My paragraphs and emphases. Way to start an essay, Rancière.
How should we understand the syntagm of my title? Obviously it is not a question of claiming that politics or knowledge must take on an aesthetic dimension or that they have to be grounded in sense, sensation, or sensibility. It is not even a question of stating that they are grounded in the sensible or that the sensible is political as such. What aesthetics refers to is not the sensible. Rather, it is a certain modality, a certain distribution of the sensible. This expression can be understood, at least initially, by turning to the text that has framed the space of aesthetics, though the term was never used there as a substantive. I mean, of course, Kant’s Critique of Judgment, which I will use as a guiding thread in the construction of a tentatively more comprehensive concept of aesthetics. For now I only wish to draw from this text the three basic elements that make up what I call a distribution of the sensible.
First, there is something given, a form that is provided by sense—for instance, the form of a palace as described in section two of Kant’s text. Second, the apprehension of this form is not only a matter of sense; rather, sense itself is doubled. The apprehension puts into play a certain relation between what Kant calls faculties: between a faculty that offers the given and a faculty that makes something out of it. For these two faculties the Greek language has only one name, aesthesis, the faculty of sense, the capacity to both perceive a given and make sense of it.
Making sense of a sense given, Kant tells us, can be done in three ways.Two of the three ways define a hierarchical order.
In the first of these, the faculty of signification rules over the faculty that conveys sensations; the understanding enlists the services of imagination in order to subordinate the sense given. This is the order of knowledge. This order defines a certain view of the palace; the palace is seen as the achievement of an idea imposed on space and on raw materials, as in a plan drafted by an architect. This plan itself is appreciated according to its suitability for the ends of the building.
In the second way of making sense, in contrast, the faculty of sensation takes command over the faculty of knowledge. This is the law of desire. This law views the palace as an object of pride, jealousy, or disdain.
There is a third way of looking at the palace, a way that sees it and appreciates it neither as an object of knowledge nor as an object of desire. In this case, neither faculty rules over the other; the either/or no longer works. The two faculties agree with each other without any kind of subordination. The spectator may think that the magnificence of the palace is sheer futility; he may oppose its pomp and vanity to the misery of the poor or the sweat of the workers who built it for low wages. But this is not the point. What is at stake here is the specificity of a distribution of the sensible that escapes the hierarchical relationship between a high faculty and a low faculty, that is, escapes in the form of a positive neither/nor.
Let us summarize the three points. First, a distribution of the sensible means a certain configuration of the given. Second, this configuration of the given entails a certain relation of sense and sense. That may be conjunctive or disjunctive. The relation is conjunctive when it obeys a certain order of subordination between faculties, a certain manner of playing the game according to established rules. It is disjunctive when the relationship between faculties has no rule. Third, the conjunction or disjunction is also a matter of hierarchy. Either there is a hierarchy between the faculties, which may be overturned, or there is no hierarchy, in which case there is a faculty whose proper power stems from the rejection of the hierarchical relation. This rejection of the hierarchical relation between the faculties that make sense involves a certain neutralization of the social hierarchy.