Breaking and Entering: Poverty and Aesthetic Violence in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Breaking and Entering: Poverty and Aesthetic Violence in Let us Now Praise Famous Men
Agree not merely to the right to difference but, carrying this further, agree also to the right to opacity. . .
—Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (1997)
1. The Artist as Reliquary
This essay examines James Agee and Walker Evans’ influential book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which is widely seen as an exemplary expression of the social documentary tradition of the 1930s. The bulk of the essay was written almost twenty-five years ago, as part of a job talk for a teaching position in an art department. It was not well received. In the middle of the talk two of the faculty members in the audience began to loudly disagree about my analysis, eventually standing up and yelling at each other across the room. Later I was advised by another faculty member that my critique of Agee and Evans was “too sour”. I’ve often reflected on that experience and on the ways in which it demonstrates a certain reluctance in our field to acknowledge the obvious points of tension that exist in the work of artists who operate across boundaries of class or race difference. My goal in that talk, and in this essay, was never to gratuitously malign the reputations of two such esteemed figures. I’ve always sought to ground any criticisms I might make of artistic practice in a close analysis of the work itself, and to view it not as evidence of some individual incapacity, but rather, as the symptom of deeper ideological schisms within the field of artistic practice more generally. This essay lay dormant for many years, but I was compelled to return to it after finding Let Us Now Praise Famous Men being invoked by two highly respected scholars: Jacques Ranciére and Walter Benn Michaels. Each of them has devoted lengthy discussions to this work in publications over the past decade. Ranciére’s analysis of Praise comprises the penultimate chapter of Aisthesis, which offers the most sustained and historically grounded presentation of his influential aesthetic theory, while Benn Michaels examines Agee and Evans’s book in his widely-cited study The Beauty of a Social Problem. I’ll return to both of these works later in this essay.
Benn Michaels and Ranciére, along with figures such as Nicholas Brown, are associated with what might be termed an autonomous “turn” in recent theory which seeks to reclaim the concept of aesthetic autonomy as a framework for understanding the cultural politics of contemporary art. Benn Michaels has drawn on the work of art historian Michael Fried, well known for his critique of “theatricality” in minimalist art during the late 1960s, while Brown has been inspired by literary theorist Fredric Jameson, who famously sought to uncover the “political unconscious” concealed in the fissures of abstruse literary works. There are parallels as well with efforts to revive Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic theory by figures such as John Roberts. Each of these scholars, from varying perspectives, insists on the necessary segregation of artistic practice from mechanisms of social or political change. In this view, the now totalizing grip of capitalist domination has rendered all other forms of political resistance hopelessly compromised. As Brown writes in Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art Under Capitalism, art that seeks “to confront capitalism directly,” beyond the protective enclosure of the art world, “turns instead into a consumable sign of opposition.” Any effort to work beyond the constraints of the artworld and the market in a period utterly bereft of significant “alternatives” (what he terms an “anti-institutional impulse”), “can only tend to clear the ground for. . . capitalist market relations”. From Brown’s perspective there is no space of cultural production that is beyond the reach of the market, and those artists or activists who do seek to identify or operate within such a space are entirely delusional. All that one can hope to do in the current moment is to accept these constraints and seek to produce situational forms of symbolic resistance in the enclosed sphere of bourgeois cultural production. In this manner, films, novels and artworks which embrace their commodification, but refuse any engagement with ongoing processes of social or political struggle, become, paradoxically, the very “precondition for any politics at all other than the politics of acquiescence to the status quo.”
If no “real” change is possible then all that remains for us is to preserve some vestigial trace of revolution in the protected space of the institutional art world. This will occur as the artist creates a kind of facsimile of political resistance by critiquing certain ostensibly immanent formal or compositional structures associated with specific art practices. These formal conventions thus stand in place for the actual structures of political domination against which any direct resistance is futile. “The work must now construct its own generic laws in order to subvert them,” as Jameson writes. This is hardly a novel idea, of course. The notion of art defining itself through the negation of existing aesthetic norms has been a mainstay of art theory for a century and a half; from the Impressionist’s attacks on the banality of the salon, to the play between realism and abstraction in Cubism, to what Adorno termed the “demonic revolt” against “every natural law of music” evident in Schoenberg’s twelve-tone compositions, to the discourse of institutional critique in the 1990s, which normalized the notion of the art world as the only legitimate space in which critical meaning could be produced. In each case the artist deploys principles of negation and non-identity that can, implicitly, not be sustained anywhere else. At the same time, the viewer or reader, impelled to a process of “close interpretive attention” by the sheer semantic complexity of these works, acts out a capacity for critical self-reflection that prepares them (at least indirectly) for the struggle yet to come. These gestures thus take on an abstract political symbolism as both preservation and prefiguration of a political potential that can’t yet be realized in practice. In this manner, “[artistic] form becomes in itself the bearer of a class politics,” according to Benn Michaels.
The discourse around aesthetic autonomy is relevant to my own research into contemporary socially engaged art. In fact, one of the most persistent critiques of engaged art over the past twenty years involves the claim that this work fails to exhibit properly artistic or “aesthetic” qualities, and instead sacrifices the unique power of aesthetic experience to the wholly instrumental exigencies of “ethics” or “political mobilization”. In this view, as noted above, projects that remain sequestered within the privileged sphere of the institutional art world are nonetheless able to advance a more complex and rigorous understanding of the nature of political change than projects which evolve through direct, reciprocal engagement with concrete forms of social and political resistance.  As historian John Roberts argues, contemporary avant-garde art practices preserve and carry forward “the memory of total revolutionary praxis,” which has otherwise vanished in the current historical moment. The fountainhead of this new form of meta-political insight can be found in the personality of the individual artist, who serves as a “deputy,” in Adorno’s words, representing “the entire, undivided humanity in which the whole subject is finally realized.” In order to preserve this remarkable capacity, the artist must remain entirely independent; free to exercise their sovereign mastery over the external world, which serves as a nature-like resource from which they might extract the semantic materials necessary to produce their exemplary works. In this manner a paradigm of autonomous self-hood which has its origins in the emergence of the European bourgeoisie becomes the vessel through which capitalism itself might one day be overthrown.
In the following essay I want to ground this analysis in a specific case study, which crystallizes some of the symptomatic tensions raised by the persistence of bourgeois concepts of autonomous selfhood within the modernist avant-garde, and within contemporary art theory itself. As noted above, I will focus on James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. While it received relatively little attention when it was originally published in 1941, this book has since emerged as a bellwether example of the operations of artistic subjectivity as it grapples with the experience of class and racial difference. Praise was based on a trip taken by Agee and Evans to Alabama in 1936 to produce a story on tenant farming conditions in the South for Fortune magazine. Evans was “on loan” at the time from the U.S. Resettlement Administration, later to become the Farm Securities Administration (FSA). The pair arranged to live with three tenant families in Hale County whom Agee euphemistically named the Gudgers, the Woods, and the Ricketts. After several weeks of out-door toilets and oil lamps Agee felt he had “. . . learned to feel what the wretches feel,” and returned to New York to produce a story based on the experience. The manuscript that Agee eventually completed ran to several hundred pages and bore no resemblance to the journalistic survey of sharecropping that he was originally commissioned to produce. After Fortune rejected his article Agee sold it to Houghton Mifflin. The book that was finally published is divided into two sections. The first section is composed of thirty-one black and white photographs taken by Evans of the families and their environs. The balance of the book, well over four hundred pages, is devoted to Agee’s complex elaboration of what he calls the “human actuality” of the tenant families.
Shortly after the book’s publication in 1941 Lionel Trilling described it as “perhaps the most important moral effort of our American generation” and Granville Hicks called it “one of the extraordinary, one of the great books of our time.” Despite these tributes, Praise languished in relative obscurity until it was republished during the 1960’s (with an expanded selection of photographs by Evans) and celebrated as a landmark of American literature. In 1995 Miles Orvell described Praise as a prototypical postmodernist text, due to Agee’s relentlessly self-conscious reflections on the difficulty of communicating across the boundaries of cultural and class difference. Margaret Olin, in a 1991 essay, reiterates this view, arguing that while Praise “began as journalism in 1936. . . the book may be better understood as the site of a complex experiment in intersubjectivity and dialogism.” Here we have two of the central aesthetic themes evident in Praise. First is the notion of Praise as a self-reflexive meditation on, and critique of, the conventions of journalism or documentary. This is a repeated theme in sympathetic criticism, which typically juxtaposes Praise with the crude “ventriloquism” evident in contemporaneous social documentary books by Margaret Bourke White and Erskine Caldwell, which reduce their impoverished subjects to caricatures (e.g., You Have Seen Their Faces). Second, and related, is the notion that this criticality is the result of Agee’s intensive engagement with the complex inter-subjective politics of self-other relationships as they are staged through the representational matrix of the documentary book. It is this orientation that has led to claims that Praise anticipates subsequent forms of postmodern literature that abandoned the ostensible objectivity of traditional journalism, openly acknowledging the author’s mediating influence on the truth being presented by the written text.
