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Pluralism and Nihilism

August 18th, 2003 · No Comments

I often shy away from slippery slope arguments for two reasons. One is that unless you’re willing to talk in some detail about the mechanism of the slip, it’s all too easy to let yourself drift into fanciful doomsday scenarios divorced from any real argument. The other, though, is that they often take your eyes off the prize, leading you to an instrumental defense of what deserves to be defended in its own right. So, for instance, you might argue (to a Christian audience) that a government oughtn’t be empowered to outlaw Buddhism, because one day a differently constituted majority might decide to ban Christianity, or at any rate, one’s preferred sect of it. And insofar as it goes, that’s a fine argument. But if that’s all someone has to say in favor of religious liberty, you rather feel as though they’ve missed the boat: whether or not your favored religion is jeopardized, whether or not you’re ever going to crack a Sutra yourself, it would be a bad thing in itself to outlaw Buddhism.

I say this, at the risk of sounding like I’m comparing Buddhism to Demon Beast Invasion, as preface to some elaboration on the dust-up in the comment section to my post responding to Amptoon’s remarks on the Castillo case.

There, among other things, I say that I’m not making a slippery slope argument to the effect that the ban on Demon Beast Invasion puts, say, Maus in any immediate danger. Rather, I say, it’s that it’s not inherently any less bad to ban Maus than Demon Beast Invasion. Barry calls this a breed of nihilism that renders him incapable of identifying with the free speech “purist” position. (I’m not sure what that means, by the way. Are there really folks who extend that to mean “child porn’s cool,” “telling the enemy about our troop movements is American as apple pie,” and “shouting fire in a crowded theatre… right on”? Seems more like using a term like “absolutist” or “purist” is a hyperbolic way of making people who draw the borders of free speech differently seem like dogmatic fundamentalist wackos, even though they, too, recognize a border somewhere.) There’s some degree of fairness to that characterization, insofar as the liberal priority of the right over the good is, in a sense, “nihilistic.” But this breed of nihilism I’m willing to defend.

Let me be clear, first off, about a couple of things. I love Maus; I think it’s a brilliant work, and it was one of the first to show me that comics (or “sequential art,” if you’re feeling pretentious) could convey serious ideas and adult themes. Maus can be found on my shelf; Demon Beast Invasion most likely never will. (And not because I’m keeping it under my bed.) I’m separating my personal aesthetics from a political judgment here. Second, the “inherently” is intended to convey that I recognize secondary, instrumental harms that would be involved with banning Maus that don’t plausibly apply to DBI. It’s good that people appreciate the horror of the Holocaust, and so there’s an additional harm when people are deprived of a means of reaching that appreciation, whether because of censorship or because a work just happens not to catch the public’s attention. But these are, to my mind, secondary considerations. OK, enough caveats, onward…

One of the core ideas underpinning a liberal regime is that laws are justified in terms of a public reason that isn’t bound up with any one conception of the good. That means, as in the example above, that we don’t inquire into the depth of someone’s religious convictions or ask whether their religion is true or noble before we grant their right to free exercise. Yet there’s this notion that when it comes to works of art, we can make some kind of judgment about which have “serious” merit that doesn’t amount to a popularity contest. And I don’t buy it. Which makes me, in this sense, a kind of liberal nihilist, at least for public political purposes, about aesthetics. Like a nihilist, I refuse to advance “thick” values in the public sphere, because I refuse to come down on the side of any one of the many thick value sets that coexist in a modern pluralistic society. I allow myself only to speak in terms of the right, which is to say, in terms of the most basic principles needed to make that coexistence possible.

Consider a famous story about a Japanese composer attending a symphony in Britain. Asked after the fact which part he’d found most interesting, he replied “the part right at the beginning.” “Ah,” his hosts replied, “the overture?” “No,” he said, “before that.” He meant the part when the orchestra was tuning up.

The point is that aesthetic judgments are inevitably the product of a set of criteria that are embedded in a cultural perspective and value system, the kind of “comprehensive” perspective that shouldn’t have a place in public reason. Consider, again, how many people two centuries ago would have regarded Jackson Pollock’s splatter paintings as having “serious artistic merit.” Stroll through the Museum of Modern Art and notice that there are paintings hanging there that consist of nothing more than a huge canvas painted one color, or a single circle on a field of white. Think of Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal.

Again, this is not the “slippery slope” point that people might’ve been mistaken about these genuinely meritorious works, and we should worry about making the same mistake again. It’s, rather, that there’s no really uncontroversial way of determining what’s “hackwork” and what’s “real” art. Not that there’s no way… art critics and experts learn or develop any number of tools for separating the wheat from the chaff. But all of these are essentially contestable, and therefore unsuitable as means of dividing the permitted from the proscribed. Meaning in art, as in faith, as in life, cannot yet be detected by consulting a periodic table that any reasonable person must approve.

Consider, on the other hand serious “political” merit. Give me a competent inker, and I’ve no doubt I could, with a few tweaks, turn DBI into a feminist allegory of the degradation of women in contemporary pop culture. Or, on the other hand, I could probably make it into a satirical critique of the radical feminist view that sees all intercourse as “invasion.” In either case, I’ll assume that this political content would immunize the comic from legal attack. But then the failure to speak becomes the difference between what’s protected and what isn’t. That is, had the artist engaged in some additional political speech, maybe in the form of text commentary on the images, he’d be free and clear. But isn’t it a well established principle that the right to political speech includes the correlate right to remain silent? (As, for instance, in the Pledge of Allegiance case Barnette v. Board.) The SLAPS test, then, violates the norm of content neutrality by, in effect, serving artists with the ultimatum: “be political, or else.”

I have my own standards for what constitutes “crap” or “hackwork” as opposed to “serious” art. So does Barry Deutsch. Maybe the majority of Americans do too, and maybe there’d even be substantial overlap in those standards for a majority. But our rights shouldn’t be subject to popularity contests, and they certainly shouldn’t be subject to the vicissitudes of aesthetic “experts” granting a sham objectivity to censorship by telling us what is “serious” and what isn’t. In the political sphere, a liberal society can no more recognize artistic “expertise” than it can expertise in modes of private sexual conduct or religious propriety. To be a liberal means precisely to acknowledge that we are each free and each damned to determine our own sources of meaning and beauty. If that be nihilism, then let’s make the most of it.

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