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Aesthetic Primacy, Cultural Identity, and Human Agency
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Michael S. Martin

© 2004
PMC 14.3

Review of:
Emory Elliott, Louis Fretas Caton, and Jeffrey Rhyne, eds., Aesthetics in a Multicultural Age. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.

"Let us, for example, credit it to the honor of Kant that he should expatiate on the peculiar properties of the sense of touch with the naïveté of a country parson!"

--Nietzsche, 3rd Essay, Section 6, in The Genealogy of Morals

If we are to believe the arguments made by the contributors to Aesthetics in a Multicultural Age, aesthetics has been much maligned in twentieth-century literary theory, film studies, and art history. As an instance of this critical tendency, Winfried Fluck, whose essay "Aesthetics and Cultural Studies" foregrounds many of the central dilemmas inherent to any aesthetic judgment, invokes the contemporary German critic Urlich Schödlbauer when the latter writes, "whoever deals with aesthetics nowadays, dissects a corpse" (80). While the death of aesthetics is perhaps overstated here, the contributors to this volume all make separate, and mostly compelling, cases for the revitalization of the aesthetic in textual and extra-textual cultural productions. The formative problem in determining aesthetic judgment is perhaps best stated by Emory Elliott in the introduction when he writes that, because of multiculturalism and changes in canon formation, "many of the prior aesthetic criteria need to be re-examined and certainly the traditional hierarchies of merit need to be challenged" (5). Instead of being a methodology that discounts the aesthetic, he argues, multiculturalism makes it possible "to formulate new terminologies, categories, and processes of assessment" and is thus firmly grounded in the act of judgment (6).

The essays in Aesthetics in a Multicultural Age were collected from a major conference held by the Center for Ideas and Society at the University of California, Riverside, in 1998. The conference attracted over 600 attendees, received substantial coverage in the Los Angeles Times, and was featured in a cover story for the 6 December 1998 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education. In an attempt to add continuity and cohesion to the sometimes disparately themed essays, the editors have divided the book into three rubrics: "Challenges to Aesthetics of Diversity," "Redefining Categories of Value and Difference," and "Aesthetic Judgment and the Public Sphere." Coeditor Elliott, an English professor at Riverside, has assembled a diverse field for this collection, including scholars in film studies, art history, African-American literature, and women's studies. By and large, however, the majority of the theorists in this volume are well-known names from American Studies, predominantly nineteenth-century American literary critics, and most of them can be aligned with a neopragmatist school of thought, borrowing from the works of John Dewey and William James. Dewey provides a recurring point of reference for Fluck, Giles Gunn, and Heinz Ickstadt, all of whom consider Dewey's Art as Experience (1934) as a model for a contingent, experiential basis for aesthetic interpretation. The other text most frequently referenced here is, not surprisingly, Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment (1790). But whereas Dewey is generally enlisted on the side of a new and reoriented aesthetic project, Kant is usually associated with a threatened and possibly unworkable paradigm, his notion of disinterested beauty running counter to the contemporary emphasis on the political and social investments that must inevitably inform aesthetic judgment. Still, the best essays in the volume resist any tendency simply to pronounce aesthetic distinctions contingent or relative and leave it at that; they undertake to advance a new aesthetics in which something of Kant's enlightenment project persists.

Under the rubric of "Challenges to an Aesthetics of Diversity," the first essay in the volume is perhaps also the finest: Satya P. Mohanty's "Can Our Values Be Objective? On Ethics, Aesthetics, and Progressive Politics" is an extended criticism of the postmodern tendency to devalue any form of critical judgment. In response to the postmodern vantage, which is wary of universal normative values and claims and lacks grounding in the empirical method, Mohanty proffers a nuanced, fluid conception of objectivity. For Mohanty, Michel Foucault represents an ideological holism, or skepticism, while Noam Chomsky, with his theory of human betterment, provides an applicable model for a...

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