Research Statement

I am about to leave for Norway, where I will be one of the Keynote Speakers at next week’s session of the Nordic Summer University. In preparation, I answered questions in an email interview; I will reproduce part of it here, because it is the closest I have come to enunciating my own research agenda (or at least, part of it).

Question: In Without Criteria you argue for a ‘critical aestheticism’. Along with Whitehead – and Deleuze – you argue for the relevance of the beautiful rather than the sublime (and Kant’s “Analytic of the Beautiful” in the Third Critique). Can you say a little about this ‘critical aestheticism’ and perhaps your forthcoming book The Age of Aesthetics?


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.

My book in progress, The Age of Aesthetics, reads science fiction in the light of our recent history of commodification, privatization, capital accumulation, and financialization, in order to think through the conjunction of aesthetics and political economy. On the one hand, 21st century marketing and commodity production seem increasingly to be concerned with questions of “aesthetics.” This is so, both in the manner of Fredric Jameson’s suggestion that “everything in our social life — from economic value and state power to practices and to the very structure of the psyche itself — can be said to have become ‘cultural’ in some original and yet untheorized sense”, and in the way that the aesthetic attributes of our existence have themselves become commodified and marketed, so that today we are incited to purchase, not just tangible commodity objects, but also such things as events, experiences, moods, memories, hopes, and desires. However, at the same time that the “aesthetic” is central to commodification and marketing, and thereby to the extraction of surplus value and the accumulation of capital, it also stands in some sense as the limit of all these processes, to the extent that the aesthetic, in its singularity, resists subsumption into the larger categories that are required for commodification and monetary exchange. Indeed, there is a formal parallelism between Kant’s account of the beautiful, with its tension between singularity and universal communicability, and Marx’s understanding of the commodity, with its singular nature in contradiction with its translation into money as “universal equivalent.”

Everything I have said here is, admittedly, controversial. These are not definitive statements of position, but initial hypotheses for my further, ongoing research.

13 Responses to “Research Statement”

  1. Ben says:

    I think that the aesthetics and capital connection is interesting especially given alternate markets in sci-fi and on the production levels – sci fi being too expensive to maintain because of the cost of world building in terms of sets and the like.
    That is there seems to tension between the enormity of world building and the non-capitalism or restricted capitalism both from outside of the show and within it.

  2. jane says:

    Hey, this is really useful to me. Predictably, thus, a quibble.

    I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard “political economy” as such referred to as “economism”; perhaps I am in the wrong Marxist circles. I tend to understand “economism,” in intra-Marxian debate, as a belief in the absolute determinations of the economic mechanism without reference to the political dimension — to cite the limit example, the idea that capitalism will simply overcome itself because if its internal contradictions. In general, as best I can discern, it’s Marxists who insist on political economy, and its critique; those who dismiss political economy a la Alain are, propter hoc, simply not Marxists.

    [Though, as a last pendant, I don't at all dismiss the significance of a vibrant non-Marxist left, with Badiou clearly the leading figure just now]

  3. Jane, largely agreed. It’s just that, for instance, in the Communism conference I went to in London last March, most of the speakers (with the exception of Hardt & Negri, and to some extent Zizek) made clear that they wanted to have nothing to do with political economy. And I have been to too many talks where self-described Marxists issue mea culpas about how they haven’t sufficiently registered non-economic issues, etc. I largely agree with Jameson that Marxism should be thought of as a theory about economics rather than about politics. So my embrace of “economism,” given the history of what it has meant in Marxist polemics, is admittedly hyperbolic.

  4. jane says:

    Steven, all fair enough. I will simply take this opportunity to reiterate that no matter what a conference might be called, the set (in language Badiou will understand) of Marxists not concerned with the critique of political economy is empty. Conclusions about what constitutes Marxism can’t be drawn from such examples. Why such people might want to be called Marxists is its own interesting question.

  5. kirby olson says:

    It would be wonderful if you could yodel this topic from the top of a fjord so that the real trolls (Norwegian trolls) could listen in and think about organizin’.

  6. pebird says:

    “The problem of the beautiful is how to universalize — or even, how to communicate — something that stubbornly refuses all categorization, all universalization.”

    Is this a problem of the beautiful or an attribute of the universal category? Universals are infinite by self-reflexive definition (in that they cannot be defined). They can only be described. Beauty, freedom, truth, etc.

    Hence the focus on the rupture – the sublime – where a moment of the infinite is instantiated. But the description of beauty – a endless task – is what allows the infinite to be instantiated. Without work, without the repetition of meaningful description, the ruptures could never occur.

