Time Redivided

Jacques Rancière

Part 1

“Time Redivided”: the title sounds enigmatic. And the enigma can hardly be cleared up by the image that I choose as a point of departure: it is a detail from Jean-Baptiste-SiméonChardin’s La Ratisseuse de navets (“the turnip scraper,” also known as The Kitchen Maid), first exhibited at the Salon of 1739 in Paris (fig. 1). It seems hard to find a relationship of any kind between turnips and time, less alone between the scraping of turnips and a mysterious operation of the redivision of time. I would like to show, however, not only that the relationship exists but that it illustrates a crucial knot between aesthetics and politics.

To conduct an orderly investigation, let us start from the very first relationship involved in our problem: the relationship between the scraping of turnips and the art of painting. This painting belongs to a series of genre scenes that Chardin made during the 1730s. The series includes a maid drawing water from a fountain, a cellar boy cleaning a jar (fig. 2), a scullery maid scouring a pan (fig. 3), a woman doing the laundry (fig. 4), and an embroiderer (fig. 5). This is a series of trivial scenes from domestic life. But the point is that triviality itself has its degrees. In the academic hierarchy of genres that ruled the world of art at that time, a genre scene that featured an action done by human beings was respected more than a representation of inanimate or lower beings, such as still lifes or pictures of plants and/or animals. This was the problem faced by the young Chardin; he had been admitted into the academy of arts as a painter of animals and flowers. As the story goes, a remark made by a friend made him realize that he risked being confined for his whole life in this low genre where he had serious rivals. That is why he set out to paint those genre scenes; he wanted to be taken more seriously as an artist.

Whether we believe the story or not, one thing is certain—the representation of the trivial activities of kitchen maids could upgrade a painter’s status. I would like to show that this link between high and low status is not merely a matter of an individual’s promotion. Instead, it is a turning point in the long historical process of destruction of the hierarchy of artistic genres that took place in the Western world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I assume that it is this destruction that created our idea of art and our idea of the relationship between art and politics. I also assume that time, its divisions and redivisions, play a major part in that process.

In order to understand the part that times plays in the relation between politics and aesthetics, we must question the two main interpretations of the link between artistic forms and social relationships: first, the sociological interpretation that is predicated on the content of those scenes; second the art-for-art’s-sake interpretation that claims, to the contrary, the insignificance of that content and the concentration of art on its own procedures.

The first interpretation emphasizes the signification of genre painting as a characteristic of the taste and ideals of the rising bourgeoisie in the age of the Enlightenment. In France, genre scenes, inspired by the Dutch and Flemish depictions of domestic life, had first popped up at the last Salon of the seventeenth century. During the first thirty years of the eighteenth century, Dutch and Flemish genre paintings depicting scenes from domestic life had been increasingly appreciated by French collectors and imitated by French painters despite the academic contempt for low subjects. Those scenes were pitted against the aristocratic ideals of grandeur. Such beauties appealed more particularly to the largely bourgeois audience of painters like Chardin. That audience, as is commonly held, associated the artistic truth of genre scenes with a simple, honest bourgeois mode of life, opposed to the lie of aristocratic grandeur. Chardin’s master and his closest friends were fans of Northern painting and may have encouraged him to imitate those scenes that had been popularized by engravings. Ellen Snoep-Reitsma argues that all of the scenes depicted by Chardin had their models in Dutch or Flemish painting: the scullery maid, she suggests, was inspired by Gottfried Schalken’s Old Woman Scouring a Pot (fig. 6), the embroiderer by Caspar Netcher’s Lace Maker (fig. 7), and even the turnip scraper had ancestors in works such as Nicolas Maes’s Woman Scraping Parsnips (fig. 8).[1] Chardin followed their lesson and depicted scenes destined to praise the “happy, salutary and virtuous life of sobriety and hard work.” The moral and social destination of these scenes was underscored by the captions of the engravings made after them for more modest patrons. For instance, Chardin’s friend Lépicié engraved The Turnip Scraper and accompanied it with the following caption: “When our ancestors plucked their vegetables from the hands of nature, that was a guarantee of their simplicity. The art of turning food into poison had not yet been invented.”

