Douglas Burnham and Darrell Hinchliffe

Aesthetic Resistance:
Value, Subjectivity and Contingency in Literary Theory


1. Introduction

In English speaking countries, contemporary literary studies is now disproportionately the preserve of a set of theoretical orthodoxies about language, representation, subjectivity, meaning and history. These may be dated back to the explosive impact of structuralist and post-structuralist literary theory in the 1970s and 1980s. The high profile of ideologically alert and politically active critical practices has resulted in the virtual hegemony of the assumption that literary texts have no value in themselves. Any ascription of value to a text is often seen as a means of promoting other values (moral, political or whatever) which are regarded as primary. As such there is now a tendency to stress a prescribed range of metacritical themes, primarily those of class, race and gender, which function as the basis of curricula and exegesis; similarly, what has emerged in methodological terms is a disseminative practice of reading which seeks to decompose texts into their constituent codes and account for the way these operate within the text and the broader cultural contexts. Former insistence on the unity of the text is thereby theoretically denied, repressed or simply ignored.

While not denying that literary studies should provide an arena for judgement of a political or moral kind made in full conscience, we would argue against the assumption that these can be made separately from formulating an aesthetic response to the text. At the heart of this is the idea that the study of literature is concerned with the nature and practice of judgement-making and this necessarily entails a relationship between a subjective activity and the world (or things in the world). Studying judgement therefore inevitably involves a theory or model of subjectivity. In what follows, we suggest that the particular model of subjectivity which now predominates is problematic, and that at least one highly plausible alternative exists. We also wish, more positively, to claim that an aesthetic capacity underlies all judgement (including political judgement).

We shall begin by exploring, as faithfully as possible in the space available, the intellectual axioms that underpin a 'postmodern' approach to literature. Obviously, contemporary criticism is hugely diverse, and we recognise the danger that such a general account will produce a straw man. By 'postmodern', however, we shall mean something quite particular: those theories which develop the implications of the relation between value and contingency on the basis of an account of subjectivity – as we describe in section 3.

2. A Provisional Definition of Value

Whether or not there are values in any objective sense, the concept is part of ordinary discourse – especially discourse about art and literature. It is from here that we must begin, even if later such values are conceded to be illusory. When so used, a value in general is a type of cause, mediated by a judgement that is represented as spontaneous. We say that we act on values – they are a motivation for us to behave charitably towards someone, to vote for a particular party, to judge a work of art as beautiful or conducive to our world-view, or whatever. As such the cause or motive can be understood in a variety of ways: a proposition or set of propositions and beliefs (what might be thought of as an ideology in the broadest sense) a feeling (of compassion, responsibility or wonder, for example), a need of some kind, or an apparent property of an object. Thus, by 'value' is meant, broadly, 'that which is taken to be the ground of a possible action (including reflection or judgement) by a subject'. The phrase 'action by a subject' refers to the action (and perhaps also its ground) being something for which a subject generally claims ownership (whether or not the claim is valid). I do not conceive of myself as being forced, controlled or manipulated when I act according to a value.

On this account, then, an aesthetic value is taken to be a property or set of properties of an object which is therefore called an aesthetic object. Thus a formalist will approach a literary text and find certain properties of its form which allow her to see it as successful or not – the same applying for other modes of critical exegesis. Our problem, though, is with those schools of critical theory which seem to deny the existence (or disregard it at least) of such a thing as an aesthetic object. The problem of aesthetic value in literature, then, includes the following key questions:

Is literary value attributable to a text (or experience of a text) or is it solely determined by cultural structures and institutional forces?

When I make a value judgement of a text am I acting freely (or is the judgement an expression of my freedom) or am I merely reproducing the ideological and material relationships of the culture (or community) to which I belong?

Is it necessary or even possible to form purely aesthetic value judgements in the consideration of literary texts?

As we shall see postmodern theorists stress contingency and differentiality. For this reason they see the study of literature not as the pursuit of aesthetic value as defined above, but rather as an opportunity to conceive of value as a vehicle for the inculcation of ideologically valid moral and political values.

According to the above definition, value cannot be a value (as a type of motive) unless it appears to be taken up in a spontaneous act of judgement by a subject; correlatively a value cannot be a value unless it is conceived of as pertaining to some object (that is, something that can be taken as a whole). This is why the problem of the nature of texts as objects, dissseminative critical practice and the conception of subjectivity are all related.

3. Axioms of Postmodernity: Value as Differential Form

Postmodernist theories adopt a primarily semiological account of value in all systems resulting in what one can call a 'contingency model' of value. Postmodernists argue that all value is an effect of forces within a contingent and differential system. From such a perspective there can be no specifically aesthetic judgements. In this section, we shall outline the axioms of this position, before turning to the Kantian tradition for some alternative approaches.

The general principle that connects the following five topics (language, subjectivity, ideology, history and contingency) for postmodernists is 'difference' conceived in post-Saussurian terms, especially with its Derridean inflection which resists any form of recuperation as 'presence'. All units in language, all components of subjective experience, all positions within systems of knowledge and belief, all locations within history are seen as traces in a differential system to which there is no outside and for which there is no ground. The model here is Saussure’s account of linguistic value; for this reason we shall begin our summary of the axioms of postmodernism with this.

