the following essay I discuss Monique Roelofs’s The Cultural Promise of the
Aesthetic. I show that Roelofs’s
rich and complex notion of the aesthetic, informed by promises, modes of
address, and aesthetic relationality, offers an important and novel way of
understanding the aesthetic within a context attuned to questions of
difference. I point out that Roelofs’s
analysis may be enhanced by notions theorized by Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa,
and María Lugones. Moreover, I raise a
question regarding the intricate link between Roelofs’s notion of the aesthetic
art, difference, in-betweenness,
morality, racism, the erotic
At a time when the promises arising from the election of an African American United States President seem to have melted in
the air as we hear of more senseless murders of black men and women at the
hands of police, as calls of “Black Lives Matter” are turned into the clueless “All Lives Matter,” and as Latinos die crossing the perilous U.S. border without their deaths making the news,
we can hear or ignore the call for critical assessment of how our aesthetic practices
are subtly or jarringly linked to oppression. With Roelofs’s pen, the
aesthetic is intertwined with various modes of living informed by a vast web of
relationships of being-in-the-world that ultimately make our life and our world
livable, enjoyable, and pleasurable or miserable, painful, and deadly, a world
filled with promises and threats. Her
incredibly rich and promising book, The
Cultural Promise of the Aesthetic, offers a flesh, blood, and bone
aesthetic that resists categorization by lovers or critics of the notion.
Roelofs offers a way of
thinking, doing, and feeling aesthetics
that defies simple dichotomies and takes into consideration the complexity,
multiplicity, and multi-layeredness of not only our lives and interactions with
objects and each other in specific socio-historical contexts, but also of the ways
the aesthetic shifts and morphs in a multiplicity of crisscrossing promises, modes
of address, and relations, those elements she takes as constituting the
aesthetic. In her view, the aesthetics is not “a pillar of moral order,” “a disposition to bring integration
to a world of division,” or a path towards integration, civilization and
cultivation. In the very midst of cultivation, and even in the
disinterestedness of aesthetic judgment, lurks a certain brutality produced by
homogenization, standardization, racism, sexism, and classism. Such brutality is the mark of the Western
white male that, while claiming neutrality
and disinterestedness, is thoroughly interested in elevating his own race,
gender, class, and country.
cultural promise of the aesthetic
In Chapter 1, “The
Aesthetic, the Public, and the Promise of Culture,” Roelofs offers a beautiful
reading of Neruda’s also beautiful odes that illustrates her multimodal vision
of an aesthetic that is suffused with promises and threats, modes of address,
and aesthetic relationality. In her reading,
Neruda’s odes illustrate Kant’s and Hume’s connection between the aesthetic and
the public. That is, she finds in the
poems a series of quotidian intersubjective connections that open up a number
of patterns of address between people and objects. Such a web of interconnectedness points to
shared culture and hence to the cultural promise of the aesthetic. Yet it is also flawed. After all, we need to consider not just the
objects but who makes them, and who gets to have them; not all of us will get a
spoon and be allowed to sit at the table. Lovingly, Roelofs describes the beauty with
which, in a few verses, Neruda can remind us of the possibility of shedding
light where once there was darkness and of “a total mobilization of spoons,” as
Neruda puts it, of food for all. Nevertheless, Roelofs also recognizes the
arrogance of the poet who may have seen himself as the voice of the people, as a
universal voice, when in reality he may be merely lifting up his own
voice. This is an unsurprising arrogance,
since the history of aesthetic theory is filled with such instances, Kant being
but one example, even as he appealed to the sensus
communis, and Hume another classic example, as his art critic remains a Western white male.
Not long after reminding us
of the complexity of Neruda’s odes in their ambiguous giving and taking away, Roelofs
brings us to what I consider the crucial question in her text:
have proposed that we consider Neruda’s poems emblematic of the cultural
promise of the aesthetic. This reading
produces a corollary: besides the
promise of culture, the odes epitomize the philosophical quandary of what, in
the face of social difference, is to be made of this promise.
While there are numerous
rich discussions in Roelofs’s text, including commentaries on Addison, Baumgarten,
Schiller, Hegel, Nietzsche, Adorno, and Arendt, I would like to concentrate on
the crucial question of what to make of the cultural promise of the aesthetic
in the face of difference. It is this
aspect of the book that moves me for it discloses the link between the aesthetic,
politics, and morality, a link that too many aestheticians continually ignore. It also discloses the nefarious connection
between the aesthetic and racism. In Chapters
2, 6, 7, and 8, Roelofs reminds us of what so many who study the history of
philosophy wish to forget, that our wonderful theories are deeply connected to
the production of racism, in both the ontological and epistemic realms. In other words, the aesthetic has had its
share in the production of racialized “others” as inferior.
Here, we need simply
consider the role of photography in assisting the new nineteenth-century “sciences”
in creating, as Barthes would say, “desirable” or “detestable” bodies and
“knowledge” or, better yet, ignorance of these bodies.
