Jacques Rancière: Universal Expositions and le Partage du Sensible
In their 1975 article “En allant à l’expo : l’ouvrier, sa femme et les machines”, Jacques Rancière and Patrice Vauday associate the universal exhibitions, such as those in 1867 and 1900, with spectacles as sites of the production and reproduction of cultural, political and social relations.
A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.
Conceived to demonstrate the wonders of industrial technology, expositions from this perspective are not only constituted by social imaginaries, such as dated representations of future lifestyles, but also interpretable as spectacular sites in which forms of possession and dispossession become visible. As the Industrial Revolution has been gathering steam in the second part of the nineteenth century, the cornucopia of products and wares that expositions presented to their visitors has also obeyed the principles that have constituted labor relations, as machines have dissected human intelligence into elements that products of mechanized production condense in their physical form as objects to which market forces apply their powers of valorization and depreciation. As Rancière and Vauday argue, the principles of industrial and artistic labor as well as those of the economic and aesthetic appreciation of its products find themselves in the state of homology.1
It could be said that never before the advent of universal exhibitions has the world been represented as a comprehensive, industrialized, machine-powered spectacle apparently conjured up to veil the relations of economic and cultural production in which embodied knowledge and capabilities has become progressively abstracted in the framework of industrially organized processes. In this, one can also perceive the modern splintering between the mythologized art of artisanal manufacture and the disenchanted procedures of industrial, mechanical production that has become increasingly dominant, while transforming the processes of value distribution that combine the devaluation of mass-produced items and their associated labor inputs with a near-monopoly position of few highly valued individuals or specimens in terms of economic capital. Though the progress of industrial production has not had a counterpart in the realm of culture, one can agree with Rancière and Vauday that universal expositions have been among the first sites in which in the imaginary appropriation of the fruits of industrial progress by the masses of their visitors a parallel and precursor development to the dynamics of the accumulation of cultural capital at art museums and international cultural events can be discerned.
This can be the historical background to the formation of Rancière’s term “le partage du sensible,” which refers to the distribution of the visible as an actively effectuated aesthetic, economic and political process taking place at art exhibitions, as Oliver Davis indirectly argues in his review of Rancière’s later works, untranslated interviews, academic readers and curatorial appropriations.2 A similar thesis can be perceived in the argument Jacques Rancière presents in Le Spectateur émancipé,3 as Jean-Louis Déotte also indirectly indicates, as the latter traces the former’s notion of regimes of art that suggests the alignment of representative, aesthetic relations with those that predominate in economic, political and social domains as apparatuses which produce both singular objects, such as those of in the domain of art, and those stripped of marks of irreducible identity.4.
Featured Image Credits: Interior of exhibition building, Exposition Universal, Paris, France, between ca. 1890 and ca. 1900, Print no. 1044, January 8, 2007 | © Courtesy of Snapshots of The Past.
- Rancière, Jacques, and Patrick Vauday. “En allant a l’expo: l’ouvrier, sa femme et les machines’.” Les révoltes logiques 1 (1975): 5-22.
- Oliver Davis, « Jacques Rancière and Contemporary Art: Swapping Stories of Love and Tyrannicide », Critique d’art [En ligne], 41 | Printemps/Eté 2013, mis en ligne le 24 juin 2014, consulté le 26 septembre 2017. URL : http://critiquedart.revues.org/8295 ; DOI : 10.4000/critiquedart.8295.
- Rancière, Jacques. 2013. Le spectateur émancipé. Paris: La Fabrique éd.
- Jean-Louis Déotte, « Le spectateur émancipé de Jacques Rancière », Appareil [En ligne], Comptes-rendus, mis en ligne le 04 mai 2009, consulté le 26 septembre 2017. URL : http://appareil.revues.org/804.