1) LANGUAGE: Saussure’s remarks on language now have the weight of indisputable and established truth for many literary theorists. For our purposes, his central claim is that 'in a language there are only differences, and no positive terms' (Saussure 1983: 166). Irrespective of what this means in the context of the Saussurian project, it does seem to have been appropriated in a very particular way by literary theorists. Jacques Derrida sums up the philosophical implications in his essay 'Differance':

what was it that Saussure in particular reminded us of? That ‘language [which consists only of differences] is not a function of the speaking subject’. This implies that the subject (self-identical or even conscious of self-identity, self-conscious) is inscribed in the language, that he is a ‘function’ of the language. (Derrida 1973: 145)

Here, meaning is seen as an 'effect' derived from a system of differentially defined terms. This position opposes any essentialist or realist model of meaning and any correspondence theory of truth and, as we shall see later, any model of subjectivity which underlies these. Saussure’s famous distinction between the linguistic value of French mouton and English sheep shows that conceptual schema are not natural kinds but the products of culturally and more specifically linguistically relative forms. In languages, he writes,

what we find, instead of ideas given in advance, are values emanating from a linguistic system. If we say that these values correspond to certain concepts, it must be understood that the concepts in question are purely differential. (Saussure 1983: 162)

As part of a system of differences a concept has no content but takes a value from contrasts with whatever else is in the system. He says that a

particular concept is simply a value which emerges from relations with other values of a similar kind. If those other values disappeared, this meaning too would vanish. (Saussure 1983: 162)

The consequence of this model for literary studies is that texts are seen as assemblages of pre-constructed meaning (parole derived from the cultural langue): the object of study becomes in many cases the codes that constitute the text and the imperative is to explore the codes rather than the text. The result of this is that the critic engages in passing judgement on the implications of codes that the work happens to contain, rather than on the relationship of the work as a whole to its constituent codes.

2) THE SUBJECT: For postmodernists, subjectivity is usually theorised in constructivist terms, logically enough since it is regarded – like many things that otherwise might have been regarded as fundamental – as an effect rather than a ground of forces. ‘Force’ is understood differentially rather than substantially. Derrida, again, provides the philosophical rationale:

What then is consciousness? What does 'consciousness' mean? Most often in the very form of 'meaning' ['vouloir dire'], consciousness in all its modifications is conceivable only as self-presence, a self-perception of presence.... The privilege accorded to consciousness thus means a privilege accorded to the present; and even if the transcendental temporality of consciousness is described in depth, as Husserl described it, the power of synthesis and of the incessant gathering-up of traces is always accorded to the 'living present'.

This privilege is the ether of metaphysics, the very element of our thought insofar as it is caught up in the language of metaphysics. (Derrida 1973: 147)

For Derrida, subjectivity is above all an effect rather than a ground:

We thus come to posit presence – and, in particular, consciousness, the being-next-to-itself of consciousness – no longer as the absolutely matrical form of being but as a 'determination' and an 'effect' ... [T]his was also Nietzsche’s and Freud’s move, both of whom, as we know, and often in a very similar way, questioned the self-assured certitude of consciousness. (Derrida 1973: 147-8)

It is the psychoanalytical tradition (in particular, the Lacanian tradition) which combines a differentially modelled and constructivist approach to subjectivity with a related critique of self-presence, that is the preferred port of call for postmodern theorists at this point.

Rejecting the substantial self of the Cartesian cogito, the post-Lacanian model of subjectivity points to the contingency of the ego. For Lacan (and for almost all modes of post-structuralist discourse) the ego has no substance: it is caught up within a structure of identifications creating for itself a fictive unity which serves as an Imaginary rather than a real identity. Any sense of coherent selfhood is thus seen as a form of misrecognition – a self-image rather than an attunement with a substantial identity. The mirror stage, in his account,

would seem to exhibit in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject. (Lacan 1977: 2)

'The mirror stage', Lacan says in careful constructivist terms,

manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality that I shall call orthopaedic – and, lastly, to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject’s entire mental development. (Lacan 1977: 4)

He goes on to say that the end of the mirror stage 'tips the whole of human knowledge into mediatization through desire of the other' (6).

Lacan’s anti-Cartesianism goes far enough for him to rewrite Descartes’ rationalist dictum 'cogito ergo sum' (in which self-presence is taken to assure existence) as 'I am not where I think, and I think where I am not' to emphasise the dispersal of the subject (what Derrida might call its non-presence). The Lacanian 'I' is split between its impulses and drives which seek Imaginary unity and plenitude and its representations of itself, in the Symbolic realm, which are forever deferred in a way analogous to the infinite deferral of meaning that Derrida describes.

In this aspect of postmodern theory three things are being apparently overthrown:

1. the traditional model of temporality as a homogeneous and continuous flow of the present;

2. the value of the self-present ego as something which is able to ground or authorise key epistemological claims: the ego is not seen as being self-present and therefore it cannot act as the legitimising principle of other philosophical claims;

3. traditional models of judgement, responsibility and freedom based on this sense of subjectivity are either modified or dispensed with in light of the previous two points.

3) IDEOLOGY: From this model of a subject forever in search of itself and capable of misidentifying itself with Imaginary self-images comes the theory of ideology associated with Althusser. Althusser adopts Lacan’s model of subjectivity and marries his distinction between the Symbolic and the Imaginary to a more general theory of social relations.

