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PARRHLSIA NIMBLR 11 2011 `5-4`

WHAT MEDIUM CAN MEAN


Jacques Ranciere
Translateo by Steven Corcoran
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I will present some remarks here on the use ol the notion ol meoium in art theory ano the light cast on this
notion by the case ol photography. The notion ol meoium is in lact much more complex than it appears at
nrst. Theorizations ol meoium as the crucial element ol artistic mooernity bring two apparently opposite senses
ol the woro into play. Iirst, we unoerstano the woro meoium` as that which holos between`: between an ioea
ano its realization, between a thing ano its reproouction. The meoium thus appears as an intermeoiary, as the
means to an eno or the agent ol an operation. Now, mooernist theorization makes noelity to the meoium` into
the very principle ol art, inverting the perspective. This meoium to whose specincity one must be laithlul is no
longer simply the instrument ol art. It becomes the specinc materiality oenning its essence. This is certainly
the case in the Greenbergian oennition ol painting as that which is laithlul to its own meoiumthe two-
oimensional surlace ano the coloureo pigmentano thereby oelivereo lrom the servile tasks ol representation.
The meoium, then, is no longer the means to an eno. It is properly speaking that which prescribes this eno.
But the thesis which ioentines the essence ol art with the law ol its meoium can be reao in two opposite senses.
On the one hano, it says that art is art when it is lreeo lrom the tasks ol mimesis, when it becomes simply
the execution ol its own ioea in its own specinc material. This is the statement that is usually remembereo.
But the thesis can also be stooo on its heao as lollows: art is art when the constraints ol the material ano the
instrument lree it lrom itsell, lree it lrom the will to make art. The separation ol art lrom mimesis, then, is also
a separation ol techn lrom itsell: the separation ol techn as the execution ol an ioea, or implementation ol a type
ol knowleoge, lrom techn as the law ol the material ano instrument, as the law ol that which ooes not pertain
to art.
The thesis about the meoium thus states two things simultaneously: the nrst is that art is art when it is only art,
the secono is that art is art when it is not only art. These two contraoictory propositions can be synthesizeo in
the lollowing way: art is art insolar as it is possible that what is art is simultaneously not art. It is art when its
proouctions belong to a sensory milieu in which the oistinction is blurreo between that which is ano that which
is not art. In short, the means` |l o,o| is also a means to achieve something other than its own eno. It is also
the means ol participating in the connguration ol a specinc milieu. The tension between the meoium as neutral
means ano the meoium as specinc substance, between the meoium as instrument ol realization ol an ioea ol art
ano the meoium as that which resists both ioea ano art resolves to a thiro term, a thiro ioea, namely the meoium
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as milieu: the milieu in which the perlormances ol a oetermineo artistic arrangement come to be inscribeo, but
also the milieu that these perlormances themselves contribute to connguring. Suspenoing art lrom the law ol
the meoium amounts to postulating the recovery ol both milieus. It amounts to postulating a law ol aoequation
between, on the one hano, artistic perlormances that are true to their meoium` ano, on the other, a new milieu
ol experience, a new technical worlo that is simultaneously a new sensory worlo ano a new social worlo.
Within this view, photography plays a privilegeo role. The photographic apparatus is, on the one hano, the
pure instrument, the automaton at the service ol any will, ano in particular at the service ol art insolar as it is
the realization ol a will to create art. But it is also the instrument which, by itsell, executes the previous task ol
art, namely representation ano so oelivers the one who employs it lrom the concern to create art ano lrom the
pretention ol being an artist. It is t/ technology ol oioi: ano lurther still is olten invokeo as being the very
technology that liberates art lrom oioi, but also the one that liberates oioi lrom art, that enables things to
have themselves seen, lreeo lrom the cooes ol representation, lrom cooeo relations between visible lorms ano
the proouction ol meaning-ellects. Walter Benjamin ano Jean Epstein alike celebrateo this machine-operateo
liberationwhether photographic or cinematographicthat gives access to a truth or an unconscious ol the
visible. Il photography, which is the matter that concerns us here, is par excellence the meoium that gives access
to a new sensory milieu, then the photographer as artist who is laithlul to his meoium` is the one who captures
this new sensory milieu, who inscribes the perlormances ol his camera in its connguration. As Jean Epstein went
on to say, the camera is the verioical artist. But the role ol this verioical artist can be unoerstooo in two ways, as
can the relation between its artistic power ano its verioicality. On the one hano, the camera is the artist, because
it proouces a kino ol writing, ano more precisely because it has an impersonal power in itthe lightwhich
writes. The sensory milieu, then, is one in which light ano movement constitute a new writing. Yet, on the other
hano, it is a verioical artist insolar as it ooes not write anything, insolar as all it yielos is a oocument, pieces ol
inlormation, just as machines yielos them to men who work on machines ano are instrumentalizeo by them, to
men who must learn lrom them a new way ol being but also oomesticate them lor their own use.
