You are on page 1of 22

Pedro Rocha de Oliveira Aestheticization of Reality

It is evidentto quote Theodor Adornothat

art has lost its self-evidence. Theory, however Adornos includedsuffers the same fate. In a world where objectivity is repeated as ideology, instead of being mediated by it; where the defeat of transcendent notions like heaven or the free market lead to the need to hypostasize immanence as free and fundamentally unproblematic; and where the dominant discourse is that of pluralism, diversity, and self-expression, the human sciences have degraded into the restful reproductive conventions of an academic division of labor. The free entrepreneurial spirit of the liberal days of critical philosophywhich, since its advent some two hundred years ago, had now and then to morph into messianic radicalism in order to preserve itselfhas of late sunk into a busy kind of harmlessness. A conformist public cynicism, a form of sedate consciousness perhaps prepared by the unbearable tension of the cold war, complements excited extremist discourse whose promise is the destruction of nothing less than terror itself. It also keeps constant and careful records of global warming while seldom questioning frenzied capitalist production as its cause. And both, far from being tools designed to
South Atlantic Quarterly 108:2, Spring 2009 DOI 10.1215/00382876-2008-033 2009 Duke University Press

266 Pedro Rocha de Oliveira

veil the brutality unleashed by the current predatory form of socialization, work rather as descriptions of it, so that no complaints against inconsistency can be filed in the department of ideological critique. Theory is driven to take the shape either of specialized discourse that interests and implicates none but the specialists and their departmental disputes or of a patronizing academic leniency that is respectful of everybodys views to the point of jeopardizing the possibility of resisting the commonsensical stupidity of industrialized opinions manufactured for every taste. Even the critical theory that once, with Adorno himself, tried to work against this sterilization of ideological critique has, in the face of democratized mass education, been objectively reduced to attempts at formal sophistication whose tangible result is an autotelic difficulty carefully enshrined in the ivory tower even as it is recommended and advocated through state-funded popularizing commentaries. Those disciplines that produce no salable goods, submitted to the same managerial principles that control their more negotiable cousins, are required to mind their popularity and commercial appeal, so that, inside the lecture room, it should hardly be unexpected that what concretely takes place is more often than not a tactful direct continuation of the ways of thinking and acting that exist outside it. The new, pragmatically conscientious fields of knowledge such as sustainable development studies, in their intrinsic urgency, are sheltered by the politically correct mission of coming up with ideas for a decaying world instead of thinking against itto the point where it becomes reasonable for a BBC news item to affirm that global warming is good for business. If art, then, is no longer easily distinguishable from commercialized junk, neither can theory be straightforwardly set apart from meek standardized opinion. On the spiritual level, a late capitalist society that creates ever-new and shiny needs reproduces itself through fragmented and minutely particular theoretical efforts. Discourseand perhaps this is a way of making sense of Michel Foucault, turning his injunctions into drastic warningscolonizes whatever is tiny and individual. It includes sexuality, gender, affect, bringing to the voice of late capitalist academia all that up until recently was outside the range of theory. Once capitalist accumulation has secured a firm foothold on official institutions, it proceeds downward. Economic expansion in the big markets is not possible anymore, as competition continuously narrows into monopoly. Now it must be about the micrological realm where needs can be createdwhere what Zeno called the infinite insurmountable space between too-adjacent figures is to

Aestheticization of Reality 267

be filled with disposable stuff. Industry struggles toward specificity, schematizing the singular humans psyche and body. Discourse follows suit. The grand narrative of old that seems to have been either forgotten or beaten to death is thus acting itself out behind mens backs (as the formula went) in its radical concretenessto put it another way, under their very noses, that is, in the immediate contact with each and every part of the whole that, in the past, it encompassed but abstractly, mandatorily, from above. Todays small and pluralistic narratives are the narratives of the downward expansion of late capitalism. The demands for expression, acceptance, freedom, higher salaries, welfare, social benefits, agency, equality, and difference are all essentially demands for a place under the sun of late capitalism, even though they can be that only insofar as they avoid (ugly, oldfashioned) discourses about capitalism itself. But this is hardly a problem of personal dedication on the part of the professionals of thought; more likely, it is a consequence of the fact that thought is a profession. Theory is no safe haven from the contradictions of capitalist society but part of them. The same holds for art, which did not lose its self-evidence because a camarilla of naughty artists with no respect for tradition wanted it to or because an autonomous sphere of activity collapsed onto itself led by contradictions in its Dionysian inner rationality. The crisis in art that marked the appearance and the end of modernism must be understood as a social event. Just as real, social problems cannot be solved by writing a poem or carving a sculpture, so cannot a sculpture or a poem create a social problem out of nothing. Therefore, the artworks that lost their aura began to be indistinguishable from other colorful and sonorous social products that were capable now of penetrating the aesthetic sphere and replacing whatever was there. If a deaestheticization of art took place at some point, it did so only in the context of an aestheticization of reality. And aestheticization of reality is not an aesthetic phenomenon: indeed, the replacement of the sphere of art by cultural industry or entertainment is not the particularly alarming social trace against which the notion of aestheticized reality is brought about and mobilized. The concept intends to be a key to deciphering contemporary society, especially its ideology, in terms of behaviors peculiar to it, of which the aesthetic ones are far from being the most dangerous. Its logical origins are in Marxism and Frankfurtian psychoanalytical cultural critique, but it is intended to be in a more efficient relation to social experience itself than to the history of thought.

268 Pedro Rocha de Oliveira

What aestheticization of reality primarily points to, then, is the perception that even though late capitalism behaves too much like a Brechtian character played by an evidently decrepit actor who carries a signboard reading a young man, the loss of the awareness of the explosive, critical content of the farcical element, rather than being fought against by a theory that needs little enough subtlety to denounce the obvious, must be recognized in its specificity. To think otherwise, and to emphasize the moment of the loss of accurate, enlightened consciousness as the target of criticism, would be to repeat the mildly leftish elitist idealism that, feeding from much of the later Frankfurt School, redounds in the self-complacency of academics who (often not without quoting Antonio Gramsci) believe firmly in the importance of their own existence. Adorno accounted for this with an important element of bad consciousness in his acutely self-critical theorizing. So, if what the above characters signboard says is Capitalism is doing fine, it is not meant to say that despite what one sees but as a description of what one sees. The kind of lie that is involved in contemporary ideology, because of its sheer brutalityand very like the playful falsity that once characterized the make-believe domain of the aestheticis not one that can be dispelled by some cunning truth-telling standpoint. The lie is not a matter of determining whether or not, and why, capitalism is doing fine. It does not function on the level of judgments but on that of definitions and name-calling. It is not a matter of playing down social violence, not even portraying it as a pathway to some bright futureespecially since such a future does not seem to be describable from any quarter anyway. Both the mild, endemically urgent efforts at public funding by governments of the underdeveloped Left and the institutionalized global terrorism of the developed Right go back to a fundamental assent to an essentially truculent socialization principle that requires unrestricted submission of individual and collective fate to economic demands. Because of the unstoppably increasing levels of exploitation that need to compensate an inevitably overcrowded international market, their fulfilment is impossible without continuous integration of violence into civilized life. The culture that bears witness to the fact that violence and civilization get along very well is not only one that represents violence (which of course it does abundantly) but one that represents violently in order to do away with the place from which those who experience it would react to representation as something represented. It is useless, for instance, to demand a justification for the Central Intelligence Agencys use of torture once it has openly admitted

Aestheticization of Reality 269

to it, and the judging of torture techniques as efficient by the president of the United States, the Republican presidential candidate, and the CIA agents is hardly to be disputed, inasmuch as people obviously do tend to be far more cooperative when submitted to torture. Yet the problem is not that there is no ideological standpoint that could be taken against this (one can always quote, for instance, the Geneva Conventions or the Declaration of the Rights of Man) but that the authoritarian impudence with which those in power discuss the usefulness of torture objectively puts them beyond the scope of questions of rational legitimacy. A similar example can be derived from the activity of Brazilian police, a publicly funded force for preserving peace that kills an average of three resisting suspects every day, what occurs in the context of the second presidential mandate of a left-wing personality who obtained the second largest number of votes in the history of Western democracy. Inasmuch as social violence is integrated in the reproduction of societies that nevertheless continue calling themselves democratic societies, what takes place is that the specific meaning of the descriptor is preserved even though the objects it used to describe are replaced by the content of whatever is described. Democracy is basically understood as something good and worth defending even by means of institutionalized violence and authoritarianism, despite its being incompatible, of course, with institutionalized violence and authoritarianism. This relation between the fictional description and the object that is rescued by the description is what is specific to aestheticized reality. There is no attempt to portray reality in such a way as to adequate it to a lofty concept. It is the lofty concept that is at once preserved and extended to cover a reality that, therefore, cannot any longer appear as lowly. There is no ultimate truth to be grasped or paradise to be won. The present-day war on terror is hardly able to point at anything better than or different from this same world of terrorism and warfare. Authoritarian democracy is, therefore, not only an important example of the ideological problem but its political root. Ideology as justification through transcendence has lost the fundamental place it had within the nonhierarchical society that was the result of the 200-year-old bourgeois revolutions. This bears witness to the intrinsic limitation of the ability that capitalism has of being and appearing to be inclusive, economically open, and receptive. As the liberal phase is overcome by concentration and monopoly, capitalist modernization leaves no more room for transcendent utopia, and therefore, the social importance of thought dims. But inasmuch as theory, nevertheless,

270 Pedro Rocha de Oliveira

marches on, it inevitably acquires the slack aspect and the powerless content that many forms of relativism praise as the epitome of the freedom of thoughtindeed, the pure negative freedom that G. W. F. Hegel identified as the mark of lack of bindingness between the concept and its object, the freedom to be irrelevant and wrong. Inasmuch as political ideology retreats more and more from the role of justification, thought as a whole is condemned to the role of describing with a richness of words something whose real content remains unaltered. Thought becomes important insofar as it simply appears. It assumes an aesthetic function. A recent BBC news item described prisons for immigrants in terms that might have been used to describe hotels; and in Multitude, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri write of starved immigrants as an ongoing revolution that is already happening and transgressing the systema confusion between contradiction and its overcoming. In a sense, to solve real problems in terms of representation has been traditionally considered the role of ideology: value-laden discourse would either excuse the state of things or try to indicate a spiritual compensation for it. The form of the image of the solution, however, is what has been altered in late capitalist society. For now, what it involves is the direct transmutation of hopelessness into hope. Witness the European green activists who openly disparage discourses about saving the world but who stick maniacally to their green lightbulbs and no-flight demos all the same (so that anyone, by means of a simple exercise of logic, could be led to ask, what for?). Or consider the Brazilian agrarian reform activists who shift painlessly from a rigid exposition of historical materialism to a discussion about how to integrate the Landless Workers Movement into the national biofuel production scheme in which trade unionists have recently demanded (and of course achieved) leave to work longer days. The mixture of hopelessness for the system and blind submission to it is as irrational as can be but is eagerly anticipated as an adequate response to bad reality. The very impulse of thinking beyond immanence is repressed: not by practical insight into a way in or out, or by a fictional elaboration on a further state of things, but by engaging in a discourse that overlooks the problem of the solution and collapses the sphere of the desirable with that of the available. On the one side, there is both the acknowledgment of the need for change and disbelief in a solution or a happy outcome; on the other, there is persistence in a sort of activity that, therefore, falls short of solving anything but is still thought of as desirable and efficient. Terry Eagletons char-

