Gabriel Rockhill’s Radical History and The Politics of Art articulates a perceptive counter-historiography against a “substantialist” (233) view of art and politics as separable categories with universal meanings. Instead of one clearly definable relationship, there are “sundry modes of interrelation” (55) between these two “concepts in struggle that vary according to the social setting and historical conjuncture” (179). By demanding a “sociohistorical praxeology” (233) which takes specific cultural practices as the starting point rather than assuming their conceptual unity, and by considering the three dimensions of history—chronology, geography, social practice—Rockhill’s methodology of “radical history” exceeds periodizing frameworks for the avant-garde.
The book is part of Columbia’s “New Directions in Critical Theory” series, which has also published Rockhill’s co-edited collection Politics of Culture and the Spirit of Critique: Dialogues, Jacques Rancière’s Mute Speech, as well as books by Nancy Fraser and Alex Honneth, among others. An examination of Rancière, whose work Rockhill has translated, is central to his reevaluation of “the politics of art.” Radical History extensively discusses Rancière’s “politics of aesthetics,” which according to Rockhill is still primarily interested in the “product” of art. By contrast, Rockhill’s own methodology—which he calls “the study of the social politicity of artistic practices”—recognizes these practices as collective and as “politicized precisely through their production, circulation, and reception in the social world” (188). To this end, Rockhill incisively explicates contradictions in Rancière’s work, such as that for Rancière “art and politics are actually consubstantial as distributions of the sensible” (163) but then “constantly remind[s] us that there is no clear correspondence between them” (164).
Radical History, though a development out of Rancière’s thought, shifts the question from “what is the relationship between art and politics?” to “how do the diverse aspects of practices identified as aesthetic or political overlap, intertwine and sometimes merge in precise socio-historical conjunctures?” (234). Overlaps and intertwined junctures are of course relations, but Rockhill maintains that in the absence of “distinct entities” such relations are constantly shifting and need to be seen in their historical contexts of production, reception, and distribution. Faced with the much-trodden theoretical path of the (im)possibility of an avant-garde and a hypostasized link between art, writing, political activism, and revolutionary change, chapters 2, 3, and 4 cover familiar ground, from Lukács’s realism, Marcuse’s formalism, and Sartre’s discussion of commitment (which, incidentally, are also discussed by Rancière) to Peter Bürger’s theory of the avant-garde, as well as brief excursions on, for instance, the lesser-known Cornelius Castoriadis (whom Rockhill has also translated). Rockhill’s is nevertheless a necessary re-evaluation of these theorists, who dominate debates around art and politics, and he deftly probes their critical limitations.
Rockhill’s reading of Bürger is especially thorough and clarifying. Whether pointing out Bürger’s disregard for the conflicts within avant-garde groups or the simple but astute observation that there “is not actually a single avant-garde, nor is there a unique avant-garde practice” [End Page 835] (124), Rockhill’s criticisms are instructive. Yet asking how filmmaker Jean Epstein “could be integrated into Bürger’s thesis” (115) seems counterproductive, given Rockhill’s excellent criticism of Bürger earlier on, and given that Bürger’s “theory” is, after all, a history of three “historical” avant-garde movements. That quibble aside, as a corrective to the critical tendency to understand the avant-garde teleologically with its attendant fate of either success or failure, Rockhill, alongside Rancière, Hal Foster, and others, rightly questions the rhetoric of rupture that has motivated art- and literary studies for a long time. The term “radical history” itself is firmly positioned against arguments of an end of history, and it suggests change beyond the usual avant-garde model of the “radical break.” For Rockhill, Bürger’s link between the failure of the political movements of 1968...