Rancière’s “Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?” and Relational Aesthetics

大明一圖 (Da Ming Yi Tu “Great Ming Dynasty Amalgamated Map”) Oldest Surviving Chinese Map of the World (1389).

This post is going to primarily focus on Rancière’s discussion of dissensus in his essay about the shift from human rights to Western nations’ right to humanitarian intervention (“Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man? ) I see a conceptual similarity between Rancière’s “dissensus” and Laclau & Mouffe’s “antagonism,” which was employed by Claire Bishop in her critique of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics. My claim below is that dissensus is an economic relationship and I will explore the onomastic calls surrounding such a relationship. I end up making a strong claim about the nature of mind from this.

Bishop’s has been the primary critical reception of Bourriaud’s book and of relational aesthetics as an art movement (at least anecdotally, whenever I ask someone why they dislike the concept of relational aesthetics I am told that Fluxus did it first and Bishop nailed the coffin with her essay “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics“). I agree with Liam Gillick, that Claire Bishop fails to establish a critique of Nicolas Bourriaud’s book and instead misapplies Laclau & Mouffe’s notion of antagonism to some artists identified with relational artworks. While I ultimately agree that there are shortcomings in the book Relational Aesthetics (and I have a paucity of interactions with works of art said to be relational), I think it’s unfortunate that there is such a dearth of considered thinking about the relational claims made by Bourriaud in his book. It’s my feeling that a sustained focus on relationality, in all aspects of life, will be a generative activity and I trust that in this relational focus we will find novel responses to perennial problems.

But enough about the Bourriaud-Bishop-Gillick triangle; on with the Rancière thinking-with.

from Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man? (2004) South Atlantic Quarterly 103.2/3:297-310.
(304)
[T]he construction of a dissensus. A dissensus is not a conflict of interests, opinions, or values; it is a division put in the ‘‘common sense’’: a dispute about what is given, about the frame within which we see something as given. [….] This is what I call a dissensus: putting two worlds in one and the same world. A political subject, as I understand it, is a capacity for staging such scenes of dissensus.
[….]
The very difference between man and citizen is not a sign of disjunction proving that the rights are either void or tautological. It is the opening of an interval for political subjectivization. Political names are litigious names, names whose extension and comprehension are uncertain and which open for that reason the space of a test or verification. Political subjects build such cases of verification. They put to test the power of political names, their extension and comprehension. They not only confront the inscriptions of rights to situations of denial; they put together the world where those rights are valid and the world where they are not. They put together a relation of inclusion and a relation of exclusion.
[….]
The generic name of the subjects who stage such cases of verification is the name of the demos, the name of the people. [….] But the demos—or the people—does not mean the lower classes. Nor does it mean bare life. Democracy is not the power of the poor. It is the power of those who have no qualification for exercising power.

(305) Paul’s note: moving into a community of the dissensus
In the third book of Laws, Plato [….] there is an anomaly, a ‘‘qualification’’ for power that he calls ironically God’s choice, meaning by that mere chance: the power gained by drawing lots, the name of which is democracy. Democracy is the power of those who have no specific qualification for ruling, except the fact of having no qualification. As I interpret it, the demos—the political subject as such—has to be identified with the totality made by those who have no ‘‘qualification.’’ I called it the count of the uncounted—or the part of those who have no part. It does not mean the population of the poor; it means a supplementary part, an empty part that separates the political community from the count of the parts of the population.
[….]
Political subjects are surplus subjects. They inscribe the count of the uncounted as a supplement. Politics does not separate a specific sphere of political life from the other spheres. It separates the whole of the community from itself. [….] You can count the community as the sum of its parts—of its groups and of the qualifications that each of them bears. I call this way of counting police. You can count a supplement to the sum, a part of those who have no part, which separates the community from its parts, places, functions, and qualifications. This is politics, which is not a sphere but a process.
[….]
There is no man of the Rights of Man, but there is no need for such a man. The strength of those rights lies in the back-and-forth movement between the first inscription of the right and the dissensual stage on which it is put to test.

(306) Paul’s note: consensus versus dissensus
But the identification of the subject of the Rights of Man with the subject deprived of any right is not only the vicious circle of a theory; it is also the result of an effective reconfiguration of the political field, of an actual process of depoliticization. This process is what is known by the name of consensus. Consensus means much more than the reasonable idea and practice of settling political conflicts by forms of negotiation and agreement, and by allotting to each party the best share compatible with the interests of other parties. It means the attempt to get rid of politics by ousting the surplus subjects and replacing them with real partners, social groups, identity groups, and so on. Correspondingly, conflicts are turned into problems that have to be sorted out by learned expertise and a negotiated adjustment of interests. Consensus means closing the spaces of dissensus by plugging the intervals and patching over the possible gaps between appearance and reality or law and fact.
[….]
The aim of consensual practice is the identity of law and fact. The law has to become identical to the natural life of society. To put it in other terms, consensus is the reduction of democracy to the way of life of a society, to its ethos—meaning by this word both the abode of a group and its lifestyle.

