Ed. note: This essay (Part 2 of which will appear on Resilience.org shortly) appears as the introduction to Sam’s new book, Art Against Empire: Toward an Aesthetics of Degrowth
Many of the great cultural shifts that prepare the way for political change are largely aesthetic.
– J.G. Ballard
If once our species lived on a planet relatively empty of human beings, today we live on a planet that is evidently full to overflowing. The human population has grown exponentially to reach seven and a half billion people, trending toward eleven billion by the end of the century (Gerland et al 2014). As this expanding population continues to seek ever-rising material living standards by way of sustained economic growth, the global economy is being driven into gross ecological overshoot, dangerously crossing or threatening to cross a range of planetary boundaries with dire consequences that are already unfolding (Steffan et al 2015). Indeed, the metaphor of ‘Earth as a Petri dish’ has become worryingly apt, given that the dominant colony seems to be consuming all the available resources and is at risk of poisoning itself from its own wastes, raising questions about whether humanity can muster the intelligence to avoid the fate of common bacteria. Techno-optimists and free marketeers promise ecological salvation via continuous ‘green growth’ (Blomqvist et al 2015), all the while the face of Gaia is vanishing as Empire marches resolutely on.
Lifting the poorest billions out of destitution is likely to place further burdens on an already overburdened ecosystem. This confluence of ecological and social justice imperatives calls radically into question the legitimacy of further economic expansion in the already high-impact, consumerist societies of the developed world. Unspeakable or even unthinkable in mainstream economic and political discourse, a compelling case can be made that responding to this context of ecological overshoot will need to entail planned economic contraction of the energy and resource demands of the most developed regions of the world, as well as a reconceptualisation of sustainable development in the Global South, beyond the conventional path of industrialisation. This ‘limits to growth’ position signifies an extremely complex, challenging, but arguably necessary paradigm shift in the dominant conception of human progress, one that is being explored boldly today within the nascent ‘degrowth’ movement (Latouche 2009, Kallis 2011).
Although the degrowth movement is diverse and defies singular definition, in general terms it seeks to initiate a transition beyond the existing order of globalised growth capitalism and in its place build a constellation of highly localised economies of sufficiency, based on renewable energy, appropriate technology, egalitarianism, participatory democracy, and non-affluent but sufficient material cultures of voluntary simplicity (Alexander 2015a). Counter-intuitively, perhaps, the movement also contends that a degrowth transition of planned economic contraction can actually maintain or even increase quality of life, by reshaping cultures and societal structures to promote non-materialistic forms of meaning and wellbeing beyond consumerist conceptions of ‘the good life’. Sometimes dismissed as utopian or naïve, the obvious rejoinder from advocates of degrowth is that nothing could be more fantastical than the current economic model that assumes the viability of limitless growth on a finite planet. In any case, in an era when it is commonly remarked that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, perhaps utopianism is not an indictment but a defence of radical movements today.
In recent decades the ‘limits to growth’ position has received a great deal of attention, mostly from economic and ecological perspectives (Meadows et al 2004, Daly 1996, Jackson 2009, Turner 2012). More recently, the degrowth movement has begun contributing an important range of new political and sociological analyses (see generally, D’Alisa, Demaria, and Kallis 2015), offering deeper insight into the alternative paradigm, evaluating transition strategies, policies, and obstacles, while also continuing to update and refine the ecological critique of growth economics (eg Kallis 2017a) in response to those who continue to fetishise growth. The purpose of this scoping paper, however, is neither to review these existing literatures nor offer another ecological critique of growth, but to extend and deepen the understanding of degrowth by examining the concept and the movement from a perspective that has yet to receive any sustained attention—namely, aesthetics. More about raising questions than offering answers, my aim is to open up the dialogue not close it down, which is to acknowledge that large theoretical territories are traversed without being able to map them all in the detail they deserve. Consider this, then, an invitation to discuss.
2. OVERVIEW AND JUSTIFICATION
Defined further below, aesthetics can be understood as a domain of inquiry that examines not merely the meaning and function of art and the role of the artist in society, but broader considerations about taste, judgment, perception, imagination, and sensibility. In what follows I highlight and examine the aesthetic dimensions of degrowth, in the hope that this reveals new and worthwhile insights about the meaning and potential of this emerging sustainability movement. Might the degrowth imperative demand not just a radical political and economic engagement with the structures and goals of our growth-orientated civilization, but also an engagement and transformation of our aesthetic sensibilities, capacities, and practices? And what is the relationship between the aesthetic dimensions of degrowth and the various ecological, economic, political, and cultural dimensions? These questions motivated and shaped the forthcoming analysis.
