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Dissenting Words: A Conversation with Jacques Rancire

Author(s): Jacques Rancire and Davide Panagia


Source: Diacritics, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Summer, 2000), pp. 113-126
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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DISSENTINGWORDS
A CONVERSATIONWITH
JACQUESRANCIERE

Davide Panagia:
In your writingsyou highlightthe political efficacy of words. In TheNames of History,
for instance,this emphasisis discussed most vividly in termsof whatyou referto as an
"excess of words" that marks the rise of democraticmovements in the seventeenth
century.Similarly, in On The Shores of Politics, you begin your discussion with an
excursuson the end of politics as the end of the promise.Finally,in Dis-agreementyou
speak of "the part of those who have no-part"as voicing a "wrong"for the sake of
equality.
In each of these instances, however, your treatmentof words (and language more
generally) is very differentfrom those thinkersof the "linguisticturn"in political philosophy who expoundon an ethics of deliberationas the first virtueof moderndemocracies. For that matter,your approachis quite differentfrom those thinkerswho focus
on the aporiasof language as such.
Couldyou discuss this thematicof the proliferationof wordsin yourthinkingabout
democraticpolitics?
Wouldit be fairto characterizeyourresearchon andexpositionof democraticthinkas
ing a "poeticsof politics"?

Ranciere'sReply:
In orderto addressyour question adequately,it would be wise to enlarge the sense of
"linguisticturn"you invoke. In its most generallyacceptedsense, the linguistic turnin
philosophyconsists in ascribingto linguistic processes certainphenomenaand specifiable modes of relatingobjects attributed,in a previous instance, either to factual processes or lines of thought.This approachis not limited to the two figures you invoke in
your question. The linguistic turn also has two stages of development that, from my
experience, have been more noticeable in France than in the United States. The first
phase, then, emerged with Levi-Straussand his structuralapproachto social relations
foundedon a linguisticmodel of relationality,subsequentlyreprisedin Lacan'spsychoanalytic notion that "the unconscious is structuredlike a language"that, in its turn,
conjoins the energeticmentalprocesses Freuddiscusses to linguisticpractices.The primacy of "thelinguistic"thus grantedlanguageall the propertiesof the FreudianunconMy deepest debt of gratitudegoes to Jacques Ranciere, whose willingness to participate in this
interviewwith such thoughtfulattentivenessis testamentto his commitmentto an ethos of intellectual generosityand critical engagement.This interviewcould not have been possible without
the institutionalandfinancial supportof the Johns Hopkins UniversityCenterfor Research on
Cultureand Literature.In this regard,I would especially like to thankFrances Fergusonfor her
advice and encouragement.A special note of gratitude also goes to Kirstie McClure,who not
work but also taught me to appreciate the importanceof an
only introducedme to Rancibere's
mode
historically inflected
of political thinking.

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113

scious along with those of a Marxistnotionof infrastructure.


The Saussurianopposition
between langue andparole provideda privilegedstatusto a linguisticmodel whose role
was thatof a generallaw thatunconsciouslystructuresthe behaviorof individualsand
societies. It is on the basis of these parametersthat the structuralistmoment of the
linguistic turnwas constituted.At one and the same time, the analysis of speech acts
became first and foremost a "symptomatic" analysis of those procedures of
misrecognitionthatlinguisticallystructuredboth the behaviorof individualsand social
relations.When we "read"Le CapitalwithAlthusser,the interpretiveand methodological schema for linguistic phenomenaoperatedlike a kind of "policing of the enunciated":thatis, a searchfor those unsuccessful(i.e., inadequate)modes of expressionthat
exemplify such symptomaticproceduresof misrecognition.
The second phase of the linguistic turnconstituteditself more ambiguously.For
those who sharedintellectualexperiences similarto my own, this version involved a
model;thatis, a furtherand morefavorableconsidcritiqueof the langue/infrastructure
erationof the value of the political and the linguistic games thereinthat, accordingto
the Althusserian/Marxistmodel (and, indeed, with structuralismmore generally),were
to be treatedas ideological artifacts.In a very real sense, it all began with the May '68
assertionthat"we areall GermanJews"-an entirelyideological statement,the validity
of which, if analyzedat the level of its content,one finds to rest entirelyon the capacity
to overturnthe politicalrelationshipbetweenthe orderof designationsandthatof events
by emphasizingthe gap thatseparatessubjectand predicate.Fromthere,an entirefield
of understandingspeech acts as political gestures opened up: a field that reconfigured
the division betweenwords and things while rearrangingthe distinctionbetween legitimate and illegitimate speakers (i.e., claimants). This was the focus of my historical
researchon the writings of nineteenth-centuryFrenchworkers,which resulted in my
The Nights of Labor I treatedthese texts not as documents that either expressed or
concealed the "real"conditions of the workersand the forms of dominationthey had
enduredbut ratheras evidence of the controversialpolemical configurationsresulting
in thatform of political subjectivityknown as "theworker."
This for me has meant paying a different sort of attentionto language than that
found in the traditionof "critique."As I understandit, this lattertraditioncombines a
position of radicalpolitics with a practiceof interpretivesuspicion guided by the idea
thatwordsalways hide somethingprofoundbelow the surface;the hermeneuticimperative is thus to examine these substrataof meaning in orderto get at some even more
profoundsecret.In most cases, such a "profoundsecret"is, in fact, an instanceof domination either imposed or endured-even if it means that the mode of dominationin
question is merely the dominationof language itself (i.e., Roland Barthes's "langue
fasciste"). If the fracturebetween these two forms of the "linguisticturn"has not been
as readily visible in the American context as it was in France, it is without a doubt
because in the United States these two modes of understandinglanguage melded together into one overarchinglogic of suspicion. This is also a result of the mannerin
which certainof these latterconceptualizationsestablisheda linkbetweenthe two modes
of the linguistic turnyou invoke, withoutbelonging exclusively to either one. This is
precisely what has happenedwith Derrideandeconstructionin America:in practice,it
was includedas an interpretiveschemathatendorsedthe "symptomaticreading"of the
Althusserianvarietyby elucidatingthose criticalrupturesthat comprisedthe fabric of
the text. At the same time, Derrideandeconstructionalteredthe structural-Marxist
approach, as it is, in itself, divided between two modes: on the one hand, there is the
practiceof denunciativecritiqueand on the othera practiceof infinite readings.
My own intellectualeffort has been to think the distance [6cart] between words
differently:that is, neither on the model of a hermeneuticsof suspicion nor on the

