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The authors would like to thank Professor Anne Brunon-Ernst for commissioning this special edition of Revue d’études benthamiennes, and Professor Stephen G. Engelmann for his incisive comments.

1The four articles in this special edition of Revue d’études benthamiennes, by Jean-Pierre Cléro, Tsin Yen Koh, Carrie Shanafelt and Malcolm Quinn, analyse the relationship of pleasure to cultural value in Bentham’s philosophy, particularly as this concerns questions of aesthetic judgment. An obstacle to the analysis of the relationship of pleasure to cultural value in Bentham’s thought, is that, aside from his consistent opposition to distinctions of good and bad taste, Bentham had very little to say about culture and aesthetics. Nonetheless, taken together, the four articles in this special edition offer a robust framework for understanding this issue. The key elements of this framework are Bentham’s opposition to the elitism of good taste (Quinn), his recourse to creative means to express this opposition through ribald humour and the burlesque (Koh), his reimagining of existing cultural forms such as the novel and theatre through a utilitarian lens (Shanafelt) and, finally, the question of whether there is a philosophical basis on which we can discuss the possibility of a Benthamite aesthetics, on the other side of Bentham’s opposition to distinctions of taste (Cléro).

  • 1 Bentham and the Arts, eds .A. Julius, M. Quinn, and P. Schofield (London, UCL Press, 2020)
  • 2 Beech, David, Review of ‘Utilitarianism and the Art School in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, Historic (...)

2This special edition was preceded by the publication of Bentham and the Arts by UCL Press in 20201 (https://www.uclpress.co.uk/​products/​130710), which engaged with Jeremy Bentham’s skeptical challenge to aesthetics and initiated a new debate on the implications of Bentham’s utilitarianism for the understanding of culture and cultural value. More specifically, Bentham and the Arts drew attention to Bentham’s rejection of any assumed link between sexual pleasure and reproductive activity. This rejection of a link between sexual pleasure and reproduction, meant that Bentham included sexual behavior within a variety of tastes and propensities, and rejected any association of taste with refinement. In this regard, the art theorist Dave Beech has argued that ‘Both the assault on taste as prejudice and the avowed superiority of utility to taste confirm Bentham as a radical philistine – not in the sense of someone who lacks cultivation but someone who regards cultivation as lacking something.’2

3Taking the paradoxes of Bentham’s ‘radical philistinism’ into account, the four articles in this special edition shift the focus of debate from an emphasis on Bentham’s challenge to aesthetics which typified the contributions to Bentham and the Arts, to the possibility of an analysis of the aesthetic form of that challenge. In fact, Jean-Pierre Cléro makes the tantalising suggestion that Bentham's Collected Works are missing a volume that would bring together the fragments of a Benthamite aesthetic. The question that Cléro’s provocation raises, is what kind of aesthetic could embrace what Tsin Yen Koh refers to as the ‘bad joke’ of the auto-icon, Malcolm Quinn’s discussion of Bentham’s recourse to ‘cheap and cheerful’ items that allow us to account for pleasure without resorting to terms of approval and disapproval, or Carrie Shanafelt’s analysis of a form of Benthamite theatre that would violate the theatrical unities and present every character, every setting, and every scene from a favorite novel on the stage. It seems, therefore, that the missing volume of Bentham's Collected Works could be called ‘Aesthetics Upside Down’.

  • 3 See Rizzo, Ilde and Throsby, David, ‘Cultural Heritage: Economic Analysis and Public Policy’, in Ha (...)
  • 4 Smith, Roberta, ‘Body Language’, The New York Times, 23 March 2018, p.17

4Bentham’s willingness to turn aesthetics upside down in the name of an increase in pleasure, puts him at odds with past and present uses of aesthetics as a standard of cultural value, through which beauty (for example, the beauty of a piece of public art, or of a royal palace) is understood as a mark of social distinction. The current understanding of cultural value in anglophone countries, embraces the various means by which the value of a cultural ‘asset’ can be established (aesthetic, social, historical, symbolic etc) and how these different types of valuation come to bear in an assessment of the significance of these assets to individuals, groups, and national or international communities3. On a micro level, this is demonstrated when critical assessments of the aesthetic and historical value of a painting are included in ‘lot notes’ at auction. On a macro level, theories of cultural value treat culture as something which, once considered as an asset, can be included in the formation of policy decisions about what to preserve for the future and what to display as an ‘experience’ for visitors and tourists, an experience that, in turn, will deliver economic value. Cultural institutions such as museums also conduct their own assessments and reassessments of cultural value, as was demonstrated when Bentham’s auto-icon was one of a number of ‘flabbergasting loans and encounters’4 brought together in the exhibition Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body (1300–Now) at the Met Breuer museum in New York (21 March - 22 July 2018).

  • 5 Bentham, Jeremy, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, ed. John Bowring, 11 vols., vol. VIII (Edinburgh, 184 (...)

