JACQUES RANCIÈRE’S Figures of History is the latest installment from a serious thinker, whose pioneering work engages with the politics of aesthetics in an attempt to reimagine the political as an art form. Aesthetics is not simply a “discipline” to study; instead it opens up new ethical possibilities for reimagining the ideas of democracy, community, and political emancipation. In Figures of History, Rancière does more than just offer an accessible introduction to the links between aesthetics and various regimes of power, along with the ways aesthetics is integral to thinking about who we are as people; he provides a nuanced framing of the modern history of art to wrestle out the silenced and invisible from figurative enslavement. As Rancière writes,

If there is a visible hidden beneath the invisible, it’s not the electric arc that will reveal it, save it from non-being, but the mise en scène of words, the moment of dialogue between the voice that makes those words ring out and the silence of images that show the absence of what the words say. [i]

Rancière’s Anglo-American appeal is evidently on the rise: translations of his works are proliferating, along with the widespread following he evidently enjoys in a broad set of academic disciplines. This has placed him in direct confrontation with two notable contemporaries: Giorgio Agamben and Alain Badiou. Rancière positions himself in contrast to Badiou in particular in arguments around aesthetics and questions of truth, universality, and the idea of a people-to-come. While their shared studentships under the tutelage of Louis Althusser is often a point for discussion, it is their respective affinities/animosities with Gilles Deleuze that marks the extent to which they differ. Badiou, for instance, largely rejects Deleuze’s intellectual corpus (especially concerning the idea of “the event,” which Badiou universalizes through his notion of fidelity to truth, including the truth of art), whereas Rancière does not. Deleuze, in fact, remains instrumental for Rancière in terms of his ongoing thinking of the political function of art through what he terms the “distribution of the sensible”: aesthetics for Rancière is integral to the delimitation of spaces and times, including what is perceived as proper to thought; along with Deleuze’s contribution to the figurative as titled in this volume.

Rancière’s Figures embodies the tragedies of modernity. Our first glimpse of this appears with Larry Rivers’s Erasing the Past II that adorns the cover. Rivers’s subtle erasure of the image of a Holocaust survivor (invoking all-too-evident connections with the cover art of the Abacus edition of Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man and The Truce) captures the author’s contention that we must approach all representations of historical events with skepticism — questioning what is memorialized, what is erased, what is being shown, what is being slowly forgotten; history, he claims, should be rethought by attending to the hidden traces. Rancière doesn’t actually engage with this particular work throughout the text, briefly commenting instead on his portraits of Levi to support the claim that “history isn’t done yet with turning itself into stories.”[ii] He does nevertheless draw upon a range of compelling examples from Goya, Otto Dix, to Claude Lanzmann and Zoran Music in order to draw particular attention to the victims of historical forces. This allows him to explain how “figures” both represent the overt politicization of the truth of history along with providing figurative displacements that allow for novel interpretations and the recovery of more complex narratives concerning histories of violence.

Every war produces its casualties. While these are often measured in terms of some crude atrocity scale as societies try to make statistical sense of the quantifiable levels of destruction (i.e., numbers of individual fatalities, economic costs of damage to infrastructure), it is the more intangible or less immediate victims that often prove to have more pernicious and lasting effects. This is particularly the case when dealing with the intellectual casualties of war. Time and again, the reductionist search for “causes” and “lasting solutions” to the raw realities of warfare tend to remove from the critical microscope more searching questions about the willingness to justify widespread slaughter and engage in acts of the most abhorrent dehumanization, regardless of political or ideological emblem. Hence, genuine debate on the continuous ability to render entire populations disposable is silenced, and the marginalization and demonization of those political categories that otherwise allow us to break the cycle of violence and the normalization of brutality take its place.

