Friday, May 6, 2011

Ranciere (and Barth) on Equality and Disciplines

Below is part of a seminar paper I completed last semester on Barth and his view of modernity. I closed the essay with this section on Jacques Ranciére (who I was all about around Christmas time 2010).

The French philosopher Alain Badiou describes Jacques Ranciére in the following way: “Ranciére takes delight in occupying unrecognized spaces between history and philosophy, between philosophy and politics, and between documentary and fiction.”[1] This is a good description in that it helps us understand what Ranciére tries to do when he attempts to illustrate the connection between aesthetics and politics and how he blurs the lines between academic disciplines. He does this by articulating three regimes of art: the ethical, the representative and the aesthetic. What is important for me is the distinction between the representative and the aesthetic. He believes these regimes have historical presence, yet not in a historically progressive manner; in some ways these regimes still co-exist today. In short, these regimes serve the purpose of viewing and articulating the artistic changes that have occurred throughout history. The representative regime tries to establish what is considered proper in society especially in the way it produces form over matter by organizing what one can say, do, make and judge.[2] Thus, it is an all encompassing regime that delineates what is sensible and gives itself the responsibility of faithfully imitating the things in the world.

Ranciére asserts that the aesthetic regime of art which took shape in the late eighteenth century challenges the representative regime. He declares: “The aesthetic regime of the arts is the regime that strictly identifies art in the singular and frees it from any specific rule, from any hierarchy of the arts, subject matter, and genres.”[3] The openness to artistic practices especially to the things considered common has, for Ranciére, political implications. The aesthetic and the political link up to the extent that they are used to reexamine the distribution of the sensible. He writes: “Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.”[4] In short, politics happens when the defined lines of what is considered normal is disputed; art can help open up the possibilities of this change. Badiou observes that what Ranciere “discovers is a discourse plotted and held in the aftermath of an event, a sort of social flash of lightning, a brief and local invention, both prior to and coextensive with domination and its burdens.”[5]

The way Ranciére articulates the disagreement of what is considered sensible as a disruptive event in the order of things through aesthetics fits well with Barth’s theory of the subject produced by the event. As we have seen Barth was also suspicious on how the modern idea of form was used to create divisions. In this sense, then Barth’s idea of absolutism as all-encompassing over different genres and forms of society matches what Ranciére says about the representative regime in its canonization of what is regarded as proper. However, Ranciére’s thought is aimed at a political reformation especially geared toward the outcast in a place that Barth’s thought really does not go. Ranciére’s theory highlights the mood of the discontent or those outside of the norm because equality is the presupposition that guides his thought. If equality is the presupposition then that means the hierarchies in things like art and politics are in constant need of reform. Therefore, Ranciére promotes an equality that “destroys all of the hierarchies of representation” because the aesthetic establishes the ambivalence of things.[6] Badiou is then correct in stating that Ranciére’s guiding theme is “that anyone, regardless of experience, can exert mastery without being in a position of mastery provided that anyone in question is willing to be unbound.”[7]

An example of what Ranciére is trying to accomplish can be seen in the way that he contests the delineation or proper form of disciplines and the hierarchies that form there. Here he relates how philosophy oftentimes relates to other disciplines:

Classically, philosophy has been considered a sort of super-discipline which reflects on the methods of the human and social sciences, or which provides them with their foundation. Thus a hierarchical order is established in the universe of discourse. Of course these sciences can object to this status, treat it as an illusion and pose itself as the true knowledge of philosophical illusion. This is another hierarchy, another way of putting discourses in their place. But there is a third way of proceeding, which seizes the moment in which the philosophical pretension to found the order of discourse is reversed, becoming the declaration, in the egalitarian language of the narrative, of the arbitrary nature of this order.[8]

His point is to show how that the allotted roles of the disciplines are really a fiction and that one must simply think through a problem and use whatever tools are necessary to come to some type of conclusion; in other words, the walls that separate disciplines need to be invaded for the sake of free thought. Ranciére challenges the hierarchy of the disciplines because it betrays the principle of equality for the fact that this structure ultimately produces those that are in the know and those that are not. Again, his principle of equality judges harshly any thought form that posits an enlightened one to guide the rest of the masses.

Ranciére’s attempt to blur the boundaries between disciplines also raises the issue of the relation of theology to other disciplines. On the one hand, one can see how his method could match Barth’s in criticizing the strict and proper roles forced upon theology in the eighteenth century. On the other hand, his principle of equality would challenge any so-called Barthian interpretation that judged the theology of modernity too harshly. In one sense, this was what Barth’s goal in addressing his historical lectures toward his over-zealous students.[9] One must also consider that much of the criticism of thinkers throughout the eighteenth century was aimed at the traditional hierarchies of the church and the state; the problem is that they would soon replace these traditional forms with a hierarchy and a normality of their own.

Theology is an open discipline; it cannot be used to control other seats of knowledge as the so-called queen of the sciences. Those days are long gone. Also gone is the idea that makes theology subservient to other disciplines like science, history or philosophy or irrelevant to the issues of the contemporary world; this flawed understanding of theology has its nascent in the eighteenth century. Barth’s reading of theology and history as event in that he declares a critical openness toward texts challenges these readings. In fact, Barth spent a lifetime trying to make the point that theology is a happy discipline for all that gives freedom to the other disciplines.[10] In one sense, he was trying to escape from the defined lines of the period of absolutism by positing the free happy exercise of theology.

[1] Alain Badiou, Metapolitics, trans. Jason Barker (New York: Verso, 2005), 108.

[2] Jacques Ranciére, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (New York: Continuum, 2006), 22. For a good introduction to Ranciére see a very recent article by Joseph J. Tanke, “Why Ranciére Now?” The Journal of Aesthetic Education 44 (2010): 1-17.

[3] Ranciére, The Politics of Aesthetics, 23.

[4] Ranciére, The Politics of Aesthetics, 13.

[5] Badiou, Metapolitics, 108.

[6] Ranciére, The Politics of Aesthetics, 14.

[7] Badiou, Metapolitics, 110.

[8] Ranciére, “Thinking between disciplines: an aesthetics of knowledge,” trans. Jon Roffe, Parrhesia 1 (2006):10. Also see Sudeep Dasgupta, “Art is Going Elsewhere and Politics has to Catch it. An Interview with Jacques Ranciére,” Krisis 1 (2008): 70-75.

[9] Barth would later caution this same harsh reading of modern theology in his essay titled “Evangelical Theology in the 19th Century,” found in Barth, The Humanity of God, trans. Thomas Weiser (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960).

[10] See Barth, Evangelical Theology, 12 and 15 for an example of Barth’s comments on the theological discipline and its place as a happy science.

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