Carnivalesque Aesthetics

I am suspicious of the grand tri-partite aesthetic schemes of Ranciere and Badiou. They refer to historical instances and yet seem more philosophically than historically directed. There is Plato, then Aristotle and finally modernity. A very abbreviated set of reference points. What of everything else?

Consider, for instance, how Badiou associates Plato with a didactic conception of art. This is actually a negative conception. Plato banishes the poets and artists from his ideal republic because they are corrupters of youth. Instead of teaching them the truth, they lead them astray via beguiling appearances. At the very outset then, if one is to make sense of the didactic conception, it is necessary to conceive an alternative, more positive view; one that is not simply about a small group of privileged citizens engaging in direct conversation, but that anticipates a broader public possibility – if not of education then of cultural participation. Plato’s iconoclasm, his emphasis on discursively grounded logic, is at the same time a rejection of popular oral literature, rhetoric, idolatry and festivals. It rejects them precisely in terms of their sway as broadly didactic forms of lived, experiential truth. If the didactic conception of art and aesthetics is to obtain any coherence then it has to engage with this other space that makes use of all the means at hand and that represents interests that extend beyond the propriety realm of philosophy as such. Oral popular culture (probably not the right term) provides the vital background to Plato’s ‘didacticism’ and yet is never positively conceived by Badiou.

I would expect Ranciere to be sensitive to this other aesthetic legacy, but he also begins with Plato’s injunction against the poets and artists, interpreting it as evidence of an ethical regime of the image. Once again, however, this is a negative conception. Ranciere envisages ‘the period’ as one in which ‘the distribution of the sensible’ is governed by ethical considerations, but what does this even mean during a time in which ethics has not yet been identified as a distinct and separate realm, when it is indissolubly linked to every aspect of experience? You could just as easily describe it as an ontological or an epistemological scheme, but really it would be better to make an effort to engage, as much as possible, with the complex and elusive whole. To do this demands thinking beyond Plato’s proscription as such and engaging with the broader economy of cultural forms in Ancient Greece. How was the image, poetic word, etc. actually mobilised within this world, rather than simply subject to restriction and condemnation?

Similarly, the way in which Badiou and Ranciere discuss Aristotle’s ‘classical’ or ‘representational’ conception of art ignores the cultural context from which it emerged. Aristotle’s poetics arguably represents an effort to repress the dangerous aspects of Greek popular festivals – to minimise the aesthetic potential of mimesis, to limit drama to a properly human space and to restrict poetic excess to a socially therapeutic work of catharsis. While Badiou and Ranciere recognise Aristotle’s scheme as one of delineation and control, in which philosophy affirms its superior and determining position, they make no effort to positively conceive what tragic drama may be if it is not simply a ‘play of men in action’, if the regular gestures of spectacular excess are not simply aesthetic faults or geared towards catharsis. All of this would entail recognising a different paradigm that falls outside philosophy proper, that has a wider and more inclusive dimension.

So I may as well make a brief effort to name this space. I could attempt to write about Ancient Greek oral culture, but there is a more obvious reference point. Badiou and Ranciere skip over almost two thousand years of history in jumping from Plato and Aristotle to modernity. In a sense they define a new renaissance as Enlightenment modernity picks up the embers of ancient thought to craft, finally, a new paradigm of the image. But I can’t help thinking of another moment that falls roughly in the middle and that has no particular extant philosophical voice. I am thinking of the culture of Middle Ages, and specifically with what Bakhtin terms the ‘carnivalesque’. The culture of popular festivals and literature in early and early modern Europe, which of course links to a variety of ancient traditions, would seem to potentially suggest another aesthetic paradigm. Not only that, it also would seem to provide a novel perspective on the more properly philosophical aesthetic paradigms. I have indicated how both Plato’s and Aristotle’s schemes represent reactions to popular aesthetic forms and modes of experience. Similarly modern aesthetics can at least partly be read as a cleansed version of a carnivalesque aesthetic. Modern aesthetics begins with the problem of taste and sensible, somatic experience. The carnivalesque, according to Bakhtin, focuses on the ‘lower bodily principle’. ‘Carne’ literally means meat, suggesting appetite, sexuality and violence. But the carnivalesque is never simply, reductively these things. They are there, but they are also at the same time lifted up into lived communal forms that play on archetypes, that ritually turn the existing world ‘upside down’. The key point about the carnivalesque is its ambivalent implications: it both repeats and recycles and renews and transforms. Consider how this maps to the modern conception of art as an autonomous space of freedom and reconciliation. Art is removed in the same way that the carnivalesque demarcates specific spaces and times to appear. Art distinguishes itself from instrumental interests in the same way that the carnivalesque appears opposed to the world of work. Art shares the same sense of potent liminality, of the capacity to not only ground our experience but also to extend it in unexpected ways. I could go on listing points of correspondence – and I would certainly need to do so to make my argument credible – but it worth also acknowledging some differences. These differences hinge on issues of social exclusivity. Modern art is directed much more to individual participation and is defined in terms of rarified modes of engagement that are explicitly distinguished from the forms of popular cultural participation. The former are cast as more refined and distinct from dimensions of immediate appetitive pleasure. They are a matter of ‘aesthetic taste’ rather boisterous, communal ‘distraction’. This obviously links to how aesthetics serves as a rationale for social distinction and difference in modernity.

The contemporary concern with the culture of everyday life, everyday aesthetics and socially engaged art practice tends to steer clear of the carnivalesque. There is a concern with the aesthetics of the ordinary, with dimensions of affect and with democratically inclined citizen dialogue and interaction, rather than with less immediately responsible, less politically right-minded and more hedonistic aspects of cultural practice. It may be, as Adorno argues, that it is naive to imagine genuinely popular forms within modernity; they have all been subsumed and altered within the context of industrial capitalism and the ‘culture industry’ (a term which used to appear as an oxymoron, but not any longer). But it seems to me that to imagine a consistent cultural totality is equally naive. It is also to privilege only particular ‘higher’ forms of resistance, either sophisticated cultural critique or the mute and contradictory resistance of autonomous art. If resistance is regarded as more general and more culturally available, and if it is not restricted to resistance per se, but can also involve carnivalesque dimensions of replication, renewal and transformation, then we need broader and more inclusive paradigms of cultural practice. The carnivalesque provides a model that enables a thinking beyond the contours of art and an art-focused aesthetics. It connects to dimensions of the popular, but need not take entirely popular forms. It can also, as I attempt here, work through the legacy of philosophical aesthetics to discover points of opening. I would not describe my approach as specifically carnivalesque, but it aims to conceive another thinking of aesthetics that aligns with the interests of the carnivalesque.

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