Mute Speech

Mute Speech: Literature, Critical Theory, and Politics

JACQUES RANCIÈRE
TRANSLATED BY JAMES SWENSON
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY GABRIEL ROCKHILL
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 208
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/ranc15102
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  • Book Info
    Mute Speech
    Book Description:

    Jacques Rancière has continually unsettled political discourse, particularly through his questioning of aesthetic "distributions of the sensible," which configure the limits of what can be seen and said. Widely recognized as a seminal work in Rancière's corpus, the translation of which is long overdue, Mute Speech is an intellectual tour de force proposing a new framework for thinking about the history of art and literature. Rancière argues that our current notion of "literature" is a relatively recent creation, having first appeared in the wake of the French Revolution and with the rise of Romanticism. In its rejection of the system of representational hierarchies that had constituted belles-letters, "literature" is founded upon a radical equivalence in which all things are possible expressions of the life of a people. With an analysis reaching back to Plato, Aristotle, the German Romantics, Vico, and Cervantes and concluding with brilliant readings of Flaubert, Mallarmé, and Proust, Rancière demonstrates the uncontrollable democratic impulse lying at the heart of literature's still-vital capacity for reinvention.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52800-9
    Subjects: Philosophy, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. INTRODUCTION: THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS—The Subversion of the Modernist Doxa
    (pp. 1-28)
    GABRIEL ROCKHILL

    A singular event occurred on the Parisian intellectual landscape in the summer of 1966: a philosophical work ranging over 398 dense pages and engaging with a myriad of figures outside of the philosophical canon was sold at such a rate that it could barely be kept on the shelves. The first thirty-five hundred copies printed in April quickly disappeared. In June, another five thousand copies were printed that evaporated even more quickly than the first set. Three thousand additional copies had to be printed in July and another thirty-five hundred in September. By the end of the year, twenty thousand...

  4. INTRODUCTION: FROM ONE LITERATURE TO ANOTHER
    (pp. 29-38)

    There are some questions we no longer dare pose. Recently an eminent literary theorist said that one would have to have no fear of ridicule to call a book What is Literature? Sartre, who did write a book with that title in a time that already seems so far from us, at least had the wisdom not to answer the question. For, as Gérard Genette tells us, “a foolish question does not require an answer; by the same token, true wisdom might consist in not asking it at all.”¹

    How exactly should we understand this wisdom in the conditional mood?...

  5. PART I: FROM RESTRICTED TO GENERAL POETICS

    • CHAPTER 1 FROM REPRESENTATION TO EXPRESSION
      (pp. 41-51)

      Let us return to the stone wall and refuge of silence. Blanchot, in fact, did not invent the metaphors he uses to celebrate the purity of literary experience, and the valorization of purity is not their only possible use. These same metaphors have often served to denounce the perversion inherent in that purity. They thus structure Sartre’s arguments expressing both fascination and contempt for Flaubert and Mallarmé. Sartre continually denounces Flaubert’s infatuation with poems in dead languages, “words of stone falling from the lips of statues,” or the Mallarméan poem’s “column of silence blossoming alone in some secluded garden.” He...

    • CHAPTER 2 FROM THE BOOK OF STONE TO THE BOOK OF LIFE
      (pp. 52-61)

      Before the wall and the sacred desert, there was the cathedral. Before Flaubert’s “book about nothing”—and in order for this book to be thinkable—there was Hugo’s monstrous “book of stone.” Planche’s text, of course, is “metaphorical.” Hugo’s novel is about a cathedral, but the matter in which he writes is words, not stone. The metaphor, however, is not merely a figurative way of saying that Hugo’s book subordinates action to description, discourse to images, and syntax to words. It ratifies, in a polemical form, a new principle of translatability among the arts. It reminds us that poetry is...

    • CHAPTER 3 THE BOOK OF LIFE AND THE EXPRESSION OF SOCIETY
      (pp. 62-70)

      A good starting point is the primacy of elocutio, which will give rise to the theory of the absolute character of style and to the notions currently employed to indicate the specificity of modern literary language, namely the “intransitive” or “self-referential” character of language. Partisans of literary exceptionality and denouncers of its utopianism both tend to refer to German Romanticism and in particular to a formula of Novalis’s: “It is amazing, the absurd error that people make of imagining they are speaking for the sake of things; no one knows the essential thing about language, that it is concerned only...

