Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 3 No. 2, December 1985

Notes on Aestheticisations of Politics

Peter Williams

for Judy Tippett

'There is no cultural document that is not at the same time a record of barbarism ' (Walter Benjamin, 1979: 359).


A 1982 issue of Quadrant began with the following letter from one of its editorial board:

(Humphries, 1982: 3)

It is the contention of this paper that one of the ways radicals of the right and liberal humanists of the centre 'bash, baffle and bewilder' those styled as pinkoes is through aestheticisations of politics and of relations of power. These practices of aestheticisation are the discursive effects of processes that render particular political considerations and forms of power in terms of what is natural, universal and politically neutral. The conditions of visibility of aestheticising techniques may vary from, say, those applied to texts deemed pornographic, to those in play with texts selected as literary, to celebrations of a Barry Humphries rendition of the Les Patterson figure as archetypal ALP politician and distillation of so-called Australian 'ockerism'.


Aestheticisations of a variety of such cultural practices involve differences of political degree and complexion rather than of kind. The notes that follow identify and discuss a limited range of aestheticising presentations of politics. It is necessary to acknowledge at the outset that these notes do not develop a particular sequential case. Nor do they propose or assume any general theory of aesthetics or of politics. Such is not possible and in any case, would be irrelevant to investigation of the articulation of these discursive activities and the social relations that they usually entail.

Grounds of analysis and critique

Aestheticisations are part of generalising and historically produced ways of seeing according to transcendent 'standards' of the essentially dramatic, comic, sublime, beautiful and true. They achieve the effect of rendering political forces and relations in static aesthetic categories. Apparently innocent ('apolitical') aesthetic activities are carried out in definite practices of writing or composition (or encoding), on the one hand, and of reading or interpretation (or decoding), on the other hand. In their aestheticised aspects, these different practices have definite effects derived from a range of institutional situations—the schoolroom, lecture theatre and the television or cinema screen. The effects are predominantly those of deflecting attention away from usually implicit (but often explicit) deployments of power and towards exercises in sensitive aesthetic contemplation and forms of understanding. Aestheticising discourses construct politics as somehow external to fundamental considerations; the institutions which produce aestheticising discourses (most notably and pervasively the institution of Literature) neutralise their own politicality with such devices as hierarchical distinctions between authority and power (eg. Kramer, 1982: 84). These active, materially inscribed practices, routinely schooled and learned, have profoundly conservative social effects, most widely available to various dominant discourses (television, print, radio, film, literary) which reinforce and provide informal social and tutelary trainings (Hillach, 1979: 117-119; Sharratt, 1982: 215-217).

This is not to argue that dominant aestheticising modes of reading/construction/interpretation are somehow epistemologically either 'right' or 'wrong' in any absolute philosophical sense. The point is that aestheticising institutional trainings generally tend to reproduce their implied social relations, human capacities and effects unless resistances or oppositional strategies of transformation (or rewriting) are successfully calculated and mobilized. This is not to impose a political overlay on discourses of aesthetics. Terry Eagleton's discussion of the unacknowledged politicality of literary/aesthetic institutions, discourses and statements makes it clear that interdisciplinary analyses of these configurations of cultural power cannot be dismissed as reductive or barbaric intrusions from other institutions by other, normally incommensurable discourses (Eagleton, 1983: l94-l97 in particular).

Interdisciplinary analyses can be usefully directed towards 'common sense' legitimations of dominant institutional practices—legitimations that are politically secured but constantly resisted, contested and renegotiated at their points of (re)production. Aestheticising discourses are globalising instances of such practices and ways of seeing. An oppositional (as distinct from simply alternative) analytical strategy requires a politically informed analysis of aesthetics (Benjamin, 1973: 243-244). Historically, the relatively modern practices of aestheticisation are the ideological enunciations of what is institutionally comfortable, entrenched and secure in various arrangements of tenured power (see R. Williams, 1981: 51-56, for example, on the conditions of 'the MacCabe affair' at Cambridge University). Aestheticising procedures operate through the production of effectively—although not explicitly—didactic statements in a range of (re)presentations, commentaries, explanations and understandings couched in hierarchical and selective but nevertheless totalising metaphysical terms. Forms of power do not operate through the repression of already existing essences. Rather than being essentially repressive or exclusive, power is constitutive through the institutional regulation of particular and dominant discourses—hegemonic discourses that articulate repertoires of conduct to admissible social effects (Wickham, 1983: 468-478).

Because of this effectivity, secured in variable ways through educational apparatuses from primary school classrooms to such forms of 'entertainment' as the watching of television, materialist analyses must come to terms with, among other things, the reifying aesthetic theories and practices that they entail. Counter-hegemonic intellectual and political strategies in this area have little option but radically to analyse and attempt to transform generalising aestheticisations because 'aesthetic theories seek to establish the specific nature of the aesthetic mode as a universal and eternal form of cognition' (Bennett, 1979 12). When appropriated by aesthetic frames of reading, specificities, contradictions and forms of resistance are dissolved and then resolved into figures of more or less harmonious metaphysical totalities. These are often invested with moral authority and articulated with historical narratives that construct continuity and harmony as either backgrounds to or contexts of aestheticising discourses


(Hunter, 1982: 80-91). Closely analysed these aesthetico-moral and historicist practices are grounded in what Catherine Belsey has termed a broadly 'empiricist-idealist problematic' (Belsey, 1980: 6-7). The way of seeing consists of a humanism that constitutes universal 'Man'—individual 'men' as the unproblematic origin of language, signification and history; an empiricism that proposes knowledge as the unmediated product of lived experience; an idealism that asserts the reception of this more or less unmediated experience by the reason and/or feeling of a mind or sensibility which is the property of a transcendent human nature on which all sentient individuals have a lease; and a textual theory that assumes gifted individual authors expressing embodiments of eternal verities in various aesthetic forms such that an ideal reader will receive and recognize them as universal truths. To emphasise the power relations and material effects of institutionally produced discourses and statements, to deconstruct metaphysical and aestheticising totalities, to analyse trainings in and the active materiality of reading practices across a range of historical and institutional contexts, is to challenge and displace the generalising 'apolitical'.

