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

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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

George Eliot and atheism

Jonathan Dyck

I regard these writings as histories consisting of mingled truth and fiction, and while I admire and cherish much of what I believe to have been the moral teaching of Jesus himself, I consider the system of doctrines built upon the facts of his life . . . to be most dishonorable to God and most pernicious in its influence on individual and social happiness.

–Mary Anne Evans (aka George Eliot) on the Bible, 1842

Decades after offering this passionate account of her disbelief in a letter to her father, Mary Anne Evans would move to London, become Marian Evans, and eventually assume her status as the Victorian literary giant, George Eliot. Contemporary treatments of George Eliot rightly celebrate her writing for its affirmation of everyday life, and more often than not invoke her self-proclaimed atheism as one of its key components. A recent example is an article in Salon called “Good without God” (originally published by the LA Review of Books), which argues that Eliot can teach modern atheists and skeptics how to be more inclusive and affirming of those who, for whatever reason, are still holding on to their religious beliefs. The article suggests that Eliot’s loss of faith can temper those like Dawkins or Harris who sacrifice dialogue and community for the smug certainty of their exclusively “rational” position. Not a bad corrective, but it still comes off sounding rather patronizing where religious belief is involved. Gone is the antagonism that seems to be fuelling most contemporary atheism and its religious rebuttals.   Continue reading

Violence, Grace, and Solidarity: Reading Flannery O’Connor on Good Friday

Jonathan Dyck

In order to arrive at the joy and affirmation of Easter Sunday, we encounter the suffering and despair of Good Friday. It’s not a pleasant thing to acknowledge, but grace and violence appear bound together at Easter.

Few writers are as astute at recognizing this relationship as Flannery O’Connor. Rather than a world of neutral surfaces, O’Connor’s fiction presents us with a world that is irreducibly “grotesque.” For her, the history of the South has made for an environment that is “hardly Christ-centered, [but] is most certainly Christ-haunted” (M&M 44). Her characters may not act like Christians, but theirs is a world which is divinely given, a world in which grace regularly emerges and disrupts. For this reason, O’Connor’s fiction adopts what she has called, “prophetic vision,” a way of seeing that paradoxically understands near things at a distance and far things up close. As she puts it, “The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that you find in the best modern instances of the grotesque.”  This has everything to do with her view that art is incarnational. It is, in other words, ultimately about embodiment rather than abstraction, and its particular kind of embodiment is a deeply mysterious and troubling one. Continue reading

William Morris and the Politics of Artistic Production

Jonathan Dyck

In 1889, William Morris delivered a lecture titled “The Arts and Crafts of Today,” which addressed the degraded state of labour and commerce in industrial England by working through the question of art’s purpose in everyday life. Not simply an indictment of late Victorian society, Morris’s lecture functions as a manifesto, justifying his radical position to an audience of artists while laying out the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement. Like the manifestos of later design movements, such as The Bauhaus, Morris’s lecture assumes a close relationship between what he calls the “applied arts” and the complex form of society at large. For both movements, the design manifesto is a polemical call to all creative labourers to recognize their collective capacity to overturn and transform the status quo; it is an attempt to articulate an alternative vision of society in which art does not simply mask reality but actually improves it. Continue reading

The Words that Maketh Murder

A Remembrance Day review of PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake

Jonathan Dyck

“Memory forges the chain of tradition that passes events on from generation to generation.”
-Walter Benjamin, Schriften

“Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live.”
-John Milton, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce

“The West’s asleep. Let England shake, weighted down with silent dead. I fear our blood won’t rise again.” With these somber words, a flinty-voiced PJ Harvey begins to taunts a futile “Bobby” whose only real cause or desire is the spread of indifference. It’s an eerie way to begin, especially when you already know what’s coming: a series of grim reflections on the necessary interplay between war and nation. On the opening title track, Harvey’s voice sounds detached—almost ironically so; her vocals playfully dance along to a xylophone melody lifted from Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon’s “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” If Harvey’s narrator is right to accost the Bobby for his indifferent “smile,” she offers an even more chilling form of apathy when she blankly states, “England’s dancing days are done.” It’s the first of many jarring contradictions that make up one of this year’s best and most thought-provoking albums. It’s also a sobering critique of the West’s continuing, increasingly implausible faith in the idols of history and nation. Continue reading