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"Aesthetics, Sovereignty, Biopower: From Schiller’s Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen to Goethe’s Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten"

Redfield argues that the very density of aesthetics means that biopolitics may not be exactly what contemporary theorists claim it to be. As much as aesthetics can be read as an extension of biopolitics, biopolitical sovereignty finds itself subject to the technicity of aesthetics. Explicitly a political response to and solution for the violence of the French Revolution, Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man outlines an aesthetic program that aims for nothing less than a body at one with the law. What Redfield focuses on, however, is not just the violence that sovereignty performs and disavows, but also the force that it exploits yet cannot control. To elaborate this claim, he turns to a text published in the same year (1795) as Schiller’s treatise, Goethe’s Conversations of German Refugees, seven stories that are intended by their refugee tellers to embody the promises of aesthetic culture to restore the moral and political order of the ancien régime after the violence of the French Revolution. The controlling figure for this order is, in the words of the leader of the refugees, the Baroness, der gute Ton, a literal translation of the French bon ton. Yet Ton in German also means “noise.” Exploiting this double meaning, Redfield traces a remarkably consistent pattern by which sovereign responses to shocking noises in the text reproduce rather than put an end to the revolutionary shock such noises are associated with. Insofar as Goethe’s text is itself an aesthetico-pedagogical effort to disseminate den guten Ton, it allegorizes its own inability to rigorously distinguish between the shock it to which it responds and the shock upon which it turns.
December 2012

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