Tony Bennett has argued that generalising trainings in and introductions to 'the conceptual equipment which goes with the concerns of aesthetics constitutes the single most effective impediment to the development of a consistently historical and materialist approach' (Bennett, 1979: 104) to the field of cultural studies. While aestheticising operations need not necessarily be identified as products or relays of the paraphernalia of philosophical aesthetics, the social relations and political dimensions of cultural practices are too often either frozen or disregarded by aesthetic appropriations, evaluations and celebrations (Benjamin, 1973: 243-244). Materialist analyses of cultural products are concerned with the manner in which forms of composition and reading differ according to shifting and historically specific material forces and power relations. Aestheticising discourses selectively construct phenomenological unities, symmetries, continuities and similarities between forms of composition and the work of reading (cf. Greenfield, 1983: 121-142). Aesthetic effects are calculated as 'the result of some invariant set of formal properties which establish an eternal, ahistorical distinction' (Bennett, 1979: 109) between aesthetic and other considerations. These other considerations cannot simply be sloughed off either as more properly the concerns of other disciplinary formations (eg. Sociology, Anthropology, History, Political Science, Linguistics, Philosophy) or as insignificant. They register the interdisciplinary problems raised by institutional productions of and trainings in aestheticising discourses and the articulation of these with other, intersecting and adjacent forms of social organization. These 'other', inseparable concerns of interdisciplinary analysis include the ideological and social effects of these techniques of aestheticisation in specific power differentials between classes, genders, sexualities, races, generations and regions.

The width of dispersal has been noted by Raymond Williams in his tracing of the historically shifting usages of the category 'aesthetic':

... apart from its specialized uses in discussion of art and literature, [it] is now in common use to refer to questions of visual appearance and effect ... [as] a reference beyond social use and social valuation ... to express a human dimension which the dominant version of [the term] society appears to exclude.

After noting the ideological opposition of the 'human' to the 'social', Williams goes on to conclude that perhaps such an 'emphasis is understandable but [that] the isolation can be damaging, for there is something irresistibly displaced and marginal about the now common and limiting phrase "aesthetic considerations"' (R. Williams, 1976: 28). It is precisely this special pleading for a transcendence of society and politics in everyday uses of aesthetic categories that is ideologically significant because it quite strategically displaces and marginalises material considerations. In conjunction with dominant ethical norms (free-floating and unified subjectivity, heterosexuality, Eurocentric possessive individualism, etc.), authoritarian forms of political discourse and ordering also appeal to aesthetic norms for their production of accounts of unity, continuity, consensual equilibrium and closure.

The political effectivity of aestheticisations

Walter Benjamin argued in 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1936) that:

Fascism attempts to organise the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life ... (Benjamin, 1973: 243).

There are clearly major problems here with Benjamin's use of the terms 'masses' and 'right', but the overall argument and its concern


with the extension of politics to warfare can be rewritten in the light of current concerns. Accepting the overall contours of Stuart Hall's argument, it can be argued that phenomena such as 'Thatcherism' in Britain and 'Hawkeism' in Australia comprise dominant ideological components of forms of 'authoritarian populism' (Hall, 1980: 157-185; see also Teichmann, 1983: 28-29) entailing aestheticisations of political relations and effects, albeit in different ways than the fascism with which Benjamin had cause to be concerned.

Aestheticising discourses contribute to constructions of a particular geo-politicality in their identification of cultural characteristics. Subdivisions within the universal and the human are located at the level of the individual as a metonym for a national culture (Rowse, 1978: Introduction, chapters 1 and 5, Conclusion in particular) which, in a mode of what might be termed aesthetic monetarism, is deemed to require relations of free trade in 'ideas' and 'experiences' with an amorphous and abstract international culture. The efficacy of political deployments of aesthetic categories in this connection was noted by Brecht when he argued that 'the concept of nationality has a quiet, particular, sacramental, pompous and suspicious connotation, which we dare not overlook'. Centring of the figure of the national has as its condition a form of populism that at once appeals to, positions and claims to represent a unified mass labelled 'the people'. Brecht continued:

It is precisely in the so-called poetical forms that 'the people' are represented in a superstitious fashion or, better, in a fashion that encourages superstition. They endow the people with un changing characteristics, hallowed traditions, art forms, habits and customs, religiosity, hereditary enemies, invincible power and so on. A remarkable unity appears between tormenters and tormented, exploiters and exploited, deceivers and deceived; it is by no means a question of the masses of 'little' working people in opposition to those above them. (Brecht, 1977: 80)

The power of such presentations of 'remarkable unities' relies upon at least minimal familiarity with a political mythology that draws on 'poetical'/aesthetical priorities and 'common sense' notions of their value.

