Natural order of domination versus presupposition of inequality

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Introduction: The promise of Jacques Rancière: reconnecting artistic and political radicalness

The introduction starts (Section I) by briefly stating the main focus, aim and problematic of this study: to critically examine French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s reaffirmation and reconceptualization of the connection between art and radical politics in his work of the past twenty-five years. I then (II) offer a brief biographical and bibliographical overview of Rancière and his work and point to an important, general feature: its cross-disciplinary character. Next (III), I specify what sets Rancière’s work on art and politics apart from that of some of his main, fellow radical philosophers. In the next section (IV), I offer a brief overview of what I call the radical political turn in contemporary art. This refers to a tendency among some of today’s artists to realign their practice with the new, global, radical social movements that have been manifesting themselves since the end of the 1990s. I do so both in order to demonstrate the urgency of Rancière’s work on art and transformational politics, as well as to specify the kind of politicized art practices I want to use as a benchmark in my assessment. Next (V), I specify the general approach of Rancière in his work on politics and aesthetics – geared primarily toward the clarification of key concepts and their conditions of possibility -, as well as one of its general aims – to open up new avenues for art’s politicization. The next section (VI) explains how Rancière does not consider the relation between aesthetics and politics to be one of two clear, distinct entities but, on the contrary, holds them to be always already entangled, with politics having its own aesthetics and aesthetics its own politics. Lastly (VII), I elucidate the study’s general structure which consists of three parts that each deal with a key component of Rancière’s political aesthetics. It concerns, first, his identification of a radical political content in German Idealist theories of aesthetics, especially those of Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schiller; second, his remodelling of the relation between art’s autonomy and heteronomy; third, his critical analyses of recent political art and formulations for an alternative, truly emancipatory art practice. I briefly describe the main tenets of these three components, specify their key problematics and indicate how I shall proceed in addressing them.


This study undertakes a critical investigation into the work done by contemporary French philosopher Jacques Rancière on the interrelations between aesthetics and radical politics. This work – mainly produced over the past twenty-five years – can be seen as one of the most elaborate and influential contemporary conceptualizations of art’s potential to bring about social emancipation and change. Rancière hereby follows the footsteps of a long line of mainly modern European philosophers who as far back as the 18th century have affirmed the emancipatory power of art (Bernstein 1992, Bowie 1990). Through an overview, analysis, explication and critique of the main components of Rancière’s political aesthetics, this study wants to determine what is left of this philosophical belief early in the 21st century, a time of economic and political upheaval and renewed, broad-based demands for fundamental societal change. Posed in its generality, the key question is thus whether the emancipatory potential of art can still convincingly be thought in today’s context, and if so, how. More specifically, this study wants to determine whether Rancière’s radical aesthetic succeeds in offering such conceptual account.


Considering the main focus on Rancière’s thinking on politics and aesthetics, I shall first offer a brief account of his life and work in general. Born in 1940 in Algiers, Algeria – then still part of France -, his philosophical career took off in the 1960s as a participant in French philosopher Louis Althusser’s project of reconceptualizing Marxism in structuralist terms. Apart from Althusser himself, he was one of four authors that contributed to one of the landmark studies of what was dubbed ‘structural Marxism’: the volume Lire ‘le Capital’ (Althusser et al.:1965; Rancière 1965/76).

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Rancière is surely not alone among contemporary philosophers to reaffirm and reconceptualize the radical political potential of art. Over the past twenty-five years or so, several of his fellow radical thinkers – such as Alain Badiou (1998/2005, 2003/6), Antonio Negri (2009/11, 2008), Jean-Luc Nancy (1991) and Giorgio Agamben (1994/9) – have done something similar. Common to these philosophers is that in their vehement opposition to the existing order and search for radical alternatives, art is presented as an essential and powerful ally. This has prompted one commentator to speak of a “turn to art” among contemporary radical philosophers (Roberts 2009). Taken together, the works of the thinkers listed contain the promise of a renewed engagement between art and transformational politics at the turn of the century.

Introduction: The promise of Jacques Rancière
reconnecting artistic and political radicalness
Conceptualizing the radical political power of art and aesthetics
The work of Jacques Rancière: defying philosophical boundaries
From the politico-aesthetic turn in recent radical philosophy
To the radical political turn in contemporary art
And back
Why the relation between aesthetics and politics is not the issue
Structure and overview of the study
Chapter 1: The aesthetic core of politics
The division of the sensible
Natural order of domination versus presupposition of inequality
Sensus communis as support and ruin of aesthetic division
Aesthetics of the police versus aesthetics of politics
Politics as verification, subjectification and invention
The ‘world-creating’ act of politics
The practice of ‘as if’
Confirming the appearance
Rancière’s ‘speculative leftism’ and other criticisms
It’s the division of the sensible, stupid! Or is it?
The battle for sensory liberation
Chapter 2: The emancipatory content of Kantian aesthetics
From the aesthetics of politics to the politics of aesthetics
A regime theory of art
Aesthetics: an invention of recent date
The utopian content of Kantian aesthetics
Schiller and the aesthetic regime’s first manifesto
Aesthetic equality versus the equality of revolutionary movements
Art as an autonomous form of life
The paradoxical efficacy of aesthetic art
Why the politics of aesthetics is not the aesthetics of politics ?
Art and politics as two forms of dissensus
Chapter 3: Never again the ideology of the aesthetic
Defending the aesthetic against the Right and the Left
Idealist aesthetics as continuation of class warfare by other means
Worker emancipation as aesthetic revolution
The politics of aesthetics: a glass half full or half empty?
Speaking truth to aesthetics? Thanks, but no thanks!
The aesthetic: a politically ambiguous concept
‘Hatred’ of aesthetics or new love affair?
The primary violence at the heart of aesthetic autonomy
Rooting out the disease of art
Proletarian aestheticism versus Dadaesque delinquency
Chapter 4: The splintered politics of aesthetics
The autonomy/heteronomy ‘wars’ in modern aesthetics
From the formula of the aesthetic regime to the major figures of
aesthetic politics
The antinomy of aesthetic politics
The intrinsic link between art’s autonomy and heteronomy
Politics of the resistant form and metapolitics of the aesthetic
The ‘impossible fullness’ of autonomy and heteronomy
Maintaining the productive tension between opposites
Modernism and postmodernism as different acts in the aesthetic
Chapter 5: Towards a third way between autonomous
and heteronomous forms of aesthetic
Jacques Rancière and third way politics
Art and radical politics beyond tragedy
Goodbye radicalism?
Who’s afraid of heteronomy?
Towards a post-utopian utopianism?
Between historicism and speculative leftism
Paradoxical confines, yet confines nevertheless
A time for regime change
Chapter 6: Rancière as a critic of contemporary political art
Third aesthetic politics and the critical art dispositive
From the quandaries of critical art
And duplicities of post-critical art
To the ‘anticipated realities’ of activist art
And, finally, to the ‘aesthetic complicities’ of a different politics of art
The art of unlocking capacities of action
The discreet criticality of aesthetic art
Moderating Rancière’s anti-representationalism
No pathetic identifications please!
Rancière as a conservative art critic
A confused contemporary political art practice? Bring it on!
Conclusion: Did somebody want to reaffirm the alliance between art and radical politics?


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