Artistic Know-How, Aesthetics, and (Anti-)Humanism: Some Thoughts on Alexis Shotwell’s Knowing Otherwise
I’m making my way through Alexis Shotwell’s really well-written Knowing Otherwise, and I must say I generally agree with the project: in addition to being extremely well-written (it easily passes my “Can I read it on an airplane?” test), I think it’s generally correct in its discussion of race, gender, and non-propositional or “implicit” knowledges. I agree that race and gender exist, ontologically, and work, politically-materially, as forms of “implicit knowledge”—i.e., as bodily, affective, skill-based discourses that are either not propositional or not-yet-propositional.
But, we do have some fundamental differences and disagreements. Some of our differences result from our different backgrounds or approaches. I want to work through some of those differences and disagreements because it helps clarify what I think is valuable about Shotwell’s project, and what is distinctive and relevant about my own project. Some of our differences result from the backgrounds from which we approach these issues: Shotwell is primarily and above all a philosopher (she regards as “implicit” what is, I argue below, really what is implicit to philosophy) whereas I (am increasingly coming to realize that I) am just as much a musicologist as I am a philosopher. I think there are kinds of knowledges that are implicit to philosophy but explicit in other epistemes. (E.g., experienced musicians will explicitly know things—like whether or not a note is in tune, how precisely to use vibratio right here, etc.—that are both skill-based and contingently and/or ontologically non-propositional.)The other difference lies in our theoretico-philosophical commitments, especially regarding aesthetics and politics. Shotwell’s chapter on aesthetics draws significantly on Marx and Marcuse—who are the objects of direct critique by my own preferred theorists, Rancière (who critiques Althusserian-style Marxism) and Foucault (who directly rejects Marcusean notions of power/resistance/liberation). Like these radical liberal political theorists, who think liberalism hasn’t made due on its promises, Shotwell argues for an expanded, revised humanism. I, on the other hand, reject liberal humanism, its ideals of authenticity, the overcoming of alienation, etc., and argue instead for an anti-humanist critique of liberalism. So, while we’re in a lot of agreement about race, gender, and their relations to non-propositional embodied knowledges, we approach this issue in very different ways and from seriously different starting points. This difference in trajectory means that we generally agree, but don’t completely agree: we approach each other very closely on some points, but this approach meets the above asymtotes (the “explicit” character of artistic practice, the liberal humanism issue), so that our projects, while in the same general galaxy, are in different solar systems, so to speak. So, below, I will tease out some of our points of convergence and divergency; in doing so, I will argue that it’s important to think about art (not just “the aesthetic”).
I guess I should also clarify that the “project” I’m referring to is my manuscript-in-progress, “Sound and Sensiblity: Theorizing Beyond the Visual”.
1. Implict to philosophy
I want to take issue with Shotwell’s use of the term “implicit”. I want to emphasize that I take her intentionto be as follows: In examining “implicit” knowledges, Shotwell is trying to complicate too-easy implicit/explicit binaries, and argue that conventionally propositional knowledge is deeply intertwined with conventionally non-propositional knowledge.[i] I agree with that argument. However, I think that the way she frames her discussion of her intended project gets her into trouble. She argues that “we understand things that cannot be or are not spoken, and we may suspect that this form of understanding is important…which I call ‘implicit undrestanding’” (ix). Here, as throughout her text, Shotwell identifies her intended object of analysis as “implicit understanding.” She defines “implicit” in terms of speakability or visibility: “things that cannot be or are not spoken” are implicit. Though I take her as wanting to question the speakable/unspeakable binary, Shotwell uses this distinction to define what counts as “implicit,” and what counts as “explicit.”[ii]“Speakable knowledge,” she argues, “should not define our knowing” (38), because there exist “implicit,” non-propositionalized or non-propositionalizable ways of knowing. Shotwell consistently frames implicit knowledge in terms of speech and visibility. Here’s a list of some of the ways she does this:
· “We are influenced by common sense in all sorts of wordless ways” (33) “What might be important that there be some component of people’s understanding that is not in words?” (32)
· “Gramsci’s notion of common sense is appealing in part because it gives a framework for thinking through how what is spoken hooks into what is not expressed in words but is still known. It opens a way for thinking about how the unspeakable can be mobilized for political ends” (32)
· “interrogating our unspoken conception of the world is to bring some of that conception to the foreground. Looking at common sense…” (34)
· “that which we could not say, or necessarily think, before the poem. Lorde says this is ‘poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are—until the poem—nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt’. Poetry changes our presuppositions and background understanding…and both illuminates and forms that which was unseen“ (26). Note here the commutability between visibility (light) and speakability.
