What is Aesthetics

Aesthetics with a capital ‘A’ refers to a slightly marginal field of philosophy – one that has seen better days, but that prattles along regardless and may even be making some kind of return. It sits forlornly alongside the major fields of Ontology, Epistemology, Logic and Ethics, hoping to be taken more seriously, fantasising about its wider relevance. Extending beyond philosophy proper, there is also aesthetics with a little ‘a’ that denotes a more general space of critical and cultural debate.

Continuing with the little ‘a’ and dropping the trailing ’s’, aesthetics shifts from a noun to an adjective. It describes a particular category of experience. With characteristic ambivalence, this category is both regularly restricted to the contexts of art and literature while also stubbornly preserving a sense of wider scope and purpose. How are we to recognise it? Visit any major civic art gallery. Gallery visitors contemplate but do not touch. They are idle and yet engaged. They experience things inwardly, yet in a socially licensed and legible manner. They manifest an anxious, affective interiority that, for Kant, also provides the basis for community.

More informally, aesthetics also refers to a manner of composing things that motivates an aesthetic response. We refer to to an artist’s ‘aesthetic’ to indicate the strategies they employ to organise their work. This involves dimensions of both form and sensory, experiential composition, and is always distinguished from ‘content’. Aesthetics relates to the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ of an artistic work. It is associated with aspects of appearance and surface – with parameters of manifestation and style rather than the invisible field of whatever it is that manifestation contains.

So we have roughly three meanings:

  • Aesthetics denotes a field of philosophical (and more general critical) discourse.
  • Aesthetic experience indicates a distinctive modality separate from biological, appetitive being and rational, purposive activity. According to Kant, it represents a sphere of pleasure, play and freedom that is reflective and specifically and characteristically human.
  • An artist’s aesthetic refers to their stylistic approach to dimensions of presentation and manifestation – how they compose works to facilitate aesthetic delectation.
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Catching Oneself Looking

At one level aesthetics is all about a specific, but ill-defined, mode of experience. Yet this necessarily involves something else as well – the recognition within the complex contours of beauty, sublimity, etc. that we are subject to an aesthetic experience. So the aesthetic is never simply the experience itself, but also entails a current of self-reflective awareness. We recognise that particular contemplative activities are pressing identifiably aesthetic buttons. In this respect, the aesthetic can never simply lie altogether outside ordinary processes of cognition. Some aspect of cognition is necessary for aesthetic experience to ever distinctly appear. The notion of the aesthetic involves then a double sense of distance: firstly, the Kantian notion of a distance from ordinary appetitive or rational-instrumental-ethical engagement; and secondly, a distance from the putatively intimate texture of aesthetic experience itself. The immediate field of reflective contemplation is evident only via another level of contemplative regard. This second field of distance bears an uncertain relation to the first. It can scarcely be straightforwardly aesthetic because it employs a conceptual lens. It works to identify and categorise experience. But it can only do this by recognising, at the lower level, a suspension of conceptual resolution. Beauty, as it is immediately experienced appears not so much as a neat reconciliation of the faculties as an exacerbation of their differences – a curious, unresolved prolongation. It is only at the subsequent stage when the experience obtains focused resolution that any sense of an overall context of reconciliation can become evident.

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Stated very simply, is aesthetics a ‘thing’?

Is aesthetics a distinct category of experience (as Kant envisions), or is it only ever a means of addressing contradictions at the level of lived experience? If the latter, this entails thinking of aesethetics as a retro-fitted part – not so much something independently existing or determinable, but rather an aspect of ethos, of the problem of ways of life. This would suggest that it is only ever a fond wish to imagine that aesthetics can be distinguished from ethics. At every level they partake of the problem of value, being and identity, as well as of community and politics.

Where aesthetics does not exist – in the Ancient world, for instance – it is not that no one thought about beauty, form, play or pleasure, it is rather that there was no urgent need to elaborate these as such, as something categorically distinct. They were qualitative features of life generally.

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2020 Transcdisciplinary Imaging Conference

Dark Eden, The Sixth International Conference on Transdisciplinary Imaging at the Intersection Between Art, Science and Culture
6 – 8 November 2020

Draft of my paper, ‘Imagining a Dead Hare‘.

If we are to discover effective means of imagining a new ecology of the image and of the event that considers wider environmental consequences then we would do well to consider the complex play of repetition and transformation in popular cultural forms.

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Curating Performance

PCI 2020 Symposium, 5-10 October
Performance in the Time of Halting and Transformation

This paper represents a very preliminary effort to consider some of the implications of linking performance and curation. My particular interest is in conceiving the relationship between art as a form of action and reflection, and any associated potential for art to intervene within dimensions of the social – working to fulfil its tacit cultural promise.

Full paper pdf

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Ramblings of a University Middle Manager in the Year 2020

These are some rough reflections on aspects of middle management filtered through the lens of current university crises. What crises? Let’s see: COVID-19 and the sudden shift to remote delivery, loss of international income and associated job losses; confusion in the wake of the end of the demand-driven system; federal bias against humanities style ‘non-vocational’ degrees; endless structural change within our institution; casualisation of the academic workforce; etc.

I am Head of the School of The Arts, English and Media in the Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Wollongong, with roughly 35 academic staff (it keeps declining) and 12 professional and technical staff.

I’m afraid that I can offer nothing like a coherent overall perspective on my role. I offer instead a few observations, first in relation to middle management generally, then in terms of the contemporary enthusiasm for institutional ‘agility’ and finally upon reading spreadsheets.

On being a middle manager

The middle manager strategises in between.

At the top are the senior managers. They think most generally. They are concerned with wider contexts and are responsible to the key stakeholders (the University Council).

Then there are the middle managers, who follow senior management direction, but also are expected to behave strategically and to develop and implement local ‘visions’. We are in a semi-executive position. Our responsibilities are technical, HR and strategic.

Beneath us are the line managers , who deal with the performance of local workers and local level implementation processes. Line managers have duties, whereas middle managers have targets and goals (KPIs).

Middle managers are expected to manage upwards and downwards. Their loyalties are not only to senior management but also to their areas and teams. They are criticised for being superfluous, for slowing down change, for over-complicating things, for blocking flows of information/ communication. So there are the various caricatures of the HOS: the scheming and ambitious entrepreneur, the apparatchik who just passes messages up and down the line, the micro-manager, etc.

The middle manager experiences a curious paradox. Management assumes action. For the middle manager, however, while action is expected, it must always be limited, subsumed beneath higher strategic interests and not altogether compromising lower level autonomy and scope for individual action. The challenge is to conceive at once a space for meaningful activity and inactivity – for agency and non-agency. None of this is clearly defined, so everything depends upon judgement, estimation, feel – alongside the grudging recourse to policy, etc. There is a mix of involvement and distance. There is a stress on balance, discretion and judgement (more than procedure). The key issue is to determine precisely how much and how little to do.

Picking it up

I should stress that I was not trained in any of this. I’ve just picked it up along the way. I spent most of my academic career as a teacher, but in the last decade I have done very little teaching. I have found myself instead in all kinds of higher and lower middle management roles.

Of course always hard to identify the middle. Everything is relative. Somebody below me sees me as a senior manager, but I’m acutely aware of the limitation to my powers – and indeed of all the drudge work that I do that is scarcely at all strategic.

Middle management is a blurry, uncertain space. VCs probably also recognise all kinds of limitations to their powers – all kinds of more senior layers of management, but they tend to fall outside the institution itself. Everything depends upon reference to the hierarchies within a particular institution.

I always try to remember that it is just a role. Mumbling to myself: humility; don’t wreck things; don’t think you always know better; listen rather than proclaim; we are always expendable. Believe it or not, I don’t actually find keeping this in mind all that hard. If I have survived for so long, it is because I have lived by this perspective.

In this context, I can’t help referring to some quotes from Chinese philosophy that mingle Taoist reserve and disengagement with Confucian concern to properly serve society:

‘Cut off knowledge, abandon argumentation, and the people will benefit a hundredfold. Cut off cleverness, abandon “benefit”, and there will be no more thieves or bandits. Cut off activity and abandon purposefulness, and the people will again be filial…. Exhibit the unadorned and embrace the simple. Have little thought of self and few desires.’ (Henricks 2000: 28; cp. ch. 19 of received version DDJ)

‘Rulers succeed by allowing nature to take its course: by “not acting (wuwei)”’.

‘“Clarity (ming)” comes when one realizes the perspectival nature of all affirmations and denials. Having attained this kind of clarity, it makes no sense to put oneself on the line for any one set of evaluations, like “our state must triumph” or even “it is better for humans to flourish than plants”’. (Zhuangzi: Rejecting Governance)

‘… which merely establishes equilibrium, itself doing nothing; yet the mere fact that it remains in balance causes lightness and heaviness to discover themselves. (Shen Buhai: Bureaucratic “Non-Action”’ , SBH p. 352)


And so we move to action itself and the privileging of agility.

We think of a cat. The capacity to move flexibly and precisely, even in response to unforeseen circumstances.

A battleship is not agile. It is slow and lumbering. It must stop, turn or speed up well in advance of any immediate signals.

In any case, the notion of agility is easily extended from the level of the individual organism to that of the institution. The latter is also some kind of living thing, at least inasmuch as it has inputs and outputs, produces and consumes, responds to the environment and makes strategic choices and decisions.

Yet we can stretch the notion of agility to the point that the organism itself is in question – that is, the nature of its life, its integral sense of being. We learn now, in our current adverse financial circumstances, that an agile organisation is one that can expand and contract as needed. More specifically, it can rapidly gain and shed staff to respond to current exigencies. This is not by swiftly increasing or decreasing actual staff positions, but instead by defining a very restricted core of permanent and contract staff and drawing upon a large pool of tenuously employed casual staff. Agility here then is obtained by dividing the organism in two, or possibly regarding it in minimal skeletal terms, or more likely as an abstraction that has little relation to the actual cultural life of the institution. Agility is obtained by re-conceiving the nature of the organism, which is now less a coherent living thing than a disassembled, disembodied phantom thing, which responds by growing or hacking off limbs that were never even limbs in the first place, that were simply agile and non-living resources.

