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Created: July 25, 2003
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Site Teaching Modules The Aesthetics of Answerability

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, July 2003.
"Fair use" encouraged.

Topic of the Week: The Aesthetics of Answerability
Friday, July 25, 2003: I hope you'll get the feeling of dancing dervishes against a sky exploding with possibilities. This is a first version of my struggle with Bakhtin. To be more accurate, my on-going struggle with Greg Neilsen's The Norms of Answerability: Social Theory Between Bakhtin and Habermas.

Why a struggle? Well, philosophy and social theory weren't part of my early training. Literature, mathematics, and hard science (physics) were. And Greg Nielsen, bless his heart, spends a lot of time directing doctoral and masters' theses and research projects, meaning his day is spent a little differently from mine. It would have been easy to avoid the struggle, and stick to traditional sociological texts, but the Dear Habermas project led to Bakhtin, and Bakhtin led to the Norms of Answerability. And struggle to catch up on all that cross-discipline reading, I guess I must. But if it feels like this week's painting, I reckon it's worth it.

Me, personally, as a teacher, and Pat and Susan, too, we're uncomfortable with a general theory of sociology that splits into picayune little studies that are convenient to turn out in the midst of unrealistic teaching schedules, that never really tackle the divergence of micro and macro. We're also uncomfortable with the continuing emphasis on quantitative studies and the retreat from sociology's philosophical roots and tradition. That discomfort with the departmentalization of sociological problems and issues in quasi-new areas, like cultural studies, led us to keep searching for new ways to bring our students interactively into sociology as one of the most significant fields of study to touch on everyday life. No, we don't mean we want them to "become sociologists." It doesn't pay well. We mean that we think an understanding, a deep substantive understanding of sociology is a tool needed to successfully cope with our and their lived experience, especially in this 21st Century.

One of our solutions has been what we have now, thanks to Greg Nielsen, learned to call the aesthetics of answerability. I have complained for years that despite my admiration for Habermas, I feel that he lives in a lifeworld very different from mine. For in my lifeworld one cannot depend so on rationality. That doesn't mean that my lifeworld is any less exciting, any less satisfying to live, but it does lack community, awareness, and respect for the Other, in a way that his seems not to, for rationality seems to get him past these difficulties. And, for me, rationality doesnt work. In the last year or so we adapted Maria Pia Lara's "illocutionary discourse," aimed at understanding the other, not at agreement. My problem is that Habermas still seems to insist upon agreement. Often, in my world, agreement isn't one of the options. But we've found that listening out of human respect is. We are most often willing to listen to one another, to try to understand where the other is coming from, to use our own skills and knowledge to help the other explain his position, and to respect our differences, when we assure ourselves there is no need to agree on a single solution or policy statement.

We discovered that we're increasingly comfortable with listening to each other when we weren't indicating by that listening that we agreed. Empathy flowed across our classroom when one student had tears in her eyes, even though most of the students disagreed with her position. We came to see each other as real people, and we felt a pretty strong satisfaction with that. Something good was happening, even though we were having an intense debate. Perhaps that's what led me to this week's painting. I didn't want a solid background. Lots of stuff was going on. People were talking to other people; some were listening to the debate itself; others had broken off into little subgroups. We were noisy; we were clearly discussing something with heavy affective impact. We were. The death of two young women in a sorority hazing, when we knew the fiance of one of the drowned women.

This was very near the end of the semester. Sorority members, potential members who had dropped out of the sorority over hazing, class members fervently opposed to Greeks, all had something to say. We framed the discussion as illocutionary discourse. But . . . . One of the young women after class harrumphed: "Illocutionary discourse, indeed. You'd think they'd never heard of it." But at the next class period 80 or so were again present, and they nodded as we spoke of the need to "hear and understand one another," not to "agree," but to understand each other. Later, at that last class of the semester, one young sorority woman thanked us for reminding them that all sides of the issue were important, needed to be heard, and had lived with different experiences of Greek Life. During the intense moments of crying over the tragic results of the hazing at the earlier class, she had felt uncomfortable and wondered if she should return to this last class. But our return to the discussion, in somewhat calmer voices, had worked for her, and she saw the value to our discussion. This wonderful outcome is what we are calling the "aesthetics of answerability." The result couldn't have been predicted, for it was the creation of all the individuals who took part in the discussion, and it changed us all, in the direction of peace and social justice.

Bakhtin's position is that every utterance is answerable when it is part of a dialog, for the Other may answer. Those are the rules of communication, particularly the rules of illocutionary discourse. When the other answers we enter into a personal relationship in which we are both changed by sympathetically recognizing one another, and we are each changed by the transaction. This exchange need not, and often is not, rational. That's where aesthetics comes in. Aesthetics is the process through which we create some new form: the interpersonal relationship. The intellectual leap from there to community is the idea that community is composed of the aggregate of such aesthetically formed interpersonal relationships. In my ideal world, that is. In reality, we haven't developed our skills at illocutionaary discourse to a level that the difference can effectively merge the community and the individual without disruptive tension. There will always be tension, but if it is handled aesthetically, tension becomes a good and motivating force.

Now, what I mean by struggling with this is that I think what I just said is what I meant. But Susan and Pat and hopefully others will question me, and through this questioning we will build our aesthetic. Bakhtin insists that the utterance is always open, never finalized, for the other can always answer. Yes, I like that. It mollifies my fear of circles of certainty. (Freire)

Last, but by no means least, I want to thank Greg Nielsen for having written the Norms of Answerability, for in doing so, he brought me closer to the moments I needed of contmeplative silence. I hope he will add his instruction and comments to this project, as we follow through with it this Fall semester. jeanne

Habermas wants a metatheory of the aesthetics by which we would judge whether this is a new aesthetic form or not. Except that Habermas has basically excluded the aesthetics of the early Frankfurt School. So in Habermas, the demand has been for a metatheory of critique, and that does depend on the rational. I am far more comfortabe with Bakhtin's aesthetic.