Art's Undoing: In the Wake of a Radical Aestheticism

Art's Undoing: In the Wake of a Radical Aestheticism

Art's Undoing: In the Wake of a Radical Aestheticism

Art's Undoing: In the Wake of a Radical Aestheticism

Synopsis

Radical aestheticism describes a recurring event in some of the most powerful and resonating texts of nineteenth-century British literature, offering us the best way to reckon with what takes place at certain moments in texts by Shelley, Keats, Dickinson, Hopkins, Rossetti, and Wilde. Thisbook explores what happens when these writers, deeply committed to certain versions of ethics, politics, or theology, nonetheless produce an encounter with a radical aestheticism which subjects the authors' projects to a fundamental crisis.A radical aestheticism offers no positive claims for art, whether on ethical or political grounds or on aesthetic grounds, as in "art for art's sake." It provides no transcendent or underlying ground for art's validation. In this sense, a radical aestheticism is the experience of a poesis thatexerts so much pressure on the claims and workings of the aesthetic that it becomes a kind of black hole out of which no illumination is possible. The radical aestheticism encountered in these writers, in its very extremity, takes us to the constitutive elements - the figures, the images, thesemblances - that are at the root of any aestheticism, an encounter registered as evaporation, combustion, or undoing. It is, therefore, an undoing by and of art and aesthetic experience, one that leaves this important literary tradition in its wake.Art's Undoing embraces diverse theoretical projects, from Walter Benjamin to Jacques Derrida. These become something ofa parallel text to its literary readings, revealing how some of the most significant theoretical and philosophical projects of our time remain within the wake of a radicalaestheticism.

Excerpt

It is fitting that this book begins with Shelley, because it originated with Shelley. More precisely, my understanding of “art’s undoing” arose from my repeated efforts to understand what was happening in certain crucial moments of Shelley’s The Triumph of Life. More precisely still, this project began from what I felt to be the shortcomings of my previous book’s attempt to come to terms with what happens when Shelley’s last poem addresses the relationship between aesthetic and political judgment. Despite my attempts to use the most supple and nuanced notions of ideology at my disposal, I felt that The Ideology of Imagination came up short when trying to reckon with the poetics of aestheticization in The Triumph. That undoing led to Art’s Undoing. By this title I mean to identify the capacity of certain literary representations of art and the aesthetic experiences they elicit to undo the projects (political, ethical, theological, and so on) to which they have been enlisted. For example, the poetic representation of art and aesthetics is often understood by Shelley as the “Power” that “wouldst free / This world from its dark slavery”; and yet at certain moments in certain texts—as in The Triumph of Life— the figuration of this same artistic “Power” undoes the prospect or “hope” of political liberation. At the same time, the affirmative values and humanizing roles traditionally assigned to art itself are also undone in this process: powerful though they are, the aesthetic experiences elicited in these examples get us nowhere. These instances of art’s double or compound undoing are the results of what I call a “radical aestheticism.” I am not using the term “radical” to mean something culturally advanced or politically avant-garde, though it is no coincidence that this derivation of “radical” begins to circulate in the period this book addresses. Instead, I am interested in how the literary representations of aestheticization can in certain circumstances result in an aestheticism powerful . . .

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