Aesthetics and the Dialectic of the Desire to Freedom

by Gary McClennan

1. Introduction: Beech & Roberts and the use of Bhaskar in Cultural Studies

Dave Beech's and John Roberts' (B&R) latest contribution to the New Left
Review aesthetics debate is a significant document not only in terms of the
position it advances within that debate, but also in that it represents, I
believe, an important advance in the development of a Critical Realist
Aesthetics. It is on this aspect that I would like to concentrate here
rather than on the task of placing _Tolerating Impurities: An Ontology,
Genealogy and Defence of Philistinism_ within the overall debate.

As far as I am aware the first use of Roy Bhaskar in the field of Cultural
studies was by Terry Lovell (1980). There she drew upon _Realist Theory of
Science_ primarily to defend a concept of realism. She admits however to
being puzzled as to how within a Bhaskarian framework one can move from the
social to the natural sciences. (Lovell, 1980: 102)

There is also a reference to Bhaskar in a footnote in Fred Inglis'(1982).
But I am not at all convinced that Inglis' interpretation of Bhaskar as a
defender of Leavis' "naturalism" is anything other than fanciful. (Inglis,
1982: 107 & 229) Leavis, as I read him, longed for an identity between
subject and object in a way that Bhaskar would never countenance.

2. B&R's defence of philistinism: an over view

Beech & Roberts in their opening salvo in the aesthetics debate made use of
Bhaskar's concept of fusion and fission in their discussion of ideology.
(Beech & Roberts, NLR 218, 1996: 102-27) Interesting as this is it is
largely peripheral to the development of their main argument which is the
advancement and defence of the role of the philistine in the construction
of an alternative aesthetic sensibility. However, with their latest
offering, Bhaskar moves to a much more central position. From my own point
of view I was delighted to see Beech & Roberts attempt to employ Bhaskar's
concept of absence. I have argued elsewhere that it is on the terrain of
absence that a Bhaskarian aesthetics is to be built. However I have argued
that absence has another side to it and I have explored within the
aniconism of the Buddhist tradition the notion of total absence as an
alternative to aesthetic plenitude. (MacLennan, 1998)

Briefly B&R set out to question the derogation of the philistine. To do
this they construct an ontology of the philistine and the aesthete. This
involves the use of Bhaskarian concepts of absence, and relationality. We
are given a genealogy of the philistine which serves to historicise the
process of cultural division. There is in addition a very useful and
insightful account of Cultural Studies and the impasse with Critical
Theory. They also weave into this account the Marxist concept of
alienation. The article concludes with a schematic switch to what they term
'philistine modes of attention'.

I will give a response to each of these sections but first let me say that,
despite my reservations and these should become clearer, I acknowledge and
endorse the over all political thrust of B&R's work. They call for the
absenting of capital as the ultimate solution to the alienations of
cultural division. Good on them.

We should also note that this stance separates them from the other
participants in the aesthetic debates. Jay Bernstein because he is
committed to a neo-Weberian position which locates cultural division within
ever increasing modernist rationality, cannot envisage a political program.
(Bernstein, NLR 225, 1997: 89-104) Andrew Bowie too eschews a politics
though he does express elitist fears about the dilution of the aesthetic
(Bowie, NLR 225, 1997: 105-26) Malcolm Bull's contribution occupies
somewhat different terrain from the others in that he calls for the eclipse
of art through the endorsement of the Socratic philistine. (Bull, NLR 219,
1997: 102-27)

3. Ontologising the aesthetic.

It is in their attempt to ontologise the aesthetic that B&R carry the
debate forward beyond the mere name calling of the kind that marred the
exchange on aesthetics between Paul Wood and Alex Callinicos for instance.
(Callinicos & Wood, 1992) B&R insist that the philistine is a real absence
and that s/he exists in a relationship with the aesthetic subject. B&R
employ the concept of alienation, which they define as a split in species
being, to insist that the relationship between the philistine and the
aesthetic subject is one where both are alienated. This is a crucial point
because from it flows a program where the solution to the problem of
philistinism is not to get rid of the philistine and to totally build
around the aesthetic subject but rather to abolish the underlying
relationality between the philistine and the aesthetic subject.

