In an interview with Gabriel Rockhill that was published in The Politics of Aesthetics, Jacques Rancière says: “I always try to think in terms of horizontal distributions, combinations between systems of possibilities, not in terms of surface and substratum. Where one searches for the hidden beneath the apparent, a position of mastery is established. I have tried to conceive of a topography that does not presuppose this position of mastery.” Rancière’s use of the term mastery reveals that this methodological statement is also a political one; and, given the title of the book, one gathers that the politics expressed here is somehow also the politics of aesthetics. How so?
To establish this connection between politics and aesthetics would mean to consider the aesthetic as a realm in which no position of mastery is established, a realm in which it’s not about surface/substratum, in which nothing is hiding beneath the apparent. In the aesthetic, presentation has the final word; it’s not about re-presentation. Perhaps because of the political systems in which we live, we tend to think of politics as the realm of re-presentation. But it may be that such a move is not really political, or that it is political in the wrong way. A politics of re-presentation always establishes a logic of mastery: the people depend on whoever re-presents them; a person is only recognized as what he or she re-presents. This is, one could argue, the logic of identity: you are recognized as a political subject because of something else you re-present (contrary to what the term suggests, we never coincide with our “identity”).
But what if we were to rethink politics as presentation, in other words: as aesthetics? As Giorgio Agamben argues in his work on language and linguistics, this would amount to something like appreciating language as such—not as something that always refers to something else (for that would be the logic of re-presentation). To rethink politics as presentation would mean to recognize someone as a political subject by virtue of their mere being. They wouldn’t need to be African-American, or female, or communist, or even human to qualify. “Just being” would be enough to belong. Such is, one could argue, the logic of aesthetics. As long as politics operates within the logic of re-presentation, it has a lot to learn from it.
The insight also applies to the practice of reading. We tend to read re-presentationally, by looking for the hidden beneath the apparent. But the challenge might be to read presentationally, by focusing on the aesthetic operation of the text. Although the re-presentational mode may work with certain types of texts (newspaper articles, for example), it fails spectacularly with literature, which—like all works of art—operates in the presentational mode. To enter the literary text is like entering an art gallery, in which everything that needs to be said is included in the artwork’s presentation.
References: Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004). Image: Andrew Palmer, Aquifer, 2009, Varnish oil and acrylic gesso on linen, 46 x 39 cm.