Rancière’s ‘Re-partage’ and the symbolic translation of shared experience

CLE Conference, Lisbon, May 2019

Conviviality and Cultural Literacy

A former student and mentee of the French Marxist avatar, Louis Althusser, Jacques Rancière remains at 78 a major philosopher of culture in the classical tradition of European intellectual thought. In his later publications, frequently based on series of invited interviews or lectures, he returns repeatedly to the theme which lies at the heart of his preoccupations: the reconciliation of aesthetics, history and processes of production as determinants of collective well-being in a post-Communist world. Rancière’s goal is to define the elements which promote communal ways of life in the face of ideological division and economic uncertainty. Since the advent of the 20th century, he argues, global teleological models of social organisation, including Soviet Communism and the Modernist dream of progress have demonstrably failed. Instead, he asks, how can manual labour or other forms of repetitive, technologically driven, everyday instrumental tasks be infused with an aesthetic sensibility which reinforces shared values? To what extent is it possible for artistic practice to act as an innovative social catalyst alongside lucrative, self-referring forms of cultural expression whose primary goal is financial gain? In the absence of ‘grand narratives’ which underpin a causal, hierarchical, rationally grounded notion of time, how can culture capture a sense of the present which gives an aesthetically accessible, sustainable yet unsentimental expression to the notion of ‘conviviality’: an awareness of the lived moment which diverse groups in society can experience simultaneously?

            In the current climate, these questions may well seem like hopelessly naive aspirations and it is true that Rancière makes no claims to offer hard solutions to intractable global problems. What he does do, however, is to rethink the relationship between politics and culture from a sentient perspective which transcends individual self-interest and mediated, market-led populism. ‘Le partage du sensible, Rancière’s short book published in 2000, is little more than a philosophical pamphlet. The title, reminiscent of luminaries such as Diderot, Rousseau and Schiller, means something like ‘sensibility, aesthetics and community’. It defines the way in which forms and processes of artistic expression are conditioned by their social context at particular historical moments, highlighting the role played by literary discourse and art in moulding collective consciousness.  Collective sensibility should not be confused with Michael Billig’s UK based 1990s’ notion Banal Nationalism.  This was built around assumed hegemonic tropes of national identity in the best Barthesian tradition: football, royalty, celebrity fashion, bad weather, out of town shopping malls, costume drama, the National Health Service, dysfunctional railways, Monty Python, Peterloo, Spitfires and Yorkshire pudding. ‘Le sensible’ is a more elusive phenomenon altogether and demands different forms of mediation if it is to reflect lived reality.  It also calls for a particular understanding of what cultural literacy means in practice and familiarity with inclusive research methodologies into the processes which bring it into being.

            Rancière returns to classical origins in order to structure his argument. He favours Aristotle’s relativist distinction between mimesis and poeisis over the idealism of Plato which he associates with an elitist, post-Renaissance vision of ‘beaux-arts’. He never wavers from the view that aesthetic criteria are historically, politically and contextually determined and must therefore be viewed in pragmatic terms. Fact and fiction, like the relationship between physical acts of making and the outcomes of the creative imagination, are two sides of the same coin. In fact, for Rancière, the term ‘fiction’ implies an internalised poetic consciousness or esthétique without which social reality cannot be truly apprehended. The conditions of labour, whether based on earlier Fordist modes of production or more recent post-industrial instability, mean that access to such consciousness is unevenly distributed.  What is needed are more flexible, even-handed opportunities for cultural participation in which distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ are definitively superseded and where processes of mediation and performance emanate from the grass roots.

            His latest collection of papers: Les Temps modernes was published last year.  As an ironic comment on the celebrated, long-running review founded by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1945 and Chaplin’s 1929 film Modern Times, it argues that far from marking the start of a revolutionary new age, the modernism of the early 20th century was an historically situated, strictly provisional response to what had gone before. For Rancière, ‘modernity’ as a generic belief in the future of society remains a mirage, an ideological misnomer. It failed in the early 1900s to fulfil its own aspiration, that of escaping from a rational logic of hierarchical temporality into a mechanistic utopia built on space time compression and collective social progress.  As a prognosis, he draws comparison with Francis Fukuyama’s now notorious notion of the mid- 1990s that history was dead.  This has long since been exploded, as we all know, by the economic crash of 2007-8, leaving behind it a residual sense of crisis, religious intolerance, inequality and division of expertise.

