Thesis 10. On the Unusable

Aesthetic works are neither useful nor useless to politics. They are unusuable. The unusability of a work marks its stature as an aesthetic object. This is because aesthetic objects do not comply with the expectations of purposiveness. This also means that aesthetic objects are not knowable nor is their standing as political objects verifiable. The impropriety of an aesthetics of politics is its resistance to the epistemic demands of a politics of meaning.

IS IT POSSIBLE to affront aesthetic objects in terms other than their use value? In asking this question we want to mark a general tendency in contemporary cultural and political theory that regards the instrumentalization of aesthetics, through the elaboration of intricate epistemic matrices, for the purposes of a redemptive (and putatively progressive) politics.

One of the most available procedures for handling an aesthetics of politics regards the symptomatic analysis of appearances that unveils hidden structures of domination that such objects—and the institutions that generate them—are said to conceal. Here a commitment to various forms of emancipatory politics is wedded to an interpretive strategy equally committed to a hermeneutics of suspicion regarding the modes of expression (i.e., the knowledge claims) that such objects may convey. The result is a kind of policing function that regulates the relationship between forms of expression and structures of reference. Any object—whether written text, film, musical score, painting, photograph, and so forth—is said to exist within a fixed matrix of expression and reference: what aesthetic objects express is markedly different from what they represent, so that their obscured mode of world-relation betrays either an imposed or endured form of domination. The task of critical thinking vis-à-vis cultures of the spectacle is to treat the artifice of art as if it were a kind of veil intended to obscure the realities of coercion.

From this perspective the task of political critique is to unveil—or subtract—the artificiality of aesthetic objects in order to expose the concealed substrata of their referential functions. This formula of suspicion begins by suggesting that what an object seems to represent is different from its actual indexical properties and that in reality, that object imposes on the spectator certain structures of domination that she must wittingly or unwittingly endure. An aesthetically inflected mode of political and cultural theory must therefore deploy a searchlight of sorts that will illuminate and isolate what is symptomatic in these objects, reveal their structures of domination, and thus lift the veil of ignorance. In this manner political judgment secures emancipatory politics.

Such approaches to cultural criticism and the aesthetics of politics rely on an epistemic and instrumental correlation between the expressivity of objects and that to which they refer, a relation that also correlates to a concrete correspondence between perception and sensation. The result is a moral theory of the image that classifies aesthetic objects as intentional objects whose primary value is an instrumental one: the good or the bad image.

Let’s call this general approach to the aesthetics of politics the eschewal of aesthetics. It is an eschewal of aesthetics because it denies us the possibility of relating to the world in any mode other than an instrumental one. Refusing the primordial convention that artifice is artificial, the eschewal of aesthetics admits that the only way to engage aesthetic objects is to treat them as epistemological objects whose purpose it is to make meaning. With the eschewal of aesthetics, the judge’s objective becomes the delimitation of a human interest in the existence of aesthetic objects so as to determine a certain and verifiable knowledge of them; with such purposiveness as our ground we may attend to an object’s indexical properties and thus administer its expressive functions. Politically, this means that the value of aesthetic objects is either useful because they promote a political and cultural agenda that we endorse, or useless because their demagogic properties veil the emancipatory potential of that same political and cultural agenda. In either case, and ironically so, the eschewal of aesthetics sanctions a commodification of culture to the extent that aesthetic objects become cultural commodities for the endorsement or rejection of certain specific political and theoretical interests.

The eschewal of aesthetics is iconoclastic in the Byzantine sense of the term. By wanting to unveil the artificiality of artifice in a work it endorses a mode of attending to aesthetic objects that dismantles the power of the image, or the intensity of immediacy in an appearance’s advenience. More to the point, such an approach relies on a fundamental inequality between critic and audience. To endorse a hermeneutics of suspicion that sustains the position that aesthetic objects are collusive in their promotion of the commodification of culture means claiming access to a specialized, concrete knowledge about the substance of such objects, a specialized knowledge that is unavailable and perhaps even inaccessible to all. Here it is assumed that the spectator is passive and unable to see the spectacle of illusion that dictates a horizon of fixed ends; the role of the critic is thus that of the prophet who casts light on the mechanisms of misrecognition. With this posture of attention there exists only two potential subject positions: a passive and an active one, the audience and the critic.

