The Two Jacques: Rancière, Lacan (a)
‘I never say what should be done or how to do it. I try to redraw the map of the thinkable in order to bring out the impossibilities and prohibitions that are often lodged at the very heart of thought that imagines itself to be subversive’.
Thus to insert one more epithet here: ‘[T]hose who are venturing into this labyrinth should be honestly forewarned that no answers will be provided them.’
So it seemed curious to me that up until now we have been treating with the dead. Of course death is a relative notion not at all absolute. That is to say, what is it to say that Aristotle, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida and Deleuze are dead? Clearly they have lived here, week after week. Some of you are writing them down to take off and put to work. Who works a corpse? The necrophiliac I suppose, but only on the proviso that what has died is truly dead. Are we flogging a dead horse here?
At the end of the Pheado, Plato’s dialogue in which Socrates takes the hemlock, this question of what lives is to the fore. But what is to live Socrates tells his followers is that which lives in anyone at all that cannot be killed, that for which death is nothing, and that is that we think, that we have this capacity, that it is what is actual or real in us, that it is not a matter of the body as such but what exceeds any such reduction. So he says to his friends, stop your blabbering about ends and attend to what lives and what lives exceeds the exigencies of life itself. It seems then that Anti-Platonism lives because Plato cannot die. He is in us, more than we know, the capacity for thought that exceeds us – that then makes of thought an idea which is not ours but is what is for all.
Anyway, Rancière, who lives, in the biological sense, is no fan of Plato. And in some other work I have been critical of him on this because I think he misses this aspect precisely, that to think is what is for all. The irony is that this is effectively what is central to Rancière – this ‘equal capacity for thought’ not reducible to some already determined predication, some set out of what it can and must be, subject in turn to some regime of determination. Hence our treating with the dead and the living is a false opposition because effectively we treat in Rancière what we treat in Nietzsche or what we treat in Socrates too. The only difference when we treat here with Rancière is that he is still making new work out of this living work, adding to what is already an infinite space of production, encounter, participation. Rancière is making himself live, we might say, Ideally?
Rancière has written a lot of books and a lot since the 90’s on aesthetics. Clearly already a theme which would put Plato at a distance for whom art had its condition and its place. 2019’s Aesthesis, a series of interventions, or a string of dramatic and evocative locales, as the blurb accurately states, moves from Dresden in 1764 and Winkelman’s appreciation of the Belvedere Torso to the photographs illustrating the era of the New Deal America in the 1930’s, passing by way of film sets, factories, Hegel at the museum, Mallarmé at the Folies Bergère, Stendahl’s Plebian, Emerson lecturing and so on, each oriented by a long quote which is not so much read closely as it is an occasion: an occasion for the speaking body to enter into language. It’s not a chronology nor a history, it's a method in itself.
In a real way this work probably concretises but does not finalise what Rancière has been doing – I hesitate to say working toward – for over 50 years now; marking passages in thought – all thought, for Rancière, being the passage of the sensible as such. Thus politics and art appear in Rancière as distinct only insofar as they manifest discrete formations of the sensible as such. Occasions for thought … I’m sure we have heard that before, as a description of the dialogues, no?
Ranciere’s approach is quite unique: in the words of his old comrade, Alain Badiou, Rancière inhabits unknown intervals ‘between history and philosophy, between philosophy and politics, and between documentary and fiction. He is an archivist diving about in local and workers archives of the 19th century; a genealogist more than a historian; a historian more than a philosopher; but a philosopher more than a political or literary theorist and yet his most sustained field of exploration has been what he calls aesthetics.’
Note Badiou says, ‘what he calls aesthetics’ because while it is aesthetics that he defends, what he defends of aesthetics is that which aesthetics is most often criticised for – especially in the modernist and post-modernist theoretical projects. I’ll return to this but this defense of aesthetics, which is not the aesthetics of the contemporary critique, while also not being the aesthetics of the anti-aestheticians like Plato, is typical of Rancière’s methodological strategy. He always takes up critique as a war on two fronts. This because, as we have already seen, so much critique of one sort or another is structured in a dualism which is the very condition of its possibility. Rancière never conflates the two poles of any dualism nor does he dialecticise per se but he undermines both sides by denuding the dualism of its operational function which is what unifies the two poles, finally: they both work the same territory from opposite ends as it were. Rancière shows that they share what they disavow.
