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Some thoughts arising from my reading of Mary Beard’s Women and Power. A Manifesto (London: Profile, 2017)

In Women and Power Beard addresses two fundamental questions: how can women speak AND be heard in the public realm when centuries of cultural tradition have silenced and taught them to be quiet and how can women be powerful?

One issue which really resonated with me was the fact that women have been allowed to speak publicly about some “women’s” issues and on behalf of other women. This concession to women’s speech has been on my mind for some time. As a woman literary critic who promotes the recognition of literature by women authors am I simply occupying a permitted position? Has something which I imagine as part of a political and feminist stance already been neutralised, sanctioned, cordoned off so that serious (male-dominated) literary criticism does not have to listen? What does it mean for me as a critic to write about canonical male authors? Is this complicity, confirming male authority (as if it needed a woman’s voice to do this)? Or, is that the place where I can really make a stance insisting on the right to speak in public? One solution I have put into practice is to place men and women, canonical and non-canonical authors side by side. I continue to think that is an effective strategy – to refuse the categorisation, segregation, even ghettoization of “women’s writing” but is it the best? Are the politics of this strategy sufficiently visible? What alternative approaches might I adopt?

Women and Power is subtitled “A Manifesto” but while it asks “how” at the end of each of the two sections the answers are left tantalisingly underdeveloped. By her own admission, Beard would like to think more about the issues she raises. In relation to women and power in particular Beard raises some interesting questions including “how exactly we might go about re-configuring these notions of ‘power’ that exclude all but a very few women” (p94)? What does it mean to think about “power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession” (p87)? The invitation to think collectively rather than as individuals is also interesting. The book is rich with examples and the one given for how we might rethink power collectively is that of the three women founders of Black Lives Matter who have powered change but whose public profile is not as high as we might expect. My hesitation in embracing this proposal is the same one I have about embracing women only literary prizes. Is there not a real risk that women will create new alternative (power) structures leaving traditional power in male hands? Beard’s own example of the Rwandan parliament seems to suggest that power is slippery, elusive and not within the institutions where it appears to be but in the hands of a small number of individuals. At the moment that the Rwandan women assumed political power in parliament, power moved elsewhere with the same men who had always had it.

Beard takes as a given that the language(s) we use and cultural production inform the way we think and act. I think she is right to do so but it is perhaps also a position that is worth stating over and over again in a context where we are constantly asked to defend the public value of the Humanities and especially Modern Languages.

Beard has become a public intellectual and it is wonderful to see her using the forum she has created to speak out, even while there are those (about whom she also writes) who would wish to silence her. The way she writes is a model for other academics wishing to write for public debate. She shows us a way of speaking that is engaging, informed by her expertise and passion for her subject but also an invitation not to accept the status quo.

 

Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator Chapter 3 ‘Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community’

In this chapter Rancière reflects on the ways in which contemporary art tries to intervene in everyday life. He is writing against a number of established schools of thought including those which suggest that literature provides messages which raise awareness/ consciousness in the reader (72) and arguments such as those produced about ‘critical art’ which suggested that seeing an image can make the viewer see things differently and so change their behaviour (74).

For Rancière, the way art can intervene is by changing the ‘distribution of the sensible’. The distribution of the sensible defines how human beings live together and so, by changing the distribution of the sensible, art has the potential to create new forms of expression of the community. In other words, art has the potential to intervene in politics by producing new forms of expression which reflect new ways of “being together”. He continues to remind us, however, that we cannot assume that what we see ‘could be read without ambiguity’ or that what we see will make is behave in a certain way (p.60). So, while art has this potential there is no guarantee what (if any) effect it might have.

Aesthetic experience can be political in so far as it opens up new ways of experiencing and understanding the world and the positions in it. It changes ‘the cartography of the perceptible, the thinkable and the feasible. As such it allows for new modes of political construction of common objects and new possibilities of collective enunciation’ (72). BUT Rancière cautions, this political effect does not override the initial argument in the chapter that there is no cause and effect relationship between what we see on stage and what we do.