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deconstructivemodel of an interminabledigging throughthe strataof metaphorical


meaning. My approachbegins from a differentreading of Plato's critiqueof writing.
Here, the centralquestionfor me rests upon the politically fertile potentialof the opposition between two differing accounts of how words circulate. The "silent"word of
writing,accordingto Plato,is thatwhichwill sway no matterwhat-making itself equally
availableboth to those entitledto use it and to those who are not. The availabilityof a
series of wordslacking a legitimatespeakerand an equallylegitimateinterlocutorinterruptsPlato's logic of "theproper"-a logic thatrequireseveryone to be in theirproper
place, partakingin their properaffairs.This "excess of words"that I call literaritydisruptsthe relationbetween an orderof discourseandits social function.Thatis, literarity
refers at once to the excess of words available in relationto the thing named; to that
excess relatingto the requirementsfor the productionof life; andfinally,to an excess of
words vis-&-visthe modes of communicationthat function to legitimate "the proper"
itself.
We can conclude, then, thathumansare political animalsbecause they are literary
animals:not only in the Aristoteliansense of using language in orderto discuss questions of justice, but also because we are confoundedby the excess of words in relation
to things. Humansare political animals, then, for two reasons:first, because we have
the power to put into circulationmore words, "useless"and unnecessarywords, words
thatexceed the functionof rigiddesignation;secondly,becausethis fundamentalability
to proliferatewordsis unceasinglycontestedby those who claim to "speakcorrectly"that is, by the masters of designation and classification who, by virtue of wanting to
retaintheirstatusandpower,flat-outdeny this capacityto speak.This is whathappened
duringthe EnglishRevolutionof the seventeenthcentury,when certainpopularpreachers learnedandbeganto use the wordtyrant(which, "technicallyspeaking,"refersto an
ancientform of power) as a termof political contest. It is also what occurredwith some
workers in the nineteenthcentury who began to put into circulationthe word proletariat, which literally means "those who multiply"and refers to a class of peoples in
ancient Roman times whose sole existence was defined in terms of their reproductive
these abandonedterms,these seventeenth-centurypreachcapacity.'In reappropriating
ers and nineteenth-centuryworkerswere able to designate an entire categoryof political subjectivity.Political subjectivitythus refers to an enunciative and demonstrative
capacity to reconfigurethe relation between the visible and the sayable, the relation
between words and bodies: namely,what I referto as "thepartitionof the sensible."
It is in this respectthatI have put into operationwhatI call a poetics of knowledge.2
in orderto thinkwhat you referto as a poetics of politics. The "poetic"is distinguished
from the notionof "critiqueas suspicion"discussedearlierby its abilityto give value to
the effectivity of speech acts. To affirmthe natureof the "poetic"in politics means to
assert first and foremost that politics is an activity of reconfigurationof that which is
given in the sensible. What is more, this activity also distinguishesitself from various
forms of politicalrealismandalso fromthe deliberativedemocraticmodel of communicative rationalityof the "linguisticturn"you invoked.Whenone distancesoneself from
the symptomaticmode of critiquementionedpreviously,therebytakinginto thoughtful
considerationthose words used in various forms of sociopolitical interlocution,one
finds oneself in a problematicrelationwith the Habermasiancritiqueof neoconservative poststructuralism,along with those denunciativeattackson post-'68 thoughtthat
include a returnto Kantand the Enlightenment,and so on.
1. According to the Oxford English Dictionary(2nd ed. on CD-Rom)entryfor proletariat,
the term refers to "thelowest class of the communityin ancient Rome, regardedas contributing
nothingto the state but offspring."

TheNamesof History:OnthePoeticsof Knowledge.


