Ranciere employs two different notions of the aesthetic: the first represents a restricted conception linked to the self-definition of contemporary art (‘the aesthetic regime of art’); while the second indicates a more general conception linked to notions of sense and the sensible (evident, for instance, in his reference to ’the asthetics of politics’).
Within the context of the restricted conception, Ranciere describes the intimate ‘knotted’ relationship between art aesthetics. Disagreeing with contemporary efforts to distinguish art from philosophical aesthetics – to either free art from the weight of dull theorising that can never approach the sublime truth of art (Lyotard) or to protect philosophy from precisely that Romantic risk, and to insist that art and philosophy represent altogether separate realms of truth-making (Badiou) – Ranciere argues, in contrast, that art and aesthetics are mutually imbricated and constitutive. Aesthetics serves as the discourse for identifying and making sense of art in an age when it lacks clearly delineated material marks – when it is no longer linked to identifiable modes of making, clear signs of craft, characteristic themes and iconography, or even standard contexts of display. Within the contemporary ‘anything goes’ context, art risks seeming an ‘emperor with no clothes’, except that it has aesthetics to furnish some level of modesty (elusive identity).
At the same time, aesthetics also benefits from its relation to art. This category that has always been itself elusive, that appears for Kant as a late addition to the philosophical system, that is more intermediary than determinate field, that is associated with the whole problem within philosophy of the je ne sais quoi (of everything that falls outside logos and ratio) comes to pinpoint a specific sphere of culture and cultural activity. It is associated with objects, practices, places, social differences and economic exchanges. So that which appeared sensible but also inchoate and separate from ordinary practical activity corresponds to a concrete space that can be confidently designated, even if the latter’s identity and boundaries are constantly changing. In this sense, the social reality of art represents the reification of aesthetics. It lends a mode of experience that is defined more negatively than actually (non-instrumental, non-conceptual, non-purposive) a slightly more positive claim to tangible existence.
So if I now envisage the notion of an aesthetic practice that extends beyond art this is only possible because the uncertain sphere of experience that aesthetics entails has already been authenticated via art. The aesthetic must first be grounded. I must first envisage that the category of the aesthetic is genuinely coherent, that it can designate a specific mode of experience.
Worth noting that is not only art and aesthetics that draw benefit from their tight association, but also the wider philosophical and cultural system, with its complex distinctions between various modes of being, feeling, knowing, etc. By positioning the aesthetic in relation to an actual sphere of cultural activity, by lending it the credence of a knotted, essential relation to art, every other category within the system more clearly recognises its own proper place and logic. The more art and aesthetics obtain delimited, mutually reinforcing identity the more their separation from other aspects of life can be demonstrated and the more that knowing can distinguished from feeling, practical activity from play and contemplative reflection, determinate relations from fragile spheres of freedom.
This is also to acknowledge that the contemporary efforts to conceive, critique and rethink the aesthetic are historically framed. This is not an argument about the essential nature of aesthetics – as it exists putatively in some timeless relation to cognition, ethics or whatever – but about the relation between philosophical discourse and modes of action, feeling and thought, in which both terms in this relation are historically constituted and subject to contestation and change.
In my view, for all the inadequacy of the aesthetic, for all the fundamental divisions that it entails, reconciles and reinforces, it cannot simply be abandoned. There are historical reasons for its emergence and these extend well beyond the aesthetic itself. In this sense the aesthetic is a kind of epiphenomenon or symptom of tensions that have much wider currency and force than is immediately apparent. Similarly I take the view that the aesthetic can exist before it is properly historically manifest, in the same way that a cheese can be affected holistically via mould long before mould spores themselves become visible. Of course, there is the risk that in looking backwards for signs of the aesthetic we can get it wrong, we can determine imaginary points of correlation and continuity when there are actually only analogies. But this is hardly a reason not to attempt to trace how the mould spreads tentacles within the cheese before the spores sufficiently coalesce to appear. Respecting history is not only a matter of insisting upon elements of difference and discontinuity, but also of tracing links and associations across time. The knot of the aesthetic did not simply take shape within modernity and is not simply based upon a relation to art per se. Indeed, art itself is not a simple ground. It is inflected by dilemmas and uncertainties that extend well beyond art and its imagined delimitation.
So for this reason – because art and aesthetics represent from the ‘outset’ unstable, epiphenomenal fields – I have no problem detecting aspects of the aesthetic – the dilemmas of the aesthetic – within Pre-Socratic thought, or within the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, or within Augustine’s conception of the relationship between music, number and the vibratory character of being. All of these are clearly enough antecedents to properly aesthetic philosophy. What is interesting is that they were written in societies that were not characterised by the ‘knot’ of the aesthetic – that recognised no neatly circumscribed space of aesthetic experience and no cultural space of alienated art. Nonetheless they experienced tensions between feeling and thought, freedom and adherence, common opinion and logos, the theatre of cultural reproduction and the emergence of truth that underlie aesthetic thought, providing its deep – and deeply historical – basis.