Friday, December 16, 2005

how you weather division

I think I was probably a bit too abrupt with Bob Archambeau the other day – at least that “bullcrap” comment was the fruit of too many late-night “South Park” episodes, too little sleep, & too many cups, not of some refined Sumatra bean concoction, but of good old-fashioned Fol-zhay. Bob is absolutely right in reading Enlightenment disinterestedness as a “double-edged sword,” a stance enabling both an admirable even-handedness in political and ethical decisions (the judge who sets aside her own personal convictions in order to ruled equitably on a case) and a set of divided social roles that often manifest very different ethical priorities (how we behave with our friends, with our family, at our jobs) in the same person.

The notion of a disinterested aesthetic sense, one capable of “appreciating” works of art whose ideological content & effect one might find otherwise repellant, is indeed part & parcel of this disinterestedness, but it was far from clear to me, as I read Bob’s learned post, that the moment of the theorization of a disinterested aesthetics is somehow the “tipping point” or the foundational moment of a more generalized disinterest. (There's certainly a historically specifiable shift, which we can roughly name “Kant,” and one of whose indices is the reading of Milton: compare Coleridge’s Milton – which Bob quotes – a disinterested aesthete, aware of the ideological “wrongness” of the cathedral, yet still convinced of its aesthetic value, to Samuel Johnson’s: in Lives of the Poets, Milton runs a very close second to Homer as the greatest “Epick” poet – he’s not the best, but perhaps only because he’s not the first – but he does so despite his “surly Republicanism,” the traces of which in his poetry are not some ideological “content” that the disinterested reader can discount, but real live blemishes that are outweighed by the beauties & strengths elsewhere evident.) Happily, however, the interest of Bob’s ruminations – & how many other contemporary poets have actually gotten around to reading Shaftesbury? (my copy of Characteristicks glares mournfully down at me…) – doesn’t really depend on this causal relationship between aesthetic disinterest & the split self of the post-Enlightenment west.

But… but nonetheless… Those of us invested in talking about cultural artifacts, and especially those of us interested in the sorts of pleasure generated by artifacts traditionally categorized as “aesthetic” (or generated by regarding artifacts of whatever sort thru an aesthetic lens), are likely to be pretty interested in the origins of the category of the aesthetic & its relationship to modern subjectivity, especially at that foundational moment three centuries back. Terry Eagleton makes a pretty provocative case in his Ideology of the Aesthetic, where he argues that the emergence of an autotelic aesthetic realm is contemporary with, & deeply linked to, the emergence of the bourgeois subject & the “public sphere.” And that new bourgeois subject and public sphere, a grouping of autonomous individuals maintained not by overt coercion but by ideals of harmony & self-realization, is directly underwritten by the new ideology of the aesthetic: “What is at stake here is nothing less than the production of an entirely new kind of human subject – one which, like the work of art itself, discovers the law in the depths of its own free identity, rather than in some oppressive external power.” (19)
If the aesthetic comes in the eighteenth century to assume the significance it does, it is because the word is shorthand for a whole project of hegemony, the massive introjection of abstract reason by the life of the senses. What matters is not in the first place art, but this project of refashioning the human subject from the inside, informing its subtlest affections and bodily responses with this law which is not a law. It could then be as inconceivable for the subject to violate the injunctions of power as it would be to find a putrid odor enchanting. The understanding knows well enough that we live in conformity to impersonal laws; but in the aesthetic it is as though we can forget about all that – as though it is we who freely fashion the laws to which we subject ourselves. (42-3)
That’s Eagleton, I’m afraid, at his most totalizing. I’m still working my way thru the book – the 2nd chapter, on Shaftesbury, Hume, & Burke, & the 3rd on Kant are quite dazzling – but I’m afraid that there’s no real happy ending in sight, only a deeper and deeper realization of how profoundly our aesthetic pleasures – guilty or otherwise – are entangled in our social being, which is divided, split, bourgeoisified, sliced ‘n’ diced to the core.

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