In short, after Althusser, ideology is 'not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live' (Althusser 1984: 39). Later he writes:

the category of the subject is constitutive of all ideology, but at the same time and immediately I add that the category of the subject is only constitutive of all ideology in so far as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects. (Althusser 1984: 45)

Ideology is in effect the Imaginary place of the subject in the cultural system. The ego has no substance per se: any sense of unity, identity or purpose is a contingent effect of the identifications of the subject with the ideological structures it encounters. There is, therefore, no universal human nature: there are subjects of ideology for whom identities are part of a structure of meanings and values which are relative to whatever synchronic system they happen to belong to. In its Foucauldian inflection this critique takes the form of the analysis of the places made available for subjectivity to be articulated within discourse which is itself always aligned with structures of power.

For a critic such as Eagleton conventional aesthetics therefore operates in the production of an illusory (bourgeois) subjectivity. Comparing Lacan with Kant he says:

When the Kantian subject of taste encounters an object of beauty, it discovers in it a unity and harmony which are in fact the effect of the free play of its own faculties. In both cases, an imaginary misrecognition takes place, although with a certain reversal of subject and object from the mirror of Lacan to the mirror of Kant.... In the ‘imaginary’ of ideology, or of aesthetic taste, reality comes to seem totalised and purposive. (Eagleton 1990: 87)

We encounter the world seeking imaginary confirmation of its unity and purpose. Aesthetic theory (in Kant) provides a ground for this, according to Eagleton. Such a theory, and the cultural practices that emerge from it, therefore function to provide a pseudo-religious comfort – Arnold’s 'spilt religion' – in the face of the (actual) desolation of our being:

The aesthetic is thus the wan hope, in an increasingly rationalized, secularised, demythologised environment, that ultimate purpose and meaning may not be entirely lost. (Eagleton 1990: 88)

From this perspective, it was not until criticism required it that aesthetics insisted that the unity was objective and should be the basis of interpretation. Both the new insistence on attending to patterns of order, form and structure, and the requirement to divert attention from the contingency of this new insistence, are an effect of the politics of the pedagogical and cultural institutions of the time.

By contrast, postmodernism aims for a radical askesis: a denial of the lures of pleasure or knowledge in the work of art. In this way, Lyotard conceives of postmodernism as a sublimity that ‘denies itself the solace of good forms’; in other words 'The postmodern would be that which in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in the presentation itself ... not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable' (Lyotard 1985: 79-81). Art, then, serves to disrupt the totality in all its forms, whether political, psychological or aesthetic. Thus, Lyotard would argue, criticism’s contribution should be to develop strategies of reading which neither unify nor totalise the text, since this merely produces a nostalgic icon of unity.

4) HISTORY: Following Nietzsche’s conception of genealogy, a postmodern view of history starts from the implications of the idea that history has no intrinsic meaning but exists as representation constructed through the modes of emplotment or the tropes of the discourse available to the historian. For some historians this entails an enabling liberation of the historiographic imagination. Often, though, in literary analysis this can become an adjunct of a deterministic thesis in which the subject is a 'function' of the system to which she belongs. Any sense of freedom is illusory (since it belongs to the realm of the Imaginary ego); history is constituted by systems of meaning and knowledge which have a form of synchronic organisation, but the meanings and values within those systems are inscribed beyond the range of influence of the individual – beyond control or judgement.

The result can be a kind of solipsism. The New Historicist Jean Howard argues that no reader or interpreter of history 'can ever escape his or her own historicity in order to encounter objectively the historical difference encoded in texts' (Howard 1992: 23). Because subjectivity is an effect of a structure and its dynamic forces, it will always be contingent on a specific synchronic pattern of representations and logic of interpellation. Consequently, as a constructed form the subject is prone to perpetual differentiality without the surety of a grounding presence of a trans-historical human essence. Such essentialist claims are vigorously denied in order to insist that difference is constantly highlighted. Alluding to Foucault and Dollimore, Howard says that there is 'no essential nature, no traits not the product of social forces at a particular juncture' so that 'nothing exists before the human subject is created by history' (Howard 1992: 24-5). What creates the subject, of course, is ideology (on the model of Althusser’s reading of Lacan) making it thus a contingent artifice – an imaginary ego with no inevitable and natural connection to egos belonging to other diachronically distinct epistemes. The presumption in all of this has been that the refusal to see the ego as having a Cartesian substance leads inevitably to this wholly constructivist position. That is, we are led to view the history of the philosophy of the subject in remarkably narrow terms: either Descartes or Lacan.

In this context, then, the work of critical theorists when engaging with literary texts which belong to other historical epochs is ultimately political. The conservative and traditionalist positions, it is said, presume continuities across time, from one culture to another. Shakespeare is read, for example, in order to promulgate the view that there is a universal human nature. By contrast, a radical criticism develops methods of reading differentially which seek to show the artificiality and ideological naiveté of such universalising gestures, to challenge the idea of Man that underlines this practice. Clearly, this is related to Foucault’s declaration on the death of Man and it is not surprising therefore that Howard (like many others) turns to Foucault in order to make this point. She says that his work is a model because it shows how to

strive against the tendency to project the present into the past and so to construct narratives of continuity. He counters this tendency by postulating the notion of radical breaks between historical epistemes. He refuses to look for continuities, for precursors of one era in former eras; but by a massive study of the situated discourses of particular disciplines he attempts to let their strangeness, their difference, speak. (Howard 1992: 26)