This engagement is evident in Agee’s constant foregrounding of his own culpability, as a bourgeois novelist employed to objectify the rural poor, and the generic incapacity of any art medium to adequately convey the complex truth of their existence. This dynamic is evident in the earliest pages of the book:
It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings drawn together through need and chance for profit into a company, and organ of journalism, to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for the purposes of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of “honest journalism” (whatever that paradox may mean), of humanity. . .
Of course, it did “occur to an association of human beings” (Agee’s employers at Fortune) to pay him and Walker Evans to “pry intimately” into the lives of poor tenant farmers, just as it occurred to Agee to accept this invitation. Here we encounter the dual movement of recognition and disavowal that is so often central to autonomous artistic subjectivity. The ethical debt imposed by Agee’s voyeuristic intrusion into the lives of the tenant families will be forgiven through a compensatory assault on the complacent bourgeois reader, waged on behalf of the rural poor. In response the reader will be brought to a recognition of his or her own guilt in perpetuating that poverty. In this manner, Agee’s complicity with the objectification of poverty is acknowledged, and at the same moment disavowed in the very act of that acknowledgement. His exemplary critical self-awareness, his readiness to openly admit the problematic nature of his involvement in the lives of the poor, will be emulated by the reader through the agency of his writing, laying the groundwork for some future political transformation which might address the root causes of poverty. This awakening entails the reader’s acceptance of their own responsibility for the economic suffering of the poor, as well as the equally damaging, but less visible, violence imposed by their tendency to aestheticize poverty (“the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance”). This is consistent with a vision of artistic production that must abjure any direct involvement with mechanisms of social change and instead devote itself to enhancing the modes of insight and self-awareness that must be cultivated before we can be trusted to engage in the actual processes of political transformation (which are understood in this scenario to be entirely pragmatic).
Praise depends, then, on an aesthetic paradigm in which the consciousness of the author qua artist as well as that of the bourgeois reader (their capacity for critical self-reflection, their openness to the transformative effects of artistic production) become the privileged locus of aesthetic, and political, experience. Certainly, there can be no real communication between the bourgeois reader and the rural poor, since the very grammar of this exchange would impose on them an intolerable level of representational violence. Moreover, Agee’s perception of the “appallingly damaged” condition of the sharecropper’s that he encountered gave him little confidence that they might be capable of achieving a critical awareness of their economic subordination or the means to overcome it, with or without the intervention of the well-intentioned bourgeois author. In fact, Agee remained deeply ambivalent about the prospect of any kind of meaningful political change which might improve the conditions of the sharecroppers. Historian T.V. Reed notes Agee’s “various assaults on self-satisfied New Dealers and Communists” in the pages of Praise, as he laments the “lack of self-skepticism of all organized reformers and revolutionaries.” Agee, who had no direct experience with political activism, nonetheless exhibited a marked disdain for what he saw as the messy, affect-laden actuality of resistance. His critical insight is thus directed both inwards (towards his own culpability and the constraints of the documentary genre) and outwards, towards the limitations of existing forms of political action (both liberal “reformism” and Communism), which are plagued by an insufficiently complex understanding of the root causes of poverty, and the damaging mechanisms of social change itself. As Reed notes, Agee saw the tenants “as caught up in a ‘whole world-system of which tenantry is one modification’ not likely to be dislodged as easily as many radicals in the thirties believed.” As a result, he held out “little immediate hope for change in their circumstances”.
One could easily enough accept the argument that Agee didn’t feel qualified, or inclined, to develop his writing practice in conjunction with those movements that were working to challenge economic and racial repression in the south. The Alabama Communist Party and the Southern Tenants Farmers Union (STFU), to cite the most obvious examples, were both active in Alabama throughout the 1930s, and developed a compelling critique of both New Deal liberalism and the racist culture of the Jim Crow-era south. Moreover, the STFU sought to build alliances between poor white and black sharecroppers. Clearly, Agee was unlikely to embrace the kind of strategy suggested by Walter Benjamin in his influential “Author as Producer” lecture (delivered only two years before Agee’s trip to Alabama), in which he might identify circuits of distribution and readerships outside those provided by Fortune magazine or Houghton Mifflin. This would require a form of critical reflexivity that was alien to his self-understanding as an artist. Thus, Agee limits his creative experimentation to stylistic and formal innovations (pushing off against the perceived limits of existing literary genres, like documentary or journalism), even as he carries forward the conventional social architecture of the avant-garde, in which the artist or writer transcends the material and ideological constraints to which their readers and subjects uncritically submit. What is equally symptomatic is the parallel assumption that those groups and social actors who are engaged in directly challenging the forms of racism and class oppression so thoroughly documented in Praise, are misguided, in both their belief that some form of meaningful change is possible, and their belief that they are in a position to contribute to it. As a result, they are in need of a form of critical insight that only the bourgeois writer can provide, and he or she can provide it precisely by virtue of their refusal to actually learn, practically and experientially, about the nature of praxis.
This set of assumptions carries forward the quietism that was evident over two centuries ago in Friedrich Schiller’s contention that no political change is possible until the aesthetic education of the public, supervised by the artist, is complete. “We must continue to regard every attempt at political reform as untimely,” as Schiller wrote in Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, “so long as the split within man is not healed, and his nature restored to wholeness.” If the realm of praxis is entirely compromised then the only site at which the promise of meaningful political transformation can be preserved is the exemplary self-awareness of the bourgeois artist, who retains the ability to grasp the totality of existing political reality, and the impediments to its transformation, of which actual “revolutionaries” invariably remain ignorant. It is precisely Agee’s sovereignty, his capacity to conceptualize and create free of the impurity of parties, movements and actual politics, that endows him with this prescient vision. In this manner Agee’s exemplary “skepticism” comes to serve as a placeholder and “intervention,” as Reed argues, “in a political scene where conventionalized perceptions and representations are stifling political thought and action.” Here we can observe the characteristic interdependence of the subjective autonomy of the artist and the prematurity of praxis within the larger discourse of the modernist avant-garde.
Agee could have simply turned Fortune magazine down and refused to be a party to the “obscene” dynamic set in motion by his trip to Alabama. However, Agee was also very much driven by the desire to be recognized as a “really great writer,” a process which required him to both earn a living and find some thematic material that would be sufficient to establish his reputation (a process in which prestigious New York publishing houses like Houghton Mifflin played a key role). Here we discover the decisive interface between self-reflexivity as a proto-political gesture (a form of critique immanent to the mechanisms of art or literature that can hold open a place for real criticality in an increasingly inhospitable political context) and self-reflexivity as a literary device, intended to enhance authorial charisma and professional advancement within the world of the literary arts which privileges precisely this kind of ironicized self-referentiality as a signifier of creative genius. Bourgeois audiences long ago learned to take up a delectatory relationship to works of art that set out to shock them into some recognition of their class complicity. As the fate of Praise demonstrates, the intense performativity of tortured guilt and probing self-consciousness that is characteristic of Agee’s writing is easily enough detached from any operational (or even prefigurative) relationship to actual political transformation (a prospect, as I’ve noted, about which Agee himself was decidedly uncertain) and reduced to a token of his protean ability to transmute the banal lives of the rural poor into great literature. As Bruce Jackson wrote in 1999, Praise “is no more or less about cotton tenant farming than Moby-Dick is about whaling,” rather, what “matters” most in the book is Agee’s ability to make “George and Annie Mae Gudger. . . as immortal as Priam and Hecuba.”
Notwithstanding Agee’s repeated insistence on preserving the unique character of the tenant lives he encounters (“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech”), the process of extracting aesthetic value entails a necessary abstraction from the material and social specificity of the subjects of Agee and Evan’s creative attention (the movement from George Gudger to a Trojan king, so to speak). This abstraction is literary (the rendering of individual human lives in the form of poetic description) but it is also institutional, as the product of this discursive fashioning is intended for a reader who is not simply geographically remote from the book’s subjects but also, and more importantly, defined by forms of racial and class privilege relative to those subjects. Agee’s consciousness of this tension, and of his own role as a surrogate for this privileged reader, informs much of the book. For this reason, he devotes considerable space to those moments of intersubjective exchange during which he imagined he was making some kind of genuine connection with the tenants (more specifically, interactions during which he felt that they were accepting him into a quasi-familial intimacy without judging him for his class privilege or authorial transcendence).
Nonetheless, his relationship to the sharecroppers was defined, from the very outset, by a calculated duplicity. After searching fruitlessly for several weeks for tenants who would be willing to allow Agee and Evans some access to their lives (there was widespread suspicion in Alabama regarding northern interlopers) their breakthrough moment came when they encountered Bud Woods and Fred Ricketts (both of whom figure prominently in the book) near the Centerboro courthouse. Woods and Ricketts had just learned that they didn’t qualify for relief from the Resettlement Administration (the predecessor to the FSA). As Dale Maharidge describes this crucial moment.