We need to consider then what agility means for the university – for its capacity to have cultural life. And what it means for a me as a middle manager attending to both the rhetoric of sustainability and processes of agile decomposition.


Email and spreadsheets – these are my new forms of literature.

Damn, a spreadsheet. There is this initial panic as I struggle to find my bearings. I have to slow down. I have to forget about understanding things all at once. I have to very deliberately make sense of the columns and rows. I have to get a feel for the scale of the numbers and the play of quantities, percentages and logical relationships. Often this can take me some time – often much longer than I have available. Somebody is speaking, they display a spreadsheet and then identify some key features (‘take homes’), while I’m still stuck trying to make sense of the overall representation. This can mean that I end up accepting all kinds of arguments and strategies that I might ordinarily resist, or find the means to resist, if only I were a bit clearer about what the numbers mean and the underlying logic that informs their relevance.

Despite this, I have grown used to spreadsheets, even to the point of regularly employing them myself. This is partly, perversely, because they pose an intellectual challenge for me. I don’t read them quickly and intuitively, so I am interested in overcoming my immediate experience of opacity, difficulty and illegibility. Beyond this, I’m aware that they represent particular managerial perspectives and priorities, so that it is vital that I find the means both to understand them and to recognise the assumptions, values and strategies that underlie them.

So while spreadsheets may not be my go to way of representing aspects of the world, I am not opposed to them. Nor, more importantly, do I wish to insist upon a binary division between a quantified managerial mindset and a more holistic and value-based academic perspective. There are differences here and they do link to modes of representation, but this is not based simply upon a difference between the abstraction of numbers and the human nuance of language. There is a continuum between abstraction and lived complexity and both can usefully inform one another.

My more significant dilemma relates to the issue of disputing the kinds of arguments that tend to be made on the basis of spreadsheet information. A typical financial spreadsheet will represent the relationship between income and expenditure. Our survival, it is evident, depends upon appropriately balancing the relationship between these two. I can object that this informs an inadequate and reductive conception of higher education – one that is myopically focused on financial growth and sustainability, that loses sight of the intangible public value of education and that misconceives education in narrowly financial terms. This is true enough, but it scarcely effectively resists the managerial perspectives and priorities represented in spreadsheets. A key issue is that the priorities themselves and the conception of higher education that frames them is not explicitly declared. It is embodied in the spreadsheet, but in a way that tends to obscure any sense of explicit value. The spreadsheet provides apparently neutral quantitative evidence. It displays dimensions of apparently unquestionable organisational being. It subtly and less subtly chides us: as much as we may like to think of ourselves pursuing some worthwhile public role, this is predicated upon our capacity to balance our budgets – to be frugal and careful homemakers. In this manner, the spreadsheet seems to reach beneath the surface of what we do – and our convenient self-image as a community of scholars, artists and educators – to the awkward material basis of our existence. Everything we say in defence of our current culture, largesse and inefficient practice, is exposed for its demonstrable ‘un- sustainability’. Within this context, spreadsheets become the mechanism for establishing a dimension of being and truth that appears irrefutable.

How can we resist this sense of pragmatic realism? It is not, I suspect, by resisting spreadsheets altogether, but instead by developing our critical literacy and our own practices of spreadsheet making that allied with explicit value-based arguments present different perspectives of things, different indices of what we do and of what matters.

One aspect of critical literacy involves unpicking the assumptions that underlie management spreadsheets. For instance, managing my school is regularly likened to managing a household budget. If my income drops then I must make whatever sacrifices are needed to get things back on track. This makes sense to some extent, but the notion of household suggests an overall context of equilibrium. I live in my nice little home. I earn a predictable income. I pay a predictable level of tax. I pay roughly predictable prices for the all the things that I need. I am cautious with my spending and set aside an appropriate sum for my retirement or a rainy day. But what if everything falls apart? What if I lose my job? What if tax rates massively increase? What if the economy goes into depression? What if I cannot afford even necessities? Then I am subject to these wider calamities and all my ordinary, responsible strategies fall apart. The world becomes suddenly dangerous and the household is no longer something that can be tweaked into economic health. Things need changing before anything can be made to adequately work, and as long as I continue to make survival focused local adjustments in response to the surrounding crisis I am only likely to make matters worse. But this is not the kind of household management that the spreadsheets tend to embody. Instead, as I say, they assume a more predictable and stable world where there is scope for responsible local level agency and action.

It seems to me, however, that we are in a different time, a time of crisis rather than predictable domestic economy. For instance, COVID-19 has exposed that international student income is not at all secure. Even domestic income is uncertain within the context of the legacy of the demand-driven system and ruthless competition between providers. So the income side of things is unpredictable and currently in free fall. It can scarcely be managed within the analogy of a relatively stable home environment. If we have any control it is only in terms of constraining expenditure, and this is what the university is constantly pressing us to do, but somehow without compromising our teaching and research, and somehow while still maintaining a positive, agile mind set. While it is worth knowing how we sit vis a vis income and expenditure, there can be no hope of equilibrium at present (especially as we are still paying upwards of 55% contribution margin). What’s actually needed is an acknowledgement that balance is currently impossible. This should provide the basis for a discussion about what we value and wish to maintain in these conditions. And this has to look beyond any simple bottom-line, any simple calculation of profit margin and delivery efficiency. We have to consider the fundamental value of what we do and its continuing value for society.

The problem, however, is how to frame a wider discussion like this within the context of immediately pressing constraints. How will staff wages be paid if our income radically drops? What options are available other than shedding staff? Unlike government, we have no scope to print money. We have no scope to sustain ourselves ex nihilo. So we confront spreadsheets that demonstrate our plight and offer no other solution than massive expenditure cuts involving reduction in our activities/offerings and significant associated job losses. Here, once again, the point is not so much to dispute the figures, or to shoot the managerial messenger, as to insist upon dimensions of identity, culture and value. Rather than being positioned as secondary considerations or inevitable casualties, these need to provide the basis for how we conceive our on-going existence in precisely the same way – and now I will employ a domestic metaphor – that a household is primarily a family rather than a financial ledger. If everything around them collapses a family of people tend not to abandon this relationship since it is a primary source of identity and value. They will abandon living standards, the house, all manner of things, but less commonly the family itself. While the university is not a family as such, while we are bound by contractual relationships, still, even as a ‘corporate’ institutional entity, we must consider what it is that makes this thing worth continuing. Financial sustainability is ultimately secondary to this. It should serve our underlying sense of purpose rather than supplanting any consideration of value via the ostensibly inarguable logic of a financial spreadsheet.

A final and less crisis focused point. Counting things in spreadsheets is no doubt very useful and can often prove illuminating, but there is also the real risk that if you only recognise what can be counted then you miss a great deal and encourage activities that provide the illusion of relevant activity only because they are straightforwardly measurable. Take the example of research culture. Our standard measures of research activity involve adding up grant income, HDR completions, scholarly publications and non-traditional research outputs. On this basis assessments are made about how active we are as researchers and the overall success of our research culture (as assessed by ERA or various external rankings agencies). This is all very well and academic staff have largely taken on board this metrics focused conception of research activity and performance. Yet it is hard not to be suspicious. Are we all doing such great research? Is our research culture vibrantly alive because we have scored a 4 or a 5 in ERA, or has an entire industry arisen around enabling our research to be counted – a proliferation of publishing contexts and measurable outcomes that provide visible evidence of research activity but a much more restricted sense that research is actually happening around us, informing the life of the institution and affecting the world generally. There is the strange awareness of a closed and circular system that counts instead of genuinely evaluating and only evaluates by counting. Who for instance measures the research life of academic corridors or the unpublished thoughts of an extraordinary teacher? Too little of the genuine research life of the university is recognised and represented, only abstract indices that would be fine as general indicators if they didn’t quickly become hypostasised proxies for research activity itself.

In this sense then, spreadsheets can both clarify and distort. They are not simply tables of evidence, but instead particular quantitatively focused visions of the world. While we must learn to read them better, must expose their assumptions, must identify their underlying conceptual and evaluative frameworks and must develop our own spreadsheets as a counter to official ones, we must also continue to speak of particular things in ways that are meaningful. Alongside identifying quantitative trends, we must also make arguments and tell stories so that the richness, complexity and evaluative context of real circumstances is not lost.

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Mimesis is perhaps the best known of the traditional aesthetic principles. Of course it is never precisely, or simply, an aesthetic principle. This is not only because aesthetics itself is a more recent invention. It is also because mimesis represents less a straightforwardly positive principle in Ancient Greek thought than a relation to knowledge, truth and being that is subject to ambivalent evaluation. Whereas Plato rejects it in terms of its distance from truth – its simulation of surface details that involves no genuine understanding of things, and more particularly of the abstract forms that underlie them – Aristotle, more pragmatically, regards mimesis as a natural inclination and as a means of learning about the world. It should be noted that Plato’s concern is with the epistemological claims of representations, whereas Aristotle focuses on the performative dimension of imitation. The one entails a relation between an image and an underlying formal model, while the other entails a play of repetition in time. For Aristotle, we learn (or can learn) via imitation, while Plato’s concern is with the distance between simulation and truth. Plato’s concern has a spatial, logical emphasis, while Aristotle’s more positive conception of mimesis has a temporal and social reproductive emphasis. Plato’s critique hinges on the substance of knowledge, while Aristotle’s focuses on the process of learning.

We have become too attached to a narrowly Platonic and spatial conception of mimesis. We think of distance and doubling, as though the model and the representation (a surfeit of representations) exist simultaneously, as there is no sense of displacement and loss within this scenario – no sense that the model may have no substantial existence, that it may constantly be threatening to disappear, and only a work of imitation can make it persist. We think of mimesis in terms of simulation – the immoral creation of doubles – rather than in terms of necessity. Mimesis is not simply a playful luxury in oral societies, it is absolutely needed if anything is to be maintained and persist. For this reason, there is a need to reconsider mimesis – and the motivation for mimesis – not only in terms of the metaphor of relatively static images, and of the play of mirroring and epistemological confusion this entails, but also to consider mimesis as a form of repetition that is fundamentally concerned with conservation through time.

