Prompting Eros as Something to Be Desired: Talking to Jill Frank

How, where, and why might we want to reconceive of “poetic justice” not as the pursuit of redemptive vengeance, but as a representation of psychological, conversational, social harmony? How might a densely textured rereading of Plato’s intricate dialogues help us to realize these personal/artistic/civic ends? And how might cultivating this clarified perspective on Plato’s poetics push us towards constructive political engagements? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Jill Frank. This conversation focuses on Frank’s Poetic Justice: Rereading Plato’s Republic. Frank is the author of A Democracy of Distinction: Aristotle and the Works of Politics, and founding director of the Classics in Contemporary Perspectives Initiative (2008-2014) at the University of South Carolina. She teaches political theory at Cornell. 


ANDY FITCH: Could you first introduce Poetic Justice’s expansive reconceptualization regarding definitions/deployments of mimetic representation across Plato’s dialogues? By tracing how/why Poetic Justice questions Socrates’s banishment of mimetic poets from the idealized city Kallipolis, as well as Plato’s purported prioritization upon rational discourse over more sensory, affect-heavy, desire-infused means of engaging one’s audience, could we arrive at a working description for how processes of disidentification might play out for Plato’s reader — prompting this reader not to imitate Plato’s characters, not to live according to the dictates of supposed Platonic mouthpieces, so much as to recognize that any partial (or even composite, overall, interpretively synthesized) vantage encountered within the dialogues offers at best a provisional, intersubjectively situated perspective on the dramatized scene, rather than some self-contained totalizing truth to absorb, to teach, and/or to critique as authoritarian pronouncement? Could we get to how such a disidentified engagement with Platonic representation might, in turn, prompt us not just to attend to a scene’s “intricacy and complexity,” but to wonder about “what does not appear, what might be left out”? Could you start to sketch how such queries might enhance our capacities for critical, ethical, philosophical, political reflection, as well as for creative reimagining of the present in which we find ourselves? And then, to approach this question’s trickier parts: if we can agree upon the galvanizing readerly agency that a playful mimetic representation provoking critical disidentification might provide, if we can conceive of such disidentification as an especially generative negativity, as potential site for a rousing democratic poetics far more conducive to contributing to the social good than any reductively interpretive or constrictively prescriptive scheme imposed by or on Plato (or Plato’s Socrates, or Plato’s Socrates’s philosopher kings), how might a philosopher, theorist, scholar, historian, political scientist most effectively harness such generative forces within or alongside her own book-length investigation of the Platonic corpus? How might detailed textual investigations not only “unpack,” as you say, but exemplify “the ethical, political, and/or philosophical possibilities of the ‘not,’ of failure, inconsistency, missed opportunity, and disidentification”? For one particular model of what I mean, many astute theorists of Plato have mentioned to me that, whereas within a collaborative, participatory, discussion-based classroom context, they might prioritize a given dialogue’s polysemic, polyphonic, dramatically and poetically embedded aspects, within the context of sustained scholarly writing they still can’t help projecting some stabilizing mouthpiece function onto Plato’s texts, for the sake of argumentative “simplicity.” But how has the desire to probe Platonic mimetic representation’s disidentificatory prompt shaped your own sense for how best to embody, perform, elicit the role of self-examining, self-regulating, self-authorizing reader?

JILL FRANK: Poetic Justice takes as its points of departure longstanding insights about the complexity, difficulty, and artistry of Plato’s dialogues, the sense among scholars from different disciplines and with conflicting interpretative approaches that Plato’s dialogues repay rereading.

In this spirit, my book rereads Plato’s Republic from back to front: beginning with the dialogue’s own account of artistry in Book 10’s treatment of mimesis, and contextualizing that account within what some classicists refer to as a “cultural revolution” taking place in Athens in 430-380 BCE. Plato emerges as a writer toward the end of this period, and I take him to be participating in the arts scene at Athens by developing techniques of mimesis in order to experiment with the potentials for philosophy within ethics and politics.

I introduce this reading of Plato by offering a different way to understand the Republic’s claim that a mimetic thing is only the look of an appearance, situated at a third remove from the form it represents. This claim by Socrates generally gets treated as a criticism of mimesis. I read it instead as telling a truth about mimesis, namely, that a mimetic thing is not an idea or an artifact, and that its truth is therefore distinct from (and false to) the realities it re-presents. I then disarticulate deception from falsity, showing that whereas the Republic presents deception as seeking to deprive its hearers of their capacities for judgment (by covering over gaps introduced between truth and falsity), it presents mimetic representations, by contrast, as calling attention to those very gaps.

