Jacques Rancière’s Style

“ Ce n’est pas une image juste, c’est juste une image”
J-L Godard, Vent d’Est

Jacques Rancière is a prolific writer who claims he has nothing to teach. (Bosteels,
2011, 131 and Chambers, 2013, ix) How, then, might we proceed to read his theoretical
Though Rancière’s writings have enjoyed increased reception and engagement in
Anglo-American political theory circles in the last three decades, few readers have paused to
ask themselves what readerly dispositions are available to political theory other than an
analytic literarity that aims at rendering knowable intelligibilities. Indeed, the de facto
position is one of approaching his writings, and his theoretical elaborations, with the
assumption that one knows how to read and that an analytic eye will fund insights into the
conceptual armature of his theoretical interventions. Such a stance is, however,
counterintuitive not only to the content of what Rancière has to say about his now famous
distinction between police and politics (for Rancière, the analytic eye is the eye of the police
that confirms the imperative of fluid circulation), but it also runs counterintuitive to his style
of theoretical writing that, as Bruno Bosteels rightly notes, “displays a brilliant use of the free
indirect style of speech.” (Bosteels, 2011, 132)
To adopt the free indirect style (or free indirect discourse, or style indirect libre – I will
use these terms interchangeably throughout) as a style of theoretical writing and reading is
not a fanciful choice for Rancière; it is a political and aesthetic one.

For a thorough treatment of Rancière’s adoption of free indirect style, see especially James
Swenson’s Style Indirect Libre, 2009, and especially his helpful definition free indirect discourse as “a
third-person narration of reported speech or thought, capable of smooth melding with exterior
And not to acknowledge
le style indirect libre as a significant dimension of Rancière’s theoretical outlook is, I believe, to
mute his speech and to disregard the role that the practice of literarity plays in his own
writings. For one element of Rancière’s style is to develop his insights not simply through
content but also through form. By this I mean that Rancière develops his insights through
practices of composition and juxtaposition (literary and otherwise) rather than through the
exposition of a semantics of meaning. In this, his critical project is intended to appeal to
one’s sensibilities rather than to the faculty of the understanding. Indeed, it is an acute
attention to such sensibilities that may be said to characterize his political-aesthetic critical
gesture of dissensus. This is why aesthetics is always political for Rancière, and vice versa, as
Sudeep Dasgupta rightly asserts: “Aesthetics as the polemical carving out of social space
through the inscriptions of errant forms of doing that obey no rules of genre, spatial
propriety or attributed essence, is thus intrinsically political. There is always a politics of
aesthetics because the distribution of social space is underwritten by a normed ascription of
potentialities, functions and practices of the visible, the seeable, the sayable and the doable.”
(Dasgupta, 2013)
But even more than this, acknowledging Rancière’s adoption of free indirect style
allows us, I believe, to better appreciate the archetypal role he gives to Gustave Flaubert’s
artistic project for his own political theorizing, a project that enables Rancière’s re-working
of Marx’s critique of capital in the face of, and against, Althusser’s theoreticism. As Samuel
Chambers has admirably and rigorously outlined the nature of Rancière’s critique of
Althusser’s theoreticism (see especially the chapter entitled “Critique”; Chambers, 2013, 123-
156), I will abstain from doing so in these pages. Rather, my ambition is to defend the
intuition that style matters to Rancière’s peculiar version of political thinking, reading, and

narration of actions and description of scenes, distinguished by the erasure of certain marking effects
(quotation or other diacritical marks, “he said that ...” and so on).” (Swenson, 263)
writing and that it matters because it renders palpable what Lauren Berlant calls the “styles
of composure” and the “gestural economies” (Berlant, 2011, 5) that delineate forms of
relationality and detachment, organization and disassembly, that are at the heart of Rancière’s
polemical politics. In short what Rancière offers through his adoption of free indirect style is
a poetics of sensibilities that stands in contrast to the motivations of what he comes
perilously close to calling political theory’s knowledge police.
As mannerist – as someone highly attentive to the mores and manners of everyday
intra-active (Barad, 2007, 33) relations – Rancière invites the affects of the sensitive; a figure
who can’t rely on orthodox knowledge to negotiate and move around the parlors of
experience that are the domain of an aesthetics of politics. The affect of the sensitive begs
for an intuitionist reading strategy; when reading Rancière we must learn the art of the gloss
and be attentive to innuendo and gesture, as much as declaration, designation, and
explanation. That fact of the matter is there is no expertise in intuition – as David Hume’s
famous example of Sancho the wine taster shows. In Hume, as in Rancière, the capacity to
formulate intuitions regarding sensitive matters is born of lived experience and not received
by report from the imprimatur of pedagogical authority.
In this essay I do not analyze Rancière’s style of writing. Rather, I explore and engage
his deployment of style indirect libre as both a topic and a manner of writing.

