Ranciere on Life

I finished Jacques Ranciere’s newest book Aisthesis the other day, and I wanted to get a few notes out about the way that Ranciere thinks about the concept of life in the book.


If you’re familiar with Ranciere (and if you’re not get a primer here) you know that he generally writes about a singular phenomenon: the distribution of the sensible. In simple language, this is the organization of what is understood as seeable or experientially available to (almost always humans) in the world. For example, the way that European and North American liberal democracies have decided that rights-based discourse, reason, and democracy are all key human values and have agreed to only work within those frameworks is the contemporary distribution of the sensible. When these things are working smoothly, it is business as usual; you vote, to reform institutions, you make the machine work cleaner.

In our day-to-day discourse, we would call the act of voting “politics.” In our contemporary world, that is the way that we do politics. However, Ranciere reserves that word for a radical disruption of the distribution of the sensible–for him, politics isn’t voting; it is abolishing prisons or abolishing private property or freeing primates from the zoo. What is political is what breaks us away from what we think are the possibilities of the world. It gives us new ways of framing everything.

Aisthesis is a book about the distribution of the sensible in the art world, particularly how it was created during the Modern period. More importantly, each chapter picks a specific moment in that time period and “reads” it through its politics; what breaks occurred and why and what happened to the distribution of the sensible because of that.

All of that is well and good, but if you read your Ranciere you’ll notice that he’s a little bit cagey about setting up stable terminology or concepts. He has big, commanding themes that are expressed in his major words on education, the political, and representation. However, inside of these works you find him just sort of flailing around. I don’t mean that he’s out of control, but rather that Ranciere’s language often feels like a grab bag of concepts that are rarely attached to a specificity. They are used in service to the larger point and then we’ve abandoned them in the next book, essay, chapter, or even on the following page.

I care about the concept of life. When the word shows up on a page, I perk up, and when I saw it in the introduction to Aisthesis I flipped to the index and I saw that there was actually an entry for the term. I got excited.

What I came out the other end with is that “life” is shorthand for the force that allows for politics to occur. I’ve always had a very hard time dealing with Ranciere’s anthropocentrism, and here’s the root of it: “life” is human life because it is through the human the politics occurs. I can’t help but think that this is just some shortsighted, willful ignorance on Ranciere’s part. When Topsy kills her trainer and sets into motion a bizarre chain of events, that’s politics–the world changed around her. It might have been for the worst, but it did change.

So “life” is a word for the force of change in the world, the motor of difference, which brings Ranciere strangely close to the Deleuzian uptake of Bergson.

Here are some choice quotations:

Life is not without reason. It incessantly creates thoughts that are in search of their formulation and gestures that have not yet become singular. – 168

and I think “chance” is a synonym for “life” here

It is by focusing on each part of the surface of each object, on the quality of each sensible event, that we can grasp this conjunction of art and chance that raises the clothing of the poor, the body wearing it, and the hand that mended it to the height of the sun and the stars. – 254

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2 Responses to Ranciere on Life

  1. Ethan Gach says:

    Perhaps this is overly simple of me, but the existence of social structures in non-human groups would seem to suggest that the disruption necessary for politics is not exclusive, but exists to varying degrees as a possibility for all biological groups.

    • kunzelman says:

      The underlying concept is probably Spinoza’s conatus, which is super duper anthopocentric, and Ranciere is clear that the engine of politics is always humans. It is always “to us” “for us.” I agree with you, and that’s obviously where my thinking goes, but Ranciere doesn’t think so.

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