Redistributing the sublime: Rancière’s critique of Lyotard’s aesthetics

Barnet Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis

Barnet Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis

Jacques Rancière’s theoretically fruitful amalgamation of aesthetics and politics distinguishes between three regimes of identification of what is called art in the Western tradition. The aesthetic regime of art and the authentic politics both have a potential to transcend the given distribution of the sensible: either by creating new forms of artistic expression or through political emancipation of the voices that until then had been perceived only as an indiscernible noise. He vehemently opposes any attempt to undermine the inherently dissensual nature of the aesthetic.

Picking out a prominent theoretical and ideological opponent, Rancière identifies one such attempt to localise and restrict the aesthetic in Lyotard’s theory of the sublime. Rancière renounces the narrow role of bearing witness to the Unpresentable that Lyotard assigns to avant-garde art as a helpless, hypnotic awe at the sublime Thing in repentance for the failure of modernism and its enlightenment ideals. He sees in it a manifestation of a troubling trend, which he refers to as ‘the ethical turn’ of aesthetics and politics.

This work demonstrates Rancière’s strong critique of Lyotard’s appropriation of the Kantian sublime: first, his claim that Lyotard’s idea of sublime art would be for Kant a contradiction in terms and second, his disapproval of Lyotard’s unfaithfulness to the logics at the core of Kant’s sublime and his retrograding it back to Aristotelian forms. Notably, though Rancière does not use the sublime as being constructive for his own theoretical system; it nevertheless runs like a common thread through his works.

Furthermore, as both Rancière and Lyotard often use similar vocabulary in comparable contexts, the tone of Rancière’s critique may at times seem incomprehensible. Among other things, both authors call to adhere to the principles of a permanently self-renewing, dialectical modernism and warn of its possible static totalitarian setbacks. Lyotard’s resistance campaign against the repressive techno-scientific and ideological (meta)narratives dominating our lives and holding us in a state of sociopolitical submission also resembles Rancière’s concept of police. While raising some degree of concern that Rancière uses the polarising theoretical assault on Lyotard to, among other things, promote his own terminology, this work also attempts a careful reconciliation of the two theoretical positions.

Das aesthetisch Erhabene bei Jacques Rancière (PDF)