Putting Text on Trial: Ethical Debate and the Exposure of Transdisciplinary Difference
Robert Oscar López
California State University (Northridge)
“…if the English gentleman was virtuous, as he occasionally deigned to be, his goodness was purely spontaneous. Moral effort was for merchants and clerks.”
--Terry Eagleton, After Theory.
This essay combines literary theory and pedagogy to make an argument, at once practical and theoretical. Theoretically, I will argue that ethical rather than aesthetical approaches to literature grant readers a more vibrant sense of pluralism. I will also argue that classroom discussions about the ethical lessons of literature are more democratic than discussions about aesthetics. I arrived at the latter conclusion largely through two processes of transdisciplinary and intercultural analysis.
First I meditated on the classroom as a public space. I applied French theorists such as Lyotard, Lefebvre, Barthes, and Foucault to my own pedagogical experiments. Second, I identified one experiment – the “mock trial” -- as particularly rich with insights. (It is impossible to treat aesthetical and ethical discourses as entirely separate; the two overlap, but here “aesthetical” refers to discourses that prioritize beauty over morals, and “ethical” refers to discourses that do vice versa.) Mock trials made literary criticism more accessible and less elitist. They ruptured the disciplinary boundaries of English by focusing on moral questions relatable to students’ everyday lives. Aesthetics still feels to many students (as the Eagleton quote implies) like the domain of aristocracies pitted against the “moral” preoccupations of middle and working classes.
When I refer to "mock trial," I refer to an activity in which a character from a classic text is accused of some ethical flaw, to be debated between two opposing teams (defense and prosecution) and decided by a student jury. The trials occupy two out of 15 semester weeks and count for 20% of the grade, so these are a small part of my English classes. The mock trial is not a sustainable approach for an entire semester; nor would I support jettisoning all aesthetics. Nevertheless the trials tend to be a memorable event for students. I conducted 29 trials between 1999 and 2008, involving over 400 students. Here I use one as a case study.
Let us start with Eagleton’s quote. I am not the only scholar to notice a link between class snobbery and aesthetics. As humanistic education spread beyond a small coterie in the English-speaking world by the 19th century, different social classes approached literature with different motivations. As Eagleton hints, rather than integrating these divergent needs, universities projected a class system onto the hierarchy of critical methodologies. “Beauty's" sublime pleasures (particularly in the heyday of New Criticism) were for wealthy students, while “morals” were the dreary domain of parvenus using literacy to escape menial vocations. Even in the 21st century, a tension between aesthetics and ethics reflects and exacerbates class anxiety.
The French say, “à chacun son goût” while the Americans say, “to each his own.” The peculiarly unquantifiable nature of aesthetic taste is reflected in spaces where aesthetic judgments are made. In libraries silence is treasured and conversation discouraged. In galleries patrons stare quietly at canvases cordoned off from human contact. Each reader/viewer retreats into a private world of appreciation. Unfortunately, privacy does not lead to autonomy; nor do aesthetic preoccupations democratize discursive space. Despite their hushed atmosphere, galleries and libraries send clear messages by prioritizing certain works and negating others by not featuring them. Somewhere there exist authorities, armed with funding and prestige, who have decided which books and paintings are preserved. Their invisibility makes their power more difficult to question since we cannot challenge their decisions. To speak in the terms of Roland Barthes, the invisibility of aesthetic authorities "naturalizes" the "mythology" that the works being shown are beautiful. For Barthes, myths such as the idea of a beauty standard are strongest when people are unconscious of their origins and therefore unlikely to contest their assumptions. In Mythologies, Barthes notes, “driven to having either to unveil or liquidate the concept, [myth] will naturalize it” (129).
