SubStance #118, Vol. 38, no. 1, 2009 1 Cinema in Rancière’s “Aesthetic Politics” The Aesthetic Fable: Cinema in Jacques Rancière’s “Aesthetic Politics” 1 Alison Ross 1. The Politics of Aesthetics Politics resembles art in one essential point. Like art, politics alsocuts into that great metaphor where words and images arecontinuously sliding in and out of each other to produce the sensoryevidence of a world in order. And, like art, it constructs novelcombinations of words and actions, it shows words borne by bodiesin movement to make them audible, to produce another articulationof the visible and the sayable. (Rancière, Film Fables , 152) The connection between Jacques Rancière’s political theory and hiswriting on art pivots on a conception of the contingency of patterns ofsocial meaning and order. In his major work on politics, Dis-agreement:Politics and Philosophy , Rancière holds that events able to disturb aprevailing distribution of order may be understood as instituting new conventions of meaning, and thus must have first negotiated and altereda sensory field in which they did not previously exist. Altering prevailingpatterns of meaning is possible, he argues, because such patterns have“no basis other than the sheer contingency of any social order” (25);nonetheless these patterns have force and significance because they existat the level of the partitioning of a field of sensory perception. He explainsthese ideas by means of a reference to theatre: Politics is primarily conflict over the existence of a common stageand over the existence and status of those present on it. It must firstbe established that the stage exists for the use of an interlocutor whocan’t see it and who can’t see it for good reason because it doesn’texist. (26-27) Rancière’s use of a theatrical conception of displacement aims to stressthe elements of artifice involved in the staging of such political scenes.His examples of political disagreement concern the struggle forcomprehension in which the very questions of what is at issue in a disputeand who is speaking are themselves at stake. There needs to be a re-distribution of social roles and functions for the disagreement to be Alison Ross SubStance #118, Vol. 38, no. 1, 2009 2 visible. In particular, this understanding of politics makes it clear thatany social order is an imposition of incapacities. The modality of socialorder thus understood is primarily one of an imposed, tendentiousdifferentiation of capabilities that becomes legible in the processes andmeans of particular acts of contestation. 2 The artifice of the theatricalscene shares with politics the displacement of “natural” relationsbetween bodies and places. Acting in a role is one way that such “natural”relations are altered. Rancière wants to extend this theatrical principleinto a general way of thinking through the implications of the artificeand thus the ungrounded nature of any “natural” hierarchy, but also ofall roles. Rather than a defense of “identity politics” then, his attachmentto the axiom of “displacement” forms part of a view of political action asprovisional and prospective; it does so by drawing on the role of artificein theatrical works to explain and contest “natural” hierarchies.His references to literature may also be considered in terms of theirimport for this reflection on political topics and themes. The excess ofwords to what they name (things) or mean (ideas) supports the politicalsignificance of dis-incorporation that he terms “literarity.” In Dis-agreement he defines literarity in more precise terms as a threefold excess of words1) to what they name, 2) to the requirements for the production of thenecessities of life, and 3) to the modes of communication, which legitimateand reinforce a given social order. In a reformulation of Aristotle’s dictumregarding “man’s” status as an animal with the additional capacity forpolitics, Rancière writes that “The modern political animal is first aliterary animal, caught in the circuit of a literariness that undoes therelationships between the order of words and the order of bodies thatdetermine the place of each.”( Dis-agreement , 37). His understanding ofwords as able to effect “a disidentification” from “the naturalness of aplace” (36) supports a perspective on politics that takes “words” in theexpansive sense of apportioning and shaping places and sites ofintelligibility. It is because of this pragmatic efficacy of words in concretepolitical acts that Rancière avoids a semantic approach to politics, whichwould assume a preestablished context of agreement regarding meaningand devote itself to the clarification of aspects of communication thusunderstood, and asks instead how the network of relations in whichbodies are placed renders what they say meaningful. Politicaldisagreement occurs not when the objects at stake and the participantsto the disagreement are identifiable givens, but when the party whoclaims a wrong understands this wrong in ways unintelligible within aprevailing order of sensible distribution. So, in order to articulate their SubStance #118, Vol. 38, no. 1, 2009 3 Cinema in Rancière’s “Aesthetic Politics”sense of the situation this party needs to use words to redistribute andredraw the sensible map, to make it possible to communicate a new wayof experiencing the world.The crucial role Rancière gives to the dis-incorporation of meaningin politics leads him to criticize Deleuze who, according to him, shutsdown the prospect of words redistributing meanings by virtue of hisutopian view that meanings are somehow embodied in particular literaryoperations. Deleuze, Rancière argues, leaves himself open to the chargethat the ontology he describes is “only” words precisely because he failsto consider the ways literary meanings may be reshaped and redirected. 3 The guiding idea of dis-incorporation is also the theoretical underpinningfor his general analyses of the complex connections to political themesinherent in the “aesthetic” form of modern literature. In particular, wemay mention his conception of the emergence in literature of the“aesthetic regime of the arts,” in which, starting with writers like Flaubert,“mute” things come to speak and aesthetic significance can be found inanything, as Hegel’s analysis of the dissolution of romanticism hadforetold. This regime is an “aesthetic model” for the democratic operationthat disregards the order of relations between bodies and places; theliterary paradigm of this disregard is Flaubert’s attempt to extend theidea that anything may be written well, including the mediocre loveaffairs of a farm girl. 4 Thus, instead of “politics in literature” addressingthe political commitments of writers, in Rancière’s thinking the literaryis political inasmuch as it concerns the practice of the division of thesensible, like, instance, Flaubert’s disregard for the hierarchical relationswhich, in the so-called representative regime of the arts, allocateappropriate styles for the treatment of particular subjects and themes. 