2. SeeRanciere's

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115

To returnto the first partof your question, then, what radicallydistinguishesmy


thinkingfrom a communicativerationalitymodel is thatI do not acceptthe premisethat
there is a specific form of political rationalitythat may be directly deducedfrom the
essence of languageor from the activity of communication.The Habermasianschema
presupposes,in the very logic of argumentativeexchange,the existence of a prioripragmaticconstraintsthatcompel interlocutorsto enterinto a relationof intercomprehension,
if they wish to be self-coherent.This presupposesfurtherthatboththe interlocutorsand
the objects about which they speak are preconstituted;whereas, from my perspective,
therecan be politicalexchangeonly when thereisn't such a preestablishedagreementnot only, that is, regardingthe objects of debate but also regardingthe status of the
speakersthemselves. It is this phenomenonthatI call disagreement,and it is this logic
of disagreementthatis exemplified in the plebeiansecession at Aventinto which I often
refer: the patriciansat Aventin do not understandwhat the plebeians say; they do not
understandthe noises that come out of the plebeians' mouths, so that, in order to be
audibly understoodand visibly recognized as legitimate speaking subjects,the plebeians must not only arguetheirposition but must also constructthe scene of argumentation in such a mannerthatthe patriciansmight recognize it as a world in common.The
principleof political interlocutionis thus disagreement;that is, it is the discordantunderstandingof both the objects of referenceand the speakingsubjects.In orderto enter
into political exchange, it becomes necessary to invent the scene upon which spoken
words may be audible,in which objects may be visible, andindividualsthemselvesmay
be recognized.It is in this respectthatwe may speak of a poetics of politics.
In order to account for this, we require a poetics of knowledge. This means an
operationon the objects of knowledge andon the modes of knowingthatbringsthemto
the level of a common languageand of the invention,within this common language,of
various modes of argumentationand manifestation.For example, in TheNights of Labor it was necessaryfor me to extractthe workers' texts from the statusthat social or
culturalhistory assigned to them-a manifestationof a particularculturalcondition.I
looked at these texts as inventions of forms of languagesimilar to all others.The purchase of their political valence was thus in their revindicationof the efficacy of the
literary,of the egalitarianpowers of language, indifferentwith respect to the statusof
the speaker.This poetic operationon the objects of knowledge puts into play theirpolitical dimension,which elides a socioculturalreading.This same operationcan occur
with the discoursesof knowledge:it would requirethatone subtractthe sociological or
historical discourse, for example, from the forms of autolegitimationupon which it
rests by arguingfor the specificity of their objects and methods. This does not mean
having to assert that these discourses are nothing other than fictions or processes of
metaphorization,as some would have us believe. Ratherit requiresthe assertionthat
these knowledge-discourses,like other modes of discourse, use common powers of
linguistic innovationin orderto make objects visible and availableto thinking,in order
to create connections between objects, etc. This requireshaving to reintegratethese
discourses into a generally accessible mode of reasoningor form of language so that
everyone may partakein this creative activity of invention that allows for a redescription andreconfigurationof a commonworldof experience.While a poetics ofpolitics is
a challenge to the oppositionbetween legitimateand illegitimatespeakers,a poetics of
knowledge presents a challenge to the divisions between the disciplines and the discourses of knowledge.

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2
Davide Panagia:
Many of your more recentwritingsfocus on the classically vexed relationshipbetween
doxa and philosophy,where you considerthis problemto be a problemfor politics. In
this regardyou state in your preface to Dis-agreementthat "the basis of philosophy's
dispute with politics is the very reductionof the rationalityof disagreement"[xii]. In
your precedingworks, however,you give a more generousaccountof this tension when
you state that "it will perhapsbe more interestingto take a closer look at the duplicity
involved in this realization/suppressionof politics, which is simultaneouslya suppression/realizationof philosophy"[On the Shores of Politics 3].
Did a change take place in your position regardingthe relationshipbetween philosophy andpolitics fromthe time you wrotethe articlesthatcompriseOn the Shoresof
Politics to the time when you wrote Dis-agreement?
If so, what broughtaboutthis change in emphasisbetween the "duplicity"of politics andphilosophyon the one hand,and the dialecticaloppositionbetween philosophy
and politics on the other?

Ranciere'sReply:
You're correctin sensing a shift. There is a notable developmentbetween the first essays in On the Shoresof Politics (writtenfrom 1986 to 1988) andDis-agreementor my
"Dix theses sur la politique"(writtenfrom 1994 to 1996).3A development,that is, not
only in my own thinkingbut also in the political context that I was respondingto and
addressing.
In orderto explain and markthis shift more clearly,we might begin by delimiting
what has been a constantconcern in my intellectualpursuitssince the 1970s: namely,
the desire to evince what I call "la metapolitique,"4by which I mean that element that
bringspolitical or ideological "appearances"back to the realityof socioeconomic relations-whether or not this reality is conceived in terms of a Marxistnotion of production or a Tocquevillianidea of equality.What is ultimatelyimportantfor me is to dismiss the facile oppositionbetween a plane of appearancesand a plane of realityand to
show, as I attemptedin The Nights of Labor,how it is that the "social"-a category
supposedly intended to explain away and therebyrefute the "ideological"-is in fact
constitutedby a series of discursive acts and reconfigurationsof a perceptivefield.
It is from this problematicthat I began, in the 1980s, to tackle the question of
democracy.Here I pursueda double-sided imperative:on the one hand, I wanted to
refutethe Marxistoppositionbetween "real"and"formal"democracywhile at the same
time refutingthe notion thatthe shapeof democracycan be easily reconciledwith constitutionalforms of governance.Thus, the essay that discusses "the forms of democracy"in On the Shoresof Politics5is an effort at tryingto eschew this doublereductionist gestureby grantingthe democraticmode of being its properstatusas a mode of being
in common [existenceen commun].In orderto constitutesuch an image, it was incumbent upon me to inscribe in this logic of rehabilitationand play of appearancescertain
3. Althoughnot yet available in English, "Dixtheses sur la politique" appearsas an appendix to the second edition of Aux bords du politique.
4. For afurther elaborationof this concept,see Rancibere
'sDis-agreement,chapter4: "From
Archipoliticsto Metapolitics."
5. See chapter2: "TheUses of Democracy."

