Editorial Jacques Rancière and The (Re)Distribution of the Sensible: Five Lessons in Artistic Research

I – The Distribution of the Sensible
‘Me too, I’m a painter!’1

The current issue evolved from the two-day conference Aesthetics and Politics: With and Around Jacques Rancière co-organized by Sophie Berrebi and Marie-Aude Baronian at the University of Amsterdam on 20 and 21 June 2006. A transcript of the keynote lecture ‘Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art’ delivered by Rancière to the conference on 20 June is published here for the first time. Also published are the papers by Stephen Wright and Jonathan Lahey Dronsfield presented during the final panel of the conference which focused on the question of contemporary art as is a transcript of the exchange with Rancière which followed. Published here for the first time in English is a translation of an interview conducted with Rancière by Marie-Aude Baronian and Mireille Rosello in the months following the conference, and which appears here in a translation by Gregory Eliott under the title ‘Jacques Rancière and Indisciplinarity’. Why is Rancière’s thought important to ethical and political questions of contemporary art practice and research? How does the term ‘indisciplinarity’ help us advance understanding of possible approaches to artistic research? Does artistic research understood in this way contribute to a politics of emancipation? Rancière’s most celebrated contribution to recent aesthetic and political debates is his focus on what he terms le partage du sensible. Le partage du sensible has variously been translated as the ‘partition of the perceptible’ the ‘division,’ ‘sharing’ and, more persistently, the ‘distribution of the sensible’::
The distribution of the sensible reveals who can have a share in what is common to the community based on what they do and on the time and space in which this activity is performed… it defines what is visible or not in a common space, endowed with a common language, etc. There is thus an ‘aesthetics’ at the core of politics that has nothing to do with Benjamin’s discussion of the ‘aestheticization of politics’ specific to the ‘age of the masses’… It is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience. Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.2

Furthermore, for Rancière, the ‘distribution of the sensible’ is tied not simply to the declention of aesthetic regimes, but to the very concept of democracy, and thus to a political
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‘redistribution’: ‘Democracy, in fact, cannot be merely defined as a political system, one among many, characterized simply by another division of power. It is more profoundly defined as a certain sharing of the perceptible, a certain redistribution of its sites.’3 Herein lies the centrality of the concept to a politics of emancipation as demonstrated in his reading of nineteenth-century workers’ literary journals – ‘the thinking of those not “destined” to think’ as a ‘redistribution of knowledge and truth’.4 Thus it is in both its operation of a symbolic violence and an emancipatory potentiality that we find the meaning of the ‘distribution of the sensible’ as it works through Rancière’s pronouncements on aesthetics and politics. As Rancière explains, the sense of ‘cutting’ and of ‘redistribution’ is central to the definition of the term:
I understand by this phrase the cutting up [decoupage] of the perceptual world that anticipates, through its sensible evidence, the distribution of shares and social parties… And this redistribution itself presupposes a cutting up of what is visible and what is not, of what can be heard and what cannot, of what is noise and what is speech.5

The centrality of the concept of ‘the distribution of the sensible’ to his thinking is maintained by Rancière in his Afterword to The Philosopher and His Poor (2004): ‘This dividing line has been the object of my constant study… the vital thread tying together all of my research.’6 Given its importance to Rancière’s research, some account of the context of this term is perhaps useful by way of introduction. The (re)distribution of the sensible, for example, is implicit in The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (1991). This book offers Rancière’s account of the eccentric educational practices of the exiled lecturer in French literature at the University of Louvain, Joseph Jacotot, who in 1818 proposed that it was possible to teach what one did not know oneself. Jacotot realized a system of ‘intellectual emancipation’ based on the method of ‘universal teaching’ which rejected dominant repressive educational practices based upon the ‘explication’ of facts to ignorant students by knowing masters. As Rancière suggests: ‘It is the explicator who needs the incapable and not the other way around; it is he who constitutes the incapable as such. To explain something to someone is first of all to show him he cannot understand it by himself.’7 It is through a recognition of education’s part in producing and preserving an unequal distribution of the sensible that we are able to read an educational experiment to overturn a pedagogic system founded upon explication as a project of both intellectual and political emancipation:
We know, in fact, that explication is not only the stultifying weapon of pedagogues but the very bond of the social order. Whoever says order says distribution into ranks. Putting into ranks presupposes explication, the distributory, justificatory fiction of an inequality that has no other reason for being. The day-to-day work of explication is only the small change of the dominant explication that characterizes society.8

It is an understanding of the connection between distribution and domination which accounts, in part, for Rancière’s insistence elsewhere on the articulation of the ‘regimes’ of art. And it is in this context of violence and domination implied in political and aesthetic regimes, and regimes of knowledge, that we must recognize that Rancière’s terms build upon their use in the writings of Foucault and Deleuze.

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II – A Dissensual Community of Equals In The Birth of the Clinic Foucault writes of the structure of nosology in the ‘perspective distribution which enables us to see in paralysis a symptom, in syncope an episode, and in apoplexy an organic and functional attack…’9 In the chapter ‘Strata or Historical Formations: the Visible and the Articulable (Knowledge)’ in his study Foucault, Deleuze expands upon the concept of ‘strata’ in terms similar to those employed by Rancière above:
An ‘age’ does not pre-exist the statements which express it, nor the visibilities which fill it. These are the two essential aspects: on the one hand each stratum or historical formulation implies a distribution of the visible and the articulable which acts upon itself; on the other, from one stratum to the next there is a variation in the distribution, because the visibility itself changes in style, while the statements themselves change their system… A way of saying and seeing, discursive practices and forms of self-evidence: each stratum is a combination of the two, and in the move from one stratum to the next they vary in terms of composition and combination.10

How Rancière’s take on the ‘distribution of the sensible’ might differ from that of Foucault and Deleuze, whilst nonetheless building on their formulations, lies in the emancipatory capacity and potential he finds in individuals and collectives to redistribute knowledge and assume a ‘community of equals’. Rancière’s insistence on a ‘community of equals’ based on an ‘equality of intelligence’ holds important implications for undertaking and understanding the potential of ‘artistic research’, the equal undertaking of which by artist and audience alike is a key aspect of the artist’s emancipatory lesson:
We know our ‘equality’ with Racine thanks to the fruit of Racine’s work. His genius lies in having worked by the principle of the equality of intelligence, in having not believed himself superior to those he was speaking to, in having even worked for those who predicted that he would fade like a season. It is left to us to verify that equality, to conquer that power through our own work. This does not mean making tragedies equal to Racine’s; it means, rather, employing as much attention, as much artistic research as he, to recounting how we feel and to making others feel it, despite the arbitrariness of language or the resistance of all matter to the work of our hands. The artist’s emancipatory lesson, opposed on every count to the professor’s stultifying lesson, is this: each one of us is an artist to the extent that he carries out a double process; he is not content to be a mere journeyman but wants to make all work a means of expression, and he is not content to feel something but tries to impart it to others. The artist needs equality as the explicator needs inequality… We can thus dream of a society of the emancipated that would be a society of artists.11

Rancière’s conclusions appear to echo Joseph Beuys’s famous utopian proclamation: ‘Jedermann ist ein Künstler’ [‘Everyone is an artist.’] To which Gustav Metzger once curtly replied: ‘Himmler auch?’ [‘Himmler also?’] However, like Metzger, Rancière is resistant to unwieldy utopian thinking: ‘… there is no such thing as a possible society. There is only the society that exists.’12 Turning away from artistic utopias, Rancière’s emancipatory project celebrates the productive yet uncertain ground of ‘artistic research’ - productive in that it celebrates equality of intellect, uncertain in its claims to ‘scientific validity’ as a discipline, woven into an emancipatory refusal to claim intellectual superiority over others.13 Rancière’s position chimes with the ethos attributed to the inter-relationship of art and research, with ‘the uncertain and open that is included in the and which binds together these two orientations.’14
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Equally important in the present context however is the connection between Rancière’s lessons in emancipation and recent formulations on artistic research by Mika Hannula and others which claim: ‘[It is] possible to follow the interests of emancipatory knowledge in artistic research. In this case, the goal is the study of some phenomenon, raising awareness of some societal or social injustice.’15 Social injustice, or in Rancière’s terms ‘the incommensurability of wrong,’16 plays a vital part in his philosophy, but it is to the implications for questions of community of such concepts as ‘the distribution of the sensible’ and the related concept of ‘aesthetic regime,’ which Rancière turns in his text, ‘Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art,’ with reference, among others, to the work of the artist collective, Urban Encampment. ‘Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community’ begins with a reflection on a line from Mallarme - ‘Apart, we are together’. Mallarmé’s paradox invites Rancière to reflect on the problem of community in a way that has echoes of the thought of Agamben and Nancy:
The paradoxical relation between the ‘apart’ and the ‘together’ is also a paradoxical relation between the present and the future. The art work is the people to come and it is the monument of its expectation, the monument of its absence. The artistic ‘dissensual community’ has a double body: it is a combination of means for producing an effect out of itself: creating a new community between human beings, a new political people… To the extent that it is a dissensual community, an aesthetic community is a community structured by disconnection.17

Such communal dissensus and structural disconnection runs through the problematic of political, ethical and aesthetic efficiency. As Rancière writes: ‘Aesthetic efficiency means a paradoxical kind of efficiency that is produced by the very break of any determined link between cause and effect.’18 III - Indisciplinarity In the interview published here for the first time in English (in a translation by the noted Althusser scholar and translator, Gregory Elliott), Rancière is asked, ‘Would it be right to suggest that your work is not so much inter-disciplinary as a-disciplinary?’ His reply holds many implications for those undertaking artistic research:
Neither. It is ‘indisciplinary’. It is not only a matter of going besides the disciplines but of breaking them. My problem has always been to escape the division between disciplines, because what interests me is the question of the distribution of territories, which is always a way of deciding who is qualified to speak about what. The apportionment of disciplines refers to the more fundamental apportionment that separates those regarded as qualified to think from those regarded as unqualified; those who do the science and those who are regarded as its objects.19

Rancière’s refusal to accept disqualification from any discourse is a political proposition as it is founded upon on the supposition of an existing ‘community of equals’, as he argues elsewhere: ‘Equality is actually the condition required for being able to think politics.’20 In this sense, Rancière’s ‘indisciplinary’ appears to have an affinity with what Mika Hannula and others have called, in the context of artistic practice and research, ‘methodological diversity’ and the ‘democracy of experiences’. The ‘democracy of experiences’ is the precondition of a non-hierarchical research environment whereby ‘art is free to criticize science, philosophy to criticize religion, religion to criticize science, and so on. It would also mean that there are no first philosophies or metaphysics that can not, in principle, be touched Jacques Rancière and The (Re)Distribution of the Sensible: Five Lessons in Artistic Research 4
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by empirical criticism’.21 However, Rancière’s ‘indisciplinarity’ is not to be understood as advocating a kind of lassaiz faire, ill-disciplined or expedient appropriation of methodologies nor as an ethical embodiment of cultural pluralism in the field of communication. It is fundamentally more disruptive and destructive a term than any ethical embrace of diversity. As such, it is perhaps closer to a position Kathrin Busch has asserted more recently: ‘Art functions as a disturbance of established knowledge structures, so as to reveal their innate power structures and restrictions. It also becomes the site of the production of a different knowledge… knowledge that is equally ambivalent, incommensurable, and singular.’22 Nonetheless, the position Rancière outlines in the interview concurs with these recent articulations on the position of artistic research, particularly in his conclusion: ‘there is no historical necessity, nothing irremediable in this landscape of our intellectual objects and forms.’23 This recognition and Rancière’s refusal to search for a metapolitics attuned to mathematical universality (a la Alain Badiou) which might secure for art and ethics a position equivalent to a truth indifferent to the political contingencies of a distribution of the sensible are also perhaps echoed in Tuomas Nevanlinna’s concept of the divisible truths of artistic research:
… indivisible, mathematical, truth is not ‘partitioned’ into different versions but remains the same… Then there is another mode of truth. This truth is associated with the emergence of things that may be called works. Works cannot exist unless they become divided into multiple voices at the very moment of reception… Divisioning, partitioning is the necessary condition for its truth, not an obstacle to it.24

Division and singularity, equality and antagonism, community and incommensurability: the preconditions of artistic truth and politics alike. IV – The Visible and the Invisible - The Flesh of Art It could be argued that any journal issue is largely a ‘dissensual community’ of images and texts, of saying and seeing, but the theme of the distribution of the sensible - or more accurately here, the distribution of the visible (of the visible and the invisible) - and ‘indisciplinarity’ are consistently (both consciously and unconsciously) at work throughout the essays, exchanges, artworks and interviews which feature in this issue. Each in their way engage in a practice which interrogates the role, function and limits of the visible and the political, ethical and aesthetic efficacy of the invisible. The co-efficiency of visibility and invisibility of an ostensibly critical arts practice is central to Stephen Wright’s ‘Behind Police Lines: Art Visible and Invisible’, which draws upon Foucault and Rancière, in particular the latter’s writings on the police (the police in question here also being the ‘art police’), as a context within which to approach the ostensible paradox of envisioning an invisible art practice:
Envisaging an art without artwork, without authorship and without spectatorship has an immediate consequence: art ceases to be visible as such. For practices whose self-understanding stems from the visual arts tradition – not to mention for the normative institutions governing it – the problem cannot just be overlooked: if it is not visible, art eludes all control, prescription and regulation – in short, all ‘police’. In a Foucauldian perspective, one might argue that the key issue in policing art is the question of visibility.25

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The visible and the invisible is also central to the subsequent heated exchange with Rancière, Wright and Jonathan Dronsfield, who in turn disputes Rancière’s statement that art must have ‘a readable political signification’. In contrast to both Wright and Rancière, Dronsfield’s paper ‘Nowhere is aesthetics contra ethics: Rancière the other side of Lyotard’ argues:
… the aesthetic regime, one which welcomes any material whatsoever into the field of art, negates any pragmatic criterion for isolating this singularity: no criterial principle exists for differentiating the aesthetic sphere from what it is not. The artwork is its differentiation – and thus a question about its own finitude.26

Echoing Badiou’s ‘inaesthetics’ perhaps, Dronsfield adds: ‘Artworks… are absolutely indifferent to our responses to them.’ In the interest of extending contributions to the debate on Rancière’s reading of aesthetics and politics, we have included as an end piece Sophie Berrebi’s essay ‘Jacques Rancière: Aesthetics is Politics’, which originally appeared in Dutch in the magazine, Metropolis M, and which appears here in English for the first time. The theme of the political efficiency of visibility or invisibility which punctuates the exchange between Wright, Dronsfield and Rancière is also at stake in the Lithuanian philosopher Audrone Zukaiskiate’s essay on gender and national identity in recent Lithuanian art, an essay which draws upon Lacanian psychoanalysis and Peggy Phelan’s concept of ‘active vanishing’ and asks ‘what is this mysterious x, persisting at the core of national identity?’, and ‘How to invent new forms of visibility?’ Regimes of image production are the focus of Sean Snyder’s Optics. Compression. Propaganda. - ‘a series of ongoing experiments with the malleability of images and the mechanics of their production’. The Archives of the corporation Carl Zeiss AG – who manufacture ‘instruments for visualization’ - acts as a primary research context for the development of this project which develops Snyder’s interest in both ‘analog regimes of image production’ and the visibility or readability of compressed digital images, their potential to host encrypted data and the political paranoia thereby produced. Visibility and invisibility is part of the dialectical method of Michael Rakowitz’s, ‘The invisible enemy should not exist’ in which ‘The artefacts stolen form the National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad in the aftermath of the US invasion of April 2003 are reconstructed to scale using the packaging of Middle Eastern foodstuffs and local Arabic newspapers, moments of cultural visibility found in the US’. The visible trace of contemporary everyday life of Arabic communities in the US in these reconstructions of museum artefacts pillaged in Iraq, performs a double archaeology of knowledge, in that the visible objects and their catalogue entries testify not only to the invisibility of the missing historical artefacts themselves (and the resultant risk to Iraq of not only western-dominated economic, political but also of historical ‘reconstruction’) but to the political invisibility of diasporic communities. Rancière’s concept of ‘indisciplinarity’ was one of the contexts which prompted an interview with Jörg Heiser who works as a writer, editor, curator, doctoral researcher and songwriter. The interview focuses upon the context of his recently curated exhibition Romantic Conceptualism, which brought together a number of significant conceptual art works produced over the last 40 years, and his new book, All of a Sudden: Things that Matter in Contemporary Art, which opens with a discussion of the importance of slapstick as a method in contemporary art. Indisciplinarity and invisibility are pertinent also to the work of Chris Evans who consistently resists any consensus on the social function of public art and legitimate territories of ostensibly critical art, dissenting even from its visibility and identity as critical art as such; in effect, it forms a ‘dissensual community’, to borrow Rancière’s terms, within the
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institutional and economic contexts it inhabits, a characteristic which Dan Kidner describes more succinctly as ‘socially awkward’. Presented here is the trailer and film script for Evan’s recent film The Freedom of Negative Expression which revolves around an estranged telephone dialogue between Philip, a bourgeois Nihilist artist, and Gillian, a former member of the British Constructivists (evidently Gillian Wise) interrupted by the Overture from Wagner’s Faust. In the voice of The Nihilist, we encounter the language of Rancière albeit in ironic mode as he discusses the bourgeois ‘regime of culture’. In the end, the exchange of views between the British Constructivist and the Nihilist performs an intertwining with Merleau-Ponty’s reflection: ‘Everything really does come down to a matter of thinking the negative rigorously.’27 In her series of portraits and installations with smell, Clara Ursitti has consistently worked at the limits of the visible and the invisible and the paradoxes therein for questions of aesthetics. Most recently she has embarked upon a new series of work which evolved out of two research contexts; research into the inter-special communication between humans and dolphins, which draws upon research funded by the US military, and also her research project for the ACE Helen Chadwick Fellowship at the British School in Rome and at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford. Oxford/Rome presents a selection of images taken during this period of research. The interview published here was conducted during the context of her participation in Communication Suite, an exhibition at the Medical School of the University of Glasgow (8 July – 1 August 2008) curated by Christine Borland. Ursitti’s pursuit of a non-visual aesthetics across the phenomenology of olfactory perception (of smells, scents and bodily secretions), her practice at the limits of human and non-human communication, and her negotiation of the interplay of scientific and artistic research, presses home repeatedly upon the flesh of art. Andrew Sunley Smith’s practice might equally be said to engage with the flesh of experience in the context of migration (the artist himself has recently migrated from Australia to Scotland). Sunley Smith’s works for Migratory Projects renders visible the marks and traces of migration and, more forcefully perhaps, in his Drive Out Cinema domestic objects are spot-lit as they are dragged by an unseen automobile along unlit single-track roads, their resultant disfiguration and destruction a visceral metaphor of the violence of economic and geographic dispossession and displacement. It is not simply the aesthetic which provides a key touchstone for the Migratory Projects, however, but the ‘co-efficiency’ of art, and during his exhibition Migratory Projects at CCA, Sunley Smith organized the symposium ‘The New Co-Efficiency in Art’ (17 October 2006, CCA, Glasgow). As an aesthetic term, ‘coefficiency’ heralds from Marcel Duchamp’s essay ‘The Creative Act’ (1957), which has provided one of the contexts for the development of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics. The term is also employed in the present issue by both Rancière and Stephen Wright. The need to further unpack this term and its relation to contemporary artistic practice and research and to his own practice-based PhD in Australia provided the context for the interview. The selection from his Micro Gestures series presented here traces the modifications he performed to a Ford F100 carrier to transform it into an ecologically run autonomous system. Brian O’Connell ‘Ghostly Media: What Would an Invoking Medium Look Like?’ is a direct reply to Jan Verwoert’s article, ‘Living with Ghosts: From Appropriation to Invocation in Contemporary Art’, which appeared in the previous issue of Art and Research, in that it attempts to visualize the spectres which haunt Verwoert’s text.28

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Sarah-Neel Smith’s review ‘Nightcomers at the 2007 Istanbul Biennial:! revolution or counter-revolution?’ considers the economic and political context of interventionist public art strategies and their legacy as ‘hit and run gentrification’. I have no wish to explicate these works further for the important reason that it is crucial to recognize that the critique of such practices lies at the heart of Rancière’s emancipatory project. V - The Décor of Democracy
‘All means and methods of knowing are valid: reasoning, intuition, disgust, enthusiasm, lamentation. A vision of the world propped on concepts is no more legitimate than another which proceeds from tears, arguments, or sighs – modalities equally probing and equally vain.’29

Although on first inspection there appears to be a congruence between the thought of Rancière and commentators on artistic research such as Nevanlinna and Hannula, et al., it is perhaps necessary to recognize that this congruence also leads to a division with respect to definitions of democracy. In answer to their question: ‘How is it possible, even in principle, to claim that the two terms “art” and “research” go together, not to mention to claim that “artistic research” forms a practice that is viable and coherent?’30 Hannula et al., as indicated above, build their vision of artistic research on the twin metaphors of a ‘democracy of experience’ and ‘methodological diversity,’ and regard any kind of hierarchies of knowledge as intrinsically anti-democratic. As a coherent alternative to scientific hierarchies of knowledge, which might effectively exclude the contribution of artistic experience as a ground for legitimate contribution to knowledge, they advance a form of democratic pluralism as a hallmark of artistic research:
The democracy of experiences is defined as a view where no area of experience is in principle outside the critical reach of any other area of experience… The idea in the democracy of experiences… is quite simple: art (or artistic experience) can criticize science (or scientific experience), not to mention the possibilities of intra-artistic or intra-scientific criticism. In this sense, experiential democracy is co-terminus with the multi-directionality of criticism. In this way, we get a new interpretation of the criterion of (scientific) openness… it is in principle possible to question and criticize any and all forms or areas of experience from the point of view of any other area of experience…. Doing research is in itself a way of producing intersubjectivity with regard to an area of experience that has been void of ways of communicating in a shared language.31

