NOTES ON: Ranciere, J.  (2003) Politics and Aesthetics an interview, Trans Forbes Morlock, Angelaki 8(2) 191--21.

notes by Dave Harris

Hallward P Introduction

Ranciere retired in 2002 from University of Paris VIII.  His overall project is to overturn existing forms of classification and distinction and 'to subvert all norms of representation that might allow for the stable differentiation of one class of person or experience from another'.  Moments of crisis which reveal these representations are particularly useful.

As a student at Ecole Normale Superieure (ENS) , he encountered Althusser and wrote a section of Reading Capital which preserved the distinction between experience and the authority of theory.  He split with Althusser and others over 1968, and published a critique.  Inspired by Foucault he founded a new journal 'dedicated to recasting the relation between work and philosophy, or proletarians and intellectuals in such a way is to block any prescriptive appropriation or representation of the former by the latter'(191). Like Foucault this has been applied to a number of different areas as such is philosophy, pedagogy, and aesthetic areas.

His general argument is developed best in Philosophy and its Poor, where he disagrees with the fundamental argument that there are some people capable of genuine thought while others are incapable largely because of their economic and social conditions, lacking 'the ability, time and leisure required for thought'(192).  It all stems from Plato and dividing society into functional orders so that slaves can never be philosophers and anyone who tries to cross a functional division is excluded.

In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, attempts to generally classify children in the name of emancipation are rejected in favour of the view that '"all people are virtually capable of understanding what others have done and understood"'.  We must simply assert equality and maintain it.  'Everyone has the same intelligence; what varies is the will and opportunity to exercise it'[what's the problem so far then?  Who is denying this?].  Teachers have no right to claim superior knowledge or to spend their time explicating in a way that sees children as inferior, making differential progress and so on.

Historians have also presented this picture of appropriate places for individuals, allowing individuals to appear only as spokespersons, and arguing that environments affect social relations and therefore legitimate speech.  Heresy is denied, and democracy suspected, to the extent that it turns on 'a popular voice that refuses any clear assignation of place, the voice of the masses of people who both labour and think'.

This leads the position of politics.  The 'police' classify and regulate speech, and distribute it.  The democratic voice is one that rejects the social distribution and tries to support '"floating subjects that deregulate all representations of places and portions"'

It leads to an equal reservation about attempts by Marxists to simplify workers' experience into 'theory - certified simplicity'.  He is also opposed to 'nostalgic attempts to preserve a "traditional" working class identity'.  The latter usually leads to nostalgia for the demise of the authentic working class instead of celebrating 'unauthorized combinations and inventions'.  His historical studies show opposition to social hierarchy rather than to economic exploitation, and the most dangerous were the migrants who refused to keep their allotted place.

This clearly informs the aesthetic revolution, a move away from attempts to impose rules on art, or to define art.  There is a celebration of 'the endless confusion of arts and non - art', with particular admiration for those efforts which use aristocratic conceptions to describe banal every day life and celebrate the ordinary (193).

The Interview ( with Hallward)

How did you get involved in teaching, given that you don't support academic mastery?

He is a perpetual student, and like most of those, found himself teaching others.  He saw himself as a teacher-researcher which 'implies the idea of the teacher adapting a position of institutional mastery to one of mastery based on knowledge'(194).  Commitment to Althusser was disrupted by 1968, and the way it connected mastery and knowledge.  As a researcher he was able to resist student divisions into levels, and at Paris VIII, there were no levels in the philosophy department—he offers material to students at all levels.

Was his background important in channeling him into research and teaching?

He wanted to go to ENS to be an archaeologist, but lost that interest and was left with having to choose between Arts & Sciences.  He wanted to go to the best in the field for arts, the ENS.  'That, rather than any vocation to teach' explained how he got there.

Why the initial interest in Althusser?

He had been interested in Marxism, not at all familiar at the time.  Religious and humanist Marxism had been the way in in those days, and not a communist tradition or membership of the Party.  Althusser's novelty was much admired at the time....

Althusser's texts were influential rather than his actual teaching.  His insistence on new projects opening up was seductive, 'the sense of going off on adventure' (195).  He had an early seminar on Capital, and felt like a pioneer and also an authority: adventurism was combined with dogmatism.

Why did you break with Althusser after 68?

