Descriptive Excess: Jacques Racière’s take on the Reality Effect

September 22, 2009 § 1 Comment

Politics of Sign and Space

Politics of Aesthetics

Given that the height of French structuralist criticism has long passed away (along with its most prolific writers) the review by Jacques Rancière at the Berlin Institute of Cultural Inquiry (ICI) on September 21 was a welcome chance for a couple of hundreds of people to review the “politics of fiction” through an analysis of 18th and 19th century Realist literature.

Starting with Roland Barthes’ classic “The Reality Effect” (1968), Rancière attempts to recapture the political impact of Realist fiction through its radical dismissal of boundaries, of high and low, of subjecting parts to an overarching idea. The “descriptive excess” of Realism, in his words, does not conflate high art and the profane passions of every day life, but affirms that in democratic literature all elements play an equal part in the construction of the text. Invoking Borges’ criticism of Proust (“There are just too many pages in his work!”), Rancière underlines that what a appears as a representation in a Realist novel, actually dissolves representation by putting all signifiers on an equal level. The Real is produced as an effect of the text itself and is not supported by an external reality.

… in other words, the very absence of the signified, to the advantage of the referent alone, becomes the very signifier of realism: the reality effect is produced, the basis of that unavowed verisimilitude which forms the aesthetic of all the standard works of modernity. (p.234)

(Roland Barthes “The Reality Effect” In: Dorothy J. Hale (2006) The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900–2000, London: Blackwell, pp. 230-234)

Rancière went on to point to the self-sufficiency of the realist description that self-consciously employs details and description to destabilize existing structures of power. By breaking the distinctions of class, of textual conventions, of conflating different media forms and images, Realist fiction does not so much produce reality as such, but offers “new possibilities of a sensory experience of equality”.

We might add a reference to the Constance School and Wolfgang Iser here to point to the democratic appeal of popular texts precisely because they need to be appropriated by a reader and are not in themselves meaningful.

Rancière has devoted a large part of his research to (re-) negotiations of space, of distribution and division in the legacy of Deleuze, and his more recent works summarize the “Politics of Aesthetics”. His defense of Realist fiction as a political art form might sound surprising. Whereas the Modernists rejected Realism on the grounds of its excessive logic of description, Rancière defends it. Realist fiction embodies a “self-contradiction of cause and effect” and follows a logic of addition (of details or images). Structuralists, Futurists, and Dadaists – in short the Modernist movement – on the other hand favored subtraction in painting, in writing and theater. Rancière emphasizes that Realist excess of description is an immanent criticism of cause and effect as a logical function of language itself. By placing signifiers on equal levels, Realism is the first truly democratic form of fiction and should not be dismissed as a mere representation. Without its representation, he contends, reality remains even more elusive.

This is not Ljubljana

This is not Ljubljana - but the ICI hinterland


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