- Aesthetic Regime Change.A review of Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis
It’s something of an accident that Jacques Rancière did not become a household name much earlier in the English-speaking world of theory and criticism. Though he took part in and wrote for Louis Althusser’s project Reading Capital in the late 60s, his contribution was not included in the first English translation of that work, so what might have been a blockbuster reception for him at his then tender age (his late 20s) never materialized. His Anglophone recognition came surely but slowly with distinctive and incisive but not-so-flashy books such as The Ignorant Schoolmaster, an almost deliberately minor work about a once important but now largely forgotten radical pedagogue who abandons the position of dispenser of knowledge and model of method to be, rather, a conduit and sounding board for communal, egalitarian learning. In the wake of the deaths of the great maîtres-penseurs of the second half of the twentieth century, Rancière has risen, crème de la crème, to the upper echelon of the most read and invoked theorists of a certain stripe (Continental, lefty, engaged with some combination of philosophy, politics, and art). In his relatively old age and in semi-retirement, he has become extraordinarily prolific and productive. Hardly a year goes by without another slim or fairly hefty volume from his hand.
Aisthesis has a claim to being the most substantial book Rancière has carved out. One is tempted to say it is a major statement, and yet it makes many fewer statements than do most of his books, especially the short, programmatic ones. Unlike the shorter books of late by Rancière, Aisthesis, being rather spare in its grand theses or propositions, does not lend itself to quotation, and it is remote, in its texture, from what has come to be known loosely as “theory.” It’s a hard book to summarize (and to review) because it consists of fourteen separate “scenes” of art production. Though some concerns flow or spill over from one chapter to the next, and there is force to the strictly chronological sequence, the chapters are relatively autonomous. No section is really framed by any other. The historical situation of the work emerges in each chapter, rippling out from some initial charged, usually eloquent response to it and then supplemented by the deft wielding of Rancière’s analytical power and erudition. In this Rancière wears his Marxism lightly, which tends to be an advisable stance when it comes to the elucidation of works of art. Purely Marxist categories can be illuminating of grand structures and dynamics, but are often a little clunky when brought to bear on the nitty-gritty specifics of artworks. There is a good deal of revelatory work of late that articulates finance capital and the wage-form with the facts and ideas of aesthetic representation, but by and large Marxist criticism works best wielding big categories (bourgeoisie, exchange value) apropos big objects (the origins of the novel, the historicity of a subgenre, etc.).
Although there is an argumentative thrust to the very shaping and framing of his subject of study—the aesthetic, i.e. perceiving-receiving side of art that succeeds the neoclassical regime of representation that had held sway in Europe until roughly the late eighteenth century—the value of the book lies far more in the individual readings of works. Or, rather, what Rancière calls “scenes,” because the work is not just considered “in itself,” but embedded in a moment, beginning less with its production (often obscure, hard to date) than its reception. Rancière’s fourteen chapters, while circumscribed to modern Western and almost entirely to European art, are dazzling in their scope: dance, sculpture, drama, opera, photography, film, and more. (There is not so much about literature, on which Rancière has elsewhere written loads.) Each chapter takes as its point of departure a critical response very close to the time of the work’s appearance. So the analysis of Loïe Fuller, for example, does not launch into...