How a Wagnerian performance distributes the sensible and controls access to it

This is an attempt to think the performance of Richard Wagner’s operas in terms of Rancière’s aesthetics.

According to Jacques Rancière, the distribution of the sensible is “a generally implicit law that defines the forms of partaking by first defining the modes of [sense] perception in which they are inscribed.  The partition of the sensible is the dividing-up of the world and of people, the nemein upon which the nomoi of the community are founded” (Dissensus 2010, 36).  The partition divides up the world by defining modes of perception, and then divides up the people by defining forms of partaking.

Rancière calls “the distribution of the sensible the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it” (The Politics of Aesthetics [2000] 12).  The common/le commun is “what makes or produces a community” (102-3).  Distribution refers to forms of inclusion and exclusion.  A distribution of the sensible “establishes something common that is shared” and a community of those who share it. 

“This apportionment of parts and positions is based on a distribution of spaces, times, and forms of activity that determines

[1] the very manner in which something in common lends itself to participation and

[2] in what way various individuals have a part in this distribution” (12). 

[1] “The distribution of the sensible produces a system of self-evident facts of perception based on the set horizons and modalities of what is visible and audible as well as what can be said, thought, made, or done” (85).  It is “a distribution of what is visible and what not, of what can be heard and what cannot” (Dissensus 36).

[2] “The distribution of the sensible reveals who can have a share in what is common to the community based on what they do and on the time and space in which this activity is performed” (12).

Erik M. Vogt draws on Rancière to discuss the ways in which Richard Wagner negotiates, both in his writings and his operas, the borders between the arts as well as the promise of an aesthetic revolution in art and life: “Do not Wagner’s music dramas, as impure genres that confound and blur modernist separations and oppositions, exemplify the kinds of redistributions that characterise Rancière’s aesthetic regime?  Are they not also expressions of the problematisation of the modernist separation between the arts, between art and non-art, between art and life? [] For Wagner’s critique of traditional opera not only brings to light the hierarchical relation operative between opera’s internal principles of form and construction, but it also examines this relation in its analogy to societal hierarchy” (“On Shoemakers and Related Matters:  Rancière and Badiou on Richard Wagner,” in Cachopo, Nickleson, and Stove, eds.:  Rancière and Music, 2020, 320-21). 

The total artwork or the artwork of the future, writes Vogt, “is presented as the medium and site of the sublation of the divided aesthetic and social existence of the human being in capitalist society” (321).  It “expresses the indistinctness of art and social life. [It] demarcates the specific and isolated space of aesthetic experience, and at the same time posits this as the promise of a common space that would no longer articulate any differentiation into specific spheres of experience” (322).  “In sum, the Wagnerian theatre serves the purpose of the restoration of the communal essence or as ‘assembly or ceremony of the community’ [Rancière]:  a ceremony in which the audience transcends its position as mere passive spectator and enters directly into the theatrical ceremony to find its proper place in the community” (323).

I am willing to accept that this vision of direct democracy is the internal “aesthetic metapolitics” of Wagner’s Meistersinger (1867).  However, if we consider his operas from the perspective of their cultural operation, we see a very different picture.  Thinking in terms of the distribution of the sensible, specifically, the “implicit law” determining what is common to the community of the audience and who can have a share of it, we notice that operatic listeners are a very special community whose inclusion is limited, and membership controlled.  In fact, throughout his career, from Dresden to Bayreuth, both in his writings and operas, Wagner had a tremendous sense of the distribution of the sensible, thinking deeply about the apportionment of the parts of drama and the positions of the listeners.  Performances of his total artworks remain consummate manifestations of the kinds of total distribution that characterize the modern “aesthetic regime.”  The performance of a Wagnerian opera divides up modes of operatic perception and forms of audience partaking, establishing a highly structured system of sensibility and a community of initiates who are part of it.  This community of aesthetic education and practice is select and exclusive.

10 March 2023

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