Ideology and Aesthetic Pleasure

by Rob Horning

15 September 2009


At the Valve, Bill Benzon was wondering about ideology and aesthetics:

I’ve got a question about people’s expressed aesthetic preferences: Does it reflect their sense of immediate satisfaction with the work, a superimposed identity or ideology, or something else?

This is something I’ve thought a lot about, for better or worse. Most of my ideas about it are derived from Bourdieu’s Distinction and Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic.

First, when tastes become reflexive, consciously curated, they become predominantly signaling mechanisms: we want to project a certain identity through the tastes we choose to advertise and by managing carefully to try to conceal the tastes we think are less flattering to us. That’s almost self-evident, I think. At the point when we are trying to catalog our own tastes, the sense of it being our “real” taste is gone—one can’t know one’s own aesthetic response, for to think it is to destroy its spontaneity. Identity—if there is such a thing that predates our self-fashioning—is probably like that too; we glimpse it only by accident, only while we are trying to see something else. It’s much easier and much more convincing when others tell us who we are and what we are like and even what we seem to enjoy than for us to know ourselves directly—our self-knowledge is too distorted by wishes, secret shame, denial, grandiosity, modesty, and a variety of other expectations we are always in the process of juggling.
Our efforts to signal identity through conscious control of our tastes are shaped by ideology. We are guided by what we understand as representing the class to which we think we belong and how much we mean to struggle against that affiliation. Our skill in reading signals and assigning interpretations to them are all inflected by class habitus, which itself is thoroughly ideological—meant to protect class boundaries and generally speaking, reproduce the existing social order and power structure. That’s not to say our tastes are phony to the degree they are calculated. But taste is not ever free of all calculation, an expression of pure spontaneity and of our inner quality—that is the most ideological position of all: My inner refinement is revealed by my altogether genuine and natural pleasure in Brahms while your innate vulgarity is inevitable and unavoidably revealed by your unthinking joy in Coldplay. We respond to what we have prepared the way for, and that often can be controlled through deliberate planning, i.e., I will read about the French New Wave filmmakers and the associated criticism so that I will understand and “really” appreciate Godard’s Week-End, which in turn will make me think that I am cool. If we don’t seize upon that preparation process and make it conscious, we will be signaling our contentment with being guided by coincidence, the tastes of our friends and family, marketing information, the zeitgeist, and so on. We probably won’t reveal our inner taste so much as become a barometer for prevailing popular taste.

So there is no point in our trying to figure out our “real tastes” so that we can tell ourselves that we have become more authentic. We should forget all about making authenticity to ourselves a criteria for pleasure. Pleasure may or may not be spontaneous, but it is all too frequently rare, so we probably shouldn’t spurn it when it comes. But we can’t opt out of the ways in which our pleasures are imbricated with class snobbery. Class identity seems to be one of enabling conditions for experiencing many, many forms of pleasure (if not all of them)—the pleasure of belonging, of excluding, of knowing where you are and what you might become, the pleasure of winning. Pleasure is not necessarily a social good. Likewise, aesthetic pleasure is not virtuous or politically innocent. When I listened to abrasive music as a teenager, it was because in part I hoped it wcould serve as a kind of nonviolent weapon as well as a nonpermanent tattoo—marking me as a certain type and driving the wrong sort away. IO tried to elevate these desires to feelings—incontrovertible and irreversible—by feeling them in the music. Then I could feel as though the music carried me to where I belonged.

Anyway, what is more interesting, I think, is that the tastes we aren’t entirely conscious of—the aesthetic responses we don’t guide or manufacture for ourselves, are also ideological, in a more profound and insidious way, shaping the field in which we conceive our identity projects. Eagleton’s thesis is that the aesthetic is how we experience the law—the demands of the state, or of power more generally—spontaneously, as though it was our own desire and entirely natural, unquestionable. This does wonders for replacing coercion (what repressive socialist states needed to maintain control) with consent (what Western democracies/plutocracies make do with). The category of the aesthetic is how we come to embrace and seem to invent what was already necessary; it is how we love Big Brother while still feeling free enough to work within “free markets” and contribute to the “spontaneous order” they are held to produce. Eagleton:

For power to be individually authenticated, there must be constructed with in the subject a new form of inwardness which will do the unpalatable work of the law for it, and all the more effectively since that law has now apparently evaporated…. Power is shifting its locations from centralized institutions to the silent, invisible depths of the subject itself.

Later he calls the aesthetic “no more than a name for the political unconscious,” “shorthand for a whole project of hegemony,” and he verges close to simply equating “ideology” and “aesthetic”—“lawfulness without a law” in Kant’s formulation.

This sort of logic leads to skepticism of depth psychology as a whole—all forms of identity making—as a kind of insidious plot to make us all slaves to an idea of ourselves that really comes from the state. Hence, a particular strain of radical counterattack, which consists of “free play”—destabilize your identity, embrace sundry forms of anarchic behavior (free love, squatting, drifiterism), and escape into the margins. This seems a bit impractical. Also, this would entail surrendering all the pleasures and comforts of being somebody.


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