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Jacques Rancière: ‘The issue is to manage to maintain dissensus’

Interview with philosopher Jacques Rancière on the Covid-19 crisis, contemporary political upheavals the experience of art and film over the past year, and social media.

10 August 2021

Jacques Rancière: ‘The issue is to manage to maintain dissensus’

We met Jacques Rancière at his home in Paris with some stubborn questions in mind. Throughout his life, this thinker of workers’ emancipation, deeply attached to the idea of equality, has deconstructed authority figures and the haughtiness of the ‘knowers’. How, from this theoretical basis, does the philosopher view a historical sequence in which, under the effect of a virus, the words of experts stifle all others and cast precarious lives back into silence? How does the author of major works such as The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1987), Hatred of Democracy (2005) or The Emancipated Spectator (2008) see this radical repression of emancipation and dissent – a precondition for democratic debate and political action? In Les Mots et les Torts, a dialogue with the young Spanish philosopher Javier Bassas that has just been published, Althusser’s former student explains how he has always searched in his writing to ‘oppose to the identifications and distinctions of inegalitarian thinking a world of equality without borders’. It is an understatement to say that today the world of equality is faltering and that a handful of intellectuals and politicians have gained the upper hand in the war of words. From barricades to ‘safety measures’, Rancière X-rays the present time, seeking the possibilities of a new political moment.

 In our last long interview with you in 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, the Indignados movement and Occupy Wall Street, you observed a ‘beginning of politics’. Ten years later, where are we now? What has become of these beginnings?

It is a principle of mine never to make grand historical reflections. Of course, the classical analysis would say that this beginning failed because it was all spontaneous, ephemeral and unorganised. It’s true that these movements ran into the sand. But, nevertheless, there was a genuinely political sequence, in the sense that the beginnings you mention opened up other temporalities. The time of emancipation breaks with the use of time determined by the power of the state. It is certainly rare for springs to turn into summers – we have our own experience of this. So, there is indeed a break compared to now. Even before the pandemic, in 2016, the other political beginning that was Nuit Debout was unable to withstand an electoral situation. This is also what we have seen in Spain and Greece: emancipatory political movements have not been able to break the rules of the game. Some people draw the conclusion that they lacked a political organisation. But what they think of as organisation is always homogeneous with the temporality of the state. So you have to choose: either there is no politics at all – which is, after all, a hypothesis – or there is one and it is defined by the openings made by these kinds of moments.

According to your definition of emancipation as an accession to visibility of people who were previously in the shadows, has the moment of the health crisis not been exactly the opposite? A moment when the words of experts crush other voices and cast the invisible people into darkness? 

Yes, but the epidemic is not the only cause. It has been the accelerator of a policing organisation of the world that was already under way. The fact that everything happens at a distance, teleworking, distance learning: all of this is homogeneous with the view of the world held by the dominant powers. I do not believe that this amounts to an absolute control of our lives by computers. It is rather a world in which social relationships no longer imply sharing the same space. But politics requires encounters between people who live in separate spaces with separate visibilities. The dominant utopia is not so much control as the fact that everyone should be in their proper place: the teacher, the student, and so on. At the same time, in-between spaces such as the street are controlled by the police, who are as much an organisation of the visible as they are a repressive force.
Do you share Giorgio Agamben’s acute concern about the gains that the security industry and surveillance can draw from this crisis, to the detriment of our liberties?

It seems to me that the situation of the pandemic actually proves the opposite of what some people try to demonstrate, namely this omnipresence of a security power controlling minds and bodies. What the pandemic has produced is not so much a society of control as a society of dispersion. I think there is a great paranoia bound up with the very concept of biopolitics, which has been added to the older paranoia of Marxist logic, which always points to a great hidden power. All of this has led to this situation where most thinking that wants to be in opposition shares this great obsession with an irresistible power that takes hold of our minds and our bodies. Insofar as representations are not idle ideas but ways of organising our perceived world, to assume this power is to make it operative.

What is needed then is to produce more utopian representations rather than the dystopias that saturate contemporary fiction?

One cannot invent utopias or futures at leisure, but one can have stories that construct a divided present, in which adherence to the dominant vision of things is not unanimous, despite the efforts of the powers that be. What is interesting today is that the supposed conjunction between power and science had all the means to prove itself. Now we can see that there is a gap: it is not medical science that is the basis of the organisation of sensibility by our governments.

However, it is the words of the medical profession that have the ear of the executive. What is your analysis of this? Are not the keys of collective destiny more than ever in the hands of the knowing masters?

It is the logic of consensus to rely on a discourse of necessity. Medical power lies today in this mode of distribution of speech, which is manufactured essentially for the speech of the economic expert. In fact, this power speaks less as the wielder of science than as the manager of hospitals, whose resources have precisely been reduced by economic experts. Medical power embodies a form of radicalisation of this consensual logic that it did not create.

