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Jacques Rancière “Figures of History”

Rancière, Jacques 2014. Figures of History. Cambridge; Malden: Polity Press.

Part 2 – Senses and figures of history
History is first an anthology of what is worthy of being memorialized. Not necessarily what was, and what witnesses testify to, but what deserves to be focused on, meditated upon, imitated, because of its greatness. Legends offer such a brand of history as much as chronicles do, and Homer more than Thucydides. No matter what has been claimed, it is not events that lie at the heart of this kind of history, but examples. (61)

Examples of fortune and misfortune, of virtue and vice. Not that far removed, in a sense, from the concern of the new history with moments and gestures that signal a way of occupying a world. Only, memorial-history doesn’t propose reading the sense of a world through that world’s signs. It proposes examples to imitate. This supposes a continuity between the scene that is worthy of being imitated and the act of imitating in its double sense: the work of the painter and the lesson drawn by the involved spectator. (62)

History secondly means a story. In a painting, a specific moment, significant for the action, commands attention. The movements of the characters converge on this central point or reflect its effect right to the outer edges of the scene. Eyes stare at it, outstretched arms direct us to it, faces broadcast its emotion, mimed conversations comment on its significance. In short, the painting itself is a story – that is, an arrangement of actions, a meaningful fable endowed with appropriate means of expression. (63)

In the meantime, a third type of history was to secure its dominion by destroying the harmony between the expressive disposition of bodies over a canvas and the effect of an exemplary grandeur communicated by the scene. This is History as an ontological power in which any ‘story’ – any represented example and any linked action – finds itself included. History as a specific mode of time, a way in which time itself is made the principle behind sequences of events and their significance. History as movement directed towards achievement of some kind, defining conditions and tasks of the moment and promises of the future, but also threats for anyone who gets the sequence of conditions and promises wrong; like the common destiny that men make for themselves but that they only make to a certain extent, since it constantly eludes them and its promises are constantly reversed as catastrophes. (66)

[…] as a matter of principle, no action or figure can ever be adequate to the sense of its movement. The distinctive feature of this form of History is that none of its scenes or figures is ever equal to it. (67)

History with a capital H is not just the power of sense to exceed action which is turned upside-down as a demonstration of non-sense, referring form to the material from which it emerges and to the gesture that pulls it from that material. History is not just the saturnine power that devours all individuality. It is also the new fabric in which each and every person’s perceptions and sensations are captured. Historical time is not just the time of great collective destinies. It is the time where anyone and anything at all make history and bear witness to history. (68-69)

Anthology of examples; arrangement of fables; historial power of necessary, common destiny; historicized fabric of the sensible. Four different types of ‘history’, at least, come together or come apart, contrast or interlace, variously reshaping the relationships between pictorial genres and the powers of figuration. (71)

But the opposite of the representational system is not the unrepresentable. The system is not, in fact, based on the sole imperative to imitate and make the image like the model. It is based on two fundamental propositions. One defines the relationships between what is represented and the forms its representation takes; the other defines the relationship between those forms and the material in which they are executed. The first rule is one of differentiation: a specific style and form are suited to a given subject – the noble style of tragedy, the epic or history painting for kings, the familiar colour of comedy or of genre painting for the little people. The second rule, on the contrary, is one of in-difference: the general laws of epresentation apply equally no matter what the material medium used in the representation, whether it be language, painted canvas or sculpted stone. (73)

The first poetics, which we might call abstract symbolist, deals the most radically with the collapse of the representational world as a whole and settles on art the historic task of replacing that world with an equivalent order: an order that produces a system of actions equivalent to the old order of mimesisand plays a role in the community equivalent to the banished vanities of representation. It contrasts the imitation of things or beings with the exact expression of the relationships that link them, and with the outline of the ‘rhythms of the idea’ that are able to serve as a foundation for a new ritual, sealing the duty that links the ‘multiple action’ of men. (75-76)

The second poetics is quite specifically dedicated to revoking the principle of the indifference of matter. It identifies the power of the work of art and of history as a bringing to light of the capacity for form and idea immanent in all matter. This poetics of nature, as ‘unconscious poem’ (Schelling), locates the work of art within the continuous movement by which matter already takes form, sketches its own idea in the folds of the mineral or the prints of the fossil and rises to ever higher forms of selfexpression and self-symbolization. Let’s agree to call this poetics, whose features are set out in the theoretical texts of Auguste Schlegel and the ‘naturalist’ works of Michelet, expressionist symbolist. (76)

[…] this poetics establishes one of the main processes by means of which the art of the twentieth century was to ‘catch up with history’ – namely, the play of metamorphoses through which what is represented, matter and form, change places and exchange their powers. (77)

The third poetics emphasizes the destruction of the relationship between form and subject. It not only plays on the equality of all those represented but, more broadly, on the multiple forms that the de-subordination of figures to the hierarchy of subjects and dispositions may take. (77)

Let’s agree to call this poetics (sur)realist to indicate the following: ‘realism’ is not a return to the triviality of real things as opposed to the conventions of representation. It is the total system of possible variations of the indicators and values of reality, of forms of connecting and disconnecting figures and stories that their destruction makes possible. (78)

The age of History, then, is not the age of a kind of painting that is driven by world catastrophe, and by its own movement, towards rarefaction and aphasia. It is rather the age of the proliferation of senses of history and the metamorphoses that allow the interplay of these to be staged. (79)

If every object immediately has the potential to become subject, form or material, this is not only, as has sometimes been suggested a bit too hastily in the age of Pop, because of its ‘documentary’ value, which turns it into a vehicle of a critical function. It is because, in the age of history, every object leads a double life, holds a potential for historicity that is at the very heart of its nature as an ordinary perceptual object. History as the sensible fabric of things is doubled by history as fate-dealing power. Freeing historyas-example and (hi)story-as-composition from their subjection to representation, it multiplies the figurative possibilities which all forms of defiguration then enjoy. And this multiplication supports the various forms of historicization of art, making compossible, or co-existent, two ‘fates for art’: the constructivist-unanimist project of ‘transforming the whole world into one gigantic work of art’ (Schwitters), but also its apparent opposite – the critical project of an art that eliminates its own lie in order to speak truthfully about the lie and the violence of the society that produces it. (80-81)

The completion and selfelimination of art go together, because it is the very particularity of history as a fate-dealing power that, in it, any existing form aims for a completion that is identical to its own elimination. And the age of History also confers upon all formless matter, just as it does on all established writing, the possibility of being turned into an element in the play of forms. The age of the anti-representation is not the age of the unrepresentable. It is the age of high realism. (81)

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