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This text is by stephen garrett dewyer in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

the temporary grounds of politics
a review of Jacques Rancière’s Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art

stephen garrett dewyer

figure 1

Aisthesis window

photo courtesy the writer

With climate change, sectarian wars in the Middle East and the exacerbated economic inequality from global capital, a call to art can seem quixotic.  Indeed, politics seems the solution to many of the aforementioned problems.  However, without the paradoxical link between political revolution and aesthetic revolution, politics risks turning into the biopolitcal and aesthetics risks turning into another form of neoclassicism.  Therefore, I am writing about Jacques Rancière’s Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art (fig. 1), a text in which the paradoxical relationship between the aesthetic revolution and political revolution defines the temporality of affects1 in order for the ground upon which they occur appear mutable.

Jacques Rancière’s Aisthesis takes a look at a number of eclectic artworks following what Rancière calls the aesthetic revolution.  Each episode happens as if by accident in Europe and the United State between 1764 and 1936 and becomes isolated from the rest of the episodes in a move to give the text a fragmented edge.  The implications of Aisthesis become far-reaching for art as well as theories on politics and aesthetics.  For one, art becomes a concept historically situated and beginning in Europe and not assumed universally understood.  Here, Rancière does not say art could not have happened elsewhere and admits his partiality by not claiming to give a comprehensive text on the subject.  For second, the relationship between the aesthetic revolution, a revolution that counter-poses the representative regime in art with the unifying of opposites in an economy of affects (aesthesis), becomes paradoxically linked to social revolution.  Instead of art not having any political agency, its political agency directly associates with its absence of a political end.  Instead of art causing social revolution, its effect becomes indifferent, which, in turn, causes impetus for social revolution.  Aesthesis at once shows the limitations of the negative definition of art2 as well as social revolution in order that the two perform on temporary grounds.

1. the shifts in aesthetics and politcs are temporary in terms of democracy

What to do with the aesthetic revolution?  If the aesthetic revolution allows for two otherwise unintelligible subjects to relate in the distribution of the sensible through art’s identification with both the conscious and unconscious in society, what, then, becomes of social revolution?  Perhaps one way of approaching such a question is to define social revolution in the way Rancière sees it.  Social revolution is the exercise of politics for Rancière.  Politics, in turn, inscribe sensibilities of the social by allotting a part to subjects previously without a part.  Democracy is not a political regime, but, instead, the basis of politics and “consists in blurring and displacing the borders of the political” (Rancière. Dissensus: p. 54).  Social revolution, unlike modernism and postmodernism, is part of the project of democracy.  Despite the modernist and postmodernist epochs by which revolutions were to occur through teleological ruptures in society, such epochs are seen by Rancière to experience temporal shifts in situating the political.  In as far as modernism tried to deny the link between politics and aesthetics in an art either fully autonomous or fully synonymous with life, it also sought to reject any temporality to certain social movements at the expense of democracy.  Rancière gives a counter-history of modernism by tracing the links between politics and aesthetics in a number of episodes involving artworks between 1764 and 1936 in Europe and the U.S. in Aisthesis in order to show the temporary shifts in aesthetics and social revolution occurring within modernism despite modernism’s claim to teleological rupture.

Much of Rancière’s writing since 19993 focused on the relationship of art to politics.  Prior to 1999, Rancière’s texts tended to focus on philosophy, politics and labor as well as developing theories on the equality of intelligence as an egalitarian principle.  In the many reviews of Aisthesis, efforts to historicize the text tend to focus on Rancière’s break with his former professor, Louis Althusser over the May 1968 events in France.  While such an event no doubt became formative for Rancière, especially in The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (Stanford University Press, 1991), almost none of the reviews mention Rancière’s indebtedness to his former teacher Jacques Derrida, of whom his text Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010) is dedicated.  Rancière’s reading and subsequent critique of Derrida’s writing about democracy suggests why Rancière would turn to art and aesthetics while developing political theories: art is defined by its absence as art and becomes a potentially infinite variation of aesthetic possibilities that are otherwise subscribed to the finitude of ethical regimes.

