Doris Sommer: post-plebiscite aesthetics

Doris Sommer: post-plebiscite aesthetics

What role can art and the humanities play after Colombia voted NO? Doris Sommer, author and professor at Harvard University reflects on this subject during her visit to the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.

Written by: Ana Cristina Ayala

Photo: Ana Cristina Ayala

Doris Sommer’s arrived at the Universidad de los Andes the day after the plebiscite in Colombia. Patricia Zalamea, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, thinks that this was a lucky coincidence. She said that it was, “An occasion to celebrate the end of the war and an opportunity to speak about arts and humanities within this context”. But the NO vote won.

Sommer is a full-time professor of Latin American literature at the University of Harvard as well as author of Foundation of Fictions (1984) and The work of art in the world: Civic Agency and Public Humanities (2013). She has taken part in political leader’s “top down” methodologies, such as Antanas Mokus’ approach during his time as mayor of Bogotá. She has also participated in bottom-up methodologies such as that promoted by the Brazilian educator Augusto Boal in his socially transforming pedagogical theater piece: the Theater of the Oppressed.

She is also director of Cultural Agents, the purpose of which is to try to reconnect arts and humanities’ civic mission with the world. The workshop that she developed under this initiative is called Pre-texts, and this is what she came to do in los Andes. She has travelled over North, Central, and South America with this workshop carrying the banner of aesthetics as an agent for social change.

Pre-texts is a literacy and creative interpretation workshop. Primarily, it is a way of accessing literature and highly complex intellectual texts in an aware, emotional, and creative way. Despite the fact that it was the day after the NO vote, Sommer’s visit was still extremely relevant.

She began the Pre-texts workshop in los Andes by using cardboard, pencils, markers, frosting, and magazines. This time she performed the second letter from Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), written by Friedrich Schiller, Kant’s disciple.

“In 1794, during the full terror of the French Revolution a messenger came and said to Schelling that they have just cut off the king’s head. Schelling felt as though his heart had stopped: not because the king was his friend, but because there are many ways to get rid of a tyrant, and cutting off a king’s head meant that many other heads would role. With his heart split in two, he began to write, “the only thing we can do is rid ourselves of our opponents, but after that we do not know what to do. The only way of achieving political liberty, without sacrificing the objective (man) is unquestionably through art”.

Sommer says that, “it was based on this urgency that Schiller wrote his letters upon the aesthetic education of man”.


  • What is Pre-texts?

    Pre-texts is to use any text as the raw material to make art. I learnt do this with a recycler in Lima. Limans read. They read newspapers and adverts, but not poetry. And my job is to create readers. One day a recycler said to me, “Miss, making people read is not that difficult! Just use the book as the raw material rather than the aim itself.”
  • A book is not a sacred object

    A book is used to look at words, expressions, references, grammar, and for children to do what they want with the material. This lesson in literary criticism changed my life. For the first time I realized that good literature is recycled material. 
    It is not possible to write without words that haven’t been used many times. This is the first lesson in “Basic Linguistics”. Words have meaning because they have been used many times. In literary criticism we learn that a good writer borrows words. An excellent writer steals freely.
  • Why does bullying disappear with Pre-texts?

    There are always hierarchies involved in bullying. There is always someone stronger, someone more interested, someone more intelligent. This creates tension. However, when we are all artists we have no idea what is going to come out of anyone, we all become interesting and unpredictable. Why would we want to eliminate another? I realize that the promise of eliminating bullying seems exaggerated, but I have seen this happen in practice. In Pre-texts, after an activity, we get into a circle and we speak about what we have done. The shyest member of the group usually speaks last, but ends up saying something really interesting: all the hierarchies disappear.
  • How do the public and the political figure in Pre-texts?

    We create grassroots citizens. In Pre-texts we are Friegel’s disciples. He works with grassroots communities on the theory of illumination. We first create grassroots partnerships with nurseries, with academies, with schools. When we all sit down and we have to look at each other and be vulnerable we are creating a culture of citizenship. One of my ambitions is to hold a Pre-texts workshop with decision-makers in order to work both top-down and bottom-up. 

    However, we are all teachers and learners, we can all train students to go to the poorest neighborhoods and make children happy because they have just learnt to read Shakespeare.

    We have a scene from Hamlet that was acted by gang-members in a school in El Salvador. They performed a scene from Shakespeare in which they see the father’s ghost. How do they show fear? They better understand this scene than the majority of us. They feel intelligent. They feel like they are the owners of cultural capital and they begin to speak to their parents about alternatives.

    It is in this way that we begin to create the fundamental basis of citizens. It is like ants’ work: marginal and fragile, but this work later helps eagles.

  • What is the influence of beauty in education, politics, and society?

    Civic education is necessarily aesthetic.

