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Jacques Rancière “On the Shores of Politics”

Rancière, Jacques 2007 [1992]. On the Shores of Politics. London, New York: Verso

1. The End of Politics or The Realist Utopia

To diminish politcs is in one sense to reduce it to its function as a pacifying procedure between individuals and collectivity by relieveing it of the weight and symbols of social division. In another sense, it is to remove the symbols of political division in the interests of expansion, of society’s inherent dynamism. (11)

Politics is the art of suppressing the political. It is a procedure of self-substraction. Perhaps the end of politics is its fulfilment, the ever-young fulfilment of its oldness. And perhaps, beyond the opposition of classical and modern, philosophy has always known this duplicity of the techne politike, and always placed this ever-young end in close proximity to the conception of foundation. (11-12)

[Plato] The question of politics begins in every city with the existence of the mass of the aporoi, those who have no means, and the small number of the euporoi, those who have them. (13)

This primary task of politics can indeed be precisely described in modern terms as the political reduction of the social (that is to say the distribution of wealth) and the social reduction of the political (that is to say the distribution of various powers and the imaginary investments attached to them). On the one hand, to quiet the conflict of rich and poor through the distribution of rights, responsibilities and controls; on the other, to quiet the passions aroused by the occupation of the centre by virtue of spontaneous social activities. (14)

Government by the centre remains the utopia of our realist politics. For realism too is a utopia, something into which Aristotle gives us an exemplary insight. Utopia is not the elsewhere, nor the future realization of an unfulfilled dream. It is an intellectual construction which brings a place in thought into conjunction with a perceived or perceptible intuitive space. Realism is neither the lucid refusal of utopia nor the forgetting of the telos. It is just one utopian way of configuring the telos, of recovering the compass of reason within the singularity of the present. Bringing together the philosophical idea of the mean with the middle class and with the space of citizenship is still part of the attempt to carry out the Platonic project: to place the many beneath the law of the One, to institute the reign of moderation rather than that of the democratic apeiron. Philosophy thus puts an end to political division by mending its own division with respect to the political, by employing metaphorical resources which at once distance it utterly from empirical politics and allow it to coincide exactly with it. (15)

This then is the task entrusted to the king-guarantor of democracy: to define a coming together so that dispersal is reduced without unleashing the kind of unification that is based on hate; and to define it in its necessary relationship to an ‘at least Two’ representing neither the simple factuality of the division of social forces, nor the romance of enlightening debate, but rather the site of a common catharsis of the passions of the one and of the many, the point of minimum constriction of what cannot live peacefully either under the regime of the one or under the regime of dispersal. (30 – Aristotle)

At this, philosophy got the root evil wrong, as it were, misapprehending the true figure of the ochlos, which is not the disordered turbulence of the many but the hate-driven rallying around the passion of the excluding One. (31)

Democracy does not exist simply because the law declares individuals equal and the collectivity master of itself. It still requires the force of the demos which is neither a sum of social partners nor a gathering together of differences, but quite the opposite – the power to undo all partnerships, gatherings and ordinations. (32)

The essence of equality is in fact not so much to unify as to declassify, to undo the supposed naturalness of orders and replace it with the controversial figures of division. Equality is the power of inconsistent, disintegrative and ever-replayed division which tears politics away from the various figures of animality: the great collective body, the zoology of orders justified in terms of cycles of nature and function, the hate-driven rallying of the pack. The inconsistent division of the egalitarian argument deploys its humanizing power through specific historical forms. In the modern democratic age, declassifying division has taken on a privileged form whose name has fallen totally out of favour, yet if we are to know where we are we must look at this form face-on. The name given to this privileged form was class struggle. (32-33)

To forget Marx is thus to forget this simple question: beyond class struggle, what will play the part of that division which separates demos from ochlos? (34)

Postdemocracy is perhaps the precise coincidence of ochlocracy with its supposed opposite, epistemocracy: government by the most intelligent, emerging quite naturally from the regime of the education system to effect the precisely calculated administration of the infinity of great and small focuses of satisfaction. As we know, however, the limitation of administrators of satisfaction is how hard they find it to manage two or three related emotions which are less easily quantifiable and indexible: frustration, fear and hate. This is where an additional intervention is called for, that of the good king, the democratic king, skilled at executing two gestures in one – at exemplifying the One just sufficiently to pacify the passions of the pack and thereby preserve the demos as an abode of duality. The king ever ready, also, to cry wolf as a way of bringing the wolf to the door – of forcing things to the brink of the abyss so that his peacemaking becomes essential. (35)

2. The Uses of Democracy

Real democracy would presuppose that the demos be constituted as a subject present to itself across the whole surface of the social body. […] This view embodies revolutionary and romantic nostalgias for a beautiful totality of citizenship, which serve paradoxically to buttress liberalism’s conviction of having only just invented the individual, and it offers an image of Greek democracy which ignores the very features which that democracy ascribed to itself. (40)

Democracy is the community of sharing, in both senses of the term: a membership in a single world which can only be expressed in adversarial terms, and a coming together which can only occur in conflict. To postulate a world of shared meaning is always transgressive. It assumes a symbolic violence both in respect of the other and in respect of oneself. The legitimate subject which no text is adequate to found exists only in the act of this double violence. Proving to the other that there is only one world and that one can prove the legitimacy of one’s action within it, means first of all proving this to oneself. […] We might add that rights are held by those who can impose a rational obligation on the other to recognize them. […] Those who say on general grounds that the other cannot understand them, that there is no common language, lose any basis for rights of their own to be recognized. […] The existence of a subject in law implies that the legal words are verifiable within a sphere of shared meaning. This space is virtual, which is not to say illusory. Those who take the virtual for the illusory disarm themselves just like those who take the community of sharing for a community of consensus. The call for equality never makes itself heard without defining its own space. The narrow path of emancipation passes between an acceptance of separate worlds and the illusion of consensus. (49-50)

