The ends of aesthetics

In a spirit of anti-Franzen, here are a couple of things I learned about from Facebook and Twitter this weekend, while attending swimming lessons (not my own). Picked up from Paul Harrison on Facebook, a link to a new online journal Singularum, focussing on the relationship between aesthetics and pedagogy (teaching as a theatre of cruelty, perhaps?). 

And from Twitter, here is a podcast with Spivak talking about a new book/collection, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization – worrying about whether the tools of an aesthetic education (i.e. literary reading) are still useful in relation to challenges of speed, distance, digitalization, and other ‘globalizing’ things.

Never having had a proper aesthetic education, nor having ever really aspired to be a medium for one, as I grow old I find it increasingly peculiar just how much Theory is still attached to faintly reactionary models of what the task of education should be.

Tony Bennett on Rancière’s authority

Just came across a rather good essay on Guided Freedom by Tony Bennett, picking apart  the authority ‘tricks’ which underwrite Rancière’s elevation of a good-old fashioned model of Kant’s aesthetic judgement into an account of political equality and freedom. Particularly welcome is its bringing into view “the kind of authority Rancière deploys against that of the sociologist and the empirical disciplines more generally”.

My favourite line: “… Rancière lives in a metaphysical glasshouse that is of a distinctively Christian construction …”. Which is not quite as dismissive as it might sound, or not in the direction you might think at least – amongst other things, Bennett’s piece is a nice reminder of how this strand of theory manages to re-centre a resolutely parochial style of thinking about politics, culture and critique into a universal ideal, and manages to disavow its own ‘conditions of possibility’ in so doing.

Rancière at criticism

Via Continental Philosophy, here is an audio of Jacques Rancière, talking about the relationship of critical theory and contemorary social movements. It’s only 20 minutes long, but it’s a concise little summary of his position, mainly being rude about what he sees as the sellinof out of the emancipatory promise by current critical theorists, though its unclear sometimes exactly who he has in mind. There is a swipe at the ontological flights of fancy of Sloterdijk, and a slightly more sustained reference to Boltanski and Chiapello’s account of the spirits of capitalism.

His basic argument is that various facets of classical critical theory are now deployed in an inverted way, so that the main objects of criticism in analyses of consumerism or commodity culture are now the subjects of these processes, ordinary people themselves. The main object of critique, Rancière suggests, has become the ignorance and culpability of ordinary people.

This rings true for me, I think it is a feature of a great deal of contemporary theory, forced to find some ‘political’ purchase for its culturalist analyses, to end up focussing on how people have been ‘got at’ in one way or another, and to lament their susceptibility (this is also a feature of many ‘moralised’ fields of social science, on climate change and environmental issues, on behaviour change, on global poverty).

Rancière proposes an alternative, quite old fashioned model of critique, derived from Kant – critique as the reflection on and elaboration of the conditions of possibility of emancipatory action. That’s much the same concept of critique you find in ‘third generation’ big-C, big-T Critical Theorists like Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth.

Rancière’s version of this Kantian model of critique is notable of course because of the emphasis he places on the principle of equality of intelligence or competence, specifically of aesthetic judgement. This is the principle contravened by scholastic disdain for ordinary consumer entertainments and commodity cultures.

Rancière’s point against Boltanski and Chiapello seems, however, to replay an older division between a more sociological take on aesthetic discourse, that emphasises aesthetics as a discourse of distinction and differentiation, and a more populist affirmation of the universality of aesthetic competence (in Anglo cultural studies, see Paul Willis or Tony Bennett might stand for different positions on this). Rancière implies that the identification of two styles of critique of capitalism, a social and an aesthetic one, by Boltanski and Chiapello replays a bourgeois disdain for the aesthetic competencies of working people. I’m not sure this is convincing. The sociological analysis of the differentiating deployment of aesthetic values is normally animated by exactly the sort of universalist, egalitarian commitment that Rancière affirms – it’s perhaps less prone to the philosophical presumptions that his egalitarian account of aesthetics reproduces.