Jacques Rancière (2004) The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible

Trans. and introd. Gabriel Rockhill. London and New York: Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-7067-X.

Sean Sayers

Jacques Rancière is one of the most important and original contemporary French philosophers. This book provides perhaps the best available introduction to his thought in English. It is a slim but densely packed little volume. Its main contents are two interviews with Rancière: one originally published in French in 2000, the other new for this edition. These are not the usual easily assimilated interview fare, it is difficult to imagine anyone actually speaking these words. They provide an extraordinarily concise and systematic summary by Rancière of the main themes of his recent work across its whole range. The interviews are sandwiched between an ‘Introduction’ by the translator and a typically lively and intelligent ‘Afterword’ by Slavoj Zizek, ‘The Lesson of Rancière’. There are also some useful editorial additions, including a Glossary of Technical Terms and a Bibliography of works by and about Rancière. My only complaint is that all this has been packed into a penny pot: the book is meanly produced with niggardly margins.

Rancière started as a structuralist Marxist in the 1960s. He is still probably best known in the English speaking world as one of the co-authors with Louis Althusser (and Étienne Balibar, Pierre Macherey, Roger Establet) of Lire le capital (1967). A part only of this work, not including the section by Rancière, was translated into English as Reading Capital (1970). Rancière broke with Althusser and structuralist Marxism after ‘the events’ of 1968. He criticised Althusser’s philosophy for its elitism and rejected the rigid and hierarchical distinction between science and ideology which it presupposed. He accused it of distrusting the spontaneous popular movements which had emerged in 1968 and of supporting a `politics of order’. He began to develop an oppositional and radical political philosophy which aims to give voice to an egalitarian politics of democratic emancipation.

Though he shares some common ground with others on the left who sought an alternative to Marxism in the aftermath of 1968, Rancière is a strikingly original and distinctive thinker. He rejects the Habermasian and liberal idea that politics consists of a rational debate between diverse interests. He also rejects the view that politics involves struggles between pre-established interest groups or classes. Political struggle occurs when the excluded seek to establish their identity, by speaking for themselves and striving to get their voices recognised as legitimate and heard. Politics is thus a struggle between the established social order and its excluded ‘part which has no part’. As Zizek says, Rancière’s philosophy spells out and articulates the aspirations expressed in the slogan of the unemployed in France in the 1970s: ‘we are not a surplus, we are a plus’ (75).

Since the early 1990s, Rancière’s work has increasingly focused on aesthetics. He has written a series of works on film and literature in which he stresses the political dimension of aesthetics, and a number of works of political theory in which he argues that an aesthetic dimension is inherent in politics.

The social order is what Rancière calls a ‘police order’. It is a set of implicit rules and conventions which determine the distribution of roles in a community and the forms of exclusion which operate within it. This order is founded on what Rancière calls the ‘distribution of the sensible’. This is one of his most suggestive and fruitful concepts. By it he is referring to the way in which roles and modes of participation in a common social world are determined by establishing possible modes of perception (in this context, ‘sensible’ refers to what is apprehended by the senses). Thus the distribution of the sensible sets the divisions between what is visible and invisible, sayable and unsayable, audible and inaudible. It functions like a Kantian categorial framework that determines what can be thought, made or done. Distribution implies both inclusion and exclusion. The social order is conceived as an anti-democratic, anti-political order, which attempts to maintain the existing pattern of inclusions and exclusions. Politics essentially involves opposition to the police order, a challenge to established order by the excluded, ‘the part which has no part’, in the name of equality and the attempt to bring about a reconfigeration of the distribution of the sensible. The social order is thus defined as an anti-political ‘police’ order, and politics is conceived as essentially oppositional.

On this account, aesthetics is central to politics. As the social and political system is founded on the distribution of the sensible, it is an aesthetic order in a broad sense of the term. Much of Rancière’s recent work has been devoted to delineating different historical forms that this has taken. He understands these as different aesthetic ‘regimes’: different forms of organisation encompassing forms of visibility, ways of doing and making, and ways of conceptualising these. He distinguishes three basic regimes of this kind: the ethical regime, the representative regime and the aesthetic regime. These form a historical sequence. However, there is no simple linear progression, and each continues to exist alongside the others. Earliest in the sequence is the ‘ethical regime of images’. The principles governing this are formulated by Plato in his criticism of artistic imitation in the Republic. As Rancière insists, Plato does not attack all forms of art, he values ‘true’ arts which lend support to the ethical principles of the community. The ‘representative regime of the arts’ is articulated in Aristotle’s critique of Plato. This frees the arts from the moral and political requirements of the ethical regime. Art becomes representational. A hierarchy of forms and subject matters develops. This regime is dominant until the nineteenth century, when it begins to be displaced by the ‘aesthetic regime of art’. The hierarchical order of the arts and their subject matters is done away with, the boundaries between different genres are broken down, ‘art in the singular’ comes into being and with it the subject of aesthetics.

