resistance means raising the question of opposition, of denying all attempts at
neutralizing opposites, which would be typical of ideological construction,
either political or aesthetic. This essay investigates the meaning and the
reasons of resistance according to a theoretical, aesthetic, and cultural point
of view. The thesis is that resistance has to be considered as an articulation
of difference, and that means following a different logic of thought, no longer
rigid or monolithic but plural, like a new grammar, syntax, and practice of creativity,
challenge, provocation, multiplicity, and pluralism. In this sense the
aesthetics of resistance is an art of difference, the capability of creating
cultural formations that provide elegance and refinement.
challenge, difference, intellectual
1. Resistance and the question of opposites
What do we mean when we talk about resistance?
Considering resistance requires, first and foremost, finding the right words and
concepts for doing so. Thus when we speak of resistance, the question we must
ask ourselves is how to contemplate opposition?
To speak of resistance is indeed to raise the problem of opposites,
which in turn means responding to the problem of conflict.
If we begin with the recognition that opposition does
indeed exist, a recognition that denies all attempts at neutralizing opposites,
which would be typical of all ideological construction, either political or
we must recognize that, faced with society’s growing complex processes,
opposition can no longer be thought of in traditional terms or according to
past perspectives. This means that it can no longer be contemplated according
to classical logic related to the concepts of identity, which does not
recognize the existence of the other, of the heterogeneous, and of the
distinct. But neither can it be considered
from the dialectic point of view, still dominant in the twentieth century, that
is based on the concept of contradiction: the battle of opposites would lead
to overcoming conflict through dialectical contraposition between positive and
So if the logic of identity and dialectic logic are
now excluded, and even the logic of so-called polarity in which opposites are
considered entities presupposing and sustaining each other reciprocally, four
other fundamental perspectives, each distinct and irreconcilable, can be
characterized. All e of these propose ways
of contemplating opposition and present several other theoretical answers to the
problem of opposites.
In short, the first position contemplates the problem
of opposites by reducing conflict, by pacifying and harmonizing opponents.
This is the typical solution of the aesthetic tradition, which always seeks to
reconcile opposites, overcoming all conflict, and which is found today in
discourses that propose to rediscover and rehabilitate notions of beauty and
harmony. A second position, on the contrary, proposes
making opposites radical and conflict extreme. In the aesthetic field this is
manifested by appealing to notions of the sublime, giving rise to what we could
call a kind of aesthetics of terror. A third position, on the other hand, moves
towards the relativization and the problematizing of opposites, towards a
presentation of the terms of conflict based on irony and masking. This is the
course considered “postmodern” by many, which has distinct exponents and
representatives all over the world. Finally, a fourth position is one that could
be based on the notion of difference, which contemplates opposites in a
non-symmetrical, non-dialectical, non-polar way, through the concepts of
acuteness and provocation.
Without entering into the individual merits of these
situations, each having its own virtues and defects, the only one that appears
open to an effective experience of conflict is that which allows for
contemplating opposites, and therefore resistance, as the articulation of
difference. But what does it mean to understand resistance as the articulation
of the difference?
2. The articulation of the difference
First of all, resistance goes in the opposite direction
of aesthetic conciliation. It moves
towards an experience of conflict larger than dialectic contradiction, towards
the exploration of opposition between terms not symmetrically polar to each
other. Hence, resistance presupposes a logic of difference understood as
non-identity, as dissimilarity larger than the logical concept of diversity and
the dialectic of distinction. So then, as we know, it has been characteristic
of poststructuralist and postmodern thought to add the question of the difference
to the agenda of theoretical and political debate. The topic of difference is
one of the most important results we have inherited from these thought
experiences, and which we can still apply today in the arena of contemporary
In its best theorization, and here I think specially of
Jean-François Lyotard, one must recognize
that postmodernism has left us with the tendency of attuning our sensibility to
differences, honing our capacity to accept the undetermined, the shapeless, the
immense. It has accustomed us to resist simplification, the banal, the
univocal, while instilling in us the pleasure of incessant search, of continued
shifting of horizons of hope; in short, it has opened up to us the channels of
plurality, multiplicity, difference. Thanks to postmodernism we have learned to
mistrust everything from indubitable certainties, absolute principles, and essentialist
and totalizing visions, to univocal and comforting answers.
