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Interview with Jacques Rancière

Jacques Rancière came into prominence in 1968 when, under the auspices of his teacher Louis Althusser, he contributed to the seminal volume Reading Capital. In 1974 Rancière published his first book, Althusser’s Lesson, a historical analysis of the French Left in the 1960s and 1970s, in which he critiqued his teacher’s structural Marxism and his denunciation of the May ‘68 student uprisings. Rejecting the Maoist philosophies that inflected these events, Althusser refused to support the students on the grounds that their rebellion was not led by the Parti communiste français. In his book Rancière relates this to the ‘return to order’ that followed these tumultuous times.

Rancière’s main political idea is that a democratic politics emerges from the presupposition of equality. Equality is a starting point, not a goal or destination. This idea is articulated to various degrees in all of Rancière’s books. It finds its most polemical expression in Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, published in 1998, though it is argued with equal force in the lesser-known book The Ignorant Schoolmaster, where Rancière considers the pedagogical ideas of the post-revolutionary philosopher of education Joseph Jacotot. More recently his work has turned to the relation between aesthetics and politics. In texts such as The Politics of Aesthetics and The Future of the Image, Rancière attempts to shift the parameters of criticism away from traditional forms of critique which, in their tendency to demystify, situate the critic in a position of authority in relation to his or her object. His latest book, Aisthesis, attempts to reimagine aesthetic experience as a fundamentally democratic process that is accessible to all.

 

This interview took place in Rancière’s hotel room on the Gray’s Inn Road in North London. The room was cramped and unadorned, the paint was peeling off the bare walls in large swaths, and there was only one chair, so that Rancière was forced to sit on his unmade bed. He spoke quickly and nervously, his words barely able to keep up with the movements of his thought.

 

Q

The White Review

—  It would be helpful if you could begin by defining the relationship between your central political idea and your current work on aesthetics

 

A

Jacques Rancière

—  My starting point when dealing with aesthetics was a polemical one. I took a polemical stance in relation to a certain way of framing what modernity is and what modern art is. I wanted to rethink the very notion of the aesthetic.

 

When I started work on the subject there was a very influential book, La Distinction {1979}, by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, which put forward the idea that aesthetic judgement had always been determined by a dominant class which defined aesthetic concepts such as taste. In other words, there was a disjunction between the aesthetic and the popular. But I felt the contrary might be the case. At first the idea of aesthetic judgement had an egalitarian capacity. What is important in Immanuel Kant’s idea of aesthetic judgement – of judgement without a concept – and what is entailed in Friedrich Schiller’s idea of the aesthetic education of man, is that the capacity for aesthetic judgement does not belong to a particular class or group of people but is a capacity that is widely shared. That is the first point.

 

The second point is that, against the so-called modernist tradition, where you find a distinction between high art and popular art, autonomous art and everyday experience, it seemed to me that what we really find in the history of modern art, or what I call the ‘aesthetic regime of art’, is a blurring of the boundaries between the artistic and the non-artistic.

 

Q

The White Review

—  In relation to your last point, you conceive of the modernist tradition as a new aesthetic regime of art, but at the same time you have insisted that it is not just an artistic development but an indication of wider social and political changes, or, as you sometimes put it, a ‘reconfiguration of the distribution of the sensible’. Yet in your writings on art and aesthetics, and in each ‘scene’ of your recently translated book Aisthesis, you focus on a particular work of art, performance, or what you call a ‘singular sensible event’, while the broader social and political changes are held at bay. Could you elaborate on the implications of this methodology in relation to the polemical stance you have taken?

 

A

Jacques Rancière

—  Each ‘scene’ in Aisthesis attempts to do away with the usual way of doing theory. That is to say, of adopting an overarching view which seeks to unify under a single concept a multiplicity of empirical events. This is an approach I do not find productive. What are important for me are the reflections on a work of art and the attempts to construct a sensible world for that ‘event’. There is no work of art in front of you, as such, but there is always a transference from the visual to the verbal, a transference which creates the very possibility of the work becoming a sensible event. What is important about the ‘scene’ is that you are no longer the theorist looking at the empirical world from above. Instead, it is the art object which teaches you how to look at it and how to talk and think about it.

