The concept of democratic freedom refers to more than the kind of freedom embodied by political institutions and procedures. Democratic freedom can only be properly understood if it is grasped as the expression of a culture of freedom that encompasses an entire form of life. Juliane Rebentisch's systematic and historical approach demonstrates that we can learn a great deal about the democratic culture of freedom from its philosophical critics.
From Plato to Carl Schmitt, the critique of democratic culture has always been articulated as a critique of its ãaestheticization". Rebentisch defends various phenomena of aestheticization D from the irony typical of democratic citizens to the theatricality of the political D as constitutive elements of democratic culture and the notion of freedom at the heart of its ethical and political self-conception.
This work will be of particular interest to students of Political Theory, Philosophy and Aesthetics.
Juliane Rebentisch is Professor of Philosophy and Aesthetics at Offenbach University of Art and Design
Aestheticization - An Apologia
From the perspective of practical philosophy, aestheticization is normally viewed as a worrisome phenomenon. The term stands for a crisis that affects our entire life-world. In this context aestheticization does not merely refer to some phenomenon on the surface of society. On the contrary, it is regarded as a crisis because it penetrates the deep structures of the way we understand both ourselves and our political culture. It replaces ethics with an individualistic aesthetic, and politics with the spectacular staging of politics. The concept of aestheticization therefore indicates a profound transformation of ethics and politics, one through which the latter becomes aesthetic and thus assumes an alienated form. Aestheticization means "basically that the non-aesthetic is made aesthetic or is grasped as being aesthetic."1 First of all, this suggests a theory of difference. If the process of aestheticization is viewed as a transformation leading to a deformation of ethics and politics, then the aesthetic is presupposed as having nothing to do with the true essence of ethics and politics. Yet the fact that ethics and politics can be aestheticized at all indicates that there is indeed an internal connection between ethics, politics, and the dimension of the aesthetic. The critique of aestheticization, therefore, asserts not only a difference but also a connection. Here the aesthetic does not appear as an external threat to ethics and politics, but as a kind of deformation undermining them from within by hollowing out their normative substance. For critics of aestheticization, therefore, everything revolves around the delimitation and the exclusion of the aesthetic, and yet their discussion of the aesthetic takes place in the realm of the non-aesthetic. In this sense the critique of aestheticization documents the entry (or re-entry) of the distinction between aesthetic and non-aesthetic into the non-aesthetic. It does not address the aesthetic as a sphere that confronts the non-aesthetic from the outside, but as a dimension operative within the non-aesthetic. And once this dimension is recognized, it changes everything.
In the following I will address what is in fact at stake in the ethical-political rejection of the aesthetic. This also means recognizing that "the aesthetic" in no way indicates a unified phenomenon in the context of the respective discourse; instead, it functions as a general concept for a whole range of phenomena as diverse as pleasure, taste, irony, distance, mutability, cultural diversity or "colorfulness," staging [Inszenierung], rhetoric, and semblance. The purpose of this investigation is not to derive a consistent concept of the aesthetic from all this. Any attempt to do so would be questionable for two different reasons. First, given the ethical-political interest underlying the critique of aestheticization, one can and should not foreclose the possibility that the term "aesthetic" might in some cases only be used as a rhetorical tool for excluding certain elements from ethics and politics which are not aesthetic in the original sense of the term. Second, a one-sided discussion of what gets dismissed as aesthetic in the critical discourse on phenomena of aestheticization would not be sufficiently inclusive, despite the diversity of the topics addressed. Upon closer inspection, we can see that the critique of aestheticization in no way condemns all aesthetic practices. For precisely where it rejects clearly aesthetic phenomena such as the theater, it also defends other aesthetic practices seen as conforming to given conceptions of ethics and politics. The critique of aestheticization therefore clearly represents a specific intermingling of ethical, political, and aesthetic motifs. In order to analytically untie this knot, we do not need, at least not in the first instance, to discuss all the seemingly aesthetic phenomena addressed by the critique of aestheticization. Instead, we need to take up the ethical-political problems motivating this critique and explain the systematic context within which its various motifs appear. The following investigation will thus not primarily address aesthetic theory but practical philosophy. Its aim is to awaken skepticism about the one-sided, negative definition of the transformation of ethics and politics that goes by the name of aestheticization, and to explore its productive meaning for the understanding of both these spheres.2 In this sense, the following is intended as an apologia for aestheticization - an apologia, that is, for the ethical-political right of the "aestheticizing" transformation of ethics and politics itself.