Admittedly, turnips evoke a simple and healthy way of life. But what about the servant who scrapes them? She is quite far from the concentration of her supposed model (fig. 9). Strangely, the turnip held in her left hand is hanging down along her right leg, as if it were about to fall onto the ground, while the knife held in her right hand is pointed in the opposite direction. A commentator has emphasized the relationship of this knife with the chopper and the red stain on the nearby block. I don’t think that the young maid is dreaming of butchering her masters. But one thing is certain; her eyes are focused neither on the vegetable nor on the knife. They look elsewhere (or nowhere?) and so do her thoughts. She seems to be lost in the contemplation of something the viewer will never know. This makes for a very strange illustration of an honest bourgeois life of hard work and even of the virtue of simplicity. Instead of the simplicity of bourgeois life, Chardin shows us the duplicity of domestic service. This duplicity is perceptible in the whole series; the eyes of the scullery maid or the cellar boy also look elsewhere, in perfect contrast to the Dutch models of attentive work. As for the embroiderer (fig. 10), her downward gaze may first seem to be intent on her work, but the ball hanging from her left hand quite in the same way as the turnip of the housemaid suggests that she has drifted off into sleep or reverie. And near the laundress, whose eyes look toward an invisible point outside (fig. 11), there is a young boy blowing soap bubbles (fig. 12).

This young boy leads us to another series and another interpretation of Chardin’s genre scenes. During the same period, he made another series of paintings exhibited at the same salons: the boy with the spinning top, the little girl with the racket and the shuttlecock (fig. 13), boys making houses of cards (fig. 14), the girl playing with knucklebones (or jacks) (fig.15), and the young man making soap bubbles (fig.16). All those figures pay to their playful activities the intense attention that is totally lacking in the serious activities of the servants. Their attention has been explored by Michael Fried in his famous theories of absorption. He argues that this attention questions the traditional interpretation of those pastimes as vanities, allegorizing the brevity of pleasure and the fragility of human life. Far from characterizing those activities as shallow pastimes, “Chardin appears,” he writes, “to have been struck by the depth of absorption which those activities tended naturally to elicit from those engaged in them.”[2] The figure’s obliviousness to everything but the operation he or she is intent upon performing distills, he says, “an unofficial morality according to which absorption emerges as good in and of itself, without regard to its occasion.”[3] That “unofficial morality “of the subject matter makes it an allegory of painting itself. The “obliviousness” of the players, absorbed in their game can be viewed as expressing the absorption of painting in itself. The painter does the same thing as his figures. He or she is only busy with his own affair. Painting does not deliver any message to the spectator. It does not even care for the spectator. Instead, the absorption of the figures in their game denies the very existence of a viewer. And so does painting, which is the antitheatrical art par excellence.

Chardin’s genre scenes then illustrate the so-called modernist theory of painting conceptualized by Clement Greenberg. But, to make his demonstration, Fried must ignore the other series of scenes exhibited at the same time. He must forget the distraction of the turnip scraper, the laundress, or the scullery maid. He must above all avoid asking the question: What kind of relationship can there be between that distraction and the attention of the builders of house cards? The absorption of the latter cannot be isolated from the very essence of play and from its social meaning: play is the activity that has its end in itself. As such, it is directly opposed to work, which is always the means for another end. That is why play had long been considered an aristocratic form of activity forbidden to those who cannot devote all their time to it. Plato already made the point about knucklebones in the Republic: “No one could become an expert player of backgammon or knucklebones who did not practice the game exclusively but played it only as a pastime.” This statement sounds like an exaggeration. But we must understand what this exaggeration means. Play is not simply an activity that demands much time if you want to become an expert. It is not a question of more or less time. It is a question of having or not having time.

