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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.3 (2002) 361-378

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Ethics, Meaning, and the Work of Beauty

G. Gabrielle Starr

Literary study may currently appear to be invested in a reexamination and revaluation of the aesthetic. 1 The reasons for such a renewed interest in beauty and its kin equally may seem obvious from some perspectives. One narrative posits that aesthetics is the late-twentieth-century answer to ideology, a can't-we-all-get-along response to the perceived fracturing of the academy brought about by ideological and critical conflict. Such an approach, though satisfying in the way of all neat reductions, is only about as accurate as one might expect; it is, like many a Victorian heroine, no better than it should be. In some cases, this explanation may be correct, but a turn to aesthetics can be differently explained and holds different value for critics who recall the powerful role aesthetics plays in Enlightenment philosophy, a legacy whose revision was at the heart of the critical theory of Jauss, Lyotard, Foucault, and their followers. The response in the 1990s to the barely accessible complexities of such theory has been, at its best, to resituate literary criticism, to integrate theoretical acuity within accessible writing about art and culture. In the drive to bring theory and practice closer together, the aesthetic, as a theory of the relationships between readers and texts, raises compelling interest. Hand in hand in recent years with a turn to history, the discontinuities and processes through which texts and meaning are made, we find a turn to beauty, a mode of sensibility through which texts enter into and change the worlds of the people who read them. But the return to the aesthetic, like the return to history, raises significant questions about how literary studies as a discipline is constituted, and at the core of the conflicts surrounding turns to aesthetics-- [End Page 361] both in the eighteenth century and at the start of the twenty-first--are problems of labor and meaning.

Recent work by critics like Elaine Scarry has made bold and intelligent statements about the potential of the aesthetic, but in turning to aesthetic theory, many contemporary critics tend to reenact the melding of categories at the heart of the emergence of eighteenth-century British aesthetics: aesthetic experience and aesthetic inquiry are compressed and frequently conflated, and aesthetic inquiry is, in turn, all but replaced by ethics or hermeneutics. This pattern is in part the result of giving precedence to the Shaftesburian tradition of aesthetic theory. As Ronald Paulson points out, most literary study of the aesthetic proceeds from Shaftesburian assumptions and suppresses or ignores the serious challenges offered to this strain within the eighteenth century by "less respectable" thinkers like Hogarth. 2 This essay sketches a pattern common to ethical and hermeneutic approaches to the aesthetic both then and now, examining the reasons aesthetics tends to become an appealing object of contemporary theory-as-hermeneutics and a de facto domain within the larger field of ethics. In opposition to this tradition, I bring together works by Hogarth, Swift, and Proust--an unlikely grouping, perhaps--in order to explore what happens when the temptations of hermeneutic and ethical approaches to the aesthetic are held, even briefly, at bay. The pressing questions are those of discipline. First, if aesthetics matters, what does aesthetic inquiry produce that no other form of questioning can? And second, what role might both the question and its answers play in current reformulations of literary study?

The merging of aesthetic inquiry with ethics or hermeneutics has its most explicit statement in the eighteenth century and is reinforced by late-twentieth-century critique. Major texts in the early years of British and continental aesthetics tend to emerge as answers to problems that on the surface do not concern the aesthetic at all. The theories of aesthetics promoted early in the century by Shaftesbury or Hutcheson are, in large part, a response to the perceived moral crudity and inadequacy of Hobbesian philosophy. Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) undertakes to resolve the foundations of...


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