Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Davide Panagia reviews Jacques Rancière’s Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art

Jacques Rancière. Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art. Trans. Zakir Paul. London: Verso, 2013. 304 pp. Hardcover $29.95.

Reviewed by Davide Panagia

4 June 2014

There are fourteen scenes in Jacques Rancière’s Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art. The scenes are arranged in no strategic order, meaning that the reader is free to jump from any one scene to another. Each of the scenes is at once an encounter with a specific aesthetic event and an instant in the general thesis of the work, which aims at engaging “certain displacements of what art signifies” (p. 12). 


But there is something more at stake in these stagings than a reconfiguration of our sensibilities about aesthetic modernism (especially in its Greenbergian vein). Rancière is explicit in his “Prelude” to note how he envisions Aisthesis as a companion piece to his 1970s work Proleterian Nights: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France. This conjunction might seem odd at first. But the connecting thread lies in a persistent theme in much of Rancière’s work, namely, the endeavor to reconfigure the relation between emancipation and dreaming that is, for him, squashed by the rise of scientific Marxism. A key medium for this endeavor has been the novel that, for Rancière, bears witness “to the capacity of men and women without quality to feel all kinds of ideal aspirations and sensual frenzies” (p. 15). In Aisthesis the novel is put aside, and we are offered an alternate media archaeology that ranges from dances, to photographs, to a broken bust— all of which participate in the labor of sensorial emancipation. More than objects of critical attention, then, these media are shown to spark the “farniente of reverie” (p. 15) —a critical term, it turns out, for Rancière’s aesthetics of politics. The farniente (literally “do-nothing”) is the mode of acting of the “no-part,” that odd form of political subjectivity that is the actant of Rancière’s emancipatory politics. The no-part do no-thing: neither they nor their labors can count. The fourteen scenes in Aisthesis thus stage the reveries of sensorial frenzy that the dominant critical impetus of aesthetic modernism has deemed no thing.


More than scenes of critical analysis, then, Jacques Rancière’s Aisthesis gives space to the reveries of the everyday and of the anyone whatsoever in the hope of reconfiguring the relations among emancipatory politics, sensations, and dreaming.