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Thomas Docherty. Culture and a New Experience of Democracy

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Thomas DOCHERTY. Culture and a New Experience of Democracy. Stanford University Press, 2006, 192 pp., €16.60, ISBN 0-8047-5189-7

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1Thomas Docherty’s freshly printed volume from Stanford University Press, Aesthetic Democracy, is requisite reading for all those thinking beings out there interested in the question of the inter-relation and even inter-articulation between culture and experience for a possible new encounter with the political that would inch toward a truer form of democracy for our current postmodern social spheres and spaces. Professor of English and Comparative Literature in the University of Warwick, long a bastion of adventurous thought in the United Kingdom, Docherty’s text builds on a number of his previous volumes and makes the case for the rule of the aesthetic as constituting the conditions of possibility and so even on some level the guiding thread for political and social transformation.

2Docherty argues in the prefatory matter,

there is an intimate link between aesthetics and democracy [… for] Walter Benjamin […] what we should do when […] the political has become aestheticised: [is that] we should politicise the aesthetic […] the link between aesthetics and democracy is indeed so intimate as to suggest that democracy is entirely conditioned by aesthetics as such. (ix)

3This rather radical line of argumentation thus assigns a high value to the constitutive political power of aesthetical culture in and of itself. It is important to note that here freedom be defined in a Dochertian way thus

not as a matter of choice but as a matter of the […] cultural event […] in which we see the possibility or potential for freedom […] in […] literature, poetry, painting, music, dance, sculpture. A democracy […] intent on establishing and furthering the freedom of subjects—subjects who know themselves always to be conditioned by the alterity to which art opens them—is the most fundamental form of democracy that we might have. A polity that degrades or ignores the aesthetic […] misses the point; […] the consequences of that is not only a degradation of the concept of freedom, but also a reduction in actual freedom. (x)

4So, the ramifications of Docherty’s post-Emmanuel Levinasian inspired argument are not inconsiderable, not least for an ill-appreciative of art bourgeois consumer public so dominant today in our reactionary times. One can be grateful for the way in which Docherty presents his case: eminently readable, hence unpretentious, and pleasing to read. Early on we find, “the subject as consumer has usurped the subject as citizen” (xiv) and crucially, “we have thus replaced epistemological value with financial value” (xvi). This is because of our perverted contemporary sense of democracy that produces in truth of fact “shoppers” (xiv); however, the notion of ownership and of shopping Docherty fails to dialecticize here, for surely there is some form of positive understanding to be had in certain contexts for the concept of ownership in our current property age. Docherty’s desire to make such asseverations with broad brushstrokes devoid of nuance, black on white, is as (however understandably) commonplace as it is predictable. Docherty could for example have employed Jean Baudrillard’s rich analysis of facets of consumption in his early-style 1968 Le système des objets (translated by James Benedict from Verso, London, 1996 as The System of Objects) but instead he discusses Baudrillard with some other textual lights authored by Baudrillard. In another major point we read via Docherty, “through the kinds of radical aestheticism that I propound in the book, we can formulate a ‘sovereign’ subject that is always already multiple, always already conditioned by alterity, always already democratic” (xix). Of course, one is likely to recall Theodor Adorno’s quip after quoting Martin Heidegger’s notorious asseveration “‘philosophical work does not take place as the spare-time activity of a crank. It belongs right in the midst of the labor of farmers.’ One would like at least to know the farmers’ opinion about that” (Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity , trans. Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will, London, Routledge, 1973; e. 53-54; Adorno, Negativ Dialectik, Jargon der Eigentlichkeit: Gesammelte Schriften, Band 6 . Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1973. 7-412. g. 449). Nevertheless, Docherty’s argument is moving, particularly given to repeat what I believe to be the case, the rather age-long philistine times in which we continue to live.

5Another very fine clarification by Docherty occurs when we read, “while deconstruction might be asking always […] Was ist Denken? , the left has preferred to see what it construes as direct and material historical action, thereby effacing […] a split and opposition between philosophy and politics” (21). In this way an impatient left-wing social body of today has no time to wait for deconstruction’s real and practical political effects, which seem weaker all the time, for many a teacher, scholar, thinker, writer, and critic. Conversely, in a nice self-declaration whose self-critique may only be welcomed, we encounter the following,

deconstruction does not […] read politics, and […] this [is …] no cause for concern […] for […] the cultural and the political are two separate orders […] cultures exist within political situations, and […] political states of affairs exist within cultural situations; yet this [constitutes] no reason […] that criticism […] should engage the political […] as an explicit or primary part of its agenda. (21-2)

6Yet there is a difference between arguing that ‘deconstruction cannot read politics’ and yet merely saying deconstruction cannot be, as such, “an explicit or primary part of its agenda”. Still, Docherty’s point here is perhaps even courageous, but the unfortunate fact remains that everything is political. For there is arguably no inside and outside to the domain of the political at all. Everything is complicitous including total passivity or disinterestedness in this politicized world.