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conceptualizationsthat were responsive to various heterogeneouslogics. In this manner, I reintroducedPlato's critique of a democraticconception of the good [le "bon
plaisir" de l'hommedemocratique]so as to extractfrom it a positive notion of democracy as a mode of being and as a collective form of symbolizationthatstandsin opposition to the notion of democracyas a mere form of state. I then incorporatedinto this
more playful notion of democracytwo other principles:first, Aristotle's notion of an
"artof politics,"which involves the abilityto domesticateappearancesandto use "good
devices" (i.e., good sophismata)in orderto "demonstrate"[fairevoir] democracyto the
democrats,oligarchyto the oligarchs,etc.-thereby guaranteeingthe existenceof friendship within the polity. Secondly, I turnedto the practicesof workersof the 1830s who
askedfor "equalrelationswith the owners"and whose strikesbecame a stagingof such
a form of equality.I thus placed on the same plane of appearance-that is, on the same
configurationof appearancesand the same valorizationof the "artificial"dimensionof
a being in common-the workers'politicalpracticeof a transgressiverepresentationof
equality and the art of government,both of which functionedto create a trompel'oeil
effect of friendshipbetween the rich and the poor.Withthese examples in mind, I contrasted this more "positive"notion of appearanceand "artificeof equality"to those
practicesof demystificationthatreproducethe old cognitive schema (exemplified,for
instance, in Bourdieuviansociology) thatassumes the operationof power by means of
the subject'sown misrecognition.
This latterframeworkquicklyreveals itself as untenablein "TheEnd of Politics or
The Realist Utopia"essay.6This text is intendedas a philosophicalcommentaryon a
particularelectoralevent:namely,Mitterand's1988 reelectionand the mise-en-sceneit
involved. In response to Chirac, who presentedhimself as the spokespersonfor the
"new forces" of a productiveeconomic life in France,Mitterandpresentedhimself as
the archaic patriarchwho symbolically guaranteedthe integrity of the social whole
againstthe ever-presenthazardsof civil war and social dissolution,a menace that took
hold in Francewith the spectacularrise of the extremeracistrightmost vividly embodied in Le Pen's xenophobicparty.The essay in questionthus stages a fundamentalparadox that,upon laterreflection,appearedto me as a kind of sophism.Mitterand's"comedy of the archaic"became identifiedwith the kind of artof politics thatcould appease
conflict. This pacific artof politics becamefurtheridentifiedwith anAristoteliannotion
of a "politicsof friendship,"all the while keeping an eye on the Freudianwisdom that
opposes the necessity of symbols for a neuroticlife in common to the great psychotic
catastrophe.Politics, I suggested,has always consistedin suppressing"thepolitical"so
as to realizeit. Admittedly,this positioninsists too stronglyupon a valorizationof democratic artifice. It tends to identify this artifice with a "comedyof power,"and the text
demonstrateshow "thesuppressionof the political"is, in effect, an ambiguousexpression. This "comedy of power"had the pretenseof driving away the prepoliticalpack;
but, in orderfor this to occur,it also had to do away with the politicalitself, thatis, with
the structuralantagonismof a life in common. The essay thus affirmsthat that which
opposes itself to the fury of the silent, the purehatredof "theother,"is not peace but a
differentkind of struggle:it is not a "comedyof power"but a divisive act of the demos
understoodas the power of dissolution.Thatis, it is the idea of political conflict understood as a specific kind of symbolizationof alterityand not the paradingof the kind of
power thatacts as the guarantorof "theOne."
In my text, therewas thus an untenableconflationof "thepolitical,"understoodas
the power of a disincorporatedcollectivity, with the art of politics, understoodphilosophicallyas thatmode of governancethatcan guaranteepeace.Toputthe matterbluntly,
6. Rancihre,On the Shores of Politics, chapter 1.

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the Aristotelian art of governmentdoes not heal Marxist metapolitics:the 1980s did
announcethemselves as a "returnto the political"but this returnto the political and,
more emphatically,to "politicalphilosophy"quickly became equatedwith a returnto
orderper se; andthe problematicalliancebetweenthe wisdom of Mitterand("thecomedian of power")andthatof Aristotle("thephilosopher")became the rule thatstructured
the alliancebetween those who govern and "politicalphilosophers."The returnto "political philosophy"in the prose of Ferry,Renaut, and other proponentsof what is referredto, on your side of the Atlantic, as "New FrenchThought"simply identifiedthe
political with the state, therebyplacing the traditionof political philosophy in the service of the platitudesof a politics of consensus; this occurringall the while underthe
rubricof wantingto restoreand protectthe political againstthe encroachmentsof the
social. What also became strikinglyapparentwas that what was initially endorsedas a
"politicsof consensus"was wholly otherthanthe "partyof social peace":the consensus
model resultedin the destructionof the political along with the reestablishmentof racism and xenophobia.Consensus in effect became the suppressionof the litigiousness
constitutiveof the political, andidentitarianismbecamethe flip side of this suppression;
thatis, it became the maladyof consensus politics.
It thus seemed crucial to challenge the marriageof the political with this "artof
friendship"or this "living in common"thatconfoundsthe manifestationsof the political with the shrewdnessof power.It was necessaryto "takea closer look"7at this realization/suppressionof the political that exemplified an Aristotelianpolitics of friendship. It was necessary to show that this form of parapoliticsbelongs to the same suppressive logic as a Platonicarchipoliticsthat attemptsto abolish a democraticspace in
order to institute a community of "the One" or, further,a Marxist metapolitics that
assigns to democraticinstancesthe profoundrealityof relationsof productionandclass
exploitation.It was necessary,finally,to pinpoint,at a globallevel, politicalphilosophy's
gestureof distancingthe political underthe pretextof groundingpolitics on an ideal of
an orderedliving in common.In my own work,I demonstratedhow thatwhich is proper
to the political is precisely an absence of the "proper."It is from the political's litigious
characterof supplementaritythat one may derive the "simple necessities" of a life in
common or the general attributesof a "politicity"[de la politicite]. Under these three
forms-archipolitics, parapolitics,and metapolitics-the encountersbetween philosophy and the political have been conflictual encounterswhereby philosophy's primary
move has been to extractthe inherentqualityof dissension from the political eitherby
suppressingit (Plato), by pacifying it (Aristotle),or by displacingit (Marx)in orderto
grantthe political its "truefoundation."
It was crucialfor me to markthis fundamentaltension in orderto distinguishpolitics from the projectof consensus and its rationalizationin the "returnof the political"
movement in France.But that which initially separatesdoes not stop itself from interof philosophyis just suchan instanceof confluence.
mingling:the suppression/realization
On the one hand, political philosophy incorporateswithin itself those political paradoxes it attemptsto eschew-and the Aristotelianuse of contrarietiesis an exemplary
instance of this: these contrarietiesare welcomed by Aristotelianthinking; they are
reworkedand reformulated.And in this manner,the enterpriseof philosophyprovided
the political with scenariosand scenes of dissension.This gesturedoes not merely refer
to the old adageof puttingon ancientgarbfor the sake of producingmodernrevolutions
but ratherevinces [shows, demonstrates,or illustrates]how those contract scenarios
implicit in the concept of sovereignty--elaboratedin orderto ground and protect the
7. In his original French reply,Ranciereuses this Englishexpressionandplaces it in quotation marks.