    I feel that I am so academic, but the campaign that concerns us has its roots in Kant. Kant spoke simply in order to appreciate beauty and to achieve freedom. As he did not know very much about art, he spoke about natural beauty. If we see a sunset that makes us stop, as they sometimes do, you have the opportunity to make a judgment if this is beautiful or not. However, only after you have first been impacted. And what, exactly, do I have to do to make this judgment: I have to take a look at myself.

    There is no duty in aesthetics. Duty is always conditional. In all other branches of philosophy there are duties. There are set rules; however, in aesthetics there are not. If we disagree, this is not just an opportunity to persuade and to be persuades, it is also an obligation.

    So, as we do not gain or loose anything when judging beauty, the only thing that is important is the face-to-face contact that we have with others. Speaking is much more important than what has been said.

    If you are speaking to someone and you ask them what is art good for, you can say without shame and without blushing that art is useful for a drawing project. Without beauty, without art, without debates about what is not important we are trapped in an iron cage of reason, and with reason we can die like martyrs:



  • How do you understand culture?

    For someone such as the sociologist Max Webber, culture was like a cage that didn’t allow anyone to breathe. For the humanist Antonio Gramsci, culture was his battleground.

    I quote Reymond Henry Williams’ double idea of culture. For the social sciences, culture is a package: something inherited. It is a world of beliefs, practices, and shared ideas. An anthropologist would say, “this person did this because of his culture”, because it is a predictable system with a small amount of flexibility. Based on this definition, we can free ourselves every now and again, but basically we return to tying up a packet that is completely nihilistic.

    However, for the humanist and the artist culture is an area for innovation, risk, change, questions, and explanations. It is art and interpretation.

    Antonio Gramsci revolutionized things by changing culture step-by-step. He asked journalists to write in a different way, he asked teachers to teach in a different way, he asked priests to moderate in a different way. By changing the “popular ideology”, it was possible to cope with more repressive ideologies. When the rules are established, there is not much freedom.

    Is it possible to think freely on cognitive or intellectual topics? No, two plus two is four. There is no other answer.

    Is it possible to think freely on emotional topics? No, unfortunately.

    Is it possible to feel free with a church that has all the answers? […]

    Beauty is this branch of our lives in which we get excited enough to exercise the freedom to pass judgment without being tethered.

  • How is it possible to reconcile between Gramsci and Weber, between the creative and the serious, between reason and sensitivity?

    To modernize yourself it is necessary to amputate feelings, emotions, creativity, and even the love for your family. As Weber would say, it is necessary to give up your body and soul to multiply God’s riches. However, Gramsci would say that pessimism comes from reason; optimism is always going to come from determination. 

    The human being is a walking civil war: reason-passion-reason-passion-reason-passion-reason-passion.

    And why not destroy ourselves? Because we have a third drive. No one talks about it, but it is the drive to play and create. The Germans call it Spieltrieb, in English it is called play drive. There is a chapter in my most recent book (The work of art in the world: Civic Agency and Public Humanities) called “Play drive in the hard drive”. I speak about the hard drive because this is something internal; it is not possible to take it out. You can’t remove either the reason or passion in the playdrive.
  • What can artists in Colombia do after the plebiscite failed?

    The YES and NO camps speak of important issues that are faced by sociologists, political scientists, economists, and everyone else. When this does not work, the only thing that we have –and we have a lot of this– is the cultural-artistic route.

    We should go in sideways, being friendly, and take them by surprise.

    When someone asks me what art is, I summarize everything that I have read on the Russian Formalists. I say, “It is a surprise that is done on purpose”. When you surprise, you are inviting a conversation without having views.

    However, if you want to directly take hold of political freedom, then you are going to end up being a tyrant. There will be a lot of violence.

    Also, we don’t even know what political freedom wants to say as we don’t know how it feels. We have never achieved it.

    I want to invite you to be the best spokespeople, ambassadors, and makers of a peace that is long lasting. Just like the artists, you are the country’s hope. I say that with all my heart.

    But I might perhaps make a better use of the opening you afford me if I were to direct your mind to a loftier theme than that of art. It would appear to be unreasonable to go in search of a code for the aesthetic world, when the moral world offers matter of so much higher interest, and when the spirit of philosophical inquiry is so stringently challenged by the circumstances of our times to occupy itself with the most perfect of all works of art the establishment and structure of a true political freedom. […]

    […] I hope that I shall succeed in convincing you that this matter of art is less foreign to the needs than to the tastes of our age; nay, that, to arrive at a solution even in the political problem, the road of aesthetics must be pursued, because it is through beauty that we arrive at freedom. But I cannot carry out this proof without my bringing to your remembrance the principles by which the reason is guided in political legislation.

    Extracts from Friedrich Schiller’s second of the Letters Upon The Aesthetic Education of Man.


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