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Communities of Sense: Rethinking Aesthetics and Politics

reviewed by Tyson E. Lewis - December 15, 2009

coverTitle: Communities of Sense: Rethinking Aesthetics and Politics
Author(s): Beth Hinderliter, Vered Maimon, Jaleh Mansoor, and Seth McCormick (eds.)
Publisher: Duke University Press, Durham
ISBN: 0822345137, Pages: 384, Year: 2009
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The edited volume entitled Communities of Sense: Rethinking Aesthetics and Politics is a provocative and wide ranging exploration of Jacques Ranciere’s (2006) controversial assertion that “politics is aesthetic in principle” (p. 58).  Although focusing largely on the discipline of art history, Communities also has a broad appeal for those interested in the connections between aesthetic philosophy, social theory, and art practices.  Bookended with provocative essays by Ranciere and Etienne Balibar, the collection offers new insights into contemporary art, aesthetic theory, global citizenship, postcolonialism, architecture, and film studies.  Just as Ranciere’s own writings encourage interdisciplinary hybridization that challenge canonical divisions between disciplines, so too the form of Communities embodies this fundamental political and scholarly commitment.  

For the North American audience, Ranciere has recently become something of an academic superstar.  With celebrated publications such as The Politics of Aesthetics, Hatred of Democracy, The Future of the Image, and The Emancipated Spectator, Ranciere’s work has found new readership with U.S. audiences interested not only in Post-Marxist thought but also cultural studies, literary criticism, political theory, and educational philosophy. Although his books traverse a variety of fields, there is a surprising continuity of themes uniting his endeavors, including a commitment to rethinking concepts such as emancipation, democracy, and aesthetics.  While distancing himself significantly from his former teacher Althusser, in certain ways Ranciere’s polemical style recalls a central tenet of Althusser’s work: philosophy is a political weapon.  It is his passionate and intellectually rigorous defense of democracy against neoliberalism that makes Ranciere’s project so compelling to those on the left searching for new models of emancipation and resistance that move beyond the aproias and constitutive failures of Marxism as well as the empty promises of liberalism.  Communities attests to Ranciere’s pervasive impact in the humanities and social sciences and the ongoing endurance of his fundamental theoretical gesture.  Yet the collection is more than simply a tribute to a major philosophical figure.  Often the essays enrich our understanding of Ranciere’s fundamental insights in surprising ways, while also offering trajectories of research that lead beyond Ranciere.  

Although widely divergent in terms of content, all the essays in Communities take up—either directly or indirectly—the challenge that Ranciere’s thought presents.  Summarized in the introduction to the volume, the editors write, “The task of art today is not to make the invisible visible through the recontextualization of given information, but to reconfigure the visible and its spectacular economies in a way that reconfigures society’s current division into parties and disrupts the distribution of social roles” (p. 11).  In other words, aesthetic thought is not simply a depoliticized philosophy of art, or the elite justification for hierarchies of taste.  Following Ranciere’s fundamental insights into the politics of aesthetics, the essays collected here argue that all communities make conscious or unconscious aesthetic commitments to certain ways of seeing, hearing, and organizing the sensible world.  

In Ranciere’s contribution to Communities, he argues that aesthetic theory includes both a theory of art (its particular historical forms) as well as the diverse forms in which the organization of the sensible (what can be seen and heard) is disrupted or disorganized by those who were previously excluded.  Quoting Ranciere, “The relationship between art and politics is more precisely a relationship between aesthetics of politics and the politics of aesthetics” (p. 32).  The aesthetics of politics and the politics of aesthetics is the mixing, hybridizing moment when the division of the sensible is ruptured/interrupted by the sudden articulation of a wrong or of an antagonistic disagreement that was previously silenced, marginalized, or barred from the public.  Ranciere summarizes: “…aesthetics meant the collapse of the system of constraints and hierarchies that constituted the representational regime of art…. Aesthetics [also meant] that kind of equality that went along with the beheading of the King of France and the sovereignty of the people” (p. 36-37).  The deep relation between aesthetics and politics is, for Ranciere, clearly represented by Friedrich Schiller’s model aesthetic state where play represents a creative tension between reason and sense, individual and community.  Rather than collapse art into life (German Idealism) or separate art from life through a negative dialectic (the Frankfurt School), Ranciere proposes—apropos Schiller’s aesthetic community—that “critical art” stages the antagonism between appearance and reality, reason and sensibility.  Without referencing Schiller’s theory of aesthetic play, Ranciere’s depiction of critical art as a form of “dialectical collision or dissensus” between two divergent “politics of sensoriality” (p. 42) could be seen as a rethinking of the play-drive not as a harmonious mediation/neutralization of antagonism but rather as the aesthetic ground for freedom and equality.  Using his definition of critical or political art as a normative category, Ranciere completes his essay with an overview of de-politicizing trends in contemporary art, including the rise of the joke, the centrality of the collection, and the relational aesthetics of invitation.  While one might be critical of Ranciere’s reductive presentation of the contemporary art scene, as well as his rather dismissive criticism of complex theoretical categories such as the joke (one can think here of Paulo Virno’s recent work on joke telling and critical thinking), nevertheless, Ranciere’s topography is a useful entry point for thinking differently about current trends, an entry point that will undoubtedly create its own forms of dissensus and disagreement.

