This essay reads Jean-Paul Sartre's notion of literary “engagement” alongside Hannah Arendt's writings on literature as a way of establishing the importance that both writers accord to the practice of reading literature as a form of aesthetic judgment. By paying particular attention to Arendt's attempt to complete Immanuel Kant's unrealized project of deriving a concept of political judgment from the field of aesthetics, the thesis of this essay is that the contradictions and paradoxes of such an attempt can help establish a heuristic for studying literature as a political medium by focusing attention on the specificities of literary analysis as a particular mode of judgment whose precepts and decisions do not always coincide with political or even ethical reason. Through a reading of Sartre's Roads to Freedom series, this essay argues that this heuristic does not attempt to reconcile aesthetic with political judgment but employs this incompatibility in order to establish a reading practice that operates within the explicitly drawn boundaries of literary discourse, the delimitation of which is a necessary first step to thinking through the relationship between literature and politics. Such a practice calls attention to aesthetic judgment as a kind of parapolitical space whose discursivity is not derived from what the novel says about the world but rather draws attention to the kinds of judgments that literary discourse is capable of generating as a specific and regional set of utterances operating alongside, and without being conflated with, political judgment.
What Kind of Public Is the Reader?
ryan canlas is adjunct instructor in the humanities and liberal arts at the Art Institute of Las Vegas. His research focuses on theories of narrative, twentieth- and twenty-first-century analytic and Continental philosophy, the intersection between literature, history, and politics, and twentieth- and twenty-first-century prose writing with particular emphasis on American writers of color.
Ryan Canlas; What Kind of Public Is the Reader?. Novel 1 November 2015; 48 (3): 446–464. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-3150381
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