Television coverage of the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games can be usefully considered in the light of this argument. As a media event this was not simply the site of rampant and competitive though rule-governed forms of nationalism, nor just for then Prime Minister Fraser—in some sort of metaphor for politics—to be constructed as successful through proximity to athletes in possession of gold. The

much-vaunted pageantry of the opening ceremony functioned as a unifying cultural, international but purportedly apolitical exercise. Having provided Queensland Premier Bjelke Petersen with tumultuous applause, the crowd of 60,000 was also capable of (almost cathartic) sustained applause and cheering following a programmed ritual Aboriginal dance on the arena. Meanwhile, about one kilometre east of the Commonwealth Games stadium twenty-five per cent of those peacefully demonstrating against the Queensland government's refusal to grant Aboriginal land rights were arrested by members of the Queensland constabulary. The protests for enhanced shares of political-economic power and cultural dignity were deemed illegal and divisive while the distinctive ritual dance and musical accompaniment, integrated as the first of a series of 'ethnic' contributions to an aestheticised televisual icon of a united and pluralist national (and, eventually, Commonwealth) figure, proved safe and acceptable as a regulated production of spectacle. Despite recent and relatively widely publicised work on diverse historical forms of Aboriginal resistances to white invasion, enclosure, dispossession, domination and regulation (Reynolds, 1981; L. Ryan, 1981), powerful mythologies concerning passive and shiftless but nevertheless primitively talented 'noble savages', replete with continuity constructed via a romantically rendered version of the 'Dreamtime', remain dominant ways of seeing and placing Aborigines (Muecke, 1982: 104-105; 1983: 71-79). These taught, learned and incessantly reinscribed myth ologies are prime targets for aesthetic resolutions of cultural and political conflicts.

All of which is, of course, quite in keeping with major Queensland promotional (and self-) images. In multi-faceted campaigns that make those of other Australian states look low-key and unassuming by comparison, an aestheticised pastoral is articulated with presentations of the quarrying industrious. For instance, the televisual images of certain beer advertisements locate the sung commentary's notion of freedom quite firmly in a variable, colourful landscape. This identification of an apparently apolitical notion of freedom with the land itself at once effectively incorporates and dismisses conflicting claims such as those of Aboriginal land rights groups. These and similar aestheticising consensual imperatives and dismissals operate as pastoral antidotes to the genre of 'Queensland jokes' largely produced in 'southern' states. In turn, these jokes too often go proxy, in explicitly ornamental and cathartic ways, for the urgently necessary intellectual-political analysis of the depredations wrought in the political-economic and ideological cause of Queensland nationalism (as commenced in Lewis, 1978: 110-147; O'Shaughnessy, 1979: 3-28; Mullins, 1980 212-238). Such carefully constructed strategies as those of Queensland nationalism amount to one current instance of


reactionary forms of agrarian regionalism and populism accompanied by wide-ranging shifts of economic power. Circulation of 'jokes' merely evacuates a space for non-dismissive analysis of populist prac tices and spectacles.

In the above instance, aestheticising discourses, techniques and devices contribute to both displacements and foreclosures of democratic public domains of social and political participation and investigation. That is, they arc politically effective as familiarising elements of a state-nationalist form of populism which operates accord ing to a state-people dualism that constitutes politics as the preserve of the state and all other forms of power as either 'natural' (eg. within the family) or inadmissible because divisively antagonistic (eg. within trade unions, civil liberties groups, land rights groups).

But dominant aestheticising discourses are more dispersed and generalised than the previous example may seem to indicate: we hear and see a lot about Aborigines being 'dirty', women 'beautiful' or 'plain' or 'ugly', unionists being 'lazy' and unwilling to work 'even in an iron lung', about investors being 'imaginative' and imbued with nationally desirable forms of 'intuition' and individual 'initiative'. Trainings in aestheticisation enable recognitions and evaluations on the basis of such categories to the exclusion of more complex social and political considerations that would include analysis of the conditions according to which such discriminations operate and the effects they produce. Such routinely unexamined statements can be mobilized in particular situations to politicized and usually conservative effects. They are statements that locate, identify and position, there by rendering social relations in terms of abstracted individual characteristics and notions of a unified subjectivity and unchanging 'human nature'. For example, the social and political practices with which figures from Bob Hawke to Frank Hardy have been involved are regularly reduced to biographical life narratives (cf. Beasley, 1979: 53-95; Semmler, 1982: 9-18). The conditions of plausibility of such procedures are secured through arguments from (always selective) 'tradition' and appeals to the authority of individual or collective 'experience'. These can constitute what Raymond Williams has termed politically 'limiting clause(s)' (R. Williams, 1961: 27) which produce reified cultural objects somehow naturally given for, among other things, aesthetic contemplation and consumption. It is as if these procedures are devoid of political implications and oblivious to other possible uses of their associated forms of politics.

That these aestheticisations of politics are so uncritically accepted and widely repeated derives from the effectivity of aesthetico-moral tutelage and framings disseminated by the institution of Literature


and relayed and dispersed through other forms of communication that traverse specific media regions and educational apparatuses. These trainings, suggesting how to read and what to look for, constitute a political transcendence of politics. They are crucial to the hegemonic (ie. dominant but not unresisted) and dynamic interdiscursive relations between various aesthetic, philosophical, 'common sense' cultural and political discourses.

Further, because of their totalising elision of mundane conflicts and the specific outcomes of these, aesthetic categories and devices can be taken up in and articulated with the forms and languages of political commentary. For example, the September 1982 slaughtering of Palestinians in two Beirut camps was offensive not just according to the aesthetic categories deployed in many journalistic and parliamentary commentaries: 'piles of bodies', 'covered with flies', 'stench of death', etc. It was equally objectionable according to political criteria and accounts. No less—but differently—than the Nazi slaughter of European Jews, these events might not simply have been reified by unspecifiable appeals to undifferentiated notions of 'humanity' or universalising notions of 'tragedy'. Such strategies ignore the military and political-economic dimensions of specific situations. Not even the many dead seem beyond the aestheticising discourses of interpretative power (see also Eagleton, 1981: 50-51).

