Monday, December 17, 2012

From "The Aesthetic Dimension: Aesthetics, Politics, Knowledge," by Jacques Rancière

There are two ways of interpreting matters of consensus and dissensus, an ethical one and an aesthetic one. The ethical must be understood from the original sense of ethos. Ethos first meant abode before it meant the way of being that suits an abode. The ethical law first is the law that is predicated on a location.

An ethical relation itself can be understood in two different ways, depending on whether you consider the inner determination of the location or its relation to its outside.


But the law of the ethos can also be set up as the law of the outside. After Aristotle’s analysis of the basic human community and before his statement on the political animal in Politics, he briefly conjures up and dismisses the figure of a subject that is without polis; this is a being that is inferior or superior to man—a monster or a divinity perhaps—a being that is azux, that cannot be in relation with any being like it, which is necessary in war.

But what Aristotle briefly describes as the figure of an outsider can be turned around as the figure of the immeasurable or the unsubstitutable from which all that is measurable or substitutable, connected
according to a law of distribution, has to take its law at the risk of being cancelled by it.

As we know, such a figure has been revived over the last few decades in different forms: the law of the Other, the Thing, the sublime, and so on.

This is what I call the ethical interpretation of the matters of consensus and dissensus, the ethical interpretation of the common and its supplement.

The aesthetic dimension is another interpretation of this, an interpretation that dismisses both the inner law of distribution and the law of an immeasurable outside. The aesthetic dimension brings about a dismantling of ethical legality, that is, a dismantling of the ethical complementarity of the three terms: the rule of the common ethos, the rule of the distribution of the alternative parts, and the power of the monster that is outside of the rule.

It could also be described as the ethical distribution of the same, the different, and the Other. In opposition to that distribution, the general form of the aesthetic configuration could be described that is not the Other, the immeasurable, but rather the redistribution of the same and the different, the division of the same and the dismissal of difference.

The aesthetic configuration replays the terms of the difference in such a way as to neutralize them and to make that neutralization the staging of a conflict that is in excess of consensual distribution. Such an excess cannot be counted according to the consensual rules of distribution but nevertheless does not obey the rule of an immeasurable otherness. The difference between these two excesses is the difference between ethical heteronomy and aesthetic heterotopy.

Let me try to illustrate these statements by describing what I have called the politics of aesthetics, the aesthetics of politics, and the aesthetics of knowledge. In each of these fields it is possible to differentiate the aesthetic approach from the two forms of an ethical approach.

Let us start from what I call the politics of aesthetics, which means the way in which the aesthetic experience—as a refiguration of the forms of visibility and intelligibility of artistic practice and reception—intervenes in the distribution of the sensible. In order to understand this, let us return to my starting point, that is, to Kant’s analysis of the beautiful as the expression of a neither/nor. The object of aesthetic judgment is neither an object of knowledge nor an object of desire. In the political translation made by Schiller this neither/nor was interpreted as the dismissal of the ethical opposition between the class of those who know and the class of those who desire. This way of framing a politics of aesthetics has been contested by two forms of ethical criticism.

On the one hand, there is the sociological criticism that saw an ignorance of the social law of the ethos. Pierre Bourdieu’s work epitomizes this type of criticism, namely, arguing that the view of aesthetic judgment as a judgment independent of all interest amounts to an illusion or a mystification. The disinterested aesthetic judgment is the privilege of only those who can abstract themselves—or who believe that they can abstract themselves—from the sociological law that accords to each class of society the judgments of taste corresponding to their ethos, that is, to the manner of being and of feeling that their condition imposes upon them. Disinterested judgment of the formal beauty of the palace is in fact reserved for those who are neither the owners of the palace nor its builders. It is the judgment of the petit-bourgeois intellectual who, free from the worries of work or capital, indulges him- or herself by adopting the position of universal thought and disinterested taste. Their exception
therefore confirms the rule according to which judgments of taste are in fact incorporated social judgments that translate a socially determined ethos. Such judgments are also part of the mystification that hides the reality of social determinism and helps prevent victims of the system from
gaining access to the knowledge that could liberate them.

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