Posing Foolish Questions: What Is Literature?
“There are some questions we dare no longer pose.”
Jacques Rancière, Mute Speech
Jacques Rancière’s bold challenge opens Mute Speech (1998), one of his most rigorous works on aesthetics, only just recently published in English (2011). In this opening claim, Rancière echoes the famous, elusive question that Jean-Paul Sartre posed in 1949: what is literature? Gérard Genette (1993) offers a contemporary comment on the question itself: “a foolish question does not require an answer; by the same token, true wisdom might consist in not asking it all” (cited in Rancière 29). This formulation of “wisdom in the conditional mood” bothers Rancière: it derides questions even as it offers answers. To challenge this “wisdom,” he presses Sartre’s original question in a new direction: why are we expected to have a vague, working definition of literature but yet simultaneously discouraged from investigating it theoretically? The paradox that Rancière states here resists simple solutions: what, he asks, are the political stakes in creating the category of “literature”? The question, for Rancière, is not simply “what is literature?” but rather “why is the history of literature characterized by the impossibility of its own definition?” Mute Speech aims to recast the history of literature, seeking to explain why we no longer dare to pose this question.
The ambition of this task is striking. Rancière aims to upset the stories that modernism tells about itself, particularly how it distinguishes itself from Romanticism and Classicism. One narrative of modernism suggests that literature evolved organically out of belles lettres, emerging gradually but without challenging the fundamental principles of its poetics. Another narrative opposes the constraints of classical representation to the autonomy of the modern work. Modernity, in this narrative, signals a break with classical art and liberates expression and language (and carries with it a specific notion of political liberation as well). Rancière challenges both narratives of radical continuity and of radical break. He instead aims to cast a wider critical net, recounting the story of literature as shifting relations amongst art, language, and society. The story no longer opposes “representative” and “abstract” art but investigates various shifts concerning how language relates to society.
To advance this argument, Rancière investigates the transition from belles lettres to literature in the wake of the French Revolution. He argues that this moment produced a revolution in aesthetics “slow enough to have no need of being noticed” (34). While most literary scholars are content to exchange belles lettres for “literature,” implying that nothing substantive changed during this brief period, Rancière maintains that everything changed. Writers and philosophers of this time did not just advance arguments about the criteria by which works were appreciated; rather, they overturned “the relations between art, language, and society that circumscribe[d] the literary universe” (34). In order to make this revolution visible, Rancière develops an imminent critique, articulating the contradictions and paradoxes that give rise to the phenomenon of literature.
Of particular interest in Rancière’s critique is his invocation and use of the figure of the “sacred.” Within modernism, some argue that literature is a radical exercise of thought and language, even “a social calling” (36) and “a new priesthood of art” (51). To consecrate the essence of literature, they “reach back […] to the tradition of negative theology, pledging literature to [the] testimony of its own impossibility, just as negative theology was dedicated to expressing the ineffability of the divine attributes” (35). Others maintain that art is a product of a society at a given historical moment; it amounts to little more than an ideological phenomenon (much like religion according to a traditional Marxist position). Rancière does not remain within this debate: the opposition between the guardians of art and its demystifiers creates a false distinction. “It is vain,” he says, “to oppose the illusion of those who believe in the absoluteness of literature to the wisdom of those who know the social conditions of its production” (70). Rather than rehearsing arguments as to whether or not literature ought to be considered a secular form of the sacred, Rancière investigates why the question of literature can even be posed in such terms. Mute Speech, in the reading I am offering here, places the figure of the sacred at the core of the question of literature, but not in order simply to argue about the sacred or profane essence of literature. Instead, Rancière invokes this notion of the sacred within the discourse of aesthetics to recast the history of literature as related attempts to reconcile foundational contradictions within poetics and even writing itself.
In an effort to make these contradictions visible, Rancière highlights two divergent invocations of literature, one by Voltaire (1764) and the other by Blanchot (1959). Voltaire understands literature to designate a form of knowledge (of works of taste, of history, of criticism, etc.) that allows one to speak as a connoisseur of belles lettres. Blanchot, by contrast, considers a literary work to be “a rich resting place of silence.” He then invokes the figure of the sacred (to which we will return) to specify the unique power of literature: “If, in this imaginary Tibet, where the sacred signs could no longer be discovered in anyone, all literature stopped speaking, what would be lacking is silence, and it is this lack of silence that would perhaps reveal the disappearance of literary language” (Blanchot cited in Rancière 32). Voltaire speaks of a form of language, and Blanchot invokes “a radical experience of language that is pledged to the production of silence” (33). Are Blanchot and Voltaire speaking of the same thing, Rancière asks? The gap between these two understandings of literature and language can only be accounted for by considering carefully the shifts in the poetics that give rise to these different notions of literature.
Rancière acknowledges that Blanchot’s invocation of the sacred, the stone, and the desert could be read as indicative of another “guardian” of literature: the literary genius alone can arrange language in such a way so as to create this silence through words. Rancière admits that “a lazy orthodoxy” would provide just such a reading, but he claims that we cannot “dispose so easily of the wall, the desert, and the sacred” (50). In a particular way, the figure of the sacred motivates this alternative history.
