Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Aesthetic pleasures of the first order

Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. 
Walter Benjamin

The objects of contemplation which caught the eye of the aesthetic movement were so saturated with overdeterminations that they almost dissolved into pure expressions of the categories of their determination. That is to say, under the gaze of the aesthetic movement, the object overdetermination was just one conceptual step away from becoming the object of contemplation itself. 

Benjamin correctly identifies within the logic of aestheticism the underlying logic of dehumanisation and war but not necessarily in the manner that he suggests. The process of articulating underlying pressures through an ideological apparatus is more complex than his polemical representation allows. His judgement on the failure of aestheticism to achieve a communist consciousness now seems over-hasty, as on the one hand communist consciousness now appears as not communist enough, and on the other we now find something within aestheticism’s approach that relates negatively to the conditions of which it was a product... that is, even its ostentatiously decadent enthusiasm for war functions as a means for problematising that which might otherwise have passed invisibly.  

We now see how the aestheticised object, folding itself further into overdetermination as the by-product of intense contemplation, begins to oscillate between its various determining conditions and becomes unstable. In one moment the object seems to connect to every fleeting thought and feeling of the aesthete, almost reaching a point of incoherence and dissipation (for example where a madeleine becomes associable with anything in the mechanism of contemplation), whilst in the next moment it seems solely reducible to a single blaring historical truth, namely the permeation of all objects in society by society’s tendency towards war.  

As inactive members of  the class engaging in European colonialist adventures, alliances and rearmament programmes, the Aesthetes brought themselves to the point of contemplating the tendency to war in everything, and thus to the edge of perceiving society’s primal drive which was otherwise invisible to all others (for whom war was conceived as a political-economic means rather than a constitutive social force in itself) only to deviate at the last moment from the responsibility for articulating this tendency (and thus avoid being drawn into its polarising logic). The aesthetes came to see that war was the only object, the primal instinct at the heart of modern society, which is precisely why they staged their retreat into art pour l’art, and why they averted their gaze even as they peered into mythic base of the social relation. 

The aesthetic movement could not, within the territory set out by aestheticism, isolate war as an object and define itself against it without also engaging in a form of war. The inherent contradiction of their position, that bind which allowed them unprecedented access to the nature of objects, also necessitated the subjective separation of the object from the warlike conditions it expressed, and in this way preserved their ambivalent role at the threshold of object relations. It sufficed for their milieu, even as the theory of the object was being developed to a lesser degree by psychoanalysis and the critique of the commodity fetish, to contemplate the intense object, and appropriate it, as a moment of miraculous intensity and distinct from war production and yet hold on to the object’s essential truth. 

Aestheticism therefore, like revolutionary theory, was acutely sensitised to the violence of society as that is carried forward by society’s objects. However, aestheticism, despite its self-imposed apolitical constraints, and unlike revolutionary theory, held back from exteriorising this tendency towards violence (and thus begin another war against it) but registered it as a sensuous quality that saturates everything, including the transformative violence belonging to revolutionary theory. On these terms aestheticism formed a more complete sensitivity to the tensions society even if it could not, or precisely because it could not, marry this with critique. Wherever aestheticism incorporates social critique it becomes a form of stylised war patriotism, as in Morris’s Chants for Socialists, and thus loses the object which belongs to it:

On we march then, we the workers, and the rumour that ye hear 
Is the blended sound of battle and deliv'rance drawing near; 
For the hope of every creature is the banner that we bear, 
And the world is marching on.

By tracing aestheticism’s transvaluation of violence we see how revolutionary theory and social critique are also instances of social violence which reconstitute a conflictual relation. Because we are able to reflect on why aestheticism holds back from commitment to the cause of eradicating war from social objects, it becomes possible for us to perceive how revolutionary theory is also expressive of the conditions of this world and not transcendent of them. That is to say, we understand that revolutionary theory goes to war in precisely the same manner as all other social formations go to war. The intentional violence of the revolutionaries does not escape the hidden function of all apparently self-defining social formations, which is to actualise general social laws in specific discourses. 

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