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Review of Two New Anthologies on Continental Aesthetics
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Reviewed by John Carvalho

Richard Kearney, David Rassmussen, eds, Continental Aesthetics, Romanticism to Postmodernism (Blackwell, 2001)
Clive Caveaux, ed., The Continental Aesthetics Reader (Routledge, 2000)

“Continental aesthetics” is an unexpected turn of phrase. By its association with “Continental philosophy,” we might expect it to name a sectarian interest known, until recently, for its hostility toward anything called “aesthetics.” But in the past two years, British based publishers at Blackwell and Routledge have issued volumes including that phrase in titles that collect essays largely, but not exclusively, translated from their original French and German languages. Ironically, the continent that is the target audience for these volumes is not the one separated by a channel from the British isles but North America, where Continental philosophy, and the need for a volume of essays on Continental aesthetics, lives.

The term “aesthetics” came to ill-repute in Continental philosophy from its association with sense perception and the supposed tyranny of the subject of those perceptions in its relation to the object of knowledge. From a position already compromised by its separation from it, all it was supposed a subject could do was impose its prejudices on the object – the prejudice of its particular position, its particular history, its particular interests, its particular perceptions – thereby distorting the truth of the object “as such,” the truth of the object apart from the subject experiencing it and whatever may be particular about it. The experience of the work of art was thought to be exemplary of the way the meaning and truth of experience necessarily exceeds what is sensible or aesthetic about it. Hermeneutics interprets experience in the light of these unavoidable prejudices. Comparative Literature and Literary or Cultural Theory generally study the impact of these prejudices on the work of art itself or on culture understood as art. But the main stream of Continental philosophy has focused on the “work” of art, that is, on what work “art” literally does in the artwork. And on this view what art does is reveal the truth of Being. Further, since revealing the truth of Being is thought to be philosophy’s principal task, the work of art is paradigmatic for philosophy, and philosophy is potentially a work of art. So while they have repudiated the term, we should not be surprised to find the writers collected in these volumes addressing themes we ordinarily associate with aesthetics: judgment, representation, tragedy, poetics, interpretation, evaluation, the imagination, money, the sublime and the avant-garde.

Aesthetics qualify as “continental,” then, not just because they are written in a European language other than English but only just in case they have some investment in the critique of subjectivism just summarized and in assigning art a special function in the larger cultural milieu. Martin Heidegger is the Continental philosopher who championed this view, and his essay, “On the Origin of the Work of Art,” is included in both volumes. Both volumes also include passages from Kant's Critique of Judgement and Hegel's Aesthetics, also, importantly influential for this way of thinking philosophically about art. But these are the only overlaps excepting Sartre's “Qu'est-ce que l'ecriture?” which appears as “What Is Literature?” in the Blackwell anthology and, in an alternate translation, as “What is Writing?” in the Routledge reader. And this is remarkable given the 65 total essays collected in the Blackwell and Routledge volumes combined.

For Continental Aesthetics, Romanticism to Postmodernism: An Anthology (Blackwell 2001), Richard Kearney and David Rassmussen collect thirty texts and divide them into sections suggested by the title, “Romanticism,” “Modernism,” and “Postmodernism.” There is no general introduction to the volume, only a short “Preface” that explains how Wittgenstein, Coleridge, Bakhtin, and Freud fit into the editors' “inclusive a sense as possible” of “continental.” There is a short “Introduction” for each of the sections that gives a rationale for including each selection in that section. Notes, from the edition cited, are printed at the end of each selection, out of the way but accessible enough to significantly enhance the experience of the curious reader. Questions could be raised about the organizing principle of the volume, questions could be raised about the organization of almost any volume that dared to take on this much territory. It is important to notice that the selections and their arrangement tell a story that is characteristically “continental.” It is assumed throughout that there is a truth forever eluding us and that those who have thought about this truth are related to one another in meaningful continuum. And that in fact, makes this an especially good collection, because it retains the flavor each text has in the circles where it is most widely read. Questions could also be raised about the translations for Kant, Nietzsche and Adorno. But these choices very likely reflect the availability of rights for the “standard” editions. It is rather remarkable that in every other case, the text is drawn from a source familiar to those who read these texts in (American) English translation.

