- Why Rancière Now?
As philosophy's representative at an art college, a question is put to me by my colleagues, students, and other art-world types frequently enough that it is worth considering systematically: Why Rancière now? The query is in large part prompted by a recent issue of Artforum devoted to the work of the French philosopher Jacques Rancière, the publication of which caps a seemingly overnight ascendance within discussions of art and politics. The very temporality of the question indicates that the discovery of Rancière by art professionals is a relatively recent development. Why is this taking place now? To begin to answer this question, we must first understand something about the current relationship between theoretical discourse and artistic practice.
That Rancière is only now beginning to be discussed within the art world is indeed surprising, given the long-standing reliance upon theoretical approaches and the fact that Baudrillard, Derrida, and Deleuze now function as standard reference points. While it would be incorrect to say that Rancière was an unknown quantity in the Anglophone world until recently, the sense of revelation suggested by the query "Why now?" must be understood in terms of the ongoing exchange between European theory and contemporary art. This is a conversation that, independent of one's perspective as to whether it has had positive or negative consequences, cannot be denied. With this relationship between Continental philosophy, art making, and critical discourses, one is justified in asking, Why is Rancière only now coming to be read with any seriousness in art circles? The point is sharpened when we note that Rancière's work, unlike that of some of the more [End Page 1] celebrated names, is more readily suited for an interface with critical art discourse, concerned as it is with aesthetic issues and the analysis of contemporary art.
One might be tempted to find lurking behind our question a certain amount of suspicion about further incursions by theory and detect a sense of exasperation at having yet another French name to pronounce. Those of us who find this interaction between art and theory edifying, however, should not simply shrug off this question and attribute it to an aversion to philosophy, or to a backlash against the excess of the past two decades. Understanding the context in which the question is posed allows us to expand it. And, while not all would agree, I think it is safe to say that there is a tacit consensus that fruitful arrangements between art and philosophy can be forged. With this situation in mind, we might, therefore, transform our question into something like the following: What might Rancière contribute to the work of the nonphilosopher, placed, for good or ill, within a dispositif wherein art and European theory discourse about many of the same phenomena, but in different idioms? The advantage of this formulation, of course, is that it allows us to avoid many of the facile responses to our initial question, variations on a theme suggesting that Rancière is simply one of the few members of that esteemed generation of thinkers still living and that the turning to his work is indicative of a generalized anxiety about the future of theoretical developments. We might also, in thus expanding our question, sketch an answer directed at those working at the edges of their respective disciplines: philosophers, artists, critics, historians—in short, all those interested in questions of contemporary culture. In accordance with what Rancière describes as the fortuitous breakdown of specializations, my efforts in this essay are intended as a contribution to an interdisciplinary conversation that is grappling with the intellectual issues raised by works of art, their reception, and the historical discourses that are created around them.
II. To Avoid Two Discourses of Mourning
The temporality of our question, why now?, is hinted at by Rancière at various points throughout his own work and pertains to what might be characterized as the default theoretical position of art, that of "mourning." For Rancière, this mourning takes two major forms: spectacle and the impossible. The former finds its genesis...