Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

Bakhtin, Dewey, and the Diminishing Domain of Shared Experience

Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

Bakhtin, Dewey, and the Diminishing Domain of Shared Experience

Article excerpt

It is my aim in this paper to demonstrate that our social and political environment is impoverished by the fact that artistic expression is typically relegated to spheres of private, idiosyncratic entertainment and of remote, esoteric aesthetic contemplation affording only social or aesthetic privileged access. Our relegation of art to the private interests of individuals impoverishes us because it deprives us of art's chief virtue, which is to educate us into the recognition of our role in shaping our social and political environment. When artistic expression thrives in the various domains of life, we become capable of perceiving society as a product of our shared efforts, and become more empowered to imagine what we could strive to become. By contrast, the relegation of artistic expression - to the sophisticated domain of cultural and social elites - narrows the opportunities to experience estrangement from, and consequent intensification of, routine habits of social coexistence. Inhibition of the shared experience of artistic expression consequently blocks the possibility of experiencing that recognition, and thus limits our freedom to identify the transformable character of political community. I will begin by presenting a few characteristics about how our social life takes shape, and the pedagogical demands associated with it.

Our shared social practices set up and maintain the conditions we live in. In doing so, those practices set up the possibilities we take to be available to us, possibilities for shaping our future selves and for shaping the world future people inherit from us. Among those shared social practices, some do a better, some a worse job of drawing our attention to the fact that we determine our social environment; whether shared social practices do so successfully is not determined by the form of the practice itself. Some of our practices declare loudly to us that we are the co-architects of the social environment. Such practices are educative, in the sense that they have the potential to make us recognize that we can determine things differently, and according to changing needs. Some such practices do so by the very manner in which we engage in them. I have in mind here certain manifestations of public festivals, parades, certain kind of religious rites. It is these sorts of practices that draw attention to themselves as creative processes one is helping to produce that I take John Dewey to call "art." By contrast, other social practices hide from us that we are co-architects of our social environment. Such practices, in a somewhat different and ultimately less satisfying sense, are potentially educative; they encourage us to figure out how to conform more closely to the norms they set. Such practices indicate to us that they provide the terms by which we ought to live (whatever those terms might be), and communicate to us that we must respond to their demands if we wish to thrive, or in some cases, even to survive. I have in mind here different versions of those same examples. Certain festivals, parades, sporting events and religious rites take a form in which we engage with objects remote from their creation, in which case we are compelled to experience them either as imposed on us by forces alien to us and typically more powerful, or, perhaps more commonly, to experience them as virtually natural.

Both of these kinds of social practices may have a role to play in creating a cohesive social environment. Both reflect something true about human social coexistence. However, social practices that announce to us our role in shaping our social environment in their very performance uniquely educate us into being self-conscious co-architects of society, by drawing our attention to the fact that, insofar as we determine things to be this particular way, we are free to determine things otherwise. In what follows, I will use Dewey's technical accounts of education, expression and art to argue that art is a means by which such education into self-conscious agency is accomplished. …

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