Sunday, March 20, 2005

Philosophical Talk and Book: Jacques Rancière, ‘The Politics of Aesthetics’

‘There is a limit at which the forms of novelistic micrology establish a mode of individuation that comes to challenge political subjectivization. There is also, however, an entire field of play where their modes of individuation and their means of linking sequences contribute to liberating political possibilities by undoing the formatting of reality produced by state-controlled media, by undoing the relations between the visible, the sayable, and the thinkable.’
[Jacques Rancière, ‘The Politics of Aesthetics’ (AP), p. 65]

[1] Aside from the interest of seeing a living philosopher of repute, listed alongside other pioneers at this time of great developments and intense problems (which is perhaps all times if one really grasps them), hearing Rancière speak was a powerful experience. The present atmosphere, with politics and resistance suspended amidst the relativism everywhere assumed and institutionalised within the stage of capitalism where consensus and tolerance are dangerous absolutes, made his subject deeply relevant. When to think becomes to offend and to be elitist, and opinion is paramount and oblivious to the forces and flows from which it is formed, philosophy’s task of thinking has no place. With a seeming lack of any way out of the dichotomy of liberal democracy and religious fanaticism, Rancière seems to be one of those seeking to articulate philosophy against these two dead ends. In the light of his thought tolerance can be seen to be conservative in its drowning out of the new and resistant through an obsession with what is already established and expressed as part of a stable order. The need to always show respect even if one disagrees can be debilitating as a dead end for resistance. Within liberal democracy we find an illusion of some Cartesian (in a simplistic form) sovereignty of the individual mind and its opinions, whilst in fanatical religion there is a transcendent grand narrative. Neither concerns immanence, neither considers the production or genesis of, to use a term of Rancière’s, ‘the distribution of the sensible.’ There is for many a lack of satisfaction in Althusser and his theoretical stance according to which revolution is denounced as a bourgeois reaction. Philosophies of difference seem to risk drowning resistance in the noise or clamour of differences. Thinking the Event has become a way of overcoming difference in its apparently ineffectual and compromising clamour. Do we become drowned in differences if we attempt to formulate resistance? At risk of causing offence, Rancière seeks to understand the relations of aesthetics and politics in a way that, in common with the efforts of other contemporary thinkers, re-establishes a thinking of the universal political subject. Gone are the grand narratives of historical teleology but not the contingent sites where something universal must occur for resistance to be possible.

[2] Distribution of the Sensible. This term refers to a system of self-evident and common facts of sense perception, these assign parts and positions to subjects and objects alike (PA, p. 12). This rules out the relativism according to which each person’s opinion or point of view is somehow primordial and equally valid since we now start with the production of these very positions. In this sense Rancière offers a Kantian aesthetics: a system of a priori forms that determines what presents itself to sense experience (AP, p. 13). This is a definition of what is to be visible, sayable, audible, thinkable or constructible within its horizons and modalities. This common space is one both aesthetic and political without this making the two realms equivalent. It instead suggests that both are formations and conditions of possible experience, whether this is political or aesthetic. Both are capable of playing a role in the distribution of sensation despite the latter apparently being fictional. This includes the former with events of creation and demands an understanding of this production prior to the established and normative political order. This includes the everyday or supposedly neutral experience of the world that cannot be divorced from these conditions. Rancière offers the example of novels in which everything presented on the page is equal. There is no restriction here to what can be visible because it has been redistributed so that a hierarchy of representation does not forms a structure and the reader is faced with things that are excluded and without place in the normative order. These are able to circulate beyond the page of the fictional work. The horizons of what can be thought and experienced are changed, new modalities of being are possible in the absence of a hierarchy of things and this is infectious. Rancière attributes this to ‘a random circulation of the written word’ (AP, p. 14), which must be distinguished from the spreading of political messages. This is possible if, for example, the suffering of the pauper or the forces of sexuality are equal to the noble and morally worthy through a redistribution of what is presented. In the undoing of previous categories we find that such affects of aesthetic practice cannot be restricted to the realm of art but blur the distinction we might wish to make between art and non-art, fiction and reality.

