Book Review: Jacques Rancière. Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art. New York: Verso, 2012. 304 pp.
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 →
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 →
Review: Timothy Morton The Ecological Thought Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012 159 pp.
Under the auspice of identity we write towards an indiscernible future that holds forth hope not only as vision or project but in reality and in truth. What is it to evoke a catholic commons but to signal an intimate entanglement with which we are never truly finished? Never finished because the commons is not something that belongs to us but rather the interconnectedness wherein we constantly find ourselves surprised by beings who fill us with wonder, delight, amazement, disgust, frustration and pain. To speak of the commons is always to speak of what is beyond private control; it is to speak of communion and camaraderie and at the same time the pain, isolation, and violence that come bound up in earthly existence. That the commons is catholic is a sign of its expansiveness, our locality is not protectionist. And what could it be to be seeking the kingdom except that we are on the road open to encounter with that strange stranger who just, just might be the Christ? Continue reading →
Two recent titles from Stanford UP’s excellent series Cultural Memory in the Present focus on seventeenth century English poetry in an effort to address contemporary debates over theology and secularism.
In Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism, Regina M. Schwartz credits the Protestant Reformation with providing a necessary critique of Church officials who sought to control the domain of mystery and instrumentalize the sacred. At the same time, she cautions, this upending of the sacramental tradition also enabled “a new instrumentality—not of the Eucharist by the Church, but of the sacred by the state” (29). Over the next hundred or so pages, Schwartz explores the effects of this theological-political shift through its expression in the poetry of John Donne, George Herbert, and John Milton. In such post-Reformation poetry, she writes, we see a lingering hunger for the divine, “a poetry that signifies more than it says . . . through image, sound, and time, in language that takes the hearer beyond each of those elements” (7). In other words, Schwartz treats seventeenth century religious verse as a form of compensation for the loss of sacred liturgy; and the effects of this loss, she argues, are still relevant for the way we understand the relationship between theology and secularism today. Continue reading →
Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology, William Ophuls, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2012, 256 pp.
At the heart of every recent political discussion is an increasingly insurmountable problem; the challenge of ecological scarcity. At the heart of the ever-deepening ecological crisis is the uncomfortable reality that the way we live today, the consumptive choices we make and the way we organize ourselves socially and politically, may be denying our grandchildren a future. The fact that consumer/industrial society has so eagerly jumped on the “green” bandwagon makes our situation that much more ridiculous, as though slapping on a few eco-friendly labels could radically alter the destructive consumptive patterns to which we have become accustomed.
William Ophuls confronts this ecological challenge, in Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology, with a powerful mixture of ingenuity and wisdom. Continue reading →
Imagination, Commodity and Forbidden Knowledge in Paradise Lost
There is something strangely literary about the economy, functioning as it does through the marshaling of symbols, metaphors and allegories, never taking material shape and yet responsible for so much concrete human action. Given our modern propensity for examining literature through the lenses of psychology, anthropology, history, gender, and any number of other social-scientific methodologies, perhaps it is time for us to experiment with the reverse: an examination of economics through the lens of literature. Continue reading →
Medea Benjamin Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control New York: OR Books, 2012.
A recent article in the New York Times, entitled “A Day Job Waiting for a Kill Shot a Word Away” chronicles some of the psychological disturbances facing drone pilots, as they routinely confront an “enemy” across the world from the safety of a computer screen. While critics may argue that drones turn war into a video game reality, the piece seems to contend, the high-resolution cameras bring intimate footage of the people these pilots are attacking. Continue reading →
As the final part of our online Symposium on Girls Fall Down, Maggie Helwig was gracious enough to answer some of our questions. In so doing we ranged from the soul and synaptic connections to the Venerable Bede, from the wounds on the risen body of Christ to felix culpa. I hope it proves as interesting reading for you as it did for us! Continue reading →
Robyn Ferrell Sacred Exchanges: Images in Global Context New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, 192 pages. $50.00
Time and again, as I read through Robyn Ferrell’s new book, the words of Frank Scott’s villanelle passed, unbidden, through my mind. Not steering by the venal chart, that tricked the mass for private gain.We rise to play a greater part. Reshaping narrow law and art, whose symbols are the millions slain, From bitter searching of the heart We rise to play a greater part. Through the lens of the Australian Aboriginal art movement Ferrell confronts the reader with some surprising truths about the world we live in and the myopic and murderous callousness which makes us inattentive to these realities. Continue reading →
One of the most remarkable features of Girls Fall Down is the way in which Maggie Helwig has managed to write the city of Toronto into existence. The well-documented Canadian obsession with place is in full bloom in this novel, but the Toronto Helwig creates is not Michael Ondaatje’s Toronto (which is fundamentally a place of rebirth), nor is it Robertson Davies’ Toronto in The Cunning Man, which is thoroughly colonial. Helwig’s Toronto is a place haunted at once by profound loneliness and an almost terrifying sense of connection. Much of the novel’s beauty is derived from how totally the author embraces this paradox; its genius, however, lies in the unflinching way in which Helwig uses the city to investigate the individual and the individual to interrogate the city. Continue reading →