One of the main ways I try to think about the political implications of improvisations is through Rancière. I won’t go into all of it here, but part of what this involves is linking up Rancière’s political thought with affect theory. I do this not only because Rancière’s politics make sense with the kind of ambivalent and contingent project that I am trying to develop, but also because his central concept, the partage du sensible has “sensible” right in the name–that is, not just visible or audible, but perceptible as a whole. Although Rancière himself does not speak in terms of affect, his description of the distribution of the sensible opens up ways of thinking affectively–that is, we experience power (the police), order, sense (as in “common-sense”), and our place within it phenomenologically, as mediated by the body. Affect, which is all about the force of bodies on other bodies, might be how we perceive both the police, and any opportunity for politics as well.
As I resume digging into this research, I am delighted to find that I am not the only one who has argued for thinking the distribution of the sensible through affect; Brigitte Bargetz’ excellent essay “The Distribution of Emotions: Affective Politics of Emancipation” lays out recent debates in feminist/affect theory, as well as arguments that have been made about thinking Rancière through affect. Subsequently, she develops the “distribution of emotions” in order to “shed light on a queer feminist theory of affective politics” (590). Using Rancière’s notion that politics is not separate from (but emerges within) the police, Bargetz argues that thinking the partage du sensible in terms of emotions 1) overcomes an “unsatisfactory and problematic opposition within queer feminist debates, which frame affective politics either in terms of reparation or paranoia”; 2) “marks the concept of subjectivation as a matter of emotions and thus links to queer feminist debates about the subject of feminist politics”; and 3) “builds upon the idea of equality among people rather than promoting an emancipatory politics of affect that relies on truth claims” (591-592).
Bargetz develops these ideas by turning to queer feminist scholars. Like me, she finds Ahmed (among others) useful for describing how
affect and sensation serve as starting points for describing the political in affective terms and for interrogating, for instance, how capitalism, sexism, and/or racism are inscribed in the affective bodily practices of the everyday, or how affects become a site of community formation. Viewed through such a lens, the world does not appear to be divided only into those who speak and those who make noise. Rather, the distribution of the sensible also marks a distinction between those whose feelings constitute the existing distribution of the sensible and those whose feelings are excluded (589).
This connection is exactly the one that I have been trying to make, although with a slight difference: I don’t see an opposition, per-se, between a world divided “only into those who speak and those who make noise” (on the one hand), and “those whose feelings constitute the existing distribution of the sensible and those whose feelings are excluded” (on the other). For me, both sound and emotionality are different haptic means by which the distribution of the sensible is established and perpetuated. Sound, after all, is physical; as a vibration that touches our bodies, it has as much to do with affect as emotions do.
My goals in making the connection between Rancière and affect are ultimately different as well, since I am trying to theorize the politics of improvisation and the improvisation of politics. Ultimately, though, as a self-aware and reflexive navigation of contingency–in short, as a conscious pursuit of the unknown within the known–improvisation requires a bodily perception of the distribution of the sensible and the contingency on which it rests.
Bargetz, Brigitte. 2015. “The Distribution of Emotions:Affective Politics of Emancipation”. Hypatia vol. 30, no. 3 (summer): 580-596.