Critical Horizons: A Journal of Philosophy and Social Teory 8(2), December 2007, 230–55

© Acumen Publishing Ltd. 2007
REVIEW ESSAY
Democratic Aesthetics:
On Jacques Rancière’s Latest Work
1
Jean-Philippe Deranty
Jacques Rancière, Hatred of Democracy, Steve Corcoran (trans.) (London: Verso,
2006), isnx 978-1-84467-098-7; Film Fables, Emiliano Battista (trans.) (Oxford:
Berg, 2006), isnx 978-1-84520-167-8; Te Future of the Image, Gregory Elliott
(trans.) (London: Verso, 2007), isnx 978-1-84467-107-6
Up until recently, Jacques Rancière’s work seemed to be clearly divided into two
separate periods, corresponding to distinct sets of questions. Te first period,
starting with Althusser’s Lesson (1974) and culminating in Disagreement (1995)
and the second edition of On the Borders of the Political (1998), was wholly dedi-
cated to the political question and the defence of democratic politics. Te years
1996–98 marked a turning point as Rancière’s interest shifted from the political
to the aesthetic: first to literature,
2
and then to broader questions of aesthetic
theory and to the visual arts.
3
Of course, Rancière’s politics from the beginning
revolved around the invisibility of the dominated and was defined as a challenge
to the hegemonic perception of the social world. It was therefore, from the begin-
ning, inherently aesthetic, in the original sense of the term. Conversely, his foray
into aesthetic theory can be characterized as the extrapolation of the egalitarian
axiom into the sphere of artistic practices. Te apparent division in his career
therefore hides a deep unity and coherence. As is now well known, for Rancière,
politics is aesthetic (a challenge to dominant social perception); and aesthetics is
political (introducing the principle of equality in the practices, representations
1. I must express my gratitude to Danielle Petherbridge and John Rundell for their very helpful
comments on earlier versions of this essay.
2. J. Rancière, Mallarmé: Politique de la Sirène (Paris: Hachette, 1996); La Parole Muette: Essai sur les
Contradictions de la Littérature (Paris: Hachette, 1998); La Chair des Mots: Politiques de l’Ecriture
(Paris: Galilée, 1998), translated as Te Flesh of Words: Te Politics of Writing, Charlotte Mandell
(trans.) (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004).
3. J. Rancière, Le Partage du Sensible: Esthétique et Politique (Paris: La Fabrique, 1998), transla-
ted as Te Politics of Aesthetics, Gabriel Rockhill (trans.) (London: Continuum, 2004); La Fable
Cinématographique (Paris: Seuil, 2001), translated as Film Fables, Emiliano Battista (trans.) (Oxford:
Berg, 2006); L’Inconscient Esthétique (Paris: Galilée, 2001); Le Destin des Images (Paris: La Fabrique,
2003), translated as Te Future of the Image, Gregory Elliott (trans.) (London: Verso, 2007).
REVIEW ESSAY: DEMOCRATIC AESTHETICS 23I
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and perceptions that count as art and aesthetic experience). Tis profound unity
underlying all of Rancière’s work has come to light more explicitly in the past
few years, as he has returned to the political question in a renewed, substantive
defence of democratic politics, with Te Hatred of Democracy,
4
and his most
recent books published in France
5
now expressly engage simultaneously with
the two problematics.
Tis essay will focus on the three English translations that have been published
in the past year: Te Hatred of Democracy (2006); Film Fables (2006) and Te
Future of the Image (2007). Te review of Rancière’s latest work will be guided in
particular by the following questions: are there any noteworthy developments,
complements or corrections, in his political theory; what more do these latest
books teach us about the link between politics and aesthetics; how does the
principle of radical equality concretely help to read the history of the visual arts
and particular art works? I shall try to demonstrate that the extrapolation of the
egalitarian axiom into art and aesthetic experience in fact helps us to identify the
deep philosophical vision at the heart of Rancière’s thinking, a vision articulated
around what could be termed a paradoxical, anti-essentialist materialism, com-
bined with a defence of creative praxis.
Te Hatred of Democracy
Let us begin with Te Hatred of Democracy. A superficial reading could leave the
impression that Rancière’s essay is only a polemic intervention in a debate that is
idiosyncratically French. However, the historical reconstructions and conceptual
analyses that Rancière proposes in order to diagnose and critique the “hatred of
democracy” at work in today’s French public sphere make the demonstration of
much broader significance. Tey make this essay a short but substantive book of
contemporary social and political philosophy. From an immanent perspective,
the book helps greatly in clarifying some of the key ideas underpinning Rancière’s
theses on politics and modernity. Most importantly, as we shall see, Te Hatred
of Democracy provides significant clarifications about the implicit theory of the
social underpinning his famous definition of politics. And philosophically, the
book confirms that ultimately Rancière’s project aims to be, against all pessimistic
or cynical abdications, a defence of the possibility of political action.
4. J. Rancière, La Haine de la Démocratie (Paris: Galilée, 2005), translated as Hatred of Democracy,
Steve Corcoran (trans.) (London: Verso, 2006).
5. J. Rancière, Malaise dans l’Esthétique (Paris: Galilée, 2004); “Te Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and
Politics”, in Recognition, Work, Politics: New Directions in French Critical Teory, J.-P. Deranty,
D. Petherbridge, J. Rundell, R. Sinnerbrink (eds), 27–45 (Leiden: Brill, 2007) ); Politique de la
Littérature (Paris: Galilée, 2007).
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Who, then, “hates” democracy, and why? In France today, the “hatred of
democracy” represents the final product of a suspicion shared by a great number
of “intellectuals” towards the core principles of modern life. Democracy in this
case does not mean a specific form of political institution, but rather a type of
society, with its specific spirit. It designates the spirit of equality that modern soci-
ety has created and through which it defines itself, and which, these pessimistic
observers argue, threatens the very survival of European society. By attacking all
forms of symbolic transcendence, which, according to them, are necessary for
social reproduction (first among which is the relationship of children to their
father), the democratic spirit of radical equality leads to nothing short of a cri-
sis of civilization. Te perversion inherent in this spirit is supposed to become
transparent once its real origin is located. According to this position, the princi-
ple of democratic egalitarianism is supposed to express the constant, insatiable
demands of the modern consuming individual for the fulfilment of his endless,
narcissistic desires. Modern egalitarianism, the root of the democratic spirit, is
therefore accused of hiding the tyranny of the atomized individual of mass con-
sumption and postmodern spectacle. Teacher–pupil, parent–child, man–woman:
all relations forming the core of societal reproduction are said to be perverted
when they fall under the sway of the egalitarian imperative, which in fact hides
the logic of commercial rationality and selfish individualism.
Tis alleged ground of democratic perversion explains why the current, wide-
spread critique of the democratic age is propounded in France on all sides of the
political spectrum. It can be neatly grafted onto the puristic republicanism that
still largely determines the French “objective spirit”, with variations on all poles of
the political spectrum. Also, the ground for the hatred of democracy is so deep-
rooted that it allows the bundling together of the most diverse phenomena: the
legal demands of gays and lesbians, the struggles of ethnic and cultural minori-
ties, the attempts to maintain social and economic rights, and so on.
It is worth noting that often these pessimistic diagnostics secure their theo-
retical ground by recourse to psychoanalysis, notably in its Lacanian version, as
they attempt to demonstrate that the egalitarian spirit of democratic society is
destructive of the principle that allegedly determines the possibility of the consti-
tution of symbolic orders, the much-bandied-about “name of the father”. With
nets cast so deep, any social struggle pursued in the name of equality becomes
synonymous with a descent into barbarism.
At the moment, this kind of diagnostic intersects frequently with another
radical criticism of European modernity, the type that makes the Holocaust
the turning point of modern history. Paradigmatic of such a construct is Jean-
Claude Milner’s extreme attack in Les Penchants Criminels de l’Europe, in which
Hitler is presented as the man who realized Europe’s secret wish. Te link with
the critique of modern, capitalistic society is made via the distinction between
two anthropological and societal principles: the good principle, the respect of
REVIEW ESSAY: DEMOCRATIC AESTHETICS 233
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the law of filiation, versus the barbarism inherent in models of society and sub-
jectivity that refuse their ontological finitudes and embark on the programme
of utopian self-procreation. From this perspective, democratic demands, the
irreducible anti-Semitic streak in European culture and the dangers of modern
technology become just different facets of the unique, lethal project defining
European civilization. For the European subjects and their society, the most
urgent task would then be to delete the “name of the Jew” because it is repre-
sentative of the good law of filiation and limitation, the last obstacle to fulfilling
the desire of unlimited consumption and self-creation.
6
Te fascination exercised
by arguments like these in the French context cannot be underestimated. Te
reception to Milner’s book, for example, was striking for the embarrassment of
the reviewers. Te power of intellectual intimidation of that book, and of other
writings of that ilk, makes the hysterical witch-hunt currently taking place against
alleged “anti-Semitic” leftist writers, of whom Alain Badiou is the most famous
target, a rather sinister affair.
Rancière’s essay, however, is more than just an intervention in a Franco-
French debate. He demonstrates convincingly how these extreme denunciations
of democracy in fact reflect a historical movement and mobilize philosophical
references that are much broader and significant in scope than the shenanigans
of the Parisian microcosm.
