Pausing to allow the waves of sound of the last movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony to ebb away, I return to the delights of my glass of Californian Chardonnay and reflect on the way Dimitri Mitropoulos’s interpretation of the symphony steers the vital course between long-term structure, sudden transitions, irony, and contrapuntal balance. The wine slowly numbs the tension of the day in a mixture of fragrant fruit and firm alcohol. Or something like that. I did listen to Mahler and I did have a glass or three of Chardonnay. As for the appropriate description, well, Mitropoulos really does conduct the best performance I have heard: for once the slow final movement avoids too much sentimentality while retaining its expressive intensity. But what is life as a ‘new aesthete’ actually like? I am told I ought to know: hence my opening attempt to give a taste of it.

Ten years ago I went back to being a jazz saxophonist in Berlin for a year, in order to finance the time required for writing a book. During a year of characteristic Berlin extremes of ‘voluptuousness and excess’,footnote1 of late nights playing jazz, listening to Mahler and others played by the Berlin Philharmonic, personal agonies, and boringly normal academic research, I wrote a large part of Aesthetics and Subjectivity. From Kant to Nietzsche.footnote2 Ten years later the difference between Kant’s ‘empirical’ and ‘intelligible’ character has been brought home to me by an nlr article on ‘Spectres of the Aesthetic’ by Dave Beech and John Roberts, in which I am regarded as the defender of an aesthetic pleasure which distances itself from the ‘voluptuous contingencies, activities and delights’ of ‘the philistine’, and as the questionable reinstater of ‘a “lost”, or disposed [?], sense of the internal unity and integrity of subjectivity as such [?]’.footnote3 Given the nature of the ‘empirical’ genesis of the book, it might seem understandable that the avoidance of excess and the unity and integrity of the self became its dominant ‘intelligible’ themes. The trouble is, they don’t.

Now not many people, apart from the author him- or herself, are that interested in attempts to police interpretations of recent critical or theoretical works. If policing my intentions were all that is at issue here, I could stop now, recommend that everyone give a boost to my fairly meagre royalties by buying the book mentioned above, and read what I really say. There are, though, symptomatic misinterpretations—what one can regard as a form of ‘ideology’—that transcend the particular local nature of a debate. The nature of these misinterpretations allows us to see how a blindness to key aspects of an issue is an index both of deeper theoretical difficulties and of social contradictions that are manifest in those difficulties. On the Left the locus classicus of many such difficulties has been the relationship between aesthetics and ideology. The initial point in the present case is that Beech and Roberts’s idea—which they share with many on the contemporary Left—that there is a necessary incompatibility between a defence both of a notion of ‘aesthetic autonomy’ (and the concomitant defence of great ‘bourgeois art’) and of the importance of self-consciousness for vital issues in philosophy, and attention to ‘the body’ and its ‘pleasures’ could only occur to academic theorists. It occurs, of course, particularly to those who want to show they are in touch with ‘the world’ and are therefore not weedy academic aesthetes, but engaged sexual, social and political animals. The other obvious point is that such claims are based on a characteristic failure to take stubborn philosophical issues seriously, in a manner which has dogged theorists on the Left at least since Marx’s worst attempts simply to dismiss inconvenient philosophical rivals. The ‘revenge of the aesthetic’ supposedly propagated by Jay Bernstein, Terry Eagleton and myself, which Beech and Roberts see as a reaction to the widespread dismissal of aesthetics in post-war European Marxism, is a much more complex and difficult phenomenon than they make it. It is therefore important not just to end up going down the same road of cultural politics once again from a slightly different direction.

