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    Review of:
    Emory Elliott, Louis Fretas Caton, and Jeffrey Rhyne, eds., Aesthetics in a Multicultural Age. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.

"Let us, for example, credit it to the honor of Kant that he should expatiate on the peculiar properties of the sense of touch with the naïveté of a country parson!"

--Nietzsche, 3rd Essay, Section 6, in The Genealogy of Morals

  1. If we are to believe the arguments made by the contributors to Aesthetics in a Multicultural Age, aesthetics has been much maligned in twentieth-century literary theory, film studies, and art history. As an instance of this critical tendency, Winfried Fluck, whose essay "Aesthetics and Cultural Studies" foregrounds many of the central dilemmas inherent to any aesthetic judgment, invokes the contemporary German critic Urlich Schödlbauer when the latter writes, "whoever deals with aesthetics nowadays, dissects a corpse" (80). While the death of aesthetics is perhaps overstated here, the contributors to this volume all make separate, and mostly compelling, cases for the revitalization of the aesthetic in textual and extra-textual cultural productions. The formative problem in determining aesthetic judgment is perhaps best stated by Emory Elliott in the introduction when he writes that, because of multiculturalism and changes in canon formation, "many of the prior aesthetic criteria need to be re-examined and certainly the traditional hierarchies of merit need to be challenged" (5). Instead of being a methodology that discounts the aesthetic, he argues, multiculturalism makes it possible "to formulate new terminologies, categories, and processes of assessment" and is thus firmly grounded in the act of judgment (6).
  2. The essays in Aesthetics in a Multicultural Age were collected from a major conference held by the Center for Ideas and Society at the University of California, Riverside, in 1998. The conference attracted over 600 attendees, received substantial coverage in the Los Angeles Times, and was featured in a cover story for the 6 December 1998 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education. In an attempt to add continuity and cohesion to the sometimes disparately themed essays, the editors have divided the book into three rubrics: "Challenges to Aesthetics of Diversity," "Redefining Categories of Value and Difference," and "Aesthetic Judgment and the Public Sphere." Coeditor Elliott, an English professor at Riverside, has assembled a diverse field for this collection, including scholars in film studies, art history, African-American literature, and women's studies. By and large, however, the majority of the theorists in this volume are well-known names from American Studies, predominantly nineteenth-century American literary critics, and most of them can be aligned with a neopragmatist school of thought, borrowing from the works of John Dewey and William James. Dewey provides a recurring point of reference for Fluck, Giles Gunn, and Heinz Ickstadt, all of whom consider Dewey's Art as Experience (1934) as a model for a contingent, experiential basis for aesthetic interpretation. The other text most frequently referenced here is, not surprisingly, Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment (1790). But whereas Dewey is generally enlisted on the side of a new and reoriented aesthetic project, Kant is usually associated with a threatened and possibly unworkable paradigm, his notion of disinterested beauty running counter to the contemporary emphasis on the political and social investments that must inevitably inform aesthetic judgment. Still, the best essays in the volume resist any tendency simply to pronounce aesthetic distinctions contingent or relative and leave it at that; they undertake to advance a new aesthetics in which something of Kant's enlightenment project persists.
  3. Under the rubric of "Challenges to an Aesthetics of Diversity," the first essay in the volume is perhaps also the finest: Satya P. Mohanty's "Can Our Values Be Objective? On Ethics, Aesthetics, and Progressive Politics" is an extended criticism of the postmodern tendency to devalue any form of critical judgment. In response to the postmodern vantage, which is wary of universal normative values and claims and lacks grounding in the empirical method, Mohanty proffers a nuanced, fluid conception of objectivity. For Mohanty, Michel Foucault represents an ideological holism, or skepticism, while Noam Chomsky, with his theory of human betterment, provides an applicable model for a new version of objectivity that can indeed make a claim for that which is just, beautiful, and good. Mohanty supports a position that he terms "post-positivist" realism, though he recognizes that human beings are inevitably shaped by ideology and thus can never proceed with "theoretical innocence" (33). Instead, Mohanty posits a new version of objectivity, one that affirms the role of social and ideological error in any human inquiry, recognizes the primacy of empiricism (or referentiality) in any evaluation, and establishes a cross-cultural conception of knowledge.
