Aesthetics and the Popular (rough notes)

Bourdieu, Eagleton, etc. are probably right – aesthetics is ultimately all about class and class difference. (Or at least I can imagine arguing this.)

For example, Plato’s prohibition of the poets is usually interpreted in epistemological terms as relating to issues of truth – of proximity to truth – with philosophy appearing as a means of genuinely attaining to an understanding of the ideality of truth (the reality of form), whereas poetry presents only copies of copies. Poetry is described as ‘thrice-removed’ from truth. But perhaps the prohibition has a less strictly philosophical tenor? Perhaps it relates to popular modalities of truth that ostensibly and inevitably partake in aspects of rhetoric and emotion, that do not yet envisage the notion of the independent and critically minded citizen? Perhaps Plato’s prohibition of the poets is indicative of the split between popular and philosophical reasoning that will always have been evident in Greek philosophy – and perhaps this is one of the real points of this philosophy; to introduce a division, a division between the lived and the thought, between body and mind, that will have, and has always had, social implications?

I think also of Hesiod’s Theogony, which begins with a vision of mankind as shepherds. This suggests an ambivalent sense of human identity. Human beings are shepherds, but also sheep. They are caught up in a common blindness of belief and action that only the Muses can relieve via their vision of truth. This reveals another layer of ambivalence – the uncertain relation between the Muses vision of truth and the forms of popular belief and imagination. What separates them? Is it only the scenography of appearing from on high, from another sphere of being? And if so, isn’t this itself a popular poetic conceit (a kind of spectacle and deus ex machina)? The theatre of truth’s revelation is caught up in the mise en abyme of the popular. It cannot stand altogether removed from and outside it (this gesture of removal being the characteristic gesture of philosophy which is always concerned to distinguish the logos and the arche from the spectre of common opinion). But returning to the metaphor of the shepherd. Shepherds spend their day with their sheep and in this sense are emblematic of the field of popular blindness. Shepherds are leaders, but only on the basis that they follow. Shepherds follows by leading. They focus on leading the flock from one pasture to the next, guarding them from wolves and settling them down for the night. This metaphor represents a reflection on the nature of popular, common being, which as oral culture focuses on maintenance and repetition, which is unconcerned with the singular and the new.

Aristotle projects a partial compromise – a reconciliation of the popular and dimensions of rational, autonomous civic identity. All the popular cultural modes are permitted, but only if they fall ultimately under the sign of philosophical differentiation and categorisation. The popular is permitted as an outlet – a safety valve – as well as something that can be calmly positioned within an overall scheme of mimetic possibilities. It has its place but is constrained by a wider truth that takes shape higher up the (social) hierarchy.

And what is Ranciere’s ‘dissensus’ if not an effort to acknowledge the energy of the popular but subsumed under the sign of critical rationality. It is the resistance that plainly opposes rather than subsisting more ambivalently as that which laughs and turns upside down. It is innovative rather than playing on archetypes. This is what Ranciere never appreciates in the post-modern – its laughter and carnivalesque aspect.

Here it would not be a matter of defending carnival against rational civic identity, but recognising that the tension between the two is marked by more than simply epistemological and aesthetic considerations – that it is also rooted in social difference, and in the play of social difference in ostensibly philosophical and aesthetic practices.

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