Rancière's Politics

Dave Harris

I think reading Valentine helps to crystallize a lot of worries that have been bubbling under for me.  One area which appeared before was thinking of R as adopting a basic methodology and approach which is very similar to that Foucault.  That in turn led to Baudrillard's critique of Foucault as describing a society that no longer exists, where discipline was everywhere and diffused through every practice, discipline or discourse, and much effort was put into constructing docile subjects.  Baudrillard argued that that society no longer exists, if indeed it ever did, and that there is no moral or political discipline in postmodernism, no constraints on subjectivity except commercial ones, and a corrosive market-driven process of social and cultural change.  Relativism is institutionalized: this might permit deviance but not solidaristic political challenge.  No one bothers to or can control the masses any more, and they remain as a non communicating black hole.

Hints of this appear in Valentine.  To gloss, Valentine seems to be arguing that R's view of politics is rooted in an era where there was a strong and active police order, which actively intervened to subjectivate and categorize, with the connivance of academic disciplines, even sociology.  However, some groups and individuals were inevitably omitted from this police order, so they were able to disrupt it by appearing on the public stage, as a kind of living demonstration of the inadequacies of official categories.  These were the radical workers of the 1830s, who refused to obey the conventional views that all they did was work and then recover from work, and could develop no particular political or aesthetic discourses of their own.  1968 radical students were able to demonstrate disruption.  So were the workers who occupied the Lip watch factory.  Rather more remotely, so could any one expressed an unorthodox aesthetic opinion. These examples demonstrated both the strength and the vulnerability of the police order for R.

However, it is unclear whether the protesters and disruptors are acting simply because they wish to have an established place in the social order, to be recognized, to have their identity accepted.  R would not support this kind of politics, on the grounds that it wasn't radical enough, merely demanding a kind of adjustment or extension of the police order.  But for the radical version to exist, the police order has to remain strong.  Apart from anything else, this seems to omit the common strategy of incorporation or recuperation, although R discusses this in rather abstract terms of minimizing the impact of experimental art.

The argument in Valentine and Zizek is reminiscent of Baudrillard.  The strong active police order has now collapsed.  It's been disrupted as much by technological changes like globalization as by any crowd politics.  Zizek also points to the usual suspects indicating decline, like the collapse of the bourgeois family, which, for him, means the collapse of the major mechanism of socialization through the Oedipus complex, or so says Valentine.  What this seems to leave is nothing but parapolitics, as one fraction after another attempts to assert its identity.  It emerges that one problem that R has is that this sort of politics doesn't seem to require philosophy, wrapped up in Valentine in terms of all sorts of lofty statements about politics, philosophy and the symbolic needing to 'coincide'.  The main task of his philosophy was to critique the symbolic order, but you don't need a critique to assert your right to a place in the sun these days.

Anyone sensible would therefore agree with Baudrillard on Foucault - we can now forget Rancière, but of course philosophers never agree to their own redundancy.  Valentine says that R was forced to change his diagnosis, and to locate the crisis further back in the emergence of the symbolic.  He uses someone else, Lefort, to argue that all symbolic orders have a contradiction in them.  This is a familiar one, turning on the role of the state as having to represent the whole community, while actually privileging a sector of it.  This is put rather the other way around in Valentine to link up with earlier themes in R: sectors of the [national, symbolic] community are told that they belong to it, even though it is obvious that they are excluded from it in practice.  Again they are excluded in a rather philosophical way - they are not named.  This reminds me of some of the earlier stages of politics of gender or ethnicity, and the current politics of class: these categories never appeared, they were invisible (only later does this lead to the second stage of recuperation).

Politics then takes on a role as managing these contradictions in the symbolic.  Luckily, philosophy is required, because it is the only discipline able to grasp  the contradiction at the level of the symbolic, the problem of 'double embodiment' as Valentine describes it, the contradiction in the concept of national community is the way the rest of us would understand it.  This looks like a pretty standard Marxist insight, and the work on hegemony seems to be much more developed and more insightful into the processes by which this is achieved.  This still leaves a problem in suggesting some sort of eternal function for the police order in social reproduction.  R has criticized the attempt to blend Marx and Durkheim to argue this in Althusser, but he seems dangerously close to this sort of conception after all, although he leaves it vague.  Meanwhile, Bourdieu and other sociologists can be criticized only if they are read as offering a very simple form of social reproduction, duplication almost, and this is of course a caricature (not even Althusser saw reproduction as simple).

It is now possible to see  why R is so popular among educationalists, because the education system represents the last gasp of the police order.  The police order appears in a very convenient crude form in education, represented by the state and its official agencies monitoring quality in some detail, establishing disciplining accounts of curriculum and pedagogy.  It even defines those groups which are to be left outside of the pale, such as social sciences and progressive pedagogies.  The old version of disruptive politics can then appear as a solution again, as an ultimately philosophical form of politics, a challenge to the police order rather than as special pleading for recognition or identity.  We might expect to find the same sort of thing going on in other local situations when the police order is dominant, in much of modern industry, for example, and perhaps there will be classic worker disruptions there as well as a further vindication.

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