Doesn’t this conjuncture, where the issues are ones of life and death, weaken the possibility of the emergence of dissent? Hasn’t the virus in this sense precipitated a kind of ‘end of history’?

It is obvious that the possibilities of dissent today are extremely weak. We can easily see how people who try to make refusal of lockdown or vaccination an act of dissent fall into a conspiratorial paranoia. It is true that this space is very confined at the moment.

Is it because of the extreme repression of the possibility of dissent that political antagonism is expressed today only in an irrational register, in the form of conspiratorial thinking?

The types of response to the situation vary greatly. But people who obey the existing power do not do so because they consider it to be legitimate, or scientific, but because there is no reason to risk death simply to contradict official speech. The consensus is therefore largely a consensus without underlying consent. Which is why non-consensus is found somewhere between Agamben and QAnon.

The present period is characterised by the massive advent of a new anxiety-generating lexicon which fills our everyday life: ‘at war’, ‘lockdown’, ‘curfew’, ‘safety measures’, ‘state of emergency’. Will this injunction to withdraw into yourself have effects after the crisis is over?

It is very hard to predict what will be our reality after the crisis. But I think that people have acquired habits of obedience rather than habits of confinement, which will be hard to uproot, as we were faced with death where we didn’t expect it. This is what makes for the specificity of the situation. The West has rather forgotten war. But the return of death as a natural phenomenon, constricting possibilities of everyday speech and behaviour, is something unprecedented for us. Yet it is not a new situation. If the Black Death was a rupture in the history of the West, the cholera epidemics or the Spanish flu did not produce new figures of thought. We can believe therefore that life will resume its course after Covic-19, except that there were forces of struggle at those times that are rather extenuated today. The great speeches of denunciation that have accompanied the pandemic in our case are a rhetoric without purchase on what we are feeling.

Isn’t the discourse of contestation being replaced today, in the context of a health crisis intimately linked to the climate crisis, by a kind of disaster thinking? Hasn't "collapsology" been strengthened during this period?

It’s rather complicated. My feeling is that collapsology, catastrophism, have more weight on politically active sections of the population than on the population in general. There are not many people who genuinely believe in catastrophe, but those who do are activists who twenty years ago struggled against imperialism and capitalism. So, there is a substitution: the anthropocene has taken the place of capitalism, possibly renamed ‘capitalocene’ so as not to lose the thread. As I see it, this idea of a single cause on which everything depends has always paralysed the thought of the left. Today, it has shifted to the climate crisis, with the resurgence of figures from the past such as Andreas Malm’s ‘ecological Leninism’. The problem of catastrophism is that it affects a part of the population that wants to move, wants to create dissent. But if the planet replaces capital as the great cause, I think this will be still more paralysing.
Have social networks created a circulation of speech that you see as favouring equality?

I don’t believe this has liberated an egalitarian speech. It has provided an enormous mass of information, it has created a scientific universe accessible to all. Now this is again being taken in hand. And the type of speech it has created is rather a mixture of resentment and paranoia: on the one hand, we say ‘everything weighing on our hearts’, everything we’re happy to hate. On the other hand, it’s the clever speech of ‘I don’t let myself be taken in. I know how to look underneath’. This combination is more the Trump recipe.

What do you think of the belated decision by Twitter and Facebook to interrupt Trump’s logorrhea? Do you see this as protection of democracy or an act of censorship?

I do not share the indignation of Mélenchon and company who cry ‘censorship’ because Trump is prevented from speaking. Facebook and Twitter are private companies with their own rules of operation. If they consider Donald Trump to be in breach of these rules, like any user who makes abusive comments against actresses or racist comments against footballers, I have nothing to say against it. Those who are indignant about this are people who tried to play both sides: to be public figures, but use these means of seduction that we could call privatised.

In your contribution to an issue we devoted a year ago to the mobilisation against the pension reform, you said we were experiencing ‘an offensive of absolutised capitalism’? Do you think this can nevertheless be overcome?

For the moment, honestly, I don’t see any prospects for overcoming it. But then again, I’m not predicting the future. In En quel temps vivons-nous [conversation with Eric Hazan, La Fabrique, 2017], I said that we find ourselves not facing capital but inside it. All we can do is dig holes, try to create and enlarge spaces of non-consent. The challenge is to manage to maintain dissensus, maintain a distance. What can this distance produce in the future? I don’t know. But even these figures of distance are a way of living differently in the world we challenge. I’ve tried to explain this in my historical research: workers’ emancipation was a way of living in the capitalist world as much as a way of preparing for the future.

