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  • Criticism, Imagination, and the Subjectivization of Aesthetics
  • Roger W. H. Savage

The growing discontent with reductivist practices signals a new current in contemporary criticism's understanding of music, literature and art. George Levine's unease with critics who are unable or unwilling to account for their continuing preoccupation with literary texts they expose as "imperialist, sexist, homophobic and racist" illumines the contradiction fueling the reduction of aesthetics to ideology.1 Cultural studies that deploy literature as evidence of the aesthetics' socio-historical substance mask literature's capacity to break open new perspectives on reality by assuming that literary works are politically complicit with the aesthetics' strategic "mystification of the status quo" (A&I, p. 3). Criticism's indifference to its philosophical presuppositions exacerbates the paradox of denouncing a body of works that constitute criticism's aesthetic and intellectual heritage. According to Mario Valdés, literary studies' coming of age mandates that criticism take account of a tradition nurtured by a succession of philosophers including Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur.2 For Valdés, the post-structuralist realization that literary texts are indeterminate and inexhaustible prohibits replacing the work of art with critical commentaries on it; criticism's collective and determining role belongs to a shared community of commentary whose history and thought is a record of the changing interpretations and understandings of literary texts' meanings. [End Page 164]

Valdés's claim extends to the field of contemporary music criticism, where the fashion of denouncing aesthetics as socially pernicious turns against traditional musicology's institutional authority. By demystifying absolute music (instrumental music devoid of programmatic associations), a self-proclaimed critical musicology revolts against traditional musicology's perceived political and ideological agenda. Critical musicology militates against the aesthetic conceit that absolute music transcends its social construction. Yet, by overlooking the philosophical presuppositions that set music's autonomy against practical affairs, new musicology accedes to the schema it recoils against.

The tradition nurtured by Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics and Ricoeur's hermeneutic phenomenology represents a critical current whose significance has been overshadowed by postmodernist investments in decoding music's social and political content. Gadamer's critique of the subjectivization of aesthetics and Ricoeur's meditations on the imagination's capacity for invention offer an alternativeto contemporary music criticism's reaction against the principle of music's aesthetic autonomy. Gadamer and Ricoeur question art's formal separation from reality, which belongs to the history of Kant's radical subjectivization of aesthetics. Gadamer's critique of art's aesthetic differentiation prepares the ground for revealing how socially informed analyses conform to the schema Kant initiates by divorcing judgments of taste from their surrounding cultural ethos. Gadamer argues that, by discrediting theoretical knowledge that does not rely on the methodology of the natural sciences, the transcendental function Kant ascribes to aesthetic judgment lays the foundation for differentiating between art's aesthetic constitution and a concept of truth that accommodates the standard of the natural sciences. Through reducing the "sensus communis to a subjective principle," Kant legitimates his critique of aesthetic judgments by denying taste any importanceas a mode of knowledge.3

Ricoeur's hermeneutical reflections on imagination complement Gadamer's critique of a differentiating consciousness that abstracts art works from their cultural worlds. For Ricoeur, imagination is productive when the fictions that works create affect our understanding of ourselves and our world by re-describing reality. Aesthetics' alignment with ideology encounters a limit in the power works evince by unfolding different ways of seeing or hearing reality. Ricoeur's reflections on imagination stand in stark contrast to the idea that individual works represent a form of cultural capital in the struggle for social position [End Page 165] and power. Contemporary critical practices' failure to account for the philosophical separation of judgments of taste from knowledge of reality precipitates the impasse criticism encounters when it identifies aesthetics with ideology at the expense of a work's capacity to affect reality in productive ways. The dispersal and potential disappearance of music's aesthetic character into the recesses of cultural and political analysis keeps step with the conceptual narrowing imposed by a restrictive sociological critique. Demystifying music's ideological representations of gender, race and identity purges romantic...


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pp. 164-179
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