Nirvana Tanoukhi: "So, What’s Wrong With ‘The Relatable’ As a Category of Judgment?" – Response by Helga Varden

[On February 28, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “So, What’s Wrong With ‘The Relatable’ As a Category of Judgment?”. The speaker was Nirvana Tanoukhi, Assistant Professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Below is a response to the lecture from Helga Varden, Associate Professor of Philosophy at UIUC.]

Response to Nirvana Tanoukhi’s “So, What’s Wrong with the Relatable as a Category of Judgment?”

By Helga Varden, Philosophy
First of all, I would like to thank Professor Tanoukhi for having written and for letting me comment on such a terrific paper. I’ve so enjoyed and felt so stimulated by thinking about the themes and about the moves Tanoukhi makes in her paper. Before sharing some of the puzzles I still find myself thinking about—including, ultimately, what Tanoukhi’s answer is to the question of what is wrong with the relatable as a category of judgment—let me give a quick summary of what I take to be the main points.

The aim of the paper is to critique the concept of the relatable as it is being used both in relation to literary theory and education as well as how it was used in the 2016 presidential election in the US. To provide her critical analysis, she turns to Kant for help. She argues that in relation to both spheres (literature and politics), when people deem it important to be able to relate to (in the sense of identifying or empathizing with) the main characters, what is going on psychologically can be appreciated by understanding why Kant didn’t write only the 1st and the 2nd Critiques. That is, in addition to the Critique of Pure Reason (critiquing the world as it is) and the Critique of Practical Reason (critiquing the world as it ought to be) – Kant also saw it necessary to write a 3rd Critique, a Critique of Judgment. Kant’s 3rd Critique, Tanoukhi argues, holds the clue to understanding what is going on in the category of the relatable because it provides a critique of aesthetic judgment, in particular judgments of beauty. Judgments of beauty, Tanoukhi continues, have four moments – as enabled by the four types of categories of the understanding, namely quantity, quality, relation, and modality – which in turn, Kant argues, captures the way in which we judge things as beautiful through the ideas he labels “subjective universality,” “disinterested interest,” “purposeless purposiveness,” and “sensus communis.”

Moreover, where the 1st Critique concerns the ways in which we can engage the world through intuition and abstract concepts, the 2nd Critique concerns the ways in which our capacity to act on universalizable maxims enables us to be morally responsible. With regard to both spheres—the theoretical and the practical—Kant’s aim is to show how reasoning concerns an ability to engage the world through laws; we reason through general laws in terms of universality. In contrast, the 3rd critique concerns the way in which we are able to use our cognitive powers playfully and imaginatively, that is, without subjecting our thoughts to the quest for objective, universal truths about the nature of the world. Hence, ultimately, Tanoukhi argues, Kant thought we need a 3rd Critique, in order to capture the ways in which we subjectively assess the world aesthetically. She says “… taste is the faculty which… provides ‘the transition’ between the domains of pure and practical reason, and without which and in whose absence as a capacity, the human being would be condemned to experience the world as a tug of war between his sensuous being (which can be comprehended rationally…) and his moral being (as a free agent self-bound by duty).” Tanoukhi continues that Kant’s third critique is important to understanding people’s quest for relatability because without it all they have is “the motivation to act in a world where there is an entrenched sense of “how things are” (pure reason) and “the value we hold” (practical reason) with no vision of how the subject of everyday experience can navigate the gap between the cynicism of the first and the idealism of the second.“ More specifically, as Tanouki puts it,

“the relatable does significant work under similar conditions where the gap between how things are, and how I believe they ought to be, the challenge of a big and oppressive gap between the two expressed itself as a crisis of motivation. Judgments of the relatable index the experience of such a gap between all-too distinct realms of experience—theoretical and practical—which seem difficult to overcome. Judgments of the relatable refer the feeling of pleasure to the experience of access where obstacles could be expected. The first difference to note, then, in the structure of the relatable in comparison to other aesthetic judgments of taste (be it the beautiful or the interesting) is that it is associated not with an excitation, but with a release from over-excitement, the subject’s anxious anticipation of hardship.”

Hence, for Tanoukhi, the 3rd Critique allows for the category of the relatable which in turn helps to bridge the gap (experienced as an anxious anticipation of hardship) between truth and morality. Moreover, this “anxious anticipation of hardship” is seen as the point of similarity between the relatable in literature and in politics. Hence, and here I’m quoting Tanoukhi again:

“My argument is that Trump ran for president at a time when the American public was, arguably, yearning for a transition between the two ‘ways of thinking.’ In his form, Trump spoke to voters not as a whole judged by the coherence of his parts (on that basis of which he stood no chance of being favored) but on the basis of what was thought implicit in his intentionality: a purposive formlessness which bode the possibility of shrinking the distance between a naturalist account of “politics” or a moral code which could not be harmonized with it.”


Hence it was because of the way in which a large percentage of the US aestheticized politics that they did not “hear” any appeals to truth or to what is morally right.

As mentioned when I started, I find this analysis fascinating. I do, however, have a few questions that I still find myself wondering about – and so would like to hear more about these issues, if time allows:

1.) Assuming that this account of the relatable is correct, is the main point of the relatable not Trump as such, but all political movements of populism—and, so, including, say, George W. Bush’s populism? If so, would you say that this account of the relatable cannot capture the ways in which this particular movement is deemed much more dangerous than other populist movements, or why some worry that this is, for the first time in the US at the top level of politics, a movement with fascist tendencies? Is it, in other words, because of your focus on critiquing populism only that the statements you have cited primarily concern things like how many say they could have a beer with Trump?

2.) Relatedly, I’m also not quite sure why you chose to use Kant’s analysis of the beautiful rather than his analysis of the “agreeable” to capture what his supporters thought relevant about Trump, such as that he is someone many find they “could have a beer with.”

3.) Moreover, if one were to try to capture what may be more dangerous about this current populist movement—such as how people seem to respond so positively to Trump’s statements about how great and rich he is and how he is going to make the US great again—would you then need to add an engagement with Kant’s category of the sublime? And, again, relatedly, if one were to try to capture why Hillary Clinton did not win, is it because of the way in which women cannot win if aesthetics (or judging via aesthetic categories as opposed to truth and morality) is the name of the game? That is to say, one might plausibly argue that the European women political leaders who have won democratically for the first time, have won despite how they all were charged with being too much like men. They won only because they were able to reason better than their opponents, which means that the people and the media managed to keep truth and morality sufficiently in focus during democratic election campaigns.

4.) For some other judgments deemed relevant to whom to elect, I’m not quite sure why, ultimately, in going to the Kant’s 3rd Critique you chose to use his analysis of the beautiful rather than his analysis of teleological judgments. For example, it seems to me that the judgment that I can see myself as part of a future world with this person in charge seems closer to a teleological judgment than a aesthetic one.

5.) Finally, and returning to the question in the title of the paper: what is wrong with the relatable as a category of judgment, and especially in the sphere of politics? What is, in other words, wrong with political populism, and, if anything, what is right about it? And how does this account capture also what goes well when the relatable is used well and badly within literary theory and practices? Along these same lines, it seems that in populist movements, the relatable candidate often tracks somebody who denigrates one or more sectors of the citizenry or others (i.e. they tend to have sexist, xenophobic, or homophobic elements), whereas the relatable when used in relation literature is trying to achieve the opposite – to give voice to people with such historically oppressed identities and orientations (and hence who have been ignored or treated badly in the canon). Is this difference easy to explain given the account at hand?

In other words, as I said at the beginning of my comments – this is a really stimulating paper: thank you for having written it and shared it with me!

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