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Beauty, Again

As postmodernism recedes into the distance let’s recall two brash signs of its cultural hegemony. First, in Richard Linklater’s 1991 film, Slacker, a shot of a table in an espresso bar reveals a lightly worn copy of The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Published in 1983 and edited by Hal Foster, The Anti-Aesthetic featured essays by figures who will come to stand as some of postmodernism’s most central, including Habermas, Krauss, Jameson, Baudrillard, and Said. Second, from 1999, in the Wachowskis’ The Matrix, in which we spy Neo with a book that’s been hollowed out to hide hard cash and electronic files. For an instant, before the cover is flipped, we catch its title, embossed in gold on green-dyed leather: Simulacra & Simulation. It’s an easter egg for eggheads, in which the book’s author--whose name does not appear on the cover--makes a cameo by proxy, a virtual Baudrillard, prophet of the hollow, himself hollowed out and stuffed with the twin forces of the simulacra he described: the abstraction that is money and the immateriality that is digitized information.

Simulacra & Simulation, The Matrix

Slacker is a quarter-century old by now, and The Matrix is not a whole lot more sprightly, but I’ve yet to come across any evidence that our contemporary popular culture has identified postmodernism’s displacement, no sign that we have arrived at the era of the post-postmodern (as Jeffrey Nealon’s recent book has proposed to call the present and its “cultural logic of just-in-time capitalism”). But that time will come, if not today, then soon enough. Perhaps as early as next year, in the third season of Transparent, we may catch a glimpse of Gabby asleep on her couch with a copy of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just. Or maybe we’ll watch as Ilana of Broad City stashes weed in a scuffed copy of Graham Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics. If not, maybe the next season of House of Cards will include a slow pan across the Oval Office revealing a copy, in its original untranslated form, of Jacques Rancière’s Malaise dans l’esthétique. At some point, in other words, we ought to expect that the post-postmodern theorists of the twenty-first century will, in the most popular of terms, declare their cultural hegemony.

To my mind, of all the implications inherent in postmodernism’s eclipse, one of the most profound is the reconsideration of the aesthetic. If postmodernism was, as Foster put it, committed to an anti-aesthetic it was because this was the perceived cost of its commitment to ideology critique. Oversimplifying only a little, postmodernism held that beautiful objects and aesthetic experiences must be recognized as suspect, if not fully complicit with the forces of oppression. Anti-hegemonic practices were, by necessity, anti-aesthetic. The model here was the Duchampian readymade as it was comprehended through the conceptual art of the sixties and seventies--the work of Hans Haacke, Daniel Buren, Marcel Broodthaers and others.

What unites the otherwise unrelated projects of Scarry, Harman and Rancière is precisely their willingness to consider aesthetics as more than simply ideological obfuscation. For Scarry, beauty is relevant to ethical interventions, for Harman it bears directly on questions of ontology, and for Rancière it plays a crucial role in realignments of the political. In all three instances--and there are others to be added to this list--postmodernism’s antagonism toward the aesthetic is recast as a limiting, rather than liberating, disposition.

Recent years have witnessed a tide of “turns,” each of which can be understood as so many displacements of postmodernism’s “linguistic turn” and its myriad epistemological and political implications: turns toward affect (Eve Sedgwick, Lauren Berlant, Brian Massumi), ethics (Simon Critchley, Judith Butler), anarchism (Todd May, Saul Newman, Richard Day, Lewis Call), the object (Harman, Jane Bennett, Ian Bogost), and Deleuzian vitalism (Karen Barad, Rosi Braidotti) to name a few of the most prominent.

How, then, does this blog propose to respond to the demise of the anti-aesthetic as it flows through the veins of these multiple post-postmodern turns? It aims to effect, or to assist in effecting, what could rightly be called an aesthetic turn in the discourses of post-postmodernism. The gambit of this blog is that the implications of this particular turn--as it operates in concert with (or opposition to) the turns toward affect, ethics, anarchism, the object, and the like--are not only evident in the theory and practice of the art of the present, but are, like the implications of the linguistic turn of the generation prior, manifest in the theory and practice of modernism as well. In other words, this blog will ask, for example: what might Harman’s theory of “allure” have to say about the delicate objects of modernist attention? How might Barad’s or Braidotti’s vitalism reveal obscured operations within the discourses around twentieth century dance and film? What might Rancière’s notion of “the politics of aesthetics” have to tell us about Vorticism, De Stijl, or Nouveau Realisme?

As is befitting the medium of the blog, the form these aesthetic turns will take will be fragmented, experimental, and provisional. They will, I hope, enable contributors to take the sort of risks rarely ventured in long-form writing. One might, for example, be inspired by the flint-strikes-steel spark of a museum exhibition casually visited and a recent publication pressed on one by an insistent colleague; another by the coincidence of a lecture attended and an abandoned cul-de-sac in an unfinished book chapter. These will be, after all, aesthetic turns, not highways. They will swerve one way and then another. Unlike a book or even a journal article, these turns will be brief and bright. Their charge will be provocation, not proof.