5The display of Bentham’s auto-icon in Like Life, implied that this public emblem of Bentham’s philosophy could be included in the process of ascribing and reascribing cultural value. However, this took no account of how this philosophy, and in particular Bentham’s philosophy of language, treats cultural and aesthetic terms and the forms of value that accompany these terms. When we encounter terms that seem to refer to a familiar understanding of aesthetic and cultural value in Bentham, we have to understand the distinct, Benthamite, sense in which they are used. An example of this is provided in Bentham’s Chrestomathia, where, as Jean-Pierre Cléro observes, Bentham refers to ‘those more refined classes of pleasures which, passing through one or more of the inlets afforded by the body, find their ultimate seat in the mind’5. However, this distinction between refined and unrefined pleasures is not employed in the service of aesthetic evaluations, since, in this same passage of Chrestomathia, Bentham refers to ‘gymnastic exercises in general, exercises productive of a pleasure of which the whole body is the inlet, as well as the instrument: in the next place, such games of skill, and even of chance, which, no part of the pleasure afforded by them being considered as having its seat in the body, may be considered as exercises productive of a pleasure administered by, and let in through the body, to the mind.’ By this definition, therefore, the culturally insignificant game of push-pin counts as a ‘refined pleasure’. This specific, Benthamite, use of the word ‘refined’, also aligns with Bentham’s theory of language and its well-known differentiation of fictitious entities (abstract terms without properties which are used as if they refer to the physical world) from fictions (the attribution of a real existence to fictitious entities). In this instance, accepting the unreality of fictions of ‘refined taste’ does not abolish communication, insofar as one can still use the term ‘refined’ to make distinctions that are not those of good and bad taste. Rather than demonstrating either that Bentham had no use for refinement, or that he had a covert adherence to distinctions of taste, this shows how Bentham’s theory of language puts refinement to use.

  • 6 Bentham, Jeremy, ‘Essay on Language’, in Works, vol. VIII, 292–338, p.314
  • 7 Lindsay, Shana G., ‘Mortui Docent Vivos: Jeremy Bentham and Marcel Broodthaers in Figures of Wax’, (...)
  • 8 Bourdieu, Pierre, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (London and New York, Ro (...)

6In putting terms to use in this way, Bentham draws our attention to the paradox of a radical opportunity for communication, which, at the same time, presents a problem of communication that besets any possible definition of a Benthamite aesthetics. The radical opportunity is that the change that Bentham introduces to the aesthetic application of the term ‘refined’, indicates that fictitious entities can communicate in the absence of the judgments of approval and disapproval that are normally central to an aesthetic dialogue. Bentham takes issue with David Hume’s assumption that the ethical problem presented by the careless use of the language of taste could be addressed by a refined sensibility, which could separate the good and the bad in taste without also confusing vice with virtue. Bentham’s view, instead, is that the fictions of refined sensibility compound the ethical problem, insofar as their lack of a real world ‘taste test’ (one example Bentham provides is the taste of a peach6) allows for the use of unrestricted and oppressive terms of approval and disapproval for the pleasures of others. For Bentham, the ethical problem presented by the careless use of the language of taste is solved within language itself, through the distinction between fictions and fictitious entities. However, this also gives rise to a problem of communication that the four articles in this volume reveal. This problem can be framed as follows - what kind of dialogue on aesthetics can take place in the absence of judgments of approval and disapproval, of the kind that are referred to sensibility by Hume, or to the power of judgment itself in Kant? Here we can see Bentham taking steps to consider new forms of dialogue that could operate in the absence of terms of approval and disapproval, such as the one between the deontologist and their client, which takes place on condition that every person is the best judge of what gives them the most pleasure and the most pain, and that these judgments emerge through contact with the physical world. This collaborative, one-to-one, dialogue also typifies Bentham’s discussions of questions of culture, as Carrie Shanafelt makes clear in her article when she mentions Bentham’s wish for rapprochements with the writers Laurence Sterne, Charlotte Smith, Frances Burney, and William Beckford. In this regard, it is worth noting the very different kind of imaginary dialogue provided by the one-sided ‘conversation’ between the artist Marcel Broodthaers and Bentham that takes place in Broodthaers’ film Figures of Wax, Jeremy Bentham (16 mm., colour, 15:40) from 1974. Shana G. Lindsay has argued that Figures of Wax stages a stalemate, in that Broodthaers cannot sidestep the utilitarian argument of the auto-icon by presenting it within an artwork7. If, as Carrie Shanafelt shows us, Bentham was prepared to engage in a dialogue with cultural forms such as theatre and the novel on his own utilitarian terms, can an artist engage in a dialogue with Bentham from their position within what Pierre Bourdieu called ‘the game of culture’8?

