Symposium Introduction

Here is a story perpetually made new: that literary modernism constitutes an aesthetics of shock. From the onslaught of the city, to the perceptual shifts wrought by new technologies, to the disorienting chaos of war, modernism—in this perennial narrative—mediates the psychological wreckage of global modernity, abstracting its eruptive force into stylized literary experiments. Not least as a means of cushioning the blow. As Walter Benjamin argued in his 1939 essay, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” at the heart of the modernist lyric may be the “shock defense,” a way of parrying psychic disturbances by transmuting them into self-contained poetic moments. Rooted in the Freudian insight that preparedness for shock dulls its perception, Benjamin’s essay places trauma and its mitigation at the center of modernist practice. While modernists aimed for formal and perceptual innovation, modernist historiography largely suggests that they did so by preparing not to be shocked, channeling experiential assault into controlled forms of destruction.

Yet as Kate Stanley’s Practices of Surprise in American Literature After Emerson elegantly contends, this narrative of modernism has obscured the important ways in which modernists actively and creatively cultivated the unforeseen—in its most positive valences—as central to their compositional praxis. Against the critical tendency to read modernism’s destabilizing experiments as a monolithic response to the experience of modernity as trauma, Stanley maps out a counter-tradition of modernism emanating from Emersonian pragmatism, a mode of generative indeterminacy and “structured openness” to the world. For Baudelaire himself, as well as for the writers and artists to which Practices of Surprise lovingly attends—Henry James, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Nella Larsen, and John Cage—Emerson provided a model of creative surrender to the unpredictable currents of experience, and to the transfiguring potential of the fortuitous surprise. Recovering this transatlantic Emersonian legacy, Stanley’s study maps a lineage of modernist practice that inherits and extends Emerson’s emphasis on self-effacing receptivity to the unknown. “The one thing we seek with insatiable desire,” Emerson wrote in his 1841 essay “Circles,” “is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle.”1 Moving away from the Benjaminian emphasis on shock, Practices of Surprise reminds us of the ways in which modernists desired, embraced, and indeed practiced radical uncertainty, drawing new and more expansive circles at every incalculable turn.

To be surprised in an age of trauma, as modernists well understood (and as they imbibed from Emerson), required sustained and cultivated habits of mind. Shifting the dominant logic of much of the historiography, Stanley’s study centers surprise not as an unlooked-for disturbance—the experience of being buffeted by the contingencies of the world—but as a sudden affective recognition sought and prepared for through an active training of the attention. Modernist surprise, Stanley contends, is a function of disciplined preparation—a mode of reception to the unexpected that careful reading and thinking with others might enable. Through each of her readings, Stanley elucidates pragmatism’s embrace of contingency and “adaptive precariousness” as it served modernism’s broader disruption of conventional aesthetic forms (24). At the same time, she demonstrates how pragmatism comprised (and continues to comprise) a kind of relational ethics, wherein formal and prescriptive dogmas might be tenderly loosened, and through which art might become a collective inhabiting of uncertainty.

Practices of Surprise, in other words, offers surprise as a methodological as well as an ethical and (perhaps most surprisingly) pedagogical imperative. As Kristen Case points out in her essay “Recovering a Pragmatist Pedagogy,” at the heart of Stanley’s study is the enactment of pragmatism as a pedagogical practice, a way of reading and teaching that celebrates creatively honed modes of reception and lively, intersubjective encounters. Asking us to train our attention on this often-overlooked pragmatist pedagogical inheritance—one reiterated and sustained in classrooms but rarely circulated in print—Stanley offers a distinctly alternative critical genealogy, at odds both with the hermeneutics of suspicion and with its various agonists. As Case asks, “What might the discipline of literary studies look like if, rather than hemmed in by a picture of reading as ground zero for the anxiety of influence, it circled around an Emersonian scene of generative reception?” Writing in and about a pragmatist lineage that fundamentally refuses the distinction between criticism and pedagogy—and that foregrounds iterative practice as central to both—Stanley lays out a ground for reading founded not in Oedipal struggle but in mutually transformative acts of recognition and exchange.

This is a fundamentally reparative venture—an effort to recover modernism’s improvisatory spirit, its cultivation of the enlivening surprise over and against (and in the midst of) sense-deadening shock. As each of the essays in this forum take up in different ways, Practices of Surprise both extends and at times usefully destabilizes the “optimistic theodicy” that has haunted pragmatism in the Emersonian strain. While inspiriting precisely the kind of generative openness that Stanley recovers in modernist practice, pragmatism’s sanguinity in the face of radical uncertainty has for many critics made it a difficult language through which to confront structural and institutional forms of violence and constraint. Taking up this abiding tension, Case offers Cornel West’s elaboration of “prophetic pragmatism,” which (in Case’s terms) tempers the “comfortable optimism of white pragmatist thought” with a more straightforward and thorough confrontation with the tragic. Perhaps especially in her reading of the atmospheric turbulence of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928), Stanley signals the limits of pragmatism’s embrace of precarity as a philosophical comportment in the face the very real precarity wrought by structural racism and misogyny. At the same time, in her response to Case, Stanley insists on the “spirit” of pragmatism as an epistemological and pedagogical sanctuary, one where real risks might nevertheless be confronted and shared in the vibrant laboratory of the classroom.

In a similar vein, Mary Esteve asks whether Emersonian pragmatism’s emphasis on ambivalence and endless deferral might have enabled—or even constituted—a falling away from concrete ethical and political commitments in favor of an aesthetics of uncertainty. As Esteve contends, the pedagogical lineage of pragmatism that Stanley elaborates tends to obscure an institutional history that privileged experience at the expense of political belief and actionable intervention. Taking up the centrality of Richard Poirier to Stanley’s own inheritance of pragmatism, and recalling Poirier’s foundational role in the development of Harvard’s Hum 6 course, Esteve points to the way that the institutionalization of pragmatist pedagogy may have helped reify aesthetic detachment and political quietism as norms of academic engagement. At stake in Esteve’s essay and in Stanley’s response are competing understandings of the relationship between pragmatism’s carefully honed modes of perception and liberal democracy’s (at least rhetorical) demand for rational judgment and deliberative action. These understandings emerge through divergent readings of Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04, which interrogates the crisis of global climate change through the entanglements of perception, cognition, and intervention. While Esteve reads the novel as a scathing critique of romantic sublimity in the face of pending global catastrophe, Stanley notes the novel tracks precisely the challenge of integrating rational knowledge of climate change with what it feels like to experience it, contending that the novel’s attention to pedagogy is animated ultimately by a pragmatist ethics of care.

In one of its central moves, Practices of Surprise insists on the paradoxical ways in which surprise is “facilitated by preparation”; surprise, in this model, is a function of rigorously disciplined practices of awareness and attention (4). Yet as Alex Benson suggests, there are different ways to approach the relationship between surprise and discipline, particularly when we expand beyond Emerson to consider other nineteenth-century thinkers of surprise. Reading Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, for example, Benson points to the intimacy between surprise and paranoia; Douglass describes learning to “expect” surprise assaults from the overseer, a kind of disciplined awareness and anticipation necessary for surviving chattel slavery. Echoing Case’s call for tragedy as a potential counterweight to Emerson’s insistence on “optimistic theodicy,” Benson asks, “What does Emersonian surprise look like when what we set it against is not Benjaminian or Freudian shock . . . but rather the moral shocks, the sentimental appeals, of Emerson’s lifetime?” If, as Benson signals, Douglass and other abolitionists aimed for the shocking facts of slavery to be morally instructive, what is gained and lost by a reparative embrace of Emersonian surprise? Taking up this invitation to reexamine Douglass’s own scenes of instruction, and particularly moments of shared reading that constitute the most hopeful moments of his Narrative, Stanley’s response contends that “Douglass’s reparative hope . . . proves to be as much a matter of survival as his paranoid vigilance.” Making room for genuine surprise amidst such compulsory vigilance becomes an important measure of what it means to be free.

Alicia DeSantis takes up the paradox of preparing for surprise in a different vein, arguing that to move beyond the critical context of modernism is to understand such preparation as the most ordinary of experiences. As DeSantis suggests, “the concept of a form of discipline designed to be openly responsive to contingency is not only non-contradictory, it’s in fact familiar—from baseball to baking, ceramics to sex.” DeSantis juxtaposes this more familiar version of paradox with the specificity of literary paradox as the fundamentally unresolvable work of interpretation, and places this latter form at the heart of Emerson’s restlessly oscillatory and often circular metaphors (part of what makes them so challenging for undergraduate readers). In doing so, DeSantis presses on the distinction that Practices of Surprise makes between the kind of rarefied paradox that the New Criticism installed as central to the very definition of the literary object, and the kind of paradoxes that pragmatism embraced as the bridge between literature and everyday experience. New Criticism and pragmatism part ways, Stanley argues, “at precisely the point that the New Critic installs the concept of paradox as a core tenet of close reading,” turning the contingencies of interpretation into “a preformulated program and a prescribed procedure” (40). As both DeSantis’s essay and Stanley’s response suggest, the pragmatist paradox becomes valuable insofar as it exceeds the self-enclosed system of critique to become “a program for more work.” Or as Stanley puts it, “whether Emersonian paradox opens up or shuts down new paths for thinking depends on whether our ‘interpretive oscillation’ ultimately moves beyond itself.”

The question of how pragmatism moves in and beyond paradox into collective action—indeed into something like mutual care—is perhaps the abiding concern in each of these essays, as it is in Stanley’s book. In the forum’s final essay, Lisi Schoenbach describes a divide within pragmatist thought between “problem solvers” and “paradoxical thinkers.” As Schoenbach suggests, problems solvers (embodied by John Dewey and Richard Rorty) approach pragmatism as a set of conceptual tools and values meant precisely to intervene in the endless deferral of decisive action as Esteve describes it, while paradoxical thinkers (including Emerson, Richard Poirier, and many of the figures on which Practices of Surprise dwells) embrace pragmatism as a mode of expression—a poetics of uncertainty. Pragmatist poetics offers a rich language for the affective experience of the revelatory surprise, and thus for the embodied and concrete ways in which language mediates a world of uncertainty. Yet as Schoenbach argues, “individual wonderment, reflection, and personal transformation (the key elements of the paradoxical approach to pragmatism) do not begin to address collective and institutional change across time, social experience, or the social world.” Schoenbach suggests we approach these divergent pragmatist traditions as complementary rather than oppositional; as she points out, for many of the thinkers who people Stanley’s book, artistic experimentation and collective action were deeply interwoven practices.

As Stanley’s response to Schoenbach underlines, what may surprise us most about paradox-minded pragmatism is its emphasis on collaborative world-building as uncertain, risk-filled, and absolutely necessary work. Returning us to William James’s account of pragmatism as “a social scheme of co-operative work genuinely to be done,” Stanley signals how a pragmatist genealogy of modernism may help us better see the relation between the project of following experimental composition to its unexpected, often surprising ends, and the necessarily improvisatory (if no less disciplined) work of social change and collective care. In an era of endlessly shared but unevenly distributed trauma, in which the iterations of state violence and social collapse evince the Benjaminian state of emergency as the very rule by which we live, Practices of Surprise helps us recover the transformative labor of surprise—labor in which the ends are not given, and are thereby not assured. Which is what makes Stanley’s emphasis on the classroom an instructive one; for it is there, she suggests, where practice opens onto new and surprising modes of relation, and where any truly reparative project might wish to begin.


  1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), 414.

Response

Recovering a Pragmatist Pedagogy

Trailing her on my way to class during my first semester of graduate school, I ventured to speak to my professor, Joan Richardson. I told her how much I’d been enjoying the Emerson essays she’d assigned for our course on the origins of pragmatist thought. “Yes,” she responded, spinning around suddenly to look me in the eye. “They make one register the reality of spirit.”

I don’t remember what I mustered in response, but I’ll never forget the encounter, not only because Joan would become my most important teacher, but also because in that moment she broke all the tacit rules of critical engagement I’d been struggling to understand and follow in those early weeks. I couldn’t have articulated those rules at the time, but I was far enough in to know that to talk about “the reality of spirit” was to make a move in an entirely different sort of game than the one I’d been painstakingly attempting to learn to play. It was a surprise, in Kate Stanley’s beautifully elaborated sense: one that both Joan’s teaching and Emerson’s essays had prepared me to receive.

One of the great joys of Stanley’s Practices of Surprise has been to re-encounter some of my own most important teachers: Joan, Emerson, William and Henry James, and Richard Poirier, whose book Poetry and Pragmatism was for me as it seems to have been for Stanley, a mind- and trajectory-altering encounter. But if Stanley’s book has put me back in touch with a particular intellectual inheritance, it also opens up a future we can still choose, illuminating a strain of Emersonian thought that has been there all along, mostly just out of view, a picture of intellectual transmission that offers a powerful alternative to the model of Oedipal struggle that has long dominated the field of literary studies, much to its (and our) impoverishment.

