The concept of what politics and aesthetics are about

What does it mean to think politics and aesthetics under the concept of
Obviously dissensus is not only the concept of what politics
and aesthetics are about. This notion also sets up the theoretical stage
on which politics and aesthetics themselves are thinkable and the kind of
relations that tie their objects together. At the most abstract level, dissensus
means a difference between sense and sense: a difference within the same,
a sameness of the opposite. If you assume that politics is a form of dissensus, this means that you cannot deduce it from any essence of the
community, whether you do it positively in terms of implementation of a
common property such as communicative language (Aristotle) or negatively in terms of a response to a destructive instinct that would set man
against man (Hobbes). There is politics because the common is divided.
Now this division is not a difference of levels. The opposition between sense
and sense is not an opposition between the sensible and the intelligible.
Political dissensus is not the appearance or the form that would be the
manifestation of an underlying social and economic process. In reference
to the Marxist conceptualization, class war is the actual reality of politics,
not its hidden cause.
Let us start from the first point. In Disagreement I re-examined the old
Aristotelian definition of the political animal as a speaking animal. Some
critics saw it as ‘a return to the classics’, which also meant to them a return
to an old view of language and an old theory of the subject that would
ignore Derrida’s deconstruction or Lyotard’s différend. But this view is
misleading. Starting from the Aristotelian ‘speaking animal’ does not mean
The Thinking of Dissensus:
Politics and Aesthetics
Jacques Rancière
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returning to the definition of an anthropological disposition to political
life, to the idea that politics is based on the human capacity of speaking
and discussing, as Aristotle opposed it to the merely animal capacity of the
voice which expresses pleasure and pain. On the contrary, I show that this
‘common’ capacity is split up from the very beginning. Aristotle tells us
that slaves understand language but don’t possess it. This is what dissensus
means. There is politics because speaking is not the same as speaking,
because there is not even an agreement on what a sense means. Political
dissensus is not a discussion between speaking people who would confront
their interests and values. It is a conflict about who speaks and who does
not speak, about what has to be heard as the voice of pain and what has to
be heard as an argument on justice. And this is also what ‘class war’ means:
not the conflict between groups which have opposite economic interests,
but the conflict about what an ‘interest’ is, the struggle between those
who set themselves as able to manage social interests and those who are
supposed to be only able to reproduce their life.
I started from philosophers who defined politics as the implementation
of a human disposition to the community because I wanted to show that it
is impossible to draw such a deduction, that this ‘common’ sensory quality
is already the stage of a dissensus. This leads me to a methodological
remark: disagreement is not only an object of my theorization. It is also its
method. Addressing an author or a concept first means to me setting the
stage for a disagreement, testing an operator of difference. This also means
that my theoretical operations are always aimed at reframing the configuration of a problem. The same critics that suspect me of ‘returning’ to the
classics think that the distinction between politics and police in Disagreement or in the ‘Ten Theses on Politics’ amounts to a search for the purity
of politics. Marxists see it as a reminder of the old ‘populist’ opposition of
spontaneity to organization, deconstructionists as an uncritical return to
an old metaphysics of identity. But both miss the polemical context of my
argumentation. My analysis of what ‘politics’ means was entirely aimed at
challenging and overturning a given idea of that purity. It was a response
to the so-called return of the political or return to politics which nearly
overwhelmed us in the 1980s in France. At that time we could hear everywhere this motto: we have now broken away from the subjection of the
political to the social, to social interests, social conflicts and social utopias.
We have thus returned to the true sense of politics as the action on the
public stage, the manifestation of a ‘being-together’, the search for the
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Jacques Rancière: The Thinking of Dissensus 3
common good, and so on. The philosophical ground for that return was
taken mainly from two philosophers, Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt,
who – in some way – had brought the legacy of Greek philosophy to
modern governmental practice. Both theorists had emphasized the opposition between the political sphere of public action and speech and the realm
of economical and social necessity. Their arguments were strongly revived,
even more so as they could be substituted for the old Marxist opposition of
‘economism’ and ‘spontaneism’ to true revolutionary practice.
That conjunction was made obvious during the strikes of 1995 in
France. The old Marxist denunciation of ‘trade-unionism’ and the Arendtian denunciation of the confusion between the political and the social
could merge into one and the same discourse of support to the ‘political
courage’ of the government in charge of the common good and of the
future of the community against the archaic privileges advocated by the
strikers. Therefore, it appeared that the return to the ‘purity’ of the political
meant in fact the return to the identification of the political with state
institutions and governmental practice. Consequently, my attempt at
defining the specificity of politics was first an attempt at challenging the
mainstream idea of the return to pure politics.