The methodological indifference operative here is foregrounded as an ethical guarantee of a democratic universality. However, it might be considered optimistic to claim that maintaining a fidelity to the democracy of experience in one’s approach to the conduct of artistic research is in itself productive of an equality which is the groundwork of political democracy per se, as Hannula et al. imply. And here a division opens up which revolves around democracy and indifference. Far from a ‘democracy of experiences’ based upon ‘tolerance and multidirectionality of critique’ and ‘a mutual understanding based on a common foundation’32 for Rancière, democracy – and politics itself, defined as ‘who has the ability to see and the talent to speak,’ – is born of division: ‘For politics, that fact that the people are internally divided is not, actually, a scandal to be deplored. It is the primary condition of the exercize of politics.’33 Rancière’s reading of the dissensus of democracy is tied to his reading of the aesthetic of literary indifference he finds in the style of Flaubert. Flaubert’s literary indifference, Rancière argues, is not analogous to democratic indifference but produces a ‘conflict between forms of equality’. Rancière writes: Jacques Rancière and The (Re)Distribution of the Sensible: Five Lessons in Artistic Research 8
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At the heart of Madame Bovary there is a struggle between two forms of equality. In one sense, Emma Bovary is the heroine of a certain aesthetic democracy. She wants to bring art into her life, both into her love life and into the décor of her house. The novel is constructed as a constant polemic against a farm girl’s desire to bring art into life. It contrasts ‘art in life’ (this will later be called the aestheticization of daily life) with a form of art that is in books and only in books. Nonetheless, neither art in books nor art in life is synonymous with democracy as a form of dissensus over ‘the given’ of public life. Neither the former nor the latter, moreover, is equivalent to the indifference inherent in the reign of commodities and the reign of money.34

For Rancière, Flaubert’s literary indifference assumes a ‘microscopic equality’ effectively blind to ‘social inequality’ and political injustice, summed up for Rancière when Flaubert claims to be ‘less interested in someone dressed in rags than in the lice that are feeding on him’.35 As such, Flaubert’s aesthetic indifference amounts to a décor of democracy forever divorced from any coherent form of ‘political subjectivization’ articulated around an ineradicable wrong. One concern here is that the emphasis upon ‘experiential democracy’ and ‘diversity’ in research methodologies is engaged, in the last analysis, in an aestheticization of equality which fails to take into account ‘the incommensurables of the equality of speaking beings and the distribution of social bodies’.36 Although the democratic pluralism expounded by Hannula et al. may be as distant from an aestheticization of equality as it is from advancing a model of consensus or deliberative democracy37,the ethico-political third way proposed for artistic research as a democracy of experiences lacks a significant engagement with democracy as dissensus, (falling back as it does on the vague assertion that if individuals display antagonism or wilfully misunderstand one another in the public sphere, it is simply ‘because they are not ready or complete’38). In short, Rancière’s work demands that any attempt to claim the methodological and experiential pluralism of artistic research as inherently democratic consider the dimension of dissensus inherent to democratic politics, or the ‘agonistic pluralism’ which Chantal Mouffe contends is central to the project of radical democracy.39 In conclusion, if we attend to the ‘distribution of the sensible’ and to an equal ‘redistribution’ which renounces categorical destinations in its adoption of methodological ‘indisciplinarity’, we unfold the full implications of Rancière’s emancipatory project not only for the conduct of artistic research, but for the practice and politics of art:
Aesthetic experience has a political effect to the extent that the loss of destination that it presupposes disturbs the way in which bodies fit their functions and destinations. What it produces is no rhetoric persuasion about what has to be done. Nor is it the framing of a collective body. It is a multiplication of connections and disconnections that reframe the relation between bodies, the world where they live and the way in which they are ‘equipped’ for fitting it. It is a multiplicity of folds and gaps in the fabric of common experience that change the cartography of the perceptible, the thinkable and the feasible. As such, it allows for new modes of political construction of common objects and new possibilities of collective enunciation.40

Ross Birrell Summer 2008

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1

Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, translated by Kirstin Ross (Stanford, Cal.: University of Stanford, 1991), p. 65. 2 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, translated by Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004), p. 12-3. See also Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, translated by Julie Rose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1999), p. 57-8. 3 Jacques Rancière, The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing, translated by Charlotte Mandell (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 2004), p. 104. 4 Jacques Rancière, The Nights of Labour: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France, translated by John Drury (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), p. xii; p. 22. 5 Jacques Rancière, The Philosopher and His Poor, translated by John Drury, Corinne Oster, and Andrew Parker, edited by Andrew Parker (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), p. 225. 6 Rancière, The Philosopher and His Poor, p. 225-7. 7 Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, p. 6. The challenge to orthodox teaching methods mounted by Jacotot in nineteenthcentury Belgium and recounted by Rancière as a political fable and intervention into debates on education reform in 1980s France, remains as a challenge to current pedagogic procedures and also holds lessons for any engaged in the widespread project of ‘knowledge transfer’. See for example the recent debate on the front page of Education Guardian surrounding methodologies of language teaching following the publication of Jonathan Solity’s Michael Thomas: The Learning Revolution (London: Hodder Arnold, 2008). Anthea Lipsett, ‘My message: “Anybody can learn”’, The Guardian, Education Guardian (Tuesday 02.09.08), p. 1-2. Solity’s book (erroneously titled The Language Revolution by Lipsett) profiles the ostensibly emancipatory methods of Michael Thomas in language teaching who proclaimed: “I wanted to demonstrate that anybody can learn. I didn’t devise my system to teach languages quickly – I did it to change the world.” (p. 2) Despite the emancipatory rhetoric of this remark, Thomas’s methods in fact amount to a reversal of Jacotot’s in that they maintained, according to Solity, ‘all learning was down to the quality of the teaching, and the teacher rather that the student’. (p. 2) 8 Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, p. 117. 9 Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Vintage, 1973), p. 6. [My emphasis]. 10 Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, translated by Seán Hand (London: Athlone Press, 1988), p. 48. 11 Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, p. 70-1. 12 Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, p. 75. 13 As Mika Hannula concludes: ‘this uncertainty in artistic research is something that must be endured and accepted.’ Mika Hannula ‘The Responsibility and Freedom of Interpretation’ in Satu Kiljunen and Mika Hannula (eds), Artistic Research (Helsinki: Academy of Fine Arts, 2002), p. 83. 14 Sven-Olov Wallenstein ‘Art and Research’ in Kiljunen and Hannula (eds), Artistic Research p. 45. 15 Mika Hannula –Juha Suoranta – Tere Vadén, Artistic Research – Theories, Methods and Practices (Helsinki: Academy of Fine Arts, 2005), p. 67. 16 Rancière, Disagreement, p. 21. 17 Jacques Rancière, ‘Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art’. www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/ranciere.html. 18 Rancière, ‘Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community’. www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/ranciere.html 19 ‘Jacques Rancière and Indisciplinarity: An Interview’. www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/jrinterview.html. 20 Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, p. 52. 21 Hannula, et al., Artistic Research, p. 31. 22 Kathrin Bush, ‘Artistic Research and the Poetics of Knowledge’, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Researcher, edited by Dieter Lesage and Kathrin Busch, AS Mediatijdschrift / Visual Culture Quarterly, No. 179 - 2007 (Antwerp: Belgium, 2007), p. 41. The reference is of course to Jacques Rancière, The Names of History: On the Poetics of Knowledge, translated by Hassan Melehy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1994). 23 ‘Jacques Rancière and Indisciplinarity: An Interview’. www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/jrinterview.html. 24 Tuomas Nevanlinna, ‘Is “Artistic Research” a Meaningful Concept?’ in Kiljunen and Hannula (eds), Artistic Research, p. 64. 25 Stephen Wright, ‘Behind Police Lines: Art Visible and Invisible’. www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/wright.html 26 Jonathan Lahey Dronsfield, ‘Nowhere is aesthetics contra ethics: Rancière the other side of Lyotard’. www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/dronsfield.html 27 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, edited by Claude Lefort, translated by Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), p. 63. 28 Jan Verwoert, ‘Living with Ghosts: From Appropriation to Invocation in Contemporary Art’, Art and Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods, Volume 1. No. 2. (Summer 2007). http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v1n2/pdfs/verwoert.pdf 29 E. M. Cioran, ‘The Décor of Knowledge’, A Short History of Decay, translated by Richard Howard (London: Quartet, 1990), p. 146. 30 Hannula, et al., Artistic Research, p. 25. 31 Hannula, et al., Artistic Research, p. 30-32. 32 Hannula, et al., Artistic Research, p. 34; p. 55. 33 Rancière, Disagreement, p. 87. 34 Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, p. 56.

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35 36

Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, p. 56. Rancière, Disagreement, p. 39. 37 They write: ‘our view of ethical encounters and cross-cultural communication is dialectical and Hegelian rather than idealized and Habermasian’. Hannula, et al., Artistic Research, p. 54. 38 Hannula, et al., Artistic Research, p. 54. 39 As Mouffe writes: ‘One of the keys to the thesis of agonistic pluralism is that, far form jeopardizing democracy, agonistic confrontation is in fact its very condition of existence.’ Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox (London: Verso, 2000), p. 103. 40 Rancière, ‘Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community’. www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/ranciere.html.

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Everything you wanted to know about Jacques Rancière but were afraid to ask….. Sophie Berrebi
The essays by Jonathan Dronsfield and Steven Wright included in this issue were first presented at the conference Aesthetics and Politics: With and Around Jacques Rancière co-organised by myself and Marie-Aude Baronian at the University of Amsterdam on 20 and 21 June 2006. One of the elements that triggered the organisation of the conference was a passage of his then recent book Malaise dans l’esthétique (2004). In it, Rancière discussed several exhibitions of contemporary art that had taken place around the year 2000.1 The way he approached these group shows was particularly refreshing in a context marked by heavy discussions about curatorial practice et al.: Rancière responded to exhibition concept, presentation and individual works without dissociating the one from the other. In other terms, and while his writings were already proving to be influential to the contemporary art milieu, he wove these exhibitions into his text, reacting to them more as a random albeit attentive visitor than as an expert. This attitude inevitably provoked the desire on the part of the reader to stroll alongside him and ask him everything we ever wanted to know about his views (but were afraid to ask). The format of the conference developed out of that desire for a conversation, and Jacques Rancière proved to be extremely generous in his response, agreeing to a two-day visit to Amsterdam to give a lecture and respond to a series of papers discussing aspects of his work. The plenary lecture Rancière delivered on the evening of 20 June, entitled ‘Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art’ was attended by an audience of more than 150 people ranging from students to artists and academics. The following day, during an intense day-long conference, academics of different backgrounds presented papers derived from their encounter with Rancière’s work. Sessions on literature and politics, on performing and contemporary arts succeeded one another, separated by panel discussions in which Rancière gave informal replies to questions raised by the speakers. More than once these replies triggered animated discussions, although, predictably perhaps, a climax was reached in the discussion which ensued from third panel dedicated to contemporary art. A substantial part of that panel is reprinted here, with papers given by Jonathan Dronsfield and Steven Wright and the exchange that followed, which was kindly recorded by a member of the audience. In addition to the elements of the conference that are reprinted here is ‘Jacques Rancière and Indisciplinarity’ an interview conducted with Jacques Rancière by Marie-Aude Baronian and our colleague from the University of Amsterdam and
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ASCA, Mireille Rosello. A version of this extensive interview, which took place several months after the conference, was published in Dutch by Valiz (NL), in a volume of studies on Jacques Rancière that appeared in the Netherlands in late 2007. In this exchange, Ranciere discusses his position with regard to democracy, politics, film, literature, art and research. Finally, my short article ‘Jacques Rancière: Aesthetics is Politics’, also reprinted here, was prompted by a visit to the pavilion of Central Asia at the Venice Biennale in 2005. It was originally commissioned and published by the Dutch art magazine Metropolis M No. 4 (2005), pp. 64-71.

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Notably, Bruit de Fond, (Centre National de la Photographie, Paris), Let’s Entertain, (Walker art Centre, Minneapolis, and Centre Pompidou, Paris) and Voilà, le Monde dans la tête (Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris), all three organised in 2000.

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Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art1 Jacques Rancière
I shall bring up my subject by a short analysis of three propositions on community and separation. I take the word ‘proposition’ in its widest sense: a proposition means a statement; it means a proposal or an offer; it also means an artistic dispositif which lends itself to some form of response or interaction.

Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnières (1884) oil on canvas, 791/8” x 118-1/8”, (detail) Reproduced by kind permission of the National Gallery / Urban Encampment Je & Nou (video still), Reproduced by kind permission of Urban Encampment.

The first proposition I shall comment upon is the shortest one. It is a poetic statement in four words: four French words ‘Séparés, on est ensemble’ that I will translate as follows: ‘Apart, we are together’. This statement is quoted from a prose-poem by Mallarmé ‘The White Water lily’. I will remind you what the poem is about. The poet makes a small boat trip on the river in order to see a lady who is supposed to stay somewhere along the river in the neighbourhood; as he gets close to the place where he believes that she stays, he hears a light noise of footsteps that might be the sign of the presence of the invisible lady; after having enjoyed that proximity, the poet decides to keep the mystery of the lady and the secret of their being-together unviolated by silently moving back without seeing her and being seen by her. The poem was first published in a magazine entitled Art and Fashion. So it is easy to blame the paradox of the ‘being together apart’ on the sophisticated attitude of the poet in search of both metaphysical purity and refined sensations. That easy attitude has to ignore two things: first the solitude of the being together was put at the same time on two large canvasses that were to pass on as paradigms of modern painting, I mean Seurat’s Grande Jatte and Bathing in Asnières, two pictures which allegedly have been conceived of as modern transpositions of the Athenian frieze of the Panathenaia. Second the poet himself stressed that the crisis of the verse was part of an ‘ideal crisis’ which, he said, was itself dependent on a ‘social crisis’. This
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suggests that the very form of the prose-poem may have some kind of relation with the painterly conjunction of high art and popular leisure, some kind of relation , I would add, that might be itself a ‘distant’ relation, just as the relation of the silent boater with the invisible lady.

Urban Encampment 'scale model', Reproduced by kind permission of Urban Encampment.

Apparently contemporary art and social life have nothing to do any longer with those poetic landscapes of the 1880s. Indeed we live in a time when artists don’t care much for water lilies – except for the sake of post-modern parody – nor even for painting. We also live in cities where the suburban youths have a darker skin and a more boisterous attitude than the teenagers of Bathing in Asnières. But this is precisely the point where the matter of being together apart takes on a new shape and a new signification. A number of artists to-day set out to create no more artworks. Instead they want to get out of the museum, and provoke modifications of the space of everyday life, giving rise to new forms of relations. Their propositions engage thereby with the new forms and the new discontents of social life around Asnières. This is the case of a project proposed by a French group of artists called Urban Encampment (Campement Urbain). The project engages with the situation of one of the most wretched outskirts of Paris where riots broke out last autumn. Now the way it tackles the problem seems paradoxical. Much of the stuff that we can read or hear about the ‘crisis of the suburbs’ deals with the loss of the ‘social bond’ provoked by mass individualism and the necessity to weave it again. Now the project understands it in a very peculiar way since it proposes to create in that wretched suburb a place that would be ‘extremely useless, fragile and non productive’. That place had to be discussed with whoever wanted to discuss it among the inhabitants and put under of the protection of the community. But it would be dedicated to a specific end: solitude, which meant that it would be conceived and implemented as a place that could be occupied only by one person for the sake of lonely contemplation or meditation. This is why the project was called I and us. So the ‘being together apart’ appears to be more than a poetic sophistication. Constructing a place for solitude, an ‘aesthetic’ place appears as a task for engaged art. The possibility of being apart appears to be the dimension of social life which is precisely made impossible by the ordinary life in those suburbs. Such is the argument which is embodied in the scale-model and also printed on the tee-shirt of this black youth in a video-film associated with the project where the members of the neighbourhood wear on a tee-shirt a sentence chosen by them. The black youth who exposes his taste for
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solitude can be viewed of as a descendant of one of the young bathers in Asnières that would have met a descendant of the poet: a descendant, from the aesthetic point of view – a point of view which apparently is what is needed to pull the question of the community out of its ethnic configuration – be it its multi-ethnic configuration.

Urban Encampment Je & Nou (video still), Reproduced by kind permission of Urban Encampment.

So there is something in common between the prose poem of the refined writer and that new form of art that tries to create new forms of social bonds in the ‘bad’ neighbourhoods. Each of them presents us one face of a common paradox: the ‘social crisis’ and its possible solution are the background of the apparently apolitical poem about the unattainable lady. Conversely the intervention of a form of art devoted to the construction of empty places seems needed by the underdogs of the poor suburbs. How can we spell out the enigmatic link between those two forms of art? In order to pose the problem, I shall borrow my third ‘proposition’ from a philosophical work which is itself the product of a separated community, since I borrow it from Deleuze and Guattari’s book What is Philosophy? From the section on art, I quote a paragraph which is at the same time a definition of what the artist does and a statement on the political import of art:
The writer twists language, he makes it vibrate, embraces it and splits it in order to tear the percept out of the perceptions, the affect out of the affections, the sensation out of the opinion, with a view – hopefully- to that people that is still missing (...) this is the task of any art, and it is in the same way that painting and music tear out of colours and sounds the new chords, the plastic or melodic landscapes or the rhythmic characters that lift them up to the song of the earth or the cry of Men: that which constitutes the tone, the health, a visual or sound block. A monument does not commemorate; it does not celebrate some past event but it confides to the ears of the future the enduring sensations that give it its body: the ceaselessly revived suffering of men, their renewed protest, their relentlessly resumed struggle. Would everything be vain because the suffering is eternal and the revolutions don’t survive their victory? But the success of a revolution only lies in itself, precisely in the vibrations, the embraces and the openings that it gave to human beings at the time of their happening and that make up a monument which is constantly evolving, like those tumuli to which each new visitor brings a stone.2

The philosophers apparently come up with our expectation by spelling out what is ‘common’ between the ‘reverie’ of the refined poet and the engagement of the contemporary artist: the link between the solitude of the artwork and the human community is a matter of ‘transformed sensation’. What the artist does is weave a new sensory fabric by tearing percepts and affects out the perceptions and affections that constitute the fabric of ordinary Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art 3
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experience. Weaving this new fabric means creating a form of common expression, or a form of expression of the community, namely ‘the song of the earth or the cry of men’.What is common is ‘sensation’. The human beings are tied together by a certain sensory fabric, I would say a certain distribution of the sensible, which defines their way of being together and politics is about the transformation of the sensory fabric of the ‘being together’. So far it seems that the paradox of the ‘apart together’ has vanished. The solitude of the artwork is a false solitude: it is a knot or a twist of sensations just as the cry of a human body is. And a human collective is a knot and twist of sensations in the same way. But it soon appears that the sensory transformation of the being together goes through a complex set of connections and disconnections. First, what was traditionally described as a ‘modelling’ of raw materials becomes a dialectic of ‘embracing’ and ‘splitting’. The result of this dialectic is a ‘vibration’ whose power is transmitted to the human community, that is to say to a community of men whose activity is itself defined in terms of embrace and splitting: suffering, resistance, cries. But, in order that the complex of sensations communicates its vibration, it has to be solidified in the form of a monument. Now the monument in turn takes on the identity of a person who speaks to the ‘ears of the future’. And that speech itself seems to be a double one. The monument transmits the suffering, protest and struggle of men; but it transmits it by transmitting what is apparently opposed to it: the ‘song of the earth’: the song of the inhuman, the song of the forces of the chaos that resist the human will of transformation. It is in this way that the ‘solitary’ block of sounds and colours can become the ‘health’ of individuals and communities. But that coincidence itself is a problematic one. The relation between the ‘block of sounds and colours’ and the ‘health’ of the community might be only a matter of analogy. The operations of torsion, embrace and splitting which define the way in which art weaves a community are made en vue de – ‘with a view to’, in the hope of a people which is still missing. The monument is at the same time the confidant of the people, the instrument of its creation and its representative so long as it is not here. The ‘community of sensation’ seemed to solve the paradox of the ‘apart together’ by equating the ‘individual’ production of art with the fabric of collective life. But the solid product of the action which ‘twists’ the materials of sculpture or painting remains somewhere between the cry of the suffering and struggling people and the ‘song of the earth’, between a voice of human division and a melody of cosmic – inhuman – harmony. The artistic ‘voice of the people’ is the voice of a people to come. The people to come is the impossible people that would be at the same time the divided people of the protest and the collective harmony of a people attuned with the very breath of Nature, be it a chaotic or a ‘chaosmatic’ nature. What my three propositions do is to define a specific kind of community: let us call it an aesthetic community in general. An aesthetic community is not a community of aesthetes. It is a community of sense, or a sensus communis. This means three things. A community of sense first is a certain combination of sense data. This also means a combination of different senses of sense. The words of the poet are sensory realities which suggest another sensory reality, which in turn can be perceived as a metaphor of the poetic activity. The inhabitants put a white sentence on their black tee-shirt and they choose a certain stance to present it in front of the camera, etc. This is the first level of ‘community’. Now in my three examples that community takes on a specific figure, that I will call a dissensual figure. The words of the poet are first used as neutral tools to frame a certain sensorium. They describe us a movement of the arms oriented towards a certain aim: reaching a place which could be visualised on a space. But they superimpose to that sensorium another sensorium organized around that which is specific to their own power, sound and absence. They stage a conflict between two regimes of sense, two sensory worlds. This is what dissensus means. The ‘fragile’ and ‘non
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productive’ construction suspended above the poor suburb gives a visual manifestation and an architectural solidity to that dissensual relation. And the philosopher gives a conceptual frame to that tension between two sensory worlds. This is the second point. Now what the philosophical proposition shows is that the tension between being together and being apart plays on a double level. The artistic ‘proposition’ conflates two regimes of sense – a regime of conjunction and a regime of disjunction. Now the community built by that dissensus stands itself in a twofold relationship with another community, a community between human beings. This is the third point. Mallarmé’s poetry aims at giving to the democratic community the ‘seal’ that cannot be brought about by the count of the votes. Its very distance from social engagement is also a way of preserving, in the absence of the ‘crowd’, its capacity of intervention in the ‘festivals of the future’. The construction of the lonely place of Urban Encampment aims to create new forms of socialization and a new awareness of the capacity of anyone.3 But its own way of elaboration wants to be already an actualization of that community. Deleuze and Guattari elaborate on that double relation. On the one hand, the ‘community of sense’ woven by artistic practice is, in the present, a new set of vibrations of the human community; on the other hand, it is a monument that stands as a mediation or a substitute for a people to come. The paradoxical relation between the ‘apart’ and the ‘together’ is also a paradoxical relation between the present and the future. The art work is the people to come and it is the monument of its expectation, the monument of its absence. The artistic ‘dissensual community’ has a double body: it is a combination of means for producing an effect out of itself: creating a new community between human beings, a new political people. And it is the anticipated reality of that people. The tension between ‘being apart’ and ‘being together’ is tied up with another tension between two statuses of artistic practice: as a means for producing an effect, and as the reality of that effect. To the extent that it is a dissensual community, an aesthetic community is a community structured by disconnection. Understanding what is exactly disconnected and what is at stake in that disconnection is crucial to the interpretation of what ‘aesthetics’ and the ‘politics of aesthetics’ mean. The canonical interpretations of artistic modernity and of aesthetics propose three major interpretations of the ‘being together apart’: there is the modernist view of the autonomy of the artwork, which connects more or less loosely its ‘being apart’ with the ‘being together’ of a community to come ; there is the postmodernist view which makes the ‘being apart’ an aristocratic illusion aimed at dismissing the real laws of our being together; and there is the aesthetic of the sublime which turns the modernist ‘being apart’ of the artwork into a radical heterogeneity, witnessing to the human condition of heteronomy, forgotten by the modernist dream of a community of emancipated men. I believe that none of those three interpretations get to the point of what the aesthetic disconnection means, that is to say of what the aesthetic break means. The aesthetic break has generally been understood as a break with the regime of representation or the mimetic regime. But what mimesis or representation means has to be understood. What it means is a regime of concordance between sense and sense. As it was epitomized by the classical stage and the classical doctrine on the theatre, the theatre was the place of a double harmony between sense and sense. The stage was thought of as a magnifying mirror where the spectators could see, under a fictional form, the virtues and vices of their fellow men and women. And that vision in turn was supposed to provoke determined moves in their minds: Moliere’s Tartuffe supposedly taught the spectators to recognize hypocrites; Voltaire’s Mahomet taught them to struggle for tolerance against fanaticism, etc. Now that capacity of producing the double effect of intellectual recognition and well-oriented
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emotion was predicated itself on a regime of concordance inherent to representation itself. The performance of the bodies on the stage was a display of signs of thoughts and emotions that could be read unequivocally because they had a grammar which held as the language of nature itself. This is what mimesis means: the concordance between the complex of sensory signs in which the process of poiesis is displayed and the complex of the forms of perception and emotion through which it is felt and understood – two processes which are united by a unique Greek word: aisthesis. Mimesis first means the correspondence between poiesis and aisthesis. Because there was a language of natural signs, there was continuity between the intrinsic consistency – or the ‘autonomy’ - of the play and its capacity of producing ethical effects in the minds of the spectators in the theatre and in their behaviours out of the theatre. The ‘being apart’ of the stage was taken in the continuity between the ‘being together’ of the signs displayed by the representation, the being together of the community addressed by it and the universality of human nature. The stage, the audience and the world are taken in one and the same continuum. Most of our ideas about the political efficiency of art still cling to that model. We may not believe any more that the exhibition of virtues and vices on the stage can mend human behaviours. But we are still prone to believe that the reproduction in resin of a commercial idol will make us resist the empire of the ‘spectacle’ or that the photography of some atrocity will mobilize us against injustice. Modern or post-modern as we purport to be, we easily forget that that the consistency of that model was called into question as soon as the 1760s or the 1780’s. Rousseau first questioned that supposedly straight line between the performance of the actors on the stage, its effect on the minds of the spectators and their behaviour outside the theatre in his Letter on the spectacles. He made the point about Moliere’s Misanthrope: does the play urge us to praise the sincerity of Alcestes against the hypocrisy of the socialites who surround it? Does it prompt us to privilege their sense of social life against its intolerance? The question remains undecidable. Now the problem reaches further back: How can the theatre unveil the hypocrites since what they do is what defines its own essence: showing the signs on human bodies of thoughts and feelings that are not theirs. There is a gap at the heart of the mimetic continuity. The gap was spelled out, twenty years after Rousseau’s Letter by another hypocrite, Franz Moor in Schiller’s Die Rauber ‘The links of nature are broken’. The statement is not a mere matter of family drama. The two Moor brothers, the hypocrite and the rebel, both declare in their words and evince in their behaviour the collapse of the nature that sustained the coincidence between the law of composition of the representation and the law of its ethical efficiency. What is broken is the continuity between the thought and its signs on the bodies, between the performance of the living bodies and its effect on other bodies. Aesthetics first means that collapse; it first means the rupture of the harmony that allowed the correspondence between the texture of the work and its efficiency. There are two ways of coping with the rupture. The first way opposes to the undecidable effect of the representational mediation a being together without mediation. Such was the conclusion of Rousseau’s Letter: the evil does not only lie in the content of the representation. It lies in its structure. It lies in the separation between the stage and the audience, between the performance of the bodies on the stage and the passivity of the spectators in the theatre. What must take the place of the mimetic mediation is the immediate ethical performance of a collective that ignores any separation between performing actors and passive spectators. What Rousseau opposes to the play of the hypocrite is the Greek civic festival where the city presents itself to itself, where it sings and dances its own unity. The model is not new. Plato had already opposed the ethical immediacy of the choros to the passivity and the lie of the theatre. Nevertheless it could pass on as the modern sense of antiAesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/ranciere.html

