Thursday, July 16, 2009

Critical Aestheticism

Steve Shaviro articulates (part of) his argument for 'critical aestheticism' and the relevance of the beauty rather than the sublime:

Most aesthetics of the past century has been focused on the sublime, and has disparaged the beautiful. This is because the sublime involves a moment of rupture or disproportion, whereas the beautiful seems to involve accommodation, comfort, and proportion. Thus, for instance, Roland Barthes is clearly on the side of jouissance (which is sublime) as opposed to mere plaisir (which corresponds to the beautiful).

I argue, however, that Kant’s analytic of the beautiful remains important, because it is really a nascent version of what Deleuze calls singularity. A judgment of beauty is non-cognitive and non-conceptual; beauty is that which cannot be subject to rules, or derived from rules. It is always a singularity or an exception. It cannot be reduced to norms. The problem of the beautiful is how to universalize — or even, how to communicate — something that stubbornly refuses all categorization, all universalization. The beautiful is something that, on the one hand, I feel impelled to affirm, and to communicate, but that, on the other hand, resists all the categories and norms that are presupposed by the pragmatics of communication and the norms of conceptualization.

I think of critical aestheticism, therefore, as a practice of affirmation that resists norms and categories. I think that critical aestheticism can be contrasted with, and perhaps even opposed to, the “ethical turn” in recent critical theory. “Postmodern” ethical thought, from Levinas to Judith Butler, produces a subjectivity that is infinitely responsible, but that cannot really do anything that would be commensurate with the weight of this responsibility. To think “ethically” in this manner is to misrecognize, for instance, the forces, processes, or structures of Capital that create human misery without this misery being anyone’s “responsibility” in particular. Aesthetics does not lead to an alleviation of this misery either; but I think that an aesthetic appreciation of potentialities and singularities is better than an ethical recognition of infinite responsibility, when it comes to responding to the powerful and impersonal forces that oppress us.

The best statement of these matters seems to me to be Mallarmé’s wonderful maxim: “Tout se résume dans l’Esthétique et l’Economie politique” (Everything comes down to Aesthetics and Political Economy). In other words, I favor aesthetics as over against ethics; and I favor political economy (or what in Marxist circles is often disparaged as “economism”) as over against the privileging of the political in such recent thinkers as Badiou and Zizek.

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