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Aesthetics against Incarnation: An Interview by Anne Marie Oliver Author(s): Jacques Rancière Source: Critical Inquiry

Aesthetics against Incarnation: An Interview by Anne Marie Oliver Author(s): Jacques Rancière Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Autumn 2008), pp. 172-190 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/595633 Accessed: 17-12-2016 10:50 UTC

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Critical Inquiry

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Aesthetics against Incarnation: An Interview by Anne Marie Oliver

Jacques Rancie`re

A NNE M ARIE O LIVER : I thought it might be interesting, particularly in light of problems of translation, to put into action in this interview the major principle behind your book The Ignorant Schoolmaster : verification by the book, for the book, of the book, and the idea of the book as a leveler

of sorts, the basis of improvisation. 1 I want to start with the subtitle, Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation . The word lesson has a hortatory tone that seems to contradict the spirit of the book as a whole; and I wonder if you might say something about the idea of a lesson, given that it implies something preprogrammed or ready-made on the part of the writer, a path already hewn for the reader.

RE : Of course, there is a kind of contradiction. It may seem

strange to have given the subtitle Five Lessons to such a book. Joseph Jacotot opposed the intellectual emancipation that puts at play the ca- pacity of anybody to learn from any kind of situation to the pro- grammed practice of the lesson that sets to work the “right” way of going from a situation of ignorance to a situation of knowledge. I played on the contradiction because the book is about what a lesson means. The ignorant master, too, gives a “lesson” since he is the cause of somebody else learning something. So the first point was, What kind of a lesson is this? The second point is that nobody at the time of the book’s publica- tion knew anything about Jacotot and intellectual emancipation. It had

`

JACQUES R ANCIE

Thanks to Anna Gray for help with transcribing this interview.

1. See Jacques Rancie`re, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual

Emancipation, trans. Kristin Ross (Stanford, Calif., 1991 ); hereafter abbreviated IS .

Critical Inquiry 35 (Autumn 2008) © 2008 by The University of Chicago. 0093- 1896 /08/ 3501 - 0008$ 10. 00 . All rights reserved.

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Critical Inquiry / Autumn 2008

been entirely forgotten, and still today you can’t find any of his books. So I had to make an introduction in the same way as the teacher who introduces a matter that is entirely unknown to the students. But I had to make it in a different way. I created a kind of fiction. Intellectual emancipation subverts the role of the master; he is no longer the one who knows and transmits his knowledge but rather the one who tells his intellectual adventure. In a les- son, you are supposed to transmit your knowledge, but in a fiction you tell

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an intellectual adventure. The book was my intellectual adventure with Jacotot. I told the reader I met this person, and I tried to translate his work. Jacotot wrote in a kind of language within an intellectual framework that is now very far from us. And so it was necessary that I do precisely this sort of translation. The word lesson is an ironic one, which makes reference to the titles of many books, but, of course, the book is a series of lessons about the question of what exactly a lesson means. OLIVER: I wonder if a book can ever truly function as a leveling materiality, the basis of an emancipatory exchange, given that words are so deter- mined and overdetermined. I think we hit here upon what you call “poetic virtue,” the kind of improvisation and “de-idiomatization” of language that constitute poetic force—that which moves language and reconfigures it ( IS, p. 64). Still, the fact remains that virtually every word can be put in quotation marks because of its long history, and learning through the leveling materiality of the book still basically takes place through language, through words.

RANCIE `

RE : Emancipation does not hinge on the power of words as such. It

hinges on the power of the relation with the book. The materiality of the book is opposed to the position of the master; the book is in your hands, and nobody is there to tell you how you have to understand words. There is the possibility of a lot of translations being made by the reader so that, in a certain way, it is the reader who transforms the book. And even if you put the words in a certain order to convey a certain meaning, and even if words are overdetermined, it’s up to the reader to change the rules of the game. This is the first point.

J ACQUES R ANCIE

` R E is professor of aesthetics at the University of Paris-VIII,

St. Denis. His most recent book is The Future of the Image. A NNE M ARIE O LIVER is assistant professor of intermedia and contemporary theory at the Pacific Northwest College of Art FIVE and research scholar at the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara. She is coauthor of The Road to Martyrs’ Square ( 2004 ) and is currently working on a study of contemporary forms of literalism and the question of style. Her email is amoliver@pnca.edu

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174 Jacques Rancie`re / Aesthetics against Incarnation

The second point is that I used a strange idiom in this book, an idiom in between the language of Jacotot and the language of our contempo-

raries. The language of Jacotot is not the one used today to discuss issues of education. His lexicon is not the lexicon that is now used. There is a kind of linguistic strangeness in my book that makes it very difficult to read. Readers have to do something; they have to muddle through a kind of strangeness. These are not the words that are usually used for speaking about matters of education and politics. On the one hand, I bridged the two languages and the two epochs. But, on the other hand,

I wanted to keep that strangeness, to throw a strange object into the

middle of the debate in France between the sociological view of educa-

tion and the view of education that says that it is knowledge that eman- cipates; I threw into the debate this object with both its intellectual and linguistic strangeness. Initially, the book was not read at all by profes- sors. It was read mostly by social workers, artists, and psychoanalysts. Academics read it only ten or twenty years after it was written, which means precisely that it demanded a different treatment. The book was addressed to people who try to find not a new doctrine but a new way of dealing with words—with words and meanings. OLIVER: I’m curious as to what you see is the difference between the spoken word and the written word, the mode of the teacher and that of the writer, perhaps even command and commandment, two words that appear in The Ignorant Schoolmaster .

