My sense of Ranciere’s aesthetic theory is that it curiously both overvalues and devalues the field. At one level, aesthetics is associated with the ‘distribution of the sensible’ – the social regimes of sense that structure our capacity to experience the world (to hear, see, touch, taste and smell it). In this manner aesthetics obtain a fundamental political dimension. It shapes our underlying political affordances – our capacity for political intervention and self-determination: so that only those voices that can be heard matter, only those images that can be seen, only those modes of experience that can gain sympathetic currency. At another level, however, aesthetics is understood more narrowly as representing the particular modern, complex, knotted configuration of art, with all its awkward efforts to both erase the difference from ordinary life and to set itself utterly apart. Ranciere shifts then between a general philosophical notion of aesthetics and a specific historically informed conception of the contradictory space of contemporary art. It is in the difficult relation between these two concepts of aesthetics – and in an effort to link them together – that Ranciere ultimately restricts the aesthetic, like the political, to moments when something definitely happens, when the current regime of sensibility is unsettled and redistributed. There is everywhere the ‘primary’ aesthetic of a distribution of the sensible and innumerable examples of contemporary art, but only the occasional moment when the aesthetic takes shape as a significant event – a meta-political event that reshapes the conditions of sensible experience.
So aesthetics is peculiarly cast – it obtains a very broad sway, but only obtains vibrant identity in its uncertain irruptive moments. Which makes me wonder about all of those other moments, all of those other times when the aesthetic is sleeping. Is it bound up in nothing more than reinforcing existing regimes? Does the aesthetic have another mode, in which like a blanket it covers over everything, keeping all our senses warm without allowing them any freedom? Or is there a more positive possibility? Could it be, for instance, that there is no clear line between obedience and resistance? Could it be that the sensible is constantly being redistributed and that their are multiple modes of redistribution – not all of them violent or evident in terms of rupture? Could it be that there is no iron clad regime of the sensible – that the sensible is more open and pervious than Ranciere envisages? More specifically, it seems to me that art is as much about care, repetition and maintenance as it is about resistance. Prior to modern society, the fundamental problem was less of mobilising change than of holding on to the past. Things quite simply disappeared unless there were cultural methods set in place to deliberately retain them. A great deal of art and aesthetics is better explained within the context of shaping contexts and forms of experience that manifest and reinforce continuity, than in terms of ‘dissensus’ and disruption. While Ranciere acknowledges this in defining an earlier ‘ethical regime of art’ that has a focus on social cohesion and integration, he nonetheless still associates the aesthetic proper with moments of rupture. In this manner, the ethical regime is positioned as pre-aesthetic. My point is that rather than making a historical, periodic delineation, it may be better to seek out the ‘ethical’ within contemporary art – not only in affirmative art, not only in the art that is not properly ‘aesthetic’, but also within the art of rupture. What is it, after all, that moments of sensible redistribution demonstrate if not, very often, a ground of experience that the modern world undermines and threatens? Beneath gestures of aesthetic radicalism, there are often profoundly conservative motives. ‘Conservative’ in the best sense of the word.