Aesthetics and Politics in Edmund Burke Author(s): Terry Eagleton Source: History Workshop, No. 28 (Autumn, 1989), pp.

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Edmund Burke.as an idiom of the body to supplement and modify an austere male discourse of the mind. the German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten. The crucial distinction which the term signified for its inventor. Aesthetics was born as a woman . as is generally perceived. It was only later in the evolution of German idealism that the paradigm of all this became 'art'. was not one between life and art. Illustrationfrom Cabinet of Irish Literature Aesthetics and Politics in Edmund Burke by Terry Eagleton INTRODUCTION Aesthetics was born in the mid-eighteenth century as a discourse of the body. but as a social phenomenology. the historical . and it is for this reason that it needed to generate another. with the way reality strikes the body on its sensory surfaces. supplementary language to eke itself out. The 'aesthetic'. concerned itself with all that which follows from our sensuous relation to the world. It required a kind of concrete logic which would embrace particularity in the way a universal abstract Reason could not. A grievously reified Enlightenment rationality was in danger of finding the sphere of sensuous particularity . It emerged. to quote Alexander Baumgarten. but between thoughts and things. the affective.impenetrably opaque. creaturely life as opposed to that which lurks in the dim recesses of the mind.the somatic. Since history was itself for the German Enlightenment a matter of . as the 'sister' of logic. ideas and perceptions. that strange new Enlightenment discourse. aesthetics emerged into the world of modern Europe not in the first place as a language of art. that which belongs to our somatic.

one might say. which was realized in the whole eighteenth-century project of 'manners'. in Althusserian phrase. Baumgarten reminds us in his Aesthetica (1750).54 History Workshop Journal discrete concrete particulars. it was seen. to refuse all external determination for the pure movement of one's own self-production: all of this came to be summarised and epitomised by the aesthetic artefact itself. mind and the senses. That rationality was in danger of allowing the whole of the Lebenswelt. the law to oneself. individual and the whole. The aesthetic. will come to work 'all by itself'. as Kant says. must remain supreme. essentially. the emissary of a kindly absolutist power which recognises the ineffectiveness of mere brute dominion as any adequate mode of social control. where the aesthetic is represented as a kind of fifth columnist smuggled by Reason into the realm of sensuous existence. Power. But it was also a new kind of political requirement. intuitively enjoyable. and this in turn can become the paradigm for a whole new conception of subjectivity. by which the human subject. marks the way in which structures of power became gradually transmuted into structures of feeling. is what the work of art. meant that the human individual had to become his or her own seat of self-government.to give. The aesthetic. or the Law. inscribing the very gestures and affections of the body with its decrees. and the aesthetic was born in part as a response to this troubling ideological dilemma. To live out the law spontaneously. Custom. in effect. thus signalled an historic shift on the part of enlightened absolutism in terms of the exercise of power: from coercion to hegemony.the domain of actual lived experience . and the emergence of marketplace relations. ethical doctrine dissolved into the spontaneous texture of subjective life. This is the burden of Friedrich Schiller's 1790s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. Reason. so that the laws which govern subjects were to be felt as directly pleasurable. but must infiltrate them from the inside in order to regulate and control them more effectively.to slip from beneath its sway. habit took over from dictat and naked authority. The whole concept of the aesthetic was thus indissociable from an emergent project of bourgeois political hegemony. exemplifies. without need of rebarbative constraint. aesthetically . in a world where the dismantling of the centralised structures of absolutism. What this meant. redefining the relations between law and freedom. It must respect the relative autonomy of the sensuous Nature it subdues. the ruling order risked the ludicrous embarrassment of finding its own history falling beyond the scope of its governing rationality. but its dominance must never be allowed to degenerate into simple tyranny. whereby the body became the subject of a meticulous disciplining which eliminated the opposition between the proper and the pleasurable. virtue. above all. would be carried into the minutest crevices of lived experience. to introject it as the very source and essence of one's free identity. To live one's necessity as freedom . It is this. must no longer remain imperiously indifferent to the senses. was that the aesthetic was the way power. recognising in that realm a certain logic which is not quite its own. then.