They were ruminating on their rejection as Agee and Evans tentatively approached them. When Evans told them he worked for the government as a Resettlement Administration photographer, Ricketts and Woods heard the word ‘government’ and jumped to the conclusion that he might be someone who could help them solve their problem.
“It’s not known,” Maharidge continues laconically, “if the journalists did anything to correct this misconception”. Given that Agee and Evans were on the verge of abandoning their assignment (for lack of willing participants) it’s not hard to imagine that they would have been reluctant to clarify this misunderstanding. In fact, Evans was not employed by the Resettlement Administration when was in Hale County, but was working for Fortune magazine. He actually requested a leave from the RA in order to take on the Fortune assignment, an omission that is revealing in itself. There is evidence that at least some of the tenant families were not especially pleased when they finally discovered that the actual purpose of Agee and Evans’s visit was to harvest material for a book that would expose the most intimate details of their lives to a general reading public. In a 2010 Christina Davidson interviewed Dottie Burroughs, the youngest child of Floyd and Allie Mae Burroughs (who Agee stayed with for some time). As Davidson describes it:
What bothers [Dottie] most is that Agee and Evans didn’t tell her parents that their lives would become a book. “Momma and Daddy didn’t know what they was doing. They was trying to help ’em out. And they just wanted to write about how poor Momma and Daddy was.”
Of course, their visit was initially intended to result in a magazine article rather than a book, but I suspect this distinction would have done little to allay the Burroughs’ concerns. A key passage in the book, referenced by both Maharidge and Davidson, involved Agee rifling through the Burroughs private possessions without their permission, while they were out working in the fields. As Dottie remarks, “That was invading their privacy. They shouldn’t have done that.” Davidson continues, describing an exchange in which she screened a 1980s PBS documentary on Praise for Dottie:
We lie on her flowered quilt, Dottie with a cigarette, I with a pen, and I scribble notes to record her running commentary in response to the PBS narrator reading Agee’s prose. When Agee describes filthy curtains in the Burroughs home: “Why don’t you wash it rather than sitting on your ass and writing about it?” On Agee’s suggestion that Floyd and Allie Mae had noiseless sex while their children slept nearby: “He shouldn’t have even told that.” . . . Even if he didn’t condescend, Agee opened the Burroughs home to the peering eyes of countless outsiders, who could be inclined to pass judgment. And he never asked permission before inviting the whole world to witness their struggle.
Margaret Olin reiterates the problematic nature of Agee’s invasion of the Burrough’s home in their absence.
The thin line between Agee’s sympathetic staring and the lascivious prying of a Peeping Tom begins to blur when Agee enters the house and compares his experience of being alone there to an afternoon alone in his grandfather’s home, during ‘hot early puberty’. There, he ‘permitted nothing to escape the fingering of my senses. . . It is not entirely otherwise now.’”
In this passage Agee’s prying can be taken as a metonym for the entire project. While Agee devotes a great deal of self-reflexive thought to the ethics entailed in his efforts to represent the rural poor to middle-class readers he seems oddly incapable of recognizing the equally problematic ethical issues raised by his own interactions with them, as he sought to secure the raw material for those representations (his willingness to search through their belongings without their permission, to record and publish details about their sex lives and to mislead them about his possible relationship to the RA, even as he sought to gain their trust). This instrumentalizing attitude was equally evident in his interactions with black sharecroppers.
2. The Elegiac Image: Blackness and Opacity
While we were wondering whether to force a window a young Negro couple came past up the road.
—James Agee, “Near a Church” Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)
Finding the church door locked from the inside, we leaped through the open window and started taking pictures at once . . .
—Margaret Bourke-White, Portrait of Myself (1963)
If, in Agee’s view, it is epistemologically suspect, or ethically undesirable, for the tenants to really be the subject of his book, then by design or by default it becomes a documentary expression of his own exemplary selfhood. “He can’t explore the consciousness of the people he and Evans met in rural Alabama,” as Jackson writes, “nor does he really try”. Rather, all that remains to Agee is to “explore the surface of their world and what he can see of the depths of his own. . .” Even at its earliest stages of reception critics remarked on the dual edged nature of Agee’s single-minded focus on his own consciousness, in the context of a project that was, at least ostensibly, intended to arouse some concern among Fortune’s middle and upper-class readers for the suffering of poor southern tenant farmers. John Cort, in a 1941 review, argued that the Praise was “too obsessed with the author’s complex reactions to his subjects.” Agee responded to the ethical dilemma created by his willingness to insinuate himself into the intimate spaces of the poor tenant farmers in two ways. First, as noted above, he spent a great deal of time openly acknowledging his own ambivalent position in the book as a class “voyeur”. There was a second strategy as well, which entailed the compensatory aesthetic sublation of the material surroundings of the tenant farmers, in a manner which both honors and annuls their own experience of suffering. Here Agee projects bourgeois aesthetic values onto the dwellings, clothes and possessions of the families with whom he was interacting. It is this gesture that aligns Agee’s writing (which includes long, florid passages describing the beauty of wood planks and well-worn overalls) most fully with Walker Evan’s photographs, which are predicated on a classicizing aestheticization of signifiers of vernacular culture and, in this case, images associated with poverty.
The complex nature of this appropriative symbolic economy is evident in an encounter between Agee and a young black couple, which is documented in a section of the book titled “Near a Church”. It is one of three short passages that describe brief meetings between Agee and Evans and various residents of Hale County. The first, “Late Sunday Morning,” concerns Agee’s attempt to get directions from a tenant family sitting on their porch, and the second, “At the Forks,” describes Agee and Evans’s encounter with a small community of black sharecroppers. Each episode stages the quotidian experience of unequal social relations in the South—between black and white and between the middle class and the poor. The “Near a Church” passage comprises a detailed account of Evans and Agee’s “discovery” of a church that served a community of black sharecroppers. This is notable in itself, as the book focuses almost entirely on the experiences of three families of white sharecroppers. The appearance of the church, as they round a curve in the road in their car, provokes a kind of epiphany in both men. Here is Agee’s description:
It was a good enough church from the moment the curve opened and we saw it that I slowed a little. . . But as we came even with it the light so held it that it shocked us with its goodness straight through the body, so that at the same instant we said Jesus.
Agee helped Evans set up his camera, watching, as he states, “what would be trapped, possessed, [and] fertilized . . .” The subsequent passage consists of an almost erotic description of the church, as Agee’s gaze wanders slowly over the building’s exterior and through a window, where it encounters a veritable feast of surfaces and forms marked by picturesque poverty, which Agee catalogs:
rigid benches, box organ, bright stops, hung charts, wrecked hymnals, the platform, pine lectern doilied, pressed glass pitcher, suspended lamp. . . the little stove with long swan throat of aluminum, a button in sun, a flur of lint, a torn card of Jesus among children.
This scene was so compelling to the pair that they were preparing to break through one of the church windows in order to photograph the interior. At that moment Agee spotted a young black couple walking slowly down the road past them. After some hesitation he rushed after them, hoping to locate a key to the front door, or at least to secure their approval for his intended violation of the church. The couple, hearing Agee running down the road towards them, were startled and fearful. Being pursued by a frantic white man in rural Alabama in the mid-1930’s was obviously not something to be greeted with unalloyed enthusiasm. When Agee caught up with them he saw the fear and uncertainty in their faces and realized what he had, inadvertently, done. There follows an extended monologue by Agee during which he recounts for the reader his sense of guilt and shame at startling them, his impulse to kneel down and kiss their feet in order to receive their forgiveness (“I wanted only that they should be restored, and should know I was their friend, and that I might melt from existence”), and so on. None of this does he communicate to the couple, feeling unable to bridge the gap between them. Instead, he simply apologizes to them repeatedly while they reassure him that there is nothing to apologize for. As Agee describes this exchange:
Their faces were secret, soft, and utterly without trust of me, and utterly without understanding; and they had to stand here now and hear what I was saying, because in that country no Negro safely walks away from a white man or even appears not to listen while he is talking.
While Agee “wanted them to know he was their friend,” he was also in the process of helping Evans break into their locked church. Both the church and the couple are separated from Agee by a class and racial difference that he desperately wants to bridge. This difference is expressed as a physical distance; Agee rounds the curve approaching the church and he pursues the couple on foot. In each case he “comes upon” the object of his desire, literally enacting the collapse of the social divisions that separate him from the culture of rural poverty. The instant at which Evans “captures” the image of the church is the most emotionally charged moment in the passage (the “spasm” of the shutter, as Agee describes it), when the distance of class and race is simultaneously collapsed and eternally preserved. The very distance that allows Agee and Evans to “see” the vernacular beauty of the church is made possible by their own privileged separation from the culture which surrounds it. And it is this same privilege that identifies Agee as a potential threat in the mind of the couple. Their fearful reaction to his approach reminds Agee of his own race and class privilege at the very moment that he was hoping to transcend it through the aesthetic contemplation of their church.
