Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme 
by Martin Jay.
California, 431 pp., £22, January 2005, 0 520 24272 6
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Oscar Wilde called experience the name one gives to one’s mistakes, while for Samuel Johnson it was what hope triumphed over for those who married a second time. Emerson thought all experience was valuable, an opinion not shared by the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay. Plato and Spinoza saw it as a realm of illusion, to be contrasted with the pure light of reason. Jacques Derrida deeply disliked the notion, suspecting it of dark metaphysical tendencies. For William Blake, from whom Martin Jay takes the title of his absorbing new study, experience is a domain of false consciousness and fruitless desire. For Romantics like Keats, by contrast, it is the zone of sensuous immediacy in which truth is revealed. Truth, for the Keatsian sort of Romantic, means authenticity – a fidelity to one’s feelings and sensations – rather than how it is with the world.

William James saw experience as the primal stuff of existence; it was a foundation that we could not dig beneath, since whatever we found there would still be a matter of experience. For empiricists like Locke and Hume, experience is what informs us that our feet will still be there when we wake up in the morning. Like the media in Uzbekistan, it is not very reliable, but it is all there is by way of information about the external world. The opposite of experience is ignorance, which makes it sound worth having, but also innocence, which does not. ‘Experienced’ can have a resonance of ‘sexually experienced’, just as ‘immorality’, in the puritan mind, usually means sex. Like the word ‘evil’ for Bushites, or ‘taste’ in the 18th century, the term can be a way of rebuffing rational analysis. It is what you have in your bones rather than in your head.

Experience can mean either the flow of everyday sensations, or especially memorable chunks of it, or the wisdom and know-how which come from having been in the game a long time. Walter Benjamin saw it as the stories which the old recount to the young, and its disintegration in modern times seemed to him one of the most grievous forms of human poverty. The warning that experience is fading from the modern world is sounded all the way from Heidegger to Adorno. The ‘eternal now’ of modern urban existence, for which everything that happened more than ten minutes ago is ancient history, has eroded that precious medium of experience, tradition. In a world of fleeting perceptions and instantly consumable objects, nothing stays still long enough to lay down the deep memory traces that Proust struggled to raise to consciousness. In modern philosophy, experience is reduced to epistemology, while in postmodern thought the whole category is in danger of sinking without trace. This theoretical death of the subject may reflect among other things some rather more tangible disappearances. In the era of Auschwitz, events take place that slip over the horizon of any conceivable experience.

Only intellectuals, one might think, could regard experience as a category in its own right. For doesn’t it cover more or less everything there is? The idea of a ‘theory of experience’ appears contradictory. Can you really isolate a subject called ‘experience’, or is it like trying to write a doctoral thesis entitled ‘Thought’? Theology, in fact, has long supposed that you could: there are various discourses about God, one of which, mysticism, deals with the actual experience of Him. Treating experience as a category in itself is useful because it allows you to raise questions about how far experience enters into such matters as reason, religious faith or moral judgment. For rationalists like Descartes, in contrast to empiricists like Hume, experience has precious little role to play in reasoning. As far as religious faith goes, Protestants are more likely than scholastics to regard it as vital; and Aristotle sees experience as more central to ethics than Kant does.

This latter distinction is one that Jay might usefully have investigated. For theorists of virtue such as Aristotle and Aquinas, goodness is something you have to get good at, like tolerating rowdy neighbours or playing the trombone. It is a complex skill or practice, a set of social habits which we have to grow into, and as such it requires exercise and experience. The virtuous have mastered the intricate art of goodness so deftly that like a champion juggler they no longer have to think about it. This is not so true for deontologists like Kant, who think of morality in terms of our dutiful conformity to a universal law. For them, experience in the form of desire or self-interest is usually what gets in the way of doing the right thing.

It would be possible to construct something like a grand narrative of experience from the components of Jay’s book, though he is far too sensible to do so himself. The medieval Church, which knew that all effective power is iconic, was a connoisseur of the senses; but salvation was more a matter of rule-governed conduct than lived experience. This is no doubt one reason why Althusser was able to shift from Catholicism to Structuralism with a minimum of discomfort. You can move from the one set of doctrines to the other without the tiresome business of having to pass through liberal humanism. For both creeds, subjective experience is an effect of certain codified public practices. ‘Grab them by the minds and their hearts will follow’ is a venerable papist precept. There is a good deal in Althusser’s celebrated essay on ideology with which the Holy Office would see eye to eye.

The modern age revolts against this anti-humanism, as philosophy turns to the senses and religion is transformed into Protestant inwardness. But it is also the era of scientific rationalism, which is interested in weighing and measuring an object rather than registering its sinuous curve or peculiar tint. Science is the enemy of the sensuous. It is anchored in perception, but it also puts it into question. It looks as though the sun is coming up, but actually the earth is going down. A rift opens up between how things are and how we experience them. Since this is a rift inherent in reality itself, our experience of the world is bound to be a matter of misrecognition as well as knowledge. Marx thought that without such a hiatus between appearance and reality, there would be no need for science. Instead, the essences of things would be luminously present in their appearances, and truth and experience would be one.