  4. Giles Gunn, editor of the collection Early American Writing (1994), is also concerned with heuristic potential and the importance of culture in shaping human experience, yet his essay "The Pragmatics of the Aesthetic" argues more overtly for the virtues of specifically aesthetic texts. Gunn writes of the primacy of the imagination in such an experience, stating that "the imagination provides the motive for all those symbolic stratagems by which a culture's wisdom or ignorance is refracted and transmitted" (64). The benefit of such an interpretation of cultural symbols is that both expression and human interaction have an ethical dimension, and this quality is linked with an imperative to understand aesthetic tastes and judgments within a specifically public sphere. Gunn's argument centers on a suppositional structure that guides experience with an original premise, but aesthetic modes of thinking are central to organizing the work of the imagination with that of "practical exploration"; therefore, the aesthetic is never really severed from the pragmatic (73).
  5. An equally comprehensive and forceful essay, Fluck's "Aesthetics and Cultural Studies" has a similar leitmotif: aesthetic practice is never separate from the referential dimension, and an aesthetic moment, or "attitude" as Fluck calls it, has a potentially transformative value. Fluck's approach is a genealogical one, as he outlines how aesthetics have been categorized because of normative models of what defines the aesthetic, and this includes the modernist turn toward New Critical protocols that create a separate ontological category for understanding the intrinsic worth of a text. The aesthetic, however, is never merely a function to be encountered objectively and is instead one of many functions, including the political and the subjective, that become manifest when interacting with a work, whether it is of "high" culture or "low" culture, a distinction cultural studies seeks to efface. Fluck's example of a subway map is appropriate; that is, a subway map has its referential dimension always intact--it is used for finding directions--yet one cannot access its aesthetic function (perhaps its correlation to Egyptian hieroglyphics), Fluck conjectures, without first touching upon its direct rapport with the objective realm. By illustrating how cultural studies always must work with some movement toward the aesthetic, whether in matters of beauty or judgment, Fluck articulates the strongest critique of cultural studies in this volume. Along with Gunn and Mohanty, he attempts to fulfill the underlying ambition of this volume, that is, to re-envision aesthetic judgment in a way that situates praxis within a multicultural framework rather than simply accepting the death of aesthetics at the hands of postmodern theory and cultural studies. The force of these authors' arguments is never quite counterbalanced by essays such as John Carlos Rowe's, which offers effusive praise for and defense of cultural studies methodologies.
  6. Rowe (editor of Culture and the Problem of the Disciplines, reviewed in the May 2000 issue of Postmodern Culture) provides the most systematic argument in the collection in his defense of the methodologies of cultural studies, "The Resistance to Cultural Studies," the final essay in the "Challenges to an Aesthetics of Diversity" section. For Rowe and most of the contributors to this volume, the promotion of cultural studies to the forefront of literary criticism does not diminish the role of aesthetics, but Rowe's argument is almost purely focused on the benefits of cultural studies, both as a hermeneutic operation and as a dehierarchizing force vis-à-vis traditional, ahistorical criticism. For example, one of the several critiques of cultural studies that Rowe argues against is the notion that the topics cultural studies critics teach "are easy and superficially relevant" (109). Instead, cultural studies, with its emphasis on popular and "low" cultural texts, presents a new hermeneutic implication for the interpreter: the text in question, whether films such as Rambo or Titanic, or "indisputable" literary classics such as Henry James's Portrait of a Lady or Wings of the Dove, requires a new mode of theoretical and practical inquiry. Rowe combines the theoretical complexity of de Man and Lyotard with this form of inquiry, noting the postmodern implications within cultural studies methodology, and he argues that in the social relevance, cultural pertinence, and historical grounding of cultural studies, there is a pragmatic goal: "What will this interpretation do?" (107). What the interpretation does is contingent because cultural studies, like postmodernism, does not affirm a "governing narrative" from which the critic can step outside her particular, historically grounded interpretive situation.
