This article broaches the relations between ‘interpretation, theory and the encounter’1 via the philosopher Theodor Adorno’s conception of aesthetics as a practice of interpretation and commentary that aims to produce a free, critical and self-reflexive form of individuality which ‘stands free of any guardian’.2
This formulation aptly captures how the understanding of aesthetics as a practice of freedom has been developed in the slipstream of the eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant’s account of the beautiful as ‘what is presented without concepts as the object of a universal liking’.3 A connection between aesthetics, freedom and economic and social independence had already been rehearsed in the earlier history of civic humanism which interpreted the independence of the landed gentry and liberal professions from the dominion of others as an essential qualification for the disinterested exercise of both aesthetic and civic capacities of judgement.4 The significance of Kant’s reformulation of the aesthetic consisted in the place it produced for aesthetic judgement as a space within the internal economy of the subject that had the potential to become universal. Freed from the constraint of any determinate concept, aesthetic judgement was thereby also putatively freed from the sway of moral or political authorities as the interpreters of such concepts. This was the significance of Kant’s criticisms of the authority that Christian Wolff’s 1750 account of the aesthetic as a form of judgment governed by concepts lent to the ‘philosopher-king’ of the Prussian state.5 By disentangling aesthetic from conceptual judgement, Kant produced the aesthetic as a zone of activity – a practice of the self – that could be conducted independently of any tutelage to such external authorities, a space of freedom.
This is an aspect of Kant’s thought that the modern French philosopher and historian of ideas Michel Foucault addressed on a number of occasions, notably in his commentary on Kant’s ‘What is Enlightenment?’ and his own essay on the aesthetics of existence.6 He returned to it in 1982–3 in his course of lectures on The Government of Self and Others where, confessing that Kant’s essay had become ‘something of a blazon, a fetish for me’,7 he offers a probing discussion of its evasions and contradictions. These centre on Kant’s conception of Enlightenment as ‘man’s way out from his self-incurred tutelage’ to acquire the capacity ‘to make use [of his understanding; MF] without direction from another’.8
There are two aspects of Foucault’s discussion I want to highlight here. The first concerns Kant’s negative assessment of men’s capacity to escape from their tutelage through their own action and volition, and, equally, the inability of exemplary individuals to lead or guide others to the autonomy they had attained without, thereby, exercising an authority over them which would, in the very process of ‘freeing’ them, bind them into a new form of tutelage. The second concerns the conclusion Kant draws from this: that Enlightenment consists of a redistribution of the relations between the government of self and others affected by a new arrangement of the relations between private and public reasoning. This depended, Foucault notes, on ‘an ingenious little trick’ through which Kant reverses the normal meanings of these words so that private reasoning relates to ‘our public activity as functionaries, when we are components of a society or government whose principles and objectives are those of the collective good’,9 while public reasoning relates to ‘the use we make of our understanding and our faculties inasmuch as we place ourselves in a universal element in which we can figure as a universal subject’.10 Kant’s argument is not for the complete displacement of private reasoning, or of the forms of tutelage it involves, by public reasoning, but a proper apportionment of the relations between the two, such that the latter – in which there is no relationship of tutelage to any authority – orders the spheres in which the former is exercised.
However, as Foucault notes, Kant’s essay offers no account of the process through which this condition is to be arrived at. This is rather, as French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925–95) has argued, the role played by Kant’s aesthetic which, by freeing the judgement of beauty from its subordination to concepts, opens up a space – individually within the architecture of the person, and collectively within the historical architecture of humanity – in which judgement is freely exercised in a manner that paves the way for the production of a space of universality in which the principles of public reasoning might hold sway.11 Considered in this light, the aesthetic operates as a technology of the self. Its definition as a form of sensory pleasure which cannot be brought under any concept, Thomas Osborne has recently argued, opens up the sphere of art – for artists, critics and audiences – as a sphere characterised by a struggle for autonomy from the imposition of any particular code of conduct derived from moral, political or scientific authorities.12 The modern work of art, freed from the restrictions of canonical authorities, becomes the zone of a potentially limitless but, at the same time, unachievable freedom. Together with the struggles of artists who seek constantly to renovate this capacity of art to reach beyond its historically determinate forms so as to open up new avenues of expression into a limitless prospect of free inventiveness, the work of art serves as the template for an endless refashioning of the self that is not brought under the sway of any particular moral code.