Part 2

This is what is involved in the issue of the division of time. Time in fact has two dimensions. There is the horizontal dimension where time is a continuum that can be divided into longer or shorter moments. But there is also the vertical dimension, which is not a matter of short or long moments but a matter of separate occupations and forms of life, based on a quite simple division: there are those who have time and those who do not. In the hierarchical tradition, the first ones were called free men or active men: men who can either project before them the ends of action in the long term or enjoy this sort of inaction that is called leisure. The second ones were called passive or mechanical because they were confined to the realm of everyday necessity where they always performed the same activity—an activity that is only a means for an immediate end. For them time is not so much a matter of duration as it is a matter of location. They inhabit a specific time that is the time of the absence of time. Plato’s argument about the players of knucklebones or backgammon must be understood in its context. He used it in the Republic to bolster a previous statement about artisans: artisans can only be good at their craft if they practice it exclusively and stay all the time in their workshop because “work does not wait.” This is another exaggeration. It often happens that they do wait for it. But, again, the exaggeration shows us that the statement is not an empirical observation. It is a definition: being a worker means being an individual who has no time, an individual who must do always one and the same thing and nothing other. Of course, workers must make a pause sometimes to restore their workforce. But that pause on the horizontal dimension of time is still included in the vertical hierarchy separating those who have time from those who do not. Just as there are two opposite forms of activity, action and work, there are two opposite forms of inactivity, rest and leisure.

It is that hierarchical division that appears to be blurred, in opposite ways, by the attention of the young players or the distraction of the maids and the cellar boy. The attention of the first does not simply show absorption as “a good in itself without regard to its occasion.” It also shows that this “good in itself” can be shared by individuals who are not supposed to know of any “good in itself,” not supposed to ever act for the sole purpose of acting. Such are the young builder of houses of cards and the young girl playing with knucklebones who both wear the apron of the servants (figs. 14–15) or the young man blowing soap bubbles whose torn coat reveals a low condition (fig. 16). They play as a pastime, but they practice it with the intense engagement of those who have always done it exclusively. Their attention overturns the symbolic meaning of play: it was the activity that symbolized the separation between those who can act for the sole purpose of acting and those who cannot. It becomes the activity that erases that line of separation. This shift can be emblematized by the boy with the spinning top (fig. 17), the younger son of Chardin’s jeweler, dressed and combed like a little gentleman, who will later switch to the other side by becoming an art collector and collecting Chardin’s paintings. Rather than the self-containment of painting, the young players depicted by Chardin might point to the disruptive power of aesthetic experience, such as the one Schiller describes sixty years later in Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man.

 At the center of the aesthetic experience there is the power of the play drive that dismisses the hierarchical divisions between form and matter, intelligence and the sense or activity and passivity. Play is the activity that cancels the separation between those who live in the universe of ends and those who live in the universe of means because it cancels the very opposition between ends and means. For this reason, it is a wholly human capacity, which means two things: first, it is the capacity that expresses the human power at its best; second, it is a capacity that belongs to anyone at all. I remind you of Schiller’s words: “Man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being and he is only a human being when he plays. This proposition, which at the moment may sound like a paradox . . . will, I promise you, prove capable of bearing the whole edifice of the art of the beautiful and of the still more difficult art of living.” The universal sharing of that capacity promises a new form of human community, where freedom and equality will be a sensible reality instead of being a political abstraction. Chardin was certainly not intent on revolutionizing either art or life. But his depictions of servants playing aristocratic games clearly convey different ideas and images of play and people than the Flemish representations of popular festivals and tavern scenes featuring bawling drunkards.

