Jacques Ranciere’s politics and the partition of the sensible


Pepe Rojo



Everybody knows that the deal is rotten,

everybody knows that the good guys lost

Leonard Cohen


In more than one sense, Jacques Ranciere’s (1999) take on politics is an act of saving politics from the hole it has dug up for itself in consensus democracies. It is also an attempt to rescue and give new life to the idea and practice of democracy, particularly poignant at a time when both politics and democracy seem to be part of the problem and not a solution. Ranciere’s rescue of both terms implies radicalizing them, making them something much rarer and disruptive, resignifying them as acts of resistance and creation that reject the terms of “normal” dialogue in the name of equality.

The equality that Ranciere’s politics demand always imply a different “partition of the sensible”, perhaps his most evocative concept. This partition of the sensible refers to what can be seen, heard, said and done in a given time and place. It is a particular organization of both the material and the social, bodies and places, identities and privileges. It is an arrangement of the world, which, at the same time, takes into account both the symbolic and the corporeal. As such, it implies an aesthetic experience. Politics and aesthetics are intertwined in Ranciere’s discourse: both of them change the partition of the sensible that is kept by the police, defined by Ranciere as the activity opposed to politics. The police enforces and administrates the current partition of the sensible, the one whose nature politics wishes to change.

Politics, in Ranciere’s terms, seems to be captured and controlled by consensus democracy. Aesthetics, in turn, has been kidnapped by art. Aesthetics happens everywhere, because it is the realm of what we perceive, feel and sense, Maybe it’s easier to think of its annulation: anesthetics. Art is the police of aesthetics, reducing aesthetics to a particular experience of the world, distributing the sensory only through specific channels, spaces and discourses. In this sense, there’s as little aesthetics in the museum as there is politics in the senate. It’s just management and enforcement of the partition of the sensible: art and police.

So then we have two pairs, on one side art and the police, on the other, aesthetics and politics. The first keep the order, the second disrupt it. All of them, though, are affected by a third element that also forces its own partition of the sensible: communication technology. This paper tries to make sense of this partitions of the sensible through a brief discussion of three terms that Ranciere uses in his discussion of politics: noise, count and bodies.



What is noise to the old order is harmony to the new.

Jacques Attali



Ranciere starts his discussion of politics with Aristotle, making speech the turning point that makes humans political beings, beyond the animal expression of pleasure or pain, introducing the dimensions of useful and harmful, of just and unjust. Politics marks the change from voice to speech for a particular community that is invented solely through the act of enunciating its existence as speaking beings. Its main argument is the very fact that they speak and that, as speaking beings, they are equal. “Political activity” according to Ranciere, “makes understood as discourse what was once only heard as noise” (30). Politics is the disruption that, in the name of equality, of a wrong, proclaims a different “we”, altering the partition of the sensible just because someone enunciates that this new “we” isn’t being treated with the equality that the sole fact of making the enunciation implies.

The partition of the sensible enforced and managed by the police only hears noise. It is the nature of politics to somehow present this noise as discourse, and this is the aesthetic and poetic deployment of politics. It’s about a particular way of “making sense”, not just in terms of discourse, but also in terms of the senses.

The transition from noise to discourse is a complex one which involves sensory recognition of patterns and differences before any discourse can be understood. Let’s say, for the moment, that the truly political is that historical moment when noise is given form by a “people”, and demands to be heard. So there are two moments here: the turning of noise into form (the aesthetic), and then the appropriation and control of this former-noise (the policing). In between these moments, lies politics, which by its nature is always a disruption in which “the natural order of domination is interrupted by the institution of a part of those who have no part” (11), the part of those who were not counted before, and the denouncement of the wrong that this proclamation lays bare.

The nature of the speech that allows a new people to “appear” is also a particular one. Although it may appear to be a “speech act” as theorized by J.L. Austin (1962), because it achieves something through language, it does so by breaking the necessary “obvious” conditions of Austin’s performative speech. Austin claims that, for there to be a “happy functioning of a performative…there must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect, and…the particular persons and circumstances in a given case must be appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure (14-15)”. In Ranciere’s context this speech acts sound too much like the work of the police, because politics imply exactly the contrary, it is enunciated by inappropriate persons following unconventional procedures. Maybe politics was never meant to be “happy”. But that doesn’t mean it’s sad, just problematic. Politics is an inaugural speech act that problematizes exactly what is appropriate and conventional. It achieves something by questioning the rules, and yet, being understood. That’s why it’s always a racket, or as Ranciere names it, a “scandal”. It always starts as noise.

