Severing the Disjuncture between Cultural Studies and Aesthetics:
New Ways to Engage Aesthetics in the Study of Social Networking Sites

Hiesun Cecilia Suhr


The early founding figures of the field of cultural studies, which included scholars such as Raymond Williams, attempted to abandon elitist notions of high arts by claiming that 'culture is ordinary.' However, since the inception of the field, many scholars have criticized cultural studies for excluding aesthetics from their projects; this has resulted in the development of tensions between cultural studies and aesthetics. This article traces the trajectories of debate in regards to aesthetics and cultural studies, and seeks to explain how various authors have attempted to reclaim aesthetics for the field of cultural studies. In support, I argue that understanding aesthetic in Deleuze & Guattari's (1998) plane of immanence and rhizome allow for a new way to engage aesthetics in cultural studies—especially in examining the blurring lines between various dichotomies.


[1] Since the debate on mass culture, many scholars have criticized and attempted to reconcile contemporary culture with the elitist notion of arts. Amongst the many, the early founding figures of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (BCCCS) are notable for their reaction against the Frankfurt School's conceptual division of high culture vs. mass culture through an emphasis on the importance of studying working class culture (Williams, 1958; Thompson, 1963; Hoggart, 1948). As one of the pioneers of early cultural studies, Williams introduced the notion of everyday culture by stressing the ordinariness of culture:

Culture is ordinary: that is the first fact. Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings. Every human society expressed these, in institutions, and in arts and learning (1958: 4).

These thoughts inspired the notion of culturalism which 'addresses the ensemble of relations that constitute "the whole way of life" of a determinate social formation' (Rojek, 2003: p. 66).

[2] While cultural studies grounds its spirit in democratization and egalitarianism, the rise of cultural studies has not always received full acceptance because of its abandonment of the issues of tastes, standards, and aesthetic values. With this in mind, this paper will provide an overview of the debate between cultural studies and aesthetics, and will delineate how various scholars have tried to reclaim aesthetics in the field of cultural studies. Reclaiming aesthetics does not require that the discourse must be centered on the Frankfurt theorists' notion of high vs. low arts. The issues regarding aesthetics can be discussed without focusing on binary conceptions of art as related to class hierarchy or on the issue of hegemony in connection to power relations. In order to offer an alternative way of connecting aesthetics to cultural studies, I have chosen to study social networking in a cultural studies context.

[3] Unlike other media formats, social networking sites have given rise to a new context for the studying of aesthetics; this medium has created the possibility of democratic participation in the creation of cultural content. Contrary to the top-down model of mainstream media, social networking sites are distinguished by the convergence of top-down and bottom-up operations (Jenkins, 2006). In examining the characteristics of social networking sites, the five types of dichotomies that often exist within the mainstream media are blurred: consumer vs. producer, creator vs. audience, live vs. virtual, high arts vs. low arts, mainstream vs. underground. Thus, in order to wrestle with the breakdown of dichotomies, I propose Deleuze and Guattari's notion of 'rhizome' as a new way to engage aesthetics in social networking sites. In this framework, aesthetics are conceptualized in a plane of immanence as opposed to transcendence. Placing aesthetics in the plane of immanence offers a new paradigm for interpreting the role of aesthetics in culture. Instead of limiting aesthetic discussion to a focus on the art object, aesthetics can be understood as having 'affects,' emphasizing its function rather than its representation (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994, 1995). As a whole, this proposal will allow for new ways of engaging aesthetics in cultural studies—noting the transient nature of the discipline and focusing on the trends of convergence culture where the emphasis lies on process rather than on the end itself (Jenkins, 2006).

The Role of Aesthetics in Culture

[4] The relationship of cultural studies with aesthetics has been a highly controversial issue among many scholars. The core of this debate runs, however, much deeper than a simple rejection of the valorization of the high arts. This issue underpins and complicates the connection of aesthetics to culture. Before pursuing this line of inquiry, it is important to define aesthetics. Castronovo explains the difficulty of defining the term 'aesthetics' and asserts that this challenge may be the reason why 'aesthetics have often been invoked as a progressive force that opens new conceptual horizons and just as often derided as a tired elitist dodge that preserves the status quo' (2007: 10). Castronovo provides an encompassing definition of aesthetics that starts with a narrow scope and broadens to the larger implication. In simple definition, '[aesthetics] are purely about the discernment of formal criteria such as unity, proportion, and balance within the domain of art' (Castronovo, 2007: 10). However, it should be noted that the specific framework of aesthetics utilized in this article is rooted in Kantian formalism (1790). Because of the existence of numerous discursive perspectives on the topic of aesthetics, it is important to delineate which specific tradition I am employing. Although I do not intend to rehash Kant's theories in detail, it is important to briefly outline his arguments and how they have impacted and troubled many thinkers.

