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Thinking between disciplines: an aesthetics of knowledge1

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What should be understood by the invocation of an 'aesthetics of knowledge'? It is clearly not a matter of saying that the forms of knowledge must take on an aesthetic dimension. The expression presupposes that such a dimension does not have to be added as a supplementary ornament, that it is there in every sense as an immanent given of knowledge. It remains to be seen what this implies. The thesis that I would like to present is simple: to speak of an aesthetic dimension of knowledge is to speak of a dimension of ignorance which divides the idea and the practise of knowledge themselves.
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PARRHESIA
NUMBER 1 • 2006 • 1 – 12
Thinking between disciplines: an aesthetics of knowledge1
Jacques Rancière
Translated by Jon Roffe
What should be understood by the invocation of an ‘aesthetics of knowledge’? It is
clearly not a matter of saying that the forms of knowledge must take on an aesthetic
dimension. The expression presupposes that such a dimension does not have to be added
as a supplementary ornament, that it is there in every sense as an immanent given of
knowledge. It remains to be seen what this implies. The thesis that I would like to present
is simple: to speak of an aesthetic dimension of knowledge is to speak of a dimension of
ignorance which divides the idea and the practise of knowledge themselves.
This proposition evidently implies a presupposition concerning the meaning of
‘aesthetics’. The thesis is the following: aesthetics is not the theory of the beautiful or of
art; nor is it the theory of sensibility. Aesthetics is an historically determined concept
which designates a specific regime of visibility and intelligibility of art, which is
inscribed in a reconfiguration of the categories of sensible experience and its
interpretation. It is the new type of experience that Kant systematised in the Critique of
Judgement. For Kant, aesthetic experience implies a certain disconnection from the
habitual conditions of sensible experience. This is what he summarises as a double
negation. The object of aesthetic apprehension is characterised as that which is neither an
object of knowledge nor an object of desire. Aesthetic appreciation of a form is without
concept. An artist does not give form to a given matter according to a function of
knowledge [savoir].
The reasons of the beautiful are thus separate from those of art. They are also separate,
though, from the reasons which render an object desirable or offensive. Now, this double

THINKING BETWEEN DISCIPLIINES
negation is not only defined by the new conditions of appreciation of art works. It also
defines a certain suspension of the normal conditions of social experience. This is what
Kant illustrates at the beginning of the Critique of Judgement with the example of the
palace, in which aesthetic judgement isolates the form alone, disinterested in knowing
[savoir] whether the palace serves the vanity of the idle rich and for which the sweat of
working people has been spent in order to build it. This, Kant says, must be ignored to
aesthetically appreciate the form of the palace.
This will to ignorance declared by Kant has not ceased to provoke scandal. Pierre
Bourdieu has consecrated six hundred pages to the demonstration of a single thesis: that
this ignorance is a deliberate misrecognition [méconnaissance] of what the science of
sociology teaches us more and more precisely, to grasp the fact that disinterested
aesthetic judgement is the privilege of those alone who can abstract themselves – or who
believe that they can – from the sociological law which accords to each class of society
the judgements of taste corresponding to their ethos, that is, to the manner of being and of
feeling that its condition imposes upon it. The disinterested judgement on the formal
beauty of the palace is in fact reserved for those who are neither the owners of the palace
nor its builders. It is the judgement of the petit-bourgeois intellectual who, free from
worries about work or capital, indulges himself by adopting the position of universal
thought and disinterested taste.2 Their exception therefore confirms the rule according to
which judgements of taste are in fact incorporated social judgements which translate a
socially determined ethos.
Bourdieu’s judgement, and that of all those who denounce the aesthetic illusion, rests on
a simple alternative: you know or you do not [on connaît ou on méconnaît]. If you do not
know [méconnaît], it is because you do not know [sait] how to look or you cannot look.
But to not be able to look is still a way of not knowing how to look. Whether philosopher
or petit-bourgeois, those who deny this, those who believe in the disinterested character
of aesthetic judgement do not want to see because they cannot see, because the place that
they occupy in the determined system, for them as for everyone else, constitutes a mode
of accommodation which determines a form of misrecognition [méconnaissance]. In
2

