ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005)
Author: Michael Cross
Review of: Jacques Rancière. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. New York: Continuum, 2004. and Jacques Rancière. The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.

French philosophers go in an out of fashion as frequently as knock-off, Brooklyn rock and roll bands with one noun names; that is, of course, depending on the circle you run with. In the eighties, it was Foucault. The nineties, Deleuze. The current theory superstars to these eyes are Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière (not to mention, of course, the academic rock stars par excellence, Slavoj Žižek and Jean Baudrillard). The considerable excitement surrounding Badiou is no doubt due in part to his controversial claim that ontology is, at root, a question of mathematics. Couple this with his outspoken allegiance with (what looks like) conservative Platonism, and you’ve got yourself a graduate student symposium. While Rancière’s work has been available in English translation since the early nineties, it has taken him slightly longer to garnish the same level of “street cred” (even in the sun-drenched, rose lined “streets” of the academy). For Rancière, interest began to build around his initial forays into political philosophy, especially in relation to his assertions in On the Shores of Politics and Disagreement (among other volumes of his work) that a true democracy is fundamentally founded on productive dissent. But as is no doubt common knowledge to most by now, Rancière has been hard at work since the 1960’s thinking through how we come to knowledge, how we recognize it as such, and how we construct a stage by which such knowledge comes to be heard and recognized by others. As a student of Althusser, Rancière worked on the volume Lire le Capital, only to distance himself from his mentor with the publication of La Leçon d’Althusser (1974), his definitive critique of Althusserian “philosophy of order” (as Gabriel Rockhill has it) after the “obscure” events of May 1968.1 The student revolution led Rancière to rethink the revolutionary potential of dissensus in relation to the political theater, and more recently, to apply this philosophy to aesthetics. The work he began in the early 1990’s is finally surfacing in English translation, culminating in 2004 with the release of two of his most recent politico-aesthetic works: The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing2 and The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible.3

The Politics of Aesthetics serves as a fantastic introduction to Rancière’s aesthetic system (useful precisely because, like Badiou, Rancière’s thinking is rigorously systematic). It also serves to firmly solidify Rancière’s “rock star” status, as evidenced by a prominently advertised afterward by Slavoj Žižek on the book’s cover (this, coupled with a blurb in which Žižek praises Rancière’s ability to “elaborate the contours of those magic, violently poetic moments of political subjectivization.”) While the Politics of Aesthetics is just over 100 pages, this slim volume is a veritable handbook to Rancière’s thinking – a rigorous logic that, when distilled down to its nuances, is difficult for even the most astute readers. This volume is all the more timely as, since his careful analysis of the somewhat obscure French pedagogue Joseph Jacotet in the study The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Rancière has subscribed to the axiom that all intelligence is equal, and politics proper begins with how we assign mastery and circulate knowledge; this position manifests itself in Rancière’s painfully exact commentary on his concepts in The Politics of Aesthetics. Clearly, this publication rehearses Rancière’s desire to make his ideas assessable to all manner of readers.

The book takes its title and arranges itself around a short, essay length excursus in which Rancière seeks to clarify what he means by the deceptively simple phrase “the distribution of the sensible.” By responding to specific solicitations, Rancière hopes to cobble together a clear picture of his thinking, offering a cipher by which the reader might tackle some of his more impenetrable works (The Flesh of Words being a prime example). He defines the “distribution of the sensible” (alternately translated in other volumes as the “partition of the sensible”) as:

…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. A distribution of the sensible therefore establishes at one and the same time something common that is shares and exclusive parts. This apportionment of parts and positions is based on a distribution of spaces, times, and forms of activity that determines the very manner in which something in common lends itself to participation and in what way various individuals have a part in this distribution.4

In other words, Rancière is interested in the ways in which “the visible and the invisible, the audible and the inaudible, the sayable and the unsayable” are circumscribed, and further, how certain contingencies are privileged while others are excluded from producing and participating in knowledge. This is, for Rancière, how aesthetics is politicized (and, for that matter, how politics are aesthetic): it is not a matter of investigating an artist’s political agenda or the manner by which the art object incorporates the political as content. Instead, Rancière investigates the very way we disclose “community,” how we circulate information, and how we come to privilege a certain manner of knowing or saying over another. Rancière is interested in who has a say in this “distribution,” who is excluded from defining these “laws,” and consequently, how we establish community and exclude the non-identical based on these “aesthetic” considerations.