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rights of princes in the face of aristocratic,popular,and religious revolts-serve to


producea revolutionarymise-en-scene of the rightsof the people. In a similarfashion,
Marxistscenariosdo not stop the alimentationof dissension onto the same democratic
stage they ferventlyattemptto overcome.Finally,politics andpoliticalphilosophyhave
not stoppedpillagingeach other'sarsenalso as to perfectit anduse it againsteach other.

3
Davide Panagia:
It has been commenteduponby some thatit is hardto categorizeyour writings.Thatis,
your work is at once philosophicaland literary,historicaland political. I have at times
been asked, when discussing your works in a public setting, to explain whetheryou are
a philosopher,a historian,a politicalthinker,or a literarycritic.It seems to me thatthese
questions are misleading.That is, I find the critical force of your writings to rest on a
sense of contemporaneityof forms andhistoricalsensibilities.By this, I meanthatyour
writingsmake at one and the same time a gesturetowardone form of knowledge (i.e.,
philosophy) while discussing another (i.e., politics). As well, there is a sense of
contemporaneityin your use of historical examples and your discussion of historical
figures.
In this regard,especially, I am remindedof your treatmentof Jacototin your The
IgnorantSchoolmaster,where the historical example of the figure of Jacototalso addresses a series of questions broughtto the fore duringthe debates regardingeducational reformin Francein the mid 1980s.
Can you commentupon the role thatthe historicalexample, whetheran event like
Mitterand'sreelectionor a figurelike Jacotot,plays in your writingsandyourparticular
sense of the historical?
Am I correct in characterizing your treatment of these matters as one of the
of historicalemergences?
"contemporaneity"

Rancikre'sReply:
By the notion of contemporaneityI understandtwo things:the first is that an object of
reflection commandsthe apertureof a specific temporality.That is, it commandsthe
presence of a process of writing,of the constructionof a specific form of writing,oriented towardan intrusiveencounterwith a specific mode of thinkingthat, in its turn,
creates a particularthought-eventby interruptingthe organizationof a class of objects
or a series of performances.Thinkingfor me is always a rethinking.It is an activitythat
displaces an object away from the site of its originalappearanceor attendingdiscourse.
Thinkingmeans to submit an object of thoughtto a specific variationthat includes a
shift in its discursiveregister,its universeof reference,or its temporaldesignations.In
the case of Mitterandthat you mention, I extractedthe event of an election from the
field of political sociology in order to conceptualize a variationof the foundational
narrativesof political philosophy. I considered how it is that that which is given to
thoughtas an object of political inquirywas also a mise-en-schneof variousroles and
posturesand not necessarilythe contentof policy programsor theirrelationto different
social forces, economic imperatives,etc. It is this stagingthatdeterminesthe conditions
for a constitutiverethinking;that is to say, it is a restaging.The elaborationof these
"momentsof thinking"is for me the task of a philosophythatchallengesthe boundaries
separatingthe classes of discourses.Returningonce again to my TheNights of Labor I

