Flaubert’s parrot

Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Literature, trans. Julie Rose, Polity Press, Cambridge and Malden MA, 2011. 215 pp., £55.00 hb., £17.99 pb., 978 0 74564 531 5 hb., 978 0 74564 530 8 pb.

David Cunningham

The ongoing role played by French philosophy in underwriting the contemporaneity of anglophone theory has entailed, since the 1970s, the development of a particularly complex relationship to literature as an academic discipline. This has had something to do with what Alain Badiou has described as postwar French philosophy’s own ‘singular alliance between philosophy and literature’, from Sartre and Blanchot to Derrida and Deleuze. But it has been at least as much a function of the disciplinary conservatism of academic philosophy in Britain and the United States, which meant that it was the (relatively indisciplined) institutional site of literary studies – made up of ‘a concoction of homemade disciplines’, as Roman Jakobson complained – that became a space of refuge for those doing certain kinds of ‘philosophical’ work. As often as not, this meant simply that theory amounted to philosophy (or, at any rate, philosophical commentary) ‘done’ by people who paid their rent by teaching in departments of literature. Still, the becoming near-synonymous of literary theory and theory per se during the 1980s and 1990s, and the fact that the forms of desire invested in French thought found their central context within literary studies, as well as their primary pedagogical site in the teaching of students otherwise occupied by novels and poems, no doubt affected the character of its reception in the English-speaking world. And despite its continual obituaries, and the undoubted shift back towards historicism in mainstream ‘lit. crit.’ (albeit of a vaguely post-Foucauldian sort), theory remains big business, at least so far as academic ‘business’ goes. So there continues to be a considerable stake in finding ways to assimilate the latest ‘French philosophy’ into literary theory as a signifier of the latter’s continued modernity today.

As yet, however, such a project has not proved easy: either because, like the currently modish ‘speculative realism’ of Meillasoux, the neoclassical character of the philosophy in question has little obvious relevance to the kinds of issues that literary or cultural theory has historically engaged, or because, as with Badiou himself, what readings are to be found within his work so obviously reduce the literary text to the status of an abstract exemplum from the philosophy itself. It would be unsurprising, then, if, among the current crop of celebrity names constitutive of ‘contemporary French philosophy’, a good deal of hope might well be attached to the oeuvre of Jacques Rancière – a hope which, presumably, the publication of The Politics of Literature seeks to satisfy.

First published in France in 2006, the book brings together nine essays authored since 1997, along with (somewhat inexplicably) a previously uncollected piece on Brecht from 1979. From the perspective of literary studies, what novelty it offers comes from its recognizably ‘French’, philosophically inflected and post- Foucauldian focus upon the concept of ‘literature’ as designating a historically delimited ‘practice of the art of writing’. At the same time, it gives an insight into the degree to which Rancière’s more recent writings on the ‘aesthetic regime’ derive their initial impetus from an account of literary practice in particular; something partially obscured by his somewhat unlikely celebrity within contemporary art theory. In this sense, The Politics of Literature is best read as a sequel to the earlier The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing, which collected together essays written in the early 1990s. Indeed, in many instances it directly repeats the arguments, even phrasing, of the latter; although it lacks its range and more sustained coherence as a single volume. Certainly the thoroughly canonical and parochial series of literary ‘figures’ who populate this new collection’s central section are mostly familiar from the earlier book. More to the point, its central thesis is one that was itself already succinctly articulated in The Flesh of Words: ‘literature’, far from constituting any transhistorical term for the linguistic ‘arts’ in general, is rather ‘that singular power that was founded on the … collapse of rules of representation that determined genres and modes of expression appropriate for one subject or another’ around the turn of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century.