7As for the possibility of creating adventurous and rigorous intellectual work that might service this kind of more democratic actuality, we read

the intellectual requires time [… for] the events that we call thinking to take place, to find a place; yet the political is marked by the instantaneity of urgency itself, a Jetztzeit to be ‘shot through’ or blasted into something called ‘history’ understood as a present packed with […] praxis. Here […] we find the first condition […] separating the critical from the political: they operate in different […] incommensurable orders—of temporality: on one side […] the urgent/present/practical/identical set against the mediate/delayed/theoretical/differential on the other. (23)

8In point of fact, in our hyper-fast productivist-oriented age, temporal capital is in the first ultra-crucial instance that which remains continuously in short-supply for the engenderment of good work that would aid and abet democratic events and structures, including of course the engenderment of high quality published work.

9Another nice point Docherty broadcasts here in noting that for the late Algiers-born Jacques Derrida, “Hospitality is culture itself” (38) which to clarify means that “insofar as there is culture at all, there is also this ethics of hospitality” (38). The whole notion of “Questions of Hospitality” was in fact the subject of a seminar Derrida taught at the E.H.E.S.S.-Paris in 1995 (here known not least because it was attended by the present review-article author).

10Docherty makes a crucial point when he writes concerning the educational system that,

recently, leftist theory has followed […] a later Benjamin, and has advanced the cause […] of those “‘excluded” from a supposedly “normative” (if “elderly”) history of civilisation. The question now concerns […] aesthetic experience in education: […] Erlebnis in the face […] of Erfahrung. [In a word,] how youthful is culture? [… today] aesthetic experience […] is denied legitimacy by the elders (the dominant ideology of education) in a society […] that celebrates and legitimizes a philistinism and vulgarity that deny human potential. (64-5)

11This can only outfit a cynically capitulative era of therefore profoundly diminished potentialities. Civilisation with an ‘s’ prevails over against an authentical becoming democratizing kind of culture. Building on this passage we later read in a discussion of Montesquieu

As […] with Benjamin […] experience […] becomes constitutive of culture and of its acquisition […] our engagement with art [enlivens] things undreamt of in our philosophies—[…] that we can learn. For Montesquieu […] education depends on such aesthetic experience; as for Benjamin, the lived experience of youth ought not to be discounted if we are to have an educational system that will contribute to culture rather than to […] philistinism. (67)

12Docherty makes the point well that we live in an era of education that does not take this notion of training seriously, instead opting for a narrow-minded vocational one centered on a degree’s very limited capacity to earn money capital in a specific post upon graduation. As Docherty notes, nowadays “that an aesthetic education might [be] ‘spiritual’ or ‘occasional’, in Benjamin’s terms, is simply anathema” (67) and goes on to state that “this conservative position is shared by that […] criticism that resolutely refuses to engage with the primacy of our aesthetic experience (spirited occasionalism) or with a nonquantifiable, noncomputable […] ‘sensibility’” (67). This Benjaminian notion of ‘spirited occasionalism’ is fascinating and all too true, alas, as concerns its miserable reception for an unimaginative epoch. The hostility towards thought of the negative, the unthought, the unfelt, the unconceptualized, the unseen, et cetera precisely constitutes the problem of the lack of human imagination today, and so too our concomitant decidedly conservative times just when rather ironically we have special opportunities that belong to our age, all the same, and despite it all. More precisely, this general proclivity to eschew thinking, feeling and seeing afresh underlines much that has contributed to the general hemispheric-cultural and political swing to the right, in the west at least, in the last three decades; or, if not that far back certainly at least since the comparatively unremarked deaths of such major cultural figures as the film directors Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1946-82) and Orson Welles (1915-85).

13For Docherty,

Aesthetic democracy […] is based upon the potentiality of democracy [and] linked to […] a ‘going beyond’ ([…] of Europe) […] it requires an act of representation whose function is not to identify the self but to alter it; […] In aesthetic democracy […] representation becomes an event and not a condition […].

[…] this ‘aesthetic-democratic’ event […] marks a singularity and […] enacts a sovereignty. (159)

14The concepts of event and singularity may be clear enough yet, in this context, one may well query, what is the charged term of sovereignty? For Docherty it involves not the librarian-writer Georges Bataille’s now classic tack on the notion, so much as the contemporary Italian thinker Giorgio

Agamben [who] explains sovereignty as that condition that stands outside the law […] to establish the law as such […] is characterized [as] ‘exceptionality’. Yet what is […] exception if not […] the very possibility of art and of the aesthetic […]? The basic point about art […] is not only a neo-Hegelian freedom, but also the establishment of something that exempts itself from rules or from the law. Aesthetics […] might even be renamed exceptionality […] The aesthetic democrat is she […] who makes precisely such an exception of herself […] in the event that we call representation, that altering of the self that marks change, growth, even living itself.

[…] Aesthetics makes possible history as the experience of altering the self; and it is democratic precisely to the extent that such history can never be […] mine alone […]. (159-60)

15This fills out Docherty’s fine tome that deserves to be read and contrasted with some other lines of approach, not least of which would be the post-Marxist contemporary Marxist one that would insist Docherty’s tack is too one-sided and that material conditions produce art too. Be that as it may, the foregoing constitutes a necessary read for any thinking being interested in one of the most urgent problems of today: the polity in an age where the political remains so paramount as a supervening area of concern. A new experience of democracy, to borrow from the title of the present piece, would obviously require nothing less than such a participatory reading public for Docherty’s tome.

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Erik S. RORABACK, « Thomas Docherty. Culture and a New Experience of Democracy »E-rea [En ligne], 4.2 | 2006, document 1, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2006, consulté le 28 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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