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extracted those worker's texts from their socioeconomic links so as to read them as
antiplatonicphilosophicalmyths while at once exposing the history of a specific generationof peoples markedby such a foundationalevent as the Parisrevolt of July 1830,
an event thatplayed a role comparable,perhaps,to the one May '68 played for my own
generation(with its own battle cry that"Nothingwill be as before").In both instances,
what is requiredis a staging of this mythico-philosophicalevent that marksthe advent
of thinkingfor those who were not initially destined to think.This staging implicatesa
theoretical frameworkthat is, at once, a biographicalframework:one that does not
focus exclusively on life historiesbut ratheron privilegedmomentsof experienceof a
life that becomes a kind of writing (the equivalent, I would say, of those interlacing
monologues comprisingthe lives of six people found in VirginiaWoolf's The Waves).
Similarly,in TheIgnorantSchoolmaster,I extracteda characterthathad the stature
of a curiositywithinthe historyof pedagogy.This historyis comprisedof such curiosities, of such stories of original or delirious inventorswho overcome seemingly insurmountablechallenges which then become the groundingfor a mad prehistoryof "reasonable"methods of teaching and learning.With Jacotot,I uncovereda figure whose
"originality"was groundedprecisely in his ability to interrogatethe traditionallink
between utopianextravaganceand a reasonablemethodology,and I projectedthis figure bluntly upon the scene of the pedagogicaldebatesoccurringin Francewhile I was
writing:debates that, at the time, opposed those sociologists who proposedthe reduction of inequalitiesby adoptingcertainmethodsof learning(more amenableto various
disenfranchisedclasses) to proponentsof a "republican"school of pedagogicalthought
that promotedthe ideal of equality of learningthrougha universalismof knowledge. I
thus organizeda "contemporaneousconfrontation"by presentingJacototnot as the representativeof a rehabilitativeeducationalstrategybut rather,as a philosophico-mythical figurewho marks-in all his philosophicalandpoliticalradicality--certainegalitarian stakesby not makingequalityan end thatneeded to be achieved but ratherby consideringit the axiom of a kindof thinking.Whatwas requiredwas a specific enunciative
form that abolished the distance between these two poles. TheIgnorantSchoolmaster
could thusjust as well be readas a philosophicalnarrativeof a purelyfictitioushero as
muchas it couldbe readas the contemporaryexcursusof an atemporalstudentof Jacotot.
To constructa specific present-that is, a sound chamberfor the resonancesof an
event of thinking-thus requiresa double transgression.On the one hand, it is incumbent to transgressthe divisions of discourse:divisions thatseparatethe disciplines(philosophy, political science, history,etc.), the divisions of noble and profanediscourse,
the divisions between a logic comprisedof links in a chain of real events and the logic
of a chain of fictionalevents. On the otherhand,it is imperativeto revokethe authoritative principlederivedfromthe succession of historicalevents.And it is the implications
derived from this second transgressiveimperativethatI understandto be criticalto an
idea of contemporaneity.To conceptualizethe "contemporaneity"of thoughtrequires
the reliance on a certainanachronismor untimeliness.
In the early stages of my work there was, without a doubt, a desire on my partto
returnto some historical"real"in orderto overcome a "metaphysicsof history."Specifically, I beganby searchingin the archivesfor examplesfromthe writingsof workers
so as to respondto the Marxistdiscourseon history,on the workers'movement,etc. But
I quickly realized that such a returnto the "real"did not, in and of itself, change the
theoreticalterms of the game. It was entirely useless to discover a mode of speaking
properto workers [une parole ouvridre]that the Marxist enterprisehad overlooked.
Whatis necessaryis to liberatesuch a word from the dictatesof historicismitself since
it is indubitablythe case thathistoricismis as much a discourseof propriety-of keeping things "in theirplace"-as any other.Wheneverwe say "suchand such an example

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pertainsto a philosophy,a history,a literature,or a sociology," we are at one and the


same time assertingthat these things can be explained only in terms of their specific
place and time: Jacototbelongs to his time, proletariansbelong to an age of capitalism,
etc. This is the fundamentalconception of history established by the "histoire des
mentalit6s"exemplifiedby theAnnalesschool:LucienFebvredemonstrateshow Rabelais
cannot be an atheist because atheism was not a concept available in Rabelais's time;
while Leroy-Laduriedemonstrates,in a similarfashion, how the Catharheresy was the
result of the lifestyle of a specific village. In these latterinstancesthere is also a principle of contemporaneityat work but it is a sense of contemporaneitythat is in direct
contrastto the one I propose in my writings. It is a sense of contemporaneitythat restrictsinquiryas it assertsthatone can only thinkwhat a specific time andplace allows
us to think.It is yet anotherinstanceof thatPlatonicimpulseto "theproper"I have been
discussingthroughoutthis interview,andit is this impulsethatstructureswhatI oppose
in my intellectual pursuits.To explicate a phenomenonby referringit to "it's time"
means to put into play a metaphysicalprincipleof authoritycamouflagedas a methodological preceptof historicalinquiry.WhatI attemptedto explicate,both in TheNames
of HistoryandDis-agreement,is how the limit of this mode of thinkingcan be found in
extremeinstanceslike historicalrevisionism;i.e., thatwhich cannotconformto a legitimate time could not have occurredand thereforenever existed.
My own sense of "contemporaneity"
opposes this identitarianpresentism.It is always untimely or anachronistic.In this manner,to markthe event of a worker'sutterancespresupposesthe restagingof certainentirelyanachronistic,symbolicoppositionsthose found in the etymology of proletariusor in the ancientphilosophicaltheorization
of "leisure"[otium].Thereis thinkingwhen one authorizesoneself to think-within the
context of a differenttime and place-what thatparticulartime consideredillegitimate
to thinking.Jacototis a figure entirely constructedwithin an Enlightenmentframe of
reason.We can assertthathe is of anothertime thanthe one in which he intervenes-a
time, thatis, even strangerthanour own. But this is not the end of the story;rather,the
end of the affairis thatJacototderailsthe logic thatconnectsa Cartesianspiritof "natural enlightenment"with thatof Enlightenmentreason itself and with a certainsense of
institutionalprogressthatsustainsmodem educationalsystems. In short,he transforms
Enlightenmentreason into a folly. Such a notion of reason had promised a future of
"progress"by entrustingto educatorsthe slow and determinedconductof individuals
and peoples. This ideal of progress thus coincides perfectly with the progress of an
educationalsystem based on the historicistnotion of a slow and carefuleducationof a
people; equally applicable to that pervasive sociologizing vision that, in our day, is
committedto the reductionof culturalinequalities.By combiningthe pedagogicallogic
of the Enlightenmentwith the Cartesiannotion thateveryonepossesses naturalreason,
JacotottransformsEnlightenmentreasoninto somethingseemingly foolish in the light
of conventionalwisdom. He derives the "mad"notion that all intelligence is equal and
that this equality is a presuppositionthat requiresdemonstrationand not a goal that
needs to be attained;and finally, he derives the notion that the ideals of progress and
progressivemovementare, in and of themselves, principlesof inequalityby proposing
equality as a social end and entrustingcertaineducational"experts"with the task of
reducingthe effects of the clash between an "equalityto come" with existing inequality
means, in short, to institute inequality as a principle whose reproductionis infinite.
Jacotot thus contrastshis ideal of intellectual emancipationto the common ideal of
progressthatsustainsboth the largeandsmall undertakingsof the educationof children
and peoples of all ages. It is this radicalandprovocativegesturethatI found necessary
to evince. But in orderto do this, it was inadequateto simply oppose Jacotot'sideas to
those thatwere currentlyin place. Ratherit became necessaryto constitutethe present

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of a uniquehistory so as to createa fracturein our own present;by which I mean in our


own mannerof accordingto the present its past and its future, and the conditions of
possibility and potentialitycontainedtherein.It is this sense of narrationand evocation
that I privilege. Admittedly,it would be banal to assert that such and such a thinkeris
our contemporary.However, it seems to me a differentthing altogetherto constructa
contemporaneitybetween a thinker'sthoughtand our own: in orderto constitutea moment in thinking,a moment that gives itself to thought,it is perhapsalways necessary
for thereto be two temporalitiesat work;in orderto constitutean object of thoughtit is
perhapsequally necessary to have two differentregistersof discourse in play.

