Reconsidering Aesthetics and Everyday Life
Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life? (Foucault 1991, p. 350)
When considering the career of the treatment of the topic of aesthetics (defined, hereafter, as the operationalization and application of form, taste, self-stylization, and the creative imagination to the demands of contemporary life) in the educational field, one is struck by a striking bifurcation. Mainstream and liberal curriculum standard-bearers such as Eliot Eisner (1997, 2005) writing on the topic have gone down the path of more or less insulating aesthetics within self-enclosing disciplinary frames of reference emphasizing self-referentiality, connoisseurship, and the maverick-like qualities of artistic producers. This orientation might be called, after Pierre Bourdieu, the “charismatic approach” (1993, p. 76) in which the artist and the aesthetic object are judged by art-qua-art criteria shorn from the social environment. Aesthetic conversations within this paradigm brush off art objects from contaminating imbrication in the political world. The work of aesthetics in this sense is to transcend the turmoil of everyday life ennobling artistic producers and their creations and the elected audience of affinity who know how to properly consume artistic objects. Further custodial work is conducted to keep at bay those wayward producers, curators, etc., who engage in works of bad taste (as in a Mapplethorpe) or who exercise too strenuous social critique.
On the other side of this divide, neo-Marxists and cultural studies theorists of education have never really overcome the inherited terms that had been set for aesthetics within classical or orthodox Marxism. On these terms proponents have tended to place aesthetics outside the realm of systematic consideration of the workings of society subordinating these practices to the economic and integrating the discussion of aesthetics within the superstructures. Here, then, aesthetics were understood to either slavishly contribute to the reproduction of economic relations (as scholars such as Schooling in a Capitalist America’s authors Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis had mapped out in their general formulation of the workings of education and culture in the social order) or had become part of the workings of spitball popular culture of resistance and rejection of the mental programs of schooling as cultural reproduction theorists such as Paul Willis (1981) had maintained.
Taking a different path in this entry, I wish to build upon critical, post-Marxist scholarship on education and society that has prompted a return, in recent years, to the scenario of aesthetics within contemporary society. Here, I am referring to the work of a multidisciplinary group of scholars writing from within a plurality of fields – education, anthropology, sociology, cultural geography, and history. I call attention to scholars such as Arjun Appadurai (2013) writing on the work of the imagination, Stuart Hall and Sarat Maharaj (2001) writing on the liberating eruption of aesthetics out of the institutional confines of the museum spilling over in carnal communion with everyday life, Saskia Sassen (2014) who foregrounds the work of aesthetic practices in the building of the new global city, and the work of Michel Foucault who has sought to decenter establishment aesthetics and its high priests calling attention to the banality of the work of art and the care of the self.
While neo-Marxist scholars of education writing on urban life have tended to place aesthetics on the boundaries of critical practices, treating aesthetics as a surplus set of practices that can only be made fully relevant when added on to a more concentrated attention to economy and politics, these post-Marxist theorists maintain that aesthetic practices now underwrite the fiber of everyday modern life. As Arjun Appadurai usefully points out in the Modernity at Large and The Future as Cultural Fact, aesthetic practices are no longer to be simply understood as the practices exclusive to the artist – a maverick or charismatic citizen creating selective images about the past, present, and the future of human existence. But aesthetic practices are linked to the work of the imagination of ordinary people and connected even more earnestly to the work of capitalism and its organization and reorganization on a global scale. What Appadurai, Sassen, and others are pointing toward can be identified as a central energy in modern life associated with the production, reception, and circulation of representations and images and the diffusion of knowledge and information – the core of what Manuel Castells calls the new information paradigm where information is the key product and new driver of the capitalist order and where its organization and deployment contribute to reshaping contemporary social relations. It is within this paradigm that the manipulation of form, images, and style (not the ever mountainous climb of data but the transaction of aesthetics of existence) quite literally articulates the most aggressive possible marketing of signs, the radically active ascesis of self-caring, of how we look, of who we would want to look like, the house we would like to live in, and the places around the world we would like to visit. All of these practices are really seductions of style and persuasion that are now deeply commodified – whether in the domain of reality television, packaged tours, the sandboxes of console-supported video games, or the online virtual play worlds of the World of Warcraft.