In its recursive movement around the paradoxical relation between preparation and perceptual unsettlement, Practices of Surprise articulates a set of values common to pragmatist thinkers but decidedly out-of-step with the profession as a whole. These include receptivity, habit, openness, unsettlement, uncertainty, and, perhaps most radically, pedagogy. In her exploration of the shift entailed in reframing modernist aesthetic developments in terms of surprise rather than “traumatic shock” (referring to the influential Benjaminian account of modernism), Stanley highlights pragmatist pedagogical transmission, including Dewey’s Art as Experience and James’s Talks to Teachers, as well as Richard Poirier’s homage to Reuben Brower in Pragmatism and Poetry and John Cage’s teaching experiences at Black Mountain College. Indeed, one of the most compelling claims made by the book is that the Emersonian-pragmatist tradition is centrally and explicitly a teaching tradition. As Poirier himself notes in his description of Brower’s famous Harvard course Hum 6, the practice of pragmatist reading has been marginal rather than central in part because it has gone on “in the classrooms with teachers who publish little” (39).

It is in the context of pedagogy that Stanley unfolds her picture of a literary modernism inflected by Emersonian strategies of sustained surprise. Her deep readings of Marcel Proust, Henry (and William) James, Nella Larsen, and Gertrude Stein model various strategies for generating “fields of protracted disorientation, an ongoing practice of exceeding and upending previous frames of reference” (28). Concurrent with her elaboration of these stylistic literary practices, Stanley articulates an Emersonian theory of “receptive reading” (56) in which the reader shuttles back and forth between the author’s consciousness and her own, both deeply receptive to the writer’s instigations and always alert to her own creative impulses. Reading here is explicitly understood as a relation between minds—as generative, affective, and richly intersubjective as any other relation—and perhaps bearing a particular similarity to that between an engaged student and an attuned teacher.

For me, Stanley’s evocations of this model of reading as Emersonian receptivity are especially powerful in their distance from contemporary mainstream critical practices: as Eve Sedgwick, Rita Felski, Bruno Latour, and others have argued, reading strategies emphasizing distance, control, mastery, and suspicion—epitomized by what Sedgwick terms “paranoid reading”—have so long held sway in literary studies that the pragmatist model Stanley describes feels like a sort of utopian dream. Or it would, if it was not also so accurate a description of what reading often really does feel like, particularly before we learn (or remember) to marshal the protocols of critique. I am especially struck by the way that, in the pragmatist/Emersonian epistemology that Stanley beautifully illuminates, reading—always explicitly understood as a creative and not merely a receptive act—sidesteps or undoes the agonism around which more prevalent models of intellectual transmission, in which the passive reader/student can come to maturity and express his own power only by overcoming the stifling authority of the text/teacher, are structured. (My use of the masculine pronoun in this description is not accidental: this drama seems to me masculinist in all its iterations.) What might the discipline of literary studies look like if, rather than hemmed in by a picture of reading as ground zero for the anxiety of influence, it circled around an Emersonian scene of generative reception?

This live sense of an alternative possibility (of thinking, of teaching, of relating) that we can choose is perhaps best illustrated by James’s claim, repeated twice in Practices of Surprise, that “each of us literally chooses, by his way of attending to things, what sort of universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit” (James, quoted in Stanley 25, 108). But if this quotation represents the power of thinking, with Emerson and James, “in the optative mood,” it also illustrates pragmatism’s vulnerability to critique in failing to account for the way that structural conditions also, sometimes overwhelmingly, govern experience (Emerson, quoted in Stanley 133). Stanley takes an important step in the direction of interrogating precisely this limit of Emersonian-Jamesian thought in her chapter on Nella Larson. Describing the overlap between the “conversionary embrace of life” of Quicksand’s protagonist Helga Crane and James’s description of pragmatist being-in-the-world, Stanley writes:

James’s lectures on pragmatism call for his audience of east coast academics to inhabit “a tramp and vagrant world” which he compares to being “adrift in space.” Larsen’s protagonist is likewise characterized by her “vagrant primitive groping,” but where James’s figurative phrase served a rhetorical purpose for his listeners, Helga struggles to hold actual vagrancy at bay. While James argues for the necessity of “living in a state of relative insecurity,” Quicksand’s depiction of pragmatic decisions made without a safety net reveals the risk of free fall when that state of insecurity is uncushioned by the qualifier “relative.” (143)

Quicksand’s tragic ending, Stanley notes, “serves as a bracing reminder that the mind’s ‘power to flux’ can only take us so far toward transfiguring fixed forms into suspended solutions” (147). Though she ultimately upholds the possibility that the very bleakness of the novel’s ending may act as a spur to readers’ imagination of a more hopeful, alternative trajectory, this chapter seems to me to unsettle, in useful ways, what can sometimes feel like the comfortable optimism of white pragmatist thought. Particularly in this chapter’s investigation of the intersection of the tragic with the pragmatist I found myself thinking toward Cornel West’s call for a “prophetic pragmatism,” which would answer Emersonian pragmatism’s “optimistic theodicy” with a more direct confrontation with the reality of the tragic. As he writes in the final chapter of The American Evasion of Philosophy, “the brutalities and atrocities in human history, the genocidal attempts in [the 20th] century, and the present-day barbarities require those who accept the prophetic and progressive designations to put forth some conception of the tragic.”1 Like West’s prophetic pragmatism, Stanley’s reading of Larsen thinks the tragic alongside utopian “imaginative possibilities” that remain conscious of human finitude and grounded in human struggle (146).

As Practices of Surprise illuminates, a pragmatist understanding of our often unclaimed creative contributions to the reality we experience offers a useful alternative to worldviews that habitually locate the cruelties and failures of that reality somewhere outside ourselves, in oppressive structures that the adept critic can expose without risking self-exposure. No such innocence is possible in the Emersonian/pragmatist redescription of knowing that Stanley’s book articulates. Describing the living reciprocity between student and teacher, listener and composer in John Cage’s work at Black Mountain College, Stanley notes that within this reciprocal structure “Emerson’s foundational question—‘Where do we find ourselves?’—can be profitably and ceaselessly rearticulated” (173). Part of what it must mean to reckon earnestly with this question in the humanities classrooms of the twenty-first century is to admit that we find ourselves in trouble, and that some part of the trouble is of our own making. I am excited by the pedagogical vision Stanley’s book offers, which doesn’t provide a path out of that trouble so much as a more compassionate way into and through it. In the tradition she illuminates, transformations of thought emerge not from weaponized shock and inevitable generational struggle, but from carefully cultivated practices of surprise, receptive creativity, and mutual care. Stanley’s text usefully frames for us an alternative vision, not only of US literary modernism, but also of thinking, reading, and teaching. These practices, Stanley reminds us, don’t have to be invented—they have been with us all along, not in the critical spotlight, but in the classrooms and in the world beyond them, where in spite of the omnipresence of tragedy one can still register, among other surprising things, the reality of spirit.

 

Works Cited

Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

 

 


  1. Cornell West, The American Evasion of Philosophy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 227.

  • Kate Stanley

    Reply

    Uses of Spirit: Response to Kristen Case

    What does it mean to register the “reality of spirit” in Emerson’s essays? With this redolent phrase Kristen Case recalls a pedagogical experience that was evidently as formative for her as it was for me. Under the grad school tutelage of our teacher-in-common, Joan Richardson, I similarly encountered a method of reading that seemed to transgress, as Case says, “all the tacit rules of critical engagement.” I too had sensed in those early days of my critical education how infrequently the discipline accepted credulous declarations of belief—especially belief in anything as intangible as “spirit.” From first-year English onwards, I was taught that “I argue” is more rigorous than “I believe” and that I should steer clear of vague or generic terminology—so baggy terms like “reality” and “spirit” were definitely to be avoided. Working with Joan overturned this basic training by subjecting statements of belief to exacting scrutiny, and by animating vagueness with the strange pulse of a personally uncharted territory. For the Emersonian pragmatist, examining a belief meant testing its lived consequences, and Joan’s classroom was framed as a space for practicing this process of examination. We took Emerson’s essays as a laboratory where provisional and contradictory viewpoints were tested, while William James supplied the baseline query—What difference does it make if x is true?—that we applied again and again to each new possible conviction. This is to say that by invoking “the reality of spirit,” Case forcefully recalls the conditions of my training while also offering a precise redescription of the quarry sought throughout Practices of Surprise; namely, those moments of reading and teaching when the ineffabilities enspirited within a text can be grounded and tested as practices, as actions, as reality.

    Emerson retains a particular power—for Richardson, for Case, and I, and for many of the Americanist figures we mutually study—for “making one register” these encounters, where metaphysical concerns are enclosed by quotidian materiality. Yet even if Emerson’s essays serve to spark and test certain “transformations of thought,” what concrete convictions and consequences emerge from these transfiguring encounters? My response to this question shifts depending on which Emerson essay (or sentence) I’m reading, but I’ll stick to the one that my book spends the most time unpacking. In “The American Scholar”—my touchstone for Emersonian pedagogy—it means becoming newly attuned to the enlivening forces within Emerson’s three main teachers: nature, books, and action. Joan’s evocative phrasing identifies “spirit” as the medium of pedagogical transmission between teacher and student; when a scholar’s lessons are infused with spirit—impassioned, urgent, charismatic—they assume a vitality that ensures they are actively received rather than passively observed. An education devoid of spirit leaves its student uninspired, and such education is unlikely to move anyone from reception to creation. In short, it is the charge of spirit that makes us want to do things with what we learn.

    In rereading the previous paragraph, I notice something which suggests that the tacit rules of scholarly engagement remain internalized in my writing and thinking. In both my book and this reflection on it, I yet notice my persistent tendency for holding spirit at a safe distance. It feels less risky to objectively describe what difference spirit might theoretically make for Emerson’s Scholar than it does to personally attest to the difference it makes for me as a scholar. While Case’s recollection revives my own pivotal experience in Joan’s class, it also recalls an exchange I had that formative year of grad school with another teacher invested in pragmatism who deemed Joan’s work “too spiritual to be useful.” The dearth of direct references to “spirit” in my book suggests that this judgment left its mark and, strictly speaking, secularized my own methodology. Spirituality and scholarship, like education and religion, feels like an uneasy pairing—and sometimes for good reason. Rather than addressing this uneasiness head on, my book keeps “spirit” safely contained within quotation marks; when I say Proust learned from Emerson that the “utility of reading” is to awaken the “life of the spirit,” I obscure the fact that I, too, learned this lesson from Emerson.1

    What is lost in this omission? I’m not sure I’ve taken full measure of the loss, but I have noticed that when I teach “The American Scholar,” students are particularly responsive to candid accounts of how invigorating and useful my sense of Emersonian spirit has been for me, both inside and outside the classroom. To take the essay as a pedagogical guide, then, means grappling directly with the often-unsettling ways that practical purpose and metaphysical means converge—in Emerson’s essays, but also in my daily life. This is not to suggest that I have succeeded in reconciling Emerson’s spiritual and instrumental commitments for myself or for my students. But I will say that my attempts to do so have galvanized “a program for more work” (to echo William James). This work has begun to coalesce in a new project on pedagogy that tracks the core tension between spirituality and practicality I have found in all pragmatist teaching through an unconventional range of learning spaces, including lyceum halls, settlement houses, experimental studios, open-air galleries, activist groups, and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Which is to say, the project of registering the reality of spirit, in all its utopian and tragic valences, is beginning to look like a life’s work.


    1. Marcel Proust, On Reading, translated by Jean Autret and William Burford (London: Souvenir Press, 1972), 69.

Response

Emersonian Intimations and Pedagogy

Who doesn’t like surprises? Unless modified by an unfavorable term like unpleasant, nasty, or cruel, the connotative tilt of surprise is toward the propitious. Still, there are some people who embrace surprise more than others, who indeed fathom its profounder intensities and cultivate conditions of mind and circumstance to receive its challenges. For the practitioners of surprise populating Kate Stanley’s eloquent and learned monograph, the experience of surprise possesses the force of a raison d’être. To be clear, these practitioners are not the experience-mongers of today—not the Anthony Bourdains or Sanjay Guptas trotting around the globe for the benefit of television viewers’ vicarious consumption. Rather, they are modernity’s formidable thinkers and artists: freelance essayist-lecturers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Cage who enjoin everyday defamiliarization; modernist writers such as Marcel Proust, Henry James, Nella Larsen, and Gertrude Stein who compose situational and verbal dramas of unexpectedness; pedagogues such as John Dewey and Richard Poirier who develop educational philosophies and curricula that foster learning via experiential disorientation; and scholar-critics such as Philip Fisher, Christopher Miller, and Stanley herself who locate, describe, probe, and largely encourage surprise as a cognitive and perceptual experience.

Stanley is particularly interested in the way Emersonian surprise worms its way into and flourishes in the writing practices of prominent modernists. As they disclose ways of being receptive to disorientation, self-effacement, and seeing the world anew, what shapes these modernists into a group is not only their attunement to surprise, but their immunity to shock. One of the key aspects of Stanley’s book is its argument against historical materialists who have converted Walter Benjamin’s provisional account of shock modernity into totalizing doxa. Such critics thereby reduce modern subjectivity to a defensive crouch, fixated as they are on delineating the everyday bombardments of urbanization, industrial mechanization, capitalist alienation, gender and race dysphoria, colonization, and war. As Stanley persuasively argues, this critical approach winds up “normaliz[ing] shock as the sole variety of experiential suddenness, consolidating a diversity of encounters into a single, and reductively negative, affect” (13). By contrast, Stanley looks to modernism’s pragmatist genealogy, rooted in Emerson’s lebensphilosophie of revelation through disciplined introspection, to recuperate what she calls “a countervailing optic for regarding life as a ‘series of surprises’ unfolding from within, in whatever place and whichever time one’s experience occurs” (13). Despite the polemical confrontation here, these are not so much fighting words as reparative ones. If Stanley’s book is marked everywhere by critical acumen, it also delivers its insights with exceptional geniality.

