The Political Life of Sensation

The Political Life of Sensation

by Davide Panagia
The Political Life of Sensation


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The Political Life of Sensation by Davide Panagia

The taste of chocolate, the noise of a crowd, the visual impressions of filmic images—such sensory perceptions are rarely if ever discussed in relation to democratic theory. In response, Davide Panagia argues that by overlooking sensation political theorists ignore a crucial dimension of political life. Drawing on Gilles Deleuze’s and Jacques Rancière’s readings of Kantian aesthetics, Panagia posits sensation as a radical democratic moment of aesthetic judgment. He contends that sensory experience interrupts our perceptual givens, creating occasions to suspend authority and reconfigure the arrangement of a political order.

Panagia claims that the rule of narrative governs our inherited notions of political subjectivity and agency, such that reading and writing are the established modes of political deliberation. Yet the contemporary citizen-subject is a viewing subject, influenced by film, photos, and other perceptual stimuli as much as by text. Challenging the rule of narrative, Panagia analyzes diverse sites of cultural engagement including the visual dynamics portrayed in the film The Ring, the growth of festival culture in late-fifteenth-century Florence, the practices of convivium espoused by the Slow Food movement, and the architectural design of public newsstands. He then ties these occasions for sensation to notable moments in the history of political thought and shows the political potential of a dislocated subjectivity therein. Democratic politics, Panagia concludes, involves a taking part in those everyday practices that interrupt our common modes of sensing and afford us an awareness of what had previously been insensible.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822344636
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/17/2009
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Davide Panagia is Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. He is the author of The Poetics of Political Thinking, also published by Duke University Press.

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The Political Life of Sensation



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ISBN: 978-0-8223-4479-7

Chapter One

From Nomos to Nomad Kant, Deleuze, and Rancière on Sensation

Thus although critics, as Hume says, are able to reason more plausibly than cooks, they must still share the same fate. For the determining ground of their judgment they are not able to look to the force of demonstrations, but only to the reflection of the subject upon his own state (of pleasure or displeasure), to the exclusion of precepts and rules. IMMANUEL KANT

One of the most challenging political and aesthetic demands posed by the work of Gilles Deleuze is "to have done with judgment." "If it is so disgusting to judge," he arms, "it is not because everything is of equal value, but on the contrary because what has value can be made or distinguished only by defying judgment." The difficulty with judgment, Deleuze unremittingly argues throughout his oeuvre, is not that it creates distinctions that disable the possibility of equality; the problem, rather, is that in order for something to have value, it must traverse the criteria of judgment that enable the appraisal of value. Value, as Kant also showed in his Critique of Judgment, is an intensity that is not produced through judgment or by it but is, instead, that which exceeds any interest there might be in judging. Thus, in order to have value, we must do away with judgment.

To overcome judgment, Deleuze introduces the possibility of indistinction: a condition whereby those regimes of perception that structure one's appraisals are disarticulated and rendered indistinct from one another. Indistinction is Deleuze's way of characterizing an engagement with the world that overcomes the necessity of referentiality and the legislative urge that accompanies a referential model. Drawing sustenance from Melville's famous scrivener, Deleuze explains how Bartleby's formula is "devastating" precisely because it renders the preferable and nonpreferable indistinct; "I would prefer not to" is an antiformalist formula that challenges the insistence of pointing to one's preferences and having those preferences count as the referential coordinates that will constitute a life's trajectory.

In a critical and engaged response, Jacques Rancière addresses his distress regarding Deleuze's work, especially Deleuze's late writings on literature. That distress is, for him, epitomized by one of Deleuze's more unusual images: "a world 'in process, an archipelago', which is that of fraternal individuals: 'A wall of loose, uncemented stones, where every element has a value in itself but also in relation to others'." Rancière's apprehension is guided by what he considers an implicit quietism that accompanies the archipelago image. His ultimate concern is that the motility promised by indistinction is also an indierentism since indistinction denies the possibility of judgment, and hence also its political potential of critique and disruption. For Rancière, Deleuze's loose surfaces force us to slide up against a brick wall of uncemented stones, no longer allowing us to stand against anything. Indistinction, he worries, comes dangerously close to indierentism "and the question remains how can one make a difference in the political community with this indifference?"

In this chapter I undertake an exposition of, and engagement with, a Deleuzian disgust with judgment. I do so by bringing Deleuze and Rancière into conversation with one another and by showing the proximity of these thinkers' theoretical articulations. To do this, I establish the Kantian origins of their respective positions on judgment. Specifically, I am interested in how Deleuze's treatment of indistinction and Rancière's treatment of dissensus and the interruption of the partitions of the sensible are indebted to Immanuel Kant's exposition of the durational intensity of immediacy in aesthetic experience and the disinterested interest that arises in an aesthetic encounter. This triangulation of theoretical positions-that is, Kant on immediacy, Deleuze on indistinction, Rancière on dissensus-configures the theoretical trajectory of my own explorations of the political life of sensation throughout this work.

