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!