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Reviewed by
Jacob Brogan
Georgetown University
Weinstein, Cindy and Christopher Looby, eds. 2012. American Literature’s Aesthetic Dimensions. New York: Columbia University Press. $104.50 hc. $34.50 sc. 440 pp.

For almost three decades, academic literary criticism has fled from the forms of aesthetic inquiry that once drove the discipline. Arguing that aesthetics propagate false universalisms which occlude ideology and politics, scholars have instead embraced models of political and historical critique that have led them to turn away from questions of beauty and pleasure. This story serves as the initial point of divergence for American Literature’s Aesthetic Dimensions, a collection of essays edited by Cindy Weinstein and Christopher Looby. In their measured introduction, Weinstein and Looby carefully position the project between the poles of New Criticism and New Historicism. Where the first approach notoriously attended to form at the exclusion of all else, the second focused primarily on the social significance of literature. Refusing these extremes—extremes that may be, as Weinstein and Looby admit, caricatures of these critical discourses—they insist that aesthetics should be revisited today in ways that would allow us to acknowledge the aesthetic characteristics of ideology and politics themselves. While this is a noble goal, the collection as a whole fails to present a coherent manifesto for a new aesthetic criticism, thanks in large part to the diverse understandings of aesthetics on display throughout. Instead, the book’s contributors offer more narrowly focused readings of American literary and cultural texts that strive to straddle the supposed divide between formalism and historicism.

If a single attitude resonates throughout the wildly diverse essays that Weinstein and Looby have assembled here, it might be characterized in terms of what Nancy Bentley, in her contribution to the volume, calls “disenchant{ment} with disenchantment” (291). This sentiment describes the feeling of exhaustion that some find in the endless obligation to unveil the ideologically suspect underpinnings of every cultural artifact, a feeling that has popular origins at least as far back as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s seminal “Paranoid and Reparative Reading.” As Christopher Castiglia observes in his own essay here, this sense of double disenchantment derives from the shift from “Criticism as a mode of advocacy (of ‘liking’) . . . {to} critique, the revelatory regime of discerning the truth (if only an ideological and not a Kantian variety) beneath illusion” (118). While none of the book’s contributors attempt to resuscitate a purely belle lettristic appreciation of literary texts, many of them tarry with questions of beauty and attraction that have long since fallen out of style, even as they insistently link such questions to social and political realities. In and of itself, the conjunction of aesthetics and politics may not be wholly novel, but it is put to work here with a convincing [End Page 145] consistency. Along these same lines, the book’s contributors gratifyingly demonstrate that theory and aesthetic inquiry are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, almost all of them clearly show that the former can help to further explicate the latter without forcing us to abandon our appreciation of aesthetic considerations.

Where the contributors to Aesthetic Dimensions agree in the most general inclination of their projects, few of them seem to share a common understanding of aesthetics itself. In their introduction, Weinstein and Looby acknowledge as much, noting, “A quick and dirty list of what counts as aesthetic herein would have to include the play of imagination, the exploration of fantasy, the recognition and description of literary form, the materiality of literary inscription and publication, the pleasure of the text, sensuous experience in general, the appreciation of beauty, the adjudication and expression of taste, the broad domain of feeling or affect, or some particular combination of several of these elements” (4). Yet Looby and Weinstein also set the book up in programmatic terms, tacitly positioning the contributions of their collaborators as a concerted response to New Historicist skepticism that privileged the social meaning of literature over the experience of its form. In the end, Aesthetic Dimensions as a whole offers no definite answers to older concerns about the perils of a concept whose long association with the apolitical allowed it to serve as an alibi for troubling false universalisms. Instead of directly responding to such concerns, this volume presents a series of exemplary studies that demonstrate why they may not have been troubling in the first place. Some contributors, like Edward Cahill in “Liberty of the Imagination in Revolutionary America,” do offer convincing readings of the political applicability of eighteenth-century aesthetic sources. Cahill argues that the sense of detachment granted by older concepts of aesthetic liberty offered a means of negotiating political liberty. With this, he usefully opposes the familiar conceit that aesthetics cultivates a dangerous disinterest in politics. While essays such as Cahill’s help to contest common myths, the collection itself rarely holds to a single line of argument for long. Unlike other recent studies, such as Jonathan Loesberg’s A Return to Aesthetics (2005), Aesthetic Dimensions offers few consistent responses to the discontents of its titular concept.