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representation: the theatre turned into the ‘cathedral of the future’ without any separation between the stage and the audience; the living community, expressing in its attitudes the law of its being together. The acme of that vision was proposed one year before the First World War in the ‘temple’ of Hellerau near Dresden where the choruses of Orphee and Eurydice were performed , on the stairs constructed by Adolphe Appia by a choir trained by Emile Dalcroze’s rhythmic gymnastic. The choir itself was supposed to blend the children of the artistic elite of modernist Europe – that made up the bulk of the audience - and the children of the workers of the local factory entitled ‘German Workshops for Art in Industry’. In such a way the representational mediation was entirely absorbed in the immediate fusion of gymnastic and music, activity and spectatorship, art and industry, etc. It was replaced by the immediate communion of all forms of sense and all senses of sense, from factory work to divine music. We purport to be far from such utopias. Our artists have learnt to use this form of hyper-theatre for the optimisation of the show rather than for the celebration of the revolutionary identity of art and life. But what remains vivid, both in their practice and in the criticism they undergo, is precisely the ‘critique of the spectacle’, the idea that art has to give us more than a spectacle, more than something dedicated to the delight of passive spectators, because it has to act in favour of a society where everybody should be active. The ‘critique of the spectacle’ often remains the alpha and the omega of the ‘politics of art’. What this identification discards is the investigation of a third term of efficiency that gets out of the dilemma of representational mediation and ethical immediacy. I assume that this ‘third term’ is aesthetic efficiency itself. Aesthetic efficiency means a paradoxical kind of efficiency that is produced by the very break of any determined link between cause and effect. It is precisely this indetermination that Kant conceptualized when he defined the beautiful as ‘what is represented as an object of universal delight apart from any concept’. That definition has often been aligned with the old definition of beauty as harmony and it has been contrasted with the break of the sublime that would give the formula of modern rupture with representation. I think that this view dismisses the radical break with the representational logic that is entailed in the ‘apart from any concept’. It means that there is no longer any correspondence between the concepts of artistic poiesis and the forms of aesthetic pleasure, no longer any determined relationship between poiesis and aisthesis. Art means the implementation of a set of concepts, the beautiful has no concepts. What is offered to the free play of art is a free appearance. This means that the free appearance is the product of a disconnected community between two sensoria – the sensorium of its fabrication and the sensorium of its enjoyment. That disconnection could be emblematized by the body of a crippled and beheaded statue, the statue known as the Torso of the Belvedere, that was elected as the masterpiece of Greek Art by Winckelmann in his History of Antique Art, published twenty five years before Kant’s Third Critique. Winckelmann’s descriptions have come into a twofold criticism. On the one hand they have been viewed as the paradigm of the naïve admiration for the still and noble lines of a fancied antique beauty by the partisans of a sublime artistic modernity in line with a revived Dionysian antiquity. On the other hand they have been viewed as the first expression of the romantic dream of a new Greece that led to the disastrous utopia of the community as a work of art that allegedly led itself to the Soviet camps and the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Those two views miss the singularity of the kind of ‘Greek perfection’ embodied in the Torso and in Winckelmann’s description. How are we to understand that the paradigm of supreme beauty is given by the statue of a crippled divinity which has no face to express any feeling, no arms or legs to command or achieve any action?
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What increases the paradox is Winckelmann’s decision to consider the statue as a representation of Hercules, the hero of the Twelve Works. His Hercules was an idle Hercules, a Hercules after the works, that had nothing more to do or to suffer, that had no more will or feeling. He was only, occupied in the meditation of his deeds, a headless meditation of course that was readable only in the muscles of the torso and the back. But what relation of analogy can there be between the meditation of an action and a muscle of the abdomen? The folds of the torso expressed the meditation to the extent that they expressed nothing, that they were similar to the waves of the sea. The Torso, Winckelmann said, was the masterpiece of Greek art, which also meant the supreme expression of Greek liberty. But the sole expression of that liberty was the wavelike folds of the stone which had no relation whatsoever with liberty and were unable to give any lesson of courage or freedom. So the so-called paradigm of classical beauty encapsulates in fact the collapse of the representational logic, which equated beauty with expressivity. In that sense, its immediate legacy should be looked for not in Canova’s neo-classical statues but in Kleist’s text on the puppet’s theatre – a text that emphasizes the displacement from a body to another body – from the expressivity of the face, the arms or the legs to the body of the dancer whose soul stands in the elbow or in the lumbar vertebrae. Such would be the principle of modern dance: setting aside the expressions of the ‘living body’ in order to free the capacities of other bodies by exploring the disjunctions between the functional body, the expressive body and the indeterminate body. The Torso may have been mutilated for entirely casual reasons. But what is not casual, what marks a historical watershed (turning point) is the identification between the product of that mutilation and the perfection of art. It is the same overturn that had already been performed by Vico’s invention of the ‘true’ Homer as a Homer who was a poet, because he had no inventions of his own – he was not an Aristotelian inventor of plots, characters, expressions and rhythms – but he was the expression of a people and a time that could not tell history from fiction, words from things, concepts from images, characters from allegories. He was the voice of an infant people that sang because it could not speak, because it could not use articulate language. The aesthetic regime of art begins with that upheaval of the very idea of perfection, an upheaval that has been conceptualized by Kant’s analysis of the beautiful. It would be easy to draw a line from the mutilated Hercules to the Deleuzian ‘body without organs’. Obviously, the deleuzian monument that speaks to the ears of the future is heir to that statue which keeps the potentials of Greek liberty, just as Deleuze’s description of Bacon’s ‘athletic figures’ in Logic of Sensation restages the scene of the Laocoon. But the Deleuzian dramaturgy of the “athletic figure” is too much indebted to the modernist dramaturgy of the sublime break. It obscures the form of dissensuality which is specific to the aesthetic work and to ‘aesthetic’ beauty. Just as Vico’s Homer, Winckelmann’s statue is constructed – and constructed by words - on the body of another statue. It is constructed on the remainder of the product of the sculptor’s intention. So it is the product of a subtraction and an addition. In the same way the ‘modern’ choreographic body is a body first deprived from its mimetic capacities, reduced to the ‘immobility’ of the statue in order to free the capacity of new unseen bodies; Mallarmé’s poem is constructed as the ‘divination’ of the mute language written on the nude floor by the feet of the dancer. And even the stage designer (director) in search of the living artwork in the cathedral of the future, Adolphe Appia, contradicts in advance his own dream when he tears the characters of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk away from the visual setting imagined for them by Wagner and puts them in a space of geometric modules where the living bodies look like statues that the lighting must mould – which means that it must turn into shadows. If the art of the mise-en-scène became so important in the aesthetic regime of art, it is because it embodies the whole logic of
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that regime, the way in which the sensory presence and the ethical immediacy, opposed to the representational mediation, are doubled, thwarted and eventually overturned by the powers of subtraction and disconnection of the statue, the words and the shadows. What characterizes the aesthetic regime of art is not the ‘modernist’ truth to the medium. Nor is it the Deleuzian ‘pure sensation’ torn away from the sensori-motor regime of sensory experience. The ontology of the dissensual actually is a fictional ontology, a play of ‘aesthetic ideas’. The set of relations that constitutes the work plays as if it had another ontological texture than the sensations that make up everyday experience. But there is neither a sensory difference nor an ontological difference. The aesthetic work is in the place of the work that would achieve either the law of its medium or the law of pure sensation. The art of film is in the place of the ‘cinegraphic art’ that was dreamed in the 1920’s as the pure writing of the movement. And when an artist, namely Godard, sets out to revive the true vocation of the cinematographic art, he has to do it by the means of another art. Only the video surface that actually denies the filmic identity of the shots and the practice of cinematographic montage proves able to demonstrate the iconic individuality of the shot and the discontinuity of montage. And only the combination between the mobility of video superimposition, the continuum of the commenting voice and the sound and music background gives the equivalence of the alleged constitution of a ‘place in the world’ by the filmic projection. Just as Mallarmé’s poem is constructed between the poem designed by the feet of the mute dancer and the inner poem of the silent spectator, Godard’s Histoires are constructed between two ‘cinemas’: between the corpus of the cinematographic works and the body of a fictional cinema that oversteps the corpus of works produced by that medium and can only be shown by the means of another medium and another art. What holds for the ‘community of sense’ constituting the work itself holds all the more for the community that is supposed to result from it. The seal that Mallarmé’s poetry wants to give to the community, the new forms of community that the ‘non productive place’ must weave, the ‘people to come’ of the philosopher must be thought of as the legacy of that statue definitely torn away from the people which was ‘its’ people. The Greece that is embodied in the mutilated Torso dismisses at the same time the mimetic efficiency of the representation and the ethical hyper-theatre of the people. Schiller’s Juno Ludovisi holds the promise of a free community because she does not speak nor act, because she does nothing, wants nothing and does not propose any model to be imitated. It is no more the element of a religious or civic ritual. It does no longer bring about any moral improvement or any mobilization of individual or collective bodies. It addresses no specific audience; instead it stays in front of the anonymous and indeterminate spectators of the museum who look at it just as they look at a Florentine painting of The Virgin Mary, a Spanish little beggar, a Dutch peasant wedding or a French still-life, representing fruit or fishes. In the Museum – which does not only mean a specific building but a form of cutting of the common space and a specific mode of visibility all those representations are disconnected from any specific destination, offered to the same ‘indifferent’ gaze. The aesthetic separation is not the constitution of a private paradise for the amateurs or the aesthetes. Instead it implies that there can be no private paradise, that the works are torn away from their original destination, torn away from any specific community and that there is no more any border separating what belongs to the realm of art and what belongs to the realm of everyday life. This is also why the ‘aesthetic education’ conceptualized by Schiller after reading Kant’s Third Critique cannot identify with the happy dream of a community united and civilized by the contemplation of eternal beauty.
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The aesthetic effect is in fact a relationship between two ‘separations’. The works that enter the new realm of aesthetic experience had been first produced according to a certain destination: the civic festivals of the antique times, the ceremonies of religion, the decorum of monarchic power or of aristocratic life. But their aesthetic condition is the condition of monuments, images or fictions separated from those functions and destinations. The aesthetic sensorium is the sensorium marked by that loss of destination. What is lost, along with the harmony between poiesis and aisthesis, is the dependence of artistic productions on a distribution of social places and functions. The previous destination of the works fitted a certain order of the bodies, a certain harmony between the places and functions of a social order and the capacities or incapacities of the bodies located in such or such place, dedicated to such or such function. According to that ‘social nature’ the forms of domination were a matter of sensory inequality. The human beings who were destined to think and to rule had not the same humanity as those who were destined to work, to earn their living and reproduce life. As Plato had put it, one had to ‘believe’ that God had put gold in the souls of the rulers and iron in the soul of the artisans. That nature was a matter of an as if. It was not necessary that the artisans get convinced in depths by story. It was enough that they sensed it, that they used their arms, their eyes and their minds as if it was true. And they did even more so as that belief about fitting fitted the reality of their condition. This is the point where the as if of the community constructed by the aesthetic experience meets the as if at play in social emancipation. Social emancipation was an aesthetic matter because it meant the dismemberment of the body animated by that ‘belief’. In order to understand it, let us shift from the marble of the mutilated statue to the reality ‘in flesh’ of a dissociation between the work of the arms and the activity of a gaze. I borrow my example from a worker’s revolutionary newspaper called Le Tocsin des travailleurs (The Workers’ Tocsin) issued during the French Revolution of 1848. Among reports and statements on the situation, that issue contains an apparently apolitical description of the experience of a joiner who works as a floor-layer. This is how the joiner writes his diary in the third person:
Believing himself at home, he loves the arrangement of a room, so long as he has not finished laying the floor. If the window opens out onto a garden or commands a view of picturesque horizon, he stops his arms and glides in imagination toward the spacious view to enjoy it better than the possessors of the neighbouring residences.4

This is what the aesthetic rupture produced: the appropriation of the place of work and exploitation as the place of a free gaze. It is not a matter of illusion. It is a matter of shaping for oneself a new body and a new sensorium. Being a worker meant a certain form of fitting between a sensory equipment and its destination. It meant a determined body, a determined coordination between the gaze and the arms. The divorce between the labouring arms and the floating gaze introduces the body of a worker into a new configuration of the sensible; it overthrows the ‘right’ relationship between what a body ‘can’ do and what it cannot. It is no coincidence that this apparently a-political description was published in a workers’ revolutionary newspaper: the possibility of a ‘voice of the workers’ went through the disqualification of a certain worker’s body. It went through the redistribution of the whole set of relationships between capacities and incapacities that define the ‘ethos’ of a social body. This is also why the same joiner recommends to his friends specific readings: not novels engaging in social issues, but the stories of those romantic characters – Werther, René or Oberman - who suffered from the misfortune that is forbidden by definition to the worker: the misfortune of having no occupation, of not being fit or equipped for any specific place in society. What literature does is not providing messages or representations that would give to
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the workers the awareness of their condition. It is triggering new passions, which means new forms of balance – or imbalance – between an occupation and the sensory equipment fitting it. That politics of literature is not the politics of the writers. Goethe, Chateaubriand or Senancour were certainly not willing to arouse such passions among the labourers. It is a politics inherent in literature as an art of writing which has broken the rules that made definite forms of feeling and expression fit definite characters or subject matters. Aesthetic experience has a political effect to the extent that the loss of destination that it presupposes disturbs the way in which bodies fit their functions and destinations. What it produces is no rhetoric persuasion about what has to be done. Nor is it the framing of a collective body. It is a multiplication of connections and disconnections that reframe the relation between bodies, the world where they live and the way in which they are ‘equipped’ for fitting it. It is a multiplicity of folds and gaps in the fabric of common experience that change the cartography of the perceptible, the thinkable and the feasible. As such, it allows for new modes of political construction of common objects and new possibilities of collective enunciation. Now this political effect operates under the condition of an original disjunction, of an original effect, which is the suspension of any straight cause-effect relationship. The aesthetic effect first is an effect of des-identification. The aesthetic community is a community of des-identified persons. As such, it is political since a political subjectivization goes through a process of des-identification. An emancipated proletarian is a des-identified worker. Now there is no measure of the des-identifying effect. On the one hand, the effect escapes the strategy of the artist; on the other hand, the artistic strategy completes the process of des-identification beyond the point of political subjectivization toward the ‘song of the earth’, that is to say toward the construction of new forms of individuation – the Deleuzian haecceities- that cancel any form of political subjectivization. On the one hand, the joiner gains the access to the community of the des-identified proletarian subjects by appropriating, against the will of Chateaubriand or Sénancour, the ‘sorrows’ of the idle René or Obermann. On the other hand the writer, Flaubert, castigates the peasant’s daughter Emma Bovary who has appropriated the dreams of Bernardin de Saint Pierre’s Virginie. Not only does he make her die, but he opposes to her desire to put art in her life, the ‘song of the earth’, or as he says the song of ‘inanimate existences, inert things that seem animal, vegetative souls, statues that dream and landscapes that think’5. ‘I want an empty word that I could fill’ says this woman of the Parisian suburbs. The joiner and the peasant’s daughter looked for such words, that the writers both unwillingly offered them and tried to take away from them by emptying them again, making them the breath of the impersonal respiration of the infinite. And the bathing at Asnieres, the strolling on the Grande Jatte or the look at the Parade on the Boulevards evince at the same time the enigmatic potential of the popular bodies who gain access to ‘leisure’ and the neutralisation of that potential. The Deleuzian identification analogy between the torsion of the work, the cry of men and the song of earth both evinces and neutralises itself that tension between the aesthetic effect of des-identification and its own neutralisation. The same reason that makes the aesthetic ‘political’ forbid any strategy of ‘politicization of art’. That tension had long been concealed as the politics of art was identified with the paradigm of ‘critical art’. Critical art plugs the gap by defining a straight relation between its aims and its means: its ends would be to provoke an awareness of political situations leading to political mobilization. Its means would be to produce a sensory form of strangeness, a clash of heterogeneous elements prompting a chance in perception. This means that it wants to include the aesthetic break in the representational continuity. When Brecht represented the Nazi leaders as cauliflower sellers and had them discuss their vegetable business in classical verse, the clash of heterogeneous situations and heterogeneous languages was supposed to
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bring about the awareness of both the merchant relations hidden behind the hymns to the race and the nation and the forms of economical and political domination hidden behind the dignity of high Art. When Martha Rosler intertwined photographs of the War in Vietnam with ads for petty-bourgeois furniture and household, epitomizing American happiness, that photomontage was supposed to evince the reality of the imperialist war behind standardized individual happiness and the empire of the commodity behind the wars for the defence of the ‘free world’. In such a way the aesthetic break would be absorbed in the representational continuity. But there is no reason why the sensory strangeness produced by the clash of heterogeneous elements should bring about the understanding of the state of the world, no reason why the comprehension of the state of the world should bring about the decision to change it. There is no straight way from looking at a spectacle to understanding the state of the world, no straight way from intellectual awareness to political action. What occurs is much more the shift from a given sensory world to another sensory world which defines other capacities and incapacities, other forms of tolerance and intolerance. What works out are processes of dissociation: the break in a relation between sense and sense - between what is seen and what is thought, what is thought and what is felt. Such breaks can happen anywhere at any time. But they can never be calculated. That distance between the pretensions of critical art and its real forms of efficiency could hold so long as there were patterns of intelligibility and forms of mobilization strong enough to sustain the artistic procedures that were supposed to produce them. When those patterns or forms are eroded by the weakening of political action, the undecidability of the critical procedures appears in full light. It happens that the artists play on that very undecidability. The struggle against the ‘society of the spectacle’ and the practice of ‘détournement’ are still put on all the agendas and they are supposed to be implemented in standard forms such as: parodies of promotional films, reprocessed disco sounds, advertising icons or media stars modelled in wax figures, Disney animals turned to polymorphous perverts, montages of ‘vernacular’ photographs showing us standardized petty-bourgeois living-rooms, overloaded supermarket trolleys, standardized entertainment or refuse of consumerist civilisation, etc., etc. Those dispositifs keep occupying many of our galleries and museums with a rhetoric assuming that they make us discover the power of the commodity, the reign of the spectacle or the pornography of power. As nobody ignores anything on those topics, the mechanism ends up spinning on itself and capitalizing on that undecidability, as is shown by this piece, by Charles Ray, presented in an exhibition called Let’s Entertain in Minneapolis and Beyond the Spectacle in Paris, a piece entitled Revolution CounterRevolution, both because the mechanism of the merry-go-round is disjointed from the movement of the horses and because it evinces the double play of ‘critical art’, while still capitalizing on it. When the critical model comes to this self-neutralisation, other attempts at overcoming the aesthetic disconnection come to the fore. If the break cannot be anticipated, what is anticipated is its effect, the production of a new being-together. A lot of engaged contemporary works set out in that way to show itself in the space of exhibition as working outside the museum, in ‘real life’ and to produce the work as a visual equivalent of the being together produced by that way out. For instance, at the last Biennales of Havana and Sao Paulo, one could see the video-installation of the Cuban artist René Francisco. This artist had used a grant from an artistic foundation in order to make an inquiry in the poor suburbs of Havana. Then he had selected an old woman and decided, with some fellow artists, to refurbish their home. The final work shown in the biennale presented the viewer with a cloth screen printed with the image of the old woman, hung so that she appeared to be looking at
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the ‘real’ screen of the monitor, where a video showed the artists working as masons, plumbers, or painters. Other works make the artistic invention a metaphor of its own ‘extraartistic’ outcome. This is what happens ‘outside’ with artistic inventions such as Lucy Orta’s collective clothes that are used both as a ‘home’ and as a form of collective link, in order to forge ‘lasting connections between groups and individuals’. The same anticipation of the being together is documented ‘inside’ by the big mosaics or tapestries representing the multitude of anonyms that are among the favourites in many international exhibitions. Let us look for instance at that tapestry called ‘the people’ and made by the Chinese artist Bai Yiluo, out of one thousand and six hundred ID pictures sewn together. The tapestry aimed to evoke ‘the delicate threads which unite families and communities’. So the work presents itself as the anticipated reality of what it evokes. Art is supposed to ‘unite’ people in the same way as the artist sewed the photographs that he had first made as an employee in a studio. The photograph tends to be at the same time a sculpture which already makes present what it is about. The concept of metaphor, omnipresent in the rhetoric of the curators, tends to conceptualize that anticipated identity between the being together signified by the artistic proposition and its embodied reality. ‘Apart we are together’. There are two interpretations of the formula. On the one hand there is that anticipation of the being together of the community in the being apart of the work that I have just evoked. On the other hand, there are works that try to explore the very tension between the two terms, either by questioning the ways in which the community is tentatively produced or by exploring the potentials of community entailed in separation itself. On the first side, I am thinking here of Anri Sala’s work Dammi colori that used the powers of video to question an attempt to use art directly in order to frame a certain sense of community. The work deals with the initiative of a ‘political artist’, the Mayor of Tirana, an artist himself who implemented a project that is much reminiscent of the Schillerian ‘aesthetic education of Man’ since he decided to have the facades of the houses in his town repainted in bright colours in order to bring about a new sense of aesthetic community among the citizens. The movements of the camera of Anri Sala confront the discourse of the ‘political artist’ with both the shabby aspect of the muddy street or the apparently unconcerned circulation of the inhabitants and the abstractedness of the patches of colours on the walls. This means that the resources of ‘distant’ art are used in order to question a given politics of art, which is a direct attempt to fuse art and life in one single process.

