Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator Chapter 3 ‘Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community’

In this chapter Rancière reflects on the ways in which contemporary art tries to intervene in everyday life. He is writing against a number of established schools of thought including those which suggest that literature provides messages which raise awareness/ consciousness in the reader (72) and arguments such as those produced about ‘critical art’ which suggested that seeing an image can make the viewer see things differently and so change their behaviour (74).

For Rancière, the way art can intervene is by changing the ‘distribution of the sensible’. The distribution of the sensible defines how human beings live together and so, by changing the distribution of the sensible, art has the potential to create new forms of expression of the community. In other words, art has the potential to intervene in politics by producing new forms of expression which reflect new ways of “being together”. He continues to remind us, however, that we cannot assume that what we see ‘could be read without ambiguity’ or that what we see will make is behave in a certain way (p.60). So, while art has this potential there is no guarantee what (if any) effect it might have.

Aesthetic experience can be political in so far as it opens up new ways of experiencing and understanding the world and the positions in it. It changes ‘the cartography of the perceptible, the thinkable and the feasible. As such it allows for new modes of political construction of common objects and new possibilities of collective enunciation’ (72). BUT Rancière cautions, this political effect does not override the initial argument in the chapter that there is no cause and effect relationship between what we see on stage and what we do.

A ‘community of sense’ (a term which calls to mind a very broadly defined version of Stanley Fish’s interpretive community) constitutes the work and a community of sense is supposed to result from it. (Presumably the emphasis here is on supposed because there are no longer any guarantees as to how audiences will respond).

‘Dissensus’, a key term in Rancière’s thinking, occurs when there is as “a conflict between two regimes of sense, two sensory worlds” (location 782). When the critic Wincklemann writes about the Belvedere Torso as an example of perfection in art thus changing the way it is perceived, Rancière identifies this ‘superimposition that transforms a given form or body into a new one’ as a ‘dissensual operation’ (66). Criticism, we can conclude, can be dissensual insomuch as it can superimpose new meanings onto the object of criticism thus creating a new distribution of the sensible that is at odds with the existing distribution.

The chapter opens and closes with two very interesting case studies. The first is about a project by French artists called Campement Urbain which, following consultation with residents of a Paris suburb, created the work I and Us. I and Us entailed the creation of a space for being alone as a way of reinforcing social bonds and preventing violence in the area. This project is connected to Mallarmé and Deleuze through its interest in being alone together as Rancière constructs a ‘surface’ to show that ‘What the artist does is to weave together a new sensory fabric by wresting percepts and affects from the perceptions and affects that make up the fabric of ordinary experience’ (Loc 744).

The chapter closes with discussion of Pedro Costa’s film In Vanda’s Room which, Rancière seems to suggest, pays attention to ‘the confrontation between a life [that of a group of ‘underdogs’] and its possibilities’ (80) and so, it ‘disrupts the way in which bodies fit their functions and destinations’ (72). However, we are soon reminded that the film cannot present the world from which it arises nor can it guarantee any outcomes. All it can do is ‘rework the frame of our perceptions and the dynamisn of our affects’ (82).

Rancière thus outlines in this chapter the extent and limits of the capacities of art (broadly defined) to intervene in society and politics.

Author: Dr Sarah Bowskill

Lecturer in Latin American Studies. Expertise in Mexican literary and digital cultural studies. Interested in the politics surrounding the reception, distribution and circulation of literature and cultural production particularly relating to gender studies.

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