Admittedly, readers would be right to approach this aesthetic inquiry with a degree of scepticism. After all, in a world where ecocide, financial crisis, war, and creeping fascism loom ominously on the horizon like dark clouds gathering for a perfect storm—a situation that demands a radical political engagement in order to dissipate and transcend the various tragedies already taking form—a turn to aesthetics certainly needs justification. How could one look to poetry, literature, music or the imagination in a world immiserated by violence, oppression, and unspeakable suffering? As critical theorist Herbert Marcuse (1978, p.1) noted as he began his own meditation on aesthetics: ‘It would be senseless to deny the element of despair inherent in this concern: the retreat into a world of fiction where existing conditions are changed only in the realm of the imagination.’ At first instance, aesthetic considerations do seem like a petty indulgence or trivial distraction, reserved for the comfortable few who do not have to worry about the problems of the real world. Art, one might contend, is not a serious subject for the activist or theorist of political economy.
The following analysis deconstructs this dismissal of aesthetics by examining the distinction between art and political economy, in order to show that there is in fact an inherent aesthetic dimension to politics as well as a political or even revolutionary potential inherent to certain forms of art or aesthetic practice. In doing so the analysis is shaped by the emerging ‘aesthetic turn’ in politics (Ranciere 2006, Bleiker 2009, Kompridis 2014) and by various political interpretations of art and aesthetics (Edelman 1995), mixing and developing these substantive bodies of thought in the hope that this alchemy produces a deeper understanding of the blurry nexus that conjoins (as it attempts to separate) art and politics.
To be clear, the premise of this essay is not that we should or should not infuse politics or economics with aesthetic considerations, but rather, as Jacque Ranciere (2006, p.58) states, that ‘politics is aesthetic in principle’—an insight that extends to political economy more broadly in ways that will be explained. Moreover, it will be argued that only by acknowledging, appreciating and operating within the aesthetic dimension can there be any hope for deep revision in the established politico-economic order in the direction and form of degrowth. After all, it is one thing to establish firm scientific, ethical, and philosophical foundations for degrowth, but if there is no felt need in society for such a transition then this can be understood in part as an aesthetic obstacle that demands an aesthetic intervention or series of interventions. A major prerequisite to deep societal transformation, as Marcuse (1978, pp. 3-4) implored, is ‘the fact the need for radical change must be rooted in the subjectivity of individuals themselves, in their intelligence and their passions, their drives, and their goals.’ Accordingly, the degrowth movement’s neglect of the aesthetic realm arguably constitutes a failure that is hurting the movement for change.
After fleshing out the concept of aesthetics in the next section, the essay presents a brief but broad-ranging critique of the dominant consumerist and industrial aesthetics of advanced capitalism, in order to provide a background against which to contrast, in due course, an alternative aesthetics of degrowth. Critically examining aspects of the contemporary aesthetics of advanced capitalism will also function to show why the aesthetic dimension is not somehow separate or isolated from matters of political economy but inextricably intertwined with them in ways that are important but not always obvious. The discussion attempts to emphasise the aesthetic challenges and opportunities presented by degrowth, as well as highlight the fact that the movement must not just engage the head but also the heart; which is to say, to be effective the degrowth movement must seek to change not only the way we think about the world but also the way we feel, perceive, judge, create, and in the end, exist in the world. I argue that art—as well as broader aesthetic interventions in culture and politics—may well need to play a defining role prefiguring or provoking such affective changes in how we experience the world, thereby influencing how we act in it. Drawing on the aesthetic and cultural theories of Herbert Marcuse and extending the later work of Michel Foucault, this essay will introduce and ultimately defend the notion of degrowth as an ‘aesthetics of existence.’
3. THE AESTHETIC DIMENSION
Narrowly defined, aesthetics refers to the philosophy of art, a domain of inquiry that seeks to understand the nature and meaning of art as well as how (or whether) judgements of beauty can be established or defended beyond appeals to subjective experience alone. However, aesthetics can also be understood to encompass a broader range of concerns and perspectives, examining aesthetic concepts like taste, form, creativity, perception, feeling, and sensibility to shed light on lived experience beyond the specific domain of ‘art objects’. While questions of art and the role of the artist in society will be taken up in the final sections of this essay, my analysis will be informed on the whole by this broader conception of aesthetics. The purpose of this section is to unpack the meaning of the aesthetic dimension of experience in a little more detail, acknowledging from the outset that the discussion must be selective and very incomplete.