Consider, as a corollary to this project, Amanda Anderson’s “characterological” study of
pragmatism (Anderson, 2003). But also, and furthermore, I would propose to name Rancière’s style a
paratactic style which could be added to the artistries of power (i.e., the realist style, the courtly style,
republican style, and bureaucratic style) that Robert Hariman studies in his Political Style.
In doing so, I
prolong my project of reading Rancière as a mannerist (Panagia, 2009). As just noted, I take
style to be of principal importance to Rancière’s political thinking precisely because of the
emphasis his works give to genres of reading and writing in the everyday life of peoples. No
doubt his is a poetics of political thinking (Panagia, 2006, 68-95); but more than this,
Rancière’s style is complicit and entangled with how he understands the nature and function
of political arrangements (ensembles). For stylistics is the literary name we give to the artistic
capacity for the spatial/temporal curatorship of peoples, places, and things.
In the following, I proceed by discussing Rancière’s style as I see it playing itself out
in some of his work, and especially in the polemics of the title to the most commonly read
work by Rancière among political theorists, Dis-Agreement: Politics and Philosophy. I begin by
tracing what I intuit to be Rancière’s Marxist roots (and routes) in Marx’s elaboration of
capital’s logic of equivalence. I then elaborate the central role that Gustave Flaubert’s
Madame Bovary plays in Rancière’s critical project. I conclude the essay by suggesting that we
would be well served to move beyond the inherited orthodoxy of reading for argument so as
to be more attentive to the critical potential in stylistics; not only in Rancière, but in other
political thinkers also.


One possible explanation for the surge of interest in set theory in recent French
political thought regards the double entendre of the French word ensemble, meaning both
“set” in the mathematical sense and “togetherness.” As Isabelle Stenger explains, “A
mathematical set can be defined from the outside; all its members are interchangeable from
the point of view of this definition and, as such, may be counted. But those who participate
together in a minority group cannot be counted, as participating is not sharing a common
feature but entering into a process of connections, each connection producing, and
produced by, a becoming of its terms.” (Stengers, 14, 2010) It is with this sense of ensemble as
a “process of connections” that we might understand much of what Rancière is on about in
his discussions of partager, dissensus, and accountability. (Panagia, 2010) For one of the
central features of Rancière’s mode of presenting ideas is precisely to show how no
representation is sufficient for containing all that may be accountable in a social field, and
that there is more ‘stuff’ to any spatio-temporal coordinate that any institution of
accountability can accommodate. (Ferguson, 2004, xiii) In this, Rancière is proclaiming the
absolute wrong (i.e., tort) – the miscount, if you will – of the historical turn to the actuarial
sciences (e.g., those sciences that privilege processes of justification and accountability) as
the basis for a moral and political science.
In it’s stead, Rancière proposes a political theory of sensitivity; one that begins with
sensibilities and dispositions and that attends to the processes of intra-connectivity of
peoples, places, and things. Hence the valuable figure of Plato as an archetypal specter of
Rancière’s pasts: Plato for Rancière does not represent the political philosopher par
excellence whose ideas must be engaged, analyzed, and elaborated. Plato stands, rather, as a
sensibility, a disposition of critical thinking that implicitly partitions what is and what is not
thinkable. And in this, Plato becomes the archetypal medium of an actuarial sensibility
oriented towards policing the set of relations that are or are not thinkable for politics; that do
or do not count. Plato is, of course, not unique in this role as a critical-dispositif. In distinct
ways, all of Rancière’s writerly figures (Althusser, Flaubert, Jacotot, Marx, etc.) present
sensibilities rather than arguments and intentions. Or, better put, Rancière is more likely,
when engaging these authors’ works, to be attentive to the sensibilities of their words and
turns of phrases that emerge from the stylistic arrangement of their prose. This means that
the value of an author’s argument, or claim, or theoretical point does not lie in the analytic of
her concepts, but in the ensembles – the processes of associations – that the critical-dispositif
endorses. An author is, for Rancière, a mediator of associational dispositions – a curator of
the divergences of thought and affect, if you will.
Hence Rancière’s perspicuous attention to the arrangement of things, and specifically
to the viscosity of spatialities and temporalities, visibilities and sayabilities, of peoples, places,
and events. With the sensitivity of the intuitionist, an arrangement does not give us a
designation; it marks an ensemble of frictions that cannot be explained by expert knowledge.
Rather, arrangements are always up for grabs to the extent that their composite features
remain indistinct from one another. This is the lesson Rancière learns from Karl Marx’s
analysis of capital’s exchange logic. Mathematical sets (as described by Stengers above)
always presume the interchangeability (and hence, equivalency) of parts. Qualities are known
and fixed, and one part is as good as another, as in Marx’s formula for exchange: “20 yards
of linen = 1 coat, or: 20 yards of linen are worth 1 coat. The whole mystery of the form of
value”, Marx affirms, “lies hidden in this simple form.” (Marx, 1990, 139) The whole
mystery of the form of value, in other words, lies in a representational logic of equivalence
that takes one part as exchangeable with another. The logic of equivalence stands as the
ensemble of forces that admits the universal circulation of things: its ontology is flow, like
the smooth flow of traffic that moves us along. Indeed, for Rancière the logic of equivalence
is the analytic logic of the police whose singular and solitary role is not merely to exercise
power, but to enable flow – the flow of signification between meanings, letters, and words.
The logic of equivalence is the logic of the hermeneut’s symbolism that says ‘x’ must mean
‘y’, that 20 yards of linen represents 1 coat.
What Rancière gets from Marx, then, is the sense that our theories of accountability
– of making things count – are the basis of our science of politics and that actuarial science,
whose job it is to predict and project a trajectory of equivalency through time, structures our
logics of representation. This is Rancière’s indelible picture of the police which, rightly or
wrongly, is intended to divert the Althusserian logic of interpellation and its reliance on a
representational logic of symbolism. Althusser, then, is not simply the author of the
epistemic break (more below in Part III); he is the critical-dispositif of relation as exchange.
He is, in short, the spirit of capitalism incarnate.
The only way to break with this critical-dispositif is to be wrong; to be unaccounted-
for. To be wrong does not mean to be incorrect. By wrong Rancière intends a part-taking in
the authoring of improprieties: if I do not count, if I am designated as a miscount by a logic
of equivalence that relates only that which is common, then I will part-take in a manner of
equality that cannot – by definition – be defended because my part is extraneous to any
orthodoxy of legitimation. The injunction to part-take by the no-part is a polemical assertion
of equality that cannot be defended. And it cannot be defended because it cuts, or splices the
criteria of validation – and their consequentialist hold – for mounting a justification. It may
not be my place to be, to speak, to act, to read, or to write in this way, but I will do it
anyway. I will part-take of that way of doing in the same way that the first person to say “this
is mine” – according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequalitry – partook
in a way of holding that did not belong to them. To part-take is to appropriate that which
does not belong; not in a sense of stealing, but in a sense of a taking of hold of one’s un-
belonging-ness, of one’s out-standing (or exclusion) from a logic of equivalence that fluidly
substitutes 1 coat for 20 yards of linen (and vice versa).
What Marx animates in Rancière’s work is the intelligence of equivalency as capital’s
criteria for belonging to a part. A few words, then, about this word “intelligence.” It is, for
Rancière, a term of art and not a measureable quantity like an IQ. By this, I mean that
intelligence is not something you possess but a qualification to which you may or may not
have access. And the problem of equality, for Rancière, lies in the criteria of eligibility for
accessing intelligences: an intelligence is a regime of perceptibility that renders intelligibilities
apparent, thereby awarding them the status of import. In this way, it is not simply the
intelligence of equivalency that is given priority in the critical-dispositifs challenged by
Rancière, but the function of equivalency too because the determination and designation of a
common measure for thinking (which is what the intelligence of equivalency does best) is
nothing other than the standardization of a common sense for thought. The value of 20
kilos of flax seeds, for instance, are not worth knowing unless they participate in an
equivalency that renders 1 coat or 20 yards of linen. Rancière’s point, that he inherits from
Marx, is this: the intelligence of equivalency is inegalitarian: “This supposed equality between
cause and effect,” he affirms, “is itself based upon an inegalitarian principle: it is based on
the privilege that the schoolmaster grants himself – knowledge of the ‘right’ distance and
ways to abolish it.” (Rancière, 2009, 14) Updated for today’s late-capitalist, neoliberal world
the assertion transfigures itself thusly: consensus is the logic of equivalency that is the
intelligence of the police.
Notably, Rancière’s Marx is no longer a Marx that speaks for the poor or the
proletariat. This he makes clear in the Ten Theses on Politics when he asserts that:
There is politics as long as ‘the people’ is not identified with the race or a population,
inasmuch as the poor are not equated with a particular disadvantaged sector, and as
long as the proletariat is not a group of industrial workers, etc… Rather, there is
politics inasmuch as ‘the people’ refers to subjects inscribed as a supplement to the
count of the parts of society, a specific figure of ‘the part of those who have no-part.’
Whether this part exists is the political issue and it is the object of political litigation.
(Rancière, 2001, Thesis 6)