Pedro Costa Vanda's Room 2001 (still), reproduced by kind permission of the artist.

On the other side, I am thinking of the work of the Portuguese film-maker Pedro Costa who dedicated three films to the life of a group of young underdogs, poised between drugs
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and little business, in a poor suburb of Lisbon. I would examine here a fragment of the second film of the trilogy Vanda’s Room that shows his characters as they are preparing to leave the shanty town that the Caterpillars are slowly tearing down. While relational artists are concerned with inventing some real or fancy monument or create unexpected situations in order to provoke new social relationships in the poor suburbs, Pedro Costa paradoxically focuses on the possibilities of life and art specific to that situation of misery: from the strange coloured architectures that result from the degradation of the houses and from demolition itself to the effort made by the inhabitants to recover a voice and a capacity of telling their own story, amidst the effects of drugs and despair. I would like us to focus on a little extract that shows three squatters preparing their move. One of the squatters is scratching the stains on the table with his knife; his fellows get nervous and tell him to stop because they will not take the table with them anyway. But he goes on because he cannot stand dirtiness. Perhaps the complicity between the aesthetic sense of the film maker that does not hesitate to exploit all the ‘beauty’ available in the shanty town and the aesthetic sense of the poor addict gets more to the heart of the question than the project of the mayor. By setting aside the ‘explanations’ of the economical and social reasons of the existence of the shanty town and of its destruction the film sets forth what is specifically political: the confrontation between the power and the impotence of a body, the confrontation between a life and its possibilities. But this way of addressing the ‘truly political’ does not for all that sidestep the incalculable tension between political dissensuality and aesthetic indifference. It does not sidestep the fact that a film remains a film and a spectator, a spectator. The wretched addict keeps cleaning a table that never was his table and will soon be smashed by the Caterpillars. The film maker pays homage to his aesthetic sense as he makes a beautiful still-life like shot out of the arrangement of the table. He makes a film while being aware that it is only a film that will be scarcely shown and the effects of which in the theatres and outside the theatres are fairly unpredictable. Film, Video art, photography, installation, etc. rework the frame of our perceptions and the dynamism of our affects. As such they may open new passages toward new forms of political subjectivization. But none of them can avoid the aesthetic cut that separates the outcomes from the intentions and forbids any straight way toward an ‘other side’ of the words and the images. My inquiry in the constitution of the aesthetic regime of art has often been suspected of proposing a return to the fairy times and fairy tales of aesthetic utopias and aesthetic community, which either have brought about the big disasters of the 20th century or, at least, are out of steps with the artistic practices and the political issues of the 21st century. I tried to suggest that, on the contrary, this inquiry points to the tensions and contradictions which at once sustain the dynamic of artistic creation and aesthetic efficiency and prevent it from ever fusing in one and the same community of sense. The archaeology of the aesthetic regime of art is not a matter of romantic nostalgia. Instead I think that it can help us to set up in a more accurate way the issue of what art can be and can do today. Jacques Rancière June 2006
1

The following text is an edited transcript of a plenary lecture delivered on 20 June 2006 to the symposium, Aesthetics and Politics: With

and Around Jacques Rancière co-organised by Sophie Berrebi and Marie-Aude Baronian at the University of Amsterdam on 20-21 June 2006.
2

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1991), pp. 166-7. [My translation.]

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3 4

http://www.evensfoundation.be/downloads/CAMPEMENTURBAIN(anglais).pdf Gabriel Gauny, ‘Le travail à la tâche’, Le Tocsin des Travailleurs (Juin 1848) in Gabriel Gauny, Le Philosophe plébéien, textes choisis et présentés par Jacques Rancière (Paris: La Découverte/Presses Universitaires de Vincennes, 1983), 91. As cited in Jacques Rancière, The Nights of Labour, translated by John Drury (1989: Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), p. 81.
5

La Tentation de saint Antoine, Paris, 1924,p. 418.

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Behind Police Lines: Art Visible and Invisible Stephen Wright

Production of street signs by the Grupo de Arte Callejero for an "escrache" denouncing the "flights of death" carried out by the Argentinian dictatorship between 1976-83. Buenos Aires, 2003. Courtesy the author.

I am not a specialist on the work of Jacques Rancière. But his writings, and in particular his insistence on how excess rudely intrudes into otherwise ontologically and politically stable orders, allowing what was previously invisible or unheeded to suddenly emerge, have – more than those of any other contemporary philosopher – accompanied me as an art critic in trying to make sense of recent shifts in the symbolic configurations and activities that can be described as art. Jacques Rancière as the philosopher of the rude holds immense appeal for me. However, I tend to make a less dramatic – even far less dramatic – distinction between the sensorium of artistic production and the sensorium of other realms of creative action than does Rancière. Actually, Rancière’s thought has – rightly or wrongly – led me to breaking with the order of art per se (which is also an order, with its own police, though we are sometimes loathe to acknowledge that) in favour of a broader and at once more extensive and intensive conception of creativity, of which artistic creativity is merely one vector. To my knowledge, Rancière doesn’t offer a definition of ‘creativity’ per se. But it is clear that, to his mind, creativity must be closely bound up with dissensus: creative activity (or the production of creativity) is dissensual activity (or the production of dissensus). Thus I have deduced what I believe to be the Rancièrian definition of creativity: the raising of wrongly posed questions; questions which are paradoxically, absurdly or even scandalously wrongly posed. In Aux bords du politique, discussing the efforts of France’s early feminists to rip apart the seamless
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identification of man and citizen in the definition of political universality that allowed no place for women, he writes this:
[In] nineteenth century France, workers were able to build their strikes in the form of a question: do French workers belong to that group known as the French, which the Constitution declares to be equal before the law? … The first French feminists raised the question in still more paradoxical terms: ‘is a French woman a French person?’ (Une Française est-elle un Français?) The formulation may seem absurd or scandalous. But ‘absurd’ sentences of this kind can be far more productive, in the process of equality, than the mere assertion that workers are workers and women are women. They make it possible not only to reveal a logical breach which itself unveils the workings of social inequality. They also make it possible to articulate this breach as a relation, to transform the logical non-place into a place of polemical demonstration.1

In other words, if the questions were well posed – that is, in keeping with the decorum and precepts of the established epistemological and social order – they would elicit a response, more or less interesting, but one which could not fail to be logically compatible with that order, and thus submissive to it. They would not, and could not, produce creativity or dissensus.

Street signs and maps produced by the Grupo de Arte Callejero for the “escrache” of Luis Juan Donocik, unpunished dictatorship perpetrator, Buenos Aires, December 2003. Courtesy the author.

I begin with this reflection on creativity, both because I want to dedramatise the conventional sundering of art-specific creativity from more diffuse forms of creativity, and to foreground the extent to which creativity is the very essence of the political as Rancière understands it. I am entirely sympathetic to what I construe as Rancière’s vision of creativity, though I am more reticent about his celebration of that sort of channelled and domesticated creativity known as art. Whereas Rancière’s political writings provide conceptual tools to rethink art – and I am thinking here above all that of the ‘police’ which embodies and upholds consensus and defines the partition lines of the sensible – his aesthetic and art-critical writings paradoxically seem to reinforce a conventional partitioning and conception of art. By this I mean that for him it appears almost self-evident that in order to make visible the invisible (that is, to bust up consensus, shift the partition lines of the sensible) art must in and of itself enjoy the highest coefficient of artistic visibility possible; it must be not merely visible, but be visible as art per se. While sharing Rancière’s concerns and conceptual groundwork, my hypothesis is just the opposite: in order to effectively
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shake up the redistribution of the places and functions – that is, the parts and lack of parts of all parties involved – art must forego its coefficient of artistic visibility. If art is to recover something of the disruptive capacity that Rancière attributes to it, art must accept to no longer appear as such. The question then is: to what extent can Rancière's political aesthetics accommodate invisible art – a far more and ever increasingly widespread phenomenon than the art critic Rancière appears prepared to acknowledge?

Street signs and maps produced by the Grupo de Arte Callejero for the “escrache” of Luis Juan Donocik, unpunished dictatorship perpetrator, Buenos Aires, December 2003. Courtesy the author.

Let me back up a little now, to the very starting point of Jacques Rancière’s inspiring lecture last night. He began, you will recall, with three ‘propositions’ of community, of being-together. I would like to propose one of my own, in the form of a quote: ‘We were friends and we didn’t know it,’ wrote Maurice Blanchot of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. What a strange idea – a friendship that remained invisible to itself. After all, if anything should be self-aware, surely it is that form of interpersonal solidarity based on elective affinity known as friendship. We know, roughly speaking, when friendship begins, and it is one of the rituals of friendship to recall the circumstances of its beginnings. We know too, often with painful precision, when friendship ends, and we may find ourselves looking back alone at what caused the rupture. But an unselfconscious friendship seems to imply that there can be disparate regimes of sensibility that prevent us from perceiving modes of beingtogether in which we are nevertheless actively involved. If this is the case, we can see Blanchot’s remark less as a mildly perplexing paradox than as a profoundly political insight. For politics, like art, is about perturbing stable regimes of perceptibility, making visible bodies which, though always there, went somehow unnoticed, making audible and legible as music what was previously written off as mere noise. Reality, in other words, doesn’t just show up on our radar screens because it is there; like desire, it has to be composed. And that composition is a political act. What determines which bodies and aggregates of bodies are visible or invisible in the perceptible order of things? What assigns them their coefficient of visibility is what Jacques Rancière broadly refers to as the ‘police’. Not the police in the crassest sense, understood as the bludgeon-wielding wardens of the law; but the police in the broadest sense – in other words, the often invisible set of institutions that ensure the prescription and regulation of the existent arrangement of what is not only
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legitimate, but literally perceptible. As Rancière put it in his now classic though still provocative definition:
The police is, in its essence, the law which, though generally implicit, defines the part or lack of part of the parties involved. But to define that, one must first define the configuration of the sensible in which the various parties are inscribed. The police is thus above all a bodily order that defines the partition between means of doing, means of being and means of saying, which means that certain bodies are assigned, by their very name, to such and such a place, such and such a task; it is an order of the visible and the sayable, which determines that some activities are visible and that some are not, that some speech is heard as discourse while others are heard as noise.2

As political struggle – in which art may of course play a role – forces changes in the distribution of the sensible, social arrangements, discourses and groups emerge from and recede into the darkness monitored by the police. Rancière’s analysis clearly pertains to art; but it also and more generally applies to a line of partition between practices that are admitted and those that are discredited, between what must be said and what cannot be said and by whom, between socially mandatory and forbidden speech and action. To take but one example on the shores of Europe: it is only recently, after sustained political struggle that Kurds have come to be acknowledged as existing in the eyes of the Turkish state. Though of course their collective existence is by no means a recent phenomenon, their emergence as a collective entity has only come about through a decisive shift in the dominant regime of sensibility – a shift in the police lines, so to speak, which means that today Kurdish videomaker Sener Ozmen’s works can be shown in Istanbul in their original version with Turkish subtitles.3

Street signs and maps produced by the Grupo de Arte Callejero for the “escrache” of Luis Juan Donocik, unpunished dictatorship perpetrator, Buenos Aires, December 2003. Courtesy the author.

Seen in this positive light, art is political not because of its subject matter but because it secretes the sort of dissensus-engendering – or consensus-corroding – sensibility that brings previously invisible or scarcely visible bodies into focus. One way artists do this is by enlarging their artistic material to including human interrelations, bringing other people’s subjectivities – often subordinated subjectivities – into the artistic equation. This is unquestionably the major impetus behind so-called ‘relational aesthetics’. Yet, because of the single-signature structure of artworks (which are almost invariably signed by the artist alone), those who
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collaborate in their production, contributing their own creativity to the common end, are somehow condemned to disappear – or, paradoxically, to re-disappear, if the work succeeds in drawing attention to their perceptibilty to start with. This is one of the greatest pitfalls of relational aesthetics, and indeed one of the most irksome political paradoxes of art today. Inasmuch as it repatriates this anonymous creativity into the folds of the artworld, the work of Urban Encampment – mentioned yesterday evening by Jacques Rancière – merely reproduces the predatory logic of the artworld, and is closer to a colonisation of the real than to fissuring it open.4

Street signs and maps produced by the Grupo de Arte Callejero for the “escrache” of Luis Juan Donocik, unpunished dictatorship perpetrator, Buenos Aires, December 2003. Courtesy the author.

Art obviously enjoys a place of pride in Rancière’s system. But it appears paradoxical that whereas other bodies and phenomena are seen to produce dissensus by cropping up where they are not supposed to, where they are not allowed to, by intruding into policed fictions, barging into spaces and times where there is no space nor any time for them, art is somehow supposed to remain in its place. Unlike everything else, art is political when it does what it is supposed to: being produced and exhibited within the performative framework of the artworld. But how is aesthetic rupture, and the efficacy of disconnection, to take place without breaking with artworldly consensus? Yet Rancière is explicitly wary of art seeking to sunder from itself. ‘Politics and art refer to one another as two forms of fiction, working on the same material. A certain will to get outside or to join up with the real thus ultimately tends to identify the politics of art to its opposite, that is, consensual ethics.’5 On this one, crucial point, the conclusion I draw from Rancière’s work is at odds with his own. I suspect that one reason for the artworld’s warm embrace of Rancière’s aesthetic theory is that it tells the artworld what it wants to hear about itself; it reinforces the glowing stereotype that the artworld fancies for itself – that is, as an inherently political and almost subversive place, whatever sort of predictable and conventional buffoonery it actually engages in. For in fact, the artworld is a very policed world, though one which has a paradoxical proclivity for not looking at itself, and its implicit conditions of possibility, with any sort of hard-headed lucidity. For instance, and for the dominant mindset, it goes almost without saying that for art to take place at all, it must be visible; indeed, it should enjoy the highest coefficient of artistic visibility possible. In art, being is not only being perceived, but being
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perceived as such. So self-evident does this appear, that it scarcely seems to bear mention, for in the absence of the framing devices separating art from mere real things, objects and activities of whatever description obstinately refuse to change their perceptual and indeed ontological status to become art. The past decade, however, has witnessed the emergence of an increasing number of practices, which, though informed by artistic competence and intention, have such a low coefficient of artistic visibility as to be imperceptible as art. We see something, but not as art. What, then, are the determinant framing devices that dictate the conditions under which art appears in the world – at least under current conventions? Three normative assumptions form a sort of implicit compact: that art necessarily and almost naturally manifests itself in the world in the form of an artwork; that art takes place through the intermediary of an artist, whose bodily presence and creative authority – upheld by the signature – guarantee the artistic authenticity of the proposition, underwritten by authorship; that art takes place before homogenised aggregates of visual consumers that make up the institution of spectatorship. Questioning the places and non places of art thus involves at the same time raising the question as to who is authorised to do art. Who, in other words, is invested with the authority required to insure the acquiescence of the spectator? For ultimately, if the spectator fails to adhere to the artistic nature of the proposition, validating its quest for recognition (‘this is art’) through the voluntary suspension of disbelief, art cannot take place at all.

Street signs and maps produced by the Grupo de Arte Callejero for the “escrache” of Luis Juan Donocik, unpunished dictatorship perpetrator, Buenos Aires, December 2003. Courtesy the author.

Fortunately, a growing number of artists and artists collectives are questioning the need for art to conform to these normative constraints: in the place of the sacrosanct artwork, some are favouring an art which remains open and process-based, showing scant concern for the usual criteria of showing and disseminating, refusing to subordinate process to any extrinsic finished product; others (often the same), challenging the artist’s authority, have come to advocate co-authorship, broadening responsibility for the creative process to all those taking part; still others (invariably the same), instead of contributing to an art whose legitimacy relies on recognition by the spectator, refuse this conventional division of visual labour (whereby subjet1
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produces an object for delectation, consumption or bracing reception by subjet2), preferring interventions, which, though not exempt from the exigencies of the public sphere, have only a negligible coefficient of art-specific visibility. Such practices undermine positions of authority and diminish the remit historically attributed to those experts of expression, generally referred to as artists. Envisaging an art without artwork, without authorship and without spectatorship has an immediate consequence: art ceases to be visible as such. For practices whose self-understanding stems from the visual arts tradition – not to mention for the normative institutions governing it – the problem cannot just be overlooked: if it is not visible, art eludes all control, prescription and regulation – in short, all ‘police’. In a Foucauldian perspective, one might argue that the key issue in policing art is the question of visibility.

Street signs and maps produced by the Grupo de Arte Callejero for the “escrache” of Luis Juan Donocik, unpunished dictatorship perpetrator, Buenos Aires, December 2003. Courtesy the author.