Other essays in the collection offer new vantage points for rethinking or repositioning Ranciere’s work within a series of political and aesthetic debates.  In a particularly interesting essay written by Toni Ross, Ranciere’s notion of an antagonistic community is connected to a new theory of the beautiful sublime.  Opposed to classical notions of beauty as the harmony and symmetry of parts within a whole, Ross argues that photographers such as Louise Lawler create a beauty of the remnant, the no-count, the excess that exists as a surplus of the organically integrated whole.  Pairing Ranciere’s theory of dissensus with Eric Santner’s psychoanalytic interpretation of the remnant, Ross persuasively theorizes a new postclassical notion of the beautiful sublime.  In Lawler’s deceptively simple photographs of the interplay between art objects and specific architectural interiors/institutional locations, Ross finds the figuration of the excess or remnant that divides the community against itself and thus ruptures the harmony and balance of classical standards of beauty.  The political implications of Ross’s reading are clear: liberal notions of consensus are predicated on an unconscious aesthetic commitment to beauty that ultimately excludes more than it includes.  

Likewise, Ranjana Khanna’s contribution to Communities offers a critique of identity, self, and belonging through a postcolonial reading of Mona Hatoum’s haunting sculptures and installation/performance pieces.  Tracing a genealogy of the concept of sensus communis through the work of Shaftesbury, Vico, and Kant, Khanna argues that there is a consistent reliance on metaphor and visualization to produce a theory of community and identity.  Hatoum’s artwork on the other hand generates a sense of community that is predicated on demetaphorization, disidentification, and displacement—all of which are the opposites of the metaphorical grounding of community in presence and identification.  Connecting Khanna’s reading of Hatoum’s postcolonial interpretation of a community in exile with Ross’s reading of Lawler’s postclassical aesthetic, we can clearly see the urgent need for an aesthetic of the beautiful sublime open to the possibility of neighboring the remnant, the no-count, the foreigner that disrupts communities of sense.  

The set of essays written by T.J. Demos, David Joselit, and Reinhold Martin all rethink the relation between aesthetics, community, and the spatial inscription of identity.  Against the commodification of art objects and the institutionalization of aesthetic theory and practice, Demos demonstrates the disruptive politics of Dada in the 1920’s, which critically questioned the distinctions between everyday life versus reified art objects and between public space versus the privileged, elite space of the art gallery.  Similarly Joselit attempts to find contemporary forms of critical art that disrupt the partitioning of the sensible found in suburban architecture.  Urging art historians to take seriously the forms of visibility introduced by suburban landscaping, Joselit pinpoints the political ramifications of the gated community—“Inhabiting a readymade lifestyle requires strict limitations on one’s sensorium, as well as one’s politics” leading to a form of “segregation” that amounts to “class apartheid” (p. 155).  The only model of citizenship available in such communities is organized in terms of three types of visibility: the reduction of self to image within a surveillance economy, identification of self as a prefabricated, market-driven identity, or the parceling out of class differences through the strict division of neighborhoods into housing tracts.  In opposition to the hypermedia construction of “citizen cursor,” Joselit finds new forms of visualization in the artist Pierre Huyghe’s installation entitled “Streamside Day Follies” that break with the partitioning of the sensible found in suburban life and open up new spaces for thinking about the connections between visibility and community beyond the neoliberal emphasis on possession and property.  Finally, Martin’s unique contribution traces the historical shifts in the corporate architecture of Union Carbide.  Martin uncovers a contradiction within transnational capitalist ideology which speaks to an interest in “the people” while simultaneously reducing a surprising number of opponents to nothing more than what Giorgio Agamben would describe as “bare life.”  

