Over at Intra-Being and Algorithm and Contingency, both Andre and Robert have written some interesting posts responding to the recent discussion of OOO and politics. In his post, Robert rightly worries that Ranciere’s politics is too human centered. As Robert writes:

Whilst Levi’s mediations on Ranciere’s political schema are noteworthy and promising, the outcome of Ranciere’s manoeuvres, (particularly in his, very current and influential visual aesthetic criticism: see The Emancipated Spectator and The Politics of Aesthetics) are not only contingent on human behaviour (which Levi notes) but are also contingent on a wholly relational indeterminate system.

This is quite right: Ranciere perpetually speaks of humans as that around which politics revolves. However, one of the central things that interests me about Ranciere’s political theory is that despite this presumption of the primacy of the human, he is not entitled to this assumption. The reason for this is very simple. For Ranciere the political revolves around the “part of no part”, that “element” of a social system, that has no voice or place within that social system. For Ranciere, politics revolves around that element that is uncounted, or that element for which other elements speak. This social system that distributes the visible and the invisible is what Ranciere calls “the distribution of the sensible”. As Ranciere writes:

I call the distribution of the sensible the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respects parts and positions within it. A distribution of the sensible therefore establishes at one and the same time something common that is shared and exclusive parts. This apportionment of parts and positions is based on a distribution of spaces, times, and forms of activity that determines the manner in which something in common lends itself to participation and in what way various individuals have a part in this distribution. Aristotle state that a citizen is someone who has a part in the act of governing and being governed. However, another form of distribution precedes this act of partaking in government: the distribution that determines those who have a part in the community of citizens. A speaking being, according to Aristotle, is a political being. If a slave understands the language of its rulers, however, he does not ‘possess’ it. Plato states that artisans cannot be put in charge of the shared or common elements of the community because they do do not have the time to devote themselves to anything other than their work. They cannot be somewhere else because work will not wait The distribution of the sensible reveals who can have a share in what is common to the community based on what they do and on the time and space in which this activity is performed. (The Politics of Aesthetics, 12)

In his early book, The Philosopher and His Poor, Ranciere will show how philosophy has systematically used the trope of the artisan, the worker (and oddly the shoemaker), to show how the “poor” (Ranciere’s generic term for any element excluded from the community) cannot participate in the community as their work or way of being undermines their possibility of having a place, being counted, or having a part by virtue of having– in this case –no time to participate. Politics, for Ranciere, thus shares a special relationship to logos. Only those with logos can participate in the community.

read on!

Yet logos here has a double being: “The double sense of logos, as speech and as ac-count…” (Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, 26). Logos is not merely the act of speaking, but is also that ac-count of speech determining who can speak and who cannot speak, who can speak on behalf of others and how, etc. In other words, the logos underlying politics is also a way of counting who participates and who does not (hence the hyphenation of the term). Determining who can speak, who is authorized to speak is, for example, the central project of all the normativists coming out of the Brandomian camp. Their desire is to insure that the “poor” do not participate. Ranciere will call this order of ac-count the “police”, which is a partial synonym for the distribution of the sensible. As Ranciere writes,

The police is thus first an order of bodies that defines the allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of saying, and sees those bodies are assigned by names to a particular place and task; it is an order of the visible and the sayable that sees that a particular activity is visible and another is not, that this speech is understood as discourse and another as noise. It is police law, for example, that traditionally turns the workplace into private space not regulated by the ways of seeing and saying proper to what is called the public domain, where the worker’s having a part is strictly defined by the remuneration of his work. Policing is not so much the “disciplining” of bodies as a rule governing their appearing, a configuration of occupations and properties of the space where these occupations are distributed. (Disagreement, 29)

In the public domain, the workplace is not a site of “politics”. It is relegated to the private and therefore is invisible. For Ranciere, politics is what takes place when this order of visibility and invisibility, this order of counting that simultaneously produces an uncounted, is contested and the invisible is brought to speech. Nothing, according to Ranciere, is in and of itself political (Disagreement, 32), but rather politics is a particular type of event that emerges with respect to these police orders. Politics is what happens when that “part of no part” rises up and speaks.

Moreover, there is often something paradoxical about this moment of politics because the order of police often “counts” the excluded “part of no part”, acknowledging that it exists, but in such a way as to exclude it from participation. This part of no part is thus visible in a way that is invisible. Thus, a crucial element of politics will consist in disidentification with the form of counting in the police order. As Ranciere remarks, “[t]he difference that political disorder inscribes in the police order can thus, at first glance, be expressed as the difference between subjectification and identification. It inscribes a subject name as being different from any identified part of the community” (Disagreement, 37). And earlier, “[a]ny subjectification is a disidentification, removal from the naturalness [my emphasis] of a place, the opening up of a subject space where anyone can be counted since it is the space where those of no ac-count are counted, where a connection is made between having a part and having no part” (ibid., 26). Paradoxically, the subject of politics does not pre-exist this subjectification (ibid., 27). In this respect, politics is not an activism that seeks to represent a pre-existent group. Why? Precisely because “pre-existent groups” are groups reduced to the sorting of the police order between the visible and the visible, those that can speak and those that cannot, the public and the private. As a consequence, politics introduces an entirely new subject indiscernible to the ac-count of the police order.