Spaces of ethical judgment are, on the contrary, designed for active and even heated conversation. (Here I refer to public spaces within democratic societies, since my project applies French theories to American classrooms, and both France and the United States are proud of their republican histories.) The courtroom and the legislature are two obvious examples. In such places individuals congregate to decide the correctness or incorrectness of competing concepts. Some spectators (for example, those who have come to watch a trial but are not involved) are expected not to speak, yet the spaces are designed around conversation rather than against it. Witnesses must be interrogated and lawmakers must debate. One never knows until the final vote or verdict which opinion will prevail, so there is a heightened cognizance that ethical judgment contains an element of surprise and defies simple generalization.
In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault insists that public space is structured to control the movement of bodies. Foucault reminds us, “It is easy enough to find signs of the attention then paid to the body – to the body that is manipulated, shaped, trained, which obeys, responds, becomes skilful and increases its forces” (136). The library and parliament are architected to control the volume and frequency of speech, the distance between one body and the next, the level of fear or shame involved with people observing each other. English, art, and law hold true to the title of "disciplines"; the hush of the library and the procedural operation of court debate point to their effectiveness in controlling bodies even when they seem, prima facie, to be focused on ideas. Yet disciplinarity is not monolithic. Some disciplines lead to greater isolation or anxiety, depending on who is inside the space and for what reason. The gallery, focusing more on aesthetics, dictates few absolute rules for its visitors but nonetheless diffuses differences of opinion, while the courthouse, focusing on ethics, produces abundant rules, while focusing everyone's attention on the fact that different opinions exist. In the ethically minded places, it is impossible to know which opinion will prevail as the ethical “absolute,” until the endpoint of a ritualized process. The punitive power in such spaces might seem repressive; after the congress votes or the verdict is announced we are not entitled to defy the final opinion. To be defiant we would break a law. Nonetheless in these potentially repressive spaces we are most aware that not everybody agrees. Plurality is more visible even though the purpose is to establish the total superiority of one opinion over others.
The humanities classroom challenges my neat binary between aesthetical and ethical spaces. Some professors focus more on the aesthetic value of literature while others prefer to use literature as a way to discern political interests (feminism, Marxism, ecocriticism, and the like) that align more with ethics even if they avail themselves of aesthetic tools. A college junior in the US is likely to see the classroom as both a place to develop subtle tastes and learn about social issues. For the sake of exposition, let us first study the classroom as an aesthetically focused space, best understood in relation to libraries and galleries; by beginning with this precept, I can later explode the aesthetic discipline of classrooms by presenting my mock trials as an interruption of aesthetical discourse by ethics.
Consider for a moment the spaces in which literary subtleties and artistic delicacies are consumed. The library falls into the category designated by sociologists Humphrey Osmond and Robert Sommer as "sociofugal space," which Sommer delineates as "a place where people typically try to avoid one another." In the 1950s Osmond viewed mental hospitals as the locus classicus of the sociofugal, but for Sommer the premier sociofugal space is "a university library" in which "occupants distribute themselves so as to increase psychological and social distance" (Sommer 654). Unlike his contemporary Foucault, Sommer did not emphasize sanatoria and prisons. Sommer saw how inmates in solitary confinement tapped the walls to send coded messages, but library patrons observed rigorous non-communication, spacing themselves as distantly as possible and glaring with disapproval at audible discussion. The ideal environment to suppress discourse was, according to Sommer, not prison but this:
…large, cold, impersonal, institutional, not owned by any individual, overconcentrated rather than overcrowded, without opportunity for shielded conversation; providing barriers without shelter, isolation without privacy, and concentration without cohesion. (655)
Such a description is not entirely remote from a humanities class. The individuality of “à chacun son gout” becomes a case of “isolation without privacy.” The rules against students speaking to each other in class, and the requirement that they address all statements to the authority figure, leave a student defenseless before a profession’s aesthetical standards rather than free to pick one interpretation from many. Feminist pedagogue Karen Hayes adds the following:
[One had] an idea of the academic classroom as a polite, somewhat reserved place, where scholars exchanged insights and ideas, sometimes disagreeing, but always with an understanding that common ground underlay their work. I liked that image […] in spite of the fact that I always felt a little excluded from these well-mannered exchanges. (300)
Politeness and tranquility, while cherished, left her silent. The “common ground,” while making the classroom feel functional, rendered the classroom a sociofugal space.