A ‘community of sense’ (a term which calls to mind a very broadly defined version of Stanley Fish’s interpretive community) constitutes the work and a community of sense is supposed to result from it. (Presumably the emphasis here is on supposed because there are no longer any guarantees as to how audiences will respond).

‘Dissensus’, a key term in Rancière’s thinking, occurs when there is as “a conflict between two regimes of sense, two sensory worlds” (location 782). When the critic Wincklemann writes about the Belvedere Torso as an example of perfection in art thus changing the way it is perceived, Rancière identifies this ‘superimposition that transforms a given form or body into a new one’ as a ‘dissensual operation’ (66). Criticism, we can conclude, can be dissensual insomuch as it can superimpose new meanings onto the object of criticism thus creating a new distribution of the sensible that is at odds with the existing distribution.

The chapter opens and closes with two very interesting case studies. The first is about a project by French artists called Campement Urbain which, following consultation with residents of a Paris suburb, created the work I and Us. I and Us entailed the creation of a space for being alone as a way of reinforcing social bonds and preventing violence in the area. This project is connected to Mallarmé and Deleuze through its interest in being alone together as Rancière constructs a ‘surface’ to show that ‘What the artist does is to weave together a new sensory fabric by wresting percepts and affects from the perceptions and affects that make up the fabric of ordinary experience’ (Loc 744).

The chapter closes with discussion of Pedro Costa’s film In Vanda’s Room which, Rancière seems to suggest, pays attention to ‘the confrontation between a life [that of a group of ‘underdogs’] and its possibilities’ (80) and so, it ‘disrupts the way in which bodies fit their functions and destinations’ (72). However, we are soon reminded that the film cannot present the world from which it arises nor can it guarantee any outcomes. All it can do is ‘rework the frame of our perceptions and the dynamisn of our affects’ (82).

Rancière thus outlines in this chapter the extent and limits of the capacities of art (broadly defined) to intervene in society and politics.

Revisiting an old idea – Self-reflexive (feminist) literary criticism

The idea of reflexivity reminds us that we change the objects that we study. I was familiar with this idea in the field of ethnography where the work of James Clifford, George Marcus, Ruth Behar, Clifford Geertz and others advocated for a new way of writing anthropology that was more aware of the role of the anthropologist-ethnographer in producing meaning and understanding about the culture(s) and people(s) that were being studied.

Yet it seems to me that in the literary criticism I read today that there is little evidence of self-reflexivity and the role of the critic in shaping the way in which texts are received and understood. There is little recognition, in other words, of the unspoken politics of literary criticism.

In Sexual/Textual Politics Toril Moi, writing about the early ‘images of women’ criticism, notes that the idea that criticism is not neutral is a basic tenet of feminist criticism and describes the practice of providing an autobiographical introduction setting out the critic’s position. Moi concludes her brief discussion of this practice writing about what she sees as Simone de Beauvoir’s lengthy autobiographical digression in The Second Sex: ‘This kind of narcissistic delving into one’s own self can only caricature the valuable point of principle made by feminist critics: that no criticism is neutral, and that we therefore have a responsibility to make our positions reasonably apparent to our readers. Whether this is necessarily always best done through autobiographical statements about the critic’s emotional and personal life is a more debatable point’ (Sexual/Textual Politics p43).

I recognise that lengthy autobiographical introductions  could be seen as self-serving and as allowing the critic to eclipse the text. However, I am concerned that by opting to state the point of principle without doing anything about it is equally problematic. Doing nothing, maintaining the self-effacing appearance of objectivity and/or neutrality is more likely to result in the politics of criticism remaining unacknowledged, unquestioned and unchallenged. It helps to perpetuate myths about the fixed, singular meanings of a text whose secrets can only be unlocked by an expert reader and in turn to unequal relationships between readers.

