Jacques Rancière

Jacques Rancière, Professor of Philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS.


Jacques Rancière (b. 1940) is a professor of philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS, professor emeritus at the Université de Paris, VIII, and one of the more significant and influential philosophers of our time. Over the last fifteen years, his work has slowly been translated into English, and yet, while some of his writings remain untranslated into this global language, he has nonetheless already cast a long shadow over the fields of politics, aesthetics, and education, well beyond the borders of France, in particular, and across the Anglo-American world. It is somewhat difficult to categorize much of Rancière’s work, especially his archival texts, but the overarching focus has certainly always been politics. Within this classification, it is, however, possible to more delicately divide his work into three “primary” categories as mentioned above: aesthetics, education, and politics. Yet the overarching political project of Rancière does not, however, only consist of these three categories independently but is constituted by their entanglement; as for Rancière, aesthetics and politics are intrinsically linked, and “true” education must be emancipatory, an objective that demands equality not as an end but as a point of departure. As a result, politics is not only a string of his project, but what knots its three elements—in brief, politics overdetermines the whole.

Rancière was educated at the École Normale Supérieure, where he was a student of Louis Althusser. With his professor, and other students of Althusser, namely Étienne Balibar, Roger Establet, and Pierre Macherey, he composed and published the seminal Lire le capital, in 1965. Over the next few years, like many of Althusser’s students, Rancière was an active member of the Union des Étudiants Communistes, and constituted the famous cercle d’Ulm, out of which came the now canonical Cahiers Marxistes-Léninistes and Cahiers pour l’Analyse. By 1974, however, Rancière formally broke away from his professor, a theoretical break that culminated in the publication: Althusser’s Lesson. In the same year, Rancière co-founded the journal Révoltes logiques.

Since the publication of Althusser’s Lesson, Rancière has published numerous books, including: The Nights of Labour: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, The Names of History: On the Poetics of Knowledge, On the Shores of Politics, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, Short Voyages to the Land of the People, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, The Philosopher and his Poor, The Future of the Image, Hatred of Democracy, The Aesthetic Unconscious, The Emancipated Spectator, The Politics of Literature, Staging the People: The Proletarian and His Double, Mute Speech: Literature, Critical Theory, and Politics, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, and Béla Tarr, the Time After.

The work of Jacques Rancière, no less than most philosophers, psychoanalysts, sociologists, anthropologists, political theorists, or linguists of the time, cannot be understood, either theoretically or politically, without taking into account the context of struggle in France in the second half of the twentieth century [1]. In the early decades of the last century, one could argue that two opposing currents dominated French philosophy: a “philosophy of life,” led by Henri Bergson, and a “philosophy of the concept,” led by Léon Brunschvicg. In addition, French philosophy in these early decades of the twentieth century was largely preoccupied with the philosophy of science, by way of Jean Cavaille, Georges Canguilhem, and Gaston Bachelard, and by its appropriation of German philosophy, from Immanuel Kant to Martin Heidegger. In fact, the problem in the appropriation of German philosophy remains a fundamental point of contention in French philosophy today. Between the great wars, and in the aftermath of the second, French philosophy took a further twist, with existentialism and phenomenology coming to prominence, through the work of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among others. By the sixties, via of developments in structuralist anthropology and linguistics, existentialism, with its focus on the subject, and phenomenology, with its supposition of a transparent subject, were “replaced” by structuralism and psychoanalysis. The two would dominate French theory throughout the 1960s and 1970s, only to be replaced, or subsumed by post-structuralism, and those who became known as the “new philosophers.” Today, one could argue that contemporary French philosophy is divided between the remnants of post-structuralism, the “new philosophers,” and a philosophical movement, which is, as yet, without a name, but involves not only a return to Marx and Freud, but also a return to traditional philosophical concepts, such as truth, ontology, and the subject, as well as a fusion of subject and structure. To further complicate matters, it is impossible to consider French philosophy, or French theory, more generally, outside the political history of twentieth century France, from the First World War to the Second, from the Resistance to May 1968, and from the election of Mitterrand to the onset of neo-liberalism. Rancière’s work, like that of any other philosopher of the latter half of the last century, cannot be approached if abstracted from this historical context.

While impossible to outline Jacques Rancière’s oeuvre in brief, given the knotting of aesthetics, politics, and education that constitute his project, it is possible to elucidate the whole by investigating a part. In this vein, Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, condenses many of his fundamental axioms, and as well clarifies the philosopher’s position within the context of struggle outlined above, in particular the conditions and consequences of May 1968.

Published in France in 1987, The Ignorant Schoolmaster was in part a direct response to one of the central issues constitutive of the events of May 1968. Already, there was criticism of the educational institutions preceding May 1968: earlier in the 1960s student protests had already begun to question the arbitrariness of examinations and research, as well as the ideological, political, and social status of the university, and schools more generally, and eventually led to the formation of La Sorbonne aux etudiants (Kristin Ross, "Translator's Introduction", in The Ignorant Schoolmaster, xvi). In 1964, Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron published Les Héritiers: Les étudiants et la culture, wherein they pronounced the university to be an institution "entirely absorbed in the reproduction of unequal social structures" (ibid., x). This publication sent shockwaves through the institutions, and eventually led to two theoretical sequels, La Reproduction: Éléments d’une théorie du système d’enseignement, in 1970, and La Distinction: Critique sociale du jugement (by Pierre Bourdieu) in 1979. This sociological criticism prompted a response from Althusser himself; almost immediately after Les Heritiers, Althusser, in Problèmes étudiants (1964), responded that the function of teaching is to transmit a determinate knowledge to subjects who lack it, and so the entirety of the situation ultimately rests on the “absolute condition of an inequality between a knowledge and a nonknowledge” (Problèmes étudiants, 152, quoted in Ross, xvi). This asymmetry was quickly affirmed by the influential Lacanian linguist, Jean-Claude Milner, who, in 1984, would give the summation of his thoughts on education in De l’école (Ross, xiv). Amongst this theoretical upheaval, Rancière struck a different chord, following neither Bourdieu, Milner, nor his teacher; and it was, in fact, during this period that Rancière began to formulate his break from Althusser, which culminated in the publication of the above mentioned Althusser’s Lesson, in 1974.

