Rancière and Media Theory

Marshall McLuhan’s claim that “the medium is the message” is a more-or-less foundational tenet of media studies, and it is exactly this claim that Rancière contests. In an insight that is both groundbreaking and re-hashing some 18th-century observations on aesthetics, Rancière claims that “it’s not the medium, but the operation.”

According to Rancière, the problem with media theory is that it tries to deduce a work’s aesthetic affects and political effects from the formal/empirical properties of its medium. “Contemporary mediological discourse” assumes that “the properties of apparatuses of production and diffusion” (Rancière, 18) determine every aspect of media objects and media discourse.* So, for example, some theorists argue that the aesthetics or politics of “new media” are derived from formal/structural features of specific programs, hardware configurations, or even the fact of digitization itself.** Rancière, however, thinks this tactic conflates of the “technical properties” of a medium with “the aesthetic properties” of a work’s form and content (Rancière, 2) – in other words, he’s arguing that the medium is not only not the message, it’s not what makes something art (as opposed to journalism or advertising or whatever). As famous hackers like Grandmaster Flash and T-Pain well know, the technical properties and constraints of a specific device are limited only by the creativity of their end-users. Turntables are not just for reproducing sound, just as Autotune is not just for pitch “correction,” so it would be foolish to try to find some sort of necessary, causal relationship between hip hop’s aesthetic and its means of (re)production.

What does make something art is its “operation.” An “operation” is not form, not content, but a regime of images, a set of norms and conventions that determine what counts as art and what doesn’t count as art. Rancière defines operations as the “alteration[s] of resemblance” that “produc[e] what we call art” (6); they are the markers that distinguish an art object from a mundane, utilitarian object. Think about Duchamp’s Fountain. It has no material-technical property that distinguishes it, “Fountain,” from any old urinal in any old restroom. It is, however, displayed in an artworld context, it is considered to be the singular work of an author-artist, it is considered to have both exhibit aesthetic properties and to have some sort of substantive content (broadly construed). These features are all “operations” in Rancière’s sense.*** An operation is more or less what Foucault would call a “regime of truth” or what Thomas Kuhn would call a “paradigm” – it’s an epistemological framework that doles out what counts as artistic meaning and affect, how meaning and affect are perceived, and how meaning and affect are communicated. For those familiar with Rancière’s political philosophy, “operation” is another term for “distribution of sensibility”: they are “the link between perceptions, actions, and affects” (Rancière, 5). Operations do not follow from technical-material properties of a medium, but from convention and its vicissitudes. Rancière argues that operations “create and frustrate expectations” (5) – they are norms that, when followed, produce certain kinds of pleasure (like familiarity), or, when frustrated, produce others (awe, interest in innovation). Operations are conventions, the product of history and society; “operations do not derive from the properties of [any] medium” (Rancière, 5).

Interestingly, Rancière’s claim here is nearly identical to Rousseau’s critique of 18th century music theorists. In his Essay on the Origin of Languages, Rousseau argues that “Whoever wishes to philosophize about the force of sensations must therefore begin by setting the purely sensory impressions apart from the intellectual and moral impressions we receive by way of the senses, but of which the senses are only the occasional causes: let him avoid the error of attributing to sensible objects a power which they either lack or derive from the affections of the soul which they represent to us” (289). Rousseau is speaking about Jean-Philippe Rameau, a very prominent music theorist and author of one of the canonical and foundational texts of Western tonal harmony. Rameau thought that all of music’s properties could be deduced and derived from the physics of sound (specifically, the relations among intervals in the overtone series). Rousseau disagrees with Rameau, claiming that the latter “attributes to sensible objects” – i.e., sound waves – an affective power that can arise only through convention. “Sounds act on us not only as sounds,” Rousseau explains, “but as signs of our affections, our sentiments; this is how they arouse in us the emotions which they express and the image of which we recognize in them” (Rousseau, 288). Music works like a language. It is a semiological system wherein certain sounds or combinations of sounds have come to be associated with certain meanings.**** Like Rancière, Rousseau argues that it’s not the medium, the physical/technical properties of sound waves, but the conventions or “operations.”

* All Rancière quotes are from The Future of the Image (Verso, 2007).
** In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich describes his project as “beginning with the basic, ‘material’ principles of new media – numeric coding and modular organization – we moved to more ‘deep’ and far-reaching ones – automation and variability” (45). Clearly he’s following McLuhan to a certain extent insofar as he tries to deduce a metatheory of new media from the material/empirical properties of networked computers. This tendency to deduce aesthetic properties from material-technical properties is likely also indebted to Walter Benjamin’s theory that the means of artistic production bear directly on the status and functioning of art objects as such.
*** The last one, the idea that it has a meaning in need of interpretation, is an operation Rancière identifies as central Western art from the 19th century onward.
**** Or, as Rousseau says, music “is a language for which one has to have the Dictionary” (286). All Rousseau quotes from the Gourevitch translation.