A Blog by Virgilio Rivas

“The Wrong People” in the transposition of aesthetics and politics

The site of this transposition, Ranciere states, is the “dividing line that has been the object of [his] constant study” (The Philosopher and His Poor, 225) between a particular distribution of the sensible and the dissensus it calls for out of which a unique subject of politics emerges. Ranciere defines ‘politics’ as “an activity of reconfiguration of that which is given to the sensible” (Dissenting Words: A Conversation with Jacques Ranciere, 115). Only a subject of politics can reconfigure a particular distribution of the sensible, cognizant of the dividing line, which subverts a given perceptual criterion for the right kind of understanding the sensible. The sensible is the only access to reality and an immanent one, characterized by our distinct relation to words (and images as well) that make up the sensory field of experience.That which is given to the sensible is an outcome of a particular configuration of sensory reality which regulates social behaviour through the disciplining power of words (and images). In this sense words and images are immediately political. But the immediate political nature of words and images does not rule out the significance of nuances where the dividing line comes to light.

Nuances are political potentialities in the sense that they bring to light the truth about the sensory field, namely, as Plato once said, ‘words’ require a father to express them because they do not speak (Phaedrus, 275d5-e5). In line with his concept or notion of mute speech (parole muette), Ranciere argues that there is no structural or ontological relation between words and the uses we make of them, let alone, the relation between words and what we actually perceive (images). And yet words and images are the fabric of the social order in the sense that they bring contents to perception, or give form to experience. This is not to ignore the fact that, again, words do not speak; they are indifferent to the form and content we give and divest of them. In the final analysis, words (and images as well) put to question the immediacy or taken for granted nature of the political.

Incidentally, Ranciere’s examination of the historical progress of literature gives this concept or notion of mute speech its distinctive relation to the role of literariness in the transformation of reality. By revisiting Aristotle’s concept of Man as animal rationale, Ranciere explores the nuanced definition of Man by bringing to light the exact status of this animal as a reasoning agent, namely, its literariness, an animal “caught in the circuit of literariness that undoes the relationships between the order of words and the order of bodies that determine the place of each” (Dis-agreement: Politics and Philosophy, 27). In the field of the political, Ranciere would transpose literariness to the notion of democracy or equality, in a sense: equality is literariness. Here, literariness shares a liminal function with mute speech. Both are indifferent to a given relationship between words and bodies, or in the realm of the political, between speech acts and the material life of the community. The mark of literariness is its potentiality as a specific agent of politics to reconfigure this given relationship, a sign of its indifference to it. The agent of literature therefore has the power to reconstitute the political by examining the structural features of language—words and images—to empower individuals to transcend their given place in the social order. Individuals can transcend their place in society by imitating (my interpretation in light of my bias for Walter Benjamin) the function of parole muette, its mimetic faculty, stimulated and awakened by literariness, to become similar to the indifference of words and images.

As literature develops, the stimulation and awakening of this faculty also varies from one historical period (of understanding the sensory field) to another. Ranciere would come up with an ingenious formula—the three regimes of arts or aesthetics, in short, the three historical frames of reference for understanding the significance of literariness to the transformation of reality through the sensory field. We have to underscore here that in each supposed period of literariness, the role of mute speech also varies according to how it functions in each. In the ethical regime, mute speech breaks the division between truth and representation, reality and simulacrum, etc., by exposing the arbitrariness of the dividing line that subsists between them. But it was Plato himself who would give us the clue—truth is justified true belief (this point is not underscored by Ranciere, so I am here inserting my interpretation). Mute speech teased the unconscious out of Plato—truth is a lie, yet a noble one. But even with this admission, Plato’s words would create a new image of literariness, at the expense of ignoring Plato’s words—let us not forget that words are indifferent even to their host.

