Friday, December 12, 2014

Farewell to Artistic and Political Impotence

Glossary of Technical Terms

Ranciere uses this Greek term meaning ‘ a throng of people’ or ‘multitude’ to refer to a community obsessed with its own unification, at the expense of excluding the demos.


Ranciere uses this Greek term – meaning ‘the commons’, ‘plebians’, or ‘citizens’ – interchangeably with ‘the people’ to refer to those who have no share in the communal distribution of the sensible. The demos is thus simultaneously the name of the community and the title signifying the division of the community due to a wrong. It is the unique power of assembling and dividing that exceeds all of the arrangements made by legislators; it is the force of communal division that contravenes the ochlos obsession with unification.


A  process by which a political subject extracts itself from the dominant categories of identification and classification


Prior to being a platform for rational debate, consensus is a specific regime of the sensible, a particular way of positing rights as a community’s arche [power, command, realm, empire]. More specifically, consensus is the presupposition according to which every part of the population, along with all its specific problems, can be incorporated into a political order and taken into account. By abolishing dissensus and placing a ban on political subjectivization, consensus reduces politics to the police.


Dissensus is not a quarrel over personal interests or opinions. It is a political process that resists juridical litigation and creates a fissure in the sensible order by confronting the established framework of perception, thought, and action with the ‘inadmissible”, i.e. a political subject.


Neither a form of government nor a style of social life, democracy is properly speaking an act of political subjectivization that disturbs the police order by polemically calling into question the aesthetic coordinates of perception, thought and action. Democracy is thus falsely identified when it is associated with the consensual self-regulation of the multitude or with the reign of a sovereign collectivity based on subordinating the particular to the universal. It is,. In fact, less a state of being than an act of contention that implements various forms of dissensus. It can be said to exist only when those who have no title to power, the demos, intervene as the dividing force that disrupts the ochlos. If a community can be referred to as democratic, it is only insofar as it is a ‘community of sharing in which membership in a common world –not to be confused with a communitarian social formation – is expressed in adversarial terms and coalition only occurs in conflict.

Gabriel Rockhill:  You have convincingly argued that theory and practice are closely intertwined in the recent history of arts. Your own theoretical practice is one that attempts to intervene in the consensual systems in order to displace them, whether or not it be the discourse on artistic modernity, the discourse on the avant-garde or other such examples. Could you discuss the nature of your theoretical practice as a polemical intervention? Are there aesthetic practices that try to do something along the lines of what you do at a theoretical level, i.e. intervene in order to displace the consensual framework of the sensible?

Jacques Ranciere:  What I try to do is intervene in the space connecting what is called aesthetics and what is called politics in order to question forms of description that have supposedly become self-evident. For instance, this is why both in what is supposed to be  a political  book like Hatred of Democracy  and what is supposed to be an aesthetic book, The Emancipated Spectator, I targeted more or less the same discourse, which is very powerful on both sides: the discourse on the spectacle and the idea that we are all enclosed in the field of the commodity, the spectator, advertising images and so on. This is because, on the one hand, this discourse generates a kind of anti-democratic discourse and the incapacity of the masses for any political intervention and, on the other hand, it nurtures a discourse on the uselessness of any kind of artistic practice because it says everything depends on the market. For example, there were all these reactions when I did an interview with Art Forum: ‘ But there is the market, and it’s true that the market.  .  .’ But it’s necessary to get out of this discourse, which is the discourse of impotence, which nurtures, at the same time, forms of art that are supposed to be critical, projects and installations that are supposed to make us discover the power of the commodity and the spectacle. This is something that nobody ignores anymore. This discourse generates a kind of stereotypical art with all these installations presenting displays of commodities, all these displays of images of sex or gender identity, etc. So what I try to do is really target certain topics that both create some kind of discourse of political impotence and, on the other hand, either generate an idea that art cannot do anything or what you have to do is reproduce the stereotypical criticism of the commodity and consumption.

Alexi Kukuljevic:  These stereotypical responses within the art world could perhaps be identified as avant-gardist or neo-avant-guardist attempts to critically respond to something like the spectacle of culture. You seem to be suggesting that there is a type of critical art that is more productive as an intervention or as a critique of contemporary society, a critical art that avoids the more stereotypical types of art that remain ensnared or entrapped in the logic of consumerist spectacle. Given your critique of modernism in the attempt to reopen the question of the aesthetic outside of the avant-gardist paradigm, how do you at the same time identify certain normative critical structures within the arts? Is there ultimately a normative aspect to your discourse?

Jacques Ranciere: I think that the critical spectacle has nothing to do with the avant-garde tradition because the avant-garde tradition is a tradition of art creating forms of life, and not art as a criticism of social stereotypes. I think that political art is itself something of a kind of leftover from the real political avant-garde tradition. This being said , I don’t have a fixed idea of some normative form of critique. What I mean is that I don’t think that there are normative forms so that you could just refer to them and establish a way of doing real political art. I just observe forms of displacement, breaking in some respects with the consensual way in which things are presented, told and made in the mainstream system. There are many examples . . .I have discussed, for instance, the way in which Alfredo Jaar dealt with the massacre in Rwanda  and how he escaped the discourse of the unrepresentable. He doesn’t show images of the slaughter, but he created an installation in which what he makes visible is the look of people or imply their identity. For instance there is an installation with black boxes where images were hidden in the boxes, but there were descriptions of the contents of the images on the boxes. There was thus an identification of the person, which means that he emphasized the fact that all those people have names and a place in history, whereas usually the victim is the one who has no names and no individuality (only an image as the victim of the slaughter). He breaks, in this case, with the partition between the part of the world that is constituted by individuals and the part of the world that is constituted by anonymous masses. However, I am not presenting a normative idea of what art has to do. I really don’t think that there is a good practice of art. The relation between the consensual image and subversive images is constantly shifting so that you have to, each moment, displace the displacement itself.

As a matter of fact, political art cannot work in the simple form of a meaningful spectacle that would lead to an ‘’awareness’ of the state of the world. Suitable political art would ensure, at one in the same time, the production of a double effect: the readability of a political of a political signification and a sensible or perceptual shock caused, conversely, by the uncanny, by that which resists signification. In fact, this ideal effect is always the object of negotiation between opposites, between the readability of the message that threatens to destroy the sensible form of art and the radical uncanniness that threatens to destroy all political  meaning.

What is important is not that a work can have this or that effect. The effect, the aesthetic effect, is not the effect of  a work in the sense that a work should produce this energy for action or this particular form of deliberation about a situation. It’s about creating forms of perception, forms on interpretation- not all of which the artist can anticipate. The role of the critic – which is a controversial name for me – is to draw the outlines of the kind of world of which the work is a product. For me, the role of the critic is to say, ‘this is the world that this work proposes.’ It is to try to explain the forms – as well as possible shifts in the forms – of perception, description and interpretation of a world that are inherent in the work.

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