Since the effects of ideology 'traverse literature' (Howard 1992: 31) and since the texts belong to a plurality of histories, since they testify to modes of subjectivity, conceptualisation and intelligibility which differ from ours we must learn how to see these effects and thereby engage with difference. It is the critic’s task to examine the discursive and institutional forces which determine judgement, taste and value. Advocating a method of reading which highlights heterogeneity and pluralisation, Howard concludes her discussion by entertaining

the possibility that neither literary texts nor other cultural productions are monologic, organically unified wholes. Only when their heterogeneity is suppressed by a criticism committed to the idea of organic unity do they seem to reveal a unitary ideological perspective or generic code. It may be more productive to see them as sites where many voices of culture and many systems of intelligibility interact. (Howard 1992: 32)

From here emerge those methodologies of reading texts from the margin, which construct them as a concatenation of voices and codes. The text is not treated as a unity but rather as a means by which the very notion of unity is disrupted. Barthes argued that 'a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author' (Barthes 1977: 148). Howard’s kind of reading, if pursued consistently, suggests that we ought to disrupt this conclusion also, since it would provide too comfortable a solution to the critique of subject formation with which she is concerned.

5) CONTINGENCY: The preceding discussions assume that identities, meanings and values are contingent upon historically constituted systems. In this tradition, evaluation is treated in the same way; judgements are regarded as being defined by the ideological and cultural schemata which constitute our moral and aesthetic experience and hence our moral and aesthetic world. Terry Eagleton states this clearly:

There is no such thing as a literary work or tradition which is valuable in itself.... ‘Value’ is a transitive term: it means whatever is valued by certain people in specific situations, according to particular criteria and in the light of given purposes. (Eagleton 1983: 11)

Rejecting the conception of an aesthetic non-moral intrinsic value, Eagleton insists that no judgement is innocent since '[i]nterests are constitutive of our knowledge, not merely prejudices which imperil it' (Eagleton 1983: 14). Acts of evaluation are saturated with cultural assumptions and beliefs, tacit customs and structures of representation of which the subject who is making them is barely cognisant.

Barbara Herrnstein Smith makes a similar point, writing that when we evaluate a text we are

(a) articulating an estimate of how well that work will serve certain implicitly defined functions (b) for a specific implicitly defined audience, (c) who are conceived of as experiencing the work under certain implicitly defined conditions. (Smith 1988: 13)

So, passing a judgement on a text’s value is to say that it is 'good, bad or middling for something and also, thereby, as something' (Smith 1988: 13). From this Smith concludes that

when teachers and academic critics commend a work as ‘good literature’, they are implicitly indicating that it is good as whatever teachers and academic critics mean by ‘literature’ and for whatever they believe such works can or should be good for. (Smith 1988: 14)

No value is seen as being intrinsic and therefore no judgement can have universal validity. Judgements may take the form of universal claims (e.g. 'Emma is a great novel') but actually they are relative to a specific community with shared beliefs and interests (i.e. 'Emma is a great novel for people like ourselves'). In this way, such judgements do not differ substantially from one such as 'a fine book for children between 8 and 12 who have an interest in animals' (Smith 1988: 13).

Also, when we judge an artwork 'we usually conceive of it as experienced under certain implicitly defined circumstances' (Smith 1988: 14). For example, if I recommend Emma to someone, I assume it will be attended to in the manner which I (as an educated, adult Westerner) assume is appropriate for that kind of work. I assume that the work would not be used as part of an advertising campaign for Australian lager, chanted during a tribal rite, or treated to Burroughs’ cut-up method.

As with our previous discussions, this account regards aesthetic value as an effect or force within a system. It is not to be found simply in the object (as a property) or a subject (as a subjective value or a belief); nor is it to be found in the cultural beliefs or ideology abstracted from all use. '[L]ike all value', Smith argues, 'literary value is not the property of an object or of a subject, but, rather, the product of the dynamics of a system' (Smith 1988: 15). She concludes that

our experience of ‘the value of the work’ is equivalent to our experience of the work in relation to the total economy of our existence. And the reason our estimates of its probable value for other people may be quite accurate is that the total economy of their existence may in fact be quite similar to that of our own. (Smith 1988: 16)

This 'total economy' involves a subjective dimension but this has no privilege amongst the other forces at work. As such the value of literary texts always derives from pragmatic and instrumental interests. In this way, notions of disinterestedness and non-use value are overtly rejected: 'The recurrent impulse and effort to define aesthetic value by contradistinction to all forms of utility ... is, in effect, to define it out of existence' (Smith 1988: 33).

In its strongest form this position involves a thoroughgoing contextualism. Values are constructed from the codes and conventions available to an individual subject/speaker, in characteristically Saussurean terms. In a sense this means that the subject is an 'apparatus' (to use Lacan’s term) of the system and not free to identify or construct values, but simply assign them to a text. All affections or cognitions (upon which a judgement of value might be predicated) are also entirely (and infinitely) systemic – caught up in a network of contextualisation at a variety of levels. As with the other axioms, however, it is clear that this radical contingency is ultimately linked to a conception of the nature of subjectivity.

