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The Dialectics of Aesthetic Agency

Revaluating German Aesthetics from

Kant to Adorno

Ayon Maharaj


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Preface x
Acknowledgments xi
Abbreviations of Primary Texts xiii

Introduction: The Crisis of Art in Modernity 1

1 Aporias of Aesthetic Pleasure in Kants

Analytic of the Beautiful 17
I Interpreting the third Critique: A reconstructive or a
structural approach? 17
II Against the reconstructive bias 19
III The phenomenology of aesthetic pleasure: Interpretive
possibilities 23
IV Valences of aesthetic disinterestedness 25
V The problem of the universal voice 27
VI Sensus communis: Regulative or constitutive? 35
VII On the centrality of Kants lesser question 42

2 The Great Gulf of the Third Critique: Kants Ambivalence About

the Role of Aesthetic Pleasure in Moral Life 45
I Kants aesthetics in the broader context of the third Critique 45
II The Fact of Reason in the second Critique 47
III The aporia of natures purposiveness in the third Critique 51
IV Can aesthetic pleasure bridge the great gulf between
nature and freedom? 57
V Kants legacy in Schillers Letters, the System-Program,
and beyond 68

3 Kant Romanticized: Aesthetic Intuition as Redemption in

Schellings System of Transcendental Idealism 73
I The Kantian foundations of Schellings Romantic
aesthetics 73
II Intellectual intuition in Kant and Fichte 75

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viii Contents

III The Ichschrift: Early Schellings speculative

critique of Kant 78
IV The aesthetics of Schellings System: Art as the
organ of philosophy 82
V Anxieties of Romanticism 89

4 Hegel contra Schlegel: On the Aporetic Epistemology

of Romantic Irony 93
I Permanent parabasis: Schlegels call for a radicalized
skepticism 93
II Schlegels epistemology of irony 96
III The origins of Schlegels theory of irony in
Kant and Fichte 99
IV Recuperating Hegels metacritique of Schlegelian irony 103
V Irony and/as dialectics 109
VI Schlegels vision of a new mythology 111

5 Arts After and the Dialectical Possibilities of Irony in Hegels

Lectures on Aesthetics 115
I From the end of art to the after of art 115
II The synchronic and diachronic dimensions
of Hegels aesthetics 117
III Hegels three-stage Historical Deduction of the True
Concept of Art 121
IV Stage one: Kantian aporias and the crisis
of modernity 123
V Stage two: The quest for aesthetic unity in
Schiller and Schelling 128
VI Stage three: The dynamics of irony in Schlegel,
Novalis, and Solger 132
VII From Hegel to Kierkegaard: Toward a dialectics of
objective humor 139

6 The Idealist Legacy: Adornos Dialectical Retrieval of Aesthetic

Agency in Aesthetic Theory 143
I Adorno between Kant and Hegel 143
II The aporia of aesthetic objectivity in Kants aesthetics 145

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Contents ix

III Artwork as force-field: Adornos Kierkegaardian

reading of Hegel 148
IV Erschtterung: Adornos negative dialectics of
aesthetic experience 153
V Rethinking aesthetic praxis 160

Epilogue: Art as Force: From Critical Suspicion to

Dialectical Immanence 161
Notes 167
Bibliography 197
Index 207

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Introduction: The Crisis of Art in Modernity

Art raises its head where religions decline. It takes over a host of feelings
and moods produced by religion, clasps them to its heart, and then itself
becomes deeper, more soulful, so that it is able to communicate exaltation
and enthusiasm which it could not do before . . . Growing enlightenment
has shaken the dogmas of religion and inspired a thorough mistrust of it;
therefore feeling, forced out of the religious sphere by the Enlightenment,
throws itself into art . . .
Friedrich Nietzsche (1878)1

Too much has been asked of art, with the result that too little, or almost
nothing, is now being asked of art.
William Desmond (2003)2

What are the powers and limits of art in post-Enlightenment modernity?

The Enlightenments disenchantment of the world, its critical demolition of
traditional appeals to religious and metaphysical verities, proved inseparable from
the privileging of an instrumental rationality modeled on the mathematical and
natural sciences that adjudicates questions of value in terms of quantifiability and
usefulness.3 While the Enlightenments radical insistence on empirical method
and the primacy of reason ushered in a new era of critical inquiry and paved the
way for breathtaking advances in science and technology, it also helped trigger
a full-blown cultural crisis involving the vexed question of the role and value of
art in a disenchanted age.
A variety of thinkers, ranging from Friedrich Schiller and G. W. F. Hegel
to Max Weber, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer, argued that the
third-person analytic stance fostered by Enlightenment scientific rationality
so narrowed the scope of knowledge and value that it seemed unableor
unwillingto honor first-person values and commitments that resisted
empirical verification, such as religious beliefs and aesthetic and moral
convictions.4 As early as 1800, F. W. J. Schelling lodged a protest against the

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2 The Dialectics of Aesthetic Agency

