Chander, "Contention and Contestation: Aesthetic Culture in Kant and Bourdieu"

Philosophy and Culture

"Contention and Contestation: Aesthetic Culture in Kant and Bourdieu"

Manu Chander, Brown University

  1. To speak of Romantic aesthetics usually means to invoke an intellectual history, a philosophical lineage that stretches from, say, Baumgarten or Burke to Kant to Schiller to Hegel. Of course, it is possible to discuss aesthetics in terms of cultural history as well, a history of shifting relationships between artists and audiences, texts and institutions. Discussions of this sort rarely use the term "aesthetics," however, unless as a label for the conceptual other to a materialist approach to questions of art and judgment. In such cases, "aesthetics" is never far from "ideology."

  2. In this essay, I want to place into dialogue with one another idealism and materialism, philosophy and culture, by addressing the idea of "aesthetic culture," which I derive from Kant and Bourdieu. As I will argue, although Kant and Bourdieu differ in method and purpose, they share a critical structure, which I describe, employing Kojin Karatani's neologism, as "transcritique":

    Kant performed a critical oscillation: He continually confronted the dominant rationalism with empiricism, and the dominant empiricism with rationalism. The Kantian critique exists within this movement itself. The transcendental critique is not some kind of stable third position. It cannot exist without a transversal and transpositional movement. (Karatani 4)

    When Kant identifies in the Critique of Pure Reason the limit of Lockean and Humean empiricism and Cartesian rationalism (as developed by the Wolff-Leibniz school), namely the failure of each to theorize a subject representable to itself, he effectively empties the subject of all positive content, introducing, as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy put it, a "hiatus…at the heart of the subject" (32). The reconstitution of the subject, which Kant never fully achieves, drives the critical project, propelling Kant's thought from pure to practical reason, aesthetic to teleological judgment.

  3. "For Kant," Karatani thus tells us, "empiricism and rationalism were not simply two scholastic doctrines. Between them he encountered the paradox between being in the world and being the subject who constitutes the world. . . . Taken together, empiricism and rationalism struck Kant [as] a ‘pronounced parallax' (95). I will suggest that we might begin to understand the relationship between Kant and Bourdieu by considering how a similar "parallax" underlies Bourdieu's thought. Further, each thinker's double-turn from dominant strains of subjectivism and objectivism leads him to insist in his theory of culture on the necessity of antagonism. For Bourdieu, this antagonism arises from the claim of each cultural producer (writer, artist, etc.) and consumer (reader, patron, critic) to "absolute judgment," or having the final say in matters of taste; for Kant, cultural antagonism functions as a potential accord, or a "hope of coming to terms" (Kant 205). Ultimately, I will argue that these two senses of antagonism mutually reinforce one another, and that what we call "culture" depends on this relationship for its continued renewal.

  4. If the Kantian parallax arises out of the paradox of subjectivity—the subject's at once being in and constituting the world—the Bourdesian parallax, we might say, arises out of the paradox of agency, where the agent is caught between forging the societal relations that make up a cultural totality and being forged as an agent by these very relations. This paradox is revealed in Bourdieu's double-turn from what he calls the "substantialist mode of thought" and structuralist understandings of culture, represented respectively by Kant and Foucault.[1] On the one hand, Kant's aesthetics, according to Bourdieu, develops a principle of "pure taste" which systematically ignores the relationship between social class and aesthetic judgment:

    Totally ahistorical, like all philosophical thought that is worthy of the name (every philosophia worth its salt is perennis)—perfectly ethnocentric, since it takes for its sole datum the lived experience of a homo aestheticus who is none other than the subject of aesthetic discourse constituted as the universal subject of aesthetic experience—Kant's analysis of the judgment of taste finds its real basis in a set of aesthetic principles which are the universalization of the dispositions associated with a particular social and economic condition. (Bourdieu, Distinction 493)