Of course, Rancière nowhere refers to the ‘art police’. Indeed, so silent is he on the point that one suspects that the very notion is antinomical to his thinking. At any rate, it remains to be understood why art consistently enjoys a status of exception both in Rancière’s writing and in the general symbolic order – rather than being the very image of that order. As he writes:
The essence of the police is to be a partition of the sensible characterised by the absence of emptiness and supplementarity: society consists of groups devoted to specific modes of doing, of places where these occupations can be performed, of modes of being corresponding to these occupations and these places. In this adequation of functions, places and ways of being, there is no place for any void. It is this exclusion of the ‘there isn’t any’ which is the policing principle at the very core of state-sanctioned practice.6

The art police acts tacitly, its hidden injunctions only becoming truly perceptible with the benefit of hindsight, when the shape of an era or movement slowly comes into focus. For, as I see it, Rancière’s analysis applies as much to art as it does to the partition of the real between places and non places of knowledge, visibility and legitimacy, and enables us to better see how actions and words are distributed in keeping with a line that has been defined a priori. And it may well be for this reason that ever more artists today are quitting the artworld, sacrificing their coefficient of artistic visibility in favour of a more
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corrosively dissensus-engendering capacity in the dominant semiotic order. For to see something as art according to the dominant performative paradigm of the contemporary artworld, is to acknowledge something terribly debilitating: that it is just art – not the dangerous, litigious, real thing. It is not my intent to deny that art can, on occasion, do what Rancière claims it can: for the artworld élite that likes that sort of thing, the concentrated, composed and self-reflective works one finds in museums have a disruptive value that is far from negligible. But deliberately circumscribing it within the policed structure of the artworld is to ensure that our relationship to art remains one of constantly renewed, constantly dashed hopes. Art has a long history throughout the twentieth century of seeking to do away with itself, at once realising and abolishing itself. However, this is not the impetus of what some people are now referring to as ‘stealth art’ or ‘spy art’ practices today, whose coefficient of artistic visibility is so deliberately impaired as to render the work well nigh invisible. In seeking to pry out that void from the core of fullness, which Rancière contends is the very dynamic of the political, they seek a coefficient of efficiency, beyond the reaches of those art practices that appear under the unambiguous banner of art. Quite frankly, if art framed as art really had anything like the disruptive capacity Rancière generously ascribes to it, we would have noticed it by now. At any event, an increasing number of artists have apparently grown disenchanted with the sort of invisible parentheses around art, bracketing it off from a more inclusive sensorium of experience. These artists have broken with a paradigm that Rancière seems not to question, or perhaps even to notice: that art need not necessarily appear in the world in terms of its specific ends (artworks) but in terms of its specific means (its tools). Or to use a distinction from Chomskian linguistics, which I find useful, rather than appearing as performance art can exist as competence. What happens when artists use their reflexive competence to inform symbolic activities and configurations without laying claim to it as art? If they do it in collaboration with scientists – as is the case of the Critical Art Ensemble, for instance – they may enhance the visibility of the police lines around the production of scientific knowledge, revealing science to itself as a capital-intense culture of experts – bringing together technocrats, academics and investors – all of whom belong to a sort of epistemic community, sharing a common intellectual and above all axiological and ideological background. Or if they do it in collaboration with social movements, they enhance the visibility – and thus the creative, dissensual capacity – of those intrusive bodies, as they endeavour to eek out a space for themselves. Let me conclude with a single example, which I find emblematic, for it also suggests to my mind that art is increasingly moving toward its own ‘invisibilisation’ in its quest to elude the police, artistic and otherwise. The Grupo de Arte Callejero (GAC, or Street Art Group) is an Argentine artist collective, whose coefficient of artistic visibility is as low as its contribution to enhancing the visibility of popular movements in Argentina is significant. Founded in 1997 in Buenos Aires, it is currently made up of eight members, some of whom have formal artistic training, while others are graphic designers. The group works in situations of public participation, rather than art-referenced contexts, using its graphic-design and artrelated competencies to challenge the public consumption and foster the public production of signs. Over the past few years, the GAC has worked with the steering committee of the H.I.J.O.S. movement (‘Hijos’ is the Spanish word for sons and daughters, and was founded by the children of some of the 30,000 people those who were ‘disappeared’ by the military dictatorship), in organizing public actions with the
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objective of drawing attention to the ongoing presence in Buenos Aires’ residential neighbourhoods of those who, in one capacity or another, took part in the criminal activities of the military government. These actions, highly specific to the Argentine context, and developed by H.I.J.O.S. in 1995, are known as escraches. An escrache is a sort of collective performance, where the production of memory and knowledge is inseparable from the production of form. The point is not so much to demand that the perpetrators of the genocide and political repression – which were of course not carried out by a handful of officers and their henchmen but required an extensive network of profiteers from all walks of life – be brought to trial, nor certainly to lynch them in a further miscarriage of justice, but to shed light on the role they played and their ongoing impunity, in order to constitute a sort of social memory and a popular understanding at the neighbourhood level of how the dictatorship actually functioned, so as to prevent its re-emergence. To this end, the GAC has developed a full array of tools – street signs indicating the location of clandestine detention centres, city maps showing the addresses of the perpetrators of repression – that the group deploys itself and makes available to others. What I find artistically compelling is that the GAC has taken what might be described as the ‘tautological imperative’ that is the hallmark of conceptual art practice, and has wrested it from the sterile framework of the artworld, turning it outwards, unleashing it, so to speak, on the real. The GAC has chosen to inject artspecific competence into social processes as a tangible form of energy, while at the same time maintaining art as such in a state of objective absence. What they do is not art, yet without art it would not be possible to do it. This paradox underscores an ethical imperative: how could art adequately reconcile form and content to represent the absence of the 30,000 people assassinated by Argentina’s military regime some two decades ago, for it is not their presence which is absent, but their absence which is so devastatingly present. In such circumstances, and others too, art must have the good grace to respect that absence with its own.
1

Jacques Rancière, Aux bords du politique (Paris: La Fabrique éditions, 1998), pp. 86-7. My translation. 2 Jacques Rancière, La Mésentente (Paris: Galilée, 1995), p. 52. My translation. 3 The Meeting or bonjour Monsieur Courbet, in the exhibition The Uncanny/Unheimlich, curated by Ali Akay, Akbank Art Centre, September 15 ! October 23, 2005. (Curated as part of 9th International Istanbul Biennial).
4 5

http://www.campementurbain.org/ Jacques Rancière, ‘Some Paradoxes of Political Art,’ public lecture on Monday 21 November 2005at the Home Works III forum, 17-24 November Beirut. My translation. 6 Rancière, Aux bords du politique, op. cit., pp. 176-7.

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Nowhere is aesthetics contra ethics: Rancière the other side of Lyotard1 Jonathan Lahey Dronsfield
To assert the radical heterogeneity of sensory experience is, for Rancière, to transform art into ‘sheer ethical testimony’ in which ultimately ‘both politics and aesthetics vanish’.2 What Rancière calls ‘the new reign of ethics’, a reign he ascribes in the main, at least in the field of art, to the influence of the work of Jean-François Lyotard, confuses ‘political and aesthetic distinctions in the same indistinct point of view’.3 That point of view sees otherness to be ontologically primary. In Malaise dans l’esthétique Rancière has in mind principally the way in which Lyotard ontologises otherness by, on the one hand, inverting the logic of the Kantian sublime, such that the incapacity felt in the experience of the sublime is that of reason itself unable to master what for Lyotard is the sensible event of matter; and, on the other, ascribing to art the task of testifying to our subservience to the sensible thing.4 If for Kant the experience of the sublime in the sensible world introduces in a supersensible order our obedience to the law of the superior autonomy of legislating reason, for Lyotard it is the reverse, the mind’s subservience to the sensible is proof of our acquiescence to the law of alterity in which sensible experience is the experience of a debt, an ethical subservience, without escape, to the law of the other. Then is art possible under the category of the sublime so-construed? asks Rancière. Whereas Lyotard thinks that from the sublime issues the very task of art: to constitute a sensible world which testifies to the alienation brought about by our dependence on matter as such and its sheer power to disorientate the mind and make it suffer. According to this account, the sublime in Lyotard becomes a principle both of the ethical law of heteronomy and, in contradistinction to Kant’s sublime, of artistic practice, of the practice of the artistic avant-garde. If the force of the immateriality of matter – by which Lyotard means a pure difference, one which, because it is not a function or property of specific material features but of matter as such, and because it is not able to be determined by a concept, is in a way invisible and thus unpresentable – is to be harnessed to its fullest extent then it must happen without recourse to specific means of presentation, indeed without recourse to any content whatsoever. Hence Lyotard’s dismissal as mere eclecticism art which brings together within the bounds of a single frame both the conceptual and the representational, the abstract and the figurative. Curatorial or artistic practices setting out to combine such ‘opposites’ without heed to their ontological difference could only be seeking to bring about a new taste catering to the
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market, in the process de-responsibilising the artist from testifying to the unpresentable that materiality is. But what determines when a taste is not a taste? asks Rancière. In this case simply that it should not be. Lyotard’s is nothing but the conflation of the radical autonomy of art with the promise of political emancipation, founded on the experience of a particular sensorium, what Rancière calls the primitive scene of a certain Marxian conception of art’s modernity shared also by Adorno and Greenberg. As with these other thinkers Lyotard defines art’s value by the radicality of its separation from politics, in that he sees the political potential of art to consist in its being the one place where the purity of a break, a rupture, a revolution can be vouchsafed. But Rancière counters this reification and protection of the notion of revolution with the claim that an aesthetic revolution has already happened, such that the disaccord between matter and that to which it is opposed, between the sensible and thought, between imagination and the understanding, is a rupture always already at the heart of aesthetic experience, including that of the beautiful, and not just in the experience of the sublime, that any agreement between form and matter, between the understanding and the imagination, is already a disagreement, that consensus is already a shared dissensus, that art is always a movement of these contrary forces, to the extent that the aesthetic state is always a neither/nor in which these distinctions are annulled in their oppositionality. Why? Because the autonomous sphere of the aesthetic, Lyotard’s condition of possibility of the experience of pure materiality, is for Rancière heteronomously constituted. What defines the aesthetic, for Rancière, is that everything is material, everything and not just materiality. What Rancière calls the ‘aesthetic revolution’ is ‘the idea that everything is material for art, so that art is no longer governed by its subject, by what it speaks of: art can show and speak of everything in the same manner’.5 It looks as though Rancière is not opposing Lyotard by calling for the reinsertion of a lost or missing or suppressed content or by appealing to a unjustly neglected subject, it is that he disclaims the idea that materiality is restricted to matter, or that matter be defined in terms of its physical properties. And he does so by showing how art is always the redistribution of matter whatever it talks about or however it presents itself. If the aesthetic revolution is first of all, according to Rancière, ‘the honour acquired by the commonplace’, it is in virtue not of what the commonplace says or is, but because what is commonplace is as much material for art as is anything else. Rancière draws our attention to the emergence of the aesthetic, the way in which the specific sphere of aesthetic experience emerged, paradoxically, when the boundary separating art’s objects from those of other realms of experience was blurred, making art’s objects available to everyone equally, what Rancière calls, following Schiller, an ‘equality of indifference’, but in such a way that the forms of domination holding sway prior to the aesthetic revolution, for example the hierarchies of form over matter, of understanding over sensibility, are dissolved. The specific kind of experience which is the aesthetic, then, has always presupposed a collective life where the usual hierarchies which frame everyday life are withdrawn, the hierarchies of subject matters and genres and forms of expression, along with distinctions such as high and low, with the consequence that there is no longer any principle of distinction
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between what belongs to art and what does not. Any profane object can enter the frame of aesthetic experience, and any artistic production can become part of the framing of collective life. There is thus a paradox at the very foundation of an aesthetic regime, namely that art defines itself by its identity with non-art. And the idea of an autonomous realm of aesthetic experience therefore has at its centre a heterogeneity that is the material it draws from life. Autonomous art has at its centre a heterogeneous sensible. 6 Lyotard’s modernist paradigm of the autonomy of the aesthetic sphere is but one side of this tension at the heart of the idea of such a sphere, a tension, a contradiction, a solidarity between autonomy and heteronomy. Lyotard separates art’s autonomy from its constitutive heteronomy, he separates art’s separateness from its non-separateness. The equality of all subject matter in the aesthetic leads to the negation of any necessary relation between a determined form and a determined content, between subject matter and content.7 We might say it is the separation of the two. This break in the causal chain between art and affect, art and audience, between material form and political effect, is where I would locate the event of art in Rancière’s work.8 To draw a specific kind of material from social life, to separate that material from the life from which it is drawn in order then to address it to that life, for example in the form of the content of, or feelings about, or stances taken on social issues or political events, does not make art political. And nor is art political owing to the way in which it might represent existing social structures or identities or alternatives to these. ‘As a matter of fact’ says Rancière, ‘political art cannot work in the simple form of a meaningful spectacle that would lead to an “awareness” of the state of the world’.9 On the contrary, art is political to the extent that it is able to distance itself, separate itself from such functions through the use of the materials it draws from the social, art is emancipating only when it renounces the political message and the manifest will towards emancipation.10 And yet, says Rancière, art can be political. The political act of art is ‘to save the heterogeneous sensible which is at the heart of the autonomy of art and… of its power of emancipation’ from the twofold threat of either its identification with everyday life (in which case there would be no art), or its transformation into a pure aesthetic (no politics).11 And the way it does this is not by keeping art’s separateness separate from its non-separateness, but by continually staging its relation of separateness and nonseparateness. Rancière sees political art to be a dialectic, a dialectic between the apolitical and the political, one which would ‘take up the tension between two poles’, these ‘two constitutive politics of aesthetics’, in such a way as to retain something of both, in a manner that reconfigures collective life yet withdraws aesthetic sensibility from other spheres of experience, a dialectic that would provoke political intelligibility yet retain sensory foreignness. He calls it a ‘collage of opposites’. It involves setting together specific forms of heterogeneity and, contrary to Lyotard’s dictum, borrowing elements from different spheres of experience and different arts and different techniques and montaging them,12 negotiating between ‘the readability of the message that threatens to destroy the sensible form of art and the radical uncanniness that threatens to destroy all political meaning’.13
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Now, here is the important point, and it’s where I find myself at odds with Rancière’s theory. In The Politics of Aesthetics Rancière states that political art produces a ‘double effect’: on the one hand a readable political signification, and on the other a sensible shock caused, conversely, by that which resists signification and indeed threatens to undermine it. This double effect is named also the ‘ideal effect’, its ideality consisting in how it holds open and makes visible opposites which, left to themselves, would destroy that to which they are opposed. But do we not have here what would amount to a revocation or a contradiction by Rancière? For no sooner does he in my view correctly expose as a prejudice Lyotard’s separation of pure sensation from its other, be that other representation, figuration or culture, a separation by decree of an autonomy which would be separate from the heteronomy which constitutes it, than Rancière himself decrees that political art is made ‘ideal’ by its inclusion of those things that Lyotard would want to exclude from it. Rancière appears to be reinforcing the other side of Lyotard’s false opposition between art which would signify a determinate meaning and one which would foreground its materiality at the expense of that. Political art achieves its ‘ideal effect’ only when it incorporates into its play a ‘readable political signification’. But why, if there exists no determinate link or causal relation between a determined form or content and its political affectivity? Why must an artwork, in order that it be read as political, visibly retain within it a ‘political signification’ at all? If there exists no causal link between any material arrangement and its political affectivity why cannot, for example, an ‘abstract’ painting with no ostensible, visible, readable political content not count as political? Rancière himself said in yesterday’s lecture that ‘What makes the aesthetic political is precisely what gets in the way of the politicisation of art’, and that there is no causal or determinate link between why understanding the state of the world should lead to a decision to change it. Then why call for any political signification, which we might say cannot but refer to ‘the state of the world’, as a requirement of political art practice at all? To be sure, Rancière’s politics of aesthetics gives new visibility to practices of art as political practices, what he calls a ‘meta-politics of the sensory community’. A metapolitics is a manner of doing politics other than how politics does politics, and the meta-politics of art is the establishment of a sensory community achieving, says Rancière, ‘what will always be missed by the merely political revolution’, namely freedom and equality brought together in forms of life, freedom and equality in accord with modes of speaking and being, new relationships between thought and the sensory world, between bodies and their environment, between bodies and the distribution of words.14 The emphasis here on speaking and on writing is important, for throughout Rancière’s work runs a discourse on the debt the heteronomously constituted autonomous aesthetic sphere owes to literature, and a discourse on how art practices are made possible by and emerge co-originally with ways of speaking and writing about art which reveal what would otherwise remain unseen within it. Visual artworks are always both of these, the visible and the sayable, the seen and the said, image and word, the visibility of what is sayable, what is sayable about the seen. And the two, and Rancière too insists on this, the visible and the sayable, need not be present in the work for both to be materially present. ‘A theoretical discourse is always simultaneously an aesthetic form.’15 An image may consist ‘wholly of words’.16 And
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by the same token words may consist wholly of paint, blocks of paint with no readable signification. Artists economise these two modes of aesthetic sensoriness on the boundary between, and at the point of the absence of boundary between, art and non-art, in such a way as to ask and yet not to allow the work to make sense, or at least not politically in the present moment. If art truly does invent its addressee, which Rancière following Deleuze who in turn follows Heidegger on this calls a ‘people to come’, a people that in no way can be circumscribed as a community that we today could in any way recognise – so why retain the word ‘community’? is one question I would put to the presentation Rancière made yesterday – if art truly does call for a ‘people to come’ then we can no more appeal to art’s ‘ideal’ effect than we can to its task being to bring about a political revolution in the present moment. Artworks distribute what is sensible in ways which differ from the social realm from which they draw their material, a sensibility at odds with the social and yet common to all. It is this distribution or partition of the sensible, as Rancière puts it, which makes of art the primary way in which we can intervene in the material world. Art can intervene because the materiality of artworks, a materiality drawn from ‘everywhere’, from the everywhere of what is common to all, is vested with a force or power foreign to that matter as it occurs in the world from which it is drawn and in which it will intervene. Part of the force of this insight is how it puts into question the ways in which we understand materiality. The materiality of artworks is no longer, if it ever was, what the modernists or Marxists define it as –in the hands of a Greenberg or a Lyotard such descriptions become prescriptive and amount to prejudice. Instead, what material is for art is yet to be decided, always yet to be decided. I take this to be part of the force of the appeal to a ‘people to come’, and why Rancière (using the same term as Lyotard) petitions for the ‘immateriality’ of the sensible in the form of the insensible of art which is the ‘thinking of the work’.17 Thus art will never intervene purely or simply materially. Rather, it will intervene as art. Art is a construct, a material arrangement of what can be apprehended and gathered not just by the senses but by words – where both are forms of the sensible of thought. Art is a regime of a sensible that has become foreign and exterior to itself,18 and through the word – which may not visibly be present – art makes this difference of the sensible to itself coincide with a difference of thought with respect to itself.19 And only when the sensible has become foreign to itself, and made coincident with a ‘power of thought outside of itself’, can the social or the political be thought. What Rancière calls the fictionalising of the real, its acting out social space, the place where beings are ‘as if’ together, will be a common place safeguarded as the space of art, where its material intervention – material in the form both of the work’s materials and the material of words – will begin as a displacement foreign from the matter to which it addresses itself all of the time and everywhere – including the matter of political discourse. In this way is art made visible as art, even if, or especially if, art seeks to erase itself as a distinct practice.20 The political partition which is everywhere visible is made apparent by the materiality of art which, foreign to itself, exceeds or falls short of or flees from the social matter
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from which it is drawn. The aesthetic distribution of the sensible is an interactive or participatory art or a writing or a painting in which a remainder is produced which cannot be utilised for any social function and which promises only the indefinite destruction of those principles of differentiation and hierarchisation by which we might wish to order art or politicise art or give it some sense in relation to political or social life. If art is about making the invisible appear it is not as if what is invisible is decided by what was already visible. And as visible it is aesthetical, not societal. Once society claims for itself the meaning or the making visible of what was hitherto invisible it is the imposition of a fixed interpretive grid or framework, an imposed visibility, a forcing to stay visible, in short something which is public. And therefore political. Against which, art can be ‘read’ as a ‘political inscription’ become visible only on condition that it be shifted and displaced and kept separate from the reciprocal social relations from which nonetheless it appears to be drawn, the only place from where it can be drawn, and in which it must stay and to which it must continue to address itself. In this way are artworks absolutely singular. And yet the aesthetic regime, one which welcomes any material whatsoever into the field of art, negates any pragmatic criterion for isolating this singularity: no criterial principle exists for differentiating the aesthetic sphere from what it is not. The artwork is its differentiation – and thus a question about its own finitude. And if art is always a question of its finitude, then it is an inquiry not just into its finitude but as much into where falls the world’s finitude from which art’s material is drawn. We have seen how art enacts a struggle between its separateness and nonseparateness, a struggle Rancière refers to as a dialectic between the apolitical and the political. But dialectics will always be able to take into account, that is appropriate, our rejection of it, and indeed our affirmation of it. It makes no difference whether we reject it or affirm it. But this does not amount to an indifference. The dialectic could not be what it is without being moved by difference. Artworks, on the other hand, are absolutely indifferent to our responses to them. This is in part what for Rancière makes of the aesthetic a new idea of thought, ‘the power of thought outside of itself’, a power of thought ‘in its opposite’: mute things; the presence of thought in things which do not think, thought disconnected from the will in which the will becomes unregulated,21 and emptied of anything other than pointing ‘forever to art’.22 This is not the will to create, still less the will to create ‘readable political significations’, it is the will to create the sensible of thought, a will manifest as much in saying as it is in showing. To say that at the heart of the aesthetic is the idea that the highest effort of the will is to identify itself with the highest point of its abdication, and to establish that identity in a work, is to say that a work is set forth for the will of another, a writer, an artist, a viewer. Hence a certain movement in art towards nothingness, silence, selfannihilation, invisibility, even theory – all of which modalities remain visible as art. Theory too can be put forward as an image, a work of visual art. The power of thought outside itself, the vesting of mute things with speech, the tendency towards silence and will-lessness, the theorising of art by artworks themselves, theory as art practice, is a language which tolerates every relation and no relation, and in this is art’s relation to the social always singular. Every relation because no two things are immune from being placed in common; no relation because art tolerates no symmetry
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of relation to that to which it addresses itself as separate in order to be related to it. Art will always remain indifferent to reactions to it or interactions with it or to significations of it, precisely in order that it intervene materially. In this respect art continually effaces itself, eludes our grasp, precisely at the moment when we have invested it with speech, for this speech is not reducible to signification, still less readable political signification. There can never be a work of art about which nothing could be said, in the silence or invisibility of which we somehow hear or glimpse the possibility of the unpresentable, or the materiality of which would resist everything to be said about it, reducing us to silence. But this is not the same thing as saying that art is political if and only if it brings with it a readable political signification. The truth is, we cannot with any surety or fixity say when and how a work of art is political – we have to work it out in the space of that work itself. In this is our experience of artworks always a singular, particular material organisation of the experience of nowhere. Not because artworks are nowhere, on the contrary, all artworks are experienced somewhere. It is not a nowhere in opposition to the places where art is shown or whence its viewers or participants come. It is the nowhere in each place of that sort. This sensible organisation of the experience of nowhere is not to use material as if what material is pre-exists the event of the artwork. What material is, both for the artist and the viewer, has to be worked out in the place of the artwork. And these workings out are made possible by the space afforded art by the very things it wishes to bring into question: the social institutions of art, the place where a commonality of experience is institutionalised and the concomitant discourses of art (which may well also be seeking to bring into question those very institutions). But in the place of the artwork does not mean temporally coextensive with our experience of it. Thus so-called ‘relational’ or ‘socially-engaged’ artworks, for example, which seek to take over the entire space of the presentation of art, including the time for critical reflection on it, are no less in need of a time outside of themselves in which to follow its questioning than are, for example the so-called sheer material or purely sensible things that abstract expressionist paintings are, works which claim for themselves pure ‘presence’ with no temporal duration at all. Such is the way that the space which is common, the space which allows everything into the realm of the aesthetic, can be the most uncommon space of all.

1

An earlier version of this paper was read to the Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy at the University of Leicester (February 2006), and after its presentation in Amsterdam it was given in revised form to the Graduate School of Creative Arts and Media, Dublin (March 2008). The version published here contains revisions made subsequent to the discussions following all three talks. 2 Jacques Rancière, ‘The politics of aesthetics’, http://theater.kein.org/node/99, p 6. 3 Jacques Rancière, ‘From politics to aesthetics?’, Paragraph, 28 (1), Summer 2005, p 23. 4 Jacques Rancière, Malaise dans l’esthétique (Paris: Galilée, 2004), in particular the chapter ‘Lyotard et l’ésthetique du sublime: une contre-lecture de Kant’, pp 119-141. See also ‘The sublime from Lyotard to Schiller: two readings of Kant and their political significance’, translated by Max Blechman, in Radical Philosophy, 126, July/August 2004, pp 8-15. 5 Jacques Rancière, ‘Politics & aesthetics: an interview’, with Peter Hallward, translated by Forbes Morlock, in Angelaki, 8 (2), August 2003, p 205. 6 Jacques Rancière, ‘The autonomy of art, in the aesthetic regime, is heteronomy as well.’ ‘The thinking of dissensus: politics and aesthetics’, Goldsmiths College, London, Sept 2003, http://homepages.gold.ac.uk/psrpsq/ranciere.doc, p 10; ‘The autonomy is its heteronomy as well.’ ‘The
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politics of aesthetics’, op cit, p 3; ‘Autonomy itself is still the other side of heteronomy.’ ‘From politics to aesthetics?’, op cit, p 20. 7 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (2000), translated by Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004), p 14. 8 Jacques Rancière, ‘Art of the Possible’, in conversation with Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey, Artforum, March 2007, p 259. 9 The Politics of Aesthetics, op cit, p 63. 10 ‘Art of the possible’, op cit, p 258. 11 ‘The politics of aesthetics’, op cit. 12 Ibid. 13 The Politics of Aesthetics, op cit, p 63. 14 ‘The thinking of dissensus’, op cit, p 7. 15 The Politics of Aesthetics, op cit, p 65. 16 Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image (2003), translated by Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2007), p 7 (my emphasis). 17 Jacques Rancière, ‘What aesthetics can mean’, in Peter Osborne (ed), From An Aesthetic Point of View (London: Serpentine Books, 2000), pp 25 and 19. 18 Jacques Rancière, ‘Literature, politics, aesthetics: approaches to democratic disagreement’, interview with Solange Guénoun and James H Kavanagh, SubStance 92, 2000, p 12. 19 ‘What aesthetics can mean’, op cit, p 16. 20 ‘… contemporary art is, quintessentially, art defined by the erasure of medium specificity, indeed by the erasure of the visibility of art as a distinct practice.’ ‘Art of the possible’, op cit, p 257. 21 ‘Literature, politics, aesthetics’, op cit, p 22. 22 ‘What aesthetics can mean’, op cit, p 31.

