On Attunement: Critics, Criticism, and the Classroom / Jessica Swoboda

Rembrandt, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, 1659.

Howard Belsey—the pretentious, arrogant, narcissistic professor in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty—loves to interrogate artworks. “What we’re trying to . . . interrogate here,” Howard remarks at the start of his seventeenth-century art history class, “is the mytheme of the artist as autonomous individual with privileged insight into the human.”1 Interrogate is italicized throughout the novel. This stylistic choice seems to be Smith’s way of telling readers pay attention to this—to how the word connects to what’s written around it; to the meaning of interrogation; and to the way such interrogation impacts people’s relationship to art. To interrogate is to detach from your object of study, Smith seems to suggest. It means asserting your intellectual superiority and being closed to anyone’s perspective but your own. No wonder, then, that Howard opens class not with a question that will inspire discussion but with a statement his students should accept as fact.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Howard’s opening comment is met with silence, so he reframes his comment: “To reframe: is what we see here really a rebellion, a turning away?,” he asks. “We’re told that this constitutes a rejection of the classical nude. OK. But. Is this nude not a confirmation of the ideality of the vulgar? As it is already inscribed in the idea of a specifically gendered, class debasement?” (252). Howard asks what all professors should—must—avoid asking: leading questions. His own answers, these questions suggest, are the only right answers. He doesn’t want students to challenge his claims. He doesn’t care about widening the scope of interpretation. He doesn’t want to change or be changed. He simply recycles statements he has made since the start of his academic career. Howard, we learn, will interrogate artworks, but he will not interrogate his own perspective.

This scene brings together two questions that have consumed my thinking since the publication of Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan’s Teaching Archive (2020) and PMLA’s “Theories and Methodologies” cluster “Cultures of Argument” (2020), edited by Pardis Dabashi: How is the classroom a site of knowledge production? How can we think with rather than against one another as peers, colleagues, scholars, critics? Buurma and Heffernan reveal, through archival research, how academic arguments wouldn’t—couldn’t—have existed or taken the shape that they have taken without the classroom.2 And Dabashi, in response to debates about method in literary studies, which focus mostly on how critics relate to their objects of study, writes in her introduction to the cluster, “What felt more salient to me as an early-career researcher with no professional security—and to me as a critic, more generally—was the positioning of my claims vis-à-vis the claims of others.”3 I very much share Dabashi’s interest and feelings. But whereas Dabashi sees this question more as a problem of scholarly articulation than a problem of analysis, this classroom scene reveals to me that perhaps it’s a problem of both: how we relate to, how we analyze, our objects of study also impacts how we relate to one another—in the classroom and in criticism.

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The objects of study during Howard’s class are Rembrandt’s Jacob’s Wrestling with the Angel and Seated Nude, yet neither Howard nor the students who participate in the class discussion ever mention the name of the paintings or even Rembrandt. Only Katie Armstrong—the sixteen-year-old, working class, full scholarship student at Wellington College, the Harvard-esque fictional university in Massachusetts—seems to care about them. Only from her point of view do we get descriptions of these two paintings.

Katie takes Howard’s class because she loves Rembrandt, “the second most amazing human being [she] has ever come across” (249). She had expected her classmates to think the same or, at the very least, to discuss how and why some paintings move them. But instead, Katie is always intimidated into silence. Howard and her classmates frequently use words she doesn’t understand. After the previous class, she decided to look some of them up in the dictionary, but only found “liminality.” That confused her more: the definition for the word didn’t match Howard’s use of it. She has cried in her dorm room because of this class. She has “cursed her stupidity and her youth” (250). She is always filled with shame.

Katie, however, is determined to participate this class period. When Howard asks next, “What are these images really concerned with?” she begins to open her mouth (252). She has spent the past week studying these two paintings, and she feels ready—finally—to contribute to the discussion. She “has thought about the vigorous impasto that works counter-intuitively to create that somnolent, dreamy atmosphere” in Jacob’s Wrestling with the Angel, a line that seems not to emerge from Katie’s mind but straight out of an academic article on the painting, many of which she has read the past week. But she has also thought about the Angel’s wings, which to her appear as “an afterthought, as if to remind us that this painting is meant to be of matters biblical, other-worldly”; in other words, a faith battle. Katie experienced her own painful faith battle two years prior, but what she sees in the painting doesn’t communicate struggle, “at least not the kind she herself has experienced” (251). “Jacob looks like he wants sympathy,” she thinks, “and the angel looks like he wants to give sympathy. That’s not how a battle goes” (251). The painting, from her perspective, is a battle with the self, a fight to understand one’s earthly life. But she has few other words for the painting, as if she, like Jacob, is at battle with the self. On the one hand, Katie wants to discuss how she feels in the face of this painting; on the other, she is made to think that her interpretive inclinations are invalid, incorrect—that the only acceptable method is interrogation.