Besides, in a society so complex that it can no longer be grasped as a whole, the laws that govern men’s and women’s behaviour are bound to be opaque to them. All the vital social processes, Marx writes, go on behind the backs of the agents involved. There is a social unconscious as well as a psychical one, which is why people can be exploited without knowing it. The social order is now sublime: it defeats representation, which is one reason why art, which is just such a representational form, was pronounced dead by Hegel on the threshold of the modern age. To complete this pervasive thinning of our experience, the commodity form plunders the world of its sensuous thickness. This is why art, which relishes the taste and texture of things, becomes in modern times an implicit form of political critique.

By the time postmodernism heaves over the horizon, the wheel has come full circle and experience, once a mute resistance to the commodity, is now simply another species of it. Instead of wandering along Hadrian’s Wall, we have the Hadrian’s Wall Experience; instead of the Giant’s Causeway, the Giant’s Causeway Experience. What we consume now is not objects but our sensations of them. Just as we never need to leave our cars, so we never need to leave our skulls. In an ultimate postmodern irony, a commodified experience compensates for the commodity’s impoverishment of experience. The term ‘experience’ dwindles to an empty signifier. As in the sentence ‘I had the experience of scrambling an egg,’ it becomes a freewheeling cog in the linguistic machine. Since what all of these packaged tourist spots have in common is the fact that they are experienced, they become, like commodities, interchangeable. Experience, a term which can mean an event of exceptional value, ends up as a dead leveller.

In the era of late modernity, experience, long the victim of an anaemic Victorian rationalism, begins to strike back. The 19th-century Fin-de-Siècle is awash with vitalism, pragmatism, Nietzscheanism, aestheticism, phenomenology and Lebensphilosophie. There is gender stereotyping here, which Jay might usefully have examined. For high rationalism, experience is undoubtedly a woman: fickle, slippery, ambiguous, untrustworthy, sensuous, passive, inconsistent and opaque. For the sub-Nietzschean vitalists, on the other hand, it is the jagged, virile, unmasterable stuff which, like some ghastly ectoplasm, comes seeping over the edges of all our effete attempts to reduce it to conceptual order. Reason is now a cissy, and an emasculating one at that.

Artistic Modernism turns from reality to experience, exchanging descriptions of things for accounts of what they feel like. Yet this is also the era of Freud, one of the thunderous silences in Jay’s study, for whom the ego and its perceptions are simply an effect of primary processes which are themselves barred to consciousness. The forces that shape our experience must inevitably be absent from it: they lie beyond the reach of figuration, and cannot appear on the stage of subjectivity. The period of Freud, who scandalised middle-class society by proposing that most unthinkable of sciences – one of the human psyche itself – is also the heyday of the artistic avant-garde, which aims to outrage the bourgeoisie by scooping out their precious interiority. Just as psychoanalysis marks the moment when science gets its grubby paws on the inner sanctum of subjectivity, so the Futurists and Surrealists pit shock, flatness, mechanism and montage against well-fed inwardness.

Like several of Jay’s books, Songs of Experience is a mighty mosaic of other people’s ideas. Almost everybody’s, in fact, since there seems to be nothing that this formidably erudite historian has not read. Just as the concept of experience seems to cover everything, so Jay’s intellectual landscape is innocent of frontiers between art and sociology, philosophy and political theory. Specialism, fragmentation and the division of labour have often enough been his subjects, but he has never succumbed to such provincialism himself. His theme here takes him from classical antiquity to post-structuralism, with forays en route into empiricism and idealism, religion and aesthetics, politics, historiography and Western Marxism. There are illuminating cameos of (among a host of others) Montaigne, Burke, Schleiermacher, William James, Michael Oakeshott, Dilthey, Dewey, Rorty, Benjamin (perhaps the book’s hero) and Bataille.

There are, inevitably, one or two slip-ups en route. Bacon is made to sound too much like Descartes; the philosopher John Toland was not British; and Raymond Williams was not a Marxist. Neither was Althusser the cold-blooded adversary of experience painted here. It is true that he saw experience as the homeland of ideology; but ideology is by no means simply a pejorative term in Althusser’s vocabulary, and he wrote of the enduring need to learn from practical struggles. Such minor blemishes apart, however, few in the humanities can rival Jay’s omnivorousness or match his intellectual energy. Songs of Experience assembles its teeming mass of sources with masterly discipline and precision, and without an ounce of spare conceptual flesh.

If the book is staggeringly well informed, however, it is also perversely shy of advancing a case of its own, least of all a controversial one. It suffers from a surfeit of information and a dearth of wisdom, which is how Benjamin and Adorno describe the decay of experience in the modern age. Jay is not the kind of intellectual historian who chances his arm. He has the synoptic sweep of a Lovejoy, Cassirer or Blumenberg, but little of their conceptual daring and panache: when he spots a polarity, he steers right down the middle.

