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Spoiled Distinctions: Everyday Aesthetics in French Modernism


"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.

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