What Marx gives Rancière is not a fetishization of the proletariat as a universal category for
struggle. Rather, Marx is the critical-dispositif who renders a supernumerary unaccountability
political. Marx’s project is thus understood by Rancière as a project of accounting for the
unaccountable. Specifically, Marx is the historical thinker who made human effort in
industrial societies count as labour; this, in a time and in a world accustomed to conceiving
work exclusively in terms of agrarian or artisanal effort. In the closed loop of equivalence
that discounts a worker’s industry when fabricating coats, or making of 20 yards of linen,
Marx wants to account for (and hence render appraisable) human labour as a social and
political category, thereby making industrialized labour an at once visible and sayable activity.
Hence the adoption of the term “proletariat”: a word that hadn’t been seen or heard since
Roman classical antiquity.
Marx’s theory of exchange relations and the efficient fluidity of substitution that the
equivalency affirms also marks the crux of Rancière’s critique of consensus. Put slightly
differently: the equivalency-intelligence is the intelligence of consensus. This is Rancière’s
polemical paradox because it is, in and of itself, a formula of equivalency that goes
something like this: 20 yards of linen = 1 coat = equivalence = consensus. Rather than a
principle of equality and inclusion, consensus is for Rancière the name given to the
intelligence of equivalence that governs the ensemble (in the sense of the mathematical set) of
relations in late-capitalist society. In this, he is unequivocal: “Consensus thinking
conveniently represents what it calls ‘exclusion’ in the simple relationship between an inside
and an outside. But what is at stake under the name of exclusion is not being-outside. It is
the mode of division according to which an inside and an outside can be joined. It is the very
invisibility of the partition, the effacing of any marks that might allow the relationship
between community and noncommunity to be argued about within some political
mechanism of subjectification.” (Rancière, 1999, 115-116) What the intelligence of
equivalence that goes by the name of consensus thinking does so well is lubricate the friction
of a partition in such a way that inside and outside slide between each other smoothly, and
with high viscosity. For consensus thinking, ‘exclusion’ is not a term that designates an
externality; it is an operation that erases the difference between inside and outside, between
community and noncommunity, so that there is nothing to dispute. Consensus renders the
partition of exclusion invisible by qualifying democracy as the intelligence of equivalence.
Rendering friction sensible is the work of the polemical wrong of dissensus that
stages a conflict between two intelligences: the intelligence of equivalence and the
intelligence of democracy. This is the reveal of the title of Rancière’s most frequently read
work amongst Anglo-American political theorists: Dis-agreement: Politics and Philosophy. The
title matters to me, as does the University of Minnesota Press cover design. The first thing to
note about the title is that it is a good translation, but an inadequate one. I suspect that some
editorial and marketing choices must have gone into deciding on the word “disagreement”
because Julie Rose is an otherwise excellent translator of Rancière’s work. But here’s my
point: the original French title is “La mésentente” which better translates as “the
misunderstanding” (or even a “missed listening” as the root entente means both
understanding and listening) and has wonderful resonances that are usually associated with
having ‘bad blood’ between people, and especially between family members. A mésentente
regards a family feud; a family dissemblance, if you will. This is decidedly not a disagreement
because a disagreement is something you can (typically) resolve (i.e., with empirical evidence,
for instance) or disregard (e.g., “let’s agree to disagree”).