So if modernism rejects mimesis, it is not simply to prefer abstraction. It is also to forget the traditional, pre-literate relation to time and its fundamental relation to the problem of cultural reproduction and survival. Yet paradoxically, modernism can only celebrate the new and resist the spectre of repetition by incorporating repetition more closely within itself. Everything can exist at once since everything is infinitely reproduced.

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Aesthetics and Value

At one level I am tempted to describe aesthetics as a form of value. Very briefly, aesthetics provides an alternative to systems of value that reduce, consume and dispense with the world. It projects a non-exploitative relation to things that is engaged but not destructive, ordered but open, and oriented equally towards preservation and change. Clearly, this is hardly an altogether novel proposition. It aligns with a conventional conception of aesthetics as a space of experience and evaluation that stands outside and resists the field of instrumental reason.

It is worth noting here a level of contradiction. Aesthetics gains identity and value in terms of its ethical implications – in terms of how it can provide a basis for re-evaluating and transforming the world. In this sense, aesthetics manifests a meta-level use value. It is conceived in ultimately instrumental terms.

Linked to this dilemma is another one. The notion of ‘aesthetics as value’ works to conceive the aesthetic in extra-aesthetic terms. Aesthetics is positioned as a constitutive and immediate form of ethics. This risks oversimplifying and displacing both fields. Nonetheless, as French philosopher Jacques Ranciere argues in a different context, aesthetics characteristically and constitutively confuses issues. It refuses to remain within ordinary boundaries. It is conceived at the outset in terms of processes of categorical mediation. The uncertain relation between aesthetics and ethics can scarcely be resisted altogether. Instead it is arguably integral to the knotted identity and non-identity of the aesthetic (Ranciere, J., 2009, Aesthetics and its Discontents, p.14).

Of course, one could just easily argue that aesthetics is associated with notions of epistemological ‘truth’ as with ethical ‘value’. It links to a notion of non-conceptual truth. This truth can be framed in both rational and sublime terms. In relation to the former it can be conceived, for instance, in terms of a felt sense of organic proportion and symmetry, which aligns with more abstract processes of cognition. So, from Alexandre Baumgarten’s perspective (drawing upon Leibniz), mathematical equivalence and difference have their basis in the approximate and confused conditions of ordinary sensible (aesthetic) experience. Kant does not quite take this view. He distinguishes aesthetics from any particular conceptually lucid notion of truth, but nonetheless proposes a space of agreement (reconciliation) between the apriori conditions of rational cognition and our immediate experience of the world. Despite their differences, both of these attitudes suggest the relevance of aesthetics to questions of epistemology. Even if they do not propose a notion of ‘aesthetic truth’ per se, they indicate the relevance of aesthetics to rational conceptions of truth and its scope to serve as an alien epistemological ground and as an unlikely field of authentication.

We are more accustomed, however, in the contemporary context to regard ‘the truth of aesthetics’ in sublime and existential terms. The Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling famously argues that aesthetics engages with a higher sphere of truth. It enables a recognition of features of being that can never adequately be translated into abstractly rational terms. Many strands of modern aesthetics (including the work of Heidegger and Lyotard) draw upon this romantic conception of ‘aesthetic truth’.

The key issue is that aesthetics gains epistemological relevance in both the rational and sublime conceptions. Aesthetics projects a different model of knowledge in which the known and the unknown correspond, in which knowledge is at once elusive and immediately manifest.

I will add briefly that alongside relating to both ‘value’ and ‘truth’, aesthetics not only mediates between the different main fields of philosophy – ontology, epistemology and ethics – but also between different orders of experience and being. It mediates between sense and rational cognition, feeling and abstraction, contemplation and engagement, activity and passivity, and seriousness and play. This is potentially liberating, but also makes the concept profoundly elusive. Almost anything you can say about aesthetics can be contradicted and must, at the very least, be carefully qualified.

In summary, the shifting, medial status of aesthetics entails vital aspects of value and can be regarded as having particular critical value, but also demonstrates that it is reductive to describe aesthetics as ‘a form of value’. In any case, there is an allied need to unpick the notion of value. I must acknowledge, for instance, that I am using the term ‘value’ in multiple senses – to refer to an ethics, a mode of judgement and an orientation towards ‘good’ ends. Here aesthetics variously appears as a form of value, a mode of evaluation and in terms of its broader cultural and critical value (efficacy). Aesthetics is structured within and infused by vital questions of value. Yet at the same time it is never simply ‘a form of value’. There is no single point of alignment or essential feature ethical or otherwise that can adequately encompass the aesthetic. The notion tends to be lost when it is glibly defined and only in its motions of loss does it flicker into view. Nonetheless, we have to have means of introducing and briefly defining the term. Following Hegel, we regularly say that it is the philosophy of beauty and art, but that hardly adequately accounts for its strange ‘value’.

But let me return to the question of value. Forgive me for turning on this question, but I’m wondering what value aesthetics has just now. What can aesthetics offer as an alternative basis for value, and for making evaluations and accomplishing beneficial things in the world. Why pose this question just now? It could be posed at any time (we are always in crisis), but the current COVID-19 pandemic conditions and the broader economic, political and social consequences make the question of value particularly pressing.

Value, yes, but the question of aesthetics, perhaps less so. After all, almost everything that we associate with aesthetic activity – the visual and performing arts, for example – are shut down, or can only exist via largely remote and on-line forms. Within this context, ordinary aesthetic activity, except in the context of private practices, can appear effectively irrelevant, or at least less publicly visible and significant. How can they obtain wider public value if they cannot even properly exist?

Now I should stress that I don’t hold to the view that art and aesthetics are necessarily twinned – that one cannot exist without the other. I am increasingly interested in non-public aspects of aesthetic experience and activity – spheres of everyday aesthetic practice and engagement that fall outside the iconic field of the visual and performing arts.

Nonetheless, the suspension of public arts, as well as the privileging of dimensions of broader social and economic necessity at both the domestic and public level, raise questions about the relevance of aesthetics in this period of pressing, socially distanced crisis. Aesthetics can appear relevant perhaps in terms of practices of privatised distraction and psychological survival, but hardly at all in terms of notions of cultural and political transformation. Arguably, the values we need now are less those linked to notions of play and pleasure than to care and responsibility. Once again, in very characteristic terms, aesthetics appears as a sphere of excess that only properly obtains relevance when all the other conditions of life are in place – once we have addressed primary problems of survival and equity.

And this is what prompts what I am writing at here. I am trying to get at how aesthetics links to questions of fundamental value. Friedrich Schiller poses this question famously in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), which is written in response to the ‘reign of terror’ during the French Revolution. Schiller considers how a revolution that began with declarations of ‘egalite fraternity liberty’ could dissolve into the systemic injustice and barbarity of the guillotine. He suggests that what is missing – and what is needed – is a more fundamental ground of value that prepares the way for enlightened human identity and community. The model of idle play is positioned as the foundation for then establishing a society that is genuinely equal, fraternal and free. At the same time, however, Schiller has no means of conceiving where this foundation occurs or how it actually exists. Instead it appears as a foundation myth and a vision for the future. It reveals a general human capacity but is something only available to a societal elite. All of this simply demonstrates the contradictions of the aesthetic – the difficulties of making sense of it not only conceptually, but also actually and historically.

I can only offer, the most minimal, poorly delineated suggestions here. There is a need to think beyond the autonomy of the aesthetic and beyond the special conditions of the aesthetic. Rather than an uncertain ground and epiphenomenal field, the aesthetic must be somehow thought in terms of its integral relevance to the problems at hand – to survival, equity, common effort, etc. This can hardly take place within the conventional space of art or even in some notion of a dimension of play within the contours of everyday life. Instead it needs to find a way into the thinking of societal priorities, how things are organised and why they are organised in that way. It needs to find its way into the tissue of survival and labour so that these things are not quite the same again – so that their space of necessity and alienation can be re-examined and re-experienced.

This indicates the deeper relation to value that concerns me. My aims is not to represent aesthetics as entirely ethical, but to displace ethics in manner that retains a sense of care and responsibility – that renders the practical in terms that include the aesthetic, which is itself displaced from its ordinary imaginary, practices and frames of reference. A more integral and holistic conception is needed, but we cannot get there with the current set of categories and categorical distinctions. While these cannot be simply swept aside they need to be thought through and pushed into novel relations.

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My motto from posting this song: ‘If at first you seriously suck then try, try again till you don’t seriously suck so much.’ 91 listens, not a single like. Must persevere!

Fear and spending all we have/On nothing very much

Fragile lives, empty days/Dumb pandemic luck

Still stocking up on food/And mowing the god damn lawn

Tracing exponential curves/Waiting for the storm


Happy New Year from Wuhan China/No quarantine in Qom Iran

True believers in South Korea/All alone in the Vatican

CV-19 in Barcelona/CV-19 on Bondi Beach

CV-19 in Boris Johnston/CV-19 on New York streets

Can we stay home for now?/Can we stay apart?

Can we sleep for twenty weeks?/Then make a different start?

Doesn’t matter anymore/About what mattered once

Flying around the world/Small governments


Happy New Year from Wuhan China/No quarantine in Qom Iran

True believers in South Korea/All alone in the Vatican

CV-19 keep your distance/CV-19 join a queue for the dole

CV-19 what’s on Netflix?/CV-19 dig a deep, deep hole

Fear and spending all we have/On nothing very much

Fragile lives, empty days/Dumb pandemic luck

And all of those who die/Are all of us always

And all of those who live/Are all who die today


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Aesthetics and Value

Aesthetics must enable a revaluation of the world.

