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The arts only ever lend to projects of domination or emancipation what they are able to lend to them, that is to say, quite simply, what they have in common with them: bodily positions and movements, functions of speech, the parcelling out of the visible and the invisible. – Jacques Ranciere, from The Politics of Aesthetics

In a series of works translated into English over the past decade, the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere has argued for a renewed sense of the political power of aesthetics. Building upon Walter Benjamin’s critique of “the aestheticization of politics,” outlined in Benjamin’s famous essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Ranciere tries to imagine an art that is politicized, not by the appeals to imagination and representation in the democratic ideal of “consensus,” but by its ability to make visible the forms of “dissensus” on which any democratic vision is based. Against Plato’s expulsion of the poets from the city-state in the Republic, Ranciere attempts to put the artist back in the middle of our political lives. Art, for Ranciere, re-distributes our sensibilities for democratic and communitarian purpose, rather than simply reflecting what they should or shouldn’t be.

I have to confess that I often have a hard time understanding what Ranciere is up to. How, exactly, does art make us attuned to dissenting voices when, in America, contemporary art or poetry is easily co-opted by technology and capitalism? Why is democracy the question to consider about the politics of art in the 21st century? Why not violence, totalitarianism, ecology, or any of the other myriad forms of political and community engagement?

These questions are simply and quickly put to rest by Alison Klayman’s new documentary on the work of Chinese artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei.

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Perhaps others will recall, as I do, shouting out, sometimes successfully, words of encouragement in the midst of the perils and terrors of a dream: ‘It is a dream! I will dream on!’ – Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, 16

The contrast between this genuine truth of nature and the cultural lie which pretends to be the only reality is like the contrast between the eternal core of things, the thing-in-itself, and the entire world of phenomena; and just as tragedy, with its metaphysical solace, points to the eternal life of that core of being despite the constant destruction of the phenomenal world, the symbolism of the chorus of satyrs is in itself a metaphorical expression of that original relationship between thing-in-itself and phenomenon. The idyllic shepherd of modern man is merely a counterfeit of the sum of educated illusions which modern man takes to be nature; the Dionysian Greek wants truth and nature at full strength – and sees himself transformed by magic into a satyr. – Ibid., 41-2

I recently mentioned to you, Craig, that I think Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy ranks up there with Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin as one of the most important and elegant works of criticism.

What I meant is that it’s insuperable: once you entertain its thesis, you can’t ignore it. This is the case with Fish’s book. Try to teach Milton, and you can’t escape Fish’s description of our fallen love of Milton’s Satan as the poem’s central temptation, precisely designed to turn a critical lens back on ourselves as fallen readers of Milton.

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Why is it that the zeitgeist is so incredibly specific? The spirit of the age, as it were, doesn’t just give us politics, religion, gay marriage, Robin Thicke, and two ABC shows with “B” in the title any more. No, it gives us stories about Judaism, fathers and children, mystic speech, and the (impossible) desire for a language that doesn’t sicken and kill one generation after another.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about two new works that have exactly these themes in common – Ben Marcus’s recent apocalyptic novel The Flame Alphabet and the wonderful 2011 film Footnote, by the Israeli director Joseph Cedar. I don’t have time to talk about Ben Marcus’s book, and my friend Mike has already done a better job in his review of the novel. Instead, I want to talk about Footnote, which I think may be the greatest movie ever.

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