Aesthetic Recovery: A review of Jacques Rancière’s Aisthesis

Book Review: Jacques Rancière. Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art. New York: Verso, 2012. 304 pp.

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In histories of Western art, modernism is a deceptively straightforward term: it is often used to refer to a turning point in aesthetic production, a radical shift in style that belongs to a new form of historical self-consciousness. But such accounts typically disregard the various ways in which modernism was produced and the moments of political and aesthetic possibility prior to its periodization as historical modernism proper. For decades, the French philosopher Jacques Rancière has been upending our preconceptions about the relation between art and politics. His newly translated work Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art presents readers with a series of interventions into the field of aesthetics, tracing its role in the emergence of artistic modernism. At stake for Rancière is our reception of modernism’s legacy and the political closure that has been entailed by it. As he writes at the end of the book’s preface, “Social revolution is the daughter of aesthetic revolution, and was only able to deny this relation by transforming a strategic will that had lost its world into a policy of exception” (xvi).

In Aisthesis, Rancière is not looking for an essence or truth inherent to art. Rather, he is concerned with the ways in which what he calls “the aesthetic regime of art” has been used to identify particular images, performances, texts, and objects. Art, for Rancière, does not enter into a domain called politics from a position of autonomy. Rather, art is always already a social practice, a distribution of bodies within a political field. In each chapter, he attempts to trace a logic of art that departs from the interpretive network that gives it meaning. Each of the scenes that Rancière explores in Aisthesis are treated as instances in which “a given artistic appearance requires changes in the paradigms of art” (xi). Each object of study, in other words, is treated as an instance of “art” but also as a singular moment (of novelty, revolution, or emotion) in which art is reconstituted. Each scene is a “fabric,” a “moving constellation,” in which these various modes of perception, affection, and thought are woven together. Each object of study is an instance in the formation of the aesthetic regime of art and “a displacement in the perception of what art signifies” (xiii). Continue reading

All The Candy You Can Eat

On The Eucharistic Potential of Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Anthony Easton

Within a few days of each other, I had two friends who traveled to Chicago separately, and were at the Art Institute of Chicago on the same day within hours of each other, and both emailed me that day, to talk about a piece they saw, a piece that moved them. This isn’t that unusual, I spend a lot of time with artists and curators and I spend a lot of time talking about art. Mostly it’s a rarified form of shoptalk, a commentary on how a piece was interesting because of this idea, or that line, or tradition, or how it played into or against a work that had been done before. It’s much like shoptalk about how a liturgy goes, when talking to priests or deacons. Continue reading

The Feast of All Saints

Maggie Helwig

The Feast of All Saints and the Feast of All Souls are celebrated, in our church calendar, on successive days – very close together, and yet distinct. It is a distinction which wouldn’t have made any sense to the church in its earliest days, because in the very early church, the “saints” were all the members of the Christian community. We can see that usage in Paul’s letter today – the saints are all of us who are a part of that body which is the body of Christ, which is the church and all the world. We are sanctified, holy, not because we are very good or very special, but because we have been created and marked for holiness, a people who are to be remade, whose destiny is always to be growing into our fullness as part of the body, part of the life of God in Christ. Not saints because we are perfect or anything close to that, but because we have offered ourselves to a process of being endlessly transformed. Continue reading

Archiving the Messianic: Derrida, Benjamin, and the politics of memory

There is no archive without a place of consignation, without a technique of repetition, and without a certain exteriority. No archive without outside. (Derrida, Archive Fever, 11)

For most of us, the archive represents a practical space of investigation, with its contents sitting in darkness, waiting to be reassessed and rediscovered. What’s perhaps less obvious about the archive is its construction, an analogue to the scholar’s privileged cultural position and, along with it, the hermeneutical agenda she brings to her research. Since Derrida’s Archive Fever, the archive has become a important concept for cultural theory and historical methodology. Of course, Derrida wasn’t the first to question the archive’s authority or the ways that history is produced by it. Not simply a site for the preservation of cultural artifacts or a repository of a past authenticity, the archive also names a basic procedure of inclusion and exclusion, a simultaneous remembering and forgetting that proceeds from any attempt to archive. Derrida’s work invites us to consider several crucial outcomes of this process: first and foremost, that a dialectic exists between what gains historical legitimacy through its preservation, and what is condemned to oblivion by being ignored or repressed. The archive always entails some kind of exteriority and for this reason opens up the discussion to theology (the messianic) and psychoanalysis (repression). Secondly, while discussions of the archive have traditionally been driven by questions surrounding the organization of the past, Derrida’s work considers how these ongoing modes of organization orient us toward the future. Continue reading

Politics, Religion, Violence, and Faith: Simon Critchley’s Faith of the Faithless Reviewed

Works Reviewed: Simon Critchley, Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology New York: Verso, 2012. 291 pp.

 When I think of religion at all, I feel as if I would like to found an order for those who cannot believe: the Confraternity of the Faithless, one might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unblessed bread and a chalice empty of wine. Everything to be true must become a religion. And agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith. – Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

Penned within the dreary atmosphere of Reading Gaol, the dismal cry of the Irish poet has now been taken up by an English philosopher as the launching point for a series of historical and philosophical investigations into the interdependence of politics and religion. In Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology Simon Critchely argues that the religious dimension of the letter Wilde penned while in prison, and especially his interpretation of the figure of Christ, can helpfully illumine the “dilemma of politics and belief.” (3) This dilemma is not merely one confronted by those who identify as atheists, although that is the vantage point which Critchley chooses to adopt. At the heart of what makes Wilde such a captivating figure, for Critchley, is his resolute refusal to accept any misfortune as the occasion to accept an extraneous mode of salvation. Aware that he has ruined himself and squandered his artistic talents Wilde sees his condition as “the occasion for a fresh mode of self-realization.” (2) Wilde articulates this self-realization in terms of politics and ritual. That everything to be true must become religion, suggests Critchley, should be read as an affirmation of the necessity of ritual in the act of fidelity, or ‘being true to’ something.(3)

Can the need for ritual, for religious truth and a framework of ritual, coexist with a rigorous refusal of external commands or extraneous symbolism? Continue reading

Not in my Backyard

Jeffrey Metcalfe

Before I begin, I have a confession to make: I’m an addict. I didn’t choose to be, I was born with this addiction. Sometimes I am able to wean myself off of it, if even for a little while, but never for very long—a few hours at most. To be honest, if I were to go without it for much longer then that, I would probably die. Continue reading

A Critique of Purity

Andre Forget

In my post last month about power relations in Canada, I suggested that multiculturalism has obscured the fact that the majority of real financial and political power in this country is still largely held by the descendants of European colonizers. I suggested that until power is more equally shared – until, that is, we see the same cultural and ethnic diversity on Bay Street and Parliament Hill that we see in Kensington Market or Ellice Avenue – we will remain haunted by the problems of racism and ethnic discrimination. I do not think this is an easy or straightforward goal to accomplish, nor do I think that accomplishing it will mean an end to oppression, bigotry, or inequality. The human race has a truly astounding capacity for nastiness, and I suspect that if racism is ever put to rest we will find other, equally irrational reasons to mistreat each other. Just as cancer and AIDS have replaced smallpox and Spanish influenza, racially-motivated hatred will be replaced with some other kind; however, just as the knowledge that cancer and AIDS will in turn be replaced by other diseases does not stop us from searching for cures, awareness of humanity’s stubborn capacity for violence should not keep us from resisting the violence we see around us.

But what does this resistance look like? Continue reading