7Bentham’s inversion of the normal ways and means of attributing aesthetic value, suggests that if we can posit a utilitarian aesthetics, it may be that this can only be understood as an aesthetics of opposition. This is what Tsin Yen Koh indicates in her article in this special issue, when she analyses how Bentham ‘considers the literal and material implications of a serious subject, and in doing so exposes the ridiculousness of the subject’. It also suggests that we may have to reverse the usual order of the history of aesthetics, and read Bentham backwards from Georges Bataille rather than forwards from Alexander Baumgarten:

  • 9 Anthony Julius, ‘More Bentham, Less Mill’, in Bentham and the Arts, pp.160-197, p.190

We might think of Bentham’s position in relation to Romanticism as comparable to Bataille’s relation to Surrealism. Each was an internal subversive. Each went ‘low’ in response to the other’s ‘high’. Can we say then, Bentham was the Bataille of the Romantic movement? This might go slightly too far, though – because the ‘low’ version requires the exploitation of resources within Romanticism to reach contrary conclusions; and the declaration of a certain allegiance to Romanticism. We cannot sensibly maintain that Bentham met either of these conditions – certainly not the second one. For further examination.9

  • 10 Wagstaff, Sheena, in Syson, L. Wagstaff, S. Bowyer, E. and Kumar, B. Like Life: Sculpture, Color an (...)
  • 11 Bentham, Jeremy, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (Oxford, Clarendon Pre (...)

8Anthony Julius’s admission, in his chapter in Bentham and the Arts, that it is difficult to frame an aesthetics that avoids any allegiance to a recognised aesthetic position or aesthetic theory, is left for ‘further examination’. This further examination is what is conducted in this special edition of Revue d’études benthamiennes. The four articles in this special edition, pose important questions for the concepts of cultural value that allowed for the inclusion of Bentham’s auto-icon as a cultural ‘asset’ in the Like Life exhibition. Sheena Wagstaff, one of the curators of that exhibition, suggested that Like Life, in emphasizing a hetrogeneous approach which juxtaposed objects from contrasting periods, had ensured that ‘The dominance of Western narratives of art and aesthetics has been – and continues to be – interrogated and disrupted’10. If the articles in this special edition demonstrate anything, it is that this claim on the interrogation and disruption of aesthetic categories, which exists within the game of culture that determines our attitudes to ‘must see’ exhibitions, is not the same thing as turning aesthetics upside down within a Benthamite economy of increased pleasure and diminished pain. This Benthamite economy works with the assumption that neither pleasure nor pain are a scarce resource, and therefore that ‘pleasure and pain may come upon him from a quarter from which he was not accustomed to expect it.’11. Rather than considering the value of a cultural asset using aesthetic categories that can be used to determine its social significance, this Benthamite economy treats cultural entities such as novels and plays as amenable to being used, altered or recreated according to the demands of calculations and recalculations that lead to the goal of increased pleasure and diminished pain. The barrier to these kinds of calculations, and the alterations and recreations that they can bring about, are the eulogistic (approving) or dyslogistic (disapproving) terms that are used in assessments of cultural value. Unfortunately, the ‘cheap and cheerful’ items such as games of push-pin, that allow us to account for pleasure without resorting to eulogistic and dyslogistic terms, are the very things that are ‘marked down’ in assessments of cultural value, because their status as cultural assets, and therefore their cultural significance, are difficult to assess. The alternative, Benthamite, view is that, ‘prejudice aside’, the recognition that push-pin might offer more pleasure than poetry, is what also allows for the possibility of violating the theatrical unities and presenting every character, every setting, and every scene from a favorite novel on the stage.

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Notes

1 Bentham and the Arts, eds .A. Julius, M. Quinn, and P. Schofield (London, UCL Press, 2020)

2 Beech, David, Review of ‘Utilitarianism and the Art School in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, Historical Materialism, 22 (2014), 219-285, p.242

3 See Rizzo, Ilde and Throsby, David, ‘Cultural Heritage: Economic Analysis and Public Policy’, in Handbook of the Economics of Art and Culture, vol 1, eds. V.A. Ginsburg, D. Throsby (Elsevier, 2006), pp. 983-1016

4 Smith, Roberta, ‘Body Language’, The New York Times, 23 March 2018, p.17

5 Bentham, Jeremy, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, ed. John Bowring, 11 vols., vol. VIII (Edinburgh, 1843), available at: https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/bowring-the-works-of-jeremy-bentham-vol-8

6 Bentham, Jeremy, ‘Essay on Language’, in Works, vol. VIII, 292–338, p.314

7 Lindsay, Shana G., ‘Mortui Docent Vivos: Jeremy Bentham and Marcel Broodthaers in Figures of Wax’, Oxford Art Journal, 36 (2013), pp. 93-107, p.107

8 Bourdieu, Pierre, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (London and New York, Routledge 2010), p.4

9 Anthony Julius, ‘More Bentham, Less Mill’, in Bentham and the Arts, pp.160-197, p.190

10 Wagstaff, Sheena, in Syson, L. Wagstaff, S. Bowyer, E. and Kumar, B. Like Life: Sculpture, Color and The Body Metropolitan Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press 2018), p.13.

11 Bentham, Jeremy, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (Oxford, Clarendon Press [1823] 1907), p.49

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Référence électronique

Malcolm Quinn, « Introduction », Revue d’études benthamiennes [En ligne], 20 | 2021, mis en ligne le 18 décembre 2021, consulté le 26 mai 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/etudes-benthamiennes/9072 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/etudes-benthamiennes.9072

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Auteur

Malcolm Quinn

Professor of Cultural and Political History, UAL and Honorary Senior Research Associate, UCL Faculty of Laws, Bentham Project

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