But how is this possible? Especially if aesthetics is conceived narrowly as a form of pleasure? We must either re-conceive aesthetics or abandon it for something else – some other notion that incorporates a more extensive and inclusive sense of value. This study pursues the first option. It argues that aesthetics is already loosely defined and already has the potential to be more broadly conceived. This is not to say that it may not be better that we invent another term at some stage, but for now there is scope to mobilise the notion of aesthetics differently. The field of aesthetics is shaped at the outset as one of mediation. It is less substantive than a force that mediates between existing human faculties and philosophical categories. It strays between sense, imagination and understanding and between being, knowledge and ethics. If it defines a positive existence this is precisely in terms of conceiving a curious space of radical difference from ordinary modes of existence, feeling and thought. This interplay between the positive and the negative and between integral clarity and straying is what enable aesthetics to have wider relevance and to serve an alternative basis for human value.

More simply, the aesthetic is not simply about liking something. It is not simply about appreciating something from a distance. It defines here not only a species of pleasure but also an ontology, an ethics and a mode of comprehension. It suggests a mode of being that is not entirely active, that incorporates a vital dimension of passivity. This active passivity also entails a relationship to the world that is at once dialectical and non-dialectical – that responds to the world without destroying it. This response is irreducible. It motions away from the thing while also holding closely to it – not allowing its existence and difference to be entirely subsumed, while still necessarily articulating a distinct space (of contemplation, representation and invention). Beyond this, the aesthetic response is associated with freedom, human identity and community. In this sense, it provides a complex ground for the possibility of enlightened society, with all the ethical and epistemological implications this entails.

The aesthetic only becomes meaningful then as it slips free of its narrow association with beauty and the philosophy of fine art. It is not that beauty and fine art are not relevant to the aesthetics, but rather that they are aesthetic symptoms rather than the aesthetic itself – in its complexity, in its contradictions, in its promiscuity.

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Aesthetic Time and Excess (notes)

Schiller’s aesthetic theory is closely concerned with the issue of time. What is the time of aesthetic experience? When does it happen? When is it needed?

Like Plato, Schiller adopts a broadly pedagogical perspective. He is concerned with how aesthetics can contribute to the development of human beings and society. Within this context, there is a vital need to consider when an aesthetic education is required. The key question is, must it precede all other forms of education or is its something that necessarily can only appear once certain lessons of survival and political necessity are already learnt?

This links closely to the problem of excess. Is aesthetic experience something in excess to ordinary experience – which would also position it as a posterior supplement to ordinary experience – or is it a primary field that must be passed through prior to any possibility of enlightened general existence?

And it is precisely here that a confusion is evident in Schiller’s thought. A confusion of timing and of strategic intervention. On the one hand Schiller holds to the idea that aesthetic experience is required at the outset – that no enlightened humanity or social organisation is possible without a grounding in aesthetic experience. At the same time, however, from a broadly anthropological perspective, Schiller argues that human beings and society can only turn their minds to aesthetic concerns once immediate needs are met. He envisages a pre-aesthetic state of nature that is concerned simply with survival, that has no time or scope for anything else. This is also linked to a conception of immediate historical time – time that cannot think beyond itself, that cannot recognise the outline of timeless time, of absolute time, of truth and the ultimate transcendental foundations of being.

It is then in terms of associating aesthetics with aspects of posteriority and supplementation that Schiller’s aesthetic conception comes undone. Aesthetics cannot be both primary and supplementary at once without radically thinking through the notion of the supplementary (in the manner, for instance, of Bataille and Derrida). This means thinking its temporality differently. It involves thinking the indeterminable notion of this timing and its removal from a linear conception of time. For a start, it means re-conceiving the temporality of ordinary instrumentally geared life. This is never simply immediate. It is never simply in this time. It is full of memories and anticipations. It plays across time in complex and irreducible ways. Experience is mapped, tested and reviewed. Tendrils of experimental, hypothetical action are considered and enacted. In its fundamental shape this is indistinguishable from motions of excess. For instance, the excessive, exponential growth of a virus, is not dissimilar to the growth of the slavery industry in the 16th and 17th centuries. The patterns of instrumental existence are never simply about homeostatic survival, but involve all kinds of instances of effulgent and excessive growth. Capitalism itself is an excessive phenomena. There is no necessary gap between playful and instrumental forms. Both can be characterised by dimensions of excess.

Furthermore, contemplation – or the specialised notion of disengaged aesthetic experience – is not something posterior to ordinary life, but is imbricated within it. There is no stage of pure human immediacy, prior to the space of contemplative reflection. They are temporally coextensive. Instrumentality is excessive and aesthetic excessiveness plays within the texture of ordinary life. Neither can properly provide the ground for the other. They are both simply, and at every moment, relevant.

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Ugliness would not be the simple opposite of beauty for Kant. Both the beautiful and the ugly share a subjective basis in an internal reflective sensation (an experience of pleasure or displeasure). The aesthetic moment is one of suspension. There is a pleasurable suspension of ordinary cognition that is related to the free play of the faculties of imagination and understanding. In the case of beauty this takes shape as a felt sympathy between the two. In the case of the sublime, there is a tension that pushes both further, that extends and enobles both. In the case of ugliness, there is the acute sense of a misalignment. There is still a suspension, still a prolongation of free play, but it tends away from either reconciliation or grand aporetic openings. Ugliness strikes us – and fascinates us. It is harbinger of something that we cannot speak, that escapes us, but also that represents an intimate threat. Ugliness is reminder of an externality that affects us both from without and from within. It is not the prospect of otherness, but the spectre of otherness. It is a reflection upon the mundanity of otherness. It is not simply a lack of symmetry or regularity, but rather the sense that this lack may have wider sway – that it may be just as elemental and formative as anything that accords with the self-image and the ambitions of the a priori.

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Transcendental Aesthetic

Kant employs the term ‘aesthetic’ first in his Critique of Pure Reason as a means of clarifying the general conditions of experience. He develops the notion of a ‘transcendental aesthetic’ to indicate an a priori dimension of experience. There is on the one hand experience that relates specifically to our interaction with the world via our sensible organs. This is linked to the traditional Ancient Greek meaning of the term ‘aesthetic’ as relating to the senses. There is on the other hand a plane of experience that exceeds the senses. The ‘transcendental aesthetic’ has its basis not in sense as such, or in any relation to the external world, but in terms of the appearance of things to the native grounds of consciousness. It refers to the sensing of a level of generality that is unconditioned by the senses. It is an interior plane of sensation that involves the appearance of the a priori as the fundamental capacity for space-time consciousness/experience.

Key here is that the transcendental is general. It relates to no specific, contingent form of experience, but to experience generally. It is not something that is generalised from experience, or that results from experience, but rather something that shapes our capacity to experience anything whatsoever. In this sense, the transcendental character of experience cannot be based in experience per se, but pertains instead to its underlying conditions. Yet at the same time, this other, inner realm must also appear. It must somehow be represented – here not by ordinary sensibility, but instead at some meta-sensible level. This is the paradoxical conception of the ‘transcendental aesthetic’, which at once both distances the a prior character of space time consciousness from sense, but also acknowledges that it must somehow be presented to us.

As I have explained, Kant clarifies that he is employing the term ‘aesthetic’ in its traditional sense of pertaining to the senses. He distinguishes this from the modern German sense of the aesthetic as pertaining to the ‘critique of taste’ (CPR, p.60). Subsequently, in the Critique of Judgement, Kant will discover means of mediating between these two meanings, and specifically of demonstrating the transcendental character of the experience of the beautiful, which emerges not as a consequence of experience per se, but from an internal free play of the faculties of imagination and understanding. This complicates any initial sense that Kant moves from a general to a more specific and restricted use of the term. It is tempting to suggest, for instance, that the ‘transcendental aesthetic’ relates to the conditions of all consciousness, whereas the later aesthetic of the sublime and beautiful relates to a specialised form of experience separate from properly epistemological and ethical concerns. The other possibility, however, is that the two senses closely correspond. Both are concerned with the mysteries of an internal plane of appearance and intuition that establishes the core frame of human identity and freedom. From this perspective, the aesthetic of the Critique of Judgement is a more focused examination of the transcendental aesthetic of the Critique of Pure Reason. And if Kant would like to restrict the implications of the former, it is because they so deeply affect the conception of the latter. The the two notions of the aesthetic are less neatly distinct than intimately entangled.

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Kant very often appears as a conservative figure, a philosopher who works at multiple levels to reconcile differences – between dogmatism and skepticism, for instance, and between dimensions of thought, morality and beauty. Yet there is potential to interpret this system differently – not simply in terms of its complex, often claustrophobic architecture and its meta-level understanding of the underlying conditions of human experience, but also in terms of its elaboration of openings. While the system seems focused, at multiple levels, on homeostasis, this is only inasmuch as it also frames an energetics – a playing at the limit within the horizon of the finite.

I cannot hope to argue this properly here, but will simply point to an alignment between four of Kant’s key notions: the determination of the negative noumena; the clarification of the self-reflexivity of aesthetic pleasure; the elaboration of the sublime as a play between finite and infinite; and the conception of nature as a protean model for human genius.

  1. Negative noumena

The notion of the ’noumenal’ in Ancient Greek philosophy refers specifically to objects of thought rather than sensible intuition. Plato’s ideal forms provide a famous example. They inhabit a noumenal space. Plato regards the noumenal space of mathematical ideality as true and actual, while phenomenal reality appears as a space of illusion. Kant draws upon this ancient notion of the noumenal, while subtly altering and extending it. Instead of simply and directly indicating ideality as such, the noumenal represents that which is directly, intelligibly intuited without any recourse to sensible intuition. This at once captures the sense of ideality, which Kant describes as positive noumena, as well as the sense of something that appears precisely the opposite – a negative noumena. This is the curious field of thought that signals the limits of thought. It represents within thought that which that exceeds thought altogether. How can these two understandings be related? Because both positive and negative noumena elude phenomenal experience and because they each represent terrains of thought. The positive noumena imagines directly intelligible, ideal objects, while the negative noumena conceives ‘nothing’ as such – or more precisely that which is other to and exceeds thought. The Kantian notion of the negative noumena emerges in relation to the self-reflexive concept of thought recognising its own limits and positing this beyond as a form of thought. Whereas the related notion of ‘the thing in itself’ motions outwards to the unknowable character and intrinsic excess of the world beyond thought, the negative noumena names the thinking of this space as a limit and form of negation. Kant writes of this latter sense:

The concept of a noumenon is, therefore, only a limiting concept, and intended to keep the claims of sensibility within proper bounds, and is therefore only of negative use. (CPR, p. 261)

In summary, the negative noumena emerges within thought, but is focused upon that which exceeds thought. Crucially, however, this negative and excessive potential does not simply lie outside thought, but is somehow contained within it, emerging as an aspect of its restless dynamism. It signals both a limit and also an internal relation to excess that is itself protean and infinite. This corresponds closely to how Kant conceives the general character of aesthetic cognition, as well as to his specific conception of the play of sublime thought and the notions of nature and genius.