There are a number of different versions of this argument. In art historian Hans Belting’s 2001 interpretation of the ‘invisible masterpiece’, which constitutes the unachievable ideal of perfection produced by the modern art system, the incompleteness of the artwork serves as the basis for the production of a division within the person between the empirical self and an unreachable ideal.13 This division, in turn, motivates an endless process of self formation as the beholder strives to achieve the ideal, more harmonised, full and balanced self that is represented by the standard of perfection that hovers just behind or beyond the art on display. Such aesthetic conceptions of art have been deployed in varied ways in mediating the relations between art and its publics, and the formulations of Osborne and Belting point to their productivity in producing a historically specific form of engagement with art, which there are good reasons for valuing. But only, I want to argue, on certain conditions and within certain limits. These have ultimately to do with the unsustainable contention that the aesthetic does indeed, as Adorno contended, produce a relationship in which the self ‘stands free of any guardian’. This fails to recognise the respects in which the space of the aesthetic itself produces distinctive forms of tutelage which induct individuals into certain practices of ‘guided freedom’ that are subject to the direction of distinctive kinds of authority. This is, moreover, a combative form of authority, one which pitches itself against other forms of authority, and in particular against those associated with the empirical disciplines and their use in calculating the civic effects of different kinds of art-public encounters.
I pursue these concerns via a critical assessment of French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s account of the relationships between the aesthetic regime of art, freedom and politics. I do so for three reasons. First, Rancière’s work constitutes the most comprehensive and influential attempt to suture back into place the severance of the social and artistic critiques that fuelled the protests of 1968.14 As such, it merits serious attention. Secondly, Rancière’s conception of the relationship between the aesthetic regime of art and the project of metapolitics provides an unusually clear insight into the operations of the Kantian armature which underpins assessments of the aesthetic as a space for the exercise of a putatively universal judgement over and against civic forms of reasoning and the empirical instruments these require. Thirdly, Rancière is unusual in the degree to which his advocacy of the aesthetic is urged by combating the authority of other forms of expertise. This is particularly true of his criticisms of the empirical disciplines, especially sociology, and the place these occupy in his account of the relations between police, as a practice of social ordering, and politics as an aesthetically motivated practice of freedom. I therefore take this as my starting point.
Art and the division of occupations
Let us go back to Kant for a moment. By arguing that the aesthetic, as a distinctive mode of perception, could not be brought under any concept, Kant made it immune to any explanation that might be derived from any science. While this was initially the basis of his critique of the ambition of Alexander Baumgarten (1714–62) to establish a science of the aesthetic, it has subsequently provided the ground for the rebuttal of attempts to account for the aesthetic in sociological terms. As that which pleases without a concept, the aesthetic cannot be reformulated in any terms except its own without distorting its most essential and distinguishing properties. The very attempt to develop a sociology of art subjects the work of art to a form of expertise that traduces the properties of its object. As Adorno states:
Once art has been identified as a social fact, there is a growing sense of superiority on the part of sociologists who wish to do nothing more than to control art. Hewing to an ideal of positivistic value-neutrality and objectivity, they flatter themselves that their knowledge is superior to what they discredit as a collection of subjective standpoints in art and aesthetics. Efforts like these must be combated. They quietly seek to enforce the primacy of the administered world over art, whereas art wishes to be left alone and acts up against total socialisation.15
This is the tack Rancière takes in his various disputations with sociology, principally as represented by the sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002). Rancière sets out his stall clearly enough in The Philosopher and His Poor (1983), where his characterisation of Bourdieu as ‘the sociologist king’ places him in the same position as Christian Wolff’s philosopher-king: that is, as someone who seeks to lord it over the aesthetic by bringing it under a system of concepts. Rancière thus questions the very nature of Bourdieu’s enterprise in Distinction (1984). By asking questions exploring people’s liking for and knowledge of different kinds of music, Bourdieu’s social surveys aim, Rancière says, to ‘judge musical tastes without having anyone hear music’.16 By transforming a test of musical taste into one of knowledge – a move incompatible with Kant’s definition of beauty as that which pleases without a concept – ‘the sociologist has solved the problem without even tackling it’.17 The artwork as such disappears from the analysis, dispersed across the different fields and the struggles comprising them that are the social scientist’s toolbox of concepts. And the artwork, as the locus for a practice of freedom, is transformed into a prop of class domination as the relations between freedom and necessity are stretched across a set of polarised class tastes. Members of the professional and managerial classes, in demonstrating their disinterested appreciation of beauty as ‘that which pleases without a concept’, transform art – and the art gallery – into a means of performing and symbolising their social distance from the working classes whose tastes remain mired in the lack of freedom constituted by their choice of the necessary.
