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  • Plato's Politics of Distributing and Disrupting the Sensible
  • Christina Tarnopolsky (bio)

Thesis 2. What is specific to politics is the existence of a subject defined by its participation in contraries. Politics is a paradoxical form of action.

(Jacques Rancière, Dissensus, 29)

Politics before all else, is an intervention in the visible and the sayable.

(Rancière, Dissensus, 37)


Plato's Republic might seem like a very odd choice for a return to the senses and a consideration of their place in democratic political life. The famous divided line, presented at the end of Book 6, seems to relegate sensation and the faculty of the imagination responsible for perceiving sense images to the lowest level of Plato's hierarchical view of knowledge (Rep. 6.509d-511d).1 Equally problematic, Jacques Rancière has argued that Plato's Republic actually supplies the model of what he calls, "archipolitics," which involves replacing a democratic configuration of politics with a police order that eliminates the very possibility of performing those acts of subjectivation and contestation that might challenge the rigid roles and ways of speaking, seeing, hearing, doing, and making assigned to each member of Plato's kallipolis.2 In the Republic, according to Rancière, each person is assigned his own place and task according to the founding narrative of the myth of the metals, and here the artisan or maker's role is relegated to the domain of the private such that he is, by definition, excluded from the space and time that would even allow him to contest the social order or "distribution of the sensible" that assigns him to this particular place.3 As Rancière puts it, "what is suppressed by this law of exclusivity, presented as a proper and natural characteristic of the practice of any trade, is this common space that democracy carves out in the heart of the city as the place where liberty is to be exercised, the place where the power of the demos that brings off the part of those who have no part is to be exercised."4 Instead, according to Rancière, the freedom of the dēmos is replaced with the moderation (sōphrosunē) of the artisans or mob who mind their own business and thus accept being ruled over by the "superior" members of the kallipolis: "The particular and common virtue of those of the mob is nothing more than their submission to the order according to which they are merely what they are and do merely what they do. The sōphrosunē of the artisans is identical to their 'lack of time.' It is their way of living the interiority of the city as radical exteriority."5

For Rancière the exclusion of the artisan and work itself from the space-time of the community and its privileged logos (speech/account/reason) is also behind Plato's famous rejection of the mimetician that occurs in Book 3 of the Republic. As he puts it,

… the mimetician is no longer condemned simply for the falsity and the pernicious nature of the images he presents, but he is condemned in accordance with a principle of division of labour that was already used to exclude artisans from any shared political space: the mimetician is, by definition a double being. … [He] brings confusion to [the distribution of the sensible]: he is a man of duplication, a worker who does two things at once. Perhaps the correlate to this principle is the most important thing: the mimetician provides a public stage for the 'private' principle of work. He sets up a stage for what is common to the community with what should determine the confinement of each person to his or her place. It is this redistribution of the sensible that constitutes his noxiousness, even more than the danger of the simulacra weakening souls.6

According to Rancière, however, Plato does not in the end banish all images and forms of art from his kallipolis, instead he inaugurates the "ethical regime of images" where certain true arts, which model the truly existing Forms rather than simple appearances, are used to produce images that will educate the children and adults...