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An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (review)
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An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization By Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012)

With such a specific title, readers would expect Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s new book to make a bold case for teaching aesthetics in the United States and abroad despite the utilitarian exigencies of global capitalism. Readers would expect, in other words, a sustained definition of aesthetic education, a detailed analysis of its place among other types of training, and a constructive argument for its value in the world today. If one is looking for these things, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization will disappoint. Recent books by Louis Menand or Martha Nussbaum, for example, better articulate precise political positions that would prove useful as teachers campaign against legislators and administrators who are intent on gutting institutional budgets, especially budgets that historically have been given short change.

Spivak’s book does something different. Her title alludes to Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795), which argued that, without a sense of the beautiful, all revolutions that aim to free the individual from tyranny and oppression will dismally fail; without an aesthetic education, liberation will all too easily turn into horrific barbarism. In good Romantic fashion, Schiller argues unequivocally that one must have experienced true Beauty before one can experience true Freedom. This argument should be and has been critiqued in a number of different ways. For one thing, it defers political liberation until some imagined time in the future when the individual and the collective have been properly aestheticized, as it were. It ignores the uglier possibility that education can morph into pure indoctrination and aesthetics into mere distraction. It circumvents the unremarkable fact that freedom is relative and beauty is subjective, as well as the more remarkable one that language itself structures our ability to know all these concepts. Schiller, in short, divorces beauty from any kind of ideological context.

These critiques of Schiller, as well as the aims and methods of aesthetic education even more generally, though indispensable, are not news. Paul de Man, Spivak’s own teacher and adviser at Cornell, was working on them just before his death in 1983. Theodore Adorno and Pierre Bourdieu are also noteworthy in engaging in this kind of critique. By contrast, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization explicitly critiques Schiller only briefly—for less than five pages in a book that exceeds five hundred—in part because of the difficulty of bringing together essays written over twenty three years and then identifying an overarching theme in retrospect. Still, it is odd since her title so clearly references On the Aesthetic Education of Man and her stated aim in the book “can be described as sabotaging Schiller” (2).

Spivak’s contribution in this collection is her rethinking of the “play drive,” or Spieltrieb in the original German. For Schiller, as for Spivak, “play” shuttles between the classical dualisms of rationality versus emotion, logos versus pathos. [End Page 66] The training of the capacity to play and to play well, for both Schiller and Spivak, ought to be the core of an aesthetic education. For Schiller, play training will lead to the appreciation of true Beauty and thus to the experience of true Freedom, the two understood always as Platonic ideals. For Spivak, by contrast, play training will show us as teachers and students how to learn to live with the “double binds” of the contemporary world by playing them.

The concept of the double bind describes the experience of receiving a contradictory command. “Think for yourself” or “question authority” are the classic examples: to obey the command is necessarily also to disobey it. A double bind, however, is not just some fancy linguistic anomaly; it is a fundamental psychosocial and political predicament. Indeed, the world we live in—politically democratic and economically capitalistic—is founded upon the internal contradiction of the double binds. Marx, for example, knew them very well, especially in the “freedom” of the worker to sell his or her labor power on the open market. An aesthetic education teaches one how to play the double binds, especially the commands of...