I do not wish to make light of these criticisms. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere,18 they do probe significant limitations of the methodological protocols that guide Bourdieu’s analysis in Distinction.19 However, it is less clear that Rancière achieves his main purpose: namely, to establish that what he calls the aesthetic regime of art, introduced by Kant’s aesthetic, disconnected art from the hierarchical division of occupations that had characterised the earlier forms of its social existence so as to effect a redistribution of the sensible that suspends such social conditioning of aesthetic tastes and competences. This is difficult to square with the wealth of statistical material that bears on these matters. Let me make the point via a brief visual illustration of the findings of a recent survey conducted, in the tradition of Distinction, of the social distribution of cultural practices in Britain (fig.1).20
This ‘map’ offers a visual plotting of the relations between cultural practices. Each symbol represents the statistical mean point for the members of the survey who either do or do not like or take part in the activity indicated. The black symbols refer to cultural participation – to things that people do or do not do. A zero indicates nil or very low levels of participation; the number 1 indicates occasional levels of participation; the number 2 indicates very high levels of participation. The red symbols refer to tastes: a plus sign indicates liking, a minus sign indicates dislikes, and an ‘equals’ sign indicates neutrality. The size of the symbol indicates the number of people engaged in, or not engaged in, liking or disliking, the activity concerned. The key point, finally, concerns the degree of proximity or distance between the practices that are represented in these ways. The greater the degree of proximity, the greater the degree of overlap between the members of the sample engaged in or liking the activities concerned. Where the distance is greater, the likelihood of such overlap is correspondingly lower.
As can be seen, high levels of participation in, and a positive liking for, activities and genres conventionally associated with the aesthetic cluster to the right-hand side of this space: art gallery visitation, going to the theatre and opera, going to orchestral concerts, liking classical music, liking impressionism, owning a number of paintings, and liking modern literature. Conversely, the left-hand side of the space is defined by zero or very low levels of involvement in, or liking for, these activities. The social distribution of these tastes and forms of participation across classes stands out sharply when we map the occupational class positions of the members of this sample into this space (fig.2). Participation and preferences are lowest among all sections of the working classes, particularly among routine and semi-routine workers, and highest among the middle classes, particularly professionals, and employers and managers in large organisations.
Of course, this map only gives us half the picture. It tells us only about the distribution of those tastes and practices which are statistically most distinct from each other. There is thus a visually ‘suppressed middle’ comprising those areas of cultural practice – many of them connected with film, television, music, and sport but also visual art (landscape paintings, for example) – in which the tastes and preferences of different classes intermingle. While these were included in the survey, they do not show up in a statistical procedure designed to detect statistically significant differences in tastes rather than commonalities. Nor does this evidence in and of itself dispose of the objections Rancière registers in relation to sociological surveys of this kind. It does not gainsay his contention that an aesthetic sensibility slips out from the hold of conventional hierarchies of the arts to constitute an aspect of the affective and sensory investments in more popular art forms.21 To the contrary, a closer look at particular aspects of this study shows that this is, indeed, the case: such investments are likely to be more intense in relation to rock music, for example, than they are in relation to classical music, especially among younger managers and professional.22
While important, such qualifications do not detract from the general conclusion that the relationships of different sections of the population to artistic practices and institutions continue to be marked by their relations to the divisions between occupations. Indeed, in this study, artistic practices are more sharply divided by class than by any other social variable. Rancière’s objection to Bourdieu, however, is less an empirical one than one voiced in the name of the emancipatory possibilities of Kant’s aesthetics. Kant, Rancière says, refuses ‘the absolutisation of the gap between working-class “nature” and the “culture” of the elite’ that he sees in Bourdieu’s account of the relations between the bourgeois principles of ‘pure taste’ and the working-class choice of the necessary, seeking instead ‘the anticipation of the perceptible equality to come, of the humanity that will be the joint surpassing of the culture of the dominant and the culture of Rousseauist nature’.23 His contention, then, is that the aesthetic is a social force that might lead to the overcoming of the divisions between occupations.
There is, in truth, not as much clear water between Rancière and Bourdieu on this matter as Rancière would like to imagine. For Bourdieu’s sociological apparatus is subtended by just such a post-Kantian historical narrative, but one that is given a ‘sociological twist’. It is a narrative that works in terms of the relations between fields, the position of the collective intellectual within these, and the relations between such intellectuals, the state and the education system, through which class differences in relation to the aesthetic are eventually to be eliminated. It is a narrative in which the working class is displaced from the position accorded it in Marxist historical schemas in which, as the representative of the universal, it had both anticipated the harmonisation of humanity that is to come and acted as the agent of the real that would bring that harmonisation about. Instead, the working class is figured as the passive recipient of the capacities that are required to adequately appreciate the values of universal culture, values that are to be deciphered by autonomous intellectuals and relayed throughout society by the state via the education system.24
Rancière is not mistaken, in these respects, to cast Bourdieu in the role of the ‘sociologist-king’ who would ideally superintend the process through which the Kantian ideal of the aesthetic as the anticipation of a sensus communis would become actual. The question I now want to pose, however, concerns the kind of authority Rancière deploys against that of the sociologist and the empirical disciplines more generally. In 1992 Hayden White described Rancière’s style of reasoning as ‘more aphoristic, even oracular, than demonstrative or argumentative’, noting that this ‘makes it virtually impossible to submit what he asserts about anything whatsoever to any test of falsifiability on the basis of evidence’.25 I shall, in what follows, build on this insight by arguing that the place accorded the aesthetic in Rancière’s work constitutes a species of ‘guided freedom’ which aims to bring the freedom it produces under the authority of a secularised form of prophecy whose cogency derives from the position it takes up within the secularised form of Christian eschatology that is the Kantian legacy.
