Note on pragmatist aesthetics

There are wide range of current approaches to the field of aesthetics, everything from efforts to resurrect the notion of beauty in contemporary art, to continuing strands of critical aesthetics that envisage both the political possibility and the limits of art, to aspects of mainstream pragmatist, analytical and phenomenological philosophy that are concerned with the problem of our embodied, felt relation to the world. The latter will often draw upon the work of John Dewey (Art as Experience) to posit at the outset the broader relevance of the aesthetic. Rather than being restricted to a theory of art, the aesthetic is positioned as integral to experience generally.

My own work emerges from within the critical tradition, however I share this contemporary philosophical concern to conceive the wider relevance of aesthetics – and particularly to look beyond art as the paradigm for aesthetic practice. While the critical tradition tends to remain within the liminal space of contemporary art, with all its obvious blurring of boundaries, transdisciplinary associations and motions of curious return, my concern is with practices that have no specific interest in art, and that exist just fine aesthetically without any reference to art.

In this respect, unlike Dewey, my aim is not to extend the category of art, but rather to position it as just one form of aesthetic practice. It is aesthetics that should be more broadly conceived, not art. Indeed, rather than serving as paradigm of ‘aesthetic practice’, I argue that art deflects aesthetics from its genuine critical possibility. Art represents a special case. The amorphous, ill-defined space of broader aesthetic practice contains a potential that art cannot properly countenance due to its clearer systemic determination. The complexity of the aesthetic – its insubstantial and shape-shifting character and its role as a mediator – lends it a critical capacity that risks being lost in the moment that it is recognised. Indeed it is necessarily lost in this moment, which makes the aesthetic itself an intermediary concept. The ambiguity of the aesthetic, its refusal to subsist as a straightforward concept or experiential category, is here maintained and compromised at once.

The danger in extending the aesthetic is not that the notion becomes meaningless, but that it becomes all too obviously meaningful – or, more simply, that it becomes banal. This is my issue with a great deal of the recent philosophical accounts of a general aesthetics. So, for instance, in a recent edited collection, The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, Tom Leddy argues that aesthetics should be broadened to consider all kinds of everyday aesthetic phenomena – the ‘cute’, the ‘pretty’, the ‘clean’, the ‘nice’, etc. Now while there is certainly value in considering the contemporary topology and rhetoric of popular taste, aesthetics cannot be reduced to aspects of appreciative engagement with the world. The field of taste is an exemplary instance of aesthetic interaction, but is hardly sufficient on its own. Only in as much as the ‘the cute’, the ‘pretty’ and the ‘nice’ inform an experiential worldview and a particular sense of integral relational identity – of coordinated dimensions of sensation, appearance, imagination and knowledge, and of freedom, constraint and possibility – do these terms begin to reveal their deeper aesthetic implications. But none of this evident if the aesthetic is conceived simply in terms of a continuum between the agreeable and the beautiful (as a narrowly delineated sphere of delectation) rather than as something richer and more integrally meaningful.

All too often, the pragmatist aesthetic tradition insists upon the importance of the aesthetic, but devotes very little time to considering what the notion means beyond the most commonplace understanding. So it will be simply linked to vernacular taste and everyday liking and disliking, without any developed sense of its complex ontological, epistemological, ethical, political and social dimensions. Dewey himself, while opening up the aesthetic to a broader experiential field, ultimately conceives the aesthetic very much in terms drawn from the idealist heritage. Aesthetics, in his view, involves recognising the narrative arc of any given experience – its sense of unified, formal identity. There is a Kantian sense to this recognition of an experiential ‘whole’. It takes shape as a moment of reconciliation in which experience appears naturally aligned with our understanding. There is nothing of the sublime here, nothing abrasive or aporetic.

There is also in Dewey an unclear relationship between art and aesthetics. Aesthetics is broadly understood, but so too is art, in a manner that makes it difficult to precisely distinguish them. It seems that for Dewey art represents the aesthetic as a form of practice, hence there is a need to criticise a narrow understanding of art and allow an artistic aspect to all experience. The aesthetic becomes a means of delineating a qualitative dimension of life, and art becomes the way in which this dimension is actively lived. Yet this confuses matters. It renders narrowly conceived art as the model for all qualitative experience, when it would better, in my view, to allow art its ambivalent specificity and consider more carefully the possibilities of a more broadly conceived aesthetic practice.

This more radical and less clearly delineated option is evident in another chapter in The Aesthetics of Everyday Life. Michael Principe describes the work of the Italian artist Baruchello, who during the middle of the twentieth century ran a small Italian farm. Baruchello deliberately did nothing to present the farm as an art ‘project’, but wrote instead in How to Imagine of its power to serve as a generative context for creative thought and action. In this manner he comes much closer to conceiving an aesthetics of the everyday that eludes the conventional model of artistic work and appreciative subject. The farm represents a context for living and acting in the world, without any sense of a structural divide between artist and audience, art and aesthetic response. He imagines his friend Marcel Duchamp building one of his ready-mades in one of the rooms of the farmhouse. Baruchello has no wish to own it. He would just like to speak to Duchamp while he is making it. The work is meaningless as a work. It only obtains meaning as an everyday generative force or relational context. This is much more interesting and fruitful in terms of conceiving the critical potential of everyday aesthetics than simply acknowledging the existence of popular taste or envisaging the coherent character of any particular experience.

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Burke: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757)

Burke writes about the sublime and beautiful. That is his explicit, ostensible theme. But evident within this is an underlying set of concerns related to the nature of human identity – the relationship between body and mind and between logical abstraction and the broader scope of sensate, affective and thinking being. Resisting the Platonic heritage that tends to privilege the sphere of logical ideality, Burke, like Baumgarten, insists upon the sensible human body and its role in determining aspects of consciousness. However, whereas Baumgarten (Aesthetica, 1750) focuses on the issue of thought and cognitively conceived judgement, Burke emphasises more the emotional dimension of human experience, which he links to key drives – the fear of physical pain and death, sexual desire and the longing for social interaction and community. It is these things that feed into our experience of aesthetic phenomena, that lead us to regard things as possibly sublime or beautiful.

Burke aims to demystify aesthetic experience and to resist any conception of the aesthetic that positions it either as a soft premonition of rational consciousness or as its vague after-image. He rejects, for instance, the relevance of the notion of proportion in terms of judging the beautiful, arguing that there is no mathematical rule that determines what we find appealing. Instead of looking towards mathematics, Burke suggests that it is more pertinent to examine our fundamental animal drives and our immediate, primarily interested and non-conceptual relation to the world. These provide a much clearer guide to our experience of the sublime and the beautiful.

Beauty (…) is no creature of our reason, since it strikes us without any reference to use, and even where no use at all can be discerned, since the order and method of nature is generally very different from our measures and proportions, we must conclude that beauty is, for the greater part, some quality in bodies, acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses (p.90)

Nonetheless, Burke acknowledges that the sphere of the aesthetic is not simple, and not simply reducible to animal drives. So, for instance, he argues that it is not sexual desire itself that shapes our experience of the beautiful, but rather something linked to sexual desire, but also notionally distinct from it – love.

I likewise distinguish love, by which I mean that satisfaction which arises to the mind on contemplating anything beautiful, of whatsoever nature it may be, from desire or lust; which is an energy of mind that hurries us on to the possession of certain objects, that do not affect us as they are beautiful, but by means altogether different. (p.73)

Love may be allied to sexual desire and have its basis within it, but it is also distinct in that it represents a form of affectively determined contemplative engagement. It represents and mobilises a play of difference and distance. There is the sense here of something similar to the Hegelian aufhebung (Science of Logic, 1812-1816), in which the matter and otherness of sexual desire is at once annulled and lifted ‘up’ to another state. In this sense, love and the experience of beauty, are positioned as spheres of mediation and differentiation. They represent bridges between material, animal otherness and the human life of the mind. This indicates Burke’s underlying concern to find some effective means of reconciling the mind and the body. Within this context it is worth noting that Kant (1790) places similar emphasis on a work of reconciliation, although conceived slightly differently in terms of a reconciliation between the noumenal and the phenomenal realms.

The clearly Cartesian (Discourse on the Method, 1637) nature of the dilemma and the difficulty of the problem is evident in the following statement by Burke:

I do not ever pretend that I shall ever be able to explain, why certain affections of the body produce such a distinct emotion of mind, and no other; or why the body is at all affected by the mind, or the mind by the body. A little thought will show this to be impossible. But I conceive, if we can discover what affections of the mind produce certain emotions of the body; and what distinct feelings and qualities of body shall produce certain determinate passions in the mind, and no others, I fancy a great deal will be done (…). (p.103)

Very interesting first that Burke refers to a ‘distinct emotion of mind’. His concern is with the uncertain space of the passions. In this sense, he is identifying an area of relative neglect within philosophy. The focus of Western philosophy has tended to be upon rational thought rather than our complex emotional and affective lives. Burke is redressing this partial omission – I say partial because the other of rational thought is always evident within philosophy, whether cast as falsehood, common opinion, or as basely unphilosophical existence. That Burke should position an ‘emotion of mind’ as ‘distinct’ is particularly interesting. Leibniz (‘Letter to Queen Sophie’, 1703) had argued that sensible experience could be obscure or clear, but only rationally perceived knowledge could properly be regarded as ‘distinct’. Leaving aside differences of languages and translation, there is the sense that Burke, via the notion of beauty and sublimity, develops a notion of the emotional life of the mind that is not simply fixed within the sensible, but that exists also at the level of cognition – of thinking, identifying and discriminating. The beautiful and the sublime partake of both sensation and ideas. They represent a strange and uncertain space of exchange.

Burke focuses on the issue of causation – the play of effect back and forth between body and mind. Yet at the same, in a very Cartesian manner, he acknowledges the impossible character of this relationship. Body and mind are absolutely separate. They are made of different stuff and cannot directly influence one another. Hence there is a need for an intervening principle and a realm of mediation. The affective and the aesthetic, in their intimate relationship, are significant precisely because they represent this possibility of passage and communication between body and mind. This is to once again demonstrate that the field of aesthetics has broader philosophical significance. It’s subjects may be beauty, sublimity, the nature of art, etc., but it’s genuine concerns run deeper and are significantly more extensive.

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Antarctic Images

These are a set of images assembled from slide photographs that my father, a marine micro-biologist, shot in the Antarctic. They were recorded over three separate scientific expeditions: the first to Macquarie Island in 1951-2, which was the first scientific over-winter trip to the island; the second to Mawson Base in 1956; and the final one to the US McMurdo Base in 1961-2. During the final trip my father became the first person to dive beneath the ice for scientific purposes (there is an image below of him in his dry-suit). Later in his life my father was Director of the Australian Institute of Marine Science. He is currently approaching his 93rd birthday.

