Wednesday, December 12, 2012

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

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.


The opposite form of ethical criticism has been voiced by Jean-Jean-François Lyotard. For Lyotard, too, disinterested judgment is a philosophical illusion. It is a logical monster, he argues, that tries to translate into terms of classical harmony the loss of any form of correspondence between the norms of the beautiful and a socially determined public of art connoisseurs.

This monstrous replastering of a lost world of harmony conceals the true essence of modern art, which is nevertheless spelled out in Kant’s critique: the modern work of art obeys the law of the sublime. The law of the sublime is the law of a disproportion, of an absence of any common measure between the intelligible and the sensible.

In a first stage, Lyotard identifies this disproportion with the overwhelming power of the matter of sensation: the singular, incomparable quality of a tone or a color, of “the grain of a skin or a piece of wood, the fragrance of an aroma.”

But in a second stage he erases all those sensuous differences. “All these terms,” he says, “are interchangeable. They all designate the event of a passion, a passibility for which the mind will not have been prepared, which will have unsettled it, and of which it conserves only the feeling—anguish and jubilation—of an obscure debt.”

All the differences of art add up to one and the same thing: the dependency of the mind on the event of an untameable sensuous shock. And this sensuous shock in turn appears as the sign of radical servitude, the sign of the mind’s infinite indebtedness to a law of the Other that may be the commandment of God or the power of the unconscious.

Elsewhere I have tried to analyze this ethical turn that put the sublime in the place of aesthetic neutralization and to show that this supposed a complete overturning of the Kantian concept of the sublime. I will not resume that analysis here. What I would like to focus on is the core of the operation: Lyotard dismisses the heterotopy of the beautiful in favor of the heteronomy of the sublime. The result of this operation is the same as that of the sociological critique, though it is made from a very different angle; in both cases the political potential of the heterotopy is boiled down
to a sheer illusion that conceals the reality of a subjection.

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