What follows from Stanley’s reclamation of surprise is twofold. First, she develops her own surprising—at times dazzling—accounts of modernist texts that effectively reinvent the surprise encounter. Chapters on Proust, Henry James, Larsen, and Stein reveal these authors’ idiosyncratic ways of narrating “radical interruptions of expectation at the levels of readerly perception, literary syntax, and formal coherence” (148). James, for instance, over his long career moves away from hardened oppositions between the naïve American sensibility and the European disillusioned sensibility, opting instead to explore more complex interpersonal relations, as well as to embark on more convoluted syntactic adventures that betoken a productive willingness to be surprised by disorientation and to descend into self-erasure. Regarding Larsen’s novel, Quicksand, Stanley makes a fascinating case for the correlation between the main character’s inner volatility and the narrative’s figuration of meteorological atmosphere, particularly of clouds and storms. This correlation becomes the novel’s way of breaking out of the antagonistic logic of double-consciousness made famous by W. E. B. Du Bois and replacing it with a less predictable, less oppositional, and decidedly more Emersonian mode of double-consciousness. The close, patient, and erudite analyses performed in these chapters bring literary-historical specificity and heft to Stanley’s claims about modernism’s debt to the disciplined practice of experiencing surprise.

Second, Stanley’s book expresses a commitment to the integration of Emersonian surprise into contemporary pedagogical practice. While an ancillary concern of the book, this intriguing proposition gains visibility in the book’s introduction and coda, thus inviting our further consideration. In her introduction Stanley describes an extension of chain-linked pragmatist mentors and tutors over generations: from Emerson to William (and, consequently, Henry) James, thence to John Dewey, Gertrude Stein, and Robert Frost, thence to midcentury teachers and scholars, and finally to Stanley’s present-day mentors, such as Joan Richardson and Ross Posnock. On the one hand, this narrative of torch-passing adds individuating warmth to a centuries-long history. On the other hand, its personalism obscures somewhat the role academic institutions have played in the making of a pedagogical tradition. To be sure, Stanley mentions the centrality of Harvard during the James era as well as later in the mid-twentieth century when, alongside Amherst, it developed general education courses that were informed by pragmatist methods. Similarly, the coda’s discussion of John Cage’s practices of surprise nods to his time at Black Mountain College, where pedagogical experimentation drew on Dewey’s ideas of experiential education.

By and large, however, Stanley understands pragmatist pedagogy as an individuated enterprise, where the chain of transmission is sustained through a process of self-selection. This perspective shapes, for instance, her illuminating discussion of the important critic and teacher Richard Poirier, who is usually overshadowed in the discourse of pragmatism by more prominent figures of his generation, such as Richard Rorty and Stanley Cavell. In the 1950s Poirier participated as an instructor in the development of “Hum 6” at Harvard, the experimental general education course in reading and interpreting literature that proved central, as Stanley explains, to combatting New Criticism’s restrictive agenda (38–40). While informative as far as it goes, Stanley’s focus on Poirier’s intramural opponents in New Criticism forecloses attention to the broader implications of pragmatist experimentalism itself, and steers her toward credulous approval of Poirier’s defense of literary pragmatism’s political inefficacy. She notes (quoting Poirier) that “where scholars ‘might possibly begin to help change existing realities’ is in their capacity as teachers and mentors. If there’s any ‘social or communal efficacy’ in scholarly work, it’s modestly limited to making room, in class and on the page, for quiet forms of reflection Emerson calls action” (46). One has reason to wonder if both Poirier and Stanley doth demur too much. While they are quite right not to confuse literary studies—or, more to Stanley’s point, an aesthetic practice of surprise—with political action, the question remains as to whether the institutional adoption of these new pedagogical methods was a good thing for undergraduates. It is worth keeping in mind that Hum 6 was a general education course, not a seminar for self-selecting graduate students.

For a more skeptical view of Poirier’s (and his teacher Reuben Brower’s) curricular instruction, we can turn to Michael Trask’s recent book Camp Sites: Sex, Politics, and Academic Style in Postwar America (2013), which examines pragmatist experimentalism in the broad context of postwar school culture.1 If the end of World War II ushered in heightened US defensiveness in the form of an obsessive national security state—in keeping with the shock-and awe-strategy of atomic warfare—it also gave rise, as Trask tells it, to a new academic “style,” adopted by university intellectuals across the disciplines. With this term Trask denotes “manifestations of conduct and attitude,” or what Bourdieu calls “‘dispositions,’ from gestures to norms of interaction, that a social group both forcefully and unknowingly reproduces” (Trask, Camp Sites, 21). At midcentury, the style in ascendance entailed privileging experience at the expense of belief. It encouraged ironic detachment or, in pragmatist parlance, an anti-foundationalist and quintessentially Emersonian sense of being both inside and outside oneself. In turn, this style contributed to the atrophy of doctrinal beliefs and commitments, including the liberal principles and values that leveraged progressive activism (such as combatting injustice, poverty, inequality, and so forth).

Trask zeroes in on Harvard’s Hum 6 and Amherst’s English 1 as examples of school culture’s misguided abandonment of belief. He details their emphasis on new experience and “productive disorientation” (59), pointing to assignments and curricular techniques that (quoting Poirier) “aimed ‘to practice the art of not arriving’” anywhere specific but instead allowed students “to carry on the ‘acutely meditative process’ of indefinite if not indefinable reading” (58). Citing Dewey’s influence on this Emersonian project of self-renewal and transformation, Trask argues that pragmatist ideology tended “both [to] overrate and trivialize experience” (63). With pedagogy organized around the pursuit of new experience, alongside the instruction both to inhabit and distance oneself from new experiences, the value of any specific experience—indeed, the very framework for measuring the value of experience—risked melting into air. While Poirier may have insisted on the distinction between literary pragmatism and political agency, Trask discloses how institutional pragmatism “paved the way for a politics of the noncommittal” (59). Similarly, where Stanley looks to pragmatist practices of surprise for a way “to close the gap between art and life” (29), Trask shows that such a program might well collapse life into an aesthetic state of aloof disorientation. Where Stanley forges a pedagogical “ethics” out of “surprise’s capacity for activating and enriching states of uncertainty, ambivalence, or repetition” (26), Trask contends that pedagogical preoccupation with the self’s potentialities threatens to displace liberal ethics altogether: “What recedes from view is a political framework grounded on ethics, on the appeal to what a democracy ought to be, what normative aims it should have, and what qualities might guarantee or advance those aims” (Trask, Camp Sites, 4).

However much at odds, Stanley’s and Trask’s work on modernism and midcentury culture proves acutely relevant to our contemporary moment. By way of conclusion, I want briefly to turn a highly acclaimed recent novel whose protagonist crystallizes the knotty predicament of being almost as divided as Stanley and Trask are from each other. The narrator of Ben Lerner’s autofictional narrative, 10:04 (2014), is a devotee of Emerson’s foremost heir, Walt Whitman.2 Meditations on his fellow Brooklynite poet are liable to overtake—i.e., sur-prise—him to the point of intense disorientation, of feeling “a fullness indistinguishable from being emptied” (Lerner, 10:04, 109). He is also heir, as are we all, to twenty-first-century effects of climate change—specifically in his case, Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy, which respectively open and close the narrative. Fixated on storm surge and the prospect of being underwater, Ben repeatedly makes reference to octopuses, whose limited proprioception he explicitly, indeed swimmingly, identifies with. While a pleasing figure of disorientation and uncertainty, the creature is also subject to high-end culinary consumption, once it has undergone a kind of prolonged surprise/shock treatment of being “massaged gently but relentlessly with unrefined salt” five hundred times, and to death (153). Its human counterpart, Ben, thus emerges as an open-armed or tentacled recipient of the Emersonian spirit who is also tenderized by both slow-motion and puncturing surprises of climate-change disaster. He can’t be reduced to defensiveness against modernity’s shock conditions, but he also can’t fully ward them off.

More to the point of cognitive and perceptual experience, the octopus is but one figure among many employed by Lerner to gesture toward the hazards of embracing aesthetic experience as a way of life, insofar as this disposition entails relinquishing the kind of rational, integrative understanding needed to picture, develop, and live according to sane environmental policy. It turns out, however, that, besides becoming octopus, the protagonist Ben operates in the world as a pedagogue: he is a self-selected tutor of an eight-year-old boy from El Salvador, an artist / critic-in-residence at Marfa, as well as a university professor. A glance at three scenes in which Ben performs these roles should illuminate the novel’s finesse in conveying the intimate entanglement of Stanley’s and Trask’s clashing orientations toward experience and pedagogy. The first plays out as dicey slapstick; the second as strained farce; the third as realist drama—not quite tragedy, but not comedy either.

In the first scene Ben takes Roberto on a field trip to the Museum of Natural History and undergoes so many “proprioceptive breakdowns” while in charge of the boy that he deems himself “no more a functional adult than Pluto was a planet” (148). Almost losing him in the subway and again in the museum, Ben does manage to pull his adult self together sufficiently to return the kid to his mother. Almost a parody of Hum 6’s experiential learning in which, as Trask explains, the aim was gradually to withdraw the supervisory teacher from the classroom (Trask, Camp Sites, 57), the turbulent undertow of the field trip episode throws troubling light on this proposition. The second scene brings into Lerner’s crosshairs the pedagogical value of aesthetic judgment; it involves Ben’s abandonment of disinterest for immersive experience. While at Marfa he describes his previous assessment of the sculptor Donald Judd’s work as a formalist (or New Critic) might: “I believed in the things he wanted to get rid of—the internal compositional relations of a painting, nuances of form.” He is “left cold” by Judd’s “desire to overcome the distinction between art and life, an insistence on literal objects in real space” (Lerner, 10:04, 178). But now, “as an alien with a residency in the high desert,” Ben morphs into an Emersonian beholder whereby the experience of Judd’s artwork and everything around it—the former artillery shed in which it is housed, the changing light outside that re-colors the dry grasses, the antelope momentarily glimpsed—serve “to collapse [his] sense of inside and outside” (179). Still able to discern, as a formalist might as well, “the material facts” of the piece with instructive precision (179), he now makes grandiose as-if conjectures, intuiting a likeness between the Judd piece and Stonehenge: it is “a structure that was clearly built by humans but inscrutable in human terms, as if the installation were waiting to be visited by an alien or god” (180). This slog toward sublimity reaches its farcical height when “alien” Ben relegates the sculpture to the status of an object fit for climate change: it is “tuned to an inhuman, geological duration, lava flows and sills, aluminum expanding as the planet warms” (180).3 Ah Judd, ah humanity.

In the third scene Ben, shall we say, returns to his liberal senses, displacing wistful naturalism with sober judgment and practical engagement. Ben’s protégé Calvin, it seems, has ingested too many amphetamines but also, as dispensed by his professor, too much deconstruction—which amounts to a kind of Emersonian pragmatism on Adderall. Besides harboring apocalyptic visions of environmental catastrophe and various conspiracy theories, Calvin is unable to ironize—to be both inside and outside—the deconstructive truth of “how the materiality of the writing destroys its sense” (216); he is left dangerously unmoored by “what we talked about in class” (216). Rather than becoming octopus as with Roberto or transparent eyeball as with Judd, Ben becomes resourceful organization man. He reaches out to colleagues, the department chair, and various students who, he hopes, might help Calvin, given the university’s poor “psychiatric services” (218). Even the distressed Calvin sees that Ben is doing “[his] job,” that, in his solicitude, Ben “represent[s] the institution” (219). Calvin’s abrupt departure, however, suggests that Ben may be a day late and a dollar short in this attempted rescue. Nevertheless, the scene registers Ben’s crucial access to a less ironic, less experience-based institutional style. It suggests that the romance of Emersonian pragmatism may do well to be tempered by the practice of rational judgment so as better to meet the contingencies of the way we live and learn now.


  1. Michael Trask, Camp Sites: Sex, Politics, and Academic Style in Postwar America (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013).

  2. Ben Lerner, 10:04: A Novel (New York: Picador Paperback, 2015).

  • Kate Stanley

    Reply

    Practical Care: Response to Mary Esteve

    How do our experiences shape our beliefs? And how do these beliefs motivate—or fail to motivate—our actions? Mary Esteve summons these core pragmatist questions by inviting me to revisit “Hum 6,” the general education course that Reuben Brower taught at Harvard through the 1950s and 1960s, and my primary exemplar of pragmatist pedagogy. She anchors her inquiry with a quote from my introduction, the composition of which I can date with some precision because it was the first thing I tried to write in the despairing days following Trump’s election in 2016, as Richard Poirier’s quoted words echoed in my head with new and despairing relevance: “Where scholars ‘might possibly begin to help change existing realities’ is in their capacity as teachers and mentors. If there’s any ‘social or communal efficacy’ in scholarly work, it’s modestly limited to making room, in class and on the page, for quiet forms of reflection Emerson calls action” (46). Suggesting I “doth demur too much,” Esteve rightly senses the conflicted feelings and obligations that animate these paragraphs. The general state of surprise experience in late 2016 indeed served to strain my aesthetic and pedagogical “geniality,” my hopeful approach to reading and teaching threatened by the very armored paralysis my thinking has for years resisted. Yet while my confidence in scholarship’s impact on social change was at its lowest ebb, I was not ready to abandon my belief in the central claim that Emerson makes in “The American Scholar”: that “quiet forms of reflection” are a necessary platform for meaningful action.