Rancière develops a novel and thought provoking analysis of modernism on this basis. He challenges the traditional and familiar idea that artistic modernism arises from a rejection of representational techniques as superficial and confused. Modernism, correctly understood, Rancière asserts, is an egalitarian movement which radically alters the distribution of the sensible. This new regime is heralded by Schiller in On the Aesthetic Education of Man (23-4). It is first developed not in painting, as is usually thought, but in literature. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is Rancière’s main example. Its language is direct and simple. Its subject is not the court or the aristocracy but an ordinary provincial bourgeois doctor’s wife. This is an egalitarian form of writing which ‘honours the commonplace’ (33). Its words are available to all, they are not confined to a privileged group, they circulate ‘randomly’ (14). To illustrate the way in which the aesthetic regime challenged artistic divisions and hierarchies, Rancière cites the breaking down of the distinction between fine and decorative art by figures such as William Morris in the Arts and Crafts Movement at the end of nineteenth century and then by Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

This is just a brief overview of Rancière’s ideas. They are strikingly original and novel, which has both its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, his thought is constantly challenging and thought-provoking. On the other hand, it is hard to assimilate and incorporate. The attempt to rethink the relation of aesthetics and politics is fundamental to Rancière’s project. He conceives of modernism as a new ‘regime of art, but insists that this is not just an artistic development: it is a much broader social and political change, a radical reconfigeration of the distribution of the sensible. However, his analysis of modernism focuses almost entirely on specific artistic developments and particular works of art, such as Madame Bovary. Wider social and political changes are only gestured towards in vague and general terms.

Moreover, there is a puzzling discrepancy between these two levels of analysis (the artistic and the political). For example, it seems strange that Rancière should choose Flaubert as his paradigm of modernism. Although it is illuminating to see the nineteenth century realist novel as part of an egalitarian transformation, Flaubert, with his fastidious style and aristocratic attitudes, is not at the forefront of these developments. When Flaubert was writing a mass reading public was growing, but other authors were considerably more central to its development (Dickens, Zola, etc.). Since that time, other voices have made themselves heard and taken the process further. Black, beat, gay, and post-colonial literatures have emerged. Yet, even so, the extent to which modernist literature is a truly egalitarian phenomenon must be questioned. In none of these cases do the words of these writers ‘circulate randomly’. They are written for a cultured elite, they reach only an educated few. Should Flaubert’s work be criticised for that reason? It is not clear where Rancière stands on this question. The whole tendency of Rancière’s radical egalitarianism seems to point in that direction. Despite the fact it is Flaubert who is constantly invoked as a paradigm of modernist egalitarian writing, the main thrust of Rancière’s thought – his anarchistic condemnation of hierarchy, his critique expertise and mastery – seems to imply a rejection of writers like Flaubert for their elitism.

However, there is another attitude that can be taken to these issues. Two factors contribute to the unequal distribution of the sensible which is evident in modernist literature. On the one hand, there is the way in which these writers write. Rancière focuses on this aspect almost exclusively. But the existence and capacities of readers are also a factor. A new distribution of the sensible is not only a matter of excluded voices making themselves heard and starting to speak. It is not just a matter of the overcoming of social barriers which are preventing the excluded from speaking and creating new genres, etc. Before that, and as a condition for its possibility, people must have the capacity to speak. And for their voices to be heard, an audience must exist with the capacity to read and hear them. These are matters of capability and expertise; they imply skills which come into being only with education and culture. To transform the distribution of the sensible, these things too must be transformed. The liberation of the senses does not occur simply with the lifting of social barriers and exclusions, the senses must be educated if they are to be extended. This liberated vision has been the privilege of an educated elite, but it should not necessarily be criticised or rejected because of that. The alternative view is that it should be made universal. Everyone should be able to appreciate a Flaubert, to be a Flaubert. On this view what is needed is not only a change in literary form, but also an extension of education and expertise. This implies not just cultural but also material changes in society. Rancière does not take this view. As Zizek points out in the ‘Afterword’, in common with much recent work in cultural theory Rancière focuses almost exclusively on the cultural sphere, on questions of literary and artistic form.

Rancière’s project is promising. It is illuminating to see aesthetics as political and politics in aesthetic terms, as a form of the ‘distribution of the sensible’. This approach need not necessarily be anti-materialist (it is not clear whether or not Zizek is criticising it in those terms). However, to avoid idealism, it is essential to see that aesthetic transformation involves not only a change of consciousness but also material social changes. This is the implication of the aesthetic philosophy of Schiller, whom Rancière is fond of invoking. Schiller’s ‘aesthetic education’, at least on one interpretation, is a process of radical transformation designed to restore individual self-realisation in a harmonious community of the kind which Schiller imagined had existed in ancient Greece. This form of thinking is inherited and developed by Marx in his idea of the ‘liberation of the senses’ of the unalienated individual in an unalienated community (Marx, 1975). Rancière’s notion of the distribution of the sensible needs to be read in concrete and materialist terms such as these if it is to avoid the charge of idealism and bear comparison with these illustrious antecedents.


Althusser, L. (1967) Lire Le Capital. Paris: Maspero.

Althusser, L. & Balibar, E. (1970) Reading Capital. Trans. B. Brewster. London: NLB.

Marx, K. (1975) ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844’, in Early Writings. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 279-400.

Schiller, F. (1967) On the Aesthetic Education of Man. Trans. E.M. Wilkinson and L.A. Willoughby. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Sean Sayers is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kent, UK. He has written extensively on topics of Hegelian and Marxist philosophy. His books include Plato’s Republic: An Introduction (1999), Marxism and Human Nature (1998), Reality and Reason (1985), and Hegel, Marx and Dialectic (1980, reprinted 1994). He was one of the founding editors of Radical Philosophy, and of `The Marx and Philosophy Society’. He is currently working on a book on theories of alienation and self-realisation in Marx and Hegel. Sean Sayers’ website: