Rancière (1)

I’ve been reading Jacques Rancière these last few weeks, trying to get a grip on what he’s about. I have read four short books of his, so far: The Politics of Aesthetics, The Future of the Image, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, and The Hatred of Democracy. (All of these have been translated, though some of them I read in French, because I happened to have the French editions at hand). There was also a lengthy interview with Rancière sometime this past year in Artforum, which I finally got around to. I haven’t really sorted it all out yet, but I’m making these preliminary comments in order to get a start at it.

I first became interested in Rancière because of the way that he links politics and aesthetics. This is something that, from a different angle, I have been quite interested in. My starting premise is that the current academic (left academic?) infatuation with “ethics” is severely misplaced. I’m inclined to say — though I will not endeavor to back up this statement here — that the category of the ethical (whether understood in Levinasian/Derridean terms, or in ones derived from Spinoza and a Deleuze-inflected Nietzsche) is worse than useless: it is actively obfuscatory when it comes to thinking about actual instances of suffering, exploitation, and domination in the world today. At best, ethical thought leads to the impotent wringing of hands and to empty sympathizing (in the Derridean version), or to optimistic fantasizing (in the Spinoza/Negri version). At worst, it leads to accepting the “tragedy” of the neoliberal world order as the ineluctable Way Things Are.

As I said, I will not try to defend this argument here. I want rather to suggest an alternative: which comes down to evacuating the space of ethics, and replacing it with politics and political economy on the one hand, and aesthetics on the other. Every ethical dilemma needs to be displaced, both into a politico-economic problematic, and into an aesthetic situation on the other. As Mallarme wrote, some 130 years ago: “everything comes down to Aesthetics and Political Economy” (Tout se résume dans l’Ésthetique et l’Economie politique). We need to reverse the direction of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, and move from the ethical to the aesthetic. This involves, on the one hand, seeing the situations of exploitation and domination that lie behind every ethical dilemma or tragic situation; and on the other hand, disengaging the ways that, in our neoliberal network society (society of the post-spectacle, of the simulacrum, of the proliferation of electronic media and their saturation of the real), the distribution of percepts, affects, and concepts (to use Deleuze and Guattari’s schema) can potentially be altered.

It can be noted that the program I am outlining both relies very strongly on Deleuze and Guattari, both for their analysis of Captial as Body without Organs, and for their unrepentant aestheticism; while at the same time this program distances itself from certain aspects of Deleuze’s — with and without Guattari — Spinozianism and Nietzscheanism. This is the point at which I vastly prefer Whitehead to Spinoza and/or Nietzsche. Though Whitehead never polemicizes about it, his subordination of ethics to aesthetics (but in an entirely un-Nietzschean way, without any of that tiresome pontification about blond beasts and breeding a master race and so on and so forth) is precisely on track with what I am trying to work out. Of course, Whitehead has nothing worthwhile to say about political economy; but in that stalled chapter I hope to get back to shortly, I am trying to work out the ways in which Whitehead’s notion of “God” is homologous to Deleuze and Guattari’s formulations about the Body without Organs (I am referring to the analysis of BwO-logic as capital-logic in Anti-Oedipus, rather than to the far less interesting “make yourself a Body without Organs” stuff in A Thousand Plateaus).

Anyway: this is where I encounter Rancière’s thesis on the “distribution of the sensible.” Rancière argues for a direct connection between politics and aesthetics (one that implicitly leaves out ethics) like this. Immediate aesthetic practices (aesthetics in the sense of Art) both establish and contest the ways in which, and the structures according to which, a given society distributes the “conditions of possibility” for what can (and what cannot) be sensed, felt, and spoken about, and what cannot (aesthetics in the sense of Kant’s “Transcendental Aesthetic,” which deals with time and space as forms of intuition — Rancière, like Foucault, in effect offers us a historicized version of the Kantian a priori argument — cf. The Politics of Aesthetics 13). Rancière offers, in effect, a more subtle version of McLuhan’s claim that new media produce new “ratios of the senses.” (Rancière dislikes McLuhan’s emphasis on media as determining by themselves, independently of “content”; but he rightly attributes to social arrangements that include media technologies the power to redistribute “sensibility” that McLuhan perhaps too simply attributes to the media alone).

The “distribution of the sensible,” which art addresses, and at once accepts as its condition of being, and disputes, is precisely also the ground and the stake of politics — every “distribution of the sensible” thereby also defines who is entitled to speak, and what sorts of things they are able to say. The “distribution of the sensible” defines the rules and the arena for “normal” political and social decisions. But politics, in the radical sense that Rancière champions, is a movement that does not just operate within these parameters, but actively challenges them, seeks to alter them.

In other words: Politics in the conventional sense — which would include both the US presidential election process, and the ways in which policy decisions are made by institutions like the Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve Bank — operates within the parameters of an already-given, socially sanctioned distribution of the sensible. Rancière dismisses this sort of policy-making as oligarchic even in supposedly “democratic” societies like France and the US — it is the work of the “police” rather than actual political engagement, and it always involves domination and inequality. On the other hand, what Rancière calls actual “politics,” and which he also describes as radical democracy, occurs when these background a priori rules, embodied in an official distribution of the sensible, themselves become contested.

