Art Politics Religion (Jacques Rancière & The Future of the Image)


I’m trying to get my mind around this one. Clearly by “religion” I don’t mean anything relating to dogmatic belief nor ritual practice per se, but rather something more amorphous like the sense of the sublime that gets constantly coughed up in western philosophical theoretical discourse almost constantly when it touches upon art and aesthetics. Kandinsky called it “the spiritual in art.” I write and think about this kind of stuff ad nauseaum. It’s just that I don’t expect to find it, and then when I do in places I consider unlikely, I never know what to do about it.

So there again I found it in Rancière’s The Future of the Image. Rancière is a much beloved figure among critical theory people, in particular tough minded Marxists. But I like him too, liberal that I am. I have read Rancière and written about him before here at JPP. About The Emancipated Spectator, I observed how the author “asserts the ontological and political dignity of theater, illusion, art, mediation,  images, and the distance that is the sine qua non of communication.”  This already sets him apart from a lot of critical theory which invests itself in the demolition of systems of representation.

But ok, I was told by whoever it is who wrote the book blurb on the back of the cover to expect from this book a “stark political choice” in this book, The Futrure of the Image. It’s the one between “radical democracy” and “reactionary mysticism.” I just don’t see it that way, not here at least.

Well, I see it in the first chapter where Rancière takes up the cudgel against Roland Barthes and language of transcendence and immediacy expressed in Camera Lucida. But Rancière’s argument with Barthes and the famous discussion of the photorgraph of his mother has less to do with transcendence per se and more to do with the notion that a photograph can be absolute, offer us directly and in an unmediated way a presence or spirit. Against this kind of immediate transcendence, Rancière posits a community of images, a community between images and words, a common measure between those two heterogeneous elements. In fact, this very community or communion between images and words is flagrantly “spiritual,” although not “religious” per se.

Rancière talks about two ways of mediating the relationship between images and words.

One way is “dialectical,” based on the collision and clash between heterogeneous elements in such a way as to make the familiar strange. Little “machineries of the heterogeneous go to work against each other, creating clashes as a way to uncover the violence of conflict that lies “behind” the anodyne glory of appearance.

The other way is “symbolic” coupling of heterogeneous elements in such a way as to make familiar juxtapositions of elements that should be otherwise strange to each other. The reference to symbolism is meant to evoke not Lacanian psychoanalysis but rather late nineteenth century French symbolist poetry and German Expressionism. And it’s around this figure that the religious language of “mystery,” “co-belonging,” “co-presence,” “essential fabric” dominate the discourse. Rancière claims that none of this is meant by him to signify “enigma or mysticism.” It’s an aesthetic category, not a religious one. The problem is that I don’t believe him, if only because I don’t think it’s all that easy to separate those two heterogeneous elements.

One of the things that makes Rancière interesting is the attempt to combine both modes of discourse, the dialectical and the symbolic. But I can’t help but think that in chapter 2 that the latter gets the last word, especially as to how video has “quite naturally [sic!] rekindled the enthusiasm of the Symbolist era for immaterial states of matter” and “new capacities for forming the pure kingdom of co-belonging [of images] and the potentiality of their inter-expression ad infinitum (65-6).

If you didn’t notice, the image of the kingdom is a theological topos. So much for the choice between radical democary and reactionary mysticism. You can read this all in chapter 2, especially between pp.55-67

And it gets even worse in chapter 4 where he draws lines connecting, symbolically, the poetry of Mallarmé and the design work of Peter Behrens (mis-identified by Rancière as an industrialist, when he was, in fact, one of the major figures of the Jugendstil art movement in Germany at the turn of the twentieth century). The conversation moves on to Ruskin and William Morris, and now Rancière asks the very question that I would want to ask, as a religion scholar. “How, it is then asked, was this backward-looking, neo-Gothic, spiritualist ideology able to nurture in William Morris an idea of socialism and a socialist commitment that was not some mere fad of an aesthete, but the practice of an activist involved on the ground in social struggles?” What they have in common, as noted by Rancière is the denunciation of soulless production of commodities and the fake soul of “pseudo-artistic prettification” and the constitution of shared spaces, the “shape of a world without hierarchy where functions slide into each other,” and in the fancy that a symbol might be “imbued with spirituality and given a soul” (101, 105).

