WHAT WAS “tact”? The Scottish moral philosopher Dugald Stewart described it in 1793 as a “delicate sense of propriety which enables a man to feel his way in the difficult intercourse of polished society.” In his new book, Tact: Aesthetic Liberalism and the Essay Form in Nineteenth-Century Britain, David Russell argues that over the course of the 19th century, “tact” (derived from tactus, the Latin for touch) came into common usage as a way to describe an ethos of engagement. The idea of “feeling one’s way” is crucial for Russell, who sees tact as an aesthetic and ethical practice embedded in experience. But he argues that, with the spread of industrialization and the growth of cities over the course of the 19th century, tact loses its exclusive association with “polished society” and aristocracy. Shifting its weight from “politesse to politics,” tact becomes a way to navigate difference and the spread of democracy, to deal with “the complexity of modern social life […] and the question of how people are to live together in it.”

For Russell, “tact” refers not just to good manners but to a kind of overarching aesthetic-ethical philosophy, best expressed, at least in the 19th century, in the form of the essay. “Essay,” he notes, means to “try out,” and the relatively unstructured and provisional nature of the essay form allows authors the freedom to stray from convention, to experiment with new ideas, to be digressive and tentative, and above all to stage “a moment of an encounter: of a voice or style meeting the world, meeting the reader.” Since it involves a testing of “possible relational modes” as well as possible argumentative stances, the essay that generates tactful ideas on the level of content is also tactful toward its audience on the level of form.

Learned, beautifully written, and crafted with evident care, Tact is one of those works that, from cover to content, exemplifies the ethos that is its subject. The book’s cream-colored jacket depicts giant fingerprint whorls and is made of thick, textured paper, so that to hold the book in your hand is to be touching touch: through this tactile connection, the object attaches itself to the reader, but in a non-committal manner. In keeping with his sense of his subject, Russell refrains from being prescriptive about what effects his book might have: “In writing a criticism of tact, I have sought evocation before information. I will consider this book successful if the reader, taking it into her own hands, makes her own uses of it.” Because Tact, like tact, privileges experience and play over abstraction and answers, it encourages an “aesthetics of the encounter” with itself, inviting the reader to be changed, or touched, by it.

Tact considers the work of five canonical 19th-century English essayists — Charles Lamb, Matthew Arnold, John Stuart Mill, George Eliot, Walter Pater — and one outlier, the 20th-century psychoanalyst Marion Milner. Despite the implications of his subtitle, however, Russell focuses more on the ideas in the essays than on their form. Indeed, he seems to be most interested in developing his own theory of tact: one that draws on the object relations theory of the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott to define tact as a mode that mediates between subject and object.

This psychoanalytic inflection helps explain the otherwise anomalous-seeming chapter on Milner. The Milner section is also key to the book in that it demonstrates how tact might be used to think about critical practices and forms of relation beyond the Victorian period, and it is one of the most explicit about how these might work in person rather than on the page. Milner describes her work with a young patient, Simon, whose disturbing play involved dropping burning paper on an imaginary village. While the symptomatic readings of Simon’s play (his experience of the Blitz, his conflicts with his mother) are helpful to Milner, what’s most helpful to Simon is that, rather than diagnosing him, Milner shows her appreciation for him. Assuming a non-interpretive stance and letting Simon teach her about his play rather than vice versa, she demonstrates how “her own imagination is caught by him.” This approach gives Simon space for self-expression, circumvents antagonism or judgment, and creates a shared experience from which both patient and therapist can draw.

