In The Politics of Aesthetics, Jacques Rancière has argued that we need to rethink aesthetics as “the invention of new forms of life” (25). Rejecting the idea that aesthetics should be confined to such questions as the status of the art object and the aestheticisation of politics, Rancière’s work opens up aesthetics to a reflection on the possibilities of sense and its distribution in terms of sensible forms and practices. Politics is itself aesthetic in that it requires a sharing of sense in common; art is not the exemplary site of sensory pleasure or the sublime but a critical break with common sense, opening up possibilities of new commonalities of sense. Art as politics is thus a manifestation of what Rancière calls dissensus, or a gap in the sensible itself. Rethinking the avant-garde as “the aesthetic anticipation of the future,” (29) Rancière calls for an aesthetics concerned with “the invention of sensible forms and material structures for a life to come” (29). This issue of Transformations contains a number of articles responding to Rancière’s ideas, and in particular his revisionist agenda which critiques many orthodox positions related to sense, aesthetics and political practice.
In her article “Thinking the Unthinkable as a Form of Dissensus: The Case of the Witness,” Anat Ascher follows Rancière’s critique of the “unrepresentable” in the work of Lyotard and Agamben, as the sublime moment of “holy terror” which reproduces within their arguments the very normativity that these arguments are designed to resist. Ascher argues that the invocation of otherness as unrepresentable elides the “moment” of politics as a “purely negative moment.” Rancière replaces the category of the unrepresentable with that of dissensus as a productive openness in the common sense of the polity. In a similar vein, Sudeep Dasgupta follows Rancière’s arguments through a careful analysis of the Dutch artist Ad van Denderen’s book of photographs Occupation Soldier. Dasgupta draws out the material framing of the photographs in terms of what he calls the “spare image,” linking this with Rancière’s account of resistive politics as the enacting of aporetic openness in the closed distribution of sense of the “police regime.”
In “Feminism After Rancière: Women in J.M. Coetzee and Jeff Wall,” Arne De Boever follows Rancière’s revisionist arguments that critique the idea of the political subject as an “empty operator,” and instead proposes a positive idea of the subject as an actual agent of change in specific historical circumstances. Using Rancière’s analysis of political dissensus in the example of the French Revolutionary feminist figure, Olympe de Gouges, De Boever applies these arguments to Coetzee’s novel Disgrace and Jeff Wall’s photographs, showing how the female figures in them can be read as political subjects in the sense proposed by Rancière.
Nicholas Holm’s article “The Distribution of the Nonsensical and the Political Aesthetics of Humour” offers a revision to Rancière’s key ideas of the distribution of the sensible through what he terms “the distribution of the nonsensical,” in which specific acts of humour are used to challenge the ordered regime of sense. The nonsensical, for Holm, refers to the “complementary arrangement of nonsense in common,” a regulated regime held in common by social groups that allows them to see incongruity in shared common sense. Through discussion of the humour of American comedians Andy Kauffman and Jerry Seinfeld, Holm shows how humour produces dissensus in the distribution of the nonsensical itself. Applying Rancière to quite a different sphere of popular culture, Robin James’s article “These.Are.The Breaks”: Rethinking Disagreement Through Hip Hop,” employs Rancière’s idea of art as disagreement to examine practices of remixing in hip hop music. In particular she uses the idea of the “break” as the cut or rupture in the rhythm of the music that disrupts corporeal schemas and opens up new sense arrangements. She asks “how might one go about staging corporeal disagreements?” through hip hop and other art practices in the name of emancipatory struggles.
In continuing the revisionist theme of Rancière’s work in this issue, Toni Ross argues for a revision of the category of the postmodern. Drawing on Rancière’s argument that the postmodern is not a category separate from the modern, and needs to be seen in the light of artistic modernity as “the aesthetic regime of art” generally, Ross draws interesting lines of intersection with earlier writings around these categories by Douglas Crimp and others. Ross implies that Rancière’s arguments can be recuperated back into a postmodern position from this earlier stance to aesthetic modernity. In a discussion of Steve McQueen’s experimental film Gravesend, Ross shows how it produces alterations of consensual patterns necessary for political action following Rancière’s arguments on dissensus. Such art practices, so Ross suggests, are not to be confined to the category of the postmodern but are exemplary for the aesthetic regime of art in general. Finally, Karen Sellberg’s “Sublime Gender Transposition: The Reformed Platonism of Jacques Rancière’s Aesthetics as Queer Performance” considers the political and aesthetic impact of Rancière’s reformulation of Platonic dialogics and reinvention of an emancipatory aesthetic sublime in relation to John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s punk rock musical Hedwig and the Angry. Sellberg argues that the cathartic moment of gender transposition or connection enacted in Hedwig and the Angry Inch represents a redistribution of the gendered sensible not merely on the (virtual or staged) body of the artist, but in the organisation of their aesthetic forums and ultimately society itself.
Thinking the Unthinkable as a Form of Dissensus: The Case of the Witness
This article discusses the possible political ramifications of bearing witness that can be derived from Rancière’s politico-aesthetic thought. Two misguided argumentations that Rancière ceaselessly tries to uproot – Lyotard’s notion of complete Otherness and Agamben’s analysis of the Holocaust, are analysed. Both argumentations draw on the contention that there is something unthinkable, unrepresentable and untestifiable at the heart of thought. This contention calls for a unique form of bearing witness – bearing witness to the impossibility of truly bearing witness. In trying to account for everything, however, either as thinkable or as unthinkable, these philosophical accounts shift the discussion from political to ethical grounds, in which infinite, unthinkable evil calls for infinite justice and redemption.
