Peripateticism: Janet Wolff’s essay "Groundless Beauty"

In a collection of essays under the title The Aesthetics of Uncertainty, Janet Wolff discusses the possibility of judging beauty after postmodernism. Since the topic of uncertainty is of central importance to the peripatetic aesthetic, I would like to make a few comments on Wolff’s position.

Predicated on the argument that we cannot return to the transcendental universals of the enlightenment, but desiring a means to determine whether a painting is “good” (see discussion of Kathleen McEnery on page 14), she looks to ground aesthetic judgment in uncertainty. To her, this approach is committed to the possibility of achieving consensus about questions of value – morality, justice, truth – all now understood as provisional (21-22). “The provisionality and contingency of value is acknowledged – this is the debt to critical thought of the late twentieth century. But the possibility of arguing for values -. For principled positions – is retained. Rather than defending absolute or essential moralities and political values, postcritical thought focuses on the emergence and development of shared discourses of value in the context of community” (23).
This orientation is tantamount to a positing of limited universals as we conceive of them in peripateticism. 

Basically, it takes this form:

Values are established by community:

                -> Results in multiple values for a society made up of communities
                               Community A shares the value of stimulus, activity, social work
                               Community B shares the value of a binary life divided between suffering and celebration
                               Community C values the struggle to succeed

A work of art, which Wolff wants to designate as beautiful and we want to view as commensurate with the contemporary Zeitgeist and simultaneously capable of offering a different perceptual framework for the apprehension of being, must incorporate this diversity without privileging one position over another and returning to the discredited transcendental universals. In literature, this end can be achieved structurally through characters infiltrating the narration through indirect discourse transposed and the commentary through indirect discourse untransposed. In the fine arts, it is less clear to me, with a literary perspective, how exactly this would be achieved, though in my own dilettantish paintings, I have attempted to alter the structure by painting representational pictures (mostly portraits of the characters in the narratives of Orb Zero) over window foam on wood to create an uneven surface.


Wolff, Janet. The Aesthetics of Uncertainty. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. 

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