I don’t want to get biographical but it’s worth noting that Rancière’s early break with Louis Althusser, whose student and collaborator he had been, is key to his entire approach since and the reasons for this are chronicled with some brilliance in his work from 1974, The Lesson of Althusser’ or Althusser’s Lesson, which he refers to as his ‘first clearing of the terrain’. In a short piece, Rancière describes the terms of his break with Althuser this way:
It ‘started with the question: how did it happen that this radical re-foundation of revolutionary Marxism [Althusser’s project] ended up providing the restoration of the Academic order with its sharpest theoretical weapons?’
In other words, what Rancière wanted to know was how a project setting out to critically re-think the conditions of emancipation, of a substantive equality, of how the apparatus’ of the state – repressive and ideological – worked and reproduced themselves, ended up serving these very forces of hierarchy, stratification and stultification – the keeping in place of all place we might say. Of in fact re-enforcing the notion of the necessity of some master or other to watch over, secure, educate and order the everyday life of everyone of us. In the Lesson of Althusser, all this is set out critically with regard to Althusser’s project.
Based on this break – thus with the project that supposed itself the contradiction of its opposite – Rancière set out to read the histories of emancipation, struggle, resistance, everyday life etc., in an entirely new way and to build a new framework for doing so. This meant having done with both sides of these histories – the official versions, let’s say, of the right and the official left. But what made them both similar for Rancière was what he called their distributions of sense. That’s to say, the setting up of the framework of interpretation and determination such that certain places were maintained, certain positions could only be inhabited by certain types of people and others could have no place therein. For Rancière, the key to emancipation was to undo the regime of placements, the distributions of sense – ontological and epistemological in other words – that set us up to inhabit what one side or other determined to be adequate to their Ideal vision of political or artistic or social construction.
In this vein, Rancière wrote a great book called The Ignorant Schoolmaster which ostensibly follows the life and trajectory of a strange fellow in the early 19th century called Joseph Jacotot. Jacotot establishes or more exactly discovers a method of teaching that he comes to call the universal or emancipatory method. What is emancipatory about it is that it’s a method by which anyone can teach what they don’t know.
You could say that’s what all teachers are doing, right? But of course they are not because there are institutions, traditions behind them; letters attached to their name signifying the great chain of knowledge of which they are a part. Government’s stake their legitimacy on these knowledges, on their testing and assessment and so on. Hierarchies are formed and maintained, order is kept and so on, on the basis of this formation. And of course we are told this is how we become free.
The method of Jacotot was simple, Rancière says:
‘At the most immediate empirical level, an ignorant schoolmaster is a teacher who teaches that which is unknown to him or her. It is thus that Joseph Jacotot unexpectedly found himself, in the 1820s, teaching Flemish students whose language he did not know and who did not know his, by using a fortuitous text, a bilingual edition of Télémaque being published in Brussels. He put it in his students’ hands and told them, through an interpreter, to read half of the book with the aid of the translation, to constantly repeat what they had learned, to read the other half quickly, and to write in French what they thought of it. He was said to be astonished at the way these students, to whom he had not transmitted any knowledge, had, following his command, learned enough French to express themselves very well, how he had thus educated them without teaching them anything. From this, he concluded that the act of the teacher who obliges another intelligence to exercise itself was independent of the possession of knowledge, that it was indeed possible that one who is ignorant might permit another who is ignorant to know some-thing unknown to both, possible that a common, illiterate person might, for example, permit another illiterate person to learn to read.’