To a significant extent, Aesthetic Dimensions internalizes the most acute critiques that might be leveled at it in the form of a simultaneously trenchant and generous afterword by Charles Altieri. Claiming that he remains unconvinced by the book’s attempt to put “aesthetic properties” to “social use,” Altieri writes: “But to achieve this goal they have to separate these properties from what I will call the more comprehensive aesthetic processes that give a distinctive cast to aesthetic experience as a synthesis of these various properties” (393). That is, in focusing on distinct aspects of aesthetics, the book’s contributors fail to speak to the status of aesthetics as such. What’s more, Altieri goes on to note, “The traditional modernist in me is still disturbed by the willingness of several of the essayists to deny the basic differences between the rhetorical and the aesthetic on which idealist and romantic traditions of aesthetics were founded” (397). Unlike Kantian aesthetic judgment, rhetorical analysis attends to the persuasive power [End Page 146] of language, its ability, in Altieri’s phrase, “to persuade by appealing to concrete emotions” (398). In practice, within Aesthetic Dimensions the equation of rhetoric with aesthetics takes the form of numerous close readings. Many of these readings provide rich insight into the particular texts they examine, especially, but not exclusively, in essays by Max Cavitch, Ivy G. Wilson, and Trish Loughran. Loughran, for example, carefully analyzes the temporalizing language of Benito Cereno (1855) in order to show how the story makes itself available to the present of each new reader. In the process, she holds that it helpfully unsettles “the philosophical problems of time, of progress (or enlightenment), and of everyday life” (37). Weinstein takes a similar approach in her essay on Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) in which she argues that Poe at once relies on and disrupts notions of national and racial time. Such essays demonstrate that attention to textual form can be reconciled with sociopolitical realities. But as Altieri argues, they still fail to consistently tackle the problems of aesthetics in and of itself, especially when this term refers to Kant or the German Romantic tradition. Because this tradition’s insistence on disinterest has grounded subsequent dismissals of aesthetics, this collection does provide a final response to such concerns.

There are certainly exceptions to this tendency to privilege the formal and political specificity of individual texts over larger aesthetic considerations, most notably in the book’s second section, “Aesthetics and the Representation of Sexuality.” Castiglia’s contribution, “Aesthetics Beyond the Actual,” sets the tone with a careful reading of Oscar Wilde’s 1889 “The Decay of Lying.” On this basis, Castiglia proposes that any return to aesthetics must look to the pleasure of appearances over and against the “actual” conditions that ostensibly underlie them. As he goes on to show in a reading of Hawthorne, this approach allows us to capture more fully the otherwise intangible intimacies of social and erotic relations. Castiglia’s work sets a foundation for subsequent essays such as Dorri Beam’s “Henry James, Constance Fenimore Woolson, and the Figure in the Carpet.” Though her analytic methods differ from Castiglia’s, Beam likewise proposes that aesthetic investigation helps us to chart the vagaries of intimacy. In “Sexuality’s Aesthetic Dimension,” Looby similarly argues that Kantian aesthetic (dis-)interest grounds forms of homoerotic desire to the extent that attraction to specific bodies may well be detached from the demand for orgasm or release. Along with Wendy Steiner’s “From Hawthorne to Hairspray,” all of the essays in this section demonstrate that aesthetic inquiry may have something to teach us about the connections between bodies. Together, these four contributions establish that politically sensitive aesthetic inquiry of the kind proposed by Aesthetic Dimensions as a whole may be most effective when applied to existing academic subfields such as queer studies.

Even when the essays in Aesthetic Dimensions are not connected by explicit thematic bonds, a shifting set of shared references weaves them into one another. Figures like Herman Melville and Henry James make multiple appearances in different essays, as do theorists like Judith Butler. In light of the diverse [End Page 147] understandings of aesthetics at work here, such shared reference points help to demonstrate the potential diversity of twenty-first-century aesthetic criticism, even if such work still awaits a more coherent mission statement. Almost without exception the essays in Aesthetic Dimensions are as elegantly written as they are convincingly argued. In the range of their approaches—from the contemporary economic theorization of Jonathan Freedman’s “What Maggie Knew” to the musicologically inclined speculation of Eric Lott’s “Perfect is Dead”—they may not offer a new and unified methodological horizon for literary studies, but they do help to initiate a necessary conversation. This is a book that deserves to be read by all who are, like its contributors, “disenchanted with disenchantment” and looking to formulate whatever might come next, so long as they do not expect to find that formulation ready-made on the pages of this volume. It might also serve to spark productive debates in graduate seminars and courses for advanced undergraduates on the intersection of the aesthetics and ideology. [End Page 148]