One must also consider the role of social class in the spatial politics of classrooms. In “Plastic Space and Political Space,” Jean-François Lyotard distinguishes between textual and figural space. Lyotard defines textuality as the “play on opposition” and “spatial cutting-up” of graphic units (words) according to semiotic rules. Figural space, on the other hand, involves transgression against “the norm of the intervals defining the textual units” and gives “currency to another order of meaning” (211-212). For Lyotard “space” is relevant to the question of aesthetics insofar as the visual object – book, painting, or pamphlet – is composed of visual units separated by empty spaces. His distinctions between textual and figural space are useful because Lyotard draws from Marx and links both kinds of space to questions of class and ideology. Space contextualizes, and spatial choices politicize, signs. Lyotard evokes Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, which he clarifies for a twentieth-century reader by pointing out:
The space is […] that in which social relations are lived, in which class struggle unfolds. The poster belongs to this space insofar as it is an object of intuitions and representations. (Lyotard 212)
Moreover, Henri Lefebvre examines the architecture of the place where aesthetic objects are presented. For Lefebvre, one needs to go beyond the surface of aesthetic objects and ponder the social “space” or venue in which they circulate. Lefebvre says in the third volume of Critique:
In the past, philosophers excluded daily life from knowledge and wisdom. Essential and mundane, it was deemed unworthy of thought. Thought first of all established a distance (an époché) vis-à-vis daily life, the domain and abode of non-philosophers. (3)
Lefebvre focuses on the banishment of la vie quotidienne, with its pedestrian concerns, from everything that social hierarchies demarcate as “sacred” – the church, the classroom, the imperial court, all places in which authority figures pretend their power has nothing to do with dirty work done in profane spaces outside. But Lefebvre was also fascinated by interruptions, when the concerns of daily life intruded upon the sacred and revealed the latter’s abstractions as materially contingent. Lefebvre writes in Critique of Daily Life, “the everyday is thus closely related to the modes of organization and existence of a (particular) society, which imposes relations between forms of work, leisure, ‘private life,’ transport, public life” (3). Which brings us to my pedagogical experiment. Speaking in terms of Lyotard and Lefebvre, the mock trial is an interruption, a rupturing of the safe barrier between sacred space and la vie quotidienne, and a moment when pedagogy creates the thing that Karen Hayes sees as necessary: “the creation of space for students’ differences” (301). Students, rather than quietly adapting themselves to consensus vaguely naturalized by their professor’s authority, become loud and even boisterous. They become highly attentive to the text yet still passionately confident that what they debate about the text – its ethical intricacies – bears directly on things they understand about their lives in the “essential and mundane” world outside, which Lefebvre says philosophers deem “unworthy of thought” (3).
Perhaps somewhere in history there existed an idealistic classroom, where students appreciated beautiful texts to enrich their souls and thought nothing of using literacy to improve their status in society. In the twenty-first-century United States, such a dreamy sphere is impossible. Tuitions are high and education was posited, as early as Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, as the main way for Americans to resist class stratification and fulfill their republican duties as voters. In Notes, Jefferson cautions readers to invest in universal education to “diffuse knowledge more generally through the mass of the people” (193). He was aware that some European republics had allowed masses to choose their leaders, but did not endow them with enough knowledge to choose well. Such a course had led to tragic results. Jefferson writes, “Let those who doubt it turn their eyes on the republic of Venice. As little will it avail us that [despots] are chosen by ourselves” (164). From the nation’s inception, therefore, American letters carried the burden of passing on great creative works, but also the less glamorous task of shielding average citizens against class oppression and preserving the ethical integrity of a democratic system. American students enter a college English class motivated not only by love of beauty but also by social mobility and morals, which American culture casts as inextricable. Their nation’s civic values force them to “choose” between the classroom or slipping in class status and possibly becoming poor. Money is always a subtext.
