U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Mrs. Satan” and the Passion for the Real: Towards a History of the Cultural Worker, Part Two

Note: The writing below is a reworking of material I presented here a couple of weeks ago. It is mostly new, but includes some passages that might be familiar. I have opted to present this essay in its current form–in process, still to be considerably revised, fated ultimately to be the first chapter of my dissertation (which, thank goodness, I have been writing out of chronological order). For those interested in process, I thought that it might be interesting to shed some light on how this sort of thing comes together.


The fact is that the new spiritual automatism and the new psychological automata depend on an aesthetic before depending on technology.

—Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image [1]

Pre-Laboring American Culture

Who was America’s first “cultural worker?” Many candidates suggest themselves (Thomas D. Rice? Edgar Allan Poe? P.T. Barnum?). The figure to whom we return, however, is Victoria Woodhull. In the 1870s, Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, founded the first women-run Wall Street investment firm (backed, in part, by sometimes-friend Commodore Vanderbilt). Woodhull published a popular “sporting paper” filled with salacious gossip, and ran for President in the 1872 Election (on a ticket with Frederick Douglass).[2] In the sphere of politics, Woodhull emerged as a radical agitator, advocating an expansive feminist program of free love, and briefly serving as American correspondent of the International Workingmen’s Association (in which capacity she published Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune).[3]

Most spectacularly, in a series of staged spiritualist performances and newspaper essays, Woodhull outed Henry Ward Beecher (at the time, the nation’s preeminent Christian orator) as a philanderer and hypocrite, setting in motion the most famous trial of the latter half of the nineteenth century (usually referred to as “The Beecher-Tilton Affair”).[4]

We admit that Woodhull is something of an unusual choice as America’s first cultural worker. She was not an actress, nor a writer of popular novels, nor an impresario. Her art was sui generis, and her significance relates not so much to influence as to an exemplification of the indeterminate and open character of the new aesthetic culture of the age of mass reproducibility, and the new conceptions of labor and value that went along with it.

While not a cultural worker of the sort that was to become typical in the twentieth century, Woodhull undeniably was some sort of performer, writer and editor, and dramaturge. Woodhull was both a “public woman” and a woman in public—a status that, in Victorian America, connoted both treading of the boards and the sale of sex. It is not surprising to learn of a pivotal event, early in Woodhull’s adulthood, described in Theodore Tilton’s biographical sketch of Woodhull (we will return below to consider both this fascinating text and its fascinating author in further detail).[5]

On the run from a philandering husband (“Dr. Canning Woodhull, a gay rake… whose habits were kept hid from her under the general respectability of his family connections”) and her abusive parents, Woodhull traveled to the West Coast, seeking work in the needle trade.

“She chanced to come upon Anna Cogswell, the actress,” Tilton writes, “who wanted a seamstress to make her a theatrical wardrobe. The winsome dressmaker was engaged at once.” Finding that her earnings did not keep pace with her expenses, Woodhull declared to Cogswell that she needed to pursue something better “Then,” Tilton has the actress replying: “you too must be an actress.” Immediately, Tilton continues, “Victoria, who never before had dreamed of such a possibility, was engaged as a lesser light to the Cogswell star.” For a stretch of six weeks, Woodhull acted the part of “Country Cousin” in the play New York By Gaslight, earning the comparatively hefty wage of fifty-two dollars a week.

“Never leave the stage!” Tilton imagines Woodhull’s fellow performers telling her. “But I do not care for the stage,” Woodhull replies, “and I shall leave it at the first opportunity. I am meant for some other fate. But what it is, I know not.”

This anecdote suggests that the career that Woodhull subsequently assembled for herself followed from this experience on the stage, and this call to “some other fate” related to, but not coextensive with, a life on the stage.

