The Aesthetic Era

[I just found this on my computer... the date I last opened the file was apparently August 19, 2010.  I think I remember that I wrote it for a class - perhaps a class on the philosophy of aesthetics, taught by Katie Terezakis - but if that's true, then it has to be at least a couple of years older - perhaps 2007?  I'm not sure.  Anyway, reading it now, it looks incomplete to me.  Certainly, there are things I would have written differently today.  But instead of adding to it, I'm just uploading it as a historical document of a person I used to be.

This predates, by a few years, all of the writing I've done in the "Aesthetic Materialism" series, but it's on a similar topic, so I'll call it "Aesthetic Materialism 0" - kind of a prequel, if you will.]

The Aesthetic Era

    As a hermeneutic device, with all of its itinerant dangers and foibles, one can divide the history of Western philosophy into three broad epochs, with much overlap and frequent exceptions.  These three are: the Ontological Era, the Epistemological Era, and the Aesthetic Era.  The Ontological Era concerned itself primarily with questions of reality and truth, with how things are as they are.  This was philosophy's age of greatest confidence and daring, when it applied itself directly to things themselves with the least circumspection.  The Ontological Era can be further divided into two parts, the Classical age of Greek and Roman philosophy, and the theological age, mostly dominated by the Christian Church, though built on foundational works from the worlds of Islam and Judaism, such as those of Al-Farabi, Averroes, and Moses Maimonides.  Perhaps it was the very daring of the Ontological Era which resulted in the transition to the Epistemological Era.  This era began with the advent of the Scientific Revolution, but contrary to popular belief, concerned itself not primarily with the things of this world, but instead reoriented the project of philosophy around human consciousness, and particularly to the moral and honest humility involved in the recognition of human consciousness's limits.  The broad conclusions of Rationalism now seemed nothing but groundless arrogance, and consciousness shied away from claims that it could not back up with something from beyond itself, in experience that could be shared by others.  This epoch, too, can be divided into two periods.  The first, initiated by Newton and Bacon, reinterpreted the history of philosophy in the light of empiricism, and culminated in the purified system of Hume.  The second, more durable, subtle, and ineradicable form of philosophy in the Epistemological Era was typified by Kant, whose "Copernican Revolution" turned most resolutely from any hope of knowing things-in-themselves and towards the subject itself forever.  This stage culminated in the history of Existential Phenomenology, which sought the truth of consciousness, of perception, the truth of appearances in the things themselves.  This fascination with appearances led ineluctably to the Aesthetic Era, which is the current position of philosophy.