    Esteve usefully interrogates this belief by returning me to Harvard’s Hum 6, the midcentury scene of pragmatist pedagogy that has long informed my faith in Emersonian reflection. To my account Esteve contrasts Michael Trask’s assessment of Hum 6 as representative of a Cold War school culture that privileged “experience at the expense of belief.” For Trask, when the pragmatist ideal of being both inside and outside an experience manifests in an academic style of “ironic detachment,” it threatens to produce “a politics of the noncommittal” (59). Trask doesn’t mention Emerson and cites William James just once in Camp Sites, but his critique of pragmatism targets with particular reproach the Emersonian mode of individual reflection elaborated by James and widely adopted by later pragmatist educators. In a class like Hum 6, reflective reading is taught as a practice in “the art of not arriving,” and when certitude is indefinitely deferred, Trask contends, so too is the conviction that activates political engagement (Poirier, quoted in Trask 58).

    I share Trask’s worries about both the allure and the inertia of incessant scholarly reflection. And it is evident that James shared these worries too, given that he specifically defines pragmatism as a method of intervening in “metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable” (506). James frames his guiding methodological question—What difference does it make?—as a safeguard against “professorial intellect [that] has no use” (487). With this constant querying of pragmatic value, James insists that scholars anchor all theoretical inquiry within a context of practical consequences. Esteve’s reading of Ben Lerner’s 10:04 underlines how difficult it is for the constitutionally contemplative to meet such standards of use-value and how easy it is to get caught in fruitless contemplative loops—especially in the realm of aesthetics. She highlights the novel’s several pedagogic figures and scenes that indeed exemplify “the hazards of embracing aesthetic experience as a way of life.” As Esteve contends, to privilege private aesthetic experience against the backdrop of, say, global warming is also to relinquish “the kind of rational, integrative understanding needed to picture, develop and live according to sane environmental policy.” In other words, if aesthetic experience is to spark or enjoin any practical response to climate change, it must be rooted in rationality. This seems absolutely right, and yet Lerner is also alert to how often rational understanding fails to catalyze meaningful action. In my own reading of 10:04, I find Lerner to be actively investigating the kinds of resources Emersonian aesthetics and pragmatist pedagogy might offer for moving beyond an objective or detached acknowledgment of climate crisis, and instead towards the affective conviction that intervention is imperative.

    Esteve’s pedagogic framing of the novel helpfully illuminates my own experience of teaching 10:04 in an upper-level seminar, where our discussion of Lerner’s approach to climate change split the class into opposed groups. On the one side, students criticized the book for many of the same reasons that Trask condemns Hum 6. This group voiced frustration with the narrator’s spiraling dilations around an issue that urgently requires direct action. As one student insisted, excessive rumination only defers concrete solutions. Other students countered that novels are in the business of posing problems, not solving them. For this group, 10:04 offered a powerful articulation of a primary obstacle to climate action: the problem of scale. In its overwhelming scope and complexity, ecological crisis too easily remains a distant abstraction, even as hurricanes and wildfires bring increasing havoc close to home. It is one thing to know and agree that we are in a state of emergency, and another thing to viscerally feel and believe it. Yet as Esteve and Trask make clear, effective action is best cultivated when felt experience is coupled with rational understanding. The best hope that this or any novel has for activating practical response from its readers is by way of what Lerner describes as “the will to integration”—where the sensory urgency of receptive experience charges a correlative of rational action.

    In 10:04 Lerner depicts the challenge of integrative understanding through the figure of the octopus. In Esteve’s formulation, the narrator (Ben) emerges as a “recipient of the Emersonian spirit” through his repeated identification with the sensory sensitivity of cephalopods. In one striking scene, Ben seems to merge with an octopus—an impersonal “it”—that is painted on a hospital wall as he awaits evaluation of his potentially fatal heart condition:

    It can taste what it touches, but has poor proprioception, the brain unable to determine the position of its body in the current, particularly my arms, and the privileging of flexibility over proprioceptive inputs means it lacks stereognosis, the capacity to form a mental picture of what I touch: it can detect local texture variations, but cannot integrate that information into a large picture. (6–7)

    If becoming a transparent eyeball represents the typical realization of Emersonian receptivity, in becoming an octopus the narrator inverts and troubles this absorbent disembodiment, confronting his “poor proprioception”—his inability to perceptually process his body’s relationship to its environment. These proprioceptive limits make it exceedingly hard for Ben to navigate and respond to his political reality, what Esteve describes as “the slow-motion and puncturing surprises of climate-change disaster.”

    However, in each of the (variously unconsummated) teaching scenes that Esteve outlines, Ben also does recalibrate his “proprioceptive inputs” vis-à-vis some larger “mental picture”; through pedagogical practice he becomes increasingly capable of connecting the here-and-now with more expansive structures of spatial and temporal experience. In his efforts to root the learning process in bodily receptivity, Lerner’s narrator follows Emerson’s American scholar, but also, more directly, Emerson’s disciple, Walt Whitman. While preparing throughout the novel to teach a college course on Whitman in the wake of Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, Ben himself benefits from Whitman’s example—as, perhaps, do we. In Marfa, for instance, Ben’s immersion in Whitman’s “bizarre memoir,” Specimen Days, casts Donald Judd’s work in a wholly new light (168). For Esteve, Ben’s encounter with Judd’s boxes is a farcical “slog towards sublimity.” Yet Whitman’s writing provides conceptual linkage for the otherwise absurdly grandiose leaps Ben makes from the sculptures, to Stonehenge, to the warming planet. Thinking of “Whitman visiting makeshift hospitals” during the Civil War, the narrator first encounters Judd’s boxes as “memorials” or “coffins” that commemorate the poet’s care for the wounded and dead (180). This Whitmanian image of writer-as-caretaker inflects each of the aesthetic and pedagogic encounters that follow. For instance, in one of the novel’s final scenes the narrator considers the practical steps he might take to support his student Calvin, struggling with mental health, by asking “[how] Whitman would have tended such an illness?” (219).

    Yet in my view Ben’s exchange with Calvin does not inaugurate his pragmatist commitment to practical care, as Esteve seems to suggest; rather, I see his proclivity for aesthetic experience and his commitment to instructing and caretaking as entangled from the start. In an earlier scene at the childhood home of his best friend, Alex, the memory of Judd’s boxes unites his personal and planetary responsibilities. Friendship with Alex has taken a procreative turn following Ben’s commitment to serve as her sperm donor; the two lay together in Alex’s old room having tried to supplement artificial insemination with tenderly awkward sex. When his mind turns to Alex’s mother, who is dying of cancer, the connection between parental and palliative care brings a grounding gravity to the parallel connection he draws between art and global warming: “Her mom’s cells were dividing uncontrollably above. The oceans, like Judd’s boxes, expanded as they warmed” (204).

    The narrator further anchors this potentially abstract leap with a question that also takes the form of a refrain which echoes at pivotal moments: “Do you know what I mean if I say that what was most powerful about the experience was that it changed nothing?” (Here, he elaborates: “That our relationship had not been perceptibly deepened was evidence of the relationship’s depth” [204, emphasis mine].) This declaration of intimacy may seem far afield from scenes of teaching, but the pedagogic resonances of the “you” are reinforced by the recurrence of the formulation—“Do you know what I mean”—in Ben’s conversations with Calvin, and with his young student, Roberto. With each invocation of this “you,” Lerner’s narrator aligns his students with his readers, suggesting how reading as well as teaching might function as a “fundamental mode of care” (47). The novel’s final pages offer an extended rewriting of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” in which the narrator’s awareness of his own body, as well as Alex’s newly pregnant body, commingles with the “communal body” of readers that 10:04 both internally depicts and externally provokes (108). In the concluding lines of 10:04—“I know it’s hard to understand / I am with you”—Lerner’s “I” merges with Whitman’s “I” to address the promise of a plural “you,” an emergent collectivity newly committed to planetary care (240).

     

    Works Cited

    Lerner, Ben. 10:04: A Novel. New York: Picador Paperback, 2015.

    Trask, Michael. Camp Sites: Sex, Politics, and Academic Style in Postwar America. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013.

Response

Nineteenth-Century Shock Value

Thanks in large part to Walter Benjamin, modernist criticism has excessively “normalize[d] shock as the sole variety of experiential suddenness” (13), writes Kate Stanley in Practices of Surprise. Stanley’s call for the demotion of shock as a category of analysis—setting up an alternate narrative of modernism with, instead of shock, surprise at its epicenter—incidentally recalls the opening of another excellent study of American literature: Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection (1997). Hartman writes there that too often the stories told about racialization and the legacies of slavery “exploit the shocking spectacle” (4)—as in Frederick Douglass’s account of the torture of his aunt Hester—whereas in fact such “shocking displays obfuscate . . . more mundane and socially endurable forms of terror” (42).

Neither shocking displays nor mundane terrors play a major role in Stanley’s subtle readings of Proust, James, Larsen, and Stein. Through the resonances that Stanley draws out between their work and several interwoven strands of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s understanding of temporality, epistemology, and perceptual experience, these readings taught me to see the modernists in a new light. They also helped me reconsider another moment in Douglass’s narrative. Or narratives, really, since it’s a moment he revises, the details of which revision offer a point of departure for some questions about the ethics and influence of Emersonian surprise, particularly when this concept is put in conversation with other voices of the period during which Emerson wrote his most influential essays.

 

In 1833 the slaveholder Thomas Auld sends Douglass to work the fields overseen by Edward Covey. In a well-known passage, Douglass describes Covey’s serpentine techniques of surveillance. From the 1845 Narrative:

He had the faculty of making us feel that he was ever present with us. This he did by surprising us. He seldom approached the spot where we were at work openly, if he could do it secretly. He always aimed at taking us by surprise. (65)

Many other readers have elaborated on the insights that Douglass offers here on the spatial and psychological operations of panoptic discipline, locating Covey’s fields somewhere between Bentham’s prison and Foucault’s carceral society. But Stanley’s attention to how “surprise can paradoxically be facilitated by preparation” (4) might alert us to other meanings, other effects, in the small choices that Douglass makes in writing and re-writing the scene. Here’s the same moment as revised in My Bondage and My Freedom:

He had the faculty of making us feel that he was always present. By a series of adroitly managed surprises, which he practiced, I was prepared to expect him at any moment. (157)

In the 1845 text, “surprise” was closely connected to active verbs—“surprising us,” “taking us by surprise.” In 1855, surprise has been emphatically nominalized and objectified: “adroitly managed surprises, which he practiced.” Whereas the explicit purpose of Covey’s program of torture is to make other persons “manageable” (a term Douglass underscores elsewhere), here what he manages are his own techniques. Douglass’s revisions present Covey’s influence as a more mediated thing, while his own response to these routines of surprise takes a more pointed, more agential, shape. (Life and Times of Frederick Douglass changes a comma, too, but let’s leave that for another day.) In short, Covey’s practice of surprise produces conditions in which Douglass becomes prepared to expect.

Such preparation by surprise is precisely not what Stanley describes as preparation for surprise. Rather, it echoes D. A. Miller on paranoia: surprise “is precisely what the paranoid seeks to eliminate, but it is also what, in the event, he survives by reading as a frightening incentive” (164). (Miller’s line is also quoted in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s influential essay on paranoid reading and reparative reading, which I mention because I found Stanley’s connection between pragmatist models of perception and Sedgwick’s argument stimulating—I’d love to hear more—even though it is only explicitly addressed briefly in the endnotes [183n40].)

From Miller’s description of paranoia, it’s a short hop to what Stanley says about the way that perceptual preparation might run the risk of becoming a routine: “The task of preparing to be surprised is easily inverted into the task of preparing not to be surprised,” in that such a task might “seem to suggest transforming volatile phenomena into regular, even routinized experiences” (3). By contrast, Stanley’s sense of surprise, a preperceptual openness that resists routinization and preconception, has shades of Heideggerian waiting versus awaiting (“in waiting we leave open what we are waiting for,” says the Teacher in “A Conversation on a Country Path about Thinking” [68]), and also of anthropologist Tim Ingold’s sense of the “perpetual astonish[ment]” of “those who are truly open to the world” (75). Ingold, it should be noted, contrasts such astonishment with “surprise,” which he denigrates as “the currency of experts who trade in plans and predictions” (63), but substantively his view of things would seem to affirm Stanley’s.

Even as I learned from the novel connections that the book draws between Emerson and later writers, I wonder about the centrality and even the necessity of the former. Although the Proust chapter works to imagine literary historiography outside its usual lines of descent, Practices of Surprise does seem invested in an account of “influence” (see this term at for instance 4, 30, 55) and even inheritance (29, 57), and when one influential figure is so strongly stressed it’s hard not to wonder about the gaps in the family tree, the laterals left aside. Bergsonian duration surely would have been just as relevant as Emerson to the account of temporality in Stein, for instance. And Charles Sanders Peirce does not rank in the narrative of pragmatism offered here, despite centering a theory of knowledge on ideas about surprise, through his concept of abduction as the logical process by which scientific inquiry tries to make sense of “surprising facts,” viewing “them in such new perspective that the unexpected experience may no longer appear surprising” (28).