materialist excesses of a modern age that locates the highest efforts of the
human spirit in economic discoveries.5 Shortly thereafter, Hegel sought to
demonstrate that the Enlightenment had grown so enamored with its negative
method that it ended up collapsing into a dogmatic system in its own right.6
Over a century later, Adorno and Horkheimer took Hegels lead in interrogating
the positivist dogma lurking at the basis of Enlightenment instrumental
rationality. From Adorno and Horkheimers dialectical perspective, the
Enlightenment falls prey to the self-contradiction that its very critical stance
toward myth and superstition smuggles in a crude positivist mythology of
what is the case that cuts away the incommensurable7 and spuriously equates
intelligence with hostility to spirit (Geistfeindschaft).8
In short, the increasing dominance of scientific rationality in post-
Enlightenment culture has seemed to many to come at the cost of neglecting or
impoverishing those affective and experiential dimensions of our lives that lie
beyond the scope of empirical or conceptual paradigms. No wonder so many
German thinkers and artists have felt compelled to articulate this modern crisis
in overtly spiritual terms, since the supple term Geist has lent itself to being
mobilized not only as a robustly metaphysical categoryas it was by Schelling
and Hegelbut more often as a negative placeholder for all those subjective
forms of value, knowledge, and experience that Enlightenment rationality tends
to marginalize or deny.
In the wake of the Enlightenment, art gained sudden importance as a
potentially secular means of filling this spiritual void. In a provocative epigram
from 1878 (the first of this introductions epigraphs), Nietzsche observed that
feeling, forced out of the religious sphere by the Enlightenment, throws itself
into art. This is no doubt a tacit exercise in self-critique, a way of historicizing
and thereby distancing himself fromthe Romantic aesthetics of his earlier
Birth of Tragedy (1871), which conceived aesthetic experience as nothing less
than a form of metaphysical solace capable of redeeming man of his empirical
poverty and tragic finitude.9
In Nietzsches case, however, self-critique almost invariably doubled as
trenchant cultural diagnosis. Nietzsche was one of the first to recognize that
many post-Enlightenment thinkers and artists would become increasingly
preoccupied with articulating and defending what I call aesthetic agency, arts
capacity to make available uniquely valuable modes of experience that could
challenge the primacy of Enlightenment norms of rationality.10 Nietzsche proved
even cannier, though, in his recognition that such defenses of aesthetic agency

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Introduction: The Crisis of Art in Modernity 3

would tend to conceive the experience of art as a surrogate for religious feeling
and consolation.11
Indeed, I would suggest that Nietzsches epigram lookedat a stroke
both backward and forward in history, deftly isolating the latent metaphysico-
religious impulse at the core of early-nineteenth-century Romanticism as well
as twentieth-century modernism. In the System of Transcendental Idealism
(1800), a foundational text of early German Romanticism, Schelling invoked
tellingly religious language in his effusive paeans to the wonder of art as
the one and only eternal revelation, a feeling of an infinite satisfaction in
which all contradictions are dissolved and all riddles are answered.12 Arthur
Schopenhauer soon followed suit in The World as Will and Representation (1819),
where he conceives the experience of art as a momentary source of redemption.
In the blessedness of aesthetic experience, Schopenhauer writes, we celebrate
the Sabbath of the penal servitude of willing; the wheel of Ixion stands still.13
Twentieth-century aesthetic modernism, for all its strident opposition to
Romanticism, nonetheless often shared the Romantic tendency to ascribe a
redemptive role to art. Many modernist painters, writers, and musicians were
convinced of arts indispensable role in combating the excesses of a capitalist
culture so enamored with scientific and technological advancement that it
seemed to leave little room for more spiritual needs and satisfactions. Yet, the
modernists also remained plagued by lingering doubts that perhaps they were
asking too much of art, burdening art with a quasi-theological role it could
not fulfill. Wassily Kandinskys On the Spiritual in Art (1912) gave exemplary
expression to aesthetic modernisms most elemental hopes and fears:

Only just now awakening after years of materialism, our soul is infected with
the despair born of unbelief, of lack of purpose and aim. The nightmare of
materialism, which turned life into an evil, senseless game, is not yet passed; it
still darkens the awakening soul. Only a feeble light glimmers, a tiny point in an
immense circle of darkness. This light is but a presentiment; and the mind, seeing
it, trembles in doubt over whether the light is a dream and the surrounding
darkness indeed reality.14

If Kandinsky believed that the feeble light of art could awaken us from the
nightmare of materialism, he remained haunted by anxieties about the very
possibility of an aesthetic redemption of modernity.15 Kandinskys appeal to
art as one of the mightiest agents of spiritual life was echoed repeatedly by
other modernists.16 Kasimir Malevich soon went on to indulge in consciously

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4 The Dialectics of Aesthetic Agency

extravagant speculations about arts nonobjective fourth dimension, while

Piet Mondrian declared: Art although an end in itself, like religion is
the means through which we can know the universal.17 Yet, such exaltation
was never far from despair: modernism, we might say, hovered precariously
between desperate faith and utter disenchantment. The modernist poet Wallace
Stevens, for instance, wrote: After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is
that essence which takes its place as lifes redemption.18 However, Stevens also
felt compelled to voice the dark obverse of this sentiment: Poetry is a form of
Since the 1960s, however, theorists and artists of various persuasions have
attacked the underlying metaphysics and ideology of modernist aesthetics.
Thinkers in the Western Marxist tradition argue that modernisms inflated
claims about aesthetic agency prove to be complicit with capitalist ideology:
the ascription of a full-blown redemptive role to art serves as a convenient
means of acquiescing to a social order based on rampant exploitation and
dehumanization. Theorists influenced by poststructuralist and postmodern
thinking target the nostalgic ontotheological underpinnings of modernist claims
about the spiritual powers of art. The second half of the twentieth century also
witnessed the rise of postmodern art, which consciously rejected modernisms
apparently metaphysical and spiritual pretensions as well as its elitism and self-
seriousness. Leveling the supposedly sacrosanct distinction between art and
nonart, postmodern artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol favored
an irreverent aesthetics of bathos and ironic playfulness.20
These theoretical and artistic trends of the past half-century have contributed
to a prevailing climate of suspicion in contemporary discourse on the arts.
Pronouncements of the end or death of art are becoming increasingly
frequent and shrill.21 Academic study of the arts, meanwhile, is now dominated
by a fashionable cultural studies orientation that rejects traditional claims
about aesthetic value and refuses to grant artworks any privileged status over
against other cultural phenomena.22 Critics and theorists have tended to dismiss
aesthetic agency in favor of purportedly less ideologically and metaphysically
laden approaches to art.
In such a suspicious climate, many thinkers have sought to rearticulate arts
cultural role in modernity on the basis of what might be called arts critico-
conceptual agency, its capacity to reflect on and critique prevailing sociocultural
and philosophical ideologies as well as its own underlying presuppositions.
Several decades ago, at roughly the same time that the aesthetician Arthur Danto

