NOTES ON : Rancière, J. (2002) ‘The aesthetic revolution and its outcomes: emplotments of autonomy and heteronomy’ in New Left Review, 14, March – April.

This piece is based on his earlier work where:

I distinguish between three regimes of art [based on what? Ideas?]   In the ethical regime, works of art have no autonomy.  They are viewed as images to be questioned for the truth and for their effect on the ethos of individuals and the community.  Plato’s Republic offers a perfect model of this regime.  In the representational regime, works of art belong to the sphere of imitation, and so are no longer subject to the laws of truth or common rules of utility.  They are not so much copies of reality as ways of imposing a form on matter.  As such, they are subject to a set of intrinsic norms: a hierarchy of genres, adequation of expression to subject matter, correspondence between the arts, etc.  The aesthetic regime overthrows this normativity and the relationship between form and matter on which it is based.  Works of art are now defined as such, by belonging to a specific sensorium that stands out as an exception from the normal regime of the sensible, which presents us with an immediate adequation of thought and sensible materiality.  For further detail, see Jacques Rancière Le Partage du Sensible. (135)

Since Schiller, the aesthetic is seen as a new form of sensory experience [later called a sensorium], promising a new life both for art and for everyday life.  It is easy to see this as an ideological formulation, disguising ruling class judgments, and also to see the pessimistic possibilities of totalitarian societies with official art forms.  There is also the possibility that liberal societies aestheticize life in a commercial form, as entertainment.  The underlying notion of a connection between sensory experience and life has taken different forms, including avant-garde cultural politics, and produced various institutions, including museums, libraries and educational programmes.

The link between art and everyday life is what grounds aesthetics, and gives art an acceptable autonomy [as long as it leads to a better life].  It denies both that art can be disengaged from politics and that it must be just a branch of politics.  Instead, art can reconstruct both itself and everyday life.  Many particular formulations have followed [listed page 134, and including both workers’ tastes for elite literature in the 1840s, and Adorno’s formulations.  I’m interested in the cultural politics of Deleuze and Guattari specifically—the nearest we get is a summary of Lyotard’s view that the avant-garde has to deinstitutionalise art to demonstrate the heteronomy of thought. The lads would extend that to include deinstitutionalising conventional philosophy and psychoanalysis?].

The basic argument, originally in Schiller, is that somehow art produces a particular experience, not just an object; this experience produces a notion of heterogeneity, something that exceeds the immediate subjectivity of the viewer; the overall experience is therefore aesthetic, and is not confined just to the artistic world.  One example concerns a statue of the Greek goddess Juno Ludovisi (135).  Schiller argues that the goddess shows no trace of a mundane ‘will or aim’ and is therefore self contained, and these qualities are also transferred to the statue: as a result, the statute looks as if it has not been produced by a mundane will, that is it not a symbol of anything.  Rancière says all the remarks like ‘this is not a pipe’ echo this analysis [surely the other way around though, in the case of Magritte—this is not a pipe, it is a painting].

Anyone looking at the statue will not develop just a rational account of its effects [implications for Bourdieu and the high aesthetic here surely?], but will see it as something autonomous, beyond human power.  There is a promise of a new world which is not immediately attainable: ‘The goddess and the spectator, the free play and the free appearance, are caught up together in a specific sensorium, cancelling the oppositions of activity and passivity, will and resistance’ (136).  It is an autonomy of experience that is given, which also includes a promise of politics.  All this depends on the statute becoming more than just a conventional work of art, the emergence somehow of an object which offers a ‘free appearance’.  This in turn implies some free existence, before art and politics divided off from everyday life: this vision was grounded in some notion of the ancient Greek State.

What changes in this argument is the notion of autonomy.  First it implied that the beautiful was unobtainable; now it implies that there is an autonomous life which expresses itself in art.  The old oppositions, like those between form and content, have a purpose only in developing a new sensorium, a form of aesthetic free play, which included, apparently, moving away from functional objects to seeing them as aesthetic ones: thus free play involves the liberation of human beings from material domination.

It is a basic contradiction between autonomy and heteronomy that underpins all the more specific ones between art and politics, debates between highly and popular culture and so on.  The underlying issue is the way in which art becomes not just art, but a form of life, autonomous.  However, there is still a problem—whether artistic autonomy should dominate over life or the other way around: ‘Art can become life.  Life can become Art.  Art and Life can exchange their properties’ (137).