4. Transcendental Subjectivity as a Constructivism

As we expressed it earlier, the tendency is to pose the issue of subjectivity in stark terms: either the self of the Cartesian cogito, separable from its world and language, subsisting with itself alone as substance; or the Lacanian subject, a constructed effect arising from desire, language, ideology, etc. which precedes any apparent subject. This presents, to say the least, an impoverished alternative. One figure in the history of philosophy who is able to provide an account of the subject which is both interesting (in the sense that it allows one to deal plausibly with the very issues typically raised by postmodernism) and not reducible to either of the above, is Kant. Although we argue below that the various failings of the postmodern account of the subject open onto a Kantian critique, we recognise that the following two sections can only comprise a brief summary of a Kantian rejoinder.

Historically, Kant had two targets in the account of the self given in the Critique of Pure Reason. The first target was the radical materialist or empiricist tradition, represented by Hobbes and above all Hume. In such accounts the self as such evaporates, becoming nothing but a mere sequence of states. This sequence is tied together, to be sure, by the bonds of desire, habit, memory and association (or the material states of which these are the appearance). The self, in other words, is an effect. But it is not a thing of its own account, neither self-identical qua substance, nor capable of pure thought. There is a compelling correlation between this account and that provided by postmodernism, as we have outlined it above. Interestingly, Hume in the 'Appendix' to A Treatise of Human Nature professed dissatisfaction with his own account of the self; Kant rejected it for a number of reasons. Chief among these is that, when carefully analysed, it provides no coherent explanations of the relative continuity or integrity in our experiences of self, or the relative stability in our representations of the world. Even if these are taken to be illusions, they are still positive phenomena that need to be accounted for. This raises two problems. Firstly, how does it come to be the case that the subject is both nothing but its 'contents', and yet is also able to undertake an imaginative act of understanding and construct an identity (even if an illusory one) from those contents? There remains a general synthesising function to be accounted for. Secondly, even supposing that my subjectivity were ultimately determined by, say, the ideology of consumer capitalism, the activity of synthesising the various signs or general roles of consumerism into my particular instantiation of such a subjectivity (purchasing this rather than that product, from this rather than that shop, etc.) would have to be accounted for. Postmodernism may be able to account for the general content of subject positions, but not for the synthesising function that appropriates that content and makes for the specificity of selves and their actions. A subject role is not a self; there remains a spontaneity that needs accounting for; this is most fully realised in aesthetic judgements. In Kantian terms, both of these problems lead us to explore the transcendental conditions of any self-identity. We shall return to this below.

Much of our argument is a response to the way that theories of contingency involve a skeptical account of subjectivity in which all affection and cognition is co-ordinated and determined in advance by ideologically-loaded contextual discourses. It seems to us that one problem with this notion is the universalisation of contingency itself. The fact, which is perhaps unassailable, that thought is always contextualised does not entail that a thought is reducible to or is nothing but context. In claiming this, the postmodern account of contingency can be just as metaphysically loaded, as psychologically implausible and empirically unverifiable, just as opposed to common forms of language use – and, not incidentally, more obviously self-contradictory – as any statement ever made by an aesthetician.

Kant’s second target was the metaphysical account of the self to be found, in a variety of forms, from Plato to Descartes. According to this account, the self was a self because it was a thing or substance with properties quite distinct from the sensible world; in particular, the properties of pure thought and of identity across time. In the 'Paralogisms', Kant writes,

Now through this I or he or it (the thing) that thinks, nothing more is presented than a transcendental subject (= x) of thoughts. This subject is cognised only through the thoughts that are its predicates, and apart from them we can never have the least concept of it; hence we revolve around it in a constant circle, since in order to make any judgement regarding it we must always already make use of its presentation. (Kant 1987: A346=B404)

Here the thinking subject (the I that thinks) is taken as a quasi-logical function and no more. Kant's fundamental counter-proposal to the Cartesian way of thinking, then, is to sever the supposed tie between this logical or grammatical notion of subject (the 'I think') and the notion of substance (the 'I am (as a thinking substance)'). As a logico-grammatical function, the former can have no content which can demonstrate the existence of the latter. The substantiality of the self therefore remains (for speculative reason) an illegitimate metaphysical inference. The remaining, functional, subjectivity is therefore transcendental in the sense that it is a condition of any cognition (i.e. the formation of any judgement) – even of itself. It is the demand that the experiential unity of the self can be concretely realised through acts of judgement; in other words, the demand that the mere 'I' attached to any judgement can be, through that judgement, regarded as continuous with the 'I' attached to future (or remembered past) judgements. This 'constructivist' account of the subject is Kant’s alternative to both Hume and Descartes.

Let us now consider the concept of judgement in Kant. Judgement is the fundamental process by which cognition is achieved. This does not mean the simple connection of a (grammatical or logical) subject term with a predicate term (Kant 1987: B140-2), as a simple proposition like 'The flower is red' might suggest. Understanding judgements as such logical connections leaves unclarified what happens 'behind the scenes': the mechanisms by which it is achieved and by which its meaning can be fulfilled. Nevertheless, judgement is always in some way the operation of subsuming a particular under a concept by means of a synthesis (the particular flower under the concepts 'flower' and 'red').

In the Critique of Pure Reason, 'judgement' is a convenient designation for the combined operation of two fundamental faculties: the understanding (supplying concepts as rules of synthesis) and sensibility (the faculty of particulars – e.g. intuitions of individual things). The transcendental possibility of judgement is entirely given over to the forms of understanding (ultimately, the categories) and the forms of sensibility (the structure of space and time). More specifically, the key aspect of sensibility in question is the imagination, for this is the faculty responsible for the carrying out of all synthesis of particulars. Through acts of judgement, the identities of things in the world, and the self that apprehends the world, are constructed. But the possibility of that construction is guaranteed by the transcendental structure of the understanding and sensibility. Thus, although there may be no trans-historical or universal content to subjectivity, there is an underlying structure within which historically determined modes of subjectivity are constituted and made communicable, and through which the concrete specificity of the self is achieved.