What Agee finds intolerable in his encounter with the young black couple isn’t simply his inability to communicate with them, but the fact that they are unable to see him as he sees wishes to see himself; as a well-meaning white intellectual. Instead, they view him, not surprisingly, as an abstraction; a “white man,” in a region where white men hold almost absolute power. How, Agee asks, can he have an encounter with a poor white or black farmer in which he will not be seen as somehow complicit with the racism or class oppression that they have experienced? How can he let them know that he is, somehow, different? This is the assurance that he so desperately seeks from the black couple, and which he tries to evoke through his excessive apologies and his almost biblical fantasies of self-abasement. Thus, it is not “communication” per se that Agee is after (as a process in which the other’s response is un-determined by his own needs), but rather, absolution, which is itself another form of negation. The more fervently Agee abases himself before the couple, the more he solicits their forgiveness, the more he forces them into the role of reassuring him (even though they can’t provide the precise reassurance that he seeks—that his aestheticized relationship to their culture is acceptable). This is precisely the instrumentalizing relationship that Mikhail Bakhtin has in mind in “Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity” when he writes:
. . . the other may be needed as a judge who must judge me the way I judge myself, without aestheticizing me; he may be needed in order to destroy his possible influence upon my self-evaluation, that is, in order to enable me, by way of self-abasement before him, to liberate myself from that possible influence exerted by his valuating position outside me.
In this view the subject requires the other, to establish the ontological contours of the self, but must also disavow the other’s influence through a form of “self-abasement” that preempts the others own “valuating position” relative to the self.
Agee’s encounter with the young black couple offers a remarkably rich register of the relationship between aesthetic knowledge and racial difference, and between communication and violation in the discourse of the aesthetic more generally. My interest in it here lies in the juxtaposition of two very different relationships to a culture that for Agee and Evans is both desirable and inaccessible. While it may be possible for them to penetrate the visual secrets of the church, to lavish their formidable descriptive powers on it, they are unable to communicate on even the most basic human level with the people who use it. While Agee imagines he has been able to achieve some mutual understanding with the white tenant farmers, the black sharecroppers remain entirely opaque in his recounting. Although he does reference the plight of black sharecroppers in one section of the book, all of his personal encounters with them are defined in terms of failure and disconnection. Blackness constitutes a void at the center of Praise, a book that was ostensibly about rural poverty in Alabama at a time when over half of the sharecroppers in the state were African American. Fortune magazine, for its part, clearly didn’t feel that black poverty was sufficiently newsworthy to interest to its white, middle-class readership. Notwithstanding his repeated complaints about over-zealous revolutionaries and misguided New Deal bureaucrats, Agee remained silent about this aspect of institutional racism, which he never chose to remedy even when the original Fortune commission was abandoned and the project turned into a 400-page book, written over several years. Moreover, while he addresses the effects of racism in the south he attributes it to the failure of political “leadership”. Thus, “no white Southerner is responsible for his ideas of the Negro [. . .] And no Negro is responsible for the gigantic weight of physical and spiritual brutality he has borne and is bearing.” In this oddly lopsided dialectic the black southerner is relieved of any “responsibility” for his or her own suffering even as the white southerner is relieved of responsibility for imposing it.
The gap between Agee and the culture of southern poverty is presented to him in the form of a surface, a face, which masks or denies him access to a hidden, interior truth (both spatial, in the case of the church, and psychological, in the case of the couple). During this same period Evans produced an extended series of photographs of ramshackle church exteriors in the southeastern U.S. The churches are almost uniformly photographed from the front, so that each building is flattened into a one-dimensional plane. Typically, Evans photographed these facades in a cross light that has the effect of emphasizing surface details such as doorknobs, peeling paint, wood grain, loose boards and other irregularities produced through structural fatigue. The extremely methodical way in which Evans approached the churches underscores his belief in the camera’s power to record what he termed “a pure record,” as if he hoped to reveal some underlying essence beneath the empirical difference of specific cases, through the application of a systematic formal methodology. We can see this same taxonomic approach in Evan’s New York subway “portraits,” made during the late 1930s and early ’40s in which he used a hidden camera or a right-angle viewfinder. He also employed this approach in several of his sharecropper portraits for Praise. Here the visual truth produced by the camera is seen as most intense, and most pure, at those points at which the subject is not conscious of the act of observation and is thus assumed to behave more “naturally”.
Evans, for his part, had no qualms about breaking into the church in search of a scene to “possess and fertilize”. In his ongoing conflicts with Roy Stryker, the head of the Information Division at the FSA, Evans repeatedly declared his commitment to the radical autonomy of the photographic image from any form of immediate social value. “No politics whatsoever” he wrote in 1935, arguing that he could “give a damn” about the role that his photographs might play in support of New Deal policies and that their “value . . . lies in the record itself, which in the long run will prove an intelligent and farsighted thing to have done.” Art is here opposed to political utility, which is in turn defined in terms of its integration with the needs of an existing audience (whether of policy makers or impoverished tenant farmers). Evans responded to Stryker’s demands by arguing that his images will endure precisely because they aren’t relevant to contemporary political struggles. Thus, the image of the church and Evan’s act of photographing it, is here accorded a value above and beyond the actually existing conditions of the church’s members, or even the physical church itself, which can be damaged in order to harvest its image. Of course, Evan’s photographs did find an immediate audience, in a manner that didn’t require much foresight at all. Less than two years after his trip to Alabama many of the photographs he produced for Praise (and the FSA) appeared in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (1938). This was the first one-person photography exhibit at MoMA and is widely seen as marking the assimilation of photography into the modernist canon. The images were stripped of their accompanying titles and captions, appearing along the walls of MoMA’s gallery as signifiers of artistic genius rather than social concern. Here it is not so much a question of temporality (the “long run,” after which the significance of Evans’s images will finally be acknowledged) but of his interest in receiving validation for his work from the institutional sphere of the artworld.
For Agee the representation of rural poverty in the pages of Praise was understood to possess an explicitly moral and compensatory dimension; to effectively re-distribute the symbolic capital generated by Agee’s own poetic sensibility. He will accord the same prestige to George Gudger’s overalls or Fred Rickett’s work shoes that the bourgeoisie reserve for the icons of high art.
The texture and the color change [of Gudger’s overalls] in union, by sweat, sun, laundering, between the steady pressures of its use and age: both, at length, into realms of fine softness and marvel of draping and velvet plays of light which chamois and silk can only suggest, not touch; and into a region and scale of blues, subtle, delicious, and deft beyond what I have ever seen elsewhere approached except in rare skies, the smoky light some days are filmed with, and some of the blues of Cezanne . . . 
Agee and Evans become connoisseurs of run-down storefronts and share cropper’s cabins. The tenant church is a hidden masterpiece, to be subject to all the breathless delectation evoked by an Impressionist canvas or a Tiffany lamp. The “beauty” of the church lies dormant and unrecognized until it is “fertilized” by the active and transformative vision of the artist. Thus, the tenant families were never in a position to claim any real control over the image of their lives that was being so laboriously constructed by Agee and Evans, or to even fully realize that they were in the process of being represented in this manner. While Agee was no more inclined than Evans to subordinate his artistic powers (and authorial sovereignty) to the demands of social or political change, he was at least willing to acknowledge the trade-offs entailed by the aestheticization of the tenant’s lives. The “beauty” of a pair of fading denim overalls is, as he writes, “best discernible to those who by economic advantages of training have only a shameful and thief’s right to it: and it might be said that they have any ‘rights’ whatever only in proportion as they recognize the ugliness and disgrace implicit in their privilege of perception.” As I’ve already described, Agee here proposes a kind of calculus in which the ratio of morally permissible aesthetic pleasure to be derived from a given artifact of poverty is calibrated in proportion to the privileged subjects’ willingness to face what he calls “the brunt of his own sin”. As a result, the consciousness of the artist and viewer (rather than any negotiated understanding between the artist and their subjects, or any operational concern with the specific material and political conditions of the subject’s existence) becomes the defining factor in establishing an ethical framework for an encounter across lines of difference. The simple fact that the artist acknowledges the problematic nature of their “privileged perception” is sufficient to allow that perception to proceed unimpeded. Thus, we have Agee railing against those who treat poverty as a picturesque spectacle on one page and comparing the weather-beaten wood of the Gudger’s front porch to a Bach fugue on the next.