It sounds Socratic: he doesn’t know and effectively he doesn’t teach, either. Socrates was adamant that he didn’t teach, what puts things into motion here is an act and not some knowledge; what educates is the taking up of what the act enables and the students learn in their own fashion what is possible for them. They are not submitted to a knowledge known as such and to which they must conform to be educated. We can see here in fact a hint of the Socrates/Plato distinction insofar as Plato would be the figure who by writing Socrates down, as it were, constructs a body of knowledge where an act and a possibility once stood. Rancière says:
‘Whoever teaches without emancipating stultifies. And whoever emancipates doesn’t have to worry about what the emancipated person learns. He will learn what he wants, nothing maybe. He will know he can learn because the same intelligence is at work in all the productions of the human mind, and a man can always understand another man’s words.’
The ‘ignorant master’ commits an act of dissociation between master of knowledge and learning as such. He is, Rancière says, ‘only a will that sets a person down a path … the ignorant master is not one who sets in chain and in so doing reproduces the infinite chain of explanations.’
Jacotot’s method caused a bit of a stir at the time; people came from all over to see it in action and they tried to reproduce it in institutions and created a journal for its transmission and discussion but it necessarily failed under such conditions or turned into its opposite. Jacotot himself had said the emancipatory method ‘will not take’: it’s a ‘matter for individuals’ he said but the key thing about it was that this matter for individuals was based entirely on the Idea that people think or that people have an equal capacity for thought. Thus it was for anyone at all, as he showed.
This equality, however, as you might see, is presupposed or axiomatic. It is the base principle upon which the method worked – anyone can think what anyone else has thought. Rancière asks: ‘What would it mean to make equality a presupposition rather than a goal, a practice rather than a reward situated firmly in some distant future so as to all the better explain its present infeasibility?’
If you start with this equal capacity, that equality exists here and now, you don’t have to run about looking for it or even suppose, like some pedagogue of progress, that you have the answer to its lack and make all sort of promises about it coming, which is only, finally, to widen the gap between the promise and the abolition. Nor do you just suppose it’s impossible and settle back into inequality as a natural state. The vacillation between the pedagogues of progress and the natural state solution is where we are at today – hence the war on two fronts.
In the afterword to his quite amazing book, The Philosopher and His Poor – ostensibly a work looking at how philosophy or theory or sociology etc. – knowledge in short – has treated the poor, the worker, the uneducated, who it purports to save in just this way, he says:
‘this egalitarian axiom subtends in the last instance the inegalitarian order itself. It is in vein that the superior gives orders to his inferior if the inferior does not understand at least two things: first, the content of the order, and second, that he must obey it. But for the inferior to understand this, he must already be the equal of the superior.’
It’s quite simple, really! For any seemingly natural inequality or hierarchy to function, it necessarily relies on an equality – that the saying of one be understood by another. This pertains, for Rancière, to the immediacy of speech as to the words of a book.
For Rancière, language is the medium of this equality and as such it underpins all speech and so all discourse. In other words, discourse, which for Rancière, is the means of the distribution of the sensible, the means of setting things in their [supposed] place, presupposes this equality.
Speaking of Jacotot and reiterating the question of the institutions, but in the context of the present, he says:
‘For him, equality could only be intellectual equality among individuals. It could never have a social consistency. Any attempt to realise it socially led to its loss. It seemed to me [Rancière] that every form of egalitarian politics was confronted by this challenge: to affirm equality as an axiom, as an assumption, and not as a goal. But also to refuse a partition between intellectual equality and social inequality; to believe that even if egalitarian assumptions are alien to social logic and aggregation, they can be affirmed there transgressively, and that politics consists of this very confrontation.’
Now it’s important to note something else about the way Rancière goes about things: for example, the book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, ostensibly about a guy in the early 19th C, is really an intervention into the present (the Bourdieu/Milner antagonism over the ‘school’). Not as part of a debate or as history but to establish this method as existing (if we want it) within and contra the present state of things.
This is probably the best instance of what has continuously preoccupied him: ‘theoretically, the consideration of the philosophical, historical, material relations between knowledge and the masses’ and methodologically, because he is a master of the archives of digging out unknown things and reinscribing them back into the world of the present, of presenting them as what we are.