The discourses of political commentary also intersect with dominant ways of reading other forms of cultural production; with the procedures of reviewing films, for example. The terms in which such films as Apocalypse Now and Gallipoli have been overwhelmingly interpreted connote a universalisation of war as indicative of the strangely beautiful horror understood to be at the heart of an eternal human condition, as illustrative of human nature and timeless but national themes of friendship and enmity, of human incompetence and the irruption of finally irrepressible evil (cf. Rhode, 1982: 36-42; Lohrey, 1982: 29-34). We can agree with Benjamin's argument that

All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. This is the political formula for the situation. The technological formula may be stated as follows: Only war makes it possible to mobilise all of today's technical resources while maintaining the property system (Benjamin, 1973: 243).

Wittingly or not, aestheticising principles and dispositions can effectively accompany and naturalize such less visible or 'obvious' political and technological formulae and trajectories. That is to say, there


are serious ideological implications and political conditions attendant on the evaluative categories of either 'boring' or 'entertaining' provided by aestheticising commentary and reviewing procedures. These constitutive procedures regularly displace the work of political economic and ideological analysis that goes beyond readings for identification or dismissal, and beyond dominant modes of reading that elide political considerations in the name of 'taste', 'style' or some other form of aesthetic individualism (cf. Aers and Kress, 1982: 22-37) .

Further local instances

Cultural commentary provides further instances of the aestheticisation of politics. For example, after calling for 'common sense' assumptions and a 'truth of feeling and sense of style' for Quadrant as 'a journal of combat', the editor and poet James McAuley wrote in 1975:

Quadrant has a particular and contemporary reason for maintaining this [dual-purpose] tradition. It is concerned with politics because it wants to limit the role of politics. A vigorous public life is a condition of civilisation but Quadrant believes that the purpose of this public life should be confined to the public sector, to reduce the power of government, to protect the rights of private activity—from writing poetry to doing business ... a conservatism that makes no demands on non political activities (quoted in Coleman, 1982: xi).

This editorial policy entails a reductive and narrow definition of politics and power as if they are confined to the parliamentary arena and do not operate in and across the 'private' realms of the family, religion, school, the writing and reading of poetry, business procedures and their very public effects; as if, in short, feelings and conscience exist in a private sphere far removed from the social operations and relations of power. Familiar and virulent when recontextualised now, Quadrant's editorial policy, encapsulated above, was reformulated in 1975, a year of the journal's redirection (Macintyre, 1983: 21-26) and a year in which forces of conservatism and libertarian reaction—poets and businesspeople around organisations such as Quadrant not least among them—mobilized on a massive, diverse but momentarily cohesive ideological and political-economic front to contribute prominently to the destabilisation of a federal Labor government. It should be evident that separations of particular privileged domains from politics can accomplish almost antiseptic depoliticization of particular sites of contestation and struggle (eg. 'business',


the conventions of poetic composition, the publication and reading of cultural commentaries) through the totalising construction and repetition of distinctions between 'public' and 'private'. These appeals to widely circulating notions of possessive individuality pay scant attention to the historical and material conditions of such classifications of 'private'/civil and 'public'/political domains; they foreclose consideration of the institutional sites of those practices as sites of struggle over divisions of labour, inequities of power and exchange, and over networked hegemonic strategies continually challenged and modified by specific and localised forms of resistance.

Similarly, radical alternative accounts couched in aestheticising terms are not particularly helpful either. Consider the following passage from cultural and political-economic historian Humphrey McQueen's book Gone Tomorrow. It amounts to what can, at a stretch, be taken as an oblique contribution to the burgeoning, personality-and-politics interpretative discourses emerging from many university departments of Political Science, especially those with neo-Laswellian inflections:

Whitlam gave the grandest of all parties to attract a rent a-crowd of journalists and academics; the 'Daisy' he sought was the right-to-rule over which that dull rich boy, 'Tom' Fraser, had a lien; as Gatsby's world fell apart, Rex Wolfsheim sat up throughout the nights trying to raise money; then, just as Gough was about to win Daisy forever, he was shot by the garage proprietor who lived down the road, and Daisy went back to Tom Fraser; across from the garage, watching over all, were the eyes of Dr C.I.A. Pinegap (McQueen, 1982: 169).

This is a witty and summarily achieved rewriting of the plot structure of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Great Gatsby here used to explain the demise of the Whitlam ALP government. As such it comes disconcertingly close to other deployments of available repertoires of politically selective factionalising techniques: to the high literary conventions used in the televisual documentary-drama The Dismissal—history and politics presented in characterological terms, an omniscient narrator, tragic catharsis, ideological reconciliation (Cunningham, 1983: 83-90; Crofts and Craik, 1983: 91-96; Lawson, 1983: 97 100; O'Hara, 1983: 106-108); to the whimsical satirical caricatures of the Donald Horne novel His Excellency's Pleasure; to the confessional and self-reflexive impressionism of Bob Ellis' The Things We Did Last Summer: An Election Journal; and, most alarmingly, to John Carroll's Caesarisation of the electorally defeated Malcolm Fraser (Carroll, 1983: 8-11; cf. Gramsci, 1971: 219-223 on Caesarism) These aesthetic operations are unhelpful because they


render political processes in individual biographical terms. They focus disproportionately on the intentions of individuals rather than on the effects of particular strategies. They render power as possessive, cyclical and inevitable rather than relational, contested and context-specific. They disperse politics and history by using generalising abstractions concerning 'what it means to be human' and by appealing to the presumed unity of 'national identity'. The familiarity and power of such philosophical and 'common sense' cultural figures, together with their aesthetic elements, amounts to what Foucault has termed a dominant (but not unresisted or monolithic) 'regime of truth', an adaptive hegemony in the discontinuous but intersecting network of institutions and discourses:

Each society has its regime of truth, its 'general politics' of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true (Foucault, 1980: 131).