Although, then, the book The Politics of Literature appears, in English, some years after one entitled The Politics of Aesthetics, it reveals the degree to which it is, arguably, literature that comes first, both chronologically and conceptually, in Rancière’s thought. This is unsurprising given that the essays collected in the The Flesh of Words originally overlapped with the publications of both The Names of History (1992) – which already broached the deconstructive question of modern historiography’s reliance upon, as well as resistance to, new forms of poetics and narrative – and what is probably still Rancière’s most celebrated text, Disagreement (1995), in which it was argued that ‘the modern political animal is first a literary animal’. Hence, just as what is conceptualized as a certain ‘literarity’, a ‘radical democracy of the letter that anyone can grab hold of’, is said to be always at work in authentic politics, so some form of political activity is claimed as intrinsic to what literature qua literature itself is, to the extent that it ‘intervenes as literature in this carving up of space and time, the visible and the invisible, speech and noise’. Tellingly, this formulation is, almost word for word, the same as that used elsewhere to define aesthetics.

As with most of Rancière’s work since Disagreement, what is at stake in the politics of literature thus turns out to be the question of its specific relationship to democracy. Although Foucault is the most obvious reference point for The Politics of Literature’s historicizing emphasis on literature as a ‘new regime’, there is, in fact, an equally evident Derridian provenance to this conception of a ‘radical democracy of the letter’, which could be read as following up on the latter’s own assertion that the ‘institution of literature’ is one profoundly ‘linked to an authorization to say everything, and doubtless too to the coming about of the modern idea of democracy’. For Rancière, in an argument that seems tacitly indebted to Auberbach’s Mimesis, this inherently democratic aspect resides, specifically, in the new ‘aesthetic’ equivalence of articulability and visibility that literature grants, in principle, to anything and anyone – the ‘“inner life” of a farmer’s daughter’ is as worthy of being related as ‘the spectacular events that befall great figures’ – while, at the same time, making literary practice analogous to the disruption of social hierarchies which manifests itself in the ‘symbolic breaks’ of properly political dissensus. ‘The “crises de vers” that shook the end of the 1880s is the equivalent, in the “temple” of poetry, of the revolution that broke out in the “public square” a century earlier’, Rancière writes of Mallarmé – though the precise historical character of such ‘equivalence’ is subjected to little theoretical elaboration.

Given the book’s lack of any real engagement with previous critical work (beyond a few easy jabs at Sartre), it is worth remarking that, in their basic form, these are hardly uncommon observations in anglophone literary history – most evidently in accounts of the rise of that anti-generic genre par excellence the novel – even if it is noticeable that, unlike, say, Ian Watt or Benedict Anderson, Rancière has comparatively little of substance to say about, for example, the role played by new technologies of ‘print capitalism’ in the novel’s emergence. At any rate, the originality of The Politics of Literature, such as it is, comes not, therefore, from the connection it establishes between this new regime of literature and modern democratic politics, but in the particularly ‘philosophical’ manner in which it seeks to track the multiple, often contradictory political and artistic ‘logics’ that unfurl from this essential linkage itself. While, then, for Rancière, on the one hand, literature is indeed marked by the collapse of a priori forms and the Aristotelian system of differences that once ‘allowed the social hierarchies to be represented’, on the other, as literature (that is, as precisely a form of art and not of politics) it must simultaneously invent various new ‘rules of appropriateness’ that would combat the democratic disordering on which it relies.

Unsurprisingly, the bold initial assertion that literature ‘does politics simply by being literature’ is thus fairly swiftly qualified by the determination of such a politics as in fact a form of ‘metapolitics’: a ‘manner of “doing politics” otherwise than politics does’ – in this instance, in the form of what is termed ‘literary misunderstanding’. ‘Politics’, Rancière declares, ‘works on the whole, literature works on the units’. While politics proper seeks to invent new means by which the anonymous might subjectify themselves as a ‘collective, an us’, if only momentarily, literary misunderstanding, by contrast, creates new forms of individuality, through a prolific detailing of the ‘molecular equality of microevents’ making up ‘the fabric of percepts and affects of anonymous life’. The privileged examples are Flaubert and Proust, and, in particular, what has often been read as an apparent ‘inability to subtract, to hold anything back’ in their writing, as measured against the classical criteria of what Borges, for example, described as ‘the selectiveness and concision proper to art’.

