The cultural turn of the anti-aesthetics
A reflection on the aesthetic culture of the modern world is not to be found in the eighteenth century but a century later in the work of Charles Baudelaire who expands and develops the anti-aesthetic orientation inherent in the intuitions of Edgar Allan Poe, De Quincey, Stendhal and Heine. In fact, in his prose works, important phenomena of modernity such as fashion, the city, material life, drugs, prostitution, conflict, and exoticism find a sharp and profound treatment that still constitutes today a fundamental theoretical reference point. Thus it would seem that aesthetics’ cultural turn will have to be postponed a century and that it occurs paradoxically in polemics with eighteenth century aesthetics, and it takes on the form of an anti-aesthetics.
The origins, however, of this anti-aesthetics can be traced already to the end of the eighteenth century to the criticism that poets and writers moved to academic aesthetics reproaching it of shutting art and beauty in an ivory tower (Ritter, 1971: I, 555-79). While thinkers were promoting the ideal of an aesthetic society where all the conflicts are reconciled in a higher harmony, the writers of the Sturm und Drang were starting a poetic revolt against academic aesthetics that has continued to this day. The target of this polemic has been, ever since its beginnings, the concept of aesthetic disinterestedness, that is the idea, common almost to every thinker of the eighteenth century, that the judgment of taste is independent of any cognitive and practical interest: in fact, according to Kant, an interest ruins a judgment of taste and deprives it of its impartiality. According to some writers, instead, the beautiful has to create the greatest interest because, it is none other than the promise of happiness. Heine and Baudelaire have sarcastic words for the modern professors of aesthetics, who pretend to make the beautiful disappear from earth by confusing all the types, all the ideas, all the sensations »dans une vaste unite, monotone et impersonelle, immense comme l’ennui et le néant« (in a vast unity, monotonous and anonymous, immense as boredom and nothingness) (Baudelaire , 1961: 956).
Anti-aesthetics replaces aesthetic disinterestedness with a relation to the world characterized by a type of »over-interest«. In one of his tales, Poe describes the power of the imagination as capable of covering the entire external world with an intensity of interest. On the basis of this observation, Baudelaire establishes a veritable theory of surnaturalisme. Nature as a whole can be perceived with an »intérêt surnaturel qui donne à chaque objet un sens plus profond, plus volontaire, plus despotique« (supernatural interest that confers to every object a more profound, more voluntary and more despotic sense) (Baudelaire, , 1961: 974). The emphasis is no longer placed, as in eighteenth century aesthetics, on detachment and extraneity to any desire, but on the intensity of feeling and on the splendor of what presents itself to the imagination.
Surnaturalisme rejects both subjectivism and naturalism. It has nothing to do with an arbitrary imagination that, deprived of every relation with the world, is lost in the fog of transcendence: «L’imagination est la reine du vrai et le possible est une province du vrai« (imagination is the queen of truth and the possible is a domain of truth) (Baudelaire, , 1961: 1038). That is why Baudelaire’s most important prose piece is entitled the Painter of Modern Life where the image of the artist that he proposes is that of »homme du monde«, »c’est à dire homme du monde entière, homme qui comprend le monde et les raisons mysterieuses et légitimes de tous ses usages« (that is of the whole world, which includes the world and the mysterious and legitimate reasons of all its customs) (Baudelaire, , 1961: 1158) Surnaturalisme revolves around this notion of the »scene of external life«. The landscapes of the big city, the pomp of civilian and military life, the alternation of gravity and coquetry, the varied images of shady beauty, the chall11e of dandyism, the seductions of the artificial, the charme of the horror, are precisely the elements of a new sensibility miles away from the disinterested contemplation of academic aesthetics. One accesses this type of sensibility through a worldly asceticism that finds in the dandy its highest expression. The dandy represents a synthesis of three cultural types that, according to Baudelaire, exercise the greatest attraction: the warrior, the monk and the courtesan. Of the warrior the dandy possesses the heroic spirit and the readiness to die at any instant. Of the monk, the mastery over oneself and the indifference toward money, of the courtesan the cult of appearance and provocation. In short, all three do not identify intimately with their bodies that they consider a dress, and they are a strange mix of placidity and boldness, coldness and ardor, self-control and ease. Surnaturalisme, therefore, is far from the colorless subjectivism of eighteenth century aesthetics. As Baudelaire writes: «C’est un moi insatiable du non-moi, qui à chaque instant, le rend et l’exprime en images plus vivantes que la vie meme, toujours insatiable et fugitive« (it is an I insatiable for the not-I that at every instant renders it and expresses it in images more alive than life itself, always unstable and fugitive) (Baudelaire, , 1961: 1161). It implies that permanent duality, the power of being at the same time itself and other, that is the essence of laughter, of the comique absolu, distinct from the meaningful one which, since it targets other human beings, appears to Baudelaire naive and devoid of the vertigo of the double.