Aestheticising discourses and practices operate as interdiscursive nodes, as points of articulation of discontinuous and mobile hegemonic networks of institutional relations and strategies. Their complex effectivity at once defies and goes beyond epistemological and disciplinary boundaries and categories. It necessitates interdisciplinary forms of analysis that can take into account the history and politics of such changeable operations. To extend a Noel King formulation, political interventions in aestheticising discourses and practices cannot be read off from either epistemological or evaluative analyses of the objects appropriated by such aestheticising discourses and practices (King, 1984: 128). Rather, the constituent elements of particular strategies and resistances need to be calculated in opposition to the conjuncturally dominant forms of aestheticising discourses and practices and in the institutional sites of their operation and dispersion.

Towards interdisciplinary forms of analysis

Following Bourdieu's exposition, Rowse has summarized the importance of aestheticising frameworks, dispositions and repertoires in the socially differentiated accumulation and deployment of cultural capital through consumption of various cultural forms. The 'aesthetic attitude or aestheticising disposition ... is indifferent to objects, theoretically, in that it can invest any artefact with cultural significance ... [I]t de-emphasises ethical and emotional content, except insofar as "the aesthetic" itself is seen as an ethical endeavour'. Aestheticising trainings are elements of formative class trainings to the extent that '[the] more earned and esoteric is the aestheticising prac tice, the more exclusive and particular would the milieu of consumption be' (Rowse and Moran, 1984: 248-249). The socially differentiated acquisition and employment of these aestheticising capacities, dispositions and practices directs attention to possible ways of analysing their politics.

Interdisciplinary forms of analysis are more useful and effective than, say, engaging in cathartic laughter or writing cryptic short stories or witty novels 'referring to' authoritarian foreclosures of political considerations. These aestheticising practices rarely contribute to overcoming or negotiations of political difficulties. Although often dominant and resilient, aestheticising appropriations do not constitute the only possible readings and uses of polyvalent cultural artefacts. Readings vary according to a limited range of differing but often crucially intersecting institutional trainings and articulations. The spheres of 'aesthetics' and 'politics' are rarely separable in any neat disciplinary compartmentalisation of discrete and discontinuous areas. Similarly, articulations of forms of politics with forms of aesthetics also preclude culturalist multidisciplinary modes of analysis that operate in unproblematised, additive ways. What is required calls for interdisciplinary reformulations of the kind implied by Walter Benjamin's remarks on aestheticisation of politics: calculations of strategy working from analyses of material and discursive imbrications of aesthetic and political 'norms'. The 'and' in the phrase 'aesthetics and politics'—as in other multidisciplinary at tempts to add, say, literary and historical or sociological and psychological discourses in consideration of selected and avowedly 'common problems'—indicates both a tension and the (false) possibility of completion 'by interpenetration or mutual supplementation, a gesture towards possible wholeness' (Sharratt, 1982: 35; see also Bennett, 1980: 19-20). Interdisciplinary modes of analysis transform the very intellectual conditions and relations of such work together with the pedagogic strategies, objects addressed and political calculations that they undertake.

It is at once difficult to prove but necessary to argue that no figure of a unitary, functional and undivided national or universal 'totality'—of completion—can be read unproblematically, either in 'whole' or 'part', through particular aesthetico-moral grids. Totality is always


institutionally constructed and therefore partial. But the centrality of 'totality' to the universalistic pretensions of aesthetic discourses makes it necessary to interrupt their modes of address and to contest the plausibility and subtle political effectivity of their presentations. The field demarcated 'the aesthetic dimension' should not remain of only specialized academic or mannered interest. Analysis of it is crucial to work on the deployments of various professional as well as 'popular' ideologies that are used in sports commentaries, 'human interest' journalism and political commentaries, among other sites. As Gramsci argued, the powerfully inscribed relationship between so called 'common sense' and 'the upper level of philosophy' (such as philosophies of the aesthetic) is sedimentary, depositing 'an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory' (Gramsci, 1971: 324, 326, 331; see also Davies, 1982: 32-43). These interdiscursive relations are secured by generally discontinuous but also intersecting, reinforcing and routinised institutional deployments of power. Effective resistance to and breaking with aestheticising techniques, circulations and effects, in the first instance at least, shifts attention from objects named 'aesthetic' to the specific social relations of cultural practices. This necessarily includes struggles over the appropriation and labelling of cultural products, especially challenging what Raymond Williams locates as 'the controlling and categorising specialisation of "aesthetic"' (R. Williams, 1977: 150) .

The false dawn of a renovatory alternative

In shifting emphasis from the epistemological, metaphysical and finally emotive claims of aestheticising manoeuvres and towards the historically specific conditions, relations, uses and effects of particular texts and utterances, we are signalling the likely disprivileging and transformation of diverse dominant, residual and emergent forms of 'the aesthetic'. Despite their lofty and radical promises, many alternative forms of cultural discourse do not attempt or achieve this. For instance, in an elegantly written and largely autobiographical piece, Professor Howard Felperin contributes to a useful and much-needed critique of dominant forms of English practical criticism in its Leavisite mode and American New Criticism as they are taken up in Australian literary-critical discourses (Felperin, 1982: 171-179). Felperin's article provides a critique of the naturalized 'jargon' of 'plain style' and its 'curious combination of self proclaimed democracy and undeclared authoritarianism', important criticisms of one form of an aestheticising 'myth of literary privilege' (Felperin, 1982: 173-174). In their stead, however, Felperin proposes the no less 'formulaic, ritualised and programatic' aestheticising discourse


of a sub-Derridean form of deconstructionism. Such deconstructionist work can be schematically summarized as being concerned with 'the deconstruction of the concept of representation' in conjunction with an emphasis on the production of meanings,

of signification that is not immediately dependent on representation, not strictly reducible to it, that is indeed apt to disqualify commonsensical views of it (Lewis, 1982: 10) .