He watched the events of May '68 'from a certain distance'(195). [!]  The creation of The University of Paris VIII provided the challenge, and also revealed the power of professors and their distance from student and other social movements.  'It was almost laughable'. In particular Balibar designed a program 'to teach people theoretical practice as it should be taught', and that led him to protest, and then to think about the relation between theory and dogmatism.  So it was the aftershock, and the choice of what to do in a new institution.

How did you manage egalitarian teaching with the business of granting degrees and qualifications?

He had more or less given up academic philosophy for political practice.  The diploma in philosophy was soon invalidated anyway, and this gave the staff a certain freedom.  As a result 'for good while, then, I was absolutely uninterested in rethinking pedagogy', and research and militant practice seemed more important.  'For years my main activity was consulting archives and going to the Bibliotheque Nationale'...

There were  lectures but there were also 'courses which took the form of conversations and interventions'(196).

[So -- he has never actually tried to teach like this?]

Did you turn to historical proletarian thinking because philosophy seems to have been defeated?

It was more a naive approach to try and find out what class consciousness or workers' thought actually meant, to get  'the reality of forms of struggle and forms of consciousness' which was different from Marxist accounts…

The focus was the difference between Marxism and alternative political traditions, which turned into a search for a genuine workers' thinking and politics.  However, there was no simple unified identity as a worker reflected in forms of consciousness or action, but rather a set of statements or enunciations.

But you did not reject the usual connection between Marxism, the proletarian movements and repression as in the USSR?  You still thought in terms of a universal singularity, even if a deferred and differentiated one?

There was a double movement between singularization and its opposite.  A dissociation with the usual identity of the worker, which itself 'created forms of universalization' which were positive.  Disidentification showed the relation between negativity and positivity.  The struggles of the 1830s were about attempting to become a speaking and thinking being, and this became shared, but at the same time always threatened by new forms of positivization.  There was no authentic workers' movement that had escaped altogether.  The danger of positivization threatened to install both the notion of an authentic community and an orthodox Marxist proletariat.

Don't you overdo the creativity of political practice without adequately considering its conditions of possibility?  Sometimes, democratic institutions that you call 'the police' also opened a public space.  Writers like Habermas insist on a quality of linguistic competencies which leads to sharing the symbolic domain

Citizenship follows only because a movement has insisted on it [Always? It MUST do?].  Human beings are assumed already to have freedom and equality which underpins legal inscriptions.  However, 'equality or legal freedom produces nothing in itself.  It exists only insofar as it defines a possibility, insofar as there is an effective movement which can grasp it and bring it into existence retroactively' (197).  The question of origins is not really important, whether it is transcendental or historical, but transcendental conditions seem particularly dubious.

But you insist on an equality once people speak?  Doesn't this also imply an inequality according to how well or often people speak?  Abstract equality is not the same as real equality?  Aren't you suggesting simply a formal similarity between participants in a game?

Some minimal equality of competence is necessary in any game.  Even slaves have to understand, Aristotle knew.  But Aristotle also insisted that it was necessary to possess language, although he never clarified the point.  There is no need to specify some abstract equality, simply to 'presume a minimal equality of competence in order that inequality itself can operate', and the point is to show how equality is only ever polemical.

[Let off the hook here I thought Easy to just dismiss this important question? Merely empirical?]

But aren't you dealing in transcendentalism when you say that a political role is always played by those who have been excluded and have no particular identity, and can thus pose as 'in the incarnation of the universal interest'?  Does this applied to modern politics, for example in the USA, where the struggle is between abstract consumerist identity, and various 'communitarian and identitarian movements'?  (198)

It is necessary to define the political, as opposition to any whole that claims to be more than the sum of its parts, especially in the form of organic conceptions or general assemblies.  In the USA, the notion of a whole dominates, even though there are conflicts, and this whole community 'authorizes forms of subjectivation for the uncounted'.  It is not a matter of an excluded group trying to identify itself with the community, which would make it an ethical issue not a political one.  It is a particular symbolization of community that produces inequality.

Is such politics realistic today?  It is 'always possible'.  But we have to be pessimistic about its actual imminence.

What about anti colonial struggles?  They might have a universal moment, but this rarely lasts, and often a choice has to be made, between 'militant particularism' and effective struggle? (199).

