Thursday, December 20, 2012

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

This brief analysis brings us to what I call the aesthetics of politics. Here too the alternative is between an ethical and an aesthetic perspective. The reason for the alternative is simple: politics is not primarily a matter of laws and constitutions. Rather, it is a matter of configuring the sensible texture of the community for which those laws and constitutions make sense.

What objects are common? What subjects are included in the community? Which subjects are able to see and voice what is common? What arguments and practices are considered political arguments and practices? And so on.

Let us consider the most common political notion in our world, the notion of democracy. There is a consensual ethical view of democracy. It is the view of democracy as a system of government grounded in a form of life, the form of freedom determined by the free market.

The view that sees a correspondence between a form of economic life, a system of institutions, and a set of values has been favored as long as democracy has been opposed to totalitarianism.

As we know, that favor has drastically decreased over the last decade. On the one hand, governments and statesmen complain that democracy is ungovernable, that it is threatened by an enemy that is none other than democracy itself. At the same time, intellectuals complain that democracy is the power of individual consumers indifferent to the common good, a power that not only threatens good government but civilization and human filiation more generally.

We are not obliged to take those contentions at face value. What matters is that as they explode the consensual view of democracy by opposing democratic government to a democratic society they urge us to consider a disjunction at the heart of democracy and that such a disjunction is possibly the characteristic not of a bad political regime but of politics itself.

In other words, the current criticism of democracy points to a dissensus at the heart of politics. Dissensus is more than the conflict between a part and another part—between the rich and the poor or the rulers and those who are ruled. Rather, it is a supplement to the simple consensual game of domination and rebellion. How should we understand this supplement? Once more, it can be understood either from an aesthetic or from an ethical point of view.

To understand dissensus from an aesthetic point of view is to understand it from a point of view that neutralizes the ethical rule of the distribution of power. [...] the demos is a supplement to the collection of social differentiations. It is the supplementary part made of those who have no qualification, who are not counted as units in its count.

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