In The Emancipated Spectator Rancière proposes a community of  ‘narrators and translators’  where each member constructs their own ‘unique intellectual adventure that makes her similar to all the rest in as much as this adventure is not like any other’ (Loc 243). The role of the researcher (and the artist) is to ‘construct the stages where the manifestation and effect of their skills are exhibited’ (Loc 319). Surely, though, if this manifestation is to be truly egalitarian then the critic’s position ought to be acknowledged. The question is: how?

References:

On the reflexive turn in anthropology/ethnography see: James Clifford and George E. Marcus, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (London: Routledge, 2002)

Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (London: Verso, 2009)

Rancière, The Future of the Image Chapter 4 ‘The Surface of Design’

This semester I have been part of a group reading The Future of the Image by Jacques Rancière. In preparation for our workshop on Friday, to be led by Dr Oliver Davis (Warwick University), we are rereading Chapter 4 ‘The Surface of Design’. I will admit that this was not my favourite chapter and coming back to it still does not inspire me in the way some of Rancière’s other writings have largely, I think, because it does not get to grips with the political significance of the shift to the aesthetic regime of art or the role of the spectator. However, since the reading group began my reading of Rancière has expanded and been helped along by the discussions we had as part of the reading group and, on the second (third?!) reading I have got a lot more out of it – or at least I think I have. We’ll see on Friday!

The chapter is based around an argument for the connection between Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetry and the work of the designer Peter Behrens. In some ways this exploration is similar to the chapters in Aesthesis where Rancière is presenting ‘scenes’ (moments) in the development of the aesthetic regime of art. In this chapter, he argues that the coincidence between the work of Mallarmé and Behrens is symptomatic of a shift in the way in which art was understood.

Both Mallarmé and Behrens were working towards streamlining and a reduction in their practice to what was essential and shared a concern with layout and a ‘graphic language’ (95). Their work was not concerned with ‘resemblance and prettiness’ (95) i.e. it was not concerned with mimesis (which Rancière defines in The Emancipated Spectator as the correspondence between poiesis and aesthesis (60-61)).

Their interest in streamlined forms is connected to new (albeit differing?) visions of society but the political implications of the turn to the aesthetic regime are less well worked out here than in The Emancipated Spectator.

As a result of changes in the conception of art and as a result of their art (perhaps even more so the latter than the former) their work comes to be linked on a ‘shared surface’ or spectrum. It is no longer separated by the way art was categorised in opposition to functional objects.

Their work is part of the new aesthetic regime of art in which art is not judged according to criteria of imitation or in opposition to its utility. In other words, there is no separation between art and production, utility and culture’ (97). It is in this regime, therefore, that advertising logos can be considered art just as much as poetry.

At the same time as art hierarchies are being broken down so too are social hierarchies as who can produce art is no longer circumscribed. Again, this aspect of the argument is developed more elsewhere and the focus in this chapter is on the way in which the move to the aesthetic regime of art changes what can be thought of as art and removes the hierarchies and divisions between different forms of art.

 

References:

Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image (London: Verso, 2009)

Jacques Rancière, Aesthesis. Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art (London: Verso, 2013)

Questions arising from this reading:

Is this change caused by a shift in critical approaches to art or to the changing practices? Here it seems to be artist driven but in Aesthesis it seems to be more criticism / institution led.

Chapter 2 The Emancipated Spectator – ‘The Misadventures of Critical Thought’

 

In this chapter Rancière distances himself from both modernist and postmodernist criticism which he believes are simply two sides of the same coin (Location 608). He dismantles postmodern/post-critical approaches by suggesting that they draw on the same logic as the arguments they are trying to oppose. These discussions will not lead to emancipation and so, Rancière proposes, we need to sidestep them to achieve emancipation. The chapter also introduces ‘dissensus’ which is another key concept for Rancière.

Following Marxism, emancipation ceased being about ‘the construction of new capacities’ (594) which is what Rancière believes it ought to be about.