‘Jacotot’s ideas about intellectual emancipation, Rancière shows, placed back-to-back two dominant positions on the relation between knowledge and the people: both assert an equality as the outcome of their preferred relation. One, what he calls in the French context the Republican assertion (Milner), based equality on the universality of knowledge and the teacher’s role; the other, the sociological method championed by Bourdieu, on a ‘science’ of the social arrangement for transmitting knowledge.’
Rancière says: ‘what I showed, on the contrary, was that a speaking being [note this term] is first of all the person who breaks this logic of expression, the one who puts words into circulation—that is, who uproots words from their assigned mode of speaking or of being, according to which workers should speak in ‘workers’ style’ and the masses should express themselves in ‘popular culture.’
‘The basic problem’, he argues, ‘was to show that many efforts that believe they ‘respect others’ differences’ by entering into ‘their’ language and ‘their’ ways of thinking, only repeat Plato’s adage that one should stay in his/her place and do his/her own thing.’ This is what the two modes above end up doing, he argues. The Republican accepts there is an order of knowledge and teaches so as to place individuals in those places. The second supposes, relative to the same hierarchical stratifications that it is doomed to repetition and instead we need to affirm or valorise these differences. And of course the means of this valorisation, the knowledge of it, will be provided by those who know the science of it.
In a nutshell, this uprooting of words from assigned modes, and people from assigned places is the driving motive of Rancière’s work.
‘And indeed following this very concern with the available instances of disorder, these very categories are rendered essentially indistinct insofar as each depends on some form of the relation between words and things and thus on language and so the capacity to make use of it in any way. Rancière reduces this to three contingent and coincident things: seeing, saying, doing.
This is how R understands the term aesthetics; as the positive collapse of these categories – historical, political or literary – into being various formulas for the distribution of the sensible:
“that system of sensible evidences that reveals both the existence of a communality and the divisions that define in it respectively assigned places and parts’
Rancière wants to turn this inside out, so to speak: Thus, ‘Aesthetics is not a domain of thought whose ‘object’ is sensibility. It is a way of thinking the paradoxical sensorium that henceforth made it possible to define the things of art’.
You can see here the inversion of the Platonic concern with Art, which, as we know, was a concern with politics, too, via the educational apparatus subject to the theatrical form. But it’s not an inversion as opposition which requires the same object be thought, rather an insistence that aesthetics is the form of thought itself, unshackled from the determination of some object.
Hence by paradoxical sensorium he means that the sensible is not defined by oppositions [or distributions] such as that between ‘works and nature’ or ‘art and life’ but that these are all of the same ‘sensible regime’. ‘Aesthetics then’, he says, ‘is the thought of a new disorder…’ Which certainly Plato was concerned by: it was the very threatening power of art.
Rancière says: ‘I use ‘aesthetic’ in two senses—one broad, one more restrained. In the broad sense, I speak of an ‘aesthetic of the political’, to indicate that politics is first of all a battle about perceptible/sensible material. In the restrained sense, ‘aesthetic’ designates for me a specific system or regime of art, opposed to the re-presentative system. The aesthetic system proposes the products of art as equivalents of the intentional and the non-intentional, of the completed and the non-completed, of the conscious and the unconscious… It exempts the products of art from representative norms, but also from the kind of autonomy that the status of imitation had given them. It makes them into both autonomous, self-sufficient realities, and into forms of life.’
Rancière says his books are always forms of intervention in specific contexts. He has never intended to produce a theory of politics, aesthetics, literature, cinema or anything else. He thinks that there is already a good deal of them… Rather, ‘these interventions are essentially staging’s or restagings of scenes and situations, readings and events and so on, based on the question: where are we?’ Note not what are we or how should we… etc.
