modern times by jacques rancière

i reread this last night. it's a series of recent lectures by rancière which he worked into a short book that i think is one of his most accessible and interesting, as well as summarizing his recent work (since aesthesis, the book that permanently broke my brain).

the basic idea is that 'there is no one modern times, only a plurality of them' and 'this interlacing, and these clashes of temporalities' is at the same time 'a conflict over the distribution of life forms' (x). put simply it's an argument for thinking about politics as a fundamental conflict at the level of time.

time, narrative, politics

rancière's project is an attempt to reinterpret the 'fictional rationality' of all narrative (including historical/political narrative) from the time of aristotle (2). this rationality is 'a choice between two temporalities': 'a rational time of fiction, where things are connected by casual links' and 'a time of ordinary reality, where they simply happen one after the other.' fiction is organized around movements and reversals from one into the other (from fortune to misfortune, from ignorance to knowledge). this is hierarchical:

the hierarchy of times that grounds the rationality of human action corresponds to a hierarchy of places separating two categories of human being. there are those who live in the time of events that might happen, the time of action and its ends, which is also the time of knowledge and leisure. . . . and then there are those who inhabit the time of things that happen one after another - the circumscribed, repetitive time of those dubbed passive or mechanical men, because they live in the universe of mere means . . . . the horizontal unfolding of time is based on a vertical hierarchy that separates two forms of life, two ways of being in time - as we might simply put, the way of those who have time and the way of those who do not. (7-8)

rancière's point is that this hierarchy informs both the 'rational time of the global process of capitalist production and distribution of wealth' (12), i.e. 'a whole system of domination identified with an order of rational time management' (17), and the marxist critique of same, both oscillating between 'a time of eternal repetition and a time of decline and catastrophe' (15).

rancière's target here is the technocratic management which affirms itself by crisis, since crisis is now 'the regular functioning of an economic and social system' (16) and crisis legitimates 'the capacity of science not to cure but to manage it' (17). i think science, here, might also be understand as neoliberal governance. the problem, for rancière, is that both defer justice to a future time, affirming 'the gap between the form of life of scientists who master the time of ends and that of the ignorant imprisoned in the time of the everyday' (17).

what's rancière's alternative? to conceive of 'time as a form of life.' the 'hierarchical distribution of times' enables 'a recapture of time, a different way of inhabiting it' for working class beings (in rancière's terms). he cites the 19th century french carpenter gabriel gauny, who wrote 'a narrative of his working day.' the lesson of gauny is, in rancière's interpretation:

the working day is not merely the fragment of the capitalist process of exploitation that can be divided into the time of the reproduction of labour-power and the time of production of surplus-value. it also the daily reproduction of the way of being of those who 'do not have' time. now, this time is in principle excluded from the universe of narrative: nothing normally happens in it other than the repetition of the same gestures. to recapture time is to transform this succession of hours where nothing is ever going to happen into a time characterized by a multitude of events. (19)

gauny's decision to narrate his work is a decision 'to change the way a worker is supposed to use their hands and words', 'to take time he did not have' (20). the 'supposedly homogenous continuum' of time 'is at once the point through which the reproduction of the hierarchy of time passes and the point of a gap, a break', enabling 'a different temporality by redistributing the weights on the scales of the fates meted out to humans in accordance with time they inhabit' (21). if the stakes here seem elusive, rancière clarifies that gauny's writing--in the interval between the revolutions of 1830 and 1848--is a question of the 'time which doesn't wait' (21). the obvious influence here is walter benjamin, and the dream of 'a different common time,' a time for rancière that 'is scanned differently, imparts a different weight to some instant, links it to another moment' (22).

rancière contrasts 'the marxist revolutioanry tradition . . . of spontaneous, ephemeral revolt and future utopias' with the so-called modernist literary tradition of virginia woolf, 'those atoms of time that continually fall on our minds' (24).

modern literary fiction has put at its centre this time where, at every instant, a battle is being waged between the misfortune that is servitude renewed and the fortune that is freedom gained: a time composed of a multiplicity of manifest micro-events whose coexistence and interpenetration are counterposed to the time of subordination specific to traditional fiction. (25)

rancière is rehabilitating a literary tradition often dismissed by orthodox marxist criticism as ideologically compromised, arguing instead that the 'intertwining of several heterogeneous temporalities' is the only way to understand the present. 'we can describe this time as composed of intervals' (27). he turns then to 'the forms of collective protest that marked the 2010s, from the arab spring to the occupy moment in madrid, new york, instanbul, athens, paris, and a number of other cities' (28), which to him indicate protest at the level 'of employing time' (29).

finally, rancière argues that he's not making a normative or evaluative argument but a descriptive one, as well as critique of 'the way we narrate time' to determine the efficacy of political protest. for rancière, the marxist framework of 'historical necessity' reproduces 'the time of domination' and so tautologically excludes the possibility of alternative forms of life. rancière suggests that we might rethink time through 'the singularity of moments when this hierarchy [of times] finds itself suspended, halted or diverted in the individual experience of a working day, in the novel in moments of inactivity, or in assemblies of crowds that interrupt the normal course of things' (31).