Aestheticization of Reality 271

acterization of the (early) postmodernist phenomenon as an emancipation movement that did not believe in emancipation describes this in inverted terms. We do our part is the motto. But it somehow presupposes that the part is sufficient and must be, therefore, equal to the whole. The lack of aims transcending the given, to which those engaged in this mock activity admit more or less gladly, causes the fulfilling commentary accompanying it to suggest objectively that, even though it is useless, it should be experienced as efficient (empowering is the English activist jargon). This emphasis on the experience of activity, instead of its results and aims, characterizes it as aesthetic. What is at stake is a rapport to life that takes place according to the form of what was once the rapport to art. It is also possible to see this in terms of a sophisticated form of conformism, one that actually makes Aldous Huxleys Everybody is happy nowadaysthe comforting mantra propagated by official media in his Brave New World (1932)appear to have been a too-optimistic look at things. We are closer to Everybody is unhappy nowadays; we just learn not to give a damn. And Herbert Marcuse seems retrospectively to have put too much trust in our inability to experience suffering beyond a certain limit, having overlooked the depth of the interconnection between the death drive and the pleasure principle. Indeed, another way of thinking about this is through the Freudian concept of narcissism. The crucial experience involved in aestheticized reality is not that of a real, external object but that of an ego object. The object appears only to the extent that it is gratifying that it does so, and the meager self-satisfaction thus obtained causes the external object to be forgotten. To that extent, as concerns theory, the disappearance of the form of transcendence as such, the utter loss of an emphatic utopian momenta loss that has been prepared ever since Immanuel Kants prescription of a cool relationship with ideascauses immanence itself to become uninteresting. It is in this context that interpretation and particular opinion gain more prominence than truth or that elaboration of immanence becomes more important than judgments on it. The way is open for a pure and sheer conceptual elaboration that does not want to pass itself any longer as theory but as a theory between quotation marks, one that is aware of its own status as (sometimes mere) discourse. In many quarters, this self-deprecating awareness, however, is sought as a blessing in disguise, a protection against grand narratives. But insofar as the point, therefore, goes back to an attempt of ideology to defend itself against its own ideological character, the functionality of ideology,

272 Pedro Rocha de Oliveira

now as ever, revolves around a forgetfulness of its status as such. In this sense, an orthodox Marxist notion of ideology is, to a certain extent, still useful. Self-proclaimed littleness and relativity is as naive as Descartess recognition that our means of perception impinge a change on objects, from which he would go on to devise ways to correct that change. In political discourse, self-saving self-damning takes the shape of theories such as Negris or Raoul Vaneigems that mistake the subjective overcoming of the experience of capitalism with the actual suppression of whatever causes that experience. And if proof was lacking that a differentiation between the two is still possible, one could point to the consistency with which such discourses avoid addressing the latter. In literary theory, the fact that criticism heavily employs such linguistic functions as metaphor and allegory to spin its analyses bespeaks its commitment to a self-annihilating apologetics that makes discourse produced by real people in real seminars look like that spoken by characters from symbolist novels. In an allegory of the logic of neoliberalism, which, in late capitalism, causes the market that was once essentially defined by the epithet of free to be possible only by tight state control (be it through the army or the interest rate), theory avoids irrelevance by running away from relevance. Instead of attempting to dissolve the playful opaqueness of its objects by means of a discourse that would relate problematically to that opaqueness, a new ludic discourse is created. Meaning is sought in the repetition of the nearly meaningless, as in some simplistic musical forms. The subjects forming effort, its metabolization of reality in terms more palatable and accessible to the subject and its urges (the psychoanalytical role of discourse and the traditional political role of theory), is displaced by a confirmation of what is merely given as already compatible with experience. The old left-wing project of overcoming alienationof bringing socialized human-made reality under social controlgives way to a rushed theoretical euphoria that renames as reconciled the very condition of alienation. The focus of this renaming operation is, again, not reality but the way it is experienced. That theory should be so immanently implicated in the aestheticization of reality is due to its general form: it is concerned with what is, and being is at the same time immediately present and played down by the processes involved in the aestheticization of reality, according to a general mechanism that formally reminds one of psychotic states. In order that horrifying reality may become acceptable and render the sensation of horror

Aestheticization of Reality 273

impossible, it is not enough to mask the horrifying behind a mitigated elaboration, as in neurosis and bourgeois idealism. What is required is to have the horrifying content itself made intimate. The content of realityits horrifying characteris preserved within another form. Horror does not stand against the subject and in spite of the subject, as real things do, but is incorporated in the subject and surrounded with the amicable aura of what has been made one with experience: a nice horror is the result. But since the experience itself was not undertakenthat is, since horror was not really dealt withthe relationship toward experience takes over the form of the relationship toward being. The nice horror is therefore taken to be something that simply is. Its spontaneous mode of being is taken to be already that of the bearable result of the repressed experience. Horror, as found in the world, already appears as nice. The world of aestheticized reality is, therefore, also that of reified experience. Theory not only wants to do away with itself (an intellectual subterfuge that, according to Hegel, is essential to theory of knowledge as such and was therefore already known in the sixteenth century), but it does not actually need to take the trouble to do so. It supposes itself not to have any relevance from the start, playing its assigned role in the reproduction of reified experience. Art, however, whose domain is not being but appearance, reactsor was able to react, rather, for a whileagainst this. The fundamental accomplishment of ideology that is characteristic of the phenomena involved in the aestheticization of reality is the collapse of reality and experience into one another, so that the specific effort involved in experiencing is repressed. But the specific domain of appearance is precisely that in which whatever takes place does so as experience: appearance qua appearance, as in art that assumes itself as such. It appears in certain circumstances to someone paying attention. In abstract terms, the awareness elicited by self-critical artworks produces precisely the opposite effect or has a form opposite to the aestheticization of reality. If aestheticized reality offers contents that are subsumed to a form that erases itself as such, the form of antiaesthetical art organizes content in such a way that its disposition stands against form in a sort of resistance that puts it in evidence, without, however, doing away with it (for, then, what would the artwork consist of at all?). The process of making appearances appear as such (what Walter Benjamin and, after him, Adorno described as saving or rescuing experience, particularity, or the thing) has as its object, therefore, not something that is hidden or wrong. On the