In the first case, art has to dismantle its own old conventions while insisting on its educative function.  Artistic self education develops a new sensorium and this will lead to a new collective ethos.  There will be no need for politics: ‘Aesthetics promises an nonpolemical consensual framing of the common world’ (137).  Apparently, this is an idea developed by Hegel, Schelling and Hölderlin: politics was to disappear once communities’ self education developed sufficiently.  This idea persists in Marx’s 1840s assertion that philosophy will disappear in the face of a new human revolution, based on aesthetic sensibility.  The idea also informed the alliance between avant-garde and Marxists in the 1920s.  Then, a genuine reaestheticzation would offer a true alternative to false images and appearances, offering a promise of a new reality not just the world of appearances [which seems to be a more radical step compared to Schiller, where the reality of autonomy still remains out of reach]. 

There was a totalitarian version of this argument, where the collectivity determined the only aesthetic, but more open forms as well, such as the Morris and the arts and crafts movement, the renaissance of the medieval artisan to counter the exploitation of modern work and the production of functional equipment like furniture.  [Apparently, even Mallarmé shared aspects of this vision, to reframe human life so that poetry was as unexceptional as public celebrations or firework displays, 139]. Much debate took place over ornamentation, including Kant’s discussions of aesthetics: some advocated abolishing it, others elaborating it, but both insisted that art belongs in everyday life. At the very least, art becoming life involves the argument that the new life requires a new art.  This took different forms such as the relative merits of pure and applied art. 

Mallarmé’s poem about the fall of the dice was one such application of art—the shape of the poem reflects the idea of the fall of the dice itself [in order to break out from the old conventions, to revert to that project?].  Industrial design [by Behrens] also followed the same principles.  In both cases, the underlying argument is that specific products, whether poems or lamps, should reflect some general form or type, in the second case ignoring purely commercial and functional considerations.  These were to be symbolic forms, above the mundane realities of commercial life, a celebration of human creativity and magnificence ‘replacing the forlorn ceremonies of throne or religion’ (140).  Both activities, however apparently dissimilar, were to be educational, developing a new sensorium, ‘a new partition of the perceptible’.

Now the second case.  An early French art historian [Faure] announced the project.  An early role for museums was to demonstrate the life of art.  This was controversial even in 1800, where critics argued that art should not be detached from its context, a version of the modern critique of the worship of artistic icons—but opponents said that such detachment enabled some direct confrontation with the work of art itself.  Rancière thinks that both are mistaken, and that the collection of historic art displayed side by side shows ‘a time—space of art as so many moments of the incarnation of thought’ (141).[Nice link with a multiplicity here].

Early aesthetics tried to pursue the project of life becoming art.  First, the aesthetic experience was to be confined to the work of art itself, developing into a ‘spirit of forms’.  Notions of activity and passivity, form and content were seen as characteristics of the work of art ‘now posited as an identity of consciousness and unconsciousness, will and un-will’ (141).  The particular combinations in the work of art are now grasped as a form of historical context, but we can still detect a struggle between a past historical collective life, and its expression in the work of art [Hegel is the main theorist here]—so the Greeks depicted divinity as best they could, limited by the skills of the artist and the constraints of the material, and the work is best understood as an expression of ‘a thought unclear to itself in a matter that resists it’.  This expression, effort, and the work itself are still traceable to underlying beliefs and ways of life, however, so it is not just art [but a symbol].

One implication of this view are that new forms of art are possible in new contexts, as an expression of the life of the spirit [Kandinsky opposed this view to academicist understandings of art, apparently].  However, some struggle with expression is also crucial, and if more transparent forms of expression are available, art loses its value [remember the Hegelian context here, of thought eventually becoming more and more transparent and therefore transcending specific historical forms?].  While specific forms of art become redundant, the notion of a spirit of forms remains, a link between arts and a way of life, the ‘heterogeneous sensible’ (142).  This still expresses itself against non expressive forms [I think, the example is that Hegel says poetry will persist as long as prose is confused with it].  Nevertheless there is a tension and the possibility that a new life does not need art at all .

[There seems to be also a dread that social life will squeeze out heterogeneity, become flattened.  This reminds me of the debate between Lyotard and Habermas, that the pursuit of the ideal speech act could well turn into a new terroristic demand for total transparency].  Marx’s insistence on the duality of the commodity could be seen as an attempt to preserve heterogeneity.  This in turn would offer the basis of some revolution against capitalist conformity.  This would help resist rationalisation, which while opposing the old order, would also turn against aesthetic politics: ‘The  whole motto of the politics of the aesthetic regime, then, can be spelled out as follows: let us save the “heterogeneous sensible”’ (143) [definitely a motto for Deleuze and Guattari].