Agee’s celebration of rural life is not solely aesthetic; it is also intensely spiritual, or rather it represents a melding of the spiritual and the beautiful into a kind of aesthetic deification. The tenant’s farmhouse is a house of “simple people” that “shines quietly forth such grandeur, such sorrowful holiness of its exactitudes in existence, as no human consciousness shall ever rightly perceive . . .” It is symptomatic that when Agee and Evans discover the church their reaction to its “paralyzing classicism” is to utter in unison, “Jesus.” However, the more that Agee idealizes the poor, the more he effaces them as specific, complex individuals. They, their lives, and their surroundings, become spiritual icons, buried under an avalanche of devotional zeal. Agee’s tendency to project a kind of spiritual or natural essence onto the poor farm families he lived with extends, in the case of the young black couple, to an offensive animalization. At several points in “Near a Church” Agee compares the couple to various beasts. When he initially approaches them they look back at him “like horses in a field.” The young woman falls “like a kicked cow. . .” She appears like a “suddenly terrified wild animal.” While the young man freezes, “his wild face open to me.”
Both Agee and Evans are highly critical of conventional New Deal-era documentary practices (epitomized for them by Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell’s You Have Seen Their Faces) which suppress the specificity of individual subjects under some generalizing visual and textual stereotype. For Agee and Evans this work enacts a form of epistemological violence by negating, and manipulating, the unique identities of the poor, while cloaking itself with the benign intentions of a humanist “concern.” This view has been corroborated by subsequent commentators. Thus, Miles Orvell contends that Bourke-White “made caricatures” of her subjects, while Caldwell’s captions reduced them to rural types. Agee, on the other hand, “evinced a respect for his subject that was paramount. . .” And “Evans gave them [sic.] dignity.” Here “dignity” is understood not as a condition that is generated internally, but rather, as something that is awarded to one through the benevolence of those in a more powerful cultural and social position. We, as viewers, thus require Agee and Evans’s deliberate intervention in order to perceive the (otherwise inaccessible) “dignity” of the poor sharecroppers.
It is worth noting here that Bourke-White and Caldwell actually viewed their approach towards the representation of poverty as less manipulative and intrusive, precisely because they chose to “fictionalize” their subjects. Thus, they invented narratives based on actual interviews that were meant to convey representative Southern attitudes (the covertly racist landowner, the downtrodden tenant farmer and so on). Their goal, as they describe it, was to avoid “unnecessary individualization” and, in effect, to protect the identities of their informants, while at the same time presenting poverty and racism as the products of a pervasive and systemic set of cultural attitudes rather than the condition of a few aberrant individuals. Evan’s solution to the perceived abstraction and manipulation of Bourke-White is precisely the opposite of Agee’s. Rather than foreground his own subjectivity he claims to suppress it; perceiving Bourke-White’s flamboyant approach (the use of flash bulbs and “dramatic” lighting or extreme angles, the selection of highly emotive facial expressions or gestures), as simultaneously intrusive and deceptive. In her biography of Evans, Belinda Rathbone contrasts the unobtrusive Evans (who insists, like a photographer at a crime scene, that “I never touch anything”) with Bourke-White, jumping through a church window with her flashbulbs blazing. This description references a set of images of southern churches that Bourke-White produced in 1937, and which appeared in You Have Seen Their Faces.
It is, one suspects, the theatricality and artifice of Bourke-White’s church goers that was most disturbing to Evans’ patrician sensibilities. Their overt acting out (perhaps even their deliberate playing to the camera) makes them party to an unseemly spectacle. Rather than presenting themselves to the camera with a demure and passive modesty or remaining oblivious to its presence entirely (as was the case with his portraits for Praise) Bourke-White’s subjects are actively aware of the camera; soliciting it, responding to it, and performing for it. Here we can identify a co-production of photographic meaning, between photographer and subject, that was anathema to Evans. For Evans photography is predicated on an implicit naturalism in which artistic consciousness must remain impervious to any reciprocal influence from the individual being photographed. For all their contrivance and invasiveness Bourke-White’s photographs capture a certain raucous, even joyful, quality that clearly eluded Evans. It is the dialogical nature of these images that so clearly sets them apart from those of Evans, who preferred to photograph human subjects when they were entirely unaware that he was making an image of them, and could do nothing to participate in their own self-fashioning. As Evans insists, “Flaubert’s aesthetic is absolutely mine. His objectivity of treatment, the non-appearance of the author, the non-subjectivity.” Of course Evans’s personality, his subjectivity, his taste, is no more absent from his images than Agee’s is from his writing. It is reflected just as surely in the tactical decisions he makes as an artist (to present the churches as depopulated interiors or closed and austere facades, rather than to photograph the often-ebullient social interactions that unfolded within them) as it is in his broader effort to extract an arte povera beauty from the quotidian artifacts of rural poverty.
Walter Benn Michaels will argue that Evans’ relative indifference to the lives of his subjects, his desire to photograph them secretly, without consent or acknowledgement, and his willingness to reduce the complexity of their lived experience to aestheticized emblems of “beauty,” available only to the economically privileged, is precisely what insures the critical power of his images. Where Agee tried, condescendingly, to establish some rapport with the families, to ease the obvious class differences between himself and the Gudgers, Ricketts and Woods, Evans, his gaze fixed on the distant horizon of artistic immortality, willingly embraces this difference, and the class privilege that allows him to engage in the touristic objectification of their suffering. In so doing, as Benn-Michaels argues, Evans also, and perhaps inadvertently, preserves the class antagonism that Agee would otherwise conjure away with his pretense of “friendship” with their subjects. Thus, “It’s only as works of art—their beauty invisible to their subjects—that they can inscribe on themselves the inequality that is the condition of their production.” Here Evan’s objectification of the poor is politically essential because this antagonistic and even exploitative relationship allows him to act out, at the level of representation, the structural antagonism that exists between the bourgeoise and the rural poor, rather than repressing it under the veil of a faux identification.
For Benn Michaels any effort that Evans might make to allow the tenant families some agency in composing themselves before the camera, to undertake photography as a co-production of meaning, would constitute the worst kind of liberal reformism. In this view any photographer, or any artist, who chooses to incorporate elements of intersubjective care into their work does so only because they naively assume that structural class divisions can be overcome by simple gestures of kindness and situational equality. In this manner, as well, authorial sovereignty is necessarily privileged over collective or collaborative creation. “It is by seeking to make poverty beautiful in a way that will be invisible to the poor themselves,” as Benn Michaels continues, “that Agee and Evans produce in their work not just this gap between the rich and the poor but also the conflict between them. . . That’s why their beauty constitutes rather than compromises their politics. It makes them pictures not just of poverty but also of inequality.” The result, for Benn Michaels is precisely to provide a kind of ethical validation for Evan’s quasi-aristocratic objectification of the poor. The bourgeois viewer is meant to see aestheticized images of poverty, then reflect on the fact that they can only see them as “beautiful” in the first place because of their own class privilege, and finally come to recognize the existence of the capitalist system that produces this structural inequality, of which they were previously unaware. They are meant, in short, to forego the pleasure of aesthetic transcendence provided by the beautiful image in order to willingly subject themselves to the lacerating admission of their own guilt for the suffering it conveys. One wonders that a viewer who is already so singularly reflective would nonetheless have remained entirely ignorant of the structural effects of capitalism until encountering a Walker Evans photograph in an art museum.
In Benn Michaels’ analysis, no matter how much shame the sharecropper families might have experienced in seeing their impoverished condition paraded before an audience of thousands of middle-class readers or viewers, that discomfort and humiliation is simply the price to be paid in order to preserve some vestigial trace of class antagonism in the photographic image. The people whose perceptions, whose agency, really matter are not the poor families who welcomed Agee and Evans into their homes, but a hypothetical bourgeois gallery goer who may one day observe Evans’ photographs in the institutional spaces of the artworld, and, somehow, take away from them an intuition of their own complicity in the suffering he portrays. This outlook depends, as I noted above, on the assumption that no real, systematic political change is possible. All that remains for the artist is to willingly embrace their class privilege, and the power it gives them to reduce the other to a pictorial resource, thereby preserving some mnemonic trace of the violence of class difference that otherwise remains unacknowledged. Of course, as I’ve also noted, there were any number of ways that Evans or Agee might have aligned themselves with actual social movements during the 1930s that willingly addressed precisely this structural dimension. However, for Evans this would have entailed an unacceptable erosion of his artistic sovereignty (“no politics whatsoever!”), while Agee simply felt that such efforts were futile.
