NUMBER 1 • 2006 • 1 – 12
Thinking between disciplines: an aesthetics of knowledge1
Translated by Jon Roffe
What should be understood by the invocation of an ‘aesthetics of knowledge’? It is clearly not a matter of saying that the forms of knowledge must take on an aesthetic dimension. The expression presupposes that such a dimension does not have to be added as a supplementary ornament, that it is there in every sense as an immanent given of knowledge. It remains to be seen what this implies. The thesis that I would like to present is simple: to speak of an aesthetic dimension of knowledge is to speak of a dimension of ignorance which divides the idea and the practise of knowledge themselves. This proposition evidently implies a presupposition concerning the meaning of ‘aesthetics’. The thesis is the following: aesthetics is not the theory of the beautiful or of art; nor is it the theory of sensibility. Aesthetics is an historically determined concept which designates a specific regime of visibility and intelligibility of art, which is inscribed in a reconfiguration of the categories of sensible experience and its interpretation. It is the new type of experience that Kant systematised in the Critique of Judgement. For Kant, aesthetic experience implies a certain disconnection from the habitual conditions of sensible experience. This is what he summarises as a double negation. The object of aesthetic apprehension is characterised as that which is neither an object of knowledge nor an object of desire. Aesthetic appreciation of a form is without concept. An artist does not give form to a given matter according to a function of knowledge [savoir].
The reasons of the beautiful are thus separate from those of art. They are also separate, though, from the reasons which render an object desirable or offensive. Now, this double
THINKING BETWEEN DISCIPLIINES
negation is not only defined by the new conditions of appreciation of art works. It also defines a certain suspension of the normal conditions of social experience. This is what Kant illustrates at the beginning of the Critique of Judgement with the example of the palace, in which aesthetic judgement isolates the form alone, disinterested in knowing [savoir] whether the palace serves the vanity of the idle rich and for which the sweat of working people has been spent in order to build it. This, Kant says, must be ignored to aesthetically appreciate the form of the palace.
This will to ignorance declared by Kant has not ceased to provoke scandal. Pierre Bourdieu has consecrated six hundred pages to the demonstration of a single thesis: that this ignorance is a deliberate misrecognition [méconnaissance] of what the science of sociology teaches us more and more precisely, to grasp the fact that disinterested aesthetic judgement is the privilege of those alone who can abstract themselves – or who believe that they can – from the sociological law which accords to each class of society the judgements of taste corresponding to their ethos, that is, to the manner of being and of feeling that its condition imposes upon it. The disinterested judgement on the formal beauty of the palace is in fact reserved for those who are neither the owners of the palace nor its builders. It is the judgement of the petit-bourgeois intellectual who, free from worries about work or capital, indulges himself by adopting the position of universal thought and disinterested taste.2 Their exception therefore confirms the rule according to which judgements of taste are in fact incorporated social judgements which translate a socially determined ethos.
Bourdieu’s judgement, and that of all those who denounce the aesthetic illusion, rests on a simple alternative: you know or you do not [on connaît ou on méconnaît]. If you do not know [méconnaît], it is because you do not know [sait] how to look or you cannot look. But to not be able to look is still a way of not...
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