[5] Kant's universalism has been troublesome for many scholars (Bennett, 1990; Frow, 1995; Gracyk, 2007). Although Kant's theory of aesthetics should not be over-simplified, in this article, I will highlight the notion of "disinterestedness." The premise of this theory is based on the difference between liking something vs. finding something beautiful. For artworks to be defined as beautiful, an objective universal standard must exist, as distinguished from subjective personal inclinations; Kant insists that pleasure should be detached from the judgment of tastes. Kant's view of aesthetics is not aligned with any specific historical, ideological mode of thought; rather, it assumes that there is only one way of understanding the perfection of beauty and the human senses. To this end, Bourdieu challenges and connects Kant's theories into a culture-based criticism of aesthetics. In Distinction, Bourdieu refutes Kant's universalism, while simultaneously creating new problems of his own.

[6] Although the conceptualization of aesthetics has long been debated, I contend that Kant's formalism lies at the root of cultural studies' attack on aesthetics. Most cultural studies scholars refuse to reify the importance of aesthetics in their discipline, however they challenge both universalism and the transcendental conceptualization of aesthetics which invokes issues of hierarchy. I do not mean to imply here that Kant's formalism is the only reason for the divide between cultural studies and aesthetics. Adorno and Horkeimer's theories have also been challenged, because they too argue that art transcends reality, the mind, and the spirit.

[7] As Held states, 'for Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment the elements in an artistic product which enable it to transcend reality are found in those 'non-identity' thinking' (1980: 82). Undoubtedly Adorno valorizes the potential of artwork to elevate the consciousness: 'Artworks participate in enlightenment because they do not lie: They do not feign the literalness of what speaks out of them' (1997 [1970]: 5). On a related note, for Adorno, 'art is the social antithesis of society, not directly deducible from it' (1997 [1970]:8). In other words, art's importance exists outside of society, a position that idealizes art's power and inspiration as derived from a utopian ideal. Thus, from the outset, an important question for Cultural Studies scholars, is do aesthetics exist in a separate dimension from reality, or can life and art come together and coexist?

[8] According to Williams (1958), this is the essential problem with the study of the ordinariness of culture. Mulhern (2000) has argued that Williams opposed the active separation of art and reality. Although between the Renaissance and the Romantic periods, creativity, imagination, and inspiration were all interpreted as special and superior abilities that humans possessed, Williams tried to conceive a new understanding of creativity by developing a scientific definition of perception. From a biological standpoint, everyone learns to see; in that regard, no one possesses a talent any more special or extraordinary than that of anyone else:

Rethinking the anthropological and social significance of creativity in this way, Williams thought to work through the opposed versions of culture as special, superordinate value and culture as a 'whole way of life.' (Mulhern, 2000: 81)

The history of how Williams developed his conception of cultural ordinariness is of vital importance in this present article for two reasons. Firstly, conceiving culture as ordinary negates the aesthetic dimension of culture as transcendent and enlightening. Secondly, the ramification of this transition lies not only within the issues of hegemonic struggle and class hierarchy but much larger issues are invoked. Eschewing aesthetic values is an intentional choice, motivated by the persistence of one way of viewing culture, an imposition of one's ideological position over others. Other scholars have criticized this notion of culture, resulting in the tension between aesthetics and cultural studies.

Aesthetics vs. Cultural Studies

[9] Cultural studies have had rocky relations with aesthetics to say the least. Faulk explains the reason for the distance between cultural studies and aesthetics:

Aesthetic codes developed in a world where art was believed to allow virtue to trickle down throughout the social order, and thus historically did little more than sugarcoat invidious class distinctions. (2005: 144)

Ultimately this view of equating aesthetics with established social order and hierarchy has deterred many cultural studies' scholars from engaging in discussions pertaining to aesthetics. On the other hand, a scholar such as Felski completely repudiates the distancing of aesthetics from cultural studies and argues that cultural studies 'did not seek to destroy aesthetics, but to broaden the definition of what counted as art by taking popular culture seriously' (2005: 32). From Felski's perspective, cultural studies contribute to a broadening of aesthetics without changing its meaning. To this end, popular culture also evinces aesthetics that are not of a lower value but of a different value. In a similar manner, Faulk argues that 'cultural studies should eschew traditional aesthetics, and its history of correlating artistic and social discrimination, in favor of the homely, ordinary practice of evaluating' (2005: 145). In short, Faulk does not see any positive effect that can come out of engaging in aesthetic theorization, for he equates a return to traditional aesthetics with the reconstruction of a social hierarchy based on a few select people's tastes. Despite this perception, Faulk does not just suggest the broadening of aesthetics' definition, but an actual narrowing of it only to ordinary practices.

