Rancière: Democracies on the move

Jacques Rancière, June 2015. Photo by Stéphane Burlot. via Libération. 

First published in Libération. Translated by David Broder.

Henri Bergson was not mistaken when he said that fundamentally every great philosopher never wanted to make more than a single statement, and spent their whole life in saying it. Among the classic thinkers we can pick out this central idea, fortified by a thousand others — a central idea which has nourished though over the centuries. However, it is rather more hazardous to conduct this same exercise when it comes to contemporary philosophers whose work is in progress and may well still create something new. Nonetheless, looking at the case of Jacques Rancière, we would have good reason to say that this "something" concerns the way in which he has thought the relations between aesthetics and politics, and the innovative meaning he has given the "old" idea of emancipation.

Jacques Rancière has just written a short book En quel temps vivons-nous? [What time are we living in?], in the form of a (written) conversation with Eric Hazan. While this work sits wholly within the general framework of his thought, it also directly gets to grips with the questions of our time, the questions that the political present compels us to pose, and which were posed during the recent presidential election campaign (at the moment the book went to press, it was still possible that Marine Le Pen might win). That means questions like: what definition can we still give of the "people"? What does this have to do with the system of "representation"? What does an elected representative "represent," when they do not come from a territory or a political history anchored in local realities? When they are picked from among "people" in civil society circles, to "join up with" a composite assembly that constitutes itself "along the way" ("en marche")? When they are "elected" with the aid of some online platform [i.e. “Le Hub," provided to En Marche candidates] and "trained" through brief apprenticeships in administration and communications?

Insurrection and revolution

Jacques Rancière is one of the most influential French philosophers today. Despite the vast gulfs that divide them, we could set him in the same constellation as Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Giorgio Agamben, Ernesto Laclau (Podemos’s theoretical reference point), Chantal Mouffe, Toni Negri and Michael Hardt. Yet he has behind him an oeuvre of around forty books that is difficult to classify, and which has sparked a considerable number of critical studies and commentaries.

Born in Algiers in 1940, emeritus professor of the Université Paris-VIII, and a philosophy professor at the European Graduate School (in Switzerland), Rancière studied at the Ecole normale supérieure, which at that time was governed ideologically by Louis Althusser. Together with Althusser, Etienne Balibar, Roger Establet and Pierre Macherey, he took part in writing Reading Capital (1965). However, the profound wave that was May 1968 led Rancière to positions distant from those of the master of the Rue d’Ulm, whose very bases — Marxism erected into a science — he criticised in his 1974 work Althusser’s Lesson. In that same year he founded Révoltes logiques review. As against the ambient "theoreticism," Rancière considered that workers are perfectly capable of understanding their own oppression and emancipating themselves, without the need for an intellectual elite to guide them. In order to demonstrate this and support the postulate that intellects are equal, Rancière embarked upon a series of studies on worker-emancipation in the nineteenth century, from which emerged La Parole ouvrière (with Arlette Farge, 1975), Proletarian Nights (1981), The Philosopher and his Poor (1983), Louis-Gabriel Gauny - Le philosophe plébéien (1985), and The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1987). Even as he also concerned himself with cinema, he constantly questioned the notions of people, insurrection, and democracy, as well as the rules "allowing a representative system to declare itself democratic." In Hatred of Democracy (2005) he had emphasised the opposition between "the democratic logic and the representative logic" and recalled "a certain number of principles" able to inject "more democracy into institutions," for example "the drawing of lots and short terms that cannot be accumulated or renewed."

He returns to this problem in En quel temps vivons-nous? Here he argues that "the decomposition of the representative system" is in fact "an old canard" which has "since the 1880s sustained the hopes and illusions of a 'radical' Left that is always prepared to see low participation levels in this or that by election as proof of a mass disinvestment from the electoral system." To claim that representation is dying is in fact to consider that its principle is democracy itself. Yet as the philosopher makes clear that "democracy is not the choice of representatives; it is the power of those with no qualification to exercise power." The "dominant doxa" sees representation as a "movement that begins from below" in which "the people is present as a collective body that choses its own representatives." But according to Rancière, that is not how things really are. "A political people is not something pre-existing and given, but a result. It is not the people that represents itself; rather, it is the representation that produces a certain people."