3. Agee, Ranciére and the Prose of the World
In the aesthetic paradigm I’ve outlined above the work of art is understood as fundamentally separate from the well-being, interests and subjective agency of the individuals it portrays; it is always directed elsewhere, to some other context (the gallery, the museum, the pages of Fortune magazine) and some other reader (defined as economically privileged). This displacement reflects the underlying belief that advanced art must remain detached from the social world that the artist draws on in order to produce it. This displacement also gives us a clue to the role that Praise will play in Ranciére’s Aisthesis. As I noted in the introduction, Praise serves as the final example in a series of case studies presented in Ranciére’s book, devoted to the relationship between advanced art (and the institutional sphere of the bourgeois artworld) and various forms of popular culture (Murillo’s paintings, Stendahl’s novels, Emerson’s poetry, Rodin’s sculptures, Agee’s prose, etc.). In each case, Ranciére argues that art, far from being overwhelmed by the “intrusions of the prose of the world,” is able to use these resources (auctioneer’s catalogs, gymnastics, factory architecture, the folies bergère, sharecroppers “barracks,” etc.) to “ceaselessly refine itself” by “incorporating unexplored territories.” Although Ranciére’s book is devoted to the study of some of the most canonical figures in nineteenth and twentieth-century art and literature he nonetheless presents it as offering a “counter history of artistic modernity”. By this he means that his analysis represents an alternative to the formalist approach of figures like Clement Greenberg, who argued for art’s “celestial autonomy” from the realm of vulgar “kitsch”. Instead, Ranciére contends that what distinguishes the most advanced modernist art is precisely it’s receptivity to the world of popular culture. The “unexplored territory” opened up by popular culture provides the artist with access to a set of signifiers that can be used to infuse high art with some of the heterogeneous cultural energies that exist beyond the institutional sphere of the bourgeois art world. As with Agee, the work of art doesn’t seek an absolute detachment from the social world beyond the institutional sphere of high art. Rather, it engages in a selective appropriation of symbolic materials drawn from that world.
This is significant because Ranciére, like Schiller before him, believes that art is capable of generating a unique set of insights into the nature of the political. However, this capacity can be preserved only so long as art is removed from the exigencies of actual political change. Instead, art will act out a symbolic form of resistance by pushing off against reified compositional or representational norms that are, at least ostensibly, immanent to art itself. However, every time a given set of conventions is transgressed, the transgression itself eventually becomes normalized as yet another style. As a result, the artist requires an ongoing supply of new, non-artistic, material to draw upon in order to keep the cycle of assimilation, symbolic transgression and re-normalization in motion. The goal of this enterprise is not to de-stabilize the fundamental institutional protocols of the bourgeois art world, but rather, to introduce a homeopathic tincture of that other cultural form (typically, reduced to a set of thematic or representational motifs) that can serve as a point of symbolic resistance (of “not art” opposed to “art” as Ranciére describes it) that is consumed, and acquires critical meaning, entirely within the artworld itself. Ranciére’s system ultimately rests on a reassertion of conventional aesthetic autonomy (for which periodic infusions of non-artistic “heteronomy” are the necessary, but cognitively inert, fuel). The underlying social architecture of modernist art, the forms of competence and the subject positions assigned to artist and viewer in a broader schema, is otherwise entirely identical in Greenberg and Ranciére. Ranciére’s model of critique thus requires a hypothetical (and implicitly bourgeois) viewer for whom the question of art’s ontology is of sufficient importance in the first place that they would experience its “shocking” destabilization (produced through the disorienting play of autonomy and heteronomy) as an actual provocation.
For Ranciére the aesthetic fulfills its emancipatory mission by transforming the consciousness of individual viewers, employing the tension between art and not-art, to inculcate a therapeutic sense of categorical ambiguity. As a result, their subsequent experience of political action will, presumably, be informed by a more nuanced awareness of the constraints of conceptual understanding. This entire discursive system is predicated an underlying opposition between a realm of detached aesthetic contemplation (“play”) in which intersubjective experience is mediated by conventional, static art works (books, plays, paintings), allowing for the emancipatory hermeneutic equality of “translation,” and an entirely instrumental realm of political action (“mobilization”) which entails dangerously unmediated forms of direct, intersubjective exchange (the physically proximate bodies of collaborators, participants, etc.), and which precludes any form of reflective or critical experiential knowledge. Notwithstanding Ranciére’s contention that “no kind of social hierarchy” is possible in the aesthetic relationship between viewer and artwork, it’s clear that one side of this intersubjective matrix is defined by an intrinsic lack (the position of the viewer or reader is characterized by a reliance on categorical forms of meaning, conventional modes of signification, etc.), which necessitates a corrective, quasi-punitive intervention. While the figure on the other side of the matrix (the position occupied by the author/artist) is understood to possess a singular ability to precipitate this correction, based on their implicit mastery of the cognitive insights inculcated by their own work. The fact that Ranciére is willing to concede some nominal interpretive agency to the viewer/reader (whether bourgeois or working-class) does nothing to challenge the assumption that they were in need of an externally directed “emancipation” in the first place (“The students had learned without a master explicator,” as he writes in The Ignorant School Master, “but not, for all that, without a master”.)
What Ranciére objects to in Greenberg, then, is not the broader institutional paradigm of a modernist art that is tethered to the bourgeoisie through an “umbilical cord of gold,” to use Greenberg’s memorable phrase, or the implicit hierarchy of the avant-garde artist who possesses a privileged (albeit sublimated) insight into the nature of political liberation. Rather, he objects to the underlying assumption (evident in Greenberg’s concept of kitsch) that working class viewers lack the sophistication necessary to actually appreciate the kinds of high art that he celebrates in his own writing. Ranciére dreams of a proletariat that finally recognizes itself, it’s deferred revolutionary potential, its utopic striving, in the decanted formal experimentation of the avant-garde. Rather than being the artifacts of an alienated bourgeois intelligentsia struggling with its own vexed complicity with capitalist domination, these works become the very emblems of an authentic proletarian consciousness, externalized and reflected back to them like the sensuous embodiment of the Hegelian Ideal. Greenberg’s disdain for the intellectual capacities of the proletariat is, in Ranciére’s view, consistent with the hierarchical orientation of the revolutionary party, in which workers were subjected to “the action plans of the engineers of the future”. What Ranciére fails to grasp, however is the fundamental continuity between the vanguard revolutionary and the avant-garde artist, and between the vanguard party and the avant-garde movement. In each case we can identify a form of subjectivity that claims to have “absorbed” the insurrectional energies of the working class (to be preserved in the form of revolutionary theory or avant-garde art). Each figure serves as a repository of what Georg Lukács famously termed the “imputed consciousness” of the proletariat; the form of revolutionary awareness that they should exhibit (according to Marx) but have failed to realize.
We are now in a better position to understand the role played by Praise in Ranciére’s broader aesthetic theory. Ranciére contends that Agee’s writing gains its critical power indirectly, through his negation and critique of the normative conventions found in existing literary genres. Thus, Agee’s book “explodes” the “logic of journalism,” deconstructing its crude representational mechanisms “in the name of political radicalism.” A great deal of significance is carried by that concluding phrase. Here avant-garde art claims to speak on behalf of a political radicalism that cannot speak for itself, or that is in some manner disabled, premature or impossible in the current moment. This act of unilateral delegation is central to the aesthetic schema I’ve outlined in this essay. The value of Praise, in this view, lies in its conscious “break with journalistic norms,” as well as the “more serious danger of art or literature which tends towards what lies beyond art, and which could have some distant effect on the situation at hand.” Here advanced art gains its power precisely by refusing to align itself with movements which might seek to alter (even at a distance) the existing social or political reality represented by the artist. Thus, Agee’s inclusion in Praise of extensive lists of the objects he observed in the tenant families’ homes is intended to make the book “useless for any account of the situation of poor farmers given to the—traditional, reformist or revolutionary—doctors of society.” Rather, its target audience, the interlocutor who is naturalized in Ranciére’s account, is a bourgeois reader already steeped in the history of advanced art and literature, and able to appreciate Agee’s transgressive “explosion” of existing genres in the first place. “In order to sense this beauty,” as Ranciére writes, “one has to be there accidentally, a spectator coming from elsewhere with eyes and a mind filled with the memory of performances and pages past.” As this passage suggests there is an oddly disembodied quality to Ranciére’s analysis of Praise. Certainly, there is no accident in Agee’s appearance in Hale County, Alabama, or in the mechanisms that might bring bourgeois readers “from elsewhere” to buy his book and consume his stories of rural poverty. These are not accidental and agent-less events, but the straightforward expression of an economic logic associated with the institutions of the bourgeois literary world.
While the beauty of the tenant’s lives evoked by Agee’s writing and Evans’s photographs (“produced by their gestures and inscribed in their living conditions”) “belongs . . . only to the one who has come there to see it,” the consciousness of the tenant’s themselves is entirely subordinate to utilitarian concerns. “They only know,” as Ranciére continues, “the art of responding to chance by chance as the necessary response to necessity.” As this suggests, the tenants are incapable of grasping the complex forms of aesthetic transcendence that their own suffering provokes in the bourgeois reader or viewer. Rather, they remain sunk in a quasi-animalistic struggle for survival (elements of which are evident in Agee’s ready association of the black couple he encountered with cows, horses and “terrified wild animals”), which we can lament, but not materially address. Here is Ranciére, citing passages from Agee’s writing.
