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‘The Politics of Aesthetics’: Jacques Rancière Interviewed by Nicolas Vieillescazes

Translation by Anna Preger

Art and politics

N.V.: Your thought mainly revolves around mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, around a great divide defining positions and shares, determining who may and who may not take part in an activity (primarily, in political practice), and which you term, in recent works, “the distribution of the sensory” (le partage du sensible), thus bringing to light the aesthetic origin of politics. But you also have this second, more historical proposition that the “aesthetic regime of art” which appeared towards the end of the 18th century is inextricably linked to the birth of modern politics, in which the novel figures of the people and the proletariat emerged as political actors. 

1) Could you explicate this historical link between politics and aesthetics, and the manner in which it is articulated with your more general (if not more fundamental?) thesis of a distribution of the sensory?

J.R.: The birth of aesthetics as a regime of identification of art signifies the overthrow of a set of hierarchies that determined the status of artistic practices and the very nature of their sensory perception: a hierarchy of the arts and genres determined by the lowliness or nobility of their subjects, that is, ultimately by the rank held by the characters and activities they represented; the subordination of works and practices to social destinations defined within an hierarchically structured world; the definition of taste as a form of sensibility that was the preserve of an elite; the definition of the very practice of art according to the scheme of an active form commanding passive matter. Aesthetics represents the destruction of this edifice: all subjects begin to share an equal status thanks to the reinstatement of genre painting versus historical painting; the production of works without destination comes with the development of museums; the revocation of the form/matter model and Kant’s definition of universality without a concept of aesthetic judgement.  It is this sea change that is taken into account when Schiller translates in political terms Kant’s “free play” of the faculties. Aesthetics emerges as the theory of an experience of sensory neutralization, of a concrete experience of the oppositions that structured the hierarchical world-view. This is why, for Schiller and the Romantics after him, it was possible to contrast a revolution in the very forms of sensory life with the revolutionary overthrow of the forms of government. But, alongside the great programmes of aesthetic revolution, a far more diffuse process occurs by which workers, ordinarily destined for a life of “passive” production or reproduction, internalize aesthetic attitudes, ways of disassociating their gaze from the labour performed by their arms or their language from the language forms of their social milieu. Workers’ emancipation came about through these processes of break which are not counter-cultural phenomena but ways of neutralizing the distinctions and hierarchies in which a condition was associated with a way of being, of feeling and of speaking.

2) More generally, how are the discourses of history and philosophy connected in your work? For on the one hand your thesis of a distribution of the sensory appears to be a trans-historical philosophical statement; on the other, after a properly historical study centred on the critique of discourses of mastery, your work seems to have gradually reverted back to philosophy, which seems to me to characterize the general evolution of French thought over the last twenty or thirty years.

 J.R.: There is no opposition between a trans-historical orientation and an historical critique. Philosophy, as I practise it, is not a science of the Eternal. It deals with the singular knots that bring into being this or that configuration of experience: art, politics, social life, philosophy itself. I embarked on a study of workers’ archival resources because I wanted to escape the dogmatic categories for thinking history, the workers’ movement, class struggle, etc. I set these against the uniqueness of the workers’ emancipation by mobilizing the resources of the historian, the philosopher and the writer, that is to say by blurring the boundaries that are meant to separate not only disciplines, but also the theoretical and the empirical, the scientific and the poetic. When working on Plato’s texts on the division of labour, Aristotle’s texts on the unique sensibility of the political animal or Hannah Arendt’s work on “political life”, I did so by constantly translating these propositions into the terms of the distribution of the sensory that I analyzed in its most concrete form through the workers’ archives: I approached Plato’s work on the artisan’s “absence of time” via a carpenter’s texts, and the difference between Aristotle’s human speech and animal voice through 19th century strikers’ manifestoes. It is not a case of a return from history to philosophy but rather a constant use of one form of discourse and knowledge so as to challenge another. The historical helps to deconstruct philosophical truisms, but, moreover, philosophical categories help to identify what is widely at stake in what historians always present as realities and mentalities that cannot be dissociated from their context. I wished in this way to allow for a thinking capacity that resists confinement within disciplinary boundaries that function as taboos. To go from the historical mode to the philosophical mode and vice-versa means that thought is one and that everyone thinks.

3) How does a distribution of the sensory come about? And how do new “regimes” emerge? Your notion of the sensory indeed appears to function in a similar manner to Foucault’s concept of “savoir” (knowledge), and, like him, you seem to carefully keep your distance with the historical causality model, rather positioning yourself at the level of the eruption of events, in order to define combinations and configurations.