According to Rancière, Bourdieu had produced a discourse which denounced the system, but in a manner that failed to intervene in its perpetuation. In the Introduction to L’Empire du sociologue, published in 1984, Rancière and the other members of the Révoltes logiques, would criticize not only the duplicity of Bourdieu’s position, but also revealed it to be a tautology, which they termed the “Bourdieu effect”; Bourdieu at once maintained that working class youth are excluded from the university because they are blind to the reasons of their exclusion, and that this ignorance of the cause of their exclusion is a product of the system that excludes them—"they are excluded because they don’t know why they are excluded, and they don’t know why they are excluded because they are excluded" (Ross, xi).

In Rancière’s view, the entirety of Bourdieu’s critical reform project was invalidated by way of this tautology; moreover, Bourdieu’s position was inadequate because while it denounced the mechanisms of domination, it simultaneously posited only an illusion of liberation (ibid., xi). Milner, on the other hand, modeling his argument on the psychoanalytic clinic, argued for the necessity of maintaining an asymmetrical relationship between student and teacher, proposing that the inequality produced a desire to know. He called for a return to rigorous instruction, and proclaimed that true equality would be attained only if the same knowledge was transmitted to each student (ibid., xiv). Similarly, Althusser’s position, which was consistent with his fundamental distinction between science and ideology, maintained not only that the asymmetry must be absolutely assumed, but claimed that the primary objective of education was for the students to develop a thorough knowledge of Marxism-Leninism, and then conduct scientific analyses yielding objective knowledge, because equality was not a matter of the form of pedagogical relation, but of the quality of the knowledge transmitted and attained. In brief, his position was that the political implications of education were not based on inequitable relations between students and teachers, but only in the content of what was taught (ibid., xvii). Rancière certainly agreed that contesting the content of what was taught was essential, but that positing the content as the scene of contention missed the heart of the problem.

In Althusser’s Lesson, and most specifically in, “A Lesson in History: The Damages of Humanism,” Rancière argued that Althusser’s concept of science––and the distinction between science and ideology––had no other function than to secure the asymmetrical relation between those who possess knowledge and those who do not, and secure it in such a way that it could never be crossed. In short, he argued that this distinction was homologous to the distinction between those who own the means of production and those dispossessed, hence why in countries like China and the USSR, the relationship of domination returned, despite the political and economic upheaval that had taken place. Throughout his works on pedagogy, Rancière has placed the entire idea of “philosophy as a judge” in question, for the simple reason that it is constituted on the division of mental and manual labor, and therefore, its testimony cannot so easily assume the authority it has traditionally been granted (Ross, xviii). From this problematic, which supposes a specific conceptualization of both philosophy and politics, Rancière eventually arrives at the conclusion that between philosophy and politics there is a fundamental disagreement (Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy). Rancière's break from Althusser spawned a decade-long study of archives chronicling the experiences, thoughts, and voices of early nineteenth-century workers. Within these archives Rancière found those who had begun to emancipate themselves by the apparently simple act of claiming for themselves what previously belonged only to the upper classes, namely, they assumed the right to think, that they too could come to know, that they had an equality of intelligence. Put another way, these workers assumed an existence outside of their material condition.

According to Rancière, debates amongst the various theoretical positions on education, equality, ideology, and state apparatuses miss the point entirely unless they begin from the premise and practice of an equality of intelligence. This pivotal point is at the center of all of Rancière’s work. T/his "investigation of the origin, continuation, and occasional subversion of the hiercharchical division of head and hand has been launched on two fronts. The first might be called the archival level, the documenting, chronicling, essentially recounting, of the experiences and voices of early-nineteenth century workers"; and this "narrative work has run parallel to ... the second, more polemical and discursive front: Rancière's critique of the claims of bourgeois observers and intellectuals ... to know, and thus 'speak for' or explicate, the privileged other of political modernity, the worker" (Ross, xviii/f). In brief, his thesis is that equality must be assumed as a point of departure and not a destination, for the simple reason that explication is “the myth of pedagogy,” since it does not eliminate incapacity and inequality, but in fact creates it and assures its continuation (ibid., xix/f). This “pedagogical myth,” according to Rancière, divides the world in those who know and those who do not, or those who can explain and those who will always need explication, since explication functions on the logical structure of infinite delay. The Ignorant Schoolmaster, wherein the story of Joseph Jacotot is told, forces one to confront the founding principles of political modernity––equality and emancipation. This line of thought has been further developed in Philosopher and his Poor, Nights of Labour, Staging the People, and a number of other published works. The essential axiom of “equality as a starting point,” and the structural considerations that follow, are not relegated to his meditations on pedagogy, but form the very kernel of his thought on aesthetics (such as, The Emancipated Spectator) and politics, which according to the philosopher have only one true practice, a community of equals.

[1] For the following, see also Alain Badiou, "The Adventure of French Philosophy," published in New Left Review 35, September-October 2005, available at http://www.lacan.com/badenglish.htm

—Srdjan Cvjeticanin