In the genealogy proposed by Rancière in the first chapter of the book, it is the
virulence of the contestation of hierarchies by the social movements of the 1960s
that initiated the backlash against democracy. Te events of 1968 are of course
the culmination of this contestation. Tis confirms the idea that the interpreta-
tion of 1968 is of critical importance in the current political context. Forty years
ago, conservative sociologists and political theorists, under the challenge of the
assault on the hierarchies prevalent in Western societies, had already identified
the “double bind” of democracy: democracy requires the participation of the
many in the affairs of government, but this brings with it a spirit of rebellious-
ness that challenges all competences, all forms of expertise and authority, thereby
making governing impossible, and undermining democracy itself. Democracy,
the well-meaning governments and their intellectual supporters argue, therefore
needs to be defended against its own spirit: “as a social and political form of life,
democracy is the reign of the excess. Tis excess signifies the ruin of democratic
government and must therefore be repressed by it”.
7
For a brief period, as the
socialist totalitarian regimes collapsed, human rights and liberal democracy were
celebrated, but this episode did not last long. Very quickly the old suspicion
against the inherent sin of the democratic spirit resurfaced. Today, the widespread
6. Similar arguments were of course well articulated in Lyotard’s latest philosophy.
7. Rancière, Hatred of Democracy, 8.
234 JEAN·PHILIPPE DERANTY
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suspicion among intellectuals of all political persuasions towards the excesses of
the democratic “fury” finds its real, practical enactment in the policies of govern-
ments for whom security has explicitly become the sole objective of politics.
Te modern suspicion towards democracy can find a theoretical foundation in
a variety of conceptual sources, notably via a return to the classics of political phi-
losophy, from Hobbes to Aristotle. However, one philosophical edifice in particular
serves this purpose most prominently, the philosophy of Hannah Arendt. Tis is
why she is the philosopher with whom Rancière engages critically throughout his
essay.
8
Beyond the specific content of her political theses, it is the method through
which she defines politics and rejects radical democratic movements that presents
the exemplary model for all types of “hatred of democracy”: namely, through an
ontological dualism aiming to isolate the specific logics of social and political life,
an ontological dualism that can then underpin a critical metaphysics of modernity
and a critical anthropology of the modern individual.
Arendt is the most sophisticated defender in contemporary political thought
of a pure concept of politics, radically detached from social life, and famously
defined as the search for the common good by a community of free individuals.
Conversely, she provides one of the most sustained critiques of the society of
mass consumption, which she views as the reign of atomistic, egotistical desires,
and thus as the historical realization of anti-politics. Te modern, “democratic”
individual becomes the anthropological figure of the destruction of real freedom,
an anti-political animal that does not quite deserve the human name. Arendt
also plays a central role in today’s context, through her forceful critique of the
French Revolution and the philosophy of human rights attached to it. She pro-
vides the philosophical backdrop to the revisionist interpretations of the French
and later, twentieth-century revolutions, propounded by liberal historians since
the 1980s.
9
Te philosophical and historical interpretations arrive at the same
conclusion: the radical search for social equality of the French revolutionaries,
which became the matrix of all subsequent revolutions, necessarily ended up in
terror because the democratic spirit was not held in check. Tis unveils the real
face of democracy and indicates by contrast the principle of good politics: the
8. As Rancière’s “Ten Teses on Politics” demonstrated, Arendt’s political thinking was for him,
from the start, an eminent representative of the negation of politics in political philosophy. See
a translation of the “ten theses” in Teory and Event 5(3) (2001), http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/
theory_and_event/v005/5.3ranciere.html (accessed November 2007).
9. Te first, groundbreaking interpretation of this kind was François Furet’s Interpreting the French
Revolution, E. Forster (trans.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981). It culmi-
nates in François Furet and Mona Ozouf ’s (eds), A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution,
A. Goldhammer (trans.) (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1989), published in the two-hundredth
anniversary of the beginning of the French Revolution.
REVIEW ESSAY: DEMOCRATIC AESTHETICS 235
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spirit of equality is in fact nothing short of totalitarian; liberty, not equality, is
the true principle of politics.
10
Rancière’s response to this powerful construct mobilizes his well-known con-
ception of politics as the pragmatic enforcement of the principle of equality, an
enforcement that is not a priori disconnected from any sphere of social life, nor
discards a priori, as non-political, any type of subjective position. What makes
this latest essay particularly interesting, however, is the great clarification of his
implicit vision of society that has underpinned his political thinking from the
beginning, his “social theory” as it were.
Rancière’s defence of democratic politics cannot be dissociated from his
assumption that social life is always necessarily structured, through a kind of
“natural tendency”, by an oligarchic logic that operates simultaneously within
social interactions and in the political institutions corresponding to them. Te
connection between the two oligarchies (in the social and in the political) is not
hard to fathom: social power is precisely the capacity to reproduce and entrench
itself, notably in and through political institutions.
Two principles in particular structure the iron law of social life: birth and
wealth. Birth itself acts in two different ways. First, it encapsulates the relation of
unequal power that is the relation of authority between the older and the young.
Historically, paternal authority has obviously been the paradigm for other rela-
tions of authority in human affairs, especially in politics. But birth is also the
way in which a minority of individuals are naturally chosen from among all to
rule over the majority, simply because they inherit a pre-existing wealth of social
power. Combined with gerontocracy, aristocracy is therefore the other time-
less tendency of social and political structures. Most of the time, the ultimate
make-up of social power is economic wealth, which the oligarchic structures
help to concentrate: first in the basic, quantitative sense, as there is no limit to
accumulation; and secondly in a sociological sense, as these structures help to
retain wealth within family and class, and transform economic power into all
types of symbolic power. In many passages in his previous writings, and again
in this essay, Rancière thus makes the domination of the rich over the poor the
secret “shibboleth” of oligarchic structures and institutions.
11
Finally, a third form
of oligarchic principle complements and shores up the first two: the power of
the intelligent and the competent over the ignorant, which helps to provide the
structure of justification for the overall system of domination.
Politics for Rancière consists obviously in the challenge to these different forms
of oligarchic structures, with their different kinds of enforcing and legitimizing
10. See especially the first three chapters of Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin,
[1963] 1991).
11. See for example “Te End of Politics”, in On the Shores of Politics, Liz Heron (trans.), 5–37 (London:
Verso, 2007), notably 12–19.
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mechanisms. More precisely, however, politics for him has to do with the slide
that constantly occurs, in reality as in theory, between the social and the political,
as domination in the former becomes infallibly entrenched in the institutions,
and more importantly, in the representations, the ideas and the discourses that
accompany these institutions. Domination becomes not only an institutional
fact, but a natural way of viewing the social, which disappears from view as it
becomes naturalized. As a result, one particularly urgent task of politics is to con-
test the idea that one requires specific entitlements or capacities to participate in
politics, because such requirement ends up reproducing the hierarchical system of
social domination. Tis explains Rancière’s consistent suspicion towards the real
motives and the practical political outcomes of republicanism. In its sophisticated
philosophical guise or as the particular ideology of the French intellectuals, as it
attempts to preserve the purity of the political moment through an elitist disre-
gard for the pettiness of social life, republicanism in fact vindicates the oligarchic
logic and thus amounts itself, through a remarkable dialectic, to a negation of
politics. Te republican contempt for the social forces and its rejection of any
attempt to found politics in the struggle against social domination, promulgates
precisely the continuity between society and politics that is the hallmark of the
oligarchic logic itself. Te implicit assumption of republicanism is that only those
fit to govern should do so.
12
Republicanism in the end represents the spiritual
point d’honneur of “the police”.
By contrast, if politics is to have any real meaning, it needs to be defined spe-
cifically as the severing of this link between social domination and its recupera-
tion in the institutions of societal management. Tis is the reason why Rancière
equates politics and democracy, where democracy is the practical “verification”
of the equality of all:
Democratic excess does not have anything to do with a supposed consump-
tive madness. It is simply the dissolving of any standard by which nature
could give its law to communitarian artifice via the relations of authority
that structure the social body. Te scandal lies in the disjoining of entitle-
ments to govern from any analogy to those that order social relations …. It
is the scandal of a superiority based on no other title than the very absence
of superiority.
13

