Many a ruling class has sought to erase from historical memory the blood and squalor in which it was born. As Blaise Pascal admonishes with arresting candour in his Pensées, ‘The truth about the [original] usurpation must not be made apparent; it came about originally without reason and has become reasonable. We must see that it is regarded as authentic and eternal, and its origins must be hidden if we do not want it soon to end.’footnote1 Kant, too, was wary of speculation on the origins of political power, which he thought a menace to the state.footnote2 It is not just that these are bloody and arbitrary; it is also the sheer scandal of an origin as such, for what was born can also die. It is certain, Hume writes in his Treatise of Human Nature, that at the origin of every nation we will find rebellion and usurpation; it is time alone which ‘reconciles men to an authority, and makes it seem just and reasonable’.footnote3 Political legitimacy, in short, is founded on fading memory and blunted sensibility, as crimes come to grow on us like old cronies. So it is that in Britain, France, Ireland and elsewhere, historiographical revisionism in the late bourgeois epoch comes to rewrite the heroics of revolution as the pragmatics of power, in a ceremony of self-oblivion which is not without its neurotic symptomatology.

The great apologist in England for this doctrine of political hegemony as merciful amnesia is Edmund Burke, who counters the radicals’ demand for rational foundations and legitimate first principles with the doctrine that whatever has grown is right. The primal scene of the sources of power does not bear looking into, and Burke sees the attempt to unveil them as a kind of sexual indecency. As an Irishman, he was familiar enough with custom, tradition, moral economy, tribal allegiances and taken-for-granted rights to proffer these values to the British state as a bulwark against the impious hunt for legitimate origins by the revolutionary metaphysicians. In the person of this dazzling parliamentary rhetorician from a hedge school in County Cork, an Ireland which had long been an object of British violence could draw upon aspects of its own pre-modern heritage to offer its imperial masters a more complex, persuasive rationale for their depredations than they might otherwise have been able to muster. What was habit with Hume becomes hegemony with his fellow Gael.

Origins, for Burke as for Freud and the later Dickens, are always criminal. He is as eager to place them under erasure as the most devoted deconstructionist. Yet this raises a problem for the bourgeois ideology of progress, since to measure such progress involves a backward glance, which might in turn involve gazing upon the source from which one is evolving onwards and upwards. The ideal condition, then, is to have been always-already progressing, a state of eternal motion without source or telos. But this is to avoid one danger only to court another, since such eternal motion is uncomfortably close to the distinctive temporality of modernity, for which the traditionalist Burke has scant affection. It is that perpetual hunger for the new which Franco Moretti detects in the narrative mode of Balzac, with its ‘need for sheer narration—without beginning or end . . .’footnote4 The vital difference is that progress for Burke brings the restraining burden of the past along with it, rather than shaking it brusquely off. The sheer passage of time is a kind of foundation or argument for legitimacy in itself, which will then shape the present and future. But what founds that past can be nothing more than a previous past, so that history is in fact as devoid of authority as it is for modernists like Thomas Paine. Paine returns to origins—to the rational principles that should govern the political community—in order to challenge the state, whereas Burke refuses to return to them in order to preserve it.

The question of revolutionary origins is especially embarrassing for the bourgeoisie. For is not the middle class of all social classes a pacific, meekly domesticated one, devoted by virtue of its very material interests to the stable, predictable and enduring, more ready to be upbraided as placid and bovine than as predatory and promiscuous? How then can it square these ideals with its actual bloodstained emergence on to the historical scene? And how can it reconcile its drive for stability with the fact that its revolution, uniquely, never actually ends—that the capitalist class, as Marx reminds us, is an inherently transgressive force, perpetually agitating, unmasking, disrupting, dissolving? What mind-shaking paradox is evoked by the image of a permanently revolutionary ruling class? What are we to make of an order that is perpetual transgression, a normativity defined by the arbitrary and aberrant, an authentic self which is always divided or out ahead of itself, a present which represents an erasure of the past already hollowed by the future, a stability that is no more than a ceaselessly renegotiated disorder? What, indeed, is one to make of a form of life in which transgression is not only permissible but obligatory—an obligation which, among other things, threatens to empty such trespassing of its jouissance or forbidden fun, and helps to generate the Freudian insight that it is the Law which craftily enjoins us to kick over the traces in the first place?

It is surely not accidental that this profoundly disenchanted discovery of the collusion between law and desire should be the intellectual achievement of a form of civilization in which unbridled appetite is the very order of the day. In a mutual thwarting, the anarchic operations of capitalism threaten to undercut the established political, ethical and juridical regime on which they depend; but conversely, capitalism’s creative powers are shackled by that same dispensation. Whichever way round we view the deadlock, we must come to terms with the fact—unacceptable alike to naive liberationism and vulgar post-structuralism—that fantasy, desire and disruption are in some sense actually part of the given order. And if this order is structurally self-undoing and plunged in perpetual tumult, how does this affect the idea of rebellion against it? So it is that, over the past couple of decades of cultural theory, a post-structuralism which still clings wistfully to the subversiveness of desire, while sceptically acknowledging its ultimately compromised, complicit nature, has yielded ground to a postmodernism for which fantasy is indeed integral to current social reality, but for which this renders that reality all the more appealing.

In such a condition, aesthetics has an obvious appeal. Indeed, since the curious prominence of the aesthetic in modern European philosophy cannot be explained by any dewy-eyed devotion to art on the part of the bourgeoisie, it might be explained instead as a way of rephrasing certain pressing ideological problems, among them the notion of autonomy and the relation between form and content. As far as the latter goes, the problem is that form can no longer be seen as immanent in an anarchic social order; but if it is not so—if political, ethical and legal forms are too obviously ‘formalist’, external to their turbulent socio-economic subject-matter—then they will quickly lose all credibility. If form is no longer metaphysically immanent in social relations, and if it cannot simply be foisted upon them in some self-ironizing modernist gesture, then one can either dismiss form as an intrinsic falsification (a doctrine common to the otherwise opposed camps of puritans and libertarians), or dream alternatively of an order in which form is simply the complex mutual articulations of the object’s constitutive parts. The microcosm of this order is the work of art. This satisfies the organicist nostalgia of the metaphysicans while resolutely secularizing it, removing it from some neo-Platonic realm to the sublunary sphere. But it also allows form to arise logically from the dynamism of its content, which is hardly the case in the divided world of middle-class society. The work of art, or perhaps simply the symbol, gathers flux into stillness while preserving its vitality, thus resolving the conflict between capitalist dynamism and bourgeois stability. A factual contradiction is converted to a spiritual value. A rational humanism sets its face at once against vacuous formalism and shapeless libertarianism.

Aesthetic discourse is all about healing a fissure between form and content which is endemic to the bourgeois order as such, one which manifests itself among other places in the gap between the stasis of its moral and cultural sphere and the kinesis of its material world. It is always possible to reconcile the two by seeing form or limit as the essential condition of a potentially infinite dynamism. William Blake, for example, sees clearly etched form as enhancing as well as emasculating the flow of eternal energy, while Fichte regards objects as a kind of passing resistance against which the subject recoils, and in doing so knows its own inexhaustible powers. For Nietzsche and Foucault, power throws up a counter-force on which it can flex its muscles, like one whose manhood is in doubt desperately in search of an arm-wrestling partner. If form is internal to force, as the bridling which spurs it into action, a number of difficulties can be resolved.