In the work of Victorian writers like Mill, Arnold, and Eliot, tact works similarly, appearing at those moments when they refuse certainty and universalizing norms to focus on “relations rather than […] propositions.” In Russell’s analysis, this means that Arnold’s famous phrase about the critical necessity of “seeing the object as in itself it really is” is not about ascertaining a transcendent truth but “a kind of framing, a making space — of a middle space that might allow for a tactful relation to an object.” Similarly, Pater’s art criticism urges us to think not only about how the object is handled but about how it handles us, so that “a previously unimagined way of approaching the world becomes available to us.” Pater’s Renaissance thus figures art as an ardent lover who “comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass.” The aesthetic goal of tact, then, is not to master the object but to think about basic relations — between subject and object, personal and impersonal, internal and external, individual and society — from the space in between. Tactful interaction involves epistemological and perspectival flexibility and presents possibilities rather than final solutions. Freedom resides in this kind of destabilizing and generative uncertainty. As Russell puts it in the Pater chapter, “freedom must first depend on facing one’s own dependence and penetrability, with less of a shamefaced sense of the wall between an inner and outer world.”

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Freedom is a central liberal value, of course, and one of Russell’s key claims is that tact is an important and overlooked component of classical political liberalism. Situating tact historically as a democratizing response to the challenges of urban modernity, Russell sees it as a fundamentally egalitarian practice, one that strives to create “a sociability in which no party is diminished and in which multiple possible worlds or ways of life may thrive.” But not all aspects of liberalism are tactful, he shows — quite the reverse. Mill’s On Liberty, for instance, imagines that individual self-development, or “doing as one likes,” might be squared with the social good as long as it is supported by rational argument that provides justifications for one’s decisions. Through this ongoing process of debate, the best arguments win out, and society improves for everyone. The problem with this version of liberalism, Russell notes, is that it means “the range of experiments in living must diminish” as aesthetic expression is subordinated to the goal of rational communication and “consensual truth.” Yet in his earlier writing on poetry, Mill also demonstrated his investment in the value of creative expression on its own terms; for him, poetry is the ultimate manifestation of individuality and self-development, a style of communication that is truer because of its oblique relation both to communication and truth.

If poetry, in Mill’s work, shuns the battle of ideas to generate an array of “possible relations,” so does public education in the writings of Matthew Arnold. Complicating the conventional view of Arnold as a “top-down” liberal thinker and social reformer, Russell argues that he saw education as an open-ended practice: “His model of education is not the cultivation of a parental elite who might diffuse knowledge; it is based rather in the diffusion of the conditions of an invigorating creativity in everyday life.” Rather than be subjected to ideas and texts, Arnold argued, students should be allowed to make use of them to explore subjectivity. For Mill and Arnold, as well as the other writers Russell examines, tactful criticism values play over progress. By demonstrating the value of his descriptive method in teasing out this more complex view of Victorian liberalism, Russell gently aligns himself with reparative rather than suspicious reading. While a Foucauldian interpretation might see tact as a ruse of power that enforces social norms and skirts around conflict, thereby foreclosing possible ways to make use of it, Russell argues that his version of tact opens up new possibilities instead, providing “the conditions for trust: the relation of collaborative hope that makes new demands on the world.”

What is to be gained, though, by associating “new demands on the world” with a recuperative view of Victorian liberalism? While Eliot, Arnold, and Mill were certainly political liberals — Lamb, Pater, and Milner less obviously so — the way Russell describes these authors’ use of tact makes it seem more like a contradiction of their politics than a component of it. Tact could be seen instead as a dialectical turn in liberal discourse, a turn from its investment in rational exchange and its narrative of progress to an embodied and provisional stance that might open onto new political imaginaries.

In this political moment, it seems pretty clear that liberalism is too flaccid and hypocritical a politics in practice, if not in theory, to protect even the bourgeoisie with whom it is associated from the depravities of capitalism that it has helped to rationalize. Indeed, the freedom for people to live the kinds of lives that permit a Paterian aesthetic liberalism are being steadily and dramatically eroded every day by the political and imaginative failures of liberalism on the ground. For many, these freedoms never existed in the first place. Tact might be a more useful concept for us today if understood not as a turning back to liberalism but a turning away from it that lets us orient ourselves, in radically open-ended ways, to the challenges of the present.

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Tanya Agathocleous teaches literature at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of Urban Realism and the Cosmopolitan Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2011).