In Rancière’s earlier writings, the anti-oligarchic logic of politics was defined
in terms of a paradoxical ontology, as a logic of social functioning that is “not
one”, since it disrupts the natural logic of societies. Rancière’s terminology, then,
12. Rancière, Hatred of Democracy, 38–9, with specific reference to Arendt.
13. Ibid., 41.
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was heavily indebted to Badiou’s grammar of the event: the political dimension
was like a “void”, invisible or intolerable from the perspective of social imma-
nence, yet constitutive of it, and bursting at regular intervals and in local settings
through the actions of rebellious subjects. Te new book still contains elements
of this paradoxical ontology, for example, when Rancière describes democracy as
“the action of subjects who, by working the interval between identities [between
social and political identity] reconfigure the distributions of the private and the
public, the universal and the particular”.
14
Mostly, however, the conceptual lan-
guage has shifted and the new book articulates the logic of politics more explicitly
in terms of legitimacy and justification, as the above quote makes clear.
15
Te
famous definition of politics as “the part of those without parts” now becomes
more squarely “the title of those who have no title to govern”.
16
Tis reformulation of democratic politics in terms of justification allows
Rancière to recast his theory in new and very concrete terms. For example, if one
follows through consistently the idea that politics exists only when the natural
domination structuring societies is interrupted, in particular in the set up of the
political institutions, then one is forced to accept what Plato had already encoun-
tered in his Laws: the ultimate political title (the title allowing one to govern) is
the absence of all titles.
17
And so chance could be a better type of “election” than
the type of elections we currently have.
18
In a community of equals, the only
equitable way to elect those who will govern is to leave it to the luck of the draw.
19

Te very fact that we find such a proposition preposterous is the surest sign that
we are not in real democracies, but under the sway of the oligarchic logic. Indeed,
as Rancière adds, we cannot even imagine that it does not have to be a law of
politics that it should be those who are thirsty for power that should govern us.
By contrast, as much as the “democratic excess”, the great political thinkers, from
Plato onwards, were equally concerned about the tendency for political power to
be grabbed by individuals whose only motivation was power itself.
20
Rancière now ventures into the field of political theory, and does not hesi-
tate to draw some of the concrete institutional implications of the democratic
14. Ibid., 61–2.
15. In many passages in his earlier texts, however, Rancière already used the language of rational justifi-
cation, defining politics as the demand on domination to give its reasons and as the demonstration
by the dominated of their capacity to articulate reasons, see for example, “Te Uses of Democracy”,
in On the Shores of the Politics, 39–61, esp. 45–51.
16. Rancière, Hatred of Democracy, 53.
17. Plato, Te Laws, III, 690a–690c. Tis reference, however, and the conceptual point drawn from it
were made already in the third of the “Ten Teses on Politics”.
18. Rancière, Hatred of Democracy, 36–8.
19. See Rancière’s concrete reference to the formation of juries for university examinations, ibid., 102
n.34.
20. Rancière, Hatred of Democracy, 42.
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principle, the “minimal rules that lay down the minimal conditions under which
a representative system can be declared democratic”:
Short and non-renewable electoral mandates that cannot be held concur-
rently; a monopoly of people’s representatives over the formulation of laws;
a ban on State functionaries becoming the representatives of the people; a
bare minimum of campaigns and campaigns costs; and the monitoring of
possible interferences by economic powers in the electoral process.
21

By contrast, the reality of our political systems demonstrates how they have been
seized by oligarchic powers, as they are structured through a “monopolising of la
chose publique by a solid alliance of State oligarchy and economic oligarchy”.
22

As democratic politics unsettles the homology between social domination and
the institutions of political power, it operates most especially against the “pri-
vatization” of politics. Tis designates first of all the tendency of political life to
reject in the “obscurity” (Arendt) of the private sphere whatever is supposed to
be indifferent to the res publica qua public: a tendency that “operates the distinc-
tion of the public, which belongs to all, and the private, where the liberties of
all prevail”.
23
As Rancière remarks, however, “these liberties each person has are
the liberties, that is the domination, of those who possess the immanent pow-
ers of society”.
24
Te ontologization in philosophical discourse of the separation
between the sphere of the common against the spheres of the private only repro-
duces at a higher level of abstraction the real logic of oligarchic society. And the
privatization of politics goes even further. Once the “private” has been excluded,
the “common” is itself privatized as it falls in the hands of the representatives of
social domination.
Democratic politics acts most especially against this double privatization of
politics. Once again, in describing this process, Rancière brings welcome clarifi-
cations through reference to concrete developments. Te struggle against the pri-
vatization of politics has meant historically, and still does today, the struggle for
fair electoral procedures and a fully democratic political system, one in particular
that includes all individuals in the process. Most importantly, it also includes all
attempts to demonstrate the political nature of what the philosophers, the cyni-
cal “sociologists” and the representatives of power have always rejected, today no
less than in the past, as “private interests”. Today, this concerns in particular the
defence by specific branches of industry, professional and social groups, of the
labour rights and welfare provisions first demanded by the labour movement,
21. Ibid., 72.
22. Ibid., 73.
23. Ibid., 57.
24. Ibid.
REVIEW ESSAY: DEMOCRATIC AESTHETICS 239
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which the post-war period had seemed to institutionalize and universalize. In
conducting these analyses, Rancière’s position becomes very close to the position
of thinkers who identify emancipatory politics with social movements.
25