The protestors in Seattle in 1999 were entirely Rancièrean when they chanted, “This is what democracy looks like.” And the city’s response to the protests — effectively suspending civil liberties and imposing martial law for several days — demonstrated how “policing” is the inverse of politics, how the smooth functioning of both government and capitalist commerce depends upon the suppression of democracy, or of politics proper.

I can see two major consequences that follow from this. One is to point out the way that neoliberal governance, with its two institutions of State and Market, is fundamentally and at the core anti-democratic. There is a continuity between allowing decisions to be made by the “market” or by supposedly nonpartisan “experts” (like the Fed) in order to shield these decisions from the supposedly noxious effects of political controversy, and bringing out the cops in force to protect the WTO meeting from popular discontent. (I can’t remember the author or title right now, but I remember reading some reviews of a recent book that argues that, since voters always act “irrationally,” it is better to leave as many social decisions as possible to market mechanisms instead of democratic ones. While we may question how “democratic” the opportunity to choose between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani actually is, it is clear that leaving issues to the “decisions” of the “market” is far more autocratic. The “market” is supposedly the sum of individuals’ “preferences”; but in reality, it is both the sphere of maximized inequality — since unequal income distribution is very far from one-person-one-vote — and also, we cannot avoid confronting the “market” as a vast impersonal force against which we have no power whatsoever. Neoliberal ideology regards the “market” as an ineluctable force of nature, like gravity or the speed of light).

The second consequence of Rancière’s argument is to shed a new light on the political dimensions of art. It is no longer a question of looking at a work of art’s “ideology,” nor of asking what the artwork’s actual political “efficacy” might be. Rancière allows us to get away from both of these tired ways of looking at the politics of art. It is rather that art and political action run parallel, because both of them, against the backdrop of a socially given distribution of the sensible, both enact and contest this distribution, work to reconfigure it, and to bring out potentials within it that have not previously been realized. Art is thus already a political intervention — not in what it says, but in its very being, in its formal and aesthetic qualities.

Rancière probably wouldn’t like this assimilation, but I think that his theory of art fits well into the Kantian-Deleuzian genealogy of aesthetics that I have been trying to pursue. Kant’s aesthetics has to do with the singularizing limits and extremities of the mental faculties, with the points at which they break down or enter into discord with one another, or (as Deleuze reads Kant) find a harmony only through this discord. In other words, commonality and universality are precisely problems for “aesthetic judgment”; Kant takes commonality and universality for granted in the First and Second Critiques, but problematizes them in the Third. The problem of aesthetic judgment is the problem of communicating things (sensations) that are absolutely singular, and heterogeneous in relation to one another. In a way, therefore, the problem of aesthetic judgment is the same as the problem of the commodity in Marx (how a universal equivalent can be found for things that in themselves are heterogeneous), and also as the problem of how to find a “common” or commonality or communism that is not just a reductive quantification via translation in terms of the universal equivalent (this is the side of the Marxist problematic that is highlighted in Hardt and Negri’s discussion of “the common”; following it out would seem to involve both thinking Marx and Kant together as Karatani does, and thinking about alternative currencies and trading systems, which Karatani approaces vis his interest in LETS networks, and which Keith Hart has done a lot to illuminate, referring to Mauss’ The Gift as well as to the Marxist tradition).

Now, Deleuze radicalizes Kant in this respect by the way that he rewrites, and radicalizes, Kant’s pushing of the mental faculties to their limits. Drawing on Blanchot and Klossowski, among others (and implicitly drawing, as well on Foucault’s Kantian reading of Bataille in “A Preface to Transgression,” despite Deleuze’s own evident contempt for Bataille), Deleuze in Difference and Repetition and elsewhere outlines a scenario in which each of the faculties pushes to the point where it breaks down: which means that, going to the maximum extent of “what it can do,” it both uncovers the (transcendental) force or energy that impels it but that it cannot apprehend directly, and ruptures itself, thereby compelling thought to jump discontinuously to another faculty, which (precisely through this discontinuity or discord) picks up the process, pushing itself to its own limit, and so on in turn…

What I am trying to suggest is, that, in his examinations of the distribution of the sensible, Rancière in effect historicizes the process that Deleuze describes in more absolute terms — just as Foucault, in his middle period (The Order of Things) historicizes the a priori conditions of thought that Kant describes in absolute terms. (Actually, this is an oversimplification; because Foucault in effect historizes Kant’s Categories, his “Transcendental Deduction of Concepts”; whereas Deleuze radicalizes, and Rancière then historicizes what corresponds more to Kant’s “Transcendental Aesthetic.” This is something that comes up in the Kant/Whitehead/Deleuze book, but that I eventually need to work out more careflly here).

There’s a lot more to be said on Rancière’s aesthetics — and particularly on the way that he rewrites the history of art since the Renaissance, and especially of the transition to modernism, in terms of changing distributions of the sensible. But I will defer that for now, as well as the even bigger question of the consequences of Rancière’s understanding of “democracy.” Hopefully I will now be able to start posting more frequently than I have in the last few months. To be continued…

4 thoughts on “Rancière (1)”

  1. The difficulty, pace Mallarmé, is to do aesthetics and political economy togther. Ranciere is, in an interesting way, an aesthetic determinist. The distributions of the sensible are for him prior to economic, political, even technical forms.

  2. hi, I was wondering do you know the source text of where Ranciere discusses/criticizes McLuhan?

    my email address is varvaras [at] gmail.com

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