The Politics of Literature
by Jacques Rancière
(translated by Julie Rose)
Paperback, 206 pages;
ISBN: 978 0 745 64531 5
Jacques Rancière has been active since 1965, when, aged 25, he wrote part of Louis Althusser’s Lire le Capital (Reading Capital). It has only been in the past ten years, though, that his reputation in the English-speaking world has seriously taken off. Whether this is because his time has come, or simply because he fits the profile required by an expanding demand for continental philosophy in English-language editions (one major beneficiary of this, Slavoj Žižek, provides an Afterword for Continuum’s edition of The Politics of Aesthetics), remains to be seen. Julie Rose’s translation of Politique de la Littérature, a collection of ten essays, is the latest to join the fray.
The key concept here is, unsurprisingly, Rancière’s definition of Literature, which runs consistently throughout the book. Literature for Rancière is not just all and any literary text ever, but instead a particular invention of the 19th century and a product brought to perfection by Flaubert, who features in this book more than anyone else. In Rancière’s view, before the radical break of Literature, texts were caught up in a circuit of logic, order, and (behind this) domination: “a complete hierarchical system of the affinity between characters, situations, and forms of expression”. Each social class had a genre and a mode of speech, and so-called literary texts were merely a way of confirming this to people.
Subsequently, the revolution of Literature as such is the revolution of “the reign of writing, of speech circulating outside of any determined relationship of address”. In Literature, as is evident to any reader of Balzac, Flaubert, or Proust, the trivial detail rules, and the reason for this means everything:
Everything talks. Meanings are no longer established according to the plausibility of intentions and expressions. But also, everything talks equally. No one thing talks more than any other thing. The abundant difference of signs is then lost in the equal insignificance of states of things. The written sign turns into any old bit of garbage or into sheer difference in intensity – to the point where nothing more can be read except the indifferent vibration of atoms in their random variations.
The Politics of Literature feeds all sorts through this definition, so that not just Flaubert and Proust, but also Wordsworth, Tolstoy, Mallarmé, Freud, and the Modern Notion of History are seen as symptoms of the radical shift to the regime of Literature. For the Literary Studies nerd (at whom this collection must at least in part be aimed), the most thrilling example of this comes at the times when Rancière shows how the major mode of reading texts taught worldwide in university Literature departments is also folded within Literature’s paradigm shift. Any Lit student will be familiar with the idea of “analys[ing] prosaic realities” gestured towards in texts “as fantasmagorias bearing witness to the hidden truth about a society”, as “tell[ing] the truth about the surface by tunnelling into the depths and then formulating the unconscious social text that is to be deciphered there”. This is the standard historicist’s method, the way people have dug out the colonial exploitation propping up Mansfield Park, or the shifting notions of property rights hiding behind Wuthering Heights. Rancière argues, though, that Literature got there first, that Literature itself “provided the conceptual schemas with which people claim to be demystifying it”; the writer like Flaubert was always already “the archaeologist or geologist who gets the mute witnesses of common history to speak”.
What this gymnastic twist also shows is the major structuring principle in Rancière’s thought: the dialectic. In this sense, the book’s one slight anomaly, the 1979 essay ‘The Gay Science of Bertolt Brecht’ (the only piece in the collection written before 1997), provides an illuminating introduction to Rancière’s thought. The essay stands here as a kind of sparring match where Rancière pits himself against another master of the Marxist dialectic. In true dialectical style, no one really wins, but everyone goes home happy realising that there was a broader encompassing term that better conceptualised their battle. Anyone at all familiar with Slavoj Žižek or Fredric Jameson will be perfectly at home here.
Having talked about Rancière’s concept of Literature and come to the dialectic, surely here is the point to mention the Politics of that Literature. Rancière’s ideas about everything talking, of a new democracy of literary objects, of revolutions and epistemological breaks already suggest a Politics, and it is clear that his interest in Flaubert, et. al. lies in their emancipatory potential. However, to some extent, the Politics stays in the background in this collection. The Politics of Literature is better seen as a small part carved out of a broader whole, that of Rancière’s entire output, which puts forward a bona fide left-wing project with real roots in actions rather than mere ideas.
There are other sides of Rancière shown here too. For example, flashes appear throughout the volume of a true philosopher of the multiple, a philosopher of supplement and excess rather than lack, and also one with a real interest in the idea of the Event. This is brought to the fore in the forbidding final essay on another more recent discovery of English-language philosophy publishers, Alain Badiou. But perhaps the ultimate value of The Politics of Literature is its status as a volume of literary theory, pure and simple. One major sign of this is the fact that, whereas many continental philosophers see Plato as the be-all-and-end-all of early philosophy, Rancière takes constant interest in Aristotle, and especially the Aristotle of the Poetics.
For some, the term “French philosopher” is cause to reach for one’s revolver. But the fact that the very idea of a poetics is what seems to engage Rancière most here should attract even the hardiest detractor. It is refreshing to see that, while so many writers on the subject believe that any discussion of literature must necessarily cede to a discussion of history or metaphysics, Rancière still believes that a notion of poetics can be found, and that literature in itself can still be spoken about.