I was raised on bad music—or at least popular music. To this day I can sing along to virtually every Top 40 hit from the mid-to-late 1970s, often with a heartfelt nostalgia that makes others uncomfortable. To the confessions of friends that they survived early disappointments by listening to Fleetwood Mac, I say: I see your Rumours (now fashionable again, plus ça change) and I raise you Dr. Hook, Gerry Rafferty, the early LPs of Jefferson Starship—I will not be out-embarrassed.
The point of making such a confession is that it is not in any real sense confessional; it is closer to the half-ashamed pleasure of being able to furnish the authorities with the proper identity papers. To admit to a fondness for, say, the Climax Blues Band is embarrassing in a more complicated way than it would at first seem. It is actually faux-embarrassment; it turns me into the musically omnivorous, knowing listener—not just educated, but at least somewhat up to date—who is secure enough in my cultural profile to be able to admit to liking the “bad” thing because I know it is bad, and because I can balance it with the Schoenberg or Xenakis that maturer years brought me. It displays my authenticity, even if that authenticity is rooted in 1970s suburbia and AM radio. It also betrays my age, possibly my racial and sociocultural makeup, and my general cultural facility. I have not heard everything, but I can “place” most things. Having performed all these semiotic games, I am left with the real embarrassment: at having so transparently played the social game with an art form in whose aesthetic autonomy I might otherwise believe. My iPod is not an index to a hidden self. It’s as socially legible as everyone else’s.
That is, I would venture, where we are with the aesthetic. Those of us in commodity-rich, artistically saturated, more or less urbanized Western countries, at the start of the 21st century, know all too well how these games are played. We know it instinctively, so well that the kind of confession of musical taste offered above has become a drearily familiar part of everyday life. We also know it because we know “Bourdieu,” whether we’ve read the man or not. Pierre Bourdieu’s most easily translatable idea—that aesthetic taste, or judgment, is always a move in the cultural game of “distinction,” whereby we disaffiliate ourselves from social inferiors—progressed with astonishing speed from a daring argument against Kant’s third Critique to conventional wisdom. We’ve quickly accepted, that is, what previous generations (we think) would have found scandalous. Take the question of “what I like” lists. Roland Barthes mocked the logic of the taste list in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes thirty years ago, listing his “likes” and “dislikes” in the manner of a Playboy centerfold questionnaire (among his likes: Glenn Gould, the Marx Brothers, white peaches; among his dislikes: Satie, strawberries, “women in slacks”) to demonstrate the emptiness of lists per se. The form of the list survives mockery, however, and even thrives today, precisely because we agree with what Barthes argued: that taste lists create a “subjectivity effect,” a social profile, rather than revealing an actual self. This is now accepted common sense, rooted in all our acts of aesthetic consumption; we know our list of favorite films or books is not a self but a series of “position-takings.” Our Facebook lists say: Look at how cannily I negotiate the field of cultural consumption; look also at how I resist definition by others nonetheless, because I deliberately “miscode” myself, finding coherence in my strategic, quirky incoherence. Any invocation of “bad” music, like my putative confession above, performs an ironically distanced declaration of selfhood, one that is so knowing as to disarm argument.
The result is that aesthetics—some shared conversation, with the potential for galvanizing disagreement, about the value of artworks—has become particularly toothless. Aesthetics can function only in the genre of gently self-implicating comedy. The recent pop-Bordelian phenomenon of Stuff White People Like is instructive: assigning a taste (aesthetic or otherwise) as belonging to White People has neither a critical function nor a sponsorial one; presumably very few people would drop an interest because of its mention on the site, or naively adopt one for the same reason. The site exists simply to encode, in a rough and ready and mostly accurate way, a social formation’s aesthetic preferences; it has no proselytizing or transformational intent, and can only be called satirical in the most attenuated sense of the term.
One possible response to such coding is simply abstention, the decision to abandon any kind of remotely social-aesthetic experience. Sprinkle in some Frankfurt School–style rage against the culture industry, and the result might be a kind of “Kill Your Television” withdrawal into private purity. Particularly in his last decade Bourdieu was given to such pronouncements, which seemed at once urgently principled and peevishly grandparental. The more common reaction, however, is the familiar voice of what Peter Sloterdijk termed cynical reason: Yes, that’s me, so what if it makes me sound elitist, or uneducated, or provincial, or insensitive. What do you want? I like the music (or films, or books) that people like me like. I like The Shins. I like Grizzly Bear. Aesthetics is tautology.