PRINT March 2007


In the spring of 2005 in the village of Cerisy-la-Salle in Normandy, a group of scholars met for three days to celebrate the work of Jacques Rancière. In France, a colloquium held in one’s honor at Cerisy is acknowledgment of a major contribution to philosophical thought, and among the participants were prominent French philosophers: Alain Badiou was a featured speaker, for instance, while Jean-Luc Nancy contributed an essay to the published proceedings. Yet as the weekend progressed, it was clear that what had brought thinkers from Brazil, England, the United States, Greece, and elsewhere to Cerisy was not the need to bear witness to the replacement of one epistemological theory by another, or to celebrate some other step in the development of a specialized science. Cinema, sociology, literature, politics, and aesthetics were all topics of discussion; Heidegger’s name, I believe, was never mentioned. This list of fields gives some idea of the range of thinking Rancière’s work has touched and invigorated, but it does not explain the contingencies and detours that have caused him to become, at different moments, a historian, a critic of social science, a philosopher, or a commentator on cinema, on current politics, or, more recently, on contemporary art practices. Such concerted forays into the terrains of different knowledges are not very fashionable in France today, where the policing of disciplinary borders and a defensive retreat within them on the part of those certified to profess “art history” or “literature” has, regrettably, become more pronounced in recent years. Sartre once remarked that the most challenging and productive exercise a writer can perform is to write for (or speak to) two widely different audiences simultaneously. If true, then for Rancière that exercise has lasted a career. His books address readers intimately aware of issues in local French politics and people who have never set foot in France; academic philosophers and amateurs; professionals trained in various fields and autodidacts. His art lies in being true to the rigor of his argument—its careful, precise unfolding—and at the same time not treating his reader, whether university professor or unemployed actress, as an imbecile.

Rancière was born in 1940, and his political formation was marked by the Algerian War and above all by the eruptive force of May ’68, when student protests and a general strike of more than nine million people brought France to a standstill for over three weeks. Along with the work of a few others—some of them former Althusserians, like himself—and unlike that of a whole raft of more heavily mediatized French penseurs, his thinking has retained the political inflection and thematics of those times. His work has addressed the critique of specialization, and the relationship of knowledge (its forms of authority) and the masses. Above all, it shows an overriding concern with equality and a particularly disruptive version of democracy. Yet his intellectual agenda has been anything but nostalgic. In fact, the originality of his intellectual and political trajectory might best be thought of, as Badiou suggested at Cerisy, as a kind of prolonged formalization of the experience of 1968, when students like Rancière, trained in the Althusserian science of revolution (a knowing science that must be transmitted to an unknowing “people”) watched Althusserianism go up in flames on the barricades, as the “people” themselves took collective matters into their own hands.

Rancière’s books have eluded classification. His treatise on history, The Names of History: On the Poetics of Knowledge (Les Mots de l’histoire: Essai de poétique du savoir, 1992), angered or bewildered historians but was embraced by literary critics. The volume by Rancière most read by artists, it seems, is not his recent work on aesthetics—The Politics of Aesthetics (La Partage du sensible: Esthétique et politique, 2000)—but a little book I translated sixteen years ago called The Ignorant Schoolmaster (Le Maître ignorant, 1987). An extraordinary fable of emancipation and equality, it tells the story of a schoolteacher who developed a method for showing illiterate parents how they themselves could teach their children to read. Set in the post-Revolutionary period, it was written at the height of the hypocrisies and misdeeds of Reagan, Thatcher, and Mitterand—the moment when consensus first comes to be taken for granted as the optimum political gesture or goal, and disagreement or contradiction vaguely, if not explicitly, criminalized. His first major book, The Nights of Labor: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France (La Nuits des prolétaires: Archives du rêve ouvrier, 1981), gave voice to the wild diaries of artisans, to the daydreams of anonymous thinkers, to worker poets and philosophers who devised emancipatory systems alone in the dim early morning hours their work schedules allowed them. For these poets, Rancière argued, emancipation did not mean seizing control of the workplace, but rather seizing the right to dead time, the right to think, the right to occupy the terrain the bourgeoisie had carefully preserved for itself: the terrain of aesthetic pleasure. In this initial isolation of a group of individuals—individuals, by the way, whom an army of social historians busy combing the archives of nineteenth-century workers had failed to notice—and a set of gestures, we can already see the intricate relation of aesthetics and politics that Rancière would theorize more explicitly in later works like The Politics of Aesthetics and Disagreement (La Mésentente: Politique et philosophie, 1995). We can see how politics and aesthetics each occupy the terrain of the other and even then are not where one expects to find them. “The worker who had never learned how to write and yet tried to compose verse to suit the taste of his times,” Rancière wrote in a 1978 essay, “was perhaps more of a danger to the prevailing ideological order than a worker who performed revolutionary songs.” This emancipatory moment, a scene delineated and highlighted by Rancière with all the care of a dramaturge, this profound gesture of nonidentification with one’s supposed being or condition, this refusal to be contained by the confines of what a worker is, or is supposed to be, do, or say, lies at the heart of all Rancière’s subsequent reflection, whether his object is the films of Anthony Mann or the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu.