J.R.: Regimes are not separated from one another by thunderclaps or by a clash of cymbals. A regime is not a radical historical irruption that would annul another regime. The birth of “literature” as a new historical regime of art took place without a single manifesto, without an institution of new rules. And it took place by reinventing a tradition: the Romantics reinvented the Greek tragedy, against its Classical domestication. They set out to mobilize Rabelais, Cervantes and Shakespeare against the norms of the poetic arts and the distinction of genres. Art critics mobilize the Venetian colour, the Dutch chiaroscuro or the village scenes of Flanders against norms of the Beautiful inherited from Raphael’s drawing technique and Poussin’s composition. They create a vision of the painting as gesture of the artist and the metamorphosis of matter, thus an “abstract” vision that precedes by a long stretch abstract painting proper. There is thus a mutation in the regime of perception that lends a non-figurative visibility to figurative paintings. A regime is thus an articulation of materials, forms of perception and categories of interpretation that are not contemporaneous. This articulation never defines a necessary structure. There are possibilities that define new emergences, but there is no limit that would render impossible certain forms of art. And art forms themselves are very often a mixture of several logics. This is what I have attended to with regards to film: it was considered, by the authors of 1910s-1920s manifestoes, as the art of light and movement that would cast into oblivion the old narrative art of stories and characters. Yet film did no less than reinstate the art of stories and characters precisely at the point when literature was discarding it. And it settled in the position of a mixed art in which the logic of history and that of the visible ceaselessly intertwine, unite or separate themselves from one another.

4) Which conditions determine the political or artistic status of an object, an interaction or a situation?  Because, as you have argued, the presence of power does not necessarily entail that of politics, and the presence of painting, poetry, etc., does not always entail that of art, are art and politics not characterized by rarity then, and does your thought not articulate within a framework similar to that of Alain Badiou’s philosophy? Do you think that  ‘eventiality’ is the necessary precondition of art or politics? This would have two consequences: the first would be a form of idealism, with the reintroduction of an abstract Idea functioning as the norm of an activity; the second, contiguous to the first, would be the reintroduction of the question of the legitimacy of the judge, of the one who is qualified to determine the true nature of things, and who distinguishes himself, by this, from the layman, or even the profanum vulgus: who can decide the political or artistic character of an object?

J.R.: Your question presupposes a thesis that is not mine. When I say that there is no art in general, it is not because I make art subordinate to some kind of volcanic eventiality. It is a fact that art as a concept for a specific sphere of practices and experiences only emerges in Europe at the end of the 18th century. It is also a fact that it emerges as an undifferentiated concept, free from the forms of normativity that used to define the arts, genres, etc. Art becomes a specific reality when the objective criteria defining the inclusion of a given practice within a defined art form, or enabling the assessment of the quality of works pertaining to this art form, disappear. The consequence is not the establishment of a body of almighty judges. The consequence, rather, is that, as Mallarmé upheld, the works must “prove themselves”, that is to say they must propose singular formulas of this power that is henceforth unbound by norms. Further, this results in a multiplication of formulas, a multiplication of exchanges between art and its other. Criticism itself then becomes a sort of supplementary art more than an instance of normative judgement.

The same goes for politics. Because politics is not identified through power, because there is nothing that is political in itself, a multiplicity of inventions emerge, which are so many ways of challenging the limits within which politics was more or less confined and confiscated. To define things that are properly political, distinguishing them for example from that which is social, is the point of view I refer to as “police.” Yet political action starts when this distribution is called into question, when collectives use this or that “social” issue to define a capacity for thinking and acting that pertains to all. With art and with politics, inventions and subjectifications constantly reconfigure the landscape of what is political and what is artistic. 

5) If art is necessarily political, then how do we distinguish “engaged art” from other art forms? What can “engaged art” stand for?

J.R.: I did not say that art is necessarily political but that politics is inherent in the forms themselves, for example the museum, the book or the theatre. Then, there are the myriad inventions that reconfigure, directly or indirectly, the landscape of the visible, from those that purport to transform the furnishings of individual and collective life, according to the Arts and Crafts or Bauhaus models, or to convert the theatre stage into a site of collective action, in the fashion of Meyerhold or Artaud, right up to all those that rework the images through which a community recognizes itself and its world. These inventions define politics of art that remain the same whatever the artist’s effective engagements may be: collage has served specifically targeted political denunciations as well as anarchic forms of destruction of an entire cultural universe or disenchanted affirmations of the equivalence of all things. The great political art forms of the 1920s-30s, like Brecht’s epic theatre, constantly play with this plurality of politics contained within one formula. This is because the concept of engagement does not in itself define an art form. It defines the artist’s will to place their work in the service of a particular cause. This is precisely what presupposes a split between the two domains, a necessity to de-neutralize art by making it articulate messages about the social world, or to withdraw it from its exclusive sphere by turning it into a direct instrument of intervention, from agit-prop to contemporary forms of intervention in deprived neighbourhoods or to the participation of artists as such in the big alter-globalization demonstrations. Historically, the tension was resolved through the ambiguity of critical art; by producing a sensory strangeness, this art form was meant to prompt the spectator to seek the reason for this strangeness amongst the contradictions of the social world, and to become mobilized for action through this realization. The deduction was gratuitous, but the system functioned as long as the forms of contestation of the dominant order and the alternatives for the future were strong enough to anticipate its effect. When this is no longer the case, the system is emptied of substance and artists are drawn instead towards direct political activism.