There is always ambiguity and risk of being 'coercively pinned down'.  Nevertheless, politics must refuse the choice mentioned and push the universal, whether held by you or the enemy, to its own particularity 'to the point where each comes to contradict itself', where symbolic violence of separation leads to reclaiming universality.  The risk still remains though – submit to a disciplining universal, or stay within an identarian perspective, and no movement has succeeded in avoiding both risks.

[So always a good reason to do stuff all?]

Your idea of democracy really presupposes conventional notions where there is no central authority and therefore a space for new figures to claim universality?

Democracy is really a form of symbolizing political power, not leaving it open.  'It turns on the very existence of the political' (199).  It is a practice which has democratic institutions, but not necessarily a democratic life: the institutions can 'operate simply as instruments for the reproduction of an oligarchic power'

[so Bourdieu might be right?  Do we not need empirical research to find out which possibility is operating add any particular time?]

Zizek in The Ticklish Subject says you offer impossibly ideal notions of political practice, which means you can just keep your hands clean.  Do we not really need power, parties authorities and so on?

This is not  asserting spontaneity as against organizations.  There is a personal dislike for particular practices of power and the forms of thought that accompany them [God forbid we should ever have to overcome our personal dislikes!] The real issue is theoretical [! LOTS of interest here...theoretician do have a role then? They can perceive things that ordinary plonkers cannot?]—Politics and power may not be the same thing.  Politics is more than just the organization of the community, or the occupation of a particular government.  It is an alternative to the police order, regardless of forms of power and organisation.

But how can political authority be organized?  Do we need a party or not?

There are no simple rules.  What is important is 'forms of perception, forms of utterance'(199).  How these are taken up by organizations is another matter.  'I must admit that I had never been able to endure any one of them for very long, but I know I have nothing better to propose'. {Says it all]

You have commented favourably on French politics at the end of the Algerian war, which extended beyond just sympathy.  Do you see this in modern anti American and anti globalization thinking?

Political movements defining themselves against international capitalism are inspiring, but so far, none has yet managed it beyond national frameworks or arguments about particular states and peoples.  Indeed, in cases like Algeria, national interests 'allowed the uncounted to be accounted for' (200).  Taking on capital is different.  Negri and Hardt show how there are no simple points which might lead to political subjectification.  Their politics depends on the forces of production somehow breaking through the relations of production.  Recent demonstrations have tried to show how capital is politicized, at least through particular instruments.  Yet there is no easy connection between multitude and anticapitalist politics.  It is unlikely that there will never be a specifically anticapitalist struggle, without national relations 'bringing into play an inside and an outside'.  The rules of the game are no longer clear, as with the reaction to 9/11.  The Vietnam war was simpler because it was clear who was being attacked, and the contradictions between democratic discourse and aggression were clear.  However, there is no simplicity now.  Global affairs seem to be supported by some moral vision of political life, wars of good against evil, and it is difficult to regain the ground for politics...

As a result, the national domain remains important, for example in openly excluding immigrants without papers, an obvious contradiction.

If politics is about configuring space and exposing processes of constructing subjects, and this is completely opposite to the domain of the police, are we not disconnecting ourselves from the politics of inequality and how it is structured?

This is really Badiou.  It is possible to define what specific to politics, and to separate practice and the ideas of community from other forms of negotiations between social groups.  'The political isn't the social'.  Neither is it the social and empirical mixture of local and state controlled as Badiou thinks.  Instead, the social arises when policing logic is designed to share out or distribute meet 'the various ways of configuring the common space which throw the same distributions into question'(201).  Social benefits are not just shares of the national income, but what is seen to be shareable, common, and who distributes common spaces and permits people to occupy them.  It is always a matter of 'distribution of places and roles' and who is qualified to say.  So politics really emerges from the social, which is why it runs through labour movements and educational questions, social questions about universities, the status of the unemployed and so on.  Running throughout all these disputes is 'the configuring of what is shared or common', whether it is a matter of university selection, or pensions and social benefits—all these engage with notions of the common sphere and how it is configured, and this includes disputes about state vs. private provision.

Reminds me of the endless deferrals of Derridavians who always wanted to discuss the philosophical meaning ofpolitics rather than actually doing any politics -- see Fraser]

How do you relate to Arendt?

