I will be presenting the keynote lecture at the conference on “Resistance, Radicalisms and Aesthetics,” which has been organized by the graduate students in the Department of French and Italian at Northwestern University. Click here for the full program. An abstract of my lecture is below.
The Political Plurivocity of Aesthetics:
Equality and Empire in Whitman’s Poetic Revolution
This lecture seeks to demonstrate the political plurivocity of aesthetic practice, meaning the extent to which artistic work is the site of multiple and often conflicting political investments, be it at the level of production, circulation or reception. This plurivocity calls into question the very widespread reduction of individual artists or their works to single political positions, an approach that tends to define the task of the critic as one of drawing up binary lists of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ political art. In critically dismantling this univocal politics of aesthetics—as well as the unidimensional hermeneutics and the moralizing dichotomies that it favors—it is not sufficient, however, to simply point to the complexities of aesthetic practices as multifaceted social phenomena. It is necessary to develop a multidimensional analysis of these practices that is capable of providing a nuanced map of their political plurivocity, precisely in order to be able to intervene more effectively in it.
As a specific instance of this struggle, the paper turns to the work of Walt Whitman and his proposed poetic revolution in New World literature. It elucidates his provocative account—which resonates strongly with the work of figures like Schiller, Hugo and the early Marx—of aesthetic revolution as the necessary cultural supplement to a purely political revolution, explicating how art and literature compose a people by simultaneously depicting and forging its culture, norms, affects and personalities. It then situates his project in the historical nexus it calls its own, detailing Whitman’s unique contribution to the revisionist historiography of democratic theodicy, and more specifically American manifest destiny. Finally, it explores the diverse ways in which the purportedly egalitarian poet of a new world literature, at least in certain of his writings, subjected other people—particularly the enslaved and the colonized—to a brutal, imperial process of decomposition. It thereby foregrounds the multiple dimensions of politics operative in his work and the extent to which the struggle over its reception and interpretation is part and parcel of its social politicity.