My motivation for this triangulation is equally threefold. The first is theoretical: I argue that the experience of sensation does not rely on a preconstituted composition of individual subjectivity or consciousness. My treatment of Kant, Deleuze, and Rancière will show how these thinkers share an insight about the nature of perception and the composition of common sense. Furthermore, I will show how Deleuze and Rancière, indebted to a Kantian insight about the nature of aesthetic experience, extend that insight and transform it into a critical project that takes issue with the possibility of a perceptual common ground for the distribution of sense.

The second point is an ethical one: the compulsion to legislate judgment and provide a common source of norms for appraisal coincides with an instrumentalist urge to dictate the conditions of possibility for value that are subsequently deployed to direct political action. This second observation regards the relationship between freedom and the experience of value, and my development of it is indebted to Immanuel Kant's claim that in aesthetic experience there can be no rules to legislate a judgment of the beautiful. Though Kant's account of immediacy and disinterest is not original in that it can be situated within a more general, eighteenth-century fascination with the moment of aesthetic impact, what is original is his commitment to resisting any deontological account of the beautiful. Kant believes that our aesthetic judgments cannot be indebted to an authoritative knowledge, nor can they be commanded by it. Rather, an experience of the beautiful is such that it ungrounds our subjectivity and compels a form of reflection that cannot rely on an inherited structure or a preorganization of values.

Finally, my third motivation is an aesthetico-political one: my argument throughout this book is that within any one regime of perception there exists a micropolitics of appraisal that formulates the shared conditions for sense making. These micropolitical strategies create dynamics of conviction that generate affinities of sensibility between and among individuals and groups. More than what has wittingly or unwittingly been endorsed as a "clash of civilizations," contemporary democratic life is characterized by varying and diverse political cultures of conviction, each of which carries its own regimes of perception that govern what does and does not count as an experience, motivation, or intuition. These regimes of perception constitute a common world of the sensible which, at one and the same time, distributes legitimacy and endorses the convictions that bring that sense world into being. Kant, Deleuze, and Rancière, I argue, are thinkers attuned to the dynamics of interruption and reconfiguration of sense making that the experiences of sensation afford.

Kantian Immediacy

"Those Ideas which are rais'd in the Mind upon the presence of external Objects, and their acting upon our Bodys, are call'd Sensations," asserts Francis Hutcheson. "We find that the Mind in such Cases is passive, and has not Power directly to prevent the Perception or Idea, or to vary it at its Reception, as long as we continue our Bodys in a state fit to be acted upon by the external Object." Hutcheson's definition of sensation insists not so much on the separation of mind and body as on the relative independence of perception from the rational faculties. The passivity of the mind, for Hutcheson, refers to the inertness of the intellectual faculties in determining the event of sensation. As Paul Guyer explains, "Hutcheson does not just argue that the sense of beauty is natural and immediate, but he also excludes from its operation precisely the kind of manifestation of the faculty of reason which is ultimately central to Shaftesbury's Neoplatonism." For Guyer, Hutcheson represents a break with the Neoplatonic commitment to integrating sensorial receptivity with intellectual comprehension that the Earl of Shaftesbury had defended so strongly in his 1711 publication, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. A subsequent inheritor of Hutcheson's intervention is Immanuel Kant, Guyer explains further, whose treatment of the disinterested interest in the judgment of beauty pays tribute to some of Hutcheson's key insights into the nature and origin of sensation.

Implicit in Hutcheson's argument regarding the radical separation of sensation and the intellect is the assertion that that which is consequent to sensorial perception-aesthetic experience-cannot lay a claim to use or advantage (this includes the use or advantage of an aristocratic posture of aesthetic detachment endorsed by the Earl of Shaftesbury). Since the rational faculties determine the use value of an object and since those faculties are, in principle, inconsequential to aesthetic experience, it follows that the possibility of identifying use value through aesthetic experience is equally unavailable. It is this insight that forms the backdrop to Kant's own reflections on the disinterested interest in aesthetic judgment, as he explains in the first part, section 5 of the Critique of Judgment: "Of all these three kinds of delight [i.e., pleasant, beautiful, and good], that of taste in the beautiful may be said to be the one and only disinterested and free delight; for, with it, no interest, whether of sense or reason, extorts approval."

