Defining Aesthetics

In a note on the tradition of modern aesthetics, Ranciere offers a definition of the field:

‘Aesthetics’ designates two things in this work: a general regime of the visibility and the intelligibility of art and a mode of interpretative discourse that itself belongs to the forms of this regime. (Aesthetics and Its Discontents, p.11)

Aesthetics then is tied to art, and to modern art particularly, in two senses: it relates to a specific historical regime of art’s sensible identity, which Ranciere delineates in semi-circular fashion as ‘aesthetic’; and it indicates a mode of discourse that emerges from within this regime and aims to make sense of it.  In more simple terms, it refers to both the sensible and intelligible forms of modern and contemporary art and also the efforts to describe and account for those forms.

Yet elsewhere Ranciere lends aesthetics a more general currency:

[A]esthetics can be understood in a Kantian sense – re-examined perhaps by Foucault – as the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience. (The Politics of Aesthetics, p.13)

In this sense it is not limited to the Enlightenment, post-Enlightenment, modern, post-modern and contemporary world.  Here ‘aesthetics’ aligns more closely with Baumgarten’s original sense of the term, as signalling a focus on sensible experience generally (1735).  But of course Baumgarten positions sense differently – not as something that subsists at an a priori level, but rather as a terrain of confused sensible impressions that only gradually finds its way to intelligible, rational thought.  Here his model is Leibniz.  Clearly Kant’s notion of the a priori comes later.  And what are the implications of this shift.  If Leibniz conceives a complex mediation with the multiplicity of the sensible world, Kant draws mediation inward and makes it self-constituting?  Nothing is precisely experienced (intelligibly experienced or generally experienced?) that is not already there within ourselves.

And I am unsure which of these two positions that Ranciere adopts.  Does ‘the distribution of the sensible’ appear as a field of contestation, in which the sensible world, and our capacity to sense, is endlessly renegotiated and redistributed, or does it solidify into historically inculcated a priori forms that represent a given, paradigmatic and intransigent distribution?

But, in any case, the key thing here is that Ranciere employs the term aesthetics in a variety of ways – and in more ways than he acknowledges.  Most evidently, at times the term pertains to the general problem of ‘the distribution of the sensible’ and at other times to the particular dilemmas of modern art.  My particular interest is how the notion subtly expands and contracts – broadening here and there to encompass key aspects of politics and then regularly refocusing on the common sense space of art.  My sense, however, is that another possibility is available.  Instead of returning to art, there is the possibility, via the notion of aesthetics, of shifting away from the endless contradictions of art.  This involves considering the ontological and epistemological dimensions of the aesthetic, rather than, for instance, permitting Hegel’s bracketing of aesthetics original and more general meaning as an inquiry into the nature of sensible experience.

I wonder what aesthetics would look like, for example, if it also sought its basis in the debates of the Pre-Socratics about the arche (fundamental principle) and the logos (word, or true account)?  I wonder if, in reaching back to philosophical origins, aesthetics payed less exclusive attention to Plato’s exclusion of the poets and Aristotle’s conception of drama, and instead considered the words of the Muses in Hesiod’s Theogony (735BC:

Rustic shepherds, worthless reproaches, mere stomachs, we know how to say many lies like the truth, and, whenever we wish, we know how to tell the truth.

Here after all are key features of the aesthetic – base existence, sensation, appetite and the uncertainties of being and truth.

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