The 1870s: The Pivotal Decade

Following the argument of Amanda Frisken, we are most interested in the Woodhull who, perhaps drawing upon these earlier experiments and distilling their lessons, came to prominence in the 1870s as the tabloid press’s ”Mrs. Satan.” Woodhull in the 1870s exemplifies all of the key features of the emergent cultural worker (including one feature that would immediately be repressed: the gendered status of cultural work as a kind of ecriture feminine, fated to be replaced by various muscular masculinisms under the authority of the male gaze).

Frisken writes:

(Woodhull) would frame a spectacular event in the language of social principles: media coverage would then reinterpret it as titillating spectacle. Woodhull survived these disparaging interpretations thanks to her skill in turning scathing media commentary into publicity for her struggle for social change. Put another way, she took her status as a disreputable woman, and converted it into a political asset… Her contribution was to act out the period’s most extreme positions on a public stage. From 1870 to 1876, against the political backdrop of Reconstruction, she used a range of tactics to demand opportunities denied to women on the basis of their sex. As a broker, editor, public speaker, presidential candidate and celebrity, she insisted that women and men be held to the same standards in public life. She made her biggest mark on the period’s popular culture, because she enacted spectacles in national media for the average person that challenged contemporary notions of gender and class. As a woman who surrendered her own privacy, and whose life was grist for the mill of the sensation-mongering press, she made the exposure of others’ secrets a powerful tool of social change.[6]

In the end, it matters less whether Victoria Woodhull really was, in any meaningful sense, the “first” American cultural worker, than that her life and career highlight so vividly the intersecting vectors of the new mass culture: the challenge to old epistemologies, the rise of new technologies, and the structuring pressures of the law.

In this light, we note with interest that it was Woodhull’s aesthetic and political projects that inspired her arch-foe Anthony Comstock to initiate a legal campaign for vigorous censorship of the popular press. We observe with similar interest that it was the revelations of “Mrs. Satan” that prompted E.L. Godkin to christen the new age of mass culture the era of “chromo-civilization.” In his famous essay on that topic, Godkin used Woodhull’s orchestration of public scandal as an Archimedean point around which a condemnation of modernity might be organized (for Godkin, Woodhull stood as a living allegory of the age of artificiality and technologically induced inauthenticity.[7]

Early Life

Woodhull, the seventh of ten children, was born to Roxana and Buckman Claflin on September 23, 1838, the year of Queen Victoria’s coronation (hence, her given name). The Claflins then lived in the small town of Homer, Ohio. Roxana was a Spiritualist, prone to visions and erratic behavior, while Buckman was a tyrant, huckster, and con man.[8] Roxana and Buckman diagnosed young Victoria (called by her family “Viccie” or “Vickie”) and her sister Tennessee (called “Tennie”) as gifted intuitives, and put them to work as child savants on the tent show circuit. This leveraging of family assets was a natural extension of the parents’ work at state fairs: Roxana Claflin operated a fortune-telling booth, while Buckman hawked a “Life Elixir” (a potent mixture of laudanum and alcohol) for a dollar a bottle.

“From the time Vickie was eight,” Barbara Goldsmith writes, “Buck Claflin took her around Ohio to preach, and the child captivated audiences with her magnetism and ecstatic fervor.” Woodhull would stand on two crates and preach to the crowd: “I am the Word… Sinners, repent!” Building on this youthful apprenticeship, Woodhull would, in her young adulthood, pioneer a staggering array of angles for making money by expertly manipulating public affect and collective desire.

What is most striking about Woodhull’s activities of the early-to-mid 1870s is the extent to which her performative innovations flew in the face of Puritan and republican values: there is a genuinely revolutionary flair to all of Woodhull’s interventions.

M. Alison Kibler explains that prior to the early nineteenth century, Americans were uniquely hostile to mimetic representation. “Anti-theatricalism” served as the crucial ideological coefficient: “New England’s Puritan settlers established fines to punish actors who tried to offer any public stage performance; and the founder of Pennsylvania also penalized anyone who tried to produce a play.” Colonial “anti-theatricalism,” Kibler explains, “was not, in the main, prompted by a particular instance of an immoral performance . . . but rather by a deeply held fear of the very notion of theatricality itself.