  1. Self-reflexive aesthetic pleasure

Kant argues that aesthetic pleasure does not emerge from a relation to sensible phenomena as such, but rather in terms of a free play of the faculties of imagination and understanding. It is a meta-level pleasure that is linked to the prolongation of indeterminacy. Kant links the faculty of imagination to phenomenal experience. It represents a form of receptive contemplation. But this contemplation only obtains aesthetic value inasmuch as it also has an active dimension, inasmuch as it works over phenomena, inasmuch as it discovers within them a sense of curious, intransitive purpose. For this play of interpretation to genuinely become aesthetic, for it to discover a coherent formal character, it must also involve an aspect of the faculty of understanding. How is this to be conceived? If the understanding is all about applying concepts to phenomenal experience, and if aesthetics is precisely about delaying any reduction to concepts and maintaining a pleasurable energetics of irresolution, then how can we conceive the role of understanding here? Perhaps in terms of the conception of the negative noumena? Aesthetic contemplation is thought finding the means to think beyond its own limits, yet not to represent this field substantively so much as negatively; more as a self-reflexive energy than as something known. This raises the issue of how the aesthetic can be bracketed as a special form or cognition? While it certainly characterises a particular form of judgement (informing statements of the kind, ‘this apple is beautiful’), it may have more general cognitive relevance. Just possibly, aesthetic play – the meta-level awareness that it enables – provides the very ground for the division between the phenomenal and noumenal. It is what shapes the prospect and non-experience of negatively cast excess. It stages the noumenal relation as intrinsic not only to the experience of aesthetic pleasure but to cognition generally.

  1. Sublime limit and infinite

The sublime, for Kant, describes the intimate relation between the recognition of limits and their capacity for overcoming. Importantly, overcoming is not a consequence of destroying limits, but of playing upon and exacerbating them. The gap, for instance, between the noumenal and the phenomenal is never literally overcome, but their relation is staged in such a way that an infinite prospect is opened up within thought – within thought’s own capacity to reflect upon itself, within its own capacity to link collapse to overcoming. The vastness of huge ocean storm – its terrible chaos – becomes pleasurable inasmuch as it presses us to think beyond number and coherent form. It serves as a metaphor for our own noumenal capacity, which is the very energy of thought. Thought is not simply recognition. It is not simply a robotic work of categorisation – of applying models that are already known. It involves an endless play of the limit that has its general basis in aesthetic cognition.

  1. Nature and genius

At one level Kant associates nature with a field of blind determination – with material things blindly interacting with one another. This is distinguished from the realm of human identity and freedom. Yet at another level, he represents nature as the very model for the protean dynamic of human thought and being.

Nature as whole is, of course, a concept. It is something thought, but it also refers to something that structurally exceeds thought. Philosophy has a deictic category. It points. It necessarily employs concepts to point, but this is not to say that everything it points towards is reducible to these constructs. We do not encompass nature with our concept of nature. Our understanding always fall short, is always limited, and always plays on the limit.

In its dynamic, excessive, irreducible character, nature provides the model for aesthetic genius. It figures as the active principle in matter – that which animates it. This is linked to its noumenal aspect, but clearly not in the sense of self-reflexive species of thought, so much as a constant challenging of thought (and as field that is ultimately painfully and ecstatically oblivious to thought). I suppose, arguably, the notion of nature could be regarded as a projection of thought – an invention of thought’s external basis. While it may have this character, and it certainly does within romanticism, this is not to say that it may not also represent something else, something that is irreducible to these endless self-reflexive circles.

In any case, nature very explicitly provides the model for Kant’s conception of artistic genius. The genius of art is based upon harbouring the tension of the noumenal – finding phenomenal metaphors for this relation, yet less as coherent, final images than motions of opening and indetermination. Here the notion of genius describes clear links between the negative potential and excess of the noumenal and the dynamic irresolution of aesthetic contemplation and the protean purposiveness of nature.

If these alignments never quite achieve adequate focus within Kant – if they are to some extent repressed – this is because Kant’s overriding concern is to provide a unified account. His critical project involves a double motion of questioning previous models and recommending a meta-level model that enables things to roughly remain in place. Within this context, the aesthetic appears chiefly as a figure of reconciliation. In an Aristotelian manner, it is the moment of catharsis that ties together the dimensions of being that the wider philosophical system (as a form of tragedy) has so painstakingly torn apart and delineated. Yet this is to only recognise one aspect of the aesthetic, when the implications of the aesthetic are always profoundly double. It both rescues the system and exposes its inherent gaps. It both manifests limits and plays at them. Its structure is cyclical. It draws on a carnival logic in which social transformation occurs within the context of a staged revolution, and the theatricality of any action is constantly undermined by its seriousness. There is no sense of ever taking deliberate steps forward. They are all repeated steps, but each time utterly different.

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Ranciere employs two different notions of the aesthetic: the first represents a restricted conception linked to the self-definition of contemporary art (‘the aesthetic regime of art’); while the second indicates a more general conception linked to notions of sense and the sensible (evident, for instance, in his reference to ’the asthetics of politics’).

Within the context of the restricted conception, Ranciere describes the intimate ‘knotted’ relationship between art aesthetics. Disagreeing with contemporary efforts to distinguish art from philosophical aesthetics – to either free art from the weight of dull theorising that can never approach the sublime truth of art (Lyotard) or to protect philosophy from precisely that Romantic risk, and to insist that art and philosophy represent altogether separate realms of truth-making (Badiou) – Ranciere argues, in contrast, that art and aesthetics are mutually imbricated and constitutive. Aesthetics serves as the discourse for identifying and making sense of art in an age when it lacks clearly delineated material marks – when it is no longer linked to identifiable modes of making, clear signs of craft, characteristic themes and iconography, or even standard contexts of display. Within the contemporary ‘anything goes’ context, art risks seeming an ‘emperor with no clothes’, except that it has aesthetics to furnish some level of modesty (elusive identity).

At the same time, aesthetics also benefits from its relation to art. This category that has always been itself elusive, that appears for Kant as a late addition to the philosophical system, that is more intermediary than determinate field, that is associated with the whole problem within philosophy of the je ne sais quoi (of everything that falls outside logos and ratio) comes to pinpoint a specific sphere of culture and cultural activity. It is associated with objects, practices, places, social differences and economic exchanges. So that which appeared sensible but also inchoate and separate from ordinary practical activity corresponds to a concrete space that can be confidently designated, even if the latter’s identity and boundaries are constantly changing. In this sense, the social reality of art represents the reification of aesthetics. It lends a mode of experience that is defined more negatively than actually (non-instrumental, non-conceptual, non-purposive) a slightly more positive claim to tangible existence.

So if I now envisage the notion of an aesthetic practice that extends beyond art this is only possible because the uncertain sphere of experience that aesthetics entails has already been authenticated via art. The aesthetic must first be grounded. I must first envisage that the category of the aesthetic is genuinely coherent, that it can designate a specific mode of experience.

Worth noting that is not only art and aesthetics that draw benefit from their tight association, but also the wider philosophical and cultural system, with its complex distinctions between various modes of being, feeling, knowing, etc. By positioning the aesthetic in relation to an actual sphere of cultural activity, by lending it the credence of a knotted, essential relation to art, every other category within the system more clearly recognises its own proper place and logic. The more art and aesthetics obtain delimited, mutually reinforcing identity the more their separation from other aspects of life can be demonstrated and the more that knowing can distinguished from feeling, practical activity from play and contemplative reflection, determinate relations from fragile spheres of freedom.

This is also to acknowledge that the contemporary efforts to conceive, critique and rethink the aesthetic are historically framed. This is not an argument about the essential nature of aesthetics – as it exists putatively in some timeless relation to cognition, ethics or whatever – but about the relation between philosophical discourse and modes of action, feeling and thought, in which both terms in this relation are historically constituted and subject to contestation and change.

In my view, for all the inadequacy of the aesthetic, for all the fundamental divisions that it entails, reconciles and reinforces, it cannot simply be abandoned. There are historical reasons for its emergence and these extend well beyond the aesthetic itself. In this sense the aesthetic is a kind of epiphenomenon or symptom of tensions that have much wider currency and force than is immediately apparent. Similarly I take the view that the aesthetic can exist before it is properly historically manifest, in the same way that a cheese can be affected holistically via mould long before mould spores themselves become visible. Of course, there is the risk that in looking backwards for signs of the aesthetic we can get it wrong, we can determine imaginary points of correlation and continuity when there are actually only analogies. But this is hardly a reason not to attempt to trace how the mould spreads tentacles within the cheese before the spores sufficiently coalesce to appear. Respecting history is not only a matter of insisting upon elements of difference and discontinuity, but also of tracing links and associations across time. The knot of the aesthetic did not simply take shape within modernity and is not simply based upon a relation to art per se. Indeed, art itself is not a simple ground. It is inflected by dilemmas and uncertainties that extend well beyond art and its imagined delimitation.