Habit and education have erased any reason “to regard anything in terms other than those of need and use”. They have extinguished “the ability to know, even fractionally the almost annihilating beauty, ambiguity, darkness, and horror which swarm every instant of consciousness, the ability to try to accept, or the ability to try to defend one’s self, or the ability to dare to try to assist others”. In exchange for what is robbed from them, they are only allowed to know the shadow of the beauty of others, these images of the lives of the fortunate with which they cover their walls or fireplaces, calendar beauties that cover the Rickett’s walls. . .
This reflects a striking presumption regarding the creative or reflective capacities of the tenant families that is all the more remarkable given Ranciére’s avowed commitment to the native intelligence of the working-class, and his efforts to differentiate his analysis from Greenberg’s disdain for the kitsch-sodden sensibilities of the masses.
If the poor know “only the shadow” of beauty, then their lives can acquire an aesthetic value only through the mediation of the artist or writer, who serves to link their experience, metonymically, with the signifiers of advanced art. This is why we encounter a parallel structure in both Agee’s book and Ranciére’s commentary, in which the aesthetic significance of the tenant families is measured in terms of its’ correlation with a set of canonical modernist literary works. In one page alone Ranciére compares Agee’s writing to that of Marcel Proust, Walt Whitman, James Joyce and Virginia Wolff. And Louise Gudger, the ten-year old daughter of one of the tenant families who figures prominently in Praise, is reborn as the “Emma of Hale County,” in Ranciére’s phrasing. In this manner the “aesthetic” qualities of high art (which are produced through its privileged insertion within the validating circuits of the institutional art or literary world) are projected onto the artifacts of the rural poor, in a manner that effaces entirely the forms of contingency and class privilege that condition the meaning of the aesthetic itself. Instead, the capacity to mobilize the authority of aesthetic judgement, to project quasi-metaphysical qualities onto quotidian objects in the world, is employed as a signifier of the author’s critical self-reflexivity. Here again we encounter the symptomatic slippage between the aesthetic as a displaced expression of “political radicalism,” and the aesthetic in its more conventional usage, referring to the reduction of the social world to a set of images, abstracted from their material context and made available for visual or literary consumption. This is not simply a process intended to provide bourgeois viewers with the opportunity for some therapeutic self-awareness regarding their own class complicity. Rather, this process also has the effect of endowing the poor themselves, and their lives, with a “dignity” that they currently lack. “We” can do nothing to help them materially, or politically, but we can at least endow their lives, at a distance, with the aura of great art, in order that their “most humble lives” might be raised to “the height of their destiny,” as Ranciére writes. “The problem is to restore each element of the inventory [Agee’s description of the tenant’s lives] to the dignity of what it is: a response to the violence of a condition. . . a wound from being subject to necessity and the pain of knowing that the response will never match the intensity of its violence.” This passage reflects a characteristic elision in Ranciére’s analysis, in which the tenant’s own suffering (‘subject to necessity’) is collapsed into Agee’s “pain” at realizing that his own response to this suffering will always remain inadequate.
Agee both can and cannot confront the trauma of class and race difference that he encountered in Hale County. He is painfully conscious of his own compromised relationship to the southern poor, and yet the only tools he has at his disposal to address their poverty and to absolve his sense of guilt (the techniques of poetic description, the attribution of aesthetic significance) simply lead to their further instrumentalization, as their lives become the raw material for yet another great work of art destined for a middle-class readership that is fully capable of aestheticizing the guilt that is the concomitant of its economic privilege. We are left with an art that relentlessly points to its own inability to represent without violence, but which nevertheless continues to represent the other as the vehicle for an aesthetic transcendence (available only to the reader), that is abstracted from the experience that the poor themselves have of their lives. In this sense, Agee needs to risk objectifying the tenant families precisely in order for him to demonstrate his own anguished recognition of the fact of that objectification. For it is only through his exemplary self-awareness that some vestigial form of “political radicalism” can be preserved within the chaos and delusion of the 1930s. This constitutes the limit condition of self-reflexivity as a critical modality in the avant-garde tradition. Certainly it is necessary, but in the context of the broader social world that Agee sought to interact with it is clearly not sufficient.
To fully engage with the material existence of the tenant families would have required Agee to question not simply the ideological limitations of political reform and revolution, or the generic constraints of journalism and documentary, but his own self-understanding as an artist, and the circuits of the bourgeois literary world in which he sought to gain recognition. Instead, the institutional sphere of literary production remains the one discursive site that is exempted from a foundational critique. We encounter this same tendency to naturalize the institutional art world, to imagine it as a site of transcendent criticality free of the ideological complicities that accompany other forms of cultural production, in Ranciére’s writing. Thus, while he is convinced that “political mobilization” will cause irreparable harm to the integrity of aesthetic experience he is considerably more sanguine about the rampant commodification of contemporary art. Here the institutional art world (or, rather, a highly valorized image of it) serves as the ramified spatial expression of a paradigm of cognitive sovereignty that has its origins in in the monadic consciousness of the artist. It is this same paradigm, of interior and exterior, of purity and impurity, of self-reflective criticality and naïve “actionism,” that has constrained the analysis of socially engaged art by conventionally trained critics for the past two decades. Certainly, Praise stands as an unrivaled expression of a particular genre of literary production; the sensitive writer wrestling with his class and racial privilege through the medium of poetic description and confessional monologue. What is harder to accept is the claim that this mode of artistic subjectivity offers us a more complex understanding of the nature of the “political radicalism” than we encounter in the work of artists seeking to mobilize the aesthetic potential of resistance itself, or that Agee’s willingness to acknowledge his own privilege is sufficient justification for perpetuating forms of representational violence that he finds inexcusable in others.
Grant Kester is professor of art history in the Visual Arts department at the University of California, San Diego and the founding editor of FIELD: A Journal of Socially Engaged Art Criticism. His publications include Art, Activism and Oppositionality: Essays from Afterimage (Duke University Press, 1998), Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (University of California Press, 2004, second edition in 2013), The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context (Duke University Press, 2011), Collective Situations: Dialogues in Contemporary Latin American Art 1995-2010, an anthology of writings by art collectives working in Latin America produced in collaboration with Bill Kelley Jr. (Duke University Press, 2017), The Sovereign Self: Aesthetic Autonomy from the Enlightenment to the Avant-Garde (Duke University Press, 2023) and Beyond the Sovereign Self: Aesthetic Autonomy from the Avant-Garde to Socially Engaged Art (Duke University Press, 2024).
 Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, translated by Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1997), p.190.
 Jacques Ranciére, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, translated by Zakir Paul (London: Verso, 2013).
 Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981).
 John Roberts, Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde (London: Verso, 2015).
 It is worth noting that both Brown and Benn Michaels present themselves as stalwart defenders of the centrality of class as an analytic category, against the onslaught of what they perceive to be credulous, identity-based political theories whose only function is to excuse the ongoing depredations of the capitalist system. For more on this question see Beyond the Sovereign Self, pp.219-228.
 Nicholas Brown, Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art Under Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), p.182
 Ibid., p.29.
 Ibid., p.34.
 Fredric Jameson, “Aesthetics Today,” in “A Special Issue on Nicholas Brown’s Autonomy,“ edited by Mathias Nilges, CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, vol. 22, no. 3 (2020). https://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol22/iss3/1/
 Walter Benn Michaels, The Beauty of a Social Problem: Photography, Autonomy, Economy (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), p.70. The concept of “close interpretive attention” is used by Brown in Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art Under Capitalism.
 See, for example, Ranciere’s critique of the escrache tradition in Argentina in Stephen Wright, et. al., “An Exchange with Jacques Rancière,” 1-11. In Art & Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods, vol. 2, no. 1 (Summer 2008). http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/jrexchange.html. Accessed October 19, 2022.
 This research is presented in two new books. The Sovereign Self: Aesthetic Autonomy from the Enlightenment to the Avant Garde (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2023) and Beyond the Sovereign Self: Aesthetic Autonomy from the Avant-Garde to Socially Engaged Art (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2024).
 Roberts, Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde, pp. 156, 67.
 Theodor Adorno, “The Artist as Deputy,” Notes to Literature, vol. 1, translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p.107. The concept of the “representative subject of all society” refers, of course, to the quasi-Hegelian role assigned to the proletariat in Marxist theory, who come to embody the final reconciliation of self and other as they evolve into a new, “universal” class.
 James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (New York: Ballantine Books, 1960).
 Alfred T. Barson, A Way of Seeing: A Critical Study of James Agee, (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972), p.102.
 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, p.xvi.
 Peter H. Olin, Agee, (New York: Ivan Obolensky, Inc., 1966), p.52. Granville Hicks, “Suffering Face of the Rural South,” Saturday Review, XLII (September 10, 1960), p.19-20.
 Miles Orvell, After the Machine: Visual Arts and the Erasing of Cultural Boundaries (Jackson, MS.: University of Mississippi Press, 1995).