In one sense, to be sure, this dogged even-handedness is a virtue. Jay is right to tread a via media between those for whom experience is merely a secondary effect (of language, culture, power, the unconscious), and the humanists for whom words falter before its prodigal richness. It is possible, however, to be hopelessly well-balanced as well as admirably judicious. In the end, the book settles for a kind of market model of experience, as the site of a ‘productive struggle’ between contending impulses, before trailing off into a series of liberal pieties about experience as ‘a perilous journey of discovery’. Almost nobody is likely to dissent from such thoroughly decent sentiments, which is exactly what is wrong with them. Like most liberals, Jay prefers questions to solutions. It will take more than that to send Donald Rumsfeld packing.

If the topics of Jay’s various studies are for the most part radical, his approach to them is largely conventional. He is drawn to the subversive notions of avant-garde European thinkers, but translates them into the anodyne prose of American academia, festooning them with a hundred footnotes. In a discussion of E.P. Thompson, he alludes to his moral indignation and capacity for invective. A touch of both would do the author of Songs of Experience no harm at all. It is only in his discussion of debates within English Marxism that one can feel the emotional temperature begin to inch up a degree or two, as the heartless Althusserians of New Left Review (a journal which was, in fact, never Althusserian at all) hound the warmly humanistic Raymond Williams with their relentless questioning.

One or two tricks are missed. There is an excellent chapter on aesthetics (which originally meant ‘sensation’ or ‘perception’), but Jay oddly fails to grasp its full relevance to his subject. One of the questions that dogs the history of Western thought, as the book lucidly demonstrates, is how much reason contributes to our knowledge of the world, and how much experience. Roughly speaking, it is a matter of Plato v. Aristotle, Stoics v. Cynics, Catholics v. Protestants, Spinoza v. Locke, Paine v. Burke, Structuralists v. Humanists and even Europe v. America. In a searching account of American thought, Jay shows that the United States has always been a ‘culture of experience’, from the Puritans to the Pragmatists. The point about aesthetics is that as a science of the concrete, it promises to reconcile the rational and the experiential. As such, it seeks to rebut the deeply damaging charge that modern reason cannot cope with the unique particular. The work of art itself is a kind of sensuous logic. It is reason brought home to lived experience, and so vastly more effective than some abstract imperative. Phenomenology would later reinvent this science of the concrete, a phrase which, from the standpoint of high rationalism, is bound to seem like an oxymoron. Instead of digging out the deep structures of the world, we could excavate the deep structures of our experience.

Wittgenstein, somewhat surprisingly, appears here for the most part only in footnotes. Yet it was he who declared in the Philosophical Investigations that ‘intending is not an experience,’ seeking to free us from the illusion that meaning must be something felt on the pulses. We were invited not to model our thoughts on sensations; intending may be accompanied by experiences, but these are of interest to the psychologist, not the philosopher. Promising is not an experience either: if I promise to lend you a fiver, and as the words pass my lips have not the slightest intention of keeping my word, I have still promised. Meaning is a matter of engaging in certain rule-bound social practices, not something akin to a twinge or a glow. When I say that I am expecting the taxi to arrive any minute, I am describing a situation, not reporting an inner experience. The images which may spring to my mind when I read Middlemarch are not part of the meaning of the novel. When I ask ‘Is there a bus due?’, no inner sensation need ghost my words for them to have force. Like the avant-garde, the linguistic turn in philosophy played its part in emptying out an inwardness which had grown too self-satisfied and replete. Experience was no longer private. We were not the proprietors of our perceptions.

Songs of Experience recognises that experiences do not arrive with their political implications conveniently on display. They must first be interpreted; and the same experience, as Perry Anderson has observed, can lead to diametrically opposite political conclusions. It is true, as Jay points out, that experience is generally a conservative concept, along with such cognates as custom, habit, tradition and common sense; but radicals have their customs and lineages as well. Radicals make traditional appeals (for example, to the Chartists) just as conservatives do (to, say, the Jacobites). Anyway, to rely on experience is egalitarian in the sense that, unlike a title or an Oxford doctorate, everybody has it. For Enlightenment radicals, it could provide an alternative source of authority to that of priests and kings. But it can also license a new form of political dogmatism, in which appeals to experience are absolute because they cannot be gainsaid. Hence the familiar emotional blackmail of the postmodern left: how can you possibly know what it’s like to be a disabled Malaysian lesbian? Experience becomes a private possession, to be jealously protected or wielded as a weapon.

This, in fact, is a recycled version of an old empiricist fallacy. Understanding is not the same as empathy. You do not understand Paradise Lost by trying to recreate in yourself what Milton was feeling at the time he wrote it. I do not need to have your pain to sympathise with your suffering; and even if I could somehow have it, this would not guarantee my sympathy. How do I know how painful giving birth can be? It might be enough to say that I speak a language which includes such notions. Thinking otherwise may have tragic consequences: it sees men and women as locked within their own experiential worlds, prisoners of their own perceptions. They can use words to convey the elusive flavour of their experience to each other, a project of which literary art is the supreme model; but it is inevitable that some of it will get lost or damaged in the process. This style of thought treats experience as both supremely important and deeply untrustworthy; whereas Martin Jay, in his judicious if unexciting way, sees it as precious but limited.

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