Within Anglo-American political theory, “disagreement” is an uncontested term of political
discourse typically adaptable to a genre of political philosophy that wants to treat ethical problems as
political (Gutmann and Thompson, 1996), something that Rancière (2009, 109-132) explicitly rejects.
If pressed, and if the sense of disagreement must be kept, I would consider the term “disagreeable”
as more apt to Rancière’s sense of “mésentente.”
A disagreement implies a relation
of opposition in the vein of a contradiction. I can disagree with someone by contradicting
them; I cannot misunderstand someone by contradicting them. A mésentente is not a
contradiction but a ‘missed understanding’; it is a divergence of dissensus. And this divergence
is captured exceedingly well by the otherwise unexciting green cover of the Minnesota UP
publication that shows a light green inequality symbol ( ≠) as a watermark upon the darker
green cover. That symbol, I would suggest, is a better translation of mésentente than the word
“disagreement” that appears next to it; this because the mathematical inequality symbol
marks the break in equivalence that is the polemical staging of a conflict between two
intelligences that plays itself out in that work and in Rancière’s aesthetic and political writings
more generally. There is, thus, a family dissemblance between the intelligence of politics and
the intelligence of philosophy which is the fundamental mésentente of democracy. What this
means, finally, is that “la mésentente” and its corollary, dissensus, is not a concept for the
understanding: it is, rather, a practice of politics that disarticulates the conditions of
sensibility (i.e., the frictionless turbine of equivalence) for understanding. Mésentente is a
Rancière’s critique of the intelligence of equivalency must also be considered within
the French sense of “consensus” that is not reducible to a deliberative agreement between
contracting parties, as is the case with its Anglo-American ordinary language usage.
Whenever we English readers read “consensus” in the work of a contemporary French
author, we must keep in mind that the corresponding French term is more likely than not “le
bon sens”; that “good sense” of a sensus communis which is at once normatively good and
good common sense (e.g., as in the sound sense that offers stability).
This is a subtlety that can’t be quickly discounted: the French critique of consensus
does not register the term “consensus” as a deliberative agreement that may be attained
“Le bon sens” is thus
the good meaning that carries both aesthetic and political implications for Rancière.

Consider Gilles Deleuze’s claim that “the most general form of representation is thus found in the
element of a common sense understood as an upright nature and a good will.” Deleuze, 1994, 131.
given the correct (pedagogical) conditions of intersubjective exchange. As I have already
indicated, Rancière’s title – Dis-agreement: Politics and Philosophy – stages a polemical divergence
that won’t be resolved in the manner in which one might resolve a contradiction; this
because the missed-understanding (≠) between politics and philosophy regards a dissensus
of manners and sensibilities that can’t be puzzled out by the faculty of the understanding.
The mésentente of dissensus, in other words, marks the impossibility of arriving at a place of
understanding that the proper manners of “the good sense” expects. What the polemical
dissensus thus puts on display is the missed part (i.e., the no-part) of understanding such that
politics and philosophy will never be able to comprehend each other, or gather with each
other, in the communion of a community. I might want to put the matter this way: the
ensemble of democracy disarticulates the entente (understanding) of consensus such that
consensus – the sovereignty of the good and upright sense – is not necessary to solidarity.
Now it is imperative for the characterization I offer of Rancière’s improper style that
he never makes the points I raise explicit in his writings: his debt to Marx’s elaboration of an

Philosophy wants le bon sens – the common sense which is also the good sense, the proper
sense, the sense of propriety that comes with good manners – for understanding. But
Rancière’s style of impropriety that affirms the ‘missed understanding’ (mésentente) devises
unorthodox authoring practices for taking a part, by having a part, but also of ‘having’ or
‘wrenching apart’ the proprieties that compose the ambition to understanding by the
philosophical sound sense (recall, once again, that the French entente signifies both
understanding and the aurality of listening). Hence the democratic dissensus that is an
assembly of parts “without a common measurement.” (Rancière, 2007, 34-43)

Though it is beyond the scope of this essay, it is with this point in mind that I would begin to
articulate Rancière’s account of solidarity and party politics in contradistinction to contemporary
Maoist approaches.
intelligence of equivalency, for instance, remains unremarked; though it is palpably there to
be felt throughout. Hence my provocation that when reading Rancière we must attend to his
words with the intuition of the sensitive rather than the analytic eye of the understanding.
But hence also my inability to provide more concrete evidentiary support than what I have
provided thus far for the processes of association that I claim compose the ensemble of
Rancière’s critical project. Rancière’s free indirect style of writing doesn’t allow for this.
Rather, the best that I can do is to mark the centrality of style for Rancière not only as a site
for reading and writing, but as an aesthetico-political gesture that is part and parcel of his
innovative theoretical sensibilities. To do so, we must now turn to my promised engagement
with Rancière’s Flaubert.