. .actually has exceedinglylittle time for art. . thatthey did not all immediately agree that it was beautiful .The aesthetic signals the birth of a new kind of spontaneous consensus among social subjects.tendscontinually undermine its fragmenting to in socialandeconomic activitiesthe very solidarityit requiresfor its own political reproduction. then the bonds which leash society together are in dangerof loosening.' Burke is quite confidentthat such taste is uniformand universal:'I never rememberthat anythingbeautiful.Beautyis a crucialconstituentof our sociality:it is the way social order is lived out on the body. No vulgarutilitarian rationaleis neededfor suchan experience. If bourgeoissociety. BURKE It is not surprising. competitive individuals)but the realm of 'culture' itself.objectswhichwe can all judge alike.given what was at stake in these debates. and this meansthatsubmitting authorityis a sourceof delightfor us. that Edmund Burkebeganhis workon the sublimeandthe beautifulby seekingto defend the possibilityof a science of taste.as Marxonce commented.The moral. the way such delightfulsymmetrystrikesthe eye and stirsthe heart. certain objectsstandout in a kindof idealityakinto reason. If beauty is merely relative. Beauty for Burkeis not just a questionof art: I call beauty a social quality. by a tragichistorical irony. and Within the alarminglyamorphousflux of our subjective lives.thoughit were to a hundredpeople.Aesthetics Politicsin Burke and 55 appropriate. then a realmbeyond both state and civil society can be discoveredin which that spontaneousconsensuscan be nurtured perpetuated.we like to have them near us. or a plant.for when men and women. is indeed to as natural as following out our own deepest spontaneous impulses and desires. they inspire us with sentimentsof tendernessand affectiontowardstheir persons. but when other animals give us a sense of joy and pleasure in beholding them (and there are many that do so).anymorethanone is requiredfor humanfellowship. The aestheticis a name for this hegemonicproject. was ever shown.' (p. An intimately interpersonal Gemeinschaft (community) is mapped on to a brutally appetitiveGesellschaft (society). whichis why it looms so largein a formof societywhich. a beast. The social bonds of bourgeoissociety requireno more theoretical validation than does our quick feeling for a magnificent seascape. and not only they. If aesthetic judgementis unstable. one whose locus is neither the state (ultimately a coercive force) nor civil society (a place of atomised. unlesswe shouldhave strongreasonsto the contrary. 70). whether a man.then so mustbe the social sympathiesfoundedon it. or bird. andthese arethe beautiful. and we enter willinglyinto a kind of relation with them.socialandaestheticsenses are deeplyintertwined.

