Marx, Rancière & the (Trans)formation of Perception

In his short essay, American philosopher Jason Read speaks about our perception being (trans)formed by historical, social, and individual conditions, by re-encountering Karl Marx with Jacques Rancière. The effect of today’s digitalized society on the evolution of perception and sensation was subject matter of the colloquium Marketplaces of Perception.

Jacques Rancière’s phrase the »distribution of the sensible« has opened up a set of new problems in terms of how perception and sensation are understood. The basic elements of experience are not some ahistorical given, but are transformed and formed by history. Technology, politics, and the economy do not just affect the structure and institutions of life; they affect the most intimate and seemingly ahistorical details of how we feel and perceive. As with many neologisms and conceptual innovations, Rancière’s phrase makes possible a reexamination of the past as much as new conceptual innovations and problems.

First, Rancière makes it possible to understand how there is already perhaps a thought of such a distribution at work in Marx. In the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx somewhat cryptically writes that »[t]he forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present.« Our senses, our needs, our desires are the product of history. This idea of the historicity of perception gets its most provocative formulation in Capital, where Marx writes that »the products of labor become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible.« Understanding the commodity as a particular distribution of the sensible is a matter of understanding not just the way in which it makes some things perceptible and others imperceptible, concealing the social relations of labor for example. What it makes perceptible, value, is not a physical quality at all, but a product of social relations, and only sustained by those relations. It makes this appear while simultaneously concealing its own social and historical conditions.

Even this cursory reading of Rancière’s phrase through Marx opens up the question of the politics of perception. Perception is posited as at once social, historical, and individual, even intimate. In a word it is transindividual. It is thus the basis for individual identity and collective action, but, as Marx demonstrates, the historical articulation of perception is also its distortion, obscuring social relations and constituting fictitious objects of perception. Thus the question becomes how can perception go from passivity and obscurity to activity and knowledge. How can we transform the very perceptions that constitute us?