  7. The first essay in the "Redefining Categories of Value and Difference" section is Shelley Fisher Fishkin's study of white and black American authors being rewritten or forgotten in literary history because of prescribed ideas on how each should write. In "Desegregating American Literary Studies," Fishkin uses a variety of examples of nontraditional racial texts and their subsequent critical reception to argue that black authors' literary reputations are diminished by their use of white characters, just as white authors, such as Sinclair Lewis, are marginalized when they write about African-American experience. Fishkin ends her essay with a call to revise current notions of canonicity and exclusiveness in American literary studies: "American literary studies will not be segregated until [...] books by both groups of writers [African American and white authors] are featured in publishers' African American Studies and American literature catalogs," as well as taught in both American literature and African-American literature courses (131). This essay is arguably one of the more important critical works on American Studies in recent years, though its narrowly literary-historical emphasis on reception and canonicity makes it a slightly disconcerting inclusion in this largely theory-and-praxis-oriented volume.
  8. Fishkin's essay, however, is a fitting preamble to the subsequent piece by Robyn Wiegman, whose "Difference and Disciplinarity" considers how identity politics are reinscribed within the academic institution. Wiegman presents perhaps the most complex argument in Aesthetics in a Multicultural Age, and her consideration of national and transnational identities--as well as her resistance to forcing identities into binary systems--is also explored in other essays in the volume, including Gunn's contribution. Wiegman argues that feminist studies has been co-opted by two positions: the category of "women" is often equated by African-American and postcolonial critics to some universalizing white norm, while poststructuralist critics consider any reference to identity to be essentializing and thus reductive (137-38). One essay on which she centers her argument is Susan Gubar's "What Ails Feminist Criticism?," a piece that begins by recalling the various stages in feminist criticism and outlines some reasons for the schism between generations of feminist scholars. Wiegman's answer for how institutions contribute to and reify identity politics and formations of national identities is a method that she terms "the metacritics of difference"; this method can be understood as a genealogical approach to feminist studies that uncovers how feminism is produced as an object of knowledge, what Wiegman calls "the problematic of identitarian social forms and formations" (147). Wiegman calls forcefully for replacing the aesthetic with a consideration of difference, but her essay would have contributed more centrally to this volume if she had attempted to elaborate some definition of an aesthetic judgment of difference.
  9. Americanist Donald E. Pease, in an essay critiquing the traditional aesthetic criteria that were levied at C.L.R. James, focuses on individual, rather than social, empowerment and on its relation to the modern liberal state rather than the academic institution. "Doing Justice to C.L.R. James's Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways [1953]," included in the section "Redefining Categories of Value and Difference," is, on one hand, Pease's individual argument for the importance to literary scholarship of James's book of Melville criticism precisely because James challenges Moby-Dick (1851) in his act of writing an interested interpretation, reimagining the canonical work with a political imperative in mind and substituting the narration of the crew over that of Ahab. On the other hand, Pease is making the case that the criticism (or deliberate ignoring) of James is rooted in his book's call for an aesthetic categorization outside of "the norms and assumptions [...] of which the field was organized" (159). The aesthetic sphere, here represented by James's book, became a site of free subjectivity and utopian resistance, as James was writing his book while he was a prisoner of the state at Ellis Island, hovering between the rights and dignities afforded to a person of citizenship and the lack of these rights and dignities of a subject with noncitizenship. In response, Pease argues, James "disidentif[ies] with the categories through which he would also practice U.S. citizenship" and also makes the case for an unstated metanarrative within Moby-Dick, one that, in the spirit of equality, moves the locus of power in the novel from Ahab to that of the crew (170).