we shall find its principlesentirely uniform.and if taken too literally would spell the death of differenceand history: Althoughimitationis one of the greatinstruments used by Providencein our bringing naturetowardsits perfection.far morethanby precept.and coercionis thus secondaryto consent. It is one of the strongestlinks of society.If we do as othersdo. and society is shatteredinto a wildernessof mirrors.56 Journal HistoryWorkshop andwiththemthe whole fabricof politicallife. which remainsidenticalthroughoutits manifoldirregular expressions: Whilstwe considertaste merely accordingto its nature and species. but he is realistic enough to recognise that the senses are actually variable and aesthetic responses accordinglydivergent. 78) It is as thoughhumansize is absolutelyunalterable.is altogetheras differentas the principlesthemselvesare similar. andso on in an eternal circle. 101) Laws or precepts are simply derivativesof what is first nurturedthrough customarypractice.but the degree in which these principlesprevail.it is a species of mutualcompliance. (p.which all men yield to each otherwithoutconstraint themselves.thatwe learneverything.in the severalindividualsof mankind. is the aesthetic phenomenonof mimesis.The only problem is where all this imitatingends: social life for Burkewould appeara kindof infinitechainof withoutgroundor origin.(p.andwhichis to extremelyflatteringto all. same. then all of these copies would seem to lack a transcendental original.yet if men gave themselvesup to imitationentirely. can be laid at the door of individuals. 102) .andeach followedthe other. Such consensualityis less an artificialsocial contract. and what we learn thus. who do the representations.however.These discrepancies. Uniformityof tastefor Burke must be dependent on a uniformityof the senses themselves. our lives. To mimeis to submitto a law. we acquire not only more effectually. (p.rather than of taste itself. as with Hume.than a kindof spontaneousmetaphor or perpetualforging of resemblances. it is easy to see that there could never be any improvement amongstthem. laboriouslywroughtand maintained.even thoughindividuals happento be of differentheights. We become humansubjectsby pleasurably imitating practicalformsof sociallife. Thisceaselessmutualmirroring aboutit somethingof the stasisof the has Lacanianimaginary. What knits society together for Burke. but more pleasantly.our opinions. but one so gratifying freedomlies that in such servitude.This forms our manners. andin the enjoymentof this lies the relationwhichbindsus hegemonicallyto the whole.whichis a mattermore of customthanof law: It is by imitation.

and a satisfactionarisingfrom the contemplationof his excelling his fellows in somethingdeemed valuableamongstthem' (p.it thus resembles a coercive rather than a consensualpower. the repressive institutions of society would seem to be purely negative. 161).It is as thoughthose aestheticised traditionalist patricianvirtues of daring. are the politicalthoughtsof a manwho as a childattendeda hedge school in CountyCork. As a kind of terror.sympathy becomes cloying and incestuous.The sublime may terroriseus into cowed submission. For Burke. in the pleasurable knowledge that we cannot actually be harmed.the lawlessmasculine force which violates yet perpetually renews the feminine enclosure of in beauty. The sublimeis the anti-socialconditionof all sociality.rivalryand individuation: is a phallic'swelling'arising it from our confrontation of danger.but we love whatsubmitsto us. Its social connotationsare interestingly contradictory: one sense the memory trace of an historically surpassed barbarism. engaging our respectbut not. reverence.this coercivenesscontainsthe pleasuresof the consensualas well as the pains of constraint. 102). the sublime is a suitably defused. and beauty sinks to a by-word for stagnation. The distinctionbetween the beautiful and the sublime. is that between woManand man.whichBurke discovers in the virile strenuousness of the sublime. free-bootingambition mustbe at once cancelledand preservedwithinmiddle-classlife.Conversely. tragedy repeated as comedy.then. 'To prevent this (complacency). It is beauty's point of inner fracture.warringbaronsand busyspeculatorsmergeto prod society out of its specularsmugness. The sublimeis on the side of enterprise. a negation of settled order without which any order would grow inert and wither. a more subtle politicaltheoristin this respect.our love: 'we submitto whatwe admire. although a danger we encounter figuratively.but since we are all constitutional masochistswho delight in being humiliated. Withinthe figureof the sublime. vicariously. in one case we are forced. it also has something of the challenge of mercantile enterprise to a too-clubbable aristocratic indolence.These. as withbeauty. it maybe noted.butto avoid spiritual emasculationthey must still be fostered within it in the displaced form of aesthetic experience.but it is also the difference betweenwhat Louis Althusserhas called the ideologicaland the repressive state apparatuses.Some countervailing energyis thereforenecessary. As actual qualities.Aesthetics Politicsin Burke and 57 The very conditionswhich guaranteesocial order also paralyseit: sunk in thisnarcissistic closure.they mustbe outlawedby a state devotedto domesticpeace.the infinitelyunrepresentable whichspursus on to yet finer representations. the sublimecrushesus into admiringsubmission. in the other flattered. versionof the valuesof the ancienregime. it is in ideology alone that we are constructedas subjects. this oppositioncan to some extent be deconstructed. The sublime is an imaginary compensation for all the uproarious old upper-class violence. . In this sense.2 For Althusser.men of affairsgroweffete and enervated. into compliance'(p. God has planted in man a sense of ambition.