Understood as siding oneself with a distinct logic of
thought, no longer monolithic but rather plural, nonlinear and discontinuous, following
transversal paths, we must then recognize that postmodernity from now on, with
its logic of difference and plurality, represents an irrefutable cultural
3. Witz and agudezas as substitute
But today, with a new millennium already under way, it
appears we are escorting something paradoxical.
On the one hand we have an inflation of the Other and, consequently on
the other band, a reification of its concept. For example, within the
framework of the political, as seen from the European geographical standpoint,
the rightwingers of xenophobic tendencies assume their role as carriers of
ideas of difference by celebrating their diversity, specificity, and exalting
them excessively, never negating them. Take the case, for example, of the
diffusion of the so-called Front National in France, of the PVV of Geert
Wilders in the Netherlands, and in my own country, Italy, of the Lega Nord (Northern League).
In all these cases, and we could add many others, we are obviously dealing with
reactionary positions resulting in a process of essentializing difference. Differences of identity are rendered absolute by connecting them to the
exaltation of national, regional, provincial, and local parameters, to the
vindication of petty individualist, egotistic, and partial interests. We find
ourselves, hence, face to face with ideas of difference that are absolutely
ideological, determinist, discriminatory and intrinsically xenophobic, as well
as carriers of exclusion and division on all levels.
Therefore, confronted with this essentialist idea of
difference, the temptation of resuming the old idea of identity, of uniqueness,
not in shades but rather pure, clear, and distinct, is implied. However, we
must resist this temptation and still bet in favor of difference that can be
reduced to neither a deliberate nor generic invitation with respect to, and in
tolerance of, diversity. The idea of difference is truly too important to leave
in the hands of the new ideologues circulating today, or in those of so many
old diehards of various forms of supremacy (white, Occidental, male, etc.).
In the light of the challenges of our time, faced with
predominating forms of singular thought, of a new global order extending from
economics to politics, from religion to society, confronted above all with
communication imposing itself as an informative ideal in every sector of social
and cultural life as manifested in the tendency to conform with the model of
the publicity message, with the attitude of simplifying and lightening
content, of confirming and flattering all levels of mediocrity and vulgarity
and thus revealing the true oppressive and mystifying nature of communication,
it remains indispensable to affirm the principle of difference, to activate
forms of resistance, and to develop strategies of opposition.
It would be absurd, however, to oppose these currently
prevailing tendencies, which for many constitute the unobtainable horizon
towards the future, in favor of forms of conservation or nostalgia for a now
unrecoverable past. This resistance cannot simply be expressed in terms of
negativity, much less of universality; rather, it would have a specific,
determined function, it would be at once different, plural, contingent, and
propositional. Its differential movement must not mean nostalgia, rejection, or
resignation but rather transformation and transfer. In this way, resistance
does not mean inertia or defending the status quo; it is a slower and
quasi-imperceptible but continuous and insistent movement of transformation, of
differentiation between levels and reality.
With respect to a purely transgressive or nihilistic
vision of resistance, typical of not only the vitalism of the seventies but
also of negative thought that thinks only in terms of negativity and head-on
contraposition, or with respect to a prophetic vision that focuses its
attention too far on the future and thus renounces the moment in question, we
lack an insistence on active and present forms of resistance, multiple and
differentiated, in the personal place of the contender, and renouncing all
totalizing will of authority and violence.