The nrst ioea is perhaps illustrateo by an exhibition which took place in 200 ano markeo the move ol the Cotr
`otiool c lo P/tro/i in Faris to its new location at Jeu oe Faume. The exhibition was calleo Eoloioot.
Spectators were able to see, in one ano the same room, the lollowing: Charcot`s clinical photographs ol
the ill, a picture lrom the Cooiot f D.tr Coliori, Man Ray`s solarizations, a oouble exposure by Maurice
Tabaro, a photogramme by Raoul Haussmann, photographs by Brassai, a oecomposition` ano a moire`
by Eric Ronoepierre ano photographs ol the Serpentine Dance by Loe Iuller. So it exhibiteo nothing but
photographs, but photographs ol very oillerent natures ano statuses: photographs taken with or without
camera, oocumentary photographs ano artistic photographs, simple ano elaborate photographs, ano possibly
extracts taken lrom other supports. This seemingly heteroclite collection was unineo by a specinc ioea ol the
photographic meoium: the photographs gathereo together in it all attesteo to the oiscovery ol another sensible
worlo, to the worlo ol captureo movement ano ol light which writes itsell, a worlo that machines hao oiscovereo
insioe the worlo ol oroinary everyoay experience, an interior ol the sensible, but also the new liveo worlo
ol movement ano electricity, a worlo where there is continuity between the light ol the street lamps ano the
nash ol Brassai`s camera as it oiscovers the hieroglyphs ol oreams on walls. It is this ioentity between a new
/,i ano a new liveo worlo that is composeo by gathering together Loe Iuller`s luminous oance, Brassa`s
nocturnal lairytales ano Man Ray`s rayograms or solarizations. The photographic meoium is the means ol
recoroing this new worlo ol machines but also ol contributing to its lormation: a worlo ol technology, but
one where all technologies are inoillerenciateo: a calligramme by Apollinaire or a painting by Boccioni woulo
have been equally at place in it. Inoeeo, the ioea ol the meoium clearly exceeos the ioea ol the apparatus. Ano
there is no ooubt that rather than speak ol meoium, it woulo be better to speak here ol ociolit,, unoerstooo
as the relation between three things: an ioea ol meoium, an ioea ol art ano an ioea ol the sensorium within
which this technological apparatus carries out the perlormances ol art. The meoiality envisageo here implies
the immeoiate unity between the power ol an rooo ano that ol a orioo. Fhotographyincluoing in its
cameraless lormsano cinema are the arts ol this new sensible worlo where light ano movement are oirectly
ano simultaneously both experimenteo upon ano experimenters: a worlo ol intensities ano speeos where matter
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is spiritualizeo into a luminous ano oriving lorce ano where thought ano oream have the same solioity as
the matter that is instrumentalizeo. The meoium as milieu in lact absorbs the meoium as instrument. The
apparatusphotographic or othercreates a new sensory worlo inasmuch as it oenies its own specincity within
a worlo ol generalizeo experimentation. This inoillerenciation, this oe-technologization ol technology, is the
lunoamental operation at stake in the names ol various schools: simultaneism, luturism, surrealism ano others.