The manifestation of equality

Implicit in the minds of those who invented the representative system was the idea that part of society "is naturally suited to representing the general interests of society, on account of its own position." This not only creates the "democratic illusion" through which "people are subjected to a power which they imagine emanates from themselves," but means that representation produces a job exercised by a class of politicians "which essentially reproduces itself and has this self-reproduction validated by way of the specific form of people that it produces, namely the electorate." But how can the democratic principle be detached from the index of the principle of representation? Well, by conceiving democracy differently. Not as a form of government, but as an unpredictable and conflictual manifestation of equality, of the egalitarian action that — even if only for a time — disrupts the work of government (which Rancière calls a "police," as opposed to politics), or disrupts the hierarchical, unequal organisation of sites, of positions, of shares in society and of functions by opening up other fields of possibility and opportunities for a life in common. Governmental oligarchies, the caste of the professionals of power and the "hierarchical logic of the reproduction of 'legitimate' representatives" only impose themselves and endure if there are not "powerful autonomous democratic powers that construct another people" independently of the representative system, "an egalitarian people in movement." That is the necessary task in "the times we live in": "to construct other forms of life," "other perspectives on the 'problems' that the dominant order offers up to us." That is politics’ aesthetic task.

The aesthetics of politics

The terrains where politics and aesthetics overlap have already been worked on in the past, especially by Adorno and Benjamin. But Rancière does not situate the relations between art and politics either in the aestheticisation of politics, in the transformation of politics into the spectacle of managing and "communicating" power, or in the politicisation of art. Rather, he situates them in terms of what the two domains "share," namely their status of visibility.

If aesthetics and politics necessarily must embrace, it is because the same "gesture" defines them, namely that of organising the space of perception in such a way that what was not visible suddenly becomes visible. We see this in a work of art; if it is a "great" work then it will invent (musical, pictorial, literary) languages for which there are not yet any dictionaries, and will "show" that there is something there that had hitherto still been unnoticed or unheard of. But the same goes for politics, which shares out the collective space, reorganises the time of action, creates other common worlds and makes "visible" the capacities of the subjects who inhabit them.

There are numerous examples of this. The 2013 protest movement in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, the "Arab Spring," Occupy Wall Street, the Indignados of the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, the assemblies at Athens’s Syntagma Square, Nuit debout and so on have all revealed other ways of being together, acting, feeling, understanding, and thinking hierarchy and representation, and have shown how a community becomes political as it takes hold of "a space and a time of its own," as it creates "another common world." This is true notwithstanding everything that distinguishes these experiences from a cultural, ideological and historical point of view. "In art as in politics," Rancière writes, "the common today appears as something to be built with heterogeneous forms and materials, and not as the affirmation of resources particular to already-constituted units, be they social classes, specialised organisations or definite arts."

Advances in justice and freedom

Certainly, "movementist" logics lack a "unitary force." The struggles born of specific circumstances — of "some form of domination, some type of injustice" — and which are waged in order to defend "the rights of the poor they want to kick out of their housing, or the peasants they want to kick off their land"; in order to oppose "a project threatening the environmental balance"; in order to welcome "those who have had to flee their country"; in order to offer "means of expression for those who have none"; in order to allow "this or that category of human beings who are made inferior for whatever reason — sex, origin, physical capacity, etc. — to impose a rule of equality" all come to bear outside of ‘the idea of a fusion oriented by a vision of history and the future’. They do not see any Grand Soir. But they are like the mornings of the world, for on each occasion they allow the development of "forms of secession from the modes of perception, thought, life and community that are proposed by the logics of inequality." Certainly, we used to think the "revolution" differently to this. But the time that we are living through — in which capitalism has become "more than a power, a world" — does not at all rule out the possibility of advances in justice and freedom. That is, if — following Rancière — we conceive emancipation as the "invention in the here and now of forms of the common" and as "a way of living in the enemy’s world, in the ambiguous position of those who fight the dominant order but are also able to construct spaces apart within it, where they escape its law."

Jacques Rancière En quel temps vivons-nous ? Conversation avec Éric Hazan La Fabrique, 80 pp., €10.