Comparative Literature
Christopher Hoffman

"Acts of Exhaustion"

Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Throw of the dice” read by Rancière and Kittler

  • Faculty Advisor

    Christopher Bush

Published On

May 2015

Originally Published

NURJ 2014-15
Honors Thesis

Stéphane Mallarmé, and in particular his 1897 poem Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard [“A throw of the dice never will abolish chance/hasard”], have become a touch point for the French intellectual tradition. Across the arts and letters, Mallarmé has incited fresh interpretations more than a century after his death. Since his death, he has been recognized as a precursor of twentieth-century thought, influencing people ranging from the Modernist painters, composers John Cage and Pierre Boulez, to, of particular interest to us, French philosophers in the 1960s like Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva. The latter group saw in Mallarmé a pioneering effort in exploring, poetically, the profound ways language shapes human experience. More recently, two other theorists, Jacques Rancière and Friedrich Kittler, have elaborated their own theories in aesthetics and media studies which draw and expand upon that French philosophical tradition. Having read through Mallarmé’s “Throw of the dice” project, Rancière and Kittler align in a common problematic that locates confusion at the center of our media and sensory experience.

Rancière and Kittler, by the looks of it, make an odd couple. Rancière has made a name for himself as a political philosopher and advocate for a renewed commitment to equality, while Kittler’s forays into technological history have been interpreted as a radically media-oriented outlook disavowing politics. But they share a concern for how material practices, particularly art, change the grounds of human action—and how these changes emerge in the first place. First, we will consider Mallarmé’s poem, “A throw of the dice,” before putting it in conversation with Rancière and Kittler’s theoretical responses. Together, these sources show another, materialist, side to Mallarmé’s well-known work apart from the interpretation of him as a mystical aesthete.


Stéphane Mallarmé’s (1842-1898) corpus is slim: He published four short volumes in the 1870s, including a translation of Poe’s The Raven; one in the 1880s; and two in the 1890s. His poetry combines mind-bending grammar, readable in several configurations at once, with an opaque but evocative vocabulary. Although almost unknown during his lifetime, he hosted a particularly influential salon in Paris during his later years, attended by writers like Rainer Maria Rilke, William Butler Yeats, and Paul Valéry. These writers would come to play key roles in the heady artistic moment following the First World War, though Mallarmé’s influence was not confined to the literary arts. While Mallarmé only ballooned in popularity after his death, his experimentation prefigured how artistic modernism, in many domains, broke from its past forms, and all the consequences (political, social, and technological) that accompanied it. Hence, when Francophone writers started thinking about what defines modern life—artistic or otherwise—many fixated on Mallarmé, whose work predated the most well-known icons of the twentieth century such as Salvador Dalí, Le Corbusier, and Marcel Proust, but undoubtedly left its mark. Published in 1897 but unearthed only after the war by Paul Valéry, Un Coup de dés is Mallarmé’s last and most archetypically modern work.

Published in the same year in the magazine Cosmopolis, the poem consists of 21 pages divided into two-page panels, prefaced by a short, characteristically circular note: “I would like no one to read this note, or rather, having traversed it, they forgot it altogether…” Mallarmé’s poem follows its time in experimenting with poetic form by breaking with the six-foot alexandrine form that had characterized so much of earlier French poetry. “A throw of the dice”’s difficulty stems from its polydirectional verse form, its diction, and its pictorial typography. Mallarmé seeks to tell a story with his poetry, not just semantically with words, but also pictorially. For example, one panel is arranged to form a tall ship listing to the left, another, a falling feather. Representative typography is this way of using blocks of lines on a page as its own image, regardless of the words which compose it. While uncommon for most Western European poets and their ilk, this bewildering form recalls a long tradition in Jewish and Islamic arts called micrography. Because of the difficulty of such poetry, Mallarmé’s work throws the reading process itself into question. No more is it immediately clear how the poem should be read. Mallarmé’s differentiates lines and words by typeface, size, italicization, capitalizing, and their place on the page. Each line is split dramatically across each two-page panel, and the words are scattered (or “constellated”) across the page. Because of these gaps, Mallarmé challenges, more deeply even than his earlier works, the assumption of a linear reading format. Instead of continuous lines on a page, the reader confronts a collection of scattered words, which they must put back together. This novelty will become the preoccupation of writers like Rancière and Kittler who have historicized Mallarmé’s work.

The reading he demands travels by different rhythms, speeds, and vectors across the page, and each time it plays out differently. The reader might take the cue from the poem’s evocation of a “CONSTELLATION…on some vacant and higher surface,” to name just what Mallarmé has done with the read surface of the poem. Such a constellation offers any number of directions that might be taken through the text, with all the changes in poetic expression that entails. The novelty of this sort of reading, and the reflexivity involved in making a path through the poem and thinking about one’s path, comprises a key element of Rancière’s aesthetics.


