Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Habermas' Spontaneous Orders of the Arts

In "Modernity -- An Incomplete Project," published in The Anti-Aesthetic (Hal Faster, ed.), Jurgen Habermas describes a sociology of artistic production that has a strong resemblance to the spontaneous orders of the arts I describe.

For example, he points out that Max Weber (a favorite of Austrian economists), "characterized cultural modernity as the separation of the substantive reason expressed in religion and metaphysics into three autonomous spheres. They are: science, morality and art. These came to be differentiated because the unified worldivews of religion and metaphysics" (8). One could also argue that economics is yet another sphere that also separated out around this time, first giving rise to mercantilism (which is what religious economics first becomes when liberated), then to capitalism. Each of these in Weber's list have "specific aspects of validity: truth, normative rightness, authenticity and beauty" (8). Out of these drives come their spontaneous orders, and out of these spontaneous orders come immanent criticism, typically associated with the emergence of certain professionals. These spontaneous orders attempt to answer "questions of knowledge, or of justice and morality, or of taste. Scientific discourse, theories of morality, jurisprudence, and the production and criticism of art could in turn be institutionalized" and experts in each area could emerge, meaning "There appear the structures of cognitive-instrumental, of moral-practical and of aesthetic-expressive rationality, each of these under the control of specialists who seem more adept at being logical in these particular ways than other people are" (8), creating distance between experts, and between experts and the public. The former could be bridged by interdisciplinary scholars; the latter could be bridged by public intellectuals -- meaning we would have to have a few around (rather than demagogues posing as such). Ultimately, Habermas argues that Enlightenment modernity consists in efforts "to develop objective science, universal morality and law, and autonomous art according to their inner logic" (8), which is part of the very description of what a spontaneous order is. However, this is a project that fails or succeeds based on the approach one uses -- constructivism fails; gradualist spontaneous orders with immanent criticism succeed.

Most impressive is Habermas' description of the emergence of the full spontaneous orders of the arts. Habermas gives a precise description of the process of the emergence of the spontaneous orders of the arts and its consequences in creating ever-greater value subjectivity and specialization:

Greatly oversimplifying, I would say that in the history of modern art one can detect a trend towards ever greater autonomy in the definition and practice of art. The category of "beauty" and the domain of beautiful objects were first constituted in the Renaissance. In the course of the 18th century, literature, the fine arts and music were institutionalized as activities independent from sacred and courtly life. Finally, around the middle of the 19th century an aestheticist conception of art emerged, which encouraged the artist to produce his work according to the distinct consciousness of art for art's sake. The autonomy of the aesthetic sphere could then become a deliberate project: the talented artist could lend authentic experience to those experiences he had in encountering his own decentered subjectivity, detached from the constraints of routinized cognition and everyday action. (9)


This modernist transformation was all the more painfully realized, the more art alienated itself from life and withdrew into the untouchableness of complete autonomy. Out of such emotional currents finally gathered those explosive energies which unloaded in the surrealist attempt to blow up the autarkical sphere of art and to force a reconciliation of art and life. (10)

Habermas here should have said "ironic attempt," as there are few movements more autarkical and less connected to "real life" than surrealism, as Habermas himself argues:

These experiments have served to bring back to life, and to illuminate all the more glaringly, exactly those structures of art which they were meant to dissolve. They gave a new legitimacy, as ends in themselves, to appearance as the medium of fiction, to the transcendence of the artwork over society, to the concentrated and planned character of artistic production as well as to the special cognitive status of judgments of taste. (10)

In other words, their very attempt to overthrow the result of there being a spontaneous order of the arts only worked to reinforce its internal logic. The same is true of postmodernist works.

In the end, Habermas argues that the project of modernism "aims at a differentiated relinking of modern culture with an everyday praxis that still depends on vital heritages, but would be impoverished through mere traditionalism" (13). While this is about as good a description of spontaneous order as Hayek described it as one could want, Habermas nevertheless manages to fail to see that free market economies are but another example of the very kinds of spontaneous orders he had been describing. This is, sadly, to be expected from even the best of Europe's intellectuals.

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