Aesthetics and the Politics of Gender

On Arendt’s Theory of Narrative and Action

Authored by: Ewa Plonowska Ziarek

The Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy

Print publication date:  May  2017
Online publication date:  May  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138795921
eBook ISBN: 9781315758152
Adobe ISBN:

10.4324/9781315758152-38

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Abstract

The relation between gender and aesthetics is central to any formulation of feminist aesthetics, and yet the meanings of these terms are continually contested and revised. Both gender and aesthetics carry diverse, interdisciplinary significations, which are shaped by complex histories of disagreements. When the term “aesthetic” was first introduced in the eighteenth century by the German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten, it did not refer to artistic production but rather to the mode of knowledge gained through the senses. Aesthetics today can have at least three different meanings: (1) a general theory of artistic practices; (2) a theory of reception, focused upon how we appreciate or judge natural beauty and artworks; and (3) a theory of sensibility shaping our experience, practice, and knowledge. In this last sense aesthetics does not have to refer to art at all, but is rather concerned with the role of different senses, such as touch, sight, taste, smell, or with different affects: pleasure, pain, or disgust (Korsmeyer 2012). One could make an argument that the affective turn in feminist and queer theory today is also implicitly informed by this third historical meaning of aesthetics, even if theorists themselves do not engage aesthetics directly (Ahmed 2004; Berlant 2011). Gender is also a contested category in feminist philosophy and theory (Chanter 2007); in general it refers to social and political determinations and regulations of biological sex and sexual practices, but there is no consensus on the relationship of gender to power, the body, sexuality, or sensibility. Following feminist theories of intersectionality, introduced by black feminists (Crenshaw 1991), I assume in this chapter that the category of gender is relational, political, and historical; that is, that its significance and its relation to embodiment are shaped by desire and power relations, which also determine the meaning of class, race, labor, environment, and other political phenomena.

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