    Your view that the ethical turn is a negative vs. the positive aesthetic is spot on – without a glimpse of the potential future the negative has no affective/effective power. Very relevant for today’s world – and the basis of a critique of the “what’s left” of the last 25 years.

  7. Kirby Olson says:

    I wonder how your ideas would filter through a book like Gaddis’ A Frolic of His Own, esp. the chapters regarding Richard Serra’s colossal sculptures on the Federal Plaza in NYC (since removed). You pointed me to that book years ago, I think. Serra’s work is at once singular, and yet plural enough to talk about in many of its site-specific manifestations. Gaddis studied philosophy, and thus would be a fairly interesting interlocutor. Serra, too.

    I think that as soon as you establish an ideal, you posit everything outside that ideal as a negative.

    Ethics does ultimately pose laws (Gaddis focuses on these, but in slightly ridiculous ways!), and yet, another interesting text to pose against all these notions is Eleanor Roosevelt’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    Perhaps also to pose them against FDR’s four freedoms.

    Does Deleuze want to waive any and every kind of common human decency with his notion of singularity?

    It’s especially to think about aesthetics insofar as it does impact criminality, or does impose a burden on the secretariat in the Federal Plaza who were disturbed by the monumentality of Serra’s work:

    Another text it would be fun to have you filter through would be Charles Willeford’s Burnt Orange Heresy, another text you signaled me toward years and years ago — in which a criminal art journalist manufactures a singular work out of a Duchampian body of non-existent work. Again all the various forces at work in your thought would have a vivid text through which to filter and in which to find themselves usefully opposed.

    I’m especially interested in the spaces in which the aesthetic and the ethical (or unethical, or vaguely illegal), co-reside, because then they place pressure on your separation of the two, and force you to clarify these notions somewhat?

    Just a coupla ideas. (Kind of like hoping an artist will take on a subject matter, and leaving a suggestion in the guest book. This rarely happens, but the artists do actually do this from time to time just to see what happens!)

  8. Shaunnessy says:

    Hiya Steve, longtime blog lurker and fanboy. I’m intrigued by the move to aesthetics, but often wonder if the Freudian “uncanny” isn’t an inversion (perversion?) of the Kantian “sublime”… but I truck a bit more in Lacanian fantasy and admittedly tend to think of structure over stylistics. I’m just wondering if you’ve got a take on these strangely similar yet different registers for subjectivites and practices ;)

  9. Y says:

    More generally, it should be said that science-fiction deals with social change. That’s why it is also (and maybe above all) political. Science-fiction should not only be regarded as a thinking tool, but it could also help to build some sort of collective reflexivity and responsibility towards the future.
    Here are some complementary thoughts but, unfortunately, they are for the most part in French :

  10. Erik says:

    I disagree with beauty being prominently analytic, take into account force-feeding of women in africa, it is more of an interiority resorting to cultural solipolism, that has to protract its sedimentary image off relative participants. In the work of memory, its remnants outlast the ongoing change of beauty, especially when put in a reciprocal position. It is then a manifestation of power, acceptance and reappropration that this interplay of beauty-critiquers share. Beauty is not a singularity, and is daily life a lineage of predessesory sentiments before the encounter of a high-beauty event. Obviously the pull from singularity to plurality to categorization exists, but this system is not dependent on itself. It is dependent on the monism that is mind, its entire mechanality, and the derived conscious state. I would take the categorizations of beauty as a special kind of apriori-synthetic along with the regime of mathematics, since symmetry, fractal-intensity is all part of that system.

  11. Erik says:

    this is multi-level cultural solipolism, we are operating on the platform of matter, organism, animal, mammal, homosapian, x family geneology, friends, community, geological exposition, state, nation, continent, global, solar, galaxial, sectoral, universal, etc. the massive signals are bouncing off each other.

  12. kirbyolson2 says:

    Central Park was originally conceived as a work of art, and is roughly in the shape of a dollar bill.

    Myanmar looks nothing like a dollar bill, but is a “beautiful mess” in the way that De Quincey said in the fine art of Murder that a doctor could see an ulcer as BEAUTIFUL, or as a beautiful EXAMPLE of an ulcer.

    Myanmar might be such a BEAUTIFUL EXAMPLE of an ulcer — as might Zimbabwe, or N. Korea.

    But are they so singular?

    Is Central Park so singular that it doesn’t have its corollary in Prospect Park?

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