Tis last remark, however, helps to put a finger on a particular indecision in
Rancière’s argument. Te oligarchic tendencies of societies and their reproduc-
tion in reifying sociological and philosophical discourses appear so overwhelming
to him that he refuses all possibility of grounding politics in social experiences.
He considers it a mistake to look for the social basis of a political struggle, lest
one exports the separations of social life into politics and political theory. Tis is
what is behind Rancière’s insistence, for example, that the adequate category of
agency in politics is that of “subjectivation” and not “identity”. Political subjec-
tivity designates a paradoxical place within the social, the place where a “twist”
is at play, between the community managed by the “police” and the people of
equal individuals, which political action can reveal. Anyone can fill that ontologi-
cal, or par-ontological void. To ground politics in a sociologically well-defined
identity (worker, woman, immigrant) is always to run the risk of falling prey to
the homology between the social and the political, and so to reproduce social
domination into the political. Tis argument, however, is clearly double-edged.
It sounds uncannily close to the very ontological separation of society and poli-
tics into pure principles that Rancière rejects. Just like Badiou, Rancière’s suspi-
cion towards the notion of identity in politics often has the same accents as the
republican denunciation of the evils of “communitarianism”. Rancière does not
suffi ciently consider that it is conceptually possible to acknowledge the oligarchic
tendency of societies, while locating the imperative of equality within social life
itself. In fact, next to the passages rejecting identity-politics, there are also other
passages, which in describing the dialectic of domination and equality, implicitly
acknowledge that equality is a force operating within the social itself.
26
In this
new book, it is a passage of the second chapter that does this most strikingly:
Equality is not a fiction. Tere is no master who does not sit back and risk
letting his slave run away, no man who is not capable of killing another,
no force that is imposed without having to justify itself, and hence without
having to recognise the irreducibility of equality needed for inequality to
function.
27

Te argument then shifts from the social to the political via the issue of justi-
fication. However, in the end, Rancière is forced to return to what the beginning
25. Ibid., 55–6.
26. See in particular, J. Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, Julie Rose (trans.) (Minneapolis,
MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 55.
27. Rancière, Hatred of Democracy, 48.
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of the extract had already stated: equality is not just a constraining axiom once
domination attempts to justify itself, notably when it seeks to institutionalize
itself. It is already required within the immanence of social life, “for inequality
to function”: “Inegalitarian society can only function thanks to a multitude of
egalitarian relations”.
28
On that model, politics is not the action that introduces
equality into oligarchic society, but rather the moment that unveils, “makes
manifest” an equality that already had to be present.
29
If, however, the demand for
equality stems from the social itself, it comes as no surprise, then, that Rancière,
despite his stated suspicion towards that paradigm, is naturally led to using the
language of recognition: “no force is imposed without having to … recognise
the irreducibility of equality”. And in the third chapter, the historical struggles
against the “privatization of politics” are also described through this grammar:
namely, through: “the recognition, as equals and political subjects, of those that
have been relegated by State law to the private life of inferior beings; and the
recognition of the public character of types of spaces and relations that were left
to the discretion of the power of wealth”.
30

In the last chapter of the book, in analysing the “reasons for that hatred”,
Rancière for the first time ties his theory of democratic politics to a critique of
contemporary capitalism, in a robust diagnostic of the current situation. Te
imperative of economic “necessity”, the new dogma declaring that only one model
of socioeconomic development is rational, reinforces the pre- existing power of
the social elites that was already entrenched in state institutions. Te three logics,
of social, political and economic domination, today combine in the most power-
ful form of government, whose main aim is to put an end to the very possibility
of democratic politics, to finally transform government into a one-way form of
“police”. Te cynical critics of modernity play a most ambiguous role in this game:
failing to denounce real, existing injustices, “the antidemocratic discourse of the
28. Ibid.
29. Ibid.
30. Te French text actually emphasizes the dynamic and agonistic aspect of recognition. Rancière writes
“faire reconnaître”: to “force”, “impose” or “achieve” recognition. On the unexpected connections
between Rancière’s politics and a political theory based on the idea of a “struggle for recognition”,
see my “Jacques Rancière’s Contribution to the Ethics of Recognition”, Political Teory 31(1) (2003),
136–56. Te vocabulary of recognition was in fact frequently used by Rancière in his earlier work,
notably in “Te Rationality of Disagreement”, see esp. Disagreement, 52–3. See also, On the Shores
of Politics, 50. Rancière has explicitly spoken against a recognition approach to his politics in Max
Blechman, Anita Chari and Rafeeq Hasan, “Democracy, Dissensus and the Aesthetics of Class
Struggle: An Exchange with Jacques Rancière”, Historical Materialism 13(4) (2005), 285–301. As
the extracts quoted suggest, I would argue that he is much closer to recognition theory than he
acknowledges. Te “disagreement” might arise because Rancière mistakes Axel Honneth’s theory of
recognition for a version of the master–slave dialectic, and thus misses the plasticity of the latter’s
model of politics.
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intellectuals adds the finishing touches to the consensual forgetting of democracy
that both state and economic oligarchies strive toward”.
31

