PRINT February 2014


Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière

ALAIN BADIOU has likened the relation between philosophy and art to that between master and hysteric in Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic terms. The hysteric seeks a master to explain to her who she is and to convert her unprocessed truth into a form of transmissible knowledge. But the hysteric—or art—is never satisfied with what she is told. Philosophy’s answers always fall short or miss the mark, and his own status as master is ultimately called into question.

To preserve his authority, philosophy has three choices. He can, taking decisive measures, as Plato proposed should be done with poetry, banish art from the community to which it has only brought confusion. Or he can ignore its unanswerable demands and domesticate it, taking it only for the practical pleasures it offers and nothing more. Or, finally, he can relent and idolize art for the profound truth that in the end he concedes derives from its very unknowability.

It is fitting, then, that Badiou has slyly complimented his contemporary Jacques Rancière for the “brilliant hysteria” he has brought to philosophy. Rancière’s recent focus on aesthetics has been an attempt not to aestheticize philosophy, nor to valorize art above all else, but rather to rethink the interrelation of perception, sensation, and thought across art, politics, and philosophy. Here, a little intellectual history might serve to illuminate this project and Badiou’s separate trajectory.

Now in their seventies, their international fame at its peak, Badiou and Rancière are among the last major French thinkers of the structuralist generation who had a decisive encounter with the events of May ’68. Both sought paths that kept faith with this history, while also marking a distance from the Marxism of Louis Althusser, which was central to their intellectual formation but after May came to be associated with the “revisionism” of the Communist Party. Rancière’s public break from Althusser, his former teacher and collaborator, meant refusing the position of the philosopher as master, the one in the know who is capable of enlightening those in the dark. In place of the master: critical thought that doesn’t privilege knowledge over appearance or science over sensation and perception. The philosopher must be willing to learn from art.

Badiou, for his part, took from the retreat from politics in France in the late 1970s a renewed urgency for a philosophy that can account for the kinds of rare events that irrevocably alter our sense of what is possible. An “event,” in Badiou’s vocabulary, refers not to change as such, however world-historical, but to occurrences that provide a new opening for thought and action; his examples include not only May ’68, but Georg Cantor’s mathematical conception of infinity, Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system, and any two people falling in love. For him, philosophy’s function is to combat business as usual and to think and affirm new possibilities, which means resisting the hysteria of an unmoored critical thought haunted by skepticism. In regard to art, philosophy must avoid all three of the choices proposed above: Art cannot become the only truth, but there are events in art that produce a form of truth specific to art that has both philosophical and political implications. Philosophical reflections on the arts, he tells us in Cinema—a selection of his essays on the “seventh art” written over many decades—should be oriented toward affirmationism, “the doctrine that the ideas generated by art make a judgment about the world only to the extent that they indicate the point from which the world can be transfigured.”

The newly edited and translated collections of Badiou’s writings on theater (from the ’80s to the present) and cinema (dating back to the ’50s) under discussion here are important chapters in what he has called inaesthetics, philosophy’s attempt to think the truth of art, which, true to the scope of his ambitions, should cover the full range of the arts. Badiou seeks within a given art form singular possibilities for truth, for generating a new configuration or new idea within the means of a certain practice. This calls for prescriptive theses. In Rhapsody for the Theatre, Badiou distinguishes between theater, the simulacrum that counts as theater, “an innocent and prosperous ritual,” and Theater, “heresy in action,” which demands philosophy’s response. Determining the specificity of Theater entails cutting it off from other arts with which it may seem to blur—forms of performance without repeatable textual referents, such as mime or dance, and cinema, whose atomized viewers should not be confused with Theater’s collective public.

Badiou’s notion that thinking about art is also a way of thinking about the transformation of the world is likewise central to the narrative of Rancière’s exhilarating new book, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, but Badiou’s axiomatic categorical distinctions couldn’t be more foreign to Rancière’s aims. Aisthesis constitutes Rancière’s most thoroughgoing polemic against the received idea of modernism, articulated by Clement Greenberg and others, according to which art must “turn its attention away from the content of common experience and . . . direct it towards the means of its practice.” This reactionary modernism, Rancière attempts to show, is a belated defense against the revolutionary idea of art that emerges in modernity and makes artistic practices legible as such, which, contra Greenberg (and Badiou, for that matter), “tends to erase the specificities of the arts and to blur the boundaries that separate them from each other and from ordinary experience.” At stake in Rancière’s critique of the dominant narrative of modernism therefore is both an analytical and a political intervention. The blurring of the different arts, he suggests, has historically been linked to art’s blurring with life—specifically, with the prosaic experiences of ordinary people.

Aisthesis, structured as fourteen chronological “scenes,” beginning in Dresden in 1764 with Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s description of the Belvedere Torso and ending in 1941 with James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, might be seen as the materialist history of an idea. Each “scene” begins with a concrete encounter, revealed in an extended excerpt that links a work with a new way of thinking about art. Rancière then teases out the logic of this idea, exposing its contradictions, allowing the scene to unfold as a drama that never achieves resolution but whose central conflict will be taken up again in new and often surprising ways in the scenes to follow.