Emancipation, for Rancière, is based on a redistribution of the sensible i.e. a change in ‘what could be seen, thought and done’ (Loc. 636).

The possibility of emancipation was opened up in the 19C as a result of the ‘proliferation of reproduced texts and image, window displays in shopping precincts and lights in public towns’ had a transformative effect on ordinary people (Loc 623). This social change threatened to lead to the emancipation of the people but was quashed by (pseudo-) scientific discourses and critiques of consumer society. Ordinary people were deemed incapable of looking after themselves and so needed elites to guide them. Elites became focused on maintaining people’s belief that they needed guidance. In this context, ‘Lamentation about a surfeit of consumable commodities and images was first and foremost a depiction of democratic society as one in which there are too many individuals capable of appropriating words, images and forms of lived experience’ (Loc. 630).

Rancière argues that we need to reject these assumptions and believe in the capacity of the people.

Instead of focusing on reality vs unreality or our own subjection we should think about ‘scenes of dissensus’: ‘What there is are simply scenes of dissensus… What ‘dissensus’ means is an organization of the sensible where there is neither a reality concealed behind appearances nor a single regime of presentation and interpretation of the given imposing it obviousness on all’ (Loc 664).

Dissensus changes what can be seen, done, thought and who can do it. It is about recognising the capacity of everyone.

Thoughts and Questions arising from this reading:

Is there a role for criticism in the process of emancipation or is criticism simply a tool of the elite used to make people think that they need guidance? Does he, without explicitly saying so, rule out art criticism as a tool for emancipation?

Is it possible to imagine a criticism which would empower people in ‘appropriating words, images and forms of lived experience’ (Loc. 630). Is this part of a ‘defence’ of the value of Arts and Humanities?

Dissesnus is, as I read it, about not fixing interpretation. Of allowing and embracing multiple interpretations and certainly not imposing an interpretation from above.

‘To reconfigure the landscape of what can be seen and what can be thought is to alter the field of the possible and the distribution of capacities and incapacities’ (Loc. 664) Is this a role that criticism and/or cultural production can play? If so, criticism and cultural production is empowering.

He notes the way in which criticism relates to and is shaped by political context. What can/should critics do about this? Presumably we are as implicated in this as our predecessors were.

If the definition of democracy has changed other definitions have changed too. More accurately perhaps they are inherently unstable and prone to change depending on context and time e.g. what is considered left-wing and right-wing. Is emancipation always the same?

There is a passing reference to Bourdieu in the chapter which points to a difference of opinion in the thinking of the two men. What is the relationship between Bourdieu’s thinking and Rancière. Bourdieu also sees criticism as the product of elites and elite institutions.

At the end of the chapter Rancière writes: ‘As I have said, these are unreasonable hypotheses’ (Loc. 667). Why does he end on such a pessimistic note?

 

 

Thoughts on Rancière – The Emancipated Spectator Chapter 1 ‘The Emancipated Spectator’

In this chapter Rancière examines the relationship between the spectator in the theatre and the events on stage. He compares the relationship between the supposedly passive spectator and the action on stage and the traditional relationship between the schoolmaster and student in which the student is supposed to be trying to acquire the same knowledge that is already possessed by her/his teacher. As is often his approach, he traces how thinking on this subject has developed before leading us to how he differs from existing paradigms.

Rancière proposes that the oppositions that are created between active/passive in the above scenarios are due to perception more than reality. In other words, they are the result of a pre-existing distribution of the sensible: “These oppositions – viewing/knowing, appearance/reality, activity/passivity – are quite different from logical oppositions between clearly defined terms. They specifically define a distribution of the sensible, an a priori distribution of the positions and capacities and incapacities attached to these positions” (Location 187).

Since the passivity or otherwise of the spectator is only a perception then it is possible to reimagine the role of the spectator if we change the existing distribution of the sensible i.e. if we change existing perceptions.