Now what about the distraction of the turnip scraper and her fellow servants? The first question is: How can we describe it? Most of the commentators tell us that they are “pausing from their work.” But this is not an accurate description. What we see is not the rest of a worker between two moments of activity. They are still at work. The servant still holds the turnip and the laundress’s hands are still soaping the clothes. The scullery maid and the cellar boy may look elsewhere or be immersed in an inner reverie, but their hands are still scouring the pan or cleaning the jar (figs. 18–19). Their hands are at work, but their eyes and their thoughts are not. This is the point: the activity of their eyes and their minds are dissociated from the work of their hands. This means that these seemingly innocuous characters are violating the rule of the platonic republic: they are doing two things at the same time. Even more, they show that anybody from the lower classes can do two things at the same time and do them without even disturbing the work process. They are not rebelling against their work. They don’t steal any moment of the time that they owe to their masters on the horizontal line. The pan is still being scoured, and we can presume that the vegetables will be ready for cooking on time. More seriously, more dangerously, they are subverting the hierarchy of human occupations by blurring the very line of separation between the time of mechanical work and the time of free activity. This blurring is best illustrated by The Laundress whose original title is Une petite femme s’occupant à savonner (a little woman busy with soaping clothes). The scene presents us with an eloquent distribution of four figures (fig. 20): behind the young woman who is doing the laundry while looking elsewhere there is another woman whose back is turned to us so that we see her doing just one thing—hanging the clothes. Near the laundress, there is the seated young boy in rags who is doing something else with the soap: blowing bubbles. On his left, there is a fourth figure: a cat, the symbol of lazy and voluptuous life. Let us start from the background and look at the distribution of the figures counterclockwise: the scene will then show us a whole cycle of transformations, which, at the end, will have turned work into just its contrary: mere laziness. Between the work sans phrase of the servant and the mere laziness of the cat, there are two intermediaries: the distracted work of the laundress and the play of the child. These two figures open a space in between that blurs the normal distribution of the occupations. I remind you of what is meant by that “normality”: an occupation is two things at once: it is a definite activity, and it is a way of experiencing time. In the platonic order, there is a strict coincidence between that activity and that experience. The trouble happens as soon as the smallest interstice opens between them. It is precisely the opening of that interstice that is represented in Chardin’s scenes. In a well-ordered society, workers are at their work, or they are not. They are good workers or lazy workers. But Chardin’s servants are not lazy. They are at their work. At the same time however they are not. It transpires as though the eye of the painter had perceived the emergence of new experiences of time—boredom, distraction, or reverie—that create a split that slightly distances the plebeian form of life from itself.

It might not seem like much. However, Chardin’s contemporaries vaguely felt that there was something disturbing with those eyes looking elsewhere. That anxiety might be the reason why they implemented a significant redistribution of the figures: they paired the cellar boy and the scullery maid. The first collector who bought them hung them side by side and so did the next collector (fig. 21). In that way, no gaze was lost in vagueness; the cellar boy looked at the scullery maid who looked back at him. That reciprocity anchored them in their identity. It annulled the twofold dissociation that threatened that identity: between the gesture of the hands and the direction of the eyes, between the activity of the workers and their experience of time.

Nevertheless, something had begun with those eyes lost in vagueness: a breach inside the hierarchy of times. In a way, the whole social movement in modern times may be seen as the deepening of that breach, its transformation into an effective redivision of time. The issue of time in relation to class conflict is well-known. But it has been mostly perceived, on the horizontal line, as a matter of quantity. Marx has commented at length on the efforts of capitalists to extend the time of work so as to extract still more and more surplus value and on the struggle of workers to limit the workday. It is not incidental that the biggest weapon used by workers against the capitalist appetite for unpaid work was the strike. The strike is not only an interruption of work on the horizontal line of time; it is the affirmation that work can wait or—which is the same—the affirmation that workers have time. This is the point: the quantitative struggle about the length of the workday is part of the assault against a more radical division of time: the vertical separation between those who have time and those who do not. The strike is the collective and spectacular refutation of that separation. But to affirm that you have time, you must already have acquired the perception and the feeling of that possession. You must already have started acting inside the workday—the time of those who have no time—as people who do have that time that they have not.

