Poetics of society: expression and the mute speech

Mute Speech: Literature, Critical Theory, and Politics
Jacques Rancière (trans. James Swenson)
Columbia University Press

Inspired by the excellent reviews written by my fellow Overland critic-blogger Alison Croggon, I’ve decided to review a recent book on poetics instead of a new work of poetry. This is partly to advocate a more engaged and analytical approach to reviewing literature, and to also celebrate the work of one of the most important living philosophers of the Left, the French thinker Jacques Rancière. The title under review is not particularly recent – it was first published in France in 1998 – but was only translated into and published in English last year, and its view of art and literature is very much new and groundbreaking. It is, in the words of the book’s superb introduction by Gabriel Rockhill, ‘a major offensive against the modernist doxa (and its postmodernist avatars).’

As a student of literary studies and a budding creative writer in the 1990s, I was subjected to all manner of postmodernist doxa as I struggled to write essays on literature and produce a poetics of my own. While some of these ideas – notably those by the very brilliant Michel Foucault, a philosopher-historian very unjustly appropriated by my postmodernist nemeses – were quite interesting, the postmodernists’ concomitant rejection of politics (in the name of ‘fluidity’, ‘flexibility’ and some such late-capitalist ideological tropes) and aesthetics (also in the name of ‘fluidity’, ‘flexibility’ and the like) annoyed me both as a young man of the Left and as a writer interested in producing effective poetry and fiction of my own.

Unbeknown to me, Europe’s most exciting newer philosophers had already moved on from postmodernism – which, in final evaluation, could be seen as a rather lacklustre attempt by the Anglophone intelligentsia to poorly reify a host of rather fascinating and complex ideas by Continental philosophers – and were on the verge of unleashing a number of radical books on the arts and on poetry. In 1996 the Italian Giorgio Agamben published The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, a rigorous exploration of the ‘categorical structures’ of literary production, and 1998 saw the first French publication of Alain Badiou’s Handbook of Inaesthetics, with its proposal of viewing literature through the prism of ‘aesthetic regimes’, alongside the book under review, Rancière’s Mute Speech.

Rancière’s book is, upon first reading, nothing less than an engrossing history of the development of modern European literature. Similar in many ways to Foucault’s historiographical works at their very best, Rancière records and interprets the key moments and texts of modern aesthetic theory from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, reading and contextualising the ideas of philosophers such as Voltaire, Novalis, Hegel and Fichte alongside the work of Balzac, Flaubert, Hugo and Mallarmé. This book is not, however, another pompous chronicle of the supposed greatness of Western literature, but a profound investigation into the ‘silent revolution’ which, during the period covered by this book, transformed writing from a medium for classical representation to the art of social or communal expression. And, according to Rancière, contemporary writing is still more or less functioning according to this modality, the idea that ‘literature is an expression of society’.

This short book-review does not permit me to explicate the truly radical nature and implications of Rancière’s singular idea. Seen as ‘direct expression of the poetic power’ of a given society, poetry is no longer solely the creation of individuals in possession of certain – ‘lyrical’ or ‘experimental’ – skills, but a body of works which simultaneously ‘manifests and symbolises’ ‘the state of things, language and manners that gave birth’ to poems in the first place. More specifically, this poetics ‘unites the work of the inspired poet and the poem in stone of the anonymous people’. Central to Rancière’s thesis is that the human collective whose innate linguistic power is expressed by the artist can only be articulated – and not, in the classical sense of the work, represented – by a ‘the poem in stone’ or ‘the mute speech’ of ‘silent’ images, figures and motifs.

As an example of such ‘muteness’ in a work of modern literature, Rancière cites the role and presentation of the image of cultivated fields in Balzac’s The Country Parson. In contrast to the ‘murderous’ and ‘overly talkative’ books in the story – romantic books which compel the protagonist Véronique to seduce a man who later commits murder due to his forbidden love for her – we have the image of the farms that an older Véronique pays to have irrigated for the villagers as implicit and unspoken – i.e. mute – repentance for her earlier crime. What Balzac achieves is

another mode of writing, another way to trace the lines that communicate the spirit of life to the humble people and give the community its soul. The lines traced by the canals, bringing prosperity to the village, are the text of Véronique’s repentance, written on the land itself.

An immediately recognisable challenge posed by Rancière to modernists and postmodernists is his engaged reading of Realist fiction. Realism has, of course, long been the arch-nemesis of postmodern theory, and the work of many a postmodernist writer has been celebrated and canonised for precisely being ‘anti-Realist’. According to Rancière, however, the aesthetic power of so-called Realist writers far outweighs the romanticism of ‘overly talkative’ simulacra of romanticism/postmodernity. More radically and fundamentally, Rancière rejects the divisions of modern literature into ‘various “schools”’, such as Realism, Symbolism, Modernism, etc., as he sees these phenomena as ‘all determined by the same principle’, that is, by the modern poetics of expression.

The political dimensions of Rancière’s aesthetics are clear: his is a poetics of radical democracy and plurality, one in which art is neither a middle-class aesthete’s status symbol, nor a consumable commodity nor, for that matter, a disruptive intervention in the dominant culture. It is due to this last implication, among other things, that Rancière has been engaged in a robust debate with his fellow radical contemporary, French philosopher Alain Badiou. This debate – bringing to mind Walter Benjamin’s and Theodor Adorno’s disagreements from an earlier stage of Marxist aesthetics – is far from over, and yet it is infinitely more interesting and constructive than the sort of thing (‘fluidity’, ‘flexibility’, etc. ) with which I was tormented as young would-be writer and scholar.

Ali Alizadeh

Ali Alizadeh's latest books are Towards the End and Marx and Art. He's a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies at Monash University.