I have done very little to the images. I have not cropped them. I have not adjusted their tones or colours. I have not made any effort to disguise their dust and scratches. They are as scanned.

What I especially like about these photographs is that they do nothing to downplay the complex interaction between science and the landscape. There is no sense of pristine wilderness. The focus is on tents, machines, buildings, labs, etc. and their relation to the Antarctic environment. The Second World War had finished roughly a decade ago, leaving science and technology to be harnessed for other purposes, but by scientists and technicians whose identities were shaped by wartime experience (even if they were never literally soldiers).

Macquarie Island, 1951-2, John Bunt

Mawson Base, 1956, John Bunt

Mawson Base, 1956, John Bunt

Mawson Base, 1956, John Bunt

McMurdo Base, 1961-2, John Bunt

McMurdo Base, 1961-2, John Bunt

McMurdo Base, 1961-2, John Bunt

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Aesthetics Very Broadly Again

Permit me to step back for a moment to see where all of this has been leading me. The issue of course is the notion of aesthetics, with trying to make sense of it. In general terms, ‘aesthetics’ has two possible meanings: it can refer to a field of philosophy; or it can refer to a qualitative dimension of objects and experience. In relation to the latter, and drawing on Kant, let’s acknowledge that the aesthetic is less an intrinsic quality of objects than a relational system involving both objects and modes of experience.

In relation to the first meaning, aesthetics can either be restricted to the historically constituted tradition of Western philosophical aesthetics, which begins in the Enlightenment and continues through to the present (via a disparate set of global voices), or it can be regarded more broadly as a form of philosophical reflection that explores aesthetic themes. Adopting the former view, some critics regard it as anachronistic to speak of Ancient Greek aesthetics, or of Chinese Buddhist aesthetics, arguing that it is not as though these discourses are speaking of precisely the same thing. Instead of representing transhistorical cultural constants, the notions of art, beauty, sublimity, etc. are, in their view, better regarded as diverse, varied and highly historically particular phenomena. The ‘artists’, for instance, that Plato banishes from his republic are hardly the ‘artists’ who built European Gothic cathedrals, or who wrote Chinese Chan poems or who, in the last century, as Dadaists or Situationists, devised wayward walks through Paris. And taking one step further, perhaps the notions of ‘art’ and ‘artist’, as terms that have the capacity to link these various activities together, are misguided and inappropriate. Arguably, there never was and never has been anything that consistently identified either the field of ‘art’ or the identity of ‘artist’. In contrast, the other more inclusive and catholic conception of philosophical aesthetics argues that while there may be vital historical differences, there are still aspects of similarity that make the notions of art, artist and aesthetics meaningful categories. While certainly the dimensions of difference between Ancient Greek and contemporary ‘aesthetics’ deserve emphasis, there nonetheless share ’aesthetic philosophical themes’. But how are these to be conceived precisely? At one level philosophical aesthetics can seem to be simply about art, beauty and the sublime, but then it can also be about the senses, truth, freedom and the absolute. The notion of the aesthetic has a chameleon capacity to shift registers – to have variously ontological, epistemological, ethical and ‘aesthetic’ relevance. It makes these shifts not only when regarded in the broadest historical and cultural terms, but also within Western philosophical aesthetics ‘proper’. We can resist this multiplicity of meanings and implications, or we can embrace it, and even regard it as key to what the aesthetic entails. Badiou and Ranciere refer to the ‘aesthetic knot’, which seems apt.

Regarded as a mode of relational experience, similar debates play out. Aesthetic experience can be positioned either in historically specific terms (for instance, as a mode of class differentiation and bourgeois self-understanding) or in more general terms as an identifiable and transhistorical current of experience (involving, for example, aspects of free, sensible apperception). There is of course the problem in relation to the latter that distinguishing the aesthetic from other layers of experience (from work, from scientific knowing, from political interaction, etc.) is itself historically inscribed and legible. Aesthetic experience is often opposed to the rest of life and envisaged as a distinct, separate and embattled space of freedom. Conversely it can be regarded as a utopian index of the world’s radical transformation – of the potential for everything to be perceived and judged differently. The tradition of avant-garde art tends to experience these alternatives in terms of an agonised play of resistance, compromise, withdrawal and lingering hope.

Although I argue that artistic practice forms an aspect of a broader notion of aesthetic experience, the two can also be regarded as differently inclined, with aesthetic experience positioned as receptive and reflective and artistic practice as active and productive. Aesthetic experience is associated with consumption and taste and relates to aspects of felt recognition, appreciation, reconciliation and renewal, whereas artistic practice makes things, intervenes and shapes positive novel visions. While this difference is significant, I would prefer not to insist on it too strongly, and indeed aim to question some of its assumptions and assumed implications. Precisely for this reason, I refer to ‘aesthetic practice’ rather than ‘aesthetic experience’. My aim is to suggest how aesthetics works to unsettle the passive/active dichotomy, to position reception and reflections as forms of engagement. Nonetheless, I also play upon the difference between aesthetic and artistic practice in order in order to critique a naively productive and institutionalised conception of art.

My interest is in conceiving a notion of aesthetic practice that is at once philosophical and experiential – and that is also distinguished, as I say, from art-making, or that is at least broader than ‘art-making’? I stress the combination of philosophy and experience because my sense of the aesthetic is not of some narrowly somatic experiential field, nor is it simply a reflection on sensible experience. It is deeply and from the outset also about thinking, remembering, representing and imagining. It involves at every moment aspects of mediation. It is intrinsically mediatory. But, importantly, it does not necessarily produce anything. It is not fixated on producing things – on fashioning them and making them available. It shapes contexts of intra-reflection, but not necessarily of consumption. It does not require another to make it complete.

In this respect I would also like to link aesthetics to amateurism – and the cultural potential of amateurism. I would also like to link it to recycling and repetition (rather than innovation and novelty). Aesthetic practices are not focused on the new – as object, phenomena or mode of marketable identity. Aesthetic practices follow rather than lead and choose disappearance rather than persistent, unsustainable mark making.

Plainly I am struggling to find links between where I started this post and where I have ended it. In very simple terms, I am trying to find a philosophical and experiential way beyond, or aside from, or in the path of the impasses of art, but also beyond, or aside from, or in the path of an aesthetics that appears simply passive and posterior – its meek and irrelevant gestures of following lacking any sense of direction and purpose. My aim is to discover a sense of possibility in that which refuses, for good reason, to positively set itself forth. Aesthetic practice, plainly an oxymoron, works, and doesn’t work, to recall the world and to enable another mode of social being.

At least here, within the context of my argument, the knotted character of aesthetics – its capacity to unsettle – is what lends the notion strategic value. It’s not as though I expect this specialised and significantly socially divisive term (‘aesthetics’ appearing as something rarefied and separate from ordinary currents of social experience) to suddenly become popular, to suddenly appear as a meaningful alternative to the notion of art. It is not a matter or replacing ‘art’ with ‘aesthetics’, but of using the complex possibility of aesthetics to unsettle both the narrowness of art and more broadly the conventional categories of cultural experience. But this is a tactical manoeuvre, not one that establishes the aesthetic as some entirely philosophically coherent or substantive qualitative field. There is a need to try wherever possible to be clear, but not to the extent of undermining the aesthetic’s status as a question and tangle of suggestive uncertainty.

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Additonal Note on the Carnivalesque

Just recently (2019), I discover that Ranciere has spoken about carnival, recognising it as a cultural form that is akin to the subversive moments “when people do a multiplicity of things: performances, acts or parties whose unruliness undermines the forces of inequality”, yet in his view carnival is compromised by its institutionally sanctioned and regular, cyclical character:

There is a time each year when men or women of the people become kings or queens and subvert the world, turn it around or upside down, but do so in a specific time. And for me that’s different from this capacity of people who show up at unexpected moments, without any programme or any schedule. (https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4202-the-far-right-are-succeeding-again-in-appealing-to-the-most-primitive-identity-symbols)

Ranciere describes this difference as matter of “temporality”. Whereas carnival confirms a regular temporality that is bound by dimensions of inequality, genuinely irruptive cultural moments represent “the invention of a new temporality.”

Yet I wonder if the work of repetition in carnival can be neatly opposed to its unruliness? I wonder as well whether the notion of a pure subversion that opens on to the new is not also complicit in relations of inequality? This relates to the problem of repetition’s relation to the new and the new’s relation to repetition. Nietzsche and Deleuze discuss this relation at length in the notion of the dice throw and the eternal return. I won’t go there just now. Now I only want to suggest that perhaps repetition can be thought differently, less as opposed to motions of opening and renewal than as the necessary moment of recollection, continuity and burial that enables the new. And in this manner, the notion of novelty itself would have to also be reconceived – as something formal, as something that also contains an aspect of repetition. To neglect this complex, indeterminate relation between repetition and renewal in carnivalesque experience is to fail to recognise its genuine, potent relation to temporality and cultural life. To imagine that the new can appear on its own, beyond the play of repetition, is precisely to subscribe to a sense of temporality that obliterates the world, that withdraws from its rhythmic perturbations and conceives an utterly strange and self-present moment. This space of the new as profoundly alien is closely allied to every imposition of inequality in the modern world.

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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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Ranciere and Badiou

How can we conceive the relationship between Ranciere and Badiou’s aesthetics?

Ranciere delineates three major Western ‘image regimes’: the ethical regime of the image, which he associates with Plato’s iconoclasm (his banishment of the poets from his ideal republic); the representational regime, which he associates with Aristotle’s ordered and systematic view of the arts (with its proper forms, themes and public, affective purpose); and finally the aesthetic regime, in which art is both autonomous and yet appears materially and thematically unmarked (its distinct identity depending upon endless strategies of either compression and rarefaction or effacement and disappearance).

For all their differences, Badiou follows a closely aligned historical scheme. While his conception has an epistemological focus, rather than Ranciere’s explicitly ethical and political one, Badiou still arranges a tri-partite scheme that begins with Plato, passes to Aristotle and then jumps to the modern (Heideggerian hermeneutics). To summarise Badiou’s scheme: Plato represents an insistence upon the absolute split between philosophical truth and art; Aristotle, the subsumption of art to the interests of philosophy; and Heidegger, the prostration of philosophy before the higher truth of art. Badiou describes the Platonic schema, in which art appears as the alluring other of properly logical truth, as the ‘didactic’ scheme. This is because Plato conceives art – the purpose of art – in terms of the education of citizens. The ultimate aim is for citizens to live within the realm of philosophical truth. Art, in his view, provides the appearance of truth, not its substantial reality; truth is only properly manifest at the level of logical, discursive thought. The didactic scheme then either radically excludes art or positions it as extraneous to philosophical truth. Badiou describes the Aristotelian scheme as the ‘classical’ scheme. In this model, art contributes to knowledge, but in a lesser and subservient fashion. It charts resemblances (mimesis) and provides an affective, therapeutic ground for truth (catharsis). Inasmuch as it is left to philosophical discourse to categorise its forms and operations, art appears as a restricted sphere and ultimately as a humble maidservant to the more general and adequate discourse of philosophical truth. Badiou describes the Heidggerian scheme as the ‘romantic’ scheme, which does, it is worth noting, seem to get the debt the wrong way around, ignoring for instance how Schelling’s romantic notion of art and the Absolute provides a crucial precondition for Heidegger’s hermeneutical aesthetics. In any case, the romantic scheme envisages truth as a terrain of intractable alterity that only the silence and mute objectivity of art can possibly approach. Philosophy, as a nest of words that would like nothing better than to overcome its nestedness – to hive off its material, historical accretions and its dimensions of unconsciousness – has much weaker access to truth than art and poetry, which are always explicitly expressed and always explicitly caught up in a play of veiling and unveiling.

Although the two schemes are roughly contemporary and emerged in close dialogue, Badiou’s has attracted less general interest. This is significantly, I expect, because Ranciere’s scheme engages more obviously with the social and political turn in contemporary art. The notion of the ’redistribution of the sensible’’ would seem to offer greater radical, creative possibility than an austere reconsideration of the relationship between art and truth. This is unfair because Badiou’s scheme is actually highly pertinent to a reconsideration of the relationship between art and aesthetics and reveals all sorts of practical implications.

Ranciere and Badiou share a sense of the complex, knotted relation between art and aesthetics. They differ, however, in that Ranciere regards the knot as inherent and constitutive, whereas Badiou regards it as exhausted and disabling. Ranciere criticises Badiou for trying to separate art from the discourse of philosophical aesthetics, yet Badiou’s notion of truth complicates this separation. Badiou conceives truth in terms that shift beyond a narrowly philosophical, discursive focus. Truth is cast as an event and is associated with extra-philosophical phenomena – love providing the clearest example. If Badiou unties any knots then, it is certainly not the knot between art and truth, which becomes more knotted still. He rejects only the knot between art and philosophy (as aesthetics). Whereas Ranciere positions aesthetics as the vital discourse for the identification of art within the modern context in which art has lost clear material, formal and thematic signs, Badiou insists on a notional separation between art and aesthetics. Very importantly, however, this is only on the condition that art itself appear as a site of truth. In this respect, Badiou represents art as thoroughly philosophical, even as he distinguishes it from the mechanisms of philosophical aesthetics as such. He describes this differentiated and mediated relationship between art and aesthetics as ‘inaesthetic’ and offers the following clarification, ‘Against aesthetic speculation, anaesthetics describes the strictly intraphilosophical effects produced by the independent existence of some works of art.’ Art, in his view, prompts speculation within philosophy, but does not speak the language of philosophy itself and does not rely upon philosophical aesthetics to express its particular truths. Yet this resonance – this production of ‘intraphilosophical effects’ – depends upon art having philosophical implications, even while distinguishable from aesthetics per se. Badiou’s schema represents not only a demarcation of the limits of philosophy, but also a transgression (and expansion) of these limits as a much wider set of event phenomena are interpreted as sites of truth-making. In this sense, Badiou less eliminates the knot between art and aesthetics than frames it in other terms.

Badiou claims that the ‘inaesthetic’ represents a new and unthought schema – an advance upon the dilemmas of the existing didactic, classical and romantic schemas. He positions the latter not only as longstanding historical and philosophical paradigms for thinking the relationship between art and truth, but also as emblems of key strands of modernity. Didacticim is evident with Marxism, both in terms of the harsh rejection of avant-garde poetics in Stalinism and in the Brechtian harnessing art in the interests of socialist critique. Classicism is evident in the psychoanalytical conception of art, with art appearing as a form of therapy that is directed towards the overall interests of ‘the talking cure’ (of a bringing to consciousness of unconscious forces). And finally romanticism is evident in the various sublime strategies of the avant-garde and corresponding efforts to dissolve art into the everyday or to imbue all aspects of the everyday with the sense of possibility embedded in art. How would Badiou’s notion of the ‘inaesthetic’ map to contemporary forms of creative practice? What relevance does it have in terms of either suggesting new forms of art or new spaces of ‘intraphilosophical’ reflection? I suspect that there is nothing like a direct answer to these questions, but I see considerable value in highlighting the question of truth across the uncertainly delineated terrain of art and aesthetics. This is not in order to insist on some notion of absolute or event-bound truth, or to reinforce the differences between sensible/affective and discursive philosophical truth, but rather to recognise that the thinking of art and aesthetics engages with most fundamental aspects of experience and being, working not only to ground, reconcile or make coherent, but also to renew and to reactivate; doing both of these things at once. And the question of truth, of the incessant play of truth and appearance, is vital to this work and needs to be taken seriously, alongside any call for immediate action or relevance. Badiou’s summoning of the ‘inaesthetic’ may seem a withdrawal and a calling away, but perhaps that is precisely what is needed just now?

So, rather than selecting between Ranciere and Badiou’s perspective, it seems more fruitful to regard them as distinct and complementary views of the complex knot of art and aesthetics. Ranciere demonstrates the mutual dependence of art and aesthetics within the context of the ‘aesthetic regime’ and stresses political implications (even if never literally direct). Badiou demonstrates the real grounds of difference between the discursive and the immediate and highlights the key issue of truth, which is manifest not only in philosophy and art, but in all kinds of dimensions of experience.

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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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Dreaming

Descartes famously founds modern philosophy through a gesture of radical doubt. He poses the question, what if an evil genie staged every aspect of the experiential world? What if we were all the time dreaming? What if all our experience was an illusion? In that case, Descartes further enquires, what can certainly be known? Only the experience of thinking itself: ‘I think therefore I am.’

How often do we see this meta-level turn, this twist into a problem that looks back at itself? We see it, for instance, in Turing’s conception of the halting machine, which stops its incessant processing at the point that it recognises its own operations. We see it in Kant, in the circularity of the a priori faculties that engage with the world only to reveal nothing of the exterior world at all, but only our internal conditions of apprehension.

Just as with Descartes, we end up with thought – with the machine that stops because it suddenly considers what it is doing, or with the consciousness that establishes its proper basis by bracketing everything external. With the pure thought of thought, separated from the problem of experience, appearance and memory; timeless in its way.

But couldn’t we also subject this space of thought to doubt? Isn’t it itself affected by the same conditions that characterise all experience?

How often, for instance, have I dreamed a truth? How often have I imagined a cogent argument? It has happened to me many times.

And also, even when I am lucid and awake, how completely have I ever held a logical argument? How often has it ever been simply and accessibly present? So often a series of steps lead to some logical realisation. The steps are not precisely held in the moment of realisation, but rather inform that moment from a without that can never be entirely certain. I think in time. I remember, I project, I take leaps. And none of this motion of thought is pure in any case. It is always rhetorically, grammatically, narratively and poetically informed. It flows and draws on words that suddenly, blindly become available. My thinking is never entirely my own. It is less a ground than a complex, irreducible epiphenomenon.

My point here is that thought – logical thought – is affected by the same dilemmas that affect appearance. It is never absolutely self-collected. This represents another very modern order of meta-level recognition: thought itself is the trace of unconsciousness. We can recognise this as an obvious psychoanalytical point, but it can also work to undermine the imaginary power of psychoanalysis – the notion that if we could only self consciously make sense of our thought and actions that we could somehow be cured (thought against thought, thought lifted up to another level: yet another meta-level manoeuvre).

In any case, inasmuch as aesthetics openly acknowledges its basis in appearance, inasmuch as it does not struggle to another level, inasmuch as it functions in terms of immanent rather than meta or superior relations, it engages with a dimension of truth that the discourse of truth itself will have never adequately conceived.

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Truth and Appearance

The truth of appearance…and the appearance of truth.

The truth of appearance involves an interrogation of appearance as potentially alien to truth. The suspicion of appearance.

The appearance of truth raises the problem that truth, which aims to distinguish itself from mere appearance, must nonetheless appear. This creates problems for a separate field of truth that is somehow unaffected by the problem of appearance.

But what is appearance? For Hesiod, appearance is associated with the stomach. It is base and corporeal. It is opposed to the lofty and incorporeal field of truth. There is evident here then, well before Plato privileges abstract ideality and Kant the non-appetitive character of aesthetic experience, a sense of the fundamental incompatibility of the physical and the metaphysical, of body and mind, of their essential incommensurability and difference. Yet if the stomach provides the model for everyday experience – for its blindness, will and alienation from truth – how does it become associated with appearance? Appearance is peculiarly positioned, linked to corporeal experience and yet also taking shape as a complex phantasm – the complex product of sense, memory, understanding and imagination. In this respect, appearance is associated not only with blindness but also with a work of showing (with light as well as darkness). How can these opposing tendencies be reconciled? The usual explanation is that appearance itself – on its own – is weak and unschooled. Something takes shape – appears – but without the intervention of logical reason. Leibniz speaks of a clear but confused impression – one that has persuasive force, but that involves no element of precise definition or logical delineation. In this sense, operating separately to reason, appearance is characterised by the constitutive contradiction of its opposing aspects.

Interesting that, conceived in these terms, appearance preserves a relation to the otherness of unconscious being. It is an involuntary image. What appears is essentially a form of darkness (alien and unreflective) and the play of light within appearance is ultimately blindly determined. Kant will question this space of exteriority, arguing that appearance is bound by a fundamental circularity; what appears is only that which our a priori faculties of understanding make available to us. The thing itself – in its blindness and alterity – inevitably escapes. So in this sense appearance will never be appearance itself, but rather a kind of blind anticipation. Blindness remains, but reveals nothing and engages with no exterior field of otherness. Instead the blindness has its basis in our own internal work of shaping the conditions of appearance, which cannot quite see this work, which constantly mistakes its own projections for the world itself. At this point, within the context of the Kantian questioning of any direct intuition of the world, appearance becomes even more uncertain. It had seemed to lie on the side of corporeal experience – and of the alienation that this represents – now it emerges as a product of inner conceptual faculties, so that appearance is only ever the fiction of appearance, the misrecognition of an internal for an external light.

But the problem becomes more complex. It is not only a matter of an impossible appearance seeming to proclaim an alien truth – slipping away from reason (never being bound by reason) to show things in a sphere of apparent daylight that belongs properly to darkness and night – but also, more seriously, of a rationality that depends upon appearance. The rational itself must appear. It must run the risk of all appearance – of impression, of semblance, of illusion. In this manner the theatre of rational truth is affected by the dilemmas and aporia of appearance. Who is to say that the self-evidence of a deductive truth is not simply a species of illusion lifted up a degree – more convincing, more persuasive, but ultimately still an apparition?

Hence all the efforts, for instance, of the Pre-Socractics to distinguish truth proper from the realm of appearance. But how is this done? Through stories of the intercession of goddesses (the chariot ride of Parmenides), through magical acts (the golden thigh of Pythagorus) and through the prophesying of an eclipse (Thales). That is through all kinds of theatrical means that render images and stories, that trade on appearances. Even if we were to dispute this relationship between magic and logic in the Pre-Socratics, even if we were to bracket all the picturesque distractions and just focus on the currents of clear logical argument, we would still encounter the problem of appearance. A key concern of the Pre-Socratics is to identity the fundamental stuff of the world. Thales spoke of water, Anixmander of air, Heraclitus of fire. All of these images, all of these metaphors, are central to their philosophical arguments. They are not extraneous features, but key to the articulation and envisaging of particular philosophical schemes. Finally, beyond this, there is also the verbal play of the Pre-Socratics – their endless riddles and paradoxes – which represent a meta-level sphere of appearance. As a rhetorical field, Pre-Socratic philosophy emerges as a play of veiling and unveiling, disappearance and manifestation.

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Claims to be an Artist

What does it mean within the context of contemporary socially engaged art practice to claim that I am an artist? Particularly when I have no intention of producing anything like conventional artistic work? I may be working with teachers, engineers, social workers, landscape designers and all kinds of other professionals. I may be joining in their activities and doing nothing that particularly differentiates me, but still, when introduced, I will describe myself as an artist. Arguably just a matter of declaring some level of particular professional identity before joining with everybody else to pursue common activities and goals. Possibly, but this seems ingenuous. All the other participants still retain their areas of particular professional experience, and offer contributions on that basis. The engineer steps forward to speak about the dam wall, the social worker about the mountain-biking kids, the landscape designer about issues of erosion and slope regeneration. But what specific expertise can I offer? My role seems to be as professional innocent or fool – an ‘Everyman’ who signals the limitations of all particular knowledge frameworks. In this sense my empty professionalism stands as an emblem of transdisciplinarity. Yet, pausing, I realise I am not altogether transdisciplinary, because I also preserve an aspect of vital difference. I am an artist. My identity and difference is established most authoritatively because there is nothing that can be done to establish it practically. It is simply declared. I indicate that I am an artist – and by implication that the rest of you are not. So an artist appears as one profession among others, but the issues is confused and mystified because I lack any apparent field of expertise. However, despite all my gestures of innocence and humble joining in, I must acknowledge that I do retain a sense of distinct expertise. I maintain a metal-level expertise. I am the one who can see the whole, who can reflect upon it in terms of its overall features as, for instance, a choreography of professional intersections and staged liminal events. My overall aim is a ‘making strange’ of social space in order to reactivate its political-poetic potential. To keep my focus on this meta-level concern, I absolutely cannot allow myself to act simply as an artist, to engage in predictably artistic activities. Instead, in order to claim an aspect of the whole for art, while avoiding any sense of specialised artistic identity or autonomy, I must avoid any hint of art altogether. This involves preserving a neat balance in the midst of multiple dimensions of contradiction. How long can such a balance be maintained before it collapses? Are there other options? I can imagine leaving the notion of art behind altogether (this is already happening in all manner of forms of ‘social practice), or else of radically rethinking the nature, context and profession of art. For me the latter involves giving up the self-identity, cultural frames and professional basis of art, and looking for something broader and more inclusive. I suggest the notion of aesthetic practice, but not as a field that any particular cultural sphere can claim, nor as something that can be rattled off as though it were a regular job. This is not because it is alien or superior to other spheres of activity, but rather because it takes all spheres of activity seriously, while not permitting any sense of their discrete operation. If the aesthetic is alien it is because it interrogates every determinable cultural form, including its own.

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Heidegger and Ranciere

At one level, Heidegger and Ranciere are opposed on the relationship between art and aesthetics. Heidegger criticises aesthetics as a form of enframing, privileging instead a notion of art as a sphere of ontological truth. Ranciere, on the other hand, argues that art and aesthetics are closely intertwined, emerging together historically and in a mutually reinforcing manner.

Heidegger conceives art in terms of a capacity to summon the interplay of appearance and disappearance that shapes the ontological field of human experience. To employ his terms, art signals towards the irreducible multiplicity of ‘earth’ within the context of manifesting a particular, brightly appearing ‘world’. Art mediates between being and non-being, revealing and concealing in a way that imperceptibly provides a ground for life. This is in the sense that a Greek temple (Heidegger’s example) provided for the ancient Greeks a lived framework for their particular mode of existence and worldview, without every becoming simply, in the modern manner, an object for aesthetic delectation motivating a subjective ‘aesthetic’ response. Within this context, Heidegger’s notion of art may be regarded either as an ontological conception of art (in which philosophical aesthetics is banished) or as an ontologically conceived philosophical aesthetics (in which art is regarded as a form of truth). Heidegger argues for the former view, suggesting that philosophical aesthetics is aligned with the contemporary problem of an art reduced through aesthetics to a role of reinforcing the subject/object dichotomy and the culture of enframing. In his view aesthetics renders art so that the ‘earthly’ character of being loses all sense of intrinsic value and becomes simply a resource for exploitation and nihilistic optimisation. However, as Hammermeister argues, Heidegger ignores that his non-aesthetic conception of art is not altogether alien to the tradition of philosophical aesthetics. Within German Romantic aesthetics, chiefly in the work of Schelling, there is a strong conception of art as form of ontological truth, as a means of manifesting the Absolute as radical alterity, as an unconsciousness more basic and fundamental than the machinations of logical reason. In this sense, the tradition of aesthetics informs the apparently post-aesthetic identity of art.

I have described Ranciere’s conception of aesthetics elsewhere. Here I simply want to note some points of surprising alignment between Heidegger and Ranciere’s apparently very different conceptions. At first glance only differences are evident. Heidegger devalues aesthetics, while Ranciere values it. Heidegger emphasises an ontological conception of art, whereas Ranciere stresses its political character. Yet, there are also some vital points of agreement. Key here is their shared sense of art’s capacity to shape experiential affordances, to provide the conditions of a particular historical world and mode of being. Heidegger describes the world establishing power of the Ancient Greek temple. Ranciere speaks of ‘the distribution of the sensible’, which shapes the possibility for particular forms of being and political existence. Linked to this is also their shared sense of the importance of art for enabling fields of potential action. Heidegger stresses an ontological vision – art working to negotiate a relation between ‘earth’ and ‘world’. Ranciere stresses the disruptive character of art, its capacity to renew the experiential landscape and thus project, at a slight distance, new modes of political being. But even here there is a sense of deep agreement. Art appears in both as a commingled space of renewal and continuity, disruption and manifestation, un-concealing and concealing, redistribution and distribution. There is an intimate play of flux and stasis in each conception. And both conceptions lend art a privileged place as a means of vital carnivalesque cultural being.

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The Wider Relevance of Aesthetics

Ranciere argues that historically there is a close association between philosophical aesthetics and the development of what he terms ‘the aesthetic regime of art’. In this manner he questions efforts to separate these two – to imagine either that art can be conceived on its own, or that aesthetics has a broader identity. Instead he suggests a complex and intractable knot between the two, arguing moreover that it is the knot that is interesting rather than any putative sense of independent identity. In this manner aesthetics is positioned as the discourse for the identification of art, especially now that the latter lacks any distinct thematic, representational or material features, while art represents a specific aesthetically cast field for the distribution and redistribution of the sensible. Yet even in the midst of this complex, circular and knotted relationship, Ranciere acknowledges another meaning of the aesthetic – as that which pertains to sensibility generally. Even within the context of his own argument, Ranciere admits then a layer of distinction. The aesthetic is not entirely bound to the contemporary identity and dilemmas of art as he suggests. It has a wider philosophical meaning. It enables him to refer to the ‘aesthetics of politics’ as the sensible dimension of politics.

But can the aesthetic be understood simply as the problem of sensibility? Certainly this issue is core to the initial Enlightenment thinking about the aesthetic, but does it adequately capture what is at stake? I would argue that the aesthetic is not only broader than art, but also that it is broader than the problem of sensibility. Just as the aesthetic is not reducible to the philosophy of art, nor to the philosophy of the beauty and the sublime – just as these are more indices of the aesthetic than the aesthetic itself – so too sensibility is merely an indicator of a wider philosophical space. And it must be acknowledged that this wider space is not properly an ‘in itself’. It is less a distinct and substantive space than one precisely of uncertainty and dilemma.

Take the issue of mimesis, or what seems to be simply the issue of mimesis. Mimesis involves imitation. Imitation is a form of appearance that contains a dimension of untruth. The untruth is related to its status as a double. It is not the thing itself, but rather something that appears in the guise of the other. In this manner, mimesis becomes associated with non-being. It is the manifestation of being through the non-being of a semblance. Yet clearly it is also a form of being – and typically cast as a form of dishonest, dissembling being. Yet, even here, it is both referring to another, but also manifesting its own being as an imitation. In this manner, mimesis retains an aspect of authenticity within its formal work of semblance. It represents an undecidable state of being that plays out the relationship between being and non-being, and more profoundly the strange interplay of being and non-being within appearance generally – not just within the space of mimesis specifically. It is a sign – like the field of contemporary art, like the notions of the beautiful and the sublime, like the realm of sensibility – of a more general problem.

Hesiod begins his Theogony with the conceit of the Muses appearing to him to explain the truth of the emergence of the world from chaos and the struggle between the gods. He positions himself as a mere agent for truths that have come from beyond. He is a shepherd, ‘a mere stomach’, who can see nothing beyond the immediate world of appetite and immediate appearance. His is a world of primary illusion, but also of blindness linked to its immersion in sensibility. The sphere of sensibility is not associated with truth or clarity, but rather with a dark distance from everything that truth represents. It is the world of appearance that despite its darkness and inadequacy nonetheless brightly appears. There is the problem then of this immediate coincidence of darkness and appearance within the problem of mortal sentient existence. The intervention of the Muses only complicates matters. They communicate the truth, but also under the guise of appearance. They theatrically intervene and insist upon a dimension of truth that cannot itself literally appear.

It is then a matter of distinguishing between different modes of appearance. Alongside their appearance as such (what does this ‘as such’ mean?) the Muses also speak to the shepherd. Their primary mode of communication is via words. The truth as logos is not something that is experienced as such. It is not something within the space of being. It is something that shares features with mimesis. Both operate semiologically. But then a vital distinction is made. Mimesis is the doubling not of truth, but only of appearance. This is Plato’s sense of imitations as thrice removed from truth: the primary truth is a pure form; the secondary truth is the instantiation of this form in a particular worldly thing; and the tertiary truth represents an attempt to double the appearance of the thing. Mimesis is condemned both for its putative dishonesty and for its focus on the realm of appearance precisely. Philosophical words, however, in their apparent distance from the realm of sensibility and appearance and in their manifest artificiality and abstraction, appear more properly a medium for truth. Of course there are all sorts of complexities here. There is the distinction between spoken and written philosophical truth (Derrida’s critique of phonocentric logocentrism) and within speech between sophistry and proper logical, dialectical argument. But the key issue here is that philosophy is positioned as a medium of truth, whereas mimesis is portrayed as a medium of falsehood. This is very much linked to how the relationship to dimensions of appearance – and particularly sensible appearance – are conceived.

