Jacques Rancière. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. (Trans. Gabriel Rockhill.) Continuum. 2006. (2000.)
Jacques Rancière. The Future of the Image. (Trans. Gregory Elliott.) Verso. 2007. (2003.)
Carl Wilson. Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. Continuum. 2007.
I was raised on bad music—or at least popular music. To this day I can sing along to virtually every Top 40 hit from the mid-to-late 1970s, often with a heartfelt nostalgia that makes others uncomfortable. To the confessions of friends that they survived early disappointments by listening to Fleetwood Mac, I say: I see your Rumours (now fashionable again, plus ça change) and I raise you Dr. Hook, Gerry Rafferty, the early LPs of Jefferson Starship—I will not be out-embarrassed.
The point of making such a confession is that it is not in any real sense confessional; it is closer to the half-ashamed pleasure of being able to furnish the authorities with the proper identity papers. To admit to a fondness for, say, the Climax Blues Band is embarrassing in a more complicated way than it would at first seem. It is actually faux-embarrassment; it turns me into the musically omnivorous, knowing listener—not just educated, but at least somewhat up to date—who is secure enough in my cultural profile to be able to admit to liking the “bad” thing because I know it is bad, and because I can balance it with the Schoenberg or Xenakis that maturer years brought me. It displays my authenticity, even if that authenticity is rooted in 1970s suburbia and AM radio. It also betrays my age, possibly my racial and sociocultural makeup, and my general cultural facility. I have not heard everything, but I can “place” most things. Having performed all these semiotic games, I am left with the real embarrassment: at having so transparently played the social game with an art form in whose aesthetic autonomy I might otherwise believe. My iPod is not an index to a hidden self. It’s as socially legible as everyone else’s.
That is, I would venture, where we are with the aesthetic. Those of us in commodity-rich, artistically saturated, more or less urbanized Western countries, at the start of the 21st century, know all too well how these games are played. We know it instinctively, so well that the kind of confession of musical taste offered above has become a drearily familiar part of everyday life. We also know it because we know “Bourdieu,” whether we’ve read the man or not. Pierre Bourdieu’s most easily translatable idea—that aesthetic taste, or judgment, is always a move in the cultural game of “distinction,” whereby we disaffiliate ourselves from social inferiors—progressed with astonishing speed from a daring argument against Kant’s third Critique to conventional wisdom. We’ve quickly accepted, that is, what previous generations (we think) would have found scandalous. Take the question of “what I like” lists. Roland Barthes mocked the logic of the taste list in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes thirty years ago, listing his “likes” and “dislikes” in the manner of a Playboy centerfold questionnaire (among his likes: Glenn Gould, the Marx Brothers, white peaches; among his dislikes: Satie, strawberries, “women in slacks”) to demonstrate the emptiness of lists per se. The form of the list survives mockery, however, and even thrives today, precisely because we agree with what Barthes argued: that taste lists create a “subjectivity effect,” a social profile, rather than revealing an actual self. This is now accepted common sense, rooted in all our acts of aesthetic consumption; we know our list of favorite films or books is not a self but a series of “position-takings.” Our Facebook lists say: Look at how cannily I negotiate the field of cultural consumption; look also at how I resist definition by others nonetheless, because I deliberately “miscode” myself, finding coherence in my strategic, quirky incoherence. Any invocation of “bad” music, like my putative confession above, performs an ironically distanced declaration of selfhood, one that is so knowing as to disarm argument.
The result is that aesthetics—some shared conversation, with the potential for galvanizing disagreement, about the value of artworks—has become particularly toothless. Aesthetics can function only in the genre of gently self-implicating comedy. The recent pop-Bordelian phenomenon of Stuff White People Like is instructive: assigning a taste (aesthetic or otherwise) as belonging to White People has neither a critical function nor a sponsorial one; presumably very few people would drop an interest because of its mention on the site, or naively adopt one for the same reason. The site exists simply to encode, in a rough and ready and mostly accurate way, a social formation’s aesthetic preferences; it has no proselytizing or transformational intent, and can only be called satirical in the most attenuated sense of the term.
One possible response to such coding is simply abstention, the decision to abandon any kind of remotely social-aesthetic experience. Sprinkle in some Frankfurt School–style rage against the culture industry, and the result might be a kind of “Kill Your Television” withdrawal into private purity. Particularly in his last decade Bourdieu was given to such pronouncements, which seemed at once urgently principled and peevishly grandparental. The more common reaction, however, is the familiar voice of what Peter Sloterdijk termed cynical reason: Yes, that’s me, so what if it makes me sound elitist, or uneducated, or provincial, or insensitive. What do you want? I like the music (or films, or books) that people like me like. I like The Shins. I like Grizzly Bear. Aesthetics is tautology.