Of course, for Rancière, the focus remains on the political and the aesthetic. But religious language retains its place as a placeholder, with spirituality providing the language with which to create the connective tissue that is central to Rancière’s understanding of the neo-symbolism and neo-humanism in much contemporary art and also in its relation to politics (67).

I am not going to claim, not necessarily, that Rancière is Christian, mystical, crypto Christian, or crypto mystical or that his thinking has been inflected by any of these in a deliberate way.  “None of this is religious,” at least not religious per se and narrowly conceived. But who said religion had to be narrowly conceived in order for it to work conceptually or culturally? And who said that art has to be marshaled in a direct way to serve political purposes? The topoi do not have to be narrowly conceived or dogmatic or orthodox in order for them to be religiously loaded or to depend upon religious ideas and energies. The same is true about more subtle forms of politically loaded topoi. There’s a place for all the kind of “backward looking” neo-Gothic religious, spiritual in art kind of stuff in Rancière that is the “religiosity” that I look out for at the intersection of politics and aesthetics, especially as manifested in early 20th century.

Certainly, the choice between radical democracy and reactionary mysticism is not as clear cut as some people out there might think it is, at least not in Rancière’s work as it might be for others. That’s because Rancière shows himself to be less of a hard, “dialectical” thinker and more of a “symbolic” one. Symbolist poets like Mallarmé sought non-religious, anti-religious substitutes for religion that were aesthetic and spiritual. But these substitutes come too close for them not to be affected by religion, no matter how much one might seek to disavow its presence in one’s own work, thought, or culture. In this book by Rancière, as in Mallarmé, the return of the repressed is barely concealed by that which is brought in to substitute for it. But I’m not so interested by the question of authorial intent, what Rancière may or may not have consciously intended by this or that statement or figure of speech. What interests me is the matter of “textual intent,” namely the notion that words and things like “spirit” and “aura” hang over and inhabit the intersections of our mental life, as well as “the image” and discourse about its future in ways that are quite stubborn.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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3 Responses to Art Politics Religion (Jacques Rancière & The Future of the Image)

  1. evanstonjew says:

    I just read a book called Catholicism and Decadence. I enjoyed reading about Husymans- Pater- Wilde- Baudelaire- Verlaine and Co., their sense of exquisite sins, their thrill at the shame involved in homosexuality and sexual perversions, their suffering, longings and yearnings, the vapors, incense and aestheticism of Anglo- Catholicism…yummy yummy …a virtual crib sheet for Brideshead Revisited. But after a while I saw there was no thesis, no clarity, but rather a circle of terms and names cathected with a homosexual eroticism and acting as a cover for raw and not very spiritual lusts, drugs and intense masturbatory stimulation, the pederasty of Eton and Oxford. These were lives dedicated to material pleasures, that ended not in political actions but in the perversions of dirty old men. The coupling of eros and religion, the talk of the sublime spirituality in art works when there are severe restrictions on the expressions of sexuality, as in the holy practices of kabbalists and monastic ascetics. When eros is pushed too far, as in the radicalism of the neo-Sabbateans or in the various late decadent –romantic circles, we end up more often than not with fascism. Examples are Jacob Frank, D’Annunzio, the Stefan George circle, right wing French Catholic movements. I understand one can feel too much Jerusalem and too little Athens makes for a boring religion. But I have some doubt what a search for a presence of spirit or for the aura surrounding works of art will accomplish? If you want aesthetic objects to be a secure basis for a spiritual world , it seems you have to travel down the fascist road.

    • zjb says:

      I’m not going to agree about this one. There are too many kinds of aesthetics, and anti-aesthetics, which ususally turns out to be…aesthetic. Alongside Wilde and the decadents are William Morris and the socialism of Arts and Craft Design and the Garden City. Closer to Jewish philosophical home, I’ve argued that you can’t understand the German Jewish renaissance, including Buber and Rosenzweig, apart from Jugendstil and Expressionism, and I’ve said something similar about Soloveitchik in relation to Kantian aesthetics. Fascism is one kind of aesthetic regime, not its sum total. And of course Strauss was wrong. Athens and Jerusalem are not so distinct, as Saul Lieberman taught us a long, long time ago,

  2. John says:

    Please find a completely different Illuminated Understanding of the relation between Sacred Art and culture via this reference – the footnotes are superb too. The artist knew exactly and precisely what he was/is communicating in each of the thousands of images that he created.

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