This notion takes us straight to the fundamental thesis of transcendental idealism: namely, the world of things, events and relations, and the self that can experience, think about, suffer or act upon that world, are constituted simultaneously through the same processes. Prior to the world, there is no acting subject capable of self-consciousness; prior to the self, there is no separately existing, affecting and affected world. Through the continuous formation of judgements the 'transcendental unity of apperception' (the logico-grammatical function discussed above) is concretely fulfilled. The world appears as that which is already an object for the self; the self ‘appears’ as that which is already engaged with its world.

However, nearly a decade after the first edition of Critique of Pure Reason, Kant returned to the problem of judgement in the Critique of Judgement. Kant still sees judgement as a co-ordinating faculty between understanding and imagination. But he now claims that judgement itself has a principle according to which this co-ordination takes place, a principle that is irreducible to those of sensibility and understanding (or even reason). This principle of 'purposiveness' entails that objects of judgement will always be available to judgement. It is at work in all judgement, Kant argues, but is clearly visible in what he calls reflective judgements, those which create new concepts for the determination of objects rather than simply applying existing ones. Reflective judgements are events that add to or modify an existing system of conceptual presentations. But, the principle is still more clearly visible in a special type of reflective judgement, aesthetic judgements. These take place – that is, construe purposiveness, or ultimately value, in their object – apparently quite freely without either following or even creating a determinate concept. It is this broad sense of aesthetic judgement with which we are concerned here.

But how do aesthetic judgements relate to the general notion of judgement above? Kant writes:

[T]aste, as a subjective faculty of judgement, contains a principle of subsumption; however, this subsumption [in the case of aesthetic judgements] is not one of intuitions under concepts, but rather one of the faculty of intuitions or exhibitions (the imagination) under the faculty of concepts (the understanding), insofar as the imagination in its freedom harmonises with the understanding in its lawfulness [Gesetzmässigkeit]. (Kant 1996: §35)

The qualifying expressions ('in its freedom' or 'in its lawfulness') do not indicate one feature among others of these faculties, but the general function of these in any activity whatsoever. In other words, the prerequisite of imagination performing any of its cognitive duties is that it can be free; the prerequisite of the understanding likewise, that it stands for lawfulness. These generalities and their relationship are most perfectly exhibited in the activity of forming aesthetic judgements. But, as we have seen, they are also required for every instance of ordinary cognition through which self and world are constructed. Aesthetic judgements are based upon the same features that ground all other cognition.

This sameness allows Kant to show the validity of aesthetic judgements. But it also works the other way: aesthetic judgement is not just one type of judgement among others, but is the highest type, because it involves sensibility and understanding in their utmost generality. Moreover, all judgement has the function of revealing, through constitution, particular aspects of a world. In aesthetic judgement, as the highest judgement, what is revealed is the general meaning or structure of a world. This means that the world is everywhere and always constituted in the form of law, and appears as if 'designed' for the possibility of judgement. (Ultimately, this includes also the world’s availability to man’s moral vocation.) Because aesthetic judgements reveal the conditions of all judgement in general, all judgements are in some way related to the aesthetic, as their condition of possibility. It must follow that in contemplating aesthetic objects the world, and with it the co-constituted free subject, gives itself par excellence.

5. Value, Judgement and Aesthetic Resistance

It is now possible to combine this account with the definition of value given in section 2. In valuing, the I is constituted as the self that judges and the self that reflects on the judgement and can account for its judgement: in other words, in order to understand itself in these terms, the self must in principle be able to think of itself as transcendent to the world and free. It might be claimed that ideology constructs subjects which falsely conceive of themselves as capable of 'freely consenting' to the social formation. Nevertheless, what remains to be explained is the residual activity of spontaneous self-reflection discussed above, and thus the possibility of even an apparent freedom.

Ordinary valuing acts (such as not liking shellfish, say) are more vulnerable to being accounted for in ideological terms. Accordingly, to see the subject as free in ordinary valuing activity may be just the illusion of a fully prior subjectivity which magisterially orders its world according to its values. Ordinary value judgements, then, may not be value judgements at all, but by passing themselves off as such, they participate in the process by which this fact and its consequences are hidden from view.

By contrast, aesthetic judgements can resist (but not escape) the effects of ideology; in aesthetic experience the subject is not only constructed but can come to know itself as so constructed. This for three reasons. Firstly, because as we said above, for Kant, the aesthetic judgement reveals the general structure of world and self, which must include the possibility of ideology’s determining influence. This position is akin to that of Althusser in 'A Letter on Art' (Althusser 1984: 173ff), but this raises the question of how it emerges from the inner logic of his account of ideology and subjectivity.

In this way, one might speculate that all reading is a form of projective autobiography insofar as it involves a critical and reflective exploration of self-constitution. Correlatively, the objects of such experiences are often seen as 'worlds' in themselves. In other words they have the property of revealing a general horizon of being, meaning and action, which can then be explored. Such notions receive a general treatment in the hermeneutics of Gadamer and Ricoeur.