R

RE : I gave a positive turn to the Platonic criticism of writing. What writing meant, according to Jacotot, is that words are like orphans. They are not carried by the master of the word or by the person who is able to

put them in the right way in the soul of the student. So, there is this idea of writing as a certain status of words when they are made available to anybody for any kind of reading, transformation, reappropriation. OLIVER: Is that the role of art in your opinion—transformation?

`

ANCIE

RANCIE `

RE : Well, I think so, but I would say that the role of art or the practice

of art is a transformation of a certain state of relations between words and things, between words and the visible, a certain organization of the senses and the sensory configuration of what is given to us and how we

can make sense of it. I’m not giving you a definition of art. There is also

a poetics of politics that consists in reframing the relation between

words and things. Let us think about the old polemic against democracy that I studied in The Names of History. It is a polemic against some “empty” words like people, freedom, and equality . The polemic has it that those empty words are circulating, and anybody can appropriate them to frame political subjects. This circulation of the written word has

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Critical Inquiry / Autumn 2008

always been viewed as a threat by all powers. But the issue of emptiness is not a linguistic one. As a matter of fact, those words are not empty at all. They carry a history, and they reframe the landscape of collective experience. OLIVER: What, then, is the process of producing a solecism, a word that a writer, a poet, does something to and with, makes his or her own? How

do you see that process working, and what does it mean to take a word, particularly a religious remnant like parousia, incarnation , miracle, sac- rilege, epiphany, chalice, or commandment, and to apply it to another context, give it a different affect? What does it mean to make a word

strange?

`

R ANCIE

RE : It is actually a two-way process. Parousia is not in origin a reli-

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gious word. It is a common word that took on whatever religious mean- ing is in it and modifies it, but it is not in origin a religious word. What interested me was precisely that circulation between empirical meaning and theological meaning. I did not decide to use religious words, and I did not use them in an innocent way, but, well, what is interesting, what’s interesting for me, is that there are a lot of connections between theological concepts or religious expressions and the way in which we speak about art or literature. Theology, in fact, is about the modes of presence of the divine. And literature consists in changing the forms of presence evoked by words. Incarnation, for instance, refers to the Christian religion, but, at the same time, it has been used as a common word, as when one says that an actor incarnates a character. The point is that when we describe what happens in a novel, or when we describe what happens on the surface of

a painting, there is this lexicon that reappears and sometimes takes on a

mystical and theological dimension, while at other times a word is used just as a common word. What, of course, interests me is that we live in

a civilization that was structured by Christianity, and so there is a long

tradition of interpretation of literary words in relation to the Scriptures, in relation to incarnation, the physical presence of God, and so forth. In The Flesh of Words , I start with the end of the Gospel of John and the way

in which the text describes the miracle of the fish with very familiar details and touches so as to translate the presence of the Word made flesh into a matter of everyday experience. My interrogation has to do with how we consider the physicality, the corporeality, of the words of the novel in relation to this model of the Word made flesh. There is a long tradition of thinking literature as a kind of making flesh of the Word. What interests me is the way in which literature plays precisely with this temptation and at the same time dismisses it.

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176 Jacques Rancie`re / Aesthetics against Incarnation

There is always in literature and in poetry this promise or this temp- tation: now, the words will be more than words. As poetry and literature consist in exceeding the ordinary use of words, the ultimate goal of that excess is precisely for words to become physical reality. We can think of this theme in the nineteenth century—for instance, the Whitmanian or Rimbaldian idea of a new language, the idea that poetry must be a lan- guage accessible to all the senses. We can think also of the twentieth- century idea that theatre must no longer be just words but rather must

become a kind of physical reality, and even words on the stage of the theatre often become physical reality. Think, for instance, of Artaud’s theatre of cruelty. It is a temptation, and, at the same time, the tempta- tion is always postponed or dismissed. OLIVER: In what ways and under what conditions should it be resisted?

RE : It is not that it should be resisted. On the one hand, the point is

that this dream of fusion is an impossibility because, ultimately, words are still words. But, on the other hand, the will to overstep the separation rests on a simplistic vision of the opposition between words and things. There is something biased in the very idea of having words on one side and reality on the other side because words are a certain kind of reality, and they create a certain kind of materiality. OLIVER: In translating Jacotot, you make the point that it is the very arbi- trariness of language that causes people to try to communicate at all. So much of language is not meant to be taken literally. Can we say that the desire for the collapse of words and things is a kind of literalism, the temptation of literalism?

RE : I would say that literalism is only one among several different

RANCIE `

RANCIE `

kinds of transformation of words, of words into things. I referred pre- viously to the Rimbaldian idea of a language that would speak to all the senses. You cannot call this literalism . For it involves not only the fact that your sentence is taken at its word or at face value but also the idea of words becoming more than words. In what you call literalism , in a cer- tain way, words remain words, but in many political or literary dreams and, of course, in religion, the distance of the word is supposed to be

abolished; the letter disappears in its spirit, the spirit becomes flesh. It is a matter of transformation as if precisely there were a kind of sensory reality that would abolish the very distance between words and things and also the distance between one speaker and another speaker. OLIVER: Delay and distance.

