Rene — Brian Holmes — Hierglyphs of the Future: Jacques Rancière and the Aesthetics of Quality

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Hierglyphs of the Future: Jacques Rancière and the Aesthetics of Quality
Brian Holmes
We’re not a surplus, we’re a plus. The slogan appeared at the demonstrations of the French jobless movement in the mid-90s in journals, on banners, and on tracts printed by the political art group, Ne pas plier. It knitted the critical force and the subjective claims of the movement into a single phrase. To be “a surplus” (laid off, redundant) was to be reduced to silence in a society that subtracted the jobless from the public accounts, that made them into a kind of residue—invisible, inconceivable except as a statistic under a negative sign. Excluded, in short: cut out of a system based on the status of the salaried employee. Until they finally came together to turn the tables, reverse the signs, and claim a new name on a stage they had created, by occupying unemployment offices in a nation-wide protest during the winter of 1997-98. The people with nothing erupted onto the public scene. “We’re a plus,” they said, intruding through the TV cameras into the country’s living rooms. Which also meant, “We’ll drink champagne on Christmas eve.”
A way to grasp the aesthetic language of the French social movements in the 90s—and of the transnational movements now emerging—is through the work of Jacques Rancière and his writings on the politics of equality. In Disagreement (published originally in 1995), he confronted the philosophy of government with the scandal of the political.1 Government fulfills an ideal of order when it administers, manages, and tries to totally account for a population; but its reality is the police. The police keeps everyone in their place, imposes the calculations of value, apportions out the shares in society.
The political is an opposite process, and it is rare. It happens when outcasts stand up to say that the calculations are wrong, when they refuse the names and the places they’ve been given (we’re not a surplus), to claim both a share in society and another name, which will signify their particular addition to universal equality (we’re a plus). This is because the equality of one speaking being with any other—the fundamental presupposition of democracy—does not exist in the abstract. It only becomes universal each time it is proven, in a new language and on a newly visible stage. Equality is the groundless claim of a minority to have the rights of any other group, to be the demos, the people. But it is a claim whose naked truth does not suffice; it has to be put to the test, publicly verified. This is why the political always takes the form of a demonstration: a logical proof against all prevailing logic, and the mobile presence of a crowd against the fixed frames of an institution.
Rancière’s description was in synch with its time. It anticipated the general strike of French state workers in December 1995, massively supported by the public, and it accompanied the later revolts of the homeless, the jobless, the paperless— the mouvement des sans—who rose up to demand a new division and sharing of the social whole, beyond the accounting systems of the industrial state. But it also offered a key that could reopen the airlocks between the æsthetic and the political.
In an essay written just after Disagreement, Rancière explained that the political always involves a disidentification with some aspect of the existing community—for example, with the police state that expels the jobless or the paperless. At the same time, it requires an impossible identification with “the cause of the other.”2 This impossible identification suggests a new, subjective figure of political commitment. Its paradigm in France is the identification of an entire generation on the left with the Algerian demonstrators thrown brutally into the Seine by the police in 1961. To identify with the murdered Algerians was not to speak for them—an absurd idea, while their fellows were completing a revolution in Algeria— but to live on in their place, in opposition to a national institution that excluded certain citizens (those of the former colonies) and included others (those of the metropole). That impossible identification would return in the transnational, transhistorical assertion of the students in May 1968, “We are all German Jews.” And then again in the specific legal and political context of the late 90s, with the public act, often performed in theaters, of parrainage or “god-parenting,” which meant taking a quasi-familial, quasi-legal responsibility for an undocumented individual.