It is not surprising, then, that Rancière, in the interview that follows, would cite Godard to the effect that “the Israelis get the epic and the Palestinians get the documentary.” Generic habits—stereotypical representations that congeal in the writing of even the most progressive social scientists or political activists—create a world of unshakable facts. They reinforce categories that lead to a kind of digestive perception of only the most familiar of affects. Shifting the generic frame can constitute a political act: Nothing “real” seems to happen, and yet the new language, the new configuration, permits us to see a real event in place of the mere atmospheric swamp of earlier descriptions. Gone is the misery that is supposed to awaken our political outrage but which instead merely underlines what was already there, our sense of unchanging conditions and a naturalized identity of the victim—that whole massive appearance of permanence that restricts not only the emergence of individual subjectivities and political energies but even the mobility of ideas and the spontaneity and provocation of artistic invention.

The idea that politics and aesthetics do some of the same work will be jarring to those of us schooled in a much simpler and more rigid division of labor between the two. A host of commentaries inspired by Walter Benjamin and taken up by Susan Sontag and others have warned us against the danger of “aestheticizing politics.” In the art world especially, a prevalent post-Situationist context has led to a form of morose but pleasurable political resignation in the face of the all-consuming nature of the commodity and the market, a market that saturates, conditions, and determines the production and reception of artworks. In a related development, the tenacious remnants of Baudrillard’s thinking can be found lurking throughout the discourse of art criticism, proclaiming the bankruptcy of art in a world where everything has devolved into image. Yet in Rancière’s work such notions appear as so many artificial closures and limitations on the possibilities of thought and action, shackles to be set aside if not actively denounced. Art has not taken the place of an absent or distant politics. Instead, politics and art are both engaged in providing an opening in the consensus that there is only one reality, one space, one time: the space-time of the market.

On the one hand, political argumentation for Rancière belongs to a domain where the setting, dialogues, and even the cast of characters—who “counts,” who is recognized as a legitimate participant in the discussion—are not given in advance. Both the terms of the argument and the scene where politics takes place must be produced, invented. We are here squarely in the realm of the aesthetic: the system of forms that governs what is seeable or sayable—the world, in other words, of perception. On the other hand, Rancière’s thinking grants to art a kind of revitalized energy and potential for the new; art is given much the same power Rancière has granted elsewhere to politics: that of reframing, and thus expanding, what can be perceived in the present. Both art and politics reconfigure what is thinkable at a given moment.

Rancière, who has never shied away from polemics, has had to fight on several fronts at once. He has had to neutralize certain conceptual tools, like “modernity” or “postmodernity,” on which the whole edifice of disciplines like art history has been built. And he has had to sharply differentiate both art and politics from the rising tide of “ethical” thought that has threatened to subsume both at once. The two tasks are not unrelated. Rancière’s dismantling of the great historical schemata began during the 1990s, in the wake of the attempt made by philosophers, with a gravitas that frequently careened into hysteria, to proclaim a specifically new and postmodern era characterized by the end of art, for example, or the end of history, the end of politics, and, ultimately, the end of meaningful time itself. Here again, we must look back to 1968, for many of these same philosophers had gotten their start when, in the aftermath of the May insurrection, they needed to mask their reconciliation with the laws of economistic fatality with a new language. Human rights, or humanitarianism, with its obligatory reference to the twinned catastrophes of Gulag and Holocaust, provided a kind of moral or spiritual supplement to the rearmament of capitalism that transpired in France during that decade. The discourse of totalitarianism these writers popularized told us that an unthinkable and irreparable crime had occurred, the work of a pure and unlimited force of evil exceeding any political, even thinkable, measure. In this climate, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 meant that strong passions, master narratives, and the desire for systemic change had definitively subsided into a postmodern landscape of market uniformity that allowed only for the “politics” of rational management and the only “safe” form of political action: the defense of human rights. Postmodernism à la Lyotard, a periodization predicated on the end of art, and the “ethical turn” associated with a philosopher like Levinas, became for Rancière two figurations of the same nihilism. For in Levinas’s essentially religious formulations, thought finds itself annihilated in the face of the unrepresentable, a figure of pure otherness. Whether melancholic or ecstatic, fixated on the loss of a past eventfulness or on a sublime encounter with absolute alterity, each makes of the present a site of impossibility or paralysis.

Against such catastrophism Rancière has offered a powerful political reflection on emancipation, on the conditions of democracy as the thought and practice of equality. Democracy for him is neither a type of constitution nor a form of society, and especially not the current form of liberal democracy, where an elite—“a world government of wealth,” as he puts it—governs “in the name of” the people. As a political thinker, he has shown us that what passes for democracy is nothing but consensus: a Durkheimian vision of the social, whose cohesion depends on each occupying his own space, a functionalist affirmation of the status quo, of “objective givens,” by a discourse of expertise. Rancière’s work does not offer prescriptions, prophecies, or norms for action. But it can make us attentive to the fractures in our own present, the moments when another version of democracy, predicated on dissensus, equality, and the emergence of new political subjectivities, may now be perceived.

Kristin Ross is a professor of comparative literature at New York University.