There is no ‘pure’ politics. I wrote the ‘Ten Theses on Politics’ primarily
as a critique of the Arendtian idea of a specific political sphere and a political way of life. The ‘Theses’ aimed at demonstrating that her definition
of politics was a vicious circle: it identifies politics with a specific way of
life. Ultimately, however, this means identifying it with the way of life
of those whose way of life already destined them to politics. It is the circle
of the arkhê, the anticipation of the exercise of power in the ‘power of
beginning’, in the disposition or entitlement to exercise it. The core of the
problem lay precisely in the idea of ‘disposition’ or ‘destination’. It lay in
the idea of the opposition between a political and a non-political life or
a ‘bare life’. This distribution is precisely the presupposition of what I call
the police: the configuration of the political community as a collective body
with its places and functions allotted according to the competences specific
to groups and individuals. There is politics when this presupposition is
broken by the affirmation that the power belongs to those who have no
qualification to rule – which amounts to saying that there is no ground
whatever for the exercise of power. There is politics when the boundary
separating those who are born for politics from those who are born for the
‘bare’ life of economic and social necessity is put into question.
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This means that there is no political life, but a political stage. Political
action consists in showing as political what was viewed as ‘social’, ‘economic’
or ‘domestic’. It consists in blurring the boundaries. It is what happens
whenever ‘domestic’ agents – workers or women, for instance – reconfigure
their quarrel as a quarrel concerning the common, that is, concerning what
place belongs or does not belong to it and who is able or unable to make
enunciations and demonstrations about the common. It should be clear
therefore that there is politics when there is a disagreement about what
is politics, when the boundary separating the political from the social or
the public from the domestic is put into question. Politics is a way of
re-partitioning the political from the non-political. This is why it generally
occurs ‘out of place’, in a place which was not supposed to be political.
Let us draw some consequences from this analysis. First, this does not
mean that my view of politics is ‘value-neutral’.2
Sure, it refuses to ground
politics on an ethical idea of the common. More precisely, it puts into
question the idea that politics, as a set of practices, has to be regulated by
ethics conceived as the instance pronouncing values or principles of action
in general. According to this view, disasters and horrors would happen
when you forget to ground politics in ethics. I would put matters the other
way around. In the age of George Bush and Osama bin Laden, it appears
that the ethical conflict is much more violent, much more radical than
the political one. Politics then can be conceived as a specific practice of
antagonism, capable of soothing the violence of ethical conflict.
Yet I do not reduce politics to a mere agonistic schema where the
‘content’ is irrelevant. I am far away from the Schmittian formalization of
antagonism. Politics, I argue, has its own universal, its own measure that
is equality. The measure never applies directly. It does so only through the
enactment of a wrong. However, not every wrong is necessarily political.
It has been argued against my theses that there are also anti-democratic
forms of protest among the oppressed, shaped by religious fanaticism or
ethnic identitarianism and intolerance. Ernesto Laclau (2005) put this as
the blind spot of my conceptualization of dissensus (246–7). But it is clear
that in my view a wrong is political when it enacts the basis of political
action, which is the mere contingency of equality, which is evidently not
the case of ‘popular’ movements asking for the purity of the blood, the
power of religion, and so on. But I also refuse a widespread tendency to
stigmatize any form of protest under the name of ‘populism’. The concept
of ‘populism’ is a hotchpotch which allows old Marxists and young liberals
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Jacques Rancière: The Thinking of Dissensus 5
at once to put in the same basket struggles for maintaining the welfare
system and ethnic or religious riots.
The ‘people’ is a name for two opposite things: demos or ethnos. The
ethnos is the people identified with the living body of those who have
the same origin, are born on the same soil or worship the same god. It
is the people as a given body opposed to other such bodies. The demos is
the people conceived as a supplement to the parts of the community –
what I call the count of the uncounted. It is the inscription of the mere
contingency of being born here or there, as opposed to any ‘qualification’
for ruling, and it makes its appearance through the process of verification
of that equality, the construction of forms of dissensus. Now it is clear that
the difference is not given once and for all. The life of the demos is the
ongoing process of its differentiation from the ethnos.
Second, this does not mean that I reduce politics to exceptional and
vanishing moments of uprising. The mere enactment of the political
principle rarely – if ever – appears in its purity, but there is politics in a lot
of ‘confused’ matters and conflicts, and politics makes for a memory, a
history. There is a historical dynamic of politics: a history of events that
break the ‘normal’ course of time, a history of events, inscriptions and
forms of subjectivization, of promises, memories, repetitions, anticipations
and anachronisms.3
There is no point in opposing exception to process.
The debate is about the conception of the process. The history of politics,
as I view it, is not a continuous process, going along with economic and
social development. It is not the unravelling of any ‘destinary’ plot either.