This theatrical fiction, like the poetics of the ‘68 slogan, points to the specifically artistic aspect of political engagement, sketched out in a few pages of Disagreement. Rancière begins by opposing Habermas’s view that the surprise of æsthetic experience, the opening to the world effected by metaphor, must be distinguished from the norms of communicative action. He claims instead that the uncertain reality of art, the shift or transport of meaning that defines metaphor, is an inherent part of every political dispute, where the argument itself bears first of all on the legitimacy or even the reality of one of the fundamental elements that configure the disagreement (its place, its object, its subjects). The place-changing action of metaphor—one thing or person for another— is what allows the creation or extension of a community of speaking subjects; and this potential extension of a community is needed for any argument about equality. This is why the modern forms of political group-formation, or subjectivization, are historically linked to the emergence of an autonomous, æsthetic dimension split from any practical manipulation of usable objects: an unpredictable, infinitely extensible realm defining “a world of virtual community— of community demanded—superimposed on the world of commands and lots that give everything a use.”3
Metaphors are the hieroglyphs of an unknown language, the demand for an unheard-of community. When the group Ne pas plier, in collaboration with the jobless association l’APEIS (l’Association pour l’emploi, l’information et la solidarité), raised Marc Pataut’s anonymous portraits above the crowd in 1994—singular faces above a sea of demonstrating humanity— the question was not whether these meter-high photographs, carried on a wooden picket, really represented identifiable jobless people. The question was whether a social issue could be extended beyond individual cases, to call for a general reconfiguration of society; whether each anonymous face was potentially the face of the unemployed peuple reclaiming its right to speak; and whether the gesticulating debates on Republic Square could compare to the ones in the National Assembly. A visual uncertainty, a metaphoric possibility of “one-for-another,” intertwined with a political argument bearing on proper or improper names, on the proper or improper division and sharing of resources, of roles, of sensuous reality. In lieu of an answer, the question itself gestured toward a possible future that could only be opened up, among the existing divisions of the world, by an argumentative logic knit together with an artistic metaphor.
A Change of Regime
Rancière’s thinking of the political was formulated during the long French slide into recession and racism, when the status of salaried labor was falling into tatters along with welfare-state guarantees, when immigrants were being outlawed in the name of union jobs and the unemployed were being proclaimed the impossible political subject. Yet the threat of the flexible, trans-national, networked regime—the so-called “economic horror”—sparked original forms of protest and debate. A breach was reopened, marked in political economy by the work of André Gorz, Misère du présent, richesses du possible (Poverty of the Present, Wealth of the Possible), which turned the questions of flexible work and unemployment back on an entire system, to explore the reasons for maintaining a politics of scarcity in a society of automated production.
That breach seems to have closed today. Disagreement had already shown how cer-tain forms of political consensus act to freeze social identities, eliminating the disruptive claims of equality. There is the welfare-state conception of society as an interplay of “partners” (unions, businesses, public services); the neo-liberal idea that society does not exist, only desiring, enterprising individuals; the multicultural vision of separate, Balkanized communities, each bound by their own beliefs. All exclude the political conflict formerly brought by the subject called “proletariat”—the most recent name of the antique demos or the revolutionary peuple. After integrating much of the National Front’s racism, the French socialist party has now found an original mix of the first two forms of consensus: They intensify the neo-liberal program of flexible trans-national labor relations, in hopes of returning to the salaried employment on which the postwar social contract of the nationstate was based! As though the challenges raised by the “mouvement des sans” never even existed.
But what is happening now is that similar movements are expanding, proliferating, in an attempt to meet their adversaries on another stage: the stage set by the transnational corporations. This proliferation involves an identification with the cause of an impossibly distant other—Mayan peasant, Brazilian autoworker, Nigerian tribesman, Indian farmer… But to explore the role of art in these movements, I think we had better start with something much closer to home: the language machine that knits the transnational system together, and the kind of labor that is done with it.
The Internet has widely (and rightly) been seen on the left as providing the infrastructure for what is called “digital capitalism.”4 But what the leftist commentators forget—one wonders why?—is that the simplest net application of them all, email, has offered an extraordinary chance to what Rancière calls “the literary animal.” As large parts of the former working classes gained education, refused industrial discipline, and split away from their former position in the social hierarchy, they became “immaterial laborers” facing the new predicament of flexibilized conditions5—but they also found themselves in possession of a new writing tool. And as they taught themselves to use it and invented more applications every day, what did they claim, against all prevailing logic? That here, everyone is equal. The virtual realities of the 1990s saw the return of a utopia whose emergence Rancière has chronicled in his accounts of the self-education of the artisan classes in the early nineteenth century: “Thus one can dream of a society of emancipated individuals that would be a society of artists. Such a society would repudiate the divide between those who know and those who do not know, between those who possess or who do not possess the property of intelligence. It would recognize only active minds: humans who act, who speak of their actions and thereby transform all their works into ways of signaling the humanity within themselves and everyone.”6
That dream was bound to run up against what Rancière has called “the society of disdain.” In the late 20th century it took the usual form of the expropriation of a popular language, and its replacement by manipulated simulacra. Yet even as the dominance of the Internet by the commercial and financial spheres became clear, even as the figure of the shareholder emerged as the only one with a right to participate politically in the new economy, political activism took a new twist, and disruptions began appearing in the fabric of corporate and governmental speech.