In clear opposition to this view there is another way ol thinking both the role ol artist-machines ano the relation
between technological meoium ano sensible milieu. What, accoroing to this other way, the technological
instrument proouces are not the epiphanies ol a new sensible worlo, but insteao oocuments, traces ano signs that
have to be observeo, reao, interpreteo ano utilizeo. Benjamin, in particular, takes this position in his Littl Hitr,
f P/tro/, ano in T/ Jr/ f Jrt io t/ J f it T./oi.ol Rrco.ioilit,. This unlortunate reprooucibility, ol
which, paraooxically, Benjamin spoke very little, has been laoen with tons ol commentaries, ano its counterpart,
the aura, has been laoen with tons more. It was thus lorgotten that the core ol the oemonstration bears not on
the ellects ol serial reproouction, but insteao on the oecomposition ol unity, on its lragmentation into a series ol
operations, operations which have the value ol tests, ol inquires into reality. Ior Benjamin, the important thing
is not that the photographs ol Atget or Sanoers are innnitely reprooucible. The essential thing is that they are
prooucts ol the machine age, the age ol mass existence ano the man ol the masses, ano, moreover, that these
prooucts are also ways ol training contemporaries how to oecipher this new liveo worlo ano orient themselves
in it. Here again, but lrom another perspective, the privilege ol technology is linkeo to an inoillerentiation ol
technologies: cinema nrst ano loremost consists in a series ol tests` into our worlo, Atget`s photos are signs
to be interpreteo, ano Sanoer`s collections are exercise books` to be taught to combatants engageo in social
struggles lor the purpose ol ioentilying allies ano aoversaries. The prooucts ol reproouctive technologies are
thus the means ol a new eoucation in the sensible, the eoucational instruments ol a new class ol experts in art,
in the art ol interpreting signs ano oocuments. It is lor this reason that Benjamin makes a oeclaration about
photography`s insulnciency ano its neeo lor a legeno by which to interpret it. Ano also about the status ol arts ol
mechanical reprooucibility being no oillerent to that ol Brecht`s epic theatretheatre which is simultaneously
a school ano a parliament, where one must learn by playing, observing, oiscussing. It is necessary that the men
who work on the machines ol mass proouction ano who live amiost their prooucts learn to seize the means ano
prooucts ol mass technology. It is a matter ol lorming, in the heart ol this global sensorium calleo mass being,
the particular sensorium ol the men ol the masses able to reao social signs ano appropriate mass proouction
lor themselves.
I have quickly mentioneo these two views ol photography`s milieu` in oroer to present the thesis that I wish to
oeleno: namely, that the ioea ol the meoium`s specincity is always an ioea ol meoiality. It is a way ol linking
three things: a technological apparatus, an ioea ol art ano the lormation ol a specinc sensible milieu. These
materials ano instruments ol art, invokeo in the name ol the meoium, are in ellect always more than materials
ano instruments. In lact they are enooweo with the aesthetic lunction ol establishing one mooe ol sensible
presentation insteao ol another. As thought, the meoium is always simultaneously a conception both ol art ano
ol the sensorium that it contributes to lorming. In this way, that nat surlace stakeo out by Greenberg is much
more than a way ol negating the illusions ol three-oimensionality. It proclaims the elimination ol times gone-
bye when new art was ioentineo with limitless sensible experimentation, it proposes another link, a remote link
between the proouction ol art lorms ano that ol lorms lor a new liveo worlo. In this sense, the law ol meoium`
is much less a rupture than it is a particular lorm, a lorm seizeo by the twololo requirement that constitutes
the aesthetic regime ol art: that aesthetic experience involves autonomy ano that art is always simultaneously
something other than art.
On this basis, it is possible to analyze the variant ways ol thinking the meoium as lorms ol translormation ol
that twololo requirement. I woulo like to oo this by consioering two analyses ol the photographic meoium that
have markeo the unoerstanoing ol photography over the last quarter ol a century ano which are also two ways
to settle photography`s accounts with the ioea ol a new common worlo.
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The nrst is illustrateo by Barthes` arguments in Cooro Lo.ico, in which he introouces a well-oetermineo ioea
ol meoium: this ioea involves an ioentity between technological materiality ano sensoriality. This ioentity can
be explaineo in three points: nrst, photography`s technological materiality is the negation ol art. Fhotography
is not art, it is no skill involving the mino or hano. It ooes not strike us as being the realization ol an artist`s
perlormance. Seconoly, however, this negation ol art also negates the ioea ol any specinc perlormance ol
technology. It is inscribeo by way ol contrast to what is usually meant by the negation ol art`, which is to
say the trivialization engenoereo by multiple reproouctions or the prosaization which commanos a view ol
photographic proouctions as being simple oocuments about reality. Barthes`s arguments turn the camera itsell
into a milieu, one through which the singularity ol a booy is projecteo towaros me, happens to reach me, ano
even to injure me. Ior him, the photographic operation is a meoium transport. In some sense it relers back to
the ioea that light writes ano to the revelation ol the new sensible worlo behino it, an ioea lrom the age in which
spiritists saw in photography a means lor communicating with spirits. It is the /o.io-oo ol the booy which
itsell comes to lorm an impression on a sensitive plate ano, lrom there, strike us without meoiation. This secono
thesis, which obviously oates lrom belore the oigital age, is articulateo with a thiro: the milieu ol reproouction,
lor Barthes, is the exact contrary ol what it was in avant-garoe views, namely a common worlo, a worlo ol
trivialization ol signs ano collective experimentation. Technology, on the contrary, is absorbeo in an essence ol
the sensible, the sensible as absolute singularity.
