The Aesthetic and the Political in Jacques Rancière's Aisthesis


“Anglophone readers now have a chance to see what all the fuss is about…”: Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, the latest from esteemed philosopher and literary critic Jacques Rancière, has been hailed as the magnum opus on aesthetics from one of the subject’s leading theorists. Rancière utilizes a series of “scenes,” or critical historical events in Western art, through which he interrogates our understanding of modernism, and subsequently, the fraught relationship between the aesthetic and the political. Perhaps most startling in the age of the hyper-inundated and fast-paced reader, it’s evident that Aisthesis has inspired the very same “close reading” in its readers that the philosopher himself employs.

This care is evident in Joseph Tanke’s review for the Los Angeles Review of Books, which praises the book as “a magisterial book of great scope and ambition that has the capacity to alter how we understand the artistic culture of the past 200 years”. Tanke admires Rancière’s “ability to draw unprecedented connections between ideas and practices,” which allows for the masterful frameworks that build towards what Tanke locates as the book’s “primary achievement”:

…rethinking the relationship between aesthetics and politics. Rancière does not deliver prescriptions regarding how art should be, nor does he call for another round of politically engaged art. According to Rancière, art need not be politicized, for indeed its practices are already political inasmuch as they alter the distribution of bodies and voices within a given society.

Similarly meticulous high acclaim has come from Jonathan Kyle Sturgeon, who recently wrote an introduction to an excerpt printed in The American Reader. For Sturgeon, Rancière’s importance consists of showing the reader how they might emancipate themselves through reading: rather than resigning the life of the contemporary reader to that of vita passive, Aisthesis implicitly reveals how “at the heart of reading is the unmastered work of vita activa—the work of one who is comparing, contrasting, translating, and learning, of one who is already relating, participating, and communicating”.

Sturgeon commends Rancière for “working primarily as a caring reader, not as a passive recipient of a text,” thus revealing how audiences can engage with art as agents of their own authority. Sturgeon concludes by emphasizing that Aisthesis’s themes and methods are critical in our society especially today, where reading as an activity is mocked and degraded, making it necessary to remember that “it is the right of the reader to assert her equality of intelligence, her capacity to act, upon which all of literature, art, and politics depend.”

Visit the Los Angeles Review of Books and The American Reader to read these reviews in full.

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