Deconstructionism is particularly antagonistic towards the protocols of referential realist epistemologies and other essentialist discourses. The radical edge of deconstructionism consists of its insistence that practices of signification actively classify, present and frame their objects rather than duplicating, reflecting, referring to or expressively representing them as essentialist discourses assume. Deconstructionism's strategies encompass a broad preoccupation with a question of language formulated by, among others, Louis Hjelmslev: 'what are the conditions that make it possible to articulate a given utterance as truth?' (quoted in Lewis, 1982: 13). Clearly, this can be taken as in some ways intersecting with Foucault's analysis of rhetorics of power and regimes of truth. Despite the fundamental—if too often implicit—political implications adumbrated in such deconstructionist considerations (eg. see Norris, 1982: chapters 5 and 7; 1983: chapter 5 in particular; Eagleton, 1982a: 66-67, 72-74); despite the emphasis on the materiality of institutional practices that circulate with determinate (but not unresisted or uncontested) effects in the domain of the social; despite these variably emphasised deconstructionist priorities the Felperin argument manages to offer them as little more than alter natives to the currently dominant literary-critical trainings. This finally redemptive argument posits New Haven deconstructionism as aesthetically and epistemologically superior to the discernible 'idealism' of some speculatively unified materialism. To justify this construction of opposition the Felperin article makes the by now quite astonishing generalisation that forms of materialist cultural and ideological analysis pay insufficient attention to the constitutive effects of language and textuality. He cites his Marxist father's partiality for the work of T.A. Jackson as an element of the evidence required for such an assertion (Felperin, 1982: 177-178). Things must indeed have been intense and distracting in New Haven during Felperin's tenure there for this comprises an elision of quite massive proportions. It glosses over, for instance: Raymond Williams' non-reductive uses of the work of 'formalist' linguistics of Volosinov, Vygotsky and Mukarovsky in his Marxism and Literature (1977); Rosalind Coward and John Ellis's Language and Materialism: Developments in Semiology and the Theory of the Subject (1977); Tony Bennett on possible syntheses of aspects of Formalism and Marxism; Terry


Eagleton on Mikhail Bakhtin's prolegomena to thoroughgoing deconstructions of aestheticising discourses; the debate in the journal Screen between Colin MacCabe and Paul Willeman concerning ideologies, critiques of theories of the subject, language and discourse; Catherine Belsey on post-Saussurean modes of critical discourses; Stuart Hall, Colin Mercer and Dave Morley in the journal Screen Education and the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies anthology, Culture, Media, Language (1980); work carried out in and around the British journals Ideology and Consciousness, m/f; Politics and Power, Literature leaching Politics, Formations and, more variably, Oxford Literary Review; and, more locally, work on techniques of read ing, the selective criteria of curriculum construction, notions of con text and subjectivity, articulations of power and knowledge, and of rewriting and intertextuality by Ian Hunter, Catherine Greenfield, David Saunders, Noel King, Stephen Muecke, Gary Wickham, Michael White and John Frow in the pages of such Australian journals as Southern Review, Australian Journal of Cultural Studies, the series of Local Consumption publications and Melbourne Working Papers.

This informal reading list of recent materialist work on language, textuality and politics is useful precisely because the sort of analysis it itemises does not reinforce either dominant or alternative forms of aestheticisation. Neither does this work prescribe any monolithic or doctrinal form of materialist analysis of politics and history. As long as the Felperin nomination of deconstructionism for effective cultural and institutional hegemony fails to account for its own material conditions of existence—for the historically produced political pressure and limits on its institutional inscriptions, relations and wider material social effects—it is hardly in any position to dismiss in cavalier fashion other, competing forms of analysis as 'idealist' and inevitably resulting in crude assimilations of or reductions to the alleged externalities of 'history or politics' (Felperin, 1982: 179; cf. Manning and Thwaites, 1982: 302-317). The substantial contributions to materialist forms of cultural, ideological and political analysis cited above are hardly either assimilatory or reductive in their work on the historicity and politicality of various forms of communication, language and media. This interdisciplinary work distances and displaces the aestheticisations and metaphysical precepts articulated in the more familiar and unexamined certainties of teleological epistemologies and practices. These in turn can be more usefully addressed as linguistic operations, historical constructions and calculations of strategies. That is, they are, among other things, political operations.

Plural politics against aesthetic centrings

It is the institutional conditions and wider social effects of appropriations and deployments of 'free-floating' signifiers that must them selves be examined. They figure as renovatory aestheticising mechanisms which actively project reified notions of autonomy and arbitrariness. Distancing from, questioning and disprivileging of particular aestheticising discourses such as those of 'old new criticism' do not necessarily prevent alternative adjustments in response to resistances, alternatives in the sub-Derridean deconstructionist form of 'new new criticism'. These relatively more stable discourses, once having been mobilized to achieve institutional pre-eminence, are then in a position to secure the circulation of different but nevertheless aestheticising trainings, classifications, assessments, selections and certifications of reliable agents dispersed to other educational, media and domestic apparatuses. As Michael Ryan has argued: 'Cultural radicalism can take politically conservative forms, especially if its focus is an extension of liberal individualism as a rebellion against "convention" or "orthodoxy" of the "mass"' (M. Ryan, 1981: 147). Against the metaphysics of individualism and the resurrection of neo Kantian transcendental aesthetics it is necessary to call for what Ryan summarises as:

... a politics of multiple centres and plural strategies, ..., one which would be less geared toward the restoration of a supposedly ideal situation held to be intact and good, than to the micrological fine-tuning of questions of institutional power, work and reward distribution, sexual political dynamics, resource allocation, and a broad range of problems whose solutions would be situationally and participationally defined ... The question isn't even raised in American deconstruction, at least in its dominant literary critical mode, which is characterized by a conservative pessimism (which shouldn't be confused with the neo-humanist reaction against which it is quite effective). Deconstruction in general lacks a social and political theoretical dimension (M. Ryan, 1981: 160).

