The esthetic is most simply defined as a form of experience in which a representational sign is perceived as a necessary constituent of its imaginary referent; the result is an oscillatory movement of the subject’s attention between the sign and this referent. The fundamental task of esthetics is to show why this relation is not a mere contingency but implicit in representation and thereby in the human itself.

Esthetic oscillation is minimized in the linguistic sign as we know it; this minimization, beginning in the originary scene, constitutes formal signification (see The Origin of Language, California 1981). The efficiency with which the linguistic sign designates its referent allows the interlocutor to transcend the sign toward the referent. In Qu’est-ce que la littérature, Sartre referred to this characteristic of language as “transparency,” but it is worth noting that he limited it to prose. The profound intuition, usually associated with Vico–it can be found in Rousseau as well–that the first language was (sacred) poetry reminds us that linguistic minimization is not an a priori feature of signification but the product of a historical process of separation from the symmetrically opposite movement toward the institutional ritual reproduction of the configuration of the originary scene. Standing between the minimality of “transparent” language and the maximality of ritual, where representation is assimilated to reproduction, the oscillatory movement of the esthetic affirms the mutual dependency of the sign and its sacred referent. However, insofar as the referent is made to depend on the sign, it must be understood as imaginary, that is, as taking place on the individual’s internalized scene of representation. This imaginary staging of the esthetic requires some degree, usually more than the minimum, of staging in the real world; only in the silent reading of prose narrative–the characteristic mode of the novelophile nineteenth century–is the imagination obliged to furnish virtually the entire effort of constructing the esthetic scene.

Whereas the destiny of “transparent” language is to continually evolve technologies that minimize its physical presence, institutional representation must occupy the experience of human time in order to transcend it; Mircea Eliade’s in illo tempore is founded not in an ideal past but in the evocation of this past within the ideal present of ritual. Esthetic experience reproduces the collective dynamic of ritual within the experience of the individual, who, by submitting himself as at the origin to the authority of the intentional sign, experiences the mutual dependency of representation and its communal (sacred) referent. Only on the imaginary scene that we derive from the transcendent, “timeless” vantage point of ritual can we be made aware of time’s passage. The recherche du temps perdu is characteristic of all esthetic experience.


Western metaphysics does not describe esthetic experience in originary terms. Even the philosopher who accepted to define the esthetic by the oscillation between sign and imaginary referent, would take this definition as phenomenological, that is, as a reference to pure experience. As such, its implicit anthropological basis would be that supplied by Kant, the theoretician of pure experience. In the third Critique, Kant defines “beauty” under the rubric of the “esthetic judgment of finality” as the source of a pleasure that attends this judgment when there is no concept of the understanding to which the finality can be referred, as, say, the finality of a horse to the concept “horse” (which would not prevent a horse from being beautiful if its appearance suggests a finality unclassifiable under the concept “horse”). The beautiful object thus gives the appearance of freedom, of being an end in itself. The key passage is the following:

If pleasure is connected with the mere apprehension (apprehensio) of the form of an object of intuition, apart from any reference it may have to a concept for the purpose of a definite cognition, this does not make the representation referable to the object, but solely to the subject. In such a case, the pleasure can express nothing but the conformity of the object to the cognitive faculties brought into play in the reflective judgment, and so far as they are in play, and hence merely a subjective formal finality of the object. For that apprehension of forms in the imagination can never take place without the reflective judgment, even when it has no intention of so doing, comparing them at least with its faculty of referring intuitions to concepts. If, now, in this comparison, imagination (as the faculty of intuitions a priori) is undesignedly brought into accord with understanding (as the faculty of concepts), by means of a given representation, and a feeling of pleasure is thereby aroused, then the object must be regarded as final for the reflective judgment. A judgment of this kind is an aesthetic judgment upon the finality of the object, which does not depend upon any present concept of the object, and does not provide one. When the form of an object (as opposed to the matter of its representation, as sensation) is, in the mere act of reflecting upon it, without regard to any concept to be obtained from it, estimated as the ground of a pleasure in the representation of such an object, then this pleasure is also judged to be combined necessarily with the representation of it, and so not merely for the subject apprehending this form, but for all in general who pass judgment. The object is then called beautiful; and the faculty of judging by means of such a pleasure (and so also with universal validity) is called taste. For since the ground of the pleasure is made to reside merely in the form of the object for reflection generally, consequently not in any sensation of the object, and without any reference, either, to any concept that might have something or other in view, it is with the conformity to law in the empirical employment of judgment generally (unity of imagination and understanding) in the subject, and with this alone, that the representation of the object in reflection, the conditions of which are universally valid a priori, accords. And, as this accordance of the object with the faculties of the subject is contingent, it gives rise to a representation of a finality on the part of the object in respect of the cognitive faculties of the subject.

Critique of Judgment Intro., VII: “The Aesthetic Representation of the Finality of Nature”

For Kant, the beautiful object arouses a pleasure distinct from that provided by the satisfaction of appetite or interest. Because the finality of the beautiful object cannot be subsumed under a concept of the understanding, “the pleasure can express nothing but the conformity of the object to the cognitive faculties brought into play in the reflective judgment,” that is, the object pleases us because it demonstrates our ability as free beings to grasp finality in itself rather than merely as subordinate to a system of categories. (“For that apprehension of forms in the imagination can never take place without the reflective judgment, even when it has no intention of so doing, comparing them at least with its faculty of referring intuitions to concepts.”) The beautiful object displays its finality as if it were free, and we take pleasure in its revelation of our own freedom by which alone we are able to recognize this finality. Because it is indifferent to the worldly existence of its object, this pleasure is “disinterested” and, consequently, the judgment of taste declares an object beautiful not subjectively, for me alone, but universally.

The pleasure in the judgment of finality derives from the sense of intentional formal closure that is first achieved in the performance of the sign. We need not deny the physiological component of this pleasure, but we must, in the spirit of an anthropologized Kant, respect the primacy of the representational, specifically humancomponent of this satisfaction: the release of tension attendant on participating in the communal representation of the central object rather than in mimetic conflict over its appropriation. The unanimity of this participation is the source of the universality of the “judgment of taste”; to take pleasure in a representation is to participate esthetically in a community from which violence has been deferred. The source of the “judgment of finality,” which Kant attributes to our “cognitive faculties,” is more specifically our “faculty” of representation understood, not as a component of the individual mind awaiting the neurologist’s reconceptualization as a module of the cerebral cortex, but as a specifically human capacity derived from the collective originary scene. The source of Kant’s disinterested pleasure is the originary deferral of violence through representation. The community is critically interested in this deferral, but this common interest depends on its individual members renouncing their material, worldly interest in the object, which their act of representation situates on the transcendent plane of the sacred.

The oscillation between sign and imaginary referent by which originary thinking defines the esthetic renews the originary pleasure in participating in the aborted gesture of appropriation that defers violence through signification. Beginning with representation, we conjure up a world of desire (a moment of the esthetic experience ignored by Kant), but once within this imaginary world, we are forced to recognize our dependency on the cultural sign with its burden of “disinterested” renunciation of desire. Whatever neuro-physiological pleasure we find in harmonious form–and the modernist esthetic is there to tell us that harmonious form is by no means essential to the esthetic–is recruited to this experience of cultural harmony that is heir to the originary sacred.

(To be continued)