Speaking as one with authority

As I grow more accustomed to Shimer’s discussion-centered pedagogy, I am increasingly coming to understand that a big part of my job is not simply to encourage students to speak in class, correcting them or encouraging them as appropriate, keeping them on task and on topic. Instead, it seems to me that I’m there to provide and model certain ways of talking about the material. This is most acute in teaching music, where most students find themselves at a loss for what to say. Some of them will claim that they want something called “music theory,” and I have sometimes not taken that claim as seriously as I could because it was so obvious to me that knowing technical music theory would not be helpful to them in the way they hoped. In a recent conversation about how class was going, though, a student rephrased that request in a way that made much more sense to me: they want to be able to feel like they’re speaking with some kind of authority. They don’t need to be experts, but they want to feel confident that they’re not making up something totally random and off-base.

As my humanities class has wrapped up a unit on modernism, it struck me that, quite unintentionally, that was what I had done with the theoretical texts we used (Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and Heidegger’s Origin of the Work of Art). Both of the texts centered on a broad opposition between two terms (Dionysian and Apollonian, earth and world) and gave some indication of how that opposition might play out in terms of particular artworks — and that was enough. Even if students didn’t feel sure how to apply the terms to the artwork at hand, they were at least able to say something concrete about why they were having difficulty. And once that base-level confidence that one is saying something concrete and relevant was achieved, it seems like the biggest problem was overcome.

The basic oppositions were far from the only thing that we talked about, but they opened up the space for the things we talked about. In many ways, the very uncertainty about how (and even whether) the terms might apply to a given artwork was beneficial — unlike with purely technical terms, there was no clear-cut right or wrong answer, so students could feel comfortable playing with them.

The question I’m now pondering is what kinds of texts might be able to do the same work in a first-year class rather than in a capstone for upper-level students. It seems to me that the Nietzsche and Heidegger texts are too difficult to throw at first-year students if the goal is for them to get rough-and-ready tools that let them start talking with confidence. At the same time, we currently use extremely technical primary texts about harmonic intervals, etc., so perhaps Nietzsche and Heidegger would be an improvement over that.

9 thoughts on “Speaking as one with authority

  1. As a product of the Humanities curricula at Shimer in the ‘50s (yes, waay back then) I have wished that the elements of art had been toned down and the immediate spectacle (or moment for a performance art) had been pumped up. While I have made some random and scattered attempts to understand noted art critics, they have not persuaded me that technique tells the tale—or at least not the one I long to hear.
    Art criticism has seemed to be explorations in creative writing. And I do not recall that I have ever found an artist’s verbal description of their own work to be memorable. But I do recall the works that left an impression on me. While I might try to explain how and why such an impression came about, it is the time spent with a work that testifies to its attraction.
    So far I have only had the opportunity to read a couple of J-L Nancy’s essays on art. One provided a succession of categories for art that overwhelmed me, and the other amounted to a dismissal of contemporary art as a bad joke. But Nancy’s category of the “singular-plural” suggests an alternative to the oppositions you have borrowed from Nietzsche and Heidegger. I understand Nancy advocating that while singular and plural may be opposites, neither can get along without the other. Just as we are both singular and plural, at the same time, and in the same place, with neither reducing the other, so earth and world, Apollonian and Dionysian, and most other opposites require their companion.

  2. for films, manny farber’s ‘white elephant art vs. termite art’

    for popular music, frank kogan’s disco tex essay, on ‘free lunches’

    i think there are probably loads of short statements of modernist poetics, manifestos etc., that probably contain similarly suitable distinctions. when i was that age i was periodically stymied by charles olson’s ‘projective verse’. some l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e-poet stuff might be more provocative.

  3. Once upon a time I was a music ed major taking courses in the honors humanities college. And before that, even as a young musician, I was always more into math and physics. And I have to agree with you about the fact that music theory, in any kind of depth your students could get into, isn’t going to provide any better stance for artistic judgments—and I’ll add in analogy that grammar also doesn’t make one a better judge of poetry. As in many disciplines, you have to go very, very far in theory before getting to a point where it gives you solid critical handles on virtuosic art. And even then, it doesn’t give you taste.

    My hunch is that taste is more a matter of the gestalt, and theory more a matter of systems of details. This may be another reason Nietzsche and Heidegger proved so useful: broad polarities based on gestalt characteristics—especially with the character resemblances to Dionysus and Apollo, which are sketches—provide places the brain can do what it’s best at, which is pattern making and matching. Even if the terms are bad ones, even if there are things that aren’t either Apollonian or Dionysian, even if “earth” and “world” are harder to adapt to a given medium, moving critically from bad to better frameworks is easier than trying to make judgments with no framework at all. Theory can build on that and tell you how such a thing works, how the effect is achieved, what makes that pattern you see; but it can’t really give you a framework for judgments about patterns.

  4. It proved not to be as useful as Nietzsche, but we got a little more mileage out of it by asking if art could testify to the dissolution of a world and not just the setting up of a world.

  5. Thinking about the earth/world distinction in UK, I’ll bet you could get some mileage out of Erich Auerbach’s essay “Figura,” especially with Shimer students. The worst of that for comprehension is his liberal use of translit. Greek and Latin terms.

  6. Oh, sorry, is the question specifically about art? If so the Isaiah Berlin essay is probably not helpful at all, I thought the question was anything that gave a good conceptual scaffolding for intro.

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