From the archive
The suspension of aesthetic judgment can be liberating. Not having to worry at every moment about “how good it is” is a foundational gesture in contemporary literary and cultural studies. The raw material for many kinds of investigation would simply not be available if it first had to pass an acid test of judgment. “First prove it’s good enough, belongs in the canon, and then we’ll admit that studying it is worthwhile, that it is a valuable subject for a dissertation.” With that sort of logic, obviously, we limit the field to things already accepted according to sometimes rather questionable canonical standards.
That being said, aesthetic judgment is never suspended for very long, nor should it be. Even scholars who think they are suspending judgment are really not doing so: they are temporarily bracketing it, or making a surreptitious claim that this text, too, is beautiful, if you look at it in a way. Saying that value is contingent, as Barbara H. Smith does in Contingencies of Value, does not get us very far either. Ok, we know that already, now let’s get back to the real work, which is arguing about value from our various contingently defined positions. John Guillory’s devastating critique of Smith in Cultural Capital, it seems to me, restores the aesthetic to its rightful place.
An aesthetic sense is like the nose of a hunting dog. When writing Apocryphal Lorca, I noticed that the obvious aesthetic flaws in homages to Lorca and translations of his work were often hints about other failures, intellectual, sentimental, and ethical. And, yes, an aesthetic failure is also an aesthetic failure in its own right.
A critic without a nose cannot be trusted.