[10] However, for Kellner, the movement of cultural studies away from aesthetics is critically and inherently flawed because this action challenges the very conception of culture (2001: 146). From Kellner's perspective, the ontology of culture cannot escape the ethical, moral questions because these consequently participate in the construction of cultural values. Kellner makes an even more pivotal point when he distinguishes cultural studies from the Frankfurt theorists' cultural critiques. While the Frankfurt theorists focused on avant-garde art, cultural studies scholars emphasize popular media artifacts and their potential to subvert top-down power relations. Kellner finds cultural studies' abandonment of aesthetics, high art, and modernism highly problematic:

The neglect of aesthetics in cultural studies leaves out the transcendent dimension of culture, of culture that surpasses ordinary experience and everyday life, of art that presents visions of another world and alternative modes of thought and being. (Kellner, 2001: 147)

Kellner further argues that ignoring aesthetics in cultural studies' projects results in the reduction to only one dimension of culture, thereby failing to address the broader encompassing view of culture. While ordinariness is a part of our culture, extraordinariness should by no means be neglected or viewed as tangential or superfluous; for in this extraordinary dimension, alterity exists and transgressive borders can be crossed (Kellner, 2001: 147). Kellner is not the only scholar concerned about current trends in cultural studies; many other scholars have also criticized the lack of aesthetics in cultural studies projects (Bird, 2003; Gitlin, 1997; Hunter, 1992; Webb, 2002).

[11] Like Kellner, Hunter (1992) problematizes cultural studies' attitude towards aesthetics. While in full agreement with earlier scholars' points about hegemony, power, and elitism, Hunter argues that:

One of the most damaging charges that the cultural studies movement has leveled against aesthetics is that it is wedding to a "high cultural" canon of works expressing the taste and values of a particular class... aesthetics is not an ideology in the straightforward sense of promoting false consciousness at the behest of a political or otherwise sectional interest (1992: 356).

For Hunter, cultural studies scholars do not care about aesthetics because they exist in the outer sphere, tangential to the immediate concerns of everyday life (1992: 347).

[12] The problem then is the fact that cultural studies' driving motive has been solely based on material importance. Bird (2005) explains that most analysis done by cultural studies scholars focuses on representation, i.e. examining the portrayal of race, gender, sexuality and class. Through this self-limitation, 'quality is ignored,' and the hegemonic relations between dominant groups of society and their opposites are studied (Bird, 2005: 122). Thus, the premises behind cultural studies are mainly focused on an instrumental understanding of culture: 'the goal of cultural analysis via hegemony is clearly the production of a political analysis, culture becomes the means to the political ends' (Sterne, 2005: 87). In this similar vein, Hunter and other scholars examine the foundation of cultural studies in relation to aesthetics.

[13] Hunter argues that while a heavy emphasis on hegemony and resistance has been at the center of cultural studies' projects, this has also influenced the way in which aesthetics have been viewed as '[segregated] from the driving forces of human development' (Hunter, 1992: 348). Hunter further repudiates the way in which cultural studies locates aesthetics in the realm of subjectivity whereby any means of engaging aesthetics is reliant on one's subjective perceptions. This view of cultural studies implies that there can be no single concrete way of establishing an aesthetic standard, reducing the exercise to a useless or futile endeavor.

[14] Hunter's view of aesthetics as a way of life is not independent of the theories of other scholars such as Foucault, Guttari and Deluze. In fact, Hunter espouses Foucault's application of aesthetics as a tool whereby one can expand one's mind beyond prevailing mode of thoughts. The important issue for Hunter is not just the view of aesthetics as a way of life and moral formation, but also the idea that aesthetics does not align itself with rationality but instead with non-rational characteristics: 'the non-rational character of aesthetic cultivation stems not from any emotionalism but from its dialectical withdrawals from 'ordinary' understanding. Hence it is better termed 'supra-rational' (1992: 355). In a similar vein, Webb (2002) uses Hunter's assertion on aesthetics as a foundation to argue aesthetics' potential to transcend the border of reason.

