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Aestheticism and Deconstruction

Aestheticism and Deconstruction: Pater, Derrida, and de Man

Jonathan Loesberg
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    Aestheticism and Deconstruction
    Book Description:

    Considered an exemplar of "Art-for-Art's Sake" in Victorian art and literature, Walter Pater (1839-1894) was co-opted as a standard bearer for the cult of hedonism by Oscar Wilde, and this version of aestheticism has since been used to attack deconstruction. Here Jonathan Loesberg boldly uses Pater's important work on society and culture, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), to argue that the habitual dismissal of deconstruction as "aestheticist" fails to recognize the genuine philosophic point and political engagement within aestheticism. Reading Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man in light of Pater's Renaissance, Loesberg begins by accepting the charge that deconstruction is "aestheticist." He goes on to show, however, that aestheticism and modern deconstruction both produce philosophical knowledge and political effect through persistent self-questioning or "self-resistance" and in the internal critique and destabilization of hegemonic truths. Throughout Loesberg reinterprets Pater and reexamines the contributions of deconstruction in relation to the apparent theoretical shift away from deconstruction and toward new historicism.

    Originally published in 1991.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6221-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction The Aestheticism of Deconstruction
    (pp. 3-10)

    It was inevitable that Walter Pater would be deconstructed. Partly it had to happen because any complex author writing on subjects that concern literary theorists would seem to call forth the application of a reading method implied by a new theory. But Pater did not elicit particular attention from the New Critics. He interests current literary theorists, surely, because his concerns pertain to the problems they address. His skeptical theories of perception and aesthetics, explicitly informed as they are by various and contradictory philosophies, foreshadow the deconstructive interest in the corrosive links between philosophy and aesthetic form. Moreover, the hazy...

  2. One What Is Art for Artʹs Sake and How Could It Be Anything Else?
    (pp. 11-41)

    I ask the question in this chapterʹs title neither idly nor rhetorically. Misreadings of aestheticism in Pater start with misreadings of this phrase. Only by removing it from its context can critics respond to the phrase with the accusations against aestheticism touched on in the Introduction. Thus, T. S. Eliot takes Paterʹs view of art to be ʺnot wholly irresponsible for some untidy livesʺ and specifies that while the theory of ʺart for artʹs sake,ʺ as applied to the artist, has a certain value, ʺit never was and never can be valid for the spectator, reader or auditorʺ (Eliot, 392).¹...

  3. Two Studies in the Histories of The Renaissance
    (pp. 42-74)

    Critics argue that the aestheticist desire to enclose oneself in a hermetically sealed art results in a theoretically flawed attempt to define a pure, transhistorical stance that ignores rather than evades the central causative powers of history and ideology. We have seen that Paterʹs aestheticism, at any rate, rather than providing an escape from reality, located aesthetic perception centrally in empirical philosophyʹs foundational theories. But philosophy itself is an ahistorical discipline, seeking foundational truths that ground knowledge regardless of historical period. Aestheticismʹs openness to philosophical analysis, therefore, though it would make relativism a false charge, might connect it with philosophyʹs...

  4. Three Deconstruction: Foundations and Literary Language
    (pp. 75-121)

    Walter Pater appears in works of contemporary literary theory mostly in footnotes and asides, where he plays the role of ghostly indicator of troubles to come. Earlier I compared the criticism of Pater with a certain strand of attack upon deconstruction. But I could make that comparison because the attacks themselves identify deconstruction with Paterʹs aestheticism. Essentially, these critiques argue that Paterʹs work privileges art and literature by making them irrelevant to any social, political, philosophical, or intellectual concerns (this irrelevance is what critics seem normally to have in mind when they use the phrase ʺart for artʹs sakeʺ) and...

  5. Four Deconstructive Aesthetics: Literary Language, History, Ideology
    (pp. 122-159)

    If Pater meant to show how a fully articulated aestheticism worked to provide the forms of social, cultural, and philosophical explanations offered by Ruskin, Arnold, and Hegel, he was clearly not successful. Matthew Arnoldʹs proposal that literature replaced religion by adequately conveying humanistic values while withstanding the attacks of science by declaring itself a separated discourse has had far greater institutional effect in the establishment of English and American literature departments.¹ And Paterʹs influence acted entirely within a strand of aesthetic theory that stressed artistic isolation and enclosure within its own world.² In effect, Paterʹs heirs and deconstructionʹs critics share...

  6. Five Aesthetic Analysis and Political Critique
    (pp. 160-189)

    Paterʹs aestheticism as a form of cultural critique ended in Wildeʹs prison cell. The reading I have been offering of his theories has had to counter critical reductions that read them as espousing a solipsistʹs flight into an art that functioned in determined opposition to reality. This reduction, which conditioned his influence—broad as it was—in the twentieth century, became possible through the separation of his epistemology from his statements about art.¹ Thus one can find echoes of the perceptual situation the ʺConclusionʺ describes, though without the aesthetics, in William James. James sees Paterʹs world of endless variety: ʺthe...

  7. Afterword Aestheticism, Journalism, and de Manʹs Wartime Writings
    (pp. 190-200)

    News of Paul de Manʹs collaborationist journalism and his now notorious anti-Semitic article broke early enough in the writing of this book for an analysis of the issues that discovery raises for my argument, if any, to have been incorporated into the body of my text. Indeed, many of the responses printed in both academic and more widely disseminated journals have already been reprinted in books.¹ Originally, I had pointedly refused to deal with the subject, since I felt that de Manʹs wartime writing, regardless of its content, had no relevance to literary theory he wrote forty years later. The...