Part 3

In Proletarian Nights, I analyzed this process of redivision of time in the manuscripts left by a carpenter named Gauny. During the French Revolution in 1848, he published two articles in a workers’ newspaper: the first one describes the workday in a workshop, under the supervision of a boss or a foreman; the second describes the workday of a jobber, laying the floor of a rich house. As a matter of fact, that “description” is a redescription. At the heart of this redescription is the invention of a dramaturgy of time—the dramaturgy of a struggle against what is most unbearable in the condition of the worker, the simple fact of stolen time. The workday is not merely the fragment of the capitalist process of exploitation that can be divided into a time of reproduction of labor power and a time of production of surplus value. It is also the daily reproduction of the form of life and experience of those who do not have time. As such, it is a time when nothing is expected to happen, a continuum of moments all similar. That’s why the reconquest of stolen time is, first, a process of differentiation. Gauny’s narrative breaks the continuity—which means it breaks the identity of two times. The narrative transforms the succession of hours all similar to one another into a time broken by a multitude of events. Each hour becomes the scene of a singular event: a gesture of the hands that provokes a feeling of peace or revolt; a gaze that strays, causing thought to wander; a thought that arises unexpectedly and changes the rhythm of the body; a play of affects translated into a variety of gestures and contradictory sequences of thoughts. The success of a gesture can produce an irritation of the mind, which makes the worker better feel the injustice of its condition; conversely, a feeling of rage against that servitude may provoke an acceleration of his gestures, which makes him work more for the sole benefit of his boss. Those contradictory effects however are less important than the very process from which they originate: a process of dissociation that makes the gestures, looks, affects, and thoughts of the worker initiate a different way of inhabiting time, a different way of keeping a body and mind in motion, far from the homogeneity required by the servitude of the “work that does not wait.” It comes as no surprise that the core of that process is a dissociation between a hand and a gaze, which happens while he is laying the floor of a rich apartment. “Believing himself at home, he loves the arrangement of a room. . . . If the window opens out on a garden or commands a view of a picturesque horizon, he stops his arms a moment and glides in imagination toward the spacious view to enjoy it better than the possessors of the neighboring residences.”[4] The distraction of Chardin’s servants has become a conscious interruption of the worktime, a conscious redivision of time that creates, inside the very routine of exploited labor, the spiral of a process of emancipation. This redescription of the worktime must not be dissociated from the more radical redivision of time that allows the carpenter to write it; to do so, he must use the time of the night when workers are supposed to sleep and restore their forces. He must deny the most natural and the least escapable division of time, the one that separates day and night on the horizontal line and separates, by the same token, rest and leisure on the vertical one.

This is what emancipation means. Workers’ emancipation meant much more than the struggle of the workers against capitalist exploitation and for a better future. It meant a process of reconfiguration of a whole world of experience, the invention of a new way of inhabiting a common world. The core of this invention is the redivision of time. It is not incidental that the carpenter’s chronicles of the workday came out in 1848 during the French revolutionary spring, a few days before a great worker’s insurrection; it was also the time of an intense movement toward the creation of workers’ associations, which were thought of as the cells of a new world, a new workers’ republic. His “individual” chronicles show us in nucleo the elements of a collective reinvention of the time and space within which work can be perceived, thought, and lived. They show us that a social revolution first starts as an aesthetic revolution.

Let us be clear; an aesthetic revolution is not a revolution in artistic practice. It is a revolution in the coordinates of sensible experience that determine the distribution—and the hierarchy—of human “occupations.” The first coordinates that command that distribution are the divisions of time. Modest as it may seem, the reconstruction of the workday made by Gauny belongs to such an aesthetic revolution. It is not an artwork, nor is it an operation that can be expressed by the brush of a painter. The fact is that the artists committed to the cause of the proletariat usually depicted either their hard work and sufferings or their glorious struggles. (This is best illustrated by two images proposed by my English publisher for the cover of Proletarian Nights [fig. 22]. I was obliged to answer that both were totally off target. The fact is that no painter has represented the forms of reappropriation of time that are the subject of my book.)

