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 encyclopaedic grasp of ideas and the relative ease with which it guides us through the convolutions of a concept which, perhaps more than any other employed in philosophical discrimination, is the most volatile and difficult to fix. It is no easy task to determine the respective terrains of the rational or the ethical, or to say exactly where cognition gives way to some more intuitive or sensual mode of apprehension. It is even more difficult to specify the area of aesthetic understanding, which figures in modern European philosophy both as a mediator of ideality and materiality, and as something distinct from either. In its mediating function, the aesthetic sits uneasily between the mental and bodily poles that it sets out to synthesize; as the achievement of their unity, it appears as a mode of experience-cum-understanding that is transcendent to either, and entirely sui generis.

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 reason and the natural ordering of things. The claims of the sensual can be respected, and all due weight given to lived experience and its particularity, without finally transgressing the preserve of rational and moral law, or threatening the privileged position of humanity within the universe of nature at large. But not only will this aestheticism in the end prove incapable of the political task it has set itself, that of compensating or substituting for the absence in reality of the harmonious society of self-regulating subjects it ideally projects; it also cannot, even in the phase of its consolidation as ideology, accomplish the philosophical task of reconciliation—or at least not without considerable stress and strain, a continual turning back on its own discourse in order to check the subsumption of the aesthetic within one or other of the domains it would mediate between. Thus Schiller attempts a corrective to the overly ascetic bias of Kantian theory, but only at the cost of revealing the aesthetic ideal as potential source of a Romantic critique of bourgeois industrialism. Hegel thereupon figures as a magnificent, if rather last-ditch, effort to overcome these tensions by projecting Kant’s aesthetic function into the structure of reality itself: if Kant had left us deprived of any full-blown possession of the objective world, Hegel restores it to us as our rightful home.footnote3 But his recovery of the object from the limbo of unknowing to which Kant had consigned it (and also from its too overweaning repossession in the subjective intuitionism of Fichte and Schelling) is also not without its flaw, since it is accomplished only by means of a theoretical edifice of such awesome complexity that it forfeits all ideological accessibility. Generated as it is entirely out of abstract reason and puritanically opposed to all ‘graven images’ and representations of the sensuous, the Hegelian system proves too incapable of engaging with common experience to serve as political legitimation. There are, moreover, Eagleton suggests, comparable tensions afflicting the ‘aestheticization’ of reason represented in the turn to empiricism within English philosophy (though this receives a relatively cursory treatmentfootnote4). For here, too, the aesthetic comes forward as a political instrument, to be turned, on the one hand, as a progressive power against ruling-class rationalism, and, on the other hand, lending itself to a conservative— and even potentially fascistic—celebration of the natural, spontaneous organicism of the nation-state.

In a general sense, then, the aesthetic is revealed as an amalgam of reactionary and utopian impulses. In so far as its transfigurative vision is belied by the power relations and degenerate egoism of bourgeois society, it can act as a veil drawn over its ugliness; but in that same process it necessarily begins life as an immanent critique of the gap between this actuality and its sublime ideals, and thus of its own hypocrisies. The tension of the aesthetic within German idealism, as both legitimation of Enlightenment and rejection of its instrumental rationality, is therefore mirrored in the very differing uses to which it will be put in the hands of figures like Blake or Morris on the one hand, and Burke, Arnold, Carlisle, Ruskin and T.S. Eliot on the other.footnote5 Moreover, in so far as the philosophy of the aesthetic offers itself as an account of the source of values, there is a further schism between the more Kantian, autotelic approach, which views aesthetic values as somehow quite autonomous and self-derivative, and an approach that seeks to root these values more directly in the body and its affections.

If the ideological manoeuvrings of the bourgeois aesthetic in its more self-confident and positive trajectory can be seen as centred around an autotelic conception of value, its post-Hegelian and more subversive career (from Schopenhauer through Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud) represents a de-spiritualization of the aesthetic, a turning back to the body and desire. The image of the aesthetic as ‘lawfulness without law’ and as sublime disinterest is thereby profoundly undermined in a shift toward that realm of instinct, will and full-blooded sensuality that it was supposed to keep in touch with, but only by purging it of its more carnal, ribald and excessive qualities. The elevation of will and instinct in the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche thus pits the aesthetic against the pieties of bourgeois idealism; but at the same time, by virtue of its naturalization of greed, power lust and human hypocrisy, it becomes a more negative discourse altogether, appearing to remove all hope of any more exalted alternative. Schopenhauer’s ‘carnival of gloom and risible monomanic despondency’; Kierkegaard’s denial of any originary innocence, and pre-emptive strike against the hollowness of bourgeois ‘individuality’; Nietzsche’s aesthetic as ‘applied psychology’ and disdain for all sentimentalism, and his contempt—shared by Kierkegaard and Heidegger—for ‘mass man’ and the philistine complacencies of ‘average’ living: all this is profoundly unsettling of the erstwhile faith in the aesthetic as promise of concord and equilibrium. But it is also the eruption of nihilism, elitism and irrationalism. The aesthetic is turned much more sharply in criticism of the self-deceptive aspirations of the existing order; but in the process it also becomes the vehicle of a self-punitive irony, a manic laughter at the follies of humankind, a morbid pleasure in the sheer incapacity of human beings to be even half-way decent, let alone to relish the sublime.