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  1. Many thanks for this Ali,and its good to read a review of a book of theory that’s so pertinent to this time and place.

    This is helping me to figure out why I feel a bit lost at the moment:

    “Rancière rejects the divisions of modern literature into ‘various “schools”’, such as Realism, Symbolism, Modernism, etc., as he sees these phenomena as ‘all determined by the same principle’, that is, by the modern poetics of expression.”

    1. Thanks, Adam. I think for a writer like yourself — whose work, in my opinion, transcends ‘schools’ — the more recent developments in Continental aesthetics would be of interest. Despite having said some regrettable things in the past — about ‘innovative’ vs. ‘conservative’ poetry — I now feel that the real discussion to be had has nothing to do with form (language, etc) but with aesthetics, that is, the relationship between art and truth. So, I too think the work of people like Ranciere is very relevant at the moment. Really glad you liked the review.

      1. Useful. I feel somewhat like Adam, manifested within myself as a kind of exhaustion, literal and otherwise, with ‘schools’ and the either/or positionings. The idea of the ‘the poem in stone’ has me wondering, about mute speech, as well as lines written on land (but in a text about …). Do we talk too much (am thinking)?

        1. Hi, Jill. Yes, I think people in general, and us poets in particular, talk too much. One thing I really admire about fiction writers — and I count myself among them too — is that they keep their ideas (about plot, character, setting, etc) to themselves until they’ve actually produced something substantial. I don’t personally mind ‘schools’, or at least movements, as long as they result in new, interesting work; but it’s scenes, cliques and gangs I find rather irritating. (I hope the situation in Adelaide is not be as bad as in Melbourne & Sydney.)

          1. Schools only fit, and allow, certain poets, is the problem I’ve found. The new and interesting is often happening out of school, amongst the non-belongers. Movements are fine so long as they keep moving. Cliques and gangs are everywhere (Adel is too small for any kind of scene). If they were true irritants it would be not so bad but I guess you mean something else. Here I do my own thing, so the only talking is between me, myself and I. Perhaps that makes me not a writer of fiction but a fiction of a poet.

  2. Yes, I too enjoyed this review, as theoretical texts on poetics are way up there when it comes to my favourite reading matter, and I often wonder why I read reviews of literary texts I may never read, mostly due to reviewers failing to put the text under review into any theoretical / aesthetic / political framework.

    I note too that you note the limitations of the short book review and its inability to spell out the important socio-political implications of any poetics, but that said, I wonder if the Rancière / Badiou leftist theoretical poetics dichotomy is not itself a binary like those tired binaries of old (classicism / romanticism; realism / modernism; symbolism / expressionism – I can’t think of any more and don’t know even if I got those right, bored as I am just writing them down) and ultimately meaningless too (other than the reading pleasure afforded through aesthetic political engagement) if not a constructive and instructive social dialectic (which it may well be)?

  3. Thanks, Dennis. I’m not too sure about the Ranciere/Badiou argument myself, actually, as I feel their views have quite a bit in common. Ranciere even uses the word ‘affirmation’ to describe what some of the writers in his book do, and the name of Badiou’s ‘manifesto for the arts’ is ‘affirmationism’. (A terrific, terrifically polemical read, btw, from his books titled, ermmmm, ‘Polemics’.) But it’s also clear that Ranciers is not at all keen on Badiou’s own creative writing; he has some rather harsh things to say about Badiou’s plays in ‘Aesthetics and Its Discontents’.

    1. Thank you for the honest response (not that I expected less). I will read the texts you mention. Interesting too your response to Adam Aitken vis-a-vis form and aesthetics. I’ve wondered for a few years now about the whole Ashbery / Language (you know what I mean) thing and how that relates as an aesthetic to a deteriorating world political situation. Not that a plain truth response to power is easy to pull off, and can sound and read false when articulated by and from a safe social position (the old middle class people singing working class songs to middle class people thing).

      1. I know exactly what you mean, Dennis. And that’s partly why thinkers like Badiou are useful; according to my reading of his work, neither the playful, ironic aesthetics (of, say, Language, etc) nor a plain reflection of, as you put it, working class songs really do the trick. But what if, say, these were to be combined either in contradictory or conciliatory modes? That’s the sort of thing i try to do in my poems/fiction, incidentally.

  4. Hallo again, Ali. I say this as I reviewed a number of collections of poetry in the recent past for Cordite Poetry Review and exchanged emails with you during the editing process.
    Anyway on with my response! There are a number of things I could respond to, but I’ll focus on one.
    If I understand one of the considerations you’re attempting to do with your highlighting of Ranciere is to bring to the attention in the current moment, a writer who has beavered away for decades, writing politically useful and pertinent commentary and who’s work has been and is ignored and/or negated. What comes to my mind is the trajectory of one of my favourite theoreticians, Raymond Williams. He was an influential Marxist contributor to early British cultural studies as well as promoting cultural materialism. His work has hardly mentioned among theoretical domains for decades. I’d be interested to know if you’ve heard of him and if I’m understanding accurately this thread in your review.

    1. Hi Peter. Thanks for the comments and yes, I certainly have heard of & read a great deal of work by R. Williams — a brilliant thinkers (and I think I’ve referred to him in a previous piece on this website.) In terms of this discussion, Williams and Raniciere would probably agree on a historical method that emphasises the significance of socio-political context in the production and configuration of literature, but the former is more concerned with developments in philosophy — particularly in German Idealism — and Williams is more interested in social stratification and modes of production. Would be interesting to synthesise the two, I reckon.

  5. Thank you for very good introduction. Can i expect more elaboration in the book regarding the factors that created the conditions of possibility for ‘silent revolution’in Europe at that particular point of time?

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