and hence our submissive obedience. is likely to alienate our affections and so spur us to oedipal resentment. A law attractive enough to engage our intimate affections. and the one we respect we do not love: The authority of a father.4 For Wollstonecraft. Burke offers us. a depraved sensual taste may give way to a more manly one . should not be tinctured with the respect which the moral virtues inspire. Mary Wollstonecraft was quick to assail the sexism of Burke's argument in her Vindication of the Rights of Men. 'The affection (women) excite. which makes a significant difference. to be uniform and perfect. by . then. An enervate beauty must be regularly shattered by a sublime whose terrors must in turn be quickly defused. where the parental authority is almost melted down into the mother's fondness and indulgence. but this love will erode the law to nothing. Wollstonecraft continues. hinders us from having that entire love for him that we have for our mothers. the figure of the grandfather. in a rhythm of erection and detumescence. will tend to inspire in us a benign contempt. of all things.and melting feelings to rational satisfactions.'3 'This laxity of morals in the female'. but the more. On the other hand. is based nevertheless on a kind of cunningly dissimulated law. lest pain should be blended with pleasure.58 Journal HistoryWorkshop the beauty which wins our free consent. Casting around desperately for a reconciling image. At the heart of power lies the contradictory phrase 'free bondage'. she argues at once that virtue is sexless and that it involves a manly taste. and so justly venerable upon all accounts. aestheticises women in ways which remove them from the sphere of morality. (p. His distinction between love and respect. and admiration disturb the soft intimacy of love. and beguiles us like a woman. that Burke is not so much an aesthete as an aestheticiser. 159) The political paradox is plain: only love will truly win us to the law. which clearly poses a political problem. as coercion and consent reinforce yet undermine one another. lives in a kind of ceaseless self-undoing. But should experience prove that there is a beauty in virtue. and so hegemonically effective. that give no sex to virtue. however. Authority. of which the aesthetic is a vital symbol. against this. she points out. is certainly more captivating to a libertine imagination than the cold arguments of reason. whose male authority is enfeebled by age into a 'feminine partiality'. a power which rouses our filial fear. Burke confesses that he can see no way of uniting these two registers. The dilemma is that the authority we love we do not respect. Burke is a kind of aesthete who divorces beauty (woman) from moral truth (man). a charm in order. which necessarily implies exertion. so useful to our well-being. We shall see. The greater the freedom the deeper the bondage.