Since 1993, the anonymously run ®™ark group has been launching parodies into the ideological mix: consultancy and funding for consumer-product sabotage, following the actions of the infamous Barbie Liberation Organization; direct e-mail campaigns promoting subversion, like the Call-in Sick Day to celebrate the non-holiday (in Anglo-Saxon lands) of 1 May; pseudo-official sites like gwbush.com, voteauction.com, or gatt.org.7 Masquerading beneath a corpor-ate-bureaucratic veneer—lackluster logos, deadpan graphics, pompous speech—the ®™ark web sites start off believable, waver in mid-flight, then tailspin into scandalous denunciation by an excess of liberal truth. Another movement, Kein Mensch ist Illegal, more recently took up the same kind of strategy with its Deportation-Class cam-paign: web sites, a poster contest, informa-tion kits, super-activist mileage programs… all opportunities for Lufthansa’s stockholders to find out just how much it could cost them to go on deporting illegal immigrants for the police. Then, in a parody of the Oneworld™ airline alliance, the Deportation-Alliance emerged, with collaboration from ®™ark and many others. Meanwhile, a group of slow-thinking Austrian lawyers stumbled on the gatt.org site and wanted Mike Moore of the WTO to come pep up their meeting in Salzburg. “Mike Moore” declined, but sent two substitutes—later revealed to be the “Yes Men”—who stood before the unwitting lawyers to explain a vast but rather shocking program for the extension of free trade. The whole incident was documented on video (“tactical embarassment,” as the activist Jordi Claramonte likes to say).
Through mimicry and imagination, groups like ®™ark create a short-circuit between the anonymous, abstract equality of immaterial labor and the subjective exceptionalism of art. “The mimic gives the ‘private’ principle of work a public stage. He constitutes a common stage with what ought to determine the confinement of each to his place,” writes Rancière in Le partage du sensible. But this “common stage” is a scene, not of stifling unity but of dissensus: The mimic transmits “blocks of speech circulating without a legitimate father,” literary and political statements that “grab hold of bodies and divert them from their destination,” that “contribute to the formation of collective speakers who throw into question the distribution of roles, of territories, of languages—in short, political subjects who upset an established sharing and division of the sensible.”8 ®™ark or Deportation-Class are ways for immaterial laborers to claim a voice, a non-economic share, against the stockmarket rules of a shareholder’s society. They are also vectors of a new kind of transnational collaboration or reciprocity. They offer a way to rejoin the direct action movements, Art and Revolution, Attac, and dozens if not hundreds of other organizations—the newest way into a much older configuration of the æsthetic and the political, which is also called democracy.
The duplicity of art/work hardly began with Internet. It reaches back to what Rancière calls the æsthetic regime of the arts, which emerged, not coincidentally, at the end of the ancien règime. Aesthetics is the name of an indistinction, where fact is inseparable from fiction, where the lowest can become the highest and vice versa. The æsthetic regime of the arts ruins the historically prior regime of representation, with its hierarchies, decorum, and strict separation of genres, but also its Aristotelian distinction between chaotic, accidental history, and well-constructed, plausible fiction. Working initially through mimetic or testimonial techniques—realist literature or painting, photography or cinema—the new regime determines the paradoxical beauty of the anonymous subject, of whoever or whatever: “The ordinary becomes beautiful as a trace of the true… when it is torn away from the obvious and made into mythological or phantasmagorical hiero-glyph.”9 Before and beyond any “modernist” or “post-modernist” program, the æsthetic regime “makes art into an autonomous form of life, thus simultaneously positing both the autonomy of art and its identification with a moment in a process of life’s self-formation.”10 The understanding of activist art begins right here, with the notion of life’s self-formation.
