The limits of critical culture and the possibility of local aesthetics : a study of postmodern rhetoric, contemporary theory, and conceptual art

Trembath, Paul, Department of English, University of Virginia
Levenson, Michael, Department of English, University of Virginia
Sokel, Walter, Department of Germanic Languages & Literature, University of Virginia

In this dissertation I introduce a theory of local aesthetics intended as a challenge to all forms of professionally acclaimed critical culture. I argue that recent developments in criticism, literature, and artwork do more to secure the cultural authority of professional theorists, writers, and artists than to rethink the constitutive powers of daily life in aesthetic terms.

I argue that the daily practices of unknown social selves affect the world in ways that either reproduce the social status quo or gradually reinvent it, and that they thus merit consideration as aesthetic, if not artistic, activities. Since traditional aesthetic theories have been appropriated by artists to enhance their exclusive cultural recognition, and since the avant arde aura of art has been recently reconstituted in the projects of critical theorists, I depart from both art and theory with a rhetoric intended to aestheticize the transformative powers of daily life. My aim is not to give daily life an artistic meaning, but to encourage culture critics to consider the inventive import of daily life in addition to the inventive import of innovative critical theory, literature, and artwork.

Contemporary rhetorics about postmodernism, power, simulation, critical "writing," and so forth all reproduce an exclusively cultural view of human invention, since they direct our attention toward their own cultural originality, not to the constitutive importance of the everyday practices they sometimes imply. My study is designed to demonstrate how this is so. Beginning with Habermas, Lyotard, and Rorty on postmodernity, and then moving on to Baudrillard's critique of Foucault, I demonstrate how theory, even where it celebrates daily life, can become a hegemonic form of contemporary culture. My examinations of Calvino, Butor, Derrida, and Rorty show how combinations of literary and philosophical writing reproduce this same dilemma, and my analysis of Kosuth's Conceptualism, criticized through Geertz and de Certeau, demonstrates this as well. I conclude with discussions of Sartre, Foucault, Haacke, Beuys, and Gramsci and show how these cultural figures can enable productively a rhetoric of local aesthetics.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Personality and culture, Culture, Aesthetics, Modern -- 20th century
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