Rancière’s objection to these lines of reasoning is examined here in light of his notion of politics. As political action is defined by Rancière as the action of a supplementary part in the community which, by calling attention to the fact of it being unaccounted for, makes us question the inner-divisions and redefine the boundaries of the existing regime, an ethical discourse that wishes to set boundaries upon intelligibility is, by definition, opposed to political endeavour.
The article concludes by demonstrating the political implications of Rancière’s critique and his notion of politics in the context of bearing witness. For if we accept Rancière’s conceptualisation we can regard the words of witnesses as redefining the boundaries of intelligibility, of consensus, thus resulting in dissensus. Not only is the word of the witness salvaged from entering into the “ethical trap,” but in some cases it can be considered the highest form of political action, namely a form of dissensus.
The Spare Image in an Unsparing World: Framing the Soldier in an Indeterminate War
Jacques Rancière’s notion of aesthetics is inextricably linked to the concept of “sense.” Recently (Rancière 2009) the concept of play in aesthetics has been elaborated on by developing the multiple meanings of sense. Sense, in its double meaning of sensate apprehension and the faculty of understanding, provides the basis for understanding what Rancière means by the “partage du sensible.” Through an analysis of a photograph by Ad van Denderen in his 2009 project Occupation Soldier, the essay analyses how sense in its double-meaning provides a mode for comprehending the critical potential of art to stage the tolerability of a world both divided and shared, in the context of war. The essay deepens Rancière’s understanding of sense in relation to aesthetics, while deploying “detachment/ attachment” as frames through which the critical potential of art may be understood.
Arne De Boever
Feminism After Rancière: Women in J.M. Coetzee and Jeff Wall
Gabriel Rockhill defines what Jacques Rancière calls a political subject as “an empty operator that produces cases of political dispute by challenging the established framework of identification and classification”. This essay challenges the tension between the “emptiness” of the political subject and the “framework of identification and classification” that this definition sets up by showing how “identity” operates in Rancière on the side of both the political subject and the established order. The essay focuses on the identity of “woman” and on Rancière’s discussion of the French revolutionary woman Olympe de Gouges as an example of a political subject: De Gouges is a political subject for Rancière not because she is an empty operator, but because she is a woman enacting the rights of men. The second half of the essay explores this insight by discussing the role of women in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace and in Jeff Wall’s photographs Picture for Women and Mimic. I argue that the women in these artworks are political subjects in the sense in which Rancière understands this notion.
The Distribution of the Nonsensical and the Political Aesthetics of Humour
Humour occupies a prominent position within the aesthetic conditions of contemporary culture, both in term of art and popular media. In this article, I consider how Jacques Rancière’s political aesthetic project can contribute to an assessment of the political potential of humour as an aesthetic of dissensus or consensus. To this end, I suggest a modified form of Rancière’s notion of the “distribution of the sensible,” which I refer to as the “distribution of the nonsensical,” as a means to analyse the extent to which particular acts of humour can be thought to challenge or reinforce existing understandings of sense and nonsense. I demonstrate the application of this model through a comparative analysis of Duchamp’s Fountain, and the performance work of Andy Kaufman and Jerry Seinfeld.
“These.Are.The Breaks”: Rethinking Disagreement Through Hip Hop
I read Rancière’s theory of disagreement alongside Kodwo Eshun’s theory of hip hop in order to (1) argue that the process of disagreement is meaningfully similar to the practice of remixing, (2) show how hip hop effects redistributions of sensibility, and thus functions as “art” in Rancière’s narrow sense of the term, and (3) examine how redistributions of sensibility function at the level of individual corporeal schemas. To accomplish the latter two tasks, I analyze the use of a sample from the Watts Band’s “Express Yourself” in both an N.W.A. track and in a TV commercial for Botox. The appearance of the same musical sample in such different contexts disrupts both the established order of race, class, and gender identities, and the ways that individual corporeal schemas are structured by these orders of identities. I argue that individual corporeal schemas are important sites for the staging of political disagreement.
This essay examines how Jacques Rancière’s thinking of the politics of artistic modernity intersects with, but also departs from postmodernism as a critical and historical paradigm of art. The focus of my remarks will be on the influential account of postmodernism developed by writers Hal Foster, Douglas Crimp and others associated with the journal October in the early nineteen eighties. Two aspects of this branch of postmodernist theory will be discussed in relation to Rancièrian formulations. The first privileges hybridised forms of art practice, and the second discounts the contemporary relevance of aesthetic philosophies taken to underpin modernism. It will be proposed that Rancière’s conception of the politics of modern aesthetics overlaps with the first of these premises, while disputing the second. This comparative approach seeks to clarify the critical value of Rancière’s insistence that ideas of aesthetic autonomy and the avant-garde enlistment of art to transform collective life need to be thought as contending but interrelated tendencies of artistic modernity. The application of this argument to the interpretation of a contemporary artwork concludes the essay. Here a video work by artist Steve McQueen titled, Gravesend (2007) is shown to sustain a tension between the twofold politics of aesthetic modernity identified by Rancière.
This article considers the political and aesthetic impact of Jacques Rancière’s reformulation of Platonic dialogics and reinvention of an emancipatory aesthetic sublime in relation to John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s punk rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips’ Intimacies. It draws primarily on Rancière’s The Politics of Aesthetics, Aesthetics and Its Discontents and The Emancipated Spectator to argue that the cathartic moment of gender transposition or connection that Bersani and Phillips describe and Hedwig and the Angry Inch enacts represents a redistribution of the gendered sensible not merely on the (virtual or staged) body of the artist, but in the organisation of their aesthetic forums and ultimately society itself.