Secondly, on Kant’s account, aesthetic experience involves the presumption of, and rigorous striving for, freedom and cannot be governed by conceptual rules (which could be then represented as belonging to a subject, or to the object, fully prior to the judgement). The freedom involved in aesthetic judgements is radical. This puts the emphasis squarely on judgement as a spontaneous activity, rather than as one which allows its operation to take place in a manner determined by previously existing and uncriticised rules or procedures. It thus leads to a methodology which rigorously scrutinises the presence of determining beliefs, values, or other conceptual contingencies.

Thirdly, and relatedly, the aesthetic experience is reflective, relying for its ground precisely upon a meditation on its grounds. Any aesthetic judgement constitutionally calls attention to itself, demanding a critical analysis of its elements. Even a critic as concerned with matters of traditional taste and propriety as Samuel Johnson is to be found constantly interrogating his assumptions, subtly modifying the conventions he has inherited, and manipulating and extending the already-formed canon. This model of aesthetic judgement thus reveals the constitution of a subject capable of reflecting upon and, to a degree, resisting or transforming its own grounds.

For example, the encounter with a particular novel will involve a vast, overlapping series of judgements through which the novel is constituted as the particular object encountered, and I am constituted as (among other things perhaps) the one whose view has now spanned it. Some of these judgements will be objective, ranging from the registering of mere facts about page numbers, to noting all manner of particular ways in which the work meets generic expectations, traditional definitions of ‘good’ style or plotting, various conventions on characterisation, thematic consistency and ‘seriousness’, etc. On the grounds of such sub-judgements, I might in the end constitute the novel as a whole under the umbrella judgement that it is an unsuccessful novel. But for any set of such sub-judgements it is always possible to discover (or hypothesise the existence of) a novel which has many or all of the same properties and yet demands the opposite verdict. This shows that the aesthetic judgement proceeds through all of these elements, but is not ultimately reducible to or determined by them; and correlatively a novel can invent new rules according to which it has to be judged successful. Aesthetic judgements, although certainly subject to scrutiny, the examination of evidence and conventions of rational argumentation, cannot strictly speaking be proved. When we make the aesthetic judgement, we construe the text in a particular way that cannot be grounded in the rational manipulation of concepts (as a formalism might say), nor however is it irrational and based upon mere rhetoric or power. Between a set of observations about texts, and a verdict about the value (or even the meaning) of an overall text, lies a gap – what bridges that gap is neither discursive reason nor power, but the emergence of a subject who takes responsibility for the non-arbitrariness of that verdict. The mere logic of the situation, therefore, demands close critical attention to the codes according to which the novel is constructed as having particular literary properties, and the manner in which those sub-judgements nevertheless coalesce into a particular aesthetic verdict. Thus, such aesthetic judgements are those which draw serious critical attention to the notions of genre, convention, style, etc. – but also, where relevant, to ideological representations of political and moral categories. It follows that a literary theory or practice which does not demand of itself attention to the constitution of aesthetic features in its object runs the high risk of occluding its very ability to reflect productively upon, for example, the various codes or other ideological frames of representation that it pretends to discover or itself employs.

Of course, the aim of most criticism is not simply to judge the value of the work. Rather, it is to articulate conceptually the manner in which value is embodied in a work as a whole. This is the fundamental activity within what is more commonly called ‘interpretation’. Such criticism is the attempt to construe a text as one particular embodied aesthetic unity. The orientation towards unity is what allows this activity to be ‘plausible’. Only in this way can the meaning or theme of the whole be sought or demonstrated.

But also only in this way can even the political allegiances of a text be determined. That a text happens to contain a particular ideological code, in itself, says nothing. Every reading tacitly makes claims about the unity of the text (and also about the unity of the system of the codes and historically determined representations that make up the 'language' of the text); and that is an act carried out as if the critic were a free subject capable of reflectively taking responsibility for the construction of that unity. The logical gap discussed above can be found between any set of observations about the codes or voices contained in a text and any verdict we reach about the text. A construal of a text as a unity of any kind – or even the construction of a new 'text' out of the codes that weave in and out of a given text – involves, if not necessarily an aesthetic judgement, at least a reflective judgement. And a reflective judgement is equally difficult to understand on a postmodern account of the constructed subject.

Nothing so far, however, suggests that aesthetic value should itself always be valued. Aesthetic value is not the only value; but it is a particularly important and central value, for the reasons we have identified. A value is a type of cause: a motive or affective ground of judgement and action. For this reason, it must happen that aesthetic value can be put into the service of moral or political beliefs, whether questionable or not. Aesthetic value might serve to enhance rhetorical force, or to naturalise meanings, or to generate some other subliminal effect. However, it follows that the only way of disentangling and identifying these practices or beliefs, and of demystifying the whole, is to assess judiciously the construction of the aesthetic object at issue. In order to do this, at least for the purposes of analysis, it would be necessary to assume a unified object; not to do so would be like trying to practice sociology without any concept of a social group.