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Introduction: The Crisis of Art in Modernity 5

declared that art had finally become vaporized in a dazzle of pure thought
about itself,23 the poststructuralist theorists Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe
Lacoue-Labarthe introduced the notion of an eidaesthetics, the inauguration
of arts theoretical project in modernity.24 The notion of arts transformation
into an essentially theoretical or philosophical enterprise has been reaffirmed
in various ways by a host of more recent theorists. Marxist theorists such as
Fredric Jameson, Jacques Rancire, and C. Daniel Blanton reject the ideology
of aesthetic autonomy but reclaim art as an incipiently political discourse
capable of interrogating socioeconomic and power structures.25 Meanwhile,
postmodern thinkers like Gianni Vattimo, Simon Critchley, and Giorgio
Agamben argue that avant-garde artin its very repudiation of the possibility
of aesthetic redemptionaffords valuable philosophical insight into our
inescapably nihilistic predicament.26
However, in their eagerness to reconceive art as a theoretico-conceptual
enterprise, these thinkers seem to me to concede too much to Enlightenment
norms of rationality. If they deny aesthetic agency in order to make room for
arts continued cultural relevance, they nonetheless bind art so closely to the
Enlightenments third-person scientific ideals that they are left with a rather
thin account of what art can accomplish. Art tends to be reduced to a vehicle
for communicating truths about underlying conditions and realitiesbe they
socioeconomic, linguistic, or ontologicalthat could just as easily be disclosed
by a variety of other media and disciplines. William Desmond aptly observes
that in this contemporary climate of suspicion, too little, or almost nothing, is
now being asked of art.27
Those celebrating arts critico-conceptual agency have tended to foreclose
prematurely the possibility that arts most important cultural role in post-
Enlightenment modernity is to make available and vital those experiential and
imaginative dimensions of our lives that lie beyond the purview of scientific
or conceptual discourses. To begin to explore this possibility, we should note
that these suspicious thinkers tend to align aesthetic agency with a purportedly
modernist ideology of full-blown aesthetic autonomy or redemption. But
perhaps it need not be an either/or between a patently extravagant metaphysics
of aesthetic agency and a disenchanted suspicious stance that dismisses
aesthetic agency tout court in favor of arts critico-conceptual agency. Perhaps
this pervasive binary thinking in recent aesthetic discourse is itself symptomatic
of a hegemonic scientific rationality that is virtuosic at parsing and dissecting
but significantly clumsier at detecting synthetic wholes and dynamic processes.

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6 The Dialectics of Aesthetic Agency

The tendency among contemporary theorists to reduce the dynamics of

aesthetic agency to a metaphysics of autonomy or redemption, I am convinced,
can be traced to a severely impoverished understanding of the rich philosophical
discourse on art since Kant.28 It is hardly a coincidence that theorists in a variety
of camps have drawn on a very narrow range of topoi in the German aesthetic
tradition from Kant to Adorno. Since these theorists tend to have certain a priori
assumptions about art, they strategically pick out isolated doctrines from the
philosophical tradition in support of these a priori assumptions.
In particular, recent theorists have often appealed to two basic aspects of
the German aesthetic tradition in order to articulate and justify arts critico-
conceptual agency: Friedrich Schlegels theory of Romantic irony and Hegels
so-called end of art thesis. Schlegels conception of irony as a principle of
disruption and skepticism is widely assumed to have anticipated recent theories
of antifoundationalism and the postmodern repudiation of inflated claims about
art.29 Meanwhile, for many contemporary theorists, Hegels notorious declaration
that art in its highest vocation is a thing of the past signaled at once the demise of
traditional aesthetic values and the inauguration of a disenchanted hermeneutics
of suspicion that subordinates sensuous particularity to conceptual thinking.30
However, the purportedly Hegelian theme of the end of art tends to be discussed
in isolation from Hegels broader philosophical system, while Schlegels theory
of irony is rarely situated within the complex post-Kantian landscape to which
it belongs.
This piecemeal appropriation of the German aesthetic tradition has
resulted in drastic simplifications and sometimes even outright falsifications.
If we give a full hearing to the German aesthetic tradition since Kant, we
might be surprised by the richness and sophistication of the various stances
toward aesthetic agency that emerge. This book argues that key figures in this
traditionnamely, Kant, Schelling, Friedrich Schlegel, Hegel, and Adornonot
only anticipated modernist claims about arts spiritual powers as well as recent
suspicious approaches to art but also developed the conceptual resources for a
timely dialectical defense of aesthetic agency that does not rely on untenable
metaphysical assumptions.31 From a dialectical perspective, art cannot quite
redeem who we are in our empirical contingency, but it can nonetheless play an
indispensable role in reminding us of who we might be.
It will take six dense chapters to substantiate these claims. At the level of
methodology, the book aspires to blend careful philosophical analysis with an
intellectual historians attention to the broader cultural resonance of philosophical
arguments. Accordingly, the book has two interrelated aimsthe first exegetical

