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In The Politics of Aesthetics Ranciere remarks,

I call the distribution of the sensible the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it. A distribution of the sensible therefore establishes at one and the same time something common that is shared and exclusive parts. This apportionment of parts and positions is based on a distribution of spaces, times, and forms of activity that determines the very manner in which something common lends itself to participation and in what way various individuals have a part in this distribution. Aristotle states that a citizen is someone who has a part in the act of governing and being governed. However, another form of distribution precedes this act of partaking in government: the distribution that determines those who have a part in the community of citizens…. There is thus an ‘aesthetics’ at the core of politics that has nothing to do with Benjamin’s discussion of the ‘aesthetization of politics’ specific to the ‘age of the masses’…. It is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visibile and the invisible, speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the places and the stakes of politics as a form of experience. Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time. (12-13)

A few pages earlier, Gabriel Rockhill clarifies what Ranciere is getting at:

The police, to begin with, is defined as an organizational system of coordinates that establishes a distribution of the sensible or a law that divides the community into groups, social positions, and functions. This law implicitly separates those who take part from those who are excluded, and it therefore presupposes a prior aesthetic division between the visible and the invisible, the audible and the inaudible, the sayable and the unsayable. The essence of politics consists in interrupting the distribution of the sensible by supplementing it with those who have no part in the perceptual coordinates of the community, thereby modifying the very aesthetico-political field of possibility… Moreover, politics in the strict sense never presupposes a reified subject or predefined group of individuals such as the proletariat, the poor, or minorities. On the contrary, the only possible subject of politics is the people or the demos, i.e., the supplementary part of every account of the population. Those who have no name, who remain invisible and inaudible, can only penetrate the police order via a mode of subjectivization that transforms the aesthetic coordinates of the community by implementing the universal presupposition of politics: we are all equal. Democracy itself is defined by these intermittent acts of political subjectivization that reconfigure the communal distribution of the sensible. However, just as equality is not a goal to be attained but a presupposition in need of constant verification, democracy is neither a form of government nor a style of social life. (3)

It seems to me that Ranciere’s understanding of the “distribution of the sensible” here goes far beyond his preoccupation of politics, converging in a number of interesting ways with Deleuze’s project of formulating a “transcendental empiricism”. Indeed, in addition to its political and ethical interest, the idea of a distribution of the sensible goes to the heart of a number of issues in metaphysics and epistemology. Throughout the history of philosophy there has been a prejudicial tendency to oppose the realm of sensibility to that of reason or understanding. As Deleuze puts it with respect to Kant,

This first beyond already constitutes a kind of Transcendental Aesthetic. If this aesthetic appears more profound to us than that of Kant, it is for the following reasons: Kant defines the passive self in terms of simple receptivity, thereby assuming sensations already formed, then merely relating these to the a priori forms of their representation which are determined as space and time. In this manner, not only does he unify the passive self by ruling out the possibility of composing space step by step, not only does he deprive this passive self of all power of synthesis (synthesis being reserved for activity), but moreover he cuts the Aesthetic into two parts: the objective element of sensation guaranteed by space and the subjective element which is incarnate in pleasure and pain. The aim of the preceding analyses, on the contrary, has been to show that receptivity must be defined in terms of the formation of local selves or egos, in terms of the passive syntheses of contemplation or contraction, thereby accounting simultaneously for the possibility of experiencing sensations, the power of reproducing them and the value that pleasure assumes as a principle. (Difference and Repetition, 98)

There is a tendency in discussions of Deleuze to assimilate his transcendental empiricism to classical Humean empiricism, where sensations are given as already pre-formed and it is simply a question of relating sensations to one another according to Hume’s principles of association. For example, in his book Multiplicity and Becoming: The Pluralist Empiricism of Gilles Deleuze, Patrick Hayden writes that, “This is perhaps Deleuze’s most significant proposition regarding transcendental empiricism: nonconceptual empirical difference is the necessary condition immanent within actual experience” (16). This reading of Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism can be traced back to Bruce Baugh’s two influential essays “Deleuze and Empiricism” and “Transcendental Empiricism: Deleuze’s Response to Hegel”. The problem with this reading is that 1) it is unable to respond to Hegel’s critique of sense-certainty in The Phenomenology of Perception, thereby opening transcendental empiricism to all the ruses of the dialectic, and 2) it presupposes that sensations or impressions are given ready-made, thereby ignoring Deleuze’s own ambition of accounting for the genesis of sensations themselves. As Deleuze puts it,