Felperin deconstructionism would eschew analysis of even and especially its own sociality, politicality and material effectivity, presumably in favour of what Eagleton has called 'the thrills of aesthetic ambivalence' (Eagleton, 1982b: 24).

Interdisciplinary and materialist forms of analysis do not aspire to the status of formulating alternative modes of aestheticisation. Yale deconstruction does. Despite the efforts of Belsey, Heath, Jameson


and others, these two ways of working do not produce parallel, easily equivalent or even adjacent critical discourses. Far from trying to provide any authoritative, antipodean aesthetic that operates to identify intrinsic formal, human or metaphysical essences, interdisciplinary analysis can quiz the constructions and effects of aestheticising discourses. This amounts to questioning the

privileged mode of production and social relay of the bourgeois myths which disperse men and women, along with their history, into a frozen world of idealist and essentialist categories. Myths of creation, of genius, of man's essential nature, of the externality and universality of the forms by which we express ourselves are all strongly supported in this way (Bennett, 1979: 169-170).

Bennett here discusses the privileged mode of literary criticism through its central place in school curricula, as well as academic and other forms of commentary. Bennett's argument continues to the effect that to interrogate and displace aestheticising metaphysical categories and statements is to 'question not merely the answers but the questions, the founding assumptions of bourgeois criticism and propose, in their place, a quite new, radically different set of concerns' (Bennett, 1979: 170). It is to question the procedures that secure ideological closure. Analysis of the apolitical politics of aestheticising discourses does not rely on either reduction to or intrusion from 'another' level or an 'external' discipline since 'from the point of view of a thoroughgoing materialism, the [aesthetic] text is a site on which varying meanings and effects may be produced according to the determinations within which the work is inscribed—determinations which are never single and given but plural and contested, locked in relations of struggle' (Bennett, 1982: 235).

Glorious maskings of power

The politicality of such plural and multiply-centred institutional struggles may be instanced by the range of uses that have been made of the Frank Hardy text Power Without Glory: A Novel in Three Parts (1950). There are at least three separate and different—although at points intersecting—grids for reading this particular text, and these separable readings are produced according to:

(1) a social(ist) realist aesthetic that reads Power Without Glory for its referential totalisation of detail, as a critical and historical novel in the Lukacsian sense, as a representation reflecting and exposing fundamental and systemic corruption in the Australian Labor Party, business and the Roman Catholic Church (eg. Lindsay, 1975: 9-21; Beasley, 1979: 57-62).

(2) a legal apparatus according to the judgement of which Power Without Glory comprises an aesthetic/literary and fictive totality with complex 'composite-real' characters; this rather than as an unmediated, journalistic, either maliciously or unintentionally mistaken transcription of some epistemologically privileged and transparent real world that is unproblematically expressed in language (see the account in Hardy, 1971; see also Frow, 1982: 24-30 and Saunders, 1982: 161-177).

(3) articulated with (2) in its emphasis on literary subjectivities, a dominant new-critical literary aesthetic which judges that:

Frank Hardy is altogether too programatic, and shows little sensitivity to writing. In some respects he is hardly a novelist at all. Power Without Glory (1950) is a long-winded ambitious documentary study of corruption and extortion, clumsy in structure and style, and only partly salvaged by Hardy's moral fervour. His true ear is for anecdote, the pub yarn (Mitchell, 1981: 130; see also Encel, 1956.307; cf. Frow, 1982: 22-23 and Hardy, 1983: 13-14).

The effect of this last framework for reading has been to exclude Power Without Glory from the national literary canon, most curricula and virtually all public academic consideration. Such placings are made possible by an aesthetic refusal of the political, a demarcation which itself has deep political effectivity through its neutralisation of certain kinds of political statement (rendered as 'moral fervour'), and in its constitution of the particular text in question as barely a novel in any recognisably (ie. dominant and familiar) formal, experiential or metaphysical senses. Power Without Glory can then be summarily constructed/read-as provincial, dated and sensationalist political journalism that is beneath aesthetic consideration and, probably, contempt (but cf. P. Williams, 1981: 168-191 and Frow, 1982: 22-39). Clearly, this aestheticising power is constitutive as well as dismissive in its classificatory practices.

Taking into account these three most widely performed ways of reading Power Without Glory, materialist transformations of aestheticising approaches to the text need to abandon the temptation to at tempt renovation of (l)'s alternative social(ist) realist aesthetic. In stead, counter-hegemonic cultural strategies need to map the historically variable 'career' of the 'meanings' of particular texts in terms of


their differing appropriations, inscriptions and dismissals. Breaking with aestheticising generalisations and assessments, this is directly to address the political economy and ideological effectivity of various institutional uses of specific texts/cultural products. It requires examination of particular forms of aesthetic technologies, significatory politics and the activations of particular textual ensembles, for as Bennett has argued:

It is no longer enough, if it ever was, to stand in front of the text and deliver it of its truth. A politically motivated criticism, as feminist criticism has shown, must aim at making a strategic intervention within the determinations which modulate the existing modes of usage and consumption. It must aim to mobilise the text, to re-determine its connections with history by sever ing its existing articulations and forging new ones, actively politicising the process[es] of reading. (Bennett, 1982: 235)

These strategically calculated, openly political readings actively con test the often silent but nonetheless effective political strategies en tailed in dominant grids for reading, interpretation and evaluation. Instead of aestheticising cultural and political operations and statements, such an interdisciplinary mode of analysis differentiates and investigates the political conditions and effectivity of aestheticising discourses such as those activated either to valorise—as in (1) above—or dismiss—as in (3) above—the Power Without Glory forms of textual politics.