Those examples’ absence is no cause for criticism; I mention them mostly as a small sign of the stimulating spread of the ideas introduced here. But the strong view of Emerson’s line of influence does, I believe, produce at least one straw man in the figure of W. E. B. Du Bois. The chapter on Nella Larsen culminates in a revelatory reading of Quicksand (and particularly of the emplotment of its ending). Along the way, the chapter asserts that insofar as we talk about “double consciousness” in Larsen’s work, it should not be through a Du Boisian framework but rather through the “original” (31, 119, 120) sense of this term—that is, Emerson’s (though it is slightly odd to call this original given the earlier uses of the phrase in medical discourse). Here, Du Boisian double consciousness is taken to assert only rigid conceptual binaries—white/black, interior/exterior—whereas Emersonian double consciousness names a sense of atmospheric flux that is more fitting for the subtle, shifting “weather” of Larsen’s narrative. Emerson’s insights about ambience receive a patient, incisive exegesis, but Du Bois’s concept is assessed and dismissed based on minimal evidence, as though it were a concept that admitted of straightforward definition. That evidence includes a quotation of Du Bois’s account of “two thoughts . . . torn asunder” (Stanley 120), but the elision in that quotation slightly changes the line’s meaning; Du Bois actually writes in The Souls of Black Folk that these two thoughts coexist “in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (5). The thoughts aren’t the objects torn asunder; they’re what threatens to do the tearing. They may be “warring” but are not rigidly separated: they tangle in the body. And if we look more widely across Du Bois’s description of the formation and experience of double consciousness, we can see that he actually does develop a pattern of atmospheric tropes not so unlike Emerson’s. Consider: “an atmosphere of contempt and hate. Whisperings and portents came home upon the four winds” (10). Or: “Much that the white boy imbibes from his earliest social atmosphere forms the puzzling problems of the black boy’s mature years” (118). We could find plenty of other places in Du Bois that develop similar language: skies, clouds, shadows. If such moments received the same attention that Emerson’s prose does here, it seems possible that we’d end up similarly complicating any initial sense of how double consciousness works for Du Bois, and how his thinking grapples with the flux of lived experience.

This is a disagreement regarding a relatively small claim, I realize, about a single writer in a book that convinced me about many others. I mention it, though, because on reflection it led me to a broader question about how the conversation here around surprise might change were it to dwell on more figures who, as Herman Melville wrote in 1849, “do not oscillate in Emerson’s rainbow” (Correspondence, 121)—and therefore who may have helped, by way of counterpoint, contrast, or illocutionary backdrop, give shape to the meaning of Emerson’s concepts.

Which brings me back to Douglass’s responses to Covey. Consider again the way that he describes the perceptual routine of expecting these “surprises” that are not surprises. It’s both an internalization of discipline and a survival tactic. Awaiting and prediction—the techniques of the paranoid—may not be as reparative or as illuminating as other practices of surprise, but surely they name a way of getting by in the context of Covey’s fields. Beneath this observation is a potential reservation about the politics of Emerson’s thinking that Practices of Surprise has already to some degree anticipated (but that I believe merits further discussion) in, for instance, its remarks on the essay “Circles.” Emerson writes: “The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle” (quoted in Stanley 23). (And by the way, Emerson’s metaphor and argument are perfectly transmuted in the John Cage drawing selected for the book jacket.) Stanley acknowledges that Emerson’s argument, his sense that we’re all comfortably settled and need to shake things up, might “sound like a solipsistic endeavor available only to a privileged few” (24). I’ll confess: yes, I’ve always heard a hint of this. This is not least because, in my experience teaching this essay (and it is an essay that greatly rewards teaching), students often, at some point in the discussion, raise a question whose thrust is something like: What does it mean to dismiss the value of personal autonomy in a society where that is already being systematically denied to millions of people?

In a defense that struck me as slightly (forgive me!) circular, the argument at this point refers us to Emerson’s own insistence: “However, Emerson insists that seeking such surprises is a necessity, not a luxury. ‘The results are uncalculated and uncalculable,’ he writes, and these unknown odds expose all living beings to contingency and risk” (24). Of course, calling a luxury a necessity is also a tried and true sales tactic. I don’t mean to suggest, exactly, that we ought to reject Emerson’s argument—his call for unsettling the self—on the grounds of, say, the sanctity of the bounded liberal individual. For just one of many ways to trouble that category, we could look to Édouard Glissant’s description (and, adapting Glissant’s words in his recent work, to Fred Moten) of the entry into diaspora as “the moment when one consents not to be a single being and attempts to be many beings at the same time” (5). There may be a way to talk about such pluralities and Emersonian flux in the same breath. But this needn’t lead us to elide the distinction between what Judith Butler calls “precarity” (that is, the condition of being rendered particularly exposed to violence and disease) and the universal fact of mortal precariousness. With a sense of universality that echoes an Emersonian claim about “all living beings,” Melville’s Ishmael claims that “all men live enveloped in whale-lines,” whether on a whaling boat or sitting at home comfortably before the hearth (281), but many other moments in Moby-Dick—the racialized conditions of authority in which Pip becomes vulnerable to just such a whaling line, for instance—cut against this, dramatizing the unequal distribution of contingency and risk.

“Shock” offers still another way, in Emerson’s moment, and in abolitionist discourse in particular, to talk about that inequality. Shock is not just different from surprise in its intensity or in the experience of the perceiver. It construes a different kind of thing in the world (an event, an action, a circumstance, a law), and it entails a moral judgment about that thing. Harriet Jacobs describes in her narrative the way that “town patrols were commissioned to search colored people that lived out of the city; and the most shocking outrages were committed with perfect impunity” (103). Charles Sumner says in a speech, much quoted, that the Fugitive Slave Act “violates the Constitution, and shocks the public conscience” (298). By contrast, when John Greenleaf Whittier uses “surprise” rather than “shock” to describe his response to Daniel Webster’s support of the 1850 Compromise (leading Whittier to write “Ichabod”), he knows he’ll have to add some more language to convey the affective and moral dimensions of his response: “surprise and grief and forecast of evil consequences” (184).

So I’m left wondering: what does Emersonian surprise look like when what we set it against is not Benjaminian or Freudian shock—a response to “the onslaught of war, urbanization, and technological change at the turn of the twentieth century” (Stanley 10)—but rather the moral shocks, the sentimental appeals, of Emerson’s lifetime? And how might this way of re-situating the conceptual formation of surprise affect our sense of what it means for Emerson’s writing to echo in these later texts? Perhaps we’d simply come up, again, against one of the key points that Stanley makes: that “Emerson’s larger claim is that ethical investments should not bolster preconceived certainties but should acknowledge the state of contingency that human life, like nature, inevitably asserts” (25). Perhaps, that is, invocations of moral shock do rely on and “bolster preconceived certainties” in their assumption of static principles of value, so that in looking back to nineteenth-century shock we would only find another limited framework that doesn’t possess the qualities of openness to which Emerson attunes us.

On the other hand, such shock could also be understood as potentially transformative. Elsewhere in My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass plays with the language of moral shock in describing his belief that the enslaved person is fully entitled to steal. He sardonically calls his own argument “a profession of faith which may shock some, offend others, and be dissented from by all” (140). Here he acknowledges his readers’ potential recoil from whatever is counterintuitive in this argument, a recoil stemming from some moral preconception, some prior value. But his reference to this response does not reaffirm those assumptions. It calls them out, invites their reconsideration, estranges them. Covey’s “surprises” are meant to discipline. Here, Douglass’s “shock” aims to teach.

 

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? New York: Verso, 2016.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Penguin, 2003.

———. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. New York: Penguin, 2014.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Penguin, 1996.

Glissant, Édouard, and Manthia Diawara. “Édouard Glissant in Conversation with Manthia Diawara.” Translated by Christopher Winks. Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art 28 (2011), 4–19.

Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Heidegger, Martin. Discourse on Thinking. Translated by John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.

Ingold, Tim. Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge, and Description. London: Routledge, 2011.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. New York: Penguin, 2000.

Melville, Herman. Correspondence. Evanston: Northwestern-Newberry, 1993.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; or, the Whale. Evanston: Northwestern-Newberry, 1988.

Miller, D. A. The Novel and the Police. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Moten, Fred. consent not to be a single being. 3 vols. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017-2018.

 

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Edited by Arthur W. Burks. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1966.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Sumner, Charles. Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner. Edited by Edward Lillie Pierce. Vol. 3. London: Samson Low, Marston, 1893.

Whittier, John Greenleaf. The Complete Poetical Works of Whittier. Edited by Horace E. Scutter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1894.

  • Kate Stanley

    Reply

    Surviving Surprise: Response to Alex Benson

    How might our understanding of surprise change, Alex Benson asks, if we consider writers who “do not oscillate in Emerson’s rainbow”? Another way to frame this question: What happens when we step out of a classroom like the one that Kristen Case so reverentially recalls, and into a scene where preparing oneself to be surprised is a matter of survival? Benson offers one way into this line of inquiry with Frederick Douglass’s harrowing account of the “routines of surprise” that he endures under the terrorizing disciplinary regime of his overseer, Edward Covey. In the context of Covey’s “program of torture,” unexpected encounters are always going to be bad surprises—and to lower one’s guard is to risk punishment and death. Benson connects Douglass’s survival strategies—“awaiting and prediction”—with D. A. Miller’s “techniques of the paranoid,” tactics for defending oneself against “‘surprises’ that are not surprises.” Douglass’s paranoid vigilance may be less “illuminating” than Emerson’s “reparative” methods, Benson acknowledges, but it is “a necessary way of getting by in Covey’s fields.” When survival is at stake, practices of surprise are far more likely to resemble Douglass’s paranoid efforts to protect himself than Emerson’s reparative embrace of receptivity.

    Benson intuits one reason why my book is focused on good rather than bad surprises when he aligns Emersonian pragmatism with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s practice of “reparative reading.” From the beginning, my formative graduate seminars with Joan Richardson and with Sedgwick felt like extensions of one another. Sharing a hallway at the CUNY Graduate Center, “Emerson’s rainbow” seemed to arc over both courses. Chapter 1 serves as the most direct evidence of the degree to which this Emersonian light colored my reading of Sedgwick’s Proust. Benson’s response offers a welcome opportunity to consider how Eve’s reparative methods reciprocally inflected my understanding of pragmatist pedagogy.

    Reading Proust from a reparative position, our class was particularly attuned to phenomena that supported what Eve would later describe as the narrator’s “psychology of surprise and replenishment”—idiosyncratic friendships, unruly flora, strange tutelary spirits, and meals other than madeleines (The Weather in Proust, 4). From Eve’s engagement with the work of Silvan Tomkins, I learned that surprise is a neutral affect, an opening that allows an influx of sensory information which only becomes positively or negatively charged when it combines with other affects (such as joy or fear, interest or disgust). On the one hand, I am interested in the capacious affective range that is afforded by this neutrality; on the other hand, Sedgwick’s commitment to counterbalancing the dominance of paranoid methods has honed my attention to nourishing rather than depleting sources of surprise—hence my concentration on the only bedroom where Proust’s narrator feels welcomed rather than persecuted by its unfamiliarity. When I drew attention to this room in class, Sedgwick said it reminded her of D. W. Winnicott’s “potential space,” a place where one feels uniquely alive to creative and ethical possibilities. Winnicott also calls this a “holding space,” she explained, because it is only when you feel securely held that you are free to think of other things.

    In recalling this anecdote, I am reminded of Eve’s commitment to the pedagogical work of reparation—of securing her own classroom as a space that expanded the range of things we could think and say. It’s hard to imagine a more stark juxtaposition between the freedom and security we enjoyed in Eve’s class and the incomprehensibly precarious conditions under which Douglass learned to read. From this vantage, it feels absurdly, even violently, pollyannish to undertake anything like a reparative reading of his Narrative. Yet I also want to honor Benson’s generous invitation to take Douglass as a starting point for exploring the relation between pragmatism and reparation, and for extending the practice of reading for surprise back into Emerson’s own time. Even as I lack the expertise to follow this thought experiment very far, I’m grateful for the opportunity to examine several scenes of pedagogy in Douglass’s Narrative, guided by the crucial insight that is crystallized by Benson’s response: the way we are conditioned to experience surprise directly determines how and what we learn.

    Given the life-or-death need for paranoia in Covey’s fields, one might expect Douglass to inhabit a similarly paranoid position in relation to reading. But while he remains necessarily vigilant, he also risks dropping his defenses in each textual encounter, allowing himself and his worldview to be transformed by what he reads. Identifying literacy as “the pathway from slavery to freedom,” Douglass credits several books with rousing “my soul to eternal wakefulness,” with giving voice to those “thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance” (38, 42–43). With this description, Douglass evokes but also revises Emerson’s account of the transformative power of books in “The American Scholar”: “There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world . . . says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had wellnigh thought and said” (58). For Emerson, the unexpected recognition of one’s own thoughts in another’s words gives rise to delighted wonder; for Douglass, these surprise recognitions can only cause pain, opening his “eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out” (40). When one is dangled and dropped instead of securely held, thinking of “other things” means suffering their acute absence.