As he has written in greater and greater depth about aesthetics, Rancière’s engagement with Mallarmé has likewise deepened. Broadly, Rancière recasts artistic modernity against histories of art focused on formal developments and periodization through what he calls the “aesthetic regime of art.” The aesthetic regime, drawing on Michel Foucault’s philosophy, is the epistemic condition of sensations shared by a society. This allows Rancière to consider art and politics not as two separate domains, but as two sides of the same condition of sensation. Rancière reads Mallarmé as an aesthetic visionary, albeit one who is fundamentally concerned about his time and place. In this sense, Mallarmé anticipates the transformative and collective principles that underlie what Rancière calls aisthesis, what he defines as the condition—the “aesthetic regime of art”—in which “the identification of art no longer occurs via a division within ways of doing and making, but is based on distinguishing a sensible mode of being specific to artistic products.” This also means that art threatens to show itself in any sensible domain, even if it means disrupting another form of order such as a workplace, the street, or the Senate. Aisthesis as faculty, and art, as object, are the exceptional zones within sensory life in which our regular modes of doing business break down, revealing equality and humanity as the principles that unify us. For Rancière, Mallarmé is not principally a depoliticized writer, but one of the pioneers who first staked out the aesthetic regime. He seeks the synesthetic confusion fostered by art which tends to undo normal, unequal forms of politics.

Rancière’s reading of Mallarmé typifies the liberating role the former ascribes to Rancière. To Rancière, Mallarmé’s promise comes from a lifestyle characterized by “dreaming,” and a commitment to the “poetics of mystery” that nonetheless marks Mallarmé as a “difficult, not a hermetic,” writer. Rancière argues that Mallarmé is not interested in any directly metaphorical or allegorical work; rather, Mallarmé conjures what Rancière calls the “ideality of the sensory,” or in other words,language’s power to create a sensible reality, which imbues even objects we would otherwise consider banal. To capture this, the artist’s task becomes a certain form of vision, and the means to give voice to that vision:

“‘Dream’…is the gap remarked by the attentive spectator in ‘what is,’ discerning in it the disappearing appearing of that which can or can not be…[against the “natural way of seeing”] the dreamer’s way of seeing, of electing aspects…and ordering them in mystery is ‘superior, and maybe even the true one’. Poetry is the pursuit of this truth, of this exact interruption.”
— Rancière, Mallarmé, pp. 13 and 15

This account parallels Rancière’s latest and deepest work in Aisthesis, in which the artist sees “through” commonplace understandings of sensation (i.e. a workplace or a street) to the vitality of collective life underneath.

For the famous “Throw of the dice” poem, Rancière reserves several pages of discussion. Rancière writes that Mallarmé has poeticized the gift of art to future generations, cast across the blank space of the page, which the theorist reimagines as the “Ocean of the times,” the “chasm of vain hunger…apt to consume that future in advance,” in a “hyperbolical affirmation of pure contingency” that constitutes poetic action. Mallarmé’s typographical innovations, Rancière writes, have no secret meaning. There is “no great difficulty in understanding what this poem ‘means.’” Mallarmé’s “constellations” of the written word “reproduce the topography of the theatre of the spirit, in the authenticity which rivals it with the folio of the sky.” Part of Mallarmé’s great influence came in opening up new opportunities of reading with his experimental typography—an insight that may seem unremarkable in our age of marketing, but whose force can be seen by Paul Valéry’s praise for Mallarmé’s “rais[ing] a page to the power of the starry sky.” Despite Rancière’s great flourish, another thinker, Friedrich Kittler, would object that he has not gone far enough in thinking through the role of Mallarmé’s medium in understanding the poet.

Friedrich Kittler

Friedrich Kittler (1943-2011) is known as a central figure in what has been dubbed “German Media Theory,” accompanying interest over the past 20-30 years into the history and significance of media. In his best-known works in the English-speaking world, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter and Discourse Network 1800/1900, Kittler draws on the big names of French Theory at the time—Jacques Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida, but also their German predecessor, Friedrich Nietzsche. Despite his contributions to the expanding field of media studies, Kittler’s voice has been widely interpreted as vulgar, media determinism, a judgment we will question by putting his work in conversation with Rancière’s, whose theoretical DNA it shares.

Mallarmé finds his way into Kittler’s most well-known tome in the United States, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Kittler explains that because of the new prestige of the Gramophone, which replaced poetry as the privileged way of expressing the voice, Mallarmé’s poetry expresses a retreat to “letter fetishism.” That is, without the communicative purpose it once enjoyed, poetry’s component element—the letter—becomes all the more evocative and artistic. Kittler, some have said, puts the importance of media over the agency of artists. But this account does not dispense with any of Mallarmé’s insight. Mallarmé responded to a rearrangement of the media which made up his discourse network. He could have redirected his poetic energies into other artistic pursuits, but he remained with poetry. Kittler emphasizes how poetry has been obsoleted from the vital functions of the discourse network and can pursue its own purposeless ends. For Rancière, this would be the beginning, not the end, of poetry as it opens up a new artistic world, one that looks like Rancière’s Aisthesis. In that sense, the full force of “A throw of the dice” was made possible by the shifting discourse network that Kittler describes. Mallarmé’s artistry involves seizing that lost opportunity. Kittler names this “art for art’s sake” an important, if overemphasized, take on art’s purpose. But underneath that title, Kittler’s understanding of Mallarmé involves a more subtle take on the uncertainty and possibility of older media as newer ones come to replace them.