JACQUES RANCIERE
short, the aesthetic illusion confirms that subjects are subjected to a system because they
do not understand how it works. And if they do not understand, it is because the very
functioning of the system is misrecognition. The savant is the one who understands this
identity of systemic reasons and the reasons for its misrecognition.
This configuration of knowledge rests on a simple alternative: there is a true knowledge
[savoir] which is aware and a false knowledge [savoir] which ignores. False knowledge
oppresses, true knowledge liberates. Now the aesthetic neutralisation of knowledge
[savoir] suggests that this schema is too simple. It suggests that there is not one
knowledge but two, that each knowledge [savoir] is accompanied by a certain ignorance,
and therefore that there is also a knowledge [savoir] which represses and an ignorance
which liberates. If builders are oppressed, it is not because they ignore their exploitation
put in the service of the inhabitants of the palace. On the contrary, it is because they
cannot ignore it, because their condition imposes on them the need to create another body
and another way of seeing than that which oppresses them, because what is oppressive
prevents them from seeing in the palace something other than the product of the labour
invested and the idleness appropriated from this labour. In other words, a “knowledge”
[savoir] is always double: it is an ensemble of knowledges [connaissances] and it is also
an organised distribution [partage]3 of positions. The builder is thus supposed to possess
a double knowledge [savoir]: a knowledge relative to their technical comportment and a
knowledge of the latter’s conditions. Now, each of those knowledges has a particular
ignorance as its reverse: they who know how to work with their hands are supposed
ignorant with regard to appreciating the adequation of their work to a superior end. This
is why they know that they must continue to play their part. But to say that they “know”
[sait] this is in fact to say that it is not they who know what the system of roles must be.
Plato has explained this once and for all. Artisans cannot be occupied with the common
matters of the city for two reasons: firstly because work does not wait; secondly, because
god has put iron in the souls of artisans as he has put gold in the souls of those who must
run the city. In other words, their occupation defines aptitudes (and ineptitudes), and their
aptitudes in return commit them to a certain occupation. It is not necessary for artisans to
3

THINKING BETWEEN DISCIPLIINES
be convinced in the depths of their being that God has truly put iron in their souls, or gold
in those of their rulers. It is enough for them to act on an everyday basis as though this
was the case: it is enough that their arms, their gaze and their judgement make their
know-how [savoir-faire] and the knowledge of their condition accord with each other,
and vice versa. There is no illusion here, nor any misrecognition. It is, as Plato says, a
matter of ‘belief’. But belief is not illusion to be opposed to knowledge and which would
hide reality. It is a determined rapport of the two ‘knowledges’ and the two ‘ignorances’
which correspond to them.
It is this arrangement [dispositif] that aesthetic experience deregulates. It is thus that such
experience is much more than a way of appreciating works of art. It concerns the
definition of a type of experience which neutralises the circular relationship between
knowledge [connaissance] as know-how [savoir] and knowledge as the distribution of
roles. Aesthetic experience eludes the sensible distribution of roles and competences
which structures the hierarchical order. The sociologist would like this to be nothing
more than the illusion of the philosopher, who believes in the disinterested universality of
judgements concerning the beautiful, since it ignores the conditions which determine the
tastes and the manner of being of the worker. But here the builders believe Plato rather
than the sociologist: what they need, and what aesthetic experience signifies, is a change
in the regime of belief, the change of the rapport between what the arms know how to do
and what the eyes are capable of seeing.
This is what we read, fifty years after Kant, in the journal of a worker in the time of the
1848 Revolution, a builder who claims to recount his working day but seems much rather
to be writing a personal paraphrase of the Critique of Judgement. To cite an extract of his
text:
Believing himself at home, he loves the arrangement of a room so
long as he has not finished laying the floor. If the window opens out
onto a garden or commands a view of a picturesque horizon, he
stops his arms a moment and glides in imagination towards the
4

