Jacques Rancière – The Politics of Aesthetics

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Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, Continuum, 2004.

For Rancière, aesthetics means “a specific regime for identifying and reflecting on the arts: a mode of articulation between ways of doing and making, their corresponding forms of visibility, and possible ways of thinking about their relationships”(10). It does not merely refer to “a theory of sensibility, taste, and pleasure for art amateurs” but refers to “the specific mode of being of whatever falls within the domain of art, to the mode of being of the object of art”(22). It is, rather than a general theory of art, a specific regime in which the relationship between the mode of all the object of art and the form of life matters. Aesthetics, for Rancière, is thus deeply related with the problems of politics, especially when it is in a certain sense involved in the issue of distribution. Aesthetics is concerned with the “distribution of the sensible,” and insofar as this notion is concerned with “the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective part and positions within it [system]”(12), it is the very problem of politics in which the citizens seek to take their own parts (shares) by participating in the community. The distribution of the sensible [le partage du sensible] is in its original sense closer to the “sharing” of the sensible. That is to say, it is not about something distributed (by somebody or a certain rule) but about the activities of sharing with which something is shared in common.

Although Rancière’s aesthetics which is at the same time politics seems to be related with Benjamin’s discussion on aesthetics and politics in his essay on the “work of art in the age of its mechanical reproducibility,” he refuses this relation: “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’”(13). For me, what Rancière should compare with his notion of “aesthetics at the core of politics” is not Benjamin’s notion of “aestheticization of politics” as a fascist way of politics. Rather he should take into consideration the context in which Benjamin discusses “politicizing art” as radical practice of communism. Maybe they are on the same page, but the difference between them is not on the level of their arguments but the logic of the process in which arts and politics reveal their relations.

As Susan Buck-Morss asserts, Benjamin’s essay is generally regarded as “an affirmation of mass culture and of the new technologies through which it is disseminated” in his praise of “the cognitive, hence political, potential of technologically mediated cultural experience (film is particularly privileged)”(3). For Benjamin, the development of new technologies affects and frames new forms of political and cultural experience. Thus, from this perspective, we can argue that only after the technological revolution, political revolution will follow – though it is first of all cognitive and perceptual revolution. In other words, the development of photography and film caused the birth of new forms of life – the masses as a new subject of politics in the twentieth century. Rancière points out that this is not the case. For him, “Benjamin’s thesis presupposes something different, which seems questionable to me: the deduction of the aesthetic and political properties of a form of art form its technical properties”(31).

Rancière reverses the Benjaminian proposition on the revolutionary procedure in the masses. According to him, “Photography was not established as an art on the ground of its technological nature,” and furthermore “photography did not become an art by imitating the mannerism of art”(33). In order for photography to be an art, it needed to appropriate the commonplace. Put in another way, “the technological revolution comes after the aesthetic revolution. [… ] however, the aesthetic revolution is first of all the honour acquired by the commonplace, which is pictorial and literary before being photographic or cinematic”(33). Before the new historicity of visuality, there was an aesthetic shift from grand narrative of heroes to the “life of the anonymous” (the masses) in literature which “was constituted as a kind of symptomatology of society”(33). This argument echoes Aristotelian thesis in Poetics where tragedy is regarded higher and more philosophical than history. For Rancière, the appearance of the masses as a new political and cultural subject is “rooted in the aesthetic logic of a mode of visuality”(34) instead of the deterministic logic of technology or Lacanian/Althusserian imaginary identification. In sum, “the circulation of these quasi-bodies [literature] causes modification in the sensory perception of what is common to the community, in the relationship between what is common to language and the sensible distribution of spaces and occupations” and eventually “they contribute to the formation of political subjects that challenge the given distribution of the sensible”(40).

Not because of technological reproducibility but due to the modification in the sensory perception – the shift from the system of representation towards the aesthetic regime of the arts – there could be the formation of the masses who we think as a new subjectivity having the potential of revolution. Nonetheless, I am wondering whether the formation of a new subjectivity is fixed only in that procedure. I think these two factors – (1)new forms of art or new forms of perception (the aesthetic), (2) new forms of life or new forms of subjectivity (the politic) – are coexistent and interdependent. Thus, Rancière’s perspective can be circular rather than dialectic.

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