  10. The next essay in this section is Johnella E. Butler's "Mumbo Jumbo, Theory, and the Aesthetics of Wholeness," which argues that Western forms of evaluation, particularly the unifying idea of logos, do not provoke a communitarian standard of judgment. Butler's piece is one of the most complex, yet rewarding, contributions to this volume, and though her argument emphasizes the reconceptualization of African-American theory in order to "reveal the full significance of the complexities of that literature's aesthetics," she makes the case for a larger aesthetic reconstitution (177). In dividing Western consciousness under the rubric of "Logos/Dialogics," Butler establishes her case for another form of understanding African-American double-consciousness (and, presumably, aesthetic consciousness): through the dialectic of "Nommo/Dianommic." In contrast to the forced dialectic of Logos, which disaffirms interconnectedness, the Nommo emphasizes the sacredness of the written word ("the life force that comes from the divine"), the dominance of multiplicity over fragmentation, and the confluence of past, present, and future to inform decisions (183). Butler's argument is compelling and provocative, but I wonder whether her faith in the sacredness of the written text, which is understood via the tropes of ancestral spirituality in texts such as Mumbo Jumbo, does not in fact reify some of the same metaphysical problems of destructive fragmentation and isolation that she successfully exposes as inherent in the Logos/Dialogics tradition.
  11. Butler is followed by one of the most prominent voices in revealing the ideological stakes in the canon formation of nineteenth-century American literature, Paul Lauter. Lauter analyzes the aesthetics of tradition, audience, and discourse in his essay "Aesthetics Again?: The Pleasures and the Dangers," the first essay in the section "Aesthetic Judgment and the Public Sphere." To do this aesthetic analysis, Lauter supplements his essay with photographs of Native American artworks that were recently displayed in both museum and art exhibits across the United States. The inherent problem in assimilating these new artistic forms, he argues, is that Western culture does not have aesthetic principles from which to understand the discourse of these art objects. Questions of "audience, function, and conventions" inform our judgments, and these forms of discourse are not readily apparent or transferable to an unaccustomed Western audience (210). The Native American artworks that Lauter chooses to accompany his essay are stunning and, to his credit, do indeed implore the reader to embrace the contradictions in applying Western criteria of art evaluation to works that defy such application. In comparison to the other theorists' work represented in this volume, however, Lauter's argument is too abbreviated to be completely effective, and his central thesis--that is, we should adjust our aesthetic understanding when encountering new and unconventional artistic forms--is somewhat naïve when considered next to the multilayered, expansive theories of judgment from other theorists (McHugh, Ickstadt) in this section.
  12. In a similar vein, Amelia Jones challenges a prominent critical position, this one proffered by art historian David Hickey, that emphasizes the exclusivity of art appreciation and the self-evident beauty of a cultural production. Jones argues in "Beauty Discourse and the Logic of Aesthetics" that Hickey, whose book The Invisible Dragon (1993) won the most distinguished art criticism prize, invokes Ruskin-esque qualitative, universal judgments about art and has "occlud[ed] the contingency of meaning and value and the role of the interpreter" (216). The aesthetic is then used for purposes of naturalized, institutional normative values, values that, while unstated, attempt to distance the art object from identity and cultural politics. Referring once again to Kant, Jones makes the argument that interest, or a "stench of ideology," is inevitably involved in any judgment of beauty, and she incorporates such classical and contemporary figures as Francois Boucher and Robert Mapplethorpe to substantiate her claim (220). I find Jones's criticism of Hickey's aesthetic values particularly convincing, but her gendered critique of Denis Diderot's Kantian aesthetic of disinterestedness is not as thorough as it needs to be. Her forthright final admission in the essay, that she wants "to be" Renee Cox--Cox is represented in one of her own photographs--lends a degree of trust to her preceding argument, as she acknowledges her own interest in the project she has just covered.
