Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Nation and The Aesthetic Judgment

Jordan Carter

I find that if you compare Anderson’s theory of the nation and Kant’s theory of aesthetic judgment, interesting results emerge. Anderson describes the nation as an imagined and inexplicable link between people within a limited social space. A link that arises from an “immemorial past” and seemingly leads to a “limitless future” (Anderson, 11). Similarly, Kant identifies an imagined link between people, forged by the irrefutable beauty of fine art and subsequent subjective universal validity.

According to Kant, when one gazes at a masterpiece—a true piece of “beautiful” fine art—he is compelled to admit its beauty, irrespective of his personal tastes. He argues that this is due to fine art’s ability to incite cognition through “purposive purposelessness.” Unlike with agreeable or sensational art, fine art allows its spectator to be “conscious that it is art while yet it looks to us like nature.” In other words, cognition and imagination are at “play” (Kant).

So how does this phenomenon relate to Anderson’s theory of the nation? In a similar manner to how the “Beautiful” relies on a collective understanding of the irrefutable nature of beauty, the nation is facilitated by the notion of a community—both of which rely on the intermingling of history, time, and imagination to bypass their lack of a stable referent. In terms of history, mimesis plays a key role in both Kant and Anderson’s theories. Fine art can only incite the effects of the “Beautiful” if it appears to its subject as a new-concept, or rather a non-concept. The viewer, however, is ignorant of this—he lacks interest as to whether or not the object exists or has use-value. Analogously, a member of a nation is spurred by the indeterminate concept of nationalism; he feels imagined communal ties, yet disregards their roots. He, like the spectator, is “free of interest,” as Kant would say. He reaps the benefits of nationalism—a sense of community and the prospect of continuity—without ever delving deeper and dissecting the “nation” itself. He resigns himself to the “mass ceremony”: believing that the fellow inhabitants are linked through simultaneous actions such as newspaper reading, even though “An American will never meet, or even know the names of more than a handful of his 240,000,000-odd fellow-Americans” (Anderson, 26).

History and time play an even greater role in these two theories. Kant argues that one is born into this idea of “beauty”—it is the “supersubstrate of humanity.” Similarly, nationalism emerged as a model, one that was pirated and spread throughout history; yet in each instance of a new nation, it emerges as seemingly original. Oddly enough, while capitalism facilitated the almost viral spread of nationalism, it seems to contest Kant’s ideal of “beauty.” In a capitalist environment, print is manufactured and spread in the vernacular, allowing the non-intelligentsia to encode political information from both past and present and act accordingly. Conversely, capitalism promotes what Kant identifies as “objective universal validity,” eliminating the role of the imagination through the production of “Good” aesthetic objects, or objects with irrefutable use-values.

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