For Kant, there is an important resonance between freedom and disinterest that has nothing to do with a Neoplatonic idealism. Kant's claim is not one that attempts to decontextualize aesthetic experience by insisting on its disinterested nature: that is, Kant's "disinterest" should not be read in the same light or with the same critical purchase as "impartial." It is, instead, exactly the opposite. The disinterested interest in aesthetic experience, which at the end of part 1, section 5 becomes the basis for Kant's definition of a judgment of the beautiful, is the result of a radical suspension of the subject of perception from the conditions that would make the desire for impartiality and ambition worth pursuing. For Kant, the beautiful is a kind of hybrid experience that is neither purely rational (like the good) nor purely sensorial (like the gratification of the pleasant), but is at once both and neither. Beauty belongs to reason to the extent that it concerns human beings, and human beings are rational creatures to the extent that they possess the mental capacity to generate representations; beauty is irrational to the extent that it appeals to our sensory perceptions; but it is neither to the extent that neither reason nor sense dictate the terms of our acknowledgment of beauty. In this regard, neither reason nor sense legislates the possibility of our experience of the beautiful, and thus neither reason nor sense "extorts our approval." Rather than the disinterested subject being a version of the impartial observer, what Kant offers his readers is a subject whose interest at the moment of sensory experience is disarticulated, as are his or her conditions of subjectivity.

The feeling of freedom that arises from aesthetic experience occurs because there is no governing principle in the beautiful that commands a submission to its mode of attention. The disinterested interest in the beautiful is thus a claim about the impossibility of generating a relationship of want between an object and the subject of perception. This lack of interest further extends Hutcheson's original claim that use value is irrelevant to aesthetic experience. For Kant, like Hutcheson, the possibility of establishing the use value of an object requires the further possibility of generating conditions for assigning comparative value to that object vis-à-vis other objects within a series. Thus, we have a relationship of use when we can assess the value of an object in relation to other either similar or dissimilar objects. But in the case of aesthetic judgment, no such relationship can exist. The question remains why.

To answer this question, we must revert to the preceding section of the third critique, section 4 of the first part. This section sets out to explain that the desire for the good carries an interest as does the desire for the pleasant. Because the good belongs to the legislative faculty of reason, Kant explains, and its prescription depends on knowing the nature of that good thing, one must be able to give reasons for the goodness of something as well as to conceive or represent it. Kant's basic point is that a concept of the good needs to be in place in order to direct our actions, and our justifications of the normative conditions that compel us to sign on to a particular conception of the good determine our interest in it. To use a thoroughly conventional Kantian example, we have an interest in not lying because we would not want to be lied to. But the beautiful, Kant emphasizes repeatedly, is exempt from this dynamic of a necessary relation between object and subjective interest.

To stress the point, there is a difference here that marks the nature of the disinterested interest in the beautiful: that difference, I want to argue, is a durational one. By the end of the subsequent paragraph, after instructing his readers on the distinction between the pleasant and the good, Kant makes the following passing remark:

But that the reference to delight is wholly different where what gratifies is at the same time called good, is evident from the fact that with the good the question always is whether it is mediately or immediately good, i.e., useful or good in itself; whereas with the agreeable this point can never arise, since the word always means what pleases immediately-and it is just the same with what I call beautiful.

Kant never expands fully on this last clause, nor does he explain why the word "agreeable" always signifies immediacy. We are left to deduce, therefore, that the immediacy of which Kant speaks must have something to do with the manner in which an external object impacts upon our senses and the reverberations generated subsequent to that immediate impact. The beautiful shares with the pleasant the condition of sensation, and thus also shares the durational intensity of immediacy. Immediacy in aesthetic experience, I submit, interrupts the capture of interest and makes it so that there can be a disinterested interest in the beautiful.

This can occur for two reasons: first, under the pressures of immediacy we lose access to the kinds of conditions that make it possible to determine things like motivation, use, or belief-all forces that constitute the nature of interest. Second, in such a temporal condition we lack the necessary cognitive connections to generate comparisons. When we encounter an aesthetic object, Kant believes, that object has an immediate impact on our senses, thus generating sensations. The immediacy of that impact is a durational intensity that interrupts the circuitry of interactivity to which we are accustomed. That is, with the immediacy of sensory perception, we cannot rely on any structure that would relate that object to other sources of value because at that moment our capacity to create lines of connection (like analogy or comparison) is interrupted. In short, we lack the opportunity of generating a regime of value necessary to establish a context of interest that would relate an object to other objects. It follows from this that when an aesthetic object captures us, the encounter with that object disarticulates the purchase of belief we deem necessary for conviction. Here, conviction occurs through the durational intensity of sensation, and not from an a priori interest; from a Kantian perspective, the capture of conviction cannot result from an antecedent methodological or interpretive commitment or belief.


Excerpted from The Political Life of Sensation by DAVIDE PANAGIA Copyright © 2009 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


PROLOGUE: Narratocracy and the Contours of Political Life....................1
ONE: From Nomos to Nomad: Kant, Deleuze, and Rancière on Sensation....................21
TWO: The Piazza, the Edicola, and the Noise of the Utterance....................45
THREE: Machiavelli's Theory of Sensation and Florence's Vita Festiva....................74
FOUR: The Viewing Subject: Caravaggio, Bacon, and The Ring....................96
FIVE: "You're Eating Too Fast!": Slow Food's Ethos of Convivium....................123
EPILOGUE: "The Photographs Tell It All": On an Ethics of Appearance....................149

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