Skip to main content
eScholarship
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Berkeley

Spoiled Distinctions: Everyday Aesthetics in French Modernism

  • Author(s): Freed-Thall, Hannah Isadora
  • Advisor(s): Lucey, Michael
  • et al.
Abstract

"Spoiled Distinctions" is a study of experimental aesthetic concepts in Marcel Proust, Nathalie Sarraute, Roland Barthes, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Pierre Bourdieu. Working at the crossroads of aesthetics, phenomenology, and the sociology of culture, I examine instances of "weak" critique--occasions when, instead of assimilating perceptions into a powerful summary, a perceiver is compelled to forge a more proximate, partial, and flexible relation to the objects at hand. My approach to aesthetics is pragmatic: I borrow Bourdieu's definition of aesthetic taste as an orienting force that produces and maintains social distinctions. I elaborate an alternative use of the theory, however, foregrounding the disorienting potential of inestimable objects and unspecifiable affects. The opening chapter, an exploration of Proust's involvement in a belle époque diamond-fabrication scam, provides a cultural context for this author's fascination with the volatility of aesthetic value. Each of the following chapters identifies a modernist aesthetic paradigm that revises Kantian categories: the non-instrumental beautiful becomes the "quelconque," or "whatever"; the heroic sublime becomes the gentler, intermediary concept of "nuance"; and the extreme dysphoria of disgust is downsized into the troublingly minor "douceâtre," or too-sweet. I argue that by staging scenes in which the ordinariness of things thwarts critical appraisal, Proust and Sarraute develop alternatives to the high modernist paradigm equating aesthetic pleasure with cultural refinement.

Main Content
Current View