Now the first point I want to make in response to Robert’s rightful criticism is that given the foregoing, we do not know a priori who and what is capable of speaking. In other words, the problem with Ranciere’s tendency to restrict politics to humans, to being solely concerned with humans, is precisely that what counts as human is an operation of the police order or the operative distribution of the sensible. Yet what Ranciere’s political thought so painstakingly demonstrates is that this system of counting is always based on a miscount. In the Republic and Laws, for example, Plato excludes the worker from being fully human, arguing that one can only do one thing at a time and that thus work is contrary to participation in the public domain. In the 19th and 20th centuries, functionaries of the police order expended all sorts of energy trying to demonstrate that women and blacks are incapable of full speech… So much so that Mary Wollstonecraft and J.S. Mill had to demonstrate that women were full subjects. My point is that we don’t know a priori what a political subject is. The police order always begs the question. As a consequence, the claim that politics is restricted to the human is itself both a way of begging the question and itself an operation of a particular police order that counts in a particular way. Yet thinkers such as Jane Bennett and Bruno Latour have shown us how nonhumans can be understood to speak. This opens the possibility of a form of politics where nonhumans participate.

In his post, Robert takes Ranciere’s aesthetics to task, accusing it of being relationist. Robert writes:

Ranciere’s mapping of relational aesthetics and relational politics is conflated in an attempt to not only democratise the spectator, but to also simultaneously dismantle, what he calls the a priori ‘distribution of the sensible’ (e.g. the dominant structure of the police to keep the sensible in order). Like politics, Ranciere tracks the notion (both historically and critically) that art makes new communities and emancipatory situations: which is all very well and good, but I sincerely detest the idea that the artwork is nothing but relations between communities – a dominant ontological strategy in contemporary aesthetics that OOO manages to healthily dispatch with.

I find this line of critique perplexing and do not detect this thesis in Ranciere’s own writing. Discussing the way in which spectators might relate to an artwork is entirely different than claiming that art works are nothing but what they are for spectators. Ranciere’s thesis is that art is one way in which the order of the police or the distribution of the sensible can be contested and reconfigured (he’s not making the absurd claim that all politics proceeds through works of art). However, the key point not to be missed here is that if works of art have this capacity, then this is conditional precisely on works breaking with the existing regime of relations. In other words, works must already be entities in their own right to be capable of producing these sorts of effects. My aphorism about works here be applied to Ranciere: “texts aren’t simply about something, they are something.” As entities in their own right they circulate throughout the world in the form of books, shows, reprints, paintings, etc., producing all sorts of effects on other entities. A work of art is infinite precisely when it is maximally detached or deterritorialized from the context in which it was produced, capable of resonating in any regime of attraction or world into which it happens to fall, producing incalculable effects (ergo, the problem with new historicism is that it tries to reterritorialize the work in the regime of attraction from which it emerged, treating that regime as if it fixes the effects the work is capable of producing).

Yet the recognition that works are entities in their own right, that they aren’t reducible to what they are for other entities, should not foreclose exploring the way in which works act on other entities.

Aside: The same point about ontological independence in the case of art holds for technologies (which isn’t such a surprise given that techne was used to refer to both the high arts and tools by the Greeks). A technology is ontologically independent of the way in which other entities relate to it. This has a very interesting consequence: the use to which a technology is put by another entity does not exhaust or define the being of that technology. In other words, the being of a technology cannot be fully comprehended in terms of the telos that motivated the inventor to design it. This simple insight lies at the heart of the investigations in many technology studies, where the focus isn’t on why we created technologies, but on how the various technologies that have come into being affect human social systems in a variety of aleatory ways.

What interests Ranciere in works of art is the way in which they can render visible what is invisible in a distribution of the sensible. Not only do distributions of the sensible render certain elements of the world invisible as in the case of workers, but they also render themselves invisible by presenting the distinction they operate as natural and obvious (“It’s just obvious that things should be this way”). Art is one way in which that naturalness and obviousness can be contested. And here we should note the fraught relationship the tradition of philosophy has shared with art, attributing a lower ontological status to it (Plato’s polemics against the poets are famous, but it’s a theme that pervades much subsequent philosophy). If art is threatening, the phallosophers say, then this is because it both is a being (simulacra, as Plato will note in his analysis of the divided line, are not nothing) and presents a false or distorted picture of being capable of being confused with “true reality” (we even see this theme in much Anglo-American philosophy, where certain claims are accused of being mere “metaphors” and poetic speech or in Russell’s obsession with how to deal with propositions like “The present king of France”).