Let me recall Michel Foucault’s remarks concerning Kant’s ‘ingenious little trick’ in reversing the ordinary understanding between the meaning of ‘public’ and ‘private’. For the manner in which Rancière inserts aesthetics into the relations between politics and police depends on his own equally ingenious trick of defining these against the grain of their received usage.26 He reinterprets the conventional view of politics as ‘the set of procedures whereby the aggregation and consent of collectivities is achieved, the organisation of powers, the distribution of places and roles, and the systems for legitimising this distribution’ as, instead, the defining attributes of police.27 Rancière borrows the latter concept from Foucault,28 and follows him in interpreting police as a set of general processes of social ordering as distinct from the ‘petty police’29 or police force. However, his usage departs from Foucault’s in two key respects. First, it loses the historical specificity that characterises Foucault’s account of police as an historically intermediate form of raison d’État that paves the way for the (relative) transition from sovereign to governmental power. Police, for Rancière, describes the ordering of the proportions between the rights, entitlements and the distribution of rewards which accrue to different sections of the population in the Greek polis just as much as in contemporary France. Second, however, Rancière narrows the definition of the term in limiting the exercise of police to a particular set of ordering functions performed in a particular way. Police operates by distributing bodies across social and political space by instituting a particular ordering of the field of the perceptible understood as ‘an order of bodies that defines the allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of saying, and sees that those bodies are assigned by name to a particular place and task; it is an order of the visible and sayable that sees that a particular activity is visible and another is not, that this speech is understood as discourse and another as noise’.30 Police, crucially, distributes rights to speak by ordering distinctions within the division of occupations between those who, in the terms of Aristotle’s Politics, have the capacity of voice – a capacity of expressing pain or pleasure that men share with animals – but not that of speech, the ability to offer an account, and to be taken into account, in discourse concerning the just and the unjust.
Politics, by contrast, is whatever disrupts the orderings of police by asserting a right to speech which undermines the distinction between voice, or noise, and speech, and does so in the name of the equality of speaking beings:
What is usually lumped together under the name of political history or political science in fact stems more often than not from other mechanisms concerned with holding on to the exercise of majesty, the curacy of divinity, the command of armies, and the management of interests. Politics only occurs when these mechanisms are stopped in their tracks by the effect of a presupposition that is totally foreign to them yet without which none of them could ultimately function: the presupposition of the equality of anyone and everyone, or the paradoxical effectiveness of the sheer contingency of any order.31
Politics does not play a part in the distributional struggles about the allocation of rights and rewards across the division of humanity into different occupations. It intrudes into such symbolic orderings of the social, governed by principles of mathematical proportion, the assertion of the equality of speaking beings. It is an intervention produced by those who, previously of no account, lacking any political or civic status, assert their right to be seen and to be heard, and thus to be taken into account. They do so, however, not as one part among others in the distributional stakes of ‘equity politics’, but as an enunciation of the community – a community no longer rent by the divisions between occupations – that is yet to come but which, simply by articulating the demand for it, becomes virtual, a component in the make-up of the present, in the Deleuzian sense. Politics does not occur when ‘social groups have entered into battle over their divergent interests’ but when particular social forces (the Athenian demos, the proletariat), hitherto denied a voice, assert a demand which dissolves the proportional logic of those forms of social ordering governed by the principles of police in ‘the sheer name of equality between anyone and everyone by means of which classes disconnect and politics occurs’.32 Politics is, in short, metapolitics, a set of discursive interventions into and with the principles of police which, while eschewing the position of a pure outside to power or one of absolute negation,33 nonetheless indicts existing forms of political struggle over distributional issues in the name of a community to come that will displace such concerns.34
The extended use of these two terms – police and politics – is central to Rancière’s method which, in spite of his denial of anything quite so systematic,35 has a definite logic which depends on his ability to attribute equivalent effects to the speech acts of historically distinctive actors in radically different historical circumstances. He does, however, accord these two terms a more historically specific usage in his account of the relationships between, on the one hand, modern forms of police and the empirical disciplines, particularly sociology, and, on the other, the aesthetic regime of art and the form of politics it generates. With regard to the former, Rancière objects to Bourdieu’s work as typifying the structural logic exhibited by sociology more generally in its concern to establish systematic correlations between particular social positions on the one hand and particular aesthetic and epistemological dispositions on the other.36 That Bourdieu, or the sociologist more generally, might argue for a reformist programme that reorganises the relations between social positions and dispositions by redistributing cultural capital remains, for Rancière, a position marked by the logic of police. It is a practice conducted ‘from above’ by the sociologist in collaboration (however critically) with the state, and on the basis of a form of expertise which lays claim to a knowledge of the connections between social positions and dispositions which eludes the occupants of those positions.