 

This is related to my former writing on workers’ emancipation. I attempted in that to avoid the usual empirical approach, in which a narrative is produced about the struggles of workers which becomes the object of theory. Instead I looked at the narratives produced by workers and considered them as being in some way already theoretical. Producing these narratives was a way for workers to take a view of their own lives and to reconstruct their own lives. They constitute an attempt to emphasise, rephrase and translate an experience, to grasp the very flesh of experience. Likewise, the purpose of the ‘scene’ is to focus on the construction of a network, the construction of modes of perception and forms of intelligibility that transform an object or performance into a sensible event called art.

 

Q

The White Review

—  But you nevertheless extract something from that singularity which appears to be universal. You start with a single art object or performance, or the reception of a particular work but, whether you are writing about the Victorian dramatist Edward Gordon Craig or James Agee’s response to a photograph by Walker Evans, you end up drawing similar conclusions. These conclusions tend to revolve around notions of inaction, what you refer to variously as the ‘radical logic of inaction’, of ‘suspended action’, of ‘indifference’, of ‘leaving things undone’. It sometimes comes across as an ethic of depersonalisation, a will-to-nothing. Could you elaborate on this?

 

A

Jacques Rancière

—  Well, it’s a big issue. What I think was at the core of the aesthetic revolution in the nineteenth century was a rupture of the dominant model of rationality, which hinged on the cause/effect relation. This was connected to the classical, organic model of the work of art, which imagined the work as a totality, with its head, its members, its proportions, etc.

 

What I saw as a basic feature of the aesthetic regime is a break with that organic and hierarchical model. For me it starts with the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who wrote about the ‘Torso del Belvedere’, a mutilated statue of Hercules with no head or limbs. It is a work that cannot be judged with respect to ideas of organicity and perfection. It is deprived of all the elements which might decide and anticipate the effects of its viewing. Yet for Winckelmann it was the epitome of Greek beauty. So the disruption of the organic model also disrupts the causal chain, and with it nineteenth-century models of rationality, or perhaps modern rationality more generally. Such a work disrupts the view of art as a totality that you can grasp in its infrastructure and in its effects. The causal relation is interrupted.

 

There is something here that is comparable to the experience of suspension, inaction, or reverie. And all this forms an important part of that emblematic image of the worker who stops the labour of his hand in order to look out through the window and take an aesthetic view from the place in which he works. There is also a relation here to nineteenth-century literature, which attempted to produce a total picture of society, but whose plots often lead nowhere. In a sense they are about the failure of action.

 

Q

The White Review

—  And this leads you to imagine inaction as activity? Could this be associated with the strike perhaps?
A

Jacques Rancière

—  Precisely. There are two moments that are important in the history of workers’ struggles. Firstly, the moment when the strike is invented: not only as a reaction but also as a demonstration of rationality and of the integral capacity of the worker. The second moment has to do with moving away from the strike as a way of obtaining an advantage in a conflict towards the strike as a general stop, a way of getting out of the game. The general strike is really the peak of the struggle and a way of moving aside. Inaction precisely being something extracted from the old couples passivity/activity; recreation/leisure. There is something active to inaction, because it allows you to get out of the system. You find this in Stendhal’s novel The Red and the Black, where the protagonist discovers in prison that inaction is a destiny which is both more desirable and more inaccessible for the plebeian than reaching the top of society.
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Rye Dag Holmboe is a writer and PhD candidate in History of Art at University College, London. He has recently co-authored and co-edited the book JocJonJosch: Hand in Foot, published by the Sion Art Museum, Switzerland (2013). He has recently edited Jolene, an artist's book which brings together the works of the poet Rachael Allen and the photographer Guy Gormley, which will be published later this year. His writings have appeared in The White Review, Art Licks and in academic journals.