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American Literature’s Aesthetic Dimensions (review)

From: College Literature
Volume 40, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 145-148 | 10.1353/lit.2013.0001

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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 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...



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