To begin at the most abstract level, the human condition has an inherently aesthetic dimension, insofar as lived experience is always shaped and mediated by language (Rorty 1989). That is, our linguistic concepts give order and form to our experience of the world and even to our conceptions of self. This can be understood aesthetically in the sense that human beings have had to create those linguistic concepts and frameworks, and infuse them with meaning, for neither the concepts nor their meanings were given to us in advance. The concepts and their meanings could have been otherwise, have been otherwise, and in fact are always and everywhere changing due to the inherent semantic instability of language and the ever-changing contexts of human life within which language is used (Fish 1989).
Furthermore, there is no way for us to step outside our linguistic constitutions and somehow perceive the world in an unmediated, pre-linguistic form; no way for us to shed the conceptual schemes through which we experience the world and see the world as it really is. Instead, reality is experienced through the lens of language, and the key point is that human beings created that lens. This is essentially all that is meant when philosophers talk of the linguistic or social ‘construction of reality’ (Berger and Luckman 1966), even if explanations are usually dressed up in impenetrable, post-structuralist jargon.
There are various levels to this creative process of constructing reality through our linguistic practices. As children we are educated into a ‘language game’ that we did not ourselves create—first upon someone’s knee, then through lessons ratified by wider society—but it is not as if this is a purely passive process. Humans both shape and are shaped by language, and this dialectical relationship is an ongoing process of co-creation and co-production. By inventing new concepts or vocabularies in response to a changing world, or creatively redefining the meanings given to existing concepts or vocabularies, human beings can literally reshape not just their experience of reality, but more fundamentally, the reality they experience, expanding the horizons of what can be thought, said, seen, and even felt.
This capacity to shape and reshape reality with the tool of language can be understood most clearly perhaps through the narratives we tell ourselves and each other about the world and our place in it. The universe, our histories, our relationships, and our lived experience all defy full and complete accounting by virtue of their infinite complexity. There is no way to tell The Whole Story, so to speak, for there is always more that could be said; other perspectives not yet considered; new events and situations that call into question previous interpretations or categorisations of the world, etc. Accordingly, when we find ourselves trying to make sense of the world, we are inevitably faced with the creative challenge of selecting which aspects of life to focus on and how to interpret or describe those limited aspects. In thus describing the world or our experience, we are effectively giving a narrative account of our lives—we are giving form to content—and in this sense we find ourselves in a position not dissimilar to the author tasked with telling a story (Nehamas 1985).
If the meaning of life does not announce itself to us or lie ‘out there’ in external metaphysical reality waiting to be discovered, it follows that we must instead create as an aesthetic project the meaning of our own lives, as well as collectively shape as an aesthetic project the societies in which we live, just as that society inevitably shapes us. As Jean-Paul Sartre (1964, p. 101) once noted: ‘You can always make something out of what you’ve been made into.’ The intention here is not to sound grandiose but simply to highlight the inherent aesthetic or creative dimension at the core of human existence—a point to which we will return.
Aesthetics also inquires less abstractly into our sensuous experience of the world. The traditional focus of analysis has been the experience of beauty: what is it about a particular painting, story, sonata, poem or vista that stirs our souls and causes us to feel such uplifting yet mysterious emotions? Is beauty a property of some objects and not others, capable of objective recognition by the discerning observer? Or is the experience of beauty a function of subjective tastes which we have been taught and internalised in culturally dependent ways? These are genuine aesthetic inquiries, but as noted above, the aesthetic domain need not be limited to the study or analysis of art, beauty, and taste. More generally, our sensuous or aesthetic experience of the world also encompasses our passions, joys, hopes, sorrows, and fears, as well as our capacities for a range and depth of impressions, moods, feelings, and emotions. Additionally, aesthetic practice can be understood variously as forms and modes of creative activity, including artistic production, but extending more generally to the application of creativity and imagination to the broader realm of life, as we endeavour to give form and order to the world and our experience of it.
Having sketched this thin definitional boundary around the domain of aesthetics, I will now explore, specifically, the aesthetic dimensions of life within the consumer cultures of advanced, industrial nations. I will touch on the foundational ‘story of progress’ which lies at the heart of industrial development; review typical aesthetic features of postmodern urban life, with its ubiquitous advertising and consumerist messaging; highlight the dominant cultural modes of self-creation through consumption; outline the way all this impacts affectively or sensuously on our bodies and psyches; and finally, I will address the question of ‘taste’ which drives and entrenches the industrial-consumerist aesthetic and explain how this aesthetic underpins the political economies of growth capitalism. Albeit fleeting, this brief critical review will provide the necessary background against which to contrast, in later sections, the possibility and nature of an aesthetics of degrowth, while also exposing the blurry boundary between aesthetics and political economy.