Under “Romanticism,” the editors collect texts by Kant, Schiller, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Schelling, Coleridge, and Nietzsche guided by the claim that beginning with Kant, “the aesthetic was an autonomous form liberated from the scrutiny of science and the principles of morality” (3). The selections from the Critique of Judgment (§§ 1-23, 28, and 39-50) are generous, complemented by a larger selection from Schopenhauer (over fifty double-column pages excerpted from §§ 30-52 of The World as Will and Representation). But the sense of Romanticism, here, is guided by the selection from Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy that elevates philosophy to aesthetics, defending Sophocles against Socrates, making tragedy the preferred form of philosophical reflection on art and culture. And the volume is certainly colored by the scope of the treatment of Romanticism in this section.

Under “Modernism,” Kearney and Rasmussen include writings by Benjamin, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Freud, Lukács, Marcuse, Adorno, Bakhtin, Croce, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Habermas, Gadamer, and Ricoeur guided, they say, by Benjamin's attention to the mechanical reproducibility of art, the loss of art's uniqueness, its aura, and a nostalgia for the rituals it desperately wants to leave behind. But Heidegger's “On the Origin of the Work of Art,” unabridged here, is famously more trenchant about modernity's shortcomings. Modernity, Heidegger thought, separates us from the experience of art revealing itself as truth. And this is the prevailing sentiment of this section. Essays by Freud, Lukács, Bakhtin, and Croce can be traced back Benjamin's more nuanced view. But the others are included by some association with Heidegger's thought. Even Wittgenstein's “Lectures on Aesthetics” is included here to argue for the irreducibility of art to the standards and norms of causal explanation.

Under “Postmodernism,” the shortest section of this anthology, there are the essays by Lyotard, Barthes, Foucault, Cixous, Eco, Baudrillard, Derrida, Blanchot, and Kristeva loosely tethered to Lyotard’s answer to the question “What is Postmodernism?” The writers represented here are generally more comfortable with the lost aura, more creative when it comes to the “problem” of reproducibility, and better prepared to replace the totalizing narratives of romanticism with what Deleuze and Guattari, conspicuously absent from this section, would call “minor” narratives, what Kearney and Rassmussen describe as a “bricolage of stories and images celebrating difference, plurality, and paradox” (361). Barthes’ much misunderstood “Death of the Author” is included to “explode the old notions of knowledge and truth, replacing them with the excesses of textual play and pleasure” (361). And Derrida’s “Economimesis” is included for its deconstruction of key Kantian categories, like genius, judgment, taste, imagination, and imitation, and to point the volume back to Romanticism, bringing it full circle. The remaining essays, with the exception of Baudrillard and Eco, address subjects in literature, writing, and language.

Almost universally, the selections are the best known texts from the writers most widely read by the audience the anthology is addressing, and together they represent a prominent view of what is thought to be “Continental” about aesthetics. On this view, Continental aesthetics is a more or less continuous line sometimes more finely parsed by the relative mindfulness or forgetfulness of Being in a thinker who finds a place on its arc. Kearney and Rasmussen do not drive this point home because of their “distaste for over-hasty divisions into rival theoretical camps” (163). The result is an entirely tasteful and helpful introduction to a body of work that makes important contributions to our understanding of art, aesthetics, and Continental philosophy.

The Continental Aesthetics Reader (Routledge 2000), edited by Clive Caveaux, represents a view of continental aesthetics that is more diverse than continuous, thirty-five essays in a series of major and minor narratives that together make another, different introduction to an important body of work. The divisions, here, are more thematic: “Nineteenth Century German Aesthetics,” devoted exclusively to Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche; “Phenomenology and Hermeneutics,” the largest section, including texts by Heidegger, Sartre, Levinas, Dufrenne, Bachelard, Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer, and Vattimo; “Marxism and Critical Theory,” where we find texts by Marx, Lukács, Adorno, Marcuse, Habermas, and Jameson; “Modernism,” pared down to Simmel, Benjamin, Blanchot, and Bloch; “Poststructuralism and Postmodernism,” another large section, with texts by Bataille, Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, de Man, Baudrillard, Lyotard, and Deleuze and Guattari; and “Psychoanalysis and Feminism,” including writings by Freud, Lacan, Kristeva, Irigaray, and Cixous.

