La Jacquerie

When Jacques Rancière took the Swift Lecture Hall stage at the University of Chicago before a packed house, he looked more like a late-night diner patron than an astoundingly popular philosopher. Without the questionable dandyism of Bernard-Henri Lévy, or the casual arrogance of Slavoj Žižek (who preceded him as the Critical Inquiry Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago), Rancière almost seemed like a charming bachelor who just happens to have entire issues of Artforum devoted to polishing his boots. But an hour and a half of rapid-fire Frenglish later, the charm was starting to wear off.

The lecture, titled “The Pensive Image,” focused on Rancière’s politically-permeated aesthetic theory. From Critical Inquiry editor-in-chief W.J.T. Mitchell’s perspective, that theory emerges from a “radical view of human equality rooted in our shared access to language.” So what does that have to do with the “pensiveness” of an image, apparently some quality between action and inaction? Aside from some mumbling on Rancière’s part about the estrangement of the political from the aesthetic exemplified in a photograph of an Alabama sharecropper’s bare kitchen, it wasn’t clear. Furthermore, it’s secondary to claims that Rancière has made repeatedly and more articulately in print–that politics addresses some kind of inequality and that aesthetics is properly egalitarian.

Halfway through the lecture, minds were starting to wander. Grad students texted, and Critical Inquiry editors stopped taking notes to gaze at their shoes. Rancière concluded by displaying a tepid piece of video art. Nuclear blasts and Spanish anarchists are iconic, maybe, but they feel like old stock no matter how you juxtapose them. At a minimum, there are more nuanced ways of presenting opposition to power and violence. For those who seek clarification, Rancière will speak again on the 24th.