Blog post

Jacques Rancière: “old fart” or man of the hour?

Tessa Morrison11 July 2012

Discussing the critique of “the new communism” in the Guardian recently, Stuart Jeffries wrote that the fear is that “nasty old left farts” such as Jacques Rancière “will corrupt the minds of the innocent youth.” In conversation with Jeffries, however, Rancière himself defends the relevance of his and his contemporaries’ thinking in 2012, explaining:

“The gravediggers are still here, in the form of workers in precarious conditions like the over exploited workers of factories in the far east. And today’s popular movements – Greece or elsewhere – also indicate that there’s a new will not to let our governments and our bankers inflict their crisis on the people.”

Visit the Guardian to read the article in full.

Also in the Guardian, Steven Poole reviews Rancière’s The Intellectual and His People, published this June:

This volume of 1970s essays by the French philosopher worries in different ways at the question of the construction of “the people” by those who claim to be speaking for them. Central is a long and fascinating discussion of the role of the intellectual in France, contrasting Sartre’s “universal vocation” with Foucault’s “local struggles”, and sneering at the emerging nouveaux philosophes. 

Visit the Guardian to read the review in full.

After months of uprisings, protests, and revolutions have been witnessed in all corners of the globe with millions of people executing their agency through democratic revolt and social revolution, it is impossible to ignore the relevance of Rancière’s 1970s musings today.

In a review in the Times Literary Supplement, David Winters writes of the philosopher:

With its leading lights now all but gone out, the fashion-conscious field of “French theory” stands in need of some new stars. At the moment, the main attraction is Jacques Rancière, subject of a swelling list of translations, and a darling not just of the anglophone academy, but also, increasingly, of the art world. While known for his link (and subsequent split) with Louis Althusser, Rancière may be more reminiscent of Michel Foucault. Like the latter, he’s often frustratingly opaque, but with flashes of counterintuitive brilliance, and a knack for turning commonplace concepts on their heads. His recent work has redescribed aesthetics in terms of a “distribution of the sensible”, probing into the politics of the way that art arranges perception.

More specifically, Winters asserts that “for those who like a little more history with their theory, Verso’s two new volumes of Rancière’s earlier writings may be more gratifying.” Also discussing The Intellectual and His People, Winters highlights Rancière’s warnings against “speaking for” the people:

The Intellectual and His People contains some remarkably sharp interventions against thinkers who misleadingly claim to “speak for” the masses. One notable essay attacks the so-called nouveaux philosophes,  who led Frenchculture’s break with the Left after the events of 1968… Indeed the nouveaux philosophes belong to an intellectual lineage which, since Plato, has only spoken for the people by keeping them silent. In this tradition, the people’s real purpose is to underwrite the authority of their spokesmen. For Rancière, all of this serves to suppress historical truth.

Visit the Times Literary Supplement to read the article in full (subscription only).

Following recent social unrest – from oppressed peoples in the Middle East, demanding that their voices be heard not just at home but across the globe, to Great Britain, where the frustrations of an unheard generation culminated in riots – it has never been more crucial that the world take note of what Rancière has to say.

Antony Iles and Tom Roberts, writing for Mute, commend Rancière, acknowledging his recognised status today as “an important aesthetic theorist and philosopher” but argue that his greatest contribution is to social history and locate his work again in the contemporary global context:

A radical social historian as well as philosopher, JacquesRancière has spent many years rescuing vivid fragments of proletarian life and thought from the vested interests that claim to speak for them… Rancière’s relation to the tradition of writing ‘history from below’, is enjoying some degree of exposure and rediscovery at a time of renewed global revolt and struggle.

Iles and Roberts also review Rancière’s Proletarian Nights, one of his most important works and previously published in English under the more provocative title, Nights of Labour. On the updated edition, published this April, they write:

Taken together, Rancière’s project in Proletarian Nights is to bring into tension the ambitions of the worker intellectuals and their construction as political subjects. He seeks to problematise conceptions of both the ideological separation between workers and intellectuals, and perceived unities of class identities, experiences and demand. Rancière foregrounds the individual aspirations of the artisans in a complex, dialectical way as producing a form of agency which is not incompatible, indeed feeds into collective action and structural change. However the development between the worker’s encounter with the symbolic space of poetry and philosophy, and concrete practices of emancipation, is often only hinted at in Proletarian Nights. Rancière suggests that the 'night-time socialisation of vanities' contributed towards opening up a much broader space of possibilities for the working class, a ‘general movement of people getting out of their condition’ and ‘prepared for’ the July revolution of 1830.

Visit Mute to read the article in full.

The blog SevenNinetyEight also links Rancière’s work to the struggles faced by young people today. The article notes that in his contribution to the Guardian’s “The graduate without a future” thread, Paul Mason, author of Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, describes some graduates who are making their own futures rather than depending on a future laid out for them by previous generations. The current university system has sometimes been referred to as a “parking lot” for the young generation; rather than a place that encourages radical thought, it merely provides a distraction. Discussing Rancière’s 1981 book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, and the lesson the philosopher affords to his protagonist, the teacher, Jacotot, the blog notes:

Jacotot had discovered that his old ways of teaching were, faced with sufficient motivation from his students, redundant. The trouble with the explicative conception of the world was not that it didn’t teach what it set out to teach - this much it accomplished. The problem was much greater: the explicative fiction stifled learning in ways that couldn’t be predicted. It produced students who had been robbed of the opportunity to ‘conceive [their] human dignity, take the measure of [their] intellectual capacity, and decide how to use it’. What got taught was as much a habit of discipline - a restrictive self-stultification - as a body of knowledge.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the explicative fiction has held sway over education systems forged largely in the quickly-bureaucratising and fast-industrialising European states of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The advantage of an education built on the explicative conception is that it delivers what the teacher sets out to deliver. A more emancipatory education in Rancière’s sense is unpredictable - perhaps dangerously so for even an enlightened absolutist regime. Who knows what discoveries a student may make once emancipated? And who knows what they may remain ignorant of?

Like Rancière, the blog concludes that “the form of education, not just the content, must be reassessed.”

Visit SevenNinetyEight to read the blog post in full.

Visit the Guardian to read the “The graduate without a future” in full.

In his review of Proletarian Nights for Spiked, James Heartfield writes that “reacting against the substitution of Marxist ideas of what the workers ought to be thinking, Rancière decided to find out what the workers really were thinking.” Heartfield cites Rancière, who reflects today upon his work:

"For the workers of the 1830s, the question was not to demand the impossible, but to realise it themselves, to take back the time that was refused them… to free themselves from the very exercise of work, or by winning from nightly rest time the time to discuss, write, compose verses, or develop philosophies."

In light of the past year, Rancière’s reflections on past movements and peoples jolt us quickly back to the present day.

Visit Spiked to read the review in full.

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