But there are two ways to unoerstano this singularity. In a nrst sense, to be singular is to be incomparable
or unrelatable with anything else, it is to have no meaning. It is therelore saio that there is no reason why
photography appeals to the gaze ano engenoers allect, or rather that it ooes so by virtue ol this very absence
ol reason. This is summeo up in the lamous opposition between the tocioo ano the oo.too: in contrast to the
photo that provioes inlormation ano oemanos an interpretation stanos Lewis Hine`s two retaroeo inlants, the
small boy with his Danton collar ano the girl with a tiny banoage on her nnger. Barthes` pointing up these
two oetails obviously amounts to evacuating the photo`s social ano political context, that is, the activity ol
a photographer who systematically useo his camera to explore sites ol exploitation ano imprisonment, ol a
witness whose pictures summon the appreciation ol Benjamin`s new experts ol the mass age. The Danton collar
makes it possible to parry all that, to settle accounts silently with this meoiality, which ties appreciation ol the
photographic perlormance to a new expertise`, in other woros, the experimentation with a new sensible worlo.
The only sensible worlo to which the photo attests is the relation ol absolute singularity between the spectacle
ano the absolute singularity ol the gaze. Aveoon`s photograph ol the olo slave presents us with a similar case,
but here the proceoure is inverteo: no oetail oiverts us away lrom a socio-political reaoing. On the contrary,
the photographeo subject`s mask bespeaks nothing other than the slave`s conoition. But the ellect is the same:
it is slavery in person as historical singularity which is given, in its entirey, by the singularity ol a single lace.
Decreeing that slavery is present in person, belore our eyes, between our hanos, in lact amounts to ellacing the
singularity ol other photographs which speak to us ol what has transpireo between the abolition ol slavery
ano our present, such as, lor example, the John Vachon photograph that only shows us the sign Clrc naileo
very high to the trunk ol a pine, alongsioe what is probably the object pertaining to its oiscrimination, namely
a tap. Concentrating the having-been` ol slavery into a single lace is one way to settle accounts with the great
number ol lorms that racial oiscrimination takes on in sensory existence. In the name ol lully transmitting a
phenomenon in its past as a whole, it amounts to cancelling out the lorm ol collective experience calleo history,
which hao previously serveo as a support lor interpreting images ano lor practices with images. The opposition
between the oo.too ano the tocioo makes it possible to clear away this traoition ol practice with ano on images.
But there is no achieving this suppression without remainoer. Singular oistortions happen to enter, in return,
into the use ol both notions.
The best example ol this is provioeo by a photograph ol a young man in a cell. The young man is beautilul,
Barthes tells us, but such is the tocioo. The oo.too is: / i io t ci. The problem is that this oo.too is not
localizable on the booy with which we are presenteo. It is not an event ol the image, only an external piece ol
knowleoge that is not visible on the photograph unless we alreaoy aware that it is ol Lewis Fayne, sentenceo
to oeath in 18o lor attempting to muroer the American Secretary ol State. The oo.too, in its supposeo
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immeoiateness, is in lact constituteo by the conjunction ol two things: on the one hano, a knowleoge about the
history ol a ngure, ano, on the other, the very texture ol the photograph, its colouration, is inoicative ol the
lact that it is an olo photo lrom the past, a photo ol someone who, in any case, is alreaoy oeao as we view it.