[3] The Egalitarian redistribution of the sensible in art is at the same time a political redistribution of shared experience (AP, p. 17). Figures of community are brought forth in different contexts but each time equal to themselves, a singular and full presentation through the redistribution of the sensible. This means that the artistic presentation does not rely upon the intention of the artist to pursue and further a political programme. Instead they are internal to the possibilities of artistic creativity, which are able to circulate as affects in non-art. Whether a figure is aesthetic or political it circulates and cannot be limited by an order of representation, which would seek to limit the effect of it’s having no place in the established order. Rancière therefore argues that the relation of aesthetics and politics must be understood at the level of the sensible determination of what is common to the community. This makes the latter not a matter of negotiation and majority consensus but always the transmission of artistic practice. It is a singular interruption, contingent and without prior procedures of agreement that are always normative. This is the condition of possible experience, prior to opinion or point of view and not anticipated by them. Given a normative order, one here called the ‘police order’, the circulation of artistic affects can only be an interruption, which is not included or recognised by that order. The forms of visibility and its organization are here produced by the intervention of a different order and through this founding difference that challenges the dominant and exclusionary (AP, p. 18). So far we have found aesthetics is given a role in the formation of experience and an ontological dignity equal to politics, equal to a production of the new in politics. The ‘police order’ is overcome by the redistributions of the sensible emerging in artistic practice as a function of its integral originality and ability to think the new. The question that arises, however, is whether aesthetics gains this dignity at the expense of losing its integrity and unique creativity. Do artists simply play politics by other means? If the genius is ultimately a political revolutionary using creative means rather than violence or oratory he or she seems to become something less unique, less original. Does this in fact run the risk that the artist is disarmed by capitalism in using only peaceful means to resist so that this resistance is cancelled by being kept in its place as one opinion or point of view among others, rendered harmless because of the duty not to offend and always to show respect for other opinions? What does it mean to separate the creative genesis of artistic practice from the demands of political processes and requirements if in the end we find in aesthetics merely the supplying of political programmes for the interruption of the dominant order? Can aesthetic practice think beyond the present condition of the human such that its new figure is so unimaginable as to scramble the normative order and in fact not promote peaceful consensus but constitute adequate resistance.

[4] The talk, which Rancière gave at the ICA on 18th February, was intense not because it was in any way polemic but due to the animated style with which he drew upon artistic and political processes. He met a number of questions about how his ideas of resistance were in fact acts already appropriated by capitalism. For him the universal singularity in question must be contingent and undetermined: this rests upon the creativity and integrity of artistic practice, which must be a supplement to the continuous domain of the normative order (perhaps the Deleuzo-Guattarian notion of the ‘smooth space’ of capital is relevant here although Rancière did not draw upon this). If art were subservient to political needs it would run the risk of being situated within the differentiations of the already established and dominant capitalist distribution of the sensible. Only if it works from its own resources as a supplementary series of interventions can it overcome the trap of being a tool of politics that is always be re-captured by the order within which it seeks to resist. It must not serve the political logic of resistance because this risks being produced by the established order itself. It becomes a gesture rendered harmless by being integrated into the broader consensus or excluded altogether by the logic of this consensus. Perhaps it is just an example of extreme thinking, useful for the purposes of the normative order. It certainly never makes visible that which is excluded because it hasn’t moved outside the dominant order of visibility. Peter Hallwood introduced Rancière’s thought as a whole at the start of the talk in terms of the opposition between a theory of disruptive equality and the order and hierarchy of domination. We have still to define ‘equality’ and the related notion of the ‘political subject.’ This we will work towards through the rest of this review. During his talk Rancière tackled the criticism that I outlined in the previous paragraph. He could be clear that art is not political because of messages or representations that it may make concerning politics. It therefore does not serve the ends of a struggle against the dominant order. Instead, it frames a ‘specific space-time sensorium’. It is a certain regime of liberty and equality contrary to the framing of a common sense that is political and radically indifferent. He compared this to Deleuze’s break down of the sensory-motor schema. This disruption is internal to the creativity of the artwork itself and as such may be utterly disruptive to a dominant order that cannot anticipate that which originates outside of its regime. This makes the history of the work of art a topology of possible instances of liberation and not of the development of one principle. Such intervention overcomes the abilities of capital to integrate the strategies of resistance that might be deployed. This means that aesthetics does have its own concerns, that it does not represent or promote an agenda other than its autonomous creativity. It follows that the boundary between art and politics is both present and absent. Art displaces the borders of what is artistic; it creates new bridges and gaps between levels of reality. It must not be a representation of non-art since otherwise it might be enslaved to the order dominant within it. Yet it cannot be isolated from its role in the distribution of the sensible without denying its creative autonomy that breaks into the political order wholly of its own accord. Rancière made interesting observations upon the hyper-commitment to reality of this post-modern age. He locates signs of this in museums that report on the real, in the excess of things, signs and images that overflow from consumer society. Documentary, reportage and photography are expressions of a hyper-commitment to objectivity. This led Rancière to exclaim with feeling that we are not sceptical enough today.
There is not the grasp of the production of the particular distribution of the sensible and the possibilities for change, and too much is invested in the subjective impression as if it were primordial. He argued that the real is never given because its borders are ceaselessly framed and re-framed. It must be related to a distribution rather than being separated from fiction. Aesthetics is thus configured as original and self-sufficient and yet a site where the conditions of experience may be re-thought without serving any non-artistic end. This is the unity and the difference of aesthetics and politics. With a logic of consensus some people are left outside but, Rancière points out, the fighting of social exclusion is not the work of art. When it is demanded that art be relevant or that artists read newspapers we find this capacity repressed by the order inscribed in these demands. This demand is always the attempt to make art something else, something no longer productive of the new that circulates. This would make it subservient to the formulas that dominate, never able to give voice and visibility to that which has no place. He described his method as the presentation not of a general ontological view but the tackling of specific problems, always thinking the interruption of the sensible distribution. These instances are equal to the supplementary that art presents and which cannot be contained within it. Given this move, equality needs qualification since it is a term open to many determinations that place limits upon it and we want to understand why for Rancière it must be re-thought.