JACQUES RANCIERE
spacious view to enjoy it better than he possessors of the
neighbouring residences.4
Ignoring the fact that the house belongs to others, and acting as if what was being
enjoyed by the gaze also belonged to him – this is an operation of an effective disjunction
between the arms and the gaze, a disjunction between an occupation and the aptitudes
which correspond to it. This is to exchange one as if for another as if. Plato told stories
[histoires], myths, in order to submit technical knowledges to a knowledge of ‘ends’. This
knowledge of ends is necessary to found a hierarchical order. Unfortunately, this
supplement which provides foundation for the distribution of knowledges [savoirs] and
positions is without demonstrable foundation itself. It must be presupposed, and in order
to do so a story needs to be recounted which must be ‘believed’, in the sense defined
above.
Knowledge, Plato says, requires stories because it is in fact always double. However, he
aims to comprehend these stories within an ethical framework. ‘Ethics’, like aesthetics, is
a word whose meaning must be specified. We easily identify it with the moment in which
particular facts are judged according to universal values. But this is not the foremost
meaning of ethos. Before recalling law, morality or value, ethos indicates the abode
[séjour]. Further, it indicates the way of being which corresponds to this abode, the way
of feeling and thinking which belongs to whoever occupies any given place. It is in fact
this which is at issue in the Platonic myths. Plato recounts stories which prescribe the
way in which those who belong to a condition must live it. That is, he inscribes ‘poetic’
productions within a framework such that they are lessons, where the poet is a teacher of
the people, good or bad. This is to say that for Plato, there is no ‘aesthetics’.
Aesthetics means, in effect, a ‘finality without end’ [finalité sans fin], a pleasure
disconnected from every science of ends. It is a change in the status of the as if. The
aesthetic gaze which sees the form of the palace is without relation with its functional
perfection, and with its inscription in an order of society. It acts as if the gaze could be
detached from the double rapport of the palace with the knowledge [savoir] invested in
5

THINKING BETWEEN DISCIPLIINES
its fabrication, and the knowledge [savoir] of the social order which provides it with its
context. Consequently, artisans act as if they were at home in the house that they
otherwise know is not theirs, as if they possessed the perspective of the garden. This
‘belief’ does not hide any reality. But it doubles this reality, which the ethical order
would like to consider as only one. As a consequence of this, they can double their
working identities; to the identity of the worker at home in a defined regime can be added
a proletarian identity – in other words, the identity of a subject capable of escaping the
assignment to a private condition and of intervening in the affairs of the community.
It is this doubling that the sociologist refuses. On his account, the as if can only be an
illusion. Knowledge cannot be aesthetic, but must rather be the contrary of the aesthetic.
The aesthetic is, in effect, a division of knowledge, an interference in the order of
sensible experience which brings social positions, tastes, attitudes, knowledges [savoirs]
and illusions into correspondence. Bourdieu’s polemic against aesthetics is not the work
of one particular sociologist on a particular aspect of social reality; it is structural. A
discipline, in effect, is not first of all the definition of a set of methods appropriate to a
certain domain or a certain type of object. It is first the very constitution of this object as
an object of thought, the demonstration of a certain idea of knowledge – in other words, a
certain idea of the rapport between knowledge and a distribution of positions.
This is what is meant by a discipline. A discipline is always something other than an
exploitation of this territory, and therefore a demonstration of an idea of knowledge
[savoir]. And an idea of knowledge [savoir] should be understood as a regulation of the
rapport between the two knowledges [savoir] and two ignorances. It is a way of defining
an idea of the thinkable, an idea of what the objects of knowledge themselves can think
and know. It is therefore always a certain regulation of dissensus, of its dehiscence
[écart] in relation to the ethical order, according to which a certain type of condition
implies a certain type of thought.
It is this context of the thinkable which is at work when Bourdieu constructs the dispositif
of phrases and photographies, attesting that the distinguished and popular classes each
6