So singularity` takes on another meaning entirely. More than incomparable being, what constitutes it is the
lact ol having been there, therelore ol no longer being there. The singularity ol photography, then, is that
ol the Latin ioo, ol the elngy ol the oeao, which with Barthes, becomes the elngy ol oeath. Fhotography
becomes a messenger ol the beyono. Ano this oetermination lalls back on the meoium relation alone, which
proouces the real allect ol the photograph: in the case ol Lewis Fayne, not the knowleoge that he will oie,
but on the contrary a non-knowleoge. At nrst sight, we oo not know who he is, why he gazes in this way. Ano
even il we know who this young man is, we are still unable to know the thinking that animates this gaze, which
expresses neither lear nor revolt, neither resignation nor repentance. Similarly, we are unaware ol what the
photographer was thinking, ano whether it was at his request that the oetainee is seateo on the boroer ol light
ano shaoow, his gaze turneo intensely towaro the camera. When all is saio ano oone, the allect ol this photo
comes lrom the impossibility ol establishing any oeterminate relationship between the mooality ol this gaze ano
the imminence ol oeath, between the present ol the way in which it allects us ano the age ol the photograph,
between singularity ano anonymity. The having-been` in lact oecomposes into a plurality ol relations whose
inoennite relation renoers, lor us, the aesthetic quality ol photography. Now, Barthes lolos this plurality oown
onto the sole image ol oeath. Death becomes a name lor the Unique ano is the meoium power ol photography
because it is the pure relation ol that which is to that which no longer is, a power on which that oimension ol
collective sensible experience relerreo to as history came crashing oown.
The secono way ol unoerstanoing the law ol the meoium that I mentioneo above, leaos to another lorm ol
reouction. On the lace ol it, however, this way is the exact opposite ol Barthes` view. It maintains in ellect
that the meoium is an instrument, a means ol reproouction ano nothing else. The artist who uses it ooes
so specincally as such, which is to say he utilizes its resources qua apparatus, without pretenoing to turn it
into a milieu or a sensorium. This thesis oennes an ioea ol photography which is encapsulateo in the title ol
an exhibition ano accompanying publication, eoiteo by Jean-Iranois Chevrier ano James Lingwooo: Jot/r
Oo.ti.it,. Their text reoenneo the specincity ol the photographic meoium as its ontological poverty`, as the
absence ol any strong ontological consistency requireo lor the meoium to become a milieu. The photographic
apparatus, on this view, is a means ol provioing objective ano reprooucible inlormation about what is placeo
belore the lens. So seen, the essence ol the meoium conoemns two other uses ol photographs: the virtuous use
baseo on subjective availability ano visual equality` ano which associates the apparatuses ability lor immeoiate
reception with the artist`s ability to grasp the visual event, which marks his mastery, ano the emotional use that
puts allect in the place ol inlormation, as in humanist photography`.
This twin prohibition, ascribeo to the meoium, is enough to show that this ioea ol objectivity is itsell also an ioea
ol art, a way ol oenning the aoequation between the essence ol photography ano that ol artistic mooernity`.
Only the problem is that there is more than one ioea ol mooernity. Ano the ioea ol photographic objectivity
oscillates between two ioeas ol its own specincity, which themselves also amount to two ioeas ol mooernity.
On the one hano, the specincity ol the meoium is assimilateo to its reprooucibility. To be laithlul to the meoium
is then to be laithlul to its multiplicating essence. But it is haroly an easy matter to oiscern the specinc quality helo
by an image oue to its being reprooucible. It is inoeeo even less so insolar as the very existence ol photography
makes every image innnitely multipliable ano comes to us massively in the lorm ol copies. The same holos,
lrom this viewpoint, lor the young English noble painteo by Holbein as lor the Italian apprentice photographeo
by Faul Strano. With Chevrier ano Lingwooo, too, this multiplicating essence is oisplaceo lrom the ioea ol
multiplying a one to that ol the multiple unit. Reprooucibility thus becomes seriality. Whence the exemplarity
ol Becher`s works, which comprise series like August Sanoer`s. The problem, however, is that Sanoer`s series
constituteo typologies. Ior Benjamin their value involveo the lormation ol physiognomist meaning. These series
ol German social types were means ol ioentincation ano struggle, enabling the combatants to know who they
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hao belore them ano to get useo to the reverse. Obviously no such service is to be expecteo lrom the Bechers`
series ol water towers ano oisuseo inoustrial sites. Benjamin`s critique woulo actually have no oilnculty in
trapping these series in its purview: the photos ol lactories say nothing about the social relations manilest
in them. The interest ol the series therelore cannot resioe in what it is they have us unoerstano about social
relations. It consists essentially in the ethical virtue that is granteo to the multiple as such, insolar as it parries the
conjuring tricks ol the one ano the aura, ol the unique instant ano ecstatic contemplation. This principle is a
purely negative one, just as with Barthes, even il its meaning is the exact inverse. Its artistic positivity` therelore
comes lrom a secono way ol thinking about the meoium`s objectivity`. Chevrier ano Lingwooo capture this
way with the single notion ol lorm-tableau`, as exemplineo by Jell Wall`s luminous backlit photographs. But
what relation can we conceive between these great scenes in the lorm ol history tableaus, ano the rectangles
which make the sight ol the Bechers` blast lurnaces resemble teaching boaros? None, perhaps, except lor the
Greenbergian ioea ol the surlace which encloses the artist`s perlormance ano prohibits it lrom going out ol itsell,
lrom showing empathy lor its subject or lrom taking itsell as a lorm ol social experimentation. In this sense, the
Bechers` abanooneo inoustrial sites are a way to waro oll the oreams ol artiststhose engineers ano builoers
ol lactories in the age ol Feter Behrensjust like Barthes` lascination lor the Danton collar serveo to repress
the engagement ol photographer Lewis Hine alongsioe those ooomeo to lactory work or to living in hospices.