This, he says, means two things at once: ‘how can we characterise the situation in which we live, think and act to-day?’ But also, by the same token: ‘how does the perception of this situation oblige us to reconsider the framework we use to ‘see’ things and map situations, to move within this framework or get away from it?’; or, in other words, ‘how does it urge us to change our very way of determining the coordinates of the ‘here and now’?’
To put it another way: Rancière is only interested in ideas at work, insofar as for him:
‘Ideas always are material realities, taking over bodies, giving them a map of the visible and orientations for moving.’ Thus it’s not ‘democracy’ for instance,’ that he addresses his interventions too ‘but ‘democracy’ voiced in sentences that stage its possibility or impossibility, not ‘politics’ in general but discourses and practices which set the stage of its birth or of its fading away, of those who are included in it and those who are not, etc.’
He gives these examples:
‘it may be the well-known statement of Aristotle on the difference between human speech and animal voice, but also the verses of a poet (Wordsworth) describing how the landscape of the French Revolution appears to a young traveller, or the narration of the scene on the Aventine where what is at issue is to know whether plebeians do or do not speak; this can be the manifesto of tailors on strike asking for ‘relationships of equality’ with the masters, the verse of Homer that gives the first definition of the demos as the collection of those who are not entitled to speak, the statement of a French Prime Minister that ‘France cannot take in all the misery of the world’, the statement made by Olympe de Gouges that women must be allowed to go to the tribune since they are allowed to go to the scaffold, etc.’
What we can see across these statements of Rancière on his own method is the intrinsic linking up of words, actions and things: it’s theatrical but it’s not theatre per se, poetic but not poetry, prosaic but not prose – thus not a well-established discourse approaching another object for it. The point being, that Rancière forges the indiscernibility of these distinctions which for him are the means of the distribution of the sensible: again, the determination of who is included in what and by which means and who thereby is not.
David Panagia remarks, on this distribution: it denotes ‘…the tension between a specific act of perception and its implicit reliance on preconstituted objects deemed worthy of perception. This tension is expressed through the related concept of dissensus, which is at once a dissent from inequality and an insensibility…’
‘A partage du sensible is thus the vulnerable dividing line that creates the perceptual conditions for a political community and its dissensus. The focus of Rancière’s entire work is to examine the lines that divide and connect.’
Rancière notes: ‘This dividing line has been the object of my constant study’. Indeed, as Panagia contnues, ‘the focus of Rancière’s entire work is to examine the lines that divide and connect political allegiances, social organisations and aesthetic formations. Whether it is the rise of democratic revolutions in the eighteenth century and their polemical relationship to the writing of history (NH), or the appropriations of the time of night through the writing of poetry by nineteenth century factory workers (NL), or his analyses of the thwarted trajectory between the mechanical art of cinema and its artistic vocations (FF), or of course the way Plato organises the good city by way of precisely the division between the intelligible and the sensible … Rancière’s work begins with the premise that our world is composed of lines in constant movement, alignment and realignment. “This dividing line”, is none other than the partition that establishes the forms of correspondence and disaggregation between collectivities, as well as between the collages of words and images, and between the assemblages of peoples that he approaches from an aesthetic point of view: with a sensibility to the perceptual preconditions that make subjectivities at once visible, audible and available to our attentions.’
Rancière always constructs his argumentation as a re-staging of a limited number of such scenes or events of discourse but the same distribution runs through them. It is also important to remark that he introduces no hierarchy in the selection of its scenes. ‘The Marxist tradition and all the tradition of social science, he argues, distinguishes two kinds of words: there are the words in which people express a situation as they feel it, and there are the words by which science accounts for a situation and for the ways in which those who are part of it can feel it and express their feeling.’
But, for Rancière, words are still words, arguments are still arguments, narratives are still narratives. The main point is not what they explain or express, it is the way in which they stage a scene or they create a commonsense: things that the speaker and those who hear it are invited to share – as a spectacle, a feeling, a phrasing, a mode of intelligibility.
Words he says ‘map a landscape of the possible’.