Part 4

The expression of the redivision of time seems to be the privilege of the art of time; literature is the art of words that tell without showing. It seems that painting could just grasp the process at its very origin: in the enigma of those gazes that go astray from the work of the hands, without ever being able to tell us either what they are looking at or what thought is reflected in them. Painters were not encouraged to go deeper because the collapse of the hierarchy of genres allowed them to make high art by depicting baskets of fruit or vegetables with no need of maids peeling them. They left to literature the privilege of exploring and deepening the small breach that they had seized—an exploration of the states of boredom and reverie that reached its acme in the narration of another emblematic day: the dull day of the housewife Emma Bovary. But that exploration itself seems to have accompanied, only from afar, the collective reconquest of time initiated in the workday of the carpenter. It stayed, as it were, on the other side of the aesthetic revolution, where the expression of the new experiences of time is an end in itself instead of being a step in the invention of a new sense of humanity.

Two conditions seemed to be required to plug the gap between the forms of artistic exploration and the collective production of a new world. The first condition was an innovation inside the realm of art, namely the invention of a visual art of time. This is what happened with the art of the moving image called cinema. The second condition was the institution of a new form of community. This is what was proclaimed in 1917 by the Soviet Revolution. When the new art of cinema met the new communist world, the field seemed open for a full identification between the invention of new artistic procedures and the invention of the new world of free and equal workers. However, the meaning of this encounter must be clarified. Cinema is not only the art of movement that puts time into the images. It is also the art of “mechanical reproduction,” which abolishes the separation between the free ends of art and the utilitarian ends of technique. Communism, for its part, is not only the collectivization of the means of production and the state planning of the economy. It is the abolition of the separation between the time of the free human beings, devoted to action and leisure, and the time of the mechanical ones, devoted to work and rest. This abolition rests itself on a more radical one: the abolition of the very separation between ends and means. This is how communism was conceptualized by the young Marx: Communism is the state where work that is a manifestation of the generic essence of humankind is an end in itself instead of being only a means for the reproduction of individual existence. It is that aesthetic definition of communism that cinema could identify with its own task.

To do so, cinema had not only the privilege of movement; it also had a specific weapon, montage. Montage is much more than editing. Editing is a technique. Montage is the use of that technique to create a new sensorium. The principle of montage is a philosophical and political one: All activities—noble or vile, serious or playful—can be reduced to equal units of movement. Cinema is the art that carries out that equalization. It is the art of the new communist world because it makes the classical task of art—unity among diversity—identical to the task of communism: the collective construction of a sensible world where all activities are not only equal units of movement but also equal manifestations of a full humanity. Marx could only imagine, as a joke, a future world where the same individual could be hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, breeding in the evening, and doing critical philosophy after dinner. The communist filmmaker Dziga Vertov makes a film in which each moment of the day and each gesture are the expression of a time continuum that has absorbed all activities and made them all equivalent expressions of a free human capacity.

Such is the workday depicted by Man with a Movie Camera (1929)—a workday that I think is interesting to compare with Gauny’s. It is also composed of a multiplicity of little scenes. But Gauny’s scenes were scenes of dissociation, creating the spiral of a free time inside the very time of exploitation. Instead, the workday described by Vertov is a homogeneous time. The hierarchical division of time is supposed to have been abolished along with capitalist exploitation. As a result, the workday is no longer a succession of hours. It is a simultaneous time, a pure present when all gestures are similar manifestations of a unique collective movement. To show this, Vertov’s montage makes all those gestures get into each other at full speed so as to compose the unique sensorium of a new world where work is no more a constrained activity but the manifestation of the generic essence of a free humankind. Ends and means seem to have become identical and so do work and play. This is what is expressed by a significant episode featuring a woman manufacturing packets in a cigarette factory. However, this episode—evidence of an entirely homogeneous time—discretely reopens the breach (mov. 1)