  6. PART II: FROM GENERALIZED POETICS TO THE MUTE LETTER

    • CHAPTER 4 FROM THE POETRY OF THE FUTURE TO THE POETRY OF THE PAST
      (pp. 73-85)

      “Art for art’s sake” and literature as the expression of society are two ways to express the same historic mode of the art of writing. This does not mean that this mode is not in itself contradictory; indeed, literature itself could well be only the development of this contradiction. Nonetheless, the contradiction still needs to be identified more precisely. At first sight, the art of speaking now seems to be deployed between two vanishing points. On one side, the singular form of the work risks being reduced to the simple manifestation of a collective way of being; on the other,...

    • CHAPTER 5 THE BOOK IN PIECES
      (pp. 86-92)

      Thus hegel twice invalidates the pretensions of the new poem, the poem that proves itself in the form of prose itself. In its objectivist form, the novelistic poem dissolves in the prose of the bourgeois world. In its subjectivist version, it reduces the work to the mere exhibition of the dead sign of art, to the artist’s signature. Romanticism then cannot be the principle of a new poetics. It is the entry of poetry and art into the era of their dissolution. The principle of this dissolution is the incompatibility of the two organizing principles of antirepresentative poetics: the principle...

    • CHAPTER 6 THE FABLE OF THE LETTER
      (pp. 93-100)

      In order to illustrate the link between the tale of the perverted shepherd, novelistic jokes about books lost and found, and the modern fable of the perdition of the children of the people, we must introduce two more Platonic myths. The first, another story about the land of the dead, comes at the end of the Republic: the story of Er the Pamphylian. Wounded and left for dead on the battlefield, he was able to see what happens in the beyond and give us a detailed account that reveals the crucial secret: Souls choose their own destiny from lots tossed...

    • CHAPTER 7 WRITING AT WAR
      (pp. 101-110)

      We need to return to the tales of the perverted children of the people in order to grasp the principles of this war. Perhaps the most somber of these stories is Balzac’s The Country Parson, whose fable, at first sight, is exemplarily Platonic. It tells of the mortal danger of writing and the intrinsic link between writing and democracy. The heroine Véronique is the daughter of a modest scrap-metal dealer from Limoges who became secretly wealthy during the Revolution by trading in nationalized property. One Sunday she finds a book called Paul and Virginia on an open-air bookstall. This book...

  7. PART III: THE CONTRADICTIONS OF THE WORK OF LITERATURE

    • CHAPTER 8 THE BOOK IN STYLE
      (pp. 113-127)

      The age of literature is not only the age of war between forms of writing. It is also an age that attempts to conciliate this battle and create harmony between sight and speech, between the indifference of the subject and the necessity of the work of language, between the great writing of things and the mute-loquacious letter. The opening of The Country Parson, like the ending of Louis Lambert, stages the impossible coincidence of a gaze that sees and a speech that tells. The failure of this coincidence can be attributed to a failure to forge the instrument necessary for...

    • CHAPTER 9 THE WRITING OF THE IDEA
      (pp. 128-144)

      The “writing” that responded to the aporias of Romantic poetics thus ends up canceling itself. “The style is astonishingly beautiful, but at times it’s rendered null, because of the imposing bareness,” was Mallarmé’s verdict on Bouvard and Pécuchet.¹ What are we to think of this sumptuous nullity, this final reversal of the equivalence between splendor and the void? Mallarmé finds the subject an aberration, “which is strange in so powerful a artist.” But in what exactly does this aberration consist? It cannot consist only in the “platitude” of the subject, which Goncourt the naturalist and Barbey the anti-naturalist reproach Flaubert...

    • CHAPTER 10 ARTIFICE, MADNESS, THE WORK
      (pp. 145-166)

      “For some forty years now literature has been dominated by the contrast between the gravity of the expression and the frivolity of the subject (a result of Madame Bovary).” ¹ Proust drew up this inventory at the moment he was about to begin writing Remembrance of Things Past. Flaubert’s “frivolity” was the strict application of a poetics of the indifference of the subject and the absolute character of style, which obliged the novelist to mark, line by line, the imperceptible difference destined for a final erasure. There is another kind of frivolity, which made Mallarmé end up writing “visiting card”...

  8. CONCLUSION: A SKEPTICAL ART
    (pp. 167-176)

    “A writer reasons, that is to say he goes astray, when he has not the strength to force himself to make an impression pass through all the successive states which will culminate in its fixation, its expression.”¹ To the distracted reader, this famous sentence from Time Regained might seem fairly anodyne. It is likely to be found suspicious, however, by the critical reader who is alert to the dubious ambiguity of “expression” and “impression” and quick to ask precisely what the transformation of one into the other means. But in order to understand what this sentence means, and to understand...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 177-200)