So for this reason – because art and aesthetics represent from the ‘outset’ unstable, epiphenomenal fields – I have no problem detecting aspects of the aesthetic – the dilemmas of the aesthetic – within Pre-Socratic thought, or within the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, or within Augustine’s conception of the relationship between music, number and the vibratory character of being. All of these are clearly enough antecedents to properly aesthetic philosophy. What is interesting is that they were written in societies that were not characterised by the ‘knot’ of the aesthetic – that recognised no neatly circumscribed space of aesthetic experience and no cultural space of alienated art. Nonetheless they experienced tensions between feeling and thought, freedom and adherence, common opinion and logos, the theatre of cultural reproduction and the emergence of truth that underlie aesthetic thought, providing its deep – and deeply historical – basis.

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Aesthetics and coming to know

What is the relationship between aesthetics and knowledge?

In ordinary use, the term ‘aesthetics’ relates to theories of beauty and art. It is a field of intellectual enquiry that examines non-strictly intellectual aspects of judgement and activity. In this sense, the discipline of aesthetics aims to distill an aspect of the known from the unknown. It aims to explain a form of experience that falls outside knowledge proper.

But aesthetics is not only a critical discipline. It also refers to the order of experience that the discipline takes as its object – the viewer’s experience, for instance, when looking at an art work; their experience of pleasure, beauty, sublimity or otherwise. To what extent does this correspond to a form of knowledge? Or is it utterly distinct from anything that we may meaningfully regard in these terms? And here plainly everything hinges on our conception of knowledge. We expect knowledge to be rationally and intellectually grounded. We distinguish it from common opinion, subjective preference and merely perceptual interaction. We project a notional body and a notional mind. We project the difference between these two, with aesthetic experience associated with the body (as a space of subjectivity and potential illusion) and fields such as pure mathematics associated with the mind. The latter provide our model for proper forms of knowledge, despite its regular distance from any aspect of our lived experience.

Yet what if we loosened up our conception of knowledge? What if we thought of knowledge differently? In some ways, the notion of aesthetics can assist with this – even if in other ways it reinforces the terms of its own difference and exclusion.

The modern term ‘aesthetics’ has an etymological basis in the Ancient Greek word αἰσθάνομαι, which indicates aspects of learning, understanding and perception. There is no clear distinction made here between coming to understand something sensibly or intellectually. It was only a bit later – still within Ancient Greek – that a new associated term, αἰσθητικός, came to distinguish specifically sensible perception. This early term also has a strong process emphasis. Without specifically referring to knowledge per se, it indicates an inclusive conception of various ways of coming to be aware and know of something.

Knowledge is less objectified here – rendered as particular, tangible stuff – than positioned as a mode of experience. I am particularly interested in the prominence of learning. Learning is, of course, key to our understanding of knowledge acquisition, but it also plays a vital role in aesthetic discourse. Although aesthetics, in the iconic Kantian conception, would seem to be entirely about features of elusive subjective response (and the mysterious basis of a broader ‘common sense’), there is also a rich tradition of philosophical aesthetics that focuses on aesthetic experience as a form of learning. Most famously there is Plato’s condemnation of poetry as a proper form of learning (inasmuch as it conveys illusions more than truths) and Schiller’s conception of the educative role of aesthetics in terms of establishing modes of sensibility that enable enlightened social organisation and interaction. Even if the value of aesthetic experience is questioned, there is still the sense of its intimate relation to learning. Even if better forms of learning are envisaged, there is still a recognition that aesthetic experience contributes to our understanding of the world and our capacity to engage with it in a culturally literate manner. In this broad sense, it has a clear bearing on an overall conception of knowledge – a knowledge that is not restricted to particular rationally sanctioned forms, but is implicit within cultural experience generally.

[And particularly within the texture of practice. Not then as an accomplished quantity, but as something that is always performed – and in that sense ephemeral.]

[I would also look at the elements of aesthetic knowledge within ‘proper’ knowledge. The dependence upon memory, for instance, within complex mathematical cognition, which can never adequately represent the imagined immediacy of rational thought, but rather simply the sense that it once happened in its requisite adequacy. Rational cognition is spread out in time and is never altogether present. It relies both on past thought and future projections. These are all representations – frustratingly blank instances of appearance that can never adequately, in another instant, recover their grounds. They too are performed and perceived.]

A contemporary issue, however, is that knowledge has come to be thought very much in terms of innovation. Knowledge positions itself as endlessly new. The economy of knowledge hinges on a machinery (and rhetoric) of innovation that tends to neglect the value of knowledge that is long-standing and old. It is not only conventional forms of knowledge that are caught up in this paradigm, but also aesthetic forms of knowledge – chiefly within the context of a contemporary art that privileges novelty. Doubtless this novelty is very often ambiguous – representing itself as new when it is actually a reminder of things forgotten or neglected – but still it affects the self-image of art and aesthetics and it tends to shape a gulf between this overall field and traditions of practice and thought that are more focused on cultural maintenance, or that conceive cultural transformation in more complex and less exclusively innovative terms. I am thinking, for instance, of popular traditions that reveal continuing aspects of orality and the carnivalesque.

One final point. Although we tend to think of aesthetics in terms of beauty and art, it seems to me that the field has broader implications. As the ancient term indicates, it can also relate to the overall dilemmas of coming to awareness, of coming to know things. This may not be the sense of the term that the modern tradition has drawn upon. It may have drawn more on the later term αἰσθητικός (relating specifically to sensible perception) and then have taken its own turn to focus specifically on beauty and art, but still at the core of these concerns is a central focus on conceiving another mode of awareness; at once allowing this possibility, bracketing it as distinct and separate, and also considering its broader implications, as well as its strange unsettling relationship to knowledge ‘proper’. Aesthetics is actually centrally concerned with all that the initial etymological point of reference entails. It has always figured as a troubling space of division, mediation and reconciliation. Aesthetics manifests another form of knowledge, but also demonstrates the aporetic features of our conception of knowledge. I have drawn upon an ancient term, but there are conceptual affordances within our own modern idioms. The term ‘sensible’ plays across both the sensory and the intellectual. The term ‘sense’ can refer equally to the senses, as sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch, or to sense as an aspect of cognition. The difficulty of ‘making sense’ of aesthetics relates to this awkward and uncertain relation between body and mind – between conceiving an interaction to the world that is materially cast and one that, at least notionally, exceeds materiality. The notion of aesthetic experience engages with the fundamental divisions and dilemmas of Western thought – signalling a mode of ‘sensibility’ that plays on the boundaries between sensation and thought. It works to mediate, exacerbate and renegotiate the terms of difference between the phenomenal and the noumenal.

[And also the ethical, though I have said nothing about this here. The aesthetic represents the very form of human freedom, sitting between the material determination of sensation and the a priori dictates of the categorical and moral imperatives. It is described by Kant as a space of ‘free play’. It is not only a vision of another mode of awareness and judgement, but also of another mode of being altogether that is characteristically human, but also utterly elusive.]

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Three Definitions

Aesthetics refers to a dimension of inexplicable value.

Aesthetics involves the non-propositional communication of truth. This truth has a holistic character – looking forward (as hope) and back (for strands of vivid memory and counter-memory).

Aesthetics has no proper space whatsoever. It refers to no categorically distinct and universally grounded sphere of experience. It is a means of delineating, reconciling and exacerbating fundamental flaws and aporia in our Western philosophical, social and cultural system.

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Alphabet of Aesthetics

A is for art.

A is for aesthetics (because aesthetics is much larger than art – if art is conceived in miniature as contemporary art).

A is also for Adorno, for he deserves a mention and I am fundamentally shaped by his aesthetics. Adorno conceives a tortured space of contradiction, in which beauty appears only to disappear and disappears only to appear.

A is also, of course, for Aristotle. He let the poets back in, but equally qualified their particular role.

B is for beauty, the key model of aesthetic experience.

B is Baumgarten and his notion of a mode of sensible thought – a stage towards reason, but also an awkward double.

B is also for all manner of French philosophers and critics who are concerned with aesthetics (in various guises) – Badiou, Bataille, Blanchot, Barthes, Bourdieu, Baudrillard, Bourriaud, etc.

B is also for Bakhtin who so precisely describes a carnivalesque aesthetic sensibility.

C is for the carnivalesque, which for me provides a model for how art and society can be conceived, in terms particularly of representing an intimate and indeterminable relationship between continuity and change.

D is for Dewey and his sense of the intimate relation between art and everyday experience.

E is for Empedocles and his understanding of the sensible mediation of the world.

E is for Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic.

F is for forests, for becoming lost in forests – for instance, (F)rancis Ponge’s Notes on the Pinewoods.

G is for gestalt. The magic of aesthetics is to see everything at once – to perceive a specific quantity, for instance, without the need to count.

H is Hegel and Heidegger. Hegel for restricting aesthetics to the history and philosophy of art. Heidegger for envisaging the complexity of appearance and disappearance in art.

H is also for Hesiod, who conceives not only a blind, aesthetically cast basis for human experience, but also a divine accession to knowledge and truth that is framed aesthetically as the intercession of the divine.

I is for intoxication. Plato also writes of intoxication.

J is for January, the month I was born.

K is Kant and his defining conception of aesthetics.

L is for Leibniz and his crucial sense of a graduated space between rational insight and irrational blindness.

M is for Martin – Agnes Martin, one of my favourite painters, who understands the relationship between meticulous process and transcendence.

N is for Nietzsche. His sense of Greek tragedy as a reconciliation between Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies in Greek culture has proved very important for me.

O is for Ong and his account of oral techniques of memory.

P is for Parmenides, particularly his aesthetically cast transition beyond common thought.

P is for Plato’s rejection of the poets as a corrupting influence, conveying illusory truths.

Q is for quiet – the reflective quiet of aesthetics.

R is for Ranciere and his notion of art as dissensus and aesthetics as the self-understanding of art.

S is for the sublime.

S is for Schiller and his argument that aesthetics provides the only sound basis for enlightened political community.

S is for Schelling who regarded art as the highest truth because it partakes of what lies beyond the conscious, subjective and rational articulation of truth.

T is for time, the curious time of aesthetics.

U is for the underworld – as a liminal field of experience.