[15] Webb states that labeling aesthetics as a monopoly or imposition of universal tastes on others jeopardizes an important aspect of our lives and culture. She then explains that what the early cultural studies theorists failed to recognize was the transcendent and potential opposition that lies in aesthetics (p. 152). By associating popular culture activities to political aims or some type of teleological opposition to mainstream value, cultural studies missed out on an opportunity to examine the avant-garde movement and other marginalized activities of artists. As a result, Gitlin notes:

Cultural studies often claims to have overthrown hierarchy, but it is closer to the truth to say that what it actually does with hierarchy is invert it. What now certifies worthiness is the popularity of the object, not its formal qualities. (1997: 31)

In short, by valorizing popularity, cultural studies scholars have reversed the traditional hierarchy where populism thrives.

[16] On a related note, Webb clearly articulates that:

Cultural studies 'take' on the aesthetic field doesn't necessarily or effectively problematize its elitist features; what it tends to do instead is tip the cultural studies' hat to Reason, and in the process overlook the everyday experience of appreciating art. (2002: 152)

In this respect, the argument for the exclusion of aesthetics broadens to the dichotomy of Reason vs. Unreason. To this end, Webb invokes implications of aesthetics that go beyond beauty, art, and elitism. Webb suggests that without thinking about art in a material sense, as objects or commodities, cultural theorists can 'view aesthetics as offering a site for multiple, and potentially playful, and always contestatory subjectivities' (2002: 157). In short, Webb maintains that instead of always equating aesthetics with high art objects, an alternative framework for aesthetics should be constructed. This new framework may entail rethinking what aesthetics stand for beyond materiality, and newly emphasizing its potential to offer alterity, unreason, transcendence and subjectivities.

Aesthetics in the Plane of Immanence

[17] Considering diverse theories from an array of authors, the argument that seems to hold true from one author to the other is the association of aesthetics with transcendence. Both Webb and Kellner clearly note that aesthetics' transcendent quality is what should not be left out in our culture. However, I argue that it is this view of transcendence that has caused many scholars to distance themselves from aesthetics; for many, the notion of transcendence invokes the higher realm, the realm that is unreachable by ordinary or common people and characterized by superiority and elitism.

[18] Deleuze and Guattari, however, highlight other aspects of art's significance. They too valorize the creativity in art, but do not believe that such creative power exists outside of society; instead, art can be extraordinary and transcendental within the realm of this life. O'Sullivan notes the distinction between Adorno's, and Deleuze and Guattari's philosophies on art and aesthetics:

For Adorno, art's importance lay, at least in one sense, in its uselessness, its irreducibility to conceptual thought...[Deleuze and Guattari] have a different mapping of the world, and of philosophy's and art's role within it... art is not useless but performs very specific roles. (2001: 129)

As opposed to transcendence, Deleuze and Guattari's plane of immanence shifts the framework into an asignifying register. Then, how do aesthetics conceived within a transcendental realm differ from that which exists in a plane of immanence?

[19] Deleuze and Guattari note a sharp difference between the plane of immanence and transcendence and that of the concrete world by referring to the past:

...[T]he first philosophers are those who institute a plane of immanence like a sieve stretched over chaos. In this sense they contrast with sages, who are religious personae, priests, because they conceive of the institution of an always transcendent order imposed from outside... whenever there is transcendence, vertical being, imperial State in the sky or on earth, there is religion; and there is philosophy whenever there is immanence. (1994: 43)

From these statements, Deleuze and Guattari explain that transcendence comes from somewhere above, somewhere 'out there,' and that 'vertical being' implies that there will be always some type of orderly hierarchy that will come with such notion. In contrast, the plane of immanence does not escape into another world and does not come from elsewhere since a plane of immanence is on the 'absolute horizon.' (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994: 38)

[20] The simplest way to explain the plane of immanence is to begin with its Latin origin, 'in manere,' which means 'to remain within.' This meaning can be applied, in a philosophical perspective, to the act of not reaching out to a higher power or state for truth or answers; rather whatever thoughts or answers that one seeks lie within the physical life. In Pure immanence: essays on life, Deleuze delves into the notion of the plane of immanence:

Immanence is not related to Some Thing as a unity superior to all things or to a Subject as an act that brings about a synthesis of things: it is only when immanence is no longer immanence to anything other than itself that we can speak of a plane of immanence. (2005: 27)

Thus, the plane of immanence is a realm characterized as a state of oneness, a horizon; the ultimate / absolute truth exists autonomously without relying on other concepts and without insisting that its plane is superior to others. In short, the 'plane of immanence' refers to a horizontal existence, while transcendence relates to vertical realities.