Following the horrors of World War II, it was possible to identify three notable intellectual casualties. These included: (1) the politics of desire (what is now commonly called “affect”) in which this once liberating concept as theorized by Spinoza amongst others was cast aside as dangerous (perhaps most apparent in the context of Nazism and the manipulation and oppression of the masses as identified by Wilhelm Reich in his landmark text The Mass Psychology of Fascism), only to be colonized by marketers and PR consultants armed with usual sound-bite euphoria (from stage-managed theatricality of National Party Conventions that display the outpouring of emotionally charged patriotism, onto the celebration of killings, as in the case of Osama Bin Laden, where vitriolic displays on the streets of Manhattan had certain orchestration by elements of the mass media); (2) the politics of atmosphere, in which the ability to think about the positive manipulation of active living space became, until the advent of environmentalism, the sole privilege of military strategists who long since appreciated the value of “climatic conditioning”; and (3) the politics of aesthetics, in which the systematically orchestrated separation between art and politics rendered the aesthetic field dangerous in terms of symbolic decadence. This was especially true in the context of visible regalia of power directly linking fascist dressage with fetishistic and sadistic forms of behavior whose abuses of power would be portrayed in the most disturbing ways with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, along with racial and gendered stereotyping, or simply deemed aesthetics had nothing to say about the “serious business of politics” as it appears in the reasoned halls of established power — with our societies becoming more and more “image conscious” at the same time. 

The war against the politics of aesthetics interests Rancière in particular. Positivist dogmatic advocates of “political science” and “analytical philosophy” have accused critical thinkers concerned more with the irreducible qualities of the human condition as being too abstract or esoteric. This has led to the notable marginalization, subjugation and on occasions outright discrimination of those who argue that the forces of creativity, imagination and love for their fellow citizens are an emancipatory pedagogical force. Let’s remember Hannah Arendt, one of the key thinkers of aesthetics and politics: for the most part political violence is not carried out by irrational monsters. It is reasoned, rationalized, calculated and premised upon all too scientific and analytical claims that some lives are worth killing for the greater good (whether to provide mere protection or more common in the contemporary period to secure all our futures). Countering this urgent problem alone requires more than a rigorous discussion on the ethical subject of violence. It demands an entirely new concept of the political.

This is precisely what Jacques Rancière’s extensive body of work has sought to deliver. Much of what is presented in Figures, examples aside, will be already familiar to followers of the author’s work. The book’s central claim — that every image contains within its framing subaltern resonances and more political traces that are capable of being deconstructed and open to further interpretation — is textbook Rancière. So too is the methodological style adopted as the author continues to show his keen ability to identify and dissect the political meaning of art in order to de-figure representational schematics. On this occasion, Ranciere takes his readers on a compelling and disturbing journey via the “four senses of history,” the “three poetics of modernity,” and the “three forms of history painting” to provide tangible, albeit numerically limiting, frameworks for critique.

What is significant about Figures, however, is precisely the explicit call the book makes to directly relate aesthetics to violence. As Rancière explains in what is arguably the most compelling chapter of the book, “In the face of disappearance”:

The German word for the extreme form of that will, as we know, is Vernichtung, which means reduction to nothing, annihilation, but also annihilation of that annihilation, the disappearance of its traces, the disappearance of its very name. What is specific to the Nazi extermination of the Jews of Europe was the rigorous planning of both the extermination and its invisibility. It is the challenge of this nothingness that history and art need to take up together: revealing the process by which disappearance if produced, right down to its own disappearance.[iii]

Rancière ties this challenge for art to the extermination of the Jews specifically to connect between the vexed question of representation and extreme violence (a connection he has addressed elsewhere, most notably in The Future of the Image, and the chapter “Are Some Things Unrepresentable?”). As he notes in Figures, it is

sometimes too easily drawn that the extermination is “unrepresentable” or “unshowable” — notions in which various heterogeneous arguments conveniently merge: the joint incapacity of real documents and fictional imitations to reflect the horror experienced; the ethical indecency of representing that horror; the modern dignity of art which is beyond representation and the indignity of art as an endeavor after Auschwitz.[iv]

Countering this problem of representing humanity’s negation, Rancière resurrects what is for many cultural theorists an all-too-familiar (if unresolved) debate:

So we have to revise Adorno’s famous phrase, according to which art is impossible after Auschwitz. The reverse is true: after Auschwitz, to show Auschwitz, art is the only thing possible, because art always entails the presence of an absence; because it is the very job of art to reveal something that is invisible, through the controlled power of words and images, connected or unconnected; because art alone thereby makes the human perceptible, felt.[v]

Rancière’s revision of the Adorno question should be taken seriously. Its purpose is to rethink the political function of art, and, in doing so, start the process that will allow us to reimagine a more artistic conception of the political that is not simply tied to perceptions of endangerment and the pure task of human survival.