In what follows, I want to extend these understandings in a very specific way by discussing the historical entanglement of aesthetic practices in the diffusion of modernization and developmentalism to the Third World. Second, I want to point as well to the deepening role of aesthetics in the organization of capitalism in the new millennium. Third, I close the essay with a brief discussion of the crisis of language that the aestheticization of everyday life has precipitated in neo-Marxist efforts to grasp the central dynamics of contemporary societies. The latter development has led to a depreciation of the value and insightfulness of neo-Marxist analysis in our time. Let me now turn to a discussion of the historical context of the integration of aesthetics into commerce and the transfer of modernization principles through aesthetics to the Third World.
Aesthetics and Economic Production in Historical Relief
The long shadow of the integration of aesthetics and capitalist economics can be tracked back into the circumstances of the late-nineteenth-century industrialization, the generation of new markets for the ever-expanding range of capitalist goods and services, and the production of consumer durables. These “luxuries” of personal style were in their everyday utility, if not necessity, expanding middle-class consumption patterns to the working class. Within this set of developments, deepening patterns of aestheticization in advertising, the imbuement of commercial products with sensuosity, flair, and feeling, and so forth generated a leveling effect in the processes of class representation and helped to transform agrarian and immigrant actors into the new acquisitive urban subjects. As Dean MacCannell would argue, the commodity world of capitalism derived value not simply from invested labor but from the symbolic register in which human actors attached stratified meaning to things, their shape and form, and their near magical power to signify beauty, self-worth, and importance. This symbolic energy in aesthetic forms would contribute to the generation of flow and fluidity within the representational furniture of the class order and contribute tremendous value-added dynamism binding ecumenical groups of social subjects to the unfolding capitalist order. The working class could now try on the uniforms of the upper classes, explore their ways of life through the glow and illumination of what TS Eliot in his poem Portrait of A Lady called “bric-a-brac,” and through consumer credit and loans acquire the imitation furniture, jewelry, and items of leisure that mirrored aristocratic existence. Aesthetic practices integrated into economic form were now performing the pedagogy of molding the new subjectivities of the modern age – less in collision with capital in the classical sense identified by Friedrich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England but more in besotted communion with the spectacular array of consumer products capitalism had strewn in their wake. To be a true citizen in the modern society was to be a dedicated consumer.
Modernization’s Aesthetic Arrival to the Third World
This model of progress, proletarianized and internationalized by the middle of the twentieth century, would be taken full scale to the Global South, embodied in Coco Cola and Pepsi ads, the family size Coca Cola drink, the cultural translation performed by the films, musicals, popular songs, etc., that entered the Third World through cinema houses, radio, television and newspapers, comic books, and cartoons, and the lure of the new sleek-looking surfaces of consumer durables and household electronic appliances. Here, debt-driven consumption summarized the aspirations of the masses for something more than material want. These practices of borrowing today and paying tomorrow underlined a fueled working-class interest in comparative affluence – a desire to expand and materialize freedom by codifying taste and style and by integrating the aesthetic and leisure practices into their rigorously subordinated lives defined by industrial parks. These aestheticized aspects of material culture were themselves indices of a new aspirational momentum generated in the so-called preindustrial economies that were navigating the modernization paradigm propounded by Anglo-American policy intellectuals. The newly aestheticized material culture paralleled new imperialist policies of industrialization by invitation and the transfer of production processes of multinational capital to the Third World.
The modernization paradigm traveled instantaneously incubated in the spreading tentacles of electronic mediation embracing the most remote parts of the earth. Musicals such as The King and I and The Sound of Music and soap operas such as Portia Faces Life offered aesthetic solutions to the problems of necessity and want in the Third World. These popular cultural productions propagated ideas such as the inviolability of contract and the value equivalence involved in the process of exchange of labor power for wages. They extended a shimmering imaginary plane of existence linking the metropolis to the periphery latent with needs and saturated with unfulfilled desires. These aesthetic works suggested that the Third World life, linked to tradition and agrarian organization and imagination, was flawed, oppressive, backward (a neo-Marxist claim as well!). This type of enlightenment narrative was propagated, for example, in highly popularized musicals such as the The King and I. Circulated through radio, television, and film, The King and I made popular the modernization dilemma of the old traditions of Siam (Thailand) versus the suppressed wish fulfillment of Siam’s people, particularly their capacity for individual action and choice. The King and I ultimately set the capriciousness of the absolutist state against the visions of constitutional democracy. The way out of cultural miasma and backwardness to enlightenment was provided in the person of an English schoolteacher, Anna, who would carry out the work of cultural incorporation and translation. The cultural and philosophical forms of modernization – the right to private property, the capacity of the workers to sell their labor power, and the deification of Western democratic traditions – are all underscored in this musical in which a half-naked king, with Anna’s help, must reconstitute his relations to his subjects and retool himself as a comprador agent of capitalism’s expansion in Southeast Asia.
