Thursday, October 15, 2009

Jacques Rancière Day 3

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Jacques Rancière taught a class entitled: POLITICS OF AESTHETICS wherein we discuss the relationship between what is allowed to be seen and the dominant political regime.

NOTE: As with all my notes from the EGS, there will likely be mistakes because I did not record the lectures, I made notes as they spoke, so I am perhaps interpreting what they are saying as I am writing.

The question of the aesthetic effect - the result of the aesthetic framing; Kant and Schiller dismiss the efficient model of art which is instrumentalized to teach morality (see Rousseau's Letters on the Theatre).

At the heart of the aesthetic is this dismissal seen in Schiller's Twenty-Second Letter.
  • A radical separation of the artist's intention and the art object and its contents;
  • what is at work is a separation of the interior contents that would be seen as beautiful
  • it is free of concept and so it is free beauty.
  • Schiller says that it produces effect by the general feeling not by the transfer of energies.
The political effects of the aesthetic effect

An upheaval of hierarchies of what is sensible.
  • Both experiencing and communicating this effect are now equally available to all.
  • Based on this universality, embedded in individual sensory experience, is the basis of a new community.
  • An aesthetic education and revolution - the transformation of experience rather than the French Revolution which was just the same power structure replacing the former power structure.
An experience of doing nothing, a suspension is perhaps better, a revolution of the sensory experience. It is first a potential, but this may be at the very basis of the Communist revolution - it must be more than simply a political revolution. Marx proposed a human revolution.

The Oldest Systematic Program of German Idealism (Hegel, Holderlin, and Schelling) in this text is a call for community where ideas are everybody's, they were avid readers of Schiller and admirers of the French Revolution.

The invention of Abstract Forms, intimately related with Soviet policy, was developed as a new means of creating community. I'm not dealing with Humanism vs. Totalitarianism, but how the transformation of the aesthetic experience transformed the way in which politics is possible and, yes, young Marx was a part of this.

The idea of the sensory revolution is not a principle by which all are bound into a new community of aesthetes (and then to fascism as Benjamin suggests); rather the people can form a community of sharing a capacity to both experience and a capacity to communicate this experience.

There are two models:
  1. The artist says, "I want to produce this effect that makes my point," and this is the efficiency model
  2. Kant and Schiller are claiming that the relationship between the viewer and the art object produces this aesthetic effect, not the artists' intentions or execution; it is a paradox because artists want, always, to create art that would have this effect.
Hegel's Lessons on Aesthetics (1830s, published posthumously in 1860s)
Probably this was written in 1828. This text and the Barthes text both share the problem of aesthetic equality: how does any subject become an art subject, how can something enter the realm of art?

There was a hierarchy, somethings could not be poetic subjects, some genres were more noble than others. Hegel deals with one aspect of this aesthetic revolution:
  • it's the late 18th century, early 19th century, a time when museums were becoming public institutions.
  • this is not about making art but perceiving art (thus this class is the "Aesthetics of Politics," not "Art & Politics").
For Barthes, if anything can enter the realm of art, we then have this excess of description. Aesthetic equality, anything can be a subject of art. Apparently these two react in ways that would seem to be at odds with what would be expected in their times.

"The Reality Effect" (1968, from The Rustle of Language) Roland Barthes

Barthes' barometer is purely superfluous detail and this is a certain view of Modernity and literature. They have broken with history because modern works must be self-contained. There is no place for this barometer in the story, it's totally superfluous.

