How can we conceive the relationship between Ranciere and Badiou’s aesthetics?
Ranciere delineates three major Western ‘image regimes’: the ethical regime of the image, which he associates with Plato’s iconoclasm (his banishment of the poets from his ideal republic); the representational regime, which he associates with Aristotle’s ordered and systematic view of the arts (with its proper forms, themes and public, affective purpose); and finally the aesthetic regime, in which art is both autonomous and yet appears materially and thematically unmarked (its distinct identity depending upon endless strategies of either compression and rarefaction or effacement and disappearance).
For all their differences, Badiou follows a closely aligned historical scheme. While his conception has an epistemological focus, rather than Ranciere’s explicitly ethical and political one, Badiou still arranges a tri-partite scheme that begins with Plato, passes to Aristotle and then jumps to the modern (Heideggerian hermeneutics). To summarise Badiou’s scheme: Plato represents an insistence upon the absolute split between philosophical truth and art; Aristotle, the subsumption of art to the interests of philosophy; and Heidegger, the prostration of philosophy before the higher truth of art. Badiou describes the Platonic schema, in which art appears as the alluring other of properly logical truth, as the ‘didactic’ scheme. This is because Plato conceives art – the purpose of art – in terms of the education of citizens. The ultimate aim is for citizens to live within the realm of philosophical truth. Art, in his view, provides the appearance of truth, not its substantial reality; truth is only properly manifest at the level of logical, discursive thought. The didactic scheme then either radically excludes art or positions it as extraneous to philosophical truth. Badiou describes the Aristotelian scheme as the ‘classical’ scheme. In this model, art contributes to knowledge, but in a lesser and subservient fashion. It charts resemblances (mimesis) and provides an affective, therapeutic ground for truth (catharsis). Inasmuch as it is left to philosophical discourse to categorise its forms and operations, art appears as a restricted sphere and ultimately as a humble maidservant to the more general and adequate discourse of philosophical truth. Badiou describes the Heidggerian scheme as the ‘romantic’ scheme, which does, it is worth noting, seem to get the debt the wrong way around, ignoring for instance how Schelling’s romantic notion of art and the Absolute provides a crucial precondition for Heidegger’s hermeneutical aesthetics. In any case, the romantic scheme envisages truth as a terrain of intractable alterity that only the silence and mute objectivity of art can possibly approach. Philosophy, as a nest of words that would like nothing better than to overcome its nestedness – to hive off its material, historical accretions and its dimensions of unconsciousness – has much weaker access to truth than art and poetry, which are always explicitly expressed and always explicitly caught up in a play of veiling and unveiling.
Although the two schemes are roughly contemporary and emerged in close dialogue, Badiou’s has attracted less general interest. This is significantly, I expect, because Ranciere’s scheme engages more obviously with the social and political turn in contemporary art. The notion of the ’redistribution of the sensible’’ would seem to offer greater radical, creative possibility than an austere reconsideration of the relationship between art and truth. This is unfair because Badiou’s scheme is actually highly pertinent to a reconsideration of the relationship between art and aesthetics and reveals all sorts of practical implications.
Ranciere and Badiou share a sense of the complex, knotted relation between art and aesthetics. They differ, however, in that Ranciere regards the knot as inherent and constitutive, whereas Badiou regards it as exhausted and disabling. Ranciere criticises Badiou for trying to separate art from the discourse of philosophical aesthetics, yet Badiou’s notion of truth complicates this separation. Badiou conceives truth in terms that shift beyond a narrowly philosophical, discursive focus. Truth is cast as an event and is associated with extra-philosophical phenomena – love providing the clearest example. If Badiou unties any knots then, it is certainly not the knot between art and truth, which becomes more knotted still. He rejects only the knot between art and philosophy (as aesthetics). Whereas Ranciere positions aesthetics as the vital discourse for the identification of art within the modern context in which art has lost clear material, formal and thematic signs, Badiou insists on a notional separation between art and aesthetics. Very importantly, however, this is only on the condition that art itself appear as a site of truth. In this respect, Badiou represents art as thoroughly philosophical, even as he distinguishes it from the mechanisms of philosophical aesthetics as such. He describes this differentiated and mediated relationship between art and aesthetics as ‘inaesthetic’ and offers the following clarification, ‘Against aesthetic speculation, anaesthetics describes the strictly intraphilosophical effects produced by the independent existence of some works of art.’ Art, in his view, prompts speculation within philosophy, but does not speak the language of philosophy itself and does not rely upon philosophical aesthetics to express its particular truths. Yet this resonance – this production of ‘intraphilosophical effects’ – depends upon art having philosophical implications, even while distinguishable from aesthetics per se. Badiou’s schema represents not only a demarcation of the limits of philosophy, but also a transgression (and expansion) of these limits as a much wider set of event phenomena are interpreted as sites of truth-making. In this sense, Badiou less eliminates the knot between art and aesthetics than frames it in other terms.
Badiou claims that the ‘inaesthetic’ represents a new and unthought schema – an advance upon the dilemmas of the existing didactic, classical and romantic schemas. He positions the latter not only as longstanding historical and philosophical paradigms for thinking the relationship between art and truth, but also as emblems of key strands of modernity. Didacticim is evident with Marxism, both in terms of the harsh rejection of avant-garde poetics in Stalinism and in the Brechtian harnessing art in the interests of socialist critique. Classicism is evident in the psychoanalytical conception of art, with art appearing as a form of therapy that is directed towards the overall interests of ‘the talking cure’ (of a bringing to consciousness of unconscious forces). And finally romanticism is evident in the various sublime strategies of the avant-garde and corresponding efforts to dissolve art into the everyday or to imbue all aspects of the everyday with the sense of possibility embedded in art. How would Badiou’s notion of the ‘inaesthetic’ map to contemporary forms of creative practice? What relevance does it have in terms of either suggesting new forms of art or new spaces of ‘intraphilosophical’ reflection? I suspect that there is nothing like a direct answer to these questions, but I see considerable value in highlighting the question of truth across the uncertainly delineated terrain of art and aesthetics. This is not in order to insist on some notion of absolute or event-bound truth, or to reinforce the differences between sensible/affective and discursive philosophical truth, but rather to recognise that the thinking of art and aesthetics engages with most fundamental aspects of experience and being, working not only to ground, reconcile or make coherent, but also to renew and to reactivate; doing both of these things at once. And the question of truth, of the incessant play of truth and appearance, is vital to this work and needs to be taken seriously, alongside any call for immediate action or relevance. Badiou’s summoning of the ‘inaesthetic’ may seem a withdrawal and a calling away, but perhaps that is precisely what is needed just now?
So, rather than selecting between Ranciere and Badiou’s perspective, it seems more fruitful to regard them as distinct and complementary views of the complex knot of art and aesthetics. Ranciere demonstrates the mutual dependence of art and aesthetics within the context of the ‘aesthetic regime’ and stresses political implications (even if never literally direct). Badiou demonstrates the real grounds of difference between the discursive and the immediate and highlights the key issue of truth, which is manifest not only in philosophy and art, but in all kinds of dimensions of experience.