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 MallarmÃ©’s wonderful maxim: “Tout se rÃ©sume dans l’EsthÃ©tique 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.