In this most formidable alliance of oligarchic forces, democratic struggles
appear as necessary, as diffi cult and as uncertain as ever. Te book’s concluding
words aim to retrieve the calm confidence of Spinoza’s Ethics, with a vibrant ode
to democracy, as a practice engaged against all domination, and challenging all
reification: of history and historical action; of social and political life, and of insti-
tutions. Against the grim horizon of assembling oligarchies, but equally distant
from the new utopias and fashionable messianic narratives, Rancière maintains
the rarity and thus the preciousness of free, democratic action (ironically, though,
ending on a political affect that is typically Arendtian):
Unequal society does not carry any equal society in its womb. Rather,
egalitarian society is only ever the set of egalitarian relations that are traced
here and now through singular and precarious acts. Democracy is as bare
in its relation to the power of wealth as it is to the power of kinship that
today comes to assist and rival it. It is not based on any nature of things nor
guaranteed by any institutional form. It is not borne along by any histori-
cal necessity and does not bear any. It is only entrusted to the constancy
of its specific acts. Tis can provoke fear, and so hatred, among those who
are used to exercising the magisterium of thought. But among those who
know how to share with anybody and everybody the equal power of intel-
ligence, it can conversely inspire courage, and hence joy.
32
“Silent speech”
Tis joy of transformative and creative action, its remaining possible despite the
threat posed by the alliance of antagonistic political and economic forces, is the
first common element linking the political and the aesthetic in Rancière’s thinking.
But the overlap between the two in fact goes much deeper than that. Te defin-
ing gesture characterizing Rancière’s intervention in aesthetic theory consists in
extending the realm of application of the democratic principle, from politics, to
art and aesthetic experience. Basically, he interprets the romantic revolution as a
democratic revolution. Tis is quite a diffi cult claim to sustain if we reflect on what
is entailed in it: it commits one to explaining what is meant concretely by saying
that artistic practices and aesthetic experiences are transformed, qua artistic and
aesthetic, not just in terms of their social import, by the universalization of the
31. Rancière, Te Hatred of Democracy, 92.
32. Ibid., 97.
242 JEAN·PHILIPPE DERANTY
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equality principle. What does it mean to talk about equality regarding a practice,
notably regarding the techniques and practices of art? And what is equality in
experience, notably in aesthetic experience? As we shall see, Rancière does not shy
away from the diffi culties, indeed the radical conclusions, one is forced to embrace,
once these questions are taken seriously. Indeed, it is the idea that equality reaches
into the aesthetic that helps identify the paradoxical materialism that is implicit
in Rancière’s defence of creative action.
In the genesis of Rancière’s writings, this expansion of democratic equality,
from the political to the aesthetic, is performed in La Parole Muette. We need to
focus briefly on this book because it is there that he develops in the greatest detail
his vision of aesthetic modernity. All of his later aesthetic writings, including Te
Future of the Image and Film Fables, draw extensively on these developments.
Sadly, the contingencies of editorial work, especially as it pertains to transla-
tions, might well make this essential text one of Rancière’ few books not to be
translated into English.
Rancière’s interpretation of romanticism is underpinned by the idea that the
democratic revolution that occurred in the social and the political produced an
equivalent democratic revolution in the aesthetic. Te shift is well encapsulated
in the metaphor of a change of “regimes”. Te demise of the old order in society is
paralleled in the aesthetic by a succession of corresponding “regimes”. Concretely,
the old regime of aesthetics that collapses at the same time as the social order
was inherited from Aristotle and refined through the successive poetic theories.
Rancière calls it the “representative” regime of aesthetics, because it is centred on
the system of normative rules defining proper representation. Tese rules enunci-
ate the ways in which it can be ensured that the mimetic world conforms to the
social hierarchy external to it, by respecting in particular the modes of speaking
and of appearing that ideally befit the characters referred to. Te rules are not
restricted to the level of language. Te choice of a king or of a peasant as a cen-
tral character determines the entire subsequent aesthetic of the representation:
the genre, the style, the type of narrative, the set, and so on. Social oligarchy is
paralleled and ideally confirmed in an oligarchy of art forms, narratives, types of
action, genres, modes of speech and topics.
In this aesthetic, action is the central notion, around which the art work is
constructed and judged. Te highest genres are those that depict men of high
status who “reveal their distinctness” through “speech and action”.
33
Te parallel
with republican politics is duly noted by Rancière, who characterizes this oligar-
chic ordering of aesthetics as the “republican” order of the system of representa-
tion.
34
Te centrality of action justifies the primacy of speech over the image,
33. H. Arendt, Te Human Condition (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 176.
34. Rancière, La Parole Muette, 27.
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and the parallelism between social and aesthetic oligarchy is translated in rigid
separations between art forms, and, as said, all other related aesthetic aspects.
Despite these strict, hierarchical separations, though, what makes art forms com-
mensurable is precisely the fact that they all depict actions; that they tell stories
that can be translated into narratives and have moral, social and political signifi-
cance. Tis is true even of painting. Every painting must always be easily trans-
lated into a meaningful narrative, which is why the highest genres in classical
painting draw from a limited field of mythological and historical narratives. In
that regime, the critic plays an important function, evaluating and demonstrat-
ing the propriety with which the artist has managed to link the “ways of being,
acting and saying” of its characters. Te critic has the task of verifying whether
kings speak and behave as kings are supposed to, and peasants as peasants, and
of revealing the implicit moral of the story.
With the demise of this order, the new “aesthetic” regime introduces the demo-
cratic revolution into modes of representation themselves. Te new principles
directly oppose each of the principles of representation. Against the primacy of
action, the new regime asserts the primacy of expressivity, of language as poetic
power and as an end in itself, beyond its mimetic function. In opposition to
the oligarchy of genres, the aesthetic regime refers to the equality of all sub-
jects. Rancière opens La Parole muette with Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris.
Rereading the critiques of the time, he contends that the real scandal in French
romanticism was not the poetic licences of Hernani, but the fact that a cathe-
dral became the main subject of a book. Te cathedral could become the main
protagonist of the artwork on the basis of the first principle: the cathedral is as
expressive, contains as much or indeed more poetic potential, than the tradi-
tional actions of kings and peasants. Expressive art thus translates the expres-
sivity of the world itself. Beyond the equality of all subjects, a third principle
must therefore be added, the principle of indifference. Against the imperative of
propriety, the aesthetic regime of art asserts the indifference of style in relation
to the represented subject. Here, the paradigmatic artist for Rancière is Flaubert,
who made the subject irrelevant in comparison with style, the only true subject
of literature.
35
In Flaubert, the same care is taken to describe a farmyard and a
love scene, the mediocrity of lives in provincial France or the extraordinary lives
of ancient heroes and saints.
Te romantic revolution, however, has its own contradictions. We know that
the contradiction of republican politics is that it must presuppose the radical
equality of all individuals, even as it ties each to their proper place within the
social hierarchy. A similar contradiction affects the new aesthetics. At first, the
contradiction is between the principle of total expressivity and the principle of
35. See again in Rancière, Politique de la Littérature, 59–84.
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indifference. Te first principle establishes a substantial link between the imma-
nent poeticity of the world and the artistic work. According to it, the poem
is the expression, at a higher power of concentration, of a meaning that was
already that of the world itself. Tis is obviously the principle at the heart of
German romanticism. As Rancière shows, this is also the principle uniting the
modern art form par excellence, the novel, and the new hermeneutic practices
emerging in the nineteenth century: in each case, the meaning of a time, the
spirit of a community, are seen to be already inscribed in the materiality of the
world and offered to the interpretive gaze of the writer and the social scientist.
Balzac’s descriptions offer the prime example of this new paradigm. Te idea
of an immanent poeticity of the world of which the art work is the expres-
sion, implies that the language of the poem is constrained by the most absolute
necessity, as it must become the channel of the world’s own expressivity. Tis
substantial continuity between the artist’s work and the world itself, however,
is directly contradicted by the principle of indifference, since the latter denies
that any expression should be privileged in any kind of necessary way (social or
aesthetic) for any given topic.
Tis contradiction, however, is only the most superficial one. Underneath
it lurks a more troubling contradiction that takes us to the heart, not only of
Rancière’s aesthetics, but of his philosophical vision. Romanticism attempted
to offer a solution to the initial contradiction, by declaring, via the recourse to
Fichte’s idealistic solution, the possibility of synthesizing the radical subjective
freedom of the creator and the objective necessity of the world expressed in his
work. Hegel, who plays the central role in Rancière’s aesthetic thinking, con-
vincingly demonstrates the illusion hidden in this solution: the alleged synthesis
is only the ideal of classical times (of a perfect correspondence between form
and matter, between meaning and form), which the constraints of the modern
world make illusory. Hence the fate of modern art, and especially of its most
representative genre, the novel. Rather than achieving the ultimate reconcilia-
tion of nature or of a people in the work of art, modern art is condemned to
documenting the irreducible gap between the ideal and the prosaic reality of
bourgeois modernity.
Te Hegelian deflation of the romantic programme points to the deepest
contradiction of modern aesthetics, between the principle of expressivity (that
“everything speaks”) and what Rancière calls the “principle of literarity”. Tis lat-
ter principle, at the heart of the modern experience, is the ultimate consequence
of the demise of the oligarchic regime. Te latter had put constraints on the use
of language and the rules of mimesis by tying them strictly to the propriety of
representation on the basis of the norms attached to social hierarchy. Once the
democratic revolution makes this arrangement collapse, language and representa-
tion are freed, as it were. Te simplest way to understand this is on a sociological
level. It means that ideally everyone and anyone is now entitled to intervene in
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any form of discourse, to use any language, to be addressed by any discourse,
and be the subject of any representation. Rancière lists the fates of numerous
nineteenth-century novel characters, most notably Emma Bovary, who embrace
the specifically modern experience of a “letter” that has become available to all,
empirically, through the development of techniques of mass distribution, and
more essentially, because of the fundamental lack of “propriety” of writing.
36
All
these characters provide narrative allegories of the “erring letter”, a letter that
is no longer tied to specific fields, reserved for certain speakers, but rather has
been freed from the strictures of proper representation.
37
As Rancière notes, the
bourgeois novelists cannot help being attracted to such narrative lives that best
capture the modern experience of literature (meaning and the letter are liberated
from the rules of propriety). At the same time, these writers cannot help being
scandalized by the radicality of the egalitarian claims their characters make: the
bourgeois novelist has an Arendtian position in aesthetics – he believes that art is
threatened in its purity if it is embraced by individuals who should remain in the
spheres of private life and labour. As a result, they never fail to make their heroes
pay the full price for their democratic impudence (Emma Bovary’s suicide).
More fundamentally, therefore, the liberation of language means for Rancière
something like an ontological disorder, a disorder introduced between the levels
of reality. In a restricted sense at first: with the destruction of the representative
logic, it is not just the social separations between individuals that are challenged
(who can speak, to whom, about whom), but also the choice of objects. In the
“aesthetic” regime, any object is worthy of artistic representation, down to a
urinal. If we think about it, though, once this democratic revolution within the
aesthetic is considered in all its implications, it challenges much broader and
deeper ontological separations. Indeed, it is the very fact of ontological separation
itself that is unsettled. Tis is what the notion of “mute/silent speech”, “parole
muette” ultimately points to: beyond the speech of mute things (expressivity), it
is the “muteness”, the “silence” of all speech, that is to say, the impossibility to
relate speech to fixed ontological places:
36. As is often the case, Plato offers the paradigmatic example of a philosophical and anti-democratic
(the two are intrinsically linked for him) counter-model, both for the clarity and honesty of his
anti-democratic approach, and for the philosophical power of his construct. Here, it is Plato’s
condemnation in the Phaedrus, of writing as “orphan” letter, incapable of defending itself and avail-
able to all, that represents for Rancière the typical philosophical critique of the democratic essence
of writing (La Parole Muette, 81–5). Equally significant is Rancière’s implicit rejection of Derrida’s
deconstructivist reading of the same dialogue.
37. See David Bell, “Writing, Movement/Space, Democracy: On Jacques Rancière’s Literary History”,
SubStance 103 33(1) (2004), 126–40, a special issue on Rancière’s aesthetics. Bell emphasizes very
well the link between Rancière’s early sociological (or rather, anti-sociological) work on the nine-
teenth-century proletarians “seized” by the “letter” and the generalization of their experience as
indicative of the general “aesthetic” paradigm.
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To the poetics of representation was supposed to succeed the grand world-
poetry (poésie-monde), that is the poetry of the “everything speaks”, of the
speech already present in every silent thing. But this poetic is always already
lined with its opposite: the “silent” speech that incarnates itself only to ruin
all bodies carrying speech.
38