The aesthetic cuts into these relations between sociology and police in a distinctive way. In registering his distance from Walter Benjamin’s thesis of the fascist ‘aestheticisation of politics’, Rancière argues that aesthetics has played a longer-term and more foundational role in providing the distinctive basis and rationale for politics in its modern form:
The modern emergence of aesthetics as an autonomous discourse determining an autonomous division of the perceptible is the emergence of an evaluation of the perceptible that is distinct from any judgement about the use to which it is put; and which accordingly defines a world of virtual community – of community demanded – superimposed on the world of commands and lots that gives everything a use.37
Rancière’s understanding of the aesthetic here is not as a theory of the specificity of art or of the beautiful, or of sensibility, but rather as ‘an historically determined concept which designates a specific regime of visibility and intelligibility of art, which is inscribed in a reconfiguration of the categories of sensible experience and its interpretation’.38 The disconnection of art from concepts and from use, from knowledge and from desire, effected by Kant cuts into the hierarchical orderings of genres, and of their uses and publics, associated with earlier regimes of art, to (potentially) float art from its earlier inscriptions within the order of occupations. Art thereby becomes a disordering force with the potential to uncouple such inscriptions:
A well-ordered society would like the bodies which compose it to have the perceptions, sensations and thoughts which correspond to them. Now this correspondence is perpetually disturbed. There are words and discourses which freely circulate, without master, and which divert bodies from their destinations, engaging them in movements in the neighbourhood of certain words: people, liberty, equality, etc. There are spectacles which disassociate the gaze from the hand and transform the worker into an aesthete.39
The reference to spectacles here alludes to a passage from Kant’s Critique of Judgement on which Rancière places considerable weight. It is a passage in which Kant explores what is called for in order for a palace to be considered beautiful rather than, as the role it had played in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments,40 an object of stupefaction for the mob – a thing, Kant says, ‘merely to be gaped at’41 – or, as in Rousseau’s estimation, an occasion for rebuking ‘the vanity of the great who spend the people’s sweat on such superfluous things’.42 Kant’s answer – or the aspect of his answer that Rancière notes – is that a palace can only be judged beautiful provided that the subject adopts a stance of disinterestedness in relation to it, focusing on its form rather than its uses.43
This serves as the basis for a lengthy refutation of Bourdieu which relies on Rancière’s interpretation of the testimony of a woodworker who, in 1848, in a moment of leisurely reflection, recorded in his journal a description of his relationship to the scene of his work which disconnects that scene from its functioning as a site of his own exploitation, or as a testimony to the wealth and power of its owner, to transform it into an object of disinterested pleasure. In thus effecting ‘a disjunction between an occupation and the aptitudes which correspond to it’,44 the woodworker – or so Rancière would have us believe – brings the house of sociology tumbling down. On the site thus vacated Rancière proceeds to construct his own edifice by interpreting the woodworker’s pleasure as a doubling of his identity. While still a worker, Rancière’s diarist also assumes the identity of a proletarian understood not as a sociological category but as a subject who escapes the limitations of an assigned class position, located outside the political community, to intervene in the affairs of that community in the name of a community that is yet to come.