Rancière’s theory of the demos (the part without a part) in democracy4 similarly reflects Derrida’s theory of the ‘arrivant’ (someone yet to come), but differs in his understanding of the temporal shifts that happen within the ruling class5.  For Rancière, contradictions happen within the ruling class by the different sensibilities of political subjects who perceive their position relative to the people (demos) differently.  For Derrida, however, democracy is a process of otherness whereby the state perpetually excludes future subjects.  Democracy, for Derrida, is always yet to come.  Whereas Rancière prefers to set democracy in terms of a paradox, Derrida prefers to set democracy in terms of an aporia.  The former suggests a self-contradiction by two opposites in a statement while the latter suggests a logical impasse or contradiction.  Plato’s arkhè6 is contradicted by the ‘drawing of lots’, which “spells the absences of arkhè” (Rancière. Dissensus: p. 51) in Rancière’s paradox of democracy.  Derrida, apparently, misses Plato’s mention of the ‘drawing of lots’ in Book III of Laws, which, perhaps, causes him to focus on the difference between democracies in name only and democracy as a fact. 

For Rancière, the temporal shifts in the ruling class’s perception of its relationship to the people become possible through aesthetic revolution.  Art becomes the means by which the aesthetic revolution occurs by separating the ethical from the mimetic and poetic paradigms and introducing the aesthetic paradigm.  Rancière writes of mimesis, it is “the concordance between the complex of sensory signs through which the process of poiesis is displayed and the complex of the forms of perception and emotion through which it is felt and understood – two processes which are united by the single Greek word aesthesis” (Rancière. The Emancipated Spectator: p. 60).  Aesthesis, thus, becomes the economy of affects that join mimetic and poetic regimes within the aesthetic revolution.  Art, by way of its negative definition, shows the political subjectivity of aesthesis where previously none existed.

The aesthetic revolution identifies mutually unintelligible subjects (opposites) in art otherwise unknown to exist.  The configuration of the mutually unintelligible subjects in society, however, is relative to social revolution, which disposes the aesthetics of art according to genres and representative regimes that are counter to the politics of aesthetics.  Rancière writes, “the aesthetic regime… could be staged as the clash of these two formulae: a new life needs a new art; the new life does not need art” (Rancière. Dissensus: p. 124).  New life, social revolution, becomes aesthetic while simultaneously rejecting the aesthetic revolution.  Likewise, the aesthetic revolution becomes a social revolution at the expense of politics.  Affecting both social and aesthetic revolutions simultaneously is the interval of time, the affects of which become felt in the seeming non-logic of history.

2. performing art history

Aisthesis is not, exactly, a book of art history.  Its structure similarly reflects that of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (A. Francke Verlag: Bern, Switzerland, 1946) in which episodes of Western literary history trace from The Odyssey (8th century B.C.E.) by Homer and the Book of Genesis (?) to In Search of Lost Time (1913) by Marcel Proust and To The Lighthouse (1927) by Virginia Woolf.  The approach is not that of an art historian although Rancière uses a large amount of archival research, for which he is known to do.  If Aisthesis comes across as art history, it is because Rancière attempts to perform a critique of modernism by using artworks from within modernist art history.

Rancière’s inflection on Mimesis in Aisthesis seems to suggest a parallel.  Exiled from Nazi Germany in 1935, Auerbach wrote Mimesis while teaching at Istanbul University in Turkey.  Auerbach later apologized for the original publication of Mimesis for not comprehending enough sources since his resources in Instanbul he deemed insufficient due to having access only to mostly primary source materials.  A similar operation seems at work in Aisthesis.  Rancière writes, “This book is thus both finished and incomplete.  It is open to future development, but also allows for the construction of different narratives, which could link these isolated episodes together” (Rancière. Aisthesis. XIII). In addition to both Mimesis and Aisthesis’s defining the beginning and end of each respective text according to the time allotted, and, thereby, within liminal frames of reference, the two texts seem to try to salvage literature and art from the West despite the West’s waging of war, colonialism and exploitation.

In deconstructive fashion, Rancière reads the text against itself by giving a “counter-history of ‘artistic modernity’” (Rancière. Aisthesis: p. XIII) using art from within the history of modernism in Europe and the U.S.  The episodes Rancière surveys in chronological order:

  1. Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s The History of Ancient Art, Vol. II  (1764) in which he writes about the mutilated Belvedere Torso, 1st century A.D. or B.C.E. by Apollonios

  2. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s account from Berlin and Munich galleries of Murillo’s The Beggar Boys eating Grapes and Mellon,c.1645/46and one Raphael [later attributed to Parmigianino and Corregio] in Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art7

  3. The end of the novel in Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir8

  4. An 1844 conference text presented by Ralph Waldo Emerson called ‘The Poet’9

  5. The representation of the Hanlon Lee Brothers’ pantomime performance in 1879 by Théodore de Banville10

  6. A review of Loïe Fuller’s dance by Stéphane Mallarme in the National Observer (1893)11

  7. Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1894 review of the production of Ibsen’s Solness by Lugné-Poe12

  8. Roger Marx’s 1910 conference13 given in front of a collective of workers dedicated to the designing work of Emile Gallé14