If this Rancière’s particular ‘democratic’ take on an otherwise familiar critique of ‘organic unity’ – common to, say, deconstruction and Adornian critical theory – more specifically it might be understood as an attempt radically to invert Lukács’s famous Hegelian theorization of the novel as a negation of the epic. While, therefore, for Lukács, the task of realism was precisely to recover a supposedly ‘epic order and hierarchy among objects and events’, against the disordered flood of ‘descriptive excess’, Rancière’s account of literary democracy comes remarkably close to an affirmation of precisely that which Lukács condemned under the name of ‘naturalism’, and which he saw as laying the groundwork for artistic ‘modernism’ in general. (It would be worth comparing, in this respect, Jonathan Culler’s own recent Lukácsian reading of ‘Flaubert’s world’ as ‘an immense paradigm where everything is equivalent’ in Why Flaubert?, August Verlag, Berlin, 2011.) Indeed, what aestheticism – the ‘over-attachment to style’ – and naturalism – ‘the proliferating invasion of the world’s prose’ – share is a certain ‘overdoing it’ per se: ‘The excess of things goes hand in hand with the excess of words.’

Perhaps for this reason, there are several moments in The Politics of Literature when the object of its title seems to coincide, to all intents and purposes, with the politics of Flaubert, as that writer who, more than any other, has been able, simultaneously, ‘to pass for the prototype of realism and for the champion of art for art’s sake’. This ambiguity is articulated via the tension Rancière locates between the ‘democratic appetite’ embodied by the character of Emma Bovary and the modes of ‘literary equality’ elaborated in Madame Bovary the novel. For if author and character appear as ‘two sides of the same coin’, it is this very doubling that makes it all the more important for Flaubert to disconnect the ‘two equalities’ at stake for each. Emma’s ‘bad way’ of dealing with an indistinction of art and non-art will lead to the democratizing ‘aestheticization of daily life’ in kitsch; Flaubert’s ‘good way’ will seek to ground a new purity for literature in the absolutization of style. In this manner, literature’s ‘excess’ comes to overshoot the properly political egalitarianism intrinsic to democratic dissensus as such. The specifically human promise of the collective ‘we’ is instead submerged in the ‘sheer intensity of things’ – an impersonal ‘flat ontology’ (to borrow a phrase from DeLanda) made up of an ‘endless collision of atoms constantly forming into and dissolving new configurations’ – in which Rancière’s Flaubert appears as a kind of Deleuzean ‘new materialist’ avant la lettre.

Emma Bovary’s ‘pursuit of the hidden meanings of a handful of words like “bliss”, “passion” and “intoxication”’ is here conjoined to the going ‘astray’ of those ‘common people’ who ‘let themselves be exalted by words like “liberty” or “equality”’, previously written about in texts such as The Nights of Labour. Literature, however, produces a quite different voice; one which, Rancière argues, seeks to endow an ‘allegedly “mute” life … with its own speech’ at the level, not of the people, but of things. It is this that leads to a third regime of literary expression, intended not to unleash some pure Deleuzean flow, but rather ‘to substitute, for the stages and utterances of politics, the laws of a “true stage” that would serve them as foundation’. Literature in this guise moves towards a world beyond the human, but so as to read ‘the laws of a world on the body of mundane things’; claiming, in a form which runs from realism to surrealism, to uncover the ‘hidden truth about a society’ in a new ‘poetic’ ‘fabric of hieroglyphs’ immanent to the ‘prosaic realities’ of contemporary metropolitan life. Rancière’s twist is to argue that it is, in fact, only thereby through this specific regime of ‘literary equality’ that such a definitively modern form of symptomatic reading and hermeneutics of depth first becomes possible at all. The consequence is that where later literary critics have imagined they were ‘demystifying literary naivety and formulating its unconscious discourse’, they have merely failed to realize that the ‘explanatory models they used to tell the truth about the literary text are the models forged by literature itself’. Indeed, Balzac’s Human Comedy has, in this regard, not only literary criticism, but also ‘The Fetishism of the Commodity’, The Interpretation of Dreams and the Arcades Project among its various legacies.

