The Emancipatory Power of Critical Art

Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (London: Verso, 2011).

Perhaps best known for co-authoring Reading Capital with Louis Althusser, Jacques Rancière is a contemporary political philosopher whose theoretical focus ranges from the formation and composition of the proletariat to questions of education and aesthetics. In each of these domains, he is concerned with the limits of human knowledge and the emancipatory possibilities that lie at these limits. Yet, when Rancière turns to aesthetics, the limit-points come to be framed as limits of the senses, but even further, as the limits of the dominant ideological regimes.

Rancière sees the relationship between aesthetics and human knowledge as not merely a cognitive question, but a social and political one. He explores various modes of artistic production and their didactic functions, citing aesthetics as a means by which human beings make sense but also learn how to make sense. In exploring aesthetic practices, Rancière considers how aesthetics might create the conditions for emancipation from state power and capitalist sovereignty.

Unlike many radical thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries, Rancière is not interested in prophesying the shape and content of a future emancipated from state power and transnational capital. In The Emancipated Spectator he returns to some of the central themes developed throughout his oeuvre. As he does so, new points of meditation emerge and the revolutionary potential of aesthetics is more fully articulated. Rancière seeks to re-imagine the role of critical art in revolutionary praxis. His inquiry has three central components: the relation between viewing and acting, the formation of an ‘aesthetic community,’ and the role of what he terms the ‘pensive image,’ contrasted to the ‘intolerable image.’

Regarding the relation between viewing and acting, Rancière draws on a philosophical lineage that extends back to Plato, but finds forceful contemporary iterations in Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama and Guy Debord’s Society of Spectacle. In contrast to Benjamin and Debord, however, Rancière is concerned with a form of emancipation that would result from a redistribution of sense rather than the mere redistribution of places – a change of meaning rather than a mere shift of vantage-point. For him, it is precisely two similar movements in Benjamin and Debord’s work that limit the emancipatory power of aesthetics. Rancière takes issue with (a) the idea that emancipation can result from artistic practices that do not challenge the ways in which human beings make sense and learn how to make sense, and (b) the idea that emancipation can result from artistic practices where the viewer is merely placed in a different position with reference to a play, film, image, etc. Human beings will not learn how to emancipate themselves from regimes of oppression by, for example, being confronted with theater in the street, or by being forced to participate in the present action of a play. Rather, emancipation begins when the opposition between viewing and acting is challenged altogether: “when we understand that self-evident facts that structure the relations between saying, seeing and doing themselves belong to the structure of domination” (13). Aesthetic experience is not something rarefied or “authentic,” but rather constitutive of entire ways of life. Aesthetics is not merely what happens when art is made or is put on display; aesthetics is a relation that operates within and transcends our practices of learning and knowing.

In this way, the first theme identified above opens onto the second. The formation and operation of what Rancière calls an aesthetic community goes beyond a mere redistribution of places (contra Benjamin and Debord) in at least two ways. On the one hand, there are passive modes and practices of making sense that reinforce the mechanisms of capital and state power. On this point, Rancière writes:

This is what I call the “police distribution of the sensible”: the existence of a “harmonious” relationship between an occupation and equipment; between the fact of being in a specific time and place, practicing particular occupations there, and being equipped with the capacities for feeling, saying, and doing appropriate to those activities. In fact, social emancipation signified breaking this fit between “occupation” and a “capacity,” which entailed an incapacity to conquer a different space and a different time. (42)

Two points follow from this claim. First, the aesthetic community is contrasted to something like a social contract wherein one must conform to the juridical and economic norms of a community. The police distribution of the sensible is the lived experience of such conformity—a condition under which one’s most intimate modes of saying, seeing and doing are synonymous with structures of domination. On the other hand, an alternative distribution of the sensible emerges where the aesthetic community transcends the police distribution of the sensible. The second claim is the assertion that emancipation from the structures of domination that condition everyday life is produced by an absolute rejection of the present. The formation and operation of an aesthetic community establish the conditions for a redistribution of saying, seeing, and doing; emancipation clashes frontally with sovereign power and economic exploitation.

Rancière is not interested in prescribing how resistance should be implemented, but he does note how aesthetics transforms the ways in which knowledge is attained. What he terms the ‘intolerable image’ is an artistic image so graphic that it produces a shock effect, awakening us to the realities of war, structural inequality, etc. However, in the same ways that Benjamin and Debord are caught up in illusions of autonomy, so are practitioners of the intolerable image. The intolerable image does not itself produce a higher plane of consciousness; it is

a form of knowledge reserved for those who know why we shall continue not to know, not to act. The virtue of activity, counter-posed to the evil of the image, is thus absorbed by the authority of the sovereign voice that stigmatizes the false experience which it knows us to be condemned to wallow in. (88)

In other words, a redistribution of the sensible – on which emancipation depends – requires more than mere consciousness-raising. Indeed, emancipation is not a question of true or false consciousness.

The pensive image, contrasted to the intolerable image, offers a different model for aesthetic experience. The pensive image entails an aesthetic experience wherein what is lived “is not the abolition of the image in direct presence, but its emancipation from the unifying logic of action; it is not a rupture in the relationship between the intelligible and the sensible, but a new status of the figure” (121). The pensive image positions the viewer in a liminal state between oppressive regimes and potential alternatives. Stated another way, the pensive image refers to an aesthetic practice where the conditions for emancipation from state power and capitalist sovereignty might develop.

The difficulty of Rancière’s approach to emancipation lies precisely in the praxis of resistance. Emancipation is not just the fruition of a revolutionary prophecy nor a mere escape from present oppressions; it consists in the production of alternative sensible regimes. The emancipatory power of critical art lies in producing regimes of the sensible against sovereign power and in tension with the domination of everyday life. The Emancipated Spectator is thus a provocation toward producing this anarchic power by reimagining the uses of aesthetic production and our most intimate modes of saying, seeing and doing.

Reviewed by Matt Applegate
Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature
Binghamton University, Binghamton, New York
mapplega@gmail.com

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