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  • “The Power of a Form of Thought that Has Become Foreign to Itself”: Rancière, Romanticism and the Partage of the Sensible
  • Kir Kuiken (bio)

“Where did this unexpected mobility of epistemological arrangements come from…? What event, what law, do these mutations obey, these mutations that suddenly decide that things are no longer perceived, described, expressed, characterized, classified, and known in the same way…?”

– Foucault

The recent wave of interest in the work of Jacques Rancière in North America can likely be traced back to the unique status he gives to the category of the aesthetic in its relation to the political. Coming after the exhaustion of debates surrounding the notion of “aesthetic ideology,”1 and expressing dissatisfaction with familiar arguments about the aestheticization of politics, Rancière’s oeuvre seems to offer the promise of a critical theory that develops an entirely novel understanding of the history of the relation between aesthetics and politics. It promises, among other things, to revitalize the study of literature as a privileged form of intervention into established modes of expression. Rancière weds aesthetics and politics through a particular reading of Romanticism. According to him, the early nineteenth century saw the invention of a form of literature that proved capable of articulating a new relationship between the aesthetic and the ground of the political community, or polis—the arche of politics itself. The articulation of this arche brings to the fore a part of the polis that had hitherto not been able to articulate itself, thereby suggesting that the foundation of the political is never stable or timeless, but always in the process of reinvention. In what follows, I explore the stakes of this argument in Rancière, and suggest that the reading of Romanticism he engages in produces a far more ambivalent conception of the relation between aesthetic and politics than his work often implies.

While offering a philosophy that claims to break with a classical conception of politics, Rancière’s work makes literature—as interpreted through a particular understanding of the aesthetic as the “distribution of the sensible”—the central figure of a historical disruption which transforms the idea that aesthetics and politics are either dangerous bedfellows, [End Page 6] or radically antithetical. Rancière’s somewhat esoteric depiction of Schiller’s “aesthetic state,” for example, serves as the manifesto of a new concatenation of aesthetics and politics, one that no longer refers to “a theory of sensibility, taste and pleasure for art amateurs. It strictly refers to the specific mode of being of whatever falls within the domain of art, to the mode of being of objects of art” (“Distribution” 22). The “aesthetic regime,” or the conditions that govern what can be said and what can be seen, is not limited to art, but to appearance more generally. Rancière, in a sense, returns the category of the aesthetic to its focus on the sensible itself, before it became specialized into a theory of art. The aesthetic in Rancière pertains to the very conditions in which something can be made or seen to appear, can be given a voice, or be articulated through what he calls the “system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it” (12). This definition of the “distribution of the sensible,” or “partage” of the sensible (which includes a sense of not only “sharing,” but also of “apportioning”), entails a system of forms that determines “what presents itself to sense experience. It is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience” (13). The basic structures of the political are thus determined by a particular aesthetic “regime.” This regime regulates who has the right and ability to speak, and in what way that speech always enacts a relation to the determination of what is visible or invisible within the common space and time of the polis. Rancière’s somewhat audacious claim is not that the political and the aesthetic are...


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pp. 6-21
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