Rey Chow (Chow, 2012, 35) notes that Rancière’s “good-humoredly ironic essay” on
Madame Bovary

The Rancière essay to which Chow refers is entitled “Why Emma Bovary Had to Be Killed” (Critical
Inquiry 34, Winter 2008, 233-48) and appears as “The Putting to Death of Emma Bovary: Literature,
Democracy, and Medicine” in Rancière, 2011a. I cite from the latter version.
sees the main character, Emma, as having contracted a kind of disease that
condemned her to death. Emma’s predicament is that “of a common folk’s way of pursuing
democracy” by “turning her fleeting sensations of pleasures (culled from romance novels,
natural and architectural surroundings, and other mundane associations) into real things and
people to be desired and possessed” that are “serially replaceable and substitutable” in such a
way that Emma’s predicament foreshadows the “high modernist principle of juxtaposition
or collage.” (Chow, 2012, 36) In Pornography, the Theory, Frances Ferguson similarly notes the
importance of Emma’s death as a relevant fact of the novel’s standing as an autonomous
work of art. For Emma’s death marks the completion of the work as a work, and thus the
novel’s capacity to stand on its own, without external support. For Ferguson, as for Chow’s
invocation of high modernist collage to describe Rancière’s treatment of Madame Bovary,
what seems curiously compelling about the novel is that it operates as if it were an ensemble
of composite parts that are curiously interchangeable; interchangeable, that is, not in the
sense that one might arrange and rearrange the pages of the novel and come out with the
same work, but interchangeable in the sense that there is nothing outside the work that
determines the order of things. So when Lauren Berlant, in recounting her debt to the
literary critic Barbara Johnson’s poetics of indirection, explains that “free indirect discourse
performs the impossibility of locating an observational intelligence in one or any body, and
therefore forces the reader to transact a different, more open relation of unfolding to what
she is reading, judging, being, and thinking she understands” (Berlant, 2011, 26), what she
means is the free indirect discourse exacts the impossibility of determining an external
authority that authorizes the necessity of any specific form of intelligibility or understanding.
Hence Flaubert’s famous (and infamous) defense, at his obscenity trial around the
publication of Madame Bovary, that he should not be convicted because the novel
accomplishes the work of convicting by killing Emma. Hence also, the logic of the judge’s
decision to not convict Flaubert: In judging Flaubert’s case, the judge acted like a literary
critic (Ferguson, 2004, 100) by awarding the work the status of an autonomous art object,
“(f)or the judge essentially affirmed that the novel had developed such internal consistency
that no one would take its words as if they meant what they might outside of its pages.”
(Ferguson, 2004, 101)
What Flaubert managed to do with his adoption of a style indirect libre is render the
voice of the novel (the narrator’s voice) so utterly impersonal that it was entirely impossible
to determine the nature of the subjectivity of he, or she, or it who spoke. Another way of
stating this – the way that matters to Rancière – is to say that what Flaubert managed to do is
to democratize prose by making it so that no one stature, or status, or qualification, or
intelligence is necessary for accessing the work.
This blurring of distinction that arrives with a literary style – and, importantly, not
via a transcendental deduction of the understanding – is a recurring theme in Rancière’s
oeuvre. Rancière also finds it in Tacitus’s account of Percennius’s speech, about which he
says this: “The indirect style, in practice disjoining meaning and truth, in effect cancels the
opposition between legitimate and illegitimate speakers. The latter are just as much validated
as suspected.” (Rancière, 1994, 28). Such a disjoining of oppositions characterizes the force
of indistinction in dissensus, a force that disarticulates the correspondences of equivalency
which authorize partitions. That is, indistinction not as a quality in things, but rather
indistinction as an assertion about the inequality of qualifications. It is indistinction that
renders things impersonal in that it interrupts the authoritative categories we assume
necessary for adjudicating their (our) distinctiveness. (Cameron, 2007, ix) Flaubert thus
offers Rancière “a new form of indistinction” (Rancière, 2011a, 56), one that is captured by
Flaubert’s ambition of developing an absolute way of seeing things: “The absolute way of
That is, you do not have to know who the
narrator is – or indeed, who Flaubert is – in order to appreciate the novel. By rendering the
narrator’s voice as impersonal as any other ready-made object that went into the collage of
elements that comprise the novelistic ensemble, Flaubert developed a new regime of the art
of writing that “blurs the distinction between the world of art and the world of prosaic life
by making any subject equivalent to any other.” (Rancière, 2011a, 54).