There is some agreement and also strong disagreement, which extends to current interpretations of her work.  It is agreed that politics is a matter of appearance, a common stage, acting out common scenes not just governing common interests, but Arendt argues that the political is sometimes confused by social claims, such as compassion for victims.  This preserves the idea that the social is about reproducing life, while politics is mere appearance.  This turns on the old opposition between 'men of leisure and men of necessity' (202), and how having to work only on the basis of necessity excludes people from politics and from 'the domain of appearance'.  Instead, 'the misfortune of the poor lies in their being unseen', and they do not even realize this.  However, workers already have made a claim for visibility.  It is an example of where those who apparently cannot do something actually do it.  Some followers of Arendt have also recuperated her to say that the government is above mere social pettiness and narrow conflict.

What about Michelet on history?{I do not know this work so I'm going to summarise drastically}]

Michelet's view of history turns on the gradual emergence of speech from below, although he never takes revolutionary assemblies seriously, but instead sees it in terms of some discourse of the earth, or truth opposed to the actual words of speakers, silent masses, anonymous and unconscious thought.  This is quite different from Jacotot's affirmation of the capacity to speak.  It is not the same as believing that people are equal in principle and have an anonymous voice, that speech is everywhere, implicitly, as in Victor Hugo.  Rather, the capacity to speak pertains to anybody and can be verified.  We often find the two mixed, so that emancipatory discourse combines active speeches with 'the silent power of the collective' (203).

Why did you shift to aesthetics?

There is no programme of work, rather an interest in blurring boundaries.  Political and social movements are also intellectual and aesthetic ones, 'reconfiguring the frameworks of the visible and the thinkable'.  Personal interests have led to literature and the cinema rather than to less interesting questions of political science.  Even the work on workers' history was also about literary references, and how workers' texts might be seen in terms of 'models offered by literature', as well as a chance to experiment with writing and composition, rather than seeing workers speech 'as the expression of the condition': instead, the intention was to practice 'a certain poetics'.  Actual books, like the one on Mallarme were initially interesting because of the poems about the proletariat, but also because they commented on matters like the relation between day and night:  workers did not accept the simple division between work and rest.  A seminar on the politics of writing, on what is political in writing had been led 'over several years' (204), turning on how writing translates properties and transmits knowledge, or itself configures and divides 'the shared domain of the sensible'.

This is not just the issue of representation, which is how politics and aesthetics are normally linked.  Instead, writing cuts up 'the universal singular'.  Flaubert, for example announces a notion of literary equality, of topic [apparently he said he was as much interested in the lice that feed on the poor].  Literature can introduce dissensus, and break with political conventions.  This is more interesting than the debate about bias.

Then some 'people in the arts' asked him to reflect on the cinema, which he has always been interested in.  A further invitation helped him think about contemporary art, where he had 'no real competence', but saw a need to respond to the challenge.

[Reminds me of what Althusser says about the difference between professional bourgeois philosophers and marxist ones -- nothing drives the former except the agreeable need to enjoy university life and its interests]

Is there a parallel between literature the claims to be systematic and encyclopaedic, and a literature of nothing, self referential, and politics?

There might be a similar kernel of meaning, in the idea of a work that comes from a 'profusion of things and signs' or from 'the rarifaction of events and senses'.  The literature or after the Revolution focuses on interpreting society and the place of speech, an idea of speech that exceeds the speaker and the speaker's intention, that there is speech everywhere.  Social life can be seen as 'a vast poem'(205).  Alternatively, the book about nothing replaces this totality, as an inverse.  This can take the form, as in Flaubert, of 'an aesthetic of equal intensities'[apparently one of the tensions in Madame Bovary, who is rebuked for confusing art and life but also permitted to be an equal subject]. In this way 'Literature invents itself is another way of talking about the things politicians talk about'.

Why are you more interested in romanticism than modernism?

There has been an aesthetic revolution, opposing the notion of art as systematic with clear rules, focusing on dignified subjects and offering other kinds of hierarchy, such as tragedy over comedy.  Now, art is no longer governed by these rules or subjects, and can speak of everything.  'It is the affirmation that poems are everywhere, the paintings are everywhere'.  The important thing is what art speaks of: the beautiful is everywhere, and anonymous, and this is 'the idea of equality and anonymity'.  This idea is found in fiction and poetry, and also in attempts to mix genres.