274 Pedro Rocha de Oliveira

contrary, it aims at something too right, something whose ideological place was so well defined that it ceased to be a place at all. A good random example of the way this works is seen in Picassos 1967 drawing Le Baiser: hair, teeth, tongue, the darkness of the mouth, the deepness of the nostrils, wide staring eyes, all get in the way of that harmless, sterilized Hollywood manifestation of a peaceful conciliation that happens only when no disruptive other is present. Instead, what appears is a predatory sexuality that is inimical not only to middle-class decency but also (in harmony with a famous remark by Sigmund Freud) to beauty itself. Not that the raw, somewhat beastly, and even slightly destructive sexual impulse appears in a raw, beastly, and purely destructive way. No discourse or artwork is capable of reaching out for something that actually predates artwork and discourse and remains, as a pure urge, necessarily other than it. To think otherwise, to believe that the urge can be realized in the right kind of discourse, art, or theory, is to destroy any possibility of acknowledging the continued history and existence of the repressed. This is the way the Nietzschean-Deleuzian-Lacanian concept of desire as well as the less fleshy but still similar Heideggerian talk of Earth and Being contributes and merges smoothly with the aestheticization of reality. Picassos Le Baiser, thenand this holds for the general artistic form it promotesis not a positive statement of rawness. Rawness is logically what cannot be stated: it is, objectively, a negative critique of the conciliatory, aseptic, self-satisfied tones with which kissing was painted by cinema at the time. This negative critique, moreover, happens as art: the kissing figures are not immediately sexually enticing, and they appeal to no social patterns of beauty or desirability, drawing from them only in order to elicit their contraries. They are obviously figures in a drawing, and therefore, no new conciliation is offered. This can be understood, again negatively, in the face of what cinema now, fifty years later, is prepared to display in terms of sex. Obviously, today, that direct sexual enticement and representation are good for business is widely exploited by the film industry. But even though the critical aspects of Le Baiser are altered by the ubiquitous contemporary representation of the sexual act, they are far from erased beyond recognition. Realist representation of copulation itself works culturally in the direction not of criticizing or negating the well-behaved rubbing-lips kisses of the 1950s but of expanding the good behavior and asepsis of social patterns of desirability and sensual predictability to where no woman or man had gone before.

Aestheticization of Reality 275

For sex to become a public concern is hardly to overcome the repression of private urges but to develop this repression in nearly absolute terms. Le Baiser, inasmuch as it remains an unrealistic representation, is still able to remind us, by being a sham appearance, of the doubly sham character of the clean world of depilated women and mechanical orgasm. By evidencing the act of representation itself, even as they draw into themselves images of social institutions such as kissing, bureaucracy, food, political dissent, and whatnot, aesthetically self-critical artworks stage the irreconcilement that social life is increasingly unable to accept and have a place for. But even as they do so, they are not able to create social acceptance of irreconcilement: art is a substitute both for the fulfillment of desire and for its unfulfillment. When, by refusing to assume realist traces, art publicly asserts its (merely) artistic aspectits unreal aspectit displays the limits of the real and is, in this way, critical of it. It is in this context that Adornos insistence that art be understood as a form of knowledge acquires its sense. The result of the saving of experience is a judgment passed on social reality that says it has no place for the experience whose saving has to be played out in a farce. The judgment is not in the artwork, however, but in a theoretical approach that will be ready to look for it. Aesthetically critical art is not immediately or in itself aesthetically critical but depends on a specifically oriented theoretical effort to thus appear. Such theoretical effort develops from the basic and rather unpretentious awareness of the aesthetical quality of art, that is, of the fact that it involves presentation of semblances, of images of actions, experiences, ideas, institutionsimages that cannot be taken as actions, experiences, ideas, institutions. By acknowledging that what is being presented is not being, the approach to aesthetically critical art understands that the content itself of the artwork is not the knowledge that the artwork gives. Picasso is hardly saying that Le Baiser is what kissing is really like, although, on experiencing it, one sometimes might be led to think that it is much more like that than the kisses in the final episode of a soap opera. Le Baiser makes the point that there is something left out of aestheticized extra-artistic kissing. But this has to do with much more than kissing alone: it is the whole social collection of realist representation and the formeffacing, formally unaware cultural form that produces it that is deemed wrong. This universal criticism, on its turn, is the product of the dialectics of form and content: formally self-aware and self-critical artworks are able to bring forth the form and the forming process only inasmuch as the very