            According to Rancière, it is the current universal sense of instability, what he calls an ‘état pathologique’, which highlights the need for new, aesthetically driven, forms of collective expression which embrace heterogeneity while capturing the reality of diverse lives experienced ‘in the moment’. The legacy of post-modernism which Rancière contemptuously describes as a capitalist-led ‘carnaval de simulacre’ has given way to a manufactured, media-manipulated, collective state of mind fuelled by a toxic mix of fear and desire. It has heightened the divide between on the one hand a productive, corporate elite whose objective is not to cure (guérir) but to manage (gérer) and, on the other, a disenfranchised majority which lacks the knowledge, time and resources to participate (‘faire part’) in the workings of society.  In labelling this latter group ‘les ignorants’, Rancière attaches no disparaging connotations to the term as might apply if the English word ‘ignorant’ were used.  He means simply that the repetitive nature of daily routines in a battle for survival deprives large swathes of society of the opportunity to think or act creatively in their own interests.  For Rancière, Les ignorants are involuntary recipients rather than informed actors.

            It follows that Rancière’s notion of ‘le partage’, from the French ‘partager’, literally ‘to share’, in fact comes close to meaning exactly the opposite. While a common imaginary may serve to bind a given community, elements within it remain ‘exclusive’ in the sense that their form of expression is determined by the space in which they take place, the rules which govern that particular performative genre and the different segments of the wider group to whom that form of expression most commonly applies. Rancière’s obvious point is that space, place, time and money, regulated by an economically driven cultural ‘régime’, determine the aesthetic criteria of performative events and the specific audiences which attend them. However, while the desirability of promoting greater spatial pluralism is clear, the means of achieving it remains much less so, despite national and international investment in high profile art projects, prestige museums and the establishment of cultural hubs designed to act as focal points of urban transformation.     

            Both Le Partage du Sensible and Les Temps Modernes call for a politics which promotes a different form of art from that traditionally based on an established infrastructure of museums, exhibitions, art fairs, literary festivals and folkloric nostalgia where the emphasis is on witnessing rather than on active participation.  Art should engage with the relationship between making and doing (‘faire’) and social participation (‘faire part’) built on collective identification. At the same time, he recognises that the essence of the poetic is ultimately subjective. He blames what he calls an aesthetic ‘régime’ which, notwithstanding the vitality of movements such as arte povera, situationism, and post-war realism, has retreated into its own self-regarding exclusivity, becoming a plaything of the wealthy rather than a crucible of social transformation.  The alternative is public engagement, passionately illustrated by François Matarasso in his recent publication A Restless Art, in which aesthetic quality, self-association with place and community action are fruitfully combined. 

            There is much that is reductive in Rancière’s broad-brush critique of cultural evolution in the Western world since the birth of modernism.  In focusing on the coherence of his own analysis, he simply overlooks most of the great cinematographic and theatrical achievements of the last hundred years except to the extent that they illustrate a particular facet of his argument.  He briefly comments on the impact of Brecht, the pessimistic conclusion of The Grapes of Wrath and the endless movement of free dance as practised by Isodora Duncan.  But he makes no reference to sublime contemporaries such as Agnès Varda and Jarvis Cocker, the visual poetry of Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo, and Claude Brassaï, the radical engagement of Peter Brook, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Ariane Mnouchkine and others, all of whom might be said to promote variations of the politically relevant poetic realism he attempts to capture in prose.  But this should not detract from the vital importance of his thesis which is to highlight the need to reconcile mimesis, the unadorned, mechanical representation of reiterated phenomena, and poiesis: the transformation of the everyday actions of ordinary people into symbolic poetic forms of their own making: what Rancière calls ‘agencement’ – the challenge of enabling cultural literacy to find fullest expression by releasing the autonomous, diverse creative energy of local populations.   

            The one in-depth example which Rancière chooses to exemplify the political aesthetic to which he aspires is the fascinating, radically innovative film released in 1929 directed by Dziga Vertov.  The Man with the Camera has been dubbed by the British Film Institute as ‘The greatest documentary ever made’. Vertov’s unique genius was to synthesise mechanisation, atemporal heterogeneity of social experience and self-aware poetic art. The result is spectacular and transcends time. It points the way to what is achievable at minimal cost with the hand-held technology of today, provided the process is managed with sensitivity and respect for the conditions of life of local populations.  Here is how Rancière describes an aesthetic in which industrial actions are intercut in an increasingly rapid, mesmeric rhythm to the accompaniment of a compelling soundtrack:

‘The fragmentation achieved by the montage [35 frames in 25 seconds excluding superimposed images] is not a deliberate form of discontinuity designed to represent an absence of meaning.  On the contrary, it connotes the creation of a new, commonly felt, sense experience. […] Vertov […] highlights a set of identical gestures which fuse to form a sentient continuum’.

It is just one illustration of what Rancière means when he describes the potential of art to promote re-partage: new ways of sharing the experience of everyday communal life.