it's a big argument, and it makes sense that he's spent a lot of time trying to flesh it out. i certainly like the idea of breaking from narratives whereby, say, standing rock or the floyd protests are 'ineffective' because they didn't lead to some governmental policy. and i think, descriptively, rancière is best equipped to think our present political moment. certainly no one has taken walter benjamin's history essay as much to heart as rancière seems to have. i do worry a bit about the utility of rethinking time, and especially how individualistic this seems to be at times, but i also like how rancière is less concerned with people than the activities to which people are allowed to engage. it's a good chapter. i'll write about the rest...later.

okay need to procrastinate so back to it.

modernity revisited

this is rancière's critique of the concept of modernism/modernity--what he sarcastically calls 'the modernist doxa'--condensed, which is nice. rancière is right to point out that the typical story, in which art was once mimetic but then became modern when it turned to autonomy and medium/form, relies on an absolutely absurd story about the history of art prior to modernity.

rather, 'art is itself a determinate historical configuration' (33). it is a 'regime of experience' that 'makes it possible for words, narrative forms, colours, sounds, movements, or rhythms to be perceived and conceived 'art'' (34). which is not to say that rancière's story is necessarily less absurd, since he immediately makes the claim that art 'in the singular, with a capital' as 'a common sphere of existence' 'has only existed the western world since the end of the eighteenth century' (34).

the modernist doxa is based on a simplistic idea equating representation with the servile imitation of reality, the better to contrast it with the modern emancipation of an art exclusively devoted to exploring its own medium. but representation was something quite different. it was legislation regarding imitation, subjecting artistic practices to a set of rules that determined which subjects were suitable for artistic treatment and which form suited them, depending on their high or low character. (35)

rather than a move from the figurative to the abstract, what is called modernism is a result of 'the destruction of a hierarchal order inscribed in the very forms of the perceptible and conceivable.' this may seem needlessly rehabilitative. however, rancière points out that partisans of the modernist doxa commit two giant errors: 'they translate the slow, impersonal changes of a regime of experience into the decisions of conscious artistic volition' and 'they connect these decisions with an attempt to coincide with a temporal mutation' (36).

so, rancière's alternative is this: a 'montage of times' (40), 'an interlacing of different temporalities, a complex interplay of relations between anticipation and belatedness, fragmentation and continuity, motion and immobility' (37). he establishes this through a critique of clement greenberg's hegelian art history in the 'avant-garde & kitsch' essay that established the logic of the avant-garde. he then quotes, quite weirdly, emerson alongside marx, both as thinkers who figure 'modern time' as 'a time that it not yet contemporaneous with itself.' emerson asks for the poet who can articulate american life, while marx argues that germany's apparent underdeveloped state actually enables it to skip the bourgeois political transitions of france. both use 'anticipation derived from the backwardness of the present to construct an unprecedented future' (46). if 'we are not yet modern,' art is 'an articulation of contradictory temporalities' (43), 'the belatedness of modernity' (45).

he then turns to a reading of dziga vertov's 1929 movie man with a movie camera, which attempted to construct 'a new fabric of sensible experience.' it is a montage of a single day, like ulysses or mrs dalloway: 'the day is not so much a stretch of time as a paradigm of temporality.

the time of the day day in the big city is a time of coexistence where the same kind of miniscule events happen to all those who cross paths in the street, while following different trajectories, or contribute from afar, without seeing each other, to the same anonymous existence. (48)

vertov 'constructs a communist day' 'by making all the activities equivalent and simultaneous' (50). rather than a celebration of the modern machine or taylorist/fordist division of labor, vertov's 'montage of activities is, in reality, an extended parataxis' that 'mingles heterogeneous temporalities' (52). the film ends with dance, in which

continuous movement, which incessantly generates another movement, abolishes the very contrast between work and rest. the equality of movement and rest has a long history in the aesthetic regime of art. it already characterized the aesthetic condition as defined by schiller as a state of equilibrium between activity and passivity. (56)

rancière is very cleverly synthesizing marx's communist philosophy with both schiller's & kant's aesthetic philosophy, since both ultimately do not distinguish 'between the end and means of activity' (58). the play drive and purposiveness without purpose are, after all, other ways of describing free association between men.

he turns to the implications this has for a communist politics. there are two temporalities for two communisms: the time of party-state, which must first establish the conditions for communism; and there is 'an aesthetic communism' which wants to establish in the present 'a common sensorium of equality' (60-61). he turns back to greenberg's art history, pointing out that the marxist greenberg's entire theory ironically rests (and quite explicitly) on the premise that it's bad for the working class to have access to leisure time.

and then, there's the dance chapter.

the moment of dance

dance is 'a paradigm of art.' a paradigm of art is a 'relationship between what pertains to art and what does not pertain to it: for example, being a painting in a museum and a commodity in a shop' and a 'relationship between thought and that which is not thought: the light of a picture, the development of a melody, or the movement of a body in space.' it is in effect a 'system of relations between thought, space, sight, light, sound and movement' (66-67).