It is too simplistic to say that Jacques Rancière is the anti-Bourdieu. But it is not inaccurate. Robustly conceptual where Bourdieu is empirical, abstractly philosophical where Bourdieu was sociologically precise, he offers a recasting of aesthetic questions that attempts implicitly to rescue the category of the aesthetic from the learned helplessness, or cynical reason, in which Bourdieu left it. In The Philosopher and His Poor, originally published in 1983 but appearing in English only in 2003, one can find one of the more stirring and angry critiques of Bourdieu in existence—a critique mounted on behalf of philosophy against the demystifications of sociological analysis. Here already one can find some of the reasons for Rancière’s current allure. Arguing against Bourdieu’s very method, Rancière resists the attempt to turn aesthetic taste, or feeling, into a category of knowledge. Not coincidentally, his critique turns on Bourdieu’s analysis, in Distinction (published originally in 1979, and translated into English much more quickly than Rancière’s work from the same period) of musical preferences through a poll asking respondents to identify certain works. “In transforming the test of musical taste into a test of knowledge,” Rancière insists, “the sociologist has solved the problem without even tackling it. He has tested the ability to answer a test on the history of music, which is, in the last instance, the ability to judge the meaning of the inquiry and to answer accordingly.” What marks the elite is their facility with sociology—with knowing how to identify, decode, and skillfully recombine the social standings of various musical items and genres, and how to pass a test of these skills—rather than any aesthetic sensibility. It is with regard to music most particularly, Rancière added, that such Bordelian analysis is false: “Music is the art that resists most resolutely the empire of commentary, the banalization through which the professionals of demystification are eager to establish the social banality of the aesthetic ideal.”
The Philosopher and His Poor was more than an attack on Bourdieu; it was a commentary on the philosophical tradition, an attempt to show how the Platonic aversion to “the people” resulted in a series of political theories and epistemologies that depend upon putting “the people” in their place. The Platonic philosopher-ruler, Rancière argued, needs the Attic shoemaker to stick to making shoes. Any transgression of the hierarchy of abilities risks disenfranchising the philosopher. The problem with bad music: it is “popular” in the American sense, but also in the more class-specific French one. It is the music of the masses, it is mass music. From this point, Rancière began to develop a set of analyses—political-theoretical, historical, and eventually aesthetic—to describe the conditions under which only a given slice of the population has the right to self-representation, to speech per se. Even the most radical of political-philosophical programs, from Marxist pedagogy (Rancière was a student of Althusser, one of the contributors to the seminar that resulted in Reading Capital, though he broke with the master after the “events” of May 1968) to Bordelian sociology, are in Rancière’s description enabled by speaking for those to whom they otherwise refuse to listen.
Therefore, politics in Rancière is the exact opposite of what it means in most contemporary progressive discourse. Whereas the common left consensus is that all social acts are at least ideological, and more specifically political, Rancière suggests that real “politics”—defined as the eruption into speech of those who do not speak or are only spoken for—is a rare event. Most of our “political” acts occur as moves in a game where the countermove is always expected, a shadow-play of sorts—very much like the hard-edged boxes of Bourdieu’s famous diagrams, where artworks are splayed on the cross formed by the two axes of cultural and economic capital, fixed in their social connotations. This political game he calls “policing”: keeping things in their proper places. Outside the diagram, Rancière suggests, is a “people” (Rancière uses the words demos and peuple interchangeably) who occasionally seize the right of self-representation.
And it is here that the aesthetic becomes crucial for Rancière: it represents the possibility of transformation. It offers a chance for the artwork to detach itself from its Bordelian fixity and to move: to new publics, new kinds of articulation, new contexts. Aesthetics, in Rancière’s rigorous logic, is transformational in a properly political sense: offering the possibility to say the thing as yet unsaid, to see the thing as yet unseen, to hear as music, for instance, what once was noise. This is the central contention of The Politics of Aesthetics, which is a winningly cobbled-together primer on Rancière, complete with an afterword by Slavoj Žižek and a glossary. At its heart is the interview “The Distribution of the Sensible,” where Rancière’s account of these transformations is outlined most thoroughly. The “sensible”—that order of things that can beseen, heard, or otherwise experienced (aistheton, from which we derive “aesthetics,” is, we are frequently reminded, the Greek for “perception”)—is distributed in particular ways, demarcated from what does not count as sense-making. Art can occasionally intervene in these distributions, in the “partage” (“division,” but also “distribution” or “sharing”) of the sensible: transforming, for instance, noise into music, or allowing other, previously unknown publics to share in the social wealth of art.