The aestheticization of the economic – capitalism with a human face – sold the Third World on the modernization theories of Western policy intellectuals such as Daniel Lerner, Harold Lasswell, and William W. Rostow. The “passing of traditional society,” as Lerner called it, involved that fearful asymmetry of contractual agreement to exploitation and excavation of the resources of the native and her land, along with state-enforced guarantee of the privileged status of the right to private property that multinationals and mercantile local elites so intensely craved. The development gap between the Third World and the First could be jumped by the expansion of the consumerist culture of possessive individualism and the wholesale adoption of the infrastructure of industrialized production by “overseas” territories. Just as new streets were being paved for industrialization by invitation in the 1960s in Puerto Rico and Barbados – the sweet middle-class life of the Brady Bunch and later The Partridge Family presented itself through television as the embodiment of the one and only true heaven, as the buoyant end game in the struggle for happiness. Why couldn’t a woman be more like a man (My Fair Lady)? Why couldn’t we the Third World Siams be more like the enlightened West?
It was, in part, this developmentalist dream of plenitude and progress that delivered the “Pakis” and the “Jamaicans” to the land of the “Lads” in pursuit of the Holy Grail of the better life and the material rewards of capitalism – as Paul Willis had documented in the Learning to Labor (1981). As cultural theorists writing about education had barely noticed, the postindustrial phase in capitalism brought a new multicultural environment onto the terrain of metropolitan urban centers. By the 1980s a new aesthetics of everyday meaning of style marked the sartorial and leisure choices of urban youth in metropolitan centers. Whether it was the post-beatnik, yuppie culture in New York or punk and skin-headed flamboyance in London, a cultural turn to hybrid genres and world culture marked the identities of white working class indelibly. What was missing in the cultural studies account of these new cultural formations was the backstory of imperialism and colonialism. What cultural studies theorists of the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies confronted in Birmingham in the ocular opposition of the immigrant other to the Lads in the Learning to Labor is this abridgment of a continuous line or movement of disembeddedness and transformation in an imaginative and spatial geography that extended the aspirations of the Jamaicans, the West Indians, the Pakis, the Indians, and the Bangladeshis from the periphery to beachheads in Brixton and Manchester. The full significance of what this movement would mean in the changing terms of globalization was indeed far more fully recognized in the popular films such as The Full Monty (1997), Billy Eliot (2000), and This Is England (2007). To understand these dynamics more clearly, we must now turn to a consideration of the role of aesthetics in everyday life.
The role of aesthetics in everyday life has deepened in the last few decades with the rising importance of computerization and media-driven technologies. The work of aesthetics is not simply now embodied in the selling of messages and images but in the very construction of products and constituencies of affiliation in the new millennium. It is pivotally located in the convergence platforms that integrate the old media technologies of television, radio and newspapers, and comic strips into the new technologies of handheld machines (Jenkins 2008). All these affordances have enhanced that whole area of stylization of the self and the self-management of everyday life that Foucault discusses in his History of Sexuality volumes, and Baumann alerts us too in books such as Liquid Modernity. But the processes of aestheticization also reach deeper into the marketing and circulation of goods and services, the proliferation of labels, and the redirection of difference and diversity toward the new vending machines of choice. As the author of No Logo, Naomi Klein, insisted some years ago, it is the aesthetics of entrepreneurial identities and labels, logos, and brands that have displaced the manufacture of products as the heart and soul of what makes post-Fordist capitalism tick. Everywhere smart capital is running away from the materialization of dense product inventories, costly overheads, and static models of factory organization and opting instead for the cultivation of new bonds of consumer affiliation and labeling, relying on the faithful consumer to spawn markets by parading the labels of branded distinction in their natural habitats. It is precisely here in this new restructuring arrangement, too, that the critical separation of work from leisure – a division in the social and economic orders that Marxist scholarship held onto from Marx and Engels formulations through to Harry Braverman, Bowles and Gintis, and cultural studies theorists such as Willis – has collapsed as labor has become deftly integrated into leisure. There is a constant diffusion of value in leisure generated in the 24/7 interactive engagement of the twenty-first-century consumers in the full penumbra of digitally based inducements in video games, online fantasy communities, online shopping, culture fashioning, and even I-reporting.