Thirdly, the opposition between politics and police goes along with
the statement that politics has no ‘proper’ object, that all its objects are
blended with the objects of police. In an earlier text, I proposed to give
the name of ‘the political’ to the field of encounter – and ‘confusion’ –
between the process of politics and the process of police (cf. Rancière 1995).
It is clear for me that the possibilities for a political intervention reframing
a situation have to be taken from a given setting of the political, understood
in that way. This is why, against the Marxist opposition of real and formal
democracy, I emphasized the part played by all the inscriptions of the
democratic process in the texts of the constitutions, the institutions of the
states, the apparatuses of public opinion, the mainstream forms of enunciation, etc. It is a point that clearly differentiates me from some radical
political thinkers who want to tear the radicality of politics apart from any
confusion with the play of state institutions. Alain Badiou, who merely sees
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democracy as the form of state and way of life of our Western societies,
suspects me of clinging to that consensual view. Slavoj Žižek opposes the
risk of the ‘radical political act’ to the ‘legalistic logic of transcendental
guarantee’ that is provided by the democratic law of the majority.4
I never identified the democratic process with the functioning of our states
or with the ‘opportunistic insurance’ (Žižek) provided by the law of the
majority. I identified it with the political supplementation that confronts
this functioning with the ‘power of anyone’ which grounds it at the cost
of disrupting it. The unequal order cannot work without its egalitarian
presupposition. Conversely the egalitarian struggle itself often uses the
weapons of the police description of the common. Let us think for instance
to the role played in feminist struggle by the medical, moral and ped agogical
standards of sexual complementarity, or by the reference to the ‘property’
of work in workers’ struggles. Equality has no vocabulary or grammar of its
own, only a poetics.
Politics does not stem from a place outside of the police. I agree on this
point with some of my contradictors (cf. Thomson 2003). There is no
place outside of the police. But there are conflicting ways of doing things
with the ‘places’ that it allocates: of relocating, reshaping or redoubling
them. As I recall in the ‘Ten Theses’, the space of democracy was opened in
Greece by such a displacement, when demos, which first meant ‘district’,
became the name of the subject of politics. We know that it did so when
Cleisthenes reshaped the Athenian tribes by putting together three ‘demes’
that were geographically separated – a measure that made two things at
once: it constituted the autonomy of the political space and deprived the
aristocracy of its locally based power.
This gives me the opportunity to say something more about my use
of spatial categories or metaphors that has been underlined by several
Speaking of the ‘space’ of democracy is not a mere metaphor. The delimitation of the demos is at once a material and a symbolical
matter. More precisely it is a new form of (dis)connection between the
material and the symbolical. The institution of democracy meant the
invention of a new topography, the creation of a space made of disconnected places against the aristocratic space that connected the material
privilege of the landowners with the symbolical power of the tradition.
This disconnection is at the core of the opposition between politics and
police. So the issue of space has to be thought of in terms of distribution:
distribution of places, boundaries of what is in or out, central or peripheral,
visible or invisible. It is related to what I call the distribution of the sensible
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Jacques Rancière: The Thinking of Dissensus 7
(see Rancière 2004b). By this I mean the way in which the abstract and
arbitrary forms of symbolization of hierarchy are embodied as perceptive
givens, in which a social destination is anticipated by the evidence of a perceptive universe, of a way of being, saying and seeing. This distribution
is a certain framing of time and space. The ‘spatial’ closure of Plato’s
Republic which wants that anybody be at its own place is its temporal partition as well: the artisans are initially figured as they who have no time to
be elsewhere than in their place. I called my book on worker’s emancipation The Night of the Proletarians (translated into English as The Nights of
Labor (1989)) to stress that the core of emancipation was an attempt to
break away from the very partition of time sustaining social subjection:
the obvious partition being that workers work during the day and sleep
during the night. Therefore, the conquest of the night was the first step
in social emancipation, the first material and symbolic basis for a reconfiguration of the given state of things. In order to state themselves as
sharing in a common world and as able to name the objects and participants of that common world, they had to reconfigure their ‘individual’
life, to reconfigure the partition of day and night that, for all individuals,
anticipated the partition between those who were or were not destined to
care for the common. It was not a matter of ‘representations’ as historians
would claim. It was a matter of sensory experience, a form of partition of
the perceptible.
In other words, my concern with ‘space’ is the same as my concern
with ‘aesthetics’. I already tried to explain that the shift perceived by some
commentators between my work on history and politics and my work
on aesthetics is not a shift from one field to another. My work on politics
was an attempt to show politics as an ‘aesthetic affair’. What I mean by this
term has nothing to do with the ‘aestheticization of politics’ that Benjamin
opposed to the ‘politicization of art’. What I mean is that politics, rather
than the exercise of power or the struggle for power, is the configuration of
a specific world, a specific form of experience in which some things appear
to be political objects, some questions political issues or argumentations
and some agents political subjects. I attempted to redefine this ‘aesthetic’
nature of politics by setting politics not as a specific single world but as a
conflictive world: not a world of competing interests or values but a world
of competing worlds.
