Dissensus - Ranciere

RELATED TERMS: Agon; Agonism and avant-gardism; Politics and the political; Distribution of the sensible; Avant-garde movements; Modernism and avant-garde art practice; Narrative environment design; Defamiliarisation, Ostranenie or making strange; Method and methodology

Narrative environment designs may be said to be a form of dissensus, or “a dissensual re-configuration of the common experience of the sensible,” in the words of Jacques Ranciere (2010: 140) Thinking of narrative environments as dissensual permits consideration of the regimes of sense-making that are aligned, albeit non-correspondingly, with the material and symbolic arrangement of the environment. Such alignments and mis-alignments provoke thought as the participants seek to make sense of their perceptions and to act or respond appropriately, properly or improperly, obediently of disobediently to the particular form of agonistic struggle presented and represented. To show the relevance of the notion of dissensus for narrative environment design, we have to examine how Ranciere uses the term.

For Ranciere (2010: 139), dissensus designates a specific type of conflict between sense, as sensory perception, and sense, as intellectual understanding, a particular kind of agonistic struggle between a sensory presentation and a way of making sense of it, or between several sensory regimes and/or ‘bodies’. In this way, dissensus can be said to reside at the heart of politics because, fundamentally, politics itself consists in an activity that redraws the frame within which common objects are determined.

Politics, in Ranciere’s terms, is that activity which breaks with the order of ‘the police’, as he calls it, by inventing new subjects, Ranciere The police, in turn, is that distribution of the sensible in which the effectuation of the common of the community is identified with the effectuation of the properties, both resemblances and differences, that characterize bodies and their modes of aggregation. The police order structures perceptual space in terms of places, functions, aptitudes, and so on, to the exclusion of any supplement.

Politics, in contrast, consists in the set of acts that effectuate a supplementary ‘property’, a property that is biologically and anthropologically unlocatable, the equality of speaking beings. This property exists in addition to every bios. There are two contrasting structurations of the common world: one that knows only of bios, from transmission through bloodlines to the regulation of population flows; and one that empowers artifices of equality, that is, forms enacted by political subjects which re-figure the common of a ‘given world’. Such subjects do not affirm another type of life but configure a different world-in-common (Ranciere, 2010: 92).

Politics, thus, invents new forms of collective enunciation. It re-frames the given by inventing new ways of making sense of the sensible, new configurations between the visible and the invisible, and between the audible and the inaudible, new distributions of space and time, in short, new bodily capacities (Ranciere, 2010: 139).

“Politics creates a new form: “dissensual ‘commonsense’” (Ranciere, 2010: 139).

If there exists a connection between art and politics, Ranciere argues, it should be cast in terms of dissensus, the very kernel of the aesthetic regime: artworks can produce effects of dissensus precisely because they neither give explicit lessons, they are not explicitly pedagogical, nor have any destination, no single final outcome or product (Ranciere, 2010: 140). This insight is extended to design, which, it is argued, is equally capable of performing dissensually, of pitting one regime of sense against another in a way that causes the participant to pause and think.


Ranciere, J. (2004). The Politics of aesthetics: the distribution of the sensible. London, UK: Continuum.

Ranciere, J. (2010) Dissensus: on politics and aesthetics. Translated by S. Corcoran. London, UK: Continuum.