· “They may be primarily based in unquestioned assumptions, and therefore it may require active work to bring a prejudice into view. In order to see a prejudice, it must cease to stand as a basic assumption” (16)
· “sites where implicit understanding’s effects and calls are particularly visible, starting from them in order to talk about the political and epistemic salience of implicit understanding” (xxii)
From what I can tell, Shotwell gets this language of speech and visibility from her sources—mainly Gramsci and Lorde. I think her sources work against her here, because Shotwell is actually describing something more complex than what Gramsci and Lorde are. Their rhetoric of speakability and visibility suggests a too-simple implicit/explicit matrix, and Shotwell is actually trying to complicate this matrix. But, to do so, I think Shotwell needs to adopt different terms, different metaphors—those beyond the visible and the verbal. It would be more helpful and more productive to theorize from actually non-propositional forms of understanding. Shotwell’s reliance on metaphors of sight and speech force her to refer her theorization of extra-propositional understanding always back to the propositional. Though she argues that “it is possible to think about the implicit as a productive category—not simply a negation of propositionality” (25), she never defines it positively—it is always either “non-propositional” (with reference to propositional) or implicit (with reference to explicit) knowledge. (She does use the language of “skill,” “common sense,” and “sensuous knowledge,” but these, though positive, are still quite abstract terms.)
I don’t think the language/metaphorics of “speaking” and “seeing” provide that much assistance in examining and theorizing non-propositional knowledge, because words and vision are the two main frameworks for propositions we have.[iii]The language of speech and sight does not help us flesh out a positive account of implicit knowledges, or better, knowledges that are implicit to propositional epistemes. There are plenty of knowleges that are neither verbal nor visible, but are still quite explicit. In fact, I actually think Shotwell tends to frame aesthetic/sensuous knowledge as non-rational and wholly non-cognitive, which is, I think, wrong. She argues that
The form of understanding bodied forth through aesthetic experience is epistemic—we know the world otherwise through this sensuous knowledge, and that knowing is beyond, beneath, and other than rational, cognitive, propositional knowledge (49; emphasis mine).
Though it might be primarily accessible as a skill, or in other non-verbal forms, the knowledge involved in making and interpreting, say, Mozart’s Magic Flute or Britney Spears’ Toxic, both pieces are actually quite logical and rational (e.g., the “grammar” of tonal harmony). Claiming that “the ‘work ‘of cultural production and consumption is thus mostly affective, presuppositional, and bodily” (42), Shotwell oversimplifies the epistemic work in making and interpreting art. Cultural production/consumption is one of the places where the line between affective/propositional, presuppositional/intentional, bodily/cognitive is most obviously blurred. So while “the aesthetic” may be a sensuous form of knowing that is largely extra-propositional, the actual making and interpreting of art more clearly demonstrates the intermixture of propositional and extra-propositional modes of knowledge, and more effectively complicates implicit/explicit distinctions.
My point is this: “sensuous knowledge” is not some mysterious, non-rational, touchy-feely, squishy-bodily thing. Some people work very, very hard and think lots and lots about “sensuous knowledge.” It is my experience that artists are deeply, explicitly awareof their sensuous knowledges, even if they do not manifest this awareness in words or images. A dancer is explicitly aware of his or her body, its positions, movements, etc., but this awareness likely does not take the form of words or images—in fact, “conscious” verbal or visual awareness often breaks one’s fluency, one’s expertise, in this non-viz/verbal awareness. Similarly, fluency in the diatonic Western scale is not an implicit knowledge. It’s pretty explicit, especially to practicing musicians. It may be implicit to non-experts (e.g., your average music-consuming public) in the same way that grammar and syntax are “implicit” in much everyday language use—I use the rules and structures without reflecting on them. But this just means that these modes of musical or verbal organization are practically implicit to those using them, but are not in any way “hidden” or “invisible”—they’re easily discernible to those who take the time to examine them. There are kinds of knowleges that are both explicit and non-propositional; they are just not explicit to philosophy.
So, in sum, I think Shotwell’s use of the metaphors of speech and sight don’t adequately capture her intentions in theorizing forms of knowing that blur traditional implicit/explicit or propositional/extra-propositional dichotomies. Metaphors taken from these more obviously sensuous forms of knowing—music, dance, performance—are better suited to this task because unlike speech and sight, which are generally experienced as “propositional” ways of thinking/expressing, music, dance, and performance more often and more obviously blur the implicit/explicit distinction Shotwell’s work, when at its best, attemps to critique (what she calls “heterodox” knowledge).