Another way into your opening question could underscore something that Plato scholars often note but tend not to follow through on, namely that Plato never speaks in his own voice in his dialogues. For some, this licenses treating figures of philosophical authority in the dialogues as Plato’s mouthpieces or stand-ins: Socrates, for example, or the Athenian or Eleatic visitors respectively in the Laws and Statesman, or Diotima in the Symposium. I disagree with that approach. I consider these figures, along with their interlocutors, all as mimetic representations, therefore, as distinct from any reality they may re-present. In my view, to infer what Plato may stand for from these figurations is to mistake Plato’s images for his truth. For example, whereas Kallipolis (conceived of and imaginatively founded by Socrates in his discussion with co-founders Glaucon and Adeimantus) is sometimes taken to be Plato’s preferred city, I see no justification in the Republic for this reading. Rather, against the backdrop of Poetic Justice’s recovery of mimesis, I read Socrates’s ouster of the mimetic poets from that city as an indictment not of mimesis but of Kallipolis itself. And I take the early education (an education that censors poetry) of philosopher-kings meant to govern that city as in fact foreclosing the very practices of philosophy that ostensibly authorize the philosopher kings’ rule.

In my rereading, mimesis (including Plato’s own mimetic art of writing) opens up registers of being and knowing, of ontology and epistemology, to shift the burdens of judgment about the dialogues’ representations, and thereby to encapacitate sites of active agency, which Poetic Justice presents in terms of a redistribution of authority that can have ethical, political, and philosophical effects.

I come to this approach to reading the Republic by attending not only to Plato’s artistic writing, but to the Republic’s own account of learning to read, which calls attention to how learners experience letters and reflect on these sensory and cognitive experiences. Learning to read is important inside and outside of Plato’s texts: outside, because though Plato sets his dialogues largely in the late-fifth century BCE, he writes, as I mentioned, in the mid-fourth century, when literacy in Athens was expanding; inside, because learning to read is treated across Plato’s dialogues as important to soul formation, as itself an analogy to becoming philosophical. Poetic Justice thus not only adopts the lens of the Republic’s reflecting on mimesis to attend to Plato’s own artistic writing, but also seeks to implement the Republic’s experiential approach to learning to read — all with a view to bringing to appearance new ways of appreciating the ethical, political, and philosophical work of this dialogue.

Here I think you offer really helpful language in your question about “a working description for how processes of disidentification might play out for Plato’s reader” — because, in my view, disidentification happens by way of acknowledgment “that any partial…vantage encountered within the dialogues offers at best a provisional, intersubjectively situated perspective on the dramatized scene.” If this is so, then to identify with a character is to miss the provisionality and partiality not only of the perspectives being offered in this dramatized scene, but also of the reader’s own perspective on that scene. To identify with one of Plato’s characters, or with anyone, for that matter, means to claim (always wrongly, I think) that one can sufficiently know the experiences of another such that one can be or become that other — or, in more familiar language, walk in their shoes. I worry that this claims too much. And I think Plato’s dialogues help to show us why.

By contrast, what Poetic Justice calls disidentification orients a reader to the not-yet of possibility, an always not-yet that pertains both to a text and to its interpretative potential (which includes all of the conversations not pursued — here because, for instance, Glaucon once again says “yes” to Socrates, rather than demanding an explanatory account). Likewise, disidentification points the reader toward her own self-constitutive possibilities, toward who she may become by way of reading and thinking practices that differ from these depicted characters’. Poetic Justice seeks to connect these interpretative and constitutional possibilities by, among other methods, rewriting a trio of questions French theorist Jacques Rancière associates in The Ignorant Schoolmaster with the will to learn attention. By altering Rancière’s “what do you see? what do you think about it? what do you make of it?” to “what do I see, what do I think, and what do I make of it?” my book draws attention to ways in which interpretative acts of perception, reflection, and judgment relate to one another — and also to how these questions collectively relate to “what do I make of myself?” To me, this question signifies both: “what do I take myself to be?” and also “what might I make myself into, and who am I to become?” I think these series of questions (which I offer to students in my classes as well) orient to creative reimaginings of a text’s possibilities and of its readers’ possibilities, reimaginings which can (perhaps directly, perhaps more downstream) alter the present that these readers find themselves in.