Fictionable Futures
The originality of Rancière’s work on the æsthetic regime is to clearly show how art can be historically effective and directly political. Art achieves this by means of fictions: arrangements of signs that inhere to reality, yet at the same time make it legible to the person moving through it— as though history were an unfinished film, a documentary fiction, of which we are both cameramen and actors.
That would be one way to describe an event like the “Carnival against Capital,” staged by the 10,000 actors of Reclaim the Streets in the City of London on 18 June 1999. Wearing masks of four different colors, the crowd wove converging paths through the City, displaying signs, creating images, knitting its mobile music and language into urban reality—weaving another world in order to tangle with the one managed by finance capital (and to tangle directly with the police). The 18 June event taught us to read a new story at the center of finance capitalism. But no privileged viewpoint could wrap up the film, gather the whole of this “artwork” into a totality and reduce its contradictions—because the idea had already crisscrossed not just Britain but the earth, spreading and dividing like the wildfire of equality. By tracts, images, Internet, and word of mouth; by collaboration and spontaneous reinvention, the “disorgan-ization” of Reclaim the Streets and the Peoples’ Global Action network had mapped out a new kind of world, in which collectives in over 70 different countries could protest against the same abstract processes of neo-liberal capitalism, under vastly different local conditions but on the same day. Did the “film” of Seattle, Prague, and so on begin right here, with this “artistic” event? But where was “here”? And what did the “event” really consist of?
If anarchic, artistic demonstrations like 18 June are political, it is because they involve a disagreement, a direct confrontation with the existing divisions or shares of sensuous reality. They make visible the “invisible government” of the financial institutions (i.e. the new world police). But if they are æsthetic, it is because they bring a blur of indistinction to the proper subjects, objects, and places of the debate. They create another stage for politics: like the protesters in London opening a fire hydrant to symbol-ically return a long-buried river to the surface of the street, to reclaim that stream from the layered abstractions of capital. Or like the social forces in Porto Alegre displacing the wintry Davos economic forum to the summer weather of the South, turning the agenda and the very seasons of capitalist globalization upside down.
It is certain that such confrontations must become more precise, more reasoned, more explicit, if the new claim to equality is to have any effect on the existing divisions of the world. The æsthetic “plus” of the demonstrations must find a way to return to each local environment, to the specific frameworks that govern the homeless, the paperless, the unemployed. This is the risky gambit that the far left is now making, on a world scale. But to be explicit is not to speak the opponent’s language (neoclassical eco-nomics)—which would always be to play an unequal hand in a losing game. Instead, it is to engage in an unstable mimicry that seeks to prove its claim to equality on a pub-lic stage, while inventing new signs, new pathways through the world, new political subjectivities.
A version of this text appeared in German in the Austrian magazine Springerin, vol. VII, no. 1, March-May 2001.
1 — Jacques Rancière, Disagreement (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press: 1999). Throughout this text I will quote and summarize ideas by Jacques Rancière, but the contemporary examples of political and æsthetic practice, and the conclusions drawn from them, are my responsibility alone.
2 — Jacques Rancière, “La cause de l’autre,” in Aux bords du politique (Paris: La Fabrique-Editions, 1998).
3 — Disagreement, p. 57.
4 — Cf. Dan Schiller, Digital Capitalism (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999).
5 — On the refusal of industrial discipline and the emergence of the immaterial, see the arguments and references in Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), chapters 3.3 and 3.4.
6 — Jacques Rancière, Le maître ignorant (Paris: Fayard, 1987), pp. 120-121. My translation.
7 — The first two sites were forced to change names and can now be found at www.rtmark.com, along with the other ®™ark projects.
8 — Jacques Rancière, Le partage du sensible: esthétique et politique. (Paris: La Fabrique-éditions, 2000), pp. 68, 63-64. All translations from this book are my own.
9 — Ibid., p. 52.
10 — Ibid., p. 37.