If that part of my work dealt with the ‘aesthetics of politics’, I would say
that my later work dealt with the politics of aesthetics. I do not understand
by this term the question of the relationship between art and politics, but
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rather, the meaning and import of the configuration of a specific sphere –
the sphere of aesthetics – in the political distribution of the perceptible.
Already in my ‘political’ work, I have tried to demonstrate how the existence of the political and the existence of the aesthetic are strongly interconnected: the exclusion of a public scene of the demos and the exclusion
of the theatrical form are strictly interconnected in Plato’s Republic. This
does not mean, as it is often said, that Plato excluded art to the benefit of
politics. He excluded politics and art, both the idea of a capacity of the
artisans to be ‘elsewhere’ than at their ‘own’ workplace and the possibility
for poets or actors to play another identity than their ‘own’ identity.
I also tried to show how modern democracy and modern revolution
are connected with this new distribution of the sensible that delineates a
specific place for art, a specific feeling called aesthetic feeling. It is not a
mere coincidence that made the art museum emerge at the time of the
French Revolution; neither is it a mere factual influence that led from
Schiller’s idea of a specific ‘aesthetic state’ to Hölderlin’s idea of a new,
sens ory revolution and to the Marxist revolution of the producers. Modern
democracy is contemporaneous with the emergence of the aesthetic. By
this, I mean a specific sphere of experience suspending the forms of domination governing the other spheres of experience: the hierarchies of form
and matter, of understanding and sensibility, that predicated domination
on the opposition of two humanities, differentiated from the very constitution of their sensory experience. This re-partition of the spheres of
experience is part of the possibilities of refiguring the question of places
and parts in general. As we know, it did so in an ambiguous way: it was
not for casual reasons but because of the exceptionality of aesthetics that
replicated the paradoxical ‘exceptionality’ of politics.
The exceptionality of politics has no specific place. Politics ‘takes
place’ in the space of the police, by rephrasing and restaging social issues,
police problems, and so on. Aesthetic autonomy, on the contrary, has
specific places. But the definition of those specific places is bound up with
the equation between a form of art and a form of life. The solitude of the
aesthetic experience was bound, from the very beginning, with the promise
of a future community where there would be no more art or politics as
separate spheres of experience. This means that, from the beginning, aesthetics has its politics – which, in my terms, is a metapolitics, a manner of
‘doing politics’ otherwise than politics does. Aesthetics opposes to both the
practices of political dissensus and the transformations of state-power the
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Jacques Rancière: The Thinking of Dissensus 9
metapolitical project of a sensory community, achieving what will always
be missed by the ‘merely political’ revolution: freedom and equality incorporated in living attitudes, in a new relationship between thought and the
sensory world, between the bodies and their environment.
This project has taken a variety of shapes and undergone many transformations that eventually led to its reversal: Schiller’s aesthetic education,
the new mythology dreamed by Hegel, Schelling and Hölderlin, the human
revolution of the young Marx, the constructivist project of the Soviet artists
and architects, but also the surrealist subversion, Adorno’s dialectics of the
modern work, Blanchot’s idea of May ‘68 as a ‘passive’ revolution, Debord’s
‘derive’, or Lyotard’s aesthetic of the sublime.
Here I have to spell out what is at stake in my discussion of Lyotard’s
late work, a point which remains unclear in Disagreement and that I have
tried to develop in some subsequent essays (cf. Rancière 2003b, 2004a,
2004d). What is at stake is the understanding of dissensus, which Lyotard
turned, through the category of the sublime, into a new form of absolute
wrong. That absoluticization was not apparent in The Differend but it
became more and more obvious in the following books. That turn has been
obscured in the Anglo-American reception of Lyotard by the concepts of
poststructuralism and postmodernism. Lyotard’s thinking of differend
and wrong has been too easily aligned with a poststructuralist critique of
the subject and a postmodern perception of the end of grand narratives,
which would result in a relativist view of the plurality of languages and
cultures. That perception conceals what is a stake in Lyotard’s theory and
in the way of thinking dissensus that his late books epitomized but which
characterizes much more widely what I call the ‘ethical turn’ of aesthetics
and politics.6
The absoluticization of the wrong began in fact with the so-called
postmodern affirmation of a break between a modern epoch where the
proletarian would have been the universal victim, subject of a great narrative, and a postmodern time of micro- or local narratives. This break
has no historical evidence. All my historical research had been aimed at
deconstructing that presupposition, at showing that the history of social
emancipation had always been made out of small narratives, particular
speech acts, etc. So the argument of a breakaway from the time of the
great narrative and the universal victim seemed to me beside the point.
