In one of your texts, you establish a connection between the development of photography and film as ‘mechanical’ arts and the birth of 'new history'. Can you explain this connection? Does it correspond to Benjamins idea that the masses as such acquired visibility at the beginning of the century with the help of the ‘mechanical’ arts?
Perhaps first I should clear up a misunderstanding concerning the notion of mechanical arts’. The connection I established was between a scientific paradigm and an aesthetic paradigm. Benjamin’s thesis presupposes something different, which seems questionable to me: the deduction of the aesthetic and political properties of a form of art from its technical properties. Mechanical arts, qua mechanical arts, would result in a change of artistic paradigm and a new relationship between art and its subject matter. This proposition refers back to one of modernism’s main theses: the difference between the arts is linked to the difference between their technological conditions or their specific medium or material. This assimilation can be understood either in the simple modernist mode, or in accordance with modernatist hyperbole. The persistent success of Benjamin’s theses on art in the age of mechanical reproduction is, moreover, undoubtedly due to the crossing-over they allow for between the categories of Marxist materialist explanation and those of Heideggerian ontology, which ascribe the age of modernity to the unfurling of the essence of technology. This link between the aesthetic and the onto-technological has, in fact, been subjected to the general fate of modernist categories. In Benjamin, Duchamp, or Rodchenko’s time, it coexisted with the faith in the capabilities of electricity and machines, iron, glass, and concrete. With the so-called ‘postmodern’ reversal, it has kept pace with the return to the icon, which presents the veil of Veronica as the essence of painting, film, or photography.
It is thus necessary, in my opinion, to take things the other way around. In order for the mechanical arts to be able to confer visibility on the masses, or rather on anonymous individuals, they first need to be recognized as arts. That is to say that they first need to be, put into practice and recognized as something other than techniques of reproduction or transmission. It is thus the same principle that confers visibility on absolutely anyone and allows for photography and film to become arts. We can even reverse the formula: it is because the anonymous became the subject matter of art that the act of recording such a subject matter can be an art. The fact that what is anonymous is not only susceptible to becoming the subject matter of art but also conveys a specific beauty is an exclusive characteristic of the aesthetic regime of the arts. Not only did the aesthetic regime begin well before the arts of mechanical reproduction, but it is actually this regime that made them possible by its new way of thinking art and its subject matter.
The aesthetic regime of the arts was initially the breakdown of the system of representation, that is to say of a system where the dignity of the subject matter dictated the dignity of genres of representation (tragedy for the nobles, comedy for the people of meagre means; historical painting versus genre painting; etc.). Along with genres, the system of representation defined the situations and forms of expression that were appropriate for' the lowliness or loftiness of the subject matter. The aesthetic regime  of the arts dismantled this correlation between subject matter and mode of representation. This revolution first took place in literature: an epoch and a society were deciphered through the features, clothes, or gestures of an ordinary individual (Balzac); the sewer revealed a civilization (Hugo); the daughter of a farmer and the daughter of a banker were caught in the equal force of style as an ‘absolute manner of seeing things’ (Flaubert). All of these forms of cancellation or reversal of the opposition between high and low not only antedate the powers of mechanical reproduction, they made it possible for this reproduction to be more than mechanical reproduction. In order for a technological mode of action and production, i.e. a way of doing and making, to be qualified as falling within the domain of art - be it a certain use of words or of a camera -, it is first necessary for its subject matter to be defined as such. Photography was not established as an art on the grounds of its technological nature. The discourse on the originality of photography as an ‘indexical’ art is very recent, and it is less a part of the history of photography than of the history of the postmodern reversal touched upon above.11 Furthermore, photography did not become an art by imitating the mannerisms of art. Benjamin accurately demonstrated this regarding David Octavius Hill: it is with the little anonymous fishwife from New Haven, not with his grand pictorial compositions, that he brought photography into the world of art. Likewise, it is not the ethereal subject matter and soft focus of pictorialism that secured the status of photographic art, it is rather the appropriation of the commonplace: the emigrants in Stieglitz’s The Steerage, the frontal portraits by Paul Strand or Walker Evans. On the one hand, the technological revolution comes after the aesthetic revolution. On the other hand, however, the aesthetic revolution is first of all the honour acquired by the commonplace, which is pictorial and literary before being photographic or cinematic.
We should add that the honour conferred on the commonplace is part of the science of literature before being part of the science of history. Film and photography did not determine the subject matter and modes of focalization of new history’. On the contrary, the new science of history and the arts of mechanical reproduction are inscribed in the same logic of aesthetic revolution. This programme is literary before being scientific: it shifts the focus from great names and events to the life of the anonymous; it finds symptoms of an epoch, a society, or a civilization in the minute details of ordinary life; it explains the surface by subterranean layers; and it reconstructs worlds from their vestiges. This does not simply mean that the science of history has a literary prehistory. Literature itself was constituted as a kind of symptomatology of society, and it set this symptomatology in contrast with the clamour and imagination of the public stage. In his preface to Cromwell, Hugo called for a literature based on the story of the customs of everyday life that would be opposed to the story of events practised by historians. In War and Peace, Tolstoy contrasted the documents of literature, taken from narratives and testimonial accounts of the action of innumerable anonymous actors, with the documents of historians, taken from the archives - and from the imagination - of those who believe to have been in charge of battles and to have made history. Scholarly history took over this opposition when it contrasted the history of the lifestyles of the masses and the cycles of material life based on reading and interpreting mute witnesses’ with the former, history of princes, battles, and treaties based on courts’ chronicles and diplomatic reports. The appearance of the masses on the scene of history or in new’ images is not to be confused with the link between the age of the masses and the age of science and technology. It is first and foremost rooted in the aesthetic logic of a mode of visibility that, on the one hand, revokes the representative tradition’s scales of grandeur and, on the other hand, revokes the oratorical model of speech in favour of the interpretation of signs on the body of people, things, and civilizations.
This is what scholarly history inherited. However, its intention was to separate the condition of its new object (the life of the anonymous) from its literary origin and from the politics of literature in which it is inscribed. What it cast aside - which was reappropriated by film and photography - was the logic revealed by the tradition of the novel (from Balzac to Proust and Surrealism) and the reflection on the true that Marx, Freud, Benjamin, and the tradition of ‘critical thought’ inherited: the ordinary becomes beautiful as a trace of the true. And the ordinary becomes a trace of the true if it is torn from its obviousness in order to become a hieroglyph, a mythological or phantasmagoric figure. This phantasmagoric dimension of the true, which belongs to the aesthetic regime of the arts, played an essential role in the formation of the critical paradigm of the human and social sciences. The Marxist theory of fetishism is the most striking testimony to this fact: commodities must be torn out of their trivial appearances, made into phantasmagoric objects in order to be interpreted as the expression of society’s contradictions. Scholarly history tried to separate out various features within the aesthetico-political configuration that gave it its object. It flattened this phantasmagoria of the true into the positivist sociological concepts of mentality/expression and belief/ignorance.
excerpt from the book: The Politics of Aesthetics (The Distribution of the Sensible), JACQUES RANCIÈRE