Because I studied the Romantics – Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats – under the waning light of literary deconstruction, I can never hear the word “aesthetic” without unconsciously appending the word “ideology”. And because I read Althusser shortly afterwards, I can never hear the word “ideology” without immediately wondering about the possibility of some “science” that might suspend ideology’s imaginary self-sufficiency. This sequence, aesthetic-ideology-science, sets up an enclosure and proposes a path out of that enclosure. But the first term in the sequence, the aesthetic, forecloses the last: in the romantic conception, at least, science is at best an instrument for tracing paths within a realm of experience that vastly exceeds the scope of what scientific investigation and description are able to grasp. It may produce new objects of aesthetic experience, some of them sublime, but it cannot go beyond that experience. The sublime, in aesthetics, is an operator of capture: through it, whatever points beyond experience is converted into experiential intensity, and becomes the occasion for a reaffirmation of the powers of the subject. (By “operator of capture”, I mean that aspect of a system of ideas that comes into play whenever an exit from that system presents itself, ensuring that you never leave. You may if you wish picture the giant bubble that pursues and enfolds the fleeing Patrick McGoohan, ensuring that he never escapes from the Village). In Lyotard’s formulation, the sublime in art is that which presents that there is something unpresentable, something which the aesthetic sense is unable to assimilate. For romanticism, the focus always returns to presentation: that which the sublime says there is, the unpresentable, is incapable of further conceptualisation.
Scientific concepts are those which begin where aesthetic categories and modes of apprehension leave off. They are able to treat of objects which are not the objects of any possible experience. What we experience, looking through a microscope, is not the world of microscopic-scale objects, but a magnified projection of that world; the microscopic domain itself is inaccessible to human experience, being beyond the limits of our senses, but not to conceptualisation. Our theories about micro-scale entities and interactions are not theories about magnified projections of those things: they aim to describe how the entities themselves behave. (This is not the same as claiming to know what the entities are “in-themselves”. The point is simply that when you are describing, you are describing something, and that the object of this kind of description sits on the thing-projected end of the projection relationship, rather than the projected-thing end. Neither “end” need be accorded the status of noumenon, pre-theoretic given or whatever). Projection is an aesthetic activity which brings something into view – and “science” is also an arsenal of aesthetic means, of projections of various kinds, which convert the non-visible into an image. Heat maps of the sun; spiralling tracks in a particle chamber. For aesthetics, and for the aesthetic ideology of romanticism, these projections are all we know and all we need to know of the things projected; for science, they are the way-stations of an investigation.