Rancière and Foucault

Dave Harris

Rancière (2012) (and 1991) offers the kind of narrative that we might find in ‘fictional realism’, where an organizing commentary brings in other voices. Think of Under Milk Wood. Commenting on this style, Rancière (2006: 20) says it was:

necessary to blur the boundaries between empirical history and pure philosophy; the boundaries between disciplines and the hierarchies between levels of discourse. .. It was not a case of the facts and their interpretation...  what it came down to me to do was a work of translation, showing how these tales of springtime Sundays and the philosopher’s dialogues translated into one another.  It was necessary to invent the idiom appropriate to this translation and countertranslation...this idiom could only be read by those who would translate it on the basis of their own intellectual adventure. 

Later, Rancière apparently admitted that his project considered as an attempt to provide an actual history of the period was  ‘”impossible”’, because there could be no science of the emergence of socialism, and no attempt to represent with privileged categories  the voices of the excluded and voiceless.  The only hope was to offer a knowledge that resists the dominant tendencies to ‘smother’ anything which is insupportable in conventional terms (Reid’s Introduction to Rancière 2012: xxviii). This is close to Foucault’s (1980: 81) attempts to organize ’an insurrection of subjugated knowledges’. Rancière supports Foucault’s replacement of empirical history with a genealogy designed  to:

entertain the claims to attention of local, discontinuous, disqualified, illegitimate knowledges against the claim of a unitary body of theory which would filter, hierarchise and order  them in the name of some true knowledge and some arbitrary idea of what constitutes a science and its objects. (Foucault 1980: 83)


Foucault’s critique of positivism is also evident in Rancière’s discussion of science, suggesting, more or less, that modern science emerges as a discourse uniting different elements of language, practice and institutions. Discursive objects have their own rules of ordering, as 'practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak'  (Foucault 1974: 49). Discursive formations relate together the formation of objects, concepts, subject positions and strategic choices (1974: 116).  Clinical discourse is an example: it consists of a complex relation of descriptions, accounts, explanations and reasonings which are linked in various ways.  Specifically,  Foucault (1974: 38) argues that we should attempt to uncover discursive formations as ‘systems of dispersion, regularities in choices’ , rather than operate with categories such as science or ideology [a nice link to Rancière's work on Althusser].  These critiques permitted Foucault to develop his own particular style, which Rancière’s resembles, a kind of freewheeling discourse covering large historical periods with a number of examples and voices  woven in to the account. 

However, it was once the case that activist politics of the 1960s and 1970s stabilized and constrained radical theory. Without political relevance, philosophy was merely the ‘hum of cultural chit chat' (Rancière 2011a: 113). Rancière’s early political positions also included Maoism and then ‘workerist humanism’ (Reid in Rancière 2012). Yet there was a later disengagement from workerist and anarcho-syndicalist struggles in Europe, according to Brown (2011). In the absence of radical politics, Foucault helped provide a more abstract alternative in the politics of discourses. First , as a source of critique, Foucault  could undermine discourses  claiming universality, including Marxism, by restoring 'the system of practical and discursive constraints that allowed it to be uttered at all' (Rancière 2011a:124) , and disarticulated by forcing it to answer other questions outside of its usual range, including words used in political struggles of the past.  This critique is itself an example of 'the expressions through which the struggle and questions of our present seek to give voice to a new freedom' (2011a: 124), a kind of political struggle in theory after all. What might have taken place in the struggles of 1830s workers and pedagogues  can now be read as a more abstract challenge to the discursive boundaries and barriers that kept people in their place and allocated suitable tasks to them.

Dominant discourses maintain proper allocations and social divisions in order to gain cognitive power. These discourses also produce constrained and docile notions of the subject, however . Foucault’s work on modern medicine or penal practice was initially subordinated under organizing Marxist politics, for example as ‘elaborated gramscianism’  (Harris 1992). We can indict Marxism, sociologism and modern pedagogic theory for developing as disciplining discourses, despite their emancipatory intentions because of the way they construct subjects, however. Thus breaking and unsettling dominant discourses becomes more important than offering any specific findings to guide practice. The main political task for Rancière is to challenge the adequacy of these discourses and thus to allow new subjects to emerge: formulating a discourse is itself a process of subjectification.  

This could also underpin a demand for radical equality in a way that avoids liberal humanism, if we see that it is discourses, not individuals, that are fundamentally equal. Discourses construct their own objects and explanations, and there can be no hidden dimension that sociologists or Marxists can investigate to explain them.  Individuals might suffer from amnesia about the processes of discursive construction, requiring the service of a geneaologist, but discourses must always be transparent to themselves ultimately. This is Foucault’s ‘nominalism’ (Bosteels 2011), and it also produces a serious problem with relativism as we shall see.

Rancière’s discussion of modern politics makes this clear. It is now a matter of forming up dissenting discourses to challenge boundaries established by conventional divisions of labour, especially the mental/manual split. Rancière says this will disrupt ’the police order’, at least when it become oppressive (we have to remember with Foucault that power can also be positive and enabling). Biesta translates this into a struggle for inclusion more generally, a right to have one’s voice heard despite discourses which disqualify, but here are some dilemmas here familiar to any pedagogue in reconciling different and opposing voices, permitting free expression but not the intimidation of dissenters.