Their argument that the philistine is a real absence partly serves to
distinguish their position from that of Pierre Bourdieu. B&R argue that
the latter does not use the category, philistine, because he is anxious to
undermine dominant taste by showing that what is regarded as philistinism
consists of alternative cultural values and practices.

B&R also insist that the philistine's relationship with the aesthetic
subject is more fundamental than the alternative others to the aesthetic,
such as the non-European, the feminine, the abject, etc, in that the
philistine grows out of the positions which are developed from within
cultural division.

It is moreover this insistence on the origin of the philistine within
culture that enables them to argue that the philistine is a cultural rather
than a sociological category and so cannot simply be read in terms of any
particular social grouping. Specifically B&R are anxious that we do not
equate the proletariat with the philistine.

4. A genealogy of the aesthetic

Partly at least to undermine such an identification B&R then give us a
genealogy of the term. This is an extremely informative and useful part
of their paper, but I do want to suggest something of an alternative
reading of their material.

B&R argue that the philistine begins with Romanticism where the category
means not the uneducated, uncultured clod of public imagination but rather
the overly educated connoisseur, the pedant who opposes the rules and
conventions of art to the spontaneous feelings and practices of the
Romantic artist. Subsequently the philistine comes to mean the unfeeling
bourgeois - the Mr Gradgrind who can see only muck and brass.
The next major resting place of the philistine is the proletariat - those
who have neither education nor social power and who are read in modern
times as being incapable of finer aesthetic sensibilities. B&R complicate
this account when they point out that the modern artist can be read as the
philistine by the bourgeois critic and connoisseur.

I believe this account can be simplified and clarified if we use the
dialectical figure of master-slave. Within this the master is variously
those with power in or over the social and cultural world. The master has
at various times been the connoisseur, the bourgeois or the modern critic,
or the cultural commissar. What is common here is not the actual content
of their philistinism but rather that they exercise power. They dominate
and exploit the artist. In addition because they are the primary
beneficiaries of the existing social relations they can also impose norms
which can restrict the creative impulse.

This is what Victor Hugo meant when he argued that the artist should oppose
"intolerance" and "routine". (Hugo in Furst, 1980: 3) Moreover reading
power back into the relationship between the artist-slave and the
philistine-master enables us to see why Stendhal would argue that "all the
great writers have been romantics in their time". For Stendhal it was the
act or rebelling against and defying the power of those who established
literary canons which defined romanticism, not the content of the art work.
(Stendhal in Furst, 1980: 40-42)

The artist then is the slave to this master. Most importantly however there
is another slave to whom the artist is master. This slave in contemporary
times is the industrial proletariat. The artist then is trapped between
the master and this other slave beneath him/her. S/he can form an
alliance with the slave and attempt to overthrow the ensemble of master
slave relationships, or s/he can seek mutual forgiveness and reconciliation
with the master. The difficulties in forming alliances with the industrial
proletariat are all too obvious. It is much easier to orientate towards
the master, in other words to accommodate. By and large this can be read as
the karma of all too many artists. Certainly this is how John Berger
regarded Picasso's trajectory. (Berger,)

5. Cultural studies

To deal with the intersection between mass culture and philistinism B.R.
develop an excellent account of Cultural Studies. Especially valuable here
is their revisiting earlier British cultural debates before the NLR
inspired turned to Western Marxism. Correctly they locate an impasse
between Cultural Studies and Critical Theory. The former insists that
popular culture is the site of resistance and the formation of radicals.
(See Wark, 1996 for a very clear statement of this position). Critical
Theorists following the lead of the Frankfurt School continue to argue that
the adherents of popular culture are the dupes of the culture industry.

Useful as B&R's account of Cultural Studies is, there is still a need to
locate the tensions within Cultural Studies within a wider context.
Cultural Studies did not begin with the celebration of resistance. Rather,
while in opposition to the "inoculative education" of Leavism, it
consisted in the Marxist inspired criticism of all there is. (Masterman,
1980:14) There was however always a desire to avoid what was seen as the
excessive pessimism of Adorno. (Enzensberger, 1976: 41)

