Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Davide Panagia reviews Modern Times: Temporality in Art and Politics

Jacques Rancière. Modern Times: Temporality in Art and Politics. Trans. Gregory Elliott. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Verso Books, 2022. 144 pp.

Review by Davide Panagia

25 May 2022

Jacques Rancière’s recently translated Modern Times is a welcome addition to his reflections in Aisthesis (2013). I don’t mean to suggest that Modern Times is derivative of that previous work. Rather, it returns the reader to the issues of political and aesthetic modernism elaborated in Aisthesis but reconsidered in light of Rancière’s innovative interrogation of the multiple temporalities in modernity. This theme of the multiplicity of modern times is contrasted with the reigning temporal regime of the modern or what Rancière describes as “fictional rationality” (p. 2). Rancière’s concern in Modern Times is thus to show the extent to which critical theory remains tethered to the literary and cognitive criteria of a good work outlined in Aristotle’s Poetics: criteria that marry a causal order with a hierarchy of ways of doing and stratified forms of social valuation. “This,” he asserts, “is how time is linked to knowledge and justice” (p. 6).

Readers familiar with Rancière’s oeuvre will recognize the force of this claim: extant structures of sense making provide criteria for understanding action in political and aesthetic life, and such criteria for understanding constitute the consensus for political belonging. Both the political left and the political right, Rancière affirms, rationalize domination by remaining “within the narrative of a necessary sequence grounded in a hierarchy of temporalities” (p. 18). “Time, Narrative, and Politics”—the title of chapter one, but also the conceptual terms in play—articulate fictional rationality as the reigning regime of knowledge, history, and progress. “Time” is causal, linear, and progressive; “narrative” establishes a temporal hierarchy that divides forms of participation between those who live in the time of action and those who live in the day to day; and “politics” regards the delineation of those who live in the time of knowledge and justice and those who live in the time of ignorance and error (p. 18). In this first chapter we are also reintroduced to Rancière’s critique of Clement Greenberg’s modernism and refamiliarized with Rancière’s admiration for Virginia Woolf and her ways of calling into question “the Aristotelian opposition between the time of causal connection and that of mere succession” by contrasting causal necessity with “the truth of those atoms of time that continually fall on our minds, and whose arabesques it is the writer’s duty to transcribe” (p. 24).

Each of the subsequent three chapters works to show how, from the nineteenth century onwards, there has been an active effort in art and politics to challenge the idea of a singular modern time. In “Modernity Revisited,” “The Moment of Dance,” and “Cinematic Moments,” Rancière articulates instances that compel the acknowledgement of alternative temporalities, complex montages of time, and a constant interplay of relations among images, all of which undermine the assuredness of fictional rationality. Dziga Vertov stands out in these pages as Rancière’s coconspirator; he helps Rancière articulate the experience of a common that is not a union of wills but a lived relation of heteroclite temporalities. In this respect Modern Times lives up to the claim of its title: “By assembling, in a single totality, the movements of a multitude of bodies in motion, of working hands or of cogs in machines, cinema creates the sensible fabric of the new life. The new language is therefore not simply a language of images; and montage is not simply the art of connecting images that Godard refers to in Histoire(s) du cinema. It is a way of connecting times, of putting a multiplicity of uses of time and modes of temporality in one and the same temporal sequence” (pp. 97–98).

This passage, and the accompanying insight, is the most revealing contribution of the book. It asks us to consider the possibility of a nonlinear montage where the sequence of images and seriality of relations between images are not reducible to a causal sequential order nor are they oriented towards a cathartic overcoming of differences. For Rancière, cinematic montage has been tethered for too long to the fictional rationality of purposive communions. But through his innovative engagements with, among other aesthetic objects, Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Rancière is able to offer his readers an account of the common that refuses a strategic rationality of fixed ends: “What the montage constructs is communism as the equivalence and fraternity of all the gestures of industrious hands,” that is “the non-hierarchical redistribution of the basic forms of sensible experience” (pp. 52, 58).

Ultimately, Modern Times is a study of “the montage of time” that allows Rancière to provide not so much an antirepresentational critical ontology as an anticathartic one (p. vii). His principal thesis—that “there is no one modern times, only a plurality of them”—refuses the catharsis of endings like purpose, sublation, or the communion of wills (p. x). In this respect one is left having to acknowledge the extent to which in this volume, and in Rancière’s oeuvre more generally, the picture of critique as the overcoming of contradictions (negative dialectics and suspicious hermeneutics) is part and parcel of the doxa of fictional rationality and its articulation of necessary causes and effects, noble beginnings and heroic endings. In its place Modern Times articulates a radically democratic mode of aesthetic and political criticism that “tells no story” but shows how the superimposition of temporalities and the parataxis of activities generates relays, intervals, nondifferentiations, and discordances in and through which those who do not belong to the “tyranny of causal emplotment” nonetheless participate in the creation of common forms of life and collective forms of emancipation from the hierarchy of times and abilities (pp. 73, 48).