Before moving on, there’s one other difficulty I have with Shotwell’s framing of “implicit”: it’s not the form or type of knowledge that makes it “implicit”, but power that makes something implicit. So certain types of knowledge are “implicit’ not because of their form (skill, ontological nonpropositionality, etc.) or location (body, habitus), but because of their situation in respect to hegemonic power-knowledge formations. It is power (norms, hegemony) that has made non-visible, non-verbal knowledge apparently less explicit than the visual and the speakable. So yeah, I’m playing a Foucault card here, but I’m playing it because I think Foucault is right (on this point at least). SHotwell’s text does not explicitly state that it is the form that makes something either implicit or explicit, BUT, in identifying four different formsor types of implicit knowledge, the text does encourage the view that certain types of knowledge are inherently, by virture of their structure/form/composition, implicit. Further, her constant referencing of implicit knowledge as “corporeal,” and “embodied” suggests that knowledges located in the body are implicit, while traditionally cognitive knowledges are “explicit”. For example, in discussing Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, Shotwell says that: “A key aspect of Bourdieu’s account of the habitus as embodied is the notion that it is transmitted implicitly through a pedagogy that encodes practices in the body, thus rendering the practices it teaches significantly inaccessible” (13). Here, it seems that knowledges are “significantly inaccessible” because they are “bodily.” But this is not the case: all knowledge is bodily, and we are alble to put some of this knowledge into conscious, verbal propositions with great facility and precision. In fact, to artists, even these extra-propositional bodily knowledges are quite easily accessible (for example, I can listen to the pitch and timbre of my oboe-playing, and, based on what I hear, make adjustments in my embouchure). These aesthetic/sensuous knowledges are not inaccessible because they’re embodied; “implicit” knowledges are inaccessible because hegemony makes them so. The dominance of visuality and verbality in Western philosophy makes aural and kinesthetic knowledges more difficulty to come by—only experts have the degree of fluency in sound and sensibility that most averagely-abled people have with the visual and the verbal.[iv]
I’m going to be more brief in discussing the next two points, as these are issues on which Shotwell and I simply disagree….and that’s OK. It just shows that our projects are different. I will argue my own position in this manuscript I’m working on, so you can look forward to reading the full case for my view there. For now, I’m not going to argue the difference in position, just point it out.
While I take Shotwell to be critiquing traditional liberal humanism, I read her, especially in her use of Marx and Marcuse, as offering a radical humanism. So, for example, while she says she “will trouble these conceptions of harmony, full humanity, and full freedom” (49) that are used in traditional philosophical aesthetics (e.g., Kant), she uses Marxian aesthetics to critique traditional aesthetics’ failure to live up to/realize these ideals, not humanism itself as a project.[v]For Shotwell, the problem with humanism is that it has excluded women, non-whites, queers, and a host of others from “full humanity,” and has harmfully used this idea of “full humanity” as the only index of moral value. Thus, the point of her critique is to “expand the human relation [traditional aesthetics] describes” (68). In this text, one of the main elements of Shotwell’s expanded or revised humanism is the commitment to overcoming alienation. A just world is one which “allows people to maintain a non-alienated individuality” (68). What is valuable about the aesthetic, aka “sensuous knowledge,” is that
its objectivity is not alienated. Sensuous expression is connected to—perhaps a prerequisite for—non-alienated species-being…Sensuous knowledge and activity marks a reversal of the estrangement produced by capital and its kind of objectification. In this sense, the realm of sensuous ness holds tremendous potential for working against the alienation of oppressive social relationships” (69).
I would argue that capitalism is not oppressive because it is alienating; rather, it’s oppressive b/c it treats specific groups with increased susceptibility to vulnerability and violence. But that’s a point to be argued elsewhere. For now, I just want to establish that SHotwell thinks alienation is a bad thing. Why is it bad? For her, alienation is bad because it brings one out of relation with oneself and with others.[vi]The opposite of alienation is “integration” and “intimate relation” (66). Shotwell’s revised humanism is “not centered on the ‘human’ simply conceived, but instead as a point in a field of interaction in which each point implies the whole” (68). So, she rejects exclusive definitions of ‘the human,’ but still adheres to a fundamentally humanist logic that privileges wholeness, coherence, intimacy and integration—“each point implies the whole.”
Instead of humanism, I prefer models of power and selfhood/agency where alienation isn’t a loss or deficit. Such models include Afrofuturism, queer anti-humanism, posthuman feminism. Also, while Shotwell views sensuous knwoledges as sites of integration, my Rancierian approach treats sensuousness/the sensible as the locus of dissensus, “disagreement,” and disaggregation.