    Against this universalist aesthetics, Bourdieu argues that judgment is contextual and contingent rather than "pure." For Bourdieu, the claims of a work of art, a cultural producer (writer, painter, etc.), or a critic exist in relation to all other claims—or "position-takings" (e.g. poems, novels, essays, paintings, reviews, manifestos)—in the cultural field. Such claims are derived neither from genius nor from transcendental a priori faculties of judgment.[2] Rather, they are grounded within an objective field of relations, a "space of possibles," wherein each position-taking "receives its distinctive value from its negative relationship with the coexisting position-takings corresponding to the different positions" (Bourdieu, Field 30). That is to say, Bourdieu's response to Kant's aesthetics is to emphasize how the agent's ability to voice cultural claims is defined not by the conditions of subjectivity but by those claims of other agents that constitute the cultural field.

  5. On this point, Bourdieu is quite close to Foucault, who similarly emphasizes the relative position of a "statement" within what he terms the "field of strategic possibilities": "Neither the permanence of opinions through time," Foucault writes, "nor the dialectic of their conflicts is sufficient to individualize a set of statements [i.e. a discourse]. To do that, one must be able to register the distribution of points of choice and define, behind every option, a field of strategic possibilities" (Foucault 320). As Bourdieu readily admits, Foucault's "field of…possibilities," like his own "space of possibles," insists that "no cultural product exists by itself, i.e. outside the relations of interdependence which link it to other products" (Bourdieu, Field 32-33).

  6. And yet Bourdieu charges Foucault with the same essentialism that he sees in Kant: "Like so many others, Foucault succumbs to that form of essentialism . . . that is manifested so clearly in other domains" (Bourdieu, Field 179). The difference between Bourdieu's conception of "field" and that of Foucault lies in Bourdieu's distinction between "position-taking" and "position," which he believes is elided in Foucault's thought. For Bourdieu, a position within the cultural field is a role, (ful)filled by a person, a text, or some other entity, and each role is invested with a particular capital. The position-taking, on the other hand, is a manifestation of position that functions as a defense of that very position. It can take any number of forms (the manifesto being, perhaps, the most obvious) and aims at acquiring cultural capital for the position; the position-taking is what tries to adjust the balance of power. "Strategies," for Bourdieu, "depend for their force and form on the position each agent occupies in . . . power relations" (Bourdieu, Field 30); they are manifested objectively in the form of a position-taking but are not reducible to position-takings. In other words, a possibility is not "strategic" merely because it exists in relation to other possibilities, but rather because it has, we might say, an agenda, namely the acquisition of cultural capital. Thus, where Kant essentializes the subject of aesthetic judgment by extracting it from the social world, Foucault essentializes discourse, "transfer[ring] into the ‘paradise of ideas' . . . the relations between the producers and consumers of cultural works" (Foucault 179) forged in the sociological rather than discursive realm.

  7. To some degree, Bourdieu seems to exaggerate the subjectivism of Kant and the objectivism of Foucault. Kant, as I have mentioned already (and as I develop below) continually rejected what he saw as the subjectivism of the rationalists; and Foucault, who was never comfortable with the label "structuralist," was less invested in the importance of discourse above all than Bourdieu suggests.[3] Yet it is worth noting Bourdieu's position in relation to each of these "essentialists," whether or not Kant or Foucault deserves such a characterization. For what we see when we bracket the truth-value of Bourdieu's claim is precisely the structure of transcritique, where turning from one essentialism always risks finding oneself in another. Against both of these essentialisms, against both Kant and Foucault, Bourdieu offers a sociology of culture that emphasizes the agent's interested, strategic position within the field of cultural production and consumption, the "field of struggle":

    When we speak of a field of position-takings, we are insisting that what can be constituted as a system for the sake of analysis is . . . the product and prize of a permanent conflict; or, to put it another way, that the generative, unifying principle of this system is the struggle, with all the contradictions it engenders. (Bourdieu, Field 34)

