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Transgressing Temporal Hierarchies

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As Rancière makes clear in the introduction to Modern Times, the plural in its title includes a hint of its overall argument: modernity does not amount to a unity of a temporal synthesis, but of a conjunction or coexistence of times: ‘there is no one modern times, only a plurality of them’ (x). In the first edition of the book, originally published in English in 2017, he describes his research over the course of the past 40 odd years as a ‘cartography of a common world’.[1] The first thing to note, then, is the spatial figure into which the book’s discussion of times is placed from the very outset. Indeed, Rancière’s trajectory is best understood through certain broad principles of space and time associated to egalitarian coexistence and subordination respectively. As such, Rancière is a thinker of time only insofar as he rethinks it in terms of a certain spatial logic which resists attempts to subject the social and historical reality to an overarching temporal synthesis. The use of spatiality, I claim, stems from Ludwig Feuerbach, the focus of Rancière’s first doctoral research, and is permanently interrupted by the events of May 1968.

In his critique of Hegel, Feuerbach characterised space as a principle of coexistence and associates it with equality and freedom. As such space is contrasted to time, seen as a principle of exclusion and subordination. Unlike time, space allows us to see what is ‘the common, the same and the identical’ to all beings, what is shared by different ‘religions, philosophies, times and peoples’.[2] Moreover, Feuerbach granted such a space a primordial status in relation to time, stating that a temporal succession is conditioned on a spatial coexistence of its stages. While ‘[n]ature always combines the monarchical tendency of time with the liberalism of space’, Feuerbach coins space as ‘the first sphere of reason’, a principle of equality distinguished from time.[3]

These views of space and time form an underlying methodological gesture of Rancière’s thinking. Rethinking time through space has enabled Rancière to persist in rejecting progressive and teleological frameworks for political temporalities to a larger extent than perhaps any other contemporary political thinker. By the same token, Rancière’s understanding of egalitarian practices comes with a difficulty to conceive coherent temporal horizons within which such practices are organised and structured. Indeed, Rancière’s notion of emancipatory politics makes equality effective only insofar as it rejects a temporal direction of this effectiveness. The temporality of an egalitarian process is not-one, but its unity is better understood as that of a shared space.

Modern Times follows the method of rethinking time in terms of spatial coexistence as opposed to a time understood as a determined sequence ordering difference. A central theme in this respect is a disintegration of the Aristotelian narrative rationality based on a division between two temporalities. On the one hand, there is a narrative of time where things happen according to their possibility and events unfold in a determined succession of causes and effects. On the other hand, there is a narrative principle of ‘chronicle’, based on a time where events succeed each other wholly contingently. This classification of narrative temporalities corresponds to a division between forms of life separating ‘active men’ from ‘passive men’. While the active men are capable of achieving knowledge of the course of events, to act on this course and to project ends on it, the passive men lack such knowledge and live only to satisfy immediate needs. While the active men occupy the heroic universe of fiction, the passive men belong to the everyday life of material production. Indeed, Rancière associates the Aristotelian narrative framework with Plato’s quasi-sociological description of the order of polis where, as opposed to free men discussing politics in the agora, ‘artisans […] should be kept exclusively in the space of the workshop’ (8). Hence, the hierarchy of fictional temporalities ‘corresponds to a hierarchy of places separating two categories of human beings’ (7).

This division, Rancière claims, persists all the way to our present and continues to inform the way in which societal and historical realities are constructed and perceived. Through orthodox Marxism to the discourse of globalisation, it is reproduced as a qualitative distinction between the ‘time of science’ and the ‘pathological time of succession’ (17). The distinction between temporalities continue to separate those in possession of knowledge from the ignorant masses. It marks with ignorance the experiences and desires of ‘backward people incapable of adapting to the time of the global market’ (14). Incapable of understanding phenomena according to their historical conditions, today’s passive men and women confuse the past, the present and the future with each other. For Rancière, temporalisation is then first and foremost a question of producing order in the present, order which imposes a hierarchy of knowledge on people living in a shared world.

It is this hierarchy of times as well as the corresponding separation between occupations which ‘modern times’ dismantle replacing it with egalitarian coexistence. Theorising the modern literary practice in her essay ‘Modern Fiction’, Virginia Woolf contrasted ‘[t]o the tyranny of causal emplotment’ ‘a time that refuses the opposition between two types of succession – a time common to the humans said to be active and those deemed passive’. This is ‘a time that itself diverges, starting from any point whatsoever, in multiple, unpredictable directions’ (25). Similarly, Joseph Jacotot’s emancipatory anti-pedagogy forms a ‘time of emancipation’ which ‘knows no definite order of stages’. It ‘can start from any point, at any moments, and extend in unanticipated directions by inventing its own connections at every stage’ (23). As such it is opposed to the determined time of traditional pedagogy ‘whose stages must be gone through the right order’ and which hence ‘presupposes a guide who oversees the whole process’ (22).

Thinking the formation of this kind of time leans on the virtual coexistence of the elements of a given sequence, implicit in multidirectionality as well as in the expressions ‘any point’ or ‘any stage’ which reject the idea of time as an ordinal sequence. It is a question of ‘the succession of sensible micro-events that happen one after another, but above all alongside one another, in the absence of any hierarchy’ (48, emphasis added). It is about coexisting elements in undetermined succession, about free navigation in a virtual presence of all possible elements forming them, all possible stages, all possible connections, and about absolute contingency of the successive order which coexisting trajectories happen to form. It is this spatial logic through which equality is articulated into temporal difference.