I wouldn’t say that disidentification generates “a rousing democratic poetics far more conducive to contributing to the social good.” I do not, for example, view Plato as a democrat. But I do see Plato’s Republic (read with the Symposium, Phaedrus, and Theaetetus) as bringing to appearance the conditions of possibility for any adequate democratic poetics — by, among other means, showing the kind of work, attention, care, and play it takes to become self-governing, all of which I take to operate (as per the city-soul analogy) in both political and ethical registers. I think the Republic shows us that there can be no contribution to the social good without a commitment to one’s soul’s own good. And as I show in my book’s epilogue on justice, I think a cared-for or “justified” soul contributes to the social good not least through the negative injunction Socrates enunciates most explicitly in the Crito — namely, by doing no harm, an activity that I consider misconceived when viewed as only retreatist, apolitical, or anti-political.

The end of your question asks about the impetus toward “argumentative ‘simplicity’” in scholarly writing on Plato. I worry about this. If Plato offers “polysemic, polyphonic, dramatically, and poetically embedded” texts, then simplifying when writing about Plato can’t help discounting these aspects. I worry that closing down sites of play in Plato’s writing by erasing his artistry misses much of the philosophical, ethical, and political work of these texts — by effacing complexities of writing/reading/interpretation. If Plato’s dialogues figure learning to read as an exercise in soul formation and philosophy, and philosophy as central to ethical and political life, then erasing the complexity and polysemy of writing/reading/interpretation may likewise efface the complexity and polysemy of ethics, politics, and philosophy.

I like the classroom analogy you present, because in the classroom (as in the Republic, as I read it) the site of political philosophy is opinion. In the classroom, as in the Republic, participants offer opinions, which need to be engaged and responded to, and sometimes agreed with (at least for now, until a more persuasive opinion/interpretation is offered), and sometimes resisted. In this way, classrooms provide sites for an enactment of provisionality and the partiality of perspectives, including, one hopes, the teacher’s. If classrooms can provide, in any sense, training grounds for citizenship, I think they do so, at least in part, by cultivating our capacities to appreciate our own and others’ polysemy, embededness, etcetera.

Well in terms of how critical disidentification has helped to bring about the meticulous close readings by which you sketch any number of striking snags, evasions, obfuscations, missed opportunities palpably present (if perennially overlooked) within Plato’s dialogues, in terms of how your book recasts such sutures as clarifying vantages for both author and reader to peer out from, rather than as problematic gaps to cover over, could you provide a few revealing examples of where Poetic Justice detects not only newfound contradictions to confuse Plato’s reader, but newfound prompts to coax forth that reader’s desiring questions? How might, for instance, the lack of self-reflection, self-moderation, self-determination for Kallipolis’ philosopher kings (or for any society they might administer) productively prevent us from settling into comfortable absorption of the idealized city sketched by Socrates and his interlocutors? Or what should we make of the sweepingly proscriptive propositions by which Socrates appears to ban even himself and his conversation partners from Kallipolis many times over (as adults, as vexed individuals, as textual embodiments of a “mixed” ennobling/ironized, poetic/prosaic figuration)? Or what might we make of infantilizing Noble Lie internalizations perhaps dooming prospects for justice within Kallipolis, perhaps ensuring hellish afterlives for this city’s citizens? And again, for two broader methodological concerns raised by your ambitious rereadings: what do we gain and/or lose by attributing such plot complications to Plato’s masterfully subtle efforts at making us see these dramatized scenes aslant — when, for instance, does articulating the Republic’s apparent inner workings reinscribe an all-pervasive author function, a deterministic intentionality offering little (perhaps even less than previously assumed) space for readers to envision themselves as self-propelling participatory agents amid the realization of some emergent (conversational, conceptual, but why not also imminent, concretely political) civic project? When should we conceive of your adroit, resourceful, refreshing exegeses less as attempting to establish some timeless, truthful, fixed grasp on the dialogues, and more as playfully embodying their own partial perspective — when should we read Poetic Justice as providing one virtuoso representation of inventive engagement with the Platonic corpus (an engagement we might emulate through our own comparably rigorous though perhaps quite divergent readings), rather than as imitation of how you (presumably how we) must go about decoding Plato?  