[5] A concern arises in ‘Aesthetics and Politics’ with acts of subjectivization, a theme that emerges in the wake of philosophy’s staging of the dissolution of the subject through difference. It is not a return to a Cartesian certainty of the ego but a concern with the production of a singular interruption of the dominant order in which a ‘subject’ is brought to occur. Our concern is with a political subject that is brought about rather than with a subject that is given, assumed and general. Political subjectivization is able to separate society from itself because it challenges the distribution of the sensible or ‘natural order of bodies.’ This is staged in the name of equality and not in the name of the majority, which always embodies the established distribution or order (AP, p. 92). Politics is thus about this anarchical process of emancipation and not about the negotiation of a consensus, a continuity of order through the disarming of extremes and outsiders via a 'middle way.' Rancière elaborates this process in which a political subject extracts himself or herself from the dominant categories of identification and classification. The given field of experience makes them unidentifiable and yet they are identified through a redistribution of this sensible order. In this light we see the substance of the poem not as the essence or Idea of the image. Instead it is in the new modes of being that break away and that affect the ethos of individuals and communities that we find this substance (AP, p. 21). In this way the autonomy of art is linked to a general order of occupations and ways of doing and making. This makes aesthetics the specific mode of being of art-objects (AP, p. 22), one that is able to circulate like the leitmotif denying in an instance the dominant harmony. It comes to weave a new whole as a new harmony thanks to its difference and disruptive militancy. Its newness is that the mode of being does not fit the established order due to its creative originality and can only connect with the excluded majority that cannot be identified, the part without a place. This is a product identical with something not produced (AP, p. 23) and as pure instance of suspension (AP, p. 24). Rancière here appeals to the relationships of art with other spheres of collective experience (AP, p. 26). He refers to Schiller’s ‘aesthetic education’ as defining a specific mode of living in the sensible world. This was set against the degeneration of political revolution (AP, p. 27) where possibilities were exhausted and lacking energy as they were closed down and blocked by a dominant order.