4
Davide Panagia:
In a 1996 TimesLiterarySupplementreview of your On the Shores of Politics the reviewer refersto your work as "desirabledissent."Dissensus is, of course, an important
aspect of your work and is a primary"anti-principle"of your notion of democracy.In
contradistinctionto the consensus-orientedliberalideal of equalityas the "summation"
of political interest,you posit "division"as the political calculus par excellence.
I have the sense thatyour discussion of dissensusas a democraticmode of thinking
also involves a critiqueof leftist politics in Europe.On this rendering,"division"as a
privileged anti-principleof democraticaction is intendedto counterthe centripetaltendencies of currentleftist political partiesthat, for the sake of a broaderelectoral base,
move closer and closer to the center.Immediateexamples thatjump to mind are Tony
Blair's vision of the Labourpartyin Britainor Italy'sUlivo partyformedby the current
Presidentof the EuropeanCommission,Romano Prodi.
Could you comment on this importantlylitigious anti-principleof dissensus and
how you distinguishit from conventionalaccountsof democracyas the competitionof
interestsbetween individualsand groups?

Rancihre'sReply:
In effect, my reflections on politics were orientedtowarda considerationof the development of the consensualistideology both in Franceand with regardto Europeansocialism throughoutthe 1990s. Herethe difficultyis in identifyingwhatconsensusmeans:
it doesn't merely refer to a taste for discussion and/orsocial and political peace. Consensus refers to the configurationof a field of perception-in-common,an instance of
what I have called the "partitionof the sensible,"even before it becomes a predisposition towarddeliberation.Consensusmeans the sharingof a common and nonlitigious
experience: its essence is the affirmationof the preconditionsthat determinepolitical
choice as objective and univocal. "Consensusdiscourse"in political thought asserts
that political action is circumscribedby a series of large-scaleeconomic, financial,demographic, and geostrategic equivalences. Under this rubric,politics-conceived as
the action of governments-consists in the adoption of the constraintsof these large
equivalences along with an attitudeof arbitrationdirectedat the residualand marginal
possibilities left behind. On the basis of "thegiven," the rightand the left are supposed
to make differentchoices; to do more (the left) or do less (the right) regardingredistribution.In this regard,the left might make moreof the "social"or the "cultural,"but this
is only marginal.The ideal of consensus affirmsthat what is essential to a life in common dependson objective equilibriumstowardwhich we may all orientourselves.

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Now, this affirmationof "objectivegivens" handledby the "expertsin power"is


precisely the negationof the political; it defines what I have proposedto call "thepolice."' The categoryof "thepolice," as I intendit, is neithera repressiveinstrumentnor
the idea of a "controlon life" theorizedby Foucault.The essence of the police is the
principleof saturation;it is a mode of the partitionof the sensible that recognizes neitherlack nor supplement.As conceived by "thepolice," society is a totalitycomprised
of groups performingspecific functions and occupying determinedspaces. From the
ancientdivisions of the ordersof society to the moderngestationof the flux of wealth,
populations,and opinions, history is replete with examples of this phenomenon.The
political is what disturbsthis orderby introducingeither a supplementor a lack. The
essence of the political is dissensus;but dissensus is not the oppositionof interestsand
opinions. It is a gap in the sensible: the political persistsas long as there is a dissensus
aboutthe givens of a particularsituation,of what is seen and what mightbe said, on the
questionof who is qualifiedto see or say what is given. This means thatthe political is
not comprisedof the conflict of interestsand values between groupsnor of the arbitration by the state between these values and interests.The political is comprisedof specific subjectsthat are outnumberedwith respect to the count of the objective whole of
the population.It is this definitionof politics thatis involved in the very concept of the
demos. The demos is thus neitherthe sum of the populationnorthe disfavoredelement
therein;nor,inversely,is it its ideal representation.We know thatthe term"democracy"
derives historicallyfrom the Athenianname of the reformsenactedby Clisthene,who
reorganizedthe ancient tribes into demes:9territoriallyseparatedcircumscriptions;an
abstractand artificialspace thatwas constitutedas such. This constitutionshatteredthe
territorialpowerof the owners,and,moregenerally,it shattereda logic thatconsecrated
power to those who had a "natural"entitlementto exercise it. It is this symbolic rupture
that is, for me, the institutingprincipleof politics. The demos is, properlyspeaking,an
excessive part-the whole of those who are nothing,who do not have specific properties allowing them to exercise power.This is what is stated,a contrario,in an astonishing section of Book IIIof Plato'sLaws.This text firstadumbratesall the necessarytitles
requiredto exercise power:age, birth,wealth,knowledge,andvirtue.Now, at the end of
this list is an anomalyregardinga kind of power attributedto chance (Plato ironically
refersto this as the "choiceof god");it is a specific kind of power for those who are not
entitledto exercise power.Plato,the quintessentialopponentof democracy,has given it
its most crystalline definition: democracy is not a political regime, in the sense of a
constitutionalform; nor is it a form of life (as we learn throughTocquevilliansociology) or a cultureof pluralismandtolerance.Democracyis, properlyspeaking,the symbolic institutionof the political in the form of the power of those who are not entitledto
exercise power-a rupturein the orderof legitimacyanddomination.Democracyis the
paradoxicalpower of those who do not count:the count of "theunaccountedfor."'
The notion of dissensus thus means the following: politics is comprisedof a surplus of subjects that introduce,within the saturatedorder of the police, a surplusof
objects.These subjectsdo not have the consistencyof coherentsocial groupsunitedby
common propertyor a common birth,etc. They exist entirely within the act, and their
actions are the manifestationof a dissensus;that is, the makingcontentiousof the givens of a particularsituation. The subjects of politics make visible that which is not
8. See the chapterentitled "Wrong:Politics and Police" in Ranciere'sDis-agreement.
9. Demes were townshipsor divisions of ancientAttica.In modem Greecethe termrefersto
communes.
10. In Dis-agreement,Ranciereformulates thisparadox in this way: "Politics exists wherever the count of parts andparties of society is disturbedby the inscriptionof a part of those who
have no part" [123].