Each chapter of Poetic Justice seeks to provoke wonder about a central topic in the Republic (mimesis, persuasion, desire, sense perception — each central, too, to the democratic ethics and politics Plato often gets taken to only be writing against), and each chapter seeks to unpack how wondering about these topics can alter our understandings of the Republic’s own ethics, politics, and philosophy, including its account of justice. We’ve spoken about the work I try to do with mimesis. Closely related is the question of desire, eros, which the Republic presents as emancipated by mimetic poetry, and which some scholars thus consider no less dangerous to philosophy than mimetic poetry. As I said, I don’t consider the Republic hostile to mimetic poetry. I don’t consider it hostile to eros either. Taking seriously this dialogue’s claims about the considerable dangers that desire poses to philosophy and politics, I also take seriously Books 6 and 7’s presentations of desire as a condition of philosophy’s possibility.

I make this case by pairing the Republic with the Symposium — itself a dialogue about desire and philosophy, which seeks to define or describe the desire for happiness and/or for the good and/or for the beautiful, and to compare these to the desire for good and/or beautiful things. These questions, opened in an embedded and imagined dialogue between Socrates and Diotima, are also opened for the Symposium’s readers. I don’t think these questions are ever answered, leaving readers, at this dialogue’s end, still wondering about eros and philosophy, and also about our own needs, resources, and desires when it comes to both eros and philosophy.

In my view, this readerly experience of desire itself provides the positive content about eros that we may have sought from the dialogue in the form of a doctrine or proposition. Prompting eros as something to be desired, the Symposium, in my view, performs its account of eros phenomenologically by thematizing and emancipating the eros of its readers. I then return with these insights to the Republic, to show how an overreaching desire for knowledge, including self-knowledge, is a basic condition of ethics, politics, and philosophy — a condition that may help orient away from the overreaching desire (characteristic of fifth-century imperial democratic Athens) to possess other cities, peoples, and their possessions.

On my reading, the Republic helps us to see justice as (among other things, but perhaps first and foremost) a practice of self-governance rooted in desire. If there is anything to this, and if the dialogue also consistently depicts the alleged avatars of justice, the philosopher-kings, as lacking that capacity, as compelled entirely from without to orient to the ideas (including to justice, as Roslyn Weiss has argued), then the philosopher-kings’ incapacity with respect to desire should prompt the Republic’s readers to ask questions about the state of these philosopher-kings’ souls, about the city founded for them to govern, and about the justice that prevails in it. Hannah Arendt has noted that the Republic’s philosopher-king bears a fatal resemblance to the Greek tyrant. In fact, the dialogue presents many points of resemblance. In my view, these resemblances stand out so conspicuously that they invite a wariness among readers not only about the Greek tyrant’s might, but also, and by analogy, about what Arendt calls “the tyranny of reason” of the philosopher-kings.

The end of your question opens complexities about mimesis as imitation, on the one hand, and as representation, on the other. Poetic Justice addresses some of these, drawing on Stephen Halliwell’s The Aesthetics of Mimesis, and this is an ongoing area of research for me.

On the question of “decoding,” here again we encounter the capaciousness of Plato’s Republic, the multiplicity of excellent and imaginative and challenging readings to which this text is hospitable. Does Plato intend to write so artfully? Yes. Does he intend, by way of his artistry, any particular interpretation? I have no idea. As I’ve said, I think Plato’s self-displacement as author, in any case, invites a shift for scholars away from attempting to determine authorial intention, and instead a focus on what Plato’s texts do. Do I think that Poetic Justice offers a persuasive answer to that question in the case of the Republic? Yes. At least for now. If, then, my book provides a “decoding” (a term that makes me a little uncomfortable if it presupposes an existing textual “code” to be broken, for that is in tension with the interpretative and constitutional activities Poetic Justice claims Plato’s texts shift to their readers), it presents an avowedly partial and provisional one, based on what I’ve been able to see in the Republic so far. Other readers, including a future me, will see things differently.