Katie has a more visceral reaction to Seated Nude: it makes her cry. In this painting, Katie sees “a misshapen woman, naked, with tubby little breasts and a hugely distended belly” (251). Though a self-described “string bean,” Katie nonetheless recognizes her own body in the woman’s (249). However, critics, Katie notes, find this painting “disgusting”; “many famous men are repulsed,” she gathers (251). Howard’s opening remarks suggest he is part of this critical choir. If a woman’s body is not sexualized, then it is vulgar, the choir sings. But for her, this body has endured the pains of childbirth, aging, and work. It “has lured men in the past and may yet lure more” (251). It contains “the marks of living” (251). Women’s bodies should be celebrated, affirmed, the painting communicates to Katie. Shame has no place here.

Rembrandt, Seated Nude c.1631.

Unfortunately, Victoria, the daughter of Howard’s arch-nemesis Monty Kipps, another academic, interjects before Katie can. “It’s a painting about painting,” she asserts (253). The next student questions her use of the word “painting.” Then Zora, Howard’s daughter, questions Victoria’s privileging of the word “painting.” Suddenly, abstractions replace the material objects that are supposed to be the focus of discussion. Suddenly, Rembrandt’s paintings disappear along with Katie to the margins of the classroom. “And now the class escapes Katie; it streams through her toes as the sea and sand when she stands at the edge of the ocean and dozily, stupidly, allows the tide to draw out and the world to pull away from her so rapidly as to make her dizzy” (253).

This scene positions the comments of Victoria and Zora, daughters of two academics, as the “right” ones. They pose theoretical questions; they try to outsmart their classmates; they want to poke holes in other people’s claims. But they also dissociate and detach from the paintings—make statements and pose questions that are specific to nothing. Interrogation, their class contributions suggest, is the focus of Howard’s seventeenth-century art class—not the paintings, and especially not any feelings about the paintings. Yet at the same time, this scene asks why abstract, empty, vague questions that have nothing to do with Jacob’s Wrestling with the Angel or Seated Nude are privileged, accepted, tolerated, while Katie’s attachment to these paintings isn’t even thought of by anyone but her as a possible way into interpretation.

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The keyword for unpacking this scene—the term that names Katie’s experience—is attunement. Attunement attends to art’s presence and immediacy; it accounts for what is fuzzy and befuddling about aesthetic experiences; and it captures their affective charge. Attunement also attends to the complexities of interpersonal encounters. It refers to the process of picking up on what others are feeling, often through gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice.4

What factors influence Katie’s attunement to these Rembrandt paintings? Her socioeconomic background, which she is constantly reminded of as a full scholarship student at an elite university overflowing with upper-middle class students whose parents most likely pay their tuition; her nerves; her shame; her love for Rembrandt and the arts; her fear of Howard; her diligence; the critical essays she has spent the past week reading. She recognizes in Jacob’s Wrestling with the Angel everything her own faith battle lacked and that her life at present lacks: sympathy for her perspective, words to express her feelings, recognition. In Seated Nude, Katie finds the acknowledgment she’s been seeking. She sees in the woman’s body a challenge to patriarchal conceptions of female nudity and in its physical marks a celebration of the strife, labor, and pain that women endure. This painting, then, moves Katie to challenge the mode of interpretation that dominates Howard’s class—interrogation—by celebrating what she feels in the face of these paintings. She heads to class, for the first time since the semester began, “very excited. She sits down excited” (252). The excitement she experiences as a result of her attunement gives her confidence in her ideas, freeing her from feelings of inferiority as well as from the interrogative language she initially forced onto her perspective.

Attunement is a familiar concept to Smith. In her 2012 essay, “Some Notes on Attunement,” she discusses how, while overlooking Tintern Abbey, she came to “love” Joni Mitchell’s music “so unreasonably.”5 She experiences attunement despite the fact that in the not too distant past, she had pleaded with her friends to turn off Mitchell’s “incomprehensible,” “piping” music that she considered to be “just noise” (102). But now, she finds herself, like Katie, caught in a tangle of ties: to Tintern Abbey, to the sun that floods the area, to a line from one of Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems that her husband recites, to a “strange piece of music” she’s humming that she realizes is the Mitchell song that was playing in the cab, to a sausage roll craving. These various ties come together, resonate, and align in such a way that Smith can no longer recognize her former self: “I truly cannot understand the language of my former heart,” she writes (104).

Smith’s meditation on attunement ends with the individual self. She doesn’t explore how her newfound love for Mitchell’s music transforms her relationships with the friends who have always loved it. Nor does she consider if the attunement she experiences changes how she understands her relation to the environments in which she moves and exists. The stakes of attunement for Smith—at least in this essay—are purely individual. But I see them as social. Katie’s experience teaches me that how we relate to, and therefore interpret, artworks has interpersonal consequences. After all, she is intimidated into silence not because she is unintelligent—though she is made to think that she is—but because she doesn’t interact with artworks in the way her classmates do. For her, first-person experiences, her own affective responses to the paintings, inspire interpretation. She isn’t inspired by interrogation.