The turn to Resistance, specifically through highly bowdlerised versions of
Bakhtin, and subsequently to Policy has to be interpreted in the context of
the collapse of Left politics, especially of the Marxist variety. (see
Cunningham, 1992 for a classic statement of the Policy approach to Cultural
Studies) There has been something of a return to Adorno or Critical Theory
as both the bland Social Democratic optimism of Policy Studies and the
facile celebrations of the popular seem frankly more and more misplaced in
face of the onward march of globalised Capital and the ever deepening
social, ecological and economic crises that have accompanied the triumph of
Wall Street. (Jameson, 1990: 249)

It is in this context that we have to judge B&R's claim that the notion of
the philistine offers us a partial way out of the impasse between the
opposing camps in the debates over mass culture. The philistine is both an
active agent, i.e. a radical, and "subject to the machinations of the
culture industry", i.e. a dupe. (B&R, 1998: 62)

To be fair B&R are cautious about the potential of the figure of the
philistine. They do not see their concept resolving the contradictions of
a divided culture. Officially all they claim is that the philistine may be

    a corrective to certain blindness in the questions of culture and
pleasure. (B&R, 1998: 63)

I feel however that the modesty of this program does get somewhat lost in
the subsequent part of their article when they turn to what the philistine
does.


6. Paying attention.

B&R conclude their endorsement of the philistine with a turn from artistic
production to reception - what they term 'philistine modes of paying
attention'. This is a much more important shift than B&R acknowledge. It
takes us from the terrain of the artist who is both a slave and a master to
that of those, viz. the proletariat, who are simply slaves.

I want to insist on this because I feel that what is lost sight of in B&R's
consideration of philistine modes of paying attention is their underlying
political program, namely the absenting of capital. Any true way out of the
current impasse in Cultural Studies must I feel return to this project.
Either we are underlabouring for human emancipation or we are part of the
structure of domination.

I would like to contrast B&R's admittedly schematic remarks on modes of
attention with Ira Shor's attempt to develop critical consciousness. Shor
advocates what he terms symbolic separation or expulsion from daily life.
This involves the isolation of single features of every day life for
detailed study. Shor argues that

    A critical dialogue around an abstracted part of life permits students to
gain detachment from the structure of social relations inside and outside
their minds. (Shor, 1980: 99)

Among the many examples that Shor gives is the occasion when he brought a
hamburger into the classroom. This was a very ordinary object indeed. His
students would have consumed thousands of them, but on this occasion they
were asked to pass the hamburger around the class, examine it and then to
describe it in detail. Thus many of them found when they got up close and
personal to a hamburger it turned out to be quite rebarbative. They then
diagnosed the whys and the whats of the hamburger. Thus they had to explain
why so many were eaten. The final step in this program was to reconstruct
the hamburger. This involved creating healthy alternatives and also
modelling the entire production and redistribution process that delivered
the hamburger to the consumer. (Shor, 1980: 162-163)

Shor's pedagogy like that of his colleague and mentor, the great Paolo
Freire, can best be understood not only as a programatic education of
desire, but as a whole heartedly emancipatory project which has as its
central axis the withering away of the teacher to allow the process of
self-emancipation to take place. Within such a program there is no place
for either the paralysis of despair born out of elitist conceptions of the
lack of aesthetic or political potential among the working class. Nor is
there a space for the facile acceptance of the ordinary nor the overly
clever celebration of the second rate no matter how popular or philistine
it may appear to be. Moreover the emphasis on self-emancipation and the
withering away of the teacher means that Shor's work cannot be regarded as
an instance of what John Hartley, slumming as a populist, has termed a
conspiracy by the so-called "knowledge- class". (Hartley, 1998)

7. Conclusions and the Dialectic of the Desire to Freedom

I do not wish to end this response to B&R's fine article on a negative note
but it does seem to me there that when B&R turn to their discussion of the
philistine modes of paying attention that they reduplicate the central
mistake within cultural studies of the overly glib endorsement of the
popular. This is especially ironic given that in their excellent summary
of Cultural Studies they draw critical attention to the tail ending of the
popular by cultural critics.

B&R attempt to cover this shift with an analogy drawn from the re-reading
of pornography as the site where the female is no longer seen as the victim
but instead as someone who is acting out her own "diverse sexualities and
sexual fantasies." This enables B&R to foreground the question of pleasure.
I have no reservations at all about raising the question of pleasure but
as with desire this too must be educated.