Te figure that best incarnates the radical nature of literature once it is seized
by the demon of democracy, is Don Quixote, the character and the text that
radically challenge all clear distinctions between the real and the ideal, the vis-
ible and the invisible, art and life, word and thing. Te real contradiction is
therefore between a principle declaring that everything already speaks, and the
other principle, which is in fact the underlying one (just like inequality presup-
poses equality), denying any substantial or univocal connection between the
symbolic and the material, indeed rejecting any hard separations between the
different orders of reality. Modern literature is caught up in these contradictions
and attempts with every new work to resolve them: the contradiction between
the expressivity of the world and the indifference of expression; between the
idea of an absolute necessity of poetic language and the anarchistic nature of
modern literary forms; between the radical freedom of the artist, the ultimate
paradigm of free creativity, and the infinite passivity of the material this activ-
ity attempts to let speak; between the vision of art as superior knowledge and
the infinite idiocy of a world, which art, however, is supposed to take to its full
expression.
Aesthetics as creative action: Te Future of the Image and Film Fables
Tis idea that the shift to modernity involves the emergence of new, constitutive
contradictions is the guiding thread of Rancière’s subsequent books of aesthetic
theory. In them, Rancière generalizes the conclusions reached in the study of
modern literature by applying the full range of contradictions listed above, to
the other art forms. We shall focus on Te Future of the Image first, as it extends
the “contradictions of literature” and the “principle of literarity” to a number of
visual arts (painting, photography, cinema, design), before looking at the way in
which Film Fables applies similar principles to the case of cinema.
39

Te “democratic” premise, as we saw, leads to the radical rejection of all
ontologizing discourses and all ontological separations. Applied to aesthetics, this
leads Rancière to adopt a perspective that effectively runs counter to some of the
38. Rancière, La Parole Muette, 88.
39. Te Future of the Image, like Hatred of Democracy, is a collection of essays, written by Rancière for
conferences in various art institutions.
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most influential positions in contemporary continental aesthetics. In the case of
literature, for example, this amounts to a scepticism towards interpretations of
romanticism and modern literature that underpinned the rise of poststructural-
ism and played a decisive role in European aesthetics; interpretations that make
the “auto-telism” and “intransitivity” of “writing” not only the essence of modern
literature, but more generally the paradigm of the modern art work.
40

Put in general terms, Rancière’s aesthetic theory thus presents an alternative
to all the modernist and post-modernist theories that define the different art
forms on the basis of the ways in which the latter gradually define and appro-
priate their aesthetic specificity by liberating themselves from the imperatives of
mimetic logic. A most famous example of such a position, this time in relation
to the history of modern painting, is Greenberg’s thesis that, as each art develops
and progresses by becoming ever more aware of the specificity of its medium,
progress in the history of painting resides in the conquest of “flatness”. To take
another example, Rancière’s stance implies a critique of Barthes’s famous analysis
of photography, relating its specific aesthetic power to its “punctum” effect, its
ability to incarnate a “this-has-been”, a pathetic moment of the world.
41

Te anti-essentialist gesture makes Rancière equally reticent towards recent
attempts to define a specific status and function of the artistic image by isolat-
ing its essence, in contrast to the images of mass communication and mass
consumption. In all the ways of thinking the image today, whether in the case
of the “naked image” (a brute extract from the real undercutting all attempts
at re-presentation), the “ostensive image” (the image as pure power of presence
against the capture of images at the hands of economic and ideological powers)
or the “metamorphic image” (the image as rearrangement of existing images), a
“dialectic” is at play. Rancière argues that this dialectic confuses the levels between
types of images, as well as between reality and representation.
42
Finally, his anti-
essentialist approach makes Rancière especially critical towards the teleological
tendencies usually at work in modernist and postmodernist theories. One of
Rancière’s consistent targets is the kind of deconstructive narrative that ties the
theory of modern aesthetics to the broader programme of a deconstruction of
metaphysics. Lyotard is again emblematic of that direction for Rancière, but a
more recent representative would be Agamben. Such deconstructive critiques
usually shift from a negative politics to an aesthetics of the sublime and the
40. Rancière’s account of modern literature, as a series of practical attempts to deal with its contradic-
tions, his account of “silent speech” as the contradictory unity of activity and passivity, are explicitly
developed as counters to Blanchot’s famous account of the same notions. For a recent, sophisticated
discussion of similar “auto-telic” conceptions of literature and their philosophical underpinning,
see Alison Ross, Te Aesthetic Paths of Philosophy: Presentation in Kant, Heidegger, Lacoue-Labarthe
and Nancy (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007).
41. Rancière, Te Future of the Image, 10–11.
42. Ibid., 22–9.
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“unrepresentable”, which, ironically, imposes the most rigid ontological jacket
on artistic practices (last chapter).
How, then, does Rancière effectively propose to apply the related yet opposed
principles of expressivity and literarity to the visual arts, with all the attached
contradictions; what does “la parole muette” become in the visual arts? Te logic
remains the same: on the one hand, la parole muette denotes the meaningfulness
of the things themselves. Tis is crucial for the visual arts as it opens them up to
the possibility of revealing meanings about the world by producing, or even just
by extracting, pictures of it. As the visual arts are liberated from the constraints
of representing action, liberated from the hegemony of language, they can claim
to present the world itself. But in a second sense, “the silent speech of things is
on the contrary their obstinate silence”,
43
that is, their refusal to deliver a univo-
cal, meaningful message. Tis second sense of the principle governing modern
aesthetics points to its deepest level. With the demise of the ontological scaf-
fold ordering (separating yet connecting) the different arts, genres, vocabularies,
subjects, on the basis of the ontological scaffolding of social oligarchy, a general
confusion ensues in the field of experience itself. Tis is why Rancière calls the
new regime of artistic practice and experience, the “aesthetic” one, as it is no
longer grounded in the rules of proper representation, but in the relation to the
world itself, in a new form of aesthesis.
Te principle of art is no longer to be found in a term of measurement
that would be the proper one for each art, but on the contrary where any
such “proper” collapses; where all the common terms of measurement have
been abolished in favour of a great chaotic juxtaposition, a great indiffer-
ent melange of significations and materialities. … Let us call it the great
parataxis.
44