Modernism wanted to assert the autonomy of the different parts, based around one simple notion—'a great anti-representational rupture'and the development of autonomous processes and forms.  It is an ideology of art, and it is always retrospective.  It is also deeply affected by preoccupations about architecture, social religious and political life, despite its preoccupation for purer art.

Oddly, modern art as autonomy was a Marxist idea, something that had become autonomous that promised emancipation, as in Adorno (or Greenberg).  This led to seeing modern art as the art of autonomy, which soon collapsed.

So for you, the contradictions of the aesthetic regime should be maintained?  The relations between wholes and nothing, generalized speech, universal speech and silent discourses?  No interest in the postmodern?

It is hard to point to the break between the modern and the postmodern, or to identify definitively postmodern art.  Is it the return of figuration?  The mixing of genre?  Rather than breaks, we should grasp continuities.  There was no simple break with realism—realism helped develop new perceptions like 'indifference to subject, close-ups, the primacy of detail and tone'(206).  Painting was already seen as abstracting from subjects.  Installation is not new either, and markets like Les Halles were being seen as installations in 1874 [by Zola]; butchers' windows were seen as art, so were modern department stores.

What about Rothko and his interest in blackness?

This is still not just 'an idea of pure painting', since Rothko was already becoming mystical (207).  Greenberg actually defined modernism as a particular type of art done at a particular time.  Modern movements like surrealism already have roots in romantic thinking about art and life.  Modernism is [a snapshot].

What about Freud and Lacan?  The latter in particular stresses equality and anonymity of speech?

'I still don't know what to think about Lacan'.  His work was once about the primacy of the signifier and structuralism, and later 'the surrealist legacy of Bataille and all those other movements in the 1930s which wanted in their own way to rethink relations between aesthetics and politics'(207), which led him to rethink the rationality of thought other than as a series of symptoms.  He became interested in silence and nonsense, both as 'emblems of an absolute freedom (a la Breton) or…  the accursed share, the opaque residue impenetrable to sense (a la Bataille)'.

When Freud bases everything on the figure of Oedipus, a struggle between desire and enlightenment rationality, Lacan emphasizes Antigone, who wants to be faithful to the powers below, and wants only death, and linked this to the Baader-Meinhof Gang [!].  This is somehow closer to the notion of aesthetic reason, a notion of 'classical causalities'.

Will your idea of silent speech simply lead to silence?  What about the mystical tendency in Bataille 'and to some extent in the writings of Blanchot, Foucault and Deleuze?']

There is no particular interest in that generation.  'It all struck me as very opaque'.  It is much more interesting to think about the notion of the will in the 19th century, through literature, and the accompanying problem of how to write, 'untying the representative knot connecting action, will and meaning' (208).  There is this idea that the will is maximized when it seeks abdication, a race towards nothingness, self destruction.  Freud can be seen as commenting on this tradition.  There is no mysticism of silence, but there is a link between the regime of writing, 'the desertion of a certain idea of meaning', and the tension between silent speech and 'self annihilating will' [pass].

Your own writing is ironic, indignant and suffused with movement

This is not so much resistance to the death drive as 'a strategy of writing which tries to put uncertainty back into statements', challenging dogmatic statements, by reworking the way that dogmatism constructs otherness, the one who is ignorant or naive.  Studies of workers shatter 'the image of the naive believer', since it always knows that its utopian discourse is illusory and ironic.  It is necessary to make one's own assertions probabilistic as well, to avoid affirmative and categorical styles, unlike philosophy normally.

How do you line up, with Derrida on the deferral of certainty, and Badiou on axiomatic equality?

Derrida is interesting but out of kilter, and he downplays the politics of writing.  Foucault is the closest thinker, his archaeological project, his discussion of the conditions of possibility of statements.  There are some similarities with Badiou, a common history, seeing politics as not state practice.  But Badiou is too affirmative about history, and he sees events as completely separated from situations, and exaggerates the effects of statements about events [those that say it's now impossible to carry on as before].

What of the future?

There is no great project.  The politics of literature is of interest, so is the aesthetic regime of arts, but there is no interest in writing massive volumes about these topics, rather attempts to focus on 'significant objects and angles' that 'allow me to say as much as possible in as little space as possible.  I suppose my idea of research is indissociable from the invention of a way of writing'(209).

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