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  • Uncomfortable Art and American Trauma:Reconsidering Dewey's Unity Thesis
  • Bethany Henning

dewey is an optimistic thinker. He fits into a vein of pragmatism known as meliorism, which holds that the condition of the world can be improved through intelligent, imaginative, human action. For this reason, it is tempting to read Dewey as permanently cheerful—particularly when we compare him with philosophers from the continental tradition who work on similar themes. However, it is important to remember that meliorism holds that improvement is possible through intelligent engagement—not that it is guaranteed. Dewey's aesthetics particularly have been mischaracterized as overly sanguine, lacking solid account of the tragic. This is a misreading since Dewey's aesthetic does make ample room for human suffering on the basis of ruptures and loss. The mistake likely stems from his thesis that aesthetic experience reaches toward "consummation" or "closure" in which unnecessary divisions between the sensuous and symbol are healed in a "unity of attention" that results in an "adjustment of the whole organism to its environment." The unity that binds the experience and brings it to fulfillment need not be cheerful or pleasant—Dewey gives examples that are fearful, angry, and tragic. However, the text of his work is missing a fully worked-out way of accounting for uncomfortable art. Philosophers such as Richard Shusterman, John Lysaker, and Noël Carroll have contended with several implications of the so-called "unity thesis," questioning whether it has proven too inflexible a standard for art in the late twentieth century. At the same time, like many American thinkers before him, Dewey's aesthetic theory primarily values qualitative intensity and a relaxing of instrumental thinking in favor of intuition, imagination, and a careful attunement to the sensuous dimension in experience—all features that make his work particularly amenable to Abstract Expressionism and experimental music. Whether pragmatist aesthetics (and Dewey, as its major champion) can accommodate [End Page 70] powerful but uncomfortable art demands a careful examination. There have been significant aesthetic movements since the publication of Art as Experience that put Dewey's aesthetic theory to the test. This paper is an attempt to bring his theory of aesthetic experience to bear upon art that primarily expresses the unresolved and unreconciled in experience.

I will briefly engage with several readings of Dewey's aesthetics that bring into question his capacity to handle this dimension of experience. Taken together, they demonstrate a persistent interpretation that merits correction, and it indicates a need for development within pragmatist aesthetics. It is my belief that what is at stake in this discussion of the "unity thesis" in Dewey's aesthetic theory is the question of whether or not the traumatic is available for aesthetic experiences. Traumatic experiences are defined by the way they withdraw from consciousness, leaving the subject with a gap or rupture that refuses to coalesce into coherence. Dewey has provided an aesthetic theory that articulates the recovery of dimensions of experience that are normally beneath or beyond focal consciousness, and privileges the affective, corporeal levels of experience. I will briefly recount how the aesthetic experience accomplishes this by recalling the role of the qualitative in experience and defend how it is that the traumatic can be "felt" or "had" within this field. Finally, I will consider two examples of music that allow us to encounter the unresolved and the traumatic. The first is the existential terror encountered in the indeterminate music from Morton Feldman. For the second example I will use Billy Holiday's recording of "Strange Fruit" in conversation with Alfred Frankowski's recent work on trauma in the "post-racial" society. These are art products that test the limits of meaning and provide an insight into gnawing moral problems that demand imaginative care.

It might be helpful to give one preliminary example of an uncomfortable work of art that resists resolution. In Michael Haneke's 2005 film Caché, a couple living in Paris is disturbed by the repeated appearance on their front porch of mysterious surveillance films, proving that someone has been keeping a close watch on their home. The film effectively rings for us in the register of anxiety, which manifests in the narrative...


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pp. 70-90
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