For me B&R plunge the depths of idealism when they argue that

    In an important sense, pleasure (and pain) and politics are simply not
what they were in the 1970s and early 1980s, when it seemed that taking
pleasure in what was harmful, or not in your best interests, was to be
challenged as bad faith and false consciousness, and complicit with your
own subjugation. (B&R, 1998:71)

They come close here to arguing that there is no such thing as harmful
pleasure. More seriously they miss the very real sense in which politics
remains the same. We are still faced with the situation where "Man is born
free; and everywhere he is in chains." A handful of academic publications
on pornography has not changed that.

Ironically it is a failure of political nerve that I think is the problem.
B&R called (in a footnote admittedly) for the absenting of capital. It is a
consciousness of the magnitude of this task that has led me to oppose B&R's
endorsement of the "idle thrills" of popular culture with Shor's
programmatic education of attention and desire (and pleasure).

It is from within our overall political program that I believe we should
get our notion of aesthetic value at least in part. Specifically we need
to ask how emancipatory is a particular aesthetic practice and/or a
particular mode of paying attention.

There is of course a danger here that in advancing what is a form of
revolutionary utilitarianism we can slip from the subtle aesthetics of a
Mao to the brutal banalities of a Zhdanov. But we live in the epoch when
Capital has it all. To be frank we do not seem to be in much danger of a
return of Stalinism. (Given the recent flood of anti-Mao propaganda there
may be readers who are surprised by my choice of the world 'subtle' to
describe anything by the 'Great Helmsman'. They should read for themselves
his talks at the Yenan Forum. (Mao, 1965)).

Finally, I have tried in this response to reread the philistine within the
dialectical figure of the master and the slave. I believe that this is a
useful way not only of uncovering the antinomies of the philistine, but it
is also an aid to keeping politics in command. I hope it will not seem
overly gratuitous if I point out that this must be an emancipatory politics.

Finally, finally, B&R have made important advances through their deployment
of key Bhaskarian motifs. What I feel is needed now is to recast their
work within an over all Critical Realist framework rather than, as they
themselves suggest, to undertake further research into the development of a
genealogy of philistine modes of paying attention.

It seems to me that in developing their theory of the philistine B&R are
responding to the world-historical problem of agency. I have indicated that
I do not think this can be resolved through the celebration of the
philistine modes of paying attention such as "TV viewing, radio listening,
movie going, watching football and sex-shop browsing". (B&R, 1998: 71)

The problem with the modes of attention approach that it takes us, I
believe, into what Michel Pecheux termed the mode of
counter-identification. Pecheux outlined three mechanisms by which
subjects are constructed. These are identification, counter-identification
and disidentification.

    Identification is the mode of "good subjects" , those who "freely
consent" to the image held out to them, while "bad subjects",
trouble-makers, refuse it. Counter-identification is the mode of the
trouble-maker who turns back these meanings "lived" by the good subjects.
(Pecheux in MacDonnell, 1986: 39)


It is vital to grasp that the modes of identification and
counter-identification, while seemingly in opposition to each other,
actually constitute a dialectic of mutual support and complicity. To
achieve transcendence and to get us on the road to the dialectic of freedom
we need the third mode, that of disidentification. This refuses ideological
domination and "works in and against prevailing practices of ideological
subjection." (Macdonnell, 1986: 40)

I do not have the space here to elaborate how disidentification can
usefully be rethought through Bhaskar's "dialectic of desire to freedom".
(Bhaskar, 1993: 285-291)
However I would like to lay special stress on the dialectic of the
'education of desire'. (Bhaskar, 1993: 286) For it is their neglect of
this dialectic that constitutes what I see as the central weakness in B&R's
project.

Absolutely finally, perhaps a favourite quotation will clarify where I
agree and disagree with B&R.

    In any case, the leisure which Socialism above all things aims at
obtaining for the worker is also the very thing that breeds desire - desire
for beauty, for knowledge, for more abundant life, in short. Once more,
that leisure and desire are sure to produce art, and without them nothing
but sham art, void of life or reason for existence, can be produced:
therefore not only the worker, but the world in general, will have no share
in art till our present commercial society gives place to real society - to
Socialism. (William Morris in Briggs, (ed), 1973: 143)

References
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_______________________, Tolerating Impurities: An Ontology, Genealogy and
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