Aesthetics and Its Discontents

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Polity, Aug 17, 2009 - Philosophy - 143 pages
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Translated by Steven Corcoran

Only yesterday aesthetics stood accused of concealing cultural games of social distinction. Now it is considered a parasitic discourse from which artistic practices must be freed.

But aesthetics is not a discourse. It is an historical regime of the identification of art. This regime is paradoxical, because it founds the autonomy of art only at the price of suppressing the boundaries separating its practices and its objects from those of everyday life and of making free aesthetic play into the promise of a new revolution.

Aesthetics is not a politics by accident but in essence. But this politics operates in the unresolved tension between two opposed forms of politics: the first consists in transforming art into forms of collective life, the second in preserving from all forms of militant or commercial compromise the autonomy that makes it a promise of emancipation.

This constitutive tension sheds light on the paradoxes and transformations of critical art. It also makes it possible to understand why today?s calls to free art from aesthetics are misguided and lead to a smothering of both aesthetics and politics in ethics.


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In the second half of his book, Aesthetics and Its Discontents, Rancière makes good on his promise and takes up two contemporaneous aesthetics discontents: Alain Badiou and Jean-François Lyotard. Both Badiou and Lyotard endeavor to cut the art object from aesthetics only to deliver it to the “indistinction of ethics” (87). Badiou accomplishes this through an insistence on “the specificity of art” and the educative vision he confers upon it (87). For Lyotard, this is accomplished through a reformulation of the Kantian sublime and placing art in service of witness of the unrepresentable without recourse to the “means of presentation” to represent the Other (89-90).
Rancière presents Badiou’s “inaesthetics” as tying Platonism and modernism into an anti-aesthetic knot, creating a defensive modernism that seeks to extricate the art object from the parasitic discourse of aesthetics (69). In line with modernist aesthetics, Badiou’s idea of art is liberated from the mimetic function, then in a Platonic turn, he imposes a “strict delimitation between art and the discourse on art” to salvage the truths of art that are “absolutely specific to it alone” (70).
Rancière links Badiou’s inaesthetics to the “pass of history” which recalls the Hegelian status of art and truth as always either “ahead or behind themselves” (72). For Badiou, art is a specific form of the Idea voyaging through eternity – that is, an art whose essential question is always an ethical one – of the educational function of the truth specific to art – of the “shock-encounter” with the Other.
Rancière grounds his analysis of Lyotard in Kant, suggesting that where Kant’s sublime reveals the imagination powerless to “grasp hold of the object” of exceptional nature and present it to reason, Lyotard’s sublime inverts this and it is reason that suffers an inability to “approach matter” and this realization either awakens the soul by the astonishment of the Other, or annihilates it (92-3). Lyotard takes issue with artistic eclecticism as a commercialization of art, and following Adorno, insists that art be not pleasurable but unavailable to desire to constitute a sensible world separate from the “law of the market” (96). For Adorno, this space of art was the promise of future emancipation; for Lyotard, the space bears the mark of a past catastrophe. In this way, Lyotard reverses time from a casting forward to a new world to come to a casting backward to an originary disaster that marks a new historical narrative of the catastrophe which humans suffer to be born into. In this sense, Lyotard works to disconnect history from the dream of emancipation and reformulate it as a disaster of the sublime – either the sacrificial “pronouncement of ethical dependency with respect to the immemorial law of the Other; or the disaster that is born of the forgetting of that disaster” (105). And thus, art no longer carries a promise but merely presents an either/or response to the demand of either “obedience to the law of the Other, that does us violence, or indulgence in the law of the self that leads us into enslavement in commercial culture” (105). For Rancière, Lyotard’s postmodern carnival is merely a smokescreen covering his treacherous subordinating of art to ethical law, and by doing so, suppressing “both aesthetics and politics” (105).
Rancière concludes with a further discussion of what he terms the ethical turn to which both Badiou and Lyotard contribute. What is at stake here is precisely an indistinction of politics which collapses the difference between fact and right upon which “dissensus and political subjects were constituted” (116). This is made manifest in the disappearance of right, or transference of right to the victim in “affirmation of the rights of the Other” articulated by Lyotard; while simultaneously, there arises an “affirmation of the state of exception” providing the state unlimited resources in terrorizing terror – e.g., infinite justice


Aesthetics as Politics
Problems and Transformations of Critical Art
the Torsions
The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics

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About the author (2009)

Jacques Ranci?re is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris (St. Denis).

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