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The Work of Politics in the Age of Aesthetic Distribution

Review of Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill, afterword by Slavoj Žižek (New York: Continuum, 2004/2006), 116 pp. ISBN-10: 0826489540 [ISBN-13: 978-0826489548].

Nicholas D. Nace

Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, cover image
Other Voices, 4.1 Aesthetic Violence
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The inter-articulation of political motive and aesthetic production has been so little ignored by critical theory that it is altogether surprising so few of our major theoreticians from the past century have sought the aesthetic within the political. Walter Benjamin’s briefly sketched formulation of the contact point between these two concepts toward the end of his “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” has become the definitive account of a primogenitive, politically determining aesthetics—and, more often than not, exists as an impediment to further inquiry due to its implication that aestheticized politics inevitably open out, fatally, to the Right wing. When art becomes technological, Benjamin says, and its reproduction becomes mechanized, the artwork famously loses its felt distance from the particulars of reality and, soon after, its mystical aura erodes; in the age inaugurated by lithographic reproduction, art can function in society as mere information, leaving us hungry for authenticity. Fascism, with its diversionary rituals and self-maintaining narratives of uniqueness and mythic origin, seeks to reverse this process for itself in order to generate and superintend a mystical aura around its own information, resulting, Benjamin tells us, “in the introduction of aesthetics into political life.”1 This is an “introduction,” however, that already presupposes the visibility of politics, in this case limited to forms of coercive authoritarianism that exist in what Benjamin elsewhere calls the “dictatorial perpendicular.” A less teleological version of this theory, we’re left to surmise, might have predicted the duct-taped, safety-pinned glamour of the late twentieth-century radical subversive and his hazy, over-reproduced samizdat. The political bears aesthetic markers, certainly, and can at times hope to be mistaken for a “pure” and uncomplicated aesthetics, but this is as far as Benjamin takes us into the aesthetics of politics.

Not surprisingly, then, Benjamin is the only philosopher from whom Jacques Rancière’s interlocutors in the series of interviews that comprise The Politics of Aesthetics ask him to distinguish his views (were this a longer, less introductory volume, they might well have asked how his concept of régime differs from Foucault’s episteme, or how his mésentente differs from Lyotard’s différend, or how his spectacle differs from Debord’s—we get the sense that no two are the same, though we’re never entirely sure why). Although Rancière, like Benjamin, also situates a dramatic transformation of aesthetics at the close of the eighteenth century, his response is to seal off and sequester Benjamin’s Marxist-Heideggerian “onto-technological” argument and in order to sink deeper into the timeless “core of politics” where there exists a structuring force of aesthetics that has “nothing to do with Benjamin’s discussion of the ‘aesthetization of politics’ specific to the ‘age of the masses’” (13).

In Rancière’s view, political history bears the scars of the cracks and fissures out of which a new aesthetic regime has emerged, reformed and solidified into a different series of partitions that structure and limit our perception by the process he calls le partage du sensible—a “distribution of the sensible” to which an artwork, with its unique capacity for meta-aesthetics, has privileged access. So far, political sensoria have been thus aesthetically redefined by three separate “regimes”: the “ethical regime of images,” which precipitates out the half-forms of artistic imitation from genuine art as defined by Plato; the “representative regime of art,” which results from Aristotle’s bringing poesis into focus and prioritizing the auditory over the visual; and, finally, the “aesthetic regime of art” that we have been immersed in since German Romanticism, wherein aesthetics becomes autonomous, a process which levels the hierarchy between speech and writing, bringing all arts into a state of equality and freedom. When aesthetics draws new figures into a previously blank political space, the inscription always remains as a pentimento even after another regime expands its edges or overwrites it, and this residue confers a new dimension of depth on the political. The main virtue of Rancière’s view of history—or, at least, of aesthetic history—is that these regimes are not stages of displacement, exactly, but temporarily dominant ways of doing and making, of framing entities for visibility and conceptualizing them. In this way Rancière’s own conceptualization project here in The Politics of Aesthetics is a distribution of the sensible, tightly preserved in all its obliquity.

The varied editorial procedures that structure this slender volume—a splicing together of thoughts and discursive genres not unlike what Rancière sees in John Dos Passos’s perceptual reorientation project in the USA Trilogy of generating “fragmented stories of erratic individual destinies” (61)—are especially suited to the strengths of this grand doyen of the science of visualizing political positionality, or what might be called philosophic deixis. As variously and helpfully reconstituted as Rancière’s own words are here (prefaced and introduced, afterworded and postfaced, to say nothing of the alterations endemic to translation), the interview form itself, with its ruminative, ateleological progression, proves to be a discursive procedure especially conducive to Rancière’s non-programmatic pedagogy of accident and argument. As outlined in his pedagogical apologue Le Maître ignorant, a good teacher constantly strives for an “infinite conversation” among equals, which in Rancière’s very literal form of soixante-huitard egalitarianism includes everyone with “sensory equipment,” especially the uncomprehending or illiterate members of the demos, hitherto invisible and unable to distribute the sensible, and the spectral group of nonthinkers that he has elsewhere called “the philosopher’s poor.”2 This method of communication operates in the two centerpiece interviews by reproducing for us the theatrics of an idea’s spontaneous coalescence, not from raw heaps of manuscript, but from the interaction of two minds. But it could be argued, as Alain Badiou does, that Rancière’s ideas, especially his political ones, never quite do coalesce into anything other than an inflection or a “motif.”3 The Politics of Aesthetics at the very least provides some hints to the contrary.

