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Aesthetics. Or flamebait. One of the two.

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Jan. 21st, 2011 | 09:34 pm
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Specifically, some undeveloped and rambly thoughts about literature, aesthetics, and ideological messages.

A few years ago, as part of a sort of intro philosophy survey course I was required to write a short reading-response to an article by Marilyn French.1 This article proposed a definition of what aesthetics would have to look like to be compatible with feminism and more-or-less free of misogyny. What came out was, if I am to judge by the instructor's comments on my paper, not so much a  response as it was an indignant squawk. This was of some concern to me then -- and still reappears from time to time in the back of my head -- since, if the best a person, a professor fairly well acquainted with the material no less, can manage in response to your criticism of a possible feminist aesthetic is "Wait. Huh? What?" you're left to wonder if maybe you've stumbled upon some sort of gender blindspot and you really ought to rethink your opinions and attitudes. I still find the idea that aesthetics should be anything like what French described awful. I haven't, with any great success, tracked down a set of embedded patriarchal assumptions which might be responsible for the clash, but I haven't found a better critique of French either.

Or rather, I hadn't until a few hours ago, and now have some possible rambly and undeveloped thoughts that might sorta-kinda-maybe be the criticism I was trying to get at four years ago?  Alternatively I'll just expose an embarrassing blindspot, but in the latter case I assume, eventually, someone will call me on it and let me know.

French's article, Is there a Feminist Aesthetic?, does not keep the reader long in suspense. A paragraph in, she remarks "[t]he clearest proof of the existence of a feminist aesthetic is the distaste or rage feminists feel on encountering works that violate it."2 The substance of French's feminist aesthetic is, in excerpt: 
"There are two fundamental, related principles that mark a work of art as feminist: 1.) it approaches reality from a feminist perspective and 2.) it endorses female experience. [...]

In a work with a feminist perspective,the narrational point of view, the point of view lying behind the characters and events, penetrates, demystifies, or challenges patriarchal ideologies. [...] The [patriarchal] assumptions are, first: males are superior to females. Their superiority may be granted by a deity or by nature, but it is absolute in conferring on men authority over women. Second: males have individual destinies; they are promised domination, a surrogate godhead, transcendence over the natural world through power in heroism, sainthood, or some form of transcendent paternity -- founding a dynasty, an institution, a religion, or a state, or creating an enduring work of art or technology. Third: the form taken by patriarchy is hierarchy, a structure designed to maintain and transmit power from spiritual father to spiritual son. This form absolutely excludes females unless they "make themselves male" [...]  Females have only a "natural" destiny; interchangeable parts of nature's cycles, they are maids (in both senses), who become mothers, and finally widows (or hags), in which avatar they are expendable.

Finally, domination is divine, so to pursue it is noble, heroic, glorious.The material to be dominated is, essentially, nature -- all women; the body and emotions; "bestial" men; and natural processes, the flux and transitoriness of time, material decay, life itself. Patriarchal works focus on individual males who pursue glory; lonely, self-made and self-defeating, men are isolated from community and exiled forever from the "female" fate of happiness.

Since almost all modern worlds are patriarchal, feminist literature necessarily depicts patriarchy. But it does not underwrite its standards. Feminist literature may show patriarchal attitudes destroying a character or a world, but the narrative does not approve the destruction. When, in The Faerie Queene, Guyon destroys the luscious female world called The Bower of Bliss, Spenser, who has used his highest imaginative skills to create the Bower, judiciously approves its ruin. This is true also of Vergil in The Aeneid. The poet sighs about the tears of things (lacrimae rerum),regretting that beauty and feeling (Dido and sexual love for instance) are destroyed in the pursuit of glory, yet approves Aeneas's desertion of Dido, and his slaughter of those who oppose his domination. Aeneas's destiny is to found Rome; it overrides humanitarian or emotional concerns. Clearly, despite their feelings, both poets uphold patriarchy.

It is less clear where Tolstoy stands in Anna Karenina, or Austen in Pride and Prejudice. Both authors accept the patriarchal societies in which they live. Yet the pity Tolstoy lavishes on Anna, and the acute irony with which Austen pricks upper-class pretention and the unctuous ambition of the middle-classes, subvert patriarchal standards. This sympathy is not in the eye of the reader; it is built-in. Tolstoy's novel induces readers to feel the world lessened by Anna's death, rather than to feel that it was necessary, like Dido's, to a greater purpose. Austen's heroines maintain self-respect and integrity (wholeness) even as they triumph within a patriarchal structure. Many works of the past three centuries stretch patriarchal standards in this way; they are not feminist, but do not wholly support patriarchy either.

