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Review of A Return to Aesthetics: Autonomy, Indifference, and Postmodernism
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Jonathan Loesberg, A Return to Aesthetics: Autonomy, Indifference, and Postmodernism (Stanford University Press, 2005)

Reviewed by Casey Haskins

The “return to aesthetics” at the center of this book’s argument is not quite, as the title might suggest, a plea for a return to humanist culture values, but neither is it a boilerplate postmodernist rejection of all traditional theories of art and beauty. Rather, Jonathan Loesberg – author of earlier books on nineteenth century and postmodernist-era critical theories – aims to bring out a hitherto unappreciated way in which postmodern-era cultural critiques turn out to be indebted to traditional aesthetic thought. Much recent “post-aesthetic” cultural theory, he suggests, exhibits an interpretive and explanatory stance that is strikingly similar, in its deeper structure, to one running throughout the aesthetic theories of Kant and his German Idealist successors. This is because certain core themes of Enlightenment aesthetics – the concepts of autonomous form, disinterest, and embodiment – are best understood not as extensions of the more rationalistic and epistemically foundationalist tendencies of Enlightenment philosophy in the way assumed by most histories of aesthetics, but rather as correctives to those tendencies. These core themes, rather, arose out of a need to articulate an interpretive stance that modern human beings can adopt towards a world increasingly felt by many, as of the eighteenth century, to lack traditional forms of purpose and order. And since they were from the beginning meant to stand apart from the mainstream epistemological discussion of this period, Loesberg argues, “they become useable by postmodern critics of Enlightenment reason and justice in their own attempt to show those concepts as contingent rather than universal.”

Loesberg offers as a further key to this connection the fact that the entrenchment of our folk-conception of the aesthetic as rooted in a certain kind of pleasurable experience has historically been in competition with another more speculative style of theorizing about the aesthetic which makes its first major appearance in Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Central to this tradition is the idea that the beautiful and sublime symbolize something beyond themselves which is of fundamental significance for how we understand the world – something beyond the scope of what modern philosophy tends to regard as knowledge. Familiar examples of this idea include Kant’s doctrine of beauty as a symbol of morality, Schopenhauer’s view of art as expressive of the dynamics of the Will, and Hegel’s view of art, in various stages, as a mode of the self-particularization of Spirit. If these otherwise different permutations of the Idealist legacy depart increasingly from the programmatic ambitions of Kant’s critical philosophy, they share, Loesberg believes, a common origin in eighteenth century thought. It lies in the fact that much aesthetic theorizing of this period, including and especially Kant’s project, was entwined within the broader project of natural theology, or, more minimally, the project of interpreting nature as embodying a moral order which lies beyond the scope of scientific knowledge. Eighteenth-century aesthetics, one might say, was linked from its earliest stages not only to the re-enchanting dynamics of romanticism but also to the skepticism of the Counter-Enlightenment. It is within this kind of context, Loesberg suggests, that we need to understand the “purposiveness without purpose” which Kant famously attributes to the objects of aesthetic judgment. And if this theme’s reinterpretations became a leitmotif of modern aesthetics, it also retains a peculiar appeal for postmodern-era theorists who may reject traditional philosophies of art and the aesthetic as an autonomous sphere but who claim for their own practice a kind of reflective freedom – and hence autonomy – with which not even the most unsentimental scientific or philosophical arguments can interfere.

Loesberg characterizes his main objective as the analytical one of showing that it is really this kind of interpretive stance that aesthetic reflection is all about. But the bulk of the book’s argument in fact presents a loosely structured genealogy of aesthetic rereading and misreading which runs from the Enlightenment to postmodernism, with Nietzsche marking a fateful transition from the former to the latter. Chapter One (“Aesthetics and the Argument from Design”) begins with an account of how early nineteenth century organicist theories of artworks – epitomized in Coleridge – took a fateful turn away from the original Kantian emphasis on aesthetic judgment itself as a mode of apprehension in which we interpret an object as possessing Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck. They moved away for similar reasons from the idea of the autonomy of aesthetic form, construing such autonomy not, as per Kant’s original intentions, as an aspect (like disinterestedness) of the operations of the faculties of imagination and judgment, but as a property of beautiful objects themselves. And in doing this, such theories of art lost sight – as would much later Kant scholarship – of how Kant’s theory of the aesthetic functioning of the mind was bound up with his unprecedentedly nuanced response to the eighteenth century problem of how to preserve something like teleological thought in a culture increasingly dominated by scientism. That it was somehow so bound up is undeniable, although Loesberg goes further to suggest at one point, without further specifics, that the themes of autonomy, indifference, and embodiment were actually meant to stand apart from the rest of Enlightenment philosophy. Exegetically minded historians of ideas will probably raise eyebrows at the looseness of argument here, which is not to say that there isn’t also a place within the history of ideas for more self-avowedly interpretive exercises. To that extent, students of eighteenth century aesthetics will find this chapter suggestive and provocative. (Much of it is on solid historiographical ground, as in the case of Loesberg’s detailed discussion of how Kant’s theory of teleological judgment emerged within an environment of eighteenth century debate about the limits of natural theology which was framed, at the beginning and end of the century respectively, by Ralph Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe and William Paley’s Natural Theology.)