One way to save it involves Romantic poetics.  Romanticism does more than exalt the artist, but also multiplies ‘the temporalities of art that renders its boundaries permeable’, which rejects the straightforward rationalisation thesis in favour of a politics of latency and reinvigoration.  The old works of the past are to be reactualised [sic], used as raw materials for new formulations.  Museums positively helped here, including their habit of juxtaposing painting from different periods, which broke out from the old ‘spirit of forms’ approach and its risks.  This permeability meant a more relativist judgement for works of arts, and, by implication, a possible artistic status even for common objects.  Thus art can never die [the example is Balzac’s reading of an old curiosity shop as an endless poem, and his suggestion that geologists were poets in that they conjured up new worlds].

Any object can now have the same effect as Juno Ludovisi, even vegetables in the market.  The argument ranges from Balzac through to Dada and collage, to surrealism and Pop Art.  Benjamin saw arcades in the same way, as a promise of a future life [but only if we confine ourselves to contemplating them?].  Thus everything can help preserve heterogeneity, and we need to interpret objects as signs of history, or symptoms of social life. ‘The new poetics frames a new hermeneutics’ (145), and we go back to understand social life, with all its complexities and contradictions, beneath that of mere conventional current politics.  ‘Marx’s analysis of the commodity is part of [this] Romantic plot’ (145), resisting homogenisation.  [Apparently, a link was made by Benjamin between this quality of the commodity and the activities of the flâneur in the arcades].  Marx’s and subsequent critiques of culture as illusion, underpinned by domination, ‘is the epistemological face of Romantic poetics’, a theoretical grasp [rationalisation is Rancière’s word] of the ways in which the signs of art and current social life are interwoven.  This looks like a rational disenchantment with commercial culture, but that disenchantment was already prefigured in Romanticism, based, ironically, on a substantial reenchantment of the everyday objects in the world as art.

However, there is still a threat in that now everything becomes artistic, even the most prosaic objects, seen in art as deliberate reproduction.  Romanticism finds it hard to think of a reason to condemn this practice without invalidating its own stance, yet there is clearly a danger that the society of the spectacle will emerge as a new form of domination.  Even denunciation of the spectacle can turn into an art form, as with the use of Debord’s work in some artistic exhibition, which apparently simply equated entertainment with Debord’s notion of free play (146).

Perhaps the development of the avant-garde has more mileage.  Art has to be radically separated from everyday life, and follow a separate sensorium.  Rancière says that denunciation of kitsch is the plot of Madame Bovary, where a woman trying to aestheticize her life can only end in death.  He says the same ‘cruelty’ applies to Adorno’s denunciation of some modern music, including the eclecticism of Stravinsky, and where radical elements have been incorporated into ‘salon music’ (147).  Proper critical art has to be autonomous, impermeable.  Contradictions abound—Flaubert had to adopt the same mode of expression as Madame Bovary, and Adorno could only denounce alienating capitalist forms of the division of labour by deepening it himself [separating out the theoretically informed critic from the performer?  This paradox affects radical academics particularly well too?].  [This is a version of the old claim that the avant-garde become necessarily elitist and speak only private languages?  Clearly applicable to Deleuze as well.] The autonomy of avant-garde art is permeated with these opposing tendencies [heteronomies in Ranciere’s terms].

[So we have a nice little tension being set up, very similar to Adorno and the dialectic of enlightenment.  Art and culture become autonomous by escaping from the old religious and political conventions, but no sooner have they been liberated than they get eclipsed by capitalism and commercialism.  Ever since then, the problem for radicals is to maintain the distance between art and capitalism, to posit some realm beyond or behind capitalism, the aesthetic in the broadest sense.  If we go for fully autonomous art, we end up with esoteric knowledge, obscurity and private languages, and we risk rejection on the basis of more conventional aesthetics supported by class structures: Bourdieu’s social reproduction dynamic adds an additional hazard of incorporation.  It’s not just commercial interests that incorporate radical art, but bourgeois forms of distancing as well, as in the way they rapidly domesticated the avant-garde.