In Chapter 2, “Whiteness and Blackness
as Aesthetic Productions,” Roelofs adroitly discusses the operations of
aesthetic racialization, that is, aesthetic strategies that support racial
registers, along with racialized aesthetization or racial templates that
support aesthetic modalities. These are operations
that are at the heart of the cultivation of whiteness as an aesthetic promise
and blackness as an aesthetic threat, which reveals the racial exclusiveness of
In this chapter, her
discussions of Kincaid, Varda, and Fanon do not go deep enough but do attempt
to disclose the paradoxical way this diverse group of artists and theorists enlist
the quotidian in order to propose alternative relational structures, while failing
to register the complex ties between the aesthetic and race. In this early explanation of the aesthetic
production of whiteness and blackness, Roelofs would benefit from integrating Audre
Lorde’s vision of the erotic into her short analysis of how writers, such as
Davis, Walker, Marshall, and Lorde, employ and produce transformative aesthetic
forms in a context of quotidian experience that is violent and repressive.
Engaging Lorde’s notion of
the erotic in this discussion would both (1) provide a more explicit
intersectional analysis, in which the question of race is always understood as intimately
connected to gender and to the fact that the perception derived
from a female source has traditionally been seen as a threat, and (2) enlist
the erotic as a promise necessary for self-making and for a more complex
understanding that, as Lorde would say, “lessens the threat of difference.”
This vital force that can be considered
a bridge between the spiritual and the political can be seen animating all the
women that Roelofs takes as “giving the aesthetic a prominent role in enabling
survival, sustenance, community, meaning, critique, pleasure and creativity in
the face of racial, gender, and economic oppression, while also locating
aesthetic forms in racialized cultural histories that help to shape them.”
Aesthetics and race
While her discussion in Chapter
2 on the aesthetic production of whiteness and blackness could be strengthened,
her analysis in Chapter 6 of the racist columnist in the confined but loaded
and relationally expansive space of the taxicab, “An Aesthetics Confrontation,”
her discussion of the racialized aesthetic homeland as she analyzes Botero’s
Abu Ghraib series in Chapter 7, “Racialized Aesthetic Nationalism,” and her
interpretation of Lispector’s Hour of the
Star in Chapter 8, “Aesthetic Promises and Threats,” are revealing,
convincing, and moving. They uncover different
strands of the interweaving of the aesthetic and race. Her explanation of the racist Dutch columnist
is a spot-on illustration of the complexity of the vision of the aesthetic that
holds such promises and threats for Roelofs.
Her discussion engages the body in all of its senses, including sound, light, smell, and touch,
all colluding to disclose a space that for the taxi rider should be his but is
not. The discussion points to the
columnist’s temporality in which the present is dominated by a distasteful
“other” that poses a threat to his future and to his nation’s future. Roelofs shows how the aesthetic
“confrontation” leads the columnist to use the aesthetic “to move away from the
aesthetically repulsive other.”
Here, the aesthetic carries promises for
the columnist and threats to the so-called “other.”
Yet, Roelofs does not leave
us within a simplistic dichotomy, or on the side of the promise or the threat
or the norm or deviancy. Given her view,
it is not impossible to regulate aesthetic relationality. For her, the aesthetic stands in a unique
position “to counteract the hierarchical and differentiating functioning of the
relevant dualities.” In other words, aesthetic experience occupies
a middle ground between traditional enlightenment dichotomies, such as
mind/body, reason/affect, sensation/imagination, public/private, and general/particular. In effect, the taxicab proves to be a liminal
space, an in-between space in which it is possible, as Gloria Anzaldúa would
say, to see from both shores at once.
Here, I would like to take
the opportunity to show how Anzaldúa and another Latina theorist, María
Lugones, could enhance Roelofs’s analysis.
Anzaldúa explains liminality as a space bearing possibilities for
resistance and transformation precisely because those occupying such a space
are not tied normatively or affectively to only one way of
being-in-the-world. Instead, those on
the margin are, as I like to put it, being-in-worlds and between-worlds, and
are capable of understanding various worlds from different perspectives.
While such an experience may
cause anxiety and lead to moments of indecision and fear because the self
occupies an in-between space and experiences many contradictions and
ambiguities, Anzaldúa claims that it is precisely because of this experience
that the self can attain not only a more complex understanding of lived
experience but also a creative impetus.
She states, “Living in a state of psychic unrest, in a borderland, is
what makes poets write and artists create.
It is like a cactus needle embedded in the flesh.” Here, Anzaldúa reveals the promises and
threats of the life of in-betweenness that is itself a complex web of embodied,
linguistic, spatial, temporal, individual, and communal interactions between
land, nation, people, objects, and borders.
understanding of active subjectivity as oppressing/oppressed and also resisting
would aid Roelofs’s analysis of the fact that neither taxi driver nor taxi
rider is easily placed on one side. As Roelofs states:
the taxicab case…demonstrates are not the operations of a generalized aesthetic
integrationism within a fundamentally binary system, but a pattern of
experience in which specific, differentially available connections and
disconnections among mutually implicated registers of mind and body,
individuality and sociality, generality and particularity, and privacy and
publicity give rise to an array of forms of aesthetic positioning and power….Taste’s
unruliness as well as its orderly routines take effect in the large field of
material possibilities in which we participate on a daily basis.