In the powerful chapter on the “Intolerable Image,” from an earlier volume on The Emancipated Spectator, Rancière turns specifically to the work of Alfredo Jaar, whose unique interplay between words, sounds, and aesthetics overturns “the dominant logic that makes the visual the lot of multitudes and the verbal the privilege of the few.”[vi] He focuses in particular on Jaar’s installation The Eyes of Gutete Emerita, which demands that the spectator first read about Emerita’s experience of the Rwandan genocide before being confronted with the woman’s concentrated and framed stare. Rancière acknowledges how the inversion of the gaze, the forced witnessing of the eyes upon the most horrendous acts, demands an appreciation of the way in which the intolerable can be turned into a recognition of humanity. As Rancière writes, instead of showing the mutilated bodies, Jaar’s work “restores the powers of attention itself.”[vii] The art historian and renowned cultural theorist Griselda Pollock notes the same, adding that Jaar’s installation asks the question “Will you too remember her eyes — eyes that look at you forever but forever see murder?”[viii] Jolting us “from the kind of consumption of the image that makes images out of atrocity without inducing a political response,” The Eyes

register the experience that others had been obliged to witness. It is this element that marks the singularity of his work in creating encounters for the viewers far away from the event that force them to recognize a gap that has been cut into a living persons life by proximity to atrocity, by the wound that is trauma: an event too shocking to be assimilated.

Violence should be intolerable. That is the point. And so, while the task of political discourse is to speak to the intolerable such that it becomes possible to confront injustice and subjugation in the world, the political function of art, as Rancière writes in Figures, consists in

being faithful to the general task that art — figurative or otherwise — prescribed for itself once it stopped being subject to the norms of representation: showing what cant be seen, what lies beneath the visible, and invisible that is simply what ensures the visible exists.[ix]

This entails “reserving for the rigor of art the power of representation,” which for Rancière demands more critical awareness of how we might reinscribe “the annihilation in our present.”[x]

Facing the intolerable provides a view into what we might term truly “exceptional art,” wherein violence is dutifully considered against the terrifying normalization of mass productions. It also brings to the fore the micro-subjective stakes: we relate the tragic reality of violence to our own lived experiences. This requires us to identify forms of poetic intervention that speak directly to the problem of human disposability in a way that disrupts aesthetic regimes of mediated suffering. Through that disruption, we can make visible what remains hidden in plain sight, thereby opening up the space for reflection, and rearticulating the fundamental categories of the political. Judith Butler’s important work on the “framing” of warfare and violence, and how this allows for the mediation of suffering and mourning, is one example.

The Los Angeles–based artist Gottfried Helnwein can provide another pertinent example here. As Kenneth Baker has noted, the artist’s work not only “mirrors of dark times but as counterthrusts to the aggressive reach of so much contemporary culture.”[xi] The artist himself is fully aware of the political function of art and its importance in the age of the spectacle. “We are living,” he writes,

in the age where materialism has finally triumphed. The world has been purged of fairies, elves, witches, angels, enchanted castles and hidden treasures. Dreaming and fantasizing is nowadays considered a chemical imbalance in the brain of the child. For reasons of national security there are no realms of imagination anymore in which to escape — children are held in the merciless headlight of the adults level-headed, common-sense-madhouse: a world of stock-markets, war, rape, pollution, television-moronism, prozak [sic], prison-camps, miss universe-competitions, genetic engineering, child pornography, Ronald McDonalds, Paris Hilton and torture.

Importantly, for Helnwein, art responds to the violence of the world by raising the right type of questions and not colonizing the imaginary with fixed interpretations.[xii] Helnwein’s Disasters of War 13 is a compelling example of this. This unsettling and provocative image depicts a blood-soaked, innocent, white young girl. Given the artist’s definition of the function of the work, we might ask what questions this image raises? Consciously disrupting familiar representations of casualties of war, the questions we might hear arising from the work echoes: What if it was your child? What if this was your daughter? What if this was your neighbor? What if this was you, or what if it were I? This is not about shocking the spectator into submission. Nor is it simply the mirroring of experience to bring about certain empathy or produce a shallow and sensationalist response. It is to bring about a forced assimilation with the unassimilated, to face the intolerable, so that it viscerally registers as such. As Helnwein further explains:

When I look at a work of Art I ask myself: does it inspire me, does it touch and move me, do I learn something from it, does it startle or amaze me — do I get excited, upset? And this is the test any artwork has to pass: can it create an emotional impact on a human being even when he has no education or any theoretical information about art? […] Real art is self-evident. Real art is intense, enchanting, exciting and unsettling; it has a quality and magic that you cannot explain. Art is not logic, and if you want to experience it, your mind and rational thinking will be of little help. Art is something spiritual that you can only experience with your senses, your heart, your soul.[xiii]

Helnwein shows how facing the intolerable is not simply about revealing the raw reality of injustice in the present. It’s about transgressing the limits of mediated suffering. Or as Rancière might explain, it reveals precisely “the critical project of art” as it “eliminates its own lie in order to speak truthfully about the lie and the violence of the society that produces it.”[xiv] By confronting the spectacle of violence with a more imaginative response, aesthetics now offers a damning indictment of the contemporary moment, and, in doing so, reveals the hidden order of (in)tolerance that is less about the violence itself, but what the very act of its revealing means for established relations of power and privilege.

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How might the politics of aesthetics allow us to challenge the spectacles of violence to which we are witness? Rancière would suggest that as we seek to liberate the past, in doing so we have a more critical sense of our historical present. Nevertheless, it remains a shame that he doesn’t connect his historical figures to more contemporary modalities of violence, such as the kind Hollywood, network television, and video games tend to render on a daily basis.

Questions might also be raised about whether Rancière allows for a broader and more transformative discussion on the art of the political. His aesthetics certainly leaves itself open to claims that it is too narrow in conception, or still premised upon some identifiable separation between the distinct spheres of aesthetics and politics, instead of seeing aesthetics as integral to a concept of the political, which from the outset should be recognized as a creative and imaginative process — an art for living tasked with the creation of better futures and peoples to come.

What would happen if we started our understanding of art in terms of its potentiality to pre-figure aesthetics and its modes of distribution? Hence to restore to art the power of imagination and creativity that doesn’t simply find its meaning in relation to what is apprehended? As our world seems to continually move from one catastrophe to the next without a credible governing leadership, authors like Rancière, despite whatever reservations we may have about him, force us to conceive of politics differently. How might the future study of politics begin to look if classes on “American Presidents” or “Theories of Government” and “Liberal Democracy” were replaced by courses on “The Art of Politics,” “The Power of Imagination,” and “Poetics of Resistance”? Perhaps then we might be able to take seriously Michel Foucault’s majestic demand:

From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think that there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art […]. We should not have to refer the creative activity of somebody to the kind of relation he has to himself, but should relate the kind of relation one has to oneself to a creative activity.[xv]

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[i] Ranciere, Figures of History p. 44
[ii] Ranciere, Figures of History p. 94
[iii] Ranciere, Figures of History p. 45, 46
[iv] Ranciere, Figures of History p. 48, 49
[v] Ranciere, Figures of History p. 49, 50
[vi] Jacques Ranciere, The Emancipated Spectator (New York, Verso: 2009) p. 97
[vii] From Jacques Rancière’s commentary on Jaar’s installation, “Theater of Images,” in Alfredo Jaar: La Politique Des Images (Lausanne: jrp/ringier, 2008) p.76
[viii] Griselda Pollock, “Introduction” in Griselda Pollock [ed.] Visual Politics of Psychoanalysis p. 2
[ix] Ranciere, Figures of History p. 72
[x] Ranciere, Figures of History p. 51
[xi] http://www.helnwein.com/artist/quotes/
[xii] As Helnwein has noted, “My art is not an answer, it is a question,” Yuichi Konno talks with Gottfried Helnwein, Yaso magazine, Japan – September 5, 2003
[xiii] “Interview with Gottfried Helnwein,” Brendan Maher, Start Magazine, Arts and Culture of the South East, Ireland, November 24, 2004
[xiv] Ranciere, Figures of History p. 81
[xv] Foucault, On the Genealogy of Ethics

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Brad Evans is a senior lecturer in international relations at the School of Sociology, Politics & International Studies (SPAIS), University of Bristol, United Kingdom.