    If reading can in any sense be described as reparative for Douglass, it serves to remind us that the process of reparation proceeds from what Sedgwick follows Melanie Klein in calling “the depressive position.” Douglass’s most immediate response to what he reads is despair: “I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead” (43). To read is to crack a window on the possibility of freedom at the same time it slams shut. As Sedgwick observes, hope is a “fracturing, even a traumatic thing to experience” (Touching Feeling 146). Yet this fracturing glimpse of freedom opens a sliver of potentiality that sustains him: “But for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed” (41). Douglass’s reparative hope therefore proves to be as much a matter of survival as his paranoid vigilance. To draw on Sedgwick once again, Douglass’s reading reveals that “because there can be terrible surprises . . . there can also be good ones” (146).

    While there is little room for Douglass to enjoy his own reading, he takes “an amount of pleasure not to be expressed” in teaching his “loved fellow-slaves how to read” (71, 70). He describes the “Sabbath school” he secretly leads every week as “the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed” (71). The clandestine classroom he creates for “over forty scholars” (in the home of a free black man) cannot properly be called a holding space because the institution of slavery leaves no safe places for learning: “Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes” (71). However, Douglass’s declaration these were “great days to my soul” suggests that their practice of reading together does reparative work. For both teacher and students, the Sabbath school made “room to realize that the future may be different from the present” (71, Touching Feeling 146). Only a few of the people in that room will realize a future of freedom, yet in the present, these Sundays still offer space for collective respite.

     

    Works Cited

    Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies. New York: Library of America, 1994.

    Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Lectures. New York: Library of America, 1983.

    Poulet, Georges. “Phenomenology of Reading.” New Literary History 1.1 (1969) 53–68.

    Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.

    ———. The Weather in Proust. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.

     

     

Response

What We Mean by Paradox and Why It Matters

Let’s say we speak pragmatically. If this is the case, I may dispense quickly with praise here. I’ll leave it to other commentators (and there will be many) to mark this book’s accomplishment and insight. Instead I’ll trust that my extraordinary admiration is communicated, implicitly, in the questions that follow. Because, in the best pragmatist tradition, Practices of Surprise presents not a “solution” but a “program for more work.”

And I want to get to it.

“How does one prepare to be surprised?” Stanley begins, drawing out the tension implicit in the question (3). Surprises are, after all, “events for which one is the opposite of prepared” (3). Or, to put the conflict more clearly: “The task of preparing to be surprised is easily inverted into the task of preparing not to be surprised” (3).

For Stanley, however, preparation and surprise are not merely at odds with one another. Rather, Stanley insists, the idea that one might “methodically establish a readiness for surprise” presents us (and her writers) with no less than an “epistemological paradox” (33).

Stanley calls this “the Paradox of Preparation,” and there are good reasons for her to frame the question so forcefully. As she points out, the wish to avoid surprises—to mitigate them, defend against them, prepare for them—has long dominated our critical account of this period. The key term here is “shock,” and Stanley is precise in tracing its circulation, from Benjamin to Agamben, such that I need now only gesture at the ways in which the term—and all the structures it implies: its perceptual framework (the eye), its relation to time and to memory (trauma), its relation to the environment (the city)—has come to shape our understanding not only of literary modernism, but of modernity itself.

For the reader steeped in this critical tradition, the question “How does a person methodically establish a readiness for surprise?” may appear intractably difficult—no less than the full-blown “paradox” that Stanley describes (33).

And yet, the moment one steps away from this context, “preparation for surprise” does not present itself as a paradox at all—not really—and not just because the book itself of course resolves that conflict. It’s not a paradox, I would argue, because it’s not one on its face—which is to say: it’s not a paradox by our most ordinary and familiar measures of what we call experience. “Preparation for surprise” might even reasonably be considered a definition of practice as such—“practice” of the most ordinary, colloquial kind—the kind that athletes and musicians and dancers and doctors do.

The “preparation” here is of course of a specific kind. (One may prepare for a hurricane by closing the windows or one may prepare by opening them; the distinction is an important one.) Still, for most of us, the concept of a form of discipline designed to be openly responsive to contingency is not only non-contradictory, it’s in fact familiar—from baseball to baking, ceramics to sex.

To acknowledge the ordinariness of this structure—to acknowledge it as a familiar field of “action”—is in no way to disparage the work of the book, but rather to confirm its feeling of rightness.

I worry about the use of the language of “paradox” though, or point it out, because there is a real, robust sense of paradox that comes later in the book—a “paradox” that is in fact critical to Stanley’s argument, one that has a precise and even technical function in pragmatist thought.

Needless to say, this is a “paradox” very different from this first one, though not always easy to distinguish. This second paradox is registered in the body, and is one of the key experiences of mind that Emerson and William James, amongst others, draw upon regularly in their work.

This form of paradox is utterly distinct from what we mean when we use the word to describe something that is merely contradictory on its face—something that can conceivably be, with argument or consideration, resolved.

Stanley’s brilliant reading of the “transparent eye-ball” (64) begins to gesture at Emerson’s use of “paradox” in this second, robust sense. As Stanley points out, Emerson, unlike Plotinus, refuses a longstanding distinction between physicality and sight. His figure of the  “eye-ball” makes literal the idea that one “becomes vision” (64), and in so doing, Stanley shows, Emerson effectively resolves an apparent impasse.

But it is worth noting that Emerson’s intervention here is not merely philosophical. Rather, the “eye-ball” works in a second rhetorical register as well. When we encounter the line,

“I become a transparent eye-ball,” we are ourselves, as readers, caught up. Any attempt to fully comprehend this image (the impossibility of locating the line of vision; the problem of its materiality—both transparent and an eyeball; its position in the body and out of it at once; its potential literalism and its status as metaphor; etc.) produces a kind of interpretive oscillation that has no apparent resting point. The experience of attempting to “resolve” this image becomes its own kind of circle, one that makes manifest the idea of our own “embodied” vision—circumscribed even in imagination by the body. And in this form of paradox—one which honestly, experientially baffles; one in which it’s possible to understand without fully grasping—we are given a first-hand insight into what it might really mean to in fact “become an object and potentially ourselves” (Plotinus, quoted in Stanley 65).

* * *

To some this distinction will seem quibbling, but Stanley is well aware of the stakes here. As she compellingly argues, a very great deal relies on our ability to agree upon what constitutes an “authentic” paradox, as opposed to a mere semblance of one. Her account of New Criticism shows two paths, forking “precisely at the point that the New Critic installs the concept of paradox as a core tenet of close reading” (40).

On the first path, interpretation produces only its own reflection, “reinforcing its own inevitability as every new example of paradoxical language is uncovered in the closed critical system” (40). But there is, she points out, another way—one modeled by the technique and discipline of embracing the “practice of surprise.” In this model the teacher will likewise “lay out a paradoxical problem presented by the text” (51). In this case, however, the paradox is not imposed upon that text, but rather, emerges from it (51).

Stanley’s own teaching practice reflects this second path. Still, as she readily admits, there is a “potential pitfall in structuring a class like this” (51). Though the right kind of paradox may be demonstrated (pointed to, repeated, pointed to, discussed, repeated, and so on)—it is not subject to easy or even plain exposition.

Emerson’s notorious difficulty attests to this point. As a young reader, that “transparent eye-ball” struck me as weird and abrupt—even perhaps a little bit hokey. (See this goofy—though now iconic—drawing, by Christopher Pearse Church.)

As an adult, I perceive the line differently of course—but I may just as easily have missed it.

I have argued that the line makes Emerson’s argument manifest in the experience of the reader. I should have said: in the reader going slowly enough; in the reader with a teacher to guide her.

I have argued that the process of preparing oneself for surprise does not present an inherent paradox (and I maintain that it doesn’t). But, as Stanley so clearly elucidates, preparation for surprise is nevertheless a perilous process: one vulnerable to fraudulence and fakery, one that opens itself to misinterpretation and misuse, from zombie formalism to idiot compassion.

Which is why it is worth arguing about.

Practices of Surprise offers us this privilege.

  • Kate Stanley

    Reply

    Paradox and Pedagogy: Response to Alicia DeSantis

    I’ve found it helpful to organize each of my responses so far around scenes of pedagogy: Case’s essay recalls my most formative graduate classes; Esteve’s essay reframes my experience of teaching Lerner’s 10:04; and Benson’s essay raises contrasting pedagogical paradigms in Douglass’s Narrative. It seems fitting that DeSantis’s contribution returns me to the classroom encounter with Emerson’s transparent eyeball wherefrom Practices of Surprise would grow. In a sense, DeSantis’s inquiry into the nature of pragmatist paradox probes the boundary between what happens inside and outside of that, and any, pragmatist classroom. When we prepare to be surprised by the irreconcilable facets of the Emersonian eyeball, are we developing a practice with useful applications in other parts of our lives? Or is the paradox we encounter on the page distinctive and discrete, as DeSantis contends, and therefore cordoned from other nonliterary activities that court uncertainty and thus precipitate various daily preparations?

    Distinguishing between epistemological and everyday paradoxes is not just a matter of semantics. DeSantis credits me with grasping the stakes of this claim based on my argument that pragmatist and New Critical approaches to close reading part ways precisely where their definitions of paradox diverge. DeSantis then goes further, pointing to stakes beyond a competition of critical methods, when she draws a strong distinction between the kinds of paradoxes in play when talking about literary versus nonliterary practices of surprise. What is gained and lost in drawing this line? In teaching literature, there’s definite appeal in affirming the singularity of the work we are doing when reading a writer like Emerson. To make this case, I have, for instance, channeled Georges Poulet, who describes the phenomenology of reading as a strange merging of “me” and “not me,” an encounter which provokes “the feeling of surprise” because it has no equivalent; under no other circumstances am I permeated by “an existence which is not mine, but which I experience as though it were mine” (Poulet, quoted in Stanley 192–93n6). One way to extend this line of thinking is to argue that because this surprise encounter with another consciousness can happen in no other venue, it can be valued on its own terms, as an experience with no analogues.

    These are meaningful considerations, and I have certainly made recourse to such arguments when working to persuade students that literature classrooms matter—or to persuade university funding bodies that literature departments matter. At the same time, there are significant costs incurred when reading practices are set apart from other life practices. As a teacher, I risk foreclosing opportunities for students to connect what they are doing in class with other things they care about. I further risk alienating students who are, for practically-minded reasons, seeking skills that are widely applicable rather than narrowly specialized. Is there a way, then, to preserve the unique currency of certain literary paradoxes, while still persuading as many students as possible that the task of grappling with these contradictions will, out there, prove worth their while? When teaching work by writers who are famously difficult—Gertrude Stein or Henry James, for instance—I have found that class conversations can only slip cliché and skepticism, and open surprising lines of dialogue and insight, when I’ve managed to disarm any sense of intimidation among students. Undaunted and undefended, we are far more likely to entertain Stein’s experimentalism (even as she tests our patience and concentration), or James’s disorienting flux of tenses. From this vantage, distinguishing between categorical varieties of paradox seems less important than readying ourselves for the inevitable task of responding to these—or other—antinomies.

    DeSantis persuasively argues that the paradoxes conjured by Emerson’s transparent eyeball produce “an interpretative oscillation that never comes to rest.” This restlessness can be powerfully generative in unsettling old habits of thought, but it can also be exhausting, tautological, self-defeating. Whether Emersonian paradox opens up or shuts down new paths for thinking depends on whether our “interpretive oscillation” ultimately moves beyond itself. Here it might be helpful to recall the OED’s lively definition of paradox as “a statement or expression so surprisingly self-contradictory as to provoke us into seeking another sense or context in which it would be true.” Each of my chapters focuses on writers who are provoked by their reading of Emerson to embark on just such a search: seeking another sense in which surprisingly self-contradictory statements would be true, their literary experiments create new contexts where—to return to the transparent eyeball—transcendence is embodied and metaphors become literal.

    I conclude the book with John Cage in part because his “Lecture on Nothing” suggests how the “pedagogical power of paradox” might extend beyond the classroom into wider contexts of pedagogical experience. Cage’s koan-like repetitions and reversals dissolve the difference between teacher and student, practice and performance, but also between his composition of words and his composition of music. In closing with Cage, I hope to offer a model for practices of reading and writing for surprise that in like fashion draw new circles of experience.

Response

Paradoxes and Problem Solvers

In Practices of Surprise, Kate Stanley offers a thoughtful, reflective alternative to the shock-centered aesthetic of avant-garde modernism. Her claim is that Emerson’s vision, inherited by, echoed within, and refracted through a range of modernist authors—including Stein, James, Larsen, and Proust—offers the experience of “surprise” as a carefully managed counterpoint to shock. This is not the assaultive, violent surprise of an aggressor leaping from behind a door. Rather, it’s a welcoming vision of surprise—one that reminds me of my son’s insistence, when he was three years old, that strangers were “friends I haven’t met yet.” It’s the cultivation of such an accepting mindset with regard to unexpected concepts, ideas, and aesthetic experiences, that Stanley’s key figures model, and that this lovely book celebrates.

It does so by demonstrating how this “yielding mode of receptive surrender” (79) is achieved not simply through lucky accidents of character and orientation, but is cultivated carefully over time. Stanley takes the traditional story of shock—the quintessentially modern experience of depletion, alienation, and defensiveness—and transforms it into the opportunity for improvisatory, creative, and generative responses to the unexpected and unknown. This process is embodied in Emerson’s stance of radical openness to the world, to which Stanley’s opening chapter is devoted, and which remains a touchstone for the chapters that follow.

