What Happens to Literature if People are Artworks?

September 22, 2016

Eric Hayot

Eric Hayot

On September 22, 2016, Eric Hayot (Penn State) presented a public lecture titled “What Happens to Literature if People are Artworks?” This lecture was co-sponsored by the Society for the Humanities, the Department of Comparative Literature, the Institute for German Cultural Studies, the Department of German Studies, and the Department of Romance Studies. Hayot began by placing his talk in the context of his previous projects, which sought to undermine binaries. Hayot’s current project is particularly interested in understanding and undermining the binary between the singular and the universal. He then linked this to some guiding questions about reading practices and analytical methods in literary scholarship. How would we describe how literary critics actually read rather than how they say that we should read? And why are scholars of literary studies so excited about close reading as a methodology?

In order to begin to investigate these questions, Hayot turned to Kant’s The Critique of Judgment, highlighting the German philosopher’s distinction between reflective judgment, which is inductive, and determinative judgment, which is deductive. In Hayot’s reading of Kant, judgment leaps from the singular to the universal through the concept of the beautiful. When encountering the beautiful, the subject believes that an object is beautiful in and of itself, and that it will be beautiful for everyone. In this way, the subject experiences singularity that is able to be experienced universally.

Hayot then noted that the humanities have been understood as interested in particulars, in contrast to sciences, which have been understood as interested in laws. And he related this distinction to different styles of “close” and “distanced” readings. However, Hayot is interested in undoing this distinction in order to produce a new theory of the humanities.

After noting a structural similarity between Kantian ethics (seeing the human as a particular end in itself) and the Humanities’ emphasis on close readings of texts, Hayot described other examples of theories where the particularity of people and works of art have been structurally comparable. He then posed two objections to such models. First, from an Animal Studies perspective, Hayot questioned where the line defining a rational being can be drawn. Undermining the category of the human destabilizes the Kantian argument. Hayot further argued that in real life, humans do not always actually treat each other as ends, and that we need a better theory to describe morality in normal social interactions.

Hayot argued further that no literary criticism would take a pure Kantian stance that works of art should be understood as fully particular. Criticism is shot through with generalizations, and needs to refer to general categories in order to communicate about an artwork rather than reproducing the artwork. Diverging further from Kant, Hayot argued that singularity is not a matter of something in an object but is rather a “structure of relation,” a “structure of contemplation.” The humanities, according to Hayot, teach people how to produce this relation of singularity. He argued that Kant confuses a property of an object with a relational structure. Yet singularity is not ontological, but socially determined.

In order to escape from the conceptual binary of the singular and the general, Hayot focused on the Kantian notion of “Affektionspreis” or “sentimental value.” In contrast to the ostensible singularity of a beautiful object, the concept of “Affektionspreis” relies on a viewer’s taste. Hayot argued that the social is constructed largely via relations of sentimental value that are subject to change over time. He argued that these structures of care are distributed socially via institutions of care.  If we understand the humanities through the lens of sentimental value, they have the opportunity to make much larger claims. Hayot proposed that, through sentimental value, we can begin to understand that not everything has equal value, but that value is instead determined socially. If we understand institutions as repositories of care, then decisions made by universities should be understood as decisions of care. Thus, by questioning the binary of the singular and universal through the Kantian notion of sentimental value, Hayot argued for a broader understanding of the humanities as an institution that determines value through social relations of care. (Jacy Tackett)