Conversation, Poetic Justice suggests, presents one participatory arena in which (by disclosing what we see, how we judge what we see, how our critical faculties might imaginatively push beyond such perceptions) we can teach ourselves about ourselves (both in terms of individual self-reflection, and in terms of collaborative multi-perspectival scrutiny). Conversation enhances chances for recognizing appearances as appearances, for resisting reflexive presumptions of permanent truths, for introducing one’s present person to a broader collectivity even while cultivating both the desires and capacities for further growth, for becoming somebody else. Philosophy arises as we puzzle over the simultaneous possibility for seemingly contradictory positions to prove themselves true, and eros arises (etymologically at least) as we fuse such divergent accounts of the world by formulating far-reaching questions. All of this makes me, like you, perhaps, skeptical of authoritative posturings in dialogues such as Statesman, Sophist, Protagoras — but with my concerns arising specifically out of a Socratic dialectical practice prioritizing short questions and answers. Why can’t Socrates (or perhaps Plato) see, I long have thought, the potential for more immersive Q’s-and-A’s to demonstrate that, at their best, neither dialogues nor dialectic depict the direct implantation of knowledge from one figure to another — instead tracing a relational vector by which all parties arrive someplace unexpected, someplace unattainable when operating on one’s own? Needless to say, I don’t expect you to answer for Socrates or Plato here, but could you introduce the introspective/intersubjective processes by which persuasion in the middle voice might crystallize the catalyzing potential that constructive conversation brings to its participants? We could look at how this middle voice’s vectored pursuits might allegorize (as you say of reading) acts of civic participation within the polis. We could consider how/when your own dilations upon a dialogue’s middle voice (your attention, for instance, to how Socrates, Glaucon, Adeimantus hear what each other says, situate themselves amid each other’s discourse, persistently restitch the conversational parameters) places (as you say analogy does) learners, not teachers, at the locus of education. We could consider your own vectored approach to revisionary Platonic readings (with this book’s emphatic “I” frequently adopting an iconoclastic stance, yet rarely a solitary one — generously tracing how its own innovative claims build off of inventive readings by peers and predecessors). But could we somehow address the means by which contemporary philosophy, contemporary scholarship, contemporary pedagogy, and/or contemporary politics might most constructively find its middle voice?

You’re right that I can’t answer for Socrates. But by paying attention to what the dialogues depict Socratic elenchos as doing or, most often, as failing to do, we can, as Christina Tarnopolsky and Ruby Blondell have argued, read the dialogues as offering a critique of that argumentative mode. In my view, Socrates’s repeated and marked failures to persuade prompt readers to ask the very question you’ve asked, namely (and here I’m rewriting a bit): “how can Socrates’s often overly restrictive questions that seek to pin down interlocutors to binary either/ors which may not accurately describe the complexity, ambivalence, confusions that they are thinking/feeling, but to which these interlocutors nonetheless respond by way of short, sometimes one-word, answers, which then set the terms for how the conversation unfolds, be, in any sense, philosophical?” Taking Socratic elenchos to fall short of dialectic (which, from dialegesthai, in the middle voice, describes a turning and turning about, a kind of reflexivity, as Eva Brann has put it, that involves a coming together, even in opposition, in an actual dialogue), I read the Republic as staging Socrates’s argumentative strategies as failures of dialectics, as invitations to readers to wonder what real dialectical philosophy and persuasion might look/feel like.

My thinking about this was initially prompted by students in the very first Plato course I ever taught. They expressed anger at what they saw as Socrates’s manipulation of his interlocutors. They also expressed incredulity that those interlocutors so often simply say yes. Why don’t these interlocutors say no, or refuse and/or alter Socrates’s terms, they wondered. To me, these remain excellent questions. They got me thinking about whether Plato might have written Socrates’s character (in some dialogues, at least, for Socrates appears quite differently in different dialogues) with a view to prompting readers to ask these very questions. What if by dramatizing a problematic mode of engagement, and also the outcomes of such asymmetric (sometimes psychologically coercive, not truly dialogical and/or persuasive) conversations, the Republic effectively shifts the burden to its readers to wonder about what gets obliterated (erased and effaced) by Socrates’s mode of asking, and by his interlocutors’ failures to resist — and to wonder also about what more symmetric, free, active, and engaged modes of speaking and listening could in fact look like?