One unique feature of the present moment is that for a prolonged period it has deprived citizens of access to certain forms of art. Museums, theatres and cinemas have never been closed for such a long time. Do you think this privatisation produces an atrophy of experience?

I do not attribute any messianic role to art. I don’t believe at all in the great narratives of art standing up against power, art standing up against capital. What the word ‘art’ covers, especially now, is a multitude of experiments, forms of translation, interpretation, transposition of situations. In this respect, art is an enrichment. It allows us to experience montages of sensations, montages of thoughts that free us from the consensus by multiplying our experience of the world. And so, indeed, we are collectively experiencing a restriction of the world that is extremely severe.

Do you see the fact that the collective experience of art in public spaces (cinema, theatre, concerts) is erased in favour of individual experiences such as streaming as a deeply damaging loss?

I don’t think there is any historical necessity about this. It is neither irreversible nor irreparable. At the same time, I don’t think we should exaggerate when we speak of theatre or cinema as great collective spaces. Not much goes on there that has to do with people being together in the same space. Most of the time people look at the work in silence, like it or are bored by it. The collective nature of the experience is not so decisive. I was even surprised, some fifteen years ago, when I attended a contemporary dance performance that was booed by some of the audience. Suddenly something came back that we had forgotten: that the theatre is a collective place, which can also lead to conflict. But that’s still quite exceptional. Afterwards, of course, you don’t have the same palpable experience of a film when you see it on a television or computer screen.

Is cinema still for you an object of thought and a sustained spectator practice? 

By necessity, I have been watching films increasingly on small screens. But even though I no longer go so often to movie theatres, cinema remains for me a major source of experience and reflection.

Have you seen Jean-Luc Godard’s last three films – Film socialisme (2010), L’Adieu au langage (2014) and Le Livre d’image (2018)?

Yes, I have seen them. They are films that matter to me, though, at the same time, I have the impression that he has settled into a certain comfort zone. He has established a certain mode of circulation between images of the horror of the world, of war, of our time, and words that confront and clash with them, clash with each other. In a way this is rather like Goya, who also used montages of images and words. It’s very seductive. One can be rather gripped by this spectacle for an hour and a half. And, at the same time, I am not sure that it really contributes to fostering a stronger sensitivity to the present. It’s too well oiled. But, in Le Livre d’image there is perhaps something new in the way it brings the Middle East, often reduced to the territory of fanaticism and violence, back into the centre of our sensibility. At this point, his machine stops revolving on itself.

What works in recent years, then, in cinema or otherwise, do you see as having shifted something in the perception of the present?

In the last few years I have been able to get this feeling from the films of some young Chinese filmmakers. An Elephant Sitting Still, for example, the only film by Hu Bo, a filmmaker who committed suicide at the age of 29. Or Kaili Blues, Bi Gan’s first feature film, or A Stay in the Fuchun Mountains by Gu Xiaogang. I have the feeling that these films say something, in a palpable form, about time, memory or amnesia in China today. In the same way, when I see the films of Kelly Reichardt (The Last Track, Certain Women) or Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone, Leave No Trace), I feel that I understand something about America, about the ever-changing relationship between civilisation and savagery. It’s a cinema that invents connections between spaces and times that don’t meet. You really sense that something new is being said about the present. At one time, I thought that Philippe Garrel’s cinema was saying something unique about feeling. Now it seems to me that he’s making the same film over and over again.

So your tie to the cinema is a concern with the present time. But do you watch again films you liked even if they are no longer connected to the present?

Oh yes! I spend quite a lot of time watching old films again and going through cinema history. I get pleasure from watching screwball comedies, Westerns… The question of the relationship to the present is for me a concern about new films today. Many people think they are speaking about their time by linking stereotypes of the present to narrative recipes that work more or less in all seasons. No matter that they describe things that are happening today. When a filmmaker tries to find slightly singular ways to make something of the present heard, it usually moves me.

How do you view a certain creativity in forms of political activism today? Are post-situationist graffiti on walls, slogans full of puns, signs of a poetic invention in the way of doing politics?

Politics has undoubtedly become closer to artistic forms than ever before. I talk about this in Les Mots et les Torts. There is a whole series of language games at the heart of political speech, which have replaced the great slogans of yesteryear on banners or from loudspeakers. Political activism has taken a turn that brings it closer to certain forms of artistic intervention. As a result, everyone comes with their own placard, their own slogan. That is really very visible in the last ten years. It’s part of the sensibility of this time. People re-create an experience of the world outside of the great syntheses, starting from fragments that are shared with art. You could say that today we do politics like Godard did cinema fifty years ago.

Interview with Jacques Rancière by Mathieu Dejean and Jean-Marc Lalanne 
(Les Inrockuptibles, 17 February 2021