[21] In this context, how does Deleuze and Guattari's notion of aesthetics and art provide a new framework to specifically address social networking sites and their aesthetic dimension? In order to apply this line of thought as a framework to the study of social networking sites, it is important to first understand the nature of social networking sites.

Social Networking Sites and Aesthetics

[22] Social networking sites are the focus of many media studies' scholars today. Barry Wellman's works have long been on the leading edge of this research, examining the degree of online intimacy between users and further developing the notion of networked individualism where the idea of the individual becomes further complicated through the rise of social networking culture (Wellman, 1997, 1999, 2002). In recent journals, many scholars have explored the social and cultural ramifications of participating in social networking sites (Liu, 2008; Lange, 2008; Tong, Van Der Heide, Langwell & Walter, 2008). Boyd and Ellison explicate the meaning of social networking sites as web-based services that provide multiple functions for users, who can:

Construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site. (2008: 211)

Boyd and Ellison further explain the characteristics of social networking sites as places where individuals can enhance and strengthen already existing relationships established in real life, as well as network with new groups of people. While this functionality is important for websites such as, this use does not fit quite as well for the type of social networking sites that focus on cultural production.

[23] Beer problematizes Boyd and Ellison's analysis of networking sites because it allows for multiple interpretations: 'it is intended to do too much of the analytical work, and therefore makes a differentiated typology of these various user-generated web applications more problematic' (2008: 519). Social networking sites have become harder to define and explicate, thereby evincing a growing complexity in defining their ontology. Nevertheless, the goal of this paper is not to come up with a unifying definition of social networking sites, but to understand the specific context for these sites. In this context, my definition of social networking sites is not limited to networking done by users who have already befriended other users in real life. Rather, my perspective encompasses both real-life contact and first-time web-based contact. Given this description, it is important to connect how social networking sites' internal communication mechanisms provide space for engaging in discussions about aesthetics.

[24] Since the goal of this article is to offer a new way to engage aesthetics within the framework of cultural studies, the direction should go beyond the representation or physical attributes of aesthetics. The foremost important task is to understand the way in which the network operates.

[25] Movement in the networks possesses no steady or consistent pattern, rather it moves in an erratic and unpredictable way. To a certain extent, what this indicates is that tracing what goes on in the social networking sites is difficult due to precarious and inconsistent movement. This perspective also intersects with the broader scheme of what aesthetics do rather than what they are. Instead of studying the representation of aesthetics on social networking sites, engaging aesthetics with cultural studies involves two levels of operations at a macro and a micro level.

[26] The macro level of operation relates to aesthetics as a paradigm. Studying aesthetics as a paradigm means going beyond the emphasis on aesthetics' links to beauty and art, and instead redefines aesthetics as an issue of 'affects.' In this case, the notion of 'rhizome' by Guattari and Deleuze is critical to rethinking aesthetics, because as O' Sullivan states: 'rhizome [is] a new way to think art in general, a turn from transcendence to a kind of "thinking immanence"' (2006: 14). This offers a new conceptual groundwork as opposed to Frankfurt theorists' notion of aesthetics, which is highly problematic in today's media and cultural contexts. More specifically in social networking sites, the audience can no longer be portrayed as a passive 'victim,' and there is no monolithic power or way to reach the audience. An example of this can be found on music social networking sites where the typical five dichotomies are blurred and obfuscated.

[27] Firstly, there is not a strict demarcation between the creator and the audience. The audience and fans can function as the creator and vice versa. There is no single role that users must adopt on social networking sites. Secondly, the labels 'professional' and 'amateur' are somewhat nebulous. Traditionally a professional musician was one who made a profit and a living by selling or performing music. In the past, this was made possible through the affiliation of a major record label, because without a corporation's support, it was hard for musicians to make a living. However, with the ubiquity of social networking sites today, another type of professional category has emerged, which involves earning a living by having one's own record label or selling music on social networking sites. To this end, the categories of professional and amateur are not strictly separated. The binary also relates to the designations of producer and consumer. Every musician involved with the social networking sites can sell their music while simultaneously being consumers of other musicians' music.