This approach to art is derived wholly from his earlier forays in politics. For Rancière, consensus interferes with the “political;” in fact, there can be no “democracy” hinged on universality. The political is “the field for the encounter between emancipation and policy in the handling of a wrong.”5 In other words, the political, democracy as such, is the theater by which the demos (the unaccounted for minority) intervenes in a localized attempt at consensus in order to question the “givens of a particular situation, of what is seen and what might be said, on the question of who is qualified to see or say what is given.”6 In other words, democracy is political dissensus as “positive contradiction.”  At this point, many readers have reduced Rancière’s thought to a naïve, politicized negative dialectics. Fortunately, Gabriel Rockhill, the editor and translator of The Politics of Aesthetics, anticipates this very conclusion and meets it head-on. While the body of the text is composed of extraordinarily detailed responses to a series of solicitations about aesthetics, the volume is supplemented in a number of useful ways: Rockhill provides a translator’s preface and introduction (the latter of which offers the most concise summary of Rancière’s intellectual trajectory I have yet seen) and a short interview, exclusive to the English edition (“The Janus-Face of Politicized Art”) in which Rockhill presciently foresees and addresses frequently asked questions by posing them directly to Rancière on the reader’s behalf. In addition to Rancière’s attempt to succinctly define what he calls the “artistic regimes” of art by critiquing terms such as “modernism” and “postmodernism,” he provides further commentary on his understanding of “positive contradictions,” universality, historicity, and hermeneutics. By the end of the book, Rancière has covered art’s relation to labor, technology, history, and truth – a rather large order for such a slender volume. And if that weren’t enough, Rockhill provides a glossary of technical terms and an extremely thorough bibliography of Rancière’s body of work, supplemented by a short afterward by Žižek. This volume serves as a necessary primer for readers new to Rancière’s thinking as it offers a solid framework through which the novice might tackle some of his more difficult volumes.

Interestingly, the timing could not have been better: with the publication of The Flesh of Words7 even the most rigorous readers will be in need of a useful companion. The Flesh of Words marks the first volume of Rancière’s thinking dedicated solely to the explication of literature. But as Rancière’s thought often makes ribbons of accepted disciplinary boundaries (is he invested in philosophy, or political theory, or ontology, or sociology, or literary criticism, or…?), he takes his cues from a variety of sources, settling finally on three discrete sections: “The Politics of the Poem,” “Theologies of the Novel,” and “The Literature of the Philosophers.” The resultant text finds Rancière reading Rimbaud’s “illegible” language of the body next to Deleuzian “becomings and haecceities”8 as egalitarian political theaters by which we might uncover complacencies and stage interventions into the consensual “policing” of the distribution of the sensible. Rancière writes,

This is the theater that will be at issue here, the way a text gives itself the body of its incarnation to escape the fate of the letter released into the world, to mime its own movement between the place of thought, or mind, of life, whence it comes, and the place toward which it heads: a sort of human theater where speech [parole] becomes action, takes possession of souls, leads bodies and gives rhythm to their walk. It will be a question of that superior imitation by which language tries to escape the deceptions of imitation. The theater initiated by Socrates’ stroll and Phaedrus’ walk is really that of the excursions of the word.9

Through a series of often oblique leaps, Rancière leads us from Wordsworth and Mandelstam, Balzac, Flaubert, and Proust, to Don Quixote, Althusser, Deleuze, and Melville. He thinks through the novel’s relationship to Scripture and the epic poem only to land on the notion of the island in relation to the book, all of this to think through how words become “flesh” – how they become recognizable as a “body” that dictates meaning. In a characteristically tortuous passage, Rancière writes, “Literature lives only by the separation of words in relation to any body that might incarnate their power. It lives only by evading the incarnation that it incessantly puts into play.”10 This manner of thinking is precisely why The Politics of Aesthetics is a necessary supplement to The Flesh of Words. In order to make sense of Rancière’s varying trajectories of thought, it is helpful to begin with a solid understanding of his terminology. The reader capable of distinguishing the “ethical regime of images” from the “aesthetic regime of art,” the reader capable of grasping “literarity” at first mention (a rather difficult concept that Rancière refers to in passing, defined in The Politics of Aesthetics as “the ‘orphan letter,’ where writing freely circulates without a legitimating system and thereby undermines the sensible coordinated of the representative regime of art”) will be in an infinitely more “egalitarian” position to grasp the difficult argument put forth in this book.

Rancière’s philosophy, in opposition to many of our recent ersatz commodities, more than stands up to the glut of interest his work is currently enjoying. His thinking is as rigorous as it is radical, and I have no doubt it will withstand the test of time as effortlessly as have his forebears Foucault and Deleuze. These companion volumes function as extraordinarily important hinges between Rancière’s political philosophy of the nineties and its current outcropping as aesthetic thinking in the present. As his highly anticipated volume on cinema, Film Fables (La Fable cinématographique), is fast on the way, readers of The Politics of Aesthetics and The Flesh of Words will have the appropriate tools to make sense of his unique vocabulary of concepts.

About the Author:
Michael Cross is a Doctoral Student in Poetics and Aesthetics, State University of New York at Buffalo, USA.


1 – See Rockhill’s introduction to Jacques Rancière. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. New York: Continuum, 2004.

2 – Stanford University Press. Originally published as La chair des mots: Politiques de l’écriture in 1998.

3 – Continuum. Originally Le Partage du sensible: Esthétique et politique, 2000.

4 – Jacques Rancière. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. New York: Continuum, 2004:12.

5 – Jacques Rancière. “Politics, Identification, and Subjectivization,” October 61: 59.

6 -Davide Panagia. “Dissenting Words: A Conversation with Jacques Rancière,” Diacritics 30:2:124.

7 – It is part of the Stanford University Press  “Atopia” Series (Edited by Judith Butler and Frederick Dolan).

8 – Jacques Rancière. The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004: 150.

9Ibid.: 4.

10Ibid.: 5.