6) In Film Fables you propose a conception of history as co-presence, as the potentiality of associating any sign with any other. This, you advance, is what has characterized history since its emergence two centuries ago. However, is yours not a postmodern conception of history, a vision of history as random collage, a spatialized vision that marks a break with the modern relation to history as a temporal blend of identity and difference, with history, to use Malraux’s expression, as constant “metamorphosis” of beings, things, and civilizations, as the perpetual movement between death and rebirth in other forms and other configurations?

J.R.: The idea of history as a co-presence is in no way a postmodern invention. If it can be apprehended in this manner, it is due to a very simplistic understanding that binds “modernity” to the dominance of the  “grand narrative”. We conceive of “coexistence” then in terms of a plurality of dispersed and autonomous small narratives. But this is not at all what coexistence means and for over two centuries the concept of coexistence has been enmeshed with that of a movement of history towards the fulfilment of a promise. Since the end of the 18th century, the promotion of history as coexistence has been linked to the “aesthetic” revocation of the old opposition between action and life. “History” was the preserve of those who performed great deeds. The rest of humanity was meant to devote itself to life, that is, to routine and reproduction. Conversely, the modern conception of history takes into account lifeworlds in which the grand and the modest, amazing feats, works of art and forms of everyday life are perceived as the manifestations of the same process, of the same way of living. This egalitarian vision was the basis for the formation of conceptions of history as a movement towards the fulfilment of a promise of emancipation. The dominant form of the history of mentalities is a “cultural” repercussion of ideas of historical emancipation. But these ideas are themselves grounded in this “cultural” revolution that turned the production of necessary goods, works of art and brilliant thoughts and feats into the various facets of the same general process.

7) I would describe your approach to history as postmodern, also because the world itself seems to get sucked into the substance of the image, transformed into a surface of signs, and because the referent – what is outside the sign and which guarantees its existence – is, as it were, lost. For if the modern moment is characterized by the emergence of the sign (as sign), this sign nevertheless had a referent as its structural opposite: thus, in the artistic domain, art could oppose reality – as an autonomous artistic utopia – or on the contrary it could act upon it – in so-called “engaged art” – the two forms being just two sides of the same coin. But today, particularly after the critiques of meaning as a dual entity, is the sign not on the contrary characterized by its univocal, omnipotent quality, and by the loss of this structural opposite, the referent, reality or world?

J.R.: Here two problems must be distinguished: firstly, there is history in the sense of narrative, fable, arrangement, and secondly there is history as a form of collective life. Let us start with the first sense: I have distinguished two major types of narrative: the representative narrative as an arrangement of actions, whose model is the Aristotelian fable, and the “aesthetic” narrative which is a process whereby signs are presented and deciphered. This has nothing to do with postmodernism or with the self-sufficiency of signs. On the contrary, this narrative mode has been closely linked to literary realism. It is the latter that challenged the old opposition between the dramatic logic of chains of actions and the insignificance of everyday life. When everyday life became a subject of art, this also signified a change in the regime of speech. The latter ceased to be the expression of a purposeful will. It became the manifestation of a meaning proper to life. With Balzac, for example, walls, clothing, objects start to speak. The aesthetic narrative opposed the significance of things themselves to the old rhetorical model of speech that is subordinate to the will of a speaker. Social science, critical theory and modern art forms were all strengthened by this expansion in the realm of signification that repudiated a separation between the materiality of things and the immateriality of signs. But what also needs to be acknowledged is that history as a form of collective life is indeed a matter of signs without a referent. No one has ever encountered the thing that would be the referent of the word history. History is a particular way of arranging events and meanings. Several arrangements can be put under this term: the history of great examples in the manner of Plutarch, the history-as-coexistence model of the moderns, a history directed towards a purpose, etc. Conversely, we can also conceive of forms of collective life without recourse to this referent. Similarly, the “people” of politics does not exist as a solid entity. It is a supplementary entity with respect to the counting (le compte) of the population and its parties. In any case, this supplementarity is what distinguishes a political people from other forms of gathering. Arrangements of signs are not opposed to reality, they are opposed to other arrangements of signs that construct different “realities”. This does not strip anything of its material solidity, rather, it shifts the frameworks within which these solid things are for us organized into worlds.


