1 and 2. Ideology and Louis Althusser
Jacques Rancière, born in 1940 in Algeria, studied under Louis Althusser at the École normale supérieure in the sixties where he took his seminar on Karl Marx’s Capital. Althusser was renewing Marxism in French philosophy and, for Rancière, proposed a real participation as an intellectual in the transformation of the world, which was neither as a cultural consumer nor as an ideological reflection. For Althusser ideology is “a system of representations that automatically subjects individuals to the dominant order” but for to Rancière it also suggested “the idea of a radical cultural revolution.”
Rancière would follow through on this second objective, and he would eventually criticize Althusser for how, in what is supposed to be a critique of domination, actually proposes a theory of the inequality of intelligences. According to Rancière, Althusser’s allegiance to the dogma of the Parti communiste français compromised his theoretical views. Althusser asserted the autonomy of Marxist philosophy, which was to supersede the debates around communism in the Soviet Union and Maoist China. In Althusser’s conception of Marxism the party must educate the masses, and philosophy must educate the party. But who would educate the educators?
The major contestation for Rancière was how Althusserianism dismissed spontaneous protest, like the Algerian struggle and May ‘68, as bourgeois ideology. Rancière would propose his critique of this Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy in La Leçon d'Althusser (1974). His critique is of Althusser’s Reply to John Lewis where in that book Althusser sets up John Lewis, a composite of common sense, as a straw man to espouse his own lesson on Marxism. For Rancière, Althusserianism is a process without a subject and is one of inequality. Rancière argues that Marx’s Capital is not just one logic but many. Instead of isolating Marxist theory, Rancière proposes to think of ideologies as systems for representing class and waging class struggle. If the university is an ideological apparatus, and the students are the ones fighting for more rights, then it is the professor that need to learn how to listen. Rancière’s goal is to present ideas of how classes could think of themselves distinctively while confronting opposing discourses. Rancière’s whole conception of the redistribution of the sensible and the creation of a space for a new intelligence has its roots here in La Leçon d'Althusser
3. Jacotot’s Method
Jacques Rancière elaborates on the Jacotot method in The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. It is based on the early 19th century French professor Joseph Jacotot who went to the Netherlands to teach but when he got there he quickly realized that the language barrier would prevent him to adequately hold classes. The students did not know French and he did not know Flemish. So they had to improvise. Since there was a new translation of Fénelon’s book Télémaque what Jacotot decided to do was to have the students read the two editions simultaneously so that they could better learn the French language. And it was successful!
Rancière takes this discarded pedagogical strategy and adapts it towards a better understanding of the educational process and classroom dynamics. How to teach, and how to teach successfully Rancière asks? Jacotot’s successful experiment emphasizes a transformation of the role of the professor. Instead of explicating, which implies an uneven power dynamic, the ignorant schoolmaster who proclaims that, “I must teach you that I have nothing to teach you,” allows for equality in the classroom and the will of the students to determine their education.
The conception of Jacotot’s method is emancipatory in nature. This was because the previous explicative system was based on an enforced stultification. According to Rancière, “On the one hand, he decrees the absolute beginning: it is only now that the act of learning will begin. On the other, having thrown a veil of ignorance over everything that is to be learned, he appoints himself to the task of lifting it.” The revelation for Joseph Jacotot was that the logic of this explicative system needed to be overturned since, as the facts of the course proved, the students were able to better learn to read and write in French all by themselves. A concern would have been that the Jacotot method could overturn the principles of the professor but, according to Rancière, “Jacotot the man was in a better position to recognize what great variety can be expected from a human being.”
Jacotot discovered that learning was only translating, and highlighted the emancipatory potential for the students to learn under the sign of equality. The method of equality was above all a method of the will. There needed to be a desire from the students to want to learn and for them to be compelled by their own desire. Instead of a relationship of master domination there needed to be a liberating one. Rancière wrote, “We will call the known and maintained differences of the two relations – the act of an intelligence obeying only itself even while the will obeys another will – emancipation.”
4. Critical Art
Jacques Rancière has a problematic relationship with what is traditionally known as ‘critical art’. In Problems and Transformation of Critical Art Rancière defines critical art as “a type of art that sets out to build awareness of the mechanism of domination to turn the spectator into a conscious agent of world transformation.” This is problematic as it implies a non-egalitarian relationship between the artwork and its spectator. Does the exploited better understand the political realities of the world and transform their intellectual attitudes if they are shown that they being exploited by the dominant class? As well with the multiplication of the creation of these interpretive signs Rancière posits that they loose the capacity to resist. Henceforth, for Rancière, critical art is “generally seen as proof that aesthetics and politics cannot go together.”
But Rancière still believes in the relation between aesthetics and politics. He sees aesthetics having two specific politics, “the logic of art becoming life at the price of its self-elimination and the logic of art’s getting involved in politics on the express condition of not having anything to do with it.” Through navigating between these two tensions in the aesthetic regime, Rancière illustrates different forms critical art can emerge from and their potential and drawbacks. One example is the collage, which is described as one of modern art’s major technique. Between the combinations of multiple heterogeneous elements there can be a better understanding of the relationships in the world. The different aesthetic regimes are described from the political polemic to that of humor, an affect of radical strangeness to that of the encounter, and finally to that of mystery and détournement.
For Rancière the goal would be to attempt to repair the loss of a social bond.
