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On “Preface to the new Hindi translation of ‘Nights of Labour’ by Jacques Ranciere”

-Ajay

Nights of Labour is a collection of workers’ writings from mid nineteenth century France. On the
basis of the content of these writings, Ranciere asserts that these workers were aware of their
conditions and rights etc as much as any ‘intellectual’ would claim to. In fact, the act of calling them
workers is a limiting one. Because the industrial labour was what they had to do for a living, they
were poets, artisans, dreamers, philosophers and so on as that was what they did in their personal or
leisure time. The idea is about democratisation of intellect. The original book was released in 1981
and the Hindi translation in 2009.

Ranciere begins the preface with addressing the question of the relevance of this twenty seven years
old text in contemporary India. The arguments thereafter goes on to question the very fragmentation
of time and history by the so called intellectuals and their (hegemonic) authority to claim a history.
The book is very much relevant in 2009, he argues, for the same reason it was relevant in the 1980s.
“The book is out of place in a postmodern vision for the same reason that it was already out of place
in a classical modernist sense of vision.” The book rejects the claimed objectivity of history, the
streams of time defined as a certain history, the apparent work of time itself. This practice of history
writing only considers certain narratives as history and legitimises a certain perspective of history.
The act of such a history writing confirms the social order of worker works and historian writes.

Ranciere takes a stand against the scheme of grand narratives. These beliefs, they reinforce the power
of those who claim to be having the only true perspective of things. They take everyone as imprisoned
into the grand trap but the narrator. In these histories the worker is as imprisoned as he/she is in the
capitalist system. The capitalist production held them where they were, as workers and so did these
grand narratives. “So they were dominated because they did not understand and they did not
understand because they were dominated.” By this logic their struggle did nothing much and can
never do. And only the objective eye of the legitimised historian can emancipate them. The science
that pretended to uncover the matrix is in fact a part of what created it. Workers need no other to bring
them emancipation. They can understand their own issues. They know what they need to do to counter
the oppressive system. They can write their own theories, their own histories. It is the established
ways, language or format of saying things and writing histories that is a hurdle to them. For them it
is not demanding the impossible but making it happen themselves. It is their hard done struggle that
won them their selves.
He then goes on to speak on the equality of intelligence. A philosopher is not more intelligent than a
worker. The intelligent task of thinking must not be ascribed to a certain people. A certain people are
never more intelligent than the others. It does not count what one thinks about, it is the fact that one
thinks that counts. There is no different sorts of intelligence, it is always the same intelligence. The
idea is to turn the pyramid of hierarchy upside down and let the proletariat write, to let not the
philosopher announce what time is it but the workers. Let the grand pass by and everyday be history.

What these diverse collection of forgotten and ignored writings accomplish is an inversion of the
normative perception which constricts the woking class people within a certain category, within
which they are identified as primarily performing physical labour. Ranciere draws our attention to
the hard-won hours of little leisure of these workers; the germination of ideas, desires, personal
histories take place in these hours of leisure providing a counter narrative. As a counter narrative, in
contesting the extant narratives, both of the legitimacy of the governments and intellectuals, to dictate
or pronounce judgments on their narratives and history, it gains much of its relevance today as a text
uncompromisingly upholding the true egalitarian values. The texts themselves stand as a testament
demanding that even the last of man be treated equally.