Thursday, June 07, 2012

Challenging Aesthetics: Kant Vs. Rancière

I've been subjecting myself to Kant’s Critique of Judgment recently as a primer to engage Jacques Rancière and formulate some hard thoughts on aesthetics. It's not difficult to understand why Kant has animated so many thinkers over the past few centuries and why his legacy is so fraught with contradictions. Was he the rational humanist, Buddha's detached disciple hiding under a powdered wig? Or was he the sinister elitist who laid the groundwork for the universalizing project that ultimately led to the gas chambers? Much of the confusion is a result of what little he had to say about one of Rancière's main concerns: the limits of universality.

Kant's sensus communis is the idea that everyone has access to the same perception of common sense. This essentially rests on the assumption that all of us are hardwired in the same way to determine how an object will be perceived, rather than the object dictating the terms. We're in control. The subject not only transcends the demands of an object, he/she also transcends context or culture, or what Kant called space and time. If everyone has the same basic sensory apparatus then it's possible to define proper standards of perception. If an individual’s sense falls outside the common standard, then the person is at fault, not the system.


Rancière’s distribution of the sensible relies on particular social factors related to the subject’s position such as gender, class or race, which can limit or influence his/her participation in the sensible. The distribution assumes a partition or unequal access to the object of perception, which may limit or enhance a subject’s ability to engage with it.

Not surprisingly, these two approaches are at odds with each another. Kant implicitly emphasizes the subject’s power to overcome the limitations that Rancière explicitly describes. Where Kant assumes the subject can transcend context, Rancière suggests it's impossible. How I intend to synthesize these two diametrically opposed positions remains to be seen...

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