This brings us to chapter two’s argument that nineteenth century aesthetics was increasingly fraught by a tension between two opposed views of its subject matter. One, holding that aesthetics is about a certain kind of pleasurable experience, is epitomized in the stance Loesberg calls “experiential formalism.” This stance emphasizes a causal linkage between aesthetic pleasure and the formal organization of either objects or perceptual manifolds (as in Kant), or both. The other view, in contrast, holds that “symbolic embodiment better explains the value of art than notions of special kinds of aesthetic pleasure,” and is more concerned with what aesthetic experience points or refers to than with the experience itself. Artworks, from this perspective, are valuable in the end not because of what they make us feel so much as because of what, directly or indirectly, they mean: they embody meanings. In mapping the general structure of this view onto the arguments of Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel, and Nietzsche, Loesberg draws on Jean-Marie Schaeffer’s Art of the Modern Age: Philosophy of Art from Kant to Heidegger. This opposition is then somehow mediated (Loesberg is not too clear on how this mediation works) by the further theme of aesthetic disinterest or, as he prefers to call it, “indifference,” whose original inspiration lies in eighteenth century accounts, such as those of Shaftesbury and Kant, of a practically disengaged aesthetic attitude. (Explaining his shift of terminology, Loesberg cites Kant’s definition of disinterest as a reflective attitude that is “indifferent to the existence of the object”). In Loesberg’s reconstruction, indifference mutates beyond the eighteenth century accounts into a more general reflective attitude which eschews attempts to ground its findings in one or another kind of epistemic foundational structure. Indifference in this sense treats the world itself as a large object of interpretation. Doing this involves abstracting from the specific ways in which the world appears to us (including what we might in other contexts call its aesthetic features) in order to articulate further structures which can then be pictured either as lying beyond appearance or, in a more Kantian vein, as reflecting the internal dynamics of rational subjectivity itself. An aesthetic mode of apprehending the world, in this larger sense, is at once indifferent to the empirical existence of objects in the world and also autonomous with respect to other modes of apprehension (like science) for which attention to such existence is crucial.

The conception of art as having more to do, in the end, with symbolic embodiment than with traditionally defined aesthetic experience, Loesberg notes, is also supported by various developments in the twentieth century artworld. Cases in point include works like Duchamp’s Fountain and Warhol’s Brillo Box, which prodded philosophers to recognize that the nagging problem of whether a general and informative definition of art is possible will never be solved by traditional accounts of an artwork’s exhibition of “aesthetic properties” such as beauty. Loesberg acknowledges the key contributions of Danto and Dickie to this discussion, although his grasp of their arguments and their background in postwar analytic aesthetics debates is at times shaky. At one point he falsely describes Dickie’s Institutional Theory as maintaining that an object’s art status occurs the moment someone acting as an artist submits an object to a museum or exhibition “regardless of the reaction of other members of the artworld.” And while he notes the Hegelian echoes in Danto’s own version of the notion that to be an artwork is to embody meanings, he omits to mention that Danto himself had already remarked upon a structural resemblance between the preoccupations of the speculative German aestheticians and those of postmodernist French thinkers.