In this respect, one might read Rancière’s engagement with the literarity of Flaubert as a response to
Pierre Bourdieu’s treatment of the literary field that reconstructs “the social space from which
[Flaubert’s] vision of the world was formulated.” Bourdieu, 1996, 48.
seeing things,” Rancière affirms, “is the way you see them, feel them, when you’re no longer
a private subject, pursuing individual ends. Things are then freed from all the ties that make
them useful or desireable to us as objects. They deploy themselves in this way in a sensorium
of pure sensations, detached from the sensorium of ordinary experience.” (Rancière, 2011a,
60) In short, the work of impersonality and indistinction is the work of aesthetic disinterest
that liberates peoples and objects from the forces of necessity that arrange them according
to a specific structure of correspondence and representation. It is – I would submit – in this
way that style matters to Rancière, and that aesthetics is always political. It is always political
because aesthetics is, for him, the force that absolves procedures from the necessity of
having to proceed, thereby reconfiguring procedures into processes; aesthetic experience is,
in short, the name we give to the forces that render necessity un-necessary.
For Rancière, Flaubert’s style indirect libre does two things: 1. It makes available the
indistinction and impersonality of aesthetic experience thus interrupting the intelligence of
equivalency (e.g., if things are indistinct, they are not measureable and hence unavailable for
an equation of equivalency). 2. It democratizes authority such that anyone or anything
whatsoever can part-take, just as anyone or anything whatsoever can count as the voice of
the narrator in Madame Bovary (e.g., think here of the 19
century workers who part-took in
the time of night that did not belong to them in order to write poetry – see Rancière, 2012).
Here impersonality and indistinction stand as an elision of identity as a condition for political
participation; what matters most to Rancière is that there not be any necessary criteria for
belonging to the category of a political subjectivity. Indeed, indistinction and impersonality
denounce the availability of criteria tout court thereby procuring a disordering of the proper
(i.e., arche).
When Madame Bovary was published, or Sentimental Education, these works were
immediately perceived as ‘democracy in literature’ despite Flaubert’s aristocratic
situation and political conformism. His very refusal to entrust literature with any
message whatsoever was considered to be evidence of democratic equality. His
adversaries claimed that he was democratic due to his decision to depict and portray
instead of instruct. This equality of indifference is the result of a poetic bias: the
equality of all subject matter is the negation of any relationship of necessity between
a determined form and a determined content. Yet what is this indifference after all if
not the very equality of everything that comes to pass on a written page, available as
it is to everyone’s eyes? This equality destroys all of the hierarchies of representation
and also establishes a community of readers as a community without legitimacy, a
community formed only by the random circulation of the written word. (Rancière,
2004, 14)
Here is Rancière on this point: “free indirect discourse used not to make one
voice speak through another but to efface any trace of voice, the imperfect tense used not as
a temporal marker of the past but as a modal suspension of the difference between reality
and content of consciousness, fluctuation and the anamorphic value of pronouns (‘he began
rummaging ... it [elle] had fallen ...’) or the function of an ‘and’ that isolates rather than
coordinates.” (Rancière, 2011b, 122) And here he is again:

The collage that composes an ensemble of indistinct parts that have no reason for belonging
together other than the fact that they do belong together stands as an archetype for the
radical disordering that is the aesthetic force of democracy. Democracy is aesthetic, in other
words, because democracy is the name we give to an intensity of indistinction, or
impersonality, or non-necessity, or indifference; it is the name given to the processes of

It is Rancière’s relation to arche that makes it so tempting to qualify his prose and his ideas as
anarchic. And yet, Rancière neither prescribes nor endorses anarchism. Rather, he submits the sense
that democracy regards the absence of a priori (and hence necessary) qualifications for belonging and
rule: “Democracy is the specific situation in which there is an absence of qualifications that, in turn,
becomes the qualification for the exercise of a democratic arche.” (Rancière, 2001, Thesis 3) It is also
tempting when reading such naked statements, to collect Rancière’s prose into a Situationist
imaginary. And though there might be any sensibilities in Rancière’s ideas that solicit aspects of
Situationism, we must keep in mind two necessary qualifications of that movement: 1) the moral
theory of the image, that Rancière rejects prima facie; and 2) the absences in Rancière of a prescription
of the nature of situations for the production of specific effects (i.e., the absence in Rancière of a
causal principle that is necessary to Situationist prescriptions).
associations of peoples, places, and things that do not make sense together (i.e., ensemble);
that is, processes of association that have no necessity in their assembly, a “community
without legitimacy.”
Rancière’s style puts on display how any arrangement is premised on a fundamental
missed-understanding; by which we can now entail an absence of the necessity for
understanding. “This style,” he affirms, “is not the sovereignty of one who manipulates
sentences and forms, the manifestation of an individual’s free will in the sense in which it is
ordinarily understood. It is, on the contrary, a force of disindividualization. The power of the
sentence is a capacity to manifest new forms of individuation.” (Rancière, 2011b, 117) The
sentence is thus more than a meaningful utterance: it is a coordination of elements – an
ensemble of parts – that exists but not exclusively for the understanding. This, I would say,
is Rancière’s supreme and impossible lesson for political theory that he refuses to teach, but
that he shows us in his own deployment of polemics and the free indirect style of writing.
The lesson puts on display how an “excess of words” (Rancière, 1994, 24-41) can be
political; it also displays the fundamental mésentente between politics and philosophy. The
impossible and unteachable lesson is this: Politics is not a project of the understanding and
to the extent that philosophy desires understanding, then it must remain tethered to the
conditions of necessity that structure and arrange an order of police.
As an exemplary case of what I am describing, consider this sentence by Rancière:
“He is especially a proper name and a signature that give order to an assemblage of speakers,
of rules of legitimacy for speech and for the usage of nominations.” (Rancière, 1994, 16) Do
we need to understand what Rancière is talking about in order to appreciate what he is
saying? Do we need direction as to where we must look in order to get its sense? The
sentence betrays an indistinction of referent which allows any reader to access it with their
interest. That is to say, the sentence betrays a disinterest in referent that enables an equality
of access or entry. The sentence does have a referent in the paragraph, the king and his
figuration in a science of historical narrative that gives him a privilege in speaking. But the
sentence could just as easily be addressing the police officer, the lawyer, the teacher, or the
director. The “He” marks an indistinction of referent of the proper name which the indirect
style of the sentence is at once describing and undoing: the indirect “He” does not give us a
proper name, neither Philip II, nor Officer Powell, nor Louie Althusser. The result is that we
do not have to understand (entente) those names in order to have a sense of the sentence.
To demand understanding from a sentence is to demand that it have a use and that
that use be subject to an exchange value of equivalency. X sentence = Y meaning; just as 20
yards of linen = 1 coat. The possibility of extracting this use requires the intelligence of the
actuarial scientist-theorist who puts her method to work in order to exploit a meaning. What
Flaubert’s style does for Rancière is render the equivalency of understanding (and all
equivalences) at once unnecessary and unusable precisely because it radically disindividuates
people, places, and things in sentences (e.g., Madame Bovary is a novel that puts on display the
“excesses of words” of democracy). The result is the rearticulation of new forms of
individuation that the understanding – with its imperative that sentences must mean
something – cannot access;

