll easily accept the assumption that a Mark Rothko painting or a Beethoven string quartet have an autonomy that separates the work of art from the daily concerns of our lives.  But literature has always been problematic, because language is inherently social. 

We'll accept that T. S. Eliot isn't trying to effect social change in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."  At the same time, we suspect that Dickens, in The Christmas Carol, is making some claim on our hearts and is hoping to change our behaviour and perhaps even our attitude toward the poor.  He's trying, in short, to challenge the distinction between the "deserving poor" and the "undeserving poor" that unfortunately lingers in government policy even today, about 150 years later.  My examples, you will realize, are a set up:  they were chosen to be emphatic.  Dickens was writing novels, which is often seen as a "less autonomous" form than poetry, which can be completely autonomous.  (There's a whole line of thinking I won't follow here.  Can poetry be autonomous because so few people read it, or do so few people read it because it seems so divorced from their daily lives?)  Dickens was also writing a good fifty years before Henry James actually used the phrase "the art of the novel," implicitly suggesting that the novel was an art, not a kind of aesthetic reportage. 

For my work on Woolf, I've been reading a wonderful book by Gregory Jusdanis called Fiction Agonistes (Stanford University Press, 2010).  Jusdanis has (at least) three  observations about fiction that relate to this question of the environment.  First, he argues that "Only autonomous art can be oppositional" (55; italics in original).  It's art's autonomy that allows it to call our present situation into question.  Its autonomy is also its freedom.  The artist cares about whether the work is well-made and accords to her or his vision, not whether it tows an ideological line.  Second, "Art is metamorphosis, the craft of making changes.  It imagines the impossible and inconceivable because of its endless potential" (55).  In other words, a craftsperson like Atwood can terrify us in Oryx and Craik by posing a vision of the world quite different from our casual sense that while the environment is changing, we'll adapt.

Third, Jusdanis has borrowed from the Greeks the concept of "parabasis."  There's a point in a Greek tragedy where the members of the chorus take off their masks and speak to the audience, citizen to citizen.  Novels find a variety of technical ways to do this--by using frame narratives that forge a link between the work and the world, or by discussing the making of art within the novel itself, so that this issue of art's role is foregrounded.  But I suspect that there are moments in many novels, poems, or essays, that, the author's intentions aside, seem to speak directly to us.  

As Katherine Arbuthnott and I have worked on our SSHRCC grant proposal, I've come to learn two important things about literature and the environment.  First, it's fairly easy to change attitudes, and I think that in general our attitudes about the environment are changing.  Here in Saskatchewan, we only need to think of the farmers whose fields are so wet that they're unworkable, or about the string of unusually humid days we've had this summer.  We know we need to do something about the environment. 

But the second things I've learned is that what we need to change are behaviours, not simply attitudes, and this is much harder.  This is because our goals are sometimes in conflict.  While the part of us that is influenced by ethical, normative goals recycles, the part of us that has hedonic goals (we do like to be comfortable), would prefer driving in our airconditioned car to taking public transit. 

So help us out.  Help us figure out how the texts we read might help us to be environmentally responsible.  Tell us stories about reading something that changed your attitudes.  What was it about the novel, graphic novel, poem, essay, article, that spoke to you, citizen to citizen?  Better yet, tell us a story about how something you read changed your behaviour. 

You can tell your stories here, as a comment, or you can email them to me at

Or you can come talk to us at Profs in the City, Tuesday August 2 at the Neutral Ground Gallery on the west side of the Scarth Street Mall.  We'll be talking about our work between 12:15 and 12:45.

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