Democratic Dandyism: Aesthetics and the Political Cultivation of Sens
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Democratic Dandyism:
Aesthetics and the Political Cultivation of Sens

Community is made up of the interruption of the singularities, or of the suspension singular beings are (Jean-Luc Nancy).1

Since it is neither "love," nor even "relation" in general, nor the juxta-position of in-differences, the "with" is the proper realm of the plurality of origins insofar as they originate, not from one another or for one another, but in view of one another or with regard to one another .2

(Jean-Luc Nancy)

I have chosen to use the polysemy of the French word sens instead of the English sense in the title of this paper to reference the interruption of sense as meaning by bodily sensation in the "advenience of an appearance" to use the Barthesian term for "the force of attraction that sets off the disturbance of the punctum."3

My professional matrix is not that of political theory, but the field of contemporary visual arts, a field committed to appearances and issues regarding their advenience. It has been Jacques Rancière who has done most in recent times to remind the contemporary art world that art and politics are essentially conjoined.4 In his introduction, Kristin Ross, the American translator of Rancière's Le Maître Ignorant: cinq leçons sur l'émancipation intellectuelle reminds us of Walter Benjamin's desire "to blast a 'unique experience of the past' out of the 'continuum of history' for the purpose of wresting meaning from the past for the present" and suggests its kinship with the early writings of the Révoltes logiques collective in which Rancière participated, who wrote: "What interests us is that ideas be events, that history be at all times a break, a rupture, to be interrogated only from the perspective of the here and now, and only politically."5

It was in presentations on the genealogy of the British art world in the 18th century, that I first formulated my ideas concerning dandyism, which can I believe, be fruitfully read through Rancière's egalitarian premise and Jean-Luc Nancy's 'being singular plural.'6 How can a politics of sens inspire a democratic desire for distinction? How can we foster distinction in a democratic society without forgoing a fundamental belief in equality? These are questions which became particularly and painfully acute in the transitions from aristocratic to democratic society in revolutionary fin de siècle periods when foundational regimes of meaning crumbled. The singular pluralism, of what in the wake of the March 2009 University of London conference 'The Idea of Communism,' I propose to call communo-anarchic dandyism, arises again with considerable urgency in our own contingent transitional post-foundational phase: the forging of a sense, not of the agglomerate globalization of the capitalist market, but of the creation of diverse equalities of worlds, implied by what Nancy describes as the—untranslatable but nevertheless translated—mondialisation: world-forming creation of worlds.7 "The unity of a world is not one: it is made of a diversity, including disparity and opposition. […] The unity of the world is nothing other than its diversity, and its diversity is, in turn, a diversity of worlds."8

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Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 1787,

© The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Mid-eighteenth century London epitomizes transformations that founded the art world and its market as we know it today: the birth of the public sphere, of the capitalist culture of consumption and the society of the spectacle in which large numbers of persons participated, leading to an increased self-consciousness amongst the middling classes, and beckoning the birth of a new spectatorial regime.9 This new narcissistic or reflexive specularity was embodied in that eighteenth-century pre-figuration of the dandy: the macaroni. This was the name given to aristocrats returning from the Italian Grand Tour, who gathered in the Clubs of St. James to show off their fancy foreign fashions and their liking for Italian pasta. They were caricatured in the macaroni prints popular at the time. The year of 'Beau' Brummell's birth was in fact the year in...