labour is a masochistic affair. at least for those who theorise about it. Like 'rays of light which pierce into a dense medium'. He is much preoccupied with sweet smells and violent startings from sleep. such rights are 'by the laws of nature. which is. Hegemony is not only a matter of the political state. but is installed within the labour process itself. surprisingly enough. and there would thus seem the need for a kind of poor person's version of it. of which the mystery of the aesthetic. and is thus an aesthetic experience all in itself. If that class cannot know the uncertain pleasures of loading a ship. with its impossibly lawless lawfulness. enduring 'such a variety of . the repressiveness of the sublime can be invoked. is the rich man's labour. willing to credit no theoretical notion which cannot somehow be traced to the muscular structure of the eye or the texture of the fingerpads. The essay on the beautiful and the sublime is a subtle phenomenology of the senses. The more the human subject works 'all by itself'. The sublime. Both material production and political life. that the appeal to the intimate habits of the body is out to worst.Aesthetics Politicsin Burke and 59 the same token.for authority. display a unity of force and fulfilment. The aesthetic experience of the sublime is confined to the cultivated few. then they enter this dense somatic space as dispersed and non-identical. refracted from their straight line'. with its 'delightful horror'. Like the sublime. Labour involves a gratifying coerciveness. we are thus naturally driven to work. base and superstructure. If freedom transgresses the submission which is its very condition. a mapping of the body's delicacies and disgusts: Burke is fascinated by what happens when we hear low vibrations or stroke smooth surfaces. Providence has so arranged matters that a state of rest becomes soon obnoxious. but this ultimate efficacy of power is also its potential downfall. 'As common labour. is the exercise of the grosser. Burke argues in Reflections on the French Revolution. with the vibratory power of salt and the question of whether proportion is the source of beauty in vegetables. What the aesthetic in Burke sets its face most firmly against is the notion of natural rights. a revolutionary one in his day. Our agreeable wrestling with Nature's recalcitrance is itself a kind of socialised sublime. Religion is of course one obvious such candidate. a model of terror is the exercise of the finer parts of the system' (p. Power is thus a kind of riddle. If there are indeed metaphysical rights. invigorating an otherwise dangerously complacent ruling class. 181). breeding as well as subduing rebellion. and this agreeableness of labour is even more gratifying to those who profit from it. breeding melancholy and despair. is an apt sign. the lowly activity of labour.and the worse . reaping enjoyment from its surmounting of difficulties. by the dilation of the eye's pupil in darkness or the feel of a slight tap on the shoulder. which is a mode of pain. but Burke also proposes another. It is precisely that dryly theoretic discourse. the better . spontaneity can get out of hand. All of this strange homespun psycho-physiology is a kind of politics. since we find work at once painful in its exertion yet pleasurable in its arousal of energy. it can gaze instead at one tossed on the turbulent ocean.

this transvestite law. Burke speaks up instead for what Gramsci will later term 'hegemony': But now all is to be changed. are to be exploded as a ridiculous. is to be regarded as romance and folly'. which harmonised the different shades of life. but not impossible to be discerned'. Angered by this iconoclasm. And this is equivalent. the rich tapestry of customs which transmute laws to feelings. and which. by a bland assimilation. as an aesthetician. Power is ceasing to be aestheticised: what grapples individuals to it on this radical view is less their affections than the gallows. absurd. When Burke adds that 'the nature of man is intricate.7 With the executed Marie Antoinette in mind. in short. are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. as necessary to cover the defect of our naked. which the heart owns. and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation. furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination. he speaks. who would strip from it every decent mediation and consoling illusion. What is natural about such rights is their deviance or aberrancy.60 Journal HistoryWorkshop refractions and reflections. incapable of definition. is in danger of having its phallus exposed. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. to saying that he speaks also as a reactionary. break every icon and extirpate every pious practice. and the understanding ratifies. thus leaving the wretched citizen helpless and vulnerable before the full sadistic blast of authority. The law is male. but hegemony is a woman. and without distinct views. The true danger of the revolutionaries is that as fanatical anti-aestheticians they offer to reduce hegemony to naked power. is being disastrously abandoned: . which made power gentle and obedience liberal. and antiquated fashion. indubitably present yet impossible to abstract from their particular incarnations.more that they are incapable of definition. He is not arguing that such rights do not exist . All the pleasing illusions. which decks itself out in female drapery. for Burke. 'The rights of man are in a sort of middle. is equally a kind of lawfulness without law. The whole crucial middle region of social life between state and economy. in the original sense of the term.6 They are. All the superadded ideas. incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society. It is not that Burke rejects all concept of the rights of man. Burke goes on to denounce revolutionary discourtesy to women: 'All homage paid to the sex in general as such. the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity'. just like the laws of the artefact. Tradition. shivering nature. their self-disseminatory power is part of their very essence. They are Protestant extremists who would believe insanely that men and women could look on this terrible law in all its nakedness and still live. in this political context. that it becomes absurd to talk of them as if they continued in the simplicity of their original direction'.

