‘The Distribution of the Sensible’

The following are a set of questions about Ranciere’s notion of ‘the distribution of the sensible’.

The term ‘distribution’ suggests a work of differential apportionment – aspects of sensibility are made available here, but not there, and to some, but not others.  The definite article ‘the’ suggests that the distribution is a definite state of affairs that has happened.  Although the origins of the distribution is not explained, the definite article suggests that an account of origins is possible.  The notion of distribution can be read both in terms of neutrality (a given statistical distribution), it can also suggest an aspect of agency (a general distributing the spoils of war among his troops).  Is the distribution of the sensible simply an emergent state of affairs or is it an expression of the machinations of power?

Why the emphasis on the ‘sensible’?  Is the term to be understood literally or metaphorically?  Ranciere regularly employs the example of disadvantaged social voices that cannot be heard.  Is it that we literally don’t hear them or, more metaphorically, that we disregard them?  It would seem to be less an issue of how sensibility is distributed (the audibility of particular voices) than whether or not we choose to acknowledge and engage with the disadvantaged.  We hear the homeless person on the streets begging for money, but walk straight by, pretending not to hear.  In any case, if some voices attain prominence it is less because they are somehow more audible, but because they are selected, recorded and broadcast.  The difference is less precisely at the level of sensibility than of selective, socially inscribed currency.

The notion of the sensible seems to point to something more materially bound than ideology, yet when Ranciere’s notion of the sensible is interrogated at a detailed material-experiential level it seems to fall apart.  Perhaps this is because I am taking the term too literally?  I am unsure.

In some ways the notion of ‘the distribution of the sensible’ appears as a more materially inclined version of linguistic determinism and/or linguistic relativism (I’m unsure which because it remains unclear the extent to which social agents can experience beyond the given sensible-experiential categories without recourse to the radical space of the political and the aesthetic).  Instead then of being unable to think beyond the conceptual constraints of a given language, we are unable to experience things beyond the frame of a given distribution of the sensible.  Yet this seems too crude.  After all, Ranciere devotes a whole book to describing how elements of the 19thc working class found the means, despite their onerous working and living conditions, to become artists and intellectuals.  They worked all day and then refused to sleep at night.  They developed other lives against the grain of the extant distribution of the sensible.  So Ranciere must conceive scope for resistance.  His view must then be more of a sensible relativism…

I guess, just to be as clear as possible, although I acknowledge culturally informed modes of sensible experience, I’d tend to avoid overstating their determining influence, particularly at the level of fundamental sense perception.  While sensible fields and affordances take culturally legible shape, there is always – and intrinsically – a potential for excess, for things to be experienced differently.  This occurs not only in privileged moments of resistance, but all the time, based upon all the complex interests and interactions that constitute sensible experience.  A gallery is a place for quietly viewing art, but it is also a place for kids on a school excursion to muck up, for lonely people to brush up against others, for people without an umbrella to escape the rain.  No sensibly distributed space is ever restricted to the given distribution.

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