Put another way: aesthetics is the term for how politics—real politics—happens. Not the concrete micropolitics of adjusting attitudes, budgeting expectations, or incremental change, but the diffuse macropolitics of shifting our perception of the possible. The artwork is not, then, simply an allegory of the social profile of its consumer.It is what, in The Future of the Image, Rancière calls a set of “operations”: “relations between a whole and parts; between a visibility and a power of signification and affect associated with it; between expectations and what happens to meet them.” Put more simply, the artwork not only is (a signifier of social status) but, more fundamentally, does (something, anything, to the ways in which the social itself can been seen).
These claims risk the boredom of abstraction. Part of the reason The Politics of Aesthetics functions so well is its manifesto-like brevity, which allows Rancière’s formulations a certain stark elegance, unencumbered by too much in the way of demonstration. Rancière is a theorist, not an obvious aesthetician. His books are not particularly rich with examples, or readings of individual artworks; his canon of examples is unsurprising for a French intellectual of his age. (Flaubert, Mallarmé, and Godard loom large, as if to say: I play no canny games with cultural omnivorousness.)
This conceptual dryness presents a dilemma. The Bordelian critic, for instance, knows how to apply Bourdieu: establish the proper economic and cultural context in which a work makes sense (and, of course, remind the reader that you know how you too fit in your own discursive context). More than most theorists, Bourdieu furnishes us with a toolbox for an empirically accurate and also ethical criticism: something precise, thoroughly reflexive, unapologetically demystified. The marks of Bourdieu are easy to read. But a Rancièrian criticism? What would this look like? If, as Rancière’s books suggest, the aesthetic is not a property inhering in objects but a mode of sensitivity, a way of looking at them, what kinds of sensitivity would such a critic then have? What tasks would she face, what particular questions would she want to answer? The problem here is not just not knowing how to “apply” Rancière, or how Rancière might be made relevant by practicing critics; it is, in a sterner way, a test of the value of Rancière’s version of the aesthetic: What kinds of critics (dare I say it: aesthetes) would it produce? If we can hold Bourdieu responsible for the ironic knowingness of our present aesthetic discourse, what might Rancière offer instead?
Which brings me to Céline Dion. Measured in record sales, money earned, downloads, whichever empirical metric you choose, Céline has had a better two decades than, say, John Adams. Yet she is undeniably—that is, undeniably culturally coded as—bad. It is not just that our critics say so, and have turned it into a cliché. Our senses tell us so. The sugary melodies, the banally narcissistic lyrics, the Vegas preening, the sort of arrangements that are usually known as “overproduced”: the signs of badness are all there. Critics hardly need to explain them, much less insist upon them. And yet, here, in the dark center of Bad Music: Global Capital Version, a Rancièrian critic makes a first step toward something like aesthetic inquiry.
Not that Carl Wilson necessarily sees himself as Rancièrian; I have no idea whether Rancière interests him or is even on his theoretical radar. But Let’s Talk About Love, one of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of small books on famous albums, is close to a working-out of Rancière’s aesthetic program; it puts into practice, as a critical sensibility, what Rancière seems elusively to call for. Wilson, a professional music critic from Toronto, sets himself the task of trying to understand what the Canadian Céline’s fans like about her, which also means what he dislikes. The singer of “My Heart Will Go On (Love Theme from Titanic)” will serve, for Wilson, as an inquiry into the question of aesthetic judgment. How does a trained sensibility account for a mass taste that instinctively seems, to him, misguided? In other hands this kind of project would have been disingenuous or merely sentimental. Either the critic explains what The People Don’t See, or the critic gets in touch with His Inner Self and learns to love Céline. Neither one happens. A more rigorous course is pursued. Wilson balances his study of Céline’s oeuvre with a tour of modern Western aesthetics, from Hume, through Kant, to Clement Greenberg and Adorno, and finally to Bourdieu’s demolition of the Kantian sensus communis. Convinced by Bourdieu’s logic, he constructs a sociology of Céline’s audience, only to find that it is far fuzzier than expected. Céline herself—a cautious québécois nationalist, a multilingual world star from a particularly vexed postcolonial origin—is more complicated than “Céline,” the emblem of the global culture industry’s habitual excess.
Dissatisfied with where sociology has taken him, Wilson steps beyond Bourdieu to do in-depth interviews with Céline fans randomly culled from internet fan sites—sympathetically, respectfully, but without ignoring the distance that separates fan from critic. He asks them, without affectation, what they love about Céline, and they respond eloquently and precisely. They demonstrate an awareness of the criticism that damns them and their idol, and they resist it, either pessimistically or robustly. This is as close as one can get today to applied Rancière: the attempt to let aesthetic experience speak, since the aesthetic is finally about a rearrangement of sense in which different kinds of sight, sound, and speech become possible. These fans, all too aware of their lack of cultural capital, get a “voice”—through Céline, as they insist, and for us, the mannered elites, through Wilson.