4. THE OLD STORY: A CRITIQUE OF INDUSTRIAL-CONSUMERIST AESTHETICS
Every individual and every society is an enactment of a story people tell themselves about the nature and purpose of their existence and of the world they live in (Berry 1999, Quinn 2017). Whether we conceive of ourselves as children of God, speaking apes, revolutionaries, artists, parents, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, or consumers—perhaps all of these things or none of them—in the end we all give a narrative structure to our lives, or at least adopt the default narrative of the dominant culture, usually unconsciously. The myths and stories we tell ourselves situate us in space and time, shape our perceptions of the present and guide us as we move into the future, influencing our interpretations of what is possible, proper, and important. As those individual narratives are woven together, the social fabric of a civilization takes form.
Put simply, the Grand Narrative of industrial civilization is a story of progress within which societies advance by way of continuous economic growth, rising affluence, and technological innovation (Sachs 1992). The very vocabulary of ‘development’ implies that some societies have reached maturity—the rich, developed nations of advanced capitalism—while the rest of the world is lacking the same degree of civilization and therefore is in need of more growth, more industrialisation, and more capitalism in order to civilise, just as healthy children must grow to maturity in order to fulfil their potential. So convinced are the ‘developed’ nations of their linear story of progress that over the last three centuries they have been imposing this narrative on the rest of the world, seeking to establish a ‘fully developed’ world, created in their own image.
Although this mode of industrial development has brought with it many benefits, the dominant story of progress is not without its anomalies—anomalies so deep, one might argue, that today they are threatening the coherency of the paradigm itself. As noted in the introduction, environmental scientists have been demonstrating that the global growth economy is destroying the ecological foundations of life, while from a social justice perspective, the critique has been that the system has produced socially corrosive inequalities of wealth and left billions in conditions of poverty (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009). These realities are often ignored or marginalised, but even when they are acknowledged the dominant political and economic response is simply to reassert ‘sustained growth’ as the only solution (Monbiot 2012), failing to recognise that growth may now be causing the very problems it claims it can solve.
What is most troubling of all, perhaps, is that even those individuals who have achieved the so-called ‘consumerist ideal’—the house, the car, the gadgets, the clothes, the travel, etc—all too often find themselves discontented despite their material abundance. In recent decades this finding has been established consistently and independently by a litany of sociological and psychological studies (for some reviews, see Lane 2000, Kasser 2002, Offer 2006, Frank 2009). Our civilisation’s defining goal appears to be misconceived. There seems to be an emptiness to affluence (McCormack 2001, Hamilton and Denniss 2005) that is never acknowledged in glossy advertisements, let alone discussed in schools or around the dinner table. It is perhaps the dominant culture’s final, unspeakable taboo.
Needless to say, within mainstream discourse these criticisms are rarely considered fundamental flaws in the basic story of industrial development, but instead are treated as matters of detail in need of refinement, a little tweaking around the edges, nothing technology, market mechanisms, and more economic growth cannot manage or resolve. So dominant and uncompromising is this narrative that its contingency and historicity are easily missed, as if there were no other stories to tell, no other paths of progress. This ‘myth of progress’ has reified into an ideology, often shaping the consciousness of even those it oppresses, marginalises, and alienates (Sachs 1992).
Moving from the civilisational level to that of individual subjectivity, the narrative of industrial development is merely regurgitated in a personalised form. The dominant ‘story of self’ in consumer cultures today is one that treats material advancement as the clearest indicator of social success and the best means of acquiring self-esteem, social status, happiness, and respect (Hamilton 2010a). Anthropologists and sociologists have done considerable work studying and analysing the ways in which people communicate through their consumption; how they convey social messages—tell stories—about who they are through the symbolic content of commodities (Schor 1998, Miller 2010). It would seem that commodities are purchased not just for their functionality or use-value but also or primarily for what they signify about the people who possess them. By accumulating a certain body of commodities, individuals in consumer societies thereby shape their identities through consumption, defining themselves not by what they do but by what they own. This provides a basis to update Descartes’ famous dictum in consumerist-existential terms: ‘I shop, therefore I am.’
While this process of self-creation through the symbolic content of consumption can be considered an aesthetic process, it should be acknowledged that individuals do not simply shape, but are also shaped by, the dominant consumerist aesthetic to which they are exposed. Members of advanced capitalist societies (and increasingly all people around the globe) are bombarded, literally thousands of times every day, with advertisements, images, and other more subtle cultural and institutional messages insisting that ‘more is better’. These cultural messages are devised by sophisticated marketers, highly skilled at manipulating people by preying on their deepest insecurities or emotional needs (Anon 2017). It is no exaggeration to state that the implicit (sometimes explicit) message in every advertisement is: ‘Your life is unsatisfactory as it is, but with this commodity you can attain happiness, beauty, meaning, love, respect, etc’. The rich and famous are glorified and celebrated at every turn, serving only to entrench the assumption that money means fame, success, and social admiration. There is barely a social space or even a private space today where one can find sanctuary from the onslaught of the consumerist aesthetic. We internalise the world ‘out there’ even as we produce and reproduce it. What we are exposed to, and what we give our attention to, we become (see Bauer et al 2012).
