Sunday, October 23, 2011


Of the several panels and talks that I attended last weekend as part of the University of Minnesota`s graduate student conference in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, Aesthetics/Class/Worlds, many explicitly addressed the question of aesthetics, perhaps even explicitly formulated in this way: as the question of aesthetics, and much of what I heard seemed to be invested in insisting on aesthetics, as if it was in some danger of being lost, or revoked, or done away with. Such projects are perhaps easy to understand, if we consider, for example, that it is perhaps not so much a matter of aesthetics disappearing, but the problem of reconciling the political and aesthetic, which is perhaps a rough way of phrasing the problem of Marxist literary and cultural theory. It is not really surprising then that aesthetics would seem to be the object that might be lost, since insistence upon the priority of the political almost always takes the place of further examinations about how exactly these things are related, except that they are.

In the panel, ``Marxism Today,`` my observation about the occurrence of the above coincided with the pointed tendency of each paper to discuss through its own theoretical apparatus, the problem of conceptualizing (much less inhabiting, if this was a part of it) the point of resistance. It seems to me that this resistance is an aesthetic matter. But I may need to be more descriptive about what this aesthetics is, because my thinking about aesthetics derives from Freud`s observations about the principle of fore-pleasure, and ideas about the relative indeterminency, or the ambivalence of activity and passivity that pertains to thinking about how the role of the observer or spectator can be acted out. There is a moment--or at times, a series of moments--when these roles of activity and inactivity become articulated with one another and the ability to identify with fictional entities, or the ability to see oneself in this position of another--and to mistake one`s movements for another`s--becomes possible. This is the gist of what Freud writes about in also writing about seduction in ``Creative Writers and Day-dreaming,`` but his observations about the function of this principle also extend to the function of the economics of movement that govern his later writing on pain and pleasure and the dynamics of these principles. In this regard, aesthetics is more fundamentally about the politics of identification, and this conceptualization of two interdependent but antagonistic spheres has as much to do with taste as beauty, qualifying such notions about the qualities by which we judge aesthetic work with the fact of our own perception of that work. Pleasure, as much about fore-pleasure, and the non-teleological, non-normative implications of the concept. Taste, I think works on beauty in much a similar way, always undermining its seeming obduracy or self-evidence.

picture: Franklin Bridge, Minneapolis

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