But it's apparent that there is a wider issue: description in general. The space given to description is ceaseless production of superfluity. 1928, Propp and the model of describing the structure. Propp's work was very important for Barthes as well as Lévi-Strauss.
The analysis must fit the model, so structuralism must account for this useless detail
(143) The singularity of description (or of the "useless detail") in narrative fabric, its isolated situation, designates a question which has the greatest importance for the structural analysis of narrative. This question is the following: Is everything in narrative significant, and if not, if insignificant stretches subsist in the narrative syntagm, what is ultimately, so to speak, the significance of this insignificance?
Why do such details subsist in the novel (Madame Bovary)? There are two reasons for this useless detail:
  1. the old tradition of rhetoric where description is used to impress (143-4);
  2. it serves a function of attestation - the barometer's uselessness is pointed to so that we are aware that there is no reason why it's there. The inescapable reason of the real, it resists meaning (145-6).
Here is how Barthes wrote the above:
(143) [W]e must recall that Western culture, in one of its major currents, has certainly not left description outside meaning, and has furnished it with a finality quite "recognized" by the literary institution. This current is Rhetoric, and its finality is that of the "beautiful".... Very early in antiquity, to the two expressly functional genres of discourse, legal and political, was added a third, the epideictic, a ceremonial discourse intended to excite the admiration of the audience (and no longer persuade it)... eulogy or obituary - the very idea of an aesthetic finality of language; in the Alexandrian neo-rhetoric of the second century A.D., there was a craze for ecphrasis, the detachable set piece..., whose object was to describe places, times, people, or works of art.... (144) As Curtius has emphasized, description in this period is constrained by no realism; its truth is unimportant (or even its verisimilitude); there is no hesitation to put lions or olive trees in a northern country; only the constraint of the descriptive genre counts; plausibility is not referential here but openly discursive: it is the generic rules of discourse which lay down the laws.
The second point is written about here:
(145) [T]he write here fulfills Plato's definition of the artist as a maker in the third degree, since he imitates what is already a simulation of an essence. Thus the description of Rouen is quite irrelevant to the narrative structure of Madame is not in the least scandalous, it is justified, if not by the work's logic, at least by the laws of literature: its "meaning" exists, it depends on conformity not to the model but to the cultural rules of representation. (146) [D]eclaratively renouncing the constraints of the rhetorical code, realism must seek a new reason to describe.... The pure and simple "representation" of the "real," the naked relation of "what is" (or has been) thus appears as a resistance to meaning; this resistance confirms the great mythic opposition of the true-to-life (the lifelike) and the intelligible; it suffices to recall that, in the ideology of our time, obsessive reference to the "concrete" (in what is rhetorically demanded of the human sciences, of literature, of behavior) is always brandished like a weapon against meaning, what is alive cannot not signify and vice versa.
(147) All this shows that the "real" is supposed to be self-sufficient, that it is strong enough to belie any notion of "function," that its "speech-act" has no need to be integrated into structure and that the having-been-there of things is a sufficient principle of speech.
Since antiquity, the "real" has been on History's side; but this was to help it oppose the "lifelike," the "plausible," to oppose the very order of narrative (of imitation or "poetry"). All classical culture lived for centuries on the notion that reality could in no way contaminate verisimilitude; first of all, because verisimilitude is never anything but opinable: it is entirely subject to (public) opinion.... Hence, there is a break between the ancient mode of verisimilitude and modern realism; but hence, too, a new verisimilitude is born, which is precisely realism (by which we mean any discourse which accepts "speech-acts" justified by their referent alone).
It's 1968 and Barthes is denouncing being-there; Camera Lucida takes the opposite position. In a way, Lucida is the death of Structuralism; it's written at the death of Barthes' mother and also a mourning song for Structuralism.

Aristotle makes a distinction between History and Poetry: history is just an accumulation of facts, and poetry is the construction of plot.
  • Verisimilitude is the key for poetry.
  • This endless description is a break with literature and the announcement of the Modern, where verisimilitude is met half-way but presenting the real as Real.
  • An overidea of Modernity, where the self-containment of Art is pointed to:
  • on the one hand the museum is made public and art is democratized, but what tends to disappear is the scale of values (which genres are superior, etc.)
The banality of art raises the issue of how can we understand the instructional ability of art?
  • After the Revolution, the French Army would take the works of art from wherever they went and brought them to Paris where they were celebrated as the collected works of human genius
  • thus Paris would be seen as the glorious land of Freedom; stolen or no
  • the patrimony of Art, where they were safeguarded by the Freemen of France
  • But there is still this problem of what Art teaches people
What happens, then, for understanding Hegel's intervention, is the vanishing of the old hierarchies where the fine arts became a source of contempt. Hegel sees these Murillo paintings:

(Left: B.E. Murillo, Four Figures on a Step. Note: this is not the original painting to which Hegel is responding.
Right: B.E. Murillo, Les Enfants a la Grappe.)