    The totality of the cultural field—the field of (social) positions plus the field of (discursive) position-takings—is constituted by a double movement, whereby the agent is positioned by the system (of positions), which is ordered by various antagonisms (class, race, political affiliation, etc.), and thus positions himself or herself within the system (of position-takings) in such a way as to attain maximum privilege, or "cultural capital"; and the one movement continually necessitates the other. That is to say, in the effort to introduce agency into Foucault and social structure into Kant, Bourdieu develops a theory of culture in which the agent is continually pressed up against the system, the system continually pressed against the agent. Put differently, the theory of "permanent conflict" within Bourdieu's conception of the cultural field is derived from the "permanent conflict" between Kantian aesthetics and Foucauldian discourse-analysis that structures Bourdieu's work.

  8. What we see in Bourdieu, then, is a dynamic critique of Kant and Foucault that gives rise to a theory of cultural contestation, where contestation suggests not only conflict and contention, but also contest, competition, and it is with this in mind that I wish to turn to Kant's transcritique. In the Antinomy of Taste, Kant writes:

    1. Thesis. The judgement of taste is not based on concepts; for, if it were, it would be open to dispute (decision made by proofs).

    2. Antithesis. The judgment of taste is based on concepts; for otherwise, despite diversity of judgment, there could be no room even for contention in the matter (a claim to the necessary agreement of others with this judgment). (206)

    The thesis of the antinomy suggests that aesthetic judgment is merely a posteriori, derived from experience, that is to say empirical; the antithesis reads the same form of judgment as valid a priori, with reference to determinate concepts that condition our experience. The resolution, according to Kant, is that aesthetic judgment is indeed based on concepts, but that these concepts are indeterminate: "All contradiction disappears," Kant writes, "if I say: the judgment of taste does depend upon a concept . . . but one from which nothing can be cognized in respect of the Object, and nothing proved, because it is in itself indeterminable and useless for knowledge" (207-208).

  9. What is significant about the Antinomy of Taste in the context of the present discussion is that, in the course of introducing what could not be theorized from a purely empiricist or purely rationalist perspective (namely a concept that can prove nothing), Kant raises a subtle but crucial opposition between "dispute" [Disputieren] and "contention" [Streiten], the first of which refers to "decisions made by proofs," the second to "a claim to the necessary agreement of others." Now, it is commonly understood that Kant, in Hannah Arendt's words, "was disturbed by the alleged arbitrariness and subjectivity of de gustibus non disputandum est" (Arendt, Between Past and Future 222); however, this is not precisely the case. For Kant distinguishes this commonplace from another, "Every man has his own taste" [Ein jeder hat seinen eignen Geschmack], which more closely suggests the "arbitrariness and subjectivity" by which he is "disturbed."[4] Indeed, Kant accepts the claim de gustibus non disputandum est [über den Geschmack läßt sich nicht disputieren], with the qualification that "there may be contention about taste" [über den Geschmack läßt sich streiten], and the further qualification that "there must be a hope of coming to terms" (Kant 205).

  10. The grounds for this hope lie within the a priori faculty or principle of sensus communis. Unlike the "common sense" or "common understanding" of such eighteenth-century empiricists as Berkeley and Reid, which refers to what is commonly held by a community, Kant's sensus communis is precisely what enables community. It is a "community sense," as Arendt notes, with which "earthbound creatures, living in communities…[are] endowed" (Arendt, Lectures 27).

  11. It is on this point that Bourdieu and Kant seem irreconcilably at odds: whereas Kant conceives of the plurality of subjects on an equal footing, as it were, Bourdieu emphasizes the unevenness of the terrain and therefore denies the possibility of coming to terms. In Bourdieu's field of position-takings, "antagonistic classifications or judgments…are formulated in the name of a claim to universality—to absolute judgment" (Field 263). For Bourdieu, "absolute judgement" is the illusio, "the interest, the investment" (Field 159) that compels each agent to continually take up a position within the cultural field: to judge absolutely, without contestation, is not to come to terms with other agents but to dominate, as the antagonisms forged in the field of positions (by class struggle, for example) are reproduced in the field of position-takings. As the illusio, as illusion, absolute judgment is ultimately unattainable, elusive, and thus struggle is perpetuated: "if there is a truth," Bourdieu writes, "it is that truth is a stake in the struggle" (Field 263).

  12. But perhaps it is precisely where Bourdieu and Kant are most markedly opposed that we might locate a point of contact. What Bourdieu's cultural sociology and Kant's aesthetics share is a theory of perpetual antagonism, perpetual contention, which figures as a structural necessity within the critical system of each, and which arises out of the merely potential status of objective "absolute judgement."

  13. We have seen already how the theory of struggle emerges as a structural necessity out of Bourdieu's transcritique of Kant and Foucault. That contention is also a necessity within Kant's aesthetics demands, I suspect, further attention, since, as it has thus far been discussed, contention [Streiten] has been raised by Kant only as a possibility: "there may be contention about taste." Yet, just as the periphrastic construction of de gustibus non disputandum est suggests both in Latin and Kant's German the idea of necessity (Meredith gives us "there is no disputing about taste"), so the parallel "läßt sich" plus the infinitive construction of über den Geschmack läßt sich streiten might suggest not simply that there may be contention, but that contention is required—"in matters of taste there must be contention."[5]

  14. Read in this way, Kant's proposition about contention reflects his continual critique of the empiricist "standard of taste." Paul Guyer writes, "In all of the empiricist theories [of taste] . . . it was held that nature imposed an essential similarity on all members of the species, by means of an identical ‘sound state' or ‘common standard' for the sense of beauty, and allowed merely accidental or apparent divergences from that norm" (Guyer 5). The empiricist standard of taste, derived from the observation of the contingent fact of agreement, cannot demonstrate its own a priori necessity, and any claims to the validity of such a standard are therefore suspect. When Kant suggests that there must be contention, then, he foregrounds the falseness of empiricist assumptions about taste: "divergences" from the common standard are not merely anomalous; they cannot simply be disregarded. Instead, within the fact of divergence we see universal assent as a potentiality—as the stake of each singular judgment—yet as a potentiality only. A determinate concept to which the judgment of taste might refer continually eludes the subject; indeed, it eludes the entire field of subjects, the aesthetic community.

  15. Aesthetic judgment, we might conclude, is for both Kant and Bourdieu teleological in its structure, "purposive," but the telos, objective universality, is absent. Bourdieu's illusio is not positively determined; it is merely an illusion, a placeholder at the very center of the cultural field. As an illusion, it stands in for any "real" universality: the subjective claim qua position-taking looks like absolute judgment even though it is not, just as for Kant the judgment of taste, "although it is only aesthetic . . . bears this resemblance [Ähnlichkeit] to the logical judgment, that it may be presupposed to be valid for all men" (Kant 51; my italics). The resemblance between the aesthetic judgment and the logical judgment thus opens up a gap that the subject aims (purposively, that is, formally, if not intentionally) to bridge. For Bourdieu and Kant, then, the subjective judgment gives the appearance of absolute, objectively universal judgment, though only the appearance.

  16. This point of contact between Bourdieu and Kant is really only that—a point, the beginning and end of any relationship of identity between the two projects. Nevertheless, we might take the coincidence of purposive antagonism, antagonism that aims toward an unrealized aesthetic objectivity, as a point of departure for a transcritical project situated in the unsteady ground between aesthetics and the sociology of culture.

