Rancière and the politics of destruction

Rancière, Jacques. 1992. Politics, Identification, and Subjectivization. October 61 (Summer): 58-64.

In an early article in his now well-translated theoretical corpus, French thinker Jacques Rancière (philosopher, theoretician of film, literature, and politics, and aesthete), speeds up the slow murder of political science by turning its approach in the direction of aesthetics. At the same time, he transforms the field of aesthetics into the very blueprint around which all disciplines are designed, by keeping the core conceptual vocabulary of politics. In the end, this allows him to arrive at the more relevant concerns of today’s new media coordinates wherein most disciplines operate. In many ways, Rancière’s 1992 article treated here presages many of the concerns of visual culture to come. But it also helps to validate my own response to this recent New York Times article on the relevance of political science. For those who want to eliminate the field, how can I help?

The terminology Rancière begins with, already figured in opposing motifs since the inception of political theory as a vocation, includes policy, emancipation, equality, politics, the political, universality, and subjectivization. For Rancière, most of these terms are simply linkages based upon the presupposition of equality he calls “the only universal in politics. (60)” Between equality, and the process of emancipation that turns back to illuminate this foundation, an individual removes themselves from a set of policies that have set out to determine what or who they are. The obvious examples range from statistical groups like race, gender, nationality, or other categorical imperatives of citizenship, to communities that require a conforming individual to undertake their ideological positions. In both cases, these ‘policies’ and perceived origins conceal a more significant ‘in-between’ space (which is what he defines as “the political”) while refusing the possibility of the “one-more” or “any one”. In this way, conventional policies restrict visibility of an excess: singularities, alternatives, possibilities, and so on. In such cases, ambiguity most be molded into an intelligible category, or the subject must remain invisible.

The reality according to a presumed equality among people to act or assume a variety of non-recognized roles, however, is one Rancière finds in “the formation of one that is not a self but is the relation of a self to an other. (60)” He calls this subjectivization. And Rancière’s ingenuity here, as we see in the work that follows this essay, lies in the natural link forged between politics and the spaces of literature and film. The modern novel, as distinct from traditional story form for example, is based on a sequence of often-disjoint events that determine fragmented characters in-transition. Flaubert, and a host of 19th century authors Rancière categorizes as belonging to the aesthetic age, used this fragmentation through new visual-temporal modes. These modes are cinematic rather than ‘figural’ (a la Erich Auerbach), and this is the central theme of his literary argument in The Flesh of Words (2004), his reflections on contemporary art in The Politics of Aesthetics (2004), his meditations on film in Film Fables (2006), and the cinematic visual mode of all forms in the inter-textual essays collected in The Future of the Image (2007). These dominant cinematic motifs, carried by a redefinition of ‘the political’, breathes new life into the field of visual culture, film studies, new media studies, comparative literature and literary studies, and political theory. It basically eliminates political science as conventionally studied, as well as the Aristotelian pretentions of narratology precisely because it seeks de-categorization. This October essay is arranged someone as a precursor to his work in literature:

…the concept of narrative itself, like the concept of culture, is highly questionable. It entails the identification of an argumentative plot with a voice, and of a voice with a body. But the life of political subjectivization is made out of the difference between the voice and the body, the interval between identities. (62)

Though Rancière’s first English-language works The Ignorant School Master [1991] and The Names of History [1994] are both designed to make a break from the Marxist frameworks of his teacher Louis Althusser, they form the beginning of this disciplinary break (from knowledge and history, respectively) that culminates in aesthetics. This is because the visible domain of what constitutes legitimate attention is poetic, an arrangement or design of parts and coordinates, rather than a set of logical premises. Or, to be more specific, Rancière is speaking of a logic that is ‘paratactic’.

Simplified, there are a variety of contemporary illustrations of this sort of subjectivization. But the one which springs most easily to mind is Kenji and Noi, two characters from Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe (2003). Kenji is a lonely Japanese national in-between the space of a Japanese library in Bangkok and the world of Japanese yakuza outlaws back home. Noi, an adventurous yet fragmented wanderer between jobs, is a Thai national soon to pursue work in Osaka. According to common national stereotypes, one is extremely introverted, orderly and suicidal, while the other is chaotic, loquacious, cluttered. All of these subjective characteristics are likewise projected onto living spaces and the landscape. Stuck in traffic on the Phut Bridge, Noi’s sister Nid is killed hit by on-coming traffic when she jumps from the car after a heated argument. At this very moment, Kenji contemplating his own suicide on the edge of the bridge, witnesses the accident, and begins to involve himself in Noi’s life. The two engage in a variety of intercultural moments which, though touching, are an aside to the film’s more significant themes of global subjectivization. Kenji has no desire to return to Japan and, after the death of her sister, Noi becomes involuntarily removed from Thai space—in the sense that the objects and people that surround her are ‘traumatic’, with Kenji being the exception. For both characters, their ‘own’ countries are violent cartographies: Noi with regard to her Thai boyfriend, and the fact that Kenji is being hunted by a Japanese crime family.

Against these event-driven contingencies, there is no moral logic but, instead, an ethical ‘response’—what Marco Abel (2007) calls the “ability to respond (response-ability)” based on abrupt nature of the affect. In this sense, there is no ‘reason’ why Noi and Kenji involve themselves in each other’s lives, except for the wedge that drives their natural spaces apart. Turning back to Rancière, this is about the poetic forms of disagreement that allow for a new possibility to unfold, not an ordered world set in replay. The film requires the viewer to think outside the parameters of citizenship at the same time it requires film studies to question the boundaries of national film narratives in an industry that is increasingly transnational. Because, as Rancière suggests, ‘policies’ do not dictate the actions of the ‘one more’ or ‘any one’ subject, politics unfolds in this space of ambiguity and ambivalence: can they communicate in English (the in-between space of language), when Japanese and Thai fails to register conversational understanding between the two? If law fails to attend to the safety of these characters, what are the necessary forms of contingent negotiation? Have has the assembly of all these parts of Last Life in the Universe, cuts, spaces, and so on, illuminated an emancipated subject (or spectator) through the aesthetics it employs? This is politics.

The noted works:

Abel, Marco. 2007. Violent Affect: Literature, cinema, and critique after representation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Cohen, Patricia. 2009. “Field Study: Just How Relevant is Political Science?” New York Times (Online) 19 October. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/20/books/20poli.html?_r=1.

Rancière, Jacques. 2004a. The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Rancière, Jacques. 2004b. The Politics of Aesthetics. New York: continuum.

Ranciere, Jacques. 2006. Film Fables. Translated by Emiliano Battista. New York: Berg Publishers.

Ranciere, Jacques. 2007. The Future of the Image. Translated by Gregory Elliot. New York: Verso.


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