The sensed quality is indistinguishable from the contraction of elementary excitations, but the object perceived implies a contraction of cases such that one quality may be read in the other, and a structure in which the form of the object allies itself with the quality at least as an intentional part. However, in the order of constituent passivity, perceptual syntheses refer back to organic syntheses which are like the sensibility of the senses; they refer back to a primary sensibility that we are. We are made of contracted water, earth, light and air– not merely prior to the recognition or representation of these, but prior to their being sensed. Every organism, in its receptive and perceptual elements, but also in its viscera, is a sum of contractions, of retentions and expectations. At the level of this primary vital sensibility, the lived present constitutes a past and a future in time. Need is the manner in which this future appears, as the organic form of expectation. The retained past appears in the form of cellular heredity. Furthermore, by combining with the perceptual syntheses built upon them, these organic syntheses are redeployed in the active synthesis of a psycho-organic memory and intelligence (instinct and learning)… All of this forms a rich domain of signs which always envelop heterogeneous elements and animate behaviour. Each contraction, each passive synthesis, constitutes a sign which is interpreted or deployed in active synthesis. The signs by which an animal “senses” water do not resemble the thirsty organism lacks. (73)

When Deleuze refers to a “sensibility of the senses”, he is not referring to sensations, but rather to the real conditions for the possibility of sensation. That is, what are the conditions or processes by which this domain of sensibility is generated. I do not encounter the world through sonar, nor can I hear the world like a cat, nor do I smell the world like a dog. All of these fields of sensibility are the result of specific individuations that create their own unique universes of retention and expectation. When Deleuze refers to a passive synthesis as opposed to an active synthesis, he seeks to underline that these syntheses are not actively carried out by the mind or will. “Although it is constitutive it is not, for all that, active. It is not carried out by the mind, but occurs in the mind…” (71). Sensation or sensibility is not supplemented from above by categories (as in Kant) that would hold for all possible universes, but instead have their own immanent logos or structure of relations pertaining to the field of engagement characterizing the being in question. If we are led to miss this domain of the transcendental aesthetic, then this is because in our engagement with the world, this domain of the transcendental is surpassed in favor of the signs constituted by the pre-individual field out of which sensibility becomes capable of sensing.

Deleuze is not, of course, reducing all sensibility to the domain of “vital sensibility” or the biological. As he puts it, “We must therefore distinguish not only the forms of repetition in relation to passive synthesis but also the levels of passive synthesis and the combinations of these levels with one another” (73). These levels would include the biological (as understood by contemporary evolutionary theory), the life of the individual in its ongoing individuation or unfurling, and in relation to the social, political, and historical milieu in which the individual is individuated or comes to be. For instance, in Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari take great pains to show how the Oedipal structure is always open to a much broader social, political, and historical milieu wherein parents function as conduits or “transistors” in relation to the developing child. There is nothing, for example, that is specifically familial about language.

The question of aesthetics thus turns out to be far broader than that of art. Aesthetics has tended to be treated as a marginal or “ghetto” discipline within philosophy, remote from the “big questions” of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics. Yet, prior to any inquiry into these fields, the objects of these fields must first be given. Traditionally aesthetics has been understood to refer to the theory of the beautiful and, more recently, questions of what constitutes art. In the Kant of the first Critique, aesthetics is treated rigorously in terms of its etymology as aisthesis, and refers to the domain of sensibility. For Kant there is thus a “transcendental aesthetic”, or the pure, a priori, forms of sensibility or space and time, and an empirical aesthetic referring to the various sensations that populate sensibility such as the various feels, sounds, tastes, and smells we encounter in space and time. Deleuze proposes to unite these two senses of the aesthetic so as to account for the very production of sensibility in a “distribution of the sensible”:

No wonder… that aesthetics should be divided into two irreducible domains: that of the theory of the sensible which captures only the real’s conformity with possible experience; and that of the theory of the beautiful, which deals with the reality of the real in so far as it is thought. Everything changes once we determine the conditions of real experience, which are not larger than the conditioned and which differ in kind from the categories: the two senses of the aesthetic become one, to the point where the being of the sensible reveals itself in the work of art, while at the same time the work of art appears as experimentation. (68)

Sensibility itself becomes a field of artistic creation and experimentation. Following Ranciere, such a thesis invites us to examine the distribution of the sensible in the social field, investigating what is visible and invisible in terms of public discourse, various social identities, and so on. These are all questions of social and political individuation. The question becomes one of how new individuations that depart from the police order might be strategized and produced. In the domain of epistemology and metaphysics, the question is no longer that of the ultimate nature of reality, but rather of the distribution of the sensible within which we find ourselves immersed. In their attention to how scientific objects are produced or generated, the work of Stengers, Latour, Foucault, and Kuhn come to mind. Why is it, for example, that such and such a field of objectivity becomes visible at such and such a time? Here also the work of Kittler and Ong are especially relevant by virtue of their attentiveness to how new writing and communications technologies impact social individuation, allowing new possibilities of thought without determining what is thought. In all of these cases the question is one of the genesis of sensibility with its own immanent logos, not one of mere receptivity. Of special importance here are questions of the space and time of these fields of sensibility, and the forms of embodiment they produce along with their accompanying fields of objectivity.

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