Part 5

Here, the happy workers of the new communist factory are mostly female workers, as is illustrated by several other episodes (fig. 23). The most striking evidence of the new world is given by the figure of the emancipated woman, now released from the ancestral servitude of domestic life that left to housewives and maids the only escape of distraction and reverie. In the factory, women enjoy the pure experience of speed. So far, speed had been identified with intensified work and exploitation. Now it becomes just the contrary: the manifestation of a free and equal flow of time that has swallowed any differentiation and any constraint—we might be tempted to say a time of mere play. But the female worker is far from expressing the “absorption” required by play. Instead, she seems to pay no attention to the work of her hands, as if their product counted less than the rhythm of their movement. This indifference to the object is emphasized by the negligence with which she throws the packets over her shoulder while chatting with an invisible colleague. This lack of attention may be interpreted in two opposite ways. On the one hand, it shows us that, with the collectivization of work and the division of tasks, work has become so easy and the hands so expert that you do not even need to look at what you are doing. It is that easiness that is expressed by the negligence of her attitude, the smile on her face, and the jokes she seems to be exchanging with her colleagues. But it is not in that way that the communist apparatus wants the workers to express the happiness of communist work. For them this happiness must be expressed by a concentration of the whole body and the whole mind on the work of the hands. This is clearly not what the filmmaker shows us. The harmony between the work of the hands and the state of mind of the worker is expressed by just its opposite: a radical divorce; we never see in the same frame the hands of the female worker and her face (figs. 24–27).

You can say that this divorce is just the artifice of montage. The cameraman could have put the eyes and the hands in the same frame, as the painter did. But this objection would miss the point. A communist filmmaker is not a painter of genre scenes. In the communist world there are no longer genre scenes because there are no longer housewives or servants. Instead, there is the weaving of a new egalitarian sensorium. This process is a construction and must be represented as such. This is the principle of dialectics, and this is also the principle of montage: one divides into two. The artist must present the elements of the new communist work separately, so that the viewer makes the connection and takes part in the collective process. The focus must be put alternately on the technical gesture of the worker and on her blissful face to intensify the effect of each of them and the effect of their connection. It seems to be a good principle of efficiency. But this “efficiency” soon proves to hide a duplicity. The structure of the film is supposed to follow and intensify the perfect unity of the new form of life where the workers’ feelings and thoughts exactly fit the work of their hands. But that unity can only be expressed by means of a new dissociation. The active hands and the blissful faces stay side by side. The female worker of the communist factory is like the servant of the old bourgeois home: she is at her work and she is not, all at once. We could not know what the servants looked at nor what they had in mind. In the same way, we can’t know whether the smile of the female worker expresses the pleasure of her work or the pleasure of not having to care for it. The dialectical decomposition of the movement and its frantic rhythm are complicit with the way in which the emancipated female workers of the communist factory reaffirm the capacity of the servants of old times: the capacity of doing two things at the same time, of both being and not being at their work. That’s why the members of the communist apparatus felt the same disturbance as eighteenth-century art collectors: there was something wrong in the portrait of the woman at work. But that “something wrong” was of a new kind: it was produced by the modern art of time, the art of movement that purported to be entirely homogeneous with the movement of the new communist life. This is why those within the communist apparatus made a radical decision to dismiss the modernist duplicity that they stigmatize under the name of formalism. The communist apparatus asked filmmakers to give up their favorite activity—expressing the speedy rhythms of communist work—and instead make musical comedies in the Hollywood manner to entertain the workers after their workday. As for the task of representing the new communist life, they left it to the old representative art of painting: not the bourgeois genre of genre scenes, but the monarchical genre of history painting. By redistributing in that way the hierarchies of the arts, they also put an end to the aesthetic redivision of time that had been at the heart of workers’ emancipation.


Jacques Rancière is emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Paris-VIII, St. Denis.


[1] Ella Snoep-Reitsma, “Chardin and the Bourgeois Ideals of His Time,” Nederlands Kunsthistorisch laarboek 24 (1973): 147–243.

[2] Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago, 1987), p. 47.

[3] Ibid., p. 51.

[4] Quoted in Jacques Rancière, Proletarian Nights: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France, trans. John Drury (New York, 2012), p. 81.

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