  9. A discussion of Auguste Rodin’s The Gates of Hell (La Porte de l'Enfer), 1880 – 1917 in Auguste Rodin15 by Rainer Maria Wilke

  10. Edward Gordon Craig’s article ‘The Actor and the Über-marionette’16 that discusses the theatre design of Adolphe Appia

  11. Victor Shklovsky’s 1916 review of Charlie Chaplin17

  12. a Paul Rosenfeld article about the photography of Joseph Stieglitz18

  13. Ismail Urazov’s 1926 review of Dziga Vertov’s The Sixth Part of the World, 192619

  14. an extract of James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men20 that appeared in a 1936 issue of Fortune21

No doubt modernism is not a uniquely European concept and Rancière’s Aisthesis would benefit greatly from tracing artistic episodes beyond the West.  In particular, Rancière’s theory of the aesthetic revolution22 would benefit by some non-Western examples or counterexamples.  I doubt, though, Rancière would disagree.  What, then, becomes of the aesthetic revolution when traced to non-Western episodes?

The focus of Rancière on 18th century Europe as the origins of the aesthetic revolution has received criticism by several postcolonial theorists, including Madeleine Dobie23, who reads such a focus as Euro-centric and, thus, a continuation of the West’s ignorance of the other.  I remember a speaker at a Radical Philosophy conference at Columbia University in October 2011 who mentioned Rancière’s focus on Europe.  Such a reading, I believe, misses the temporal situating of the episodes in Aisthesis, which correlate with the situating of the aesthetic revolution within a temporal analysis.

Rancière gives a counter-history to modernism by situating the aesthetic revolution within a series of episodes that are stylistically reflective of their everyday.  If modernism is a conceptual tool used by the West and, at the time of writing, emerging imperialisms to justify the ahistorical teleology of their own existence and, thereby, deny different histories, then Rancière’s theory of the aesthetic revolution temporalizes modernism from its origins, namely, art.  The consequence of such a theory is that art becomes separate from modernism.

The division between some art historians positioned at prestigious universities in the United States and Rancière’s ventures into art history suggests a disagreement, I believe, beyond simply territorial squabbles.  Of the numerous reviews of Aisthesis, Hal Foster’s “What’s the problem with critical art?” (London Review of Books. 10 October 2013) seems to exemplify a modernist and postmodernist apprehension with Rancière’s writings on art and art history.  Foster asks, “how original is [Rancière’s] scheme of different regimes?” (ibid.) while also claiming that Rancière’s “epistemes, regimes and the like seem to come from nowhere, and to vanish just as suddenly, as if catastrophically” (ibid.).  Foster’s questions suggest an obsession with originality familiar to modernism.  Likewise, Foster’s misread of regimes that “seem to come from nowhere” is, in fact, an anxiety with the possibility of history having a limit.  That Rancière does acknowledge a limit, one imposed by time, to his writing a counter-history of artistic modernity allows him not to foreclose the possibility of art playing a critical role in altering politics.  While a number of artists and art historians mourn the loss of historical contingency, and, thus, agency of art to change politics, Rancière shows such mourning a flip-side of the same coin called modernism.  What such mourning fails to recognize is art’s agency in not acting, in being what it is not.

Rancière writes of the foreclosure of art’s political facility to give differing and different aesthetics by the creation of genres such as political art, critical art and/or ethical art.  Institutional critique and relational aesthetics no doubt served as seeming extensions of modernism’s avant-garde into the 21st century.  Such extensions, however, did little to give some of their practitioners and theorists hope in art’s ability to change politics for purposes of social justice.  On the contrary, Rancière’s writings on the history of art seems to show how art history can play political roles in giving counter-narratives to that of global capitalism, for instance.

Rancière situates works from artistic modernity and its scenes among a chronology linked by the non-relation between each episode by performing art history.  The situating of the aesthetic revolution in 18th century Europe serves as a starting point.  The starting point, though, culminates Rancière’s reading of precipitating events including Classical Philosophy, which prescribed the role of art in a representative regime consisting of poïesis (a way of making) and mimesis (imitation).  The supplementation of aesthesis, an economy of affects (Rancière. The Future of the Image: p. 112), to the poetic and mimetic regimes in art, according to Rancière, give way to the aesthetic revolution as the “unity of a conscious and an unconscious process” (Rancière, Jacques, The Future of the Image. p. 119).  As such, the aesthetic revolution becomes an “identity of knowledge and ignorance, acting and suffering” (ibid.) that “counter-poses to the representative model, by subsuming artistic phenomena under the new concept of aesthetics” (ibid.).  Aesthesis, then, becomes a way of defining the limits of perception by its temporality instead of simply historical causality or necessity.

