Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Jacques Rancière, _Aesthetics and its Discontents_, part two

PICKING UP FROM where we left off last week: two of the remaining three pieces in the book deal with certain of Alain Badiou's and Jean-François Lyotard's contributions to aesthetics. I haven't read the works by these two that Ranciére comments on, but I gather he thinks Lyotard's Kantian take on art could be usefully enriched by deeper acquaintance with Schiller's Letters on Aesthetic Education and that Badiou's Platonic take on art could be usefully enriched by deeper acquaintance with the writings of Rancière himself.

The final essay in the book, "The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics," covers some of the same ground as the essay on the "unrepresentable" in The Future of the Image, adding an interesting dimension, though, in its consideration of the ethical. He begins by noting that "today [i.e., 2004] there is an increasing tendency to submit politics and arts to moral judgements about the validity of their principles and the consequences of their practices," a tendency, he further notes, that many applaud.  He demurs, however, "because I do not believe that this is actually what is happening."

He goes on to say that invocations of the ethical tend to push towards consensus, e.g., "we can all agree that terrorism is wrong"--the snag being that this "all" is not truly "all," large group that it may be, but calling it "all" places those in disagreement beyond some pale, in a hinterland where mercy and forgiveness are out of the question, in the zone of "infinite justice," as R. calls it. Here he brings in, with stunning pertinency, Giorgio Agamben on states of exception.

What of the push to dissensus? What of strikers, say, who fought back against the police who were trying to suppress their strike? "The opposition between two types of violence was therefore also that between two sorts of morals and of rights. This dividing of violence, morality and right has a name. It is politics."

A "tendency of differences in politics and right to disappear in the indistinctness of ethics is also defining of a certain present of the arts and of aesthetic reflection" Rancière asserts as the essays wings towards its conclusion, a swing that takes in Christian Boltanski, earlier and later Godard, Shoah, and the TV miniseries Holocaust. My brutal oversimplification of the gist of this part of the essay would be that we should be asking more of our art than that it keep reaffirming that genocide or the sexual abuse of children is wrong. A little more dissensus, please.

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