While the Aristotelian narrative principles were associated with the spatial order of the Platonic city, the new emancipatory narrative framework is directly linked to instances of political revolts where workers ‘deserted the workshops to go into the streets and affirm their participation in a common history’ (21). Hence, ‘the new modes of political action were employing the forms of coexistence of temporalities in city streets that the literary revolution opposed to the tyranny of plot’ (30). Spatialising the hierarchies of times thus enables Rancière to model the transgression of these hierarchies in terms of movement in space.

Rethinking time in terms of spatiality further amounts to compressing the temporality of politics into the present. In Rancière’s notion of politics, the practices of emancipation concern the here and now. Indeed, the focus on the present links him to the question of modernity and informs his specific understanding of it. ‘The privilege of the present is the privilege of a time of coexistence’, as Rancière states in reference to Ralph Waldo Emerson (42). However, the question is to what extent this time can be understood as a time forming a coherent temporal horizon. To what extent can this coexistence be a temporal one, or to what extent can it be temporally one?

This question forms another thread in the essays collected in Modern Times. On the one hand, Rancière analyses modernity in terms of coexistence of temporalities and the transgression of the order which determines their relation to given bodies or occupations. On the other hand, he shows how this coexistence itself appears to become unified into a single temporality, modernity as a time of coexistence. It is Rancière’s deconstruction of this latter model which allows us to see that his own understanding of the emancipatory potential of modern times as coexistence is one whose ‘co-’ ultimately resists any temporal coherence.

This can be seen in Rancière’s critical analysis of Dziga Vertov’s cinematic classic Man with a Movie Camera. The film uses montage to connect various everyday activities with the purpose of presenting them as a new form of collective life in a communist society. Going further from the narrative principles summarized by Woolf, Vertov wants to ‘radicalize the principle of coexistence by making all the activities equivalent and simultaneous’ (50). Rather than coexisting in their particularities, each of these activities is ‘reflected in all the others and merges with them’. In line with what Emerson, and Walter Whitman after him, had anticipated, the task is ‘to find the thread capable of uniting the new community’ or to construct a ‘common time of all the activities’ brought together in the film. Such a common time forms a communism which is ‘quite contrary to the strategic vision of the communist apparatus’ and as such stays true to the dismantling of Aristotelian narrative hierarchies. Instead of using the present as a means for a distant future, Vertov’s communism is ‘anticipated in the construction of a common sensorium of equality’ in the present. Modernity, then, includes a ‘conflict between two communisms, between two ways of constructing the very temporality of communism’ (61). However, precisely insofar as they both attempt to construct a shared temporal horizon for social reality, Rancière in a sense proposes a third communism through his critical analysis of dance which was supposed ‘to synthesize and symbolise’ the movement of collective life in Vertov’s film (69).

As Rancière explains, ‘for filmmakers of Vertov’s generation, montage was two things at once. It was an original combination of elements, but also faith in the virtue of this assemblage: the expectation that the fragments would be assembled in the spectator’s mind in line with the artist’s intention and that the energy of the movements would generate a corresponding energy in the viewer’ (85). In other words, the spectator was subordinated to the message that this coexistence was to transmit which was a message of this coexistence as such. The use of dance in the film was to play the role of transmitting this message and hence to reintroduce a temporal subordination where an artistic performance takes the audience into a movement of anticipation of a common sensory universe. If this movement was freed from external ends – and hence opposed the strategic vision of communism of the party authorities – it nevertheless included an end in itself to which it subjected its audience thus forming a certain teleology. However, through a closer reading of dance, both as it appears in Vertov’s film and as it is theorised by Mallarmé and practiced by several modern choreographers, Rancière questions this synthesizing function. He argues that the true significance of modern dance lies in its capacity to give rise to a ‘discrepancy between the performance of the dance and the spectator’s “translation” of it’ (85). Hence, it rejects not only ‘the customary ends of movement designed for some particular goal’ but also itself as ‘its own end’: ‘What transpires between the stage and the audience is neither the communication of a meaning, nor the transmission of a movement’ but a ‘discrepancy’, an ‘interval’. We should understand this discrepancy in terms of a coexistence which resists any unifying temporal horizon, a non-hierarchical coexistence within the space of the sensible, or as Rancière states, once again confirming his debt to the emancipatory ideas of Joseph Jacotot, ‘a community of beings who share the same sensible world as much as they remain distant from one another’ (92). They coexist while remaining distant in respect to any shared orientation in time.

Rancière’s overall work is inclined towards thinking equality as a coexistence without structuring this coexistence around an overwhelming temporal synthesis or orientation. Rancière thinks emancipation in terms of juxtaposition, conjunction and disjunction, rather than in terms of temporally coherent processes. However, this methodological ground motive makes it difficult to think the temporality of politics in a way which would enable to integrate into it ideas of strategic action or allow us to understand how political actors might be able to control the unfolding sequences that their actions form. At the end of Modern Times Rancière recognises the difficulty of ‘thinking the temporality of politics today’, a task which much of his recent work explicitly takes (120). The irony lies in how Rancière’s own work tends to wager on a coexistence of heterogenous temporalities while resisting to project them on an overarching temporal order, and how it thus problematises politics as a consequential process from the outset.

Jussi Palmusaari holds a PhD from the Centre of Research in Modern European Philosophy, Kingston University London. He teaches in the Department of European and International Studies at King’s College London. His book For Revolt: Rancière, Abstract Space and Emancipation is forthcoming from Bloomsbury.


[1] Jacques Rancière, Modern Times, Zagreb: Multimedijalni institut, 2017 (1st ed.), 12.

[2] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings, trans. Zavar Hanfi, Verso: London, 2012, 54, translation changed.

[3] Ibid., 54, 235.