Aesthetics and Politics Today

Claudia Breger

On which grounds can we claim, in 2020 and with scholarly confidence, that a literary text has “progressive” or “right-wing” affinities? How do we measure the success of another text’s apparent experimental critique of racist or homophobic dispositifs? Or what could justify the declaration that a film elicits a revolutionary sensibility? Against the backdrop of new political populisms and fascisms, questions such as these couldn’t be more topical today. But do we have equally topical answers? Both within and beyond academia, political reading practices have long been countered with the charge that they don’t do justice to the aesthetic qualities of their object. In the twenty-first century, old-school articulations of this point have been revamped in the name of new formalisms and a range of postcritical methods. The course starts from the premise that these new formalist and postcritical challenges are worth listening to, but do not require that we abandon the desire to read politically. Rather, they can help us refine our skills and develop interpretative methods accounting for hateful or empathetic, egalitarian or elitist overtones and undertones of aesthetic texts in non-reductive, non-symptomatic ways, making room for ambiguity, affective incongruity and multivoicedness, without entirely separating art from ideology.

Towards the goal of describing relations between aesthetics and politics in ever more convincing terms, we will return to the tradition of theorizing their interplay from the Frankfurt School to Jacques Rancière, along with selected texts from the fields of critical race and queer studies, and put all of them in a dialogue with new formalist and postcritical perspectives. As we go along, we will probe our reading skills on a number of aesthetic objects (literature & audiovisual).