The consumerist-industrial aesthetic is compromised further (or compromises us further) as people in highly developed societies today find themselves evermore disconnected from nature. This is not to defend or idealise some mythical pre-industrial ‘wild’ but only to acknowledge that ‘nature deficit disorder’ is a real condition, threating to become an epidemic, albeit largely undiagnosed (Louv 2011). Other cultural theorists investigate a strange existential condition they label ‘affluenza’—a spiritual malaise of sorts that afflicts even those who have achieved the consumerist ideal (Hamilton and Denniss 2005). The causes are numerous and varied. In urban and suburban contexts, the natural environment has been progressively covered with concrete or tarseal; skies are scarred with wires, power lines, and the contrails of aircraft; lives are lived mostly indoors under artificial lights, in front of computers or machines, disconnected from the changing seasons; the long, typically monotonous working day often begins and ends with a slow commute to or from work, in loud, heavy traffic, past the ubiquitous advertising billboards which impose themselves upon one’s attention; only to be so tired upon the return home that there is no life-energy to do anything but sit in front of the television or computer, in ‘nice clothes’, eating a microwave meal and sedating oneself with alcohol or drugs in order to fight off the ennui. I am being polemical here, of course, and painting with too broad a brush, but the picture is accurate enough as far as it goes. Consumer culture seems to have failed to fulfil its promise of a meaningful and satisfying life, even as it destroys the planet. Is it any wonder that when Theodore Roszak (1972, p. xxviii) looked into the eyes of modern consumers he saw only faces ‘twisted with despair’?
The point is that consumerism is not just a relationship to material culture. It can also be understood as a mode of existence, an aesthetic state of being-in-the-world, one that seems to be generally coloured with a mood of disenchantment, disaffection, disconnection, and disillusionment. The real genius of consumerism, however, seems to be in how it seduces people into believing that, no matter how affluent they might become, the main things lacking from their lives are money and possessions. Thus the ‘iron cage’ of consumerism succeeds because it fails (Jackson 2009), ensuring that the vicious circle of consumption continues. The spiritual malaise only deepens (Myers 2001), for as the Parisian graffiti of 1968 stated: ‘those who lack imagination cannot imagine what is lacking’.
To better understand the industrial-consumerist aesthetic and its implications on consumption practices, we could turn to the question of ‘taste’. In the 20th century, French intellectual Pierre Bourdieu, in his seminal text, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984), took aesthetics beyond philosophy and into sociology, by demonstrating empirically that taste is closely related to class. What forms of clothing, music, literature, interior décor, leisure, etc, a person or household consumes is obviously a matter of taste, but in his research Bourdieu discovered that children are taught their tastes from an early age, and what they are taught is shaped along class lines. This aesthetic education becomes internalised making taste seem natural or objective, yet this ends up serving an ideological function by entrenching certain cultures of consumption that demarcate class. At some intuitive level it seems this has long been understood, given that practices of ‘conspicuous consumption’ that deliberately show off certain levels of wealth to emphasise high status have been discussed at least since Thorstein Veblen’s work in The Theory of the Leisure Class (2009 ). Bourdieu (1984, p. 358) argued that the acceptance of dominant forms of taste is a form of ‘symbolic violence’, because individuals in lower classes do not always have the economic or cultural means of accessing ‘highbrow’ cultures of consumption and are thus dominated by taste, forever trying to conform to the reigning aesthetic for fear of being socially ostracised by appearing crude, vulgar or tasteless.
Anthropologist Mary Douglas, offers further insight into how cultural tastes shape expectations about consumption, arguing that what is considered appropriate or necessary consumption is always culturally dependent. People do not merely consume to meet biophysical needs but also to meet social needs. In fact, Douglas argued that ‘an individual’s main object in consumption is to create the social universe and to find in it a creditable place’ (Douglas 2006 , p. 243). This means that what are considered acceptable or appropriate practices of consumption in one society or social setting may be very different in an alternative social setting, such that even the notion of poverty can be understood as something that is culturally specific and not merely a biophysical universal. A particular level of consumption that is considered wealthy or prestigious in one society might be so low in another society as to be shameful; a particular object that is admired as tasteful or refined in one culture might be considered tasteless or uncouth in another. This can function to lock people into practices of consumption higher than they may feel necessary, not because they actually desire a certain level or manner of consumption but because they naturally desire social legitimation and acceptance, knowing that there are cultural expectations in this regard. Transcending consumerism therefore means overcoming aesthetic obstacles regarding taste.
