Aesthetics as the uncertainty of sense

Ranciere describes the ‘knot’ of the aesthetic, which he links to the dilemmas of modernity and the paradoxes of contemporary art. Aesthetics is positioned as the conceptual complex for distinguishing a field of art that aspires to both autonomy and dissolution into everyday life. This conception of aesthetics can be described as having a horizontal and synchronic emphasis.

Ranciere maintains a curious and ambivalent relation to the wider philosophical sense of the aesthetic. While he acknowledges that the aesthetic engages with the philosophy of sense, he brackets this meaning to focus on describing a more historically specific space. He restricts the aesthetic to the last few hundred years of of Western thought about the nature of art. The wider meaning of the aesthetic is constantly present in his writing, in terms of notions such as ‘the redistribution of the sensible’, but is not addressed in its diachronic (vertical) depth. Instead, Ranciere describes three schematic regimes of image-culture, reserving the aesthetic solely for modernity. The interesting thing about this conception is that it would appear to be much more philosophically than historically motivated. He broadly distinguishes between the ethical, mimetic and aesthetic regimes of the image, with the ethical linked to Plato’s condemnation of the image, the mimetic to Aristotle’s logical division of genres, themes and practices of the image, and the aesthetic to the post-Enlightenment and contemporary predicament of art. This division is very sweeping. It is also risible at an historical level. It envisages two distinct regimes within the space of two overlapping lives (Plato and Aristotle) and then envisages that nothing new happens for close to two millennia before suddenly art and aesthetics take shape within the context of modernity. The division makes much more sense at a philosophical level than in terms of detailed examination of historical periods, practices and cultural forms. So on the one hand we have an insistence on historical specificity – the particular character of the modern – and on the other a neglect for dimensions of diachronic complexity and continuity that characterise the Western history of aesthetics. Equally, we have a bracketing of the philosophical heritage in the interests of describing the particular character of the present while simultaneously employing as overall philosophical categorisation of image regimes.

These very apparent contradictions lead me to suggest that we need both a synchronic and diachronic conception of art and aesthetics. We also need to acknowledge that aesthetics is a complex cultural field that is tied to both art and to philosophy. All of this is to recognise the genuine knottedness of the aesthetic.

There is one other dimensions of knottedness that deserves mention. To what extent can we speak generally of the aesthetic, beyond its recent or long-term Western articulation? Does the aesthetic have a more universal relevance, even beyond the human per se? Does it engage with issues of sentient being that have very wide import? Without attempting to answer this question – and recognising the dangers of envisaging anything trans-historical, trans-cultural and trans-species – it nonetheless deserves to be broached. The notion of aesthetic is a vital context for engaging with an uncertainty of sense and being that extends well beyond art, the dilemmas of modernity, and even specifically human interaction with the world.

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