Reflection by Matthew Sussman
Perhaps the most interesting feature of Elisha Cohn’s wonderful new book—a book that convincingly argues, through immersive close readings, for the aesthetic importance of moments or moods of “suspended development” within the Victorian novel—is the ostensible modesty of its central claim. Cohn repeatedly emphasizes how such moments are “non-instrumental” and “non-transformative,” even though her brilliant analysis reveals their presence throughout key Victorian texts to be pervasive and affecting. Late in the book, Cohn herself questions this commitment, asking “whether it accepts too readily and self-punishingly the marginalization of the humanities of the academy, or whether it might be said to modestly return to the practices and varied modes of attention that have long been at the heart of literary reading” (187). I think this doubt is worth pursuing further, not least because it forces us to ask what sort of value attaches to the fascinating moments of “still life” that Cohn’s book has now revealed.
Throughout the book, Cohn presents moments of still life as offering an alternative to the “agency” and vigilant “self-culture” that predominates in the Victorian novel. The most minimal form of value they offer is thus one of pause, escape, or repose. These moments are “non-reflective” and “non-transformative” because they deny the forward thrust of intellectual self-development that we associate with Victorian Bildung. However, it seems to me unnecessary to suggest that because these moments contradict the reigning paradigms of intellectual and political utility, they therefore lack either reflective or transformative value. Setting their aesthetic purpose aside, these states provide a privileged vantage point from which to critique prevailing norms and play a vital role in cultivating what we might call a subversive consciousness—a consciousness whose indifference might well be regarded from that which it ignores as a kind of resistance. Hence, it may be less that these moments offer a distinct alternative to “agency” (187) than that they offer an alternative conception of agency that includes strategic inactivity, whether or not that passivity is consciously willed. Hence, while I appreciate (and welcome) the ways in which Cohn seeks to protect “still life” from being co-opted by a “too-confident model” of sociopolitical advancement (187), I would also not want to see the ethical potential of its “modes of awareness” (185), and the broadened notion of subjectivity that must accompany them, precipitately limited by conceding to the forces they oppose.
In the same way, Cohn sets “still life” in opposition to “purposiveness,” a contrast that struck my ears as ironic given the distinctly aesthetic value that purposiveness is given by Kant in his Critique of Judgment (which Cohn also cites). In the Third Moment of the Critique, Kant describes how the liking we experience in making a judgment of taste “can be nothing but the subjective purposiveness in the presentation of an object, without any purpose (whether objective or subjective), and hence the mere form of purposiveness, insofar as we are conscious of it, in the presentation by which an object is given us” (Ak. 221). In plain English, Kant argues that aesthetic pleasure arises when an object may be construed as being designed for the purpose of eliciting that pleasure, being in no other way “determined” by a “concept.” (Kant argues that aesthetic judgments are non-conceptual and non-determinative because they do not give attributes to objects. Confusingly, he also calls these judgments “reflective,” which indicates another contrast with Cohn’s vocabulary.) Within the framework of Kantian aesthetics, at least, there is thus no conflict between the perception of “purposiveness” and what Cohn describes as the “search for a non-conceptual concept” that “declines the desire for mastery” (20). In fact, for Kant, is it the very absence of conceptuality that makes aesthetic objects purposive in their normal, characteristic way.
Pleasure is, I think, at the heart of why Cohn values “anti-reflective” states, and one virtue of the Kantian framework is that it manages to retain for pleasure what is “reflective” and “purposive” rather than seeing pleasure, in its aesthetic environment, as being defined by the absence of those qualities (and thus diminished in the cultural surround). The same may be said of “teleology,” which Cohn also uses in a non-Kantian way. For Cohn, teleology largely refers to the end-directed objective of Victorian narratives, which adopts a logic of progressive development in order to culminate in some ultimate perfected state. The pressures of fulfilling that teleology subsequently furnish the conditions under which the anti-developmental mood can emerge. But another way of understanding teleology is simply as the requirement of a thing to realize its purpose, or to treat a thing as having a purpose that it aims to realize. There is no reason why the various “moods,” “attitudes,” and “stances” that Cohn examines—not to mention the more sensuously inflected “tones,” “textures,” and “shades” that she observes—should not be seen as integral to the purpose of both authors and characters (as ethical agents) or novels and poems (as objects of aesthetic appreciation), valuable because they broaden the possible, and I would add necessary, forms that human flourishing can take.
In this light, I think that Cohn’s book makes a significant contribution to a revised understanding of what exactly is meant when we talk about Victorian “aestheticism.” In my view, people like Wilde and Pater were searching for just such an account of non-reflective or anti-developmental “action” when they emphasized the importance of aesthetic “sensation” or “mood” over the received categories of represented character, plot, and theme. The goal for them was not to “develop” in the traditional way but neither was it to “suspend” development insofar as that would mean evacuating the aesthetic moment of its broader claims to ethical significance. On the contrary, these thinkers saw moments of suspended development as most constitutive of aesthetic and moral character, and Cohn helps reveal how this desire is not just resistant to the norms of the central culture, not just orthogonal to them, but a viable alternative made distinctly available through art. I would conclude, then, that Cohn does “too readily accept the marginalization of the humanities of the academy,” but also that she is too “modest” in the way she returns to more “traditional” forms of aesthetic attention. Her book ably shows us how works of art specialize in getting us to be reflective about non-reflection—to see it not just intellectually but, as Gloucester said to Lear, to “see it feelingly,” too.
Additional Work Cited
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.