By destroying the hierarchical frame that predetermined the categories used
in the experience and representation of the world, democracy does not just chal-
lenge sociological boundaries, but, much more deeply, the pre-ordered schemes
of experience. It liberates the field of experience, in such a radical way that it even
challenges the separations between the material and the ideal, as well as between
materialities. “When the thread of history … is undone, it is not simply the
forms that become analogous; the materialities themselves directly mix into each
other”.
45

In the new regime, the field of possible experience is therefore up for grabs,
open for new restructurings. Here three possibilities can be distinguished. Te
43. Ibid., 13.
44. Ibid., 42.
45. Ibid. I have slightly altered some of the translations of Te Future of the Image.
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first is a degree zero of experience: “the great schizophrenic explosion where the
sentence sinks into the scream and meaning into the rhythm of bodily states”.
46

Tis is the temptation, often explored by modern artists, to make art the direct
communication of the paratactic state of the world, that is to say, of the infinite,
orderless juxtaposition of affects, emotions, physical states, ideas, symbols and so
on. Te most famous names of those who ventured down this path are Nietzsche,
Maupassant, Van Gogh, Rimbaud and Virginia Woolf. At the other end of the
spectrum stands the reordering of the community through the imposition of
a new homogeneous logic, the logic of the consensus. Two types of historical
figures have explored this possibility: the utopia of an art that would directly
register the movements of the community itself (the constructivist utopia), or
the forms of discourse and representation that have abandoned all ambition to
separate themselves from the language of the commodity.
Between these two extremes lies the main avenue of aesthetic practice. Since
no pre-ordered, pre-given structures are available any more, which would define
what can be said, in what form, in what language, and to whom, art in the “aes-
thetic regime” consists of limited and always fallible attempts or propositions,
for a local restructuring of the field of experience. Such propositions operate by
introducing a local order, some form of sense, in the “great parataxis”. Te core
category, therefore, in aesthetics as in politics, is that of practice. Like egalitarian
politics, art is “only ever the set of relations that are traced here and now through
singular and precarious acts”.
Between politics and art, however, there is an interesting difference. Politics for
Rancière is simultaneously the name of the egalitarian principle and that of the
“singular and precarious acts” that attempt to “verify” it. For these acts, Rancière
often likes to use the model of theatre, and call them “staging”.
47
In aesthetics,
the acts reordering the sensible have their own names and the model is a differ-
ent one. Te productions of art are called by him alternatively “image”, “phrase-
image” (sentence-image) or “montage”. With these notions, Rancière intends
to designate those particular “operations” that locally associate elements drawn
from different levels of reality, notably materialities and discourses. Tese opera-
tions always perform a specific “synthesis”, that is, always also a “disfiguration”
or an “alteration” as they bring together elements by simultaneously altering or
disfiguring an expected ontological order.
48
Te image understood in this sense is
the attempt to combine the two principles of modern experience: the attempt to
show sense, to link elements meaningfully (the “sentence” or “phrase” function
of art works), and the necessity to take into account the chaotic dimension of
46. Ibid., 45.
47. See Peter Hallward’s in-depth study of the “theatrical” aspect of Rancière’s politics, in “Staging
Equality: On Rancière’s Teatrocracy”, New Left Review 37 (2006): 109–29.
48. Rancière, Te Future of the Image, 6.
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experience, without, however, being absorbed by it, and so, by instating “rup-
tures”, “shifts”, within the immanent presence of the world.
Accordingly the image is not the preserve of the visual arts and ideality that of
the arts of the word. Te image is rather the result of the operation that establishes
a specific relation between meaning and visuality, text and image. Again Flaubert
is a particularly good example here, for the visual power of his style. Conversely,
one can cite the way in which many visual works today draw their meaning from
their “message” rather than the content and form of their composition. In the third
chapter, “Painting in the Text”, dedicated to the shift in the relation between paint-
ing and writing, Rancière shows in detail in what way the primacy of the word over
the image, through the predominance of the narrative and the norms of repre-
sentation expressed by the critics, is transformed in the new regime, in such a way
that the word now operates directly on the image as it displaces the figures on the
canvas through its own figures. “Words no longer prescribe, as story or doctrine,
what images should be. Tey make themselves images so as to shift the figures of
the painting, to construct this surface of conversion [between materialities and
idealities], this surface of form-signs which is the real medium of painting.”
49

And again, these defigurations, refigurations and conversions are always local,
circumscribed, experimental, precarious, pointing always to other possible or
future operations. In the history of modern art, one only needs to think of the
different modes of mixing word and image from Cubism to Dadaism to Pop Art
to have a simple illustration of what Rancière is describing here.
Te particular case of photography helps us to see concretely what Rancière
means by the “circulation” between practices, materialities and discourses that
is characteristic of the aesthetic regime, and the scope of this circulation.
50

