Examining the Ideological Aesthetic
My research at WIAS explores the conflation of two notions — the ideological and the aesthetic. I am tackling this topic by gathering perspectives towards the synthesis of a rigorous definition of what I describe as the “Ideological Aesthetic.”
I am investigating the cultural analysis of societies that are increasingly characterized by technological abstraction and a pervasive and depersonalizing unreality. There has been some research on this topic in psychology, political science, sociology and anthropology, but relatively little in critical theory and literary studies. My main objective is to outline a robust and resilient theory of the Ideological Aesthetic, and in the process create new perspectives for critical and cultural studies.
The Ideological Aesthetic is still a speculative notion which concerns a fundamental phenomenological problematic related to perception and consciousness and the way they mediate between individuals and their material conditions.
Hard to pin down
These two terms — ideology and aesthetics — have historically been difficult to define. According to Karl Marx, ideology represents the production of ideas, conceptions of consciousness, and all that we see, imagine and conceive, including such things as politics, laws, morality, religion and metaphysics. Since such systems were invariably used to justify what Marx believed to be the fundamental operation of industrialized societies, namely the exploitation of the proletariat under capitalist production, ideology is defined negatively in Marxist thought as “false consciousness.”
My research entails a modern reworking or re-imagining of that particular Marxist definition within the work of the French philosopher Louis Althusser, who famously re-defined ideology as a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence – a definition which has itself come into question.
Aesthetics have since the 18th Century, through Alexander Baumgarten and Immanuel Kant, been associated with the principles by which we appreciate and judge beauty. It has since become a much broader and protean term, closer in definition to its etymological origins which were related to perception and what is described as aesthesis. I’m interested in how, through the intervention of technology, this notion of aesthetics has begun to reassume this original meaning and what the social and political consequences may be.
In my research, I take several different approaches. I use literary study, cultural analysis and engagements with philosophy to map out an interconnected theory which looks at how ideology becomes indistinguishable from its aesthetic effects within our contemporary, hyper-connected cultures.
In certain ways, this form of the aesthetic has become the primary means through which political ideology is transmitted in our digital cultures. Instead of relating only to art and culture, I argue that we’re now using aesthetic principles and judgments to make political and ideological decisions and form allegiances. The aesthetic and the ideological are becoming interchangeable, and I believe this is having a deleterious effect on our everyday discourse.
Things are different now
This is of particular concern recently, because of the changing way we apprehend information and receive it online, and the way we exist on social media. My theory is that the aesthetic has now become a practical phenomenon as opposed to a disinterested or detached one. I believe it’s a timely topic that will garner interest from different groups, and one to which we can all relate.
I’ve been interested in this topic for my entire academic career. I wrote my PhD on the Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov, and published a book on him, Vladimir Nabokov and the Ideological Aesthetic, in 2017. Nabokov understood that the aesthetic can be used as a replacement for the ideological. Even though politics had effected his life and his world in such a profound way he didn’t believe in being explicit about ideology within literary works. Yet his work is deeply ideological nonetheless.
He once remarked that even though the Russian novelist Nicola Gogol was a reactionary who didn’t object to the institution of serfdom, the interior moral standards of his most famous work Dead Souls bristle against it. For Nabokov, it wasn’t necessary to be explicit about ideology because the aesthetic was effectively ideological for him. I have to some extent extrapolated on his tendency and mentality in order to explore how it’s expressed in other forms within contemporary culture.
I’m currently finishing my second book on masculinity, technology and fascism, related to the Ideological Aesthetic, which studies a selection of modernist writers who were initially associated with the avant-garde in different European countries, but were subsequently drawn toward fascism after the First World War in the 1930s. This is, of course, relevant to what we are experiencing currently across the political spectrum, particularly with the resurgence of right-wing extremism and fascism.
My second monograph will be published I hope within the next year, along with an extended theoretical essay which defines the terms of the Ideological Aesthetic that I am writing along with one of my collaborators. I then hope to produce an edited collection which invites different scholars to respond to the prompts we’ve expressed in our theory of the Ideological Aesthetic.
On the side, I’m involved in several other pursuits – mainly an independent literary publisher I started last year with some collaborators around the world called Hyperidean Press. We focus on publishing experimental fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction.
Interview and written by: Robert Cameron
In cooperation with: Waseda University Graduate School of Political Science J-School