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“One Step From Politics”: Sartor Resartus and Aesthetic Ideology
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Carlyle says in terms of stomach trouble what the Promethean Marx says in terms of a gnawed liver.

—Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (115)

A storm-worn signpost not to be read….

—Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The Dead Prophet” (l. 17)

For all the critical and theoretical attention directed at its complex structure and rhetoric,Sartor Resartus has rarely been read as a political work. At least one reason seems to indicate that such a reading might actually be instructive. Sartor Resartus was written exactly halfway in between Friedrich Schiller’s 1795 Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man and Matthew Arnold’s 1869 Culture and Anarchy, two major works often taken to exemplify the tradition (if that is what it is) of aesthetic ideology. Awkwardly situated as a signpost marking the transition from the Romantic to the Victorian era,Sartor Resartus presents itself as a highly singular engagement with aesthetics and ideology, while relentlessly foregrounding its own rhetorical condition and complicating the very linguistic articulation of its aesthetic and ideological arguments. As such, it can be considered an essentially Romantic work. In his The Politics of Aesthetics, Marc Redfield argues that as “a trope for aesthetics, romanticism must turn on itself” and thus “splits into error and critique” (31). Our very notions of culture, literature, and art emerge, Redfield claims, from a Romantic aesthetic that was articulated in the wake of Kant and that struggled to “simultaneously … produce and … discover the essential harmony of perceiving mind and perceiving world, sensation and idea, phenomenality and cognition” and as such aims to inscribe “the individual within the generality of human being” (11). Accordingly, aesthetics is inherently political, since it has “everything to do with such large protopolitical matters as the definition of the human, the possibility of judgment without rule, or the perception of psychic, natural, social, and cosmic harmony” (12). The eventual upshot of this political drive of aesthetics is the notion of the modern nation state:

The disinterestedness that marks judgments of taste represents the moment when the empirical subject transcends its class interests in a moment of contact with the formal identity—the transcendental body, as it were—of humanity. This formal identity, furthermore, has an empirical representative in mainstream aesthetic discourse: the state. (12)

This Romantic notion of the state is based on the aesthetic articulation of a reversible analogy between the human and the political, the body and the state: the state becomes the phenomenal representation of the formal identity of humanity and is based on a system of acculturation of the individual into this larger whole by means of aesthetic education or Bildung.

If Romanticism thus presents itself as “the home turf of aesthetic ideology,” it also carries within itself the disarticulation of this bourgeois ideology (32). Not only is there a permanent danger that aesthetic education, according to its own logic, threatens to end in blind bureaucratic authoritarianism and a mechanization of the organic state, but also a more incisive self-critique emerges that affects the very congruity between aesthetics and politics and which results from the disruptive intervention of a specifically linguistic problematic. As Redfield argues, “aesthetized political models not only conceal real social injustice,” they also “actively produce violence as a by-product of their own impossible reliance on, and projection of, sociopolitical homogeneity and transparency” (22). More specifically, in its drive towards formalization and transparency, aesthetic ideology aims to bypass the technicality of its mediation and relies on the obliteration of language as its primary means of transmission. Ideally, aesthetic state models would do away with language as material means of mediation and instead directly progress to pure and transparent meaning, because language resists inscription in this all-pervasive logic of representation and formalization and instead exposes itself to difference and otherness, unpredictability and unreliability. In de Manian fashion, language refuses to be reduced to a phenomenal representation of non-linguistic meaning, instead generating an unpredictable process of reference that never comes to a halt in anything non-linguistic and has its beginning in a violent imposition of meaning that lies outside language.

A privileged site for the critical exploration of this linguistic condition is literature, the art that at the...

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