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MLN 117.4 (2002) 836-857
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The Poetics of Expenditure
The development of aesthetic modernism in France, both in the field of painting and in literature, has been deeply influenced by post-Kantian modes of thought. To speak very generally, post-Kantian thought affirms the "purity" and specificity of aesthetic endeavor. The story of modernism in this context becomes a story of how art purified itself of external influences and began to explore the possibilities of its own medium. Modern art no longer serves religion or the state and ceases to be of economic benefit to the individual who produces it. These are some of the tenets of post-Kantian modernism, and the latter point in particular has figured crucially in the discussion of French poetry and its development since Baudelaire. The fact that poetry does not pay is a point of honor for poets like Mallarmé and Valéry, and not only because an unpaid poet stands on high moral grounds. If pure poetry excludes economic values, this is also due to the nature of poetic language. Mallarmé commented famously that most language usage amounts to nothing more than putting a piece of money silently in some one else's hand (368). Language as coinage is a mere means to an end; it enables the conduct of business within the social sphere and its meanings are conventionally determined. Pure poetry, on the other hand, has none of these economic characteristics. It is not a simple medium of everyday communication and its value cannot be measured in economic terms. Kant used the expression "purposiveness without purpose" to describe this aesthetic resistance to economic ends.
The most succinct attempt to critique the post-Kantian inheritance [End Page 836] in France is probably Jacques Derrida's essay "Economimesis." 1 It is a classic deconstructive exercise, set up as a reading of Kant's Critique of Judgment and focusing on the particular paragraphs in which Derrida discerns a theory of mimesis in the making (2 §43-51). The fundamental oppositions in Kant's aesthetic thought—between art and nature, the liberal and the mercenary arts, the fine arts and the sciences—are explicated and shown to be unstable. This general deconstructive project underwrites the term Derrida coins in the essay's title, "Economimesis." Economimesis reflects an alignment of two realms which the Kantian system attempts to hold apart: "It would appear that mimesis and oikonomia could have nothing to do with one another. The point is to demonstrate the contrary, to exhibit the systematic link between the two" (3-4). In Derrida's reading, the concept of economy remains indeterminate. He claims that he is not seeking to establish a link between mimesis and any given political economy: "[Mimesis] can accommodate itself to political systems that are different, even opposed to one another" (4). Nevertheless, the concept of economy in its most general instance entails a kind of specification. The attempt to trace the general occurrence of "political economy" in Kant's aesthetics thus reveals the occult presence of a particular political economy: "A politics, therefore, although it never occupies the center of the stage, acts upon this discourse. It ought to be possible to read it. A politics and a political economy, to be sure, are implicated in every discourse on art and on the beautiful. But how does one discern the most pointed specificity of such an implication?" (4, my emphasis). 2
Derrida's search for the political economy implied by Kant's aesthetics is conducted on several fronts, but my discussion will focus on one series of observations. While the Critique of Judgment leaves politics in the wings, so to speak ("it never occupies the center of the stage"), a political figure does appear, strangely disguised, in Kant's [End Page 837] discourse. This is the Prussian king, Frederick the Great. In keeping with the professedly apolitical character of the Critique, Kant does not present Frederick as a king. Frederick is an exemplary personage, but Kant finds him particularly admirable for his poetic talents and not for his political skills. Kant cites few poets in...