Thursday, January 18, 2007


"The aesthetic state is a pure instance of suspension, a moment when form is experienced for itself. Moreover, it is the moment of the formation and education of a specific type of humanity."
--Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics

Reading this helps clarify what I said about "limbo" as a between state, a point of suspension, necessary for artistic creation: what Rancière is talking about is the idea, from Schiller, that the aesthetic is a means to experience form for its own sake -- whether in the contemplation of art or in the making of a work of art. Schiller believed that a particular kind of humanity would arise from "aesthetic education": one capable of a more "free-play" idea of social construction. Rather than a neat divide between those who simply "are" their labor (what they do), and those who can be varied in their interests because they don't have to labor, the aesthetic promoted the idea that we all might "play" sometimes with what we are, say, and do.

Rancière's point is that what he calls "the aesthetic regime" that emerges from such education is one that eventually makes no differentiation between art and work, between fiction and history, between things in the world and the meanings determined for them by what he calls a phantasmagoria of interpretation -- in other words, the task of cultural criticism engaged in reading the allegory suggested by the things we do and watch, wear, eat, see, say, and buy.

Rancière's distrust of the spread of the aesthetic into a general purpose approach to all aspects of life (i.e., everything is mediated) is instructive -- but also familiar since it takes its main points from a tradition of thinking about things and the imitation of things that goes back to Plato and Aristotle. As if it were enough to think back through the progressive claims that Romanticism and modernism had tried to stage: if everything is the stuff of representation, then representation is of the essence of reality, and so reality -- in all its historical manifestations -- is always already represented. The wonderful ironies possible from this standpoint are what make modernist writing so comradely, helping us all to participate in a wonderful esprit de corps in which "the world itself" is being remade by art. And the greats from that era were the ones able to construct a fictional or allegorical world with its own rules, a logic of selection and combination that gave us not simply new ways to think about art, but new ways to think.

Taken into our day ("the world itself has been remade by the processes of communication"), this generalized aesthetic regime tends to demote the work of art because of art's effort to play by rules of artifice or fictionality, or to start from aesthetic principles conceived as willed and not simply "the way things are." In the postmodern, according to Rancière responding to Lyotard, the condition of mourning becomes inevitable as the recognition that no work of art can really contain, much less remake, a world that operates under various aesthetic regimes of its own.

Rancière's comments help to recognize the level at which we approach everything we do through some sense of the aesthetic. As he says: "Man is a political animal because he is a literary animal who lets himself be diverted from his 'natural' purpose by the power of words." This power is the great seduction of the aesthetic dream -- offered to us from Romanticism onward -- of the artist as the willful creator and inhabiter of "his own world," suspended above the give and take of historical reality as he picks and chooses "what will suffice" from the endless play of variety in the world at large. This is no longer the artist as the hero of our time (as it was, perhaps, for modernism). Rather, in our time, the ultra creative manipulator is one who can play with the intangible tangibilities of stocks and assets and liabilities, of liquid commodities, of economic equivalencies of unlike markets -- like the main figure in Gaddis' JR. Or maybe a manipulator of media.

But to write is to "get back" to an artisan frame of mind. It is retrograde, going back to doing things daily by hand like any peasant -- and in opposition to 'writing at the speed of thought' as in the internet communications of computer jockies. As Rancière says: "the Flaubertian aesthete is a pebble breaker." The writer is a laborer in a field with only so much time to get the harvest in.

I'm setting these stones
And cutting this hay
And breaking these rocks
It was my price to pay
--Tom Verlaine, "('Til the) Kingdom Comes" (1979)

No comments: