On the Historicity of Aesthetics

It is a critical commonplace to insist that the notion of the aesthetic is a properly modern phenomenon, emerging as a means of reconciling tensions between aspects of identity, community and socio-economic reality that are the product of post-Enlightenment regimes of instrumental rationality and the like. From this standpoint, it appears misguided to conceive the notion more generally and trans-historically – to imagine for instance that Plato’s exclusion of poets from his ideal republic represents a rejection of aesthetics. We are reminded that no such sphere existed in Ancient Greece. Plato had no conception of the autonomous realm of disinterested pleasure that Kant describes. Plato’s prohibition gains sense within a profoundly different network of conceptual and historical relations. While there is clearly a need to attend to these differences and to acknowledge the necessary patterns of recognition and mis-recognition that affect any effort to think between distinct historical constellations, this need not imply that a concern to think the aesthetic more generally is wrong-headed or mistaken. Firstly, it can simply represent a shift in historical focus from synchronic to diachronic relations; a concern, for instance, to clarify the philosophical preconditions and evolution of the notion of the aesthetic. In this sense, as much as Plato does not engage with the modern conception of aesthetics, he arguably contributes to its pre-history in his insistence that poetry does not provide genuine knowledge, but only beguiling appearances, and that it be excluded from proper public life. Secondly, conceiving a more general possibility of the aesthetic can involve recognising precedents and analogies in other historical and cultural contexts. For instance, how are we to explain the imperial court culture of Heian period Japan (794-1185) without reference to a notion of aesthetics? The privileging of surface appearances, literary references and precisely observed meditations on the ephemeral natural world in Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji (11th century) suggest a profoundly aesthetic worldview and mode of social interaction. This is not to suggest that we are dealing with precisely the same conception of the aesthetic in the Heian context, but there are sufficient similarities to indicate the wider relevance of the term. This need not entail conceiving aesthetics in primarily metaphysical terms as an abstractly universal human capacity and sphere of practice, but may instead serve as a heuristic means of determining patterns and resemblances relating to cultural phenomena that inevitably take historically specific forms. Thirdly and finally, concepts and conceptual complexes are not hermetically sealed absolutes. The nature of their historical identity is not only a matter of everything that history can adequately explain, but also by ambiguities, gaps and aporia that are constitutive of any network of meaning whatsoever. The notion of the aesthetic is imperfect and ambiguous. It has been defined in all kinds of ways, but remains elusive. If it is used so often, if its meaning has been extended in so many different and often contradictory ways, this is indicative not only of a fundamental dynamic of clarity and confusion that governs the thinking of the aesthetic, but also the the term has an important deictic status – it points to aspects of context that are dynamic, malleable and only awkwardly and imperfectly resolved. It is not then that historical particularity provides a potential for clarity and certainty. Significantly the notion of the aesthetic is opaque even within the here and now. This suggests the value of thinking the term more generally, even at the occasional risk of a loss of historical specificity. It is about trying to think the here and now of aesthetics differently and searching for appropriate models to do so and creative points of philosophical purchase.

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