Strategies of distinction

Rancière's Aisthesis and the two regimes of art

RP 177 () / Article

At the root of Jacque Rancière’s work lies a gesture of dissociation: to unfasten the people, the poor and the proletariat from the Marxist discourses to which they were so firmly fixed that one might think them to be sewn from the same cloth; to reveal the will to mastery and domination inherent in the speech of those who claim knowledge; to show that the love of the people dissimulates a hatred of democracy; to underscore workers’ heterogeneity with respect to the discourse bearing upon them; and to defend the capacity of the dominated and the equality of intellects.

It is a gesture born of a rupture, a rupture that happened in May 1968, whose evental content and scope, the young Rancière thought, had been disclaimed by its own actors:

Instead of militants – new or old – trying to think their histories, what we find are students reciting the old lessons they learned in their philosophy classes. They want to make us believe that they are talking about May ’68, or about leftism, when in fact all they are doing is resuming the thread of an interrupted academic discourse, dressing up as ‘facts’ the phantoms of their speculations.1

It was in the experience of this slippage between grand philosophical discourse and the aspirations articulated in May ’68 that his project took shape, a project devoted to crossing over to the other side of the discourse of mastery. An epistemological and political imperative thus came to light: let the others speak, give them back the speech that has been taken from them.

It is perhaps unsurprising that, since the beginning of the 1970s, Rancière has been developing a way of writing whose disciplinary classification is unclear, one that proceeds by blurring the boundaries between philosophy, ideological analysis, criticism and history, and which constitutes itself in the intervals between those discourses: a double task of archiving, publishing and restituting the workers’ own problematizations of emancipation, on the one hand, and, on the other, of criticizing the discourses that bear on the dominated, from Plato to Bourdieu. The position of enunciation that unites these two great series of texts is a precarious one, in that it can be identified with neither that of the dominated nor that of the masters. This position, maintained across forty years of Rancière’s work, explains his attachment to impure objects that foil established disciplinary or political distributions.

Of course, those distributions were not established once and for all with Plato. What Plato represents is less a historical beginning than a scene of distribution [partage] that has been relentlessly restaged by new actors in new costumes: a scene in which inferiors are designated, delegitimized, assigned their place, tied down to a function, and inscribed into the order of the world. That is the typical scene. But there is also another sequence of scenes, corresponding to singular moments of emancipation, which demand that the philosopher abandon the domain of the concept and embrace things in the making, challenging distributions and reconfigurations. There is an irreducible Two whose terms are incommensurable with one another: one is one, and the other multiple; one is type, the other singularity; one is identification, the other de-identification; one is police, the assignment of each to their ‘objective’ identity, the other politics, the blurring of sociological categories.

Politics is thus essentially tied to an aesthetics, to an ordering of the functions and places that condition who can say what, who can want what, and who can do what. This is what Rancière calls the ‘distribution [partage] of the sensible’, ‘a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, or speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and stakes of politics as a form of experience’. One of the empirical signs of this distribution [partage] lies in ‘the submission of the dominated’, which is explained not by their lack of understanding of the existing state of things’ but by their lack of confidence in their capacity to transform them’.

Onto this aesthetics is superimposed another, articulated in a third series of texts that Rancière has been working on since the mid-1990s. This concerns what Rancière calls the ‘aesthetic regime of art’, …