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The Body in Space: In Search of a Sensuous Dwelling in the Space of Accumulation


This dissertation asks after the possibility of an unalienated relationship to the aesthetic dimension within the confines of the capitalist space of accumulation, and makes the argument for a conceptual foundation from which to consider living well under conditions of subjection. It does this by considering how aspects of 20th century French phenomenology – conceptualizations of the body, of the aesthetic, and of space – might be brought to bear on questions that pertain to the dialectics of captivity and freedom under market capitalism. These questions are further opened by the works of bell hooks and Herman Wallace, whose contemporary projects take on a more explicit political urgency. In this way, the dissertation seeks to bring to the fore ways of reimagining the aesthetic through the question of dwelling in ways that are not free from the forms of subjection inherent in capitalism, but that nonetheless remain unassimilable to market logics.

The first and second chapters of this work trace the conceptual foundations through which the aesthetic might be approached as a structuring force of lived experience. The first chapter turns to Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space and draws forth a Nietzschean account of the body in space. Reading the image of a tightrope walker that appears early in Lefebvre’s critique, the chapter attends to the conditions under which the body in space is capable of recuperating an aesthetic knowledge from the logics of abstract space. The subsequent chapter turns from Lefebvre’s account of the space of capitalist accumulation to Merleau-Ponty’s concept of flesh in order to foreground the structuring poetics of the body in space. I then turn to Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, opening onto a critical notion of “aesthetic dwelling.” Aesthetic dwelling is the fulcrum of the dissertation project, offering an account of life structured by felicitous experience of aesthetic dialectics. I read his prioritizing of the felicitous as an ontological move towards a space in which living can be taken up as a poetic and free experience; here, being does not find its dwelling in experiences of oppression. The final chapter addresses the question of accessing this lived experience of the aesthetic under the negative pressures of market capitalism. I focus on the aesthetic subject of capitalism as it emerges in rhetorics of ethical consumption and on the notion of luxury as it evokes and distorts the aesthetic’s non-utilitarian function. The dissertation concludes with an engagement of the “dream home,” first as the spatiality of the aesthetic subject, and then as it emerges as a collaborative artwork between Herman Wallace and Jackie Sumell. There, I read Wallace’s dream home as a critical site of disidentification with luxury that opens onto a different, lived sense of the aesthetic.

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