More accurately, it was beside the point unless it was in fact embedded in
another narrative of an absolute wrong. My assumption is that this was
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precisely the point. What Lyotard was doing was not breaking away from
the grand narrative of the victim. It was reframing it, in a retrospective
way, in order to make a new use of it.
From this point of view, Heidegger and “the jews” (Lyotard 1990) can be
considered as a switching point that gives to the so-called postmodern
argumentation a meaning that perhaps was not there and certainly was
not obvious at the beginning. This meaning is that of the substitution of a
narrative and of a substitution of the victim. In this text, the Jews became
the subject of the new narrative of modernity, the new narrative of the
Western world. It was no longer a narrative of emancipation, the one-way
plot of the fulfilment of a promise. Instead, it was another one-way plot:
the narrative of the absolute crime that appears as the truth of the whole
dialectic of Western thought, the end-result of the great attempt at forgetting the original debt of thought with respect to the Other, the Untameable
or the Unredeemable.
The idea of the unredeemable debt, as we know, is itself the last stage
in the transformation of the exceptionality of the aesthetic state. Lyotard
interprets the aesthetic exceptionality through the grid of the Kantian sublime: as an experience of impotence. The exceptionality of the aesthetic
state would mean the radical dis-agreement of sense and thought. The
Kantian inability of Imagination to present the idea of Reason is overturned
into a power of the aistheton that escapes the power of thinking and bears
witness to an original ‘disaster’: the immemorial dependence of the mind,
its ‘enslavement’ to the law of otherness. The first name of this Otherness is
‘the Thing’, the Freudo-Lacanian Das Ding. Its second name is the Law.
In this way, the Jewish obedience to the Law is the same as the obedience
to the original experience of the ‘disaster’ or ‘disempowerment’ of the mind.
Thus, the Nazi extermination of the European Jews could be interpreted
as the disaster resulting from the denial of the original disaster, the last
accomplishment of the project of getting rid of Das Ding or the Law, of getting rid of the immemorial dependence to otherness. This properly means
interpreting the aesthetic experience as an ethical experience, debarring
any process of emancipation. In such a plot, any process of emancipation
is perceived as the disastrous attempt to deny the disaster that enslaves the
mind to otherness. This thinking of a new kind of radical evil currently
leads – at least among French intellectuals – to two kinds of attitudes
regarding politics: one is abstention and other is support for another kind
of absoluticization of the wrong, support for the current campaigns of the
forces of Good against the axis of Evil.
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Jacques Rancière: The Thinking of Dissensus 11
Therefore, what is at stake in my research on politics and what ties it up
with a research on aesthetics is an attempt to think a specificity of politics
as disagreement and a specificity of the aesthetic heterogeneity that break
away from the absoluticization of the dissensus as wrong or disaster. It is
an attempt to think such exceptionality outside of a plot of purity. What is
at stake in Lyotard’s last work is clearly a transformation of the Adornian
interpretation of the aesthetic separateness. In Adorno, the aesthetic
experience had to be separated in order to hold the purity of the aesthetic
promise. In Lyotard, the aesthetic purity of the work boils down to the
status of sheer testimony of the Untameable.
Similarly, the Arendtian idea of the separation between political life and
bare life was reversed in Agamben’s theorization of the ‘state of exception’.
The latter becomes the great narrative of Modernity as the subsumption
of political life under ‘bare life’. This subsumption accounts for Hobbes’
theory as well as for the Rights of Man, the French revolutionary sovereignty of the people, or genocide. The idea of the purity of politics leads to
its contrary, to empty the stage of political invention by sweeping aside its
ambiguous actors. As a result, politics comes to be identified with the act
of a power that appears as an overwhelming historico-ontological destiny:
we are all, from the outset, refugees in the homogeneous and pervasive
space of the camp, entrapped in the complementarity of bare life and
exception (cf. Agamben 1998; Rancière 2004c).
If, at the beginning of the 1990s, I was addressing the standard theories
of the return of the political, I found myself more and more concerned
with this infiniticization of the logic of exceptionality, with this double
reversal of the political and the aesthetic exceptionality whose conjunction
constitutes the ‘ethical’ trend. I try to oppose to it a way of thinking aesthetical and political dissensuality apart from the idea of purity. The exceptionality of politics is the exceptionality of a practice that has no field of
its own but has to build its stage in the field of police. And the autonomy
of art, in the aesthetic regime, is heteronomy as well: art is posited as a specific sphere falling under a specific experience, but no boundary separates
its objects and procedures from the objects and procedures belonging to
other spheres of experience.