To close then on this question of what more participatory modes of engaging Plato’s dialogues might look and feel like: hopefully we have begun to address both the argumentative perils and the stifling consequences of scholarly accounts seeking at best to imitate the wisdom of Plato and/or Socrates, seeking (patronizingly perhaps) to repackage that wisdom for the latest generations of readers (while in fact corrupting this “youth,” reinforcing a historically normative interpretive mechanism whereby embracing “Plato” only further displaces one’s own potential for self-regulation). Hopefully we have excavated some fugitive possibilities for “free and beautiful discussions” to occur — if not between Socrates and his Republic interlocutors, then within the individual reader’s attentive, skeptical, ever-vigilant conversation with Plato’s polyvalent texts. And since I consider Poetic Justice quite provocative in all such respects, I’d love to hear from you about other contemporary possibilities for emulating, rather than imitating, Platonic philosophical practice. How might present-day Platonic scholarship teach itself to play like Plato does — instead of claiming to think as Plato thinks? What room have you found both within this book and within your broader professional pursuits to cultivate a poetics of unpersuasion that might emancipate the eros of an audience (that might coax this audience into giving birth to its own most needy and most resourceful selves)? How/when can a philosophical critique, a prescient critical account, evade displacing a question’s empowering prompt, preclude providing an infantilizing answer? What room remains for you, for us (in writing, in teaching, in public engagement, in civic participation) to embody, enact, promote (not just to explain, endorse, and/or denounce) Platonic poetic justice?

There’s been some extraordinary historical, art-historical, material-cultural, visual-art, literary, political, and philosophical work (much of it boldly playful) on the Greek world, by scholars inside and outside classics departments, to much of which Poetic Justice is indebted. I think the ancient texts (Plato’s, but not only his) remain available to so many disciplines in part because they are themselves so synergistically interdisciplinary. One of the most playful of Plato scholars, Harry Berger Jr., for instance, has had departmental affiliations including literature, art history, visual culture, and his publications stretch from Rembrandt, Shakespeare, and Spenser to Plato.

The institutional space that seems to me most conducive to realigning our relationships to Platonic discourse is, probably not surprisingly, the classroom, for all the reasons we’ve been discussing. In my experience in undergraduate and graduate classrooms, and in the prison classroom (where I have twice taught Plato’s Crito), students come away from reading Plato’s texts with plural, competing, and conflicted interpretations, and often with agonistic, if not antagonistic, feelings toward what they have read, for all of which they must strive to give an account that will be legible to the classroom as a whole. These classroom experiences of multiplicity, complexity, perplexity, tension, disagreement (not unlike what is exemplified in Plato’s dialogues) are also the stuff of our everyday ethical and political lives. In these ways our classrooms, like Plato’s dialogues, can display the “many-colored beauty” Socrates associates in the Republic with the democratic constitution. Here again classrooms can be potential sites for learning to read Plato and for rehearsing democratic citizenship, at the same time.

Classrooms are potential sites, too, for enacting and promoting poetic justice. Requiring a shift away from preoccupations with instrumentality, on the one side, and idealism, on the other, away from means-end and calculative rationalities and their doctrines and prescriptions, poetic justice is, in Socrates’s word, “beautiful.” It depends on what, in the Apology, he calls human wisdom, a wisdom able to take account of its own limitations by acknowledging that it does not (and also, I would say, cannot) know “the greatest things.” From my perspective, the more space we can create for that kind of wisdom, the better.

I’m in the process of experimenting with two additional institutional spaces. Over the past year, some of my thinking about how ancient sources may speak to contemporary politics has appeared in nonacademic venues, including in the LARB. I’m also co-organizing with Nina Valiquette Moreau a session for next year’s American Political Science Association meeting that, if accepted, will showcase recent and forthcoming scholarship opening up new ways to think about specific Platonic dialogues, about the larger questions canvassed in the dialogues, and also to generate, via Plato, a discussion about the practice and aims of contemporary politics and political theory. I have two new projects in the works (on beauty and lies) that grow out of Poetic Justice, and I’m writing again on Aristotle, on the topics of happiness and power. Finally, our semester started recently, and I’m teaching a couple of classes that put Plato and Aristotle in dialogue with each other, as well as with Toni Morrison, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Jacques Rancière, Martin Heidegger, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Right now, I’m pretty excited about all of that.