There is a critique of intellectual mastery embedded in such an analysis that is familiar from Rancière’s previous work, since Althusser’s Lesson at least. Yet, it’s not entirely clear what lesson we’re meant to take from it here. The objective is evidently to bring into question the claims to scientific ‘truth’ – and hence to ‘know’ the ‘hidden truth’ of domination unknown to the dominated themselves – on the part of the ‘human and social sciences’, by demonstrating the degree to which they are reliant on ‘a poetic and metapolitical model put in place by literature’. (In its characteristic antipathy towards any approach to ‘literature’ that might consider what, in ‘Student Problems’, Althusser terms its ‘place’ within ‘the reigning aesthetic, ethical, juridical or political ideology’, it is tempting to read The Politics of Literature as a whole as a belated retort to his former collaborators Balibar and Macherey’s 1974 essay ‘Literature as an Ideological Form’; the torn half of an adequate ‘post-Althusserian’ account of the modern literary regime to which it nonetheless does not quite add up.) But this is a rather tired argument – who would by now doubt the literary debts at the heart of Marx’s or Freud’s theories? – and it’s far from clear why this should (or could) entail any wholesale displacement of the kinds of critical and interpretative strategies engaged. One may well recognize that literature’s ‘explanatory models’ do indeed necessitate the opening of a certain ‘distance from the democratic political stage’, but is one really to conclude from this that we should therefore abandon the labour of explanation altogether? Taken to its apparently logical conclusion, this seems only to result in an animus towards any attempt at gaining knowledge of either literature or the world tout court.

If this is deeply problematic as a recommendation for politics, it is equally limited as an account of art. The first essay in The Politics of Literature ends with Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, and with what is described as its attempt to make the literary work a vehicle of criticism by welcoming ‘into its pages the standardized messages of the world’. As a literary strategy, Rancière rightly notes, this continues to be dependent upon the blurring of the ‘distinction between the world of art and the world of prosaic life’ instituted by the artistic revolutions of the previous century (if not earlier; think of Defoe or Fielding, who get no mention in Rancière’s essentially Francocentric narrative). Yet the ‘montage of media stereotypes’ in USA, ‘far from signifying the equality of all things’, is, he goes on to argue, ‘in fact supposed to make felt the various forms of the violent domination of one class’. And while Dos Passos’s intent may thus have been to counterpose ‘the destinies of the characters and the discourse the world of domination conducts about itself’, ultimately the specific politics of literature that this proposes finds itself merely overtaken by that ‘impersonal force’ of what Hegel called the ‘prose of the world’.

This no doubt captures the irresolvable dilemmas of the novel’s continual troublings of the boundaries between ‘literary’ and ‘non-literary’ discourses with real force. Yet it also elides what we might call the precisely ‘epic’ dimension of USA; the modernist novel’s inheritance from, in Lukács’s terms, ‘realism’ as much as ‘naturalism’ – its (partly pedagogical) commitment to the impossible task of grasping, in a finite literary form, the totality of social relations which confront the individual under capitalism, and which are increasingly objectified in supra-individual, even inhuman, forms. The Whitmanesque lists which famously begin the trilogy – ‘U.S.A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres’, and so on – are, in this sense, neither a Flaubertian flow of ‘micro-events’ nor a straightforward hermeneutical attempt to read ‘the laws of a world on the body of mundane things’, but a knowingly problematic gesture towards the (in)capacity of the novel to represent the social totality of the United States (or capitalist modernity) itself. Such ‘cognitive mapping’ of the position of human beings with regard to the often abstract but nonetheless real forces that govern the social modernity which they inhabit, has been a key aspect of a certain modern art, as it has been of political activism. There is hence a very different politics of the novel to be written at this point: one which might lead from Balzac to Márquez, Pynchon or Vargas Llosa instead.