The global logic of my work aims at showing that pure politics and
pure aesthetics are doomed to be overturned together in the radicalization
of the infinite wrong or infinite evil. I try to think disagreement as the
wrong that cannot be settled but can be processed all the same. This means
that I try to keep the conceptualization of exception, wrong or excess apart
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from any kind of ontology. The current trend has it that you cannot think
politics unless you trace back its principles to an ontological principle:
Heideggerian difference, Spinozist infinity of Being in Negri’s conception,
polarity of being and event in Badiou’s thought, re-articulation of the
relationship between potency and act in Agamben’s theory, etc. My assumption is that such a requirement leads to the dissolution of politics on
behalf of some historico-ontological destinary process. This may take on
different forms. Politics might be dissolved in the law of being, like the
form that is torn up by the manifestation of its content. In Hardt and
Negri’s Empire, the Multitudes are the real content of the empire that will
explode it. Communism will win because it is the law of being: Being is
Communism. Alternatively, all political wrong could appear as the consequence of an original wrong, so that only a God or an ontological revolution can save us.
My first concern from the beginning has been to set aside all analysis
of political matters in terms of metaphysical destination. For this, I think
it necessary to dismiss any temporal teleology, any original determination
of difference, excess or dissensus. This is why I have always tried to define
specific, limited forms of excess, difference or dissensus. I do not ground
political dissensus in an excess of Being which would make any count
impossible. I link it with a specific miscount. The demos does not embody
the excess of Being. It is primarily an empty name. On the one hand, it is
a name for a supplementary count that has no necessity, and on the other,
this ‘arbitrary’ count enacts the ‘egalitarian’ condition inherent in the legitimization of inequality itself. There is no ontological gap but a twist that
ties together the contingency of equality and the contingency of inequality.
The power of the demos does not enact any original excess of being. It
enacts an excess inherent in any process of nomination: the arbitrariness
of the relationship binding names and bodies together, the excess of names
which makes them available to those who are not ‘destined’ to give names
and to speak about the common. Difference always means to me a specific
relationship, a specific measure of incommensurables.
This is what keeps me at a certain distance from Derrida’s spectrality,
though, obviously, I have to tackle the same kind of issues as he does. For
instance, the Derridian problematic of ghosts and spectrality ties together
two issues whose knot is crucial to me too: disidentification and the
status of anachronism. It deals with the same problem that I confront:
how are we to think the ‘existence of the inexistent’, how are we to think the
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Jacques Rancière: The Thinking of Dissensus 13
‘supersensible-sensible’? However, in my view, Derrida gives too much
presence, too much flesh to the inexistent. While deconstructing identity,
he is always on the verge of reinstating it by overstating the ‘identity of
alterity’ or the presence of the absent. As he puts it in Specters of Marx, we
know nothing about the reality of the ghost. Yet we know that he looks
at us, that he sees us and speaks to us. We do not know its identity but we
have to bear its gaze and obey its injunction.
I am fully aware of the weight of ‘otherness’ that separates us from
ourselves. What I refuse is to give it a gaze and give to its voice a power of
ethical injunction. More precisely, I refuse to turn the multiplicity of forms
of alterity into a substance through the personification of Otherness,
which ultimately reinstates a form of transcendence. The same goes with
the issue of temporal dis-junction. I also deal with the issues of anachronisms, repetitions, and so on, but I refuse to unify them in the idea of a
‘time out of joint’. I rather think of it in terms of multiplicities of forms and
lines of temporality. In the logic of dis-agreement, as I see it, you always
consider a dis-junction as a specific form of junction (and a junction as a
form of dis-junction) instead of constructing an ontology of dis-junction.
I am aware of the flipside of this argument. If there is no original
structure of temporal ‘disjunction’, it is difficult to think the horizon of an
emancipatory fulfilment. To put in other terms, if there is no ghost, there
is no Messiah. If I translate the messianic proposition in prosaic terms, the
question runs as follows: is it possible to ground politics on its own logic?
Do we not need to frame a specific temporality, a temporality of the ‘existence of the inexistent’ in order to give sense to the process of political subjectivization? I prefer to reverse the argument by saying that the framing
of a future happens in the wake of political invention rather than being its
condition of possibility. Revolutionaries invented a ‘people’ before inventing its future. Besides, in the context of the ‘ethicization of the political’
that is ours, I think that we have to focus first on the specificity of the
‘aesthetics of politics’, the specificity of political invention.