[... In feminist aesthetics] Domination is not divine but lethal to dominator and dominated. It harms the dominator by cutting him off from trust and mutuality, the foundations of friendship and love, the two primary values[.]"3
French goes on to elaborate upon what it means for a work to "endorse female experience," but I have omitted it here because I find her commentary on that point, so far as I've thought about it, unobjectionable. In sum, feminist art identifies pernicious forces (especially domination) in human society, and works to undermine them through depicting their consequences. Art is, first and foremost, a vehicle for the improvement of a people:
"For feminists [...] Art nourishes a society, feeds it; sturdy, not delicate, it arises from the life of a people like food from the ground, teaching us what we do not know, reminding us of what we tend to forget, emphasizing what is important, grieving over pain, celebrating vitality. It is useful and beautiful and moral-not moralistic. [...] I have always accepted the Horatian definition of the purpose of art -- to teach and to delight -- and I believe feminist art can make us better, just as I think a feminist world would make us better."4
My difficulty in articulating why I didn't think French was right was this: I believed that racist, sexist, or otherwise immoral messages in a book could certainly prevent a person from enjoying it -- my own very awkward fondness/distaste for H. L. Mencken was easily proof of that. But at the same time, the idea the the aesthetic value of a work is determined by whether its message fits within some ideological orthodoxy is positively loathsome to me. I had attempted, numerous times, to find a way to draw a line between intolerable sorts of offensive messages, which prevented something from being art (or good art), and the remainder of a very broad field of opinions a work could espouse. Naturally, this failed spectacularly.

It occurred to me this evening that the reason the idea of measuring the worth of writing based on its message or societal benefits is so appalling is because it is completely at odds with how I understand the act of writing. Writing is, at least to me, synonymous with thinking. I have exceedingly few thoughts more complicated than "I am hungry and could really go for a sandwich" which do not find their way onto paper (or .tex computer files). This makes a great deal of writing, as you might have guessed, a very private act. A standard which measures the value of a piece based on what it can teach us leaves no room for introspection. Most of my writing is kept to myself, but when others read it I cannot honestly say I much care what they take away from it or whether they think it is good. My thoughts are my own and my writing is my own, and that is all there is to it. I suspect that this is, to one degree or another, universal in artists -- I can't imagine anyone has ever liked a creation solely for its technical virtue.

Except, of course, when a person reads what I do share they don't have any knowledge of what went into its creation. S/he can't see where I stopped and revised and revised and revised until a phrase was -- at last! -- to my liking, s/he (probably) can't guess at my particular psychological states when writing this paragraph or that. What appears to him or her is the literal meaning of a finite sequence of words, and whatever inferences s/he makes from that finite sequence. Those inferences will be influenced by who and what else he or she has read, what sort of mood he or she is in, and that background for his or her inferences is as invisible to me as my actual writing is to him. What I made, and what a reader makes of it will probably be similar, but they aren't the same thing.

This may all seem like a digression from the main point -- why I don't like French's feminist aesthetic -- but it is, in fact, the solution. If we acknowledge that writing a story and reading it are fundamentally different activities, there's no reason we should expect to evaluate them with the same set of aesthetic standards (I am doubtful what a book means from the author's eyes could ever be evaluated, maybe not even described). If we assume that aesthetics tells us at once what it is like to read a good work, and offers some general hints on what to aim for, French's feminism asks authors to set, as their highest aspiration, conformity to a publicly useful ideological orthodoxy (and of course that the story is somehow compelling). No thank you. Not even for an ideology for which I have strong sympathies. On the other hand, if we take it only as a theory of what makes a story memorable, pleasant to read, enlightening, and generally beautiful to the observer (but not as standards to which the artist should necessarily aspire), it seems almost obvious that it's preferable to not have passages which strike a large fraction of possible readers as attacks upon who they are. 

But I don't thing there's anything in French's essay that suggests that kind of decoupling of creative aesthetic experience and interpretive aesthetic experience.

1. Marilyn French, Is There a Feminist Aesthetic? 5 Hypatia 32 (1990)(SPOILER ALERT: Yes. Yes there is.)
2. Id., 33.
3. Id., 34-35.
4. Id., 41-42.

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