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An Exchange with Jacques Rancière
What follows is an edited transcript of a recording made during the question and answer session which followed Panel 3: Contemporary Art, Ethics and the Aesthetic Regime (16.00-18.00 Wednesday 21 June 2006) of the conference Aesthetics and Politics: With and Around Jacques Rancière (Universiteit van Amsterdam, 20 and 21 June 2006). The panel was chaired by Sophie Berribi and records an exchange between Stephen Wright, Jonathan Dronsfield and Jacques Rancière. Sophie Berrebi: I thought that your papers were having an interesting discussion with each other. Stephen, you have a very radical position suggesting a naïvity in a certain part of the art world in exploring the relations between aesthetics and politics. Stephen Wright: Well, overall in listening to the presentations with all their wealth of speculative depth, what I don’t get is what kind of art you must have been seeing [Laughter]. I mean I try to see as much as I can but this sort of ecstatic experience of art leaves me dumbfounded.... When I meet art lovers, and philosophers are invariably art lovers, or at least extraordinarily indulgent toward it, I often encounter these overblown claims about art, which moreover generally go unchallenged. About a month ago I went to see the Whitney Biennial. It was comprised of some 80 installations, none of which had, in my opinion, any arthistorical interest whatsoever; the only thing I saw which was interesting was peripheral to the entire exhibition and was not an installation but merely a kind of documentary video presentation about a group called Deep Dish TV, which attempted to draw attention, in an extremely hostile context, to image-making around the latest imperial adventure in Iraq: who makes images? How are they distributed? How are they policed? And I find it extraordinary, for example in Jonathan’s paper, that such an ecstatic or even epiphanic understanding of art is possible without mentioning any specific artworks - the word ‘Art’ is like some guy’s name whom we’re all supposed to know. I have a hard time with that kind of an approach. It’s not that I attempt to maintain axiological neutrality towards artistic production while analysing it but I think that it does behove us to try and have some sort of informed distance, not to fall into the trap – which you very nicely analyse at the beginning of your paper – of succumbing to a naïve cynicism. How is this ‘profane epiphany’, as you nicely put it, to come about if the symbolic economy of the art world is merely mimetic of the symbolic economy outside of it? By and large art does not produce the heterogeneity you ascribe to it; it produces extreme homogeneity. Art exists within a very policed world as I tried to say, though there’s no reason to believe that many artists haven’t noticed that; indeed many are attempting to break out and get behind those police lines – with the sacrifice of their artistic visibility, and, of course, thereby of their index in the reputational economy – in an attempt to defy this construction of power around which Jacques Rancière has united us.
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Jonathan Dronsfield: Your point about my not using examples is well taken, but I think it touches on something I was trying to get at. One of the things I think we can be thankful for with respect to Rancière’s work is the way in which he questions the classical order of dependence between theory and practice, and shows how theories emerge from practice. And part of what practice is is as much its institutionalization and the establishing of a space for the aesthetic experience of artworks as it is a practice of making art objects. But having done that and then to speak of the ‘task’ of art, for me falls back into the very trap or problem from which you [JR] lead us out. It’s preposterous to tell artists what to do. And this way of speaking is something I think that you Stephen also fall into. I think you rightly pinpoint something in Rancière about this question of visibility and invisibility. But then to draw from that the conclusion that art must become invisible, if we start telling artists again what to do, having drawn out the question of the relation of the order of dependency between art practice and theory, philosophy and art, having done that and then from that point of departure to tell artists what to do, I think is just to step backwards into the very area Rancière has taken us from. Now why that touches on your question as to why I didn’t use examples is because I think philosophy of art does two things. It emerges from art practice, including art’s practice of setting up and institutionalising spaces where something can be experienced as art or where the distinction between art and life can be called into question - these are no less institutional spaces as far as I’m concerned. It can do that but only by at the same time taking a necessary distance from those artworks precisely in speaking about them; the struggle for its own legitimacy and recognition can lead philosophy into theorising about art by departing from using examples, and it can be seen as a necessary departure. But this is not the same thing as a theory which denies or does not recognise whence it emerges, or claims for itself an autonomy from art practice or an authority or meta status over it. This distinction is something that can be performed in the writing itself, which in my view my paper tries to do, even though it doesn’t give examples of art, or not explicitly. I think that’s allowable. And there is one more important consideration: artworks are sometimes theory, where the only ‘example’ of the work or practice being theorised about is itself: to this extent art too can theorise without examples. And theory can theorise about itself as art practice. SW: I would admit that there is a sympathy in my work for these stealth-art practices, as well as a theory-driven desire to accompany them, but I think my reflection is largely descriptive in fact… JD: ‘Art must accept to no longer appear as such’…. Where does this must come from? [Laughter] And equally, forgive me, Jacques, if I may call you Jacques, you speak of the task of art, there is that moment when you start speaking of ‘the must’, the task of art, that’s where this so called ‘readable political signification’ comes in: ‘If art is to be political, if it is to maintain its tension between the autonomy and the heteronomy of art which is constitutive of all art and always has been in the aesthetic regime, it must give us some readable political signification.’ Where does this must come from? What is it that leads a philosopher who questions the order of dependency between philosophy and art then to invoke a ‘must’ where artists are told that if their art is to be political it must bring out or give us a ‘readable political signification’? Jacques Rancière: Well, as I am interpellated, maybe I can give an answer. Where does that must come from? I think in my text it is very clear, you know. It is not from my idea of art. Where does that must come? It comes from the presuppositions of the strategy of art I am An Exchange with Jacques Rancière 2
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undermining. It comes from the pre-suppositions of the strategic view of art.... It is not my commandment. I never say ‘art must do this’. I mean in this context, in the context of, precisely what you point out, the separation between the law of aesthetic experience and the law of artistic production, in that context, if art wants precisely to build strategies for plugging the gap, it has to do, it must do this. It is an hypothetical and not a categorical imperative. JD: But that implies there is something to which the ‘must’ addresses itself which pre-exists the event of the artwork, and this is where it touches upon Stephen’s question to me. Whereas I think art throws into question those things it addresses itself to. So take for example ‘the social world’. It’s not as if the ‘social world’ is a given, it’s not as if we know or agree what ‘the social world’ is prior to the way in which art can show us something otherwise not seen about the social world, the invisible of the social world, and this might make us hesitate to speak of the social world prior to the event of the artwork which nonetheless seeks to address itself to the social world. A ‘political signification’ might be given by a work which is not yet readable, for whom those who can see it politically, including philosophers, are yet to come. JR: Well but, once more, in both texts I was examining strategies of political art - strategy that is immanent, and immanence is a practice itself - that anticipate a certain idea of how art addresses a social world. Once more, it is not my imperative. When you quote about the ‘ideal effect’, the ideal effect in my text was an ironic term. In this view of the aims and means of art, this is the ideal effect, but what I try to show is that that ideal effect is a conjunction of effects which precisely cannot stick together: an effect of estrangement, an effect of knowledge and an effect of mobilization; I tried yesterday to make the same point, maybe it was not clear in the book, I hope it was clearer in my presentation, maybe I’m wrong, you know, but basically I’m not a person who likes to say what has to be done. Not at all. This would be my answer on this point. And what you say precisely about negotiating separateness and unseparateness, in my view, gives an answer to Stephen’s way of building the opposition… Once more, you Stephen, say I’m in a certain way endorsing the official view of art as subversive, and you know, giving the kind of credibility to what you call the glory of art. But I don’t think that anywhere I said that art was subversive. I never thought that art as such is subversive. For the first reason that I don’t know what art as such means. I always think that art is perceived in specific configurations, specific regimes of identification, that allow for certain social functions or certain political possibilities, etc. So what I stressed yesterday too is that precisely the possible subversive effect is the effect of aesthetic experience and not the effect of artistic strategies. Which does not mean that precisely art is not subversive, art can contribute to produce new changes in the configuration of the sensible, in the cartography of the visible and the sensible, but it cannot anticipate and calculate its own effect. This is why I think that your view is much more connected in fact to a traditional view of art than mine - I’m speaking to Stephen - because what you define is precisely a kind of well-calculated effect of art. In your view, if art wants to speak, if it wants to do something, to be political, it has to make itself disappear. I would say that this is too easy a solution, precisely the problem is that it does not disappear. It makes itself visible as pure decision. I’m more modest than you about the possibilities of art. Art may have some possibilities of creating displacements in the configuration of the sensible precisely to the extent that it accepts not to control the effect of its practice. Not to become invisible, precisely, there are those things with the strange status between separateness and unseparateness, and it is in the negotiation of that relation that people - and I don’t like the idea of the consumer of art, this idea of the passive spectator – no, there are people negotiating in their way what is proposed An Exchange with Jacques Rancière 3
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to them as art or as beauty, or what the image invents, etc. I think that this is important, at the same time less dramatic, but maybe more important, than the idea of artistic strategies that would make art really efficient even at the cost of its own disappearance. I think that there is something very authoritarian, something much more fitting the traditional concept of art in your view of art making itself disappear to provoke some forms of political mobilization. There may be some connection between them, but I would say that the emphatic idea of the power of art and in some sense the character of the example that you showed, because obviously I don’t think that there is something politically wonderful in that practice of making maps of Buenos Aires and saying ‘the perpetrators are here, here and here’. You say it contributes to a kind of collective memory. Well I would say, that if you take another example, I think of Ritty Pahn’s film on the camps in Kampuchea, when he makes this film, a film which is presented in art festivals, with this confrontation between the perpetrator and the victim, I think that in the very ambiguity of the relation between artwork and some kind of common political catharsis, there is something that contributes much more to constituting a memory than the map of the perpetrators in Buenos Aires. That is my point of view. SB: Do you have a response? SW: I would respond to both. I would say that in listening to the type of vocabulary that you use to describe art it seems to me that there are a number of presuppositions, which, when used to constitute a system, also take on a prescriptive hue. For instance, you talk about artwork as if it were the natural form of appearance of art in the world, which I contest; this you link to single authorship and to the meta institution of spectatorship. I think that Holy Trinity, which goes uncontested by and large, amounts to a latent and implicit form of normativity and even prescriptivity that is found in many types of philosophy of art. So if you find some ‘musts’ in my text, in a certain way I find the must has somehow sublimated itself in any art theory that doesn’t explicitly seek to re-examine the conditions of possibility for art’s emergence in the world. And that is why I suggested that art need not emerge exclusively in the form of a performative, but may actually be existent in the latent form of competence. JD: But I think that is all I did, I wanted to question such ‘conditions of possibility’, on the one hand those which, as argued by Lyotard for example, allow for the pure presence of materiality, and this is where I am in agreement with Rancière, and on the other those which would allow for political artworks being political because of the presence of a purported ‘readable political signification’, and here I am in disagreement with Rancière. You can’t hold someone to account for invoking the term ‘artwork’ simply because it carries with it presuppositions… SW: Artwork as a position is a value-laden term. It is absolutely evaluative. It is not value neutral at all. JD: I agree. Any mention of art is theory-laden, perhaps a better way of putting it than valueladen. But that doesn’t mean that we can escape the difficulties of theory-ladenness or valueladenness simply by calling a practice non-art rather than art. We can’t just by decree assert the fact that we are not operating these presuppositions, just as an artist cannot avoid or negate troubling presuppositions by ‘invisibilizing’ his work. And nor can he claim for his work a determined effect through his explicitly disavowing those presuppositions or avowing
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others. Just as there is no visible without the sayable there is no invisible without the sayable either. SW: But I think very largely contemporary art, or artist working today are explicitly contesting that art should be an existent form of artwork, at least in foregrounding process that is no longer being subordinated to an extrinsic carnality which is the artwork. And I think that is an extremely important shift in artistic production. JD: I agree, but you can’t do this without institutions of art. Moreover, and using your example – but that’s the problem of using examples, they can undo one’s argument - your example of so-called invisible art was precisely the opposite, it was visible, it was maps, it was signs. At this point there is a short break followed by an impromptu presentation of images by Stephen Wright SW: I don’t want to bore you with examples, but here for instance is an image of one of the maps that I referred to, and which was put up around Buenos Aires. Here for example are some of the street signs produced by the GAC. This was an instance of an escrache of Luis Juan Donocik, who started his career in Poland – which is why he’s known as el polaco chico – as a concentration camp guard and later went to Argentina where he became a prominent member of the military and now is the president of a prosperous private security company. He oversaw and perpetrated terrible human rights abuses during the dictatorship. And so members of the escrache movement put up signs of this sort to draw attention to his impunity and presence in residential neighbourhoods of the capital. But what is more interesting, and I think very artistically compelling – which is why I referred to it in my last argument – is to observe how the tautological imperative, which is the hallmark of conceptual art practice, somehow breaks free of the artworld framework where it is all too often held captive to some extent, and is unleashed on the world. These signs here were put up in public space; of course, they refer to what are known as ‘flights of death,’ when those people who were tortured and killed or merely drugged and taken by military aircraft out over the South Atlantic and dumped from the airplane into the ocean. What’s interesting about these images, from an artcritical perspective, is that they strike an adequation in terms of form and content with the problem in Argentine society which the escrache movement is trying to address. For it is not that there are 30,000 people missing, it is that their absence is so devastatingly present. And you see that within the airplane we have this representation of absence. It’s not merely just black against the background, that absent background is itself inscribed right into the centre. I would contrast that to the example that was given in Rancière’s talk last night, Urban Encampment, where we see ‘people of colour’ wearing black tee-shirts with white writing; these people are anonymous and the writing is white. For me that is exactly the opposite of a successful artistic solution to the dialectic of visibility and invisibility, of absence and presence. Whereas the street signs produced by the GAC do provide an artistically satisfying solution to the problem, which is precisely why I chose this example over countless others. Devices of the kind produced by Urban Encampment, however, at least on a symbolic level, are not about drawing attention merely to a problem, which, in any case, is widely known. It is the opposite of making those bodies emerge. Think of the riots in the Paris suburbs last November. Those bodies that had always been there, all of a sudden became visible to us – visible, intelligible. And that can be easily understood in a Rancièrian paradigm. In the case
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of a genocide, such as what occurred in Argentina, we are up against the inverse and ethically more devastating problem, which art alone is perhaps symbolically equipped to deal with. JD: But in what way is this invisible? I mean everything you have said points to visibility. If you use terms such as ‘representation’, ‘reference’, ‘image’, ‘form and content’, ‘signs’, these are all classical ways of talking about visual art. SW: This is not art. JD: But you said ‘artistically satisfying’! You can’t just assert it is not art. You can’t just point and say, ‘it’s not art’. SW: It was perceived by no-one as such. It is being repatriated as art by what I am saying today. And it quite obvious that many things – any number of symbolic configurations and activities – can satisfy our expectations with respect to art, without being art in terms of their self-understanding. And can often do so better than self-conscious artworks themselves. JD: At the beginning of your talk you were quite right I think to speak about the hubris of the art world in believing itself to be politically effective, you were right to draw attention to that. But I think yours is just another example of what you pointed to. Yours is no less an institutionalisation of art. This event today, in which you are taking part, in which you are using the video projector and pointing to pictures of practices, processes, whatever you want to call them, is no less an institutionalisation of art and the securing for yourself a space in which you can talk about these things, as is a museum or a traditional way of showing art, these are all ways of institutionalising art, which is what I think Rancière’s getting at when he talks about how the very idea of the aesthetic is absolutely institutionalised and heteronomous. We need a space which is common to be able to have an experience we call aesthetic. You’re not escaping any of that. It doesn’t mean that the artwork or process isn’t valuable or interesting in other ways which you would want it to be. But it’s not tending towards invisibility as art, or attaining a ‘freedom’ or ‘escape’ from the art world, on the contrary. SW: But its visibility, let’s say, is at any rate deferred. JD: In all art visibility is deferred in some way, and the new ways of speaking about artworks that artworks themselves make possible in turn make things visible for the first time not just in other works but in those works too. SW: Well in this case, if it had been initially presented in an art-specific time and space, like a museum or gallery, the time of deferral would of course be drastically reduced, because it would not require the performative gesture accomplished by my presence here, as you described it. Nor would it require any of the performative documents which bring into the fold of art something which was not initially perceived as such. And there is for me a very decisive difference between perceiving something inside or outside the performative framework of the art world; between perceiving it as a sign but not an art-specific sign. A very different type of perception is engaged in each case. And particularly for those people whose symbolic capital in fact excludes them from spaces of art – and these are the people we are talking about in the public sphere, outside of the museums, people who if they knew it were art might, instead of engaging with it, simply write it off, saying, ‘it’s just art’. An Exchange with Jacques Rancière 6
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Ultimately, this deferred visibility does become visible. There is a huge difference between something that is performed as art and something which is merely informed by art. And I think the respective timeframes of those two instances make for a qualitative difference. JR: What is disturbing for me is your idea those signs are not perceived as art. How can you anticipate the way they are perceived? What is to me the heart of the problem is when you say that art has to disappear in order to act politically. It is a mechanistic logic: art has to disappear in order to make something for people who have no access to art. It is always the same presupposition. There are people who have no access to art, so art has to act so as to disappear, to make something which is only matter of fact. But those signs are not ‘matter of fact’ documentation. There is the choice of a certain design, of a kind of symbolism which appeals to some sense of art. What disturbs me, is the setting of this equivalence: if the artist disappears as an artist, he can address people who don’t know what art is and who don’t care for art. SB: It’s Dubuffet… SW: What would be your hypothesis, then, about why more and more artists are engaging in stealth practices? JR: It’s not ‘more and more’. It’s always the same artists whose examples are invoked in all congresses on art and engagement. You say there are ‘more and more’ just because you think it is a good thing to do so. But the kind of thing that you showed us is in the tradition of political posters. Artists have made political posters for many, many years and it was not considered art denying itself or art disappearing. They were artists, which means they had a certain competence. And they used that competence to build images with or without words, conveying a certain political signification. I would say it is the same thing. Why claim a new radical break in art? That is my question. SB: Because it is very tempting to do so. That’s the problem. But would you say that a more convincing form, I’m being a bit perverse here, would it be a more successful form of invisibility to simply displace an object, like a Rhitty Pahn film, and bring it in to the art world, something that is definitely not an art object, at least as a documentary film, does that constitute a form of successful invisibility? JR: There is no invisibility in this case. This film was presented as a film and not as a militant documentary. It was presented as a work of art trying to restage something which apparently dismisses art, I mean a genocide. It is an art practice which tries to restage the way in which a historical process can be made visible, can be looked at and read. All this is visible. And it can be seen either as art or as non-art. The point is not about visibility or invisibility. It is that you cannot anticipate that one person will look at it as art and another person will not look at it as art. SW: I would maintain that it is, nevertheless, an empirical error to say that this sort of practice has had a sort of stability throughout history. In our economy which is increasingly based on the harnessing of what used to be art-specific competence – in other words, autonomy, creativity, inventiveness, which is exactly how post-Fordist capitalism functions – there is an increasing response from art and art-related practitioners who feel that they don’t want art just to be completely ripped off, to attempt to re-inject their competence elsewhere in An Exchange with Jacques Rancière 7
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a substantively different way. And in purely quantitative terms there are more and more professionally trained artists who have decided to forego producing art, and who are doing something else instead which, whatever it may be, doesn’t initially appear as art; yet without art and a historical understanding of what art has become, would be nevertheless historically impossible. Something that is not art but whose historical condition of possibility lies in art. For me, that is a fascinating development in society and one which really does deserve more inquiry and reflection than merely writing it off by saying, ‘well, artists have always done posters’. There are a growing number of social movements which really cannot be adequately described as either political or artistic. It is some sort of new configuration which is emerging. SB: Are there any artist in the audiences who would like to respond to this? [No response.] SB: Or other people from the audience… JR: Non artists… SB: You can say something and not say which you are… JD: I would like to ask a question of you [JR] if I may, and it goes back to your saying that the invocation of the ideal effect was ironic on your part. Do you think it is possible for an artwork to present itself without any ostensible political content and still be political? An art work which makes no appeal of the sort that is being made by this art, for example, to any political event, to any state of affairs, any desired outcome, any change that it wants to bring to bear upon the world, and which perhaps could just be sheer materiality, in a certain descriptive sense, would you allow for the possibility that that art work could be political, a political artwork, despite its not having any, as you put it, ‘readable political signification’? Interjection from the floor: A Robert Ryman painting, for example. JD: … Or a Barnett Newman, to give the example of Lyotard. JR: No work comes out of the blue. In the case of Barnett Newman, of course, there is an intention, and after there is a kind of superimposition of readings. The point is: can you define an artwork only as an artwork? We know a lot of people, who paint, do sculpture, a lot of things, they just work for their own pleasure, okay, the problem begins where there is some connection of what has been done with a certain concept of art, institution of art, place of art. And when we are in that context there are a lot of possible readings, of possible significations attributed to the work. Well I’ll tell you, from my point of view, it is entirely possible to look at the work of Robert Ryman or Barnett Newman with a pure contemplative gaze, giving it absolutely no signification. But the fact is that in the beginning there is a strong need to give it a signification, and that strong need is itself linked to a certain idea of art, as being political out of its very refusal to convey a meaning. JD: Do I take that as a yes? [Laughter] Are you saying yes? JR: In itself, no. You ask me to consider it just in itself but the point for me is: what does it mean an artwork ‘in itself’.
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SB: What I don’t understand, and maybe I’m missing something, to answer your question couldn’t one just say ‘Adorno’ and Adorno’s position of the autonomy which is a sign of its resistance? JD: No. JR: No. JD: That’s why I’m addressing the question to you, because for me you rightly show how there is heteronomy at the heart of autonomy. That there is no such thing as an autonomous art work. At least I imagine this is something with which you would concur. There is no such thing as an autonomous art work: heteronomy is there at the moment of autonomy, as much at the heart of autonomy as is the notion of autonomy itself. And there would not be this notion of autonomy without that co-emergence of heteronomy at the heart of the autonomous. Now I think partly what so-called abstract art works do is bring into question what we understand by material. That’s one way in which precisely they are not autonomous, contrary to what the artists themselves – Newman and the other Abstract Expressionists from the 50s and 60s – think, and their theorists, Adorno, Greenberg, Lyotard, all of whom in their own way presuppose what matter is, as if it is given in advance of the art work. That questioning of matter is partly what I think they reject and that’s what you hold them to account for and I think you are right to do that. But it is one thing to say that and it is another thing on the basis of that to say that if an art is to be political it has somehow to draw out and make explicit the struggle between autonomy and heteronomy and the only way it can do that is to introduce a readable political signification. I don’t think you are using the term ‘ideal effect’ ironically. JR: It is not in terms of readable political signification... JD: Right, but why? JR: Well I would say, what does it mean, political in its signification? In the case of Greenberg, can you term that explicit political signification? I don’t think so. There is this idea that the commitment of the artwork to its own material conditions includes the artwork in a general movement of emancipation, viewed as the conquest of autonomy. In this case art can be said to belong to a certain political configuration. Once more, it is not my position, I just try to give a case where art is included in a kind of political plot without being given an explicitly political signification. I think it is very easy to do it, precisely as you can include a piece of art either from the point of view of its autonomy or from the point of view of its heteronomy. You can always argue both positions. JD: A moment ago you invoked the possibility of art being political ‘out of its very refusal to convey a meaning’. So, abstract works, if they are political, if they are, are political for not ‘showing’ an ostensible political meaning. But this is something we understand as much from the discourses and institutions of art as we do from the putative material object itself, discourses and institutions which are as constitutive of the object as is the object ‘itself’. And we can see such discourses when we see art, or these discourses are enabled by such works. The two co-emerge, and continually cover over each other. In this way can a Barnett Newman or a Robert Ryman be seen to be political. But it does not follow that if art is to be political then it must bear a readable political signification; rather, whatever signification it bears is not An Exchange with Jacques Rancière 9
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‘in itself’, its signification is not its alone and the work is not readable ‘in itself’; and yet that artwork, that particular artwork, is the event of that signification. SB: Stephen, you have been quiet for about five minutes. SW: If I were an artist working with invisible practices, how would I know when I met the art police? How would I know except to encounter the sort of steadfast refusal that I seem to hear from you when I mention the possibility of art invisibilizing itself in this way. It seems very much like a new body has emerged, or more precisely has withdrawn, in a way that is unacceptable to the art world. I’m very attentive to your remarks, but at the same time, there seems to be a steadfast refusal to admit that this type of art practice could find a place for its occupation. And that sounds very much like an operation of the art police. JR: I don’t say that it cannot have a place. I say that there are two ways of thinking of this kind of practice. You can consider it as a political practice and you can think that it is one form of political practice. And there are forms of political practice which look like this. So the question is: why don’t you say they are artists in the sense that they have competence and they put that competence to the service of a certain political project? You can say it. At the same time you say something more. You say this political practice is itself a self-suppression of art or a self-denial of art. But, if you say so, you are still including those practices in the realm of art. It looks like a double game: ‘we are artists doing this kind of art which is the self-suppression of art’. We also know that it is possible that in twenty years, those signs will be sold and will be very expensive in an art auction. JD: Stephen, the more you assert the place of an art work or a ‘non-art’ work, whether that place be inside or outside ‘the art world’ (which nonetheless still appears somehow to be given), for example ‘this’ work and its ‘invisibility’, the more you insist on your ability to ‘repatriate’ art which was otherwise ‘perceived by no-one as such’, the more you claim that a sign must or can only be read in a certain political way, the more you speak as if political efficacy were a given determinate effect of a specific ‘political strategy’, then the more you fix art, and the more you become the police you would otherwise want to resist. Question from the floor: I just wanted to make one comment. I remember one comment you made that ‘I am not interested in making a judgement of what is good art and bad art any more.’ My question is you [SW] bring artwork into philosophical or aesthetical question but you [JR] would judge what is good art and what is bad art. JR: I don’t think I judge what is good art and bad art. This is not my point. My point is precisely about the relation between art and non art. As with everybody, there are things in contemporary art that I find uninteresting and things which I feel are interesting, things which I think are beautiful and things which I find ugly. There are also discourses that seem to me interesting or not. I said yesterday that the forms of critique of the spectacle, the critique of a kind of illusion which is no longer an illusion for anybody, from my point of view is not interesting. I don’t say: you must not do it, art must do something else. I tried to point to some manifestations which seemed to me to be interesting, interesting either from the point of view of the problem that they raise, or from the point of view of the solutions that they propose. Anyway, what I have insisted on is the very break between an artistic proposition and the effect that we can expect from this proposition. So in my response to Stephen, the point was not to say: it is not interesting at all. In fact I made two points: first, how does this form of art An Exchange with Jacques Rancière 10
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serve or help construct some form of political movement and how do we judge this political movement? For in the case of this Argentinean movement, I am not sure that it is very interesting in itself. And second, you say something more which cannot really be sustained, when you say this kind of manifestation is political because art becomes invisible in it. The ‘disappearance’ of art has no political value in itself and, anyway, I am not sure that it disappears in this case. Once more my question is about the interpretation of a practice. My point of view is trying to focus on the way in which artistic practices negotiate between different possibilities. And the point of my disagreement with Stephen is when he says: this is now the new way of political art, many artists no more belong to art. We know that ‘not belonging to art’ can change in thirty years. ‘Now I don’t belong to art’, that was a sentence from Marcel Broodthaers: ‘Now I am out of the market’. Five years ago there was a big exhibition of Broodthaers in Brussels. I wrote an essay for the catalogue, but the catalogue could not come out because of the pretensions of the inheritors. He did ‘no more’ belong to art but apparently his work belonged more than ever to the art market. So it is a problem to say ‘Now I am out’.

