The notion of aesthetics was famously defined by Kant as the individual judgment of ‘beauty’ defining culturally specific systems. Bourdieu’s work on ‘taste’ was one critical rendering of Kant’s aesthetics as a particular sensibility and valuation of beauty, trained and cultivated as ‘cultural capital’ in elite classes. For Bourdieu, taste is an aesthetic disposition marking distinction and high class. Aesthetic perception, judgment and enjoyment are privileges of the elite, expressed in verdicts of ‘good taste’. Beyond this rather classic understanding of aesthetics, I want to introduce a socio-material perspective on aesthetics with a focus on how aesthetic forms are strategies and tools for stabilizing and containing social communities and knowledge processes. My interest here is in the social efficacy of form; in how aesthetic forms are sensed and made to appear in particular ways to evoke specific responses, such as, for instance, contemplation, revelation or emotional relief. Below I unpack the theoretical sources of inspiration in which this interest resides.

The British Anthropologist Alfred Gell developed an anthropological approach to art and aesthetics, which departed in two significant ways from notions prevalent in previous anthropological debates. One was a move away from the idea of art as symbols standing for something or someone (i.e. the artist) to art as a social actor or ‘index’ producing and enabling social relations and imaginations (Gell 1998). The other was a reconfiguration of Bourdieu’s approach to art as primarily an outcome of Western elitism. Instead, Gell offered a cross-cultural theory of art. Aesthetics he asserted, is “the form of discursive thought which intervenes to turn mere objects into art works” (1995:27), and hence the research object becomes the various aesthetic practices and tropes designed to elicit “an ‘aaah’ response” from an audience (ibid.:28). Along the same lines, Marilyn Strathern provides us with a definition of aesthetics as “the persuasiveness of form, the elicitation of a sense of appropriateness” (2004:10). Strathern is concerned with how forms are produced and made to appear in distinct ways so as to respond to socially appropriate criteria and manners. Annelise Riles, drawing aesthetics into the domain of modern knowledge production, develops the idea of ‘aesthetic devices’; a set of tools used in the production of legal documents by UN delegates in Fiji (1998, 2000). Riles’ interest is in the way legal language is stitched together as ‘patterns’ adhering to predetermined forms and language conventions, such as for instance the systematic use of brackets and quotations (1998:381). Taken together these latter three approaches form the contours of a particular way of exploring aesthtetics as a social process, which, as I will describe in the last section of this piece, can be further transposed into a socio-material theory of knowledge production.   

To help with this transposition, consider philosopher of science Ian Hacking’s depiction of the sciences as ‘styles of reasoning’ (1992). Hacking points to the techniques through which sciences are stabilized in accordance with communal frames and thought collectives. ‘Styles of reasoning’ are ways of thinking that make certain ideas possible and render others unthinkable (1992:3). Aesthetics, in this regard, hones in on the way in which knowledge processes (such as bureaucratic, scientific, organizational, commercial) are contained, standardized and stabilized in regards to a specific community. Since the sciences, as well as bureaucracies and other institutional collectives, are subject to both revolution and mutation, what is it that keeps them from dissolving? What holds them together as modes of discursive thought and/or bodies of standards and principles for how to produce knowledge that is socially effective? My aim in this small piece is to suggest that the persuasive power of aesthetic forms plays an important role in the way that knowledge conventions and collectives are configured and reconfigured––as effects of adhering to social appropriateness. 

Author: Lise Røjskjær Pedersen

Posted in TiP Lexicon.