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the novel, aesthetic theory, modern subjectivity
Aesthetic theory arose as a response to the fragmentation of areas of life in early modernity. As the discourse that could recuperate the senses for the larger project of knowing the world, aesthetics also provided a grammar of the subject, a way of conceiving the troubled relationship between subject and object. In Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Arts, aesthetic discourse found its strongest and most totalizing form as that which supplanted the object of aesthetic theory – the work of art. Thus Hegel’s infamous statement that “art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past” (Aesthetics 1: 11). The consignment of art to the past is simultaneously a theory of the modern subject as he remakes the world into a home.
There is, however, a strange absence that troubles Hegel’s Aesthetics: the novel. The novel’s self-conscious self-appointment as the form capable of subsuming older genres and providing the historical, ethical, and social narratives by which peoples could understand themselves coincides with Hegel’s lectures; yet even as Hegel lays out his vision of the place of art in the development of Spirit he bypasses the hybrid form that could be seen as the key to his contemporary moment. What Hegel saw as the dissolution of art as the primary mode of Spirit’s expression culminating in his contemporaneous moment can be seen as no less than the emergence of the novel as the dominant Western art form of the long 19th century. What I suggest is that the rise of the novel and the rise of philosophical aesthetics are two responses to the collapse of the sensus communis and as such cannot be properly understood without regarding the ways in which they intersect, ignore, and vie with each other.
The following study examines Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and Samuel Beckett’s How It Is to articulate the outlines of a subject that opposes the dominating subject of philosophical aesthetics and, more generally, philosophical modernity. I retrace the Hegelian dialectic of subjectivity from the viewpoint of the disruptions of the novel to witness what is excluded: the vulnerability of female flesh to sexual inscription, the weakness of subjectivity to subdue the externality that confronts it, the non-identity that cannot be sublated by self-consciousness into the coherence of self-reflection, the exhaustion of flesh. This is not to present an analysis of novelistic subject as the failure of the Hegelian subject but to recover the novel’s bodiedness of weak subjectivity in the outlines of an identity that is otherwise than the Hegelian apogee.
Chang, Jin, "The Subject of the Novel: Aphra Behn, Charlotte Brontë, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Samuel Beckett" (2019). CUNY Academic Works.
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