RANCIE `

RE : Yes.

OLIVER: In The Flesh of Words , speaking of Proust, you write of the blurring of the line between art and life, “the lie of artistic truth, of art reduced to

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Critical Inquiry / Autumn 2008

the true-to-life”; the “original sin against literature” that stems “from the illusion that art is in life, that it is made to serve it and that life’s purpose is to imitate art.” 2

RE : In a text of Proust, there is the idea of a book that would be made of something like the substance of our happiest moments, fragments of life itself. There is this idea of the book, but, of course, the book is made of words. I would say that there are two levels or layers in his poetics. There is the idea that the book is made of moments that are impressed or sensations that are imprinted in ourselves, so that we should have only to try to transcribe what has been impressed, what has been imprinted in us, by sensation. But sensation doesn’t imprint. Sensation affects us, but it doesn’t imprint. So Proust has to create a form of discourse that is an analogue of what would be a print made by sensation, the equivalent of the text written by sensation. I would say that Proust is writing his book precisely between two temptations. The first temptation is the idea that the book is already printed by life itself. And the other temptation appears because he finishes his book at the time of the war, a time of patriotism, when there was faith in a living truth of the nation, a truth of the collectivity. I quote a letter that Maurice Barre`s published at the same time in one of his patriotic manifestos—a letter of a mother to her

son, who is a soldier. Barre`s sees in this letter the expression of the heart of the national community, the incarnation of its living truth, as if the community itself wrote through the mother’s pen. Proust’s writing, I would say, has to thread its way between his own dream, the dream of the book written by sensation, and the patriotic dream of the time, the dream of the collectivity, of a writing that would be the flesh of its living spirit. OLIVER: The mother-child dyad often seems to stand in for a suspicious craving for convergence and fusion at other levels, for example, the level of the collective.

R

`

ANCIE

RANCIE `

RE : In Proust, there is the original scene in which the boy writes to

the mother because he wants the mother to come and kiss him before going to bed. What Proust designates here is a certain idea of writing as the pursuit of an immediate relation with the mother and as a natural process, so the relation with the mother is an immediate relation be- tween an act of writing and an act of love. But the figure of the mother may intervene in very different ways. In this case, the figure of the mother is a promise of immediacy, of imme-

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2. Rancie`re, The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing, trans. Charlotte Mandell (Stanford,

Calif., 2004 ), p. 124 ; hereafter abbreviated FW.

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178 Jacques Rancie`re / Aesthetics against Incarnation

diate fusion of the body and immediate fusion of linguistic communi- cation. Now, in The Ignorant Schoolmaster , the mother doesn’t intervene as a figure of fusion but rather in a very different form. She intervenes as a figure of equality. As long as the ideology of instruction opposes the teacher to the mother, she represents the equal capacity of anybody to be for anybody else a cause of learning. She carries the egalitarian power of the mother language, la langue maternelle , which everybody learns without a schoolmaster. The Ignorant Schoolmaster

has to do with the question of the ability of anybody to learn by himself or herself, to learn as he or she has learned the mother tongue. So, in this case, I would say that the mother tongue is not a promise of fusion. It is rather an experience of equality. There is a kind of learning that is in- volved in the acquisition of the mother tongue. And, with this, there is for Jacotot the idea that even the illiterate mother can play for the child the role of the ignorant schoolmaster. In this case, the mother is a figure of equality and not a figure of fusion. OLIVER: “Through mothering fantasy,” you write, “literature is led back to what denies it and what it denies, the truth of the book that is made spirit of flesh; the circle of the spirit that is offered as victim on the cross is made spirit of stone, spirit of the mother, spirit circulating between the mother’s kiss, the patina of stones, and the fusion of them all in the collective epic” ( FW, p. 123 ).

RE : I distinguish two figures of the mother—this symbiotic figure

that is set up and denounced in Proust’s books and the relation with the mother tongue as it is presented in The Ignorant Schoolmaster . In The Ignorant Schoolmaster , education through the relation with the mother tongue implies a certain continuity between life and learning, which is opposed to the idea that learning is a kind of autonomous world—the

idea of the school against the family, for instance. OLIVER: The mother’s tears, the mother’s kiss, the mother’s lullabies, the ribbons by which the mother teaches the child to speak— could this not be a paradigm for a different kind of learning rather than simply the threat of a dangerous fusion? The problem of inequality in this relation is a fact but doesn’t seem an issue. A child learns from his mother through some unknown process of symbiosis, patterning, and rhythm. Was this relation never a pedagogical model for Jacotot?