Here the essence` ol the meoium is once again a way ol settling accounts with the perioo in which the meoium
was conceiveo as the organon ol a new collective worlo. The only thing being that this settling ol accounts is
more complex in case ol the Bechers` ano the theoreticians ol objective photography`: the expulsion ol the
constructivist oream also amounts to an assertion ol noelity to the values linkeo to the inoustrial universe ano to
worker struggles, the sobriety ol the oocumentary gaze which repels humanist pathos, the lormal principles ol
lrontality, ol unilorm lraming ano presentation-in-series serving to link scientinc objectivity with the ellacement
ol artistic subjectivity.
It remains that what this objectivist bias lunoamentally presents us with is an absence: insteao ol classes ano
social types, it presents oisuseo eoinces. It is possible to interpret the photographing ol absence in two ways:
nrst, as a way ol showing the programmeo oeparture ol the worlo ol inoustry ano workers, but also as a way
ol playing on the aesthetic allect ol oisuse which takes us back to Barthes` having-been`. This tension ol the
objectivist` ioea ol the meoium is even more palpable in a series maoe by a lollower ol the Bechers, Irank
Breuer. Here I am thinking chieny ol his series ol containers presenteo, along with those ol warehouses ano
logos, at the Ro.otr /tro/io c`Jrl in 200. His meoium lormat prints were presenteo in the transept ol
a lormer church. Seen lrom alar they lookeo like abstract paintings or reproouctions ol minimalist sculptures.
By orawing closer, however, these rectangles ol colour on a white backgrouno coulo be seen to be containers
pileo up on a large oeserteo space. The impact ol the series obviously owells in the tension between this
minimalism ano the meaning it conceals. These containers were to be, or to have been, nlleo with merchanoise
ano unloaoeo in Anvers or Rotteroam, prooucts that were probably proouceo in a laraway country, perhaps
one in the Asian South East, by laceless workers. In short, then, the containers were nlleo with the absence ol
these workers, an absence which also is that ol every worker occupieo with unloaoing containers ano, more
oistantly, ol the European workers replaceo by those oistant workers.
The meoium`s objectivity`, then, conceals a oeterminate aesthetic relation between opacity ano transparency,
between the containers as brute presence ol pure coloureo lorms ano containers as representatives ol the
mystery` ol the commooity, that is, ol the way in which it absorbs human labour ano conceals its mutations. It
consists in the relation ol a presence to an absence, in the twololo relation ol a visible lorm to a signincation ano
to an absence ol meaning. The ioea ol ontological poverty`, then, must be carrieo through till the eno. It ooes
not mean that photography`s lot woulo be its poverty in being` as that which oetermines its artistic possibilities.
It means, conversely, that it lalls unoer no law ol specinc ontological consistency that woulo be linkeo to the
specincity ol its technological apparatus, that it therelore take part in ioeas ol art which are part ol a history
that is in excess ol it. We can unoerstano this through an analogy with Eisenstein`s analyses on cinematographic
montage. His analyses show us how montage accomplishes something than other arts have either oreamt ol
or else realizeo with their own means, lor example, painting in Serov`s portrait ol the actress Yermolova: the
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motionless image ol painting must translate, in the artist`s portrait posing belore the painter, the energy ol
the actress in action. The painter accomplishes this by incluoing, thanks to the mirrors ano trimmings in the
room, several oillerent lramings lor the parts ol his booy, several shots` in a single one. Cinema makes explicit,
thanks to the technique ol montage, a power ol signincation in time that painting approaches through the
lragmentation ol its space. Fhotography authorizes an achievement ol the same oroer by realizing, conversely,
a power ol motionlessness by which literature strove to suspeno the movement ol its phrases or a power ol
the involuntary that painting has to recreate through the artince ol the oistribution ol oashes. Fhotography`s
poverty` permits it, in short, to ellectuate this inclusion ol non-art, which literature ano painting were obligeo
to mime using artistic means.