276 Pedro Rocha de Oliveira

content they are bound to present is freed of its reified form, that is, inasmuch as the content, a piece out of aestheticized reality, is deaestheticized, the deaestheticization itself being the appearance of forma problem that Samuel Beckett registered in the formula peint ce quempche de peintre. The failure to perceive this engenders the confusion with which Fredric Jameson is faced when he argues that Andy Warhol presents commodification perfectly but is not critical of it. Presentation itself, appearance itself, is not immediately critical: more than anything, the commodity has no lack of space to appear in contemporary society, whose ideological form is not obscurantist. In this case, however, appearance does not appear as such. The recognition of the apparent as apparentand, therefore, as humanmade, historicalis the effect of aesthetic reflexiveness and self-critique that criticizes social ideology: nothing very different, actually, from what Bertolt Brecht set out to accomplish in epic theater. All this means is that in order to be recognized as such, the antifetishistic appearance delivered by aesthetically critical art demands that theory lose its fetishistic approach to reality, and both these defetishizing moves are hinted at by the concept of aestheticized reality. Existentialist novels like Jean-Paul Sartres La Nause (1938) depend on the insight that human reality is a quest for meaning of an aesthetic sort, to the point that the solution of the plot involves the characters decision of giving up history and engaging in literature. The experiences narrated in the novel, then, offer themselves almost as examples to be followed in real life. Honor de Balzacs La Comdie humaine (17991850), on the other hand, is based on the presupposition that life can be represented according to a network of connected unities of meaning articulated to create the appearance of a fundamental meaningfulness that overcomes the text and appeals to the reader as a dreamy, abstract commentary on reality: the conclusion to be derived from the false likeness that Balzac produces through his hugely complex networks of literary protagonists and events could be that there is meaning out there; there must be, a statement, by the way, that could be taken as the motto of the liberal shop owner or petty producer. The point of the critical approach that is oriented by the concept of the aestheticization of reality is to neither be convinced to follow the example nor compelled to accept the commentary, but rather to intervene in the communication between art and reality and inquire, among other things, what makes it possible. The opposite of this operation would be a form of theory that in its behavior toward artworks accepts their contents in order to promote

Aestheticization of Reality 277

something formally identical to the aestheticization of reality: a confusion between the processes of being and the processes of appearance. To some extent, Georg Lukcs is an example of this, in his defense of a certain kind of literary realism in the face of what he takes to be the pessimism of artists such as Franz Kafka or Beckett. Lukcs fails to perceive that the aesthetic representation of hope takes place according to processes that are entirely different from those that bring about real hope in a revolutionary process. The ability to represent hope and the ability to act hopefully are two entirely different capacities, conditioned by incommensurable kinds of circumstances. The belief that a novel, built out of political elements and developing to a happy, empowering ending, contributes somehow to the achievement of ends in real political practice has been historically neutralized and proved wrong by the form that conformism has taken in the context of aestheticized reality, the substitution of the achievement by the confusion between its representation and the reality where it did not take place. Indeed, to theoretically insist that there is something political to be achieved in the very act of producing optimistic artworks that show a way out would be no different qualitatively from the aristocratically minded Heideggerianism that is silently convinced of the social importance of the question of Being and would amount objectively to the commodified new age Orientalism that believes in the importance of keeping your mind full of good thoughts. It is to the extent that contemporary ideology constructs and depends on a sphere of representation that behaves like being, according to exactly the same form as used to be prerogative of artworks (before they became selfcritical, that is), that both theory and art invite the same antiaesthetical theoretical criticism. It is true that a reality that is permeated by reified experience presents an aesthetic problem, inasmuch as the impetus of aesthetic creation and representation that turns itself to the world is confronted with something that can be elaborated in its own terms. Clearly, when Marcel Proust explodes the narrative consistency of the bourgeois novel and, in so doing, is able to convey through a dreamy experience the lack of substance of aristocratic life in the new century, the representational problem reaches beyond itself to a social one. But the solution of the aesthetic problem is not the solution of the social one: aesthetic ideological criticism remains purely denunciative, accusatory, negativeand only when it does not (or until it did not) succumb to sheer powerless abstract formalism.

278 Pedro Rocha de Oliveira

The last clownishly heroic endeavor of the critical theory that would turn against aestheticized reality, therefore, must be to relativize its own accomplishments. Nowadays, every judgment that says how bad things are or how good they should be is automatically subjected to the logic of aestheticized reality: to the happy-go-lucky, albeit masochistic, mentality that, in the teeth of world nuclear rearmament, right-wing state fundamentalism, and natural catastrophe, accepts another free opinion abstractly, simply to the degree that it is free. It does so not to the extent that it has content but insofar as it enforces the appearance of otherness-oriented postmodern democracy. Given the existence of forms of pseudocritical cinema and music that incorporate violence in both form and content, even the science that would prove the imminent and inevitable annihilation of the conditions of human life wouldand indeed does, as the recent rediscussions of the Kyoto protocol showedfall on the category of well-behaved despair that feeds on the sameness of the simply other, the oldness of the abstractly new, and the irrelevance of what is a priori relevant. Both the (originally German) trend of theory that preaches (return of ) belief in an emphatic concept of Western civilization and the (originally French) one that mostly professes skepticism of civilization (but in its minority tactics presupposes liberal Right and a watchful democratic state) are guilty of benefiting from this state of affairs. Their general behavior is that of a self-sufficient theoretical standpoint that supposedly furnishes reality with the missing jigsaw pieces so that it can better be what it is. They hang about reality just as a moralizing commentary appends itself to a situation that already happened anyway. They either dispense praxis altogether or understand it as so contiguous to the way things are that it is as good as dispensed with. This state of thingsthe marketplace of opinions where undead liberalism still walkshas to be incorporated in theoretical development in the form of a self-critique of theory similar to that of artworks. In the end, works of art must disavow their own existence as the separate aesthetic sphere whose crystalline autonomy, like Kants pure reason, is still able to criticize itself with an enviable sobriety. A radically modernist, Adornian concept of the appearance of freedom, which could be mobilized in defiance of Schillerian oxymoronic freedom in appearance, speaks to precisely the same kind of problem. To be aware of the aestheticization of reality is not to deaestheticize it. Ultimate deaestheticization would work on the awareness that when art dispels its own illusion, it is just the semblance of dispelling. The bottom line is the critical reduction of dispelling