Burke wishes to moraltruth. the aesthetic.in our own time. of the conservativeaestheticisation of . is not a categoryto be cavalierlyabandonedto the politicalright.always as aids to law.whereartis mostprofoundly politicalis thus. is not quite true. To make us love our country. the 'poetic' will have been so defined as to renderthe phrase'politicalpoetry' But there is a less gloomy alternativenareffectively self-contradictory.then.is selfgenerative. and political hegemony are now in effect synonymous. By the mid-nineteenthcentury.whicha well-formedmind would be disposed to relish. as Wollstonecraft It suggests. In the free self-determination the aesthetic can be found a of form of politics which.but only partiallyand unilaterally.Beauty is necessaryfor power. ironically. dulcia sunto. for the constructionof poems. Beauty must be includedwithin the sublimityof the masculinelaw. thus becomes a kind of mediationof man. It is not enough that the poem should be beautiful. Indeed one might claim that from Burke and the later Coleridge. where it most radically has its end in itself .thatBurkeis an aesthete concerned to divorce beauty from moral truth. thus reducing women to decorative amoralists. The aesthetic. but moral sublimity is not to be included within the beautiful.Aesthetics Politicsin Burke and 61 These public sentiments.the aestheticas a categoryis in effect capturedby the political right. rativeto be told.sometimes as correctives. in order to soften its rigours. FromSchillerandearlyMarxto Marcuseandthe Frankfurt School.Burkedeconstructsthe oppositionbetween beautyand truth.any more than it is one to be uncritically celebratedas emancipatory the political by left.or aestheticise beauty. and onwardthroughoutthe nineteenthcentury. challenges and interrogates other mode of aestheticthoughtwhichseeks to subduethe that bodyto the Law. as well as a great critic. The politicalvictoryof the aesthetic in Burke is more than a local one. from the time of Burke onwards. authorityhas need of the veryfemaleit placesbeyondits bounds. is equally true as to states: Non satis est pulchra esse poemata.our countryought to be lovely. in order to renderit safely hegemonic. There is no more reasonfor humanbeings to fulfil their creativecapacitiesin this way thenthereis reasonfor a workof art. ratherthanallowit to rebel againstit. Women are indeed in this sense excluded from the domain of truth and morality. We can returnin the lightof this to the quarrelbetween Burkeand Mary Wollstonecraft. The precept given by a wise man. On the contrary.but what Wollstonecraft rightlysees is that this process does not work in reverse. combined with manners. but does not containit. the aesthetic also comes to signifya traditionof social thoughtfor whichthe free realisationof humancreativecapacitiesis at once an end in itself and the very dynamicand imperativeof historicalchange.8 Woman. are requiredsometimes as supplements.Woman. One terminus.Thereoughtto be a systemof mannersin everynation.

75.62 Journal HistoryWorkshop politicsis fascism.we mustpoliticiseaesthetics. 6 ibid. Instead. which as I have tried to show begins life as a kind of primitiveproto-materialism.for whichimage. in The Works of Edmund Burke (London. 5 Reflections on the French Revolution (London. 4 ibid.. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. 114. mustreplace the aestheticwith the political. p.. 1906). Vindication of the Rights of Man (Gainesville. 1960). 116. in short. 1. p. Florida. paradoxically enough.. All subsequent references to this work are given parenthetically after quotations in the text. But whenWalterBenjamininstructedus that since the fascistshad aestheticised meanthatwe politics.. and realise that in pursuingthat project we are being faithful. NOTES 1 Edmund Burke. p. senses.he did not. 1971). p. 8 ibid. 7 ibid. 59. in Lenin and Philosophy (London. must We see. p. . p. what a politics of the body might mean in our own day. 'On ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses'. 59. 1955). we mustfind our own ways to reinterpretthe classicaltraditionof the aesthetic. p. 74. 2 Louis Althusser. 3 Mary Wollstonecraft. presumably. vol. blood and intuitionare all. 95. to the most profoundimpulseof the classicalaesthetictradition.

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