It is within this context then that I argue that sensibility (in aesthetics) is not only about the sensible per se, it is about the whole articulation and revelation of truth and its undecidable relation to dimensions of appearance. The concept of mimesis is a charged sign of an underlying layer of uncertainty and contradiction within the thinking of authenticity and being itself. If there is such a strong tradition of iconoclasm in Western thought, it is about struggling to establish some convincing ontological and epistemological ground. This entails sacrificing forms of being that are associated with dissemblance and non-being. In this respect, Plato’s banishment of the poets from his ideal Republic is less simply ethical (as Ranciere suggests) than deeply ontological and epistemological.

Similarly, the aesthetic in its concern with sensibility and appearance manifests these wider and fundamental philosophical concerns. They are as knotted within the concept of the aesthetic as any specifically historical relationship to contemporary art.

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The Aesthetic has yet to be Thought

There is a blindspot in the contemporary debate about the notion of the aesthetic, which is the aesthetic itself, assuming that it makes any sense to refer to the aesthetic itself, when it appears always more or less as a cipher for other things – for ethics, for politics, for all manner of contradictions within our experience of the social world. And this sense of blindness is not a recent phenomenon. The aesthetic always seems to withdraw, appearing reticently and last. It is the substance of Kant’s third critique, and then again not even that. The actual theme of judgement only takes aesthetics as an example. Of what? Of a dimension of agreement that cannot be explained – a moment of imaginary, felt reconciliation that has no basis in any specific, neatly delineated order of experience, but rather in something that from the outset mediates, and thus that is in this sense cast in terms of what it is not. It is not rational thought, but somehow resembles it. It is not ethical law, but somehow mimics aspects of the universal. The aesthetic is never simply itself. It always that only makes sense in terms of its relationship to other modes of being. It appears at the tail end of things. It appears to mend holes and fill gaps. It is an afterthought that represents the ultimate incomprehensibility and untenability of the whole. And that is also its value – its capacity to represent the limitations of that which makes it necessary.

Despite its untenability, the challenge is not demonstrate the inadequacy of the aesthetic or to dismiss its furtive identity altogether, but rather to search for that impossible horizon of the in itself – not to make the aesthetic properly coherent and adequate, but rather to enable a lucidity that we have no means of speaking. Because I also have no idea what the aesthetic is, but I am confident that it is more than a mirror of the social, that it has, at the very least, some kind of philosophical identity, which plays out not only in ethical terms, but also epistemologically and ontologically. Baumgarten associated aesthetics with sensible experience, but what precisely is the sensible? How does it relate to the problem of the soul? Of animated life? How does the sphere of sensibility relate to matter? How does it relate to form? Clearly the aesthetic does not fall neatly Into this ancient space of distinction. Rather it emerges from it as another aspect of mystery – a kind of complication, a scene in a play – perhaps a tragedy, perhaps a comedy, perhaps something that escapes Aristotelian categorisation. There is a scenography of the aesthetic, a play of light and dark, action and reflection, knowledge and its opposite. The aesthetic is an apparatus in which these things appear, drift apart, clash and are briefly reconciled. In this sense the aesthetic is a form of theatre more than anything else. It plays out, resolves and leaves unresolved various compelling antagonisms.

But in order to discover this sense of the aesthetic there is a need to do something very crude and direct – to differentiate the aesthetic from art. It not that aesthetics and art are not closely entwined, but the aesthetic is not limited to art. So if there is a rhetoric of autonomy within the aesthetic, this is not simply reducible to the problem of the social autonomy of art. No doubt the notion of the non-instrumental is socially legible, but that it not to say that the notion is entirely exhausted by it social legibility. At the very least this notion also needs to be taken seriously philosophically, in terms, for instance, of various ways of conceiving the relationship between the rational and the aesthetic and the ethical and the aesthetic.

There is a circularity in the way that contemporary art criticism addresses the relationship between art and the aesthetic. Ranciere argues that contemporary art takes shape in terms of an aesthetic regime, but also that the aesthetic regime is charged specifically with the task of identifying the proper contours of contemporary art. Both terms are thus defined in terms of the other. There is no sense of their slippage or the potential gap between them. This is evident for instance in Grant Kester’s defence of socially engaged art (SEA), in which he expounds a notion of dialogical aesthetic that it radically different to ordinary notions of art, and yet that somehow at the end must always be recuperated to the interests of art. Despite lacking any clear disciplinary identity, despite no longer being about making, despite reaching out to the other to the point that any sense of work becomes indeterminable, Kester still insists on the notions of art and artist. When you could just as easily argue that SEA is a limit discourse that can ultimately leave art behind, that has an aesthetic aspect that is inexplicable in terms of our ordinary understanding of art. Why not, for instance, discuss dimensions of conversation – of dialogical practice, of opening to the other – within ordinary species of social activism; activism that makes no claims to art? Why not tease out the aesthetic dimensions of non-art practice? It is as though ultimately, despite his claims to the contrary, Kester remains focused on the field of art. If not narrowly enforcing its accepted limits, he is at least working to accommodate its notional expansion within the compass of an expanded aesthetic paradigm. But perhaps the real point is to take the aesthetics more seriously and seek it our wherever it appears. Beyond the field of art, so be it.

I am afraid to think the aesthetic in universal terms. All my critical reflexes resist this thought. Yet perhaps the aesthetic is more than simply a pre-modern, Enlightenment invention? Perhaps it has a more general currency? Perhaps it exceeds the constellation in which it emerged? I know there are risks in even thinking this way, but perhaps it also enables a more general concept of the aesthetic that has current critical value? There is, if nothing else, the need to acknowledge other strands of aesthetic thought and being beyond the Western paradigm of contradiction and reconciliation. I have no way of convincingly arguing this, but sense its importance.

I can walk along a path slightly to the left or slightly to the right. I choose one way or the other. Where does this decision come from, especially if it makes no difference which way I choose, if they are both equally effective and equally distracted and distracting. There is in any particular choice an element beyond simply instrumental interests. There is a kind of indeterminable play that renders the experience of time and space vivid and poetic. It need not be anything profound or elevated – just the most ordinary, everyday decision and way of being. Somewhere in this for me is the basis of the aesthetic – a certain freedom that no manner of constraint can every fully constrain. But it its also not just freedom or play. It is something else. It is linked to the fatality of time and the suspension of that fatality in imagination. The aesthetic has yet to be thought.

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Aesthetics and Astronomy

Aesthetics as a single star.

Then the awareness of its place in a conceptual constellation.

And the sense of this constellation’s place in the wider night sky.

But it would have to be noted that there is not a single star, or a single constellation, or a single night sky. There are multiple stars, constellations and skies. And there is no single point to discern each of these properly. The complexity can be recognised, but never adequately resolved. The matter is more of a practical orientation, of trying to find some way through the mix of dark and bright elements.

This work is intended as a rough map of the aesthetic night sky drawn by an amateur astronomer.

This framing metaphors of star, constellation and night sky are not only a metaphors. They also relate directly and substantitvely to the issue of aesthetics. Aesthetics appears literally as the luminal space in which the relation between darkness and light are partially, imaginatively reconciled. There is the ignorance (darkness) of appearance as well as its vivid experience (light). Aesthetic engages with the paradox of appearance – brightly manifest and yet somehow also obscure. This obscurity relates to the whole problem of how the senses and imagination are conceived and positioned in relation to that other realm of apparent brightness, rational understanding.

The first of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, Thales, obtained initial fame by predicting a solar eclipse. He also wrote of water as the fundamental arche of the universe, but it is the eclipse, the nature of a solar eclipse, that interests me here. At one level an eclipse obscures the sun and renders the world dark. At another level, it renders the brightness of the sun even more apparent, in that an eclipse cannot safely be viewed with the naked eye. To gaze directly at a solar eclipse is to risk blindness. An eclipse can only be safely viewed as a cast projection via a pin-hole device. Although apparently dark then, the phenomena itself has a blinding brightness. It summons representation as a necessity so that the nature of its brightness, which is constituted precisely as moment of obscurity (the occlusion of the sun), can be made visible. It is also worth noting the place of the moon in all this. The moon does not positively appear itself. Rather it only appears in negative terms as a ball of darkness that moves across the sun. We only see the shadow side of the moon in a solar eclipse, which works to gradually obscure and occlude the sun and then equally gradually reveal it. There is then here a complex interaction of darkness and light. Moreover the limits of each reveal aspects of the other. The limits of brightness is blindness. The limit of obscurity is a curious moment of alignment between the sun and the moon.

All of this sets the scene for the aesthetic – for a mode of appearance and uncertain knowledge that has its basis in the darkness of sense and the darkness of a mode of formality that cannot be adequately rationally characterised, that appears in an instant, as a whole, or in fragments. Moreover, instead of infusing all aspects of experience, the aesthetic takes shape as a special and liminal field; and as a complex one, which, like an eclipse, coordinates aspects of visibility and obscurity, which renders these two coincident and undecidable. The aesthetic represents the theatrical scene in which the key dichotomies that ground our understanding of the world are played out both as a form of reconciliation and as an irresolvable (and thus animating) enigma.

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Limit of Aesthetics

I argue that field of aesthetic practice is broader than art, that it relates to wider dimensions of experience. Unlike art, which takes shape as a particular and idiosyncratic social institution and form of cultural practice, aesthetics characterises a qualitative layer of experience that is associated with a wide range of social phenomena and modes of being. But here’s the dilemma: in imagining some distinctly aesthetic layer of experience, I run into a similar problem that art encounters. Just as art at once gains and loses critical value in its autonomy – just as it affects everyday life and then is rendered radically separate from it – so too aesthetics both discovers and abandons critical value the more it obtains distinct identity. In conceiving a specifically aesthetic layer of experience, I cannot avoid reconfirming a whole range of distinctions that critical aesthetics primarily questions. So, for instance, if one aim is to undermine the difference between work and play, then the notion of aesthetic practice seems critically useful. It offers a means of rethinking the relationship between labour and leisure, between the negative character of instrumental being and the field of impractical, imaginative action. Yet as a distinctly identifiable notion, aesthetics still only makes sense as that which is other to work. If it represents a layer of experience then it is not both work and play at once, rather it appears as the playful dimension of work. This leaves us ultimately within the initial conceptual framework in which work and play are meaningful in terms of their fundamental difference. If we are to think beyond this opposition then the notions of both work and play, and the conventional relationship between these two, must be questioned. This also entails questioning the nature of the aesthetic – the nature of its difference from any other layer of experience.