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Introduction: The Crisis of Art in Modernity 7

and the second polemical. Although most of the figures considered in this book
(with the possible exception of Schelling) have been widely discussed, I will focus
on aspects of their aesthetic thought that have been neglected or misunderstood
in both Anglo-American and German scholarship. Hence, each chapter can be
read profitably as a stand-alone intervention in a specialized field of German
At the same time, I seek to balance close exegesis with a more synthetic
interpretive perspective that conceives the aesthetic standpoints of Kant,
Schelling, Schlegel, Hegel, and Adorno as integral conceptual moments in a
collective effort to elaborate the role of art in post-Enlightenment modernity.
My polemical ambition is to revive the all but forgotten discourse of aesthetic
agency by laying the conceptual groundwork for a dialectical approach to art
that avoids the familiar extremes of aesthetic theology and knee-jerk dismissal
of arts aesthetic dimension.
My philosophical narrative begins with Kant, whose Critique of the Power
of Judgment (1790) sought to address the problem of a great gulf between
the sensible realm of causal necessity and the supersensible realm of ethical
freedom.32 As Schiller and Hegel were the first to recognize, although this gulf
originated in a lacuna in Kants critical system, it signaled nothing less than the
fundamental crisis of modernity. With the growing dominance of instrumental
rationality and the waning of religious authority, modernity became the site of
an ever-widening rift between the newly ascendant third-person standpoint of
the empirical sciences and increasingly precarious first-person convictions and
values that were suddenly deprived of religious sanction. Kants third Critique
inaugurated discourse on aesthetic agency by exploring the possibility that
aesthetic experience could play an important role in negotiating the diremptions
plaguing modernity.
However, as I will argue at length in the first two chapters, Kant encounters
considerable difficulties in attempting to specify the precise nature of aesthetic
experience and its role in moral life. In the Analytic of the Beautiful of the third
Critique, Kant seeks to explain how a subjective feeling of aesthetic pleasure can
nonetheless be universally validthat is, carry the demand that everyone ought
to feel the same pleasure in a given beautiful object. His fundamental strategy
is to argue that aesthetic pleasure arises from a free harmony of the cognitive
faculties of the imagination and understanding, which is a universal condition
for cognition in general.33
But this raises an important question: how are we to determine that our
feeling of aesthetic pleasure arises from the harmony of the faculties? Chapter 1

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8 The Dialectics of Aesthetic Agency

examines Kants vexed efforts to answer this question in the Analytic of the
Beautiful. The basic answer that emerges in the course of the Analytic is that
some phenomenologically distinctive feature of aesthetic pleasure indicates
its source in the harmony of the faculties. However, I will argue that in his
attempt to elaborate this answer, Kant ends up endorsing a variety of conflicting
conceptions of the phenomenology of aesthetic pleasure. Through a detailed
analysis of the Analytic, the chapter isolates a series of subtle and complexly
interwoven tensions plaguing Kants account of the phenomenology of aesthetic
pleasure as well as his core doctrines of the universal voice and the sensus
communis. I make a cumulative case that the various tensions in the Analytic
point to Kants pervasive ambivalence about whether aesthetic pleasure provides
phenomenological certainty of its source in the harmony of the faculties.
Chapter 2 traces Kants ambivalence about the question of phenomenological
certainty to systematic ambiguities in the introduction to the third Critique,
where he makes an oblique and notoriously obscure argument for the role
of aesthetic pleasure in moral life. He introduces the principle of natures
purposivenessthe necessary assumption that nature is in some way amenable
to our cognitive and ethical aimsas a means of negotiating the great gulf
between nature and freedom and then claims that aesthetic pleasure is in some
way intimately linked to the principle of natures purposiveness. However,
I argue that Kants palpable uncertainty about the precise epistemic status of the
principle of natures purposiveness leaves unresolved the question of whether the
great gulf between nature and freedom can indeed be bridged. This lands Kant
in an aporetic situation: he remains torn between inflationary and deflationary
conceptions of the role of aesthetic pleasure in moral life.
Kants central move is to suggest that our affective awareness of the harmony
of the faculties in aesthetic pleasure somehow subjectively evokes or hints at
natures purposiveness. He also repeatedly emphasizes that nothing short of full-
blown certainty of natures purposiveness would allow us to bridge the great gulf
between nature and freedom. Building on the results of Chapter 1, I argue that
everything thus hinges on the question of whether aesthetic pleasure provides
certainty of its universal validity. On the one hand, if aesthetic pleasure provides
phenomenological certainty of its source in the harmony of the faculties, then
we seem to have the basis for a proto-Romantic defense of aesthetic agency:
aesthetic experience helps resolve the diremptions of modernity by assuring us
of a supersensible unity of nature and freedom that lies beyond the scope of
theoretical cognition. On the other hand, if aesthetic pleasure fails to provide
certainty of the harmony of the faculties, then the great gulf between nature

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Introduction: The Crisis of Art in Modernity 9

and freedom remains unbridged and we have the basis for more skeptical
approaches to art that deny or downplay the possibilities of aesthetic agency.
This books guiding conviction is that it is precisely the tensions and
uncertainties in Kants third Critique that prove to be so generative and fruitful
for subsequent aesthetic speculation, for they signal fundamental dilemmas
concerning aesthetic agency and arts role in moral life that continue to haunt
contemporary thinkers. Chapters 3 and 4 argue that the tensions plaguing the
third Critique escalate into a full-blown crisis in the aesthetic speculations of
Schelling and Schlegel, who embody the conceptual extremes of early German
Romanticism. At the same time that Schelling develops a Romantic metaphysics
of aesthetic agency that ascribes an outright redemptive role to art, Schlegel
proposes an aesthetics of irony that locates the power of art in its capacity to
revel in the vertigo of abyssal skepticism and to exercise radical suspicion toward
aesthetic or metaphysical appeals to redemption.
Recent commentators have tended to dismiss the aesthetics of Schellings
System of Transcendental Idealism as an extravagant Romantic metaphysics
that bears little resemblance to Kants comparatively sober aesthetic theory.
Chapter 3 challenges this stereotyped view of Schelling by taking seriously
Schellings claim that his philosophical project is nothing but a presentation
of Kantian philosophy through higher principles.34 Schellings aesthetics of
System, I argue, is a sustainedalbeit largely implicitattempt to grapple with
and resolve the aporias of the third Critique without violating the spirit of Kants
critical strictures.
In his philosophical work prior to the System, Schelling proves acutely
aware of the fundamental aporias of the third Critiqueparticularly, Kants
ambivalence about whether the great gulf between nature and freedom can
be bridged. The young Schelling traces this ambivalence to the ambiguous
epistemic status of the principle of natures purposiveness: Kant seems torn
between a weaker conception of purposiveness that fails to bridge the gulf and a
stronger conception that does bridge the gulf by somehow assuring us of natures
objective purposiveness. Schellings strategy for resolving these Kantian aporias
is to adopt the stronger conception of purposiveness latent in the third Critique,
which hints at a special form of objective certainty of natures purposiveness that
is irreducible to theoretical cognition.
In the System, Schelling anchors this nontheoretical form of objective
certainty in aesthetic experience by drawing on key aspects of the third Critique.
His basic strategy is to exploit and amplify the inflationary conception of
aesthetic pleasure aporetically present in the third Critique. For Schelling,

