The Aesthetic Is Back; It Never Left

December 12, 2018   •   By Jean-Thomas Tremblay

Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures

Timothy Aubry

ROOTED IN the 19th century, the Romantic tradition of criticism evaluated literary works based on criteria of beauty and perfection. The appreciation of art for art’s sake, according to Terry Eagleton’s famous account, went out of fashion in the latter half of the 20th century. Inspired by the Frankfurt School and other radical programs, critics took on the explicitly political task of assessing how literary works adopted or contested the dominant ideology of their time. In Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures, Timothy Aubry sets out to recover the aesthetic specificity supposedly lost in this rush to reimagine literary studies as political. Aubry contends that the rise of ideological critique, catalyzed by the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s, caused aesthetic judgments to go underground. Champions of what Aubry sees as political critique practiced aesthetic criticism covertly — and often inadvertently. They claimed that literature and criticism should have a political impact. And yet, they continued to debate which formal and rhetorical strategies best promoted pleasurable experiences considered valuable for their own sake.

Returns of the repressed have unintended consequences, and the one orchestrated in Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures is no exception. To convince his readers that aesthetic criticism never went anywhere but deserves a comeback, Aubry makes straw men of aesthetics and politics. He conflates aesthetics and pleasure, giving up a range of aesthetic experiences that have little to do with the enjoyment of a work of art. He also reduces political intervention to a pragmatism that rivals in vagueness the catchall politicization that he hopes to remedy.

Two parts make up Guilty Aesthetic Pleasure. The first three chapters show how major critical schools of the past 80 years — New Criticism, deconstruction, and New Historicism — toned down their investment in the aesthetic, forcing it into what Aubry calls a “disreputable and subterranean position.” In the last pair of chapters, Aubry zooms in on the enthusiastic academic reception of two US novels, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Whereas the former novel, Aubry notes, appears to encourage aesthetic criticism and the latter ideology critique, the readings of Lolita “betray a profound anxiety about the aesthetic” and “the confidence evinced by scholars of Beloved in its political significance nevertheless betrays an attachment to aesthetic pleasures.” In other words, scholars have treated Morrison’s novel as political but embraced some aesthetic qualities, such as fragmentation, which compromise its status as a source of moral guidance. In contrast, scholars have been reluctant to applaud the beauty of Nabokov’s novel — a novel that, under the guise of celebrating the aesthetic, ends up showing that pleasure is sometimes no more than an alibi for predation.

Although he admits that neither the aesthetic nor the political might be capturable “in pure form,” Aubry seeks to conceive of the aesthetic on its own terms, independent of political interests. To do so, he enlists Kant. In the Critique of Judgment, Kant distinguishes between what individuals do and do not take into consideration when making aesthetic judgments. Aubry claims that, for Kant, aesthetic judgments are subjective and disconnected from political motivations. Aesthetic judgments, that is, are specific to an individual’s experience of the object. This is true of the sensory judgments that Kant calls judgments of the agreeable — judgments that pertain, for example, to an enjoyable piece of music or a delicious meal. Aubry, however, downplays the common sense that, according to Kant, enables subjects to make judgments of the beautiful and the sublime as if they were worthy of universal assent. Individuals appeal to common sense when they suggest, sometimes implicitly, that everyone ought to agree with their evaluation of a work of art as beautiful. Aubry’s turn to Kant thus undermines the assertion that aesthetics and politics preexist their alliance. The presumption of agreement constitutive of aesthetic judgments as Kant conceives of them already pushes individuals beyond themselves and into a collectivity from which they expect a consensus.

Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures makes the promise, quickly rescinded, that isolating aspects of the aesthetic will yield more precise taxonomies of experience. Aubry states that aesthetic pleasure is a central or defining feature of aesthetic experience. Aesthetic criticism pays “attention to the immediate pleasures invoked in apprehending an artistic or literary work.” A literary critic’s tasks are to identify works with aesthetic value, meaning works whose perception or contemplation “produces satisfaction,” and to make judgments or “[explain] why a given text or passage produces satisfaction, pleasure, exhilaration, and the like.” These definitions bracket countless feelings that are not isometric with pleasure but might just as well dominate aesthetic experiences: confusion, anxiety, frustration, revulsion, sorrow — the list could go on. The ascendency of pleasure limits aesthetic judgments to those that concern the beautiful. Not even the Kantian sublime, with its mix of awe and horror, makes the cut. If we follow Aubry’s aesthetic theory, we must classify unpleasant feelings, including those that register harm or trauma, as pleasurable because they emerge from aesthetic objects, such as literary works, which we encounter deliberately. This reasoning exaggerates the predictability of the reading experience. It also treats reading as a mere instrument of the pleasure principle.

The title of Guilty Aesthetic Pleasure heralds that the pleasure of aesthetic experience will at least be qualified. We won’t get away with utter pleasure, it seems. Pleasure will leave an aftertaste. But Aubry’s monograph shows no traces of guilt, or really of anything modulating the pleasure that serves as sole aesthetic criterion. The treatment of pleasure as uncomplicated notably puts aside a rich genealogy of Black feminist aesthetic theory that has charted relations between pleasure and structures of domination and liberation. As critics like Lauren Michele Jackson, Amber Jamilla Musser, and Jennifer C. Nash have argued, it is partly through experiences and performances of satisfaction, pleasure, and exhilaration that Black women have negotiated such power dynamics as abjection, subjection, and agency.

Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures’s title also refers to political critics’ readiness to condemn aesthetic criticism for protecting elite interests over those of the underserved or marginalized. The book’s is a tongue-and-cheek title, one that dares readers to accuse the author of upholding political inequalities and bourgeois concerns. It’s hard not to take the bait. The chapter on Beloved hinges on a survey of two “diametrically opposed reactions to the book by two formidable theorists, Slavoj Žižek and Walter Benn Michaels.” The condition for admitting Toni Morrison, a foremost African-American female writer, into Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures is that she be escorted by two formidable (white, male) theorists.

Just as it does with aesthetics, Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures departicularizes politics. We know that Aubry doesn’t want politics to be available as an accessory that critics don to legitimize their practice. We also know, from a brief incursion into queer theory, that Aubry rejects a politics whose emergence undoes the terms of its representation. For Lee Edelman, queerness intimates a politics that would be unthinkable in an existing order founded on the reproduction or futurity of the body politic. We can only approach a politics of queerness through the failure of our efforts to represent it. Edelman, Aubry writes, “characterizes his own political project as ‘impossible,’ which raises the question of what exactly he hopes to accomplish.” Dissatisfied with politics as that which represents everything and politics as that which cannot be represented, Aubry appears to desire a demarcated political realm that, in pragmatic fashion, includes certain practices and excludes others. But there’s nothing pragmatic about the benchmark that Aubry sets for properly political gestures — that is, that they “actually stand a chance of effecting real change in our society.” Is the transformation of individual consciousness real change? Is institutional reform? Is revolution?

Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures is most instructive as a guidebook of critical trends in the United States. Aubry traces the enduring legacy of New Criticism’s formalist approach to aesthetic objects deemed self-contained and self-referential. New Criticism endorsed a methodology, rooted in close reading, that invited readers to subject any text they encountered to an analysis of the intricacies that made it interesting. This celebration of ambiguities and paradoxes, which was meant to highlight the value of a limited number of great works, in fact endangered the possibility of aesthetic discrimination. Deconstruction turned New Criticism on its head. It traded a democratized capacity to understand difficult literary works for strategies that made trivial or marginal textual details yield unexpected insight. In a competitive job market, these strategies privileged critics who demonstrated bravado in their handling of an opaque technical lexicon. New Historicism, which sought to produce an intellectual history through literature, ostensibly veered away from New Criticism and deconstruction. However, New Historicism usurped both New Criticism’s oscillation between details and general statements and deconstruction’s investment in the marginal and extratextual by reshaping aesthetic artifacts, such as anecdotes, into means of understanding and intervening in the world.

Plus ça change, we gather. Aubry recognizes that his historical overview recasts what has succeeded New Criticism as a series of variations on a theme:

It may seem as if this book is excessively committed to the conservative thesis that even as various methodologies succeed each other, nothing much changes within the discipline of literary studies — that is, no matter what radically innovative approach is offered, certain deeply entrenched New Critical aesthetic principles will always continue to lurk somewhere in the background, dictating the shape of our interpretive work.

Aubry responds to this possible reading of his book with, rather than a rejoinder, an exoneration: “I would underscore the relatively short period this book has covered: a mere eighty years — not an especially long time for a particular set of critical doxa to prevail.” Literary criticism, Aubry argues, has been playing the same song on repeat, but we would have to expand our historical purview to evaluate whether it is doomed to be a one-hit wonder.

If the history of literary criticism sounds repetitive, it is partly due to Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures’s design. The compulsive restoration of the status quo throughout the book issues in part from its chapters’ shared argumentative structure. Individual chapters build up to the conclusion that political criticism cannot do without aesthetic criticism, and as such that political and aesthetic value ultimately overlap. Aubry, for instance, argues that the aesthetic conditions the political conundrum at the heart of Beloved. The novel complicates the question of whether remembering or forgetting slavery is the key to Black agency by suggesting that distinguishing between the two might be impossible. Trying to do one, the character of Sethe ends up doing the other. And the reconciliation of contradictory impulses, the New Critics have claimed, is a function of the aesthetic. Aubry embeds discerning analyses of critical trends and aesthetic objects in a game of fort-da: he kicks the aesthetic away, announces its return, and reminds us that we’ve needed it all along. The revelation that in its evidentiary quest literary criticism counts on aesthetics is never surprising because, well, it’s called literary criticism.

What does Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures leave us with once its magic tricks — the disappearance of all aesthetic experience beyond pleasure, the camouflage of aesthetics as a pariah in a discipline devoted to its study — have run their course? Aubry’s book teaches us, despite itself, that accurate treatments of aesthetics and politics depend on descriptions of their undeniable and evolving imbrication. Whether or not it’s pleasurable, this project cannot simply be about pleasure.


Jean-Thomas Tremblay is assistant professor of 20th- and 21st-century American fiction and film at New Mexico State University. Their writing has appeared in CriticismPost45, Women & PerformanceNew Review of Film and Television StudiesCritical InquiryPublic BooksArcade, and Chicago Review. They are writing a book on the aesthetics and politics of breathing in contemporary screen, performance, and literary cultures.