The body of her book traces the ways in which a variety of modernist thinkers succeed in carrying on Emerson’s legacy, not only in their experiments with language but in their dogged cultivation of openness and vulnerability in the face of surprise. The book is as much an appreciation and celebration of the texts it examines as it is a series of interpretive claims. In many ways, its subject is love—the love of particular texts, the way we rediscover our love for those texts, the ways in which those texts take our breath away, and how we can sustain such love over time. It’s also about the bonds that arise between teachers and students, genealogies of influence such as those that have been used to tell the story of pragmatism by thinkers as divergent as Cornel West, Jonathan Levin, Richard Poirier, and James Kloppenberg. This is influence without anxiety, however: in this anti-Bloomian narrative, Oedipal struggle is replaced by affection, indebtedness, and cathexis, often unconscious and unacknowledged. In this sense, the book constructs a pragmatist genealogy that is as much emotional and spiritual as it is intellectual. Indeed, the conclusion of Stanley’s first chapter is an extended meditation on the circles of pedagogical and intellectual influence that emanate not only from Emerson, the prime mover in multiple cosmologies of pragmatism, but also from Richard Poirier, the intellectual father or grandfather of most—though not all—literary scholars working on pragmatism today. This question of pedagogical influence is a key component of Stanley’s theory of “cultivated” surprise, in part because the practice alluded to in the book’s title is primarily a skill and not a concept, and the classroom is her model for how such skills are transmitted and internalized over time.

Stanley presents her ideal of cultivated surprise as the solution to an intractable paradox: how does one “prepare to be surprised” (3)? How do we make “newness a routine,” especially when—in Michael Clune’s words—“time poisons perception”(Clune, quoted in Stanley 2)? Here too, her proposed answer is taken from the realm of the pedagogical: “As veteran teachers (similar to, say, proficient musicians) might attest, from a state of adaptive preparation and adept responsiveness, unforeseen spontaneity and inspiration can spring forth readily, even under the most familiar and reiterative circumstances. The goal of education as James frames it, is to programmatically cultivate such spontaneity as a lifelong habit” (6).

The idea that surprise can offer an alternative to shock, that it can be cultivated and developed over time, that key authors of the modernist moment committed themselves to this pedagogical project in ways that have been overlooked, and that the cultivation of such spontaneity would depend upon the right sorts of habits, are insights that share a good deal with the arguments of my first book, Pragmatic Modernism (Oxford, 2012), which Stanley insightfully and generously reviewed in Criticism in 2014. Spending time with this book has given me an opportunity to think about what it might mean to emphasize surprise as a central concept, as Stanley does in her book, rather than habit, the key term of mine. I want to develop this distinction a bit because it helps me to capture what I find especially original and moving about Stanley’s book. It also, as I’ll go on to argue, allows us to think with greater clarity about a longstanding divide in pragmatism-inflected criticism.

While both “habit” and “surprise” may work in concert to cultivate flexibility and openness to experience (the hallmark of all pragmatist thought), they are not simply complementary terms. Habit is first and foremost a philosophical or psychological concept. It describes any specific component of thought or behavior that has become automatic enough to be invisible. Surprise, on the other hand, is not a concept. It is an affective state, an emotionally-charged, fleeting, temporary experience. This flexible and capacious term indicates experiences that expand the self as well as the self’s conception of the world (in contrast to those shock-centered experiences which, in Simmel’s classic account “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” shrink itself into defensive formations such as “the blasé attitude”). Surprise has implications that are ethical, aesthetic, and emotional. It helps to describe an openness to otherness that has Levinasian resonances; it also can help to describe what makes a prose style great. But most importantly, it captures a feeling, an emotional response that grips readers, writers, and thinkers when their established expectation or their sense of the known suddenly expands. To build an argument upon an affective state such as this one brings a very different charge to the discussion—it brings, among other things, a renewed emphasis on the emotional, affective, ethical, and aesthetic elements of the works under discussion and the problems that are being considered.

Stanley’s opening paradox (“making newness a routine”) can be made to dissolve when the problem is framed in terms of habit, and when we imagine the creation of new habits that are, in Dewey’s words, “more intelligent, more sensitively percipient, more informed with foresight, more aware of what they are about, more direct and sincere, more flexibly responsive than those now current” (HNC, 90). To replace surprise with habit, then, is to replace the affective experience of paradoxical puzzlement and bewilderment with a characteristically pragmatist shrug of acceptance and getting on with things. To replace habit with surprise, on the other hand, is to shift into a different temporality, to linger in the slowed-down hinge between habit and shock, taking it as an opportunity for reflective analysis. Both activities are important, and there should be space in pragmatist criticism to accommodate both of them.

Indeed, a major contribution of Stanley’s book is the way her readings continually remind us that “all depends on the feelings things arouse in us” (James, quoted in Stanley 104). Surprise is an affective state of arousal, and it is just one of the inchoate, emotionally-tinged elements of our experience as readers, teachers, and scholars of literature to which she is able to give voice in this book. Her explorations of modernist authors finds her tracing affective and aesthetic dimensions of these authors’ work that have often been taken for granted or simply overlooked. Thus we are given Proust’s extended descriptions of what it feels like to read; we are shown how Larsen’s descriptions of weather work to capture Helga Crane’s attuned sense of “atmosphere,” a sort of electrified hypersensitivity to her surroundings and their emotional charges. We see how James’s navigation of surprise and recognition, the “scenic” and “non-scenic” systems that make up experience, function as his exploration of the psychological problem, treated so brilliantly by his brother William, of how emotions work. We are treated to Stein’s unforgettable description of what it feels like to write, as reported by Thornton Wilder:

Now if we write, we write; and these things we know flow down our arm and come out on the page. The moment before we wrote them we did not really know we knew them; if they are in our heads in the shape of words then that is all wrong and they will come out dead; but if we did not know we knew them until the moment of writing then they come to us with a shock of surprise. (Wilder, quoted in Stanley 155)

In each of these cases, Stanley’s concept of surprise shows us what it feels like to negotiate the hinge between habit and shock and to cultivate the habit of openness to the unfamiliar or surprising. Like the dialectic of habit I describe in my book, Stanley’s account describes a pendulum swing between habit and disruptions to habit, as such phrases as “protracted disorientation and reorientation” (28) “perceptive undulation and literate spontaneity” (44) suggest. But to develop this idea, Stanley turns not to James or Dewey, but to Silvan Tomkins, the father of affect theory. According to Tomkins, surprise can be a “circuit breaker” “when it interrupts a prevailing feeling and clears space into which new responses can arrive” (25). This is meaningful because, according to Emerson, it can break “my whole chain of habits, and . . . open my eye on my own possibilities” (26). That Stanley reaches for Tomkins and Emerson here rather than to Dewey or James may suggest that she is less interested in describing how this process works than she is in capturing how it feels.

This emphasis on the feelings of reading and writing places Stanley in the intellectual tradition of Richard Poirier, an inheritance she acknowledges in her introduction. She shares Poirier’s conviction “that the most important question is not ‘what does this writing mean?’ but ‘what is it like to read this?’—confusing? reassuring? intimidating? cozy? all of these at once?”1 We may also feel echoes of Poirier in the way that Stanley uses the category of surprise to help describe the magic that makes truly transcendent, original, and moving prose. Emerson (himself the very incarnation of such magic) provides the language for Stanley’s reflection about this question, describing his own work, for example, as featuring “a spontaneity which forgets usages, and makes the moment great” (Emerson, quoted in Stanley 21); and reminding us that “the word should never suggest the word that is to follow it, but the hearer should have a perpetual surprise, together with the natural order” (Emerson, quoted in Stanley 18).

Emerson’s ability to explain and describe his own compositional process, and the magic to which this process gives rise, explains why he is the origin point not only for Stanley’s argument, but also for Poirier’s own genealogy of pragmatism. Poirier valued above all else the way that language transforms itself and comes alive, through what he calls at various moments “troping,” or its “active, struggling, exploratory, and exultant performing presence” (Poirier, “Pragmatism,” 76). These various terms for the vivid, complex, self-negating elements of language could also be described as its paradoxical elements. And indeed, paradox plays a key role in Stanley’s account. Not only is her argument a response to the paradoxical question, as I’ve already described, of how one prepares to be surprised; but the internal circuitry and centrifugal force of paradoxical language becomes a figure for the larger experience of surprise, and captures what is complex, challenging, and surprising about the experiments in prose she analyzes. Paradox is also key to understanding the revelatory language and thrilling reflections of Emerson, from whose work her argument—like Poirier’s—takes its inspiration.2

The language of poetry might be the language of paradox, but the language of habit—Dewey’s language—is the language of change across time. Unlike Emerson, Dewey had little use for paradox. He didn’t particularly relish lingering in puzzling dilemmas or insoluble contradictions—indeed, he didn’t really do much lingering at all. Rather, his approach was based in identifying and then solving problems. I bring this up because it points to a distinction between thinkers who approach pragmatism as a set of concepts, key terms, ideas, and values (problem solvers, we’ll call them), and those who interest themselves in pragmatism first and foremost as a mode of expression (we’ll call this group the paradoxical thinkers, and take Poirier as an exemplary case).

In her book, Stanley does make an effort to connect these two constituencies, here represented by Emerson and Dewey, doing her part to reestablish this missed connection of intellectual history by bringing in Dewey early in the book as a champion of Emerson’s work. Her emphasis on the importance of the classroom is also characteristic of a problem-solver’s interest in questions of transmission, communication, and practice. Still, her sympathies ultimately lie with the thinkers who choose living language over water-tight argumentation, as her book’s deep attention to tracing, describing, and meditating on the thrills of pragmatist language clearly demonstrates.

I value the way that Stanley, following in Poirier’s footsteps, encourages me to be reawakened to my own experiences of wonder and surprise when confronted with the sort of living, complex prose to which most literary scholars, and certainly those of us who gravitate towards modernist literature, are drawn. But there is also a place, I would argue, for a pragmatism that is not in and of itself a form of art but that instead attempts to express, explain, and discuss its own ideas and concepts without necessarily typifying those concepts through its own self-consciously paradoxical language. Take Dewey, and his greatest contemporary champion, Richard Rorty: Dewey was a problem solver, a civil engineer, a skeptic, an elucidator, a planner, a skeptic, an educator. Rorty was a brilliant translator of concepts, an explainer, a simplifier, a connection-finder. Both thinkers loved and admired artists immensely, and shared their own theories of art (Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, and Art as Experience), and both were able to turn the occasional felicitous phrase—but neither could be said to have been artists themselves, certainly not in the sense that we may say this of Emerson.

In his review of Poetry and Pragmatism, as Stanley notes, Ross Posnock expresses bemusement at Poirier’s seeming imperviousness to Dewey’s contribution.3 But Poirier is hardly alone in this omission: Stanley Cavell’s essay “What’s the Use of Calling Emerson a Pragmatist?” is little more than a collection of withering potshots at Dewey’s perceived flat-footedness, naiveté, and lack of emotional depth (failures Cavell assumes he shares with the philosophical movement of pragmatism as a whole).4 Certainly, after the Turkish delight of Emersonian sentences and paragraphs it can be hard to be satisfied by a few stale crusts of Dewey’s prose. But this is more than a matter of aesthetic taste and personal preference: Poirier’s rejection of Dewey’s flatness is fundamental to his understanding of what pragmatism is and what its importance for literature might be.

“In Pragmatism and the Sentence of Death,” Poirier explains why he sees pragmatism as the philosophical incarnation of literary greatness:

The greatest cultural accomplishment of pragmatism remains the least noticed, and one which it never very clearly enunciates as a primary motive even to itself. It managed to transfer from literature a kind of linguistic activity essential to literature’s continuing life but which it now wants effectively to direct at the discourses of social, cultural, and other public formations, always with an eye to their change or renewal. (86)

This argument insightfully connects the strenuousness of literary language with pragmatism’s inexhaustible struggle for social and political transformation. But Poirier’s simile—that the restlessness of literary language is like the restlessness of endless pragmatist inquiry—runs the danger of conflating the two categories it compares.

First, pragmatism did not invent and is not necessary to experiments with language. While Poirier is brilliant in identifying the points of contact between pragmatism and its so-called “poetry,” and while it is certainly true that the philosophical commitments of, e.g., Emerson, Stein, James, Proust, and Stevens are instantiated in their use of language, it is simply not the case that all “troping,” as Poirier calls it, is intrinsically, essentially pragmatist. “Linguistic skepticism” and emphasis on “the moment of passage” are features that can be identified in the work of many brilliant writers. In “Pragmatism and the Sentence of Death,” Poirier’s catalogue of works “that display an agitated, critical responsiveness to their own language” (84) includes Shakespeare, Marvell, Swift, Henry James, Wordsworth and Dickens.

In this sense, Poirier’s claims for pragmatism seem to me to be much broader than pragmatism itself—indeed, they seem to take in the whole sweeping vista of literary and linguistic achievement. From another perspective, though, his vision is far more restrictive than pragmatism’s vision allows. Specifically, individual wonderment, reflection, and personal transformation (the key elements of the paradoxical approach to pragmatism) do not begin to address collective and institutional change across time, social experience, or the social world.