Therefore when Derrida speaks of ghosts, opposing them to the binarism of ‘effectiveness’ and ‘ideality’, I prefer to speak of fictions – a term
which, in my view, plays the same role but keeps us from substantializing
the part of the ‘inexistent’. The inexistent for me is first of all words, texts,
fictions, narratives, characters – a ‘paper life’ instead of a life of ghosts
or Geist. It is a poetic framing of specific appearances rather than a
phenomenology of the unapparent. So when Derrida proposes to frame a
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‘haunto logy’ that would be wider and more powerful than an ontology,
I prefer to speak in terms of poetics. Ontology or ‘hauntology’ are as
fictitious as a political invention or a poem. Ontology claims to provide a
foundation to politics, aesthetics, ethics, and so on, whereas a ‘hauntology’
purports to de-construct this pretension. In my view, it does so at the cost
of sub stantializing the ‘otherness’ that undermines the foundationalist
project. Now, the substantialization of Otherness is at the core of the
‘ethical’ enterprise. I am fully aware of the distance separating Derrida from
the mainstream ethical trend and its obviously reactive politics, but I think
that ‘otherness’ has to be de-substantialized, de-ontologized if we want
to escape this trend.
This leads me to answer some questions regarding the sense of my work
or the status of my discourse. Rather than founding or deconstructing,
what I always tried to do is to blur the boundaries that separate the genres
and levels of discourse. In The Names of History (1994), I proposed the
notion of a ‘poetics of knowledge’. A poetics of knowledge can be viewed
as a kind of ‘deconstructive practice’, to the extent that it tries to trace
back an established knowledge – history, political science, sociology, and
so on – to the poetic operations – description, narration, metaphorization,
symbolization, and so on – that make its objects appear and give sense
and relevance to its propositions. What is important to me is that this
‘reduction’ of scientific discourse to the poetical moment means its reduction to the equality of speaking beings. This is the meaning of the ‘equality
of intelligence’ that I borrowed from Jacotot. It does not mean that every
manifestation of intelligence is equal to any other. Above all, it means that
the same intelligence makes poetic fictions, political inventions or his torical
explanations, that the same intelligence makes and understands sentences
in general. Political thought, history, sociology, and so on use common
powers of linguistic innovation in order to make their objects visible and
create connections between them. So does philosophy.
For me this means that philosophy is not the discourse that grounds the
other forms of discourse or spheres of rationality. Instead, it is the discourse
that undoes the boundaries within which all disciplines predicate their
authority on the assumption of a specific methodology fitting the specificity of their field of objectivity. My practice of philosophy goes along
with my idea of politics. It is an-archical, in the sense that it traces back
the specificity of disciplines and discursive competences to the ‘egalitarian’
level of linguistic competence and poetic invention. This practice implies
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Jacques Rancière: The Thinking of Dissensus 15
that I take philosophy as a specific battlefield, a field where the endeavour
to disclose the arkhê of the arkhê simply leads to the contrary, that is, to
disclosing the contingency or the poetic character of any arkhê. If much
of my work has been elaborated as a rereading of Plato, it is because his
work is the most elaborated form of this battlefield. The Republic tells us
that the inequality of destination is a ‘noble lie’ and lets us understand that
the ‘lack of time’ that prevents the artisan to be elsewhere is a proscription
of the elsewhere as such. Phaedrus shows us the link between the proscription of writing and the proscription of democracy. It draws a radical line
separating the space-time of the cicadas-philosophers and the space-time
of the workers, and it promises to tell us the truth about Truth. However,
the truth about Truth can only be told as a myth. The equality of fairy
tales underpins the whole hierarchy of discourses and positions. If there
is a privilege of philosophy, it lies in the frankness with which it tells us
that the truth about Truth is a fiction and undoes the hierarchy just as it
builds it.
An egalitarian practice of philosophy, as I understand it, is a practice
that enacts the aporia of foundation, which is the necessity of a poetical
act to constitute an arkhê of the arkhê, an authority of the authority. I am
aware that I am not the only person committed to this task. What is thus
the specificity of my position? It is that I refuse to ontologize a principle of
the aporia. Some thinkers put it as difference, at the risk of conjuring up a
spectre of transcendence. Others identify it with the infinity or multiplicity
of Being. We have in mind Hardt and Negri’s multitudes or Badiou’s theory
of Being as pure multiplicity. Both Negri and Badiou set out to ground
the unbinding of authority in a law of Being as unbinding. But, from this
point on, it seems to me that they can complete the enactment of the
unbinding power in specific spheres of practice only at the cost of some
sleights of hand which in my view reinstate the principle of authority.
I prefer not to set a principle of the aporia, not to put Equality as an arkhê
but to put it just as a supposition that must be verified continuously – a
verification or an enactment that opens specific stages of equality. These
stages are built by crossing the boundaries and interconnecting forms and
levels of discourse and spheres of experience.