Similarly, aesthetic experience can certainly be hijacked when judgement is taken as supplying an objective rule. In such conditions, the taste of some historical community, school or even individual are taken as constituting true or real art. Then, to be sure, the aesthetic is in the service of other masters; but such cases are contingent. The very fact that certain aesthetic forms are chosen before others to embody even politically dubious beliefs itself requires that critics must pay attention to the aesthetic factors at work in order to engage with the political issues involved. The aesthetic factors are not simply identical with politics. There are two ideas at work here: the first is that aesthetic modes might be linked to political forces (e.g. surrealism and communism in the 1920s and 30s), but this link is not necessarily determinative. That artists might explore the fertile implications of a certain set of techniques, theoretical conceptions or manners beyond a single work is or can be an aesthetic matter. Second, critics today looking back upon the work must make these distinctions for an adequate understanding, and this again requires a practice that is attentive to the aesthetic issues at work.

6. Conclusion

This paper can be summarised in two fundamental claims.

First, recent literary theory often assumes that all aesthetic values – and thus value-endowing judgements – exist on the same level as ideological effects. It is thus ascetic – avoiding all value, or perhaps rather displacing such values onto social or political values. But if certain essentially aesthetic values or valuings operate transcendentally, then the ascetic approach would be the worst form of self-deception (note incidentally, this would be Nietzsche’s understanding of the matter in the third essay of The Genealogy of Morals).

In Kant, aesthetic value judgements operate transcendentally in the following sense: they are part of the constitution of a subject that understands (indeed, feels) itself to be free to value (to allow a cause to be its motive) and is also capable of a deep reflection upon the conditions of this understanding and freedom. Such a transcendental value can perhaps be understood using the following analogy. Suppose with respect to economic exchange value we ask 'how economically valuable is a system enabling economic exchange?'. The question makes no sense because any such value is one determined within the system. And yet the nonsensicality of the question does not mean that the transcendental function is not, in some way, valuable – it only means that such value does not originally belong to a system of values, and is thus not immediately subject to the interrogative 'how much...?' One important error of postmodernist literary theory is to accept uncritically the identification of all value with the notion of linguistic exchange value coming out of Saussure. Aesthetic value in the experience of literary texts can thus be distinguished from the substitutive or instrumental value that is characteristic of ideological systems.

Second, such literary theory sets up an overly-simplified choice between, roughly, Descartes and Lacan on the nature of the subject. The Kantian subject, by being both non-substantial and constructed, forms an alternative to the latter. This alternative model can preserve many of the insights of recent work in literary theory and criticism – in particular, the manner in which the concrete subject and its acts (the production and interpretation of texts) is, in its content at least, constituted according to historically contingent models of subjectivity which are ultimately ideologically determined. The history of subjectivity remains an important and complex issue, of course, but there are no good theoretical grounds for the assumption that this history is 'beyond representation'. Nor are there good grounds for asserting that the freedom that the subject grants itself in valuing is always or entirely an illusion. Moreover, the Kantian alternative can preserve these insights without burying itself in either obscurity or paradox, without disingenuously hiding its own conditions of action and reflection.

For Kant, a sense of self identity is constituted in and through the same judgements that constitute objects in the world, all according to the demands of transcendental form. Aesthetic judgements have a privileged place in this account. The real moral and political issues raised which could usefully be the concern of literary theory include especially the manner in which the empirical self is shaped in mutual implication with the shaping of the world-image. The body (our inner-most world and our outer-most self) and language (the instrument both of image propagation and of reflection) are of key importance. Aesthetic experience is unique in its potential to make visible this process. This has often been recognised in postmodern critical discourse, but has usually been drowned out by the dogmatic emphasis on an entirely disseminative reading. The formation of aesthetic judgement must therefore be a key aspect of the methodology of literary studies.



Althusser, Louis (1984) 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)' and 'A Letter on Art in Reply to André Daspre', in Essays on Ideology, translated by Ben Brewster, London: Verso.

Barthes, Roland (1977) 'The Death of the Author', in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath, London: Fontana.

Connor, Steven (1992) Theory and Cultural Value, Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.

Derrida, Jacques (1973) 'Differance', in Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, translated by David Allison, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Eagleton, Terry (1983) Literary Theory: An Introduction, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

--- (1990) The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg Truth and Method, 2nd edition, translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, London: Sheed and Ward, 1989.

Howard, Jean (1992) 'The New Historicism in Renaissance Studies', in New Historicism and Renaissance Drama, edited by Richard Wilson and Richard Dutton, Harlow: Longman.

Hume, David (1985) A Treatise of Human Nature, Edited by L.A. Selby-Bigge, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Kant, Immanuel (1996) Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Werner Pluhar, Indianapolis: Hackett.

--- (1987) Critique of Judgement, translated by Werner Pluhar, Indianapolis: Hackett.

Lacan, Jacques (1977) Ecrits: A Selection, translated by Alan Sheridan, London: Tavistock.

Lyotard, Jean-François (1985) The Post-Modern Condition, translated by Brian Massumi, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1988) On the Genealogy of Morals, translated by Maudemarie Clark and Alan Swensen, Indianapolis: Hackett.

Ricoeur, Paul (1978) The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language, translated by R. Czerny, K. McLaughlin and J. Costello, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Saussure, Ferdinand de (1983) Course in General Linguistics, translated by Roy Harris, London: Duckworth. (All references to French pagination.)

Smith, Barbara Herrnstein (1988) Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory, Cambridge (Mass.) and London: Harvard University Press.



If you would like to send comments to Working Papers, please e-mail Comments will be published at the end of January, and the authors' replies at the end of February.

If you would like to contact the authors directly, the e-mail addresses are:

Douglas Burnham -

Darrell Hinchcliffe -