Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Feminist Philosophy and the Aesthetic Creation of Subjectivity

The title of this post comes from an article (actually a chapter) by Monique Roelofs called "Aesthetification as a Feminist Strategy:  On Art's Relational Politics."  which appears in Art and Essence ed. Stephen Davies and Ananta Ch. Sukla (Westport, Conn:  Praeger, 2003): 193-212.  I am not so much interested here in Roelof's actual thesis or problematic as in her account of the aesthetic creation of subjectivity insofar as it relates to the project of everyday aesthetics.  Roelofs observes that feminist philosophy and aesthetics have many things in common. 

Here goes:  "On Western aesthetic paradigms, the aesthetic has borne the weight of integrating aspects of mental and bodily existence, rationality and feeling, private and public life, and nature and culture.  Aesthetic activity has traditionally combined both poles of these four dichotomies.  Other human domains, such as the spheres of moral action, knowledge acquisition, domestic life, official public existence, and the world of everyday labor have in many ways tended to pry these poles apart.  In reconciling these dualities, the aesthetic performs a task that lies close to the heart of contemporary feminist philosophy in the West, as Western feminism is deeply invested in overcoming precisely those dualities between mind-body, reason-emotion/sensation, public and private life, and nature-culture that aesthetic experience has long served to bridge...It is, then, in virtue of its integrative function that aesthetic activity has been able to support feminist critiques of Western rationality and metaphysics."  195-6.

This passage is both profound and important.  It allies feminism with the anti-dualist version of pragmatism found in the philosophy of John Dewey, who himself is the grandfather of everyday aesthetics.  It also shows that everyday aesthetics is not only at the center of aesthetics but at the center of philosophy itself, at least when viewed from a feminist (or at least, as there are many feminisms, this feminist) perspective.  Moreover, it correctly warns theorists of everyday aesthetics not to assume that solutions to problems of everyday aesthetics are just to be found in looking at domestic life and "the world of everyday labor."  These arenas, as conventionally approached, are arguably caught up in an alienated system in which the dichotomies that both feminism and aesthetic practices (such as those found in the arts) tend to (or are designed to) overcome. 

Roelofs sees this as capturing the heart of aesthetic feminism as presented by Kristeva and Irigaray.  Rather than wandering into interpretation of these difficult philosophers, I'll stick with Roelofs here.  Insofar as Kristeva understands experience as aesthetic she may be a contributor to the aesthetics of everyday life, where the aesthetic is not just limited to art and nature, but is pervasive, the key here being the relationship between self and others, a relationship that is aestheticized.  Roelofs quotes Kristeva: "Experience owes its intensity to signs (music, poetry, painting) that must be manipulated through technique or artifice in order to attain a metamorphosis of all the senses, that is, the simultaneity of Being, with the other, with the beloved." (Time and Sense, 1996). I take this to mean something like what Dewey says when he talks about "an experience" which is intense and which covers the continuity between the arts (and experiences of the arts) and the everyday, in which the senses are educated by the arts, and in which the social dimension (of conversation, for example) is essential, the ideal here being a relationship of love between two individuals.  Kristeva sees this as connected to Proust who integrates the historical with the present self through imaginative acts, causing certain sensations and emotions to be experienced in new ways.  For Kristeva, aesthetic experience allows for authentic subjectivity. 

Roelofs finds that Irigaray adds another dimension.  For Irigaray, perception plays a central role in the intimate relation between self and other, allowing mutual growth to be possible. 
This is like Plato's Phaedrus except that sensuous experience is made prominent over the intellectual.  "Purely intellectual relationships, according to Irigaray, deny corporeality.  They prevent mutual, embodied presence to the other." (198)  Further "An intersubjective encounter is a corporeal engagement, a meeting of concrete, sexuate, sensing bodies, that is always also contemplative or spiritual." (198)  This is taken from her book To Be Two (2000).   Perhaps one can take from this that there is a certain ideal of everyday aesthetics, one that takes Plato's idea of the Phaedrus story of mutual development of lover and beloved through a Nietzschean transformation, where the aestheticized experience of everyday life is also eroticized and a sensuous way. 

Roelofs goes on to criticize Kristeva and Irigaray for being ahistorical, constructing a fantasy world of free artistic agency.  This seems fair enough.  She also thinks that Kristeva and Irigaray do not clearly use the concept of the aesthetic in a feminist way since the relevant creative acts could simply fit into the masculinist system.  Fair enough, again.  What Roelofs likes about these two philosophers is their idea that integration of reason, perception, effect and sensation contributes to more enticing intersubjective relationships.

I want to include a final quote in this post which I think captures the essence of Roelofs' own, more politicized, position.  She calls it "aesthetic feminism" or, more specifically, "aesthetification." 

"There are three immediate reasons why constellations of art and gender get electrified in the spheres of a fully relational, embodied presence to other individuals.  It is under conditions of full relational presence to one another that (a) we can work through traditional gender configurations and bring into being new forms of subjectivity that allow for alternative gender configurations; (b) we exist most wholly as aesthetic agents, as agents who inhabit relationships of aesthetic exchange; and (c) we inhabit our minds and out bodies as the aesthetic entities they are.  The mind-body, I suggest (inspired by Irigaray), constitutes an aesthetic system, distinct from but interconnected with other mind-bodies by way of technologies, forms of communication, and socioaesthetic structures...Under conditions of full relational presence to one another's mind-bodies, individuals and integratedly and integratively open to one another's aesthetic forms and matrixes.  They stand in touch with one another's aesthetic powers in all modalities of sensory, affective, and intellectual awareness.

Aesthetification is the project of making oneself and one another most wholly aesthetic.  It is a mode of acting and experiencing aesthetically in relation to self and other.  It is a mode of inhabiting one's mind and one's body as an aesthetic unit.  It is also a way of encountering others as aesthetic entities."  (208)

Maybe all of this is just an overuse of the term "aesthetic" which is seems to be entering into domains never intended.  This has been a criticism of the everyday aesthetics movement in general.  Still, what I would like to take from it is that idea that in my book on everyday aesthetics I neglected this intersubjective dimension and the gendered issues involves.  

No comments: