Thesis 9. On Impropriety

Politics is improper. It is the interval of discontinuity that emerges from the immediacy of an advenience. What an aesthetics of politics thus makes available to political thinking is the fact that there has only ever truly been one rule for democracy: that there is no necessity of rule. This is why democratic politics is always already aesthetic.

THERE IS AN aspectual affinity between aesthetics and democracy: both sustain the nonnecessity of rule. Thus, both are improper. This does not mean that democracy is anarchic and without rules. It affirms that no rule is necessary to democracy.

In the political sense of the term, an impropriety is a wrong. But here we must not confuse the status of a wrong with the epistemological concept of a mistake. A wrong is not an error that needs correcting in order to return to the proper rule of things. It is not some flaw calling for reparation. As Jacques Rancière argues, “It is the introduction of an incommensurable at the heart of the distribution of speaking bodies.”[1] What might this mean, exactly? Simply put, the political wrong is the affirmation of an arresting conviction, or a site of resistance. When we affirmed that an advenience was “an event of resistance” (“Thesis 1: On Advenience”), we were affirming its status as an impropriety. An advenience is that which interrupts the organizations of perceptibility that make objects and values circulate properly.

Consider the example of Jackson Pollock’s line in his works dating from the late 1940s, but especially Number 1A, 1948.[2] As is well-known, Pollock would pour paint onto a stretched canvas on the floor, creating massive tableaus with swirls of paint weaving throughout. As he famously affirmed in an interview, “My painting does not come from the easel. I hardly ever stretch my canvas before painting. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.”[3] By resisting the convention of the easel as the structure of support for the composition of a painting, Pollock liberates painting from other structural conventions, not the least of which was the necessity that paint be applied on a canvas in order to draw a line. For what Pollock makes available in works like Number 1A, 1948 is the possibility that a line no longer designate or trace a border, that it is “no longer the edge of anything.”[4]

We might say this: Pollock’s achievement is to interrupt the expectation that a line hold shape so as to make available an improper modality of line-potential previously unremarked. The line had always been just a line, useful for tracing edges, shapes, figures, or territories. But by affirming the availability of the line’s drip, and by suspending the directedness of the brush stroke, Pollock makes available a new cosmology of line. To be sure, Pollock does not offer a new perspective on line; he advances a transubstantiation of line, exposing it as a process and not a substance. What is even more striking, when looking at a Pollock painting, is the sheer sense of wrongness that emerges from one’s interface with it. There is nothing “right” about Number 1A, 1948; but there is nothing erroneous about it either. The work works. And it works because its line is improper.

To get a sense of the intensity of this gesture of impropriety, let us juxtapose it to Rousseau’s discussion, at the beginning of the second part of the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, of the utterance “this is mine.”[5] With all its rhetorical flourishes, Rousseau accounts for this utterance as the historical, aesthetic, political, and metaphysical origin of inequality. That is, the invention and pronouncement of a linguistic line that permits the capacity to draw a line, parse a territory, put up a fence around a plot of land, and have that line and that fence count as belonging to someone (i.e., count as part of a person’s part) and have all these intensities register as intelligible to others—such parts are, for Rousseau, the site (and source) of humanity’s fallenness. Inequality, for him, begins and ends with the techne of drawing a line on a flat surface and, subsequently, through speech and effort, to compose the shape of that line by figuring a territory and building a fence around it. The ontological precondition for property (including the propriety of self implicit in the “I” of “mine”) is the existence of a geometrical line that designates shape: what we might call a property line, or the drawing of a lot.

Jackson Pollock’s singular achievement—both aesthetic and political—is the disfiguration of the line; it is to free the line from the compellant must of having to draw shapes and thus purging it of its imperative of figuration. Within the history of modern aesthetics this gesture is tantamount to undermining the entirety of Western painting since the Renaissance—a paradigm shift, if you will, comparable to Einstein’s theory of relativity and its undermining of Newtonian physics. Within political theory, this is tantamount to saying that territorial borders need no longer be drawn, that the surface of land is a smooth plateau on which the tracing of a line does not designate the existence of a territory; it is deterritorialization.[6] We might put the matter this way: Pollock’s disfiguration of the line is an instance of impropriety in the face of an entire history of political thinking committed to (indeed, founded on) the line’s capacity for bordering, of drawing and holding shapes (of nations, of principalities, of identities, of cultures, of class, of concepts, and so forth).

We define impropriety not as the absence of line, but as the nonnecessity of the line to rule. Impropriety exceeds the proper (i.e., arche/rule/règle), but is also that intensity that loosens the force of necessity in the proper. It is with these thoughts in mind that we affirm that democratic politics has always been aesthetic.