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On Beauty and the Politics of Academic Institutionality

Briana Brickley


Zadie Smith’s 2005 novel, On Beauty, is a work that remains timely as it explores aesthetics in the context of the neoliberal American university. Art and beauty, removed from the hermetic sites of philosophy and official knowledge, become expansive categories in Smith’s text, spilling over into the social world to mark the intimate, everyday, embodied, and sensate experiences of a multicultural cast of characters orbiting the institution and navigating its politics. Tracking the various ways On Beauty’s minoritized characters are forced to negotiate the spaces in and around the university, this article highlights how those routinely excluded from the sites of institutional power deploy aesthetic strategies as resistance. This “intersectional aesthetics” prompts a reconsideration of the foundations of an aesthetic judgment rooted in Enlightenment notions of disinterest and universality, which ultimately prove to be thinly veiled racist and patriarchal requirements for subjectivity and citizenship. Finally, such tactics serve as the means by which On Beauty’s critique becomes not an indictment of the contemporary university, but a glimpse at its potential for fostering new ways of engaging beauty that embrace difference and spark vital, often unpredictable attachments.


aesthetics, On Beauty, the university, multiculturalism, intersectionality

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The Johns Hopkins University Press

ISSN: 1920-1222

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