Problems with Foucault and his politics can only be discussed briefly. DeCerteau (1984)  offers some points which seem particularly appropriate here.  Optical and panoptical procedures dominate Foucault’s accounts, and these procedures somehow emerge from a huge mass of detailed policies and plans. But what privileges these particular procedures? Foucault tells us that these other practices are innumerable, and denies some common ways of suggesting how particular ones emerge as dominant. Yet Foucault himself imposes a  coherence,  through the exhaustive nature of details gathered from different sources which leads to implicit claims for universality. Methodological 'know how' is involved, involving a certain ingenious knowledge or craft. The key technique to manage and domesticate details is narrative, and this literary knowledge is a good example of privileged knowledge that is in fact unstatable, a matter of discernment or taste (which would obviously give Bourdieu an opening). Foucault and Rancière are both very good at using rhetoric and description -- ‘he [Foucault]  makes what he says appear evident to the public he has in view' (DeCerteau 1984: 79). He pretends to be not there, he pretends to be 'eclipsed by the erudition and the taxonomies that [his theory] manipulates' (1984: 80). Foucault also has an appealing style, a ‘playfully self reflexive personality…  [which]…  constantly questions the place from where he speaks' (Bosteels 2011: 29) shared by Rancière.

 Baudrillard (1987) displays the same sort of playfulness combined with total critique which is so appealing to all the authors surveyed here, in a refreshing change from cautious and polite Anglo-American academic compromises. After Foucault, everything became politics, and so nothing was.  When Foucault announced that power was dispersed through social life, it became inexplicable and untraceable -- it disappeared. The problem is like the one which afflicts ‘conflict sociology’, where conflict is too common, so to speak, explaining disputes over garden fences as well as major systems of exploitation. Like that tradition (and gramscianism when it took the same path), ‘politics’ became similarly trivial and indistinguishable from everyday life– the politics of the personal, racism as a matter of using the proper words etc.  As a result, political power is practically unusable, and everywhere subject to challenge. Any discourse involving challenge to the police order will qualify, including those of religious fundamentalists and multiculturalists, radical ramblers and recreational drug takers, anti-frackers and NIMBYs. Well organized and well resourced politicians will really come to dominate the agenda, without even bothering to claim any symbolic dimensions to their activities . Baudrillard (1987) argues that this is because they are probably the only ones who actually still care enough in the face of widespread apathy among the rest of us.

It is ironic for Biesta to declare an interest in symbolic politics just at the moment when it is disappearing Foucault. There is no analysis of what might drive a current desire for democratic inclusion, as opposed to more mundane politics like demanding lower student fees and energy bills, or fighting off the increasing despotism of the market, the factory and the university. Baudrillard (1987) says that Foucault (and Rancière, and perhaps even Biesta) seem to be assuming some Deleuzian notion of a driving, pulsating and eternal and abstract desire to make sense of the world, to produce discourses however unconventional and rhizomatic.  Without this desire, or the social circumstances which could produce it like those in 1830s France, there may well be an abstract right to dissenting discourse but no-one wants to exercise it any more: no-one who is not a professional politician needs to believe in the system and no-one does.  This is why Foucault can be ‘forgotten’ for Baudrillard.  

Before Rancière can say anything about modern struggles over pedagogy or university politics he would have to clarify and actualize his positions. We have already discussed some problems with what might count as contemporary university politics , but there are even more fundamental issues. Whether classic French school explication is widespread in our education system is in doubt, for example, and we would need further analysis of our own hybrid pedagogies before we could decide if they preserve a permanent distinction between the knowledgeable and the ignorant. Many of us would see the main site of despotism these days in quality regimes, Ofsted visits and student assessment, but Rancière has little to say about these practices, possibly because he never experienced them as an academic. Rancière did very little university teaching and when he did:  ‘the diploma in philosophy at Paris VIII was quickly invalidated. We no longer gave national diplomas, so we were no longer bound by the criteria needed to award them’ (Rancière 2003: 195).

Finally, it is not even clear what is meant by ‘equal intelligence’. It can mean equal intellectual capacity; it might mean that there is only one kind of intelligence, as Biesta (2010) suggests; it might have a more abstract discursive function as in:

I’m just saying that language games, and especially language games that institute forms of dependence, presume a minimal equality of competence in order that inequality itself can operate. That’s all I’m saying. And I say this not to ground equality but to show, rather, how this equality only ever functions polemically (Rancière 2003:198)

The tide of discontent grows, especially among the ‘precariat’, but this is surely unlikely to lead to discursive politics . ‘Repartition the sensible!’ might have made an excellent revolutionary slogan in May 1968 but it would look very irrelevant and ‘philosophical’  for modern protesters. 


Baudrillard, J. 1987. Forget Foucault. New York: Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents.
Biesta, G. 2010. A New Logic of Emancipation: the Methodology of Jacques Rancière.  Educational Theory,  60(1): 39 -59.
Brown, N. 2011. Red years. Althusser's lesson, Rancière's error and the real movement of history.  Radical Philosophy 170: 16 – 24.
De Certeau, M. 1984.  The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press: Berkeley.
Foucault, M.  1974 The Archaeology of Knowledge. London: Tavistock Publications Ltd.
Foucault, M. 1980. Power/Knowledge. Selected interviews and other writings 1972—1977.Trans Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham & Kate Soper. Brighton: Harvester Press.
Rancière, J. 1991. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, trans and with an intro by Kristin Ross, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Rancière, J.  2003. Politics and Aesthetics an interview. Trans Forbes Morlock, Angelaki 8(2) 191--21.
Rancière, J. 2006. Thinking between disciplines: an aesthetics of knowledge.  Trans Jon Roffe. Parrhesia 1: 1—12.
Rancière, J. 2011a [1974] Althusser's Lesson. Trans Emiliano Battista. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.
Rancière, J. 2012 [1983] Proletarian Nights: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth Century France . London: Verso.

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