The same mechanism distances Ranciere’s political speech from Jürgen Habermas (1987) “communicative action”, which demands a common platform to create a dialogue towards “mutual understanding”. Once again, as in Austin’s speech acts, it sounds like the work of the police, where defining the terms of dialogue, and what everything means is the main concern. Let’s say “communicative action” is what happen when there’s a “happy” police, always reminding Ranciere’s advertence that “whether the polices is sweet and kind does not make it any less the opposite of politics.” (31) This is the “ideal speech situation” where everyone sits at a table (Arendt’s table, perhaps) and the “people” that caused the political are asked exactly what do they want beyond being equal and denouncing the injustice they are subjected to. This is what happens after politics.

“The heterogeneity of language games” according to Ranciere, “is constitutive of politics.” (50) And that’s where the nature of the speech that functions in politics is particularly human. The “people” that demand equality in politics are always the result of a metaphorical event, the joining of two different contexts that appears as something new. The recognition that politics demands, “is produced by linguistic acts that are at the same time rational arguments and ‘poetic’ metaphors.”(56) It is the articulation of the conjoining of differences that allows political acts to exist. It is the opening up of the lived experience of a group as contradictory that explodes into politics: “its logic of demonstration is indissolubly an aesthetic of expression. (57)” That is why it doesn’t make sense to the police, because not only its demands, but its mere existence is seen as absurd, as not making any sense. Politics forces the police to understand metaphors, to change contexts. It asks the law to have a sense of humor, when the law (and science, of course) demands, like Humpty Dumpty, that words only have one meaning and one context in which they can function properly. “Politics occurs when there is a place and a way for two heterogeneous processes to meet,” (30) writes Ranciere, implying that the meeting of the heterogeneous processes creates something new, much as the meeting of two words from different contexts creates a new relations and new meanings in a metaphor. But also, as any argument that links two ideas. Politics rearranges the difference between the rational and the poetic.

As a bringing together of two heterogeneities, politics (and aesthetics) will always be paradoxical, not rational, it’s main argument being that even if these two heterogeneities being together seems contradictory, they already exist. The absurd takes place and demands to be acknowledged as real. Politics is an alternative discourse that does not make sense in terms of the police: a dialogue yet to be invented. Politics points not only to the wrong being done to a people, but to a basic misunderstanding in human nature (and I much prefer misunderstanding to disagreement).

As Jacques Attali (2009) says: “Nothing essential happens in the absence of noise.” (3)



If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution!

Emma Goldman



Speech is not the only method for organizing noise. Jacques Attali makes a parallel argument to Ranciere’s in Noise: if music is the organization of noise, “listening to music is listening to all noise, realizing that its appropriation and control is a reflection of power, that it is essentially political.” (6) Almost as Ranciere’s political project, Attali qualifies his as “theoretical indiscipline”, running the “risk of wandering off into poetics” (5).

Nowadays, Attali argues, music is used by power in three different zones or stages: “In one of these zones, it seems that music is used and produced in the ritual in an attempt to make people forget the general violence; in another, it is employed to make people believe in the harmony of the world, that there is order in exchange and legitimacy in commercial power; and finally, there is one in which is serves to silence, by mass-producing a deafening, syncretic kind of music, and censoring all other human noises” (19). Noise is “unwanted sound”, and music prefigures its organization, even before politics, and therefore music may be understood as a form of policing.

But music, in its power, is related to bodies and affects, because it “provides a ground or medium within which to be a body” (DeNora 2000, 124). In a sense, music, which is another modulation of noise, organizes rhythms and movements that are social in nature. Music cannot exist without bodies, and the activity in which bodies move is dancing. A social movement can also be understood as a different dance, that forces a different music to be created, because it gives audibility not only to a discourse, but to a way in which bodies exist.

As much as speech is embodied, so is politics. “The police” writes Ranciere, “is thus first an order of bodies that defines the allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of saying and sees that those bodies are assigned by name to a particular place and task.” The police keep bodies in certain places, and doing certain kinds of activities, under certain conditions and rhythms, usually organized around labor. It decides how bodies appear, and where. Politics is bodily because these bodies suddenly erupt in different places, doing different things, denouncing their unjust disposition. As such, politics is not only aesthetic but also erotic, even explosive, but erotic nonetheless, because it raises the question of how can bodies be together in different ways. Whenever the door is opened for Eros, Thanatos, and its violence, is never far away. Still, politics sides with Eros because it demands a dialogue, a different one, but a dialogue nonetheless. Politics is what we do before killing each other, or allowing ourselves or others to be killed. If that which gives life to politics is the meeting of two heterogeneities, it is erotic by definition. And maybe the mere fact of having people together on the street is just the political need of the re-awakening of social erotism (Berardi 2012), particularly in an age where, according to John Durham Peters (1999) “communication has become disembodied” (228).