V is for vision, though aesthetics need not involve vision.

W is for whatever.

X is for X (according to Leibniz).

Y is for yes, yesterday and yellow.

Z is for Zeno and the impossibility of ever reaching the door.

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What brings me to aesthetics?

I can recall that my first response to art was quite simply blank. As a child my parents took me regularly to major galleries. They’d walk around very slowly, far too slowly for me, and ask what I thought of particular images – did I like them? Here my sense was that they were less interested in listening to my youthful impressions than in seeking any slight glimmer of nascent aesthetic capacity. I can remember having absolutely no thoughts or feelings whatsoever. The images simply meant nothing to me. I cared for them no more and most likely much less than for all the other ordinary things around me. I felt stupid, blind and semi-ashamed, but also an acute sense of my own difference – however negatively cast. I also knew not to confess to any of this. I realised very clearly that I needed to discover the means to experience this curious field of art and to speak of it. Gradually I developed these skills, but even now I can recall that initial feeling of incomprehension – and it still returns when confronted by art that is indifferent to to me.

Hardly surprising then that I studied art in my final year of high school. I was determined to makes sense of a field that made little intimate sense to me. Yet to be honest, if I did gradually come to develop an enthusiasm for art, this happened more through language than the experience of art per se. I can remember avidly reading our textbook, Gombrich’s History of Western Art, which provided a compelling overview of western artistic traditions, and more importantly represented art as as an engrossing story of distinct periods, movements and styles. The narrative here was less simply art-historical than philosophical. It was about the evolution and struggle of philosophical ideas, which were in turn related to the formal features of particular artistic styles and works of art. So in this sense it was through the lens of aesthetics that I became captivated by art, rather than vice versa. During this time I can also recall making a studious effort to become knowledgeable about art – to recognise the work, for instance, of specific artists. Plainly a compensatory manoeuvre. What I lacked in immediate sensibility I made up for with flimsy erudition.

My real tastes lay elsewhere. I was much more genuinely absorbed in the spheres of film, television, literature and, in my teenage years, popular music. These were much more significant spaces of immediate pleasure and value for me. I didn’t really connect any of these other spheres of culture to the question of art until a bit later, and once again I suspect it was through language and the discourse surrounding art than to any special interaction with art works themselves.

When I returned in my mid-twenties to university study, the problem of art became central to the theorisation not just of art itself, but of culture and cultural meaning generally. Even just the titles of the set readings made this very evident – for example, Benjamin’s ’The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Cultural Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’, and Debord’s ’Society of the Spectacle’. All of these works and many others positioned the problem of art as central to the understanding of contemporary culture and cultural practice – whether or not the cultural forms or practices bore any ostensible relation to the sphere of art or not. So, for instance, the cultural-political dilemmas of resistance and incorporation in contemporary popular music could be precisely mapped to the contradictions of the tradition of avant-garde art, and to issues that are fundamentally aesthetic – that have their basis in critical and philosophical aesthetics.

A decade or so later, as a Communication and Media academic, I produced a series of lectures on the aestheticisation of information. This drew on currents of Frankfurt School critical theory and postmodern cultural theory to argue that the emergence of desktop publishing represented an effort to represent regimes of corporate communication and statistical data in humanly vivid terms. I was struck by the strangeness of this effort, and the notion of aesthetics seemed the best way of clarifying what was at stake. At the same time, as an active rock-climber, I was also very concerned with debates on the ethics of bolting in rock-climbing, recognising that what were portrayed as simply ethical, practical or environmental arguments had a fundamentally aesthetic character. They were about the imaginative scenography and mediation of specific features of a complex cultural form and an associated set of environmental relationships. So desktop publishing was not simply, narrowly about the enhancement of information and fixed climbing anchors (bolts) were not simply signs of ethical disregard and vandalism. Each of these spheres of cultural activity and debate revealed a fundamentally aesthetic aspect. However, neither bear any close and native relation to the field of art as such. As much as I have become increasingly concerned with dilemmas of art (partly in terms of resolving my own personal relation to whatever art means and how it affects me), I have always conceived the field of aesthetics more generally. While French philosopher Jacques Ranciere defines aesthetics in terms of the self-understanding of modern and contemporary art, my own sense is that aesthetics also has considerable relevance beyond the sphere of art per se.

So I come to aesthetics with a sense of personal ambivalence and perhaps a larger sense of categorical uncertainty. I am invested in the notion of aesthetics – and perhaps even in reimagining it – in order to make sense not only of art, but also things that extend beyond it. Ranciere would no doubt point to the paradigmatic character of this desire and conundrum within art, but I can also recognise a more general space of philosophical and cultural relevance.

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Aesthetics and the Popular (rough notes)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Something like Four Weeks Since Last Post

I should stress at the outset that this is an amateur study of aesthetics. I am not a trained philosopher. I have read few of the works I discuss here in the original language that they were written. I lack a nuanced understanding of the historical and philosophical context in which they emerged and have only a cursory grasp of the associated critical literature. All of this no doubt affects the academic value of this study. So why bother writing the following pages and why should you bother reading them? I cannot fully answer that question, and in any case after reading this paragraph or even this entire book you may well feel that this study lacks value, but I would argue this work is only possible because I am not a professional philosopher and because I lack thorough expertise in philosophical aesthetics. I have made a genuine effort to read a wide range of relevant texts and make sense of them, but this work is as much an expression of uncertainty and questioning as anything that attempts any positive claims. My sense is that the uncertainty of the field – the difficulty of even defining aesthetics – is often pushed aside. We argue for a particular conception of aesthetics without genuinely acknowledging the awkwardness of saying anything meaningful whatsoever.

To be fair, one of the key voices in contemporary aesthetics, Jacques Ranciere, begins precisely with the ‘knottedness’ of the aesthetic, with its complex, irreducibly contradictory and paradoxical sense. Yet despite this, Ranciere adopts less a questioning than a highly confident and assertive approach, dismissing other perspectives and making an endless series of determined general claims about the nature of aesthetics and its relations to politics. Of course, there is nothing wrong with confidently making an argument, yet it does tend to render the ‘aesthetic knot’ in terms that are less open and questioning than meta-level critically clear; as though the knot exists, but can also be minutely examined and logically untangled, rather than shaping an attitude of uncertainty as such.

If nothing else then, this study takes the knot of the aesthetic more seriously and more materially. My reading, my understanding of the aesthetic, is itself integrally affected by the problems entailed in consistently making sense of the aesthetic. I mainly pose questions and only occasionally attempt anything more. Indeed the closer I come to thinking through aspects of the aesthetic the cloudier and less resolved the overall concept appears. This is perhaps perversely valuable.

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Aesthetics as the uncertainty of sense

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

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

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

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

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Beauty again

Within the context of Kant’s aesthetics, beauty describes a specific context of mediation and reconciliation. It establishes a common ground between our abstract logics-moral selves and our sensible selves. With no sense of compulsion, it demonstrates their potential for agreement. The natural symmetry of a flower, for instance, is beautiful because it corresponds to our inner (a priori) faculties of understanding. In this manner aesthetics works to make the world – and more particularly the Kantian philosophical system – whole. Without wishing to question this broad sense of the role of aesthetics, it is worth observing that Kant’s conception of aesthetics does more than simply reconcile. A close reading of the relevant section in Kant’s Critique of Judgement (1790) indicates that the aesthetic – via the key example of beauty – also plays a vital role in structuring and reinforcing the fundamental antinomies of the Kantian system – the difference between subject and object, the sensible and the thought, etc. The aesthetic is in this sense a profoundly ambivalent concept, providing a bridge between contrary faculties in the interests of a wider unity, while also emphasising the gulf that makes any provisional or ultimate sense of unity untenable.

In the ‘First Moment’ of the ‘First Book of the Analytic of the Beautiful’ Kant argues that the distinctive characteristic of the beautiful, as a form of judgement, is that it does not relate to the sphere of cognition via the faculty of understanding but to the feeling of pleasure and displeasure as mediated by the faculty of imagination (p.35). Things are made slightly complex because Kant also parenthetically acknowledges that understanding and imagination are not utterly distinct and may correspond in ways, but the key distinction is between a mode of engagement that focuses on the object (cognition) and one that focuses on our affective subjective response (aesthetics). This leads Kant to provide the following initial definition of aesthetics:

The judgement of taste, therefore, is not a cognitive judgement, and so not logical, but is aesthetic – which means that is one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective. (p.35)

In these terms, the notion of the aesthetic has its constitutive basis in the division between subject and object. Whatever it will ultimately do in terms of reconciling subject and object, it has its foundation in terms of manifesting a pure space of subjectivity and an absolute distance from our ordinary, cognitively engaged and instrumentally inclined relationship to the objective world.

But there is something strange here – a curious reversal. Normally we may be tempted to align the subjective with an interiority that relates closely to the field of the a priori, but this is not the case in the Kantian system. Instead the a priori, which represents the terrain of our inner faculties, is aligned with the sphere of objectivity. Our faculties are what make the world appear and what lend it coherent structure as a field of cognition. So while Kant distinguishes absolutely between the meta-level work of a priori cognition and the sphere of things in themselves (the realm of inaccessible objectivity that lies outside and beyond the scope of human cognition), the two fields are co-extensive in our actual engagement with the world. The a priori provides the world as given to our cognition, which enables the underlying possibility of our experience of space, time and the multitude of related and unrelated things. So while we may be tempted to conceive this in terms of a dimension of ultimate subjectivity, this is not Kant’s approach. He positions the inner space of the a priori as the very condition for the appearance of an objective field of reality.