5 From this brief discussion of his general approach to the intersectionof politics and art, I would like to formulate what I take to be the twocrucial perspectives that Rancière adopts in his “aesthetic politics.” First,from the evidence of the operation of dis-incorporated constellations ofmeaning in art, he argues that these constellations are able to mouldpolitical discourses. Second, he shows that the redistribution of sensiblepatterns of meaning is the primary dimension of politics [ le politique ]. If,as he contends, his perspective is simultaneously aesthetic and political,we need to ask whether it makes sense to talk about the “redistributionof the sensible” as effectively coordinating these two elements at thesame time. To my mind, the coordination between these elements canonly make sense if we add the additional claim that the fact and processesof dis-incorporation of meaning (which he describes in theatre and for Double-click here to Alison Ross SubStance #118, Vol. 38, no. 1, 2009 4 literature) engage a redefinition of the sensible sharing of values andpositions in a politically relevant way . Such dis-incorporation, in otherwords, must propose a new way of relating to the world and to others insuch a way that it allows new voices to come forward and to have theirviews articulated. What is crucial is that the claims of these voices arearticulable in a way that gives them a claim on other people’s attentionto the point of being meaningful for them. But also—and more important,I think—this process of articulation must turn them themselves intopolitical subjects or actors—it must make of them a force to be reckonedwith in political processes. 6 In this respect dis-incorporated constellationsof meaning are both “aesthetic” and “political.” They are “aesthetic”because they provide the settings for a sensible incorporation of new meanings; and they are “political” because they engage a point of disputefor engagement of different forces on the basis of these new meanings;and each through the other.Rancière’s discussion of the case of the secession of the Romanplebeians on Aventine Hill provides an example of this type ofcoordination between the “aesthetic” and the “political.” 7 The plebs setup another “partition of the perceptible” in which they constitutethemselves as “speaking beings sharing the same properties as thosewho deny them these” ( Dis-agreement , 24). The consul Menenius goes toAventine Hill where he sees the spectacle of the plebs carrying out a“series of speech acts linking the life of their bodies to words and worduse” (ibid., 25). What he “sees” leads his fellow patricians to considerhim “a victim of sensory illusion”; nonetheless when Menenius returnsto the plebs to deliver his apologia, it is delivered to equals. Rancièreconcludes that Menenius presupposes a capacity for understanding thatthe content of his apologia denies, and thus his apologia becomes, despitehis intentions, a revelatory staging of equality: From the moment the plebs could understand Menenius’s apologia –the apologia of the necessary inequality between the vital patricianprinciple and the plebeian members carrying it out – they werealready, just as necessarily equals. The apologia implies aninegalitarian partition of the perceptible. The sense necessary tounderstand this division presupposes an egalitarian division that putspaid to the former, but only the deployment of a specific scene ofrevelation gives this equality any effectiveness. (ibid.) Thus it is not the mere fact of their use of words that is important,but the “specific scene” in which their equality is staged; that is, a scene ofself-staging occurs that forces by its power of projection a reconfigurationof its sensible environment in which what could not previously be heardor seen becomes “meaningful” to others. 8 SubStance #118, Vol. 38, no. 1, 2009 5 Cinema in Rancière’s “Aesthetic Politics”The idea that the literary word has a transformative power (throughcommunication of meaning) can also be found in the literature on aestheticexperience. Albrecht Wellmer has argued that reading has this socialdimension, insofar as it allows a certain meaning to take root. 9 In contrast,Karl Heinz Bohrer has argued that art provides something like a privatesatisfaction in meaning, a fulfilled present, which cannot be generalizedbeyond individual experience. In these cases, however, it seems that themeaning-constellations that art provides are not able to forge a basis fora contestation with others that would have the dimension of forcerequired by Rancière’s politics. This is clear in Bohrer’s case because heexplicitly criticizes the attempt to extend the aesthetic significance to befound in art beyond private pleasure. For thinkers like Wellmer andHans-Robert Jauss the way an aesthetic experience alters one’s horizonby bringing it into relation with an alien horizon is a transformation, inRancière’s terms, of prevailing patterns of sense. It is not clear, on theother hand, that these have the same agency that Rancière must ascribeto politics as a “redistribution of the sensible” that engages new forcesand delimits fields of political contestation against prevailing patterns ofsense. 10 At the same time, this comparison with hermeneutics allows usto sharpen the terms of Rancière’s “aesthetic politics” insofar as itsrelations to the arts are concerned. As noted previously, the structuringreferences to theatre and literature are important resources for showingthe shaping role of aesthetic elements in the communication of valuesand beliefs. The comparisons with Wellmer and Bohrer suggest, however,the importance of asking whether the modern arts, in addition to theircapacity for redescribing meanings, also carry the capacity for an effectivecontestation of such values and beliefs themselves. Aesthetic experienceshows the possibility of communicating new meanings, but do thesemeanings also practice the shaping role entailed in Rancière’s sense of“aesthetic politics”?The coordination between the “aesthetic” and the “political” in whichcommunication of meanings and contestation of forces overlap can betaken to be the general perspective of Rancière’s “aesthetic politics.” Iwould now like to use this general perspective to see how it fits withwhat he says about the cinema in Film Fables , and to ask about thesignificance that may be attributed to possible discrepancies betweenwhat he says about the cinema and this more general perspective. DoesRancière’s treatment of cinema call into question his attribution to art ofa role in the communication and shaping of new meanings?