HAVING READ THREE of Rancière's books, I thought it was time I tried reading him in his original language. This book seemed like the right opportunity that attempt--brief, for one thing (74 pages, and 6" x 4" pages at that), and for another it is primarily about Rancière's theory, with relatively few specific illustration.
In fact, it might have been best for me to have started with this one, rather than having to piece together the theory from his discussions of particular texts/works/objects. But it was his insights into particular texts, etc., that truly hooked me, so it's probably just as well I began as I did.
The book is arranged around five questions, formulated by Muriel Combes and Bernard Aspe, concerning (1) the "partage du sensible," (2) Rancière's theory about "régimes of art," (3) the "arts mécaniques," e.g., photography and film, (4) the relation of fiction to history, and (5) how the category "art" fits (or doesn't) into the broader category "work."
Rancière, unsurprisingly, says some really smart things in response to last three questions (I wish, however, he had brought in Hayden White while answering #4 as he does Walter Benjamin while answering #3), but it's the first two that go most directly to his own work and accordingly get the most space (35 of 73 pages).
"Partage du sensible" is tricky to translate, which I imagine is why the English translation flips the title and subtitle to give us The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. (As a bookstore browser, I would not pause long at a volume called Distribution of the Sensible, so I'd say the translation's publisher made a good call.) The idea is not that tricky, however, if you just keep in mind that we can refer to all that we perceive with our senses as constituting "the sensible," and that we have an undefined number of categories for sorting and interpreting--or "dividing up," we might say-- what we perceive with our senses.
These categories change over time, and these changes have a lot to do with how political and cultural power make themselves felt in different historical periods. Rancière is especially interested in the category "art" and the ways it has been redefined; political and cultural power have had a lot to do with defining the category of "art," or "good art," or "important art," of course, as any number of Marxists and other historically/sociologically-minded critics have pointed out.
These analyses ordinarily find that art reflects/reproduces the assumptions of the prevailing hegemonic power, but Rancière argues that art can also anticipate, in a John the Baptist precursor-like way, shifts in political and cultural power that may be in the offing. What's great about this (to my mind) is that art is not just a superstructural element dictated by the nature of the base, no longer the tag-along little brother trying to catch up with the prevailing mode of production, but is actually in the driver's seat occasionally. (How's that for an ungainly set of mixed metaphors?)
Art, according to Rancière, has had three great historical dispensations in the west: the "régime éthique," roughly the ancient and medieval eras, the "régime représentatif," roughly the early modern period, and the "régime esthéthique," roughly the period of the French Revolution to the present.
Rancière does not have a lot that's interesting to say about the first two--the "regime of the ethical" (if I may so translate) amounts to a few maxims from Aristotle and Plato, the "regime of representation" is not much more than essence of Boileau. You won't get much help from Rancière if you are trying to understand the continuing power of Dante, Milton, Racine, or Swift. But when it comes to the 19th, the 20th, and the present centuries the explanatory power of his theory is overwhelming. Why do attempts to draw a line between the modern and the post-modern always end in a jumble of squiggles? Pick up on some Rancière, and you'll know.
As to how my experiment worked out--Rancière is clearer in French, but takes me much longer to read, so I expect to go back to the translation for the one that just appeared in English. Which looks great, by the way.