    The Aesthetic Era is no longer focused on truth, either of an objective or a subjective nature.  When one looks at a painting of a cat, it does not even occur to one to say, "Well, this is not a real cat - it's just a few daubs of paint.  Therefore, it can't be a good cat, or a good painting.  This cat, since it is not a real cat, does not interest me at all.  I am only interested in real cats."  Truth is irrelevant to aesthetics, and that is precisely the strength of aesthetics.  In an age when Truth and its concomitant values have been successfully evaded, aesthetics retains value and even attains new value.  When Keats stated that "Truth is beauty, beauty truth," this signified more than anything the beginning of the breakdown of the easy equation between truth and beauty; the problematization of their equation existed in the fact that it now needed to be stated as an assertion, a challenge, and almost a question.  The Aesthetic Era does not negate Keats's hypothesis, but expands it, deepens it, and is, precisely, this expansion and deepening.  In the Aesthetic Era, there is no truth but beauty - there's no standard by which to judge truth or falsity except your own aesthetic predispositions.  Beauty is the truth, the whole truth, and truth is merely beauty and nothing more.  The Aesthetic Era does not reject truth, with or without a capital "T," it employs truth and arranges truth for the greatest effect - and according to the logic of the Aesthetic Era, there is no truth other than this arrangement.  "That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know."
    Philosophy of the Aesthetic Era is genuine philosophy - love of wisdom, with the emphasis on love.  One loves the wisdom of the Aesthetic Era as one loves the shard of a Grecian urn, or better yet, the description of an imaginary urn in a poem.  Philosophy of the Aesthetic Era is one step better than this: say, the quotation and exigesis of a poetic description of an urn in a work of philosophy.  This can multiply endlessly, and aesthetic philosophy is the love of such rococo excess and superfluity, such byzantine complexity.  Epistemological Era philosophy was critical, cold, and ultimately unloving - its desire to simplify, its desire for "reduction" was really a desire for death, for the end of philosophy, for the culmination of philosophy, in the form of a final answer.  Aesthetic philosophy is the genuine love of wisdom - wisdom as the object of pure contemplation and appreciation, love in the sense of being unconditional, and devoid of the alienating effects of critical distance.  It resolves the "ancient" squabble between poetry and philosophy by submitting, completely, to poetry.
    Wisdom is not the same as truth.  Wisdom is older than truth, more mature, more wizened, less in the throes of youth's wild energies, including youth's romantic yearning for truth and justice, and youth's near-nihilisitic critical project of negation whereby youth struggles to attain truth and justice.  Wisdom, to cite a cliche, knows the difference between the things it can change and those it cannot, and is thereby connected with serenity.  Wisdom is content, and comfortable, and has given up the struggle with untruth, both in the forms of ignorance and deception.  The old wizard gladly accepts the gifts of ignorance and deception, using them to spice up his wisdom, to keep it from becoming too dry.  An eidolon is no longer banished as an idol, but is incorporated, as a gargoyle, in the architecture of our new cathedral.  Wisdom is related to familiarity, to familial relation.  In German, there are two verbs, kennen and wissen, both generally translated "to know."  Wissen is to know as a fact, to believe, to engage in Wissenschaft (science, and all factical knowledge).  Kennen is to know as one knows a person, a place one has lived, or something else too large to fit inside one's own head.  The wisdom loved by the Aesthetic Era, which might also be called the Post-factual Age, is more like kennen.  This type of knowing, this familiarity, is broader than logical knowledge, in that it allows one to know false things.  The philosopher of the Aesthetic Era knows all the old arguments, as one recognizes all the old tunes, and even the most ill-conceived and vile of them is likely to evoke a smile and a private reverie.  The aesthete feels no dissonance in contradiction, or rather, feels it, and feels it intensely, as one feels and appreciates the dissonance in a Schoenberg symphony.  Where the Epistemological philosopher wrote all his furious condemnations of the shallowness of the world outside his soul, the Aesthetic philosopher is resigned to ecstasy.
    The philosophers of the Epistemological Era, like scientists of a bygone paradigm in Thomas Kuhn's theory, will find it difficult, if not impossible, even to communicate with philosophers of the Aesthetic Era.  The two epochs judge philosophy according to entirely different criteria.  No more do validity, sound theories, well-supported arguments, logical presentations, and the exposition of facts mean anything, except as picturesque, and perhaps quaint, displays of heroic bravado, quixotic adventures, and grand gestures.  What is important now are aesthetic values - the originality of the text, its capacity to stimulate, the fluency of its images and the sound of its phrases, its sense of humor, the adventure one undergoes in reading it and experiencing it.  Even Daniel C. Dennett has come around to appreciate what he calls "intuition pumps," where he had once used the term pejoratively to describe philosophical images and notions that fell short of logical arguments.  And even his fiercest critics must admit that "Consciousness Explained" whether or not it turns out to have anything to do with human consciousness, is quite a ride.  The literalist and simplistic tradition of Anglo-American philosophy epitomized by Dewey may be out of fashion currently, but it is inevitable that it will soon be rehabilitated - as camp.  If the Epistemological Era philosopher successfully and insightfully attacks the Aesthetic Era, he will likely be in turn praised by the Aesthetic Era philosophers for the beauty of his argument.

