Feel beauty supply, post 8

There are, indeed, but very few who know how to be idle and innocent, or have a Relish of any Pleasures that are not Criminal; every Diversion they take is at the Expence of some one Virtue or another, and their very first Step out of Business is into Vice or Folly. A Man should endeavour, therefore, to make the Sphere of his innocent Pleasures as wide as possible, that he may retire into them with Safety, and find in them such a Satisfaction as a wise Man would not blush to take. Of this Nature are those of the Imagination, which do not require such a Bent of Thought as is necessary to our more serious Employments, nor, at the same time, suffer the Mind to sink into that Negligence and Remissness, which are apt to accompany our more sensual Delights, but, like a gentle Exercise to the Faculties, awaken them from Sloth and Idleness, without putting them upon any Labour or Difficulty. — Joseph Addison, Pleasures of the Imagination,” 1712

This week I want to focus on the above quote from one of the more famous pieces of English eighteenth-century writing on aesthetics. Addison’s “Pleasures of the Imagination” appeared as a series of articles in the daily periodical The Spectator, which he and Richard Steele wrote from 1711-1712. Anyone who has been required to take a survey of English literature would know The Spectator as one of the more important examples of modern print culture that aided in the democratization of rational debate and the creation of what Jürgen Habermas has called the bourgeois public sphere. Each issue appeared as a roughly 2,500 word essay and could be found by Londoners on the tables of the city’s coffeehouses, where men of varying class backgrounds read and debated political and moral issues, often spurred by the topics discussed by writers such as Addison. The Spectator had an influence beyond London as well. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, in his Autobiography describes teaching himself as a youth to argue well in writing by attempting to reproduce The Spectator’s articles from memory.

Though there were only 3,000 copies of each issue printed, most of the subscribers were coffeehouses. This fact has led scholars to believe Addison’s claim that roughly 60,000 people read each issue. These numbers and anecdotal evidence such as Franklin’s in much of the period’s literature suggest that coffeehouse conversation in general and The Spectator specifically played an important role in fostering a sense of identity and cultural agency for an emerging middle-class. The motto of The Spectator indicates also that Addison understood his role as grooming this class of tradesmen and merchants in morals: "to enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality." Addison’s hope was to eventually claim that The Spectator "brought philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools, and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and coffee–houses" In the abstract such intentions appear to serve all that the modern subject supposedly values. Addison wants to wrest intellectual development away from elite institutions and put it in the hands of the people. In the case of Franklin we might argue that he succeeded. Nevertheless, the above quote from “Pleasures of the Imagination” reveals to me a more nefarious side to this “democratization” of intellectual debate.

The scholar Linda Dowling, in the first chapter of her book The Vulgarization of Art: The Victorians and Aesthetic Democracy,briefly gives a recounting of the early eighteenth-century crisis she sees as the prelude to Matthew Arnold’s class anxieties that spur him to write “Culture and Anarchy,” the same crisis I believe is motivating this passage by Addison. Dowling argues that English philosophers of the early eighteenth-century understood that the Whig movement was placing power in the hands of the vulgar (I want to write “vulgar masses” but that is redundant, no? Are there masses that aren’t vulgar?). In any case, Shaftesbury, she argues, wrote his work with the hopes of instilling a morality into these masses who would be playing a larger role than ever before in English Society.

So what is the “morality” that aesthetic development is meant to instill in this powerful yet vulgar mass? The aesthetic here is a tool for self-policing that Addison claims teaches us how to avoid “[stepping] out of Business and into Vice or Folly.” It makes us good workers, who do not use free time for “Criminal” pleasures, so that we do not “sink into that Negligence and Remissness, which are apt to accompany our more sensual Delights.” In other words, lest our drinking and whoring keep us from coming to work the next day and creating the necessary surplus value for our employers, we should instead correctly occupy ourselves in our free time with pleasures of the imagination, which are  “like a gentle Exercise to the Faculties, [that] awaken them from Sloth and Idleness, without putting them upon any Labour or Difficulty.” The imagination and its pleasures stop us from over-taxing our body and our mind without allowing us to fall into outright “Sloth.” It keeps us ready for more serious “Employments,” presumably financial.

Whenever I read this passage I can’t help but remember that Josiah Wedgewood’s factory was the first to use a time clock to monitor its laborers. As England transforms from a quasi-feudal system to a capitalist, industrial economy based in wage-labor, time becomes a commodity. The aesthetic operates here as a means of protecting the laborer for the profit of the employer. The imagination, by offering leisure that is restorative, ensures that the worker is ready for work the next morning. Aesthetic practice aids in making labor the focus of life.

I end my discussion of European aesthetics here precisely because of the issues around labor that Addison raises. What we’ve seen thus far on our summer cruise through aesthetics is a kind of managerial structure. Philosophers tell us what the beautiful means to us as human beings. They tell us how to use aesthetics to make ourselves moral. But in the brief selections from the greatest hits of European aesthetics, we’ve only had descriptions of how to be spectators, how knowing how to make judgments edifies us, makes us human. Only the genius produces aesthetic objects, and that category in this heritage is not up for democratization. I raise these issues here because next week I will be turning to Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men, where the vulgar masses become the aesthetic geniuses rhyming to resist the extraction of their own wage labor. 

Ok. Now that my day’s labor is done, I am going to make myself a cocktail and revel in its criminality. Screw you, Addison.