Yesterday I introduced Jacques Rancière's The Politics of Aesthetics. I'd like to take a closer look at his remarks about modernism, which, in all their ambivalence, bear a striking resemblance to Walter Benjamin's sometimes contradictory writings on modernism.
The full force of Rancière's claim that the political and the aesthetic are intricately related becomes clear when he takes up the issue of technology and the aesthetic. "The aesthetic regime of the arts," he writes, "is the true name for what is designated by the incoherent label 'modernity.'" Under the aesthetic regime the arts freed themselves from all the old rules, but, at the same time, neglected mimesis, the salient quality of the previous regime, the poetic. The loss of mimesis meant art cut itself off from the "spheres of collective experience." This appeal to the experiential nature of art and modernity is familiar from Benjamin, as well as Oakeshott and the British Marxists of the 1960's, when Rancière was an Althusserian. The Marxist tradition, in its Western European manifestation, mourned the general decline of experience in modernity, when cultural and economic forms had less and less to do with how people actually lived. Worse, the abstraction of economic relations--and modern art--drained ordinary experience of all substance and precluded most forms of collective political action.
And yet, virtually all of Rancière's examples of the aesthetic intervening in the political occur under the aesthetic regime of the arts, when art had supposedly retreated from collective experience into contemplation of its own perfect forms. In his discussion of Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" Rancière expresses some reservations about Benjamin's essay, as everyone does, then goes on to acknowledge how much he's learned from it--again, as everyone does. Rancière makes the startling claim that literature and painting were, in effect, the true leading edge of modernity. Following Benjamin, Rancière points out that literature discovered the subject matter of photography before photographers did. In fact, the great Realists Balzac, Hugo and Flaubert broke down the opposition between high and low culture long before reproductive technologies did. Rancière concludes,
On the one hand, the technological revolution comes after the aesthetic revolution. On the other hand, however, the aesthetic revolution is first of all the honour acquired by the commonplace, which is pictorial and literary before being photographic or cinematic.
This is where Rancière is far more interesting than his complaints about modernism. He says that literature conducted a symptomatic investigation of history long before historians or scientists did. By extension (Rancière himself doesn't make these claims), the economic theory of Adam Smith isn't possible without the rise of the pastoral tradition in English poetry during the eighteenth century, nor psychology possible without the Romantic poets. Freud himself once admitted that everything he discovered about the human psyche was already known to the Romantics. Stephen Greenblatt shows us in his study of Columbus's diaries in "Marvelous Possessions" that the entire conquest of the New World was made possible by writing.
Rancière concludes his remarks about technology's role in modernity with a Benjaminian flourish. As Benjamin knew, we can no longer see ordinary life directly because we no longer trust mimesis. Instead, as Rancière puts it, "the ordinary becomes beautiful as a trace of the true. And the ordinary becomes a trace of the true if it is torn from its obviousness in order to become a hieroglyph, a mythological or phantasmagoric figure." First of all, this is a pretty succinct description of Benjamin's critical practice. Second, the social sciences, with their dry empiricism and disdain for the figurative, were in fact founded upon the phantasmagoric nature of the true, only they've forgotten this origin. Rancière accuses modern art of just this type of forgetting, only to explain how we can't see ordinary life, the fertile ground of the political, unless we see it aesthetically.