But as we have seen, an aesthetics of politics that arises from an experience of aesthetic conviction can never satisfy the critic’s “how do you know?” question. This is because an aesthetics of politics admits that the affirmations of the convictions it formulates are not subject to a knowing, nor are they available for verification via a line of intentionality. The noli me tangere of the advenience (Thesis 6) resists the normative, epistemic demand of the “how do you know?” From the position of an aesthetics of politics, the “how do you know?” question makes about as much sense as asking the epistemologist “can you show me metadata for the verification of the existence of your concept?”

What does it mean, then, to say that aesthetic objects are “unusable”?

It doesn’t mean they are useless. Uselessness is the antithesis of use, to be sure. But unusability isolates a domain of value outside this logic of production and exchange. Aesthetic objects are unusable to the extent that they are not reducible to an instrumental logic that guarantees the use/uselessness dialectic as the basis for political and aesthetic critique. In other words, aesthetic objects are not purposive, though they invite creative modes of handling.

To say this is to suggest that the principle of unusability is grounded in a classical aesthetic thesis that sustains the idea that aesthetic objects—in order to count as aesthetic—are not reducible to their qualities. This means—crucially—that aesthetic objects are not things “for us.” This is what Kant meant when he forwarded the radical democratic thesis of “disinterest” by affirming that there can be no rules to determine the beauty of an object because the object is exempt from—that is, unusable to—the logic of interest.[1] Oddly enough this is the most sublime and un-Kantian moment in all of Kant’s writings—and, in fact, it is the moment when Kant is closest to David Hume. And there is no doubt that Kant himself may have realized this, which helps explain his subsequent retreat in affirming the beautiful as a symbol of the moral. For Kant, the radical heteronomy of the unusability of aesthetic objects was difficult to bear—his critical system could not hold it up. Thus he had to reinstate a structure of interest for the aesthetic by aligning it with the moral.

But the dispensation of interest thesis—articulated by Hume and partly sustained by Kant—has never gone away, and it is at the heart of the unusability of aesthetic objects for politics: The principle of unusability allows us to play with the idea that the human, natural, and social sciences need not be exclusively committed to the symbolic interpretation of meaning or the production of understanding. Meaning and understanding are always for someone or for something; they always have a use value, or an interest. This is why Kant had to invoke analogy to suture the tear of the aesthetic caesura that inserted a radical heteronomy into his critical system.

Now, none of this implies that we do not, or ought not, make critical judgments that assert the meaning of things: that’s precisely the task of critical thinking, and the task of judgment. But theory—the fabulation of the virtuality of worlds—and criticism—the asseveration of our beliefs about a thing’s workings—are two distinct activities. What we point to in drawing this blurred relation between theory and criticism, then, is the possibility of thinking the value and objecthood of things in and of themselves, without having to bear the weight of epistemic validation.

The problem of aesthetic experience is one of having to come to terms with the unusability of aesthetic value in the face of its intensity and inexhaustibility. An aesthetic experience is one in which one has a sensation of incisive conviction regarding the presentness of an object, despite the fact that there is no source or site of evidence that will count as necessary or sufficient to determining the validity of that incision. There is a political force to this aesthetic insight that says that with the dispensation of necessity we unleash the intensity of the otherwise. Anything whatever might happen otherwise, and thus everything is also otherwise thinkable, otherwise doable. What an aesthetics of politics affords, ultimately, is a dispensing with the consequentialism of necessity. In this way we admit of the unusability of aesthetic objects for politics. To do so means to place the expectations of signification at the level of all other criteria, dispensing with their necessity, and acknowledging that the content of things is an aspect of objects, but one aspect among many.

The frictions that adveniences procure bespeak a resistance to the instrumental expectations of the epistemic. I take this to be the full force of Roland Barthes’s admonition that the punctum does not enlist an account of any specific kernel of knowledge, but the recounting of an event of sensorial interface with the allure of things. When Barthes advises that he will remonstrate with his moods and not justify them, he resists the epistemic demands of verification for experience; as does Jean-Luc Godard when he shows on a blackboard in a frame of Le Vent D’Est (1970) this aphorism: “Ce n’est pas une image juste, c’est juste une image” (“It is not a just image; it is just an image”); and as does Stanley Cavell when he affirms that “I can’t tell you how I know”[2] that my relating one aspect to another is an actual relation, however virtual it might be. It’s just a fact of aesthetic experience: we simply can’t verify our convictions of the power of a work of art by referencing it to a schema of legitimacy that underwrites our political and knowledge interests. But that doesn’t mean that we are unaware of the experience, nor does it mean that we should not tend to the experience, that we should not be/hold it, that it doesn’t matter because it is not politically useful, and that we ought not remark on a remarkable sensation. Quite to the contrary, the advenience of aesthetic experience is a remarkable political fact.