Aestheticization of Reality 279

to the social status of the appearing categories, to extra-aesthetical conflicts that are the habitat not of art, or of theory, but of political action. Not that there is an opposition between theoretical accomplishments and social process. Rather, the former melt into the latter; for if art is able to criticize itself, it is because society criticizes it. The standpoint that criticizes is not external but is the realization of inner contradiction. The sophisticated formal resources by means of which art criticizes itself and through which bad art can be distinguished from good art must be related to the bad society that lies equally underneath both. The result of formal criticism of art, therefore, should be concrete criticism of social organization and of the inner contradictions of that social organization. A breath of life from outside is not possible. Truly, in a way, micrological minute internal colonization of the capitalist world has to do with working through these contradictions. In developed countries, this takes the shape, for instance, of (ever more precarious) struggles for civic rights and liberties. In underdeveloped ones, it requires finding niches where one might develop national capital and generate a lot of bizarrely underpaid and temporary new job positions to lead the economy from one crisis to the next. Value critics such as Robert Kurz and Norbert Trenkle, therefore, go so far as to claim that, in a sense, the conflict between labor and capital has been definitely overcome, as syndicalism is defeated everywhere in Europe, tighter market demands are transformed into a proletarian will included at whatever the cost, and new paradigms of consumerism arrive to make the inclusion possible. However, even if Marxs economic theory has not already given us reason to disbelieve the effectiveness of the efforts to efface the internal contradictions, it would still be possible to point out that the experience of social, official, institutional violence is far from absent in late capitalist socialization. Indeed, one of the things the concept of the aestheticization of reality clarifies is the current cultural effort to integrate common sense and violence. Transnational capitalism does not lead to the abolition of ever more truculent national borders or public police and armed forces. Universal microdemocracy is not inimical to bombing Lebanon except in a highly aesthetico-theoretical sort of way, as rendered by enthusiastic political science students doing their BAs with European Union funds. This is evident in the newspaper stories published immediately afterward about how business will prosper as soon as the precision strikes stop. As Western humanitarian help is delivered along with the cluster bombs, democratizing theory

280 Pedro Rocha de Oliveira

marches steadily on, inclusive and egalitarian as always. The production of conformist bliss on an industrial scale, the submission of information, politics, and private life to aesthetic patternsall that empche de peintreis precisely the space where aesthetic criticism works. The rationale of the forming effort that is displayed and mocked by reflexive, self-critical art ultimately leads back to the too-visible hand that keeps capitalism going through brutal managerial controlso that, by countering aestheticization, critical endeavors allow for the recognition of contradictions that no amount of criticism will do away with.
Notes
1 Adam Fowler, Canadas Climate Change Boomtown, BBC News, January 2, 2008. 2 The media, automobile assembly, and airplane construction industries furnished extreme recent examples of this, and one needs only to read the Business This Week section of the Economist to see that everything is about merging nowadays. 3 A particularly clear expression of the very Adornian idea of the concretization of ideologyespecially of bourgeois ideology, idealismcan be found in Theodor Adorno, preface to Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1951), 1418. 4 This is so that, by the way, the effect of propositional analytical philosophy and positivist philosophical logic, which cross the object out of the realm of predicate-oriented knowledge, is truly and precisely to reaffirm our blindness to what would matter most. In a sense, the attempts by Walter Benjamin and Adorno to counteract this by a philosophy that would then go on to call things by their name, comes close, therefore, to a Heideggerian mystification of languagea belief in the right wordsthat binds well and imperceptibly with the fabric of contemporary ideology. 5 Brazils minister of finance has recently expressed his disappointment in peoples lack of understanding of the fact that we cannot govern the market, but it is the market that governs us. In Brazil and Venezuela, for example, the governments have launched programs to provide pocket money to denizens in the poorer barrios in order to induce spending. 6 Marildo Menegat writes: If in the previous period, that of Fordism and the welfare state, the civilizing character was still that of a socially necessary appearance that hid the existence of a barbarism that was known to be there nevertheless, it seems that barbarism has now come into the world in order to be seen. The articulation of decaying bourgeois society, in this new context, unfolds as the organization of the permanent presence of barbarism. Marildo Menegat, Depois do fim do mundo: a crise da modernidade e a barbrie (After the End of the World: The Crisis of Modernity and Barbarism) (Rio de Janeiro: Relume Dumar, FAPERJ, 2003), 218; translated by author. 7 See the discussion on the waterboarding interrogation technique: Steven Lee Myers, Veto of Bill on C.I.A. Tactics Affirms Bushs Legacy, New York Times, March 9, 2008, www .nytimes.com/2008/03/09/washington/09policy.html (accessed August 28, 2008). 8 The account of the interview given on the subject by John Kiriakou to CNN is reported by the Brazilian newspaper O Globo. See Ex-agente da CIA critica [sic] tcnicas usadas em interro-