[6] If the logic of art and of the socio-historical world are indistinct then testimony and fiction come under the same regime of meaning (AP, p. 37). The real must be fictionalised if it is to be thought. Traces of the true are uncovered in the ordinary within art and this spreads to non-art as a redistributive intervention, an example of the excluded becoming expressive and active. All of the sensible is open to this redistrubution. Art and politics are constructing ‘fictions’ which are material arrangements of signs and images between what is seen and said, and what is done and can be done (AP, p. 39). This allows aesthetic blocks of sensation, circulating without a legitimate father to accompany them to their authorized addressee, to introduce a line of fracture and disincorporation into normative and imaginary collective bodies. Key to this notion is the already mentioned 'circulation'. This modifies sensory perception of what is common to the community (AP, p. 40). With creative redistributions having their own life so that they cannot be contained within art alone, possibilities are opened for resistance. The being of the sensible – as Deleuze names it – is common to political and aesthetic distributions and presentations. As such it expresses itself no matter how much art and non-art are separate in their nature. This blurring reflects conditions of possible experience prior to the conceptions formed by a fixed subject and the normative order of the legitimate spheres of different practices. If Utopia is unreal to the workers it is because it reconfigures the territory of the visible, thinkable and possible (AP, p. 41). In this way, thought could become the sensory experience of the community (AP, p. 44) with Romanticism's emphasis upon how making and seeing are united. Sensibility itself is the product of possibilities for thought that are instantiated not as opinions but as singular interventions of political subjects that are constituted by this action. Immanent to this activity is the bringing to light of a new distribution. Rancière draws from this the conclusion that art is less the discovery of the essence of human activity than a recomposition of the landscape of the visible (AP p. 45). It is outside the logic defining essences and so can only produce a political subject in the acts of those instantiating a new order that is universal in virtue of being outside the order that is established. When art is not the tool of politics but a source of possibility it becomes seen as the genesis of the human and the source of its overcoming in particular incarnations. If the majority reflects only a limited order then minority embodies as political subject the universal as that which can always and only produce a redistribution. This is the universal singularity that in each instance is not identical but universal in virtue of their being different and in excess of the established order.

[7] Rancière wants to avoid a logic of the hidden and apparent, with truth unveiled behind appearances. He conceives of horizontal distributions, which are combinations between systems and possibilities (AP, p. 49). This avoids a position of mastery being established and thus leaves the possibilities of aesthetic practice to circulate. Political subjectivity can only occur within this open field of possibilities, one open to the exception, the excluded part. This brings us to the politics that exists when a specific subject is constituted as a supernumerary subject in relation to the calculated number of groups, places and functions (AP, p. 51). This is understood as the ‘singularized universal’ that is so opposed to a logic of consensus or a 'middle way.' This is the occurrence of equality, something only functioning when it is put into action (AP, p. 52). Rancière sees this at work in Joyce where a tension is set up between endless stereotypes of Dublin figures, characters without depth, and the ascent towards myth as language’s necessity (AP, p. 59). The void of meaning has the effect of redistribution since it is expressed in the aesthetic practice of undoing the normative order through an ironical narration. The political subjectivity of Bloom or Stephen only occurs when they emerge as outsiders without a place, as universal exceptions able to emboby the interruptions, staged as epiphanies, of the established and redundant order of meaning. Other networks of the sensible are established and these may corroborate the action undertaken by political subjects. This means that politics must appropriate modes of presentation produced in art and not the other way round (AP. P. 64-5). This is illustrated much more in Virginia Woolf than in Zola because she establishes a grid that makes it possible to think through forms of political dissensuality more effectively that social epics achieve (AP, p. 65). Equality is achieved only when acts of subjectivization ride the wave of reconfigurations of the sensible circulating and undo the supposedly natural order of the sensible. This means that equality is the only universal axiom of politics but is undetermined and only implemented in the particular acts of political subjects (AP, p. 86). This is why Zizek can say in his afterword that Rancière is not nostalgic but his thought is more actual than ever because post-modern politics is permeated with aesthetic phenomena (AP, p. 79). The sanctity of culture and opinion is made to connect with its genesis. The universal is enacted in the political ‘short-circuit’ (Zizek’s favourite term) where the particular demand or act of subjectivization stands for the universal gesture of rejecting the powers that be (AP, p. 76). This is equality when difference threatens to silence any universal in its din, the eternal truth of an exceptional distribution revealing the shortcomings of the dominant order. Perhaps the greatest lesson of this equality is the requirement to connect with that which is not visible, that which is of greatest challenge, if one truly seeks resistance. I found the talk and book most powerful for their further development in the English speaking world, in original ways, of a current strand in continental thought, and adding to its urgency.


Rancière, Jacques ‘On Politics and Aesthetics’, talk and questions given on 25th February 2005, Institute of Contemporary Art, London.

- (2004) ‘The Politics of Aesthetics’ (AP), translated by Gabriel Rockhill, London and New York: Continuum.


Blogger robt ™ said...

Good day,

I posted this on my blog dedicated to Ranciere's philosophical and/as political project on aesthetics.

I hope this is okay with you; I did cite the blog, etc.

here is the link to my blog:

alt e.:

12:09 AM  

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