Academic journal article Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

Contemporary Perspectives in Aesthetic Theory: Steven Connor, Sianne Ngai and the Edible World

Academic journal article Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

Contemporary Perspectives in Aesthetic Theory: Steven Connor, Sianne Ngai and the Edible World

Article excerpt

This paper is an introduction to the work of Steven Connor and Sianne Ngai, two theorists who make contrasting and complementary efforts to think critically about a number of resilient biases in contemporary aesthetic discourse. I argue that the work of these two thinkers is united by a more or less explicit effort to generate argumentative friction from questioning two key strands of thought within aesthetic theory of the past 200 years: the centrality of the sublime and the beautiful, and the idea that the discriminatory power of the distance senses, particularly vision, justifies their centrality in aesthetic theory.

Although there have been many efforts to critique and refine the work of key thinkers of the sublime and the beautiful, most prominently Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, and to challenge the dominance of the distance senses in theories of the aesthetic, there is arguably little in the way of a settled configuration of ideas to create the foundations for an alternative area of analysis. Even reappraisals of the proximal senses tend to frame their worth in terms inherited from discourse that privileges the distance senses and the sets of positive values they entail: simplistically equating the discriminatory powers of vision with positive values, and interpreting the vague, visceral, characteristically equivocal nature of the proximal senses as lacking the exactitude of vision, rather than autonomous ways of being affected.

Connor and Ngai offer a provocation to rethink the kinds of sensory experiences foreclosed by these strains in aesthetic theory. Beyond making an abstract argument for an alternative aesthetic theory, their work is an example of rich investigation into contemporary aesthetics that persuasively demonstrates the interrelationship between specific objects, feelings, and sensations, elaborating a distinctively suggestive framework to better understand folk descriptions of an ever more pervasive commodity culture. Following their work, I suggest the materially abundant, pleasureand entertainment-focused cultures of Western, late-capitalist modernity are more richly described when the terms for analysis are drawn from a sustained sensitivity to particulars, rather than previous hierarchies.1 While I focus on gustatory taste, smell and touch are equally deserving of extended analysis; this is particularly the case for touch in light of its centrality in Connor's work.2


Part of the skill in undertaking a project like that of Connor and Ngai is in not getting overly wound up in iconoclasm, which often informs critiques of the sublime or the beautiful, while at the same time managing to neatly acknowledge their limitations as aesthetic categories.3 This can provoke a kind of cheap-shot mentality-Ngai resists, Connor, at times, can't help himself. Furthermore, as Ngai notes of the "ugly feelings" she analyses in an earlier book, and which significantly inform her work on aesthetics, it is also important not to romanticise the previously deviant thing for which one is acting as an advocate.4 The under theorisation of "minor aesthetic categories," to use Ngai's terminology, doesn't equate with the idea that it is good to have more things that conform to their characteristics, or that the categories themselves are morally superior to others.5 On the contrary, it is the lack of moral leverage in minor categories that in part constitutes their peculiarity. The value in renewing the set of tools that is used to analyse aesthetics is in making sense of hitherto poorly understood phenomena, not in making value-based claims for the things in themselves.

Connor's view is at times more radical than Ngai's. He more or less seems to think that talk of "the aesthetic" as such is moribund and that the largely academic discourse that circles around the art object would be improved if it avoided invoking the pretentions to specialness associated with the aesthetic or with the powers of art and its attendant claims of "emancipation, transfiguration, or resistance. …

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