Consider here Charles Taylor’s essay “Interpretation and the Sciences of Man” (Taylor, 1985) as
well as Quentin Skinner’s essay “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas” (Skinner,
hence the fundamental misunderstanding of dissensus.
Rancière’s style is thus the force of disindividuation that breaks capital’s intelligence of
equivalence, an intelligence that structures the political ambitions of critical hermeneutics
and deliberative democracy.
In summary, the project of understanding is, for Rancière, the intellectual ambition
of the social sciences and humanities that limits the possibility of ensemble.
This because the
project of understanding presupposes a reliable sense (le bon sens) that affords given
correspondences between object and meaning. In doing so, it is not possible to think
processes of association and ensemble-formations because for the understanding associations
and ensembles are derived, not created. Thus, the project of the understanding is to show
how the relations are and must be. A missed-understanding (mésentente), on the other hand,
compels a labour of aesthesis: the working to create ensemble-formations, assemblies, and the
collectivities. This, from my perspective, is one of the crucial insights that Rancière’s
commitment to an aesthetics of politics affords: Namely, the missed-understanding of dissensus
is concerned with thinking emerging forces of solidarity in a world where the smooth
circulation of the given reigns. This also helps explain why democracy is dissensus for
Rancière: democracy is the name given to forces of assembly-formation that dissent from
the given.

Thus, the understanding (which since Kant’s first critique has been the goal of modern thought)
requires the lien of symbolism to provide a smooth transition from one state or object to another; as
in the case of Kant’s affirming, in the third critique, that the beautiful is the symbol of the moral (i.e.,
symbolism allows us to understand aesthetic experience because it is likened to moral experience).
Such a turn to symbol qualifies processes of assembly by requiring of them such things as causality
and correlationism so that the link between object/event/person and meaning/understanding can be
well located. To make politics a project of the understanding thus means requiring politics to be self-
explanatory, self-evident: given.
In this regard, Bruno Latour’s and Pierre Lévêque’s (1993) etymological
reminder of the link between democracy and division is helpful: “The word ‘demos’ that
makes half of the much vaunted word ‘demo-cracy’ is haunted by the demon, yes, the devil,
because they share the same Indo-European root da- to divide.” (Latour, 2005, 14)
The emphasis for Rancière on assemblies is also why film is such an important art form for him.
Film is nothing other than an ensemble of parts (frames assembled into shots, assembled into scenes,
assembled into a movie). See especially Rancière’s discussion of “The Sentence-Image and the Great
Parataxis” (in Rancière, 2007). For a further elaboration of this, see Panagia, 2013 and Lisa Trahair,
Political philosophy’s wrong, then, is not an epistemic mistake or category error: it is a
political tort in that it won’t allow for the formation of assemblies because under this form of
intelligence, governed by the understanding, ensembles can only be derived, not created. So
why literature, and why free indirect discourse? Simply put, free indirect discourse provides
Rancière with a sense of potential solidarity that is not reducible to qualifying rules for
belonging. With free indirect discourse, words do not need to belong in order to be ensemble;
that is, free indirect discourse does not require an order of belonging for the possibility of


The work of style is to divert our readerly and intellectual efforts away from the
project of the understanding as the sole and only mode of thinking theoretically. Rancière’s
famous critique of Althusser