Aestheticization of Reality 281

10 11

12

13

14 15 16

17 18

gatrios (Former CIA Agent Criticizes Techniques Used in Interrogations), O Globo, December 12, 2007, http://oglobo.globo.com/mundo/mat/2007/12/12/327559049.asp (accessed August 28, 2008). See Igncio Cano, Segurana a sangue e fogo (Security through Blood and Fire), O Globo, August 24, 2007. Particularly violent operations in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro or So Paulo often result in more than a hundred people dead in a few days, to the joy of an increasingly fascist-like middle class thatthrough its main media institution, the magazine Veja (veja being the second-person imperative of the Portuguese verb equivalent to to see or to look)do not fail to rejoice on the executions in a variety of ways (recently, by commemorating the modernizing of the Rio de Janeiro State police force in an article that showed a police official apparelled similarly to a U.S. soldier in the Iraqi occupation). Paulo Arantes argues this throughout O Fio da meada (The Lost Thread ) (So Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1996). This can be understood, for instance, in terms of Sartres discussion of universality: JeanPaul Sartre, Prsentations des Temps Modernes, Situations II (Paris: Gallimard, 1958), 18. Eric Hobsbawm argues throughout his discussion of the restorative aftermath of the revolutions of 1848 that it was not difficult for fundamentally authoritarian statesOtto von Bismarcks Prussia being the paradigmatic exampleto integrate a comfortable amount of liberal politics without undergoing any length of structural change. The fundamental problem is therefore not only as old as the defeat of radicalism in the nineteenth centurythe exhaustion of the last bits of emancipatory potential in bourgeois liberalism but also a genetic component of capitalist democracy itself. E. J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital, 18481875 (London: Abacus, 2003). See, for instance, the problems that arise from the discussion around the notion of the law of the heartenlightened romantic subjectivist moralityin G. W. F. Hegel, Reason, in Phenomenology of Spirit (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 139262. Dominic Hughes, Dutch Float Migrant Prison Scheme, BBC News, November 17, 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7096186.stm (accessed August 28, 2008). Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004). A somewhat late example of this: in 1902, former U.S. president William McKinley spoke of how painful it was for him to finally decide on the invasion of the Philippines, an idea he had finally to yield to as, according to what God told him, it would be dishonorable and bad for business if he didnt, but also because, after all, Christ died for the Philippines, too, although they were ungratefully unaware of that. C. S. Olcott, quoted in V. I. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of CapitalismA Popular Outline, Little Lenin Library vol. 15 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1940), 110 n25. Terry Eagleton, What Is Postmodernism? (lecture given at the University of Manchester, October 2007). By raising alienation to the second power, alienating us even from our own alienation, [postmodernism] persuades us to recognize that utopia [of overcoming alienation] not as some remote telos but, amazingly, as nothing less than the present itself, replete as it is in its own brute positivity and scarred through with not the slightest trace of lack.

282 Pedro Rocha de Oliveira

19 20

21

22

23

24

25 26

Terry Eagleton, Capitalism, Modernism, and Postmodernism, New Left Review, no. 152 (JulyAugust 1985), www.newleftreview.org/?view=411 (accessed April 10, 2008). In this same article, Eagleton refers to postmodern social reality as aesthetic. The reference here is to Raoul Vaneigem, Trait de savoir-vivre lusage des jeunes gnrations (Revolution of Everyday Life) (London: Left Bank Books and Rebel Press, 1994). Nothing in fact happens to anything which is completely unobjectionable. Theodor Adorno, Negativ Dialektik (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1966), 45. Just as Hegels critiques of romanticism anticipates much of this discussion, Adornos thought can to a great extent be read as a critique of postmodern theory before postmodernity. Something that happens in the discourse of contemporary economy as well: Milton Friedman said, The United States of America affirms that one dollar is worth one dollar; the other countries, if they want, will determine the value of the dollar in their own currency. Quoted in Manuel Esteve, O sistema monetrio internacional (The International Monetary System) (Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Salvat, 1979), 106. Of course, such an affirmation requires the worlds biggest military apparatus. The term is employed by Piera Aulagnier to describe the development of symbolic capacity and the arising of the ego. Piera Aulagnier, La violence de linterprtation (The Violence of Interpretation) (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1979). One logical predecessor of this mechanism is Kants schematism of the understanding, that is, the organization of realityundertaken by a mysterious power hidden in the depths of the human soulin the entrepreneurial terms of Newtonian physics that predispose the subject to planning, causality, accumulation, mathematical operations, and the like. Liberal subjectivity has, since then, been obviously substituted by something else; currently, the very effort at laying bare the foundations for a postmodern subject is ruled out by postmodern ideology, so that, in a way, we can almost miss the good old days of authoritarian idealism. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), B181. Perhaps what is at stake here is something similar to what Debord indicated in the fifth thesis of his La Socit du Spectacle: Le spectacle . . . est bien plutt une Weltanschauung devenue effective, matriellement traduite. Cest une vision du monde qui sest objective (The spectacle . . . is more of a Weltanschauung turned effective, materially translated. It is a worldview that objectifies itself ). Guy Debord, La Socit du Spectacle (Paris: Editions Champ Libre, 1979), thesis 5. See Hegels discussion of empiricism and rationalism in the introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit, 4656. In this sense, the aestheticization of reality functions precisely as the direct apprehension of reality, a ready-made mediation, as opposed to what Debord often indicates with spectacularization. See, for instance, Debord, La Socit du Spectacle, thesis 18. What I am trying to point to is not a matter of conservation de linconscience (ibid., thesis 25), either, but one of the production of consciousness: the problem of the lack of consciousness loses its specific critical sense in the context of what the concept of the aestheticization of reality tries to point to. Sharing information and democratizing it, not keeping it locked and hidden, is the task both of theory and extra-academic cultural industry these days, and reality is not rendered less aestheticized or alienated by these efforts. But the very belief that democracy and information are possible amid the present conditions of