The point then is perhaps not to resolve the identity of the aesthetic, but to tease out its contradictions, which exemplify precisely the nature of the problem: the difficulty of imagining some other way of being that is not framed in terms of the difference between work and play, the gap between sensibility and rationality, the antagonism between ends and means. The notion of the aesthetic assists in thinking to the limit and tentatively beyond, but always ultimately in metaphoric terms, in terms of the existing conceptual repertoire. Finally, assuming that any reflection whatsoever is possible in this limit space, we would have to shift beyond the notion of the aesthetic. The ultimate success of the term would depend upon it disappearing.

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Aesthetic preconceptions

What is the aesthetic? I continue to pose this question to myself. It tends to summon all kinds of qualifications. For instance, in line with a mainstream view, I remind myself that the notion of the aesthetic as a distinct sphere of experience, is historically specific. It emerged within the Enlightenment philosophy as a means of designating (and re-designating) the problem of sense – and more particularly modes of thinking that are affected by sense, that are not entirely reducible to logic. We encounter then within the specific question of the aesthetic the whole problem of how thought is conceived in Western philosophy, of how the field of bodily experience, imagination and understanding relates to and is distinguished from the logos – the field of rational, logically articulated cognition and knowledge. While this historically and philosophically nuanced view of the aesthetic is important, it can also mean that any effort to more straightforwardly describe the concept is endlessly postponed. So while we preserve some rough sense of what the term means, this meaning never quite becomes explicit. It is subject to critical bracketing at any moment that it might risk being expressed.

So here I would like to adopt a different strategy. Dropping my critical guard, here I will simply list a set of terms that seem pertinent to my understanding of what the aesthetic means. At this stage, I will not even make an effort to properly organise this list or to eliminate any redundant terms. It is intended as an unfiltered brain dump that exposes my behind the scenes, preconceived notion of the aesthetic.

  • Play
  • Reflection
  • Recollection/projection
  • Fancy/dream/imagination
  • Rhythm
  • Melody
  • Harmony
  • Timbre
  • Syncopation
  • Counterpoint
  • Variety/multiple voicing
  • Tracing/invention
  • Vision/invisibility (limits of vision/sense/experience/comprehension/imagination)
  • Continuity/discontinuity
  • Pattern/irregularity/variation
  • Simplicity/complexity
  • Raw/refined
  • Resolved/open
  • General/particular
  • Abstract/actual (immanence)
  • Generative
  • Beauty
  • Style
  • Appearance (as mystery and conceived as superfluous to function)
  • Wonder
  • Thrill
  • Sensitivity
  • Observation
  • Intoxication
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Critical Aesthetics

I would like to hold on to a notion of critical aesthetics. It provides an underlying motivation for this work, which aims to consider alternatives to current material and social relations. This has traditionally involved drawing perverse value from Kant’s social marginalisation of aesthetics – his insistence that it is separate from the conceptual, the ethical and the instrumental, that it occupies its own distinct sphere. The institution of art appears as the embodiment of this separate, marginal identity – at once compromised and yet preserving a vestige of negatively conceived hope. This is a minimal sketch of Adorno’s conception of art and aesthetics, which he employs to clarify and designate values that are not entirely under the thrall of instrumental rationality. The aesthetic, for instance, suggests a relation to thought, experience and material interactions that is not entirely characterised by Hegelian sublation – that imagines and models other less destructive options. Even if art cannot properly realise this more sensitive alternative, even if it is driven to exacerbate the crisis of our everyday being, it nonetheless , in its autonomy, uselessness and partial silence, preserves a vital critical role.

So a great deal of weight is placed on the institution of art – on its capacity to represent and maintain the critical capacity of aesthetics. All other aspects of culture that could potentially be conceived in terms of their aesthetic characteristics appear as components within the overall regime of instrumental rationality, and as literal products of that regime. The issue with this is it places far too much weight on art, while at the same time denying any potential for art to intervene more broadly. Within this schema, the power of art lies in its marginalisation, so that if it ceases to be marginalised it loses its identity and influence. In this manner, art is trapped in double-bind, preserving hope, but only on the condition that it is never realised. The other possibility, which the aesthetic philosophy of Dewey may represent, is to seek out a qualitative, critical aesthetic layer within social practice generally. This is based upon a fundamental critique of the Kantian delineation of separate spheres of rationality, ethics and aesthetics. It is to insist that these spheres are mutually implicated in any given moment of experience. While Dewey may not quite adequately represent this alternative, while he is prone to conceiving an overall harmony between the spheres, there are nonetheless key aspects of his conception of aesthetics that entail a critical dimension – a questioning, for instance, of the nature of labour and of the implications of modern industrialised modes of production. This approach is also in line with key aspects of contemporary artistic practice that work at the limits or beyond the limits of the institution of art in order to forge new opportunities for social engagement, intervention and relevance.

Ranciere regards both of these strategies – either to withdraw into an autonomous and sublime space of critique or to reach outwards and encourage new relations to the social – as characteristic of the modern ‘aesthetic regime’ of art. But in my view, the latter strategy is not simply reducible to the internal machinations of avant-garde art. It entails an engagement with other disciplines, discourses and social spheres that themselves have a positive character and are not reducible to specifically art-based strategies. I would also argue that the notion of the aesthetic is broader than art. Rather than simply extending the influence of art, new forms of socially engaged art practice very often involve the recognition of fields of aesthetic practice that extend beyond art and that are imbricated within strands of activity that may not ordinarily be artistically (or aesthetically) conceived. Just to further clarify my position, Ranciere objects to postmodernism on the basis that efforts to shift beyond art – particularly to open up new relations to forms of popular culture and the like – are nothing new. They are a feature of modern art itself, which regularly resists any sense of hermetic autonomy. Yet in this manner, the field beyond art is devalued. It loses its particular qualities and is represented simply in terms of its relation to the interior contradictions of the institution of autonomous art. Ranciere is correct to object that artistic modernism also revealed a fascination with the popular and the everyday, but only a caricature of postmodernism suggest otherwise. Harvey, for instance, argues that postmodernism simply foregrounds tendencies that were already present within modernism. So he acknowledges the playful relation to the popular within DADA, collage traditions, etc., but also argues that this strand of practice gains increased emphasis within the context of postmodernism. And then it would be a matter of looking closely at the specific relations to the popular that are entailed, rather than assuming that DADA’s relation to the popular is necessarily the primary basis for postmodern and contemporary efforts to engage with popular cultural forms.

But in any case, returning to my main point, I am less convinced that aesthetics is necessarily neatly aligned with a well-meaning critical orientation. Thinking the aesthetic more generally and in less Kantian and more Dewey-ian terms also entails recognising that the aesthetic is more broadly implicated within currents of instrumental and everyday practice that may be in various ways destructive. Take something as simple as hunting (the classical Hegelian model of a material dialectic), this can be conceived not only as a matter of obtaining sustenance, but also of play and erotics. Or torture, which is never simply a means of acquiring information, but also a gruesome, sadistic theatre. Or climate change, with its aesthetic of sublime collapse – of glaciers crashing into the sea and fires burning through forests and suburbs. There is the terrible imaginary of Earth’s collapse, of geological time suddenly becoming humanly perceptible. Aesthetics then does not simply stand back, withdraw, obliquely reflect. It is implicated within everything. This is the problem then with shifting beyond the Kantian conception, of not remaining within the critical moment and impasse that Adorno describes. Once we define a broader aesthetics that is disentangled from the institution of art then we risk losing any critical purchase for aesthetics. The issue then is how we can maintain a critical aesthetics while acknowledging its much wider relevance. And here, I guess it is a matter of not drawing neat lines – of instead recognising areas of qualitative tension, as well as tendencies that could go either way, that are not instantly and simply aligned. In short, there is a need to pass beyond political and ethical naivety, to recognise that there is no pure space of resistance, that the critical is always a complex space of implication and negotiation.

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On the Historicity of Aesthetics

It is a critical commonplace to insist that the notion of the aesthetic is a properly modern phenomenon, emerging as a means of reconciling tensions between aspects of identity, community and socio-economic reality that are the product of post-Enlightenment regimes of instrumental rationality and the like. From this standpoint, it appears misguided to conceive the notion more generally and trans-historically – to imagine for instance that Plato’s exclusion of poets from his ideal republic represents a rejection of aesthetics. We are reminded that no such sphere existed in Ancient Greece. Plato had no conception of the autonomous realm of disinterested pleasure that Kant describes. Plato’s prohibition gains sense within a profoundly different network of conceptual and historical relations. While there is clearly a need to attend to these differences and to acknowledge the necessary patterns of recognition and mis-recognition that affect any effort to think between distinct historical constellations, this need not imply that a concern to think the aesthetic more generally is wrong-headed or mistaken. Firstly, it can simply represent a shift in historical focus from synchronic to diachronic relations; a concern, for instance, to clarify the philosophical preconditions and evolution of the notion of the aesthetic. In this sense, as much as Plato does not engage with the modern conception of aesthetics, he arguably contributes to its pre-history in his insistence that poetry does not provide genuine knowledge, but only beguiling appearances, and that it be excluded from proper public life. Secondly, conceiving a more general possibility of the aesthetic can involve recognising precedents and analogies in other historical and cultural contexts. For instance, how are we to explain the imperial court culture of Heian period Japan (794-1185) without reference to a notion of aesthetics? The privileging of surface appearances, literary references and precisely observed meditations on the ephemeral natural world in Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji (11th century) suggest a profoundly aesthetic worldview and mode of social interaction. This is not to suggest that we are dealing with precisely the same conception of the aesthetic in the Heian context, but there are sufficient similarities to indicate the wider relevance of the term. This need not entail conceiving aesthetics in primarily metaphysical terms as an abstractly universal human capacity and sphere of practice, but may instead serve as a heuristic means of determining patterns and resemblances relating to cultural phenomena that inevitably take historically specific forms. Thirdly and finally, concepts and conceptual complexes are not hermetically sealed absolutes. The nature of their historical identity is not only a matter of everything that history can adequately explain, but also by ambiguities, gaps and aporia that are constitutive of any network of meaning whatsoever. The notion of the aesthetic is imperfect and ambiguous. It has been defined in all kinds of ways, but remains elusive. If it is used so often, if its meaning has been extended in so many different and often contradictory ways, this is indicative not only of a fundamental dynamic of clarity and confusion that governs the thinking of the aesthetic, but also the the term has an important deictic status – it points to aspects of context that are dynamic, malleable and only awkwardly and imperfectly resolved. It is not then that historical particularity provides a potential for clarity and certainty. Significantly the notion of the aesthetic is opaque even within the here and now. This suggests the value of thinking the term more generally, even at the occasional risk of a loss of historical specificity. It is about trying to think the here and now of aesthetics differently and searching for appropriate models to do so and creative points of philosophical purchase.

