For A New Aesthetic Education

 Originally Appeared in: Cultural Studies, Estetica, Scienze Umane | Published: 2003

L’attuale conflitto fra studi letterari e cultural studies va ripensato a partire dalla constatazione del tramonto della coscienza estetica borghese. Cio non implica tuttavia un abbandono della dimensione letteraria: anche in un’epoca dominata dalla cultura di massa, in cui la Bildung assume nuove caratteristiche, i cultural studies sono chiamati a riconoscere il loro debito nei confronti della critica letteraria. Per chiarire questo punto ci soffermeremo, con I’aiuto di Heidegger e Bourdieu, sulle proprieta attribuite da Kant al giudizio di gusto, ossia sulla natura pubblica e formale della sensibilita estetica.

Literary studies is at once the result and instrument of the aesthetic education. Criticism arises from and elaborates a Bildung. When the early Marx advanced his notion that the human senses are socialized senses, he turned straightaway to art to explain: «only music can awaken the musical sense in man and the most beautiful music has no sense for the unmusical ear … Only through the objectively unfolded wealth of human nature can the wealth of subjective human sensitivity – a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form, in short, senses capable of human gratification – be either cultivated or created … The cultivation of the five senses is the work of all previous history» . From its inception, cultural studies has interrogated two features of this history of the cultivation of the aesthetic senses. In the work of the British founders of cultural studies, like Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, and E. P. Thompson, or under the inspiration of Mikhail Bakhtin’s study of Rabelais’ incorporation of popular culture in the humor and carnivelsque elements of his novel, cultural studies has rethought the relation between polite and popular culture, resituated literature within the social history of literacy, and explored the fate of popular culture in the age of mass culture. Cultural studies has also, especially in the United States, contested the assumption that equated the established tradition of Western art and literature – the so-called canon – with culture as such.

That assumption had long underpinned literary studies in the universities, often becoming the desiccated alibi for a narrow, ethnocentric, and unworldly aesthetic education. At the same time, however, this same assumption was the lived experience of some of the greatest critics of the 20th century. They are the last bourgeois intellectuals — critics like T. W. Adorno, Eric Auerbach, and George Sterner – whose cultural formation was the classical Bildung that rooted the Western literary and intellectual tradition in childhood and branched it through the psyche as a virtually unconscious inheritance.
What this unique form of aesthetic education was all about is palpable in Elias Canetti s memoirs. At age five or six he had read a children’s version of the classics forty times, knowing them by heart. By the time he was eight he and his newly widowed mother spent their evenings reading aloud Schiller’s plays in German and Shakespeare’s in English; the intensity of their re-enactments of Shakespeare so frightened his nanny that she quit the household. Canetti describes the root and branch of his Bildung in these words: 

I don’t believe I understood the plays we read together. I certainly absorbed a lot from them, but in my memory [my mother] remained the sole character; it was all one single play that we enacted together. The most dreadful events and conflicts, which she never spared me, were transformed in her words, which began as explanations and turned into radiant ecstasy.
When I read Shakespeare for myself five or six years later, this time in German, everything was new to me; I was amazed at remembering it differently, namely as a single torrent of fire.

The social conditions and cultural context of this sort of upbringing have all but disappeared. But the learning it embodied should not. For me, this is the hidden stakes of the current debate – the culture wars – between cultural studies and literary studies….

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