Aesthetics of the Ordinary in Ranciere’s The Nights of Labor: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France (1989)

[It was first published on the website of NYU English Department Research Group of Transnational Everyday Life.]

Jacques Ranciere’s The Nights of Labor: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth Century France (1989) is a compelling study of labor history in 19th century France. The book is an exploration of the aesthetic aspirations of the working-class in France around the time of July Revolution, 1830. Ranciere deviates from the prevalent historiography practiced by both the standard labor historians, especially of the Marxist variety, whose emphasis had always been on workers’ class identification, as well as the votaries of Saint-Simon, who extolled the virtue of work, thereby condemning workers to a life of work and social immobility. Ranciere’s work departs from the Althusserian Marxist tradition because he inserts the figure of individual worker in a theoretical system dominated by economic structures and collective class identifications.

In The Nights of Labor, Ranciere deconstructs the conventional categories of worker and thinker, the first condemned to perpetual manualimages labor and the second given to the work of thinking. This fascinating labor history tries to recount the stories of those workers – worker-poets or worker-musicians who labored during the day and engaged in creative work during the night – who dared to break the boundary between the thinkers and workers. Such a theory challenges the conservative Saint-Simonian sociology that romanticized the workers’ commitment to work and tried to stifle their social mobility: “…[the workers] are so much more cultivated than their speeches, their discipline more revolutionary than their outbursts, their smiles more rebellious than their demands, and their festivities more subversive than their riots” (14). By sacralizing work, Saint-Simonianism gives workers’ creative impulses a short-shrift. Traditionally, it was believed that philosophy and aesthetics were domains of the bourgeoisie. Ranciere moves against such a hypothesis as he intends to travel “the road in the opposite direction, deserting what was said to be their [workers’] culture and their truth to go toward our shadows. I mean those workers dreamers, prattlers, versifiers, reasoners, and indulgers in sophistry who…write in the short space of time intervening between the constraint of work and the constraint of sleep” (15).

The aspiring worker-writers defy the myth of class-identification which presupposes the existence of a rigid boundary between the worker’s world and the world of his/her master. Ranciere argues that there is a constant, yet subterranean, process of cultural osmosis between the worker and the bourgeois master – a relation that cannot be necessarily understood in terms of class antagonism. Rather, there are “unexpected meetings and fleeting conversations between our marginal workers who learn the secret of noble passions and the marginal intellectuals who want to minister to the sorrows of labor” (20). Such transgressions were not uncommon. In an attempt to verbalize their aesthetic aspirations, worker-artists often subverted the essentialized theories of working-class collective identification. There were some members in the working-class who defied their total class-identification and actively sought out members of the bourgeois class for furthering their creative aspirations:

“On this thoroughfare they meet: a weaver, a son of a linen merchant who was ruined by the vanity that prompted him to purchase a title of nobility on the eve of 1789; the son of a winegrower-cooper who had the good fortune to be able to pursue studies and the bad fortune to see the family assets lost in a lawsuit, thus ending up a typographical worker; an adolescent wool-carder, son of a bankrupt proprietor, who survived childhood by collecting bones from slaughterhouses and mercury from urinals; and the little country boy who has become a tailor because a turner’s apprenticeship was beyond his parents’ means. They join the anomalous and provisional assemblage of younger sons who have set out to seek, from the uncertain work of their own hands and the unpredictable vicissitudes of industry, a subsistence, a fortune perhaps, that cannot be guaranteed to all by industry or their paternal soil (29).”

A uniform working-class consciousness could not be generated among the laborers because of their varied demography. Some of these had literary ambitions, whereas others never had a chance to pursue education in any serious manner. The bourgeois labor historians often tried to ignore the difference between workers and represented them in the single image of a hard-working, suffering multitude. Ranciere retrieves the figure of the individual who will be adventurous enough to rebel against the set-pattern and open dialogues between the worker and the bourgeoisie for the sake of his artistic aspiration: “An individual adventure hung in the imagination of this strange collective destiny” (48).

Despite difference in the working-class demography, the July Revolution of 1830 was still made possible by those individual rebellious worker-artists who defied the image of the worker set firmly in place by the bourgeois thinkers. The rebellious ones went about organizing the disparate mass of workers who were often driven by their individual interests rather than any collective one. The individuality of the de-classed workers, inhabiting the in-between space of master and worker, is persistently highlighted in Ranciere’s rather unusual labor history. This individuality was absent not only in the standard Marxist history but in the Saint-Simonian doctrines.

The Saint-Simonian doctrine glorified the image of a hard-working and committed worker. Its journal Le Globe was put out by those who belonged to the upper echelons of the Saint-Simonian hierarchy, very often members of the bourgeois class: “They [the workers] do not come from the same world as the members of the higher degrees of the hierarchy: polytechnicians, engineers, writers, scholars, scholars, or lawyers. These latter people…have given up their career and dedicated part of their inheritance and all of their time to the Doctrine [of Saint-Simonian]” (193). The militant worker-poets were, thus, contained and taught to maintain an order in which it was the workers’ job to be respectful to his/her works. Contrasted to the conservatism of the Saint-Simonian doctrine, the new worker-poet manages to “slip between the proletarians of the old world and their image” (223), that is, they seize the image that has so far been represented by the sociological science of the bourgeoisie.

Ranciere’s study most substantially contributes toward an aesthetic theory of everyday, ordinary experiences. He seems to be suggesting that the micro-experiences of these individual workers complicate the conventional notion of art objects that inspire aesthetic contemplation. By drawing on their own life-experiences, the worker-poets demonstrate how the ordinary experiences of near-anonymous people contain elements that could lend itself to aesthetic rendering. By writing about their own mundane experience of work and struggle, they turned their own lives into objects of aesthetic pleasure. This transgression defies the carefully constructed notion of aesthetic distance between the observer and the objects observed. Art and ordinary life form a single whole as contemplative distance is no longer the main condition for the production of art.

Ranciere’s labor history asks important questions about the representation of working-class life. What are the legitimate modes of representation that depict ordinary, everyday life? The scientificity of sociology that claims to represent the lives of working-class people is contested in Ranciere’s account. His study suggests that the narratives and literary works of the worker-poets themselves can provide us with a very different aspect of their lives than what sociology claims to do. The book makes important intervention regarding the question of genre of writing. If anthropology and sociology traditionally claimed to have represented everyday experiences, what does such a representation lack? How do literary/cultural accounts manage to grasp an aspect of that life that other social sciences cannot? Ranciere’s unusual book supplies enough food for thought in this regard.

References

Rancière, Jacques. The Nights of Labor: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France. Trans. John Drury. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1989.

[Mosarrap H. Khan is a doctoral candidate in the dept. of English, New York University. He researches in the area of Muslim everyday life in South Asia.]

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