One particularly pernicious aesthetic phenomenon in relation to consumption is the apparent need for uniformity in consumption practices, a phenomenon known by consumer researchers today as ‘the Diderot effect’. Someone once gave Dennis Diderot (the French enlightenment thinker) a beautiful, new scarlet robe, and without thinking he discarded his old one. But the next morning as he sat down to write he noticed that his old desk no longer did his robe justice. So he upgraded his desk. Then he realised that his chair, tapestries and bookshelves looked dated against his new acquisitions, and slowly his entire material surroundings were upgraded. Juliet Schor (1998, p. 145) describes this taste for uniformity in the following way:
The purchase of a new home is the impetus for replacing old furniture; a new jacket makes little sense without the right skirt to match; an upgrade in china can’t really be enjoyed without a corresponding upgrade in glassware. This need for unity and conformity in our lifestyle choices is part of what keeps the consumer escalator moving ever upward. And ‘escalator’ is the operative metaphor: when the acquisition of each item on a wish list adds another item, and more, to our ‘must-have’ list, the pressure to upgrade our stock of stuff is relentlessly unidirectional, always ascending.
This highlights the insidious effect that taste can have on our consumption practices, and how the growth economy more broadly is driven by (just as it produces) the seemingly insatiable desires of the modern consumer. Few people, it seems, have a taste for sufficiency. It should be noted, however, that Diderot eventually found himself sitting in the stylish formality of his new surroundings regretting the work of this ‘impervious scarlet robe [that] forced everything else to conform with its own elegant tone’ (Diderot 1769). Diderot had been master of his old robe but became slave of the new one. ‘Opulence has its obstacles,’ he concluded (Diderot 1969), a lesson we might have much to learn from today.
In this section I have attempted to provide some insight into various aesthetic dimensions of consumption practices in advanced industrial societies. The purpose has been to show that transcending consumerism and the growth economy will depend on first overcoming various aesthetic obstacles, practices, and tastes. These obstacles include the stories and myths we tell about ourselves and societies; the ways we shape our identities and communicate through consumption; the disaffection and alienation that evidently is widely experienced in consumer societies, even by those who have achieved the consumerist ideal; and the way dominant conceptions of taste and social legitimation with regard to material living standards entrench materialistic conceptions of the good life.
With the basic foundations laid, I will now outline Michel Foucault’s notion of an ‘aesthetics of existence’ and then explore its relevance to consumerism, industrialisation, and the degrowth alternative. The thesis of this paper is that a transformation in our aesthetic relationships to the world and indeed to ourselves will need to precede any deep revision in the politico-economic order of growth capitalism in the direction of degrowth. In making this argument I begin by examining the aesthetic dimensions of human subjectivity and then offer some political and macroeconomic reflections.
5. DEGROWTH AS AN ‘AESTHETICS OF EXISTENCE’
Throughout the Western philosophic tradition it has been argued, or simply assumed, that beneath the various historical manifestations of human subjectivity there lies an ahistorical or transcendental ‘subject’ or ‘nature’ that all human beings share. The notion of a universal form of the subject is epitomised in the work of Immanuel Kant, who argued that human beings are endowed in common with rational faculties and that by correctly employing those faculties we can determine, on rational grounds, the universal moral rules that ought to govern human life. Michel Foucault (2000) rejected this universal notion of the ‘subject’ and the idea of a universalisable moral code that flowed from it. Just as Friedrich Nietzsche had announced the ‘Death of God’ to signify the loss of faith in a transcendental basis for morality, Foucault (2002, p. 422) famously anticipated the ‘Death of Man’ to signify the loss of faith in a basis for morality that was somehow grounded in a universal ‘human nature’.
If there is no universal form of the subject but rather only historically specific forms of subjectivity, what are the implications of this on how we understand the human situation? It is in response to this type of question or self-questioning that Foucault began developing his notion of ethics as ‘an aesthetics of existence’. Rather than try to determine the moral code that universally deserves human obedience, Foucault’s approach essentially was instead to ask: ‘What sort of person should I become?’ ‘From the idea that the self is not given to us,’ Foucault pronounced, ‘I think that there is only one consequence, we have to create ourselves as a work of art’ (Foucault 2000, p. 262).