Interdisciplinary analyses of aestheticising operations and positionings are an important part of the project of transforming the relations of production, distribution, exchange and consumption of cultural objects. In necessarily limited and non-utopian ways they constitute a democratic challenge to the dissemination of mythologies concerning national cultural and social consensus across complex differences of class, gender, race, sexuality, 'ethnicity' and region. The form of analysis here called for is preferable to further essentialist elaborations of high literary theory or, alternatively, of a realist aesthetic reductive to originary contexts (cf. Eagleton, 1983: 214-217). Both of these latter 'radical' moves are more or less politically ineffectual because of their formal complicity with already dominant and incorporative aestheticising contours and rules of procedure: techniques of generalisation, totalisation and commitment to static but unstable protocols of explanation. It is necessary to devise effective strategies for transformations (rather than hegemonic reformation) of institutional relations, of the never politically inert techniques and discourses that produce reifying commentaries. It is the products of such techniques and discourses which intersect at nodal points with other forms of social organization in wider dispersals and mobilizations of the aesthetic with conservative and, increasingly, reactionary consequences.

Currently dominant forms of aestheticised politics produce a simultaneous double movement to a depoliticised 'common-sense' universalisation of liberal-humanist notions of 'human nature', on the one hand and, on the other hand, to mediated foregroundings of 'interesting', 'exemplary' or 'eccentric' personalities, biographical narratives and 'life-styles' of those social groups and individuals editorially selected and classified as either politically admissible or subversively unacceptable. National cultures are increasingly constituted and totalised around generalised and internationally intersecting 'star' systems. Sharratt has discussed the cultural conditions and political effects of such generalising presentations of constructed in dividual and national subjectivities:

The logic of the aestheticisation of politics leads not only to a politics of personality but to a legislation of personalities: as the ineffable norm of national normality becomes the Iynchpin of a pervasive ideology, the pressure grows to extend the legal net to cover (once again?) more and more facets ... (Sharratt, 1982: 217) .

Sharratt here underlines the authoritarian aspects of forms of aestheticised politics mobilized at the level of the national. Aestheticisations present, establish, repeat, culturally legitimate and variably affirm what are always and only constructed individual and social subjectivities. Widely circulated and inscribed in a plurality of institution specific forms, these discursive figures are powerfully assigned status as elements of 'common sense'. But these governing hegemonic integrations are never complete, unresisted or simply foisted on passive and infinitely manipulable 'masses' or agents from above. They form the mobile and incessantly adaptive conditions of peoples' active forms of work in and passage through a networked series of social institutions. These are the means by which very definite ways of seeing 'masses' and their individualised particles are constructed across the divided and differentiated domain of the social. Accordingly, structured movements of 'masses' (to, from and at work, sports crowds, in shopping centres, trade union and political meetings, demonstrations) are routinely rendered and read in aestheticising


modes as spectacles with, perhaps, a generalised but usually 'irrational' collective cultural and political will. Presentations of sites of political contention and negotiation are rare precisely because they are refused and/or displaced by notions of politics as extraneous and mundane when compared with human, metaphysical, domestic, aesthetic and moral essences.

In conclusion, then, these notes have assembled arguments for the following: contestations of any aestheticising Olympian gaze on in stances and spectacles constituted as microcosmic parts of a singular and metaphysically unified universal and/or social totality; interdisciplinary analysis of institutional conditions, relations and dispersed effects in the divided and non-unified domain of the social; analysis and contestation of the power and ideological effectivity of aestheticising discursive and interdiscursive relations; attention to forms of institutional orderings in a social plurality of such orderings that intersect in hegemonic networks despite the 'uncorrelated confusion of complexes of public life, which are in themselves highly organised' (Brecht, 1979/80: 24). Interdisciplinary political analysis of aestheticisations of power and their diverse and pervasive effects entails a critique of aestheticising discourses together with their politically secured conditions of existence. This critique must be particularly directed towards the discourses of the institution of Literature. Such work should contribute to projects for institutionally democratised and accountable constructions of agendas, curricula, administration of work relations and calculations of their effects. Such negotiated regulation of the trajectories of particular operations and even the most minimal options for changes provides counters to authoritarian denials of politicality, abolitions of contingent historicity and foreclosures of specific differences. As Eagleton has noted, aestheticisations constitute major elements of ideological languages:

One might risk saying, indeed, that in this sense the 'aesthetic' is the starkest paradigm of the ideological that we possess. For what is perhaps most slippery about ideological discourse is that, while appearing to describe a real object, it leads us inexorably back to the 'emotive' (Eagleton, 1981: 124).

It is precisely such reductions to postulated forms of authentic individual or collective 'emotion' that are mobilized, ordered and repeat ed with authoritarian political effects. These contribute to historically produced 'moments of danger' concerning which we would do well to share Walter Benjamin's analytical concerns, the better to resist any form of intellectual-political final solution.

For their constructively critical comments on earlier drafts of this paper I am very grateful to Catherine Greenfield, Ian Hunter, John Frow, Noel King, Gary Wickham and Jennifer Craik. Responsibility for the final formulations is, of course, my own.


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