So what is it about ‘Mahler and Chardonnay’ that is so important? The whole thing presumably sounds rather like the worst end of the ‘commodification’ of culture present in aspects of Classic fm, which relies on the wine-drinking consumerism of an affluent audience to generate a viable commercial enterprise. But none of these issues are actually that simple. On the one hand, for example, Classic fm and the like would not be heard dead broadcasting a whole Mahler symphony, let alone one in a slightly dodgy old live recording, and, on the other, wine presumably comes for Beech and Roberts under the ‘voluptuous contingencies, activities and delights’ that we aesthetes—for whom ‘the body’ is supposedly mere ‘sensuous particularity’—exclude in the name of higher non-bodily truths. ‘Culture’ is, of course, a pretty diverse phenomenon, and it is one which the Left has regularly failed to come to appropriate terms with, in a variety of symptomatic ways. This fact was, along with a deep suspicion of the main Nietzsche- and Heidegger-influenced assumptions of post-structuralism, part of what led to my book on aesthetics and subjectivity. The real question, though, is which aesthetics, and which subjectivity, and that is why I think I ought to reply to Beech and Roberts. I am aware in doing so that Beech and Roberts’s predominant concern is with the world of the contemporary visual arts, particularly in this country, but, given that this does not prevent them making points about much broader questions of modern aesthetic theory, there seems no reason not to engage with these broader questions in order to arrive at a different assessment of key problems in contemporary culture.

Beech and Roberts’s misunderstanding of the position advanced in Aesthetics and Subjectivity is evident in their claim that I take the ‘“paradox” of the aesthetic’ as ‘the starting point for the aesthetic grounding of the ethics [sic]’.footnote4 This appeal to the ethical is what they regard as the characteristic feature of the ‘new aestheticism’. My version of ‘new aestheticism’ is significant, they maintain, because of its account of ‘aesthetic subjectivity’. This leads them to the claim that aesthetic ‘self-transformation’, an ethical issue in a particularly Greek sense—of the kind the later Foucault concerned himself with—was the core of my argument. However, the position advanced in Aesthetics and Subjectivity is actually only concerned with the ethical in a rather indirect manner: its main claim is in fact epistemological, and here we will see that Beech and Roberts do not seem to have much idea of what I am talking about.footnote5

The link between aesthetics and subjectivity cannot, despite Beech and Roberts’s claims that my position involves some kind of isolation of works of art from society and history, even be understood without considering the issues which led at the end of the eighteenth century to the realization that new forms of human self-understanding and the growing sense of the importance of art for modernity were necessarily linked. My main concern here is to argue against a series of damaging reductions.footnote6 The fact, for example, that the rise in the public sphere of the idea of the autonomous self is undoubtedly linked to the rise of modern capitalism and its breaking of the bonds of feudalism cannot be used as an excuse for not inquiring into the detail of how the structure and nature of this self is to be understood, an inquiry which already began with Saint Augustine. One cannot derive philosophical arguments in this area merely from an examination of the historico-social determinants of subjectivity, not least because those who are doing the examining must be subject to the same kind of determinations, and therefore cannot finally say how history determines their own subjectivity. This point has most effectively been made by Gadamer and others in the hermeneutic tradition.

The danger here is either an indefensible regress of subjective accounts of the determined nature of subjectivity, or an invalid appeal to the absolute position of a ‘super-subject’ that finally transcends the ideological and historical determination of individual subjects. Significantly, one of the major concerns of the philosophical history which Aesthetics and Subjectivity tries to rewrite was this dilemma, a dilemma which, from Kant and Fichte, to Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, to other twentieth century Marxists and beyond, radical theorists of modernity all try in some way to overcome. In my view, the dilemma precludes any definitive theory of subjectivity’s historical determination, and leads necessarily to the assumption that individual subjectivity is not reducible to a general theory produced by other individual subjects. If one is not to make ‘history’ or ‘society’ the Archimedean point for the complete understanding of subjectivity one must take other factors into account that cannot be reducible to their genesis in history and society, such as, to take the obvious example, the specific individual capacity for meaningful innovation exemplified by Beethoven. While Beethoven evidently required both the—revolutionary—historical circumstances in which he worked, and the labour of Haydn, Mozart and others, for his musical revolution, that does not explain the specificity of what he actually did. How do you get from the French Revolution, Viennese reaction, the history of melody and counterpoint, and deafness, to the Grosse Fuge? Now the historical fact is that many of the theoretical resources in Romanticism for taking crucial aspects of the creative subject into account were largely consigned to oblivion in the wake of the Hegelian, Marxist and scientific materialist tendency to regard subjectivity as wholly comprehensible via its natural, historical and social determinations. Versions of the reductive tendency also recur in aspects of the post-structuralist substitution of ‘language’ for ‘history’ or ‘society’ as the determination which makes subjectivity a merely derivative issue, a substitution evident in Derrida’s dictum in Positions about the subject being an ‘effect’ of the ‘general text’.