Rancière’s The Aesthetic Unconscious

Aesthetic Unconscious

A reader of Rancière’s The Aesthetic Unconscious, Owen Hulatt (2010), begins his review of the book with: “This rather brief book constitutes an attempt by Rancière to demonstrate that the ‘aesthetic regime’ of tragic and modern art made Freudian psychoanalysis possible (3-4), and that Freud’s psychoanalysis of the art to which he owed his new science was thoroughly flawed.” Yes, Rancière argues that Freud is “thoroughly flawed,” and I do not perceive something or someone “under attack.” Psychoanalysis is brought “into play.” The summary of the book on its back cover is helpful:

“This book is not concerned with the use of Freudian concepts for the interpretation of literary and artistic works. Rather, it is concerned with why this interpretation plays such an important role in demonstrating the contemporary relevance of psychoanalytic concepts.

In order for Freud to use the Oedipus complex as a means for the interpretation of texts, it was necessary first of all for a particular notion of Oedipus, belonging to the Romantic reinvention of Greek antiquity, to have produced a certain idea of the power of that thought which does not think, and the power of that speech which remains silent.

From this it does not follow that the Freudian unconscious was already prefigured by the aesthetic unconscious. Freud’s ‘aesthetic’ analyses reveal instead a tension between the two forms of unconscious. In this concise and brilliant text Rancière brings out this tension and shows us what is at stake in this confrontation.”

The Aesthetic Unconscious offers a brief genealogy of the word “aesthetics.”

“This project naturally presupposes that we come to terms with the notion of aesthetics itself. I do not consider aesthetics to be the name of the science or discipline that deals with art. In my view it designates a mode of thought that develops with respect to things of art and that is concerned to show them to be things of thought. More fundamentally,  aesthetics is a particular historical regime of thinking about art and an idea of thought according to which things of art are things of thought. It is well known that the use of the word “aesthetics” is to designate thinking about art is recent. Its genealogy is generally referred to in Baumgarten’s Aesthetica, published in 1750, and Kant’s Critique of Judgment. But these landmarks are equivocal. For Baumgarten the term “aesthetics” in fact does not designate the theory of art but rather the domain of sensible knowledge, the clear but nonetheless “confused” or indistinct knowledge that can be contrasted with the clear and distinct knowledge of logic. Kant’s position in this genealogy is equally problematic. When he borrows the term “aesthetics” from Baumgarten as a name for the theory of forms of sensibility, Kant in fact rejects what gave it its meaning, namely the idea of the sensible as a “confused” intelligible. For Kant it is impossible to conceive of aesthetics as a theory of indistinct knowledge. Indeed, the Critique of the Faculty of Judgment does not recognize “aesthetics” as a theory; “aesthetic” only appears as an adjective, and it designates a type of judgement rather than a domain of objects. It is only in the context of Romanticism and post-Kantian idealism- through the writings of Schelling, the Schlegel brothers, and Hegel- that aesthetics comes to designate the thought of art, even as the inappropriateness of the term is constantly remarked. Only in this later context do we see an identification between the thought of art- the thought of “confused knowledge” occur under the name of aesthetics. This new and paradoxical idea makes art the territory of a thought that is present outside itself and identical with non-thought. It unites Baumgarten’s definition of the sensible as “confused” idea with Kant’s contrary definition of the sensible as heterogeneous to the idea. Henceforth confused knowledge is no longer a lesser form of knowledge but properly the thought of that which does not think.

In other words, “aesthetics” is not a new name for the domain of “art.” It is a specific configuration of this domain. It is not the new rubric under which we can group what formerly fell under the general concept of poetics. It marks a transformation of the regime of thinking about art. This new regime provides the locus where a specific idea of thought is constituted.” (pp. 5-7)


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