But surnaturalisme is equally distant from any naturalism or realism that reduce art to imitation of things beautiful. In themselves things are neither beautiful nor ugly, and there is no natural hierarchy between them. Baudelaire combats neoclassical poetics according to which only what is solemn, pompous and ancient is beautiful. He vindicates the poetic character of modern life: Prisian life is fertile with wonderful poetic subjects. The marvelous envelops and surrounds us like the atmosphere, but we do not see it, if we have no imagination. In fact, the entire visible universe is only a deposit of images and signs to which the imagination must attribute a place and a relative value. It is a type of nourishment that the imagination must »assimilate and transform«. Poetic and artistic experience loses its self-respect if it prostrates before external reality, seen in its brute immediacy. Only by passing through the filter of memory and poetic imagination the »fantastic real of life« becomes able of generating interest and astonishment. It is as if any aspect of the world could be subject to a legendary translation that renders it enchanting.
Baudelaire’s anti-aesthetic surnaturalisme could represent, therefore, the real cultural turn capable of giving intensity and liveliness to any thing. After all, the three characteristic of Cultural Studies appear in it even more self-evident than in academic aesthetics, namely rejection of conventionality, openness to extra-European cultures and attention to alternative and even pathological experiences of drug addiction and psychosis.
As we said, aesthetic disinterestedness found its rigorous formulation in Kant. Anti-aesthetic over-interest, even if it has created some interest among philosophers, for instance Wittgenstein, has not been the object of an equally theoretical treatment. Perhaps in Freud’s notion of Überbesetzung, over-cathexis, over-investment, it is possible to find important elements for a more precise characterization. In Freud’s concept of investment, what is striking is its quantitative and not qualitative aspect. It points to the fact that a quantity of psychic activity can occupy a certain representation, but it can also detach itself from it and move on to another. For Freud the functioning of the entire psychic apparatus can be described in economic terms as a play of investments, un-investments, counter-investments and over-investments. One can conclude that it is not possible to establish whether an external object of the real world is more or less worthy of interest on the basis of its quality. Anything can become greatly »interesting« even if one arrives at it only through an associative chain of representations.
If anything can be an object of affective investment, everything is liable of culturalization. This way, psychoanalysis seems to provide Cultural Studies with a legitimacy equally solid as the idea of aesthetic disinterestedness promoted by Kant. Now the notions of aesthetic disinterestedness and of psychoanalytical investment have one thing in common, the fact that in their origin they are both formal and non-content oriented. The connection between aesthetic disinterestedness and the fine arts is a subsequent step that was historically accomplished only in the second half of the eighteenth century (Sasaki, 1985). The aesthetic attitude of disinterestedness does not imply that there are objects that are necessarily »disinterested«, in which the cognitive and practical dimensions are thought to be irrelevant. In other words, aesthetic disinterestedness is a much more a general attitude than the appreciation of a work of art and its evaluation.
Similar considerations can be made on psychoanalytical investment with respect to any representation. Over-investment, however, is something more. It implies an intensification, a supplementary amount of psychic energy. Even though Freud did not examine this notion closely, it is symptomatic that it should appear in Totem and Taboo with reference not only to the magical primitive world, but also to that of art (Freud, , 1940-52, VIII, 3, 3). The omnipotence of thoughts, Freud writes, has been preserved in our society only in one context, that of art. Only in art, it still happens that a man consumed by tormenting desires creates something similar to their realization, and that this fiction, thanks to artistic illusion, has the power of evoking the same affective reactions as reality. That is why one speaks of the magic of art and one compares the artist to a magician.
Published in “Filozofski Vestnik” (ed. Aleš Erjacev), vol. XXVIII, Number11 2007, pp. 43-46.