The law treated masquerade, mimicry, and spectacle, as dire threats to the social order: “both deceitful and politically dangerous.” As importantly, Kibler emphasizes, “the spectacle of theater was believed immodest because the actor produced nothing; he just showed off.” Even after the American Revolution, the Continental Congress legislated against traveling shows, deeming them a threat to republican virtue.

“These moral doubts about the theater were particularly intense for women on stage,” Kibler continues, because into the nineteenth century, “female performers were associated with prostitutes because they ‘sold’ their bodies on stage and sometimes offered sexually expressive performances” while the architectural space of the theater registered in the popular imagination as a site of prostitution (sex workers and their customers conducted business in the upper galleries of many theaters).[9]

Against this background, we can better appreciate the extraordinary attentional magnetism that drew curiosity-seekers to read up on the 1870 launch of Woodhull’s Wall Street firm, Woodhull, Claflin & Company (the nation’s first brokerage house run by women)—the moment that truly marked her elevation to the national public stage. Amanda Frisken discovers extensive national newspaper coverage of Woodhull (and her sister Tennie) depicting the sisters as the “Bewitching Brokers,” replete with line drawings of the costumes of Woodhull and Claflin that, within the semiotic code then regnant, registered as virtual nudity.

Frisken describes Woodhull’s project as a dramatization of “the tensions inherent in women’s public lives.” In the operation of her brokerage firm (which may well have been something of a sham or front or work of performance art), Woodhull dispensed with respectability and “directly confronted the traditional gender roles that made public life controversial for women in 1870.”

Under the productivist rubric of republicanism, nineteenth century Wall Street speculators and brokers enjoyed scarcely more legitimacy than had eighteenth century actors in the Colonial Era. They were ethical pariahs as engineers of mere semblances of value, and they were theological exiles because they did no tangible work. Popular works like Matthew Hale Smith’s Bulls and Bears of Wall Street (which includes a brief–– surprisingly even-handed ––discussion of Woodhull, an act of literary charity that can likely be traced to Woodull’s closeness with Commodore Vanderbilt, Smith’s hero) painted a lurid picture of moral degeneracy run rampant in New York’s financial district.

The real purpose of the grand opening of Woodhull, Claflin & Company was, Woodhull later hinted, the generation of publicity for its own sake—the desire “to secure the most general and at the same time most prominent introduction to the world that was possible.”

In a milieu still governed by the logic of separate spheres, the occupation of the Woodhull, Claflin & Company offices by women could not help but stimulate, in Frisken’s words, “public debate over the propriety of women in male spaces like Wall Street.” It also brought a stream of male gawkers. In this sense, Woodhull, Claflin & Company might be thought of as part of the same series as the Haussmann-era Paris morgue (a popular tour destination in the nineteenth century), as described in the work of Vanessa Schwarz: one of the peculiar sites, that is, of proto-cinematic mass spectacle, new laboratories of collective attention and focused, desiring apprehension.[10]

“The opening brought attention,” Frisken writes, “but it also was a novelty for Wall Street brokers who came to visit the firm; it was a sensation for the crowd of men who reportedly pressed their faces to the glass outside.” Popular media treated the firm’s opening as a sexualized spectacle, while illustrated sporting newspapers (in particular, The Days’ Doings) painted Woodhull, Claflin & Company as a brothel.

In Frisken’s presentation, then, we can recognize Woodhull as a pioneer of a particularly anticipatory media methodology, unusually explicit in its marriage of techniques of exposure, shock, and suggestion to a political program: a radical vision of democratic equality for women and African Americans, free love, and a Spiritualist-flavored brand of utopian progressivism.