However, as Deleuze already argued in Difference and Repetition, the simulacrum is threatening not so much because it is a pretender to reality, but because it contests the very relation between model and copy, demonstrating the way in which this distribution itself is a simulacrum. In other words, for Ranciere art is one way in which the contingency of the distribution of the sensible can be disclosed or brought into visibility. Art is capable of doing this by, among other things, short-circuiting the counting mechanisms that structure the police order or distribution of the sensible. As a consequence, art is capable of disclosing the bubbling anarchy, the absence of foundation, that underlies social orders, thereby opening the possibility of other types of distribution.

Ranciere sorts art into three types according to the degree to which they actualize this potential of art: ethical art, representational art, and aesthetic art. For Ranciere, “ethical art” is really not art at all. Ethical art is the sort of art completely subordinated to the spectator that Robert denounces. Ethical art is not art that has some sort of ethical content, but rather art that is reduced to serving a social function in the production of a particular ethos. Here we should think of the function Plato gives to art in the Republic, where it is to be used as a mere pedagogical device for moulding souls to both recognize their sanctioned place– bronze (workers), silver (guardians), gold (rulers) –and to imbue the people with a proper ethical content. Here art is entirely subordinated to the police order and is one of the mechanisms by which the police order maintains itself. Representational art does not, for Ranciere, refer to art that strives for similitude with “reality”, but rather art where the theme is pre-defined according to a code (religious themes and depictions of significant people such as aristocrats) and where there’s a pre-defined set of ways of depicting this material, conveying meanings (symbols), and choosing themes (no doubt Ranciere has Foucault’s sense of “representation”, outlined in The Order of Things, in mind). Representational art thus is premised on a relation between models and copies. Representational art is only open to those who have properly cultivated themselves to read the symbols of the art. Like ethical art, it is a way of maintaining the police order.

With aesthetic art, all of this changes. Ranciere refers to aesthetic art as “democratic” not because, as Robert seems to suggest, it is addressed everyone and anyone (though that too), but rather because aesthetic art can take anything and anyone as its theme. Where, for example, representational art will only depict a significant person or religious event, aesthetic art might depict bales of hay, a soup can, a peasant woman toiling, a toilet, colors, the inside of a horse, fisting, etc., etc., etc. The first point to note about aesthetic art, then, is that it is democratic insofar as it presents anything and anyone at all, the bubbling anarchy of being, without an underlying code of what themes are appropriate. For example, Flarf poetry sometimes just picks up random expressions found in popular culture as the material out of which to construct its poems. Where representational art is premised on a hierarchy of being based on what is visible or what truly counts and what does not, aesthetic art is premised on a democracy of being without hierarchy, where anything is a potential theme for art. Because of this, aesthetic art is democratic in the second sense with respect to viewers. Insofar as there is no “artistic language” or code telling the audience how to read it, this sort of art addresses, in principle, anyone. It undermines the distinction between the competent art critic that has the education and who has cultivated taste to judge the work and the unwashed masses.

In its democracy, aesthetic art is one way in which distributions of the sensible can be contested. Take a film like Brokeback Mountain. Here I’m not interested in the rather vanilla and normalizing political message of the film, so much as the way it operates on the regime of the sensible structuring our social world and contests its codes. There is, of course, the manner in which it contests the thesis that queer love is supposed to remain in the closet, that it is private, that it is never to come into visibility (“I wouldn’t have a problem with gay people if they weren’t constantly shoving it in my face!”). But what’s more interesting is the way in which it contests heteronormative codes underlying the social order. The protagonists of the film are cowboys. Aren’t those carried away in adventures of queer desire always to be “metrosexuals”? Aren’t cowboys always “men’s men” that exclusively enjoy women and know how to properly take a woman? The protagonists of the film genuinely love each other. Indeed, one of the criticisms of the film was that when you peel away the queer dimension you’re left with a rather conventional and familiar Hollywood love story. Isn’t queer desire supposed to only occur in the shadows of late nights at English prep schools, bath houses, rural rest stops, etc?

The power of Brokeback Mountain as a low form of aesthetic art is that it simultaneously reveals and contests, at an implicit level, a certain distribution of the sensible (only “real men” are cowboys, queer desire is only about furtive, “base”, sexual encounters and never involves loves), while also systematically demonstrating the suffering that this distribution of the sensible produces: joblessness, unhappy marriages where all suffer, children that are neglected, acute suffering on the part of the lovers, murder, loss, etc. Brokeback Mountain both reveals the functioning of a certain distribution of the visible and the invisible, but also brings the invisible to visibility. It depicts these coding mechanisms, these distributions of public and private, while also contesting them.

We can, of course, contest the assimilationist political theme of the film (“they love just like us! shouldn’t they be allowed to get married just like us!”), criticizing it for not contesting the entire social order and providing an entirely different model of sexual relations as in the case of proletarian politics imagining an entirely different communist social worlds. That would be appropriate. But the issue here is one of how such an artwork functions, what it does, not whether it goes as far as we would like. And what art here has the power to do is to subtract itself from the logic of a particular order– at least the distribution of roles, identities, and visibility and invisibility in that order –so as to rebound back on that order and contest its functioning. Art too can be an actor in the world both as a function of what it is about and what it is.