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perceivable,that which, underthe optics of a given perceptivefield, did not possess a


raisond' tre, thatwhich did not have a name.The extremecase of this is exemplified in
the parableof plebeiansecession of which I spoke earlierwherethe patricianscould not
even hear that the plebeians were speakingand where the latterhad to constructa polemical scene so that the "noises"that came out of their mouths could count as argumentativeutterances.This extreme situationrecalls what constitutesthe groundof political action:certainsubjectsthatdo not countcreatea commonpolemical scene where
they put into contentionthe objective statusof whatis "given"and impose an examination and discussion of those things that were not "visible,"that were not accountedfor
previously.
Consensus is thus not anothermannerof exercising democracy,less heroic and
more pragmatic:one does not "practice"democracy except under the form of these
mises-en-scenes thatreconfigurethe relationsof the visible and the sayable,thatcreate
new subjectsand supplementaryobjects.Consensus,thusunderstood,is the negationof
the democraticbasis for politics: it desires to have well-identifiablegroups with specific interests,aspirations,values, and "culture."
On this rendering,then, your metaphorof centripetaland centrifugalforces is misleading. Consensualistcentrism flourishes with the multiplicationof differences and
identities. It nourishesitself with the complexificationof the elements that need to be
accountedfor in a community,with the permanentprocess of autorepresentation,with
all the elements and all theirdifferences:the largerthe numberof groupsand identities
that need to be taken into account in society, the greaterthe need for arbitration.The
"one"of consensus nourishesitself with the multiple-or, perhaps,with a certainidea
of the multiple that allows itself to be objectified and counted. What consensualism
rejects,on the otherhand,is the multiplethatfunctionsas a supplementto the countand
as a breakin the autorepresentational
logic of society, that is, the supplementarymulknow
of
We
that
consensualism'staste for the free circulationof
tiple political subjects.
wealth has, as its corollary,a concern to limit the circulationof populationsand especially of poorerpopulations.Ourgovernments-declaring themselves obligatedto the
principleof the free circulationof goods and,throughinternationalagreements,commit
themselves to the progressive dissolution of ancient nationalistand protectionistsystems-rediscover all the prerogativesof the nation-statewhen they choose to limit immigration.
European"socialists"are wholeheartedlycommittedto this logic. As for the emergence of alternativemovements,this is entirelydependentupon the possibility of creating new forms of subjectificationthat break with the actual separationof domains of
contestation.Ancient forms of political subjectification-the subjectificationof workers, for instance-rested on the capacity to universalizeparticularconflicts as general
instances of dissensus and were based on large-scale scenes of confrontationbetween
the logic of politics and the logic of the police. In this regard,those internationalistand
anti-imperialistmovementsof the 1960s addressedtheirown states as ones engaged in
colonial or neocolonial wars. Today,this scene is fractured.The responsibilityof order
is divided in an indecisive mannerbetween nation-states,internationalinstitutions,and
a faceless world-order:a center that is both everywhere and nowhere. Certainlythe
capitalistorder-or disorder-engenders formsof struggle.Thereare,at a nationallevel,
social movementscommittedto the struggleagainstthe destructionof ancientsystems
of social protection.These movements are not merely movements that "defendprivileges" that the majorityopinion denounces. They have a political significationin that
they contest the consensualistdogma regardingthe existence of objective social givens
against which the nation-statewould be helpless. There are nationaland international
movements that attack consensualist logic by illuminatingthe forms of exclusion it

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engenders,movementsof the unemployed,of the "sanspapiers"thatthe state excludes


from the "free circulation"it endorses by not grantingthem legal status. There are,
finally, movementsthataddressinternationaleconomic institutions,as we witnessedin
Seattle. These differentkinds of movements have in common a desire to question the
consensualistlogic and to bringto the fore the contradictionsof consensualism.At the
same time, they also sharein a desire to challenge the old oppositionsbetween politics
and syndicalism,or the avant-gardeandmass movements.But it is truethatthe separation of these scenes makes their unificationinto transversalforms of subjectification
close to impossible: there is no statist scene to confront. The struggle is against the
"march6mondial"thatis everywhereand nowhereso thatthereis no incarnationof the
adversaryon a specific scene. The struggleagainstliberalglobalizationthus resultsin a
confusion,in giving supportto the nation-stateas such. However,the modes of intellectualjustificationof the consensualistorderhave lost the authoritythey had at the beginning of the previous decade. Politics today is difficult, but it is rethinkable:it is once
againpossible to separatepolitics, in principle,fromthe gestationof the flux of populations and goods.
Conductedand translatedby Davide Panagia

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