In the very first sentence of its preamble, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights mentions “the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Let’s notice the postulate that was slipped into that first sentence: to be a human being is to be a member of the human family. With the help of Kant’s notion of sensus communis, I attempt to show that, whereas in the political realm, the “human family” is a highly problematic concept, in the aesthetic realm of art, it legitimately acts as the transcendental foundation of democracy.
This essay sketches a history of the culture of good reading, beginning with its emergence with the sixteenth-century picaresque and tracing its inflection into the bourgeois narrative tradition. My historical span is wide—from the Lazarillo de Tormes, in 1554, to J.M. Coetzee’s Youth, in 2002. Historical scope is coupled with fine analytical focus on a peculiar object of literary history: not a text, not a genre, but rather a situation of reading that takes shape between textual form and readerly actualization. With assistance from Friedrich Nietzsche, the essay offers a genealogy of this situation of reading, anchored in the history of dispossession and primitive accumulation, and provides theoretical considerations of the problem it poses to would-be emancipatory forms of intensive engagement with texts, particularly for the modernist aesthetics of defamiliarization (via Viktor Shklovsky) and its underlying theory of the subject as constituted through error rather than truth (via Michel Foucault). I close by reflecting, with Guy Debord, on possible avenues of exit from the culture of good reading as it has hitherto existed.
The question of mediation has become one of the central intellectual problems in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in part because of the extraordinary acceleration of technology, the rampant proliferation of digital media technologies that sometimes goes under the name of “mediatization.” Despite widespread theorizing about media prompted by the intense mediatization of the past several decades, mediation is a concept that has been curiously undertheorized. Taking off from William James’s understanding of “radical empiricism,” I develop the concept of “radical mediation” to argue that mediation functions technically, bodily, and materially to generate and modulate individual and collective affective moods or structures of feeling among assemblages of humans and nonhumans. Mediation operates physically and materially as an object, event, or process in the world, impacting humans and nonhumans alike. Radical mediation participates in recent critiques of the dualism of the Western philosophical tradition, which make up what I have elsewhere called the nonhuman turn in twenty-first-century studies. As I suggest in the essay’s final sections, radical mediation might also be understood as nonhuman mediation.
This essay concerns the elaboration of art’s historical dimension undertaken in John Ruskin’s copies after works of the old masters. Drawings often considered merely as lecturing aids or personal records reveal themselves to be unruly explorations of the nature of reproduction and its mediation of the past. Centering its analysis of Ruskin’s drawing of Zipporah after Botticelli (1874), the essay argues that his practice of copying brings to light unrecognized dimensions of modernity’s investment in the conjunction of “art” and “history,” as well of the unsettling intimacy that develops between viewers and the things they see.