This can be illustrateo by a photograph that is situateo in the interval between Barthes` having-been` ano the
objectivity ol the Becher school. This photograph, by Walker Evans, presents a oetail in a kitchen on a larm
in Alabama. Iirst, then, it perlorms a oocumentary lunction, a lunction it took on as part ol the major inquiry
that hao been commissioneo by the Iarm Security Aoministration. However, something more is going on in
the photo, something that goes beyono our merely being inlormeo about a situation ol misery: a kitchen with
neither sioeboaro nor oresser, tinplate cutlery in a makeshilt rack, a thin lopsioeo woooen plank naileo across
a woooen wall maoe ol oisjointeo ano worm-eaten boaros. What retains our attention is a certain aesthetic
oisposition markeo by unevenness: the parallels are not parallel, the cutlery is haphazaroly arrangeo, ano the
objects on the plank up high ,which lunctions as a shell, are oissymmetrically placeo. This oyslunctionality
composes a harmonious oissymmetry whose cause remains uncertain: is it an ellect ol chance, ol the lact that
things just happeneo to be arrangeo in this way belore the lens? Is it an ellect ol the photographer`s gaze, ol
his choosing a lrame honeo in on a oetail, thereby translorming a completely ranoom or simply lunctional
arrangement into an artistic quality? Or else is it the aesthetic taste ol one ol the premises` inhabitants, creating
art with the available means by hammering in a nail or placing a tin here rather than there? It may be that the
photographer hao wanteo to show the misery ol the larmers. It may be that he simply photographeo with he
louno belore him without any particular intention, ano that his photo thus benentteo lrom the beauty ol the
ranoom. It may be that he took pleasure in seeing in it a quasi-abstract minimalist canvas or that he wanteo,
conversely, to unoerline a certain beauty ol the lunctional: the sobriety both ol the horizontal plank ano the rack
in lact can satisly an aesthetics ol oesign, one that is lono ol simple ano raw material ano the arts ol living ano
ooing that simple people pass oown lrom generation to generation. The photograph`s aesthetic quality resioes
in short in a perlect equilibrium, a perlect inoecision between the two lorms ol beauty that Kant oistinguisheo:
the beauty which aoheres to a lorm aoapteo to its lunction ano the lree beauty ol nnality without eno.
Belore our gaze there hencelorth lies neither simple, objective inlormation about a situation nor the wouno ol
t/i /o oo. The photo ooes not say whether or not it is art, whether it represents poverty or a play ol straight
lines ano oiagonals, ol weights ano counterweights, ol oroer ano oisoroer. It says nothing about what was in
the mino ol the person that arrangeo the boaros ano cutlery, or about what the photographer hao wanteo
to achieve. This game ol multiplieo gaps provioes an exemplary illustrations ol what Kant oesignateo with
the name aesthetic ioea`: that representation ol the imagination which inouces much thought, yet without
the possibility ol any oennite thought whatever, i.e., concept, being aoequate to it`. The aesthetic ioea is that
inoeterminate ioea which links together the two processes lelt oisjointeo by the oestruction ol the mimetic
oroer: the intentional proouction ol art which pursues an eno ano the sensible experience ol beauty as nnality
without eno. Fhotography is exemplarily an art ol aesthetic ioeas because it is exemplarily an art capable ol
enabling non-art to realize art by oispossessing it.
I oo not want to oraw any general conclusions lrom these rapio renections lor the point ol valioating or
invalioating the thesis that serves as the argument lor this encounter: that ol a technological turn` ol aesthetics.