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10 The Dialectics of Aesthetic Agency

aesthetic experience furnishes full-blown affective certainty of the harmony of

the faculties and thereby indirectly assures us of the highest unity of freedom
and necessity that lies at the basis of the harmony of the faculties.35 Accordingly,
Schelling is able to honor Kants insistence that we can never cognize or know
directly the highest unity of freedom and necessity while maintaining that we
can nonetheless feel this supersensible unity indirectly through the harmony of
the faculties. This complex Kantian subtext, I argue, motivates Schellings central
Romantic thesis that the wonder of art resolves nothing less than the greatest
and most extreme contradiction in us.36 Yet, certain incipiently self-critical
moments in the System suggest that Schelling remains haunted by the possibility
that his appeal to aesthetic experience as the one and only eternal revelation
threatens to reinstate in another form the very theological dogmatism that art
was meant to supplant.37
Schlegel, like his contemporary Schelling, acknowledges the tensions and
contradictions plaguing Kants philosophy and stages his own thinking as a
radicalization of Kantian principles. Breaking with the prevailing assumption
that Kants philosophy should be in agreement with itself,38 Schlegel presents
Kant as a tortured Enlightenment figure, a half critic torn between radical
skepticism and nostalgic yearning for metaphysical unity and solace.39 Unlike
Schelling, however, Schlegel negotiates the aporias of Kants philosophy by
radicalizing the skeptical strain in Kant. Schlegel, I argue in Chapter 4, locates
a radicalized skepticism not in philosophy but in Romantic poetry, which
revels in the very impossibility of achieving any kind of metaphysical unity
or redemption.40 If Schelling mobilizes the third Critique as the basis for a
redemptive account of aesthetic experience, Schlegel in effect takes Kant in
the opposite direction, rejecting aesthetic agency in favor of arts conceptual
agency: art outstrips philosophy in its relentless capacity for critical reflection,
multiplying reflection ad infinitum, as if in an endless series of mirrors.41
For Schlegel, arts governing principle is irony, an abyssal form of
antifoundationalist skepticism that undermines appeals to metaphysical
certitudes. Schlegels aesthetic ironist hovers deftly over the great abyss between
enthusiasm and skepticism, reveling in its capacity not to bridge the abyss but
to plumb its depths without reaching after metaphysical panaceas. Curiously,
however, as Hegel was the first to recognize, Schlegel sometimes invokes the
category of intellectual intuitionborrowed from J. G. Fichtes foundationalist
metaphysicsin his vexed efforts to articulate ironys epistemic underpinnings.
The ironist, Schlegel cryptically writes, achieves an intuition of the Whole,42
an intellectual intuition of an eternal [chaos].43 From Hegels perspective,

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Introduction: The Crisis of Art in Modernity 11

the dogmatic Fichtean epistemology at the basis of irony signals a fatal self-
contradiction: the ironist surreptitiously exempts itself from its own ironic
While Schlegels theory of irony has generated seemingly endless commentary
in recent critical discourse, Hegels critique of Schlegel has tended to be ignored
or, at best, summarily dismissed as an ad hominem attack fueled more by personal
animus than by any genuine insight into the structure of irony. Militating
against this trend, I reconstruct from Hegels scattered remarks on Schlegel a
searching metacritique of irony that pinpoints the metaphysical dogma at its
basis. For Hegel, the ironists hovering between enthusiasm and skepticism
depends tacitly on a ground-level metaphysical enthusiasm. No wonder Schlegel
comes so close to Schelling in his paeans to the modern artist as the priest of
a new mythology that could fill the metaphysical void left by the collapse of
dogmatic religion.44 From a Hegelian vantage, both Schellings metaphysics of
aesthetic agency and Schlegels aesthetics of irony end up apotheosizing art as
a mythological surrogate for religion that could provide a sense of unity and
purpose in a disenchanted age.
Chapter 5 argues that one of the most significant and enduring contributions
of Hegels Lectures on Aesthetics (18239) is its prescient elaboration of the
conceptual underpinnings of a fully modern form of art that repudiates any
such faith in an aesthetic mythology. I suggest that the core of Hegels account
of arts role in modernity consists not in his purported thesis of the end of art
a phrase, in fact, that Hegel never usesbut in his richly bivalent notion
of the after of art (das Nach der Kunst).45 On the one hand, the after of art
signals arts pastnessits inability to fulfill the highest need of the spiritand
anticipates religion and philosophy, the cultural forms that have outstripped arts
capacity to convey the Absolute. On the other hand, Hegel exploits the ambiguity
of the genitive in the after of art, conceiving the after as a property of art itself
rather than as a sphere that supersedes art: arts after indicates arts dialectical
capacity to reflect on its own powers and limits and to point beyond itself to
epistemic possibilities lying beyond the aesthetic domain.46 Art in modernity, as
Hegel puts it in a startling paradox, is the self-exceeding of art, yet within its
own sphere and in the form of art itself.47
Hegels most elemental account of the complex dynamics of arts self-
exceeding is contained in the Historical Deduction of the True Concept of
Art, a relatively neglected section of the introduction to Lectures on Aesthetics.
In the Historical Deduction, I argue, Hegel attempts nothing less than to
reconceive the aesthetic standpoints of his predecessors and contemporaries

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12 The Dialectics of Aesthetic Agency

as progressive stages in the philosophical self-articulation of art in modernity.