Metaphorical Labor: “Similarity in Dissimilars”

What emerges most strikingly from a close study of Woodhull’s life and career in the 1870s is the coherence of the disparate activities she grouped together as her eccentric modus vivendi. Woodhull’s unique gift might best be thought of as a certain propensity for the innovative deployment of metaphor. We are thinking here of “metaphor” as the trope that (as Paul Ricoeur argues) most intrigued Aristotle: the figure of speech that linked rhetoric (the arts of persuasion) and poetics (the arts of semblance and resemblance).

For Aristotle, any thinker who could create a metaphor was worthy of admiration, because to create a metaphor required the “intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.”[11] In the 1870s, Woodhull excelled in intuitively perceiving similarity in dissimilars, and in putting these perceptive discoveries to work.

Ricoeur’s discussion of Ancient Greek conceptions of metaphor, is uniquely useful in thinking about the emergence of cultural work signaled by the rise of Victoria Woodhull. When writing about anxieties and resistance to the idea cultural work, historians often invoke Plato’s distrust of mimesis, and the philosopher’s banishment of poets in Book 10 of the Republic. That’s the correct genealogical reflex, but Ricoeur emphasizes that Plato’s hatred of poets needs to be contextualized within a broader set of arguments and disagreements. Plato’s suspicion of metaphor—part of his defense of philosophy against the deadly simulations of poets and the corruptions of the Sophists (and other “false friends” of the truth)––is only one side of a coin, the other side of which is Aristotle’s appreciation of the synthetic (perhaps, even, after Peirce, the “abductive”) work of metaphorical production.

For Ricoeur, the fact that rhetoric and poetics share the central trope of metaphor highlights key continuities and reveals the centrality of questions about social and political power in debates about the nature of art, speech, and representation. Rhetoric, while deeply implicated in the very possibility of philosophy (as the art of “saying things well”) is also philosophy’s oldest enemy (because “saying things well” may be confused with “speaking the truth”). Rhetoric detaches a “technique founded on knowledge of the factors that help to effect persuasion” from the search for truth. This “puts formidable power in the hands of anyone who masters it perfectly – the power to manipulate words apart from things, and to manipulate men by manipulating words.”

It is this power that was at stake, in particular, in the cultural work of Victoria Woodhull. “Perhaps,” Ricoeur writes, “we must recognize that the possibility of this split parallels the entire history of human discourse.” Before assuming its current status as a synonym for futility, Ricoeur reminds us “rhetoric was dangerous.” This is why Plato condemned it, and why Aristotle saw its key trope as so integrally connected to the politics of aesthetics.

For Plato, Ricoeur concludes, “rhetoric is to justice, the political virtue par excellence, what sophistry is to legislation; and these are, for the soul, what cooking in relation to medicine and cosmetics in relation to gymnastics are for the body – that is, arts of illusion and deception.”

Thus, Ricoeur insists that we not lost sight of the political character of Plato’s condemnation of rhetoric––“which sees it as belonging to the world of the lie, of the ‘pseudo’”—a condemnation that would link up with the closely related “cosmetic” critique of metaphor (metaphor as “simple decoration and as pure delectation”).

Within the parameters of this critique (as Jacques Rancière never tires of reminding us) we discover all of the coordinates of the politics of aesthetics within the Western tradition until the arrival of the Kantian revolution. Of course, as the case of Woodhull suggests, the Kantian revolution did not fully displace the Platonic and Aristotelian frames so much as expose them to new varieties of scrutiny. Much of the resistance and anxiety generated by Woodhull can be traced back to old worries about new forms of rhetoric and poetics: that the genuine article will no longer be discernible in a world of fakes, doubles, virtual replicas, clones, and doubles; that the cadence and pathos of the orator will supplant the internal logic of the argument; that the people will be distracted, unsettled, incited to desire in wild and unpredictable ways.

Plato’s worries about the merely culinary (as compared to the properly prophylactic) calls to mind this passage from C.S. Lewis, a vignette that serves for us as a perfect illustration of the internal mechanism at the center of the new political economy of desire in which cultural work would find its conditions of emergence.

As we have been tempted to put it: the operating logic of this new political economy of desire was never better described than in a famous passage by one of its greatest enemies, C.S. Lewis. Remove the moralizing disapprobation, and this could be a supplementary diagram, submitted with the patent application for “twentieth century capitalist culture”:

Or take it another way. You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?[12]

My argument is that the best way to understand what it was that Woodhull was up to in the 1870s is to see it as working on the model that Lewis lays out here: this fantasy of the veiled and unveiled mutton chop provides the mathematical model for the way value works in the sphere of cultural production in the same way that the Marxist equations for calculating surpluses over and above the cost of necessaries provides a simple allegory of the nature of (on the one hand) capitalist accumulation and (on the other) proletarian exploitation. The best name for this circuit, I think, is Alain Badiou’s “passion for the Real.”

That’s a thread I will try to pick up next week.

[1] A chronic sufferer of what Karl Llewelyn called “cititis,” I should indicate here that I have stolen this epigraph from Damian Sutton, Photography, Cinema, Memory: The Crystal Image of Time (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. On “cititis,” see Karl N. Llewellyn, The Bramble Bush; On Our Law and Its Study. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana Publications, 1960. The original quote is from Gilles Deleuze, Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1986.

[2] According to most accounts, Douglass was not asked for permission before his name was put on the ticket; the abolitionist leader reportedly found the whole affair to be an annoyance. But for an account that complicates the larger narrative of the 1872 election campaign and the overlapping circles of radicalism, feminism, and post-Civil War African American politics, see Timothy Messer-Kruse, The Yankee International: Marxism and the American Reform Tradition, 1848-1876. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

[3] On “free love,” see Amy Dru Stanley, “Slave Breeding and Free Love: An Antebellum Argument over Slavery, Capitalism, and Personhood” in Michael Zakim and Gary John Kornblith. Capitalism Takes Command: The Social Transformation of Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012. On the intersection of radical sexual politics and socialism in the 1870s, see Frisken.

[4]Richard Wightman Fox, Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

[5] Theodore Tilton, “Biography of Victoria C. Woodhull by Theodore Tilton,” The Golden Age, Tracts No. 3, New York: 1871.

[6] See Amanda Frisken, Victoria Woodhull’s Sexual Revolution: Political Theater and the Popular Press in Nineteenth-Century America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

[7] As is so often the case, the story’s denouement does not sustain the excitement of its climactic middle act: Woodhull’s focused experimentation on the limits and boundaries of publicity in Gilded Age America seems to have led, in short order, to burnout, exile to England, and the adoption of a variety of unappealing reactionary political commitments.

[8] Barbara Goldsmith writes: “The Claflin children lived in squalor under their parents’ chaotic rule. Buck’s only money came from odd jobs and various deceptive schemes… They distressed the neighbors by using the same unwashed green flask to fetch both beer and milk. At mealtimes they often begged at back doors… Fierce quarrels were followed by equally fierce reconciliations… Roxy told her children of her visions, of how she had seen Jesus extend his bloody hands toward her and how she had recognized the devil because he had a small red tail and a cloven hoof… In the fall of 1847, (Buckman) insured his gristmill against fire for $4,000, which seemed odd because he never operated it. One Saturday night he set out on one of his walks and spent the night in a town ten miles away. The following morning he headed home, but in the late afternoon stopped at the Brandon Tavern, only two miles from his house. He was still there at eleven that night when he walked to the window and said to the landlord, “There is a red glow in the sky to the south. I have a presentiment that’s my gristmill on fire.” Buck borrowed a horse and galloped into Homer to find a heap of smoldering ashes where his mill had been. When Buck went to collect the insurance, the people of Homer began to wonder about the unused gristmill. Soon there was talk of arson and even more talk of tar and feathers and cleansing the town of this primitive, cheating clan. Roxy was suspected of torching the mill, and so was ten-year-old Vickie. Buck disappeared, leaving Roxy and her brood without food or money. The previous year, Buck had worked for a few months as a postmaster. After he disappeared, a trunk filled with empty envelopes addressed to Homer residents was found in the post office, Buck having pocketed the money and whatever else of value he found in them. In January 1848, the upstanding Christian women of Homer organized a bazaar, and the proceeds were given to Roxy Claflin on the condition that she leave town and rejoin her husband, wherever he might be.” Barbara Goldsmith. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. New York: Knopf/Doubleday Publishing Group. 2011.

