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.