Hegels foundational move in the Historical Deduction is to transpose the
aporias of Kants third Critique into the ontological structure of art. For Hegel, the
dilemmas Kant encounters in his attempt to specify the role of art in negotiating
the great gulf between nature and freedom reveal something essential about
the predicament of art in modernity. Art aspires to transcend the domain of
empirical contingency by evoking a spiritual realm that makes a mockery of
our quotidian needs and dependencies, yet it remains haunted by the possibility
that its desperate retreat into spirit betrays its inescapable filiations with the very
empirical pressures it disavows.
Hegel includes Schelling in the second stage of the Historical Deduction
because Schellings metaphysics of aesthetic agency embodies one basic pole
of arts aporetic structurearts incipiently religious impulse to manifest the
Absolute. If arts constitutive limitations prevent it from reaching the Absolute,
its permanent aspiration to the Absolute nonetheless justifies its placement
beside religion and philosophy as one of the three highest forms of Geist.
In the third stage of the Historical Deduction, entitled Irony, arts religious
impulse reverses into a disenchanted awareness of its own limitations and a
celebration of its capacity to dwell in aporia and contradiction. According to
Hegel, Romantic art terminates in a subjective form of ironyepitomized in
Schlegels workthat revels in the ironic caprice and virtuosity of its creator.
Hegels next and final conceptual move in the Historical Deduction, I argue,
has yet to be recognized as a pivotal moment in post-Enlightenment aesthetics
one that has far-reaching implications for our understanding of arts role in
modernity. For Hegel, fully radicalizing the logic of irony entails pushing ironic
negativity to the point where it becomes dialectical. What would happen,
Hegel asks, if irony were conceived not as a global paradigm but as a dialectical
resource? Instead of wielding irony as a subjective instrument for establishing the
ironists superiority over the external world, the dialectical ironist would explore
the positive possibilities that emerge from infinite absolute negativity.48
Although Hegel fails to specify concretely how such a dialectics of irony might
manifest in post-Romantic art, I suggest that the young Sren Kierkegaards
dissertation, The Concept of Irony (1841), starts where Hegels Historical
Deduction leaves off: it begins to explore the far-reaching aesthetic implications
of Hegels speculations about irony. From Kierkegaards perspective, the post-
Romantic aesthetic subject evacuates itself to the point where it cedes agency
entirely to the artwork, which then becomes a dynamic centering force that
challenges and reshapes the assumptions of artist and audience alike. The most

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Introduction: The Crisis of Art in Modernity 13

advanced forms of art, Kierkegaard suggests, would be able to harness ironic

negativity as an immanent dialectical resource for gesturing toward a higher
actuality, thereby assuaging the deep pain that wants to make everything
In Chapter 6, I argue that Adorno, over a century later, takes Kierkegaards
lead in drawing on the dialectical aspects of Hegels aesthetics to develop a
viable non-metaphysical account of aesthetic agency. In Aesthetic Theory (1970),
Adorno seeks to determine the spirit of artworksthat which makes artworks
more than what they arewithout reverting to a dogmatic metaphysics that
reifies spirit into arts Absolute.50 From Adornos Hegelian perspective, the basic
lesson to be drawn from the conceptual difficulties plaguing both Kants third
Critique and early German Romanticism is that Enlightenment and counter-
Enlightenment aesthetic paradigms are doomed to reverse into their own
opposites. Adornos strategy is to develop a dialectical alternative to this binary
thinking in aesthetics. Instead of positioning art either inside or outside the
Enlightenment, Adorno conceives the artwork itself as a dynamic site where the
competing pressures of Enlightenment skepticism and aesthetic optimism are
continually negotiated. Following Hegel, Adorno argues that the contradiction
in Kants theory of aesthetic judgment inheres in art itself.51 Art in modernity
is torn between aesthetic transcendence and disenchantment,52 but this
fundamental aporia of art proves to be a source of dynamism rather than stasis.
The artwork is a force-field (Kraftfeld) that summons spirit dialectically by
tarrying with spirits radical Other, the persistent skeptical counterpressure to
arts claims to transcendence.53
On the basis of this dialectical ontology of the artwork, Adorno navigates
between an extravagant phenomenology that exaggerates the powers of
art and a vulgar materialism that reduces art to a superstructural reflex of
socioeconomic forces. Adorno realizes that Schellings Romantic appeal to
aesthetic experience as a means of bridging Kants great gulf between nature
and freedom collapses into dogmatic metaphysics. Instead of seeking to bridge
this great gulf, Adorno harnesses the dialectical potential of the gulf itself.
Rejecting Kants assumption that aesthetic experience must be conceived as a
positive feeling of pleasure, he shrewdly mobilizes Kants account of the negative
feeling of sublimity as an internal corrective to Kants emphasis on pleasure. For
Adorno, the Kantian description of the feeling of the sublime as a trembling
between nature and freedom lays the groundwork for a negative dialectics of
aesthetic experience.54 The semblance-shattering experience of art convulses
the subject into the recognition of a radical gulf between empirical actuality

