Dec 19, 2022

reframing, redux

Yesterday Alan saw my post about making art, not arguments and had this to say:

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

Come and see indeed! I also want to point once more to Danielle Allen’s idea of reframing as a democratic practice — one of her trilogy of practices, and the one that I suspect gets the littlest attention. Here she is in What is Education For?:

[C]ivic agency involves three core tasks. First is disinterested deliberation around a public problem. Here the model derives from Athenian citizens gathered in the assembly, the town halls of colonial New Hampshire, and public representatives behaving reasonably in the halls of a legislature. Second is prophetic work intended to shift a society’s values; in the public opinion and communications literature, this is now called “frame shifting.” Think of the rhetorical power of nineteenth-century abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, of Martin Luther King, Jr., or of Occupy Wall Street activists with their rallying cry of “we are the 99 percent.” Finally, there is transparently interested “fair fighting,” where a given public actor adopts a cause and pursues it passionately. One might think of early women’s rights activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage.

and further, she says, the model agent understands that these tasks are all necessary, and the political geniuses of history were able to shift among them:

The ideal civic agent carries out all three of these tasks—disinterested deliberation, prophetic frame shifting, and fair fighting—ethically and justly. Stanton is an example of this ideal at work. At the Seneca Falls Convention, she was in deliberative mode for the debate about the text of the Declaration of Sentiments. However, before the convention’s deliberations, when she drafted that text, she was in the prophetic mode, just as she was in her innumerable speeches. Finally, in campaigning for legal change, as in the adoption of the Woman’s Property Bill in New York and similar laws in other states, she was operating as an activist.

For Allen, speeches are the primary “reframing” device; they do rhetorical work to re-describe the status quo with new language or even new paradigmatic meaning. Dr. King comes to mind, of course. “I have been to the mountaintop” and “I have a dream” are not merely rhetorical flourishes. They are Biblical images and therefore powerful allusions in the name of freedom, but they also invest the Jim Crow era with new urgency, a newly visible unacceptability. King didn’t (merely) have a “silver tongue.” He understood the power of reframing that accompanied his other modes of action.

King was the kind of prophetic reframer that Allen has in mind — the voice speaking in the wilderness, the one ahead of history. But I want to say that the arts — without the armature of argument — are able to do a thousand works of subtler reframing, too. And this is what Alan (the other Alan!) is calling for, I think: yes, a repaired world, in a panoply of images that are prismatic and (as he says, quoting Oakeshott elsewhere) manifold in so many artistic gestures. A desirable otherwise world may be evoked, suggested, temporarily present, and not only by the fantasy of a carte blanche future, but by reframing what’s right in front of us: re-enchanting the everyday with newly vivid unacceptability or holiness or possibility. Recognizing the sheer paradox of living in a body. Juxtaposing two or more incommensurable truths that address the conundrum of being caught in historical time — with a longing for timelessness.