With these divisions, Cazeaux represents Continental aesthetics and, again, Continental philosophy in general as deriving from a number of different sources. The difference in Cazeaux’s approach is signaled in the selection of “On Truth and Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense,” Nietzsche celebration of deception, to close the opening section, “Nineteenth Century German Aesthetics.” It marks an emphasis throughout the volume on the variety and value of the stories we tell ourselves to gratify our intellect and implies that these stories are as close as we get to philosophy or the truth. The selection from the Critique of Judgment is dangerously scant (§§ 32-8, 44-6, 49, and 56-7); it overlaps only four paragraphs of the selection in the Blackwell anthology. The selection from Hegel’s Aesthetics is broader (extracts from §§ 1, 2, 5, and 8), overlapping just one paragraph of the Blackwell selection. Cazeaux suggests, in the Introduction to this section, the first of several helpful surveys of the themes and the figures represented in each section, that the guiding thought for this section is Baumgarten’s idea that aesthetic experience allows us to perceive as a unified whole what rational judgment divides into subjects and predicates. This theme recurs throughout the Routledge reader.

Heidegger’s “On the Origin of the Work of Art” sets the pace for the section “Phenomenology and Hermeneutics.” The essay, slightly abridged here, establishes the ontology of art as a prescient insight into reality, a view shared by Sartre and Levinas, and the phenomenology of the work of art as opening up a world, a view developed by Dufrenne. Bachelard’s “The Dialectics of Inside and Outside” explores these worlds in a phenomenology of space. The other important essay in this section, Merleau-Ponty’s “The Intertwining: The Chiasm,” challenges the immediacy of general, and the experience of the work of art in particular, describing experience instead as a thickness and tension he calls ’the flesh.” The virtue of this French philosophy of the flesh is, as Cazeaux notes, that it concretizes the phenomenology otherwise abstracted in Husserl and Heidegger, it shows “how the structures of experience can be derived from the ’feel’ of lived experience” (74).

Excerpts from Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Simmel’s The Philosophy of Money, Bataille’s Erotism, and Freud’s “The Unconscious” serve similarly to frame the discussions of “Critical Theory,” “Modernism,” “Poststructuralism and Postmodernism,” “Psychoanalysis and Feminism” that follow. With Marx, it is the suggestion that the elimination of private property will lead to an emancipation of the human senses that propels the critical theories of the Frankfurt School. With Simmel, it is the characterization of modernism as internationalist and driven by the abstraction of money that serves as a platform for Benjamin, Blanchot, and Bloch. With Bataille, the concept of transgression and the invitation to transgression implied in the concepts of sanctity and eroticism develops the picture of poststructuralism and postmodernism drawn by reflections on the visual and literary arts. Cazeaux’s Introduction to this section makes good, clear sense of the differences between structuralism, poststructuralism, postmodernism, and deconstruction.

The last section is the most ambitious. It points the volume back to Kant with Freud’s reservations about representations of the unconscious drawn from the phenomena available to consciousness and forward to the feminism of Kristeva, Irigaray, and Cixous with Lacan’s psychoanalysis of the subject destined to negotiate her desires through the symbolic (patriarchal) order of language. Freud’s non-egological “The Unconscious” makes a good introduction for Lacan’s account of vision and desire in “Of the Gaze as objet petit a.” And the essay by Irigaray, “The Invisible of the Flesh: a Reading of Merleau-Ponty’s ’The Intertwining – The Chiasm,’” brings together themes that reach back to Baumgarten’s idea about the unity of aesthetic experience.

The Routledge reader is, in general, the more ambitious volume. It presses a view of Continental aesthetics and Continental philosophy against the more dominant picture presented by the Blackwell anthology. For a course devoted exclusively to Continental aesthetics, you would ideally order both volumes. Together they collect 65 essays from 44 different authors with very little overlap. For part of a course devoted to Continental aesthetics, the Kearney and Rasmussen edition provides the texts that give a clear picture of what is the mainstream of Continental philosophy. The Cazeaux edition provides a number of different entries into a territory that is more meticulously mapped. Both have their virtues. Both are welcome additions to the literature available on this subject.


2002 © John Carvalho

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