RE : I don’t think so because this case presupposes a kind of relation

RANCIE `

RANCIE `

that is entirely specific. And Jacotot’s theory is about the fact that you can learn in any kind of situation, so everybody can play for you the role of the ignorant schoolmaster—the mother like the teacher, but also anybody like the mother. There need not be a specific relation. Of

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Critical Inquiry / Autumn 2008

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course, we know there are specific relations—the relation of mother and child— but this doesn’t mean that this is the model of pedagogy. There are models of pedagogy that, more or less, are based on the idea of the teacher being like the mother, being like the mother to the child, but that is not at all what I had in mind. OLIVER: You distinguish the epic and the novel in terms of the temptation of fusion. The epic has to do with collective spirit, and the novel is basically antiepic, an insistence on the importance of an inner life that has been earned. Of Don Quixote, the very beginning of a certain type of self-stylization, you write, “No body subjected to suffering and derision verifies the truth of any book. If literature exists as such, it exists from

that knowledge, from the knowledge that the word is not made flesh” (FW, p. 123 ). I’d like to explore the sacrificial model, a model of suffering and death, as verifying the word, as perhaps the ultimate example of its enfleshment, paradoxically, through the renunciation of flesh. I wonder if you consider martyrdom an example of the process of verification of the word, enfleshment of the word at all costs, a means of facilitating and giving shape to collective spirit.

`

R ANCIE

RE : What do you have in mind exactly?

OLIVER: All forms of the negative mode of what we call fundamentalism, all

forms of the martyrological impulse, the resurgence of an explosive process that facilitates collective soul as opposed to an insistence upon singularity despite the burdens of that path.

RE : I would say that there are two different things from my point of

view. First is the idea that you have to sacrifice or devote yourself to the verification of the book, as in the example of Don Quixote, which is, of course, a form of revival of the idea of the incarnation of the Christ to make the truth of the Scriptures become sensory reality. This is one point. What happens in fundamentalism, I think, is something different because I don’t think that fundamentalists sacrifice for making the book true. The book is true for us, and, when they sacrifice their lives, they do it to obey the prescriptions of the book. Don Quixote gives his life, not to obey the books of chivalry, but to make them true, just as the Christians have to give their bodies because, if they didn’t, the book would not be true. The great reference here is Saint Paul; I verify in my flesh the sufferings of Jesus Christ, who himself verifies the book, the truth of the book. I think it is different from what happens in fundamentalism, where it is not a question of verification but just a question of obedience. Making a crusade in order that your religion be victorious is one thing. Taking upon yourself the responsi- bility of the truth of the book is another. In the case of suicide bombers,

RANCIE `

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180 Jacques Rancie`re / Aesthetics against Incarnation

it is not a matter of enfleshment in the sense of Saint Paul. It is a matter of sacrifice, indeed, but sacrifice in the form of obedience. My life is nothing; I give my life as a sacrifice. But it is not the idea that your body has to become the body of verification of the book. OLIVER: I don’t mean suicide bombers only nor Islamists. I mean a kind of martyrological zeal that I think does indeed work to verify the book. If you look at suicide bombers, it is clear that they see and present them- selves as verifying scripture and could not possibly do what they do without that verification and imprimatur. The process involves actual- izing and fulfilling words that have threatened to become empty—mere words. Actually, there is a double movement, in which words verify acts and acts, in turn, verify words. The entire process is now completely programmed, ready-made. Everyone knows the script. The notion of the preprogrammed seems central to a large number of contemporary concerns. You recently raised objections to the prepro- grammed nature of a great deal of contemporary visual art in terms of its emancipatory capacity. Does the preprogrammed tend towards its own kind of literalism or even facilitate literalism, the collapse of various forms of materiality? And are the visual arts and the literary arts, the figurative and the literary, radically different in the way they go about this, or do they share something like a common grammar?

RANCIE `

RE : I would not speak in terms of grammar because I think the word

presupposes a certain idea of artistic practice, the idea that artistic prac- tice is structured as a language. I would not speak in terms of grammar but rather in terms of poetics— by which I mean the reconfiguration of the landscape of the sensible, and, in that way, I would say literature and the visual arts share many things in common. What literature wants to do is to change the relations of words with things, the use and meaning and forms of efficiency of words. What literature tries to do is subvert the way in which words usually function, convey meanings, and pro- duce acts, and, in the same way, what the visual arts also try to do is change the landscape of the visible, the modes of presence, the modes of evidence of the visible. I would say that the visual arts and literature share a kind of common political programming, if we understand pol- itics in a broad sense as the reframing of the sensory community. And, of course, the visual arts have become increasingly mixed. What the visual arts are doing mostly today is creating a kind of sensory fabric, which is made of words and visual forms—painting, photography, video, installation, and so forth. I think it becomes more obvious that there is this kind of community between literature and the visual arts today in regard to a certain danger of literalism. In the visual arts, you

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Critical Inquiry / Autumn 2008

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can put together many different forms of physical presence, and so, of course, there is a temptation to think that an installation is a kind of language, a material language. Many installations are like discourses but discourses made of things and images, which, of course, convey not only their meaning but also a kind of material evidence. I would say that they tend to anticipate their own efficiency. There is a temptation in many art forms today to think that they have become realities or that they have become political action because they occupy a space, and they occupy it with real, solid things and not only with shadows and with words. In this case, I would say that the danger is the danger of tautology. You construct a discourse in a kind of physical form, and you presuppose that your program is realized, that it is im- plemented in reality, and so you anticipate the effect; this is why, of course, I have pleaded for a new sense of distance, which implies a certain idea of emancipation. My view of emancipation is that art eman- cipates or literature emancipates when it doesn’t tell us how to use art or literature— how we have to understand, how we have to see, how we have to read, and what we have to understand. This is my argument. There is always this idea, this temptation, that art speaks and becomes an action precisely because it is programmed to produce a specific kind of efficiency, but, in my view, what emancipates is precisely the possi- bility of the reader or the viewer constructing or reconstructing that

efficiency himself or herself. OLIVER: By efficiency , do you mean the drive to something like total theatre?