The last group of essays gathered under the title “The Limits of Community” wrestle with the limits of consensus or liberal politics in light of globalization and postcolonial, post-Soviet diasporic movements of refugees and immigrants.  “Experimental Communities” by Carlos Basualdo and Reinaldo Laddaga and “Precarite, Autorite, Autonomie” by Rachel Haidu examine the “experimental communities” of artists such as Thomas Hirschhorn whose challenging collaborative projects cross boundaries to produce new forms of “being-in-common.”  In his analysis of Jasper John’s Star, Seth McCormick demonstrates the complexity of the relationship between homosexual politics and two aesthetics of visibility: victimhood and responsibility.  Laboring under McCarthyism, artists found a way to express homosexual identity through an identification with the “bare life” of Jews under Nazism.  Yet by creating this parallel, the artists inadvertently “carried the risk of complicity in the very techniques of visual identification and control by which these same groups were reduced to bare life” (p. 258).  If there is an attempt in John’s Star to embody a more activist form of political identity oriented toward responsibility, it nevertheless emerges against the backdrop of victimization.  Thus Johns, Rachel Rosenthal, and Robert Rauschenberg and others sought in their art to form a new community of sense through a disidentification with persecutory identities.  Yates McKee’s close reading of film stills from Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera also uncovers moments when a visual remnant suddenly de-completes or renders inoperative communities of sense that define “the people.”  In a crucial moment in Vertov’s film where the external audience and the internal audience depicted in the movie coincide in a space of pure immanence, there is a violent “arrhythmic intensity, a black surface” (p. 273) that short-circuits the community—challenging the secular humanism of the Communist avant-garde.  In other words, Vertov’s films introduce the beautiful sublime in the harmony and balance of the organic community.  Finally, Emily Apter’s essay attempts to think through the ethics of the beautiful sublime, and argues for a new ethical militancy that does not topple into terrorism or militarization.  Focusing on Gorin and Godard’s iconic film Ici et ailleurs and Guyotat’s controversial novel of bestiality and brutal sex Eden, Eden, Eden, Apter examines the moment in which militancy transforms into a dangerous form of terror.  Yet these examples do not teach us to avoid vigilant forms of activism, rather they call forth the need for a new form of ethical practice that Apter finds in Nancy, Badiou, and Ranciere.  

In conclusion, Etienne Balibar’s interview summarizes many of the themes found in Communities.  Positioning his work in relation to Ranciere’s political and aesthetic theories, Balibar focuses on the aesthetic dimension of the politics of civility which functions by “changing the social conditions of perception” (p. 319).  We could argue that Balibar’s politics of civility is an attempt to fend off the violence and terrorism explored by Apter’s essay while at the same time staying true to the dissensus of Ranciere’s militant activism.  Repositioning many of the debates concerning community, identity, and belonging found in the essays in this collection in terms of transnational politics and cosmopolitics, Balibar summarizes, “Perhaps we could say that this is the core of the art of politics, inasmuch as it is centered on the democratic invention of forms and practices of citizenship to come: combining a recognition of the multiplicity of collective identities, and of the plasticity of mass formations, with an awareness of the unfinished process of the institution of rights” (p. 330).

