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.