Brian Holmes on Sun, 25 Aug 2019 08:48:33 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> from Meatloaf to penalty Shoot Outs

Sean wrote:

"I'm beginning work on a hypothesis about aesthetic politics, so very timely"

Well, I don't know if the below will be of any help, but anyway, here goes.

I think the usual shortfall when it comes to the relation of aesthetics and politics is to assume a seamless transition between them. In retrospect you may find a single dominant aesthetic and correlate it to a dominant politics, as Hegel or other Romantic historians did with their notion of Spirit (Geist). In the mid-twentieth century, that led some political regimes to try to impose such a totalizing correlation on their people. But in lived experience, individuals usually encounter multiple aesthetics, that is, multiple sensuous patternings that they partially internalize and use, not always very consciously, as a way to navigate the endless questions of good/bad, like/don't like. What the old saws about "there's no accounting for taste" cover up is not some absolute determination of the aesthetic by the political. They cover up a longstanding political recognition that what really matters in the aesthetic experience of populations is not total unity, but instead, individual satisfaction and catharsis. When aesthetic satisfactions make people politically compliant, that's perfect for the rulers. The plethora of divergent aesthetic experiences available to neoliberal subjects is a case in point.

The question then becomes, what is a resistant aesthetics? How does it circulate? How does it resonate with other resistant aesthetics? How can solidarity be experienced aesthetically? And when or how does aesthetics get in the way of political solidarity, which is never total but pretty much always, solidarity in struggle?

Living in the US, I constantly see the ways that so-called minority groups use aesthetic education - both commercial cultural production and university instruction - to foster kinds of resistance that both help people individuate, and help them develop solidarities with others. This is done increasingly consciously, not only by the producers and educators, but by individuals deliberately cultivating resistant tastes. There are pitfalls, sure, but on balance it's very impressive.

If the "real subsumption of labor by capital" has a meaning, it definitely has to do not just with the indoctrination of workers on the job, but above all with the efforts of industrialists to create the kind of consumer who would be adequate to capitalist overproduction. This was already an issue in the postwar period, with what's called "Sloanism" in the auto industry, and a lot more flagrantly, with Madison Avenue theorists such as Ernst Dichter, not a poet as his name might suggest, but the author of "Strategy of Desire" in the early Sixties. The question was, how could you set up a kind of theoretical grid to track multiple aesthetics, correlate them with products, and normalize the transition from one group of desires/ products to the next one, higher up on the value chain? Well, they succeeded to a high degree in doing just that. It was a kind of psychodynamic mapping, and it's exactly what the neo-Dada aesthetics I mentioned before - above all, the Situationist derive - sought to subvert and destroy, through surprise and indeterminacy.

Even though networked neoliberalism has been iniquitous from the start, it's only now, with surveillance capitalism, that it has got anywhere near the capacity for aesthetic manipulation that the corporates had in the Fifities/Sixties. But then as now, the pure (niche) products are revolting. The culmination of any market-based attempt to seduce social subjects into unity is always chaos. Only a nationalist/military/disciplinary approach can bind aesthetic experience to unitary ideology.

So let's change the subject. What happens when sectors of the dominant groups - say, the "white middle classes" - start to embrace resistant aesthetics? That's the question of the present. Will it just lead to cultural splintering and the subsequent cooptation of alienated groups, as it did in the aftermath of the Sixties? I doubt it, because conditions are immeasurably worse, even for the formerly coddled white middle classes. People touched by one of the multiple aesthetics of resistance look around them, and they see that their adversaries have got the whole Hegelian/Romantic unitary thing going again. It looks a lot like fascism - the "aestheticization of politics," according to Benjamin - and they're even burning tiki-torches. No one left-of-center can stomach that, unless things are even worse than I think. So there is a really urgent need to understand how multiple aesthetics resonate with each other. How does metonymy work, how does the part stand in for the whole? How does my personal aesthetic patterning become a gateway to shared struggles? How does it not become a holistic illusion, when what matters are the real contradictions? That's the heart of the question today, even for that old behemoth, the Democratic Party. They're not going to be able to triangulate, they're not going to be able to subsume all these multiple felt complaints under one manipulative framework as they used to do. And they're terrified they won't find a new way of operating - as I am too, by the way. To say there is as yet no political formation to match the situation is a grievous understatement.

All of this was just another way of saying why the fraught relation between decolonial and ecological aesthetics is so important right now.

best, Brian

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