A systematic discussion of the problem of aestheticization is more important than ever, not least due to the current relevance and radiance of this concept in recent discussions on so-called postmodernism. The "aestheticization of the life-world" is one of the most prominent formulations employed over the last two to three decades in order to find a tangible concept to capture the visage of contemporary Western societies. It is associated with the claim that the typical member of such societies is a homo aestheticus for whom aesthetic criteria such as taste, pleasure, and shaping have become so decisive that their effects can be seen in nearly all spheres of life. Even two decades ago, this finding seemed so obvious that the philosophical discussion of the matter focused solely on how to evaluate this fundamental shift: One side saw the rising domination of simulacra, which degrade contents into mere images, actions into performances, and self-understandings into poses.3 The other side defended a generalized constructivist relation to self and world, which manifests itself in the freedom to shape ever more spheres of life.4 However, the philosophical debate over the status of a supposedly obvious societal development remained unfounded as long as it was still possible to question the actual scope of this development.5 As a result, attempts to empirically substantiate the thesis of the aestheticization of the life-world quickly came in for criticism. For instance, Gerhard Schulze's thesis of an "experience society"6 brought about by affluence was accused of falsely generalizing a phenomenon located in the more privileged part of society.7 Today, the parameters of the debate seem to have shifted: A much more prominent role is played by studies that show that aesthetic motifs such as creativity, spontaneity, and originality are no longer a sign of a sphere of freedom lying beyond the necessities of social reproduction, but have become an important productive force in their own right within the capitalist economic system. According to this research, these motifs have turned into crucial social demands representing an increase of constraints rather than freedom.8 In any case, sociology seems to have become the central location for serious debate on how to appropriately describe, explain, and evaluate the crucial position of aesthetically connoted criteria both for individuals and for the organization of society in Western democracies. Yet as relevant as these debates may be - and I will return to the current state of this debate at various points9 - I believe that philosophy has been wrong to retreat from them. After all, the diagnosis of aestheticization implies an assumption about the genuine, undistorted essence of ethics and politics, which is not a mere empirical but also a systematic question. The specific approach of philosophy in the context of contemporary diagnoses, however, can only become fully visible once we turn away from the business of diagnosing the present and turn to the history of philosophy. For the concept of aestheticization was already established in the first half of the twentieth century, which makes it relevant not only for postmodernism, but also for the theory of modernity. In fact, the discussion of aestheticization goes back even further. Contrary to the impression raised by recent debates, therefore, aestheticization in no way represents a merely contemporary problem; and traditionally the concept is much more philosophical than is suggested by the largely (cultural) sociological character of the current discourse. In fact, the philosophical discussion of the challenges posed by certain aesthetic motifs for the understanding of ethics and politics even goes back to antiquity. The history of practical philosophy is a history of crisis-diagnoses which have sought to combat the invasion of the aesthetic and its disintegrating effects into the spheres of ethics and politics. This is true despite the fact that the concept of aestheticization was not always employed explicitly.
At first sight it may seem remarkable that the ethical-political critique of various figures of the aesthetic shows up at extremely significant points in the history of practical philosophy. This demonstrates that the problem of aestheticization is anything but a marginal problem which, in line with the currently typical subdivision of philosophy, could be banished into a separate sphere called aesthetics. Instead, the problem shows up in places where core concepts of practical philosophy themselves are at stake. Conversely, the significance of discussions on the aesthetic in the philosophical tradition reveals the systematic burden that the current aestheticization discourse must bear - at least, that is, when it takes itself seriously. Without a reflection on the long history of this discourse we will hardly be able to adequately bear the load. If we neglect to do so, the...