Aesthetic Discomfort

My interest is not so much in the ordinary sense of the aesthetic than in its speculative possibility. There is an influential critique of aesthetics that questions its claims to universalism and analyses its immediate cultural and political legibility. Bourdieu, for instance, famously (and exhaustively) demonstrates how taste cultures embody dimensions of social stratification, and Eagleton, in his historical overview of the European aesthetic tradition, argues that aesthetics provides an ideological alibi for the determination of aspects of social and cultural difference within the context of modernity. Eagleton suggests that the Kantian emphasis on the non-instrumental and autonomous character of aesthetic experience is closely allied to the modern sense of the inner life of the individual, who via habits of consumption and privatised, refined pleasure discovers a fragile sphere of identity, freedom and self-realisation. While acknowledging the wider possibility of the aesthetic in terms of delineating an intimate, affective, sensate field that is relevant to society generally, Eagleton is critical of the historical tradition of aesthetics for its implicit abnegation of the social and its role in the naturalisation of social and cultural difference. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory can be read as a vital background to both of these studies, in that it insistently debunks aesthetic universalism and pinpoints aspects of social contradiction. Yet at the same time Adorno regards the aesthetic as a space of radical, utopian hope. This sense of hope is intimately linked to the contradictions of the aesthetic – it’s failure to provide a genuine space of reconciliation. Here Adorno differs from both Bourdieu and Eagleton. While Bourdieu misses the dimension of radical hope, and Eagleton looks towards an alternative aesthetic sphere of inclusive creaturely life, Adorno imagines no other space of the aesthetic. Instead he discovers the possibility of the aesthetic precisely within its historical contradictions – within its negative contemporary identity. Of course, this sense of hope can also seem utterly compromised and empty, with art’s contradictory autonomy providing flickers of hope within the context that they never spread more widely.

In summary, we can recognise three alternatives: Bourdieu reads the aesthetic as simply a cypher of the social (ignoring any space of philosophical and political promise); Eagleton acknowledges the ideological role of aesthetics, but affirms a broader realm of popular aesthetic possibility; while Adorno struggles to conceive scope for (aesthetically cast) negation within a totalised cultural system. The problem with these approaches is less that they are simply wrong than that they have played themselves out. They are exhausted. Bourdieu’s approach appears reductive, Eagleton’s both cynical and naive, and Adorno’s as endlessly subject to recycling, as every apparent gesture of cultural resistance is instantly subsumed within totality, shifting incessantly and necessarily back and forth between negation and compromise.

So how is my approach different? For a start, it treats the philosophical identity of aesthetics seriously. Aesthetics is not simply art, nor is it simply concerned with the beautiful and the sublime, or taste, or affective sensate experience generally. It is a means of conceiving and failing to conceive much broader ontological, epistemological and ethical issues. The notion emerged in the European Enlightenment, but has many antecedents and a much deeper cultural basis. For Kant, in the midst of the Enlightenment, it was a means – a late and unlikely means – for tying his overall system together. Neither precisely of being, or of truth, or of the good particularly, Kant positions the aesthetic as an uncertain mediator – working to reconcile key aspects of the system without properly appearing within it. The aesthetic takes shape as a phantom that plays at thresholds and oppositions without ever substantially altering them. My aim is not to reduce this sense of phantom identity, but to pursue it and see where it leads. I suspect that the aesthetic is not a definite field of experience (in the manner of Baumgarten or Leibniz’s sense of sensible ‘aesthetic’ perception as a sphere of ‘clear confusion’, or in Dewey’s sense of art as life, or even Adorno’s sense of art as lingering field of negation), but rather appears (and disappears) as an indication of discomfort and irresolvable dilemma.

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