At such moments, when we become interested in developing, for instance, a theory of social transformation, paradox can begin to feel a little bit static. While there can be lots of movement within the circuit of the specific contradiction (and this can generate the electricity of a particular sentence or certain elements of the aesthetic effect of Emerson’s prose), a paradox can’t (and doesn’t want to) capture movement forward across time.

Poirier’s approach demands that philosophers be artists. But what he shows is not that pragmatism is great literature, but that great literature gives us a glimpse of pragmatism’s characteristic action avant—or aprèsla lettre. His argument is convincing because his chosen philosophers, Emerson and James, so happened to be artists or at least very fine and imaginative authors of highly literary prose. By the same token, Dewey’s exclusion from his pantheon makes sense because Dewey’s prose does not embody what Poirier sees as properly “pragmatist” values.

I am tremendously sympathetic to the aesthetically complex demands of paradox-based pragmatist criticism, and convinced by the way this approach, wielded expertly by Stanley and informed by a deep background in affect theory, brings her readings to life and emphasizes the emotional and aesthetic impact pragmatist criticism is capable of imparting. Poirier and his followers have done a crucially important service for pragmatism by placing aesthetic complexity at the very heart of their project. In so doing, they are rebutting a long tradition of thinkers like Lewis Mumford, Walter Lippman, and Louis Hartz who saw pragmatism as synonymous with instrumentalism, positivism, or empiricism, thought it was comfortably hospitable to capitalism, and found it lacking in political meaning, emotional honesty, and aesthetic value.

But I also want to reserve a place for the problem-solving approach represented by Dewey or Rorty. Such an approach has been denigrated for its ability to make seemingly intractable problems disappear by simply disavowing them as problems, as in Dewey’s rejection of philosophical dualisms, or Rorty’s shrugging dismissal of the problems of Western metaphysics. But there are genuine intellectual thrills to be found in these swashbuckling rejections of philosophical pieties, and their disruptions to the well-worn circuitry of philosophical categories can bring breathtaking new possibilities into view. Further, a Deweyan problem-solving approach ensures that questions of collectivity and social transformation remain central to the pragmatist project. It is possible to embrace an ameliorative vision without dismissing history or ignoring the pain and beauty of our broken world. Because pragmatism is a set of procedures, not an ideology, it can include all these elements and more.

Poirier’s pragmatism gives those of us who love language a new reason to love pragmatism, and Stanley’s treatment of surprise gives us a new language to describe that love. Stanley’s book has renewed my sense that the pragmatism’s two strains are not only compatible but complementary. It has given me some new ways to think about how we might bring these positions more closely into alignment with each other, which would, after all, be more in the spirit of thinkers like Proust and James and Stein, for whom aesthetic achievement and the theorizing of collective action and meaning were always inseparable from each other.


  1. Richard Poirier, “Pragmatism and the Sentence of Death,” Yale Review 80.3 (July 1992) 74.

  2. This element of Emerson’s difficulty, which Poirier also finds in many of his linguistic pragmatists (such as Stein, Frost, Stevens), gives us another way of understanding why Emerson is so vulnerable to being misquoted, even, according to Chris Hanlon, when the words that are cited are actually his. Chris Hanlon, “On Fake Emerson Quotes,” Avidly, August 27, 2019, https://avidly.lareviewofbooks.org/2019/08/27/on-fake-emerson-quotes/.

  3. Ross Posnock, “Reading Poirier Pragmatically,” Yale Review 80 (1992) 156–69.

  4. Stanley Cavell, “What’s the Use of Calling Emerson a Pragmatist?,” Cardozo Law Review 18 (1996) 171–81.

  • Kate Stanley

    Reply

    Practices of Pragmatism: Response to Lisi Schoenbach

    I began by discussing how Kristen Case’s essay has helped me to think through the intimate relation between the spiritual and practical strains of pragmatism. To close, I want to consider how these dual commitments to “spirit” and “use” might intersect with the two schools of pragmatism that Lisi Schoenbach identifies as “problem-solvers” and “paradox-thinkers.” Schoenbach names two pragmatist critics, Richard Poirier and Richard Rorty, who reinforce the oppositional divide between these positions. On the one side, Poirier’s critical method is founded on the reflective practice of “troping,” the incessant turning-over of linguistic paradoxes, while on the other side, Rorty inherits John Dewey’s impatience with paradox, advising that intractable problems be practically surmounted “by simply rejecting them as problems.” Schoenbach ultimately suggests that the best hope for reconciling these divergent approaches to pragmatism lies with its literary heirs—with such writers as Proust, Henry James, and Stein “for whom aesthetic achievement and the theorizing of collective action and meaning were always inseparable.” As I read this last line, which concludes Schoenbach’s essay, I found myself nodding in agreement, but also wondering whether the founder of pragmatism, William James, in some sense necessitated this reconciliation—the inseparability of evocation and resolution—years earlier. James does not figure in Schoenbach’s discussion, suggesting that she may side with critics who argue that James largely left “questions of collectivity and social transformation” to Dewey. My own initial studies of James’s focus on psychology left me with a similar sense of the division of pragmatist labor. However, several years ago Case revised my understanding in a revelatory talk that cited James’s description of pragmatism as “a social scheme of co-operative work genuinely to be done.” In the process of considering and recontextualizing this quote, I have also begun to reconstruct the methodological synthesis James sought between obstructive problems and productive paradoxes.

    James offers this “social scheme” definition in “Pragmatism and Religion,” the eighth and final lecture in a series he delivered to audiences at the Lowell Institute (an educational foundation in Boston) in 1906 and published the next year under the title Pragmatism: A New Name for an Old Way of Thinking (1907). He concludes these talks by grappling with “the deepest and most pregnant question that our minds can frame”—the question that motivates the pragmatist project more generally: What difference does it make if we understand our universe to be organized by a predetermined plan or if we choose to believe that we inhabit an uncertain universe of chance (616)? In short, is our world “to be taken monistically or pluralistically” (610)? James introduces the question by way of a poem by Walt Whitman entitled “To You.” His reading hinges on the singularity or plurality of the “you,” which is alternately aligned with a monist or pluralist worldview. A monistic interpretation imposes a grand unified form and purpose on the poem, and by extension, on the world. In contrast, a pluralistic approach risks a more open-ended interpretation of “the world’s poem,” both poem and world defined by varieties of aesthetic experience and applicable meaning—by the unfixed possibilities of multiplicity.

    Each perspective has its definite use-value, James observes, with monism offering security and pluralism a sense of potentiality. If pragmatists base those beliefs on their utility, must they then choose between these worldviews, or can they benefit from having it both ways? James tests the validity of something like “free-will determinism” by reading aloud from a letter written by an audience member who wants to “supplement” his monistic belief in the “rational unity of all things” with an uncomplacent pluralist commitment to “making the universe better” (610, 609). In his effort to combine monism with pluralism James’s letter-writer would seem to exemplify the pragmatist method of intervening in the most difficult philosophical debates by affirming the solution that is most “useful to life” (606). Yet while the letter-writer may uphold the pragmatist principle of use, James asserts a second, equally crucial principle that must guide the problem-solver: clarity. Though James famously champions the value of “vagueness,” here he insists that “the reinstatement of the vague” cannot come at the expense of “clear-headedness” (610).

    James first equates clarity with logical consistency, which can only be achieved through a rigorous process of “squaring truth with truth”—one’s own truths, but also corroborative truths held by other people (616). Being consistent therefore means being in conversation, with oneself and with a wider social world. His letter-writer has neglected at the most basic level to consider how his claims talk to one another. A productive conversation depends on shared terms and to this end James undertakes some definitional work. He begins by identifying the crux of “the monistic-pluralistic alternative”: “The whole dilemma,” he argues, “revolves pragmatically about the notion of the world’s possibilities” (616, 610). The task, then, is to determine what the word “possible” means for each camp when the “salvation of the world” is at stake (612). From a pluralist perspective, to say it is possible to save the world is to say that “some of the conditions of the world’s deliverance do actually exist” (612). Crucially, these conditions “are not bare abstract possibilities. They are grounded, they are live possibilities” (613). This suggests that the pluralist’s actions might play a meaningful role in helping “to create the world’s salvation” (613).

    When James tries to put this pluralist understanding of “genuine possibles” into conversation with monism, he immediately encounters a dead end (608). The monist conviction that the world “must and shall be . . . saved” may obscure tangible conditions of change and active betterment with an abstract sense of certainty and passive inevitability (611). In the absence of any common conversational ground, conciliatory claims for a “monistic pluralism” are rendered incoherent. And so, without the idealized hope of reconciliation we are faced with what James calls a “genuine choice”: we must definitively decide between monism and pluralism. I am reminded at this critical juncture of the “thrill” Schoenbach reports feeling when she witnesses the pragmatist problem-solver at work; I experience a similar thrill when James decides to dismiss monism once and for all. Just as Schoenbach predicts, James’s disruption of “the well-worn circuitry of philosophical categories” succeeds in bringing “breathtaking new possibilities into view.” In fact, James chooses pluralism precisely because it proliferates rather than contains unforeseen possibilities—possibilities which set “definite activities in us at work” (608).

    Up to this point, James’s approach to the monism vs. pluralism debate has exemplified the decisive logic of pragmatist problem-solving. However, he concludes the lecture, and the series as a whole, by proposing that it is ultimately “our faith and not our logic that decides such questions” (617). James’s shift from the logical to the spiritual also signals his investigation’s transition from problem-solving to paradox-thinking. As he has shown, problem-solvers equate clarity with consistency—or in Schoenbach’s words, with “water-tight argumentation” that admits no contradictions, and in fact (per Rorty) would disregard the contradictory. In modelling the pragmatist practice of paradox-thinking, James recovers the etymological sense of the Latin claritas, a spiritual clarity achieved through a conversionary leap of faith.

    In Practices of Surprise, I argue that the transparency of Emerson’s eyeball is rooted in the body, which remains planted in terra firma; Jamesian clarity is similarly anchored in the “sensible facts of nature” (619). Where one might associate spiritual illumination with a retreat into religious abstraction, James’s pluralism reveals that we are ourselves responsible for actively creating the world we want to live in. The catch is that this responsibility is always paired with uncertainty: every creative act “leaps into the gap”—into unpredictable conditions and outcomes (613). This, then, is the central paradox facing the pluralist: in order to contribute to “the world’s salvation” we must act with clear conviction; yet we are always acting into an obscure unknown. How does the pluralist learn to “leap” in the absence of a safety net (612)?

    In lieu of an answer, James proposes a thought experiment:

    Suppose that the world’s author put the case to you before creation, saying: “I am going to make a world not certain to be saved, a world the perfection of which shall be conditional merely, the condition being that each several agent does its own ‘level best.’ I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety, you see, is unwarranted. It is a real adventure, with real danger, yet it may win through. It is a social scheme of co-operative work genuinely to be done.” (614, my emphasis)

    We return, then, to the phrase identified by Case as an apt description of the pragmatist project. Earlier I cited the lectures’ better-known definition of pragmatism as “a program for more work.” Here, James specifies that such a program is necessarily “a social scheme” requiring collaboration. When we work together, James affirms, “uncertified possibles are not bare, they are concretely grounded” in something larger than ourselves. Only when this work is approached co-operatively might we find the corroboration necessary for “participation in such a world” (614). James concludes his thought experiment by addressing his audience: “Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?” (614). Joining the procession means situating oneself in a longer line of pluralists who likewise “answered ‘yes’ to the question,” who trusted themselves and their compatriots to take a risky leap into “real adventure, with real danger” (617).

    In James’s narration, American pluralism begins with the puritans. While it’s tempting to equate monotheists with monists, he contends that the puritans “always viewed God as but one helper, primus inter pares [first among equals], in the midst of all the shapers of the great world’s fate” (618). With this claim for puritan pluralism, James invokes John Winthrop’s approach to solving the problem “common to all” on board the Arbella: the problem of how to constitute a collectivity out of “variety and difference.” From Winthrop, James inherits a founding model of problem-solving that is supported by the practice of paradox-thinking—of transforming his metaphors of a communal body into a shared reality. Yet this puritan inheritance cannot be extricated from what James elsewhere describes as an “ancestral blindness,” a violent insensibility to “creatures and people different from ourselves.” In upholding the puritan model of pluralist co-operation at the founding moment of pragmatism, James occludes the genocidal violence that is predicated on and enacted by Winthrop’s “community of peril.” As Case reminds us, reframing pragmatism as “a social scheme of co-operative work” requires that we simultaneously confront the brutal exclusions enacted and effaced by “the comfortable optimism of white pragmatist thought.” This work for me must begin in the classroom, a fact that each of these forum essays has powerfully clarified.

    I’m so grateful to Lisi Schoenbach and to all of my respondents for challenging me to pursue a pedagogy that makes material headway in the work that is “genuinely to be done”—which is to say, a class that learns the lessons that “Douglass’s ‘shock’ aims to teach” (per Benson); a pragmatism that learns to leverage its beliefs into “progressive activism” (per Esteve); and readers who learn to register “paradox in the body” (per DeSantis). These are daunting demands, yet it’s heartening to be reminded by James (by way of Case) that the practices of “mutual care” which animate this kind of pedagogy do not need to be invented because they have been “with us all along.”

     

    Works Cited

    James, William. Writings, 1902–1910. New York: Library of America, 1987.

    Winthrop, John. “A Model of Christian Charity.” In The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology, edited by Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco, 81–92. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Shares