The resistance we are thinking about rejects taking an
apocalyptic or visionary position, but at the same time it avoids being watered
down to the level of surrendering to the society of spectacle and generalized
communication in which we live. Resistance cannot fall into the naïveté of
head-on confrontation with the enemy in which “the illness of the chains,” as
Nietzsche called it, is perpetuated. We cannot be naive to the point of believing
that we can defeat the adversary so easily, much less conciliate or even think
of changing places with him. It is no longer a time of exalted mystics or
prophets of misfortune but of courageous thinkers who know how to differentiate
between conservation and transfer, between immobilization and transformation,
tactics and effectiveness.
What is lacking today is solid but subtle thinking,
fluid but resistant, ingenious but not absent-minded. It is a thinking that is
capable of submerging us in the flow of the current while at the same time
always distinguishing between levels, transferring essentially distinct,
different messages. To this end, it would perhaps be convenient to remember
the teachings of Walter Benjamin who, although believing himself deprived of
illusions with respect to his era, spoke unreservedly in favor of it. The
attitude the modern resistant should have is therefore that of a remote
interest, a kind of trusting disenchantment, of skeptical admiration that puts
it in direct contact with the present, with its transformations, without
otherwise leaving us frightened, much less dazzled.
However, considered far from the logic of identity and
contradiction, difference is not understood as an absolute foreignness, like
radical transgression that frequently, as alternative and speculative behavior,
is functional to the very system and ends up re-enforcing it. Lacan and Derrida
have taught us otherwise: we can never truly find the other, the different,
without domesticating it, incorporating it, reducing it in some way to the
The work of difference is really a differential movement that incites us to
deconstruct the illusion of a pure theory of alterity and of difference,
and instead to contemplate a kind of foreign familiarity, an ambivalence that
inextricably unites identity and alterity, the inherent and the foreign.
The model for this foreign familiarity could come from
the field of psychoanalysis and be traced, for example, back to so-called “substitute
formations” of which Freud speaks. In fact, Freud refers to the aesthetic
category of Witz, or acuteness, as the formation or establishment of a substitute
between terms strongly opposing one another because of the true difference
existing between them. Acuteness is thus
the aesthetic mode for contemplating difference, and it makes room for cultural
productions endowed with great fineness in which opposites are contemplated in
a non-symmetrical way. They are recognized
and maintained in their alterity without being conciliated, annulled,
assimilated, or converted one into the other. For this reason difference is an
art; it is the product of the subtle, the capacity for contemplating
formations with great fineness and acuteness.
In the context of an Occidental aesthetic, together
with the idea of beauty as harmony, symmetry, and conciliation,
that is, the classic idea of beauty, there has, as well, always existed a
diverse, alternative idea, a strategic idea of beauty thought of as the experience
of opposites and as challenges. The aesthetic of difference finds its very
roots sunk in antiquity and the Baroque age. Think, on the one hand, of Heraclitus,
who even in antiquity proposed the idea of the fight between opponents as the
principle governing all things. And, on the other hand, think of Baltasar Gracián,
who, in the seventeenth century, the Golden Century of Spanish culture,
theorized about the notion of acuteness, understanding it to be a “decoding”
attitude penetrating the depths of the real to subvert the natural order,
therefore discovering acute and efficient, strategic and refined, forms of
These ideas met up again later in some theories of twentieth-century
avant-garde movements, such as the Surrealists, who proclaimed not to know how to
handle the idea of beauty contemplated as balance and harmony, and for this
reason they proposed that “beauty will be convulsive or it will not be”
4. Challenge and provocation
In light of these considerations, the idea of
resistance as difference cannot but assume the traces of an experience of
challenge and provocation. But what is understood by these terms? At the heart
of the theory of challenge, over and above all else, is the abandonment of an
organic and totalizing idea of society, as well as all theory of social
equilibrium. Society, even more so today, is not something static or
monolithic. What makes it move is not
the harmonious desire of pacification and consensus but instead of conflict,
that is, an incessant fight for individual and collective recognition.
A few recent critical philosophical theories make evident these very aspects.
Furthermore, distinct from transgression, which presents itself as a moment of
rejection, of deviation from the norm, thus maintaining a dialectical relation
with the very thing it tries to distance itself from, challenge moves in a
different terrain and entails another appreciation of its contenders and its
own role with respect to the symmetry between them.