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Art and Aesthetics

What is wrong with art? Why prefer the term ‘aesthetics’ to ‘art’?

What is meant by these two terms? More importantly, what meaning can we make of these two terms?

Any talk of ‘making’ instantly brings to mind the thought of art, because art is form of skilful making – or at least this is what art has traditionally meant. So if we are making meaning, we are doing something that involves at least an aspect of art. Although this is clearly also the work of philosophy, which is distinguished from art precisely in its impractical, conceptual focus. It seems that we must distinguish then within making between that which occurs theoretically and that which is applied.

And this is how the relationship between aesthetics and art is normally portrayed. Aesthetics appears as a supplementary and tediously abstract philosophical space that can never quite account for the mysterious reality of art and art-making. Art, in contrast, adopts the role of mute seer – doing and communicating a great deal, but saying very little.

But aesthetics is not simply a philosophical discipline. The term also refers to modes of experience that are characterised, for instance, by beauty, sublimity, disinterested engagement, etc. Notably, aesthetic experience tends to be conceived in reflective terms. It is not about doing so much as perceiving and experiencing. So while art is associated more with the artist and their active work of making, aesthetics is associated with the reflectively disposed ’viewer’ who somehow finds the means to experiences nature, art or whatever in aesthetic terms – in other words, beyond the ordinary contours of practical interaction with the world.

Art also steps back from the world, but at the same time is grounded in a key aspect of the world – the field of making. Art originally referred to all kinds of skilful making, with no effort to distinguish between instrumentally geared skill and more reflective and aesthetically cast approaches. And this is, of course, what allies art to aesthetics. Contemporary art involves processes of making that are detached from ordinary instrumental ends. Even, for instance, when they are explicitly couched in instrumental terms – say within the context of a socially engaged art project – they represent a play upon the instrumental, a reassertion of possible relations between the instrumental and the ethical and political, that represent exemplary and evocative instants, rather than simply meeting taken for granted, efficient ends. In this sense, art represents a reflection on – and very often a critique – of processes of instrumental making. Yet, even at its most critical, this can entail dimensions of blindness, elements of exploitative making that reproduce wider social and environmental conditions and relations. There is nothing wrong with this as such. Efforts of pure autonomy are untenable and most likely less valuable than art that risks more complex positioning and articulation. However, the latter demands a sense of self-awareness – a lucid reflection on the dilemmas of making.

If I have an issue with art in this context, it is that aspects of tension and contradiction too often pass unnoticed. For all of the efforts to link art to other disciplines and to break up its integral space, there is still the sense that there are these specialised makers called artists who are competing to establish an identity for themselves. They adopt the role of the hyper-active agent – the mini, wayward entrepreneur, who wheels and deals to get things done and to be noticed. All of this is good no doubt. More is being produced. The best and most innovative works and ideas obtain wider social circulation, contribute to cultural dialogue, etc. But at the same time this play of production, novelty and competition is also necessarily aligned with the wider productive system and set of cultural and social relations. It may set forth different models of making and consumption, but is still interpretable in these more extensive structural terms.

And this is why I cannot help conceiving – however naively, however misguidedly – another option. Let us call it simply aesthetic practice without the necessity for art – without the necessity for the institution of art (including the art market), without the necessity for artists and without the necessity for an audience for art. Now I realise that this is a dumb and impractical option, and that it reproduces all kinds of revolutionary, egalitarian dreams of the early 20th century avant-garde, but let me explain its appeal. Instead of a specialised set of artists, we can envisage a more fluid and democratic field, in which art loses some of its status as a distinct specialised activity and cultural space. Art still exists, but relates to a broader field of activity (and experience) that is aesthetically conceived. Now I realise that nobody is going to want to speak about ‘aesthetics’ per se. It is not a better term than art. It is not a replacement for art, rather it is the imperfect means of imagining a dissolution and altered trajectory that affects not just art, but society generally. Aesthetics, however awkward and inadequate, provides a means of thinking the social and the social-environmental in other terms – of conceiving options beyond ordinary paradigms of exploitative and unsustainable production.

It is within this context that I am interested in exploring not only the history of aesthetic thought but also forms of contemporary life that involve an aesthetic dimension without being intimately bound to the paroxysms of contemporary art (its tendency to either retreat into a sublime interior space or theatrically and interminably nullify itself). I am interested, for instance, in amateur folk and popular music cultures that are focused more on participation than creative production and consumption. Strands of playful physical activity provide another example. I am thinking of something like the niche sport of rock-climbing and bouldering that project complex, intimate and ambiguous aesthetic relations to nature. The value of the notion of the aesthetic is that it broadens my focus. It allows me to think more widely than the tortured and paradoxical space of art.

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Aesthetics and Systems

Systems are articulated things. They represent a set of differentiations. At the same time they are also whole things. The problem is that as systems get more complex, the sense of their wholeness becomes more and more obscure. Increasing lower level clarity (distinct articulation) makes macro level coherence harder to see. Aesthetics plays a curious role here – marginalised within the system, cut off from ordinary practical life, and opposed to any form of conceptually informed understanding, it somehow has to gesture to a unity that its very articulation has obscured.

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Aesthetics: System and Afterthought

Aesthetics emerges as a distinct field within the context of European Enlightenment efforts to develop a coherent overall philosophical system that can account for all aspects of existence and human experience. It is conceived initially, in the work of German philosopher Alexandre Baumgarten, as an afterthought, and partial corrective, to the excesses of Leibnizian rationalism. While very much subscribing to Leibniz’s overall metaphysical scheme, Baumgarten describes a lower level space of sensibly situated experience and thought. It is cast ostensibly as the inferior double of properly logical, abstract thought. Yet, precisely due to its sensuous character and rich and confused materiality, the aesthetic begins to appear less as simply inferior than as something other and valuable in itself.

This thinking of aesthetics as an afterthought – as a remainder that is only considered once everything else in the system is in place – persists through Enlightenment thought. Kant, for example, deals with aesthetics only once he has already characterised the relationship between the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, and the gulf between the mechanically determined sphere of mute matter and the freedom of the human subject. The aesthetic appears as a sphere of mediation and reconciliation once the ground of philosophy and its various fissures and rifts have been described. In this sense, the aesthetic represents a doubling of the initial impulse towards system – ensuring, in a belated manner, the latter’s coherence and holistic integrity.

It is worth saying a bit more about this overall effort towards system, before addressing the realm of the aesthetic more specifically. Although, I should note as a qualification that the notion of the aesthetic almost always forces a thinking beyond its notional specialisation. As as an apparently secondary feature and mediating factor it enters into complex relation with every other element in the system. Lacking any integral sphere of its own, conceived entirely in terms of motions of transition, play and exchange, it cannot be thought apart from the overall system, even as it is portrayed, at least partly, as a marginal afterthought.

The thinking of systems represents an effort not only to distinguish particular features, but also to see everything all at once. It follows a tricky double course of logical differentiation and global explication and integration. Nobody any longer envisages writing a whole philosophy of metaphysics, psychology, nature, morality and aesthetics. This has been replaced by the fatalistic recognition that knowledge advances in specialised fields through minor increments that will never be adequately and integrally conceived. We have, in short, given up on systems, or at least the global character of systems, while still permitting systems to become indefinitely further differentiated. The rational play of systems persists, if not their capacity to make us wise – to see things as a whole. In this sense, our systems, the motion of our systems, has become a work of unconsciousness and loss.

Perhaps the continuing relevance of the aesthetic lies in this rejection of systemic blindness and disintegration – this insistent effort to discover, even within the tissue of the unrecoverable and the particular, dimensions of the whole?

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Thinking Aesthetics More Generally: How and for What Purpose?

There have been numerous contemporary efforts to decouple aesthetics from art – both within modern art itself and in strands of philosophy that focus on specialised topics such as environmental aesthetics or the aesthetics of everyday life. The latter fields often draw inspiration from early conceptions of the aesthetic, where the focus was less on developing a philosophy of art than considering wider problems of sensible cognition (Baumgarten) or the experience of the beautiful and sublime in nature (Kant). In all of this, there is the recognition that aesthetics can be thought more generally, and applied to forms of experience that extend beyond the conventional institutional space and self-identity of art.

My aim in this short paper is to convey firstly the relevance of thinking aesthetics more broadly. I do this by teasing out the aesthetic implications of two accounts of contemporary leisure experience – road cycling and rock climbing. My second aim is then to pose some questions about the value of extending the scope of aesthetics. What does it offer not only in terms of reconceiving the category of the aesthetic itself, but in terms of rethinking aspects of contemporary experience?

Cycling and Climbing

I freakin’ love squeezing into my Lycra and heading off in the early hours on my road bike. Actually, any time of day will do, but I particularly love creaking out of my flat, cleats clicking down the stairs, carbon road bike in hand (it lives in my lounge room), just as my neighbour is coming up them.

I turn Strava on, clip in, hit the bike path and feel as light as the coming dawn. It’s my freedom machine, for sure. I often head off on a solo 30-kilometre loop of the city, speeding along bike paths to Southbank where I dodge the sad and sorry. I take energy from the city as it starts for the day.

(Jayne D’Arcy, ‘Dear Male Cyclists, Lose the Attitude’, Sydney Morning Herald, 11/12/2018)

A simple account of the pleasure of road cycling. This relates to the field of fitness based leisure, but it also has aesthetic features. The author describes an integral experience, with memorable kinaesthetic details and an overall sense of self-realisation and freedom. It is aesthetic not only in terms of its experiential dimensions, but also in terms of its capacity to be reflected upon and communicated. It is experience noticed and considered. It is experience that gestures to a potential for identification. The reader may never cycle themselves, but they will recognise something of what it is to be essentially human in this activity. The aesthetic character of this experience and this space of reflective common feeling obtains poignant form in terms of the backdrop of dully instrumental experience. Road cycling here provides a counter image to the world of work, obligation, etc. If other aspects of activity are less intimately felt and described, it is because they lack this aesthetic dimension – this capacity to reconcile, authenticate and console.

As a structural complement to ordinary life and as a form of limited consolation, we could regard this aesthetic aspect as entirely compromised, doing little more that to affirm the status quo via a small gesture of cathartic release. This release is compromised again by its dimensions of commodification and consumerism. That sense of lightness at dawn, that sense of drawing energy from the awakening city, is shaped by the inevitable need to work many days to pay for the cleats and the carbon fibre. But this represents an old school critical theoretical response. These days, rather than conceiving a monolithic system where any instant or resistance is instantly subsumed within the interests of the whole, and is conceived simply as negative after image of that system, more recent criticism envisages a multiplicity, a complex assemblage of forces that must be positively as well as negatively conceived.

