Jacques Ranciere: "It is writing’s poverty that accounts for literature’s capacity for resistance."

Jacques Ranciere

Fittingly enough, we conclude on week-long feature on Jacques Ranciere’s Mute Speech with Ranciere’s concluding paragraphs:

And yet, strangely, it is writing’s poverty that accounts for literature’s capacity for resistance. The weakness of the means at its disposal to measure up to its glorious image as the language among languages is what taught it to tame the myths and suspicions that separated it from itself, to invent the fictions and metaphors of a skeptical art in the strict sense of the term: an art that investigates itself, that makes fictions from this investigation, that plays with its myths, challenges its philosophy, and challenges itself in the name of this philosophy. The inconsistent art of literature has in the end been more capable than the others of resisting what our contemporaries call the “crisis of art.” For what is this so-called “crisis of art” if not the inability of certain arts—more precisely the plastic arts with their too great wealth of means—to become skeptical, to fictionalize their limits and their hyperboles? A non-skeptical art is an art that is subject to the burden of its own “thought” and is obliged to pursue the interminable task of manifesting this thought and demonstrating itself until it reaches its own suppression. It is an art that cannot live off of its own contradiction because it never encounters its contradiction. Such is the both felicitous and infelicitous fate of the arts of the visible. They were the best endowed in the aesthetic configuration of the arts, the most apt to unite the two contradictory principles of Romantic poetics: the principle that proclaims the absolute character of style, seizing hold of every subject and every material, and the principle that affirms the universality of the doubling by which every thing becomes language. Every matter is poetic provided that one of its properties can stand for the mark of writing, the hieroglyph by which it presents itself. Every form is artistic provided that it can stand as the manifestation of pure artistic intention.

An infinity of possibilities for the arts of the visible opened at the point where these two principles meet. Today we are told they have become the domain of “anything whatever.” But what is the “anything whatever” thus bemoaned if not the “everything is possible” that the aesthetic age granted to the arts of the visible: the coincidence between the trace of history, the sign of writing, and the mark of the will to art? The arts of the visible have lived off the dual principle of Romantic aesthetics that allows every object to be art twice: once because it was willed as a manifestation of art and again because it manifests the doubling by which every thing signifies itself. If the functional diversion and topical displacement of the ready-made met with such conceptual success it is because they accomplish the exact correspondence of these two principles. They allegorize quite precisely the good fortune of an art that identifies itself as the re-presentation of all things, the re-presentation of the same as other, in which is realized the pre-established harmony between artistic intention and the twofold body of the thing, both sensuous and signifying. The problem is that an art that is assured of always making art ends up only being able to manifest its intention, although at the cost of making this manifestation a self-denunciation. Between the grandiloquence of self-promotion and that of self-denunciation, an art has little chance to forge a capacity for skepticism.

Literature, having been less fortunate, has also had less misfortune. Neither its object nor its intention have ever served it as a guarantee. This is the sense of Flaubert’s endless anxiety: a tiny deviation in the sentence and you end up with Paul de Kock. It is also the sense of Proust’s proud declaration: in the last judgment of art, intentions don’t count. Literature has the misfortune of speaking only in words—that is, speaking the same language as intentions, and thus having to make the work both the realization and the refutation of its intention. It has the misfortune to have only the language of written words at its disposal to stage myths of a writing beyond writing, everywhere inscribed in the flesh of things. This misfortune obliges it to the skeptical fortune of words that make believe they are more than words and critique this claim themselves. Thus the flow of undifferentiated and democratic ink, in staging the war between writings, has paradoxically become the refuge of art’s consistency.

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