[28] Thirdly, the division between high art and low art is also unclear. In years past, the mass media produced mass arts that were accessible to the public, whereas high art often existed in a niche market. With the proliferation of mass media outlets, high art was not associated with popularity but with a smaller coterie of followers. On social networking sites such as Myspace, Adorno's conception of 'high arts' coexists with mass-produced popular and commercial arts. Many profiles have been created to honor the greatest composers that have ever lived, including the modern composers of today. The popularity of both classical music and popular trends is evident on these websites.

[29] Fourthly, the dichotomy between underground culture and mainstream culture is blurred. On social networking sites, one can hardly detect the line between these two cultures. The reason for this is due to the characteristics of the networks. As Terranova (2004) notes, one cannot just surf the network in an isolated way; this truth also applies to one's behavior online. A person can hardly escape exposure to the various genres of music when he or she is participating in a social network. In addition, the notion of underground and mainstream is negated to a certain extent because all users entering the social networking sites are in the same 'place.' The physical proximity is dispersed and no longer bound to the physical concepts of underground and mainstream. Although one can try to limit one's exposure to only certain types of music, people or cultures, the network can be "slightly schizophrenic, doing one thing in one place and the opposite in another" (Galloway & Thacker, 2007: 30).

[30] Fifthly, the dichotomies between actual vs. virtual performances and live vs. mediated performances deserves attention while pointing out the similarity between the two. According to Levy, 'the virtual tends toward actualization, without undergoing any form of effective or formal concretization' (1988: 21). As such, virtuality connotes a state of unfulfillment and underdevelopment when compared to the actual; however, virtuality involves the on-going progress toward becoming actual. If this is the case, what happens to virtual live music performances that simultaneously take place in actual settings? For instance, Virtual Lower East Side (VLES) is a social networking site where musicians and fans can interact with one another in a virtual world through the use of avatars. The noteworthy aspect of this site is the fact that it is a simulacra of the actual neighborhood of the Lower East Side in New York City. While musicians perform in one of the popular venues in this neighborhood, their performances are simultaneously broadcasted on the website.

[31] If the fans cannot access the actual performance venue, they can enter in the comfort of their homes and not only view but also participate in the experience of the simulacra of performance. The notions of virtuality and actuality are completely blurred on social networking sites such as In a similar vein, allows the user to visit different music venues and concerts in the comfort of one's own home. To this end, while the concerts are performed live, they are mediated via the internet, and the interaction occurs with avatars. In short, the performances are computer-mediated; this reality invokes another issue in regards to live performances vs. mediated performances.

[32] As we can see from these five types of dichotomies that are being challenged on social networking sites, one way to engage aesthetics is through a macro approach of asking how aesthetics can offer a framework to wrestle with these types of dichotomies. Instead of setting forth the concepts in a polarizing way, understanding the ever-changing environment on the social networking sites should occur in a multi-faceted manner. In short, if binaries are no longer applicable and true, what happens? At this juncture, we will revisit the earlier discussion of aesthetics in the plane of immanence as presented by Deleuze and Guattari. In a plane of immanence, aesthetics are conceived as 'affects.' In "What is Philosophy," Deleuze and Guattari state that art is "a bloc of sensation, that is to say, a compound of percepts and affects" (1994: 164). In other words, Deleuze and Guattari seek to interpret the works of art not by questioning what they are by trying to decode meaning and representation; instead they are interested in art's function, what it does. O'Sullivan notes that Deleuze and Guattari's affects are 'not to do with signification or "meaning" as such. Indeed, they occur on a different asignifying register' (2006: 43). In short, unlike understanding art as an object, as most art historians and theorists have done, in Deleuze and Guattari's framework, the work of art escapes its object and subject.

[33] O'Sullivan points out that in academia:

We are used to thinking in binaries: content/form, but also depth/surface, essence/appearance, soul/body, author/book, signified/signifier, speech/writing, unconscious/conscious, reality/ideology and so on. (2006: 15)

Deleuze and Guattari's 'rhizome' concept escapes this type of binary thinking. The rhizome is, thus, a critique of representation and of the arborescent way of constructing knowledge; it also allows for multiplicities. In "A Thousand Plateaus," Deleuze and Guattari (1987) explain the six characteristics of the rhizome in detail. By reflecting on these characteristics, we can apply it to the way the network operates and the manner in which aesthetics can be conceptualized in a plane of immanence. In doing so, we can wrestle with the binaries that exist on the social networking sites at a macro level as well as at a micro level. This effort entails understanding the mundane activities that power the social networking websites: the processes related to networking with music. The intricate concept of the rhizome will help provide a conceptual tool whereby the cartography of cultural studies' relationship with aesthetics and the social networks can be mapped.