In Aristotle’s intervention the ethical regime would reconstitute the kind of mute speech that exposed Plato’s lie into one that should reveal what its true aim is—as Ranciere explained earlier, to “[undo] the relationship between the order of words and the order of bodies” (Dis-agreement, 37) in service of the new definition of Man, a rational animal whose essence lies in the “circuit of literariness,” in the interpretation of the sensible based on the undoing of Platonic literariness, the undoing of its noble lie, in favor of the ethical demand of the polis, which is practical rather than metaphysical (although this would constitute a new configuration of mute speech against Aristotle as he would assign the metaphysical to the supervision of experts, unlike Plato who suggested a number of times that metaphysics is reachable in the dream world, practically accessible to everyone). Hence, no longer the whatness of literariness as ‘justified true belief’ (in Plato), what qualifies into the ethical regime because justification requires propriety in training in dialectics, among others; rather its howness, its technique, its method, its syntax as a model for reconfiguring the social in terms of setting up new ways of speaking, doing and being. Over the old Platonic class determination, social class determines one’s place in the order of the sensible, Aristotle would prefer mastery of the syntactical or organizing power of language (he called it the ‘poetic function’) extended to the social field. (Aristotle is therefore a specific subject of politics who broke the Platonic partition of the sensible that has for a time become the dominant ‘sense’ of the political). This part of Aristotle’s intervention would represent the transition to the representative regime of arts in which the poetic function, characterized by logical reduction of time and space to give the overall effect of unity, would become the new configuration of the sensory in terms of cause-effect relations, prefiguring at the same time the rise of modern instrumental reason.

The transition to the aesthetic regime would be the complement of the emergent rise of a new parole muette. In a way the aesthetic regime would mimic the exact function of words. If words are not equal to the uses that a partition of the sensible gives and divests of them, they can become potential sites of democracy. Words are not exhausted by their intended meanings. Here, the aesthetic regime satisfies literariness in undoing established patterns of communication, referential sign-system, or “agreed system of signs” (Benjamin’s description in “On the Mimetic Faculty”), which, by their constituting and regulating power, can at the same time distribute social roles and subject positions. In the aesthetic regime, literariness can redistribute social roles and positionalities into unexpected modes of speaking, being and doing, in short, in a new partition of the sensible, albeit, this time with no telos to pursue. Literariness has no end to achieve, which compliments the indifference of words to origin, agency, purpose and direction.

What we have here is the autonomy of words which can destabilize the hierarchy of genres or aesthetic style and merit. In short: a literary suicide, the new way to imitate the radicality of mute speech, loyal to no word. As Ranciere would argue in the case of Bovary’s literary suicide, Flaubert had to kill his protagonist for confusing her everyday style with the autonomy of reality fashioned in the autonomy of words that stylizes the sensible (in the aesthetic regime, that is); her style as her way of speaking, being and doing, which amounts no less to the becoming similar of art to everyday life (or the equality the mass function of kitsch asserts of the everyday that has the right to become art), in Benjamin: the technical reproduction of art in modern times. So far this is the positive side of Ranciere’s description of the aesthetic regime–one has the license to separate the bad eggs from the good ones. In this sense the parole muette of the aesthetic regime emancipates the words from Emma Bovary whose style with words—her ‘ways’ of speaking, doing and being; in short, words are not just words—also suppresses their desire for silence by bringing their autonomous function to life, thus, bringing them to life in the style of “self-suppression of literature” (“The Politics of Literature,” 22), the equivalent of the everyday becoming art. In this context, Bovary mistakes her everyday for each word of the day.

Unfortunately, there are no right people, no right subjects of politics, people from whom, arguably, it will not make sense to emancipate words and images. There are only wrong people. Ranciere describes the wrong people as “the mode of subjectification in which the assertion of equality takes its political shape” (Dis-agreement, 39). Even supposing, Ranciere would have to mean equality as the right kind of equality, not the equality professed by Emma Bovary who must be killed so that words could be emancipated from her way of speaking, doing and being. Here, Ranciere unlocks the metaphysical secret of words. And the secret is it is better to be indifferent like words, or champion their ‘indifferent’ cause, such as to kill the Bovarys of the world (the right conviction, presumably) than be killed (no less by words). But nothing can prevent ‘Bovary’ to cry foul and here a new image of equality may “take its political shape.” There are no right as opposed to wrong people. Ranciere qualifies: “The concept of wrong is thus not linked to any theatre of victimization” (Ibid.). In the political, the cause of Bovary in this configuration is no different from the position of hard-line advocates and ideologues of the Right. “We, people of the Right, are also the wrong ones.” By becoming its first victims, the Right has become the champion of democracy .

Words, at best, in the aesthetic regime, have the final say: keep quiet. And finally I can conclude. From here, they take over like the police, with words on offer: “You have the right to remain silent.”

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