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Jacques Rancière and Indisciplinarity
Translated by Gregory Elliot
This is the transcript of an interview conducted with Jacques Rancière by Marie-Aude Baronian and Mireille Rosello from the University of Amsterdam and ASCA. A version of this interview was published in Dutch by Valiz (NL), in a volume of studies on Jacques Rancière that appeared in the Netherlands in late 2007. In this exchange, Ranciere discusses his position with regard to democracy, politics, film, literature, art and research.

I. Introduction Q) How do you place yourself in the current French intellectual scene? a) Le Magazine littéraire and Le Nouvel Observateur have recently referred to you as a key figure in the contemporary French intellectual scene: how, briefly, would you characterise your ‘profile’ and your contribution to French thought? I try to problematise the categories that structure diagnoses of our present and debates about it. Thus, I’ve attempted to rethink democracy by refusing both its official identification with the state forms and lifestyles of rich societies and denunciation of it as a form that masks the realities of domination. Official apologists and Marxist critics basically concur in characterising democracy as a mode of government built on a society defined as a society of consumers. In opposition to this dominant view I’ve reactivated the real scandal of democracy – which is that it reveals the ultimate absence of legitimacy of any government. As the foundation of politics it asserts the equal capacity of anyone and everyone to be either governor or governed. I’ve thus been led to conceive democracy as the deployment of forms of action that activate anyone’s equality with anyone else, and not as a form of state or a kind of society. As regards aesthetics, I’ve questioned the schemas of modernity and post-modernity shared by supporters of modernism, eulogists of the post-modern or high priests of the sublime. All of them more or less agree in characterising the modern artistic revolution in terms of an autonomisation, conceived as a break with representation and as each art concentrating on the exigencies and possibilities of its own material: the transition to abstract painting, atonal music, ‘intransitive’ poetry whose heroes are Malevitch, Schönberg or Mallarmé. On this basis, they conceive the transition from the modern to the contemporary as a break with such a vocation, as a melange of the arts, a mingling of art and popular and advertising imagery, a confusion of art and life. They can either welcome this or deplore it, justify the confusion or demand an art of the sublime and the unrepresentable. But in each instance they validate the schema. For my part, I’ve tried to show that what is called artistic modernity has, from the outset, been shot through with a tension between two contradictory requirements: one of these makes art and aesthetic perception into a specific sphere of experience, disconnected from the rules that operate in other spheres; the other feeds on interchange between the arts and spheres of experience and converts art’s ways of making into collective ways
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of life. In constructing the archaeology of this tension, I wanted to escape indulgent or doom-laden verdicts on the present state of art; to make it possible to perceive continual shifts in the topography of possibilities, as opposed to major breaks and grand schemas of progress or decline. So what distinguishes my position is that I put our intellectual objects and forms into historical perspective, rather than offering verdicts based on a priori positions, but also that I reject the schemas of historical necessity and make the archaeology of our present a topography of possibilities that retain their character as possibilities. I say at one and the same time: this is how we came to see what we see and think what we think, but there is no historical necessity, nothing irremediable in this landscape of our intellectual objects and forms. As regards revolutionary projects, I part company both with those who think they possess the correct formula for future revolutions and with those who say that any project for an egalitarian transformation of the world is doomed to totalitarian terror. I don’t offer any formula for the future, but I strive to describe a world open to the possibilities and capacities of all: something like an archaeology more open to the event than Foucault’s, but without any Benjaminian messianism. b) Do you have any special affinities with certain of your philosophical contemporaries (Badiou, Nancy, Balibar)? Or do you regard your work as an attempt at detachment from easily recognisable tendencies in French philosophy? Like those you cite, I’m an inheritor of the major philosophical renewal of the 1960s and 70s that challenged the academic philosophical tradition and its modernist form – phenomenology – by opening philosophy up to different domains and practices – literature, history, psychoanalysis, ethnology – which facilitated an expansion and decentring of the intellectual territory. This common origin establishes a connection with Badiou, Balibar or Nancy, as does loyalty to the articulation between philosophical subversion and political emancipation which the intellectual reaction of the 1980s condemned as la pensée 68. That said, thinkers like Badiou or Nancy are still linked to an idea of philosophy which I’d call ‘fundamentalist’, albeit in different ways. Nancy passed through Derridean deconstruction, but he remains attached to the idea of a philosophy that endeavours to think, including in its impossibility, a primary experience of major shared signifiers: meaning, the world, the other, the common. Badiou has taken up the Althusserian idea of a philosophy that does not have its own object but discloses the ‘truths’ at work in the practices of science, politics or poetry. But at the same time he conceives philosophy as a system in which the rationalities of these practices are dependent on an ontology that provides the general formula of Being and what supplements it. For him this formula is prescriptive – that is, the duty of art or politics can be deduced from it. And from his perspective what I do remains of the order of description and hence an empiricist submission to the order of the world. In contrast, I think there’s no general formula of Being from which the practices of art and politics can be deduced; that the prescriptive and the descriptive are always intertwined in such a way as to constitute the landscapes of the possible (those who describe reconfigure the possibilities of a world; those who prescribe presuppose a certain state of the world that is itself made up of sedimented prescriptions); and that the configuration of these landscapes is always, in the last instance, a poem: an expression in ordinary language of the communal resources of thought. So there is solidarity in the face of the reactionary counter-offensive that took ideological power in the 1980s, but at the same time profound differences in our perceptions and practices of philosophy. Q) Would it be right to suggest that your work is not so much inter-disciplinary as a-disciplinary? Neither. It is ‘indisciplinary’. It is not only a matter of going besides the disciplines but of breaking Jacques Rancière and Indisciplinarity 2
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them. My problem has always been to escape the division between disciplines, because what interests me is the question of the distribution of territories, which is always a way of deciding who is qualified to speak about what. The apportionment of disciplines refers to the more fundamental apportionment that separates those regarded as qualified to think from those regarded as unqualified; those who do the science and those who are regarded as its objects. I began by moving outside of the boundaries of the discipline of ‘philosophy’, because the questions I was concerned with revolved around Marxist conceptions of ideology – the issue of why people found themselves in a particular place and what they could or couldn’t think in that place. Following the events of 1968 and the vicissitudes of the far left, I thought that it was to be resolved not by continuing to immerse myself in Marx’s texts, but by entering into the flesh of working-class experience, into the thinking and practice of emancipation. At the outset, this was a kind of excursion to collect historical material. But the excursion led to a switch of perspectives. I came to understand that the problem wasn’t to search on the terrain of social history for material with which to think through philosophical questions, because the primary philosophical and political question was precisely that of the separation between the intellectual world and a social world which was supposedly merely its object. How does a question come to be considered philosophical or political or social or aesthetic? If emancipation had a meaning, it consisted in reclaiming thought as something belonging to everyone – the correlate being that there is no natural division between intellectual objects and that a discipline is always a provisional grouping, a provisional territorialisation of questions and objects that do not in and of themselves possess any specific localisation or domain. II. Politics and Philosophy Q) One of the major ideas that guides your work is the definition you give of ‘politics’, notably in La Mésentente: not as the interaction between government in power and opposition, for example; not even as the principle of demands on the part of a group already identified as such (e.g. workers), but as the activity that will ‘make that which did not possess grounds to be seen seen, make a discourse heard where once there had been nothing but noise, make heard as a discourse that which had merely been heard as noise’.1 According to you, in France at the moment are there examples of ‘noise’ that are about to produce a political effect? Or what do you think of the efforts of those who try to get ‘visible minorities’ recognised? We mustn’t think in terms of instances of noise that are growing louder, ready to be heard by us; or of new subjects that are about to emerge. You don’t have noise biding its time, speech in gestation and awaiting the moment when it will finally be heard. Instead, there is a combination of two relationships: there is the permanence of a conflictual relationship over what is noise, speech or silence; but there are also changes in the form of this division. On the one hand, throughout our society there is speech that is heard merely as noise. Thus, the speech of refusal uttered by people who are made unemployed because of relocation and restructuring is conceived simply as the noise made by a victim. However well-argued, it is always interpreted by the rulers and their experts as the noise of suffering. For them the world moves on and, in so doing, creates wounds and suffering that are to be construed as such. If we take the case of immigration, the people who negotiate with illegal immigrants [sans-papiers] on hunger strike know full well that they are talking not with suffering bodies, but with people who argue, who have learnt in Africa the art of discussion, and for whom speech is an important element of social life. This does not prevent the situation of the sanspapiers from generally being regarded as a phenomenon of suffering and treated as such. So you don’t have noise which is going to become speech, but speech which is always an issue of interpretation. Will it or won’t it be heard as speech? Where is it going to be heard as noise or as speech? Jacques Rancière and Indisciplinarity 3
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On the other hand, there are those redistributions of the landscape that lead people to refer, for example, to visible minorities. The political issue is what is meant by this. For me a political subject is a subject who employs the competence of the so-called incompetents or the part of those who have no part, and not an additional group to be recognised as part of society. ‘Visible minorities’ means exceeding the system of represented groups, of constituted identities. If we think of the quota system, as far as I’m concerned it can’t be conceived as a way of conferring importance on groups in accordance with their importance in society. It’s a rupture that opens out into the recognition of the competence of anyone , not the addition of a unit. III. Literature and Politics Q) You’ve published several books on the relationship between literature and politics as you define it, in particular in La Parole muette and Politique de la littérature. Interviewed about the latter, you recently told the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur that ‘whether a literary text is subversive or consensual essentially depends less on the will of the writer than on the political forces that seize upon a description of the world. And that is also true for works which display a political commitment.’2 Could you develop this idea and explain what you mean here by ‘political force’ and how a political force can seize upon a vision of the world? That formula about a ‘political force seizing upon a description’ is a bit too flashy. It creates an image, with the result that one seeks to visualise the political force in person seizing upon a description. In that sense I’d find it hard to justify. What it means is that literature operates by reconfiguring the landscape of what can be seen and what can be said by constructing new individualities and a world for these individualities; and that this construction of a politics peculiar to literature follows its own logic. There is no reason for it to open out by itself into a system of description available to some particular political cause. That’s what I’m trying to say in Politique de la littérature: literature possesses its own democracy, which tends towards a dispersal of individualities, towards the construction of an impersonal stratum that is precisely opposed to the idea of an apportionment of subjective positions of enunciation like those proposed by politics. If you take the history of the novel since the nineteenth century, literature has significantly developed the space or field of what is of interest to it and hence the field of subjects worthy of interest, of subjects capable of thinking and feeling. Basically, that’s what novelistic modernity is: a significant extension of what bodies are capable of feeling, experiencing, speaking, saying. This is the sense in which I assign a central role to Madame Bovary. For me, Madame Bovary is to some extent the literary equivalent of working-class emancipation. It is the moment when various bodies supposedly destined for a particular place and, therewith, a way of thinking and speaking, a certain capacity for experiencing, defiantly claim a capacity to experience everything and to participate in any kind of enjoyment, be it material or mental. Emancipated workers of the 1830s and 40s had themselves fashioned this capacity by seizing on the ‘indetermination’ that is the misfortune of novelistic heroes. Now, obviously, such appropriations don’t correspond to the intention of the novelists. They wanted workers to embody the nobility of labour and sing of the workshop and popular festivals, rather than transform the psychological problems of their characters into social problems. That’s what ‘seize upon’ means. In rather the same way, the writers of ‘negritude’ seized on the ‘negro’ of Une saison en enfer and Rimbaud’s idea of a language accessible to all the senses. So literature expands the world of possible experience accessible to anyone. This permits the borrowings and appropriations whereby people excluded from public discourse declared and
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demonstrated themselves capable of intervening in it. But this implies that there is no direct link between a description of the world and a political outcome. Literature’s impact on the formation of new forms of political subjectivation operates through the effect of a blurring between domains to which I referred, which is also an effect of redistribution of ‘capacities’. Q) Your books on literature can’t be separated from your works on disagreement and the search for a common language. They re-articulate the issue of the part of those who have no part and the intrusion of politics as the moment when the places that have been allocated to each and every one are called into question. The role of the ‘literary critic’ as an expert possessed of specialist tools for reading literature is thus called into question. Some literary critics have been rather taken aback by the impression of not being attended to as experts equipped with a method. And you’ve made it clear to them that literature is for everyone.3 Would you go so far as to say that literature cannot be taught? Or, at least, that it would be useful, not destructive, to abolish courses that take literature as an object of study? I’m not asking for the teaching of literature to be abolished. But I’m interested in literature not as a discipline but as a principle of declassification of discourses. Consequently, I don’t believe that there is a specific literary method or literary competence. For me literature is not a wholly selfcontained art or domain, requiring specialists to reveal its laws and get its works appreciated. It is a historical regime of the art of writing, which is precisely characterised by the abolition of the rules of the poetic arts, by the fact that there is no longer any closure of the system, that there is no longer even any opposition between a fictional reason and a factual reason. For me literature refers to an opening of the boundaries between discourses and there are no experts on this opening. The important thing is to bring out the potential for expanding experience that it carries within it. This is not the object of any specific method. Alternatively put, discourse on literature is always itself a literary discourse; discourse on fiction is itself the construction of a fiction. So I’ve never been interested in producing a theory of literature providing instruments that would make it possible to disclose rules, to explain literary works in general and transmit them. I’ve tried to mark some points of emergence, some points of rupture, some forms of expansion of the meaning of experience, and then to situate their importance vis-à-vis different domains and to make them resonate. For me, what is called literary criticism or film criticism is not a way of explaining or classifying things, but a way of extending them and making them resonate differently. Explaining Flaubert or Balzac or Hugo is of no interest to me whatsoever. What interests me is to make a character, some words or a piece of syntax resonate vis-à-vis other characters, words, pieces of syntax. I first brought Flaubert into play not by writing about Madame Bovary but by constructing imaginary combinations between the workers whose texts I was reading in the archives and some of Flaubert’s characters. If I’ve written about Madame Bovary, it is to make it resonate in connection with the issue of democracy and its interpretations. Why was the text of an author with an aristocratic sensibility, cultivating art for art’s sake, immediately denounced as the literary embodiment of democracy? Answering that question was an opportunity for me to make the clash between several senses of democracy heard: political democracy as I understand it, literary democracy as practised by Flaubert, and sociological democracy à la Tocqueville, which is what Flaubert’s contemporaries read in his book and which is still advanced today by those who equate democracy with consumer society. Q) The examples you take in your books on literature pertain to what students of literature call the canon. What’s the meaning of your approach here?
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The question of the canon is not of much interest to me, since I don’t treat literature as an art charged with transmitting a certain cultural legitimacy, and hence with classifying claimants to that legitimacy. I became interested in literature as a historical regime of the art of writing. I’ve therefore prioritised texts that make it possible to bring out the birth of this regime and the political stakes associated with its emergence. For example, if I’ve taken Balzac, it is in connection with the issue I call the war of forms of writing or the issue of literariness. Here literature intervenes in a question that goes beyond it, a philosophico-political question which is that of the circulation of the letter, which is going to be addressed to anyone and everyone. Balzac signals the triumph of the novel, the democratic genre par excellence since it abolishes every hierarchy, any specific destination of speech. At the same time he fictionalises the perils of this mode of circulation off which his book lives, counter-posing to errant speech the writing that can be read on things themselves. The politics of the novel is then inscribed in a conflict between regimes of signification. For me the issue of the democracy of literature is to be found here. The problem is not doing justice to everyone, creating a balance between male literature and female literature, French literature from France or francophone literature from Canada, Africa, the Caribbean. The important thing is, on the one hand, the democracy practised by literature itself and, on the other, the democracy that is going to be practised by those who appropriate it. As I said a moment ago, the major reference-points for emancipated workers in 1830 or 1840 are not Eugène Sue, not the social novel or popular novels, but René, Werther and Oberman. Why? Because these are characters who have simply had the ‘misfortune to be born’ and who suffer from having no place in society. But ‘simply to be born’ is the original definition of the proletarian – except that for him it implied a well-defined place in society, which excluded the question of seeking to discover what one has arrived to do in it. The subversion of this subordinate place took the form then of the appropriation of the novelistic figure of the one who suffers from having ‘nothing to do’ in society. So for me democracy is not a matter of a programme assigning so-called minority groups their respective weight. To rupture what is called the taught canon, to introduce African literature and Caribbean literature, is well and good. But the significance does not consist in giving those who have long been oppressed their share of the cake. It consists in sharing out a certain battle with the dominant language – for example, the way in which writers like Césaire have activated the language of Rimbaud or the surrealists against the finely polished language of official French literature. IV. Cinema Q) In 2001 you devoted a whole work to film (La Fable cinématographique) and you had already written on film – for example, in Les Cahiers du cinéma, the journal Trafic, Arrêt sur histoire or Malaise dans l’esthétique. How would you define the place of film in your work? Is it a ‘indiscipline’ like the others (with its own tensions, forms and space)? Or does film occupy a particular position that renders it distinct as a regime from art (at once representative and aesthetic) or any other aesthetic language (literature, for example)? Two layers are super-imposed in my interest in film. The first is a love of cinema, which takes us back to the French passion for film at the end of the 1950s and start of the 1960s. This was a way of blurring the dominant aesthetic legitimacy, for which beautiful films were those with images immediately identifiable as artistic, cinema based on a rich psychological plot, or posing metaphysical problems (Antonioni, Bergman and so on). As a culture of autodidacts, this cinephilia was constructed around Hollywood film-makers, regarded as having lapsed from their German artistic dignity (Lang) or as representatives of the film industry of popular genres: the musical Jacques Rancière and Indisciplinarity 6
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(Minneli), the western (Walsh, Hawks, Mann), melodrama (Sirk), the detective film (Hitchcock), etc. The blurring of hierarchies was also a blurring of hitherto accepted evaluative criteria: plastic quality, psychological subtlety, metaphysical profundity, etc. It was also a blurring of places, because cinephilia negotiated between the film theatre and small neighbourhood screens, which were the two places where you could see films that were looked down on. So at first for me there was this culture of love of films and the blurring of forms of aesthetic legitimacy that it implied. This links up with a more general phenomenon: in ‘wild’ fashion, cinema realised the programme of uniting art and popular audience that theatre had dreamt about. It was a popular art reclassified by its consumers, an art that allowed a pretty significant number of people to make their way into the domain of art and aesthetic judgement. Even when we refer to mass, Hollywood, commercial films, it has to be said that this ‘commercial’ art yielded an outcome that was inconceivable in a certain era, bringing it about that millions of people could see David Lynch’s films, which are at least as far removed from traditional narrative rationality as the works of the nouveau roman closely confined to the world of art. The second layer is the more reflexive one, more bound up with my work on regimes of art. On the one hand, in effect film is the art that ended up carrying out the programme of the aesthetic revolution. For the theorists of the 1920s, film was the art that had arrived to see off old-style narrative and psychology, so as to convey instead the events of sensory matter – the shimmering of atoms of light on a screen. It was the art of the machine which was supposed to rid us of the classical figure of the artist and make us abandon the classical figures and forms of narration and psychology. It was the art of light and motion speaking for themselves. As it turned out, cinema did something quite different, because it reintroduced forms of narration and psychology that were destroyed elsewhere and even the distribution into genres. So my interest was focused on this contradiction, on the way in which two logics – an aesthetic logic and a narrative logic – were intermingled in film. I’ve tried to mark the way in which a narrative logic of action is at once sustained and constantly suspended, interrupted by visual forms that are like stases of the visible. This is true even in narrative films like Anthony Mann’s westerns, where there are moments of interruption, suspension, moments where nothing happens. So my interest in film is structured around these two questions, connected firstly with the experience of a film-lover and secondly with an examination of the mixing of regimes. Q) Might it be said that La Fable does not offer a (new) theory of film, but is instead another way of reading film as an indiscipline differently? Yes, you could say that. I don’t in any way believe in the need for a theory of film (any more than a theory of literature). I’ve got nothing against the fact that other people claim to construct one. But the idea that there is a filmic language, that you are going to distil the elements of this language, and that on this basis you are going to analyse films isn’t, in my view, of much interest. This still pertains to the idea of disciplines and fields, whereas cinema intermingles different sensory regimes: those of the literary imagination, sensitive viewing of a painting, musical emotion, etc. Film is the standardised form of the ‘total art-work’. I’ve spoken of the film fable, not of a theory of film, so as clearly to signal this heterogeneity of the object ‘cinema’. There is a tension between two regimes: a regime of narrative sequence and a regime of aesthetic suspension that is at the heart of the film. There is a mixture of sensory regimes. There’s the fact that cinema is both the name of a place, a form of entertainment, an idea of art, etc. There’s also the fact that cinema is something that has to be talked about. It’s not a library where all the works are at our disposal. It’s passing images, films that one has seen and essentially forgotten. The images are transformed as soon as they are seen, then transformed in people’s heads by a whole process of selection, and then Jacques Rancière and Indisciplinarity 7
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transformed by texts that talk about them. That’s why I think that narratological theories and methods aren’t very interesting, because no one watches a film like that (shot by shot or unit by unit). The very logic of cinema, that of the spectator, is precisely that the elements which occur are filtered; that people construct their own poem, their own film, with what is in front of them; and then they prolong it in words. This means that film, like literature, is not simply an art but constructs a world. About a world you don’t construct some theory but your own poem. V. Transmission of Forms of Knowledge: Pedagogy and Memory Q) In the last ten years, you’ve tackled the subject of the Shoah on several occasions and, in particular, given your opinion in the debate about the interdiction of representation (Arrêt sur histoire, Cahiers du cinéma, contribution to the volume edited by Jean-Luc Nancy, L’art et la mémoire des camps – reprinted in Le Destin des images).4 In these texts you seem to argue in favour of a necessary iconography of the Holocaust, stressing the idea that nothing is unrepresentable in itself but that, on the contrary, ‘in order to show Auschwitz, art alone is possible, because it is always the presence of an absence, because its labour consists in making something invisible visible to us, through the regulated power of words and images, whether connected or unconnected, because in this way it is the only thing capable of rendering the inhuman palpable’. a) Should we infer from this that the power and peculiarity of visual art are that they make seen what cannot be seen and that this is where the political and aesthetic vocation of catastrophic iconography is to be found? ‘Making something invisible visible’ is still too religious a formula. When people refer to the ‘invisibility’ of the extermination of European Jewry, they mix up two things. In effect, they project an ethico-religious prescription onto what is in the first instance the factual datum characteristic of a process: specific to the process of the extermination is the fact that it unfolded silently and applied itself to destroying its own traces. The artistic issue about the representation of extermination lies here: not in the question of whether one has the right to reconstruct a gas chamber and its victims, but in the fact that we possess almost exclusively the words of a small number of survivors to inform us about a process conducted in secret. In the case of Lanzmann, there is a specifically artistic choice which is to activate absence – an absence of the things in the words, an absence of traces in the sites – so as to make the process of the double disappearance felt, by disconnecting it from any embodiment of external causality. That is why the film begins in a place – Chelmno – where no concentration camp buildings survive. But Lanzmann and his supporters have blurred things by foregrounding the issue of the idolatry of images. For the problem precisely bears instead on what is to be represented and on the type of plot, the type of sequence to be employed to that end. Let’s take a different example: Alfredo Jaar has created several installations on the Rwandan massacre without a single image of massacred bodies, but usually by picturing and presenting various words: the names of places and persons. This is because the invisible thing to be made visible assumes a different meaning here. What is not visible, what had to be made visible, was that the victims of this mass murder were all individuals. They had to be given their names, an inscription in the order of discourse and memorial, because indifference to all these deaths in fact prolongs a certain invisibility, the feeling that these lives are external to the world of discourse. Another example: Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas have spoken about the war in Lebanon on the basis of material that attests to another form of invisibility: the films that there were no longer the resources to develop and print and which had become indecipherable when it was possible to do so. So for me there isn’t any iconography or poetics of
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catastrophe in general, only poetic or political choices which on the one hand are bound up with particular cases, and on the other run into aesthetic divisions that are not specific to these processes. b) Do you support Godard’s idea that ‘the history of cinema is that of a missed rendezvous with the history of its century’?5 Do you therefore think, like Godard in Histoire(s) de cinéma, that cinema’s error was that it wasn’t capable of filming the camps? This kind of statement belongs to a Heideggerian type of dramaturgy, in which one defines the essence of an epoch and a technology as the expression of that essence. There is no vocation of cinema to which it has been unfaithful, because ‘cinema’ is itself a heterogeneous object. And the very idea of a century is always a construct among other constructs. Godard effects a construct of this kind by constructing a cinema ‘forewarning’ of the extermination through various films (Faust, Nibelungen, La Règle du jeu, The Great Dictator, and so on), all of which might be entered into very different constructions. That’s to say, he uses a poetics of montage which is in fact a certain ‘poetics of the twentieth century’, in order to legitimise a quite different idea of cinema and its relationship to the century. But since this poetics ultimately goes back to a certain German Romanticism (that of Friedrich Schlegel and his ‘progressive universal poetry’ which fragments and recomposes the works of the past), this means that he uses a particular Romantic poetics in order to construct the image of a twentieth century determined by a different German Romanticism (that of Faust and the Nibelungen). The ‘missed rendezvous’ is in fact the fictional object constructed by a confrontation between poetics and temporalities. c) Discussing the cinematic work of Chris Marker, you write: ‘memory is a work of fiction’.6 Today, couldn’t this idea be well-nigh systematically extended to any (artistic) attempt at fictionalisation appropriate to the imagery of catastrophes? Once again, I don’t in any way believe in an imagery or fictionalisation appropriate to the representation of catastrophes, because I do not believe that there is a general, homogeneous figure of catastrophe. On the one hand, what I’m saying there applies to memory in general: it is always a selection, an articulation between fragments, a superimposition of non-synchronous temporal series. That is to say, it is always fiction, in the sense in which I intend it: the construction of a relationship between something visible and some meaning, between heterogeneous spaces and times. On the other hand, insistence on fictional labour assumes its full significance when what’s involved are those destructive phenomena that transform their victims into pure objects of a documentary gaze. Godard used to say ironically that epic was for the Israelis and documentary for the Palestinians. The artistic work of memory is that which accords everyone the dignity of fiction.