This aesthetic metaphor strikes many people as strange, for we are not generally accustomed to talking about life as a work of art. We might want to say, for example, that life is one thing, art is another, and that these distinct categories should not be conflated. But the distinction between art and life was precisely what Foucault was trying to question. In fact, it can be argued that Foucault was not actually using art as a metaphor here at all. That is, he was not proposing that we are related to our own lives like the way the artist is related to his or her raw materials; instead, he was proposing that we are related to our lives as artists, whose raw material is life itself. As he once lamented in an interview (Foucault 2000, p. 261):
[I]n our society art has become something which is related to objects, and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialised or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?
Foucault’s reasoning here is unusually straightforward: if the nature of the self is not given to us in advance—that is, if there is no ‘true self’ to which we should be trying to interpret correctly or discover—then it follows, by default, that we must create ourselves. We are not, however, given a blank canvas to work with, so to speak; which is to say, we do not get to create ourselves from scratch, since our identities are by and large a product of linguistic, social and institutional forces beyond our control or choosing. Nobody, for example, gets to choose the categories which structure their perception or interpretation of the world; rather, as noted above, we are all educated into—or subjected to—a form of life as we grow up, and through that process we find ourselves embedded within elaborate structures of power/ knowledge that both enable and constrict our thoughts and actions (Foucault 1977). This education and those power/knowledge structures shape who we are as individuals and they define the nature of our subjectivity.
Nevertheless, Foucault argued we can also act upon ourselves, act upon our socially constructed subjectivities, through processes that he variously called ‘self-fashioning’, ‘care of the self’, ‘techniques of the self’, or ‘arts of the self’. Foucault (1990, p. 37) defined these Greek ‘arts of existence’ as: ‘those intentional and voluntary actions by which men [sic] not only set themselves rules of conduct, but also seek to transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to make their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria’. Through these processes, in which the self engages the self, human beings have the potential to transform their subjectivities in much the same way a sculptor transforms a given lump of clay. The subject, Foucault (2000, p. 290) insisted, ‘is not a substance… [i]t is a form’, and what form that subject takes is up to us as individual agents, at least in part. This is the creative challenge—one might say the aesthetic challenge—with which we are all burdened. We must, as Foucault (2000, p. 262) proposed, ‘create ourselves as a work of art’.
To be clear, Foucault’s argument was not that we should try to make ourselves as beautiful as possible. Instead, creativity rather than beauty was the primary aesthetic value that defined his aesthetics of existence. He was not calling on us to be ‘dandies’ in the tradition of Oscar Wilde or Charles Baudelaire; rather, he was calling on us to avoid being merely products of our socialisation and to instead exercise our imaginations in response to the question: ‘what sort of person should I become?’
How, then, is this related to the present focus on degrowth? In a previous essay I explored in detail the notion of voluntary simplicity (or simple living) as an aesthetics of existence (see Alexander 2015b). I argued that because we are socially constructed beings, it should come as no surprise that our modes of subjectivity in advanced, industrial societies have been shaped by the dominant social and institutional forces that celebrate consumerism as a way of life, thereby marginalising consumption as a subject of ethical concern. Far from challenging us to explore lifestyles of reduced consumption in response to the ecological and social justice imperatives of our time, dominant forms of culture, economics, and politics call on us to consume as much as possible ‘for the good of the economy.’ Given that we will all have internalised these cultural narratives to some extent, often unconsciously, I argued that ethical activity today may require us to engage the self by the self for the purpose of refusing who we are—insofar as we are uncritical consumers—and creating new, post-consumerist forms of subjectivity.
The self-creation of these new forms of subjectivity is a necessary first step in any transition to degrowth society, for the simple reason that until there is a culture that embraces voluntary simplicity, the social underpinnings for degrowth will be absent (Alexander 2013). In other words, a politics or macroeconomics of degrowth will not be desired within consumerist cultures that seek and expect ever-rising material living standards, and politicians will never campaign for degrowth if it is clear there is no social support for it. So the emergence of a culture of voluntary simplicity seems to be a prerequisite to any degrowth transition, and the first step in this cultural shift involves transforming our subjectivities beyond the consumerist default setting. Among other things, this will involve taking seriously the question, ‘how much is enough?’, and trying to reshape our relationships to material culture in line with the aesthetic values of balance and harmony.
Nevertheless, a re-fashioning of the self in line with voluntary simplicity will not be enough on its own to produce a degrowth society, owing to the fact that consumption practices take place within structural constraints. Within consumer capitalism it can be very difficult, at times even impossible, to consume in ways that accord with one’s conception of justice and sustainability, because structural constraints can lock us into high-consumption, high-carbon modes of life (Sanne 2002). For these reasons voluntary simplicity as an aesthetics of existence is a necessary though not sufficient response to existing crises. It lacks a systemic perspective, which is why I have been drawn to expand the analysis in terms of ‘degrowth as an aesthetics of existence.’ This is intended to highlight the fact that current crises are ultimately systemic crises that require a systemic response—not merely a cultural response—even if that systemic or political response begins with the aesthetic self-transformation of our given subjectivities; begins, as J.K Gibson-Graham (2006) would put it, with a ‘politics of the subject’.