returning to the dancer scene in vertov's man with a movie camera, this dance 'tells no story. it expresses no invisible truth of human emotions. nor does it express unconscious forces moving bodies. it expresses nothing but movement: movement for movement's sake, free from any goal to be attained and from any particular sentiment to be expressed or any unconscious force expressing itself through it' (73).

rancière leads us through reconsiderations of the identity of inactivity and activity in aesthetics, movement and reverie, isadora duncan, kant, marx, 'the free movement of the dancing body' (76):

the fundamental identity of the aesthetic mode of experience and the communist mode of being receives adequate expression when the movements of dance . . . come to synthesize and symbolize the movements of the communist day, those equal movements that construct a new common world. (77)

dance is not about things in common so much as 'a paradigm of relationality' that 's invariably linked materially, or referred symbolically, to something other than itself' (78). reading mallarme on dance, rancière points out the 'play of metonymies' that dance activates (80), 'a general economy of displacements, analogies and translations' that 'exists only for a potential translator,' 'only as the translation of them made by the spectator's reverie' (81).

a simple example can suffice: certain movements of dance are meant to evoke the movement of waves, hence not a human body but a body of water, but this is only accomplished if the audience translates the one into the other. yet this translation can't be constrained by artistic intention, because the very fact that it can happen means it can happen infinitely (this sounds like derrida imo), so what dance signifies is something other than itself that is in fact /anything other than itself./

which means that dance expresses an equality 'where all activities are images that translate one another interminably' (82). in other words, 'one form of movement, must translate the equivalence of all the movements, thereby creating a gap' (84) with the help of 'the invisible labour of the spectator's reverie' (85). rancière turns to montage, the filmic form 'that puts together things that do not go together' (84), although he unconvincingly argues that montage does rely on a principle of selection while, for reasons that go unexplained, dance does not. then we go back to kant, 'aesthetic ideas', etc (87).

rancière ultimately wants to refuse the priority of the artist over the worker in representing community life: 'an emancipated man or woman is a person capable of speaking about the activity they perform, capable of conceiving this activity as a form of language. . . . it is not a system of signs, but a power of address that aims to weave a certain form of community' (92).

if vertov tries to create an egalitarian montage, i guess, dance expresses the capacity of anyone to be anything more effectively, is the idea. so that's dance done: the final chapter tackles cinema.

cinematic moments

cinema is the art with the 'capacity to put several times in a single time' through its 'different modes of temporal articulation: between continuity and fragmentation, sequence and repetition, succession and coexistence' (96). vertov, once again, makes an appearance, as someone whose cinematic 'communication is not a way of talking about the reality of the communism being constructed in the soviet union' but 'a way of constructing it' since the purpose of cinematic language is 'not to transmit information, but to link activities' (97).

film is 'a way of connecting times' and here we return to the unit of 'an ordinary day', 'a fictional structure characteristic of the age' (98). rancière summarizes the earlier arguments of the book, emphatically arguing that 'fragmentation is not a form of separation signalling a loss of meaning. on the contrary, it is the formation of a new common sense' (100-101). 'fragmentation is not a way of separating' but 'a way of uniting' that 'perceptibly constructs the common time of the new life' (101). the film relies not on the time of the chronicle or the time of myth but 'the time of pure performance, which unfolds itself before withdrawing into itself' (103). rancière contrasts vertov with eisenstein's 'desynchronization of times' (104) before switching to american cinema.

rancière's american example is, bizarrely, john ford's 1940 adaptation of the grapes of wrath. but i will say this is probably the best reading in the book, especially with the accompanying images, and probably the most convincing example of his argument. it's hard to summarize so i'll quote: with 'a moment detached from the plot,' 'the relationship between story and history splits in two' (109). within the conventional story and its 'path from obscurity to clarity' there is 'the time of an inscription of the irreparable' (111). 'it is through this split that it bears witness to history - that is to say, what capitalism does to human beings' (112).

then he does a reading of pedro costa's colossal youth, which i haven't seen and don't really understand but sounds cool. this film bears witness 'to what colonization and immigration have done to human beings' 'situated in a kind of extra-temporality' (117). rancière's argument is, again, benjaminian, an argument against progressivist models, even marxist ones, that rely on a 'time of progress, which is merely the time of the progress of exploitation' (119). finally, he points out the irony of elitist, highbrow associations that confine to museums the films that reject the aristotlean narrative hierarchy.

and that's the book! it's good. it's weird. i'll probably read it a few more times in my life i guess. i find rancière to be a very compelling writer, stylistically. i think his arguments against orthodox marxism have to some extent been addressed within marxist debates but i know that rancière's whole schtick is being-more-marxist-than-the-marxists so that's fine.

i do wonder...well, i saw sianne ngai give a talk once and it fucking ruled. but in the q&a, someone asked: why situate your project within aesthetic philosophy? which is to say that ngai was maybe shadow boxing with an obsolete tradition. i don't think that's quite true, but it is an interesting point. maybe the reason rancière's argument has such force when faced with greenberg et al is because aesthetics is stuck in a moment in the past, and maybe to move outside of aesthetics would mean confronting a more complex set of questions. i mean, greenberg wrote that essay in 1939. but i like aesthetics and i like marx, so i'm glad both ngai and rancière have stuck around.