The trail into obscurity and elitism clearly affects the cultural politics of Deleuze and Guattari, even if we find it impossible to fit their philosophical commitments into an aesthetic, which is clearly a specific problem revealed best in the work on cinema.  Yet populist alternatives are also difficult, as in the critique of Romanticism.  Gramscian politics also turned everything into politics, so it was difficult to argue for some solid ground for specifically anti capitalist politics.  Another implication is for the current enthusiasm for irrationalism, including the tyranny of the emotions.  This clearly has some mileage as an anti capitalist movement, but it risks being incorporated both by the entertainment industry and by unpleasant emotional politics such as fascism.  The answer is to try and establish some solid ground for radical oppositional emotions, which we see, I suppose, in the applied poststructuralist/social constructivist stuff, as in autoethnography.

Finally, the whole argument seems greatly in danger of foundationalism.  Aesthetics and cultural politics need a ground if they are not to be dangerously vague and open to incorporation.  But we know of problems with establishing grounds—foundations get privileged and the more specific work can only be tied to foundations through dogmatism or arbitrariness.]

The split between Apollo and Dionysus popularised by Nietzsche represents options in the logic of the spirit of forms.  They are the aesthetic equivalents of the opposition between logos and pathos.  It is either reason that winds through the resistance offered by the materials to win out with the autonomous artistic product, the ‘Apollonian plot’ or it is that art results from chaos, pathos, ‘radical alterity’, that bursts through convention or at least leaves a subversive trace on it, the ‘Dionysian plot’ (148).  Both alternatives involve heteronomy as an essential component of autonomy.

Another tension emerges as a result, seen best in Lyotard on the sublime.  [This is difficult stuff].  Apparently, the avant-garde has the duty to constantly draw boundaries between commercialised art and art that is faithful to the heterogeneous sensible, but this makes art dependent on this constant activity which has to keep it on the straight and narrow—in other words, not autonomous at all, but bent to some political project [maybe].  Otherwise, autonomous art might declare itself independent of political radicalism too.  Thus Lyotard insists on a ‘duty’ for art (149), to head for the sublime, which exists beyond representation and therefore operates between the sensible and the intelligible.  This departs from Kant’s view that the sublime implies the ethical, and implies instead that human beings must partake of some supersensible realm [clear parallels here with Deleuze, and the politics of Guattari, and the origin of the subject in the virtual?].  This represents a reversion to the logic of the spirit of forms, and depoliticises aesthetics, which now becomes some eternal clash between the representable and the sublime, the art of representation and the avant-garde [an eternal clash between the image of conventional thought and Deleuzian philosophy and its forebears?].  At most, it is an ethical duty to insist on the sublime.  Rancière says it’s not a very stable distinction any way, since we can find the unrepresentable in conventional representational art anyway: ‘In the aesthetic regime of art, nothing is “unrepresentable”’ (149).

As an example, it is sometimes claimed that the holocaust is unrepresentable and can only be witnessed, but there are representations of it nevertheless, say in the writings of Levi: these take the form of steadily accumulating testimony, a ‘paratactic style’ (150) that represents steady dehumanisation.  [There are other examples including Shoah, which looks radical compared to an earlier conventional U.S. television depiction of the camps, but which still follows a conventional narrative of reconstructing the enigmatic past, exactly like Citizen Kane. Deleuze differs a lot here -- Kane does break through convention itself and leads to philosophising about the relative nature of time -- a dangerous option for the holocaust, likely to end in support for denial?].  Lyotard’s insistence on the unrepresentable is necessary so he can make ethical points, it is a version of the old aesthetic promise.

So alternatives are threatened with ‘entropy’, and there is now much more pessimism about the political role of art, especially in France.  Ranciere says it is better to see radical art not as tending inevitably towards incorporation and contradiction, but as moving constantly between the limits of art as life and life as art, ‘playing a heteronomy against an autonomy [and vice versa]…  Playing one linkage between art and non art against another such linkage’ (150).  [Not very different from the romantic project of renewal and reinvigoration?].  Each option involves a metapolitics—suggesting some autonomous sensorium, offering more than just politics, demonstrating social hermeneutics, serving as the final guardian of autonomy.

The result of managing these different options ends in a ‘certain undecidability in the “politics of aesthetics”’ (151), a matter of promise and possibilities and political ambiguity.  This means that art can never be separated from politics, but it also means that a radical artistic politics is likely to end in  ‘melancholy’ (151).

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