Mallarmé’s example opens onto Kittler’s wider understanding of media, particularly how art emerges from these spaces of indistinction and transition in media. For Kittler, media are not predetermined forms, but involve constant shifts and slippages in function and form. Take his example in the gramophone, film, and the typewriter: “After the storage capacities for optics, acoustics, and writing had been separated,” he writes, “…their distinct data flows could also be reunited.” In other words, he is referring to moments like the introduction of sound into film or color into photography, as much as all the lesser-known histories of technological change of the past centuries. For Kittler, media are always over-coding each other, both technologically and in psychoanalytic terms (one of the interests he picked up in part because of his French predecessors). Film was never just a medium of movement; it functioned because of the absence or abundance of sound. This interest in the confusion of experience because of technological novelty surfaces when he remarks that Mallarmé “celebrated the view through a moving car as that of a camera on wheels.” Mallarmé could capture some of the energy of new forms of movement through an old medium like poetry. In other words, Kittler offers no endpoint for the use and development of media. Rather, its turbulent history is the point ofinterest when investigating media.

Kittler portrays this part of his argument as a matter of translation, and the way each medium must be translated into others. Translation, he says, exhausts the person who tries to keep pace with every new change. Translation is “an encounter with the limits of media”, and it “always involves reshaping [messages] to conform to new standards and materials… [It is] accomplished serially, at discrete points.” From this point of view, Mallarmé skillfully negotiated the changes in the discourse network, having the tenacity to take advantage of poetry’s strength in weakness. Mallarmé’s work, too, can be considered an act of translation within the poetic medium, responding in profound ways to its time, while maintaining continuity with its poetic tradition in its novelty. Stretching Kittler’s argument, we can claim that media are “always already” composed of other media, in both technological and cultural terms—enriching each artistic effort with all of the peculiarities of its medium and making it many things from many perspectives. Mallarmé’s “A throw of the dice” is one such example.

Conclusion: Mallarmé, Rancière, Kittler

Rancière and Kittler’s work hold surprising similarities in terms of their interests, even if one concerns himself first of all with “art” and the other with “media.” Mallarmé’s writings anticipated many of these interests already; this project can be considered an attempt at constructing a conceptual vocabulary they have in common. Mallarmé’s introduction to his “Throw of the dice” is a difficult but excellent example of this commonality. Mallarmé focuses on the temporality and circularity of each reading obligated by its particular structure in his characteristic looping prose. Mallarmé emphasizes the aural aspect of his poem so much that he describes the poem as a “partition,” a score (like in music) or division into parts:

“In addition this use of the bare thought [cet emploi à nu de la pensée] with its retreats, prolongations, and flights, by reason of its very design, for anyone wishing to read it aloud, results in a score [partition]. The variation in printed characters between the dominant motif, a secondary one and those adjacent, mark its importance for oral utterance [émission orale] and the scale, mid-way, at top or bottom of the page will show how the intonation rises or falls.”
— Mallarmé, preface to “Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard"

This sort of “partition” means that each reading must be unrepeatable: the poem as both a new performance and a departure from the original, offers a new approach to reading and understanding the poem, just as Rancière and Kittler have done. Such a statement fits with its elaboration of chance or hazard [le hasard] that our duo (and other commentators) has emphasized. Recognizing the poem’s essential discontinuities—its tendency to lose itself in grammatical and semantic incoherency—the reader must coordinate these elements in each new performance. Like a symphony, Mallarmé’s partition will be constantly re-contextualized and worked over by new elements, whether it be aesthetic, political, or otherwise.

The partition names the common problem to each of these three authors: the shifting divisions in sensible experience and the artistic human that responds to it. In an artistic time, discussed at length in other contexts by Kittler and Rancière, characterized by the capitalistic demand for artists to continuously innovate, Mallarmé’s notes suggest a strategy of making each reading and each artistic act unfamiliar, even as it repeats past forms. It is the object, we could say, of its own mistranslation. Mallarmé multiplies the synesthetic confusion that Rancière describes in Aisthesis indefinitely. Mallarmé’s world is not limited to theorists; his work inspired work across disciplinary and artistic dividing lines. Mallarmé forges an alliance between his poetry’s continuities and its transgressions, the authors, filmmakers, and artists whose work he continues to enrich.

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Christopher Hoffman (’14) is the recipient of a Fulbright English Teaching assistantship in Germany (2014) and a Northwestern undergraduate research grant (2013). He is currently working as an English teacher in Hamburg, Germany and in the future hopes to work in the private sector and utilize his creative abilities. A fan of literature, film, and music, Hoffman enjoys travelling the world to meet new people and experience various cultures.