Another example – the description of the moves on a particularly difficult rock climb:

You leave the ‘rest’ with your right hand, moving to a small slot that wants to be crimped but won’t let you as there’s too much cliff in the way for your knuckles to get much elevation. Your left foot now comes up to a heel-toe cam on the rest jug next to your left hand. Keeping your core ultra tight you have to punch to a pod with your left hand. The pod is junk. It’s basically vertical and has a tendency to feel like a recently-microwaved bowl of porridge that has too much milk in it. Now comes the tricky bit – squeeze the three points on the wall together, bring the right foot up into a drop-knee on the rest jug in front of your face, release the left heel-toe and stab the toe into the roof to a small ripple. The jump position is now engaged and set for blast off. Throw your chest and hips high into the roof in the direction of the next right-hand hold, your hand will know what to do and follow. The hold you throw for is about 1.5m away and it’s a good letterbox ‘jug’ when used in opposition with the left-hand pod. Your feet cut and do all sorts of helicopter-break- dancing and you try your absolute hardest to hold the compression between the two hands and slow the momentum of your lower half. Once you hold the swing and have somewhat stabilised yourself, you need to pull up into a front lever, stab your left foot out at full extension to a rampy foot, right foot flags out right to balance yourself and you now dive with your left hand across yourself to a thin, letterbox slot. Your feet swoop off again and fly around and around. You’re now just under the lip of the roof and you can swing a right heel up around the lip to a good rail and bring your hands up to two good edges. This is another ‘rest’.

Tom O’Halloran’s describes the moves in almost impossible detail; just the level of detail needed to get through this impossible sequence. Here it is the sense of utter focus, of heightened experience and awareness that enables not only the performance of the moves themselves, but also their very precise description. The climb is at once abstracted into a set of discrete moves and engaged with in its particularity (the details of each hold). There is this sense of strange alignment between abstract will-comprehension and embodied experience. The aesthetic here has a microscopic aspect. It discovers a view of everything by turning away from everything and engaging only with just this focused space of action. Almost ironically, the sequence is described more or less as a set of instructions, as though the reader has only to pay close attention and they can complete the same sequence of moves. When, of course, this is plainly not the case. The route is far beyond the difficulty of most people – even most elite climbers. In this sense, the rhetorical ‘you’ is less about literally opening up the climb to others than about projecting O’Halloran’s experience as something more general. The commonality lies in the experience of extremity, which all climbers can recognise.

Kant describes four characteristics of the aesthetic:

  • Disinterested pleasure
  • Non-Conceptual
  • Purposiveness without purpose
  • Universality

Both examples display these characteristics. Although less distant and contemplative than Kant’s aesthetic regard for nature, road cycling and rock climbing are disinterested in as much as they involve perverse pleasure, demanding a level of physical effort that is equally pleasurable and arduous. In this manner, they provide artificial contexts for the experience of extreme necessity. This aspect of artifice enables a complex, finely determined play between experiential engagement and reflective distance. The activities can be regarded as ‘non-conceptual’ in that are less the product of underlying conceptual principles than emergent phenomena marked by the interaction between affective dispositions, regimes and things. In terms of Kant’s third aesthetic characteristic, road cycling and rock climbing are utterly pointless activities that nonetheless reveal a deeper purpose (an experience of freedom and heightened awareness). Finally, the two spheres of activity display a universal, normative dimension. Especially as descriptions, they trace possibilities of commonality and identification. The activities are pursued with such intensity that, even if we would never attempt them ourselves, their significance is unquestionable.

But what of beauty and the sublime? Without pursuing this question properly or in detail, we may simply suggest that the modern world shapes both endless prospects of beautiful and sublime images, but also – more or less as an antidote – all kinds of novel forms of immersive engagement and movement. Road cycling and rock climbing relate more closely to the latter. If there is beauty here it relates to a dynamic harmony in motion. If there is the sublime then it is discovered less as dramatic external thing than in the microscopic texture of extreme effort. In these moments human activity appears both intensely realised and estranged. This paradox of engagement and disengagement lies at the heart of the aesthetic.

Questions

While I can recognise aspects of the aesthetic in cultural fields beyond art, what is the point of extending the notion of the aesthetic, of discovering its wider relevance? After all, as Rancierre argues, contemporary art is pointedly defined in terms of it play of limits – tending either to portray a sublime and autonomous interior/exterior or pushing beyond the iconography, scenography and institutional configuration of art to render non-art art and art non-art. In this sense contemporary art will have already long anticipated all of our efforts to conceive wider cultural fields in terms of their aesthetic potential. In this respect, art will have also pushed things to a further point – to a critique of the aesthetic itself. Its own efforts at self-negation (always also a form of self-aggrandisement) deliberately seek out and summon the non-aesthetic as an alternative to the compromises and paradoxes of the aesthetic. It is not clear that this same sense of discomfort and critique is evident in the various efforts to extend the aesthetic more broadly, to position it as a general category of experience – a qualitative register of experience – that can be applied in all kinds of contexts, and certainly beyond the narrow space of art. For example, I have drawn on Kant’s very traditional conception of aesthetics. I have accepted it as a model for evaluating the aesthetic features on non-art phenomena. In this respect, I have not attempted anything very ambitious. I have not attempted to rethink the nature and potential of the aesthetic beyond its conventional definition. I have simply applied the notion more generally, but with what aim precisely?

Thinking carefully, It would seem that I am trying to discern some vital layer of cultural potential within road cycling and rock climbing – and possibly within all manner of everyday experiences and activities – that somehow connects with strands of aesthetic speculation, and that enables the aesthetic to gain a relevance that it can never have within the awkward, self-annulling autonomy of contemporary art. But as I have suggested, this involves more than simply extending the aesthetic, it involves rethinking it. Kant’s four conditions are not sufficient and in any case do not engage with his more thorough holistic rationale for conceiving a category of aesthetic judgement that operates alongside logically governed cognition and ethically geared social interaction. It is only within the context of this wider system of relations that the aesthetic makes coherent sense as a space of mediation and reconciliation. But even more than this, Kant’s conception of aesthetics, however important and influential, is not the only relevant model. The aesthetic takes shape as a complex permutational space involving a rich set of of ontological, epistemological and ethico-political elements. At one level it dutifully functions within larger metaphysical systems. At another level, without even necessarily saying this specifically, it works to disturb them. In this sense, the history of aesthetic speculation reveals both an affirmative and a critical, deconstructive aspect. The risk in so many effort to apply the aesthetic more broadly, is that the aesthetic is reduced and flattened, rendered in very conventional terms as, for instance, a dimension of qualitative sensibility or a vaguely determined realm of appearance and play. The problem, it seems to me, is to somehow recover and develop a sense of the aesthetic that works to disrupt existing relations, yet not necessarily always via the conventional means of making strange or shaping the new, but also by speaking of very old things – of discovering continuities where least expected.

For example, road cycling and rock-climbing, even though plainly a product of modernity and structurally meaningful in their relation to systems of leisure and consumption, also provide an experience that connects people to their bodies and the wider environment, engaging with dimensions of experience that recall possibilities that may appear under threat or lost. However problematic, however compromised, they summon a memory of old ways of being within new visceral frameworks. This may simply be regarded as a sphere of consolation, in which the larger system persists precisely by enabling ever diminishing contexts of hope, yet this falls into the trap that I discussed earlier of envisaging an entirely monolithic system. The small gestures of compromised hope are also the signs of the impossibility of the closure of the overall system – and also the signs that system itself somehow retains these memories, fictions and hopes as an assembled multiplicity.

But there is still a need for something more, some effort to think through the contours of the aesthetic more carefully, to reconfigure and redistribute our sense of the real itself. This involves both describing the permutational space of the aesthetic (in terms of variety of philosophical and historical backgrounds) and engaging critically with current forms of life. The aim is less to impose a conventional model of the aesthetic than to foster new conceptions and modes of practice that draw upon the nascent potential inscribed within present forms of life.

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The Promiscuity of Aesthetics

Almost anything can be regarded in aesthetic terms. Any experience, any material or immaterial thing, can be regarded in terms of sensible or insensible (formal) qualities that somehow engage us. I realise that ‘engage us’ is terribly vague, but how are we to precisely limit the aesthetic? It is variously conceived as involving dimensions of sensibility, affect, play, reflection, immersion, distraction, freedom, everyday experience, interaction with art and or nature, etc. There is arguably an aesthetic aspect to totalitarian rule, walking in the country, reclining on the couch, sweeping a factory or throwing a bottle out of car. None of these things have to be conceived in aesthetic terms, but there is equally nothing that prevents them being conceived in this way.

So does this render the notion of the aesthetic utterly useless? Perhaps in terms of trying to determine something very specific, but not if the lack of clarity and the semantic promiscuity of ‘aesthetics’ become the focus of interest. In that case it is a matter of considering how the obscure multiplicity of the term my itself be meaningful. It is the imperfect, unclear means of conceiving things that we have no means of adequately expressing, things that we envisage as somehow significant, but cannot adequately determine and name.

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Aesthetics

Aesthetics is less a mode of experience as such than an effort to conceive features of experience that have proved awkward to conceive within the philosophical tradition. So if, for instance, Descartes, in line with a great deal of ancient philosophy, questions the capacity of the senses to provide access to truth, if he insists instead upon a pure space of cognition, this is bound to pose a rich set of enduring questions. What is the role of the senses? How is mind to be conceived in relation to body? What is the relation between sensible appearance and the space of philosophically guaranteed truth? Leibniz questions the notion of positing an absolute gulf between mind and body, suggesting a more nuanced relation between the austere heights of logical thought and the obscurity, confusion and clarity of the senses. Baumgarten goes further, conceiving a science of aesthetics that can make sense of sensible experience and thinking as an analogue of higher level abstract thought and also as something with its own intrinsic complexity, richness and value. Aesthetics is posited initially then as a philosophical response to the Cartesian dichotomy between mind and body, and the absolute devaluation of the latter. In this sense, aesthetics is also bound to the Cartesian space. Although far less binary, it still subscribes to the sense of higher and lower fields of thought and to the notion of the sensible as a discrete space. What if we were to suggest, in effort to think differently, that the relation between the sensible and the abstract is less determined and much more fluid? What if instead of conceiving a continuous but still separate space of sensible thought we were to think logic sensibly and the sensible logically? Inevitably this would still represent a predictable response to the initial challenge that Descartes makes. Any effort to specify dimensions of paradox and indeterminancy still draws upon binary metaphors of mind and body. In any case, my point is that aesthetics emerges philosophically in terms of problems of conceiving dimensions of experience and knowledge, not as a straightforwardly apparent and unambiguous category of experience.

I should acknowledge that the distinction that I make here between the terrain of philosophical discourse and the apparent silence of experience is itself bound to the Cartesian paradigm. It repeats it even as it struggles to conceive another sense of things. As soon as experience and thought are specified and discussed they cannot step outside the philosophical universe in which they obtain meaning. All one can do is painstakingly confuse the terms until something gives.

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