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14 The Dialectics of Aesthetic Agency

and spiritual possibilitya gulf that serves as the precondition for moral action
and revolutionary praxis.55
In the books epilogue, I begin to explore the contemporary implications of
my revaluation of the German aesthetic tradition from Kant to Adorno. Ours
is a Schlegelian age, disenchanted with aesthetic and religious panaceas yet
enamored with its own powers of critical irony. In such a climate of suspicion,
it is no wonder that so many recent thinkers have favored sober, hard-nosed
analysis of arts philosophical or conceptual agency over what seem hopelessly
nostalgic appeals to the powers of aesthetic experience. The now fashionable
suspicious stance, however, is not without its own ironies, for it proves to rely on
a problematic binary thinking about art that this book traces to early German
Romanticism. The Romantic polarities of Schellings metaphysics of aesthetic
agency and Schlegels aesthetics of irony reemerge in contemporary aesthetic
discourse in the form of the widely held assumption that aesthetic agency and
conceptual agency are mutually exclusive. One of this books primary aims is
to argue that the dialectical perspective opened up by Hegel, Kierkegaard, and
Adorno motivates post-Romantic modes of thinking about aesthetic agency
that reject the binary logic still pervading discourse on the arts. Indeed, Hegels
and Kierkegaards speculations about the dialectical possibilities of irony and
Adornos conception of the artwork as a force-field collectively suggest that
one of the basic challenges of art in modernity is to harness its immanent forces
of ironic negativity and reflexive suspicion as dialectical resources for testing
and refining the very experiences and intensities art makes available.
I conclude the epilogue by highlighting the work of the contemporary
theorist and literary critic Charles Altieri, whose dialectical approach to
aesthetic agency offers an urgent and powerful alternative to the dominant
suspicious stance in aesthetic discourse. Altieri seeks to defend arts capacity
to counter the primacy of epistemic valuesthe Enlightenments privileging
of the third-person standpoint of the scienceswithout relying on untenable
ontological or phenomenological assumptions.56 What Adorno calls the spirit
of artworks Altieri calls their force, a dialectical category he adapts from
Hegels Phenomenology of Spirit. For Altieri, aesthetic force is less a positive
ontological phenomenon than a negative category designating those aspects of
art that prove too supple and dynamic to be captured by third-person conceptual
frameworks. In Altieris hands, aesthetic agency becomes a dialectical force
that thrives on the constitutive tensions of the artwork.57 The artwork, Altieri
argues in an Adornian vein, is a field of forces in which evocations of spirit and

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Introduction: The Crisis of Art in Modernity 15

suspicious demystifications of spirit are placed in dynamic tension. Altieri goes

on to articulate the affective force of art not in terms of pleasure or emotion but
in terms of a dialectic taking place within the subject58 that activates elemental
levels of the psyche that are new and estranging for the empirical ego. In the
experience of art, we do not so much transcend the empirical ego as become
suddenly aware of the egos poverty and contingency in the face of a terror and
sublimity that moves us in ways we cannot understand to places we cannot
quite map.59
This book argues that only a dialectical approach to aesthetic agency is
able to honor arts experiential force and continued cultural relevance without
reducing art to a conceptual enterprise or instrumentalizing art for overtly
political ends. Art may not directly influence what happens in the world, but it
can influence how people respond and adapt to what happens. The social force
of art, then, consists in its capacity to challenge one of the most deeply rooted
of all ideologiesthe assumption that the world can be transformed without
transforming the consciousness of those who inhabit it. Art at its most sublime
registers the pathos of the distance between who we are and who we might be.
To ask anything more of art would be to relapse into an aesthetic theology that
Hegel had long ago relegated to a thing of the past.

Dialectics.indb 15 9/27/2012 5:37:29 PM



1 Nietzsche (1917: 266). For an English translation, see Nietzsche (1996).

2 Desmond (2003: 16).
3 See Adorno and Horkheimer (1988: 9). For an English translation, see Adorno
and Horkheimer (2002).
4 Bernstein (2004: 140) aptly defines the rationalization of reason in the
Enlightenment as the process through which the sensory the contingent,
contextual, and particular is first dominated and then repudiated as a
component of reason, and the remnant, the sensory rump, dispatched into the
harmless precinct of art and the aesthetic.
5 Schelling, StI, 622.
6 Hegel, GW, 289. For an English translation, see Hegel, FK.
7 Adorno and Horkheimer (1988: 18).
8 Adorno and Horkheimer (1988: x).
9 Nietzsche (1998: 50).
10 My understanding of aesthetic agency takes its bearings from two essays: Altieri
(1998a) and Cascardi (1998). However, the particular definition of aesthetic
agency I provide in this introduction is my own. Both Altieris and Cascardis
views on aesthetic agency will be discussed in the books epilogue.
11 Nietzsche was, of course, not alone among late-nineteenth-century thinkers in
recognizing that art would be asked to supplant religion in post-Enlightenment
modernity. Matthew Arnold, for instance, observed in 1880: More and more
mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to
console us, to sustain us. Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete;
and most of what now passes for religion and philosophy will be replaced by
poetry (Arnold, 1911: 23). A number of scholars have attempted to account
for the rise of art as religion in modernity. See Barzun (1974), Graham (2007),
and Schaeffer (2000). Barzun (1974: 33) adduces three basic reasons for the
rise of art as religion: the Renaissance glorification of man, the scattering and
weakening of creeds by the Protestant Reformation, and the general unbelief
caused by the progress of science.