3. two mutually unintelligible subjects become intelligible

Critical to understanding Rancière’s theory of aesthetic revolution and social revolution is his theory on intelligence as an egalitarian principle.  Intelligence, to Rancière, has no unit of measurement and becomes the measurement of equality.  Equality, then, becomes a shared quality amongst subjects who perceive the same inequality.  The limit between the intelligible and unintelligible, or, sensible and nonsense, becomes drawn by what counts as sameness amongst inequality, also known as common-sense.  Aesthetics, by making sensible the opposition between sense and non-sense, becomes the basis for disagreeing about what counts as equal and unequal by revealing intelligence in the otherwise perceived unintelligible and vice versa.

Sensibility, or how things become intelligible, becomes the way in which intelligence gets applied to the inequality of affects.  The aesthetic revolution, by making sensible the opposition between sense and nonsense in the negative definition that is art, allows for different senses to become intelligible to subjects.  Social revolution, however, undoes the aesthetic revolution’s makings sense of the opposition between sense and nonsense, the perceptible and imperceptible, by re-iterating sensations of the intelligible (instead of iterating sensations of the unintelligible in the intelligible and vice versa).  The partition of the sensible and insensible or the perceptible and imperceptible becomes the basis of understanding equality.  The ability of art to make intelligible otherwise unintelligible sensibilities by altering aesthetics makes possible emancipation of intelligence from the perceptions of the sensible according to representations of sense and non-sense.

Aisthesis, as an economy of affects, seems to call attention to the partiality of art despite its indifference to a particular end.  Despite the indefinite meanings potentially identifiable in art, such meanings always-already bind to an economy of multiple perspectives that become simultaneously defined by their temporality.   In the scenes in Aiesthesis, Rancière writes both of how looted art from Spain during the Peninsular War (1807–1814) under the First French Republic displayed in the Munich and Berlin galleries where Hegel would then see Raphael’s and Murillio’s paintings and of the disruption of the hierarchy of genres that followed Hegel’s viewing.  Rancière writes, “In a way, it is as Flemish genre paintings that the little beggars of Seville are presented to Hegel’s gaze in a gallery that possesses an important collection of ‘little’ Dutch or Flemish painters, like Teniers or Brouwer” (Rancière. Aisthesis: p. 25).  Similarly, Rancière writes of how the Soviet Central State Trading Organization commissioned Dziga Vertov to produce a film to promote Soviet Foreign Trade Organization abroad but got a film highlighting the similarities of soviet and capitalist industry more than their differences in The Sixth Part of the World, 1926.  In both cases, the act of making the work and the work’s reflection of a particular genre become mutable by the aesthesis introduced in the aesthetic revolution.  The induction of the aesthetic revolution in aesthesis suggests the meaning or affect in art comes from somewhere and moves according to temporally defined partitions between opposites24.  The blurring of such opposites allows for relations to happen between otherwise impossibly relatable subjects, blurring the boundaries between the intelligible and un-intelligible.  Such are the grounds for politics.


1 An affect is a feeling of alteration.

2 art is what it is not.

3 On 23 March 1999, Rancière gave a talk ‘Painting in the Text’ at the Akademie Bildenden Künste in Vienna.

4 “The core of the problem, as I see it, is that democracy is the institution of politics as such, of politics as a paradox.  Why a paradox?  Because the institution of politics seems to provide an answer to the key question as to what it is that grounds the power of rule in a community.  And democracy provides the answer, but it is an astonishing one: namely, that the very ground for the power of ruling is that there is no ground at all” (Rancière. Dissensus: p. 50)

5 The ruling class is the class “qualified” to have a part in governing according to Rancière.

6 “An arkhè is two things: it is a theoretical principle entailing a clear distribution of positions and capacities, grounding the distribution of power between rulers and ruled: and it is a temporal beginning entailing that the fact of ruling is anticipated in the disposition to rule and, conversely, that the evidence of this disposition is given by the fact of its empirical operation” (Rancière. Dissensus: p. 51).