Leisure is work and work has shifted radically into all leisure spaces. The consumer’s body and its extension by handheld machines, such as the mobile phone, have become the new interactive canvases of commodity fetishism. It is in this framework of cultural oversupply that the modern consumer tries on new identities and engages in practices of self-correction and self-modulation. Transnational corporations such as Starbucks and Nike now brand new ecumenical communities with their labels like so many tattoos on the social/global body. And so, ethnic, class, and gendered communities are now coalescing around practices of consumption and patterns of taste rather than around production relations or ancestry, or geography, or biology. The language of the new aesthetically branded world now registers the new ecumenical orders of feeling, affect, and taste. These ecumenical orders overlap with the traditional collectivities of class or race or gender, but in the most frenetic and unpredictable of ways. This buoyant aestheticism has generated a new cannibalism as the modern actor seeks refuge in ever more savage intensities and hybridities (MacCannell 2013).
The Aftermath of the New Aesthetics and the Impact on Radical Scholarship in Education
This shifting terrain of the aesthetics of existence articulated to identity, and affiliation has overtaken neo-Marxist scholarship in education by events. We live in an era in which old metaphors associated with Marxism – concepts such as “class,” “economy,” “state,” “production,” “reproduction,” “resistance,” “the labor/capital contradiction,” “reality” and “fiction,” “ideology” versus “truth,” and “materiality” and “immateriality” are being worn down by the transformations of the past decades in which the saturation of economic and political practices in aesthetic mediations has proceeded full pace (Bauman and Raud 2015). The framework of analysis that linked education to capitalist employers, to factories, to the nation-state, and so forth is no longer serviceable as the coordination of economic and symbolic production is now rearticulated along multiple sites in a global process of marketing, branding, and outsourcing of the production of goods and services.
We have reached a stage in this millennium where the old “conflict” versus “consensus” metaphors do not seem to apply. Instead of models based on conflict and resistance, increasingly social groups are being defined by overwhelming patterns of transnational hybridities, new forms of association and affiliation that seem to flash on the surface of life rather than to plunge deeper down into some neo-Marxist substructure. Paul Willis’s nationally and geographically bounded Lads are now being replaced by Hisham Aidi’s banlieusard diasporic youth formulating their powerful musical critiques of the French State and their protests against living conditions of immigrants by melding electronically relayed African-American hip-hop with Sufism and new North African poetry (Aidi 2014).
All these developments are turning the old materialism versus idealism debate on its head. It is the frenetic application of forms of existence, forms of life, the dynamic circulation of and strategic deployment of style, and the application of social aesthetics that now govern political rationalities and corporate mobilization in our times. The new representational technologies are the new centers of public instruction providing the forum for the work of the imagination of the great masses of the people to order their pasts and present and plot their futures. They are creating instant traditions and nostalgias of the present in which our pasts are disembedded and separated out as abstract value into new semiotic systems and techniques of persuasions, new forms of ecumenical clothing that quote Che, Mao, Fidel, and Marx, and “revolution” in the banality of commodified life – the publicity of one brand of dishwashing liquid as having “revolutionary” effects is just one good example of the work of aesthetics in the brazen rearticulation of terms and traditions in the brave new world in which we live. Who now owns the terms that define the authentic traditions of radicalism that inform our works? Who now has final purchase on the terms “resistance,” “revolution,” “democracy,” “participation,” and “empowerment?” The massive work of aesthetic and textual production is blooming in a crucible of opposites – socially extended projects producing the cultural citizen in the new international division of labor, in which the State may not be a first or the final referent.
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