JACQUES RANCIERE
adopt, whatever Kant says, the tastes which correspond to their place. We know that the
questionnaires used for this purpose are made notably to avoid the phenomena of
‘allodoxy’. For example, the following opinion is proposed to the popular public: ‘I love
classical music, for example the waltzes of Strauss’. The formulation of the opinion is
conceived as a snare for the workers who will lie, saying that they love classical music,
but are betrayed, being ignorant of the fact that Strauss does not deserve to be considered
a composer of classical music.
It is clear that the sociological method here presupposes the result that it was supposed to
establish. In other words, science – before being a method to study the phenomena of
orthodoxy and allodoxy – is an orthodoxy, a war machine against allodoxy. But what it
calls allodoxy is in fact aesthetic dissensus, the dehiscence between the arms and the gaze
of the carpenter, the sensible rupture of the relation between a body and what it knows –
in the double sense of knowing. The settling of scores between the sociologist and Kant is
first of all the settling of scores with our woodworker. Sociology, before being a
discipline taught in the university is first of all, in another sense, a war machine invented
in the age of the aesthetic which is also the age of democratic revolutions, as a response
to the troubles of this age.
Before being the ‘science of society’, sociology was first historically the project of a
reorganisation of society. It wanted to remake a body for this society supposedly divided
by philosophical abstraction, protestant individualism and revolutionary formalism. It
wanted to reconstitute the social fabric such that individuals and groups at a given place
would have the ethos, the ways of feeling and thinking, which corresponded at once to
their place and to a collective harmony. Sociology today has certainly distanced itself
from this organicist vision of society. But it continues, for the benefit of science, to want
what science wants for the good of society, to understand [savoir] the rule of
correspondence between social conditions and the attitudes and judgements of those who
belong to it. The scientific war against the allodoxy of judgements continues the political
war against ‘anomie’ of behaviour, the war against the aesthetic and democratic unrest of
the division of the body politic within itself.
7

THINKING BETWEEN DISCIPLIINES
Thus sociology enters into a polemical complicity with the Platonic ethical project. What
it refuses, and what the philosopher declares, is that inequality is an artifice, a story which
is imposed. It wants to claim that inequality is an incorporated reality in social behaviour
and misrecognised in the judgements that this behaviour implies. It wants to claim that
what science knows is precisely what its objects do not.
I have taken the example of sociology. I could also just as well have taken that of history.
We know how the historical discipline, for more than a century, has declared itself in
revolution. It has thus proclaimed its separation from chronicle-history which attached
itself to facts about great men and to the documents written by their chroniclers,
secretaries and ambassadors, and by this to devote themselves to material facts and long
periods of the time in the life of common people. They have thus related its scientific
status to a certain democracy. However, it is clear that this democracy is also one
democracy opposed to another. It opposes the material reality of long cycles of life to the
agitations which disturb the surface, like the distraction of the builder’s gaze, and the
ephemeral revolutionary journal in which it is recounted. History, for Marc Bloch, is the
science of man in time. But this ‘in time’ is in fact an organised distribution of time. It
confirms that the true time of the builder is the long time of life which reproduces itself,
and not the suspended time of aesthetic experience, and that towards which it makes time
deviate: the ‘short’ time, the ‘ephemeral’ time of actors in the public sphere. It functions
as an ethical principle of adherence, defining what can be felt and thought by the
occupants of a space and a time. The ‘new history’, the history of material life and of
mind-sets belongs to the war that sociology is also engaged in.
To speak of war is not to disqualify the disciplines in question. It is to recall that a
discipline is always much more than an ensemble of procedures which permit the thought
of a given territory of objects. It is first the constitution of this territory itself, and
therefore the establishment of a certain distribution of the thinkable. As such, it supposes
a cut in the common fabric of manifestations of thought and language. The disciplines
found their territory by establishing a dehiscence between what the phrases of the
8