7 Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. ed. T.M. Knox. vol. 1.  Oxford: OUP, 1988: p. 170

8 Stendhal.  Oevres romanesques comlètes. vol. I . Paris: Gallimard. 2005:, p. 775; Red & Black. transl. and ed. Robert M. Adams. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.. 1969: pp. 381-382

9 Slater, Joseph, Alfred R. Ferguson and Jean Ferguson Carr, eds. The Collected Works of Raphs Waldo Emerson. Vol. III. Essays, Second Series. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1983: pp. 21-22

10 Mémoires et pantomimes des frères Hanlon Lees, with a preface by Théodore de Banville. Paris. 1979. The Preface was reprinted in Théodore de Banville. Critique littéraire, artistique et musicale choisie. Vol. II. Eds. Peter J. Edwards and Peter S. Hambly. Paris: Honoré Champion. 2003: pp. 429-36; ‘Theodore de Banville and the Hanlon Lees Troupe’. transl. R. Southern in Theatre Notebook. 1-4. London: Society for Theatre Research. 1983: p. 160

11 Mallarme, Stéphane. ‘Considerations sur l’art du ballet et la Loïe Fuller’. National Observer. 13 May 1893, in Oevres completes. Vol. II: pp. 313-314

12 Maeterlinck, Maurice. ‘À propos de Solness le constructeur’. Le Figaro. 2 April 1894.

13 Marx, Roger. L’Art social. Paris: E. Fasquelle. 1913: pp. 112-113

14 Deranty, Jean-Philippe. “The Symbolic and the Material: a Review of Jacques Rancière’s Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art (Verso 2013)”. Parrhesia. Number 18. 2013: pp. 139-144

15 Rainer Maria Wilke. Auguste Rodin. transl. Daniel Slager, with an introduction by William Gass. New York: Archipelago Books. 2004: pp. 36-37

16 Craig, Edward Gordon. The Mask 1: 2. London: April 1908

17 Shklovsky, Victor. Literatur I Kinematograf. Berlin: Helikon. 1923: p. 53; Literature and Cinematography. transl. Irina Masinovsky. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press. 2008: p. 65

18 Rosenfeld, Paul. ‘Stieglitz’. The Dial. 70: 4. April 1941. reprinted in Beaumont Newhall. Photography: Essays and Images: Illustrated Readings in the History of Photography. New York: Museum of Modern Art. 1980: pp. 209-18

19 Urazov, Ismail. ‘Shestaia chast mira’. 1926; ‘A Sixth Part of the World’. Transl. Julian Graffy, in Yuri Tsivian, ed. Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties. Pordenone: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. 2004: p. 185

20 Agee, James and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2001 [1941]: pp. 141-2

21 Agee, James. Fortune, February 1936, p. 68.  See issues from August 1935 (for ‘The Life and Circumstances of George Wissmiller’) and May 1936 (for William Charles Games Jr.).

22 “Social revolution is the daughter of aesthetic revolution, and was only able to deny this relation by transforming a strategic will that had lost its world into a policy of exception” (Aisthesis. XVI).

23 In a roundtable discussion about Aisthesis at Columbia University around 3 December 2012 with Jacques Rancière, Madeleine Dobie, Phil Watts, Patricia Dailey, James Swenson, Nico Baumbach , Dobie questions Rancière about her reading of a “stable” West in Rancière’s writings.

24 “It is precisely this double identity of opposites that the aesthetic revolution counter-poses to the representative model, by subsuming artistic phenomena under the new concept of aesthetics.  On the one hand, it counterposes to the norms of representative action an absolute power of making on the part of the artwork, pertaining to its own law of production and self-determination… What is deduced from this in Schelling and Hegel is a conceptualization of art as the unity of a conscious process and an unconscious process.  The aesthetic revolution establishes this identity of knowledge and ignorance, acting and suffering, as the very definition of art” (Rancière. The Future of the Image: p. 119)

works cited

Alhusser, Louis.  Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-1987.  Edited by François Matheron and Oliver Corpet.  Translated with an Introduction by G. M. Goshgarian.  Verso: London, U.K. and New York, NY.  2006

Deranty, Jean-Philippe.  “The Symbolic and the Material: a Review of Jacques Rancière’s Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art (Verso 2013)”.  Parrhesia.  Number 18.  2013: pp. 139-144

Foster, Hal.  “What’s the problem with critical art?” London Review of Books. Vol. 35: No. 9. 10 October 2013

Rancière, Jacques.  Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art.  Translation by Zakir Paul.  Verso: London, U.K. and New York, NY. 2013

Rancière, Jacques.  Dissensus: on Politcs and Aesthetics.  Edited and translated by Steven Corcoran.  Continuum International Publishing Group: London, U.K. and New York, NY.  2010

Rancière, Jacques.  The Emancipated Spectator.  Translated by Gregory Elliott.  Verso: London, U.K. and New York, NY.  2009

Rancière, Jacques.  The Future of the Image.  Translated by Gregory Elliott.  Verso: London, U.K. and New York, NY.  2007
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