This directs attention to another issue. Despite a lengthy, and often interesting, chapter on Borges’s relationship to French literature – which is, however, more about Borges the critic than Borges the writer – The Politics of Literature effectively ends, historically, with Dos Passos. This gives the unfortunate impression that ‘literature’ is pretty much done and dusted by the 1930s – questions concerning, for example, the subsequent globalization of the literary regime, and the means by which its very nature might thereby have been radically transformed, go entirely unconsidered. As much to the point, there are rather more basic questions concerning the relationship between the modernity of literature and of democratic politics themselves that The Politics of Literature fails to address. For such is Rancière’s general animus towards any form of sociological explanation that he can, in the end, provide no real account of the precise historical forms of mediation by which, in Adorno’s words, the ‘unresolved antagonisms’ of social reality – through which any democratic ‘disruption’ must articulate itself – might actually return to the individual artwork as immanent problems of form. The problem is, of course, that if democracy, according to Rancière, is neither a ‘social condition’ nor a ‘particular regime of expression’, but rather only ever a rare ‘symbolic break’, which constitutes an invariable feature of politics as such, the democratic forms of what he terms ‘literary equality’ cannot but equate to some more or less stable artistic ‘condition’: some kind of modern institution which grounds that ongoing ‘new regime of the art of writing in which the writer is anyone at all and the reader is anyone at all’. This is certainly acknowledged, at some level, but the issue at stake is hardly resolved. The result is that the very historical specificity from which The Politics of Literature began threatens to dissolve back into an effectively quasitranscendental concept of ‘literarity’ – elaborated, in classically philosophical fashion, via a short section on Plato’s condemnation of the ‘orphan system’ of writing – which has, nonetheless, somehow awaited modernity for its realization. This leaves one with little means of explaining why exactly such a literary regime should emerge when and where it does, outside of a fairly loose connection to some post-1789 conjuncture, or via a sequence of undeveloped references to the impacts of industrialization and new media.

Which brings us back to Lukács. There are good reasons why one may well want to side with the democratic thrust of Rancière’s account as against seemingly conservative calls for a return to ‘epic’ order. Yet, Lukács does at least engage something that Rancière’s account of the literary regime glaringly neglects – that is, the question of the relationship between the regime of equivalence and indifference constitutive of literature as a historical practice and that equivalence and indifference characteristic of capitalist exchange. It is worth remembering that, for Lukács, the ‘form-problem’ generated by the lack of any ‘natural’ or intrinsic limit on what the literary work might incorporate or depict equated, above all, to that indifference with regard to what can be concretely exchanged in the universalization of the exchangevalue form. And one does not have to agree with the critical judgement on either naturalism or modernism that follows from this to recognize the degree to which it lays bare a certain failure in The Politics of Literature to confront the relation between ‘literary equality’ and the abstract social forms of capitalism itself; what Lukács precisely termed the ‘domination of capitalist prose’ within everyday metropolitan life.

This is not to say that capitalism is entirely absent from The Politics of Literature, particularly in its cultural forms. The very site that Rancière suggests as the origin of literature’s will to make ‘mute things’ speak is, after all, the bric-a-brac shop in Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin, in which ‘objects of all ages and from all civilizations are jumbled together’ in an ‘egalitarian indifference’. Yet while Rancière implicitly acknowledges a certain exchange between art and commerce over the course of the nineteenth century – reaching a point of intensity in Zola’s naturalistic ‘poetry of the shops and displays’ and of ‘the great consumer frenzy’; a rather different modulation of the Flaubertian ‘sheer intensity of things’ – it can apparently be given no deeper explanatory function in the emergence of the literary regime as such. Indeed, throughout The Politics of Literature there is something like a principled refusal to chase down the consequences that any of this might have for a thinking of ‘literary equality’, as if to engage the question of literature or art’s relation to capitalism might, in and of itself, deliver one into the dreaded clutches of Althusser or Debord. Yet, the forms of indifference characteristic of democratic politics, on the one hand, and literature’s ‘democracy of the word’, on the other, cannot be so easily separated from that form of indifference intrinsic to the abstraction of value and to the equalizing force of money – what that great entrepreneur Daniel Defoe called, at the very birth of the novel, ‘the general denominating article in the world’. Unwilling to engage its relations to a culture dominated by the forms of ‘universal’ exchangeability, Rancière’s historical account can ultimately only sidestep the most difficult issues concerning the very nature of literature’s modernity upon which it insists.