- 'reading for understanding is problematic':Panagia's Rancière's Sentiments
Davide Panagia, Rancière's Sentiments. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018. 160pp. $22.95, ISBN 978–0–8223–7022–2 (pbk); $84.95, ISBN 978–0–8223–7013–0 (hc); $22.95, ISBN 978–0–8223–7216–5 (ebook).
Davide Panagia's slim volume retreads ground that will be familiar to readers of Jacques Rancière but professes to do so in a manner which is uniquely attuned to Rancière's critical sensibility. The Introduction insists that Rancière is a thinker who eschews judgment in favor of a 'scenographic mode' (1) of expository description, 'persistently offering up to readers scenes that can't be judged or interpreted but are nonetheless available to experience because they are affective in their transformation of sensibilities' (11). This mode of exposition opens the scene up to reveal the existence of excessive parts that do not [End Page 987] fit or register within its 'established sense of ordering' (5) and this, in turn, is conducive to 'acts of rearticulation' which create 'a new disposition' (5).
Panagia claims that his book distinguishes itself from efforts by Jacques Rancière's 'many commentators' (4) in 'giving emphasis to the simultaneity of aesthetics and politics' in the philosopher's work (1), an assertion he repeats on several further occasions (2, 7, 16, 51, 103). Given that almost everyone who has written about Rancière—including those Panagia lists (106 n.1)—grapples at length with this central matter of the imbrication of politics with aesthetics, and given also that beliefs about this imbrication account in large measure for the prominence Rancière's work currently enjoys, I struggled to make sense of this claim to originality.
What does Panagia mean when he insists there is a 'simultaneity' of aesthetics and politics in Rancière's work and is he also asserting that the world beyond it exhibits such simultaneity? When Panagia says that 'sentimental dispositions' have 'political corollaries' (2), I understand him to be making a statement about human beings in the world and since a corollary is something which follows, this suggests that he does not believe that aesthetics and politics are exactly simultaneous in the world. Indeed, he seems to think that aesthetics, understood here as pre- or proto-cognitive processes of perceiving and feeling, precedes politics and determines the conditions of its possibility. He argues that Rancière's work is concerned with 'that inattentive moment that precedes judgment—a presubjective, but also preobjective, moment when the distensions of sensation have yet to assign value to specific persons, things, and events. This is the aesthetic moment of indistinction, which is also the political moment of equality, when anything whatsoever or anyone whosoever can count.' (10, emphasis added). The segment I have emphasized begs many of the questions with which Kant grappled, not least how sensations could 'assign value'. Nevertheless, I suspect Panagia may very well be right to think that Rancière holds to just such a radical empiricism whereby value (political and ethical, in particular) is a somehow later elaborated manifestation of sensory intensity: concepts are not different in kind from affects and percepts. Notwithstanding Rancière's own near silence on such matters, which makes it difficult to pronounce more than tentatively, this is probably where he stands.
Politics and aesthetics may indeed be simultaneous, in the sense that wherever there is politics there is also aesthetics, but I would suggest that despite Rancière's own reluctance to be drawn in these terms, aesthetics in this particular sense also precedes politics, in that pre-cognitive or proto-cognitive perceptual and affective processes precondition the scope of the political. How one sees others, how one hears the sounds that emerge from their mouths, how one reads the words that populate their Twitter feeds, are the aesthetic conditions of sensing and perceiving which will to a...