 Margaret Olin, “’It Is Not Going To Be Easy To Look Into Their Eyes’: Privilege of Perception in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” Art History, vol. 14, no. 1 (March 1991), p.92.
 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, p.5.
 Ibid., p.14.
 T.V. Reed, Fifteen Jugglers, Five Believers: Literary Politics and the Poetics of American Social Movements (Berkeley, CA. University of California Press, 1992), p.27.
 Ibid., p.47.
 See, for example, Robin D.G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
 Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” Understanding Brecht, translated by Anna Bostock (London: Verso, 1998).
 Fifteen Jugglers, Five Believers, p.27.
 “It sounds conceited; whether it is or not: I’d do anything on earth to become a really great writer.” James Agee, Letters of James Agee to Father Flye (New York: Braziller, 1962), p.47.
 Bruce Jackson, “The Deceptive Anarchy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” The Antioch Review , vol. 57, no. 1, (Winter, 1999), pp.45, 48.
 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, p.13.
 Thus, Agee writes that George and Annie Mae Gudger “seemed not other than my own parents”. Ibid., p.415
 Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: James Agee, Walker Evans, and the Rise and Fall of Cotton in the South (New York: Pantheon, 1989), p.20.
 Christina Davidson, “Let Us Now Trash Famous Authors,” The Atlantic (April 2010). https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/04/let-us-now-trash-famous-authors/307994/ (accessed on-line October 28, 2021).
 Margaret Olin, “’It is Not Going to Be Easy to Look into Their Eyes’,” p.100. Also see Dale Maharidge, And Their Children After Them, p.54-55.
 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, p.39.
 Margaret Bourke-White, Portrait of Myself (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1985), p.133.
 Bruce Jackson, “The Deceptive Anarchy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” p.46.
 John C. Cort in The Commonweal (September 12, 1941), cited by Victor C. Kramer, “Agee’s ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’: Image of Tenant Life,” The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 4 (Fall 1972), p.408.
 James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, p.37. The “Near a Church” passage from which the remainder of the quotes are taken is on pp.37-41.
 Ibid., p.39.
 Ibid., p.42. “. . . I could not bear that they should receive from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear. . . I wanted only that they should be restored, and should know I was their friend, and that I might melt from existence. . . The least I could have done was to throw myself flat on my face and embrace and kiss their feet.”
 Ibid., p.42.
 Ibid., p.39.
 Mikhail Bakhtin, Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays, edited by Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov, translated and notes by Vadim Liapunov (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), p.142.
 Maharidge addresses the elision of race in And Their Children After Them, p.70.
 James Agee, Cotton Tenants: Three Families (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2013, p.207. This is a collection of the original, previously unpublished, notes that Agee assembled for the Fortune magazine assignment.
 James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, p.29.
 Walker Evans, Walker Evans at Work (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), p.107.
 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, p.242.
 Ibid., p.203.
 Ibid., p.144.
 Ibid., p.121.
 Ibid., pp.40-41.
 Miles Orvell, After the Machine: Visual Arts and the Erasing of Cultural Boundaries, p.127.
 Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell, You Have Seen Their Faces (New York: Viking Press, 1937), frontispiece.
 Belinda Rathbone, Walker Evans: A Biography (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), p.136.
 Leslie Katz, “An Interview with Walker Evans,” in Photography in Print, edited by Vicki Goldberg, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), p.360.
 Benn Michaels, The Beauty of a Social Problem, p.122.
 Ibid., p.127.
 Benn Michaels antipathy towards photographic practices that entail any form of collaborative interaction with the sitter (he identifies Thomas Struth’s work as an example) is informed by his admiration for Fried (they were colleagues at Johns Hopkins University for a time). In his well-known 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood,” Fried famously condemned what he termed the “theatricality” of contemporary art (“The success, even the survival, of the arts has come increasingly to depend on their ability to defeat theatre.”). For Fried, even the very provisional opening out towards the embodied viewer, evident in the work of minimalist sculptors such as Donald Judd and Robert Morris, constituted an unacceptable degradation of the sovereignty of the artwork, whose task is to compel the viewer into recognition of its excellence, rather than engage them in a dialogue. Thus, “literalist” works by Judd and Morris propose an aesthetic encounter that “virtually by definition, includes the beholder.” Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum, vol. 5, no. 10 (Summer 1967).
 Benn Michaels, The Beauty of a Social Problem, p.144.
 I would note here that Benn Michaels spends relatively little time analyzing Evans actual photographs in his book. Rather, his analysis is primarily focused on the performative and discursive interactions between Agee, Evans and the tenant families, and with Evans own state of mind. In fact, at the level of formal analysis, the distinctions between Evans’s ostensibly “antagonistic” images, such as his famous Hale County portrait Floyd Burroughs (Summer 1936) and images based on a more empathetic relationship to the sitter, such as Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (March 1936) are difficult to discern.
 Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, pp. xi, xii.
 Ibid., p.xiii. With a handful of exceptions his case studies constitute a virtual roll-call of Euro-American white, male literary production. In this respect, the absences in Ranciére’s book (of the voices of women, of artists or writers of color, or those working beyond the parameters of the European art world) are symptomatic of a fundamental conservatism in his aesthetic outlook.
 Ibid. Ranciére’s analysis can appear innovative, in this regard, only by ignoring several decades of art historical research that has precisely sought to challenge Greenberg’s notion of an autonomous and formalist art practice.
 See, for example, Jacques Ranciére, “The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes,” New Left Review 14 (March-April 2002), pp.133-151.
 An authentically “political” work of art, in Ranciére’s estimation, will produce in the benumbed viewer “a sensible or perceptual shock caused . . . by the uncanny, by that which resists signification.” Jacques Ranciére, The Politics of Aesthetics, translated by Gabriel Rockhill (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), p.63.
 For Ranciére, the Schillerian prefiguration of an aesthetic sensus communis is renewed in the exchange that occurs between authors/artists and readers/viewers, mediated by works of art in a manner that allows for equal creative agency. This exchange is both transformative, and ethically secure, precisely because the two selves are never fully (co)present to each other. It finds its apophatic antithesis in collaborative or participatory models of aesthetic experience, which are incapable of maintaining a mediated relationship to the world, and can only ever be naïve and even politically reactionary. In these works, “the spectator is supposed to be redeemed when he is no longer an individual, when he is carried off in a flood of the collective energy or led to the position of the citizen who acts as a member of the collective”. To avoid this fate, it is essential that we preserve a fixed set of enunciative and receptive positions, distanced from each other by the mediating apparatus of the artwork (“there must be something between the master and the student”). What Ranciére seems to most fear in the concept of theater is the perceived dissolution of the autonomous self that is at the core of modern aesthetics (the spectator “who is no longer an individual”) and the “confusion” of roles that seek to turn “spectatorship into activity by turning representation into presence.” What Ranciére must naturalize, then, is the belief that the origin of all critical insight is the individual monadic consciousness of the artist and, secondarily, the viewer who is allowed to “translate” or “interpret” the artist’s work. Any challenge to this hierarchical system, any “blurring” of the “distribution of roles,” is symptomatic of a crippling dissolution of ontological boundaries, “when all artistic competencies stray from their own fields and exchange places and powers with all others”. Jacques Ranciére, “The Emancipated Spectator,” Artforum, vol. 45, no. 7 (March 2007), pp.272, 278, 280.
 Ibid., p.275.
 Jacques Ranciére, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, translated, with an introduction, by Kristin Ross (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), p.12. The student, as he writes, must be rescued by the artist qua teacher from the “swamp of self-contempt.” Ibid., p.101.
 Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press,1961), p.8.
 Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, p. xvi.
 Georg Lukács distinguishes between the “empirical” and the “imputed” consciousness of the proletariat, with the party serving as the caretaker of a yet-to-be-realized working class consciousness (“the Party is assigned the sublime role of bearer of the class consciousness of the proletariat and the conscience of its historical vocation“). Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, translated by Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983), p.41.
 Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, p. 249.
 Ibid., p.250.
 Ibid, p.255.
 Ibid, p.256.
 See, for example, Jacques Ranciére, Nights of Labor: The Worker’s Dream in Nineteenth Century France (London: Verso, 2012).
 Ibid, p.255.
 Ibid, p.257.
 Ibid, p.257.
 Ibid, p.253.
 As Ranciére argues in a 2007 Artforum interview: “Money is necessary to make art; to make a living you have to sell the fruits of your labor. So art is a market, and there’s no getting around it . . .” Given the incontrovertible fact of the market there is no real point in critiquing it, and presumably, nothing to be gained by attempting to work, to some extent at least, outside of its grip. Rather, the “critique of the market today,” as Ranciére writes, “has become a morose reassessment that . . . serves to forestall the emancipation of minds and practices. And it ends up sounding not dissimilar to reactionary discourse . . .” Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey, “Art of the Possible: An Interview with Jacques Ranciére,” Artforum, vol.45, no. 7 (March 2007), p.263.