Cultural Studies, Social Network and Aesthetics as Rhizome

[34] O'Sullivan notes that Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome is highly relevant in the advent of the digital era:

The best example of rhizomatics within our-so called information is then the World Wide Web as an omnipresent force... the web is paradigmatically a rhizome. It is a "bottom-up" system rather than a "top-down" one, precisely a grass roots system of "organization". (2002: 13)

The rhizome metaphor has also been used to describe the practices of web-based art:

On a broader level we might position the system of arts in general as rhizomatic, each of the arts, and indeed each individual artwork, connecting, or having the potential to connect, to every other. (O'Sullivan, 2002: 13)

In addition, the rhizome model has also been applied to a new way of conceiving cultural studies: 'thinking cultural studies as rhizome involves an affirmation of the former's interdisciplinary, or even transdisciplinary function; it removes blockages and opens up to other adventures, other voyages' (O'Sullivan, 2002: 84). In this vein, it is not a far-fetched idea to establish an encompassing view of aesthetics, cultural studies and social networking sites as simultaneous rhizomes.

[35] The first and second characteristics of rhizomes, as explained by Deleuze and Guattari, pertain to "the principle of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (1987: 7). Unlike trees or roots, a rhizome is like a social network that connects various entities into a network and has a capacity to remain connected to everyone in network. Furthermore, Deleuze and Guattari state that 'a rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relevant to the arts, sciences, and social struggle' (1987: 7). This implies that social network cannot function without connection with others. Social networks require the user to create one's own network resulting in creative connectivity, and in doing so, social power and significance are formed. In terms of music networking sites, the bottom-up way of building one's network can allow one's music to gain more recognition and value. O' Sullivan notes that 'it is in this sense that a rhizomatic might then be characterized as the practice of the amateur involving as it does a certain bricolage, or "Do-It-Yourself," logic' (2006: 17). The music social networking sites are built with the premise that the artist has sole control over the music through working as a solitary agent. O' Sullivan further notes that many on-line artistic collaborations are symptomatic of these first and second characteristics of rhizome.

[36] The third characteristic of the rhizome is multiplicity:

It is only when the multiple is effectively treated as substantive, 'multiplicity,' that it ceases to have any relation to the One as subject or object, natural or spiritual reality, image and world. (2006: 8)

When binaries no longer apply to social networking sites, what is the alternative to map out the activities and cultural trend on social networking sites? On social networking sites, the operation is not static but transient and always in progress:

Rhizome... does not possess a formal essence that determines and fixes its relation. Instead, it is made up of the interplay of those practically workable relations which compose it, as these connections are altered or new connections are made the multiplicity effectively assumes a new or different quality. (Hayden, 1998: 95)

By adding a friend to your network or by having a friend post messages in your commentary boxes, the activities on social networking sites are constantly in flux and movement. In addition, there are many ways for one to customize one's page and upload new music. Any time a member steps into another's social network, there is always a potential for a new relationship and new networking connections, all of which can change the dynamic within one's network. In an environment of such unpredictability and evolution, it is possible to make one's artist's page look professional and popular, or the reverse could happen, and apathy and indifference for one's music or network can be conveyed.

[37] The fourth characteristic of the rhizome is:

the principle of asignifying rupture: against the oversignifying breaks separating structures or cutting across a single structure. A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines (O'Sullivan, 2006: 9)

The disconnection on social networking sites are never terminal, a user can always find a way to reconnect with the members who have deleted one's profile, and one can easily regain a profile that has been deleted. There are many ways to relocate the old profiles of your friends even if one is not directly connected to the network; this course may involve traveling through a couple of networks to reach one's final desired destination.

[38] The fourth characteristic refers back to the problematics of wrestling with various dichotomies on social networking sites: 'one can never posit a dualism or a dichotomy, even in the rudimentary form of the good and the bad' (Deleuze & Guattari, 1988: 9). O' Sullivan compares this characteristic with the operation of artists and art practices:

An art practice is a fluid, dynamic system always in connection with a number of different regimes and registers and always in contact with an outside however this latter is theorized. What an art practice 'is' then is defined by its outermost edge, its boundary line or simply its line of flight, understood as the furthest point from within its territory. (2006: 32)

On social networks, the operations of art practices cannot be understood in terms of whether or not such activities yield good results. Instead of examining the art object itself, the alternative is to analyze the processes of linking and connecting with other artists or audiences. An independent artist may attempt to connect with another artist for potential collaboration, or may seek a potential promoter or manager for one's artwork. To this extent, art practices on social networking sites could be viewed as 'less the name for an object or a discipline as such but again a name for a function of deterritorialization' (O' Sullivan, 2006: 32).