A systemic analysis obviously requires a political and macroeconomic statement exploring new structures and systems suitable for a degrowth society. I have attempted such a statement elsewhere (Alexander 2016), which I will not attempt to summarise here. Instead, I want to explore the aesthetic foundations of a politics or economics of degrowth, by extending Foucault’s aesthetics of existence beyond the domain of the subject and propose a more holistic or systemic approach, based on Marcuse’s work, that conceives of society, not merely the self, ‘as a work of art’ (Marcuse 2007, Ch. 4).
5.1 Society as a work of art
What might it mean to speak of society as a work of art? Is it merely a degeneration into breezy, New Age theoretical nonsense? I ask the reader to resist such an interpretation and dare to take this perspective seriously. To begin with, a case has already been made that human experience in and of the world is socially constructed, mediated by linguistic categories and practices, the shaping and reshaping of which is an ongoing creative process. Cultures are, and have always been, founded upon stories, myths, and narratives that are always evolving, defining the contours of civilisation. We are both creatures and creators of this aesthetic process—both product and producer—and the present point is that when asking political and economic questions about how best to structure our societies, we inevitably offer answers shaped by the underlying stories of self and society. In short, I would argue that politics and economics are tools in the service of story. Crafting these stories is an aesthetic process of giving form to the content of our lives and societies, akin to a collaborative work of art.
It follows that a politics or macroeconomics of degrowth will depend upon an underlying and prior aesthetic revolution in our cultural stories of self and society. We need new visions of progress and prosperity. This suggests that before there can be systemic transformation in the existing societal structures there must be an imaginative redefinition of the meanings of many of our key concepts, categories, values, goals, and visions. After all, notions like freedom, justice, happiness, wealth, and progress will need to be transformed if degrowth is to make sense. I believe this is not so much a philosophical or scientific task about finding the ‘essence’ or ‘truth’ of such concepts and the relationships between them; it is better understood as a literary or aesthetic challenge, in the sense that the creative redescription of concepts and relationships need to be shown to make more sense within a New Story than within the Old Story.
In the Old Story, for example, a person might think they are free and happy because they have managed to acquire the largest house in the street; the thoughts, feelings, actions, and institutions of society all support this interpretation. In developing and prefiguring a New Story, however, another person might realise they are free and happy because they don’t need a large house to live a full and meaningful life. Freedom and happiness mean very different things depending on the underlying stories of self and society, and if politics is partly about securing and maximising freedom, and economics is partly about advancing happiness, then obviously a restructuring of society will depend on a prior reimagining of how we understand fundamental terms like freedom and happiness. As more people develop new ways of seeing and understanding things, they begin to reimagine their lives, make different decisions, develop new hopes and dreams, engage people in new ways, and sooner or later the old ways die out; new thoughts, feelings, and actions begin to call into question the coherence of the Old Story, and pressure begins to mount on the laws and institutions of society. Overtime, either incrementally or in bursts of discontinuity and rupture, society is remade according to the new vision or visions, limited only by the collective imagination in context.
Even when we accept that there are physical limits to growth, this need not limit our lives, just as the limited number of keys on a piano has never limited the pianist. There will never come a time when all the beautiful sonatas have been written. Similarly, there are an infinite number of meaningful and fulfilling forms of life consistent with living a life of material sufficiency, which is to say, a life based on a certain material content can take any number of forms. To deny this, I would suggest, betrays a failure of imagination, even if the practice of material sufficiency in a growth-orientated society is deeply challenging: an ongoing creative process not a destination. Degrowth as an aesthetics of existence is about, first, imagining the various forms such a society of material sufficiency may take, and secondly, working toward creating such a society—individually, socially, economically and politically—in order for the entire community of life to flourish within sustainable bounds. This raises questions not merely about what to do in order to create a degrowth society that is shaped by such aesthetic values as balance and harmony, but also questions about how our aesthetic experience of the world may change during the transition to such a society. For better or for worse, aesthetic matters are fundamental both to society and the individual.
There is much more to say about the notion of a conceiving of society as a work of art, both in defence and in response to potential criticisms. Nevertheless, I would now like to bring the analysis down to Earth, so to speak, and explore in very practical terms—both individually and at a societal level—what an aesthetics of degrowth might look like or feel like in the real world, and how it might contrast with the dominant industrial-consumerist aesthetics already reviewed.
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