RE : I would say that what is practiced today in that direction is rather

RANCIE `

a kind of caricature. There was a time for the idea of the total work of art,

a kind of immediate fusion of theatre and life. For instance, at the time

of the Soviet revolution, Vsevolod Emilevich Meyerhold, the Russian stage designer, attempted to fuse theatrical performance with political performance. The news from the civic world was announced during the presentation of the play, and actors and spectators tended to identify themselves as soldiers of the Red Army, too. It was a temptation at the time—the idea of an identity of the artistic spectacle and a communion of the masses. I think we are no longer in this kind of configuration, but there is, I would say, a reenactment of it in the mode of parody. Many contemporary exhibitions or spectacles make this kind of appeal to ef- ficiency or, in the case of the theatre, to the theatre of the body, some kind of neo-Dionysianism in which the body performs a new kind of sacrifice for the community. I would say that we are no longer situated in the context of the great ideologies that would take over the idea of the total work of art; rather, we are in the context of nostalgia and parody.

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182 Jacques Rancie`re / Aesthetics against Incarnation

What is dangerous today is to be enclosed in this kind of parody of efficiency, a parody of incarnation. OLIVER: We might speak, as some do, of a postmedia culture, a postmedia world. How would you say that various media have catalyzed the doing away with distance and delay?

RE : You cannot describe it as a global process because for the last

thirty years we see that we have experienced, on the one hand, what you describe as this process of literalism, which, it is true, was made possible by multimedia art, and multimedia art means the use of different media in such a way as to create a global sensory world. But, on the other hand, we also know that the same period was characterized by all the forms and all the outcomes of conceptual art, of minimalism. So, I would say that the normal standard of artistic practice has stepped in both direc- tions: the direction of minimalism and conceptualism and, on the other side, the direction of multimedia, literalism, and so on. But we can’t ignore that the use of several media can serve as either an addition or a subtraction. The mixing of several media has also been used for the purpose of conceptual art, for an investigation of the disjunction be- tween words and things, words and images, and so on. So I do not think that there is a global process of transformation of art, and I don’t think that this process is only the consequence of the new media because with the new media you can do very different things. I would say it’s not

RANCIE `

dependent on new technologies. It is a question of choice, of aesthetics, and it is also a question of politics. There is no fate that would make the new media or the union of various media result necessarily in a kind of total art. OLIVER: So, there is nothing intrinsic about various media that facilitate or make possible various forms of temptation, of literalism? What about virtual reality?

RE : Virtual reality and all those video games that create a virtual

reality are a form, one form among others. You have multimedia reality; you have virtual reality; you have the creation of imaginary worlds— Second Life and so forth. OLIVER: It’s almost a religious phenomenon, isn’t it?

RE : It’s a kind of substitute, of course, for resurrection and the other

world, but, in this case, we are in the field of social imagination rather than the field of art. Anyway, it is only one part of a wider situation. It is not the case that every reality has become virtual, for solid things still exist, and it is not true that everything melts into air—no, they don’t melt into air. We must not overstate the part played by virtual reality, not overstate the idea that people would be taken in entirely by the

RANCIE `

RANCIE `

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Critical Inquiry / Autumn 2008

imaginary world of virtual reality. There are many ways of using these techniques. What is true is that any new technique that becomes a me- dium brings about a certain kind of spiritualism, a new spiritualism, and this was already true with photographs, with film, with video—any time that a new medium gives the sensation or the illusion that you can get out of reality and enter a spiritual world.

OLIVER: But the nature of the relation between reality and representation is perhaps changed each time.

RANCIE `

RE : First, we should avoid drawing a clear-cut line between reality

and representation. The so-called representations are realities. Madame Bovary is supposed to be the perfect case of the substitution of imagi-

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nation for life. But Flaubert said of his character that she was sentimen- tal at the same time that she was matter-of-fact. Her imaginary life was also a way of changing her “real” life. At the time, there were no media. It was only imagination. But we can say that the media are forms of objectification of that imagination. What we mean is, above all, the increased availability of words and images for everybody. It is a retro- spective view to think that the media have created out of their own power such worlds of imagination. OLIVER: But Madame Bovary, we can say, earned her world and her delu- sions and paid the price for them, whereas now you can just buy them.

RE : The point is that you cannot have it both ways. You have to pay

with your own flesh if you want that imagination really to change your life. If imaginary worlds are ready-made and you have only to buy them, they don’t really reframe your life. For the same reason, you cannot accuse the imaginary worlds produced by the new media both of being too cheap and of disturbing our lives in depth. You buy imaginary worlds; they are among the commodities that you can buy. But very few people live only in Second Life, for instance. They also live every day in the same kind of life and with the same problems, problems of relations with real persons, so I think we must not overstate the role played by commodified imaginary worlds. OLIVER: I think the concern and, sometimes, fear that people have about these worlds has to do with the fact that they are almost neuronal—so potentially total that they threaten to devalue harder forms of imagina- tion, harder forms of creativity, resistance, thought, and inner life. This is the lure or temptation of a phenomenon like Second Life, which, for sure, is now but a fringe phenomenon, but the hope is that Second Life will become the new face of the net, and it is more neuronal, more plugged-in, more interactive and virtual than anything that has come before it in widely available form.