Like so many colleagues, I have asked students, “how did you like the reading?” only to be replied with uncomfortable silences. Some students did none of the reading, while others did the reading but were scared to say, “It was hard and I didn’t find it beautiful or interesting.” Students know that if they express such things, the teacher punishes them with dirty looks or a lower grade. But it is a source of satisfaction and pride for me, that one activity always breaks this silence and prompts students to become eager, passionate readers. In the mock trial, literary appreciation accomplishes what Lyotard calls “the rules of Leonardo’s window” by which “the viewer is summoned to pass through the ‘window’ and climb onto the stage,” because, as Lyotard suggests, “perspectival treatment works in the same way as the use of stereotypes, provoking desire and at the same time focusing it on a known and communicable situation” (220). When Lyotard mentions “a known and communicable situation” he may be striking upon the key factor in the mock trial’s success. When students debate the moral choices made by characters such as Menelaus in Trojan Women, they translate the remote language of ancient Greece into moral dilemmas relevant to the choices they face every day. The fineries of Euripides’ stichomythia and the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare, with all their aesthetic grandeur, would demand that students remove themselves from the language of everyday life, but Menelaus’ betrayal by Helen, and the grander dilemma of how much a jilted man’s mistakes may be forgiven based on his emotional wounds, are moral enigmas many students face when they leave English class.
Sociological research about politics and space indicates that displacement of aesthetics by ethics enables people to overcome class anxiety. In the late 1990s sociologists came out with studies of what Elijah Anderson calls “the code of the street.” Reviewers Dalton Conley and Miriam Ryvicker comment the following:
[T]he “code of the street,” which according to Anderson is prevalent in the inner city ghetto, functions as a way for African American youth to maintain social order in neighborhoods that have been abandoned by formal institutions… (761).
In locales where visual culture betokens neglect – collapsing buildings, weed-filled lots, litter on the sidewalks – residents reclaim aesthetically failed public space by submitting it to their ethical “code.” In the classroom, students can also reclaim public space by rejecting aesthetic concerns for ethical ones, by abandoning discussion of a work’s beauty and instead submitting its characters to moral judgment. Mock trials empower students to speak about texts; rather than aesthetically naïve neophytes, they are debaters or jurors, authorized to label acts as immoral, wrong, even “evil.” While many academics shudder at the absolutist resonances of words such as immoral or evil, for students affected by class anxiety, morality is something they can understand through lived experiences, and therefore a relief from the alienation of aesthetics. As my case study will illustrate, the process of the trial itself usually mitigates the potential absolutism in such moral discourse, for the simple reason that trials are so hard to decide, and so difficult to win.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1957.
Conley, Dalton and Miriam Ryvicker. “Race, Class, and Eyes upon the Street: Public Space, Social Control, and the Economies of Three Urban Communities.” Sociological Forum 16:4 (Dec 2001) 759-772.
Eagleton, Terry. After Theory. New York: Basic Books, 2003.
Euripides. Trojan Women. Trans. Brendan Kennelly. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1993.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.
Hayes, Karen. “Creating Space for Difference in the Composition Class.” College Composition and Communication 43:3 (Oct 1992) 300-304.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. In The Portable Thomas Jefferson. Ed. Merrill D. Peterson. New York: Penguin, 1975.
Lefebvre, Henri. Critique of Everyday Life Volume III. Trans. Gregory Elliott. New York: Verso, 2005.
Lefebvre, Henri. Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.
Lyotard, Jean-François. “Plastic Space and Political Space.” boundary 2 14:1/2 (Autumn 1965-Winter 1986) 211-233.
Sommer, Robert. “Sociofugal Space.” The American Journal of Sociology 72:6 (May 1967) 654-660.