[9] M. Alison Kibler, “Performance and Display” in Karen Halttunen, A Companion to American Cultural History. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2008.

[10], Vanessa R. Schwartz, Spectacular Realities Early Mass Culture in Fin-De-Siècle Paris. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

[11] Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, citing Poetics 1459 a 3–8; and Rhetoric 1412 a 10.

[12]C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan, 1958.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I invoked Jacques Rancière in the text above, but did not flesh out my thoughts on Rancière’s larger project. I am a Rancièrean, I suppose, but not an orthodox one. So, I wanted to draw attention to an excellent piece by Barry Schwabsky in the new NLR on Rancière’s Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art. Summing things up much more elegantly than I could ever hope to, Schwabsky observes (I hope I can be forgiven this very long selective quotation; it sets out so nicely many of the themes I take up in later chapters of my dissertation):

    “Perhaps what is most striking, therefore, about Jacques Rancière’s Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art is its claim to articulate ‘the mode of experience according to which, for two centuries, we perceive very diverse things’ when we look at paintings and sculptures, read novels or poetry, watch films or plays… which in his view utterly separates both positions from any that were possible before the late eighteenth century…

    As Rancière has argued in these pages, what he calls the aesthetic regime of art is a mentality distinct from the preceding representative regime, which it gradually replaced, and the ethical regime which was in force before that. In the ethical regime, expressed most forcefully by Plato, the arts were not distinguished as a specific mode of activity, according to Rancière’s quasi-Foucauldian genealogy; instead, images were interrogated for their effect on the ethos of individuals and communities. He identifies the representative regime, meanwhile, with the Classical age, meaning that of the literary and artistic academies of the seventeenth century; as he explained in his earlier book The Politics of Aesthetics: ‘The representative primacy of action over characters or of narration over description, the hierarchy of genres according to the dignity of their subject matter, and the very primacy of the art of speaking, of speech in actuality, all of these elements figure into an analogy with a fully hierarchical vision of the community.’

    It is perhaps through the idea of an aesthetic regime that dismantles an earlier, explicitly hierarchical one that we can understand the turn in Rancière’s work, beginning with a 1996 book on Mallarmé, to an emphasis on literature, aesthetics and the image…

    Proceeding by examples rather than argument, Aisthesis succeeds in conveying Rancière’s idea of how an autonomous realm of art, as constituted since the late eighteenth century, paradoxically takes shape precisely ‘by blurring the specificities that define the arts and the boundaries that separate them from the prosaic world’ (in contradistinction to the Greenbergian notion of modernism as a delimiting process by which, as Greenberg put it in ‘Towards a Newer Laocoon’, ‘the arts . . . have been hunted back to their mediums, and there they have been isolated, concentrated and defined’).

    The fourteen ‘scenes’ he has chosen to illustrate the progressive de-definition—to borrow Harold Rosenberg’s term—and redefinition of art are not necessarily the star turns of acknowledged masterworks…

    One feels, after reading these chapters that conduct us from Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s description, in his 1764 History of Ancient Art, of the Belvedere Torso through the description of the furnishings of an Alabama sharecropper’s cabin in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), that Rancière’s implicit narrative of modernism is both clear and comprehensive, and that it could easily have encompassed the more familiar texts and objects he has deliberately omitted, but that its inclusive character was better conveyed by the choice of more unexpected exhibits…

    However, it is striking that, despite Rancière’s assertion that this aesthetic regime ‘is not a matter of the “reception” of works of art’ but rather of ‘the sensible fabric of experience within which they are produced’, almost all the passages that he adduces consist precisely of what is normally understood as reception, rather than being primary works in themselves…

    For Rancière, Agee’s text is, if not the culmination, a capital illustration of ‘the modernist dream of art, capable of lending its infinite resonance to the most minute instant of the most ordinary life’. Rarely has this dream been so richly and passionately rearticulated as in Rancière’s retrospective account.