Modernist doxa has informed not just theories of art in general or ideas about what makes particular works exemplary, but the very telling of art’s history, which rarely crosses disciplinary boundaries and even in our age of the so-called post-medium condition tends to produce studies of the novel, or of dance, painting, or cinema, etc., and not ways of thinking about art that bind these practices together. As Rancière reveals again and again, “medium” always designates not simply the specific materiality of a given work or practice, but at a minimum the relation between that materiality and an idea of art that links it to other arts and an idea of life.

To take but one example among many from Aisthesis, Maurice Maeterlinck, in an article to accompany the Paris premiere of Ibsen’s The Master Builder, announces a new idea of theater, “an immobile theater” that breaks from the old Aristotelian model of dramatic action. But his idea of Theater, as distinct from theater (to use Badiou’s terms), takes as its model new modes of painting. At the same time, it leads Maeterlinck to conceptualize an idea of mise-en-scène that will be echoed in the way Jean Epstein decades later will articulate an idea of cinematic specificity meant precisely to separate the new wonders of the uncanny mechanical eye from its dependence on theater. In this bleeding of specificities, it would seem, we couldn’t be farther from Badiou. Yet Badiou’s theory of cinema as an “impure art,” which incorporates all the other arts and blurs with non-art, aligns him with Rancière, if only for this one exceptional case. He reserves for the seventh art the antinomic structure and democratic promise that for Rancière is characteristic of all the arts since the end of the eighteenth century.

It is not uncommon today to see “art-world favorite,” or words to that effect, appended to Rancière’s name, a sure sign that a critical backlash can’t be far behind. Hal Foster, in particular, has recently come out swinging, offering up Rancière as emblematic of a post-critical turn—the abandonment and repudiation of both the practice of critique and the paradigm of critical art. Foster has dismissed Rancière’s own formulation for thinking the politics of art—the notion that art can be conceived as intervening in what the philosopher has called “le partage du sensible” (translated by Foster as the “redistribution of the sensible”)—as “wishful thinking” and, in a phrase repeated both in the pages of October and in his review of Aisthesis in the London Review of Books, “the opiate of the artworld left.”

The target of Foster’s polemic may be less Rancière himself than his fervent reception within various art enclaves, as evidenced by the quotations adorning the dust jacket of Aisthesis culled from the 2007 dossier devoted to Rancière in the pages of this magazine: “‘Rancière shows a way out of the malaise.’—Liam Gillick”; “‘Rancière is relighting the flame that was extinguished for many.’—Thomas Hirschhorn.” The irony is that if one begins to survey the landscape of philosophy that seems to have some purchase in the art world today, spanning strains of post-Deleuzean vitalism, the so-called affective turn, the depoliticized metaphysical materialism of speculative realism, or the programmatic refusal of negative thought dubbed “accelerationism,” Rancière starts to seem like the most influential contemporary thinker keeping critique alive.

That art might be thought an arena in which the forms of common sense and experience that define the terrain of the seeable, sayable, or doable are somehow suspended, displaced, or thwarted is not an idea that Rancière claims to have invented. What he has done, however, is attempt a reconceptualization of artistic practices in a way that preserves art’s political potential by acknowledging that potential’s unrealizability. According to Rancière, “art” always presumes a relationship to ideas about art, between sensation and meaning, even (or especially) when it claims to resist the latter. This insight sweeps aside a whole host of hoary debates. Art cannot escape interpretation (political or otherwise) any more than theory can provide its key. This is because the modern idea of art is based on an antinomy: The emergence of the idea of art as an autonomous sphere separate from reason, ethics, and politics is dependent on the idea of art as heteronomous, as capable of incorporating all manner of mundane experience that had historically been excluded from the fine arts. Art cannot overcome this contradiction, which nonetheless offers an ever-renewable resource for invention and play. Or, as Rancière put it in “The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes,” an essay published in the New Left Review in 2002, “art promises a political accomplishment that it cannot satisfy, and thrives on that ambiguity. That is why those who want to isolate it from politics are somewhat beside the point. It is also why those who want it to fulfill its political promise are condemned to a certain melancholy.” Readers of Rancière seeking a “way out of the malaise” may find themselves frustrated by his repeated insistence that there is no formula for political art and that an artwork can never realize itself as political practice. Such readers may discover instead a welcome antidote in Badiou’s principle of affirmation.

Badiou would likely see Rancière as sacrificing the possibility of grasping the radical novelty of specific artworks in his attempt to preserve the egalitarian promise of the concept of art that emerges in modernity. On the other hand, for Rancière, Badiou’s reserving of artistic truths for exceptional practices that redefine the potential of their medium runs the risk of becoming yet another way of separating what counts as art from the presumably unsophisticated pleasures of ordinary people, whom Greenberg condemned to a life of kitsch. Still, both Rancière and Badiou share a commitment to a philosophy not guided by suspicion or a logic of demystification but nevertheless true to Foucault’s definition of critique as “the art of voluntary insubordination”—a practice that will always lead philosophy back to art despite his never being able to appease her.

Nico Baumbach teaches film studies at Columbia University in New York.