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184 Jacques Rancie`re / Aesthetics against Incarnation

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RE : When you say it is more neuronal, well, there are certain fictions that are literally in our life— every time there is the idea of a new form of the collective imaginary. I think that we already have experience in the past with new forms of social imagery that were supposed to be all- encompassing media. If you think about cinema in the 1920 s, for in- stance, there was the idea that the cinema was a kind of cage in which people were entirely subjugated by the light and the shadows, the idea that people would become obedient idiots. But cinema has become a kind of ordinary form—a form used for entertainment and also a form of art that has not much to do with the idea of subjugation, of subjuga- tion of the mind. It is very difficult to anticipate and predict what a new technological device constructing imaginary worlds will become.

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OLIVER: Certainly, film has made individual visions widely available to people all over the globe and has had enormous influence on thought and behavior—and not just as entertainment.

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RE : There is a multiplicity of ways of seeing, of perceiving, and of

decoding films, and I don’t think there is this kind of capture, this necessary collective capture, of groups by film. OLIVER: We might speak about the phenomenon of hypnotism.

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RE : It’s not just hypnotism.

OLIVER: Induction, suggestibility.

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RE : We have a lot of dramatic films, special effects— do they really

produce hypnotism? Most people use them as entertainment, and being hypnotized is also a form of entertainment. It doesn’t mean that your brain is really captured. OLIVER: In your recent book, The Future of the Image , you draw a distinc- tion between “the Image, which refers to an Other, and the Visual, which refers to nothing but itself,” and go on to say that alterity is attached to “something other” than the material properties of the me- dium. 3 What is that “something other”? Doesn’t the matter matter? What is a medium? And what is it that is being mediated? Are there formal, structural, or material properties of different media that make possible different types of illusions, realities, embodiments, communi- cations, commonalities, and interventions; shared percepts, affects, and ways of being in the world? Do various kinds of media get at reality in different ways? Are all of them equally susceptible to the temptation of immediacy? Can we differentiate media in terms of degrees of passivity and activity, transitivity and intransitivity, thickness and thinness, com-

3. Rancie`re, The Future of the Image, trans. Gregory Elliott (London, 2007), pp. 1–2, 3.

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Critical Inquiry / Autumn 2008

pression and expansion, proximity and distance, transparency and opacity, exuberance and restraint, and so forth?

RE : The distinction between the Image that would refer to an Other

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and the Visual that would be self-referential is not mine. I quoted it only to contrast it with my own point of view, which is that we must disen- tangle two questions—the question of the diverse forms of otherness and that of the relevance of the material properties of the media. As regards otherness, I think that artistic operations produce forms of al- teration in relation to the normal— or consensual—forms of sensible presentation, modes of linkage of events, modes of relations between a sensory given and a meaning, and so on. This is why, in the text to which you are referring, I analyzed the range of alterations that the first shots of Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar produce in comparison to nor- mal expectations. I oppose those aesthetic alterations to the relation to Otherness that is entailed in the “aesthetic of the sublime” conceptual- ized by Lyotard, which I discuss in the last chapter. As regards the rele- vance of medium-specificity, I argued that those alterations cannot be referred to the specificity of the cinematographic medium since they clearly diverge from mainstream cinematographic practice and share, on the contrary, some properties with literary procedures, which is nor- mal since both arts deal with matters of temporal linkage. The theory of medium-specificity has a too-narrow view of what a medium means. A medium cannot be reduced to a specific materiality and a specific tech- nical apparatus. A medium also means a milieu or a sensorium, a con- figuration of space and time, of sensory forms and modes of perception. The digital revolution is here to prove to us that the specificity of cinema was linked to a space of projection and not to the roll of film. One often argues about the dematerialization and even the anaesthetization that it brings about. But the dematerialization was already entailed in the pro- jected image. Though cinema combined the powers of the visible, words, and music, it could never reach the power of communion that is given either by the muteness of symphonic music or by the performing bodies of theatre and opera. On the other hand, the structure of screen- ing films in the darkness of a theatre still gives it a form of unreality, of exceptionality, in contrast to the banality of domestic TV. Mainstream critics of the spectacle picture passive people fascinated by the images on the screen of their TV. But, on the contrary, there is nothing spectacular, nothing fascinating, in TV programs. It is not a matter of passivity. Rather, it is a matter of equivalence. OLIVER: You seem to argue in The Future of the Image against religious tendencies in contemporary thought, but what would it mean to aban-

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186 Jacques Rancie`re / Aesthetics against Incarnation

don completely the old language, images, and ideas? We do things with them, play with them, reconfigure them, yes, even dismiss them, yet their force and compulsion remain. I wonder if what this type of repre- sentation evokes and expresses is more akin to a longing for belonging, the dream of a common language, rather than fusion, and if they can be kept apart.

