What difference does aesthetic experience make in shaping who we are? If you’ve ever had a book or painting touch you to the core, you know how difficult it can be to explain that feeling to a friend, or to connect that feeling to other parts of your life. And yet you have no doubt that the experience has left you a different person. Or, as Michael Clune might put it, the experience has left you wanting to become a different person. “You must change your life,” Rilke says at the end of his poem about looking at a sculpture, “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” But change it how? In A Defense of Judgment, Clune outlines a vision for aesthetic education as an end in itself, full of potential for personal transformation, yet free of the moral prescriptiveness we sometimes attach to our encounters with art or literature.
In a column published last year in the New York Times (“The Academic Apocalypse”), Ross Douthat cites Clune in support of his lament that literature professors no longer offer value judgments about literature. Douthat claims that humanists have created “a unilateral disarmament in the contest for student hearts and minds,” shying away from evaluation and presenting their academic discipline in terms of its critical methods and procedures. Students who major in English graduate with tools for making complex arguments, but no convictions about why one should read one author rather than another.
Clune’s new book makes a similar argument. But what makes A Defense of Judgment surprising and sometimes even thrilling is how Clune relates his critique to a progressive, anti-capitalist politics. For Clune, literature offers a “form of value beyond market determination.” Capitalism promises the consumer an endless series of alterations governed and affirmed only by her choosing—tiny changes that, because they reflect her existing preferences, don’t amount to change at all. Aesthetic education, where “one suspends one’s current values in the expectation of acquiring better values,” can lead to more authentic transformations and attitudes of resistance.
To really change, one needs judgment. In the crucial step of his argument, Clune dismantles the proposition that all desires must be treated as equal, an idea that runs through Amazon marketplaces and humanities departments alike. The triumph of capitalism—and of the theories of neoclassical economics—at the end of the nineteenth century led to a society in which our only agreed-upon source of value is individual preference. My desire, whether for a Toni Morrison novel or a trending Netflix show, is worth no more or less than yours, and to insist there might be any “better” way of spending one’s time or money comes across as snobbish and paternalistic.
Clune uses Karl Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program” to argue that our modern struggle against inequality “cannot be advanced through adherence to the principle of equality.” Viewing all human desires as equivalent makes it harder for us to distinguish between the consumer goods whose production is killing the earth and the goods (such as leisure time spent reading poems) that might help us thrive.
In a highlight of the book’s first section, Clune returns to Marx in order to engage with the arguments of Martin Hagglund’s book This Life (2019), which drew a straight though subtle line from “secular faith” to democratic socialism. Clune contends that Hagglund’s ideological commitment to equality over and against judgment ultimately undermines his own socialist project, since “the distinction between better and worse ways of spending our time is a precondition for a robust vision of a transformed work world.”
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