Friday, December 21, 2012

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

My paragraphs / emphases / etc.

The political potential of the aesthetic heterotopy can be illustrated by an example. During the French Revolution of 1848, there was a brief blossoming of workers’ newspapers. One of those newspapers, Le Tocsin des travailleurs (The Workers’ Tocsin), published a series of articles in which a joiner describes a fellow joiner’s day at work, either in the workshop or in the house where he is laying the floor. He presents it as a kind of diary. For us, however, it appears more akin to a personalized paraphrase of Critique of Judgment and more peculiarly of the second paragraph that spells out the disinterestedness of aesthetic judgment.

Kant documented disinterestedness with the example of the palace that must be looked at and appreciated without considering its social use and signification. This is how the joiner translates it in his own narration: “Believing himself at home, he loves the arrangement of a room so long as he has not finished laying the floor. If the window opens out onto a garden or commands a view of a picturesque horizon, he stops his arms a moment and glides in imagination towards the spacious view to enjoy it better than the possessors of the neighbouring residences.”

This text seems to depict exactly what Bourdieu describes as the aesthetic illusion. And the joiner himself acknowledges this when he speaks of belief and imagination and opposes their enjoyment to the reality of possessions. But it is not by accident that this text appears in a revolutionary workers’ newspaper, where aesthetic belief or imagination means something very precise: the disconnection between the activity of the hands and that of the gaze.

The perspectival gaze has long been associated with mastery and majesty. But in this case it is reappropriated as a means of disrupting the adequation of a body and an ethos. This is what disinterestedness or indifference entails: the dismantling of a certain body of experience that was deemed appropriate to a specific ethos, the ethos of the artisan who knows that work does not wait and whose senses are geared to this lack of time. Ignoring to whom the palace actually belongs, the vanity of the nobles, and the sweat of the people incorporated in the palace are the conditions of aesthetic judgment.

This ignorance is by no means the illusion that conceals the reality of possession. Rather, it is the means for building a new sensible world, which is a world of equality within the world of possession and inequality. This aesthetic description is in its proper place in a revolutionary newspaper because this dismantling of the worker’s body of experience is the condition for a worker’s political voice.


In order to underscore the politics of aesthetics and the aesthetics of politics, a certain kind of discourse has to be set to work, a kind of discourse that implies an aesthetics of knowledge. What does this expression mean? First it is a discursive practice that gives its full signification to the apparently innocuous definition of the aesthetic judgment as elaborated by Kant, namely, that aesthetic judgment implies a certain ignorance; we must ignore the way in which the palace has been built and the ends that it serves in order to appreciate it aesthetically. As I have argued, such ignorance or suspension is not a mere omission. In fact it is a division of both knowledge and ignorance. The ignorance of the possession and destination of a building produces the disjunction between two types of knowledge for the joiner: the know-how of his job and the social awareness of his condition as the condition shared with those who don’t care for the pleasures of perspective. It produces a new belief. A belief is not an illusion in opposition to knowledge. It is the articulation between two knowledges, the form of balance between those forms of knowledge and the forms of ignorance they are coupled with.

As Plato claimed, articulation or balance has to be believed. The economy of knowledge has to be predicated on a story. This does not mean an illusion or a lie. It means it is predicated on an operation that weaves the fabric within which the articulation of the knowledges can be believed, within which it can operate. From the Platonic point of view, technical knowledge has to be submitted to a knowledge of ends.

Unfortunately this science, which provides a foundation for the distribution of knowledges and positions, is itself without a demonstrable foundation. It must be presupposed, and in order to do so a story must be recounted and believed. Knowledge requires stories because it is, in fact, always double. Once more there are two ways of dealing with this necessity: an ethical one and an aesthetic one.

Everything revolves around the status of the as if. Plato formulated it in a provocative way: ethical necessity is a fiction. A fiction is not an illusion; it is the operation that creates a topos, a space and a rule for the relation between sense and sense. Modern “human” and social sciences refuse this provocation. They affirm that science cannot admit fiction. Nevertheless they want to reap its benefits; they want to keep the topography of the distribution of the souls, as in the form of a distinction between those who are destined to know and those who are destined to provide the objects of knowledge.

I mentioned Bourdieu’s sociology earlier because it is the purest form of disavowed or hidden Platonism that animates modern social knowledge. His polemic against the aesthetic illusion is not the idea of one particular sociologist. It is structural. Aesthetics means that the eyes of the worker can be disconnected from his hands, that his belief can be disconnected from his condition. This is what must be ruled out if sociology is to exist. 

That is, an ethos must define an ethos; an abode must determine a way of being that in turn determines a way of thinking. Of course this is not only the case for sociology. History, for example, has its own particular way of constructing modes of being and thinking as the expressions of different periods of time. Such is the case for disciplines in general or for what can be called disciplinary thinking. A discipline, in effect, is first of all not the exploitation of a territory and the definition of a set of methods appropriate to a certain domain or a certain type of object. It is primarily the very constitution of this object as an object of thought, the demonstration of a certain idea of knowledge—in other words, a certain idea of the rapport between knowledge and a distribution of positions, a regulation of the rapport between two forms of knowledge (savoir) and two forms of ignorance. It is a way of defining an idea of the thinkable, an idea of what the objects of knowledge themselves can think and know.

No comments:

Post a Comment