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This publication is supported by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as part of the Burgess programme run by the Cultural Department of the French Embassy in London. www.frenchbooknews.com

1 2

Jacques Rancière, La Mésentente, Paris: Galilée, 1995, p. 53. See ‘Sous les pavés, la page’, interview with Aude Lancelin, Le Nouvel Observateur, 8–14 February 2007, pp. 98-100: here p. 100. 3 See ‘Jacques Rancière: Literature, Politics, Aesthetics: Approaches to Democratic Disagreement’, interview with Solange Guénoun and James H. Kavanagh, Substance, no. 92, 2000, pp. 3-24. 4 See Jean-Louis Comolli and Jacques Rancière, Arrêt sur histoire, Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1997; Jacques Rancière, ‘La sainte et l’heritière: à propos des “Histoire(s) du cinéma”’, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 537, July–August 1999, pp. 58-61; Jacques Rancière, ‘S’il y a de l’irreprésentable’, in Le Destin des images, Paris: La Fabrique, 2003, pp. 123-53. 5 Jacques Rancière, La Fable cinématographique, Paris: Seuil, 2001, p. 217. 6 Ibid., p. 202.

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Jacques Rancière: Aesthetics is Politics1 Sophie Berrebi
In the 2005 Venice Biennale, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were represented for the first time in a shared Central Asia pavilion that presented a curious and seductive group exhibition entitled ‘A Contemporary Archive’. Several videos and installations included in the show conveyed a strange feeling of déjà vu, by reworking avant-garde forms of the 1970s and 1980s – Abramovic and Ulay’s Light/Dark (1977), Kabakov’s domestic interiors of Soviet Russia – to make them espouse a search for political and ethnic identity initiated by these new post-soviet republics. The way these artistic forms travelled from the past to change meaning in the present raised the question of the displacement of ‘critical’ art in new contexts and beyond this, the exhibition begged the question of whether or not it was possible to perceive the art of these countries independently from their specific political context. Whether or not this was possible, could the works nonetheless be interpreted as political, even though the title of the exhibition evoked the more restrained form of the archive? The interlacing of political motivations, re-use of avant-garde forms and use of the archive are the kind of question the French philosopher Jacques Rancière addresses in his recent book, Malaise dans l’esthétique. (Paris, 2004). Following his work in the field of political philosophy, Rancière’s interest has in recent years shifted towards visual culture and the relation between politics and aesthetics; two fields he perceives as inherently belonging to one another rather than being autonomous. While his new book reviews some of the theories developed earlier in The Aesthetics of Politics, (translated into English in 2004), it extends his reflection with the discussion of specific examples drawn from recent art exhibitions. Malaise dans l’esthétique seems to propose a working way of apprehending the political nature of aesthetics in the specific context of today’s art and provides at the same time a salutary demystification of the ‘critical art’ of the 1960s and its legacy. In order to achieve this, Rancière’s program is rather ambitious: it involves nothing less than shredding notions we usually happily go by with: modernism and postmodernism, autonomous art and avant-garde. His departure point is a reworking of the notion of aesthetics, a term, he argues, that has been under attack in recent French intellectual debates. He notably responds to publications by Alain Badiou, Jean-Marie Schaeffer and reiterates his long-term dialogue with Jean-François Lyotard’s work on the sublime. Going back to the origins of the term aesthetics, in the mid-eighteenth century, Rancière contends that aesthetics is not a discipline as it is usually defined but rather a particular ‘regime of identification of art’, that is, a particular way in which, in a given historical or social context, art is identified as art. Art therefore never exists as an abstraction, but is always tributary to the way it is perceived in different periods or regimes, of which Rancière identifies three.
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In the ethical regime, exemplified by Plato’s republic, a sculpture is gauged against the question of truthfulness and copy. In the representational regime the sculpture will be considered within the system of the hierarchy of genres and in relation to qualities such as skill and adequacy between subject matter and representation. In the representational regime the arts occupy a particular place in what Rancière has elsewhere called the ‘distribution of the sensible’, a notion that can be understood as the division of activities in a society. The aesthetic regime differs from the other two in that it no longer assigns to art a particular place in society, nor is art any longer defined by skill and practice: for this reason, the term art in the singular replaces the pluralized form of the (fine) arts. (Here, Thierry de Duve’s idea of art in general, motivated by Duchamp’s ready-made, comes to mind.) Stripped from these categorisations, what defines the work of art in the aesthetic regime is its belonging to what Rancière calls a specific ‘sensorium’— something like a way of being – in which it will be perceived as art. A paradox arises here, because this specific sensorium exists in a context in which art has not been attributed a specific place: the aesthetic regime rejects the distribution of the sensible. As a result, in the aesthetic regime art is constantly caught in a tension between being specifically art and merging with other forms of activity and being. This tension between art as art and art opening up onto life enables Rancière to argue that there is no such thing as the completion or failure of the modernist project as signified by the advent of postmodernism, just as it is simplistic to oppose strictly, as is often done, autonomous art and engaged art. Instead of these, he says, one can better speak of two ‘politics of aesthetics’: the politics of the ‘becoming life of art’ (le devenir vie de l’art) and the politics of the ‘resistant form’ (la forme resistante), which always exist together: In the first politics, the aesthetic experience resembles other forms of experiences and as such, it tends to dissolve into other forms of life. In the second politics of aesthetics – the resistant form – the political potential of the aesthetic experience derives from the separation of art from other forms of activity and its resistance to any transformation into a form of life. These two politics of aesthetics, although opposite, cannot be envisaged separately, but exist in a tension with one another. This principle anchors the political at the heart of the aesthetic. It permits, furthermore, to understand that opposite positions, such as for instance, Peter Bürger’s theory of the avant-garde as politically engaged and Theodor Adorno’s preservation of the autonomy of art are necessarily complementary. For the artistic generation engaged in ‘critical art’ in the 1960s, the question, argues Rancière, was not about negotiating between art and politics, but rather of finding a form that can exist in-between the two opposite aesthetics of politics. The critical art of the 1960s thus oscillates between legibility and illegibility, everydayness and ‘radical strangeness’. The heterogeneous forms emanating from Hans Haacke and Wolf Vostell try to establish what Rancière calls a micropolitics. The terms is perhaps ill-chosen in that it recalls the exhibition Micropolitiques (Magasin, Grenoble, 2000) which under the intellectual tutelage of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari brought to view artworks that favoured an immediate and restricted political impact (Kendell Geers, Philippe Meste). Rancière’s micropolitics, by contrast, designate a third term between the two politics of aesthetics of art as art and art as life. It is this that makes it impossible to read in a simplified way the art of the 1960s as politically committed, and by extension, annuls the idea of a postmodernity that acknowledged the impossibility of the political. Yet, the forms of these
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micropolitics developed by the artists of the 1960s have changed in contemporary practices. While the art of the 1960s expressed unambiguous positions (Haacke), today’s art functions on very different means. Rancière identifies these by looking at a series of exhibitions organised around the year 2000 in Europe and in the United States. There is the playful way, introduced by a description of Wang Du’s sculptural collage Les Temps du Monde (1998) presented in the exhibition Bruit de Fond (Centre National de la Photographie, Paris, 2000) in which derision and double-entendre has come to replace the straightforward denunciation operated by the art of the 1960s. Another category is that of the archive: the artist becomes a collector and archivist who in so doing, models her behaviour on practices of daily life and brings them together as art. The third category, the encounter, essentially repeats Bourriaud’s idea of relational aesthetics: art is there to bring social links between people where these have disappeared in modern society. Mystery, finally, is best embodied according to Rancière, by Jean-Luc Godard’s sense of montage. Rancière describes how Godard’s montage brings together heterogeneous elements to emphasise their proximity rather than their differences, constituting what Godard calls a ‘fraternity of metaphors’. These four categories similarly function along a principle of ambivalence: no position is made explicit, one thing and its opposite can be equally intended, equally acceptable. Beyond this perceptive point, there is some degree of flakiness in the categories defined, which, Rancière admits himself, are schematic. One of the problems is that they rely essentially on several exhibitions – Moving Images (Whitney Museum of Modern Art, New York), Let’s Entertain, (Walker art Centre, Minneapolis, and Centre Pompidou, Paris), Voilà, le Monde dans la tête (Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris) – the concepts of which Rancière never discusses at length. Similarly, he mentions works included in these shows without looking further into individual artists, with an offhandedness that suggests that these works may not deserve a lengthier commentary. But beyond these flaws, arguing that strategies of play, encounter, archive and mystery have underlying political motivations helps to usefully broaden the field and the manners in which these political aesthetics can be located, and stress the way in which, in the aesthetic regime, political aesthetics is always a result of the interchange between a work of art and its interpretation. While these art forms differ from those adopted by critical art in the 1960s, the context of their reception has also changed. Rancière notes in his somewhat provocative conclusion that paradoxically, this profoundly ambivalent, ‘undecided’ art is increasingly invited to play a role in a social context that is marked by the deficit of political action – here the use of social art in local political contexts is a case in point. There lies of course the challenge that contemporary art faces: really recompose political spaces or only parody them? The ambiguities of the Central Asian pavilion in Venice pointedly reflect this question. Its use of the term archive in its title adopts one of the strategies defined by Rancière. The archive as consensual collection, rather than selection resulting in the ambivalence underlined by the philosopher: the accumulation of works conveys no clear message, and that is true of most individual works in the show: Sergey Maslov’s Survival instructions for Ex-USSR citizens are simultaneously pitiful, ironic, pathetic and violent. The raw vision of naked women wrestling amidst severed heads of sheep promotes undiscriminatingly 2the idea of an overwhelming nature (Almagul Menlibayeva, A Wild Sheep Chase, 2002). But in this aesthetic regime, what further comes into prominence is the overall presence of this pavilion, both in the defined
Jacques Rancière: Aesthetics is Politics http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/berrebirev.html

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ART&RESEARCH: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods. Volume 2. No. 1. Summer 2008

place of the Venice Biennale and in the larger context of world politics. The undecided nature of the art takes on wider significance in light of the recent political events in the region. The association of the three countries concealed the very different realities of the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in March 2005 and the quasisimultaneous repression of demonstrations in Uzbekistan. Overlooking these recent developments, the Central Asia pavilion exudes above all a pragmatism that the art of the 1960s was devoid of and which functions along those consensual lines that Rancière finds in today’s art’s relation to politics and aesthetics. The Central Asia pavilion hence responds, or even turns around the paradox that Rancière described as the increased place given to ‘undecided’ art in contexts marked by a lack of political action. In a pragmatic gesture, the politically charged context in which the pavilion comes to Venice is evacuated altogether in favour of the political ambivalence of the works included and their absence of any reference to contemporary events (a different strategy was deployed by Mykola Babak who included as part of his installation for the Ukraine pavilion news footage of the Orange revolution of November-December 2004 as if it were a filmed performance piece)3. If the ambivalence of the works on the Central Asia pavilion were both tantalising and somewhat frustrating for the viewer, this stemmed perhaps from the unshakable burden of history that no viewer could ignore. Rancière’s definition of an ethical turn affecting aesthetics and politics offers a reflection on the way in which history perceived as trauma affects the aesthetics of politics. Rancière finds that films such as Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003) and Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003) illustrate this ethical turn by showing a world dominated by absolutes: to the infinite, invisible terror described by Bush’s War against terrorism there must be an infinite justice. Dogville showed how one responds to evil by evil, and Mystic River blurs ideas of guilt and innocence. These contemporary fables outline a context dominated by a lack of distinction between good and bad, a lack of measure and by the unrepresentable (that of terror, for instance). These two tendencies are tributary, in the ethical turn of the tension described earlier between the two aesthetics of politics: the indistinct emerges out of the consensual forms of art opening onto life and the unrepresentable derives from the desire to preserve the autonomy of art up to the point of following Adorno’s belief that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.4 While emanating from the two forms of aesthetics of politics, they express extreme positions that these aesthetics may come to assume in the ethical turn. The indistinct and the unrepresentable – which has been the subject of heated debates around Claude Lanzmann— are, however, not inevitable5. Rancière points out the conjunction between the resurgence of thought on the genocide and the collapse of the Eastern block in 1989, and argues that the discourse on the unrepresentable and on the indistinct conceals a fantasy of purity that needs to be shaken off to enable the democratic game of the aesthetics of politics to be preserved. In other terms, and in the specific case of the Central Asia pavilion, the pragmatism it demonstrates in its political ambivalence might be more positive than negative. Instead of suggesting a lack of conviction, it displays the micropolitics of a plurality of voices that, more than absolutes, is a token of the democratic nature of aesthetics and politics.

Jacques Rancière: Aesthetics is Politics http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/berrebirev.html

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ART&RESEARCH: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods. Volume 2. No. 1. Summer 2008

1

The present text is an updated version of an essay originally commissioned by the Dutch magazine, Metropolis M, and which appeared in Dutch as !Jacques Rancière: Esthetiek is politiek." Metropolis M. 26 (2005) 4 (Aug/Sep) p. 64–72.
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4

Mykola Babak, Your Children, Ukraine, 2004-2005. Ukraine Pavilion, Fondazione Levi. Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms, translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber (Camb. Mass.: MIT Press, 1967), p.34.
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On the subject of the unrepresentability of Auschwitz, also in relation to Claude Lanzmann, see Georges Didi-Huberman"s important book Images Malgré Tout. Paris, Editions de Minuit, 2003.

Jacques Rancière: Aesthetics is Politics http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/berrebirev.html

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