Aestheticization of Reality 283

27 8 2

29 30

31 32

production is one of the main props of aestheticization. Debord thus sometimes betrays a dint of that Kantianismthat undialectical belief in saving truth and enlightenment that did not fail to permeate much of the reflection on ideology both in traditional Marxism and in its later developments. See Adorno, Negativ Dialektik, 19093. See Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, in The Standard Edition, vol. 7, Three Essays on Sexuality and Other Writings (19011905) (London: Hogarth Press, 1953), footnote to the discussion of touching and looking in subsection B of section 2 of Sexual Aberrations. Taking Foucault again as a doomsayer instead of as a matre d, a few bitter words could be said about the production of bodies. The major obstacle to understanding this insistence literally or straightforwardly is that Adorno is far from being an advocate of knowledge, a defender of its intrinsic positivity or of the subjectively cleansing effects of enlightenment: much to the contrary, as both the Dialectic of Enlightenment and Negative Dialectic show abundantly. What predominates among Adornian commentators, however, is the interpretation that the often devastatingly critical position in those two books is a denouncement of enlightenment gone wrong and that the emphatic thesis of art as knowledge delivered in the later Aesthetic Theory is a corrective on enlightenment: what bad reason could not do, a good, artistically inclined version of reason will set forth to realize pleasantly, something similar to what Terry Eagleton denounces in his Capitalism and Form (New Left Review, no. 14 [MarchApril 2002], www.newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2382 [accessed April 10, 2008]), when considering the prominent role of aesthetics in modern philosophy. An extremely clear example of this, in its didacticism, is the editors introduction to Adornos Hegel: Three Studies, ed. Shierry Weber Nicholsen and Jeremy J. Shapiro (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), ixxxxiv. Such interpretations fail to do justice to the negative dialectics that is present in art itself: they are unable to take modernisms self-negating attitude seriously. They are also often based on autterly naive, from the Adornian point of viewHabermasian distinction between instrumental reason (an expression that appears only seven times throughout Adornos nine thousand pages of published works) and a milder, nicer version of reason, which Jrgen Habermas called communicative. Peintres de lempchement, quoted by Vivian Mercier, Beckett/Beckett (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 103. Jameson tries to tackle this: Andy Warhols work in fact turns centrally around commodification, and the great billboard images of the Coca-cola bottle or the Campbells Soup Can, which explicitly foreground the commodity fetishism of a transition to late capital, ought to be powerful and critical political statements. If they are not that, then one would surely want to know why, and one would want to begin to wonder a little more seriously about the possibilities of political or critical art in the postmodern period of late capital.

Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, New Left Review, no. 146 (JulyAugust 1984), www.newleftreview.org/?view=726 (accessed April 10, 2008). Since Jameson does not go into the formal subtleties involved in criticism through appearance but collapses this problematic into that of the social effects of criti-

284 Pedro Rocha de Oliveira

33 34 35

36

37

38

39 0 4

cism, he paints a picture of a historically defunct modernism that has nothing to say about the world that killed it. A rigorous formal analysis of aesthetic criticism demands that the social effects of criticism be considered under the light of what they could have been, preserving a more autonomous political dimension in the face of the cultural determinism that, in a way, haunts Jamesons work. In contrast, mild contemporary realism, instead of hypostasizing meaning, just ascribes it to how things simply are. See, for instance, Georg Lukcs, Franz Kafka or Thomas Mann? in The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (London: Merlin Press, 1962), 1746. Jameson tends to commit formally similar mistakes, though for different reasons. For instance, when he analyzes the narrative form of E. L. Doctorows The Book of Daniel and derives from it a crisis in historicity, as if accomplishments in the field of artistic narrative appearance amounted directly to theoretical responses to realityas if the demands on theory and on art were not in tension regarding each other. Jameson, Postmodernism. A standpoint that expects the same from art and theory results, therefore, both from quasi-Stalinist historical realism and from the sort of Lacanian post-structuralism that Jameson here and there and despite himself subscribes to. I dont mean we cant still be shocked by this or that example of it [barbarism]. On the contrary, being periodically shocked by something unusually awful is part of the experience. Eric Hobsbawm, Barbarism: A Users Guide, New Left Review, no. 206 (JulyAugust 1994), www.newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=1768 (accessed April 10, 2008). There is indeed no reason at all why Anselm Jappes warning against the powerlessness of the appearance of the absurd in art should not be extended to its avowedly critical appearance in theory, including his own. Or is it that we are to believe that the crowds that gather to see him speak even in corners as distant as Rio de Janeiro bear absolutely no resemblance or relation to those that gather before the screened spectacles he is so critical of ? A dialectic of the appearance character of critique is as important as the critique of appearance. See Anselm Jappe, Sic Transit Gloria Artis: The End of Art for Theodor Adorno and Guy Debord, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, SubStance 28.3 (1999): 102 128, 126. That people such as Norberto Bobbio, Habermas, Axel Honneth, and Michael Walzer expressed at some point their approval of the invasion of Iraq is hardly just a personal matter of bad political taste. A collection of stomach-turning quotations by those brave intellectuals can be found in Paulo Arantes, Extino (Extinction) (So Paulo: Boitempo, 2007), 3132. See Friedrich Schiller, Kallias (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1994). The operation as a whole is comparable to what Marx prescribes: one starts from the abstractin this case, the concept of the aestheticization of realityand ends in the concrete, in this case, insight of a certain kind on the workings of ideology. Karl Marx, preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, in Collected Works, vol. 29 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), 1921.

1 Abstract for Pedro Rocha de Oliveira, Aestheticization of Reality (SAQ 108:2)

The concept of the aestheticization of reality presented in this essay is an attempt to articulate a number of contemporary cultural and political phenomena and give them critical intelligibility through their mutual interaction. This is undertaken in parallel with a discussion of the intellectual tradition of ideological critique. A notion of ideology is deployed that has more to do with adequacy to reality than with attempts to conceal it. The historical role of ideological critique is established as a function of the level of the economic, political, and technological development of capitalism. The general notion of a crisis of liberal society and the consequences it has for ideological critique are presented. At the same time, a connection is suggested between the problem of the relevance of ideological critique and the crisis of representation in modern art, and a discussion of the social and political significance of this connection is undertaken. The relationship between art and society is considered from a political and a cognitive perspective, taking into account the possible critical and affirmative functions of artworks. A distinction is drawn between attempts at critique through aesthetic content and form. A similitude is suggested between the form contemporary ideology has taken and the internal functioning of artworks. It is finally suggested that the critique of aestheticized reality implies a theory that is able to critically address itself in a way similar to what was promoted in modern art by formally aware works.