Shotwell provides a Marxist-Marcusean analysis of power and liberation. For example, she argues, with Marcuse, that “the aesthetic…manifests a non-repressive order” (5). I’m going to assume that Foucault’s critique of Marcuse—especially on this idea of “repression”—is well-known. I adopt a Rancierian-Foucaultian understanding of power and resistance. I follow Foucault in rejecting Marcuse’s overly simplistic account of power as only or primarily “repressive” (or alienating), and “liberation” as the main form of resistance.[vii]Marx and Marcuse are radical liberals, b/c they maintain liberalism’s ideals while arguing it has not adequately yet achieved them; Foucault and Rancière are not liberals, because they critique the fundamental assumptions about power, humanity, indiv/society, the political function of reason/sensuousness, etc.
Sooo, I want to emphasize that I find Shotwell’s project really interesting and valuable. We just have some different fundamental commitments and approaches, so while we’re both interested in the role of “the sensible” and “the aesthetic” in race, gender, and sexuality (and, in my case, in art), our projects will in the end be actually quite different. While Shotwell stays well within philosophy (theorizing what is implicit to philosophy, theorizing through the visual and the verbal) and well within humanism, I step outside philosophy (to musicology, theorizing through sound) and well outside humanism.
[i] Shotwell clarifies that “my primary analytic attempts to avoid a split between what we can and cannot say in a coherent sentence…I am trying to shift the terms of a conversation about the difference between propositional and nonpropositional knowledge in order to understand the ways these categories are themselves inadequate” (xi).
[ii] One thing I need to consider more carefully: It’s not the speaking, saying, or hearing of something that makes it explicit, but the character of being expressible in language (which does not have to be spoken, or take the form of something which could be said—ASL, Morse Code, C++, BASIC—these are all non-spoken languages). So why frame it in “speech”?
[iii] There’s a deeper question here: why frame what is propositionally knowable as what is visible or verbalizable? Is it because sight and speech are the two primary forms of propositional knowledge that we Westerners have developed? Even if speech isn’t fully reducible to propositional knowledge (e.g., it has poetic/literary effects), and sight isn’t exactly identitical to verbal-propositional knowledge, it could still be the case that sight and speech are analogous enough to propositional knowledge that they don’t really challenge or offer alternatives to it.
[iv] I also wonder if this focus on speech and sight is the result of Shotwell’s perspective as a philosopher. It is philosophers who primarily conceive of knowledge as propositional. It is philosophers who frame propositional knowledge as what can be put into language and spoken, just as it is philosophers who frame knowledge in terms of sight and vision. I think artists and art educators might have a different perspective on knowledge, and how to frame the implicit/explict distinction. Before I was a philosophy major, I studied music education—I was learning how to teach people ontologically nonpropositionalizable practical skills, like how to sightsing, or how to play the oboe. There wasn’t this sense of “OH, this is so odd and special b/c we can’t say it or put it into words”—these skills were, for us, the most mundane things ever. They weren’t mysterious. They weren’t difficult to “understand.”
[v] “Such a critique involves,” she argues, “a resistance to human exceptionalism, a resistance to views of the world as solely a resource for human industry, and a resistance to the easy nostalgia for pasts that really weren’t so liberated” (69).
[vi] “Appropriation of sensuous objects, and of the self as a sensuous object, is a human activity…an appropriation in the sense that the world is actively brought into relation with the self, who is also appropriated in the act of objectification—though in that case there is a kind of self-relation…The appropriation involved in objectification supersedes the logic of private property, where objectification is a process of alienation and inhumanity of the self and its objects. In this case, appropriation is the opposite of estrangement—it is an integrated, sensuous relation with the social world that emancipates the senses from the logic of the ‘life of private property, labour and capitalization.’ This kind of objective appropriation situates us in intimate relation with the world and others in it” (66)
[vii] I also critique the connection between realism and liberalism. Marcuse seeks to develop, in Shotwell’s account, a new realism. “Marcuse’s attention to the work of demystification can be read as a kind of magical realism, because of the alienating structures of capitalist production, within the world as it conventionally appears the realist cannot imagine another world. Turning into the world of the aesthetic dimension, a new realism comes forth” (54. Marcuse is still liberal, because he still views power as primarily repressive, and thinks we need to liberate ourselves from that power by having a more accurate, more correct realism…not the distortion of the performance principle. He thinks the performance principle distorts reality; the aesthetic dimension corrects for this distortion by liberating us from the performance principle. I, on the other hand, begin from distortion, undoing, etc., and want to think of “the aesthetic” or “the sensible” as departures from liberalism’s demand for realism.