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Aestheticization and Democratic Culture

The 1990s were dominated by debates about postmodernism, one strand of which was concerned with the so called “aestheticization of the life world.” Wolfgang Welsch, for example, wrote in Grenzgänge der Ästhetik, “The facades get prettier, the shops more animated, the noses more perfect. But such aestheticization reaches deeper, it affects fundamental structures of reality as such.” For aestheticization means “basically that the non-aesthetic is made aesthetic or is grasped as being aesthetic.” However what counts as aestheticization and which concept of the aesthetic is presupposed can vary, as he goes on to explain:

In the context of an urban environment, aestheticization is referring to the expansion of the beautiful, the pretty, and the stylish; in advertisement as well as in self understandings it means the growing importance of performance and life style; in view of the technological determination of the objective world and the social effects of the media, “aesthetic” primarily designates virtualization. Finally, aestheticization of consciousness means: We no longer see first or last foundations, instead reality takes on a condition we formerly only knew with respect to art—a condition of being produced, changeable, non-committal, levitating etc.

Whereas Welsch, from the perspective of a somewhat generalized constructivism, affirmed these developments as a move towards the freedom of designing ever more spheres of life, others were more skeptical. Not only did they doubt that postmodern urban space should indeed be characterized by an “expansion of the beautiful and the pretty,” they also saw in the postmodern emphasis of the surface a symptom of an ugly social truth: that of a profound alienation. In their view, the postmodern cult of the surface was a symptom of a novel domination of simulacra that erodes the substance both of our ethical self understandings and our political culture. “Reality,” Rüdiger Bubner wrote, “gives up its ontological dignity in favor of an applauded semblance.” Both sides of the debate, however, assumed that aestheticization is not just a question of design, but that this question itself should be seen in a broader social context. “Aestheticization of the life-world” is thus a formulation with which both sides tried to find a tangible concept for the state of contemporary Western societies.

However, the agitated argument over the status of a supposedly obvious societal development that dominated the 1990s was soon to be deflated by sociology, for the philosophical debate remained unfounded as long as it was possible to question the actual scope of this development. As a result, attempts to empirically substantiate the thesis of the aestheticization of the life-world quickly came in for criticism, such as Gerhard Schulze’s thesis of an “experience society” brought about by affluence, who was in turn accused of falsely generalizing a phenomenon located in the more privileged part of society. Today, the parameters of this debate seem to have shifted: A much more prominent role is played by studies which show that aesthetic motifs such as creativity, spontaneity and originality are no longer signs of a sphere of freedom lying beyond the necessities of social reproduction, but have themselves become an important productive force in the capitalist economic system. According to this research, these motifs have turned into crucial social demands, representing an increase of constraints rather than freedom. In any case, sociology seems to have become the central location for serious debate on how to appropriately describe, explain and evaluate the crucial position of aesthetically connoted criteria both for individuals and for the organization of society in Western democracies.

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