A woodworker who tells us a tale which suggests the Kantian aesthetic slips out of the class limits to which the sociologist would confine it, and who then serves as an oracle of what is to come: the procedure is one that runs throughout Rancière’s work. The figures he invokes are always artisanal – woodworkers, cobblers, tailors. They are always invoked to demonstrate a misalignment between aesthetic aptitude and social position; that misalignment is always attributed to the worker’s use of his leisure time in ways that run counter to the effects of his class positioning in the relations of production;45 and it is always interpreted as beckoning toward a redistribution of the sensible that will create a political community beyond the schismatic effects of the division of labour. It is pointless to object that such singular exceptions do not constitute an adequate refutation of the probabilistic logic on which sociological accounts of the distribution of aptitudes rest; and fruitless to observe that 1848, or 1832,46 do not tell us much about where and how such exceptions occur in the twenty-first century, or what significance we might attach to them when the historical links that existed between Kantianism and early labour political organisations are considerably more attenuated;47 and little is served either by pointing to the atypicality of artisanal and craft-based forms of employment, then and now, compared to the conditions of factory work, call centres and the global export of sweatshop labour. Pointless because these are all arguments that would require Rancière to submit his work to the authority of the empirical disciplines – to history48 and sociology – and thus to the procedures of police. This would run counter to his purpose of elaborating a conception of politics as a practice of freedom founded on the equality of speaking subjects and modelled on the aesthetic disposition. And pointless, too, because his vignettes of shoemakers, carpenters, and schoolmasters,49 serve as the occasions for a practice of oracular divination which, by interpreting these figures as anticipations of a community that is to come, brings the practice of freedom under the guidance of another kind of authority: that of a secularised Christianity.
To suggest that Rancière invokes a form of authority might seem quixotic given his association with the révoltes logiques collective,50 and his commitment to the introduction of disagreement into the exercise of all forms of social ordering. The mantle of the aesthetic that he lays a claim to, however, is one that generates a form of authority that depends precisely on a gesture of disavowal as the precondition for its exercise.51 It is a form of authority produced by the displaced form of Christian metaphysics that Kant’s aesthetic organises. I draw here on the work of Ian Hunter who argues in his 2001 study that, by loading the concept of ‘humanity’ with all of the attributes previously attributed to god, and projecting its completion as the outcome of a secular historical process, Kant secured a continuing role for a secularised and rationalised form of Christian metaphysics.52 The production of a difference between humanity as an ideal yet to come and actual human beings provided a new set of discursive co-ordinates within which a new regimen of the self might be formed and distributed under the tutelage of the Kantian philosopher-aesthetician. As heir to the Pietistic tradition and its substitution of new forms of self-rule in lieu of subordination to priestly systems of morality,53 Kant constructed a new form of intellectual and cultural authority on the part of those able to close the gap between the two humanities by a disinterested purification of their human-sensible nature that detached it from any specific ends. The aesthetic, within this schema, constituted a practice which, although not guided by concepts, was conducted under the tutelage of the persona – the philosopher aesthetician, the genius, the work of art itself – exemplifying the ideal forms of comportment it aspired to.
This space – historically sculpted out of, but remaining attached to, a particular religious metaphysic – is the space that Rancière’s project of metapolitics occupies. This proposes a framing of the reception of art in which a still operative Christian metaphysic provides the coordinates for grooming a corps of paradoxical freedom fighters who are subject to a kind of authority that operates above and beyond the empirical realm of mundane politics, the state, and civic reasoning in the name of a humanity yet to come. The exercise of this authority depends on particular techniques of self-grooming which place the aesthetic consumption of art in a different register: the cultivation, for example, of what Rancière describes as the attributes of ‘non-possession and passivity’, or of a demeanour which seeks to overcome the ‘dissensual intervention of political subjects’ by looking beyond ‘the appearances of democracy and of the forms of the State to the infra-scene of underground movements and the concrete energies that comprise them’.54 It is in the name of this authority that Rancière takes issue with any and all forms of theory and interpretation which might concern themselves with the subject’s relations to art from the point of view of any social purpose it might serve, of how the civic benefits of particular kinds of art practices might be calculated, or of how relations to art institutions might be equalised.
Producing and distributing freedom
Rancière is not alone in advancing arguments of this kind. Peter Osborne and Simon During have argued for similar positions, and in both cases for reasons that absolve art from the messy business of policy, administration, bureaucracy, and civics.55 It is, however, Rancière who offers the most elaborate version of this argument, and whose work constitutes a rallying-point for a project of politics, derived from the aesthetic, as a practice of the equality of speaking subjects who, to recall Adorno’s phrase, ‘stand free of any guardian’. My purpose in the foregoing has been to sketch a genealogy for this position by tracing the contours of the inherited discourse that confer on it a particular kind of authority vis-à-vis other kinds of authority. In developing his account of the relations between Kant’s conception of humanity and Christian metaphysics, Hunter stresses the role this played in Kant’s struggle to undermine the contending tradition of civil philosophy. By placing philosophy in the service of empirical forms of reasoning that would temper the clash between different religions by aspiring to be indifferent between them, this tradition constituted a ‘rival Enlightenment’. In lieu of this, Kant produced a space in which a particular cadre of intellectuals occupying a distinctive position within the German university system produced a historically new form of authority based on a capacity to decipher the essential truths of human existence via transcendental forms of reasoning. In doing so, he also produced a new space within the self as the inner stage on which this authority could be exercised as a form of tutelage which effaced itself in the process of orchestrating a freedom which seemed free of any guide.
