beyond persuasion

art, not argument | sara hendren:

I have thus far assembled a body of work that lists between the two poles of poetry and philosophy, and between significance and utility: some work that looks for pragmatic solutions to problems, and some work that raises and suspends questions, indefinitely. Some work that reframes the status quo in order to persuade. And some work that aims for expressive power above all — paradox and juxtaposition.

One thing I’ll say, though, about 2023 and beyond, as I head into my 50s: I mostly want to make art, not arguments.

A big Yes to this from Sara. 

Recently I was reading Minds Wide Shut by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, and while I venerate GSM just this side idolatry, I don’t think the book quite works as intended. At the risk of oversimplification, I’ll say that its core argument is (a) that our culture is dominated by a set of fundamentalisms — “At the heart of any fundamentalism, as we define it, is a disdain for learning from evidence. Truth is already known, given, and clear” — and (b) that the fundamentalist mindset is incapable of persuasion, of bringing skeptics over to its side. 

All of which is true, but (and this is a major theme of my How to Think) what if people don’t want to persuade others? What if they don’t just hate their Repugnant Cultural Other but need him or her in order to define themselves and their Inner Ring? As I read Minds Wide Shut I kept thinking that the authors needed to persuade people of the value of persuasion. But that way an infinite regress lies. 

I think what Sara is suggesting is that those of us who want to see a different world need to be better at showing rather than telling, presenting rather than directly persuading. Sara’s formulation, “work that reframes the status quo in order to persuade,” is useful, I believe. You persuade not by persuading but by reframing, by (as Ezra Pound said) making it new, by (as Philip the apostle did) saying “Come and see.”