Loyola University Chicago
Critical theory has traditionally aimed to identify unrealized potentials for social emancipation by scrutinizing society’s economic, cultural, and political spheres. However, since Jürgen Habermas’s highly rationalistic communicative paradigm became the hegemonic position in the Frankfurt School, some of the leading representatives of contemporary critical theory have been ill-equipped to account for social phenomena that appear in sensuous, or aesthetic, rather than discursive means (Rockhill 2014, 93; Ingram 1991, 67; Goktepe 2018).
This paper contributes to the recent literature that points to this deficiency. It does so by an analysis of the phenomenon of “mass dandyism.” I call mass dandyism the reclaiming, by subjugated social groups, of modes of aesthetic enjoyment and self-expression traditionally associated with upper and wealthier classes. I claim that, when subjugated groups performatively appropriate a kind of aesthetic self-expression that is not originally afforded to them, they are—often unreflectively—raising normative claims. These can be, for instance, claims for recognition of their existence as a group (Honneth 1995; Deranty and Renault 2007), disputes over the sharing of regimes of sensibility (Rancière 2004; 2012), or forms of resistance to a particular exercise of power (Foucault 2001; Pickett 2016).
The article is divided into three parts. In part one, I review the methodological question of what sources can serve a critical theory of society that relies on an immanent or reconstructive method. I suggest that a critical theory of society should account for normatively relevant claims that are expressed in aesthetic, sensuous, or performative ways. I claim that modes of self-expression are important tools for diagnosing normative expectations (Gaus 2013; Goffman 1971; 1974).
In part two, I turn to the phenomenon of mass dandyism. I resort to three such historical occurrences, which I consider archetypal of a popular reclaiming of elite aesthetics. First, the Cangaço, a nomadic form of rural banditry in the deserts of northeastern Brazil that took place until the 1940s. While being pillagers of wealthy landowners, the gang members were also known for their conspicuous and carefully tailored visual identity. They would wear extravagant silk and taffeta scarves, French perfumes, drink expensive British whisky looted from their victims, and spend hours sewing and embroidering their clothes. Second, the Congolese subculture of La Sape, a fashion trend that has existed since the early 20th century. Congolese sapeurs are lower-class men who, initially influenced by French colonizers, would wear exuberantly colorful clothes, becoming fervent connoisseurs of the latest fashion trends from Paris. Finally, the ballroom culture of New York City in the late 20th century, whereby a confluence of disenfranchised African American and Latin American LGBTQ communities created means of self-expression through music, dance, and fashion, enacting the aristocratic aesthetic ideals of glamour and “realness.”
In part three, I conclude by claiming that mass dandyism represents a form of popular “seizure” of aristocratic, elite means of aesthetic self-expression. By disputing the boundaries of given aesthetic configurations—reflectively or unreflectively—subjugated groups articulate social experiences and normative expectations that are relevant to a critical theory of society.
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