For an explanation of this see especially Chambers, 2013 but also Rancière, 2011c and Rancière,
and his elaboration of the dissensus of politics as a
fundamental missed-understanding (mésentente) is not only a polemical gesture against the
authoritative voice of philosophy and its subjugating role in determining the nature of what
can be known and how (e.g., method). It is also, and fundamentally, a claim about the nature
of political criticism: critical thinking, for Rancière, does not require a specialized knowledge
that unearths the contradictions of logic such that an argument is shown to be irrational.
Quite the contrary, critical thinking is rooted in the sensitivity of the intuitionist who senses
the ways in which authority can be disindividuated from a specific quality. To reduce critical
thinking to the science of epistemology – as the Plato-Kant-Althusser critical-dispositifs do in
spades – is to incur tutelage to a model of authority that always denies one’s access to its
criteria. One can never part-take in epistemological critical thinking; one can only reproduce
it. This because the intelligence of equivalence that structures such a model of critique
remains transcendental and a priori to one’s enactment of it.
The ur-example here is Althusser’s adoption of Jacques Martin’s concept of a
problematic (problematique) “to designate a particular unity of a theoretical formation and
hence the location to be assigned to this specific difference” that distinguishes two different
theoretical formations. (Althusser, 2005, 32) Althusser’s ‘problematic’ thus stands as the
distinguishing feature (the “specific difference”) of two competing systems of thought. And
the epistemological break (defined by Althusser in the same sentence that announces Martin’s
problematic) regards the means by which that distinction is made. The problematic arises when
a theoretical formation becomes a scientific discipline. In other words, the problematic is the
name Althusser gives to the site of critical attention for knowing that comes to analytic sight
at the point of difference between opinion and knowledge, between intuition and tuition (to
invoke Emerson’s famous distinction in the Self-Reliance essay).
For Rancière, Flaubert stands as a counter to such a critical enterprise precisely
because the free indirect discourse he deploys liberates the mind’s tutelage to the tuition of
understanding. While it is true that Jacotot (Rancière, 1981) offered a comparable remedy to
the Althusser critical-dispositif; Jacotot’s remedy was necessarily tethered to a specific situation
of teaching (i.e., the classroom with students who do not share the same language as the
instructor). Flaubert doesn’t need that unique situation of the ignorant schoolmaster because
he makes the indistinction of ignorance (i.e., ignorance as a blind incapacity for distinctions)
a condition of being in language, through style. In this respect, we might consider free
indirect discourse an ignorant style that anyone can embody simply because it ignores the
need for authoritative distinctions. Thus, Rancière’s style works precisely to render
distinctions ignorant so that the intelligence of equivalency (which is the intelligence of
capitalism) can also be ignored or rendered indistinct to any and all other possible
intelligences. Althusser’s problematic makes knowledge equivalent to itself through the
following basic equation: the problematic = epistemological break = knowing how to read
Marx. To know how to read Marx means knowing the orthodox method for isolating the
problematic as the distinct kernel of critical knowledge accessible and available to the one
who possesses the proper intelligence. Rancière’s Flaubert dissensuates this authoritative
A mode of understanding always entails a theory of the knowing subject. Rancière’s
turn to style as a topic, mode, and practice of exposition presents a devastating critique of
the Althusser critical-dispositif : in crude terms – terms that are available if we read with
intuition rather than for tuition – Rancière claims the Althusser is a capitalist whose theory
of knowledge can only offer a possessive subjectivity. (Macpherson, 1979) Needless to say,
such a conclusion is as counterintuitive as humanly conceivable to anyone who has read and
engaged the work of Althusser. So much so that such an intuited claim might seem at once
ridiculous and laughable. But Rancière’s political concern, we should remember, is how a
style of theoretical method arranges peoples, places, and things (including words and
concepts) as if their assigned order of belonging were external and inaccessible to those
subjected to it. Rancière’s polemical gesture (and the heart of his stylistics) is to treat an
order of belonging as if it were part and parcel of the collection of ready-mades that
comprises a method. That is, he wants to treat a partition of the sensible as if it lacked any
force of authority. And to do so, he proposes unauthorized gestures of part-taking that
disarticulate the senses of necessity (and necessity is a sense, for Rancière) that buttress the
presumed propriety of any order. This mode of critique doesn’t require a specialized
knowledge or an orthodox hermeneutic; on the contrary, such a critical stance presumes the
possibility of diverting theory away from the project of understanding (i.e., theory as a
missed-understanding) so that rather than critique having to unearth a problematic, it part-
takes in a becoming-problem. Rancière’s style offers us a becoming-problem of critique that
shies away from the need to have to treat problems as if they required solutions. The
becoming-problem thus looks to processes of affiliation and dissemblance in and by which
ensembles are arranged and held fast; and it does so with the intuition of the sensitive – of
the ignoramus who does not know and thus must feel her way about.
The proposal that I forward in these pages is that rather than reading Rancière’s
theoretical writings for the purpose of conceptual clarification and analytic application (what
Sheldon Wolin famously calls the “appliances” approach to theory; Wolin, 1969, 1075) we
are best served to read them through their stylistics, as “processes of connections ...
produced by a becoming of (their) terms” (Stengers, 14, 2010). No doubt, this is a difficult
task because it requires our having to proceed somewhat blindly, but with the intuition of
the ignoramus who cannot see and senses her way about. But it is, at the same time, an
urgent task given the growing pressures that the neoliberal university puts upon humanities
and social science departments and faculty to justify their existence (e.g. consider the
“impact factor” approach to adjudicating publication quality for tenure promotion).
Rancière’s willingness to articulate a style for a becoming-problem of critique wants to render the
use-vlaue of orthodox knowledge indistinct such that it no longer is possible to discount and
miscount intellectual work because it is not useful.

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