    But it is perhaps not as clear as he implies that the dream is specific to modernity or to the ‘aesthetic regime’, as he claims. Rancière’s tripartite genealogy (ethical, representative, aesthetic—curiously half-echoing Kierkegaard’s three ‘stages on life’s way’: aesthetic, ethical, religious) is historically open to question on the face of it: was there really no significant sea-change in the ‘sensible fabric of experience’ out of which art has been produced in the West between the time of the ancient Greeks and the French seventeenth century?

    At minimum, the scheme makes no allowance for the cult image as it was known in the Middle Ages, and still predominant in popular religiosity. Moreover, even in its heyday, did the classical model ever prevail to the extent that Rancière assumes it did, at least anywhere outside France? Just to cite the conventional aesthetic dichotomies—Racine or Shakespeare? Poussin or Caravaggio? Or, in the querelle des bouffons of the 1750s, Rameau or Pergolesi?—is to suggest otherwise.

    Rancière acknowledges that the form of his book—a series of brief excerpts each followed by an attentive but wide-ranging commentary—is modelled on that of the great work whose title it echoes, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature… For Auerbach, as Edward Said once pointed out, the development of literary realism is ‘ideologically unintelligible without the Christian doctrine of Incarnation’. The same may be true of the plastic arts, as for instance the development of still life painting in seventeenth-century Spain suggests. By omitting this long history, and its theological underpinnings, Rancière distorts the meaning of the aesthetic…

    As Auerbach himself pointed out, ‘modern realism in the form it reached in France in the early nineteenth century is, as an aesthetic phenomenon, characterized by complete emancipation from that doctrine’, namely the distinction between kinds of representation as appropriate to distinct social classes. In contrast to Rancière, he always made it clear that this idea, ‘which was taken up again by every later classicistic movement’, was never the only one in operation…

    And although I speak of energy—an energy communicated by the zest with which Rancière plunges into his manifold subject—it is one that manifests itself most eloquently in stasis, in silence, in potential…

    Unlike Auerbach’s Mimesis, Rancière’s Aisthesis ends without a summary epilogue, and in particular, he is silent as to whether his final ‘scene’, set in an America on the verge of entry into a war from which it would emerge as the world’s dominant power, is a true conclusion to the drama he has been tracing, or merely a provisional break.

    Is the post-war world the setting for the formation of a post-modernity which would be as different from the aesthetic regime of art as the latter has been from the representational regime? Or is it that the aesthetic has played out its possible variations without being replaced by a genuinely new ‘fabric of experience’?

    Or could Rancière just as easily have continued the drama, appending new scenes equally as compelling as those he has given us? The answer is that for him, Agee’s lyrically objective inventory of a tenant farmer’s possessions stands on the other side of a divide represented by the 1939 publication of Greenberg’s ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, with its inimical vision of a modernism hell-bent on its own purity.

    Greenberg’s modernism and even what was at that time his Marxism—not unlike that of Althusser so many years later, Rancière seems to imply—meant a return to order, a policing of the boundaries between media but also and above all between high art and the vernacular of everyday life. In his insistence on the silence and inaction at the heart of the aesthetic, of ‘the hidden sensible potential in inexpressivity, indifference, or immobility’, Rancière might seem to be proposing a kind of mysticism of art.

    His reply would probably be that the reproach is simply an expression of ‘the will to reaffirm both the rigor of the Marxist analysis of capitalism and art without concessions’, in the face of an aesthetic that seeks to touch the deeper sources of common life. Rancière can reconcile all the antinomies of modernism but this one.