This isn’t the end of the story either. Aesthetic inquiry, in this Rancièrian mode, is not just hearing the speech that the artwork makes possible; it is also bringing that knowledge to bear on a new, revised judgment—both personal and enlightened by the encounter with others who feel differently—of the artwork itself. So Wilson closes with an actual review of Céline’s album, which he still does not like, but he can find listenable within an order of perception, a distribution (again, “sharing”) of the sensible. He can hear, that is, what others might hear, and he can see how that comes to happen. This has the obvious virtue of seeming appealingly democratic. Wilson is explicit about that last term:
For me, adulthood is turning out to be about becoming democratic.
It wasn’t why I chose her, but Céline turned out to be an apt figurehead for that expedition. She stinks of democracy, mingled with the odors of designer perfumes and of dollars, Euros and yen. . . . And as I suspected, looking closely at her seemingly mundane music has focused me on another set of virtues—not so much the fidelity and devotion she sings about, but the persistence and flexibility it takes to translate between her terms and mine.
This is what I mean by democracy—not a limp open-mindedness, but actively grappling with people and things not like me, which brings with it the perilous question of what I am like.
In one way, this is inarguable. It responds, consciously or not, to Rancière’s injunction to abandon the implied hauteur of the sociologist. It resists taking a well-established social fact (Céline’s badness) as Truth, and avoids the tiresome routine of false embarrassment that is so endemic to our contemporary style of aesthetics. Best of all, perhaps, it refuses to rest at the level of allegory (Céline as a “figurehead” for global capital), and takes the time to actually listen. One would like to follow Wilson here.
The problem is that for all his disclaimers about “limp open-mindedness,” his procedure replaces Bordelian knowingness with something like reticence. If the sign of the Bordelian critic was an astute, and cynical, understanding of the System—including her own place within it—Wilson has relinquished the lure of such knowledge in favor of a scarcely more consoling shyness. Listening to Céline’s fans, he finds himself understanding their motives and admiring their unironic enthusiasm, but he refuses to disagree openly; he may not possess an interviewer’s arrogance, but he is also not engaged in any dialogue—he doesn’t expect his interlocutors to listen back to him. More than twenty years ago Rancière argued that Bourdieu’s anti-elitist politics were supported by the implicit elitism of sociological knowledge; conversely, it is not too difficult to detect in Wilson’s respectful silences the stifled guilt of another kind of elitism, one fundamentally embarrassed of its own power. One might even speculate that some kind of reticence is part of Rancière’s own reluctance to issue judgments on all but the most securely consecrated artworks. In any case, ironic distance is supplanted in Wilson by a well-meaning, familiarly liberal ethos not too far from “to each his own.”
If that is all Rancière has to offer—replacing the worn-out games of hipsterism with the only somewhat fresher virtues of respectful attention to other people’s tastes—then his vogue would represent nothing more than the shifting of a cultural mood, perhaps even the relaxing of vigilance. Wilson does, in fact, recommend that we “relax our constant vigil against looking or feeling ridiculous.” It would seem that we have not moved past Bourdieu so much as become tired of the burden of knowingness, especially self-knowingness, that his theory demanded. At least the somewhat tepid end of Wilson’s book might suggest as much. But lurking in the book’s middle is a far more intriguing possibility that could be taken as more fundamentally, or at least promisingly, Rancièrian. Prior to seeking out Céline’s fans on the internet, Wilson travels to Las Vegas to see her show. The result is peculiar, for a book with such a through-line to it: a failure. The show turns out to be garish, if transiently enjoyable; Vegas itself is hot, vulgar, nightmarish. Trapped in a hotel room drinking bourbon and watching cable, newly divorced, at loose ends, Wilson admits (if temporarily) defeat—and worse yet, disorientation: Why am I doing this? he wonders. Where am I?
Despite the fact that Wilson retreats from this moment to his more conventionally reassuring interviews, there is a power to his despair here that seems like a hard-won Rancièrian victory. Rather than match Céline’s banal popularity with an equally banal sociology of her deluded fans, he achieves a moment of what an earlier age would call “sensibility”: he becomes open, to the point of self-alienation, to what her music does, to the environment in which it functions. That this is an unhappy experience does not disqualify it; nothing in Rancière suggests that the aesthetic need be pleasant—merely that it rearrange the conditions of perception. “A few people have asked me,” Wilson admits, “isn’t life too short to waste time on art you dislike? But lately I feel like life is too short not to.” A remarkable sentiment, although one might wish to read it slightly oblique to Wilson’s own proclamation that the aesthete needs to travel beyond the horizon of his usual tastes in order to grow in sympathy. What if one spent time on art one dislikes in order to grow less anesthetized, to feel real revulsion? The sneaky lesson of Wilson’s book: spend time on art you dislike in order to feel its visceral power. Perhaps then one could get past the world-weariness of Bordelian analyses to something Rancière may himself have created the conditions for: intimate anger, the prerequisite of any resistance.