  17. We might call this point (of contact between Kant and Bourdieu, of departure for our own transcritique) "belief" and the structural relationship between the two systems a "dialectic of belief." By employing the term "belief" I mean to suggest both the ideological illusion of aesthetic universalism that Bourdieu describes—the agent believes in "absolute judgment" although it is not realized—and the "hope of coming to terms" that Kant identifies as a necessity within the fact of contention—the subject believes in universality because it might be realized. By reading the relationship between the two critical systems in question as a "dialectic," I mean to suggest that the dual implications of "belief" are continually at odds with one another, each reinforcing the other. That is, even as material conditions of struggle (within the field of positions) give rise to an ideological illusion, whereby agents believe it possible to "win" the game of culture by means of "absolute judgment," they also create the possibility of "coming to terms," the "hope" that assent will be attained within a field of equals, which is also the hope that material relations will be reorganized in such a way that allows for equality. The persistent failure of this hope to be fulfilled, however, continually exacerbates the antagonisms within the field of position-takings, which suggests that the aesthetic community, not just for Bourdieu but also for Kant, is fundamentally dynamic.

  18. The relationship between Bourdieu and Kant might thus shed light on Romantic aesthetics as a "cultural philosophy," both a philosophy of culture and a culturally rooted philosophy, a philosophy rooted specifically in the numerous and persistent aesthetic controversies of the Romantic period. From the "picturesque controversy" in the field of visual arts to the "Pope controversy," from the "Revolution controversy," waged in the field of cultural production and consumption, to what Coleridge referred to as "the whole, long-continued controversy" over the Lyrical Ballads (Coleridge 7), Romantic audiences and artists alike continually took sides against one another. As they competed for relative privilege, for cultural capital, "absolute judgment," they also reinforced the hope for accord, the potential for universal agreement. That art continually fails to ameliorate cultural tensions and that dispute continually fails to eradicate art thus seems to speak to the legacy of Romanticism not merely as an ideology but as a kind of cultural dialogue, an always shifting arrangement of those voices of assent and dissent that surround "art," which is by necessity multiply and inconsistently defined.


1 While Foucault is by no means the only "structuralist" against whom Bourdieu positions his sociology of culture, he is, I would argue, the most important figure, for, as I discuss below, Foucault's theory of culture is in many ways in line with that of Bourdieu. Thus, by reducing Foucault to a "structuralist" whose work reflects the same problems as more obvious targets (such as the Russian formalists and statistical analysts), Bourdieu is able to distance himself not only from "pure" structuralists, but also from every shade of structuralist analysis that competes with his own.

2 I am, for the sake of brevity, eliding two separate points of analysis in Bourdieu's work when I suggest that the theory of position-takings critiques the substantialist presumptions of aesthetic genius and of aesthetic judgment (or taste). The critique of genius is primarily concerned with cultural production, while the critique of the theory of aesthetic judgment is primarily concerned with cultural consumption (the former critique is the project of The Field of Cultural Production, while the latter is the project of Distinction). In both cases, Bourdieu emphasizes positionality over substance, relationality over autonomy. See especially Distinction 230-232, where Bourdieu discusses the homology between the production and consumption of cultural goods.

3 See, for example, Martin 9; for a more unequivocal remark about the label, see Foucault's statement, "I have never been a Freudian, I have never been a Marxist, and I have never been a structuralist" (Foucault 437).

4 On the distinction between these two adages, see Ferry 48-53.

5 This sense of necessity more closely reflects Kant's earlier claim in the Analytic of the Beautiful that "there must be coupled with [the judgment of taste] a claim to subjective universality" [ es muß damit ein Anspruch auf subjektive Allgemeinheit verbunden sein ] (51; my italics).

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy. Ed. Ronald Beiner. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982.

---. Between Past and Future. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.

---. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Trans. Randal Johnson. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. Ed. John Shawcross. Oxford: Clarendon, 1907.

Ferry, Luc. Homo Aestheticus: The Invention of Taste in the Democratic Age. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Foucault, Michel. Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. Trans. Robert Hurley, et al. Ed. James D. Faubion. New York: New Press, 1998.

Guyer, Paul. Kant and the Claims of Taste. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgement. Trans. James Creed Meredith. Oxford: Clarendon, 1973.

Karatani, Kojin. Transcritique on Kant and Marx. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.

Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe, and Jean-Luc Nancy. The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism. Trans. Philip Barnard and Cheryl Lester. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.

Martin, Luther H., Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton, eds. Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1988.