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Democracy, Dissensus and the Aesthetics - Jacques Ranciere

Democracy, Dissensus and the Aesthetics - Jacques Ranciere

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 Historical Materialism
, volume 13:4 (285–301)©Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2005Also available online – www.brill.nl
*Interview conducted in English at Northwestern University on 10 April 2003. Theinterviewers would like to thank Miguel Vatter and Jacques Rancière for inviting usto their seminar on aesthetics and politics.
Interview
Max Blechman,Anita Chari,Rafeeq Hasan
Democracy,Dissensus and the Aestheticsof Class Struggle:An Exchange with Jacques Rancière
*
Introduction
In an effort to compensate for the liberal complacencystill dominant in the graduate departments ofphilosophy and political science at the University ofChicago, three doctoral students decided to examinesome political heterodoxy coming their way fromFrance via the work of Jacques Rancière. Weeklydiscussions on his recent political writings (chiefly,
Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy
, 1999;
On theShores of Politics
, 1995;
Le partage du sensible. Esthétiqueet politique
, 2000) unpacked dense, meticulousarguments, matched by a staccato, machine-gun-likeprose – an architectonic structure and polemical styleworthy of
Logical Revolts
[
Les Révoltes logiques
], thetitle of Rancière’s 1970s journal which tracked thestruggles and speech of the poor. Ahistorian no less
 
286Interview with Jacques Rancre
1
In
Disagreement
, Rancière uses the term ‘police’ to refer to ‘the set of procedureswhereby the aggregation and consent of collectivities is achieved, the organization ofpowers, the distribution of places and roles, and the systems for legitimizing thisdistribution’ (Rancière 1999, p. 28). Politics, by contrast, is ‘an extremely determinedactivity antagonistic to policing: whatever breaks with the tangible configurationwhereby parties and parts or lack of them are defined by a presupposition that, bydefinition, has no place in that configuration’ (Rancière 1999, pp. 29–30).
2
Rancière 1999, p. 113.
3
Deleuze 1995, p. 25.
than a philosopher, Jacques Rancière’s intellectual itinerary – from his precociouscollaboration with Althusser (his essay on Marx’s
1844 Manuscripts
in the1965
Lire le Capital
) to his break with the latter and his work on the poeticsof historical knowledge and the heresy of democracy – bespeaks an ongoingand unforgiving refusal of consensual thought, an intelligence too restlessnot to verify what is covered under a name, a concept, a classification. Jacques Rancière here responds to questions on his theory of class struggle.The intention is to draw attention to a cornerstone of his thinking on democracyand to reveal thereby a line that marks him off from those – whether theoristsof ‘radical democracy’ or otherwise – who dismiss the universal suppositionof class struggle as a figure of the past. In what sense is Rancière’s theory ofclass struggle responsive to contemporary struggles for emancipation? Howis this theory expressive of democratic agency, of the irreducible opposition between politics and police,
1
or of the conflict between democracy properand the rising ‘identification of politics with the management of capital’?
2
How does this reworking of class struggle draw on Marx, the litigious demandfor rights, the aesthetic reorganisation of social space and the utopian impulse?One of the most stimulating aspects of Rancière’s work is the way in whichthese questions of democracy, universality, and class struggle are insistently bound to the very form of his writing. Rancière has an idea of method –performed rather than stated – according to which the thinking of democracyis organised and composed. Gilles Deleuze famously proclaimed that ‘doingphilosophy is trying to invent or create concepts’.
3
If the Rancièrian methodof political thinking exemplifies a similar concept-creating device, we maynote, as Rancière suggests toward the end of this interview, that the ‘declassing’reconfiguration of concepts is itself a ‘backfire’ of politics – another instanceof its universal struggle and import.
Question: You have relocated the site of politics from forms of politicalrégime to the operation of class struggle. For you, the present decline ofpolitics is directly related to the eclipse of the Marxian signifier of class
 
Democracy,Dissensus and the Aesthetics of Class Struggle287
4
See Rancière 1999, p. 35: ‘By subjectification I mean the production through aseries of actions of a body and a capacity for enunciation not previously identifiablewithin a given field of experience, whose identification is thus part of the field ofexperience.’
5
See Rancière 1999, p. 38: ‘Proletarian subjectification defines a subject of wrong – by superimposition in relation the multitude of workers. What is subjectified is neither
struggle. Yet you rethink class struggle in terms of political subjectificationand take your distances from any ideal
 politeia
 , or from what Marx called‘true democracy’and communism. We would like to know the reason forthis shift from Marx, how it modifies the Marxist signifier of class struggle,and in what respect the struggle for rights plays a central role in thismodification.
Rancière: Rights as such, you think so?
We thought this implicit, for instance, in your critique of Marx’s accountof human rights in
On the Jewish Question.
This is not actually the way in which I did put the issue. My critique ofthe young Marx was not so much concerned with rights as with politicalsubjectification.
4
In the young Marx, there is a kind of debasement of politics,politics for him being only superstructural appearance, and the real thing being the subterranean process of class war. I tried to overturn the position by appropriating for myself the enigmatic sentence of the
Introduction to theCritique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
where he writes that the proletariat is aclass of society that is not a class of society, and is actually a ‘class’ that entailsthe dissolution of all classes. The question is: what does this mean, how doyou think of this class which is not a class? In the same text, Marx makes theproletariat akin to a kind of chemical or biological idea of dissolution. Theproletariat is thought as the process of the decomposition of old classes. Fromthis point on, Marxism oscillated between a negative idea of class as dissolutionand a positive idea of class as identity. And, ultimately, this second sense, theproletariat as a positive class of labour, obviously became the mainstreamsense of class in Marxism.I tried to put differently this process of ‘dissolution’. It is not a matter ofthe historical and quasi-biological decomposition of old classes. I rather thinkthis dissolution as a symbolic function of declassing. The class that is not aclass thus becomes an operator of declassification. The proletariat is no longera part of society but is, rather, the symbolic inscription of ‘the part of thosewho have no part’, a supplement which separates the political communityfrom any count of the parts of a society.
5
The idea of the dissolving class canthus give the concept of what constitutes a political subject.

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