Dialectics.indb 167 9/27/2012 5:37:35 PM

168 Notes

12 Schelling, StI, 615.

13 Schopenhauer (1977: 252). For an English translation, see Schopenhauer
14 Kandinsky (1947: 24).
15 For two very good accounts of aesthetic modernisms complex response to
cultural crisis, see Altieri (1989) and Clark (1999).
16 Kandinsky (1947: 26).
17 Cited in Golding (2000: 26).
18 Stevens (1997: 901).
19 Stevens (1997: 902).
20 Two provocative and compelling accounts of postmodernism in the arts include
Jameson (1991) and Kuspit (2004).
21 Geulen (2006: 14) observes that the end of art has been played out so
variously and repetitively that it deserves to be considered a fundamental
discourse of modernity. See also Danto (1986, 1998), Kuspit (2004), Seel
(2006), and Baudrillard (2005).
22 Ross (2009: 14) notes that contemporary critics are increasingly concerned with
modernism as a cultural formation. See also During (2007), Parker (2000),
Gallagher and Greenblatt (2000), and Guillory (1993).
23 Danto (1986: 111).
24 Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy (1988: 2).
25 See Jameson (2007), Rancire (2006), Blanton (2009), and Larsen (1990).
26 See Vattimo (1988), Critchley (2004), and Agamben (1999).
27 Desmond (2003: 16). For other recent critiques of the contemporary neglect
of the aesthetic, see Joughin and Malpas (2003), Clark (2006), Altieri (2009),
Bowie (2003a), Clark (2000), and Armstrong (2000).
28 Bowie (2003b: 73) makes a similar observation: A great deal depends . . . on
the kind of story about the history of aesthetics one tells, and on how that story
informs the development of contemporary theoretical assumptions. It seems
clear to me that the stories which have dominated some theoretical debate
rely upon a too limited conception of the history of aesthetics, as well as on
questionable assumptions about the nature and role of art. This is not least
because some of the notions most frequently employed in theories concerned
to unmask the aesthetic in fact rely on ideas that emerged as part of the
history of aesthetic theory. Bowie (2003a) is an insightful book that begins
to correct oversimplified Anglo-American views of the aesthetic positions of
key figures from Kant to Nietzsche by offering a more complex and nuanced

Dialectics.indb 168 9/27/2012 5:37:35 PM

Notes 169

account of their arguments. I join Bowie in his opposition to the dominant

suspicious stance toward aesthetic agencywhat he calls a knowing approach
preoccupied with the critical unmasking of the ideological aspects of art. See
Bowie (2003a: 330).
29 For readings of Schlegelian irony as an anticipation of postmodernism, see De
Man (1996: 16384), Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy (1988), Frank (2004), Milln-
Zaibert (2007), and Hillis Miller (2000).
30 See, for instance, Geulen (2006), Danto (1986), Jameson (1998), Vattimo (1988),
and Agamben (1999: 528).
31 One might ask why I address only these five figures and neglect other important
aestheticians, such as J. G. Hamann, J. G. Herder, Friedrich Schleiermacher,
and Schopenhauer. In this book, I focus on Kant, Schelling, Schlegel,
Hegel, and Adorno because their aesthetic speculationsand the specific
conceptual trajectory I trace from one figure to the nextprovide the essential
groundwork for my central argument about the dialectics of aesthetic agency.
Methodologically, my book aims to provide close philosophical analysis of
selected aestheticians rather than broad historical coverage of a wide range of
figures. For a rich and detailed historical survey of a broad range of German
aestheticians, I would recommend Bowie (2003a). For a more introductory
survey of German aestheticians with an even broader historical sweep, see
Hammermeister (2002).
32 See Kant, KdU, II and IX of the Einleitung. For an English translation,
see CPJ.
33 See Kant, KdU, 9.
34 Schelling, VIP, 154.
35 Schelling, StI, 634.
36 Schelling, StI, 61718.
37 Schelling, StI, 618.
38 See aphorism 107 of the Athenaeum fragments (Schlegel, KA II, 181).
39 See Schlegel, KA XVIII, 5 (note 10).
40 See aphorism 116 of the Athenaeum fragments (Schlegel, KA II, 182).
41 Ibid.
42 Schlegel, Rede ber die Mythologie, in Schlegel, KA II, 323.
43 Schlegel, KA II, 228.
44 See aphorism 44 of Schlegels Ideen, in Schlegel, KA II, 260 and the Rede ber
die Mythologie, in Schlegel, KA II, 31128.
45 Hegel, V I, 142. For an English translation, see Hegel, LA I 103.

Dialectics.indb 169 9/27/2012 5:37:35 PM

170 Notes

46 Ibid.
47 Hegel, V I, 11213; Hegel, LA I, 80.
48 Hegel, V I, 989; Hegel, LA I, 69.
49 Kierkegaard (1997: 330). For an English translation, see Kierkegaard (1989: 297).
50 Adorno, T, 134. For an English translation, see Adorno, AT, 86.
51 Adorno, T, 149; Adorno, AT, 97.
52 Adorno, T, 123; Adorno, AT, 79.
53 Adorno, T, 2634; Adorno, AT, 176.
54 Adorno, T, 172; Adorno, AT, 113.
55 Adorno, T, 364; Adorno, AT, 246.
56 Altieri (1998a: 223).
57 Ibid., 211.
58 Ibid., 216.
59 Ibid., 21516.

Chapter 1

1 Biemel (1959: 116) (translation mine). Die Auseinandersetzung mit Kants

Begrndung der sthetik kann nicht den Sinn haben, durch eine uerliche
Kritik Kant Fehler und Versehen vorzuwerfen . . . sie mu vielmehr darauf aus
sein, im Aufdecken der inneren Spannungen, die in Kants Arbeit vorhanden
sind, das eigentlich fruchtbare Moment seines Ringens sichtbar werden zu
lassen. In this and the next chapter, I make parenthetical citations to Kants
three Critiques in the body of the chapter. Citations to KrV are located by
their pagination in the first (A) and second (B) versions of the Akademie
edition. Citations to KpV are located by page number of the Akademie edition.
Citations to KdU are located by section number (with the symbol ) and
page number of the Akademie edition. When I cite passages from the published
introduction (Einleitung) to KdU, I cite the section number (with a roman
numeral) and the page number. All translations of passages from KrV, KpV,
and KdU are my own, though I often consult the following English translations:
CPR, CPrR, and CPJ.
2 Horstmann (1989: 159) aptly notes that Kant obviously did not succeed in
giving unambiguous indications about the function and the results of the third
Critique. In other words, his treatise on judgment lacks explicit and intelligible
answers to some very elementary questions the most elementary being the
question of why the third Critique was ever written at all.

Dialectics.indb 170 9/27/2012 5:37:35 PM


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