(307)
As a consequence, the political space, which was shaped in the very gap between the abstract literalness of the rights and the polemic about their verification, turns out to diminish more and more every day. Ultimately, those rights appear actually empty. They seem to be of no use. And when they are of no use, you do the same as charitable persons do with their old clothes. You give them to the poor. Those rights that appear to be useless in their place are sent abroad, along with medicine and clothes, to people deprived of medicine, clothes, and rights. It is in this way, as the result of this process, that the Rights of Man become the rights of those who have no rights, the rights of bare human beings subjected to inhuman repression and inhuman conditions of existence. They become humanitarian rights, the rights of those who cannot enact them, the victims of the absolute denial of right.

Optical Telegraph Network in France. (1793-1852)

So.

It seems to me that the movement is thus:
consensus –> the emptying of the Rights of Man –> Humanitarian Rights (rights of intervention in a state of exception)

I’d like to hereon focus on the “the opening of an interval for political subjectivization” that political names open for verification. (304)

If political subjects, through being named “put to test the power of political names, their extension and comprehension” and through this “they put together the world where those rights are valid and the world where they are not,” then we should spend some time thinking about Xunzi’s (荀子’s) primary concern: Proper Naming. (Sidenote: in looking for some good links to Xunzi’s thinking on zhengming 正名 I found Kurtis Hagen’s PhD dissertation which has a section on “attunement of names” and discusses human rights through the constructivist lens–which he gets from Searle–that he employs in reading and translating Xunzi.) For want of time today I will not spend any more time on Xunzi and instead focus on the proper naming of political subjects by way of onomastics.

Bishop’s critique of relational aesthetics is, essentially, that “the relations set up by relational aesthetics are not intrinsically democratic, as Bourriaud suggests, since they rest too comfortably within an ideal of subjectivity as whole and of community as immanent togetherness.” (2004, 67) She goes on to state that the, “tasks facing us today are to analyze how contemporary art addresses the viewer and to assess the quality of the audience relations it produces: the subject position that any work presupposes and the democratic notions it upholds, and how these are manifested in our experience of the work.” (2004, 78)

Michael Warner’s “Publics and Counterpublics” does a great job laying-out some of the problem of defining a public (and thereby its queer counterpublic) and we will get to that tomorrow (maybe). Right now I want to think a little about dissensus and naming a public.

Dissensus is an economic relationship.

In the above sentence I mean that dissensus is not so dissimilar from the social relations between the employer and the employed: yoked together is mutual dependence and inherent conflict.

When I worked in Japan I met another American researcher that was visiting from his home institution in Paris. He joked once about the manner in which his lab’s administrative meetings were dominated by argument–not because there were serious disagreements but because, as he saw it, the French could not have said to discuss something unless at least one person disagreed even if the person disagreeing actually agreed. If my expat friend was correct in his little ethnography, then dissensus is quintessentially French (which the Confucian in me would then discuss as a good thing, but there is no time right now).

Allow me to play with this economic relationship that I see in dissensus. The term economics comes to us in the English-speaking world from the Greeks:
οἰκονομία = οἶκος + νόμος
oikonomia (economics) = oikos (house) + nómos (law, ordinance)
So economics is the study of how one manages one’s home

But what kind of νόμος (nómos) is it that we’re dealing with? There are several definitions of νόμος (nómos) and the development of the term in itself I think will reveal something for us as we try to more rigorously understand what could be at work in a theory of relational aesthetics. And I think it’s important to do this with relational aesthetics because as a guiding idea for trying to understand artworks from a particular group in a particular time period is too limiting for the obligations that living in the world has us all be complicit with. As Derrida stated at his friend’s funeral, “Any gesture is always a gesture toward another.” Any gesture. In the case of Bourriaud’s book there just hasn’t been, to my awareness (such as it is) a fair shake of the relational claims that would support his thinking.

So what kind of νόμος (nómos) are we dealing with in the economics relationship of dissensus?

It’s a question of how I will mete-out (νέμω nemō “I distribute” is the origin of νόμος  nómos) my resources in the exchange. This exchange is a call and response, it’s a question of whose name (νόμε nóme) I will sing out (νόμος  nómos also refers to a type of song).

If I am good at this naming (ὀνομαστικός onomastikos) a celebrity is possible (in the sense that ὄνομα ónoma means “fame” and is cognate with “making a name for oneself” this action being the consummation of one’s excellence in the face of uncertainty). This consummate performance of ὀνομάζω onamázdo naming is done appropriately (not correctly) I argue because the term ὀνομάζω onamázdo comes from the term γινώσκω ginosko which is the form of knowledge that one achieves in feeling-out, of apperception (and is also the Jewish idiom for having sexual relations with, as we say today in English “to know someone in the biblical sense”).

I choose the term apperception not for a love of Kant but because I want to argue that perception that reflects upon itself is seeing its mutuality.

A mind is not a brain. A mind is not located within the physical organ called the brain. “A mind,” is a deceptive phrase. Brains exist within bodies (but are connected to all things through the physical connections we all share with all reality), minds exist between bodies.

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