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  • Sociology, Aesthetics, Expertise
  • Tony Bennett (bio)

In proposing a theory of literary reproduction, Pierre Macherey distinguishes its concerns from those of a theory of literature, dismissing the latter as a chimerical quest for an impossible object. Literature, he says, does not exist except as a “historical fiction,” a construction of “the literary genre that is Criticism.” But what does exist, he continues, “and in a perfectly real way, is the literary.” What difference does he see between the two? Literature’s existence is posited in essentialist terms as consisting in a particular set of formal properties, while the literary is construed as an open-ended, dynamic set of intertextual processes which carries its form, conceived as a more fluid set of possibilities, “ahead of itself, by opening up the field of its own modifications, and of their own exuberant proliferation.” If literature consists of a definite textual corpus, the literary is “a complex of processes, dynamically articulating among themselves the labour of writing and the labour of its reproduction—and this independently of a normative ideal which would try to substitute for this ceaselessly pursued movement the illusion of an identity, a stability or a permanence.”1

What can it mean to say that literature is a fabrication, but that the literary exists in “a perfectly real way?” If the labor of a particular form of expertise (criticism) is acknowledged in the first case, what forms of expertise are involved in the processes through which the dynamic reinscriptions of the literary are effected? How are they constituted and exercised? These are the questions I pursue by considering how issues concerning the social articulations of literary and artistic phenomena might now be most usefully posed in the light of new approaches to the concerns and procedures of sociology that have been developed since the “sociology of literature” moment of the 1960s and 1970s. I begin by reviewing what I take to be the distinguishing characteristics of this moment, especially with regard to its concern with the differentia specifica of literature and/or the literary. I shall pay particular attention to the logic of explanation which interpreted these and the aesthetic more generally as a particular set of metaformal properties that was to be accounted for with reference to the organization of social relationships of various [End Page 253] kinds: between classes; the social relations of literary production; or the historical dynamics of literary and artistic fields, for example.

I then review a range of subsequent intellectual developments which call into question such constructions of the relations between the literary, the aesthetic, and the social. I chiefly have in mind here the varied strands of assemblage and actor-network-theory whose commitment to flat ontologies, in which texts, devices, knowledges, techniques, and technologies interact with each other in complexly articulated material ensembles, calls into question the explanatory role attributed to the various forms in which the social was invoked in the “sociology of literature” moment. My primary interest here is in how these new theoretical settings displace earlier concerns with the aesthetic, construed as a set of metaformal properties to be given a social explanation, to focus instead on its role as a product of particular forms of expertise whose exercise is tangled up in a distinctive set of processes and apparatuses for ordering and organizing particular kinds of subjectivity.

In illustrating these concerns, I look at how investigations of the relations between social, literary, and artistic phenomena might be reordered in the light of Jacques Rancière’s account of the varied “emplotments” of the relations between the “life of art and the arts of life” associated with what he calls the aesthetic regime of art.2 I shall, however, work both with and against the terms Rancière proposes for understanding the properties of this regime: with, in so far as his remarks concerning its capacity for effecting a redistribution of the sensible treat it as a historically distinctive dispositif; against, in so far as his formulations validate specific aspects of the operations of this dispositif as a form of metapolitics that transcends the mundane politics of the state, bureaucracy, and the ethical aspects of social life. By way of...


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pp. 253-276
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