In Ingmar Bergman’s film of The Magic Flute, the camera, throughout the overture, traverses the faces of an audience divided by age, sex, ethnicity and style, but united in its common rapture. It is a compelling image of the power of the ‘aesthetic’ to realize—despite everything that tends to human dispersion—an instance of humanist fusion; an instance, moreover, that seems all the more exalted because it depends on nothing but mutual inspiration, and all the more precious because of its fragile spontaneity. This audience, in its wordless communion, surely captures something of what Kant had in mind when he presented the aesthetic as the site of a reciprocity of feeling and intersubjectivity denied us in our rational or moral or purely sensual dealings with others. Yet it may also, one feels, capture rather more than Kant intended. For, separated though it may be in terms of years or nationality or personal comportment, there is one aspect in which this audience appears more homogeneous: it is undoubtedly essentially bourgeois. Perhaps we should say, then, that wittingly or unwittingly, Bergman has also registered something of the ideology of the aesthetic; something, that is, of what the bourgeoisie had wished the aesthetic to be, namely, an image of the achievement in reality not only of the consolidation of its own class, but of that promised society of freedom and equality through which it sought to legitimate its rule. For the aesthetic has figured in bourgeois thought both as a symbol of its aspired to syntheses of mind and body, of the cognitive and sensual, of individual freedom and social harmony, and as a kind of bad faith, a way of refusing to come to terms with the fact that the material divisions of society cannot be miraculously rendered into a tensionless whole by purely artistic or spiritual means. There is, as it were, a whole part of society missing from the ‘Kantian’ audience.
It is this intricate double story of the aesthetic as sincere ideal of unity and as false universality that Terry Eagleton has undertaken to trace in his most wide-ranging and philosophically ambitious work to date. The Ideology of the Aesthetic
footnote1 excites and pleases, not only because of the suppleness of its prose and the extent to which it is lit up by the pleasure Eagleton himself has had in its making, but because of its
Such remarks may seem unduly abstract to anyone for whom ‘aesthetics’ has to do essentially with the appraisal of works of art, and refers to that branch of philosophy concerned with the value discriminations we bring to bear on the concrete artefacts of cultural production. But Eagleton has not written a history of aesthetics in this sense; nor is there any but passing reference to particular works of art in his book. Rather, taking his cue from the elaboration within the German philosophical tradition of the aesthetic as dealing in a kind of truth attainable neither in pure nor practical reason, he offers a cultural politics of this idea of truth from the mid eighteenth century to our own times—a history, that is, of the political role it has played within a philosophy that is itself a political response to its times, a product and maker of its ideological circumstances.
Eagleton presents the aesthetic as a ‘discourse of the body’footnote2 that enters German thought at the point of transition from feudal absolutism to modern bourgeois society. Though its tempering of the too abstract and overtly coercive claims of rationality may have served initially to shore up the old order, the emergence of the aesthetic is really a symptom of the moribund nature of that form of political authority, and comes as a response to the requirement of Enlightenment for a new kind of human subject (‘one which, like the work of art itself, discovers the law in the depth of its own free identity, rather than in some oppressive external power’ [p. 19]). In this, the aesthetic serves as a means of safe passage, whereby feudal hierarchy and patronage can yield to bourgeois individualism and the free anonymity of market relations, without risk of collapse into outright anarchy or overt rebellion against the imposition of any new form of order. Bourgeois society is to be rendered into an organic whole—but it is to be organic in a new way, a product of the heart’s consent. If it knows a law, it is one that individuals have discovered within themselves and freely subscribed to; and the aesthetic is its reflection.
In its upward trajectory—from Kant to Hegel—this aesthetic thus registers an optimistic faith in the conformity of bourgeois society to