The aesthetic then is subjective in a different way. It is subjective in a way that both opens up a gulf between subject and object and represents an odd basis of affinity between the two. Cast out from the realm of the intellectual cognitive faculties, aesthetics is associated with a terrain of more direct, sensuous response. It is linked to the experience of pleasure and displeasure. This is how the general conception of aesthetics as the philosophy of sensation links to the more specialised – and prevalent – conception of aesthetics as the philosophy of beauty and art. Beauty has its ground in dimensions of sensible and affective engagement with the world. This is its link to the sphere of objectivity. It is subjective, but in a way that has its basis in the notional exteriority of sense. But straight away, Kant works to introduce a separation, to distinguish the experience of beauty from ordinary sensible interaction with things. Unlike the ordinary interested delight we take in things – as things we desire and wish to make use of – aesthetic delight withdraws from the realm of interested objective interaction. The focus shifts from things to the conditions in which we judge something to be beautiful. Our affective interaction with things is cast within the aesthetic as reflective and formal. It turns away from objectivity itself and develops a metal level concern with the conditions of pleasure. These conditions, while distinct from rational cognitive and ethical forms, nonetheless engage with them. They are, if you like, the objective, intuitive, felt versions of the metaphysical system.

The aesthetic is inclined to and draws away from both subjectivity and objectivity. Its turn away from the object links it to dimensions of reflective consciousness (subjectivity), but its resistance to concepts suspends a simply rational identity and its sensible orientation links it to the otherness of things in themselves. In this manner the aesthetic fashions curious bridges and highlights uncertainties within the overall division of faculties and modes of being. But equally, it only emerges and takes coherent shape in terms of those very same divisions. The Kantian notion of the aesthetic is a chimera that depends upon the larger system that it at once belatedly unites, renders ambiguous and confirms.

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Aesthetics as the philosophy of beauty

We could begin by suggesting that aesthetics is the philosophy of beauty. We could add that it is also the philosophy of the sublime and the philosophy of art, but let’s stick for now with our very minimal definition. This definition instantly raises a question. Why employ the term ‘aesthetics’ if we could just as easily and more straightforwardly refer to the philosophy of beauty? Of course a similar objection can be made to other major strands of philosophy. Why not speak of the philosophy of knowledge rather than ‘epistemology’? Why not speak of the philosophy of being rather than ‘ontology’? Why employ these additional technical philosophical terms?

It is worth observing at the outset that these terms, despite their Ancient Greek etymology, are relatively new. They have developed currency in the last few centuries. The field of aesthetics was delineated by the German philosopher Alexandre Baumgarten in the mid-18th century. The field of epistemology was first named by the Scottish philosopher James Ferrier in 1856, while the field of ontology has a longer history, linked to strands of early modernist metaphysics from the 17th century. Overall aesthetics, epistemology and ontology emerge within the context of modern efforts to evolve clearly specified academic disciplines and fields of study. They shift the focus from beauty, knowledge and being per se to the capacity for these notions and phenomena to be conceived in a rigorously differentiated philosophical manner. They provide a means of highlighting the systematic study of particular orders of experience and understanding.

In this sense, to accept that there are distinctly determined fields of aesthetics, epistemology and ontology (as well as, of course, ethics, etc.) is to accept a certain partitioning of experience, feeling and thought that is associated with the modes of rationalisation of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment European thought. These categorical distinctions take all manner of tangible cultural forms, while most clearly shaping the nature and scope of specific fields of philosophical enquiry.

At one level, this work of determination has a positive aspect. It enables us to recognise something substantial. At another level, however, this positive aspect includes a crucial negative dimension. Aesthetics gains meaning because it is the study of beauty and NOT the study of knowledge, being or ethics. This negative definition, however crude and inadequate, nonetheless has a vital force. It informs how we conceive aesthetics as engaging an attitude of reflective distance from ordinary practical concerns. It is very often linked to heightened modes of experience in which life achieves a felt, integral meaning.

Our difficulty lies then in making sense of aesthetics without necessarily having recourse to the whole network of exclusions that lend the term its immediate and profoundly relational meaning. Ultimately I wish to argue that the concept of aesthetics is elusive and has very wide philosophical relevance, but it seems better not to immediately confuse matters by offering denials and cryptic hints. So let us retain, for now, our focus on aesthetics as the philosophy of beauty. Let us attempt to work through this apparently positive definition towards something less clearly defined but more critically productive.

Another question then emerges. Why this thorough concern with beauty? Why devote a whole branch of philosophy to clarifying the nature of beauty, rather than for instance ugliness, horror or humour? What is it that enables beauty to stand alongside truth and ethics as the central themes of the Western philosophical tradition? This question actually very quickly leads us away from beauty as such to more general problems. We begin to see that beauty is less the essential focus of aesthetics than an exemplary instance of a wider space of dilemma and imaginary resolution.

Within the Western philosophical heritage, beauty figures precisely as a space of reconciliation, in which the world of material things discovers a mysterious and vital alignment with the world of rational ideality and human freedom. Underlying the aesthetic then is the sense of a divided world. On the one hand we have the blindness and determinism of physical nature and on the other the abstract clarity of logical thought and free human ethical action. The role of beauty, within the classical Kantian conception of aesthetics, is to mediate between these two. Rather than regarding the world solely through the austere lens of logic and the moral imperative, beauty demonstrates, within the texture of things, a natural correlation between our sensible, rational and ethical selves. Beauty in this sense represents a space of natural symbolism and metaphor. It manifests within the particular the nature of the universal. So the beauty of natural phenomena, for instance, provides a metaphor for the order and symmetry of rational cognition and ethical law.

In these terms then, beauty is not really the key issue. The key issue is the underlying division and the necessity that it be reconciled. Beauty provides a means of mediating between two radically different aspects of being. Indeed, beauty is not alone in its capacity to do this. There is also, for example, the sublime, which through the presentation of the frightening and the infinite ends up providing an evocative mirror, according to Kant, of our own inner infinite capacities; in the same motion threatening and reassuring us. As well, there is the field of art, which in its suspension of practical instrumental goals, resistance to concepts and status as an ‘end in itself’, provides the active human context for the beautiful and the sublime. Art is important precisely because it represents a socially ground for the mediation of our higher and lower selves – between on the one hand ideality and moral vision and on the other materiality, sensation, tacit knowledge and imagination. So ultimately the role of aesthetics is less to describe the character and machinations of beauty, sublimity and art specifically than to conceive and discover effective forms of reconciliation wherever available.

A paradox of the aesthetic. The more clearly aesthetics comes to delineate the beautiful, the more elusive beauty becomes and the wider its implications. But it is not just beauty (or sublimity or art) that is affected. Aesthetics itself becomes more opaque the more clearly it is perceived, as what seemed to be concerned solely with the substantive identity of beauty, sublimity and art, reveals a much broader and radically indeterminate focus.

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Aesthetic Questions

  1. What is aesthetics? Is it a universal sphere of qualitative human experience or an historically specific field that is intimately tied to the self-understanding of modernity?
  2. How is the term employed? What does it mean in use?
  3. How does aesthetics engage with the problem of sense?
  4. What is the relationship between aesthetics and art? Are they necessarily and essentially linked? How do they overlap? How are they differentiated?
  5. Does aesthetics have any currency beyond its relationship to art?
  6. What are the features of aesthetics as a mode of practice?
  7. What is the value of aesthetic practice on its own and in its relationship to art?

Ranciere argues against those who would neatly distinguish between art and aesthetics that the two are actually (historically) inextricably linked (‘knotted’) and, more specifically, that contemporary art is profoundly affected by aesthetic concerns. Here the term ‘aesthetics’ refers less to a narrowly conceived space of taste (the traditional discrimination of the beautiful and the sublime) than to fundamental themes and dilemmas of art as a field of experience – as a space, for instance, of autonomy, transformation and freedom. In aside, however, it is worth noting that the notions of the beautiful and the sublime demand some care – they have wider implications. They are not reducible to markers of cultural refinement in the most brutal, socially inscribed sense, but also serve as potent symbols of freedom and reconciliation. If beauty and sublimity are associated with a narrow conception of aesthetics this is simply to indicate that their wider meaning and social implications are often disregarded. In any case, arguing strongly for the relevance and value of critical aesthetics, Ranciere describes the contemporary historical formation, in which art art and aesthetics are mutually supportive and interlinked, as the ‘aesthetic regime’ of art. He argues that within the context of several centuries of modernity the major currents of art are now conceived in terms of the paradoxes of the aesthetic.

Ranciere’s scheme provides a useful means of interpreting key tendencies within contemporary art. However, I would argue that although typically tightly coupled art and aesthetics also preserve some level of independent identity. Aesthetics, for instance, is not only focused on the nature of art but also denotes a wider field of philosophical enquiry, which is concerned broadly with the complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty of sense. Beyond this discursive identity, it also represents a form of engagement with things and the world. As a mode of experience, aesthetics is strongly historically determined and strongly linked to the cultural imaginary of art, but it also has general features that would seem to lend it wider human currency. While there are clearly dangers in envisaging anything like a universal conception of aesthetic experience, there is still a need to address aspects of currently inexplicable commonality between different cultural and historical ‘aesthetic’ frames.

In terms of art’s essential dependence on aesthetics, Ranciere’s point represents a very pertinent response towards those who would imagine a simple minded distinction between the materiality of art and the idealism of aesthetics or, in more Romantic terms, distinguish between a mysterious field of experiential truth and one that is more properly abstract and propositional, but still this need not imply, as Ranciere argues, that modes of artistic practice that fall outside the aesthetic regime are necessarily excluded from art. The field of art is varied and diverse. It is not reducible to the cutting edge trends of critical art, however important these are in shaping the cultural landscape and evaluative norms. So while linked in all manner of obvious and more subtle ways, art and aesthetics are not entirely coincident.

My interest is particularly in how the influence of the aesthetic affects art’s own sense of its active, productive nature. While art has always contained a reflective dimension and has always involved a responsive sensitivity to materials and the world, aesthetics, as a pointedly responsive space of affective, non-instrumental and qualitative engagement, emphasises the attitude of reserve within art. It pushes it further from the simplicity of techne and making. It works to suspend the productivity or art, while making this itself productive. At the same time, aesthetic practice – and the art that increasingly follows this model – cannot avoid its relation to consumption. If aesthetics suggests a critical relation to the wider instrumental world this is always with an abiding sense of discomfort and complicity.

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