If the book’s eccentric relation to concrete knowledge can be seen as a part of Rancière’s general strategy, it also proves to be tactically appropriate in this particular volume, where the multiple interviewers that emerge federated into a single, italic voice adopt the position of being familiar with the terrain of Rancière’s thought but not yet utterly convinced by his mapping of its pales and partitions. Which is to say they adopt the same position as the uninitiated American readers who still have not succumbed to the introductory matchmaking enthusiasm that marks the editorial stance of every previous English language translation from this persistently undiscovered thinker. Continuum’s effort here to facilitate this discovery—especially their bold decision to index the volume and keep it largely non-narrative and brief, ready to be dipped into anywhere or read from back to front—is likely to be more successful than any attempt before it, especially given that the book as it is packaged will find its way into the hands of Slavoj Žižek followers and completists, who will savor his wry praise of the “lesson of Rancière” (69-79) in the book’s Afterword. It is a tribute to the good sense of translator and uncredited editor Gabriel Rockhill that the urging of Rancière’s significance in this volume begins with only minimal traces of the pervasive narrative of his deliverance from Althusserianism.

At the book’s core is Rockhill’s translation of the interview with the editors of the Parisian magazine Alice (the short-lived precursor to Multitudes) which was published in 2000 under the title Le Partage du sensible: Esthétique et politique. This important translation is fortified by an additional interview with the translator for the English language edition, as well as notes on thorny translation issues and a 35-definition glossary, all features that facilitate the philosopher’s almost cartographic desire—itself an aesthetic impulse—to circle around the notion of politics, sending out sonar blasts from a variety of angles in order to make visible the coordinates of the divisions and barriers that structure history and politics, as well as illuminate the places where existence itself can be seen, surprisingly, to have no natural or essential joints and divisions. This last observation causes the translator a good deal of articulate distress in the Preface as he laments the unavailability of a “basic unit of translation” (translateme?) that could encode Rancière’s text without recourse to an epistemology that is structured and individuated by the arts of language.

The information from the glossary, which is generated not from the text but from across Rancière’s oeuvre—or, at least, from his works since 1995’s La Mésentente, where he introduces the concept of the distribution of the sensible—does allow some lexical clarity to bubble up and leaven the otherwise dense theoretical text, but it does so in an endlessly supplementary way. Much of the interview itself consists of an ongoing process of defining his central terms. Consequently, the act of reading at times devolves into a comparison of the in-text and the out-of-text, a process of fitting Rancière’s formulations into their place within his web-like system of thought. In fact, Rancière’s conception of “the aesthetic” as an a priori form is defined no fewer than six times, each instance sharpening the concept but also widening and deferring its meaning in an uninterrupted recession into supporting concepts, at which point we may wish that the partition between visible concepts were a bit more concrete. That said, the glossary, cross-referenced as each of its entries ultimately is with every other (except for the odd entry for “poetics of knowledge,” which sits alone), could be read through on its own as an even shorter introduction to Rancière’s thought. However, it is characteristic of the helpfulness of this glossary that no definition is shorter than four lines or cross-references fewer than forty pages of outside reading in the other translations of Rancière’s works enumerated in the extensive bibliography (so many of his crucial points are clarified in interviews languishing in back issues of journals, however, that nobody, not even Rancière, seems quite sure how complete such a bibliography can be).

After a somewhat breathless reading of the glossary we are left, finally, with the question of why this book is called The Politics of Aesthetics and not the more arresting and accurate reverse. Perhaps we are, as readers of critical theory, so accustomed to the rhetorical technique of antimetabole—or what is sometimes known, after the comic formula of Yakov Smirnov, as a “Russian reversal”—that we will, by slip or supplement, restore the priority of Esthétique in the French title and call this work “The Aesthetics of Politics.” But the publishers here have carefully thought through their title’s tricky “of,” which might best be understood to express politics’ derivation, composition and agency by means of aesthetics, not merely its genitive control over it. But then again, much of Rockhill’s translation seems to be an attempt, duly lamented, to pragmatically adjust the English scope of Rancière’s ludic theoretical French, which, with its polysemy and high intellectual shimmer, reaches no portion of its audience through compulsion. Rancière’s most central concept, partage, is of course an important contranym, meaning both to “share” and “separate”—a fact that a French reader must cognitively reconcile in order to watch both of Rancière’s spinning plates at once. “Distribution” is the chosen English translation, and it appropriately implies both a transmission and a portioning out. But usually it refers to an equal, even-handed apportionment, a fact which potentially obfuscates the wrongs and inequalities Rancière wants aesthetics to correct. A slight discrepancy in translation, perhaps, but it hints at the democratic portioning of visibility to all entities being a completed task, which raises an important concern that our author may look to address in the future: If social visibility is the endgame of emancipatory aesthetics, what is the status of social groups who still remain hidden even in plain sight? In other words, what happens when visibility and freedom turn out not to be quite the same?

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1. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt; trans. Harry Zohn. (New York: Schocken, 1968), p. 241.

2. For his intervention into social-pedagogical polemic, see Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Emancipation, trans. Kristin Ross (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991); for his discussion of the visibility of subaltern classes, see The Philosopher and His Poor, trans. John Drury, Corinne Oster, and Andrew Parker. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

3. Alain Badiou, Metapolitics, trans. Jason Barker (New York: Verso, 2005), p. 120.

About the Reviewer:

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Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
Nace, Nicolas D. "The Work of Politics in the Age of Aesthetic Distribution: Review of Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics" Other Voices 4.1 March 2010. September 24, 2017 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/nnace/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
Nicholas D. Nace, The Work of Politics in the Age of Aesthetic Distribution: Review of Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics. Other Voices 4, no. 1 (2010), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/nnace/index.php› (accessed September 24, 2017)

APA Style Citation:
Nace, Nicolas D. (2010, March). The Work of Politics in the Age of Aesthetic Distribution: Review of Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics. Other Voices, 4.1. Retrieved September 24, 2017, from http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/nnace/index.php


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