The Wider Relevance of Aesthetics

Ranciere argues that historically there is a close association between philosophical aesthetics and the development of what he terms ‘the aesthetic regime of art’. In this manner he questions efforts to separate these two – to imagine either that art can be conceived on its own, or that aesthetics has a broader identity. Instead he suggests a complex and intractable knot between the two, arguing moreover that it is the knot that is interesting rather than any putative sense of independent identity. In this manner aesthetics is positioned as the discourse for the identification of art, especially now that the latter lacks any distinct thematic, representational or material features, while art represents a specific aesthetically cast field for the distribution and redistribution of the sensible. Yet even in the midst of this complex, circular and knotted relationship, Ranciere acknowledges another meaning of the aesthetic – as that which pertains to sensibility generally. Even within the context of his own argument, Ranciere admits then a layer of distinction. The aesthetic is not entirely bound to the contemporary identity and dilemmas of art as he suggests. It has a wider philosophical meaning. It enables him to refer to the ‘aesthetics of politics’ as the sensible dimension of politics.

But can the aesthetic be understood simply as the problem of sensibility? Certainly this issue is core to the initial Enlightenment thinking about the aesthetic, but does it adequately capture what is at stake? I would argue that the aesthetic is not only broader than art, but also that it is broader than the problem of sensibility. Just as the aesthetic is not reducible to the philosophy of art, nor to the philosophy of the beauty and the sublime – just as these are more indices of the aesthetic than the aesthetic itself – so too sensibility is merely an indicator of a wider philosophical space. And it must be acknowledged that this wider space is not properly an ‘in itself’. It is less a distinct and substantive space than one precisely of uncertainty and dilemma.

Take the issue of mimesis, or what seems to be simply the issue of mimesis. Mimesis involves imitation. Imitation is a form of appearance that contains a dimension of untruth. The untruth is related to its status as a double. It is not the thing itself, but rather something that appears in the guise of the other. In this manner, mimesis becomes associated with non-being. It is the manifestation of being through the non-being of a semblance. Yet clearly it is also a form of being – and typically cast as a form of dishonest, dissembling being. Yet, even here, it is both referring to another, but also manifesting its own being as an imitation. In this manner, mimesis retains an aspect of authenticity within its formal work of semblance. It represents an undecidable state of being that plays out the relationship between being and non-being, and more profoundly the strange interplay of being and non-being within appearance generally – not just within the space of mimesis specifically. It is a sign – like the field of contemporary art, like the notions of the beautiful and the sublime, like the realm of sensibility – of a more general problem.

Hesiod begins his Theogony with the conceit of the Muses appearing to him to explain the truth of the emergence of the world from chaos and the struggle between the gods. He positions himself as a mere agent for truths that have come from beyond. He is a shepherd, ‘a mere stomach’, who can see nothing beyond the immediate world of appetite and immediate appearance. His is a world of primary illusion, but also of blindness linked to its immersion in sensibility. The sphere of sensibility is not associated with truth or clarity, but rather with a dark distance from everything that truth represents. It is the world of appearance that despite its darkness and inadequacy nonetheless brightly appears. There is the problem then of this immediate coincidence of darkness and appearance within the problem of mortal sentient existence. The intervention of the Muses only complicates matters. They communicate the truth, but also under the guise of appearance. They theatrically intervene and insist upon a dimension of truth that cannot itself literally appear.

It is then a matter of distinguishing between different modes of appearance. Alongside their appearance as such (what does this ‘as such’ mean?) the Muses also speak to the shepherd. Their primary mode of communication is via words. The truth as logos is not something that is experienced as such. It is not something within the space of being. It is something that shares features with mimesis. Both operate semiologically. But then a vital distinction is made. Mimesis is the doubling not of truth, but only of appearance. This is Plato’s sense of imitations as thrice removed from truth: the primary truth is a pure form; the secondary truth is the instantiation of this form in a particular worldly thing; and the tertiary truth represents an attempt to double the appearance of the thing. Mimesis is condemned both for its putative dishonesty and for its focus on the realm of appearance precisely. Philosophical words, however, in their apparent distance from the realm of sensibility and appearance and in their manifest artificiality and abstraction, appear more properly a medium for truth. Of course there are all sorts of complexities here. There is the distinction between spoken and written philosophical truth (Derrida’s critique of phonocentric logocentrism) and within speech between sophistry and proper logical, dialectical argument. But the key issue here is that philosophy is positioned as a medium of truth, whereas mimesis is portrayed as a medium of falsehood. This is very much linked to how the relationship to dimensions of appearance – and particularly sensible appearance – are conceived.

It is within this context then that I argue that sensibility (in aesthetics) is not only about the sensible per se, it is about the whole articulation and revelation of truth and its undecidable relation to dimensions of appearance. The concept of mimesis is a charged sign of an underlying layer of uncertainty and contradiction within the thinking of authenticity and being itself. If there is such a strong tradition of iconoclasm in Western thought, it is about struggling to establish some convincing ontological and epistemological ground. This entails sacrificing forms of being that are associated with dissemblance and non-being. In this respect, Plato’s banishment of the poets from his ideal Republic is less simply ethical (as Ranciere suggests) than deeply ontological and epistemological.

Similarly, the aesthetic in its concern with sensibility and appearance manifests these wider and fundamental philosophical concerns. They are as knotted within the concept of the aesthetic as any specifically historical relationship to contemporary art.

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