It’s this distribution of the sensible that is at stake in his concept of aesthetics:
‘that aesthetics be the disruption of specified hierarchical distributions that take as their basis some form of knowledge which axiomatically disavows the capacity of others to either speak, to know, to produce or create and so on.’
Again for Rancière, equality is axiomatic, actual, here and now, in the sense above – and so any attempt to speak about art or politics or how to live etc., from any other perspective is simply to restore within discourse the form of a knowledge which seeks to put it in its place, to purify it of confusions and to bring to it a proper distribution of the sense inherent to it. Hence, Plato’s Idea.
Aesthetics, for Rancière, names a regime of sense such that it makes possible in art the breaking of this policed distribution: an artwork is what does not conform to this distribution of sense and yet is not thereby, nothing.
An art work or a politics is an exception within a given normal regime of sense. It marks an otherwise than that, so to speak, which is available to all. ‘This conception shares with Derrida the focus on a sort of atopic space, a no-where between Idea and copy, being and appearing, so like khora or pharmakon; and with Deleuze, too, an insistence on the immanent and indiscernible point of reversibility that must be there, the underside of any determination, so to speak.’
In his reconstruction of art, politics etc., from this point out as it were, Rancière is quite like Foucault insofar as this reconstruction of sense are new genealogies of the field. Genealogies because there is no single determinate and ontological foundation but as reconstructive genealogies of a material reality, as it were, they are not of course subject to some Ideal outside themselves.
In his reconfiguration of the genealogy of art he says:
‘I distinguish between three regimes of art. In the ethical regime, works of art have no autonomy. They are viewed as images to be questioned for their truth and for their effect on the ethos of individuals and the community.’
In the representational regime, works of art belong to the sphere of imitation, and so are no longer subject to the laws of truth or the common rules of utility. They are not so much copies of reality as ways of imposing a form on matter. As such, they are subject to a set of intrinsic norms: a hierarchy of genres, adequation of expression to subject matter, correspondence between the arts, etc.
The aesthetic regime overthrows this normativity and the relationship between form and matter on which it is based. Works of art are now defined as such, by belonging to a specific sensorium that stands out as an exception from the normal regime of the sensible, which presents us with an immediate adequation of thought and sensible materiality.’
For Rancière, the main tendencies in aesthetic theory over the last twenty or thirty years have basically seen in the aesthetic regime a confusion that they somehow need to clear up.
‘to distinguish analysis of aesthetic attitudes – thus an analytic study of our understanding of beauty – from speculative aesthetics which errs in its positing of the absolute as its way of overcoming the problem bequeathed by K of the distinction between sense and thought of which art marks the problem… to overcome the Romantic confounding of thought and sense and practice…’
R says: ‘if aesthetics is the name of a confusion, nevertheless it’s this confusion that permits us to identify what pertains to art: its objects, modes of experience and forms of thought – the very things the denunciation of aesthetics assumes to isolate…’
He proposes four ways to overcome this determination that aesthetics marks as a confusion. between art and life, that needs fixing. Note he doesn’t want to overcome the confusion so called – which it isn’t anyway – but the discursive determination, the distributions it is subject too.
Aesthetics, in Rancière’s terms, then, marks the ruin of old canons that set art objects against those of everyday life; that determine what is a subject of art and thus what must not be.
Now we can see that one thing Rancière does by this is show that these old canons of art are essentially set up in the so called Platonic mode – hierarchy of the Idea – thus of what Art is and the distribution of places based on this and so things proper to the space of art, things proper to everyday life: separation, division etc., vis a vis the Idea. Which is of course the determination of what Art or Politics is – always. The political dimension to this is clear: the artistic expression of the everyday marks a change in the policed distribution of what art can be and thus what life is constituted by.
For Rancière, aesthetic revolutions are intimately related to social ones. The point is that for a work to even exist as a work of art, a certain sensibility must exist – a certain gaze, a certain form of thought whereby such an identification is possible. The work of art must be more than just an image – there must be some ‘art’ in it.