If this last fact makes Loesberg’s return-to-aesthetics argument less than fully original in its larger outlines, he gives it fresh detail in the chapters entitled, respectively, “Foucault’s Aesthetics” and “Bourdieu’s Aesthetics.” The argument is not that either of these thinkers is in any traditional sense an aesthetician; rather, it is that both, in their different ways, reproduce structural variants of speculative-aesthetic indifference and autonomy, while at the same time treating large stretches of human practice (including, in Bourdieu’s case, our practices of producing and consuming art) as embodiments of further tendencies that call for interpretation. Foucault’s project of questioning the foundations of knowledge, for example, achieves an objectivizing distance from our actual truth-claiming practices that has the quality, like Borges’ famous description of a Chinese encyclopedia, of an “inhuman laughter” which calls to mind “the artificially assumed, Kantian indifference to the object’s existence.” In the case of Bourdieu, on the other hand, one prima facie nonaesthetic phenomenon which invites such an aestheticizing reinterpretation is the “habitus” – a largely unconscious system of dispositions to individual and group action within any social setting. Bourdieu at one point compares the habitus’s “unwilled necessity” – its quality of being designed without a designer whose operations can be objectively established – to that of a work of art. Loesberg also finds a deeper aesthetic dimension in Bourdieu’s key notion of symbolic or cultural capital – roughly, any sort of meaningful cultural product whose knowledge enables its possessors, in a status-conscious world, to advance their interests in society, on analogy to how money or material capital can advance such interests. Here the relevant cue for aestheticizing redescription is intrinsic value, something traditionally imputed to anything which we prize for reasons that cannot be reduced to the thing’s further uses. Thus, while cultural capital (yielded by a connoisseur’s knowledge of artworks, for example) is by definition instrumentally valuable to its possessor, its instrumental status can still become converted in a special way into intrinsic value. On Bourdieu’s analysis, this happens in situations where artists, critics, or audiences who find themselves excluded from material advancement by the larger society (as, for example, did various nineteenth century proponents of l’art pour l’art) will then, as a reaction against such exclusion, re-invest their tastes and knowledge with an intrinsically valuable and “pure” significance that takes on a social reality of its own. Thus symbolic capital, Loesberg suggests, “instead of being a specialized metaphorical version of economic capital, becomes the general category of which economic capital is a subset, [and] reenacts an almost archetypal deconstructive maneuver with the categories of literary and philosophical language.”

Loesberg seems at home here with texts from whose rhetorical complexities anglophone aestheticians, molded by the habitus of analytic philosophy, have all too often shied away. Unfortunately his own prose doesn’t help the cause of accessibility either. For all of its engaging insights, the book as a whole reads like an unedited first draft, all too replete with sentences like the one above and like this: “Although Foucault responded with some asperity to Derrida’s critique of his reading of Descartes as exemplary of this expulsion of madness – thus leading to a line of trying to read this dispute as one initiating a conflict significant for the arguments between American Derrideans and American Foucaultian New Historicists – in withdrawing the preface and retracting the claim to articulate an actual subjective experience of madness, he essentially granted Derrida’s main point.”

Be all this as it may, the real guiding spirit of Loesberg’s argument turns out, in the end, to be Nietzsche. It was Nietzsche who pioneered the signature postmodernist gesture of aestheticizing various aspects of life outside the domain of fine art by treating them as sites of foundationless interpretation and willful creativity. He also pioneered the post-Enlightenment intellectual-political project of genealogy – a project which, although Loesberg never says so in as many words, seems in the end to be his own too. Nietzschean-style genealogies take an area of human practice whose practitioners understood its history in a certain characteristic way – Nietzsche’s famous example was Judeo-Christian morality, but one might as easily do this with an idealized account of postmodernist cultural critique – and offer an alternative account of its origin. A genealogy’s purpose, Loesberg notes, “is not to find an actual origin against which to measure an object, practice, or function, but to pose the fact of development away from origin as a way apprehending it in contrast to what we ‘know’ to have caused it, so we may see what about it our knowledge hides. Not an actual alternative, but mere alterity, is what matters here.”

Whether “mere alterity” will satisfy aficionados of Foucault and Bourdieu who seek an understanding of the origins of today’s Enlightenment/postmodernism quarrels I can’t say. In any event, Loesberg’s larger objective here seems to be to offer a Nietzschean-like interpretive “myth of origin” of modern aesthetic thought. Such a myth could serve to direct our attention away from certain received conceptions of what aesthetics or aesthetic knowledge is really about, all to the end of affording us a clearer view of what, in his terms, such putative knowledge “hides.” I say that this seems to be Loesberg’s objective because, after its disquisitions on Foucault and Bourdieu, the book abruptly ends with only a minimal summary of its sprawling historical argument. It would have been nice to have more in the way of concluding reflections on how, their myths of tribal separation thus deflated, today’s heirs of Kant and Nietzsche might come to see their projects as symbolically embodying (as it were) not just more intellectual-political business as usual, but a further space of possible cultural conversation that a variety of traditions commonly, if not yet fully explicitly, inhabit. Thus A Return to Aesthetics seems in the end, despite its opening hints about the prospects of such conversation, an oddly unfinished book. But the hints it drops are intriguing, and bear further reflection for all of us who are keen to find in the texts of early modern aesthetics not just a record of the field’s past but intimations of developments yet to come.


2007 © Casey Haskins

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