Aesthetics and Late Capitalism

What do you want to see?
What do you want to see?

“There is a boundary to men’s passions when the act from feeling; none when they are under the influence of imagination”Edmund Burke – Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs


From Kant through to Heidegger enlightenment philosophy has placed a high virtue upon the realm of the aesthetic and even today in a somewhat more materialist philosophical environment art still possesses a certain degree of theoretical privileging, especially given the importance of culture for critiques of late stage capitalism. Aesthetics is, originally at least, a discourse of the body. The first formulations of aesthetics by the German Alexander Baumgartern referred not to art but to the Greek word aesthesis. In short, the term aesthetic is not a field of artistic expression but rather the divide between the material and the immaterial spheres of existence. It is the sphere of philosophical enquiry concerned with how the world affects the self, how our very materiality encounters the external world. In short, aesthetics, in its original sense, is the relation of the individual to the universal – a perhaps unfashionably physical issue that Enlightenmentphilosophy was more than a little reticent about confronting.

It should then be clear that the aesthetic possesses the potential to have serious political consequences. How can political order be maintained or established if the philosophy that underpins politics ignores the most tangible, the most sensate and “lived” aspects of a society?

Aesthetics is in some ways an answer to this political question – perhaps best exemplified by the ‘courageous Aufklärer and docile subject of the King of Prussia’ (Eagleton 1990) Immanuel Kant. Kant’s aesthetics, with its rather conservative divide between morality and sensuality, sought to ensure aesthetics was not surrendered to the “egoism of taste” as Kant so scornfully termed it. Beginning in Kant’s work, and many of the following German philosophers) aesthetics philosophy aimed to ‘lift the sensible to the dignity of knowledge.’ (See Alexander Baumgartern: Reflections on Poetry.)

Adding reason to sensation may not sound problematic, but only remains so by ignoring the political implications. In Gramscian terms philosophy established its own form of hegemony in the service of political order. Through Kant, Hegel’s work on the centrality of custom and ultimately the liberal aesthetics of Rousseau the emergent middle class defined itself as a universal subject. Here though, the middle class as universal entails a certain anxiety for a class wedded to the idea of rugged individualism and material particularity. It is within this anxiety that a more dialectical approach to the function of aesthetics would serve us all well. A sophisticated capitalist bourgeois social order functions in a broadly hegemonic fashion, historically through notions of “sensibility” or in Edmund Burke’s formulation as a ‘sort of Nature both to the governors and the governed.’ Aesthetics whether expressed through custom, through routine or through duty maintains and constitutes the role of the middle class as a class rather than a group of unaffiliated autonomous subjects. Aesthetics, that which is based in the particularity of the individual, becomes useful for the creation of commonality and of universality but a universality that is limited by class positions. To belong to the dutiful middle class is thus not simply to ascribe to a certain set of aesthetic standards but to have the very nature of personhood redefined so that these aesthetic standards can apply to you.

Aesthetics is a truly double-edged sword, with its celebration of particularity and subjectivity it clearly possess a degree of emancipatory potential – uniting a community of individual subjects through means other than a universal law, but there should be a good deal of suspicion by those whose politics oppose hegemonic forces. Within a capitalist framework, the aesthetic standards that influence and define the limits of subjectivity are means for the deeper insertion of capitalist hegemony into the bodies that fall under its regulation. This often occurs in ways that are so subtle as to pass unnoticed and uncommented upon. The great Frankfurt school thinker Max Horkheimer saw this as “internalized repression” as even the terms through which subjectivity can be defined and expressed are co-opted in a move of staggeringly effective political colonization.

Perhaps this seems a tad abstract but in an increasingly digital world, the new standards of aesthetics are equally subject to this same capitalist co-opting. Facebook was lauded for introducing a new range of options for gender that people could identify as on their profiles. A move that places the subjective and particular needs of its users provides a much-needed (and long overdue) affirmation of the validity of non-binary gender identification. The move also dovetails with the aesthetics of online life, where subjectivity can be celebrated and emphasised and communities of autonomous individuals can come together sharing a degree of commonality through their differences. What this ignores is the capitalism that powers these networks. Facebook may have made the decision to expand its tools of gender identification but the reason for its decision is not out of any moral or aesthetic motivation. Behind the change is the desire to capitalise more fully upon the subjectivity that draws people to it. The data on gender is a product to be sold on to the relevant advertisers and third parties whilst allowing these for profit businesses to insert themselves into the physical subjectivity of people marginalized and oppressed by a capitalist hegemony. In brief, the danger to this kind of gesture is that it apes towards a genuinely respectful subjectivity, whilst furthering the damaging systemic environment that threatens it.

Emphasis on subjectivity and the centrality of the individual online all too often conceals a vast, totalizing capitalist framework. From sites like Amazon, Netflix and Google, we are told we can find anything, consume and watch anything that we want. Our subjectivity, our own material tastes and particularity are placed as central to life online. Netflix orders our tastes in a dizzying variety of genre and sub-genre that allows our own sense of personal taste to be vindicated, yet this affirmation of individuality is universalized to push popular shows towards a greater audience. Google, perhaps a company more open about its praise and pursuit of subjectivity claims to be able to categorize users from the smallest number of search terms. What is striking here is that this new kind of aesthetics functions not so much as to create dutiful subjects of the internet ecology but to render subjectivity into a commodity. The internet thus exhibits all the signs of the capitalist hegemony that served as the background for the emergence of the first wave of Enlightenment aesthetic philosophy paradoxically more, and less explicit in its capitalist aims. It is something media outlets have caught onto quicker than most. The shift in how news is presented, from facts and a pseudo-objectivity to the reliance on click bait shows this. News outlets noted the aesthetic demand for intrigue and particularity and monetized the Through the affirmation of particularity, of specificity and of individuality online companies can leverage the aesthetics of internet culture to create a large community of individuals yet these individuals are leveraged for monetization.

However, as I mentioned earlier the concept of aesthetics, especially online, does seem to possess a certain degree of emancipatory potential. Whilst custom, habit, decorum are comfortable in collaboration with the capitalist hegemony of the internet, materiality does pose a risk to the calm, meta-data harvesting social web. The focus on the individual opens the door not just to custom, but also to passion, to rage and to genuine engagement.

An important and more optimistic note to finish on is that obeying the aesthetic standards of the internet results in nothing more than the formation of the individual into a dutiful and easily commoditized object. Yet social media has seen movements emerge independently of the capitalist structures that power it. What is called for then is a new way of using the internet, not as dutiful subjects that obediently click every piece of sponsored content, who empty ourselves into the various categories of metadata and “likes” but as engaged, angry and committed. Social media and the internet may require our deep subjectivity but this deep subjectivity is exactly what those who seek to reinforce their hegemonic control should fear. There is something within the subject that can revolt against the power which seeks to inscribe it – movements can emerge from the internet that do not serve to produce commoditized subjects, but affirm genuine subjectivity, provokes and challenges hegemonic discourses and opens new possibilities of liberation for all.


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