‘It’s not judged by its resemblance to something else but by what exceeds that modality of resemblance, that form of judgement itself’ But also it can’t just be the technique; a work of art has to be more than the effect of following the rules of making it – same goes for politics. In short, it must be answerable to the Idea.
Hence, for Rancière , against this form of relation, Aesthetics, like Politics is not a discipline configured as such in theory or by philosophy: it’s the name for a specific regime for the identification of art. This is subject, then, to a whole range of factors, outside art itself as well as pertaining to it.
For example, Rancière says: ‘new discoveries in archeology changed the way people of Hegel’s time related to Greek sculpture: that is to say, the life world of the Greeks was understood differently and thus art works had to take on new meaning – and could be deployed as the arbiters of artistic form as they had been … At the same time art works themselves were opened up to the public via the museum for example – they were liberated from the great houses of the rich… a certain democratisation… which meant new art and also new associations between artworks … and works of various content were seen together as works of art equally… thus a pair of shoes is as good a subject of art as a Duke or a Prince or some Greek myth… thus a regime of sense, covering many facets of human experience and history and thought etc. exists in which art is then identified…’
And Rancière stresses that it was not the philosopher/aestheticians – he means specifically Kant, Hegel and Schiller but you can see the form runs ultimately back to Plato even if the terms are somewhat reversed – who invented all these changes. These occurred multilaterally, so to speak, ‘across the fields of human endeavour.’
New ways of writing, new subjects of works; political revolutions, historical discoveries etc. – these form the contest of the new thinking called Aesthetics, he argues. ‘[T]hey grasped and conceptualized the fracturing of the regime of identification in which the products of art were perceived and thought…the rupturing of the model of adequation between poesis (making) and aesthesis (experience of sensible) established by the norms of mimesis’
In other words, aesthetics thinks the dissolution of old canons and their emphasis on ‘ways of doing’ for the ‘ways of sensible being’. Aesthetics is a challenge for thought, precisely because it is the site of that contradiction between what is not just life and what cannot not be inscribed within what is life: ‘The origin of art, Hegel had said, resides in the act of the child who skims stones, transforming the surface of the water, that of natural appearances, into a surface for the manifestation of his lone will.’
But, Rancière adds, ‘the child who skims stones is also a child whose artistic ability is contingent with the world in which he lives; of proximate noises, of nature and material life equally… this child cannot be conceived in both aspects without contradiction but whoever seeks to suppress this contradiction seeks to suppress art and the aesthetic sentiment one thinks one is preserving – by doing so!’
The complication to add is that human nature is also at the same time a social nature. The representative regime, for Rancière, had a conception of human nature already tied to a form of knowledge, of distribution of sense: and so works of art had to show this in their subjects and in their subject matter: thus representations of nobles and classical poses etc. all exalting the dignity of human nature or some such Idea, and thus a hierarchy is effected not just in what an art work to be one must represent but in the spectator too – who was up to the task of viewing art as such… you had to be able to recognise or affect the right sensibility. Thus, in this regime of sense, artists were workers and most people were incapable of ‘knowing’ art.
For Rancière, then, aesthetics names the thought of the new disorder which begins for him when ideas of human nature no longer have the power to determine forms of social being. A new equality emerges onto the scene and art and politics is reconsidered in terms of it'.
It’s this impossible idea of aesthetics that Rancière defends – that aesthetics is always the thinking of what disorders the distribution of sense of any given time; it’s a ‘dissensus’ precisely, and this against the various returns to a separation between art and life privileging the sensibilities of some over the activities of the many and thus, as he says, ‘there is always a politics within an aesthetics’, which in itself disabuses philosophy of its power to discern the place of each within its supposedly universal distribution of sense.
Alison Ross & Jean-Phillpe Deranty (eds.), Jacques Rancière and the Contemporary Scene
Jean-Phillpe Deranty (ed.) Rancière: Key Concepts
Davide Panagia, Ten Thesis for an Aesthetics of Politics
Paul Bowman & Richard Stamp (eds.), Reading Ranciere