Peters highlights the figure of Eros on all processes of communication: “for Socrates, the issue (of dialogue) is not just the matching of minds, but the coupling of desires (37)”. The misunderstanding that politics brings to the fore is always erotic, because it involves desires and bodies, and is always on the verge of breaking into the thanatic.

Ranciere writes that without demos, there is only ethnos, which is the real violence, because bodies are only one thing, without the possibility of metaphorizing it, of joining it with another thing, “everywhere an ethnic people pinned down as identical to themselves” (98). Ethnos is not political because it is a dead-end. It has no possibilities of eroticizing its way out of its condition. The same happens with religious identification and, ultimately, the figure “humanity”, where humans are ultimately reduced to “the moan of naked suffering” (126), without a possibility of escape, trapped in that noise which is animal, or savage, just by itself, a thing, not a possibility.

Even so, if there is suffering, there’s also the aesthetic and corporeal capacity for pleasure, and the myriad ways it is constructed. In a vein similar to Ranciere, in the sense that he is trying to prove that the failure of communicating, of exchanging equally, is the motor of politics, Peters argues that communication “is more basically a political and ethical problem than a semantic or psychological one” (269). Peters argues that communication, defined more as a breakdown and impossibility than as a success, “involves a permanent kink in the human condition” (29). Communication and politics are kinky. A truly political moment should also bring with it different ways of enjoying our bodies together. It redistributes bodies and rhythms. It should make us scream. It should make us dance. Even if it is surrounded by thanatos, it provides intensities because it finds a new aesthetics of love, new forms of pleasure and bonding: “any subjectivization is a disidentification” (Ranciere, 36).

Politics is not only discourse: it’s inventing a new tune to dance with.



Karma police, arrest this man, he talks in math,

he buzzes like a fridge, he’s like a detuned radio

Thom Yorke



But there’s yet another way to deal with noise, and that is to turn it into a signal, not a sign, probably the most important work done by western science during the last 150 years. The ratio “signal to noise” seems to still be a major sign of efficiency, as if culture depended on the numbers being on the side of signal, and not noise. Communication, then, can be instrumentalized as information exchange, “a theory of signals and not of significance” (Peters, 23). The modulation of noise becomes the main problem of communication as it becomes technical, which provides “a semantic view of language as intermental plumbing” (18) and gives preference to what Ranciere calls counting, which is the main job of the police, and the main mode of reasoning behind capitalism.

Politics is denouncing that the count is wrong, as it demands the part of those who have no part, in the name of an equality called freedom, which “is not a determinable property but a pure invention” (Ranciere, 7) and as such, can never be fully counted. The counting is always “a false count, a double count or a miscount (6)”, and politics points to a confusion between what actually is and how it is being counted. Even if “political subjectification produces a multiple that was not given in the police constitution of the community, a multiple whose count poses itself as contradictory in terms of police logic. (36)”, we can also think of media, especially what Habermas calls “de-linguistified media of communication” as apparatus of capture which eschew signs in favor of signals, which favor counting instead of speech and “connect up interactions in space and time into more and more complex networks that no one has to comprehend or be responsible for” (184). We have built wonderful and complex machines that are much better at counting than at transmitting messages, mainly because they conflate noise to signs and convert them into signals. Computers are perhaps the most complex of these machines, and endlessly count back and forth between one and zero. Information is always police activity: it gives form.

That’s why for Horkheimer and Adorno (1993) there’s no difference between political propaganda and the charts of organization research (97). Counting, in this logic, bypasses meaning, even by creating it. We have two logics here, one of speech and meaning, and the other of numbers and counting. But the culture industry’s “product prescribes each reaction not through actual coherence but through signals (109)”. Maybe counting is the way we turn meaning into signals, and that’s the way democracy works today, through the counting of votes, to make it efficient. The voice of the people turns out to express itself in numbers.