While Communities creates new connections between art practices, politics, and emancipation, there is nevertheless a key oversight of the collection as a whole—a sustained reflection on the relations between education and aesthetic dissensus.  Ranciere’s work such as The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation clearly connects aesthetics not only to politics but also to “universal teaching.”  In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Ranciere posits the artist as the true embodiment of universal teaching (the ability of anyone to teach anything) over and above the stultifying power of the professor (which is based on a hierarchy of intelligences).  Racine is cited as a model teacher precisely because his genius lies in “having not believed himself superior to those he was speaking to” (Ranciere, 1991, p. 70) thus encouraging the verification of his work through the active translation and counter-translation of the audience.  In fact, to understand the lesson of education for emancipation, Ranciere (1991) turns his back on grammarians and orators (who only want to command) and instead looks toward the poet for the true lesson of universal teaching: “equality and intelligence are equal terms” (p. 73).  Although in Ranciere’s The Politics of Aesthetics and The Future of the Image this connection is not directly addressed, his most recent book The Emancipated Spectator foregrounds the relation between aesthetics, politics, and pedagogy.  Ranciere argues that there is a fundamental symmetry between the problem of the spectator and the student.  In both cases there is the assumption of a foundational passivity that must be overcome through activity.  Thus, in terms of the spectator, passive viewing must be overcome by active participation (as in Artaud or Brecht’s logic of the theater), and in terms of the student, ignorance must be overcome by knowledge.  Yet there is a contradiction at the heart of these self-proclaimed “emancipatory” models: the artist and the teacher “can only reduce the distance on condition that he [sic] constantly re-creates it” (Ranciere, 2009, p. 8).  According to Ranciere, both the radical aesthetic practices of Brecht and the progressive intentions of the teacher start from the assumption of inequality or mystification and thus the first lesson taught is the dichotomy of ignorance and intelligence, passive acceptance and active resistance.  Thus re-thinking the relations between spectator and spectacle and student and teacher revolve around a new understanding of emancipation that does not assume preexisting, hierarchical dichotomies between passivity and activity, ignorance and knowledge.  Ranciere (2009) concludes that emancipation begins with a challenge to such oppositions, asserting, “The spectator also acts, like the pupil or the scholar.  She observes, selects, compares, interprets” (p. 13).  Both the ignorant schoolmaster and the critical artist must therefore redistribute the sensible that defines community.

Yet, the essays in Communities largely ignore the pedagogy of aesthetics and the aesthetics of pedagogy.  Thus much of the secondary literature on Ranciere repeats a hierarchical division of the sensible which privileges scholarly/artistic work (as active presentation) over teaching (as passive re-presentation).  There is one exception to this trend: the essay on experimental communities by Carlos Basualdo and Reinaldo Laddaga.  In their analysis of Thomas Hirschhorn’s work, the authors clearly understand the educational connection between critical aesthetics and the beautiful sublime.  In discussing Hirschhorn’s Bataille Monument, Basualdo and Laddaga argue that the piece is “specifically meant to be the occasion for the development of a particular type of learning process…” (p. 205) that ruptures the distribution of the sensible, demarking who can speak and think.  Experimental communities underline the connections between politics and aesthetics and pedagogy.  Reconnecting the disconnected ties between the aesthetics of politics and the aesthetics of pedagogy is an important project which Communities only briefly alludes to.  Perhaps Balibar’s concluding remarks can be taken as a challenge to those interested in this educational problematic.  In a final turn toward the theme of utopia (as a community to come), art, and mass movements, Balibar states: “There are many concrete domains of social and political practice, from ecology to urbanism to pedagogy, where this endless confrontation with utopia is inevitable” (p. 336).  If this collection of essays clearly examines the complexity and ambiguity of utopian dreams for alternative notions of community, urban spaces, and political practices, it does not adequately address the connections between utopia and pedagogy.  Thus, to carry on the work of Communities of Sense, we must return to Ranciere’s original insight and realize that questions of pedagogy are urgent and central for rethinking the connections between politics, art, and community.


Ranciere, J. (2009).  The emancipated spectator.  London: Verso.

Ranciere, J. (2006).  The politics of aesthetics.  London: Continuum.

Ranciere, J. (1991).  The ignorant schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 15, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15873, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 5:45:45 PM

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About the Author
  • Tyson Lewis
    Montclair State University
    E-mail Author
    TYSON E. LEWIS is an assistant professor of educational philosophy at Montclair State University. His research interests include aesthetics, critical pedagogy, biopolitics, and critical theory in education. Recently, his work has appeared in journals such as Educational Theory, Studies in Philosophy of Education, Journal of Philosophy of Education, Theory and Event, Historical Materialism, and Rethinking Marxism. He is also completing a book manuscript entitled Education Out of Bounds: Reimagining Cultural Studies for a Posthumanist Age (Palgrave).
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