Feast upon the Word Blog

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Jacques Ranciere: A Brief Contextualization

Posted by joespencer on December 26, 2009

I want here just to spell out what is hopefully a helpful bit of background material on the work of Jacques Ranciere. For the most part, however, I assume it is just an exercise I’m taking advantage to help me synthesize Ranciere’s various projects, which have received a lot of attention from me lately. :)

Ranciere’s first book appeared in 1981. Nights of Labor was the first of three quasi-histories of the workers’ movement in France. It was followed in 1983 by The Philosopher and His Poor and then in 1987 by The Ignorant Schoolmaster. In all three of these works, Ranciere worked carefully through the workers’ archives and then wrote philosophically rigorous interpretive histories out of what he discovered. A number of common themes runs through them. In some ways, The Ignorant Schoolmaster is a beautiful weaving together of the two books that preceded it, and it comes to function as a kind of index to everything Ranciere has written since: it combines the historiographical approach of Nights of Labor with the much more rigorous philosophical analysis of The Philosopher and His Poor in order to tell a story that is compelling in more than one sense.

In 1992, Ranciere published The Names of History, essentially a defense of the “heretical” historiographical methodology he had invented through the writing of his first three books. It takes as its task a thorough critique of the Micheletist tradition (embodied primarily in the Annalistes), coupled with a sharp analysis of Francis Fukuyama’s announcement of the “end of history.” (It also implicitly reinterprets Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative in a remarkable fashion, something Ricoeur marginally accounted for in Memory, History, Forgetting.)

By about the same time, Ranciere had begun to isolate from his historical projects a political theory that deserved exposition in itself (that is, abstracted, to some extent, from studies that could be identified primarily as historical). This began with the publication, also in 1992, of On the Shores of Politics, which effectively announced what has become one of Ranciere’s central concerns: the creation of a subtractive politics, of a rigorously emancipatory politics. This continued as one of his most persistent projects during the 1990s, worked out most clearly and consistently in Disagreement, published in 1995. Here what has been the beating political heart of Ranciere’s work finally emerged in full clarity. (His more recent Hatred of Democracy is a further extension of this project.)

Meanwhile, Ranciere launched a second, closely connected trajectory of work: the aesthetic. The notion of the poetic has played as consistent a role in his work from the very beginning as has politics, primarily because he takes his orientation to both questions through a critique of a single moment in philosophical history: Plato’s expulsion of the poet from the projected republic. He has thus, since the second of the 1990s in particular, produced a steady stream of work on aesthetics that complicate and clarify his political work. Here a whole series of titles deserve attention: The Future of the Image, Film Fables, The Emancipated Spectator, and Aesthetics and Its Discontents. Through this series of publications (and others to be published in English in the next year), Ranciere has begun to differentiate his project from others working on subtractive politics (particularly from Alain Badiou), but it remains to see how his project will settle out.

For now, since we are going to be focused on The Ignorant Schoolmaster, it is important perhaps just to see that we will be looking at one of Ranciere’s earlier works. All of his wonted themes are there (I mentioned above that this work serves as a kind of index to Ranciere’s work—and I mean it), and it is characteristic of Ranciere’s style and rigor. Here we will, true to his form in the 1980s, work through the archival resources concerning one figure in particular from the French workers’ movement: Joseph Jacotot, the “anti-master.” That a theory of education will end up implying so much about politics and aesthetics should perhaps be no surprise to us, but a notice on the point might nonetheless draw our attention to some of the easily missed themes that will be attempting to make themselves know during our reading.

At any rate, on to the project itself!

6 Responses to “Jacques Ranciere: A Brief Contextualization”

  1. Robert C. said

    Joe, can you say more about how you see Ranciere’s relation to Plato, esp. in light of Badiou’s relation to Plato (which I would also appreciate hearing your take on, esp. after since you have finished Badiou’s Logic of Worlds)? Also, I’d like to prod you in this (less philosophically-inclined) venue to offer a bit more of a gloss on philosophical context vis-a-vis religious thought (and texts).

    It seems to me that an interesting, though overly-simple, analogy can (and has been) made regarding Plato’s banishment of poetry and the positivistic/scientistic critique of art (and religion) as being meaningless. Postmodern philosophy (as well as most recent strands in analytic philosophy, but I know much less about these…) has made this point in various ways. However, postmodern thought has generally been more deconstructive than constructive, and that the promise political thought offers is that it more constructive, prescriptive and productive.

    But, if any of the foregoing has any merit, it is curious that Ranciere has turned toward aesthetics. Why? Might we infer from this a productive, privilege-of-place to “literary” works like the Book of Mormon? What is aesthetics for Ranciere?

    I am also fascinated by Ranciere’s cross-disciplinary hopping, from history to politics to art. Modern-day scripture is curious because it also crosses conventional disciplines so much: on the one hand there’s an historical component; but there are also “aesthetic” narratives and psalms; economics, war, psychology, technology, science—all of these issues also seem to arise in the BoM, D&C and PoGP. More to the point, how should each of these different disciplines, issues and ideas be handled and/or addressed in a classroom setting? (Conjecture: the more topics that are recognized and identified, the more the teacher’s mastery will be undermined—hence the need to be ignorant…?)

  2. joespencer said

    Robert,

    You’ve asked a lot here, and I haven’t the time at the moment to say anything terribly substantial. So here are a few overly sketchy answers.

    Ranciere’s two most consistent philosophical referents are Plato and Aristotle, though he is usually saying something critical about them. Plato in particular takes the brunt of his abuse: Ranciere is the thinker of the demos (he makes a consistent attempt to distinguish it from the ochlos), and Plato is the philosopher who dismisses the demos through a critique of the written (and a privileging of the spoken) paired with a dismissal from the republic of the poets.

    Badiou’s relation to Plato is complex. He has called for a return to Platonism, but in the sense precisely that (a) philosophy is fourfoldedly conditioned by the independent truth procedures of politics, art, love, and science (mathematics), and that (b) philosophy is thus a question of dealing with genuinely invariant truths (the “forms,” but Badiou is not interested in Plato’s metaphysical construction of the forms). Badiou’s return to Plato is emphatically not an attempt to flee modernism: Badiou suggests that the reason to take up Plato again is precisely in order to be able to answer the central questions of (Cartesian) modernism (concerning, primarily, the subject). And Badiou’s return to Plato is also emphatically not an attempt to flee before the collapse that is postmodernism: Badiou is emphatic about the non-being of the One (and this is an important point of disagreement between Badiou and Plato), and so he has characterized his project as the construction of a “Platonism of the multiple.” Interestingly, because Badiou sees as part of his task the desuturation of philosophy from art, privileged by the Heideggerian tradition (whether in phenomenology or in postmodernism), he suggests that Plato was right about the need to dismiss the artists. And here he would seem to be at odds with Ranciere.

    However, I’m not sure, in the end, how much they are ultimately at odds. (I’ll be reading Ranciere’s critique of Badiou’s “inaesthetics” in the next two weeks, so I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this question soon.) It seems to me that the questions they’re asking about art are so distinct that they do not really come up against each other.

    In the meanwhile, it is worth clarifying Ranciere’s notion of the aesthetic—though I hardly think I’m ready yet to summarize it, since I’ve only just begun working through his works on aesthetics. Give me a few weeks at least. :)

    So far as the cross-disciplinary hopping goes, I agree entirely.

  3. Robert C. said

    Thanks, Joe, very helpful. I’ll be anxious to hear more (and later I’ll be asking how Agamben might be situated vis-a-vis Badiou and Ranciere). As you know, one thing that worries me about Badiou is his seeming lack of “relational hermeneutics,” so I wonder if this is the direction Ranciere’s critique of Badiou’s inaesthetics will go—and I also wonder if this won’t help us make better sense of how “apply to your daily lives” kinds of contextual and experiential stories might be redeemed in the larger evental context of the Restoration.

    It seems to me that a danger with taking Badiou by himself is that one might be tempted to think that the naming of evental axioms might be sufficient. With Ranciere, however, examples (I’m thinking of Agamben here) might be given via authoritative texts, but the play of interpretation opens up evental sites to anyone who can read and think (and liken) the texts….

  4. BHodges said

    Just finished the intro and first chapter. Really fun food for thought so far. Looking forward to the discussion.

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