More importantly, however, Rancière argues, is to overcome the dichotomy between “those who possess a capacity and those who do not” (Location 193): “Emancipation begins when we challenge the opposition between viewing and acting; when we understand that the self-evident facts that structure the relations between saying, seeing and doing themselves belong to the structure of domination and subjection. It begins when we understand that viewing is also an action that confirms or transforms this distribution of positions” (Location 196).

In other words, emancipation begins when we challenge the existing distribution of the sensible, when we realise that the boundaries between categories are unstable so that the spectator and the student are never ‘just’ passive but are also active, drawing on their own experiences, making comparisons, interpreting etc. “They are thus both distant spectators and active interpreters of the spectacle offered to them” (Location 200).

Emancipation is ‘the blurring of the boundary between those who act and those who look; between individuals and members of a collective body” (Location 285). An emancipated community is one which has embraced these opportunities to be active interpreters (Location 324).

For me this chapter raises some potentially exciting questions and ideas:

  1. The spectator is a participant in constructing meanings which are personal and individual. How does this relate to Stanley Fish’s idea of an interpretive community? What roles can criticism play in this context? It can help to consolidate common responses. Can/does criticism help others to become active interpreters using other responses as a springboard for their own reflections?
  2. Is criticism seen in this context already a contribution to disrupting the distribution of the sensible? In watching the performance and then writing about their interpretation the critic exemplifies the move out of the passive role.
  3. Remember, if it is not possible to control the responses to a performance it is equally not possible to control the responses to criticism.
  4. In Rancière’s argument (Location 222) the text/performance mediates between the teacher and the student or the author and the reader but it is not exactly clear what role the text has / what limitations (if any) it imposes / the extent to which it directs interpretation in his view.
  5. These ideas could have interesting implications for how we teach. How do we put students in a position to be active interpreters?

 

 

Grand Hotel Abyss by Stewart Jeffries

Having read this review in The Guardian I was excited to read Stewart Jeffries’ book and I was not disappointed. As an MA student I had friends who did a compulsory critical theory course which devoted a week each to Barthes, Foucault, Kristeva and others. On the MA in Latin American Cultural Studies I was doing something rather different (the importance of which I might get round to writing about elsewhere).  When I started my PhD I was told to sit in on those critical theory classes which I dutifully did without really knowing what to do with all of those snapshots. There was nothing wrong with the course and there are ones like it in many institutions but for me at that time it didn’t have a purpose other than to fill in some background. Having read Jeffries’ book I can now see why I was so confused. The theorists we studied never really seemed to go together even though they were lumped together on that course. Now I see that they weren’t meant to go together and that the course had really moved away from what critical theory was meant to be.

Critical theory, as Jeffries presents it, was the political project of Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt School critics Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse. Jeffries’ book skilfully interweaves the personal and the intellectual lives of these men telling us not only what they thought but also why they came to think that way.

Jeffries writes: “If critical theory means anything, it means the kind of radical re-thinking that challenges what it considers to be the official versions of history and intellectual endeavour” (Location 356) He continues: “Critical theory stood in opposition too, to what capitalism in particular does to those it exploits – buying us off cheaply with consumer goods, making us forget that other ways of life are possible, enabling us to ignore the truth that we are ensnared in the system by our fetishistic attention and growing addiction to the purportedly must-have new consumer good” (Location 363).

Critical theory, then, is a left wing project which asks us, and tries to provide us, with the tools to re-examine the relationship between culture and politics in a context where culture has been put into the service of capitalism (See Jeffries, Location 219). This narrower definition of critical theory, combined with an understanding of the circumstances in which it was produced, has, (finally!) helped me to see the importance of critical theory and how it has a purpose in my research as I continue to grapple with many of the questions they too were asking.

So, for anyone else who was never quite sure about critical theory (as well as those who always got it – and I knew a few of them too!) I wholeheartedly recommend this book.

Reference: Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss. The Lives of the Frankfurt School (London: Verso, 2016).