Photography is exactly the art that, with every one of its operations, attempts to
combine the two principles of the expressivity of the banal, and the idiotic resist-
ance of the real. In particular, photography, as the technological invention typical
of the nineteenth century, points to a specific dimension of the great “intermin-
gling” that characterizes the aesthetic age.
51
In it, the exchange is not just between
49. Ibid., 87.
50. Ibid., 15–17.
51. Te emergence of “intermingling” as a core concept, after that of “silent speech” and the dissolution
of the boundary between the visible and the invisible, forces me to draw an unexpected parallel
with Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty’s own theory of “silent speech” is famously developed in the
central chapter of Te Prose of the World, as well as in key pages of Te Visible and the Invisible. Te
idea of an “intermingling” of ontological layers is a driving principle of his later work, notably in
the 1957 lectures on nature, and in the preparatory notes for Te Visible and the Invisible. Rancière’s
own materialism, of course, is only paradoxical; he clearly does not pursue the ontological and vital-
istic aims of the late Merleau-Ponty. But they are both exemplary defenders of two fundamental
philosophical options: the freedom and creative productivity of human praxis, and the rejection
of ontological reification.
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images (in the mimetic sense) and the critical discourses, notably the great herme-
neutic discoveries of the century (Marx, Freud and their literary equivalents, for
example, Balzac). Te exchange or the “solidarity” is also between the images of art,
the critical discourses, and “the social forms of imagery”, as the nineteenth century
is the time that corresponds with the onset of that specific modern phenomenon:
the attempt by society to define and locate itself through the mass production of
new images. With this, the frontier between art images and social imagery, notably
the whole imagery of the commodity, is for the first time abolished, setting modern
aesthetics on a course in which it is still engaged.
In the history of modern art, Rancière often likes to isolate a specific sequence,
between 1880 and 1920, between symbolism and constructivism, because it
illustrates most clearly the particular contradiction of the aesthetic age. During
that time, most avant-garde projects are defined by the radical application of the
possibility of ontological decompartmentalization, as they attempted to directly
equate art with non-art, to make art and life coextensive. Two opposing direc-
tions aimed to realize that programme: the ideal of a “pure art” whose creations
would no longer re-present anything, but simply create ideal life forms; and
the art that abolishes itself by making itself synonymous with social life, nota-
bly politics. Tis period was dreaming of an art beyond images, of an art that
would take the dimensions of the world itself. For Rancière, as for so many of
the French philosophers of his generation, the central figure in this sequence is,
of course, Mallarmé.
Te fourth chapter of Te Future of the Image, entitled “La surface du design”,
gives an astonishing political and “materialist” reading of the “prince of poets”.
Te chapter’s most amazing claim consists in arguing that there is a deep similar-
ity between Mallarmé’s project and the work of the pioneer of industrial design
(and the creator of corporate brand identity), Peter Behrens. Tis is where the
collapse of boundaries is demonstrated in the most fascinating way. What makes
those two seemingly opposed creative practices comparable is their common
goal: to “define a new texture of common life”.
52
Te lines of the symbolist poem
and the line of industrial products all aim to create artistic forms that would be
immediate forms of life, by “purifying” the forms, the objects and the materiali-
ties extracted from everyday social life. In this reading, the “surface of graphic
design” becomes the most striking illustration of the principle of the aesthetic
age. Like the canvas of painting, it is a “surface of conversion”, in which the
immanent, operating principle is “the equal footing on which everything lends
itself to art”, “where words, forms and things exchange roles”. Like other artistic
media, the creations of designers “outline the shape of a world without hierarchy
52. Rancière, Te Future of the Image, 97.
252 JEAN·PHILIPPE DERANTY
© Acumen Publishing Ltd. 2007
where functions slide into each other”, thus concretely rebutting any definition
of a medium in terms of an ontological principle.
53
Given that one of the names that Rancière elects to designate the specific
productivity of artistic operations is “montage”, it is not surprising that cinema
should play an exemplary role in his aesthetic thinking and that he dedicates
much of his writing today to cinema. In fact, the modern artist playing the most
significant role in Rancière’s aesthetic theory is probably a cinéaste: Jean-Luc
Godard. Cinema, for Rancière, is the art par excellence that combines the expres-
sivity and symbolism of the everyday, the imagery of social life, with the infinite
passivity and obtrusiveness of material bodies. Cinema also unites the radical
freedom of the “auteur”, as the last incarnation of the romantic poet, with his
radical dependency on external powers. And Godard’s practice of establishing
an infinite circulation, a giant metonymy among cinema images, images from
the history of painting and photography, critical texts (Faure’s and Malraux’s art
histories, Barthes, Foucault, etc.), poetic and novelistic extracts, and of using
these collages and layered montages as a visual commentary for the critique of the
images of the spectacle, is the most definite vindication in practice of Rancière’s
account of the aesthetic age.
Film Fables, published in France in 2001, brings together Rancière’s film essays
published in film journals (notably Trafic and Cahiers du Cinéma), as well as
conference papers on the topic. Te studies on individual films and filmmakers
(Eisenstein, Murnau, Lang, Mann, Rossellini, Marker, Ray, Godard) offer a com-
pelling demonstration of the fruitfulness of Rancière’s pragmatist, or we could
say “operationalist”, approach to art works. It is impossible for a review of this
kind to do full justice to these studies. Each of them is a treasure of conceptual
mastery, aesthetic sensitivity and art-historical memory. In each case, Rancière
studies the specific “operations” with which the film-makers produced their own
visual world as they encountered, each in their own way, the potentialities and
constraints of the aesthetic age. One of the most remarkable aspects of these
individual studies is the precise attention to the specific techniques employed
by the artists in the composition of their “images”: the scenography of gazes and
the transformations of shadows in Murnau; the struggles between perspectives
in Lang, that is, the material, narrative and political confrontations between the
views from modern society, the outcasts, the masters of the image, the naive,
“horizontal” gazes of children, etc.; the poetics of errancy in Anthony Mann,
materializing narratives of fortuitous encounters and of actions without ideals
in the very detail of the mise en scène, through the movements of bodies and the
placing of symbolic objects, and so on.
53. Ibid., 106–7.
REVIEW ESSAY: DEMOCRATIC AESTHETICS 253
© Acumen Publishing Ltd. 2007
Of course, with the reference to a specific array of techniques available to
cinema, a contradiction seems to emerge, since it appears to imply an essence
of the medium. Indeed, if cinema was said to incarnate the principle of modern
aesthetics, the unstable unity of opposed principles, that would define an essence,
if only a paradoxical one, of the art. Rancière would then be committing the
same mistakes as those philosophers he constantly denounces, who, on the basis
of a grand narrative of modernity, distil the essence of an art form by reducing
it to the possibilities and limitations of its medium. Chapter 7 of Film Fables
conducts a critical reading of the paradigmatic philosophical characterization of
the cinematic medium, the equivalent of Lyotard’s aesthetics of the sublime in
painting: Deleuze’s famous two books on cinema.
Rancière uses the introduction to dispel this suspicion of self-contradiction,
by showing that his approach to cinema does not in effect re-essentialize it. Te
“cinematographic fable”, is a “thwarted” one, he claims.
54
Te specific contradic-
tion the other arts have to face is that they have to actively seek to descend into
the expressive passivity (“the silent speech”) of the world. Te camera, in contrast,
is always already, by its very nature, the passive medium that the others aim to
become: “Camera cannot be made to be passive because it is passive already”.
55

And so, the “continuity between cinema and the aesthetic revolution that made
it possible” is necessarily “paradoxical”:
even though the basic technical equipment of the cinema secures the iden-
tity of active and passive that is the principle of that revolution, the fact
remains that cinema can only be faithful to it if it gives another turn of
the screw to its secular dialectics. Te art of cinema has been constrained,
empirically, to affi rm its art against the tasks assigned to it by the indus-
try. But the visible process by which it thwarts these tasks only hides a
more intimate process: to thwart its servitude, cinema must first thwart its
mastery. It must use its artistic procedures to construct dramaturgies that
thwart its natural powers. Tere is no straight line running from cinema’s
technical nature to its artistic vocation.
56

In other words, the ultimate paradox of the aesthetic age is that it sees the
emergence of an art, cinema, which, because it is already the perfect incarnation
of its principle (the unity of expressivity and indifference, passivity and activ-
ity, knowledge and ignorance), is forced to engage in new kinds of operations
and “procedures”, in order to fully exploit the potentialities of the new aesthetic
age. Otherwise, it is always going to become the servant of some other interests.
54. Rancière, Film Fables, 9.
55. Ibid.
56. Ibid., 11.
254 JEAN·PHILIPPE DERANTY
© Acumen Publishing Ltd. 2007
Cinema is therefore obliged, like all the other arts, to construct specific opera-
tions. It can never just rely on its alleged “essence”, since that essence makes it
immediately the prey of economic and other interests, including the interest
in retelling stories in the old-fashioned, “representative” way, as a neat, linear
unfolding of causes and effects, for the aim of individual and/or collective cathar-
sis. Tis then provides the criterion to distinguish cinema as an art form from the
cinema that has succumbed to its masters. Te cinema that fulfils the potentiali-
ties of the aesthetic age is the one that introduces operative “ruptures”, that can
be described concretely, within the classical representative mode, by obeying the
aesthetic principles, that is to say, by proposing innovative ways to combine the
expressivity of the world with its brute obstruction to meaningfulness and, in
particular, its resistance to narrative causality. Te great film-makers listed earlier
each have their own way of doing precisely that.
Tis way of watching how film-makers deal with the aesthetic equation (unity
of the contraries, circulation of materialities and meanings, and so on) has the
great advantage of focusing on the specific traits of their individual technique,
and on their creative originality. It gives them the full status of creators and
allows one to take the full measure of their originality, or, as the case may be,
their genius. Instead of investing their work with a philosophical depth they
would have had no consciousness of, running the risk of providing an intel-
lectualist interpretation radically at odds with their stated intentions, Rancière’s
pragmatic approach, focused on the individual achievements of each art work
within the context of the aesthetic age can follow the operations of the art work
in its immanence, as a local machine of sense and beauty.
Just as Hatred of Democracy ended with a passionate ode for democratic action,
the lesson of Film Fables is thus inspired by the conviction of the constant pos-
sibility of concrete, creative artistic practice in the alleged era of the spectacle
and the end of art:
A longstanding lamentation in contemporary thought wants us to bear
witness to the programmed death of images at the hands of the machine
for information and advertisement. I have opted for the opposite perspec-
tive and have tried to show that the art and thought of images have always
been nourished by all that opposes them.
57
In politics as in aesthetics, Rancière’s writings offer us a rare and precious defence
of creative action.
57. Ibid., 19.
REVIEW ESSAY: DEMOCRATIC AESTHETICS 255
© Acumen Publishing Ltd. 2007
Jean-Philippe Deranty is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Macquarie University, Sydney.
He has published a number of articles in French and German philosophy and is completing
a manuscript on Axel Honneth’s theory of recognition.
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