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Aesthetics & Alienation

By Gary Tedman

Zero Books (John Hunt Publishers)

Jun 29, 2012. 978-1-78099-301-0.


A complete and original theory of aesthetics based on Marx and Althusser in the modernist Marxist tradition (Brecht, Althusser, Benjamin, Adorno).

With the classic Marxist concepts of base and superstructure divided into economic, ideological, and political levels, this book argues that the aesthetic level of practice is the area that has traditionally been missing or misrepresented for political reasons. This aesthetic level is the site of what fuels and supports the media, or as Althusser described it the ‘traffic’ between base and superstructure (mediation). What officially performs this mediation are the aesthetic state apparatuses, and these can be analysed both in the past, for example in art history, and today, in contemporary politics, in their production of aesthetic forms.

What role do art, feelings and alienation play in our culture? The crucial insight that this book offers is that aesthetic experience and practice is shaped by its relation to the condition of social alienation, understood as felt or sensual alienation, and is therefore a reciprocal relation. This generates a human subject pre-sensitive to certain strategies and forms of aesthetic (art, design, attitudes, manners, etc) which become active in the class struggle, such as sublimation. Aesthetic state apparatuses, like the traditional college of art, deal with this domain of human experience and so the ‘traffic’. In this sense they can be said to mediate base and superstructure. Such apparatuses are envisioned as vital to the process of consolidation of a social formation by aesthetic interpellation, they act as the ‘glue’, so to speak, providing social cohesion on the affective, thus also and eventually moral and ethical, level, and become our quotidian feelings of what’s the ‘correct way’ to live out our lives. Notably, this does not necessarily require the overt intervention of any specific consciousness or ‘will’, or of a corresponding false consciousness (ideological level) which fails to live up to any ‘true consciousness’.

Gary Tedman was most recently a professor at the faculty of design and art at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy, and taught courses in the Theory of Social Change and Contemporary Art History, he is a graduate of the Royal College of Art (Cultural History 1988). He produced the hypertext version of Marx’s 1844 Manuscript which revealed the unusual design layout and pagination, and has a number of essays published previously in Rethinking Marxism journal, including “Ideology, the State, and the Aesthetic Level of Practice” 1999.




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