  13. The next essay in the collection is by Kathleen McHugh, and her argument is a fluid, connective one for understanding aesthetic criticism through trauma theory. In "The Aesthetics of Wounding: Trauma, Self-Representation, and the Critical Voice," McHugh correlates a Kantian understanding of the imagination, which must reconstitute itself after encountering something beyond its scope of understanding, with traumatic experiences in the human psyche; the subject cannot have access to the event itself and is thus disconnected from history and also from what is "unrepresentable." McHugh makes her argument more concrete by referring to a 1995 article in the New Yorker by art critic Arlene Croce, who dismisses an AIDS-themed art exhibit without actually seeing it. Croce's case, as McHugh describes it, is Neo-Kantian in its elevation of a particular aesthetic standard to that of a universal norm, and Croce enacts the psychological trait of "resistance response" because she self-consciously refers to her understanding of the artwork as beyond her comprehension (245). Roland Barthes's autobiographical writings provide McHugh with a model for an aesthetics of wounding: Barthes disassociates his interest in specific photographs from any concept of beauty and instead, McHugh contends, "identifies photography 'as a wound,' the field in which he considers its meaning and effects is his affect, not that of the objective meaning of photography" (247). McHugh's interest in visual culture helps establish a structural mapping of her central theses throughout this essay, and I consider her consequent theory of autobiography--a genre that she argues can "provide a way to apprehend more fully" the "ineffable and mysteries remainder" outside of the subject during the aesthetic moment--to be particularly useful for teaching this literary genre (250).
  14. The next essay under "Aesthetic Judgment and the Public Sphere" comes from the field of film studies, Chan A. Noriega's "Beautiful Identities: When History Turns State's Evidence." As with Butler's article, Noriega's piece has far-reaching implications, this time with the formation of the aesthetic within the realm of the political. Earlier in the volume, Fluck concludes his essay "Aesthetics and Cultural Studies" with an acknowledgment of the reintegration of the aesthetic into political forms, as political forms naturally invoke an aesthetic attitude (93). Noriega perceives the two forms, the aesthetic and the political, as necessarily interwoven functions and specifically refers to the case of the Federal Trade Commission establishing what Noriega terms a "beautiful identity" for Chicano literature to prove such a plurality of genres (257). For Noriega, historiography comes before history, and the FTC helped establish Chicano cinema in order to recognize the emerging Chicano cultural identity. The state thus acted as an intermediary agent between "the mass media and disenfranchised groups," and the historiographical project was the state's creation of an identity, or community, of the disenfranchised before such a group was distinctively formed and empowered on a social level (257).
  15. The final essay in this collection, Heinz Ickstadt's "Toward a Pluralist Aesthetics," implicitly integrates many of the theories presented by Noriega, Butler, Fluck, Gunn, and Mohanty. (He does so, however, without directly referring to them or their work--sharing, in this respect, the rather too discreet or isolated character of all the essays in the volume.) This shared stance favors a contingent, inconclusive, historically grounded aesthetic model that would recognize "practical, moral, and aesthetic functions as mutually dependent" (267). Such a model would be conversant with "changing social and cultural conditions" (267), Ickstadt argues, and would not eliminate one of the central questions raised in this volume: do universal standards of judgment exist, or can there be a plurality of possible answers to such standards? Ickstadt is careful to distinguish between aesthetic value and aesthetic practice, yet if we are to incorporate his functional, experiential imperative toward cultural productions, then the question of what constitutes an agreed-upon criterion for judgment will still inevitably come into play.
  16. The contemplation of such questions should not be restricted to individual disciplines and categories of experience, and for this reason the volume is pertinent to the whole range of literary and theoretical discussion beyond the field of American Studies, its most immediate object of study. To take a tentative stance toward a plurality of aesthetics provides a model to address what Elliott calls in his introduction "a system [...] aligned with current theories and cultural conditions," and such a system is necessary if we are to continue to work outside of disciplinary boundaries and across cultural identities in our respective fields of study (18). Even if aesthetics is not quite so seriously imperiled as this volume suggests, the book remains valuable for detailing its continued relevance and even necessity for contemporary cultural study.
  17. English Department
    Temple University

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