    It would be pointless to assign a specific starting date for the Aesthetic Era, but one can certainly see traces of what might be called a proto-Aesthetic Era in the later works of Kant, who had the unique distinction of bridging all three Eras.  In his early, pre-critical writings, when he is theorizing about volcanoes, the rotation of the earth, and the history of the universe, Kant can clearly be seen as an ontological philosopher.  He eventually came to dismiss these, seeing them as of not much greater theoretical worth than the visions of Swedenborg.  This self-criticism resulted in the First and Second Critiques, which, along with the Prolegomena and the Grundwerk, are exemplars of the Epistemological Era.  The Aesthetic perspective, or group of perspectives, can be seen as a continuation of this work of criticism taken to such an extreme that it undoes itself.  I regard the Aesthetic Era as the subjective turn carried even further - a kind of double-turn, a 360 degree turn.  One might also understand it as a short-circuiting of the critical project, when the outputs are soldered to the inputs.  Although suggested by Kant's own writings, this was really accomplished fully by Schopenhauer's interpretation of Kant, when he claimed that the thing-in-itself is nothing but the Will, which is ultimately one's own Will.  Art needed no longer point beyond itself - it was redemption in itself.  If it did point beyond itself, it was not to the world outside, as representation of nature, but beyond the world, to the Will itself, and its projects, the realm of pure form.  Thus came Modernism.  But even Schopenhauer is a transitional figure, and might be considered the last great philosopher of the Epistemological Era, who was trying, in his own circuitous way, to arrive at the truth, the real truth, the truth beyond representation.  For him, Will was a problem - something to be eradicated, in the great project of ascesis.  The Aesthetic Era as such began with the writings of Nietzsche, the first to say yes to life, to appreciate and affirm the world of representation on its own merits, without recourse to any world beyond.
    In this early phase of the Aesthetic Era, philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were marginal figures, operating on the outskirts of philosophy, far from the central position of the Epistemological Era's heyday.  For those still engaged in the project of criticism, like Marx and Bakunin, the Aesthetic philosophical project seemed strange and unnecessary, a mere decoration added on the top of reality, at the very surface of its superstructure.  If anything, the first stirrings of the Aesthetic Era seemed like a symptom of a society of utter decadence and wastefulness.  But philosophy, as it was practiced by those of the new Era, was not truly decadent, in that it did not decay, but only grew and grew, becoming an industry unto itself.  What's more, Aesthetic Era philosophers were the funhouse mirrors of these cultural critics, and soon it became clear to all that the cultural critics were fighting only against their own reflections.  Both were playing a role in society, the role of the rebel, and from them sprung the global counterculture.  One senses that not much has changed about the group that Lautreamont and Baudelaire describe as being all dressed in black and hanging out in cafes and their contemporary equivalents.  But while Marx and Bakunin sought to transform all of society, to push their marginality into the mainstream, Nietzsche and his progeny would be content to remain eternal rebels, rebelling against every form that society takes, forever on the outside edge looking in.  Indeed, the counterculture came to distrust broader society's capacity to absorb its ideas, and treated such events not as victories but as betrayals.  Whereas the Epistemological Era sought to set consciousness straight, so that it could responsibly return to the project of finding out the truth, by overcoming alienation, the Aesthetic Era appreciates and even fosters alienation (as Anton LaVey puts it, "creative alienation").  Thus, popularity became a liability, and art became not so much a means of distributing propaganda to the masses as a portal of personal escape from the world.  Thus it became imperative to keep the world out.
    One can see the process of the formation of the current regime of discourse as one of purification.  At the high-point of the Ontological Era, philosophy was the "Queen of the sciences" and identical with theology.  This assured its position in the University, which was identical with the Church, which encompassed all Europe except for the extremely marginalized.  With the beginning of the Epistemological Era, philosophy achieved various permanent separations - first from the Church, then various branches of science (or "natural philosophy"), including mathematics, developed their own separate departments.  Only "pure" philosophy was left, which became increasingly marginalized and shunned to the "humanities" as the West underwent the industrial revolution and the function of university education changed.  Thus the separate functions of philosophy were delegated to other authorities.  The abandonment of the project of the Ontological Era was the result of the relegation of the question of what things are as they are to the empirical scientists.  Then, the questions of the Epistemologcal age became the purview of the cognitive psychologists, other psychologists, computer specialists, linguists, and so on.  Many became convinced that philosophy served no more function, either because the questions it posed had been solved, or because they were unsolvable.  A mass exodus ensued.  Those who were left in philosophy departments were those who had no other choice - those doomed to be philosophers whether they liked it or not.  Now the writings of philosophy would be judged not by whether they solved the problems that philosophy posed - everyone knew in advance that they would not - but how they failed to solve these problems.  In other words, philosophy had become a matter of aesthetics.  (In fact, those who persisted in claiming that they could and did solve these problems became utterly unfashionable.  See, for instance, Ayn Rand.)

    The philosopher of the Aesthetic Era likely knows the effete, helpless futility of philosophy, and yet he cannot resist philosophizing, as a compulsive is unable to stop counting his steps.  He knows that no knowledge can promise salvation, yet he is as it were addicted to knowing.  This indeed is pure wisdom, truly disinterested knowledge, for such wisdom can never be in aid of anything, and can only be an end in itself.  There is nothing so completely useless as philosophy.  For the philosopher of the Aesthetic Era, all philosophies are lined up next to one another, one might say spatially rather than temporally, as in a museum, where the artefacts of Minoan culture may be placed side-by-side with the paintings of Paul Gauguin.  Aesthetic philosophy is the only philosophy possible for a culture without a history.  In the Aesthetic Era, all philosophies are present - but present only as dead objects, capable of arousing nothing in their spectators but mere contemplation.  The Aesthetic Era philosopher may be aware that he is a collector of dead objects, and appreciates the death, the inertia, the permanence of his collection - his attitude is one of abject, helpless love. 
    I know of no more perfect example of the philosopher of the Aesthetic Era than Roland Barthes.  With Barthes, we come to realize that there actually are no philosophers of the Aesthetic Era, only philosophy.  Barthes is dead, and we feel his death; his philosophy appreciates his death.  The purity of his nostalgia - philosophy as embarrassment - makes cool, critical, Epistemological Era evaluation well-nigh impossible.  He forces us to feel the cruelty involved in criticizing him, and when one tries, one's ideas are magically deflected from rational argument into either guilty back-pedaling or sadistic glee.  Yes, by fondly remembering his mother, in Camera Lucida, he himself becomes an image - the perfect image of the ideal spectator, powerless to change the reality of the photograph, forced to accept that the photograph is not a mere representation of reality - the photograph is real.  Yes, by affirming this image, we affirm the bonds of the bourgeois family, of family itself, the original hierarchy and the hierarchy that maintains all the other hierarchies, extending even from beyond the grave.  Yes, Barthes's writing is an expression of the oppression of all life, an expression of the power of the dead.  But such criticism is somehow, magically, besides the point.  We must affirm this image.  And through this image we affirm everything.  We are rendered totally helpless, utterly subjected to universal affirmation.


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