RE : For me, it is not a matter of “old language.” It is clear that a lot of

concepts that we use in the description and judgment of artistic prac- tices and works come from the religious language of incarnation since it

is the language that accounts for the junction between the sensible and

the supersensible. I never advocated dismissing those concepts. On the contrary, I have often denounced the positivistic attitude entailed in the claim for “proper language” in art or in politics. Now, what is at stake is the way in which not only religious words but religious attitudes are brought up in artistic practice and in the interpretation of art. In the past, this religiosity mostly took the form of the Eucharistic gathering that was literalized with Wagner’s ceremony of the presentation of the Graal in Parsifal. Currently, artistic religiosity deals, instead, with the celebration of Otherness. This tendency started from the modernist will to differentiate the sensorium of art from the sensorium of everyday life. Look, for instance, at Lyotard’s text “After the Sublime, the State of

Aesthetics,” in which he states that the principle of artistic modernity is to “approach” matter in its alterity. In such a way, he emphasizes its commitment to the unique quality of a tone or a nuance, the grain of someone’s skin or a fragrance. But soon he makes all those singularities interchangeable because “they all designate the event of a passion” and, ultimately, the feeling of “an obscure debt.” 4 In such a way, the com- mitment to matter becomes the mere sign of dependence on a radical alterity. The task of art is thus to inscribe a shock, which means the dependence of the mind on the law of the Other— be it the Lacanian Thing or the God of Moses. The privilege that philosophers like Lyotard or artists like Lanzmann give to the voice over the image relies clearly on

a religious ground. The difference had to be a material one. But, in a

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second step, matter was identified with Otherness in general and Oth- erness with the alterity of the God that forbids representation. O LIVER: In the chapter “Are Some Things Unrepresentable?” you discuss treatments of the Holocaust—namely, Robert Antelme’s The Human Race and Lanzmann’s Shoah —which exemplify your concluding sen-

4. Jean-Franc¸ois Lyotard, The Inhuman, trans. Geoff Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Stanford, Calif., 1991), p. 141.

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Critical Inquiry / Autumn 2008

187

tence, “The logic of the unrepresentable can only be sustained by a

hyperbole that ends up destroying it.” 5 What do you mean by “hyper- bole” here? Is it a kind of oversaying, an overliterariness, the capacity of art to become mere artifice? What is the role of detail in such a process? Can you offer a representation that escapes this shortcoming? Or are there truly experiences that cannot be represented or that in the very process of being said or shown are thereby compromised, undermined, or even made unreal? Indeed, can we perhaps say that making the in- human or the antihuman unreal is the very aim—a gesture of defense?

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RE : The hyperbole is a conceptual one. In Kantian terms, we can

understand it as the subreption that transforms a phenomenal differ- ence into a noumenal one. This is exactly what happens in the case of Lanzmann and of his friends. At the beginning, it seemed that they only wanted to subtract from the event the representational logic of causes and motivations that would have made them explicable and therefore acceptable in a certain way. This is why Lanzmann could once say that if he had found visual documents of the extermination in the gas cham- bers he would have destroyed them. But it turned out more and more that they wanted something more; they wanted to turn the extreme atrocity of the Holocaust into a supersensible event that could no longer be compared with any other case of slaughter and genocide. This is why they came to deny the very possibility that there be images of it. Let us look at the polemic that they launched apropos a recent exhibition in Paris, “Memories of the Camps,” where some photographs of the cre- mation of the corpses taken from inside a gas chamber in Auschwitz were exhibited. They said that those images were not images of the genocide since there could not be any image of the genocide, because the genocide was, in Lacanian terms, the horror of the Real that dismisses all images. So it is not a question of making the inhuman unreal. It is a question of making a form of inhumanity incomparable to any other by giving it both an ontological status and a sensible texture that makes it entirely apart. It is always the same strategy of the asymmetric relation. It is not a gesture of defense; it is a gesture of appropriation. It dismisses the availability of the visual experience that can be shared in favor of the voice that commands and forbids. OLIVER: We’ve talked a lot thus far about temptation—the temptation of fusion, immediacy, collective soul, enfleshment. The word signals the necessity of distinguishing the essential and the extraneous, the real and the fake, the short term and the long term, and implies an optimal path,

5. Rancie`re, The Future of the Image, p. 138.

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188 Jacques Rancie`re / Aesthetics against Incarnation

an expectation or hope; and, of course, in religious traditions, the word signals the idea of destiny if not fate, the presence of something like the prophetic mode. What is the role of the philosopher or the cultural critic?

RE : There are many ways of understanding the role of the philoso-

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pher—in general or in the current situation. Most people seem to iden- tify it today with some kind of prophecy about the disaster threatening culture, civilization, the symbolic order, and so on. All the elements of social criticism and the critique of culture have been recycled in order to sustain those prophecies about the impending disaster produced by individualism, democracy, consumption, the spectacle, and so on. From my point of view, the true philosophical or critical task is to do away with that so-called critical trend, which has become nothing more than the discourse of a police order. It is to do away with the prophetic tone and with the plot of decadence that is only the reversal of the former trust in the sense of history and to focus on the existing forms of intellectual, artistic, and political invention. Hope is not the precondi- tion of action. On the contrary, it is the product of the openings and expectations brought about by the dynamic of those inventions. OLIVER: I’d like to turn here at the end to the question of style and the

possible connections between style and will, a word that appears throughout your work. What is style? In The Flesh of Words , you write, following Flaubert, that style is “an absolute way of seeing things” ( FW, p. 147). And, when I first read that without going further, I thought that what was meant was not only the difficulty in distinguishing thought and perception, thought and feeling, but also something almost auto- matic or autonomous, that which cannot be changed easily, that which is left after everything extraneous has been stripped away.