It may seem strange to make an argument about Katie’s attunement. After all, can the feelings people have about artworks really help them interpret those artworks?6 The short answer is yes. When shock courses through Katie’s body and she begins to cry in front of Seated Nude, she sees the marks on the woman’s body and then interprets those marks as challenges to patriarchal assumptions. Perhaps when Katie mentions these marks in class, one of her classmates will notice them for the first time. Or perhaps another classmate will have interpreted them as signs of the woman’s complacency within patriarchal structures. These hypothetical scenarios aside, embedded in this scene is an implicit argument between Howard and Katie: her conclusions that Jacob is not fighting a faith battle and that the woman in the painting is not a debasement but a celebration of women pose a challenge to Howard’s opening remarks. If attending to first-person experience meant attending only to feelings, then Katie, like her classmates, would have abandoned the paintings altogether and talked only about her own life. Her feelings, her attunement, are a way into, not the end of, interpretation. They also aren’t the interpretation.

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I don’t want to be Howard. He doesn’t encourage thoughtful, reflective, engaged debate. He refuses to take seriously other people’s interpretations. His students care only about outsmarting one another. No one attempts to understand another person’s perspective. No one can even come together around a painting because they are more preoccupied with interrogating each other than with the artworks themselves. Why art matters to an individual—how it affects them—has no place in his seminar. The result of their habits is that a working-class student, without the same cultural capital as her economically privileged counterparts, is forced to the margins of the classroom. I wonder what direction the conversation would have gone if Katie had interjected before Victoria, if she had shared with the class what she thought “the images were really concerned with.”

The classroom is a social space, a place where interpretations collide and are enriched, where the various ideas that are shared help build a collective understanding of a painting, a novel, a theoretical concept. But we’re disciplined into remaining cool, calm, and collected in the face of an artwork, immune to its allures as well as to others’ interpretations of it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Smith includes paintings of human-like figures with such striking features in a scene where no one pays attention to each other. The disconnect Smith establishes between the features of the painting and the dynamic of the classroom reveals that interrogation not only renders the art object irrelevant. It also renders the people in the class irrelevant. All that matters is how your contribution proves better, stronger, more novel than the one that preceded it.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced professors to confront questions of access: for instance, do all students have access to reliable internet? This scene adds another question to the conversation: can all students enter into the class’s object of study? Howard begins with interrogation, with cultural critique, which shuts Katie out of the discussion and implicitly renders her ideas invalid. But this doesn’t mean that Katie’s attunement approach leads her away from Howard’s questions, as vague, abstract, and irrelevant to the Rembrandt paintings they are. Instead, her attunement leads her toward them. What distinguishes her method from Howard’s is that she arrives at cultural critique through specific details in the paintings, which she becomes aware of because of her affective response to them. How, then, could Katie’s classroom experience have been different if Howard’s starting point was students’ reactions to the paintings, something they can all access, not interrogation, which is legible, as this scene shows, to only a privileged few?

I want to think that if Katie had felt able to participate—to verbalize her attunement—that it would have been the first step toward cultivating a classroom community. Other students would have picked up on her excitement, but they would have also engaged her insights. Perhaps Victoria would have been moved to discuss another aspect of femininity the woman’s body celebrates. Perhaps, then, the next student, a man, would ask them to clarify why those elements need celebrating so that he can deepen his own understanding. Perhaps Zora would then ask how they reconcile that perspective with the woman’s gloomy expression. And perhaps Howard would start to ask his students different—real, not leading—questions. The painting would take back its rightful place at the center, perspectives would be shared, interpretations deepened, no one made to feel inferior. Most importantly, people would be willing to change and be changed—by others’ attunement to the art objects and by the social relations in which they now exist.

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  1. Zadie Smith, On Beauty (New York: Penguin, 2006), 152 (hereafter cited in text by page number).
  2. Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan, The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2020).
  3. Pardis Dabashi, “Introduction to ‘Cultures of Argument’: The Loose Garments of Argument,” PMLA 135, no. 5 (2020): 946. See also Thom Dancer, Critical Modesty in Contemporary Fiction (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2021).
  4. I’m indebted to the following sources for my definition of attunement: Rita Felski, Hooked: Art and Attachment (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2020); Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1962); Thomas Rickert, Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2013); Daniel N. Stern, The Interpersonal World of the Infant (London: Karnac Books, 1985); Kathleen Stewart, “Atmospheric Attunements,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29 (2011): 445-53; and Erik Wallrup, Being Musically Attuned: The Act of Listening to Music (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014).
  5. Smith, “Some Notes on Attunement,” in Feel Free (Penguin, New York: 2018), 104 (hereafter cited in text by page number).
  6. For critiques of affect, see especially Walter Benn Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier: From 1967 to the End of History (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2004) and Ruth Leys, “The Turn to Affect: A Critique,” Critical Inquiry 37 (2011): 434-72.