In the wake of the “Sensation” artists, what is
presented today as an example in the field of contemporary art appears
perfectly placed in the environment of searching for transgression, in the wake
of the already-spent transgression of the avant-gardes. Apart from this, such art, now canonized and fashionable, is born of specific
commissions from the media and publicity worlds seeking only to propagate their
own ideology. This art does nothing more than form a functional expression of
the system, perfectly integrated in the logic of the dominant market. In it,
there is no true challenge, no real provocation.
In addition, the challenge alone is no longer
sufficient, for it still requires the conflict to be understood as a kind of
duel between opposite and symmetrical entities, and it demands, furthermore, an
appeal to a new system of norms for regulating future competition. Only with
provocation do we situate ourselves, from the very beginning, in a terrain
different from that of the adversary. Between
us and the adversary a radical asymmetry is established, a difference, like
that which exists, for example, between conscience and unconsciousness. In this
provocation, what is important is the perturbing effect of "uncanniness"
(Unheimlichkeit) obtained when appealing to something that has remained
latent in the adversary, and which he or she cannot manifest without its force
appearing to be destroyed.
In this dimension, when we consider the ideas of challenge
and provocation, we cannot help but think of the way the two are interpreted
in dandyism, for example. This is on the
condition, however, that all traces be eliminated from this phenomenon that
would make it simply an expression of a decadent sensibility or a form of
aestheticism. However, before the environment in which the
dandy moved was that of the world, the terrain of everyday life, what
Baudelaire called la vie modern. Here
the dandy immediately situated himself in an alternative manner,
valorizing those strategies of behavior and action different and foreign from
the dominant logic.
The dandy cannot keep this up if there is no measure
of challenge. His entire existence is
devoted to nothing but continuously challenging the constituted order. His
essential provocation is his distancing, his absolute exteriority, converting
himself into nothing and no one in order to adhere fully to his time and to the
reality of things. The dandy therefore bets on difference and the unpredictability
of the historic process. In this sense there follows a paradoxical strategy, a
kind of politics of the impossible that is supported by the unpredictable, by
collision, by the hidden complicities it can arouse. The result is not
guaranteed but, more important, this is not essential. It is not the conquest
for power or riches that drives the
dandy. His succeeds result to the extent
that he succeeds in provoking reaction and igniting imagination by his ability
to resuscitate stupor and evoke admiration. If life is nothing but fight and
conflict, what moves the dandy to action
is a constant sense of challenge understood as a dangerous experience to which
we must continually expose ourselves.
5. The intellectuals and the grain of sand
Challenges, provocations, and examinations do nothing
now but delineate an aesthetics of resistance.
This is understood as the practice of difference, which is before all
else a cultural practice, a practice of contemplation that vindicates once and
for all an effective dimension of knowing. So that what appears to impose
itself with force is a new figure of the intellectual, certainly not in the
traditional meaning of the organic intellectual, but rather in a more fluid and
blatant sense of the term.
I believe that today there is no reason to be
embarrassed by this word. On the
contrary, we must reaffirm the centrality of the intellectual presence, claim
its autonomy with strength. Its meaning, today, should be such that he who
presents a challenge to society, to the world, finds grounds in everyday life
and carries forward a contrasting idea of culture, keeping alive the
knowledge-power bond inherent in all theory.
The conditions for this to happen are, nonetheless,
that intellectuals keep their distance from both the conformity and academism
of institutional thinkers as well as from the sectarianism and extremism of
outsiders. Generally, what the former lack is the emotional energy, and the
latter, the realistic perception of cultural dynamics.