The latter half of Mute Speech develops this history by articulating two central contradictions and tracing how they have animated the history of the novel, specifically. The philosopher who has blazed this trail turns out to be, somewhat surprisingly, Hegel. In his reading of Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics (delivered 1823-1829), Rancière contests the simple adoption of Hegel’s oft-cited description of the novel as a “modern bourgeois epic.” Countering Georg Lukács’s invocation of this phrase to ground his theory of the novel, Rancière argues that Hegel’s judgment of the novel closes rather than opens a theory of the novel. The novel, in this reading, “has no object other than the infinite repetition of the act that repoeticizes every prosaic thing” (84). This amounts to a virtuosic demonstration of the author’s abilities, but this is only possible if every object is made into an object of use. Poetry, in this account, “is nothing more than the continual dissolution of representation, the act of self-exhibition, the exhibition of an empty intention at the expense of every object” (84). This attitude of consumption violates the core principle of Hegel’s aesthetics, namely that genuine art is the adequate expression of a particular truth in sensuous form and that the subject and the object both exist in a relation of mutual freedom (Introductory Lectures, 11-12). While one may dispute the fairness of Hegel’s scathing critique of the novel, his objections prove useful to Rancière as they reveal two profound contradictions. The history of literature, he will argue, is the continual testing and reformulation of these contradictions.
The first contradiction concerns the new poetics of literature. The poetics of representation that characterized belles lettres required that appropriate speech be written according to characters’ class (decorum) and that appropriate genres be selected according to topic. The new poetics of expression reversed these principles and maintained that a) poetry is a specific mode of language (language is not representative of the characters) and that b) the form is indifferent to the subject presented (genre is not determined by the topic). Hegel’s tirade makes the contradiction clear: if poetry is no longer restricted by its topic, anything can be made its object and it becomes nothing more than the “act of self-exhibition.” It seems, then, that the first principle (that poetry is a specific mode of language) has been rendered contradictory. Romantic poetics, according to Rancière’s reading of Hegel, demonstrates the ultimate incompatibility of these two principles: “[t]he principle of indifference […] devours the principle of poeticity” (84).
The conclusion that Rancière draws from this contradiction is far from obvious. He argues that this tension, which characterizes the new poetics of literature (specifically the novel), explains why sacredness plays such a prominent role in the rhetoric surrounding the nature of literature: “What this [contradiction] means is that, if the idea of literature could be declared sacred by some and empty by others, it is because it is, stricto sensu, the name of a contradictory poetics” (50). This account of literature offers a compelling argument as to why theories of literature circle around the figure of the sacred, and yet also why a simple narrative in which literature emerges as a secularized form of the sacred also proves dissatisfying.
As Rancière presses this line of investigation further, he argues that the novel (especially Hegel’s vehement critique of it) makes visible a second contradiction, even more foundational than the first. The novel not only opposes two principles of poetics, it also opposes two visions of writing: “In one [vision], writing is the Word that bears witness to the power of incarnation present in poetry, the people, and stone; in the other, writing is a letter without a body that could vouch for its truth and is thus available for any use and any speaker” (87). The conflict between these two writings turns out to be the “hidden truth of the new literature.” The first vision of writing hearkens back again to Hegel. Art, unlike philosophy, necessarily has a sensuous form: truth becomes incarnate. Writing bears witness to a metaphysical reality. The second vision is traced back to Plato—a favoured technique of Rancière. Writing, in his reading of Phaedrus, “is forgetful of its origin and heedless of its audience”; it is a “speech that speaks by itself” (94). The contradiction here falls between the radical situatedness of writing as an incarnational art, and its wild dislocation as an orphaned utterance.
The history of literature can be understood as the continual wrestling with these two contradictions, one concerning poetics and the other writing. Using these insights, Rancière throws his name in the ring alongside Voltaire and Blanchot, offering his own assessment of literature: “Literature is the system of possibilities that determines the impossible agreement of the necessity of language with the indifference to what it says, of the great writing of living spirit with the democracy of the naked letter” (172). In the final pages of the book, Rancière underscores the importance of theorizing literature as the continual reformulation of these contradictions. Literature is an art that investigates itself and fictionalizes its own limits, wrestling with the contingency that characterizes it (174).
Posing the question “what is literature?” proves not to be such a foolish task, after all, and Rancière has unsettled narratives of tidy, historical progression and of radical, complete rupture. While this review has paid particular attention to the role of the sacred in this new history of literature, the text also has much to offer scholars of political theory, aesthetics, and literature (the readings of Flaubert, Mallarmé, and Proust are provocative). Jacques Rancière’s works are frequently read amongst political theory scholars (of the Continental variety), and Mute Speech provides the rigorous literary context out of which his prolific political writings emerge. Although the text does not lend itself to quick, light-hearted reading, it does reward thoughtful consideration. The tensions, paradoxes, and contradictions that characterize poetics and aesthetics are given space to move in this text, and this review has traced the movements of one such tension, the sacredness of secular literature.
Jerilyn Sambrooke is a PhD student in the Rhetoric Department at the University of California, Berkeley. She researches the history of the secular and its contemporary manifestations in both literature and political theory. She has previously taught at universities in Lithuania, Turkey, and Colorado.