By reconstructing the logic of my thinking of dissensus, I was not willing
to say how we must think and act. I was just trying to explain why I went
that way. I realize that my practice of philosophy makes the reading of my
work difficult. This is why I am very grateful to those who have accepted
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to discuss it. Let me stress in conclusion that the main point is not understanding what I wrote. It is moving forward together in the discussion of
the issues we are facing today. For those who want to thread a new way
between consensual thinking and the ethical absoluticization of the wrong,
there is still much room for discussion.
1. This text transcribes with some slight modifications the paper presented at
the conference Fidelity to the Disagreement: Jacques Rancière and the Political,
organized by the Post-Structuralism and Radical Politics and Marxism
specialist groups of the Political Studies Association of the UK in Goldsmiths
College, London, 16–17 September 2003. I express my gratitude to Benjamin
Arditi, Alan Finalyson and James Martin who organized that conference.
2. On this point, cf. Thomson (2003).
3. See my response to Mick Dillon in the discussion about the ‘Ten Theses’
(Rancière 2003a).
4. Alain Badiou makes this point against me in his Metapolitics (2005). Žižek’s
criticism of the ‘democratic trap’ has been most clearly coined in the essay
‘From Politics to Biopolitics . . . and Back’ (2004).
5. Cf. the contributions of Mustafa Dikeç and Michael Shapiro to the 2003
Goldsmith’s conference.
6. In his contribution to the 2003 Goldsmith’s conference, Sam Chambers has
argued that I endorsed, against the Lyotardian differend, an Aristotelian view
of language that prevented me not only from understanding Lyotard but
also from completing my own project of rethinking politics. But I referred
to Aristotle in order to show the gap or the wrong lying in the heart of the
classical equation man/speaking animal/political animal. The whole problem
is how we conceive of this wrong. Cf. Chambers, 2005.
Works Cited
Agamben, Giorgio (1998), Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans.
Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Badiou, Alain (2005), Metapolitics, trans. Jason Barker, London: Verso.
Chambers, Samuel (2005), ‘The Politics of Literarity’, Theory & Event, 8 (3).
(Original version presented at Fidelity to the Disagreement: Jacques Rancière and
the Political, Goldsmith’s College, University of London, September 16–17.)
Derrida, Jacques (1994), Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of
Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf, London & New York:
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Jacques Rancière: The Thinking of Dissensus 17
Dikeç, Mustafa (2003), ‘The place of space in Rancière’s Political Thought’,
unpublished paper from Fidelity to the Disagreement: Jacques Rancière and the
Political, Goldsmith’s College, University of London, September 16–17.
Hardt, Michael and Toni Negri (1999), Empire, London & Cambridge: Harvard
University Press.
Laclau, Ernesto (2005), On Populist Reason, London: Verso.
Lyotard, Jean-François (1990), Heidegger and “the jews”, trans. Andreas Michel
and Mark S. Roberts, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Rancière, Jacques (1989), The Nights of Labor: The Workers’ Dream in NineteenthCentury France, trans. Donald Reid, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
— (1994), The Names of History: On the Poetics of Knowledge, trans. Hassan
Melehy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
— (1995), ‘Politics, Identification, Subjectivization’, in The Identity in Question,
ed. John Rajchman, New York: Routledge: 63–72.
— (1999), Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose, Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
— (2001), ‘Ten Theses on Politics’, trans. Rachel Bowlby and Davide Panagia.
Theory & Event, 5 (3).
— (2003a), ‘Comment and Responses’, Theory & Event, 6 (4).
— (2003b), Le destin des images, Paris: La Fabrique.
— (2004a), Malaise dans l’esthétique, Paris: Galilée.
— (2004b), The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans.
Gabriel Rockhill, London & New York: Continuum.
— (2004c), ‘Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?’ South Atlantic Quarterly,
103 (2–3) (Spring/Summer): 297–310.
— (2004d), ‘The Sublime from Lyotard to Schiller: Two Readings of Kant and
their Political Significance’, Radical Philosophy, 126: 8–15.
— (2007), The Future of the Image, trans. Gregory Elliott, London: Verso.
Shapiro, Michael (2003), ‘Radicalizing democratic theory: Social space in
Connolly, Deleuze and Rancière’, unpublished paper from Fidelity to the
Disagreement: Jacques Rancière and the Political, Goldsmith’s College, University
of London, September 16–17.
Thomson, Alex (2003), ‘Re-placing the opposition: Rancière and Derrida’,
unpublished paper from Fidelity to the Disagreement: Jacques Rancière and
the Political, Goldsmith’s College, University of London, September 16–17.
Žižek, Slavoj (2004), ‘From Politics to Biopolitics . . . and Back’, South Atlantic
Quarterly, 103 (2–3) (Spring/Summer): 501–21.
PBowman_01_Fpp.indd 17 Bowman_01_Fpp.indd 17 12/1/2010 6:29:39 PM 2/1/2010 6:29:39 PM

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