The impoverishment of meaning seems to be one of the major sites of critique of the culture industry and its mechanical reproduction and transmission, and it is certainly a huge part of Horkheimers and Adorno’s argument: the production of sameness seems to be a major function of media. Even Attali seems to agree: “No organized society can exist without structuring differences at its core. No market economy can develop without erasing those differences in mass production. (5)” Mass media, according to this view, is especially good at this type of count: “Something is provided for everyone so that nobody can escape.” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 97). This is not only mathematical thinking; it’s also turning the parts of a society into market segments.

But media are particularly insidious beyond their capacity to transmit messages and/or meanings. They truly impose a partition of the sensible in the most physical sense. Even when Robert Merton (1946) was finding out how meaning is created and how a communal consensus could be achieved during radio broadcasts, he was completely forgetting two things. Radio listeners were given only two options (a one and a zero, to donate or not to donate), but mainly, that everyone was listening to the radio. Media partition the distribution of bodies; they organize their activities, and doing so, their identities. Adorno noticed “the gigantic fact that the speech penetrates everywhere replaces its content” (129). This is more McLuhan than semiotics: “the content of media is the transformation of its users”. Policing and media go hand in hand, it’s a way of organizing bodies, and keeping them in their place. Democratized mass media promise all the meaning you can manage, all the voices you can hear, all the things you want to see, as long as it happens on screens. It is about the illusion of total visibility, “the talents belong to the operation long before they are put on the show” (Adorno, 96). A revolution organized through Facebook may topple governments at the same time it keeps Facebook happy. The functioning of electronic communication dilutes bodily presence, and as such is one of the major aesthetic experiments of humankind, the disembodiment of interaction. “The large social significance of the media, so often debated throughout this century,” writes Peters, “lies less in such classic social worries as their effects on children, representation of women, transformation of politics, or diffusion of mass culture than in their rearrangements of our bodily being, as individuals and as bodies politic.” (228) Steering media, according to Habermas, have as an effect that “the lifeworld is no longer needed for the coordination of action” (183). Things happen by themselves.

Modern information media deploy what Lazzarato calls asignifying semiotics, which “do not involve consciousness or representation and do not have the subject as a reference” (39). This involves using bodies as part of a larger assemblage in which their consciousness and subjectivities are just parts of the machinery, and are deployed every once in a while to keep the apparatus functioning. Post-signifying semiotics are particularly interesting because they forego meaning and thought, “circumvent language and dominant social signification.” Specific to capitalism (which is also a particular procedure of counting), they “produce operations, induce action, constitute inputs and outputs, junction and disjunction,” freeing “powers of production incommensurate with those of employment and human labor”. They give bodies their proper place, and constantly prompt them to actions: alarm clocks, answering the phone, voting, checking for messages, breaking on streetlights, etc.

Modern media, as an apparatus of capture that emphasizes counting, is an integral part of what Ranciere calls consensus democracy, the dictatorship of realism deploying a spectacular machinery of capture. “Consensus,” writes Ranciere, “is a certain regime of the perceptible: the regime in which the parties are presupposed as already given, their community established and the count of their speech identical to their linguistic performance” (102). Consensus forecloses the appearance of the political by stating everyone is accounted for by deploying an expert system and machinery that is always counting, and, supposedly, taking into account. If everything is taking into account, realism is always “doing the only thing possible to do”. Realism is reasonable, and is always engaging in dialogue. As there are no “representable barriers”, the aesthetic and political exclusion “is identical to the law of consensus” (116). It’s a totalitarian regime enforced by common sense and the constant efforts of inclusion, of counting, always counting. It is the only thing possible: “a world cleansed of surplus identities, peopled by real bodies endowed with properties expressed by their name” (124). There’s no place for the meeting of heterogeneities if everything is properly named and distributed. There are no possibilities. If something different happens, an army of experts will instantly materialize to find its proper place, pre-empting politics in the name of the reasonable.

But the miscount is immanent. “The freedom of the demos”, writes Ranciere, “is not a determinable property but a pure invention” (7). Speech is always different from the account of speech. It is never identical to itself, and, as such it can never be fully counted. The wrong can never be fully accounted. The same happens with bodies, they form “a magnitude that escapes ordinary measurement” (15). And that’s where Ranciere is ultimately optimist. The incommensurable will appear, somewhere, somehow. At the same time he does away with any kind of utopian thought because there will always be a miscount, there will always be a part that has no part.

Ranciere sees that as hopeful: there will always be noise.





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Ranciere, Jacques. Dis-agreement. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.