In fact, today it happens that, on the one hand,
knowledge has become bureaucratized to such an extent that it has systematized
so much into a guaranteed order, making it almost impossible to give
recognition to anyone not organic to this same logic. On the other hand, the organization
of culture and the regimentation of public meaning have become so strong and
ramified that they make even dissent irrelevant. This situation could nevertheless
be overcome if we would only realize that today, more than ever, we find ourselves
before a common enemy represented by the hegemony of the market and by the
predomination of the one and only logic of profit. Thus, facing a common enemy,
we must develop a common front. Both
institutional thinkers as well as outsiders must understand they are producers
of goods, cultural and symbolic goods, that pertain to an economy distinct
from the dominant one, and it is in the interest of both to safeguard the
autonomy of this environment.
In his final works Pierre Bourdieu strongly maintained
that, at this time of the worst economic globalization, we should oppose the
denationalized internationalism of men and women in culture. We should do this by resisting kitsch
products of globalization in the name of values connected with exercising free,
autonomous, disinterested activity. This implies freely and seriously developing
one’s own intellectual work by rigorously analyzing what surrounds us, and consider
how each of us can contribute to unmasking the dominant ideology and resist
its triumph over us. Here, we are participating in the operation of throwing a
“grain of sand in the well-greased cogwheels of resigned complicities.” It could sound naive today, but it seems the only thing to do.
Patella is professor of aesthetics at University of Rome Tor Vergata (Italy)
and director of IRCA (International Research Center for Aesthetics and Art
Theory: http://irca.uniroma2.it). His lastest book is Articolazioni (Pisa: ETS, 2010), and in
English he has recently published the paper, “Aesthetics, Culture, Dialogue,” Culture and Dialogue, vol. 2 / 1, 2012.
Published on January 7, 2013.
 Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic
(London: Blackwell, 1990).
 Mary Mothersill, Beauty
Restored (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985).
 Philip Shaw, The
Sublime (London and New York: Routledge, 2006).
 See, for example, Richard Rorty, Contingency,
Irony, and Solidarity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989) and
Gianni Vattimo, The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in
Post-Modern Culture (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1988).
Lyotard, La condition postmoderne (Paris: Minuit, 1979); Jean-François
Lyotard, Le différend (Paris: Minuit, 1983); Jean-François Lyotard, Leçons sur l'Analytique du sublime (Paris: Galilée, 1991).
 In some European
countries these xenophobic parties are not only in parliament but even in
 Jacques Lacan,
Ecrits (Paris: Seuil, 1966); Jacques Derrida, L’ecriture et la
difference (Paris: Seuil, 1967); Jacques Derrida, Marges de la philosophie (Paris:
 Slavoj Žižek,
The Sublime Object of Ideology (London-New York, Verso, 1989).
 Sigmund Freud, Der Witz und
seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten, in
Studienausgabe (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1905 1989, vol. 4, pp.
9-219); eng. tr. Jokes and
their relation to the unconscious (New York: W. W. Norton, 1960).
 Crispin Sartwell, Six
Names of Beauty (New York: Routledge, 2004).
 Baltasar Gracián, Agudeza y Arte de Ingenio
 Pierre Bourdieu, An Invitation to Reflexive
Sociology with Loïc Wacquant (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
 Axel Honneth, 1992,
Kampf um Anerkennung (Frankfurt A.M: Suhrkamp, 1992); eng. tr., The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar
of Social Conflicts (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996).
 Norman Rosenthal, Brooks Adams, Sensation: Young
British Artists from the Saatchi Collection (London: Thames and Hudson,
 Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, Du
dandisme et de George Brummell 1845, in Oeuvres complètes
(Paris:1925); Ellen Moers, The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm
(London: Secker and Warburg, 1960).
 Charles Baudelaire Le Peintre de la vie moderne (Paris: 1863).
 Zygmunt Bauman, Legislators and interpreters - On
Modernity, Post-Modernity, Intellectuals (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University
 Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual
(New York: Pantheon Books, 1994).
Giuseppe Patella, Estetica culturale (Roma: Meltemi, 2005).
 Pierre Bourdieu, Contrefeux (Paris: Raisons
d’agir, 1998); Pierre Bourdieu,
(Paris: Raisons d’agir, 2001).