Thursday, December 06, 2007

My starting premise is that the current academic (left academic?) infatuation with “ethics” is severely misplaced

Rancière (1) from The Pinocchio Theory by Steven Shaviro
I’ve been reading Jacques Rancière these last few weeks, trying to get a grip on what he’s about. I have read four short books of his, so far: The Politics of Aesthetics, The Future of the Image, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, and The Hatred of Democracy. (All of these have been translated, though some of them I read in French, because I happened to have the French editions at hand). There was also a lengthy interview with Rancière sometime this past year in Artforum, which I finally got around to. I haven’t really sorted it all out yet, but I’m making these preliminary comments in order to get a start at it.
I first became interested in Rancière because of the way that he links politics and aesthetics. This is something that, from a different angle, I have been quite interested in. My starting premise is that the current academic (left academic?) infatuation with “ethics” is severely misplaced. I’m inclined to say — though I will not endeavor to back up this statement here — that the category of the ethical (whether understood in Levinasian/Derridean terms, or in ones derived from Spinoza and a Deleuze-inflected Nietzsche) is worse than useless: it is actively obfuscatory when it comes to thinking about actual instances of suffering, exploitation, and domination in the world today. At best, ethical thought leads to the impotent wringing of hands and to empty sympathizing (in the Derridean version), or to optimistic fantasizing (in the Spinoza/Negri version). At worst, it leads to accepting the “tragedy” of the neoliberal world order as the ineluctable Way Things Are.
As I said, I will not try to defend this argument here. I want rather to suggest an alternative: which comes down to evacuating the space of ethics, and replacing it with politics and political economy on the one hand, and aesthetics on the other. Every ethical dilemma needs to be displaced, both into a politico-economic problematic, and into an aesthetic situation on the other. As Mallarme wrote, some 130 years ago: “everything comes down to Aesthetics and Political Economy” (Tout se résume dans l’Ésthetique et l’Economie politique). We need to reverse the direction of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, and move from the ethical to the aesthetic. This involves, on the one hand, seeing the situations of exploitation and domination that lie behind every ethical dilemma or tragic situation; and on the other hand, disengaging the ways that, in our neoliberal network society (society of the post-spectacle, of the simulacrum, of the proliferation of electronic media and their saturation of the real), the distribution of percepts, affects, and concepts (to use Deleuze and Guattari’s schema) can potentially be altered.
It can be noted that the program I am outlining both relies very strongly on Deleuze and Guattari, both for their analysis of Captial as Body without Organs, and for their unrepentant aestheticism; while at the same time this program distances itself from certain aspects of Deleuze’s — with and without Guattari — Spinozianism and Nietzscheanism. This is the point at which I vastly prefer Whitehead to Spinoza and/or Nietzsche. Though Whitehead never polemicizes about it, his subordination of ethics to aesthetics (but in an entirely un-Nietzschean way, without any of that tiresome pontification about blond beasts and breeding a master race and so on and so forth) is precisely on track with what I am trying to work out. Of course, Whitehead has nothing worthwhile to say about political economy; but in that stalled chapter I hope to get back to shortly, I am trying to work out the ways in which Whitehead’s notion of “God” is homologous to Deleuze and Guattari’s formulations about the Body without Organs (I am referring to the analysis of BwO-logic as capital-logic in Anti-Oedipus, rather than to the far less interesting “make yourself a Body without Organs” stuff in A Thousand Plateaus).
Anyway: this is where I encounter Rancière’s thesis on the “distribution of the sensible.” Rancière argues for a direct connection between politics and aesthetics (one that implicitly leaves out ethics) like this. Immediate aesthetic practices (aesthetics in the sense of Art) both establish and contest the ways in which, and the structures according to which, a given society distributes the “conditions of possibility” for what can (and what cannot) be sensed, felt, and spoken about, and what cannot (aesthetics in the sense of Kant’s “Transcendental Aesthetic,” which deals with time and space as forms of intuition — Rancière, like Foucault, in effect offers us a historicized version of the Kantian a priori argument — cf. The Politics of Aesthetics 13). Rancière offers, in effect, a more subtle version of McLuhan’s claim that new media produce new “ratios of the senses.” (Rancière dislikes McLuhan’s emphasis on media as determining by themselves, independently of “content”; but he rightly attributes to social arrangements that include media technologies the power to redistribute “sensibility” that McLuhan perhaps too simply attributes to the media alone).
The “distribution of the sensible,” which art addresses, and at once accepts as its condition of being, and disputes, is precisely also the ground and the stake of politics — every “distribution of the sensible” thereby also defines who is entitled to speak, and what sorts of things they are able to say. The “distribution of the sensible” defines the rules and the arena for “normal” political and social decisions. But politics, in the radical sense that Rancière champions, is a movement that does not just operate within these parameters, but actively challenges them, seeks to alter them.
In other words: Politics in the conventional sense — which would include both the US presidential election process, and the ways in which policy decisions are made by institutions like the Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve Bank — operates within the parameters of an already-given, socially sanctioned distribution of the sensible. Rancière dismisses this sort of policy-making as oligarchic even in supposedly “democratic” societies like France and the US — it is the work of the “police” rather than actual political engagement, and it always involves domination and inequality. On the other hand, what Rancière calls actual “politics,” and which he also describes as radical democracy, occurs when these background a priori rules, embodied in an official distribution of the sensible, themselves become contested.

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