The promises and threats of the aesthetic
Finally, I would like to
take up Roelofs’s points in her vital last chapter on aesthetic promises and
threats. Roelofs gives an interesting
interpretation of the manner in which Lispector’s text, The Hour of the Star, points to a wide array of aesthetic systems
that cannot be simply read as aesthetic promises, the brutality of the
aesthetic, or the failure of aesthetic promises in general.
While doing so, Roelofs discusses both
Nietzsche’s and Arendt’s notion of promises.
In her analysis of
Nietzsche, Roelofs explains that there are two types of co-constitutive cultural
orders tied to promises, two orders that be seen at work in Lispector’s text: (1) regularization, which is connected to
stability and normativity, and to having to fulfill the promise, and (2) becoming,
which allows room for play and the possibility of rethinking, reconfiguring,
and improvising promises, or, as she also shows in an example of Damián Ortega’s
art, what can look as organized and ready to be assembled neatly also engenders
risks/threats. Here, Roelofs is
reminding us of the complexity of her vision and of how the aesthetic refuses
to be categorized, organized, or tamed.
But she is also reminding us that, following Arendt, she takes the
aesthetic as fundamentally tied to morality, to our will to live together in
the mode of acting and speaking. As
as I conceive of them, share the relational character of Arendt’s promising and
aspects of the grounding of such promising in plurality. They are among the elements that realize our
relations to others and the world of objects.
What they do not engender with the steadfastness posited by Arendt is
the predictability that looms so large in her account of the form’s utility.
Ultimately, following both
Nietzsche and Arendt, Roelofs proposes that we see promises as “grounds of
aesthetic community formation”
and the cultural promise of the aesthetic as embodying a multiplicity of
promises along with threats that stand in need of our revision and
reconfiguration, depending on our specific social locations, whether they are race,
gender, class, sexuality, nationality, and so on, or a loose configuration of
these. Thus we return to the question of
difference that I highlighted at the beginning of this essay. In the face of social difference, what is to
be made of the cultural promise of the aesthetic? Roelofs’s answer is that the aesthetic is
itself polyvalent. The achievements and
failures of the aesthetic can be seen especially if we are attuned to the
aesthetic, in its tripartite mode of promise, address, and relationality. Difference is to be understood within this
complex, unstable, and intersectional matrix or web that cannot be simply categorized
by its productive or destructive parameters.
Nevertheless, Roelofs states,
“The preceding list of aesthetic cultures and forms of collectivity [national,
postcolonial, queer, black, feminist, green, etc.] demonstrates that, like the
promise part, the culture- and the aesthetics part of ‘the cultural promise of
the aesthetic,’ stand in need of pluralization.” My question is, given that difference is the
elephant in the room of traditional aesthetics (note that Roelofs’s cover art
refers to the lack of gender representation in art) and that difference has
been oppressed, marginalized, and deemed childlike, stupid, and ugly, and that,
as Roelofs is well aware, the aesthetic has provided grounds for this
marginalization and categorization, should we require more of the cultural
promise of the aesthetic given its deep connection to morality? In others words, should we expect more
predictability in our relations, despite our recognition of their complexity
and multiplicity? Has the order of becoming
discussed above taken over so that there is no room for regularization? Shouldn’t a mode of aesthetic address and
relationality that discloses the unjust, brutal murder of those marked by
difference—black bodies, brown bodies crossing dangerous borders—be always
denounced, even in the context of complex views that reject simple universals? Or does denouncing them always lead to yet
Mariana Ortega is Professor
of Philosophy at John Carroll University.
She writes on phenomenological views of self, Latina feminism, and
Published on January 14, 2016.
 Monique Roelofs, The Cultural Promise of the Aesthetic
(London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 210.
 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
(New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1981), pp. 77, 115.
 Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (Freedom: Crossing
Press, 1984), p. 56. I would like to
note here that for Lorde one of the functions of the erotic is its role in
helping us share our pursuits with others.
Lorde believes that through this sharing that is attuned to the erotic
we have more possibility for deep engagement with others and, thus there is a
lessening of the “threat” of our differences.
Lorde is not attempting to erase differences; rather, she is proposing
that an erotic engagement with others involves a certain comfort with difference.
 Monique Roelofs, The Cultural Promise of the Aesthetic
(London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 52.
 Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza
(San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987).
 María Lugones, Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing
Coalitions Against Multiple Oppressions (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). As Lugones explains, she writes while being informed
by the tension between oppressing and resistance (p. 31). For her, a subject cannot be merely described
as occupying one side of the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy. Instead, all selves are oppressed, oppressing
and resisting in different contexts.
 Monique Roelofs, The Cultural Promise of the Aesthetic
(London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 147.
 In The Hour of the Star, Macabéa’s life is
miserable, given the way she looks, but she can perceive the beautiful; Rodrigo can see her beauty despite her looks;
in the end capitalism and entrenched gendered norms of beauty prevail.
 Monique Roelofs, The Cultural Promise of the Aesthetic
(London: Bloomsbury, 2014), pp. 202-3.