- Etruscan Invitations:Dickinson and the Anxiety of the Aesthetic in Feminist Criticism
In the Dickinson family's 1844 edition of Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language, Emily Dickinson might have encountered Webster's clipped definition of "esthetics": "The science of sensations; or the science of deducing from nature and taste the rules and principles of art" (1:611). If "esthetics" takes up less space in Webster's dictionary than "estate" or "esteem," on which he dilates much more expansively, it was not for lack of contemporary controversy over the term's definition or scope of application, a controversy that Webster's definition both points to and defuses with its equivocal conjunction, "or."
The evolution of aesthetics from a general "science" of sense experience to a "science" specifically devoted to describing and prescribing those sensations appropriate to artworks—the story behind Webster's "or"—was a major eighteenth-and nineteenth-century intellectual project. Aesthetics in the first of Webster's senses arose in the mid-eighteenth century as "a discourse of the body," in Terry Eagleton's words, and was originally concerned with "the whole region of human perception and sensation, in contrast to the more rarified domain of conceptual thought" (Eagleton 13). As Eagleton and other Marxist critics have argued, the movement of [End Page 1] "aesthetics" from this broader sense toward its now more familiar and narrower meaning of "the rules and principles of art" reflects the growing specialization and hierarchical division of the field of cultural production. Once art is "sequestered from all other social practices," it can serve "the dominant social order. . . [as] an idealized refuge from its own actual values of competitiveness, exploitation, and material possessiveness" (Eagleton 9). From within this sequestered realm, the art object as described by aesthetics (in the emergent, narrower sense of the word) projects for the middle class its own ideal "model of subjectivity": like the aesthetic object, the bourgeois subject aspires to "autonomy. . . a mode of being which is entirely self-regulating and self-determining" (9). Yet the discourse of aesthetics is, in Eagleton's reading, "radically doubled-edged" (9). If the aesthetic on the one hand "offers the middle class a superbly versatile model of their political aspirations," as a "discourse of the body" it also holds out the utopian hope that "there is something in the body which can revolt against the power that inscribes it" (28).
Looking for "something in the body which can revolt against the power that inscribes it" has for many years, of course, been one powerful aim of feminist theory. The politically "double-edged" quality of aesthetic discourse, however, has been even more anxiously registered in feminist than in Marxist literary theory. Feminist criticism in the United States is only now beginning to turn its scrutiny in any large-scale, systematic way to the intellectual history of aesthetics and the questions traditionally posed by aesthetic discourse, even though Anglo-American feminist literary criticism through the 1970s and 1980s was both deeply preoccupied with and deeply anxious over its relation to aesthetic questions. The title of a 1989 book by Rita Felski, for example, Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change, suggests that, from some feminist perspectives, 1980s feminist literary criticism seemed intellectually swamped by questions of aesthetics—the search, often thought of as provoked by French feminism and authorized by Virginia Woolf, for a style, a sentence, a literature "of our own." But it was the genitive phrase in this project—"of our/their/her/women's own"—that seemed in the 1980s to attract the most energy and concern, rather than the historical constitution of "the aesthetic" as a field in which the search for this uniquely autonomous property [End Page 2] could play itself out. Or again, the aesthetic figured as a symptom in the notorious 1982 set piece in Diacritics between Peggy Kamuf and Nancy Miller, who framed the opposition between American and French feminisms as between sensible American shoes and fancy French heels. Those famous shoes embody the uneasy status of aesthetics in feminist literary theory and criticism through the 1980s: to the extent that feminist criticism acknowledged aesthetic "preferences" only as...