[39] The final characteristics, the fifth and the sixth, are the principles of cartography and decalcomania. Deleuze and Guattari explain that 'rhizome is altogether different, a map not a tracing... what distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real' (1988: 12). These last two characteristics prove that rhizomes do not merely repeat or reproduce what already exists; rather, a rhizome creates through the act of experimentation. As Deleuze and Guattari further explain, 'the map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious' (1988: 12). The incorporation of an aesthetic discussion into the research on social networking sites does not rely on focusing on the quality of music by deconstructing its essence, neither does it concentrate on the physical attractiveness of one's profile; instead, what it requires is concentration on aesthetics' constant movement and creativity. Social networking sites, especially the ones catering to cultural production, mutate constantly because of the creative process. They are never in stasis but always in movement. There is no single way that one can trace the manner in which the field of cultural production on social networking sites operates and functions because of its transient character. The alternative is to map out the nexus between the decentralization of subjective aesthetic standards and the power / political tension inherent to the legitimization of music on the social networking sites.


[40] In this article, I have evinced the underlying tension that exists between cultural studies and aesthetics. The conflict is caused by an ideological difference of conceiving culture. While Williams insists on the ordinariness of culture, other scholars have attempted to challenge such views by arguing for an inclusive view of culture where ordinariness and extraordinariness both exist. In such a conception, aesthetics offer alterity, potential resistance, and transcendence. However, I argue that it is this transcendent view of aesthetics that has been problematic for many, because it invokes the idea of imposing universal standards of beauty and art onto others, the hegemonic. To resolve this issue, it is necessary to take a different philosophical route for understanding aesthetics. Contrary to transcendental aesthetics, positing aesthetics in a plane of immanence entails a breakdown of the subject-object division and requires resistance to a sole concentration on the representation and interpretation of arts; instead, we should focus on aesthetics' mode of operation. In a plane of immanence, aesthetics are conceived in a different register, an asignifying one. Aesthetics should not be promoted as an ideology, but it should be considered a realm that is always in flux and that produces affects. As Guattari states:

Art is not just the activity of established artists but of a whole subjective creativity which traverses the generations and oppressed people, ghettoes and minorities...aesthetic paradigm-the creation and compositions of mutant percepts and affects—has become the paradigm for every possible form of liberation. (1995: 91)

With this view in mind, the new method of engaging cultural studies has been described through the case study of social networking sites.

[41] This view of aesthetics operates on a macro level and on a micro level. The macro level places aesthetics in a conceptual framework. Unlike the ideological framework, the aesthetic paradigm focuses on creation and experimentation. On the other hand, the micro level deals with the works of art on social networking sites, emphasizing how artworks on the websites emerge and gain value via rhizomatic connection—through constant web movement: upgrading personal profiles, leaving comments on others' profiles, requesting friends to become a part of one's network, uploading music, soliciting others' profiles with advertising, etc.

[42] As a whole, the commonality between cultural studies, aesthetics and social networking sites is their fleeting natures and the transient characteristics that are always in movement. Thus, interpreting what occurs on the social networking sites as a mere reflection of a static social networking site cannot do it justice because in the field of cultural production of social networking sites, the constant struggles and political tension go on in the process of gaining value and popularity of one's works. The cultural studies' scholar cannot ever totally complete a research project interpreting or reflecting the movement on social networking sites, because the subject of study remains in constant flux. The individual profiles within the social networks as well as the social network domains (such as, which no longer exists) often go through the cycle of birth and demise.

[43] Overall, engaging the aesthetic paradigm espoused by Guattari and Deleuze will strengthen its relationship with cultural studies even in a different medium such as TV or in media convergence. This view will affirm the importance of aesthetics in culture while simultaneously moving away from the traditional view of aesthetics in relation to ideology or high art. Instead, aesthetics will be understood as an enrichment of culture due to the shift in focus from the representation and interpretation of culture to the view of aesthetics as the continual producer of affects, capturing the momentum and continuum of culture.


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