    Here the plot bifurcates; now, it seems, the terms of disparity have become incommensurable, and there can no longer be a single story of modernism.”

  2. Very interesting stuff, Kurt. Could you add a bit on your dialogue with Rancière? The quote from the review you included is excellent, specially because it doesn’t let Rancière off the hook. I am more partial to his earlier texts: I am sympathetic to the more abstract, theoretical insights, his critique of Bourdieu et al, but when it comes to the actual interpretation of art work I find his interventions lacking, specially because there is almost no engagement whatsoever with what’s been said, which leads him often to just repeating familiar analyses, as with his defense of Vertov and the Soviet avant-gardes.

  3. Kahlil,

    Thanks so much for this comment/question. My relationship with Rancière is changing, but I should say that he is probably the thinker to whom I most indebted in thinking about the politic of culture. What speaks to me, ultimately, is the pragmatic character of his inquiry. As you know, Rancière’s initial move is beautiful and devastating in its simplicity: something like, Aristotle says a human is different from an animal because the human speaks whereas the animal only makes noise. which implies the presence of a third subject–the one to whom such a distinction is legible, as well as the existence of an official syntax and political unconscious, all of which are needed to ratify–in aesthetic terms–a given regime of inequality.

    To my mind, this is the Rancièrean revolution–by returning to these primal scenes, we shake off the weight of overdetermination, and provide for ourselves a properly underdetermined universe of possibilities. It is in such a light that history appears as something other than a pre-programmed series of atrocities (here we find a link to the better parts of Analytical Marxism), democracy can be properly understood as always radically undermining the “partition of the sensible,” (as opposed to the anti-democracy of the theological neo-communists), and that we gain a reminder of the tedium of the elite’s duty to punctually refresh its shoddy defenses of the given politico-aesthetic order (here we see a tie to Cedric Robinson, Edward Said, and indeed to what Foucault might have meant when he said–sincerely–that power and resistance are unthinkable without one another).

    Where I find myself critical of Rancière, increasingly, has to do with the place of historicism in his writing on art. I think “historicism” should never be a term of opprobrium, and only ever the name of a problematic, but even on these terms, as Schwabsky points out, there are some problems with Rancière’s aesthetic history on historicist grounds. My temptation would be to say, contra Rancière, (and maybe with a thinker like Ricoeur, on the one hand, or Bruno Latour, on the other) that the ethical, representative, and aesthetic are all found present at the creation of philosophical thinking about mimesis and poetics, and that every moment contains some admixture of the three qualities.

    I understand Rancière’s polemic against, say, the Jansen’s big book of art history’s narrative of something called “art” that persists from Lascaux to Jeff Koons; or against the Marxist tradition of soup-to-nuts sweeping histories of art a la Hauser; and I share his frustration with the post-Greenbergian/Peter Burger tradition of seeing modern art as entirely absorbed in its own narcissistic drive for formal purification. But, as Schwabsky notes, Rancière’s alternative narrative is too partial, French-centric, and unilinear to really be satisfying.

    • We agree then on the limits of the aesthetic turn in Rancière. And as I tell some of my “let’s get all transhistorical” colleagues in literary and cultural studies, there are multiple, non-lineal forms of historicism that can be tapped to grasp the intricacies of cultural work, like you do with Woodhull. I am intrigued by your parenthesis on analytical Marxism, which I know little of. You’re alluding to G.A. Cohen and company, right? On the surface, that tradition and Rancière’s appear to be in conflict, it is interesting to think about their points of connection too.

  4. Comment on a historical tidbit presented by Kurt: ” the Continental Congress legislated against traveling shows, deeming them a threat to republican virtue.”

    I had no idea that the Continental Congress did this—i.e. got involved in cultural prohibition. I wonder what other cultural considerations became policy? And I wonder how they expected them to be enforced? – TL

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