8) In Aesthetics and Politics you posit that the political dimension of art resides in its capacity to produce “dissensus”, the disruption of the established distribution of the sensory, and the reshaping of a common (le commun). To what extent does film, as a mass medium and a privileged mode of collective perception (“simultane Kollektivrezeption”, to use Benjamin’s expression), play a special part in the reshaping of the common?

J.R.: It seems to me that there are two ideas that should not be conflated: that of popular art, that is, art that directs itself to all, and that of collective art that institutes a community. Film having emerged as a mass form of popular entertainment, it was therefore tempting, in the 1920s, to see it as a modern equivalent of Greek drama or the medieval cathedral. Film did not in fact have this role and the retrospective idea of its complicity with the great Fascist spectacle that we find in Godard’s Histoires du cinéma is as abusive as are the dreams of a great collective ceremony that we find with writers such as Elie Faure in the 1930s. Film spectators remained individuals, they identified far less collectively than did their theatre-going peers. And film was primarily the vehicle not of mass emotions but rather of a mode of appropriation of new styles of individual life, or new forms of sensitivity to the poetry of the everyday. If film had a subversive role, it is due more to the fact that it extended the field of the Beautiful, blurred the boundaries between popular and high art, and created aesthetic passions and forms of evaluation that were not controlled by the dominant cultural authorities.

9) On reading Film Fables one feels that you are influenced not only by films but also by the culture of the directors and critics of the New Wave (Murnau, Eisenstein, Ray). Could you tell us more about the influence of the New Wave on your cinematographic work?

J.R.: The “New Wave” is not, in fact, a school that would have revolutionized the aesthetics of film. It is, rather, a particular historical configuration characterized by the affirmation of a new taste. The figures of the New Wave were influential as critics before becoming influential as directors. They proclaimed the passing of a certain aesthetic of a “cinéma de qualité”. On the one hand they legitimized, against the latter, genres that were considered to be minor (the western, the thriller, the musical) or directors who were seen as failures or as mere Hollywood entertainers (Hawks, Walsh, Hitchcock, Minnelli, Cukor, amongst others). On the other hand they established a great tradition, an historical legacy to film – from Murnau or Dreyer to Rossellini. The young New Wave directors challenged legitimate cinematographic art with the culture of the Cinémathèque, somewhat similarly to the manner in which the Impressionists challenged the academic lessons of their professors with the lessons on painting drawn from Rubens or Velasquez. But they did not produce a new doctrine of cinematographic art, and they never sought to institute a consistency between a passion for Rossellini and a passion for Minnelli. And, as directors, they produced very different works; Godard was the only one amongst them to really illustrate a certain tradition of the avant-garde, breaking with the traditional logic of plots, characters, situations and expressions. Thus, I would say that what marked an era and what counts for me is this widespread revolution in taste, this challenge to hierarchies, thus, what we could call the disorder of the New Wave, more than a fixed theory or usage of film.  This disorder was important moreover because it coincided with other sea changes of the 1960s: Structuralism, the Marxist revival, anti-imperialist struggles and youth movements.

10) Finally, the films you cite and analyse are now elements of high or legitimate culture – unlike blockbusters or “lighter” or more “mainstream” films. To return to the cinematographic context and the question of legitimacy, do you regard the distinction between high and popular art as important, and what do you think about the attempts, essentially American (found, for example, in Noel Carroll and in Richard Shusterman’s work), to reinstate cultural forms which “serious” philosophers and critics hold in contempt?

J.R.: Anthony Mann’s films have only very recently become part of high culture – albeit not in the United States, where I recall having greatly surprised a Film Studies professor by citing an auteur he had never heard of and, after consulting an encyclopaedia, the professor remained no less perplexed vis-à-vis my interest in him. A great many films that are now part of high culture were for a long time “mainstream” films that were rejected by cinéphile culture. But cinéphilie itself was just a phase in a much longer history of the blurring of the boundaries between “mainstream” and legitimate film. The aesthetes of the 1910s celebrated serials and derided “art films” staging actors of the Comédie Française and reconstitutions of historical scenes. The major reference for those who wished to make film a legitimate art in the 1910s-20s, was Charlot  (at this point, people only considered Charlot the character, and not Chaplin the actor). It must also be added that this enthusiasm for a certain kind of “popular” film was itself inscribed within an aesthetic trend that had been seeking, for a long time already, a renewal of inspiration drawn from the “minor arts”: circus, pantomime (Mallarmé) or fairground shows (Meyerhold). Even “serious” philosophers adhered to this tradition. “The animal-madman-clown constellation”, claims Adorno, “ is one of the foundations of art”. There is nothing to reinstate. What is called for, rather, is that we track the ways in which supposed opposites interpenetrate with one another.

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