Viewed in this light, the battle lines Rancière draws between aesthetics and sociology are a historical re-run of those that Kant drew, through a combative intellectual practice that was far from disinterested, between his own project of transcendental critique and empirically inclined forms of civic reasoning. I have not, though, sought to validate my criticisms of Rancière by appealing to the forms of sociological authority he disputes. I have rather drawn on Foucault’s account of liberal government as a set of practices, developing in tandem with the principles of security, which regulate conduct by producing, organising and distributing freedoms of various kinds. Freedom, in this account, is the outcome of a new governmental rationality which, in placing limits on the exercise of state power, produces the conditions for new zones of freedom to emerge. Freedom here is not a given but something which has to be produced and organised:
The formula of liberalism is not ‘be free’. Liberalism formulates simply the following: I am going to produce what you need to be free. I am going to see to it that you are free to be free.56
This production of the conditions in which (some) individuals are free to be free is the work of intellectual and cultural authorities of various kinds and, as Foucault points out, it is a work which, in producing its zones of freedom, also distributes these freedoms unequally, always simultaneously producing freedom and denying or destroying it.
It is within the space of this new governmental rationality, as cultural historian Mary Poovey and others have shown,57 that modern aesthetics develops as a new technology for governing through freedom; that is, for regulating conduct through the new kinds of freedom it makes up via its discourse on art, freedoms which it apportions differentially to different parts of the social body. Bourdieu and Rancière are both equal, albeit different, products of this technology. They both mobilise the forms of authority and techniques of veridification associated with the space of the aesthetic with a view to effecting a redistribution of the freedom that is its product: in Bourdieu’s case, this is a redistribution of freedom along class lines that is to be effected by the equalisation of access to the aesthetic disposition, while in Rancière’s it is a matter of the redistribution of the sensible effected by the aesthetic regime of art as a resource for the project of a metapolitics pitted against the principles and procedures of police. As such, they by no means exhaust the possibilities that are generated by aesthetics understood as a liberal technology for the production and distribution of freedom. To the contrary, this technology has been deployed across a range of pedagogical, economic, and political practices. This, indeed, is aptly captured by Rancière’s account of the varied ‘emplotments’ of the relations between art and life that have been generated by the aesthetic regime of art depending on whether these relations have been fashioned by Marxist, Romantic, Hegelian, or Schillerian aesthetics, and on the properties of the different apparatuses or dispositifs through which such emplotments have been enacted.58
These are, however, matters that Rancière is able to put to one side by virtue of the further ‘ingenious little trick’ which validates the emancipatory potential he attributes to the aesthetic. For his interpretation of the aesthetic as founding a politics which disturbs the relations between voice and speech, between mere animal noise and a stake in the community, depends solely on his assessment of the benign potential that can be deciphered in the embrace of an aesthetic disposition by specific fractions of the skilled sections of the nineteenth-century working classes. Yet this can withstand the burden Rancière places on it only if it is assumed that the redistribution of the sensible across the divisions between occupations that he attributes to the aesthetic has a paradigmatic status for its functioning across all social divisions. This is to discount the respects in which the aesthetic regime of art has also been a party to a parallel series of ‘redistributions of the insensible’ through which varied populations have been civically and politically incapacitated, placed beyond the limits of freedom by being reduced, precisely, to mere animal noise. If we look beyond the Western aesthetic regime of art to consider its colonial encounters with other art systems, we find that it has operated precisely as a system for turning those who were previously of some account into people of no account, of people who had a part into people with no part. The Kantian conception of the aesthetic has served as a means of undermining non-Christian forms of religious authority by promoting a disinterested interest in form that would detach the passions and the senses from the grip of idolatry whose power, in denying the independence of judgement required by the tenets of classical liberalism, barred the colonised from any claim to a stake in the political community.59 It also informed a long history of anthropological tests designed to assess the distribution of the sensible across racial divisions which, by denying the ‘primitive’ an adequately developed capacity for sensory discrimination, justified extreme forms of racial oppression.60
It is histories of these kinds that are now most at stake in the relations between ‘interpretation, theory and the encounter’, both in the art gallery and in relation to the more general production and circulation of art in our contemporary ‘globalised’ world.61 As such, the issues they raise are ones that Rancière is unable to come to terms with, partly because he has rendered the discursive space from which he speaks free of the contradictions that have characterised it historically, and partly because he has no means of engaging with the relations between the aesthetic, art practices and social divisions except for those defined in terms of occupations. Where can he stand in relation to Aboriginal artists who, in wishing to limit the force exerted on their practice by the aesthetic regime of art, have strenuously resisted interpreting their art as an expression of free and innovative creativity?62 And how, given his remarks on the ‘ethical regime of images’,63 in which works of art are perceived and judged in accordance with their relations to the norms and standards of divinity, can he address the complex issues that are now posed by the place of art practices within multicultural polities where, like it or not, the art gallery’s publics are now religiously diverse in ways that go beyond sectional divisions within Christianity? Since, as we have seen, Rancière lives in a metaphysical glasshouse that is of a distinctively Christian construction, he is hardly in a position to throw stones at those for whom art stands as the representative of divinities other than his own.