The most successful political aesthetic for Rancière would be mystery, which owes to Stéphane Mallarmé, as “In contrast to dialectical practice, which accentuates the heterogeneity of elements in order to provoke a shock that reveals a reality riven by contradictions, mystery emphasizes the connection between heterogeneous elements.” It is important as it testifies to a world that is common to everyone. For Rancière, “Art’s singularity stems from an identification of its own autonomous forms both with forms of life and with political possibilities.” It is just a matter of proving them effective in being able to reshape political spaces more than just parodying them.
5 and 6. Police and Politics
In Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy Jacques Rancière conceptualizes two terms which are important for his overall philosophy: police and politics. What is interesting about these terms is how Rancière’s definitions of them are different than how they are traditionally conceived. To introduce these concepts in the essay Wrong: Politics and Police Rancière distinguishes the difference between the just and the unjust, animals and humans, communities and the social body. For Rancière social power is expressed through the tensions between voice and logos as, “Democracy is the regime – the way of life – in which the voice, which not only expresses but also procures the illusory feelings of pleasure and pain, usurps the privileges of the logos, which allows the just to be recognized and organizes this realization in terms of community proportion.”
Rancière’s philosophy is emancipatory and the goal of these concepts would be to describe the internal conflicts which would instill a more equalitarian society. How to give voice to those that do not publicly have one to improve their social conditions? The historical secession of the Roman plebeians on Aventine Hill is used as an example to illustrate many of his points. For Rancière, “The dispute concerns the existence of parties as parties and the existence of a relation that constitutes them as such.” The plebeians would present themselves as equal speaking beings to their opposers by establishing another order and partition of the perceptible.
For Rancière what is at stake “is primarily conflict over the existence of a common stage and over the existence and status of those present on it.” The two regimes are then police and politics. Police is meant to be neutral and non-pejorative. It is not meant to imply what he calls the petty police, which solely maintain law and order, but instead to refer to the unchallenged status quo of government. For Rancière, “Politics is generally seen as the set of procedures whereby the aggregation and consent of collectivities is achieved, the organization of powers, the distribution of places and roles, and the system for legitimizing this distribution. I propose to give this system of distribution and legitimization another name. I propose to it the police.”
While for Rancière the term politics is reserved “for an extremely determined activity antagonistic to policing: whatever breaks with the tangible configuration whereby parties and parts or lack of them are defined by a presupposition that, by definition, has no place in that configuration – that of the part of those who have no part.” The goal of politics is to reconfigure space where previously a portion of the population was barred. It is the goal.
7 and 8. Dissensus and Redistribution of the Sensible
Jacques Rancière in The Emancipated Spectator discusses his concept of the redistribution of the sensible and how it relates to dissensus. It is an understanding of the world that supersedes the right-wing frenzy/left-wing melancholy dichotomy. For Rancière the goal is emancipation, which he defines as the “emergence from a state of minority.” Instead of believing in a ‘harmonious fabric of community’, which is described as the police distribution of the sensible, Rancière argues for a dissensus which would redistribute the sensible. For Rancière, dissensus means “that every situation can be cracked open from the inside, reconfigured in a different regime of perception and signification.” This is a form of political subjectification, that of the unaccounted population forming a new social topography. This is the redistribution of the sensible.
This relates to aesthetics for Rancière in how the artist weaves together sensations and relations. This aesthetic community is one, for Rancière, where “Human beings are tied together by a certain sensory fabric, a certain distribution of the sensible, which defines their way of being together; and politics is about the transformation of the sensory fabric of ‘being together’.”
9 and 10. Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Luc Godard
Jacques Rancière, in Film Fables, analyzes the importance of Alfred Hitchcock in relation to Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1998). In the Godard montage film Hitchcock is described as the “greatest creator of form in the 20th century” as “he takes control of the universe.” A giant compliment. What exactly does Godard value when he is visually citing Hitchcock? For Rancière, Hithcock’s images have the ability of the ‘purification of the passions’: the images belong to the original sensorium as they are distilled to their purest representational form. Rancière wrote, “Hitchcock’s cinema, Godard is saying, is made of images whose power is indifferent to the stories into which they’ve been arrange.”
But according to Rancière the thesis of Histoire(s) is that, “The history of cinema is that of a missed date with the history of its century.” In the process of citing Hitchcock in the film Godard is actually creating new operations in regards to the convergence of cinema and history. Hitchcock’s original work “subjected the ‘life’ of images to the immanent ‘death’ of the text.” While Godard, through montage, brings together these disparate images and in doing so transforms their nature. Rancière wrote, “The images in these films are operations, units that partake in the channeling of hypotheses and the manipulation of affects.” Godard turns theses images into double relation objects, which for Rancière, include “all the things that have left their impression on them, and with all the other images with which they compose a specific sensorium, a world of inter-expressivity.”
Godard’s achievement with Histoire(s) is through his creation of new relations and relationship in the aesthetic and sensory regime. Godard is able to remedy the failure of the history of cinema by bringing together these mythical images of unique gestures and poses to create new forms of co-belonging. A lost opportunity becomes as seized one, as Rancière describes it, “[Godard] wants to show that cinema betrayed both its vocation to presence and its historical task. And yet the demonstration of this vocation and this betrayal suddenly turns into the opportunity to verify the inverse.”