JACQUES RANCIERE
woodworker say and what they mean, between what the woodworker describes to us and
the truth hidden behind the description. They must therefore engage in a war against the
claim that there is another knowledge and another ignorance than that which belongs to
their condition. In other words, they must engage in a war against the war that the worker
is himself fighting. A well-ordered society would like the bodies which compose it to
have the perceptions, sensations and thoughts which correspond to them. Now this
correspondence is perpetually disturbed. There are words and discourses which freely
circulate, without master, and which divert bodies from their destinations, engaging them
in movements in the neighbourhood of certain words: people, liberty, equality, etc. There
are spectacles which disassociate the gaze from the hand and transform the worker into
an aesthete. Disciplinary thought must ceaselessly hinder this haemorrhage in order to
establish stable relations between states of the body and the modes of perception and
signification which correspond to them. It must ceaselessly pursue war but pursue it as a
pacifying operation.
In-disciplinary thought5 is thus a thought which recalls the context of the war, what
Foucault called the ‘distant roar of battle’. In order to do so, it must practice a certain
ignorance. It must ignore disciplinary boundaries to thereby restore their status as
weapons in a dispute. This is what I have done, for example, in taking the phrases of the
joiner out of their normal context. This normal context is that of social history, which
treats them as expressions of the worker’s condition. I have taken a different path: these
phrases do not describe a lived situation. They reinvent the relation between a situation
and the forms of visibility and capacities of thought which are attached to it. Put
differently, this narrative [récit] is a myth in the Platonic sense: it is an anti-Platonic
myth, a counter-story of destiny. The Platonic myth prescribes a relationship of reciprocal
confirmation between a condition and a thought. The counter-myth of the joiner breaks
the circle. The indisciplinary procedure must thus create the textual and signifying space
in which this relation of myth to myth is visible and thinkable.
This supposes the creation of a space without boundaries which is also a space of
equality, in which the narrative of the joiner’s life enters into a dialogue with the
9

THINKING BETWEEN DISCIPLIINES
philosophical narrative of the organised distribution of competencies and destinies. This
implies another practice – an indisciplinary practice – of philosophy, of its relation to the
human sciences. Classically, philosophy has been considered a sort of super-discipline
which reflects on the methods of the human and social sciences, or which provides them
with their foundation. Thus a hierarchical order is established in the universe of
discourse. Of course these sciences can object to this status, treat it as an illusion and
pose itself as the true knowledge of philosophical illusion. This is another hierarchy,
another way of putting discourses in their place. But there is a third way of proceeding,
which seizes the moment in which the philosophical pretension to found the order of
discourse is reversed, becoming the declaration, in the egalitarian language of the
narrative, of the arbitrary nature of this order.
The specificity of the Platonic ‘myth’ is constituted by the way in which it inverts the
reasons of knowledge [savoir] with the purely arbitrary insistence on the story [conte].
While the historian and the sociologist show us how a certain life produces a certain
thought expressing a life, the myth of the philosopher refers this necessity to an arbitrary
“beautiful lie”, a beautiful lie which is at the same time the reality of life for the greatest
number of people. This identity of necessity and contingency, the reality of the lie, cannot
be rationalised in the form of a discourse which separates truth from illusion. It can only
be recounted, that is, be stated in a discursive form which suspends the distinction and the
hierarchy of discourse. The privilege of philosophy – contrary to the abstraction, whether
valuable or regrettable, that it is generally claimed of it – is thus the literal directness of
its discourse: the directness with which it has known how to state this condition of the
primary identity between reasons and narratives, the directness which alone permits it to
speak of the organised distribution of lives.
It is here, Plato claims in the Phaedrus, that we must speak truth [vrai], there where we
speak of truth [vérité]. It is here also that he has recourse to the most radical story [conte]:
that of the plain of truth, of the divine charioteer, and of the fall which transforms some
into men of silver, and others into gymnasts, artisans or poets. In other words, taking
things the other way around, at the moment when he most implacably states the organised
10

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