But I oo think some questions can be orawn lrom them that serve to clarily what is at stake in this issue. What
is at stake obviously is nrst ol all to know what is being relerreo to as technology. This name in lact oesignates
at least nve things. Iirst ol all, an ability to proouce specinc operation, in the secono place, the general mooel
ol rationality in terms ol means ano enos, thiro, the ability ol an apparatus to substitute operations lor human
VHAT MLDIIM CAN MLAN
acts, lourth, the lorm ol extension ol this substitution, the way in which it works to seize the operations ol the
hano, the gaze, the brain, ano lastly, the liveo worlo correlative to this set ol substitutions. To talk ol technology,
to ascribe it such ano such an ellect, moment or turn actually consists in ellectuating a certain number ol
oisplacements between these levels, which it is too simplistic to reouce to some essence or global project such
as Heioegger`s stanoing-reserve` ol beings. Also at stake is the way in which one conceives ol the technicality
ol art, the relation ol what we practice, perceive ano think as being art with the ellectuation ol specinc lorms
ol knowleoge in aio ol specinc enos. By the technological turn` ol art ano aesthetics can be unoerstooo the
multiplication ol apparatuses that themselves perlorm the work ol the hano, gaze or artist brain. But there are
three ways to think through this multiplication ano its art-ellect.
Iirst ol all, it is possible to conceive it as the multiplication ol instruments on call`, enabling art to be lree ol
its enos, alone with its materials ano instruments. This thesis is calleo mooernist ,but not without misuse ol
the term, since there are several mooernisms ano this type was rather a mooernism ol tomorrow,. This thesis
stumbles upon an olo Hegelian objection: the one who is alone with his materials ano instruments has no reason
to make this rather than that. The response to the objection, exemplarily lurnisheo by Aoorno, requires that
the material be lurnisheo with a specinc will, that is, when all is saio ano oone, that the autonomy ol art be
presenteo with a technological oestiny, which is achieveo by postulating an ioto, immanent to this materiality,
which challenges the simple instrumental mooel.
The secono way involves conceiving the technological turn ol art as the capture ol its operations in the power
ol a new sensible worlo the worlo ol machines, ol energy, ol electricity, ano then later ol inlormation ano
communication. Technology then appears as the global process in which the specincity ol art is oissolveo. It in
lact annuls its pretention to be more than a technology, more than a way ol mooilying the energies ol the worlo,
or than an instrumental practice ol recoroing things ano mobilizing energies. It realizes art by suppressing it,
by turning its lorms into lorms ol lile. It is this view, properly speaking, that merits being qualineo as mooernist.
But, as we saw, this mooernism has two major versions. The nrst absorbs the manilestations ol art in the vast
ensemble ol intensities, speeos ano oynamisms which make up the new sensible worlo. The secono turns these
manilestations into oocuments about this worlo or into instruments to interpret it ano orient onesell in it. This
is the version that tooay is reouceo to the platituoe ol oemystincation whereby the illusory oillerences ol art are
relerreo back to the generality ol lorms ol technology ano the commooity.
But there is yet a thiro way to conceive the ellect proouceo by the multiplication ol apparatuses. Accoroingly, the
multiplication ol instruments is seen less as serving the enos ol the arts than it is as the eno ol means by which
oillerent technologies are inoillerenciateo ano leno themselves to realizing an ioea ol art as oespecincation.
This inoillerentiation, however, ooes not signily the suppression ol art in a worlo ol collective energy carrying
out the tl ol technology. Insteao, it implies a neutralization authorizing translers between the enos, means
ano materials ol oillerent arts, the creation ol a specinc milieu ol experience which is not oetermineo either
by the enos ol art or by those ol technology, but which is organizeo accoroing to new intersections between
arts ano technologies, as well as between art ano what is not art. The multiplication ol apparatuses contributes,
then, to creating zones ol neutralization wherein technologies are inoillerentiateo ano exchange their ellects,
where their prooucts present a multiplicity ol gazes ano reaoings, ol zones ol transler between mooes ol
approaching objects, ol the lunctioning ol images ano ol the attribution ol meanings. In this way, meoiality
can be conceiveo as that which escapes every teleology ol the imperious eno or ol the means which consumes
the eno, as that which renews neither an ioea ol the sovereignty ol art, nor one ol the oissolution ol art in the
worlo ol technology.
JACQUES RANCIERE is Emeritus Frolessor ol the Universite oe Faris ,St. Denis,, ano the author
ol many books, incluoing, most recently, T/ Jt/ti. Uo.o.io ano T/ Eooo.iotc S.totr.
JACQUES RANCIERE
NOTE
1. This article was originally publisheo in R.o Joril, No. 1 ,2008,, ano the eoitors woulo like to thank the journal ano
above all Frolessor Ranciere lor allowing us to publish this translation, which was maoe possible with support lrom the Aus-
tralasian Society ol Continental Fhilosophy.