Why are these paintings paintings equal to fine art paintings? Hegel states:
(170) This freedom from care for external things and the inner freedom made visible outwardly is what the Concept of the Ideal requires.... The same satisfaction is afforded these boys of Murillo. We see that they have no wider interests and aims, yet not at all because of stupidity; rather do they squat on the ground content and serene, almost like the gods of Olympus; they do nothing, they say nothing; but they are people all of one piece without any surliness or discontent; and since they possess this foundation of excellence, we have the idea that anything may come of these youths. These are totally different modes of treatment from those we see in that quarrelsome choleric woman, or in the peasant who ties up his whip, or the postillon who sleeps on straw.... (171) In this way what is generally called 'vulgarity' must be interpreted if it is to have the right of entry into art.
Many revolutionary workers of the Communist Revolution will be equally able to strike this pose as in the Raphael painting that Hegel is praising:
this is the the aesthetic break that accompanies the aesthetic revolution.
Hegel doesn't say simply a beggar or a prince can be painterly subjects, he asks, "why?" Rather, he says the inner freedom is given an outward form. This is in line with Schiller's Fifteenth Letter. Both passages refer to the Olympic gods and their lack of external obligation and their inner freedom. Stendhal's The Red & The Black (1830), the story of a young plebian with great aspirations for social mobility who seems to succeed, "I don't want to be bothered with these prosaic details, I want to live the dreaming life here in prison." It's a novel of intrigues that ends with him in prison. An interruption of the whole logic of the novel - there are two ways of equality for the plebians: 1) to give sword to the aristocracy, or 2) share the possibility of doing nothing where there is no yielding nor resisting. Not just dreaming but reverie, enjoying existence as such. (NOTE: it is prison and so this is also a call to self-containment, real freedom is in being sent to the prison of one's aspirations and the prison of nothing to do.)

Rousseau's Reveries of a Solitary Walker: in his prison he enjoyed doing nothing, just enjoying existence, its faliente (Italian, like reverie).
  • This is a shared capacity with no specific aim nor object of interest, a kind of indecision.
  • It's not just the destiny of an individual in these novels because workers' emancipation is also occurring in these times;
  • a new society that is based on the shared ability to do nothing - opposing the ideals of Modernity
  • not the autonomy of the artwork but the artistic production is a capacity of anyone
Let's return to Barthes' barometer. It's a signifier of the Real, but it's also a signifier of doing nothing; the abolishment of the senses of the aristocracy and anyone else.

A Simple Heart (1870) Flaubert

Felicity is a new way of serving, not only obedient but passionately serving everybody, lovingly, the only one that can reciprocate is the parrot who, of course, dies.
  • What is at stake is her ability to perform her serving in a normal way at the cost of her passion.
  • What is the barometer? A kind of symbol of those who live in the everyday, whose only concern is to know what time it is, but every day can be the site of passion, as Felicity shows us. (NOTE TO SELF: think of Debord's last film where he says we are all poor, pretending to be rich)
  • The Goncourt Brothers, another servant tale.
The point isn't that there are too many objects, but too many sentient beings that can feel, too many dangerous things. What is striking, but Barthes ignores, is that Flaubert was aware of this.
  • What the critics reproached was the way writing to that point what was lost was the organic totality - the novel gave back to the prosaic people and things.
  • The critics called it the destruction of the good structure of plot and literature because there are too many characters;
  • this democratic equality of all these beings, this cluttering-up of the good novel.
In aristocratic times (17th century) the characters embodied the moral and there was no crisis of secondary thinking about the characters.
  • This political account about the art objects is a clear distinction between Modernity as the rupture between representative literature.
  • The excess of detail is precisely what allows us to see that there is no such organic totality.
  • Barthes is thinking within the same logic as the aristocratic critics, not saying the same thing.
If Modernity means anything it means the disruption of these notions of organic totality. Consider Tolstoy's War & Peace: Tolstoy shows the ultimate failure of strategy from top to bottom and it is crucial to understand what is occurring at the ground level. Balzac's Human Comedy is another example in the history of the novel's movement to microsensory events.

For our next class we will look at Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Madame Bovary, some Eisenstein, and Vertov.

The point is this new democratic aesthetic tends toward a divorce between political movement and political actors - montage as a means of overcoming representation as well as equivocating such that everything is the same as everything else. (NOTE TO SELF: is this how we should understand Debord's last film In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimir Igni?)


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