RE : In The Flesh of Words, I was commenting on sentences of Flau- bert because there one finds a moment of transformation in the very idea of style. Style meant two things in the classical logic of representa- tion. First, it was a kind of ornamentation of language; it was about choosing elegant forms of expression to add a certain perfection to the work. But, at another level, style was about the correlation between subject matters and forms of expression; one had to use high style for kings and nobles and low style for common people. Flaubert’s view of style is characteristic of the literary break from those two ideas at once. The way of writing has nothing more to do with the quality of the thing or the being that you’re representing; the sentimental affairs of a peas- ant’s daughter are told with the same language as those of a duchess. And style is no longer a matter of ornamentation. He condenses the two

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Critical Inquiry / Autumn 2008

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aspects when he says that style is an absolute way of seeing things. This does not mean at all that the style is the mark of the sole personality of the writer. It is just the opposite: style is the way in which the writer disappears, the way in which the writer tries to reach a kind of imper- sonal view, which means getting in front of things and beings in the very absence of meaning. It is a way of getting rid of all the conventions of the presentation of characters. It is an attempt to coincide with the life of things when they are not related to our interests, to our knowledge, to our judgments. OLIVER: So style, we could say, is that which is inescapable about oneself?

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RE : Style is not the mark of the personality of the writer. On the

contrary, it is a getting rid of all the marks of personality; it is the im-

personality of the flow of sensations, which in a certain way means the dismissal of the ordinary idea of style as the mark of personality.

OLIVER: But, at that level, can we not say that personality has become im- personal? It’s very difficult, for instance, for someone to change or ma- nipulate his or her handwriting; and, in that respect, it is something almost impersonal rather than personal or perhaps, paradoxically, both.

RE : Yes, certainly, but I think that modern literature is based on the

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idea of dismissing what is the personality of the writer and trying to reach a kind of impersonal state. I’m not giving a kind of prescription of how one must write, just trying to describe a historical shift.

OLIVER: “Everything is in everything”— can that be said to be something like a law of synonymy, analogy, or correspondence?

RE : “Everything is in everything” is a sentence from The Ignorant

Schoolmaster, a Jacototian principle ( IS, p. 41 ). It means that in order to learn you can start from any and every point, that the chain of learning is a chain that you can grasp at any point. So, “everything is in every- thing” is not a proposition about reality. It is not a statement of general synonymy. It is just the idea that there is no preprogrammed order for learning, the idea that you can start from every point. From one sen- tence, you can begin to learn grammar, to learn politics, to learn phi- losophy, to learn history. This is what it means—that the starting point has no importance. You start from one point— one sentence, one chap- ter, one book—and you try to find all that is enclosed in this part, what is in this sentence, in this structure, in this book. Jacotot says that if the ignorant person knows but one prayer by heart—as everybody did at the time—it is always possible to provide him with a written copy of the prayer. From this point on, he can begin comparing the words of the prayer that he knows with the signs written on the paper that he does not

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190 Jacques Rancie`re / Aesthetics against Incarnation

know. There is at every point the possibility to weave a way toward other

points, always the possibility to go forward—this is what it means. OLIVER: But the panecastic dream is one of wholeness, isn’t it? Yes, there are centers, and centers are distributed in a certain way throughout a whole, but the fact that you can start at one center rather that another does imply some sort of correspondence between the centers; otherwise, there would be no wholeness. A book is a totality of sorts, “a center to which one can attach everything new one learns; a circle in which one

can understand each

universal teaching. One must learn something and relate everything else to it” (IS, p. 20 ).

RE : The point is that “wholeness” means different things, opposite

new thing

This is the first principle of

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things. The principle of stultifying teaching is progressiveness, which means incompletion. The master sets up the process of learning as an infinite way toward an unattainable totality. In this way, the master is always ahead; he is the only one to know how to go from one step to the following one. The student has only fragments in his hands, and the master is the only one to know the principle of totalization of these fragments. The book is never whole; the lesson is never finished. There is always knowledge left on the side of the master. The more the student learns, the more he is confirmed in the position of the ignorant. The panecastic principle opposes to this strategy of eternal incompletion and eternal dependence another whole—the whole that is already present in every fragment. The book is a whole; this means first that it is there, at hand, for the student as well as the master. There is nothing that escapes the student, nothing left up the sleeve of the master. And this also conveys another idea of totalization. It is not progressive totaliza- tion, the steps of which are decided by the master. It is a free totalization, an aleatory totalization; neither the student nor the master knows all of what can be learnt from the process and in how many ways. There is an infinity of ways that can be tried, an infinity of possible connections. This infinity of capabilities is opposed to the infinity of ignorance that is entailed in the “progressive” logic. So it is a matter of opposing two forms of wholeness and two forms of infinity. OLIVER: We’re now back to where we started. Thanks. —Paris–Portland, Oregon, 2007

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