However, it is not my purpose to suggest that the forms of ‘guided freedom’ that have been produced in association with the aesthetic regime of art – understood, as Rancière proposes, as a regime of art practices whose reception is mediated by post-Kantian philosophical aesthetics – are to be discounted as ideological delusions. Thomas Osborne, in a later work than the one referred to earlier,64 offers a more qualified assessment of the legacy of post-Kantian aesthetics for the role it has played in cultivating a particular kind of ethics, one which, rather than seeking to instil any particular set of moral norms, promotes an open-ended questioning of all such norms. This constitutes what Osborne calls an ethos of ‘educationality’ – a stirring up of things, prompting the reader into self-reliant judgement – as distinct from ‘pedagogy’, understood as teaching a particular moral system. The model of ‘educationality’ is not that of an exemplar in pursuit of followers; but of an exemplar for subjects of judgement who will follow their own path. Yet, while valuing this legacy, Osborne also wants to place limits on the reasons for, and respects in which, it should be valued. For the capacity it promotes, he says, is one which, since it allows us to work on ourselves to ward off the force of particular moral systems which inhibit and limit creative thought, is also unable to provide any positive guidance as to who we are or should strive to be, or what to do. Its role, he argues, has thus to be understood as ancillary in relation to other kinds of undertakings: moral, political, scientific, civic or, indeed, utopian.
But this, of course, is to bring the aesthetic under a concept and thus to deprive it of the autonomy on which claims to an essential alignment between aesthetics, freedom and critique have depended. However, since, as we have seen, this autonomy is illusory – the effect of a very particular kind of freedom produced by the interested organisation of an intersection between Christian metaphysics, aesthetic discourse, and art practices – this is nothing to get upset about. In 2008 the McMaster report recommended that the focus of UK government arts funding should shift away from ‘social good’ objectives (reaching minority ethnic groups, for example, or the ‘socially excluded’) – practices which, in Rancière’s terms, subordinate the aesthetic to police – to focus instead on artistic excellence without having to translate this into definable social or political benefits.65 Rónán McDonald, endorsing this proposal, argued that ‘it is precisely by being “useless” that art can be most useful to society’, and urged the need for the public sphere ‘to rediscover the language [of uselessness] to engage with this paradox’.66 My endeavour in this paper has been to engage with this challenge by disclosing some of the uses to which aesthetic discourses of uselessness have been put. I have done so, however, precisely with a view to undercutting the ground that informs the opposition between the aesthetic, on the one hand, and that of the procedures of bureaucracy or calculations of social or civic utility on the other.
I have thus suggested that, when viewed as a liberal technology for governing via a particular form of ‘guided freedom’, aesthetics might be best understood as a historically and culturally distinctive form of ‘process ethics’ that is more concerned to induct individuals into particular ways of shaping their conduct via particular procedures of self-inspection than it is to prescribe particular moral codes. When considered in this light, however, it is best interpreted not as a singular exception to other ethical practices but as one among other ‘process ethics’ that have developed over the same period and which can equally claim a provenance in the complex and divided history of the Enlightenment. Bureaucracy, rather than being construed as art’s other – as part of a police/politics polarity – thus emerges from the pen of Max Weber as precisely a parallel form of ‘process ethics’ embodying a commitment to disinterested forms of impersonality which detach the duty of office from any commitment to any particular set of moral or political ends.67 The history of the civic mediation of art practices via the use of empirical instruments to assess how such practices might form a part of programmes aimed at the amelioration of conflict in multicultural policies can equally claim an inheritance in the ‘process ethics’ of the tradition of civic philosophy which Kant opposed.68
Let us, then, thank Rancière for his provocations. But let us, at the same time, recognise the historical freight that is sedimented in the form of authority he mobilises, and the limitations – ethical, political and analytical – that this brings in its tow.