The democratic experience is thus one of a particular aesthetic of politics. The democratic man is a being who speaks, which is also to say a poetic being, a being capable of embracing a distance between words and things which is not deception, not trickery, but humanity; a being capable of embracing the unreality of representation. A poetic virtue then, and a virtue grounded in trust. This means starting from the point of view of equality, asserting equality, assuming equality as a given, working out from equality, trying to see how productive it can be and thus maximizing all possible liberty and equality. By contrast, anyone who starts from distrust, who assumes inequality and proposes to reduce it, can only succeed in setting up a hierarchy of inequalities, a hierarchy of priorities, a hierarchy of intelligences – and will reproduce inequality ad infinitum. (51)

Faced with the return of the animalistic aspect of politics, the democratic virtue of trust recreates a polemical space of shared meaning. This is, precisely, the strength of equality, which acts through those small differences that can give a radically different sense to the same experience. I have no hesitation in saying that what is happening here is (to stay with the Platonic lexicon) of the order of reminiscence. Suddenly, in the very number of political discourse, equality appears as the thing that gives a common meaning to the infinite variety of ‘selfish’ individual uses of a democratic form. (60)

The guarantee of permanent democracy is not the filling up of all the dead times and empty spaces by the forms of participation or of counterpower; it is the continual renewal of the actors and of the forms of their actions, the ever-open possibility of the fresh emergence of this fleeting subject. The test of democracy must ever be in democracy’s own image: versatile, sporadic – and founded on trust. (61)

3. The Community of Equals

Democracy is what muddles community, what continually reduces it to its own messiness; it is the unthinkable aspect of community. (67 – Plato)

There is no way of being counted one of them without reflecting their own image: an equal is someone whose image is that of an equal. Making a virtue of usefulness, playing the card of function, is merely to preserve one’s dissimilarity. No redistribution of members, functions or bodies can transform unlike into like. Another kind of likeness is required than the one that serves to close the caste of the aristoi. (70)

The representation of the being-together of equals as a fraternal community can be thought of strictly as a passion of democracy’s youth – as democracy acceding to self-consciousness in a universe of oligarchic values. […] But the democratic passion is precisely the possibility of accumulating the choices offered at the crossroads, of being prepared to be torn in all directions at once. (80)

The egalitarian presupposition, the communal invention of discourse, requires an initial breakthrough which introduces into the community of speaking beings some who were not hitherto of its number. This breakthrough induces a different economy of the presupposition of equality. The effectiveness of the community of speaking beings is predicated on a violence, which has nothing to do with counting dead and wounded, is to make the invisible visible, to give a name to the anonymous and to make words audible where only noise was perceptible before. It creates separation in a community, making room for debate therein, yet it is itself only possible inasmuch as it projects the egalitarian presupposition back into the past. Thus, equality is not simply that presupposition which ascribes social congregation in the last instance to the community of speaking beings, as to a principle necessarily forgotten; for it is manifest in the recurring rupture which, by projecting the egalitarian presupposition back to a point anterior to itself, endows it with social effectiveness. The egalitarian presupposition is not just the immaterial, poetic thread of the community of equals weaving its way through the great fictional fabric of inegalitarian society, for it brings into play social means of verifying equality, that is, means of verifying community within society. (85-86)

So the egalitarian polemic invents an insubstantial community completely determined by the contingency and resolve of its enactment. This egalitarian invention of community refuses the terms of the dilemma that forces a choice between the immateriality of egalitarian communication and the inegalitarian weight of social bodies. Social materiality is not just that weight of bodies to which only the discourse of inegalitarian rationalization applies. For it too may be traversed by a wish-to-say which posits community bt presupposing concord in a specific form, the form of an obligation to hear. The there is of the event brings out the facticity of being-there-together. In the movement of the event replayed, of the text restaged, the community of equals occasionally finds the wherewithal to imprint the surface of the social body with the traces of its actual effects. (87)

Democracy is not the simple dominion of the common law as inscribed in legal-political texts, nor is it the plural dominion of the passions. It is first and foremost the space of all those locations the facticity of which tallies with the contingency and resolve of the egalitarian inscription in the making. Thus, the street, the factory or the university can become the locus of a resurgence of this kind in response to the chance passage of some apparently insignificant political measure, to a word out of place or an ill-judged assertion, any of which may open the door to a fresh testing of community, to a reinscription of the egalitarian signifier, to the recollection of the earlier event that inscribed itself forcibly in this place. (90-91)

4. Democracy Corrected

[Politics] is the apparatus whereby the people are kept within the visible sphere that the people’s name rules over: as the subject that occupies the gap between the fiction of community on the one hand and the surfeit reality of the populace on the other, the people serve both to link and to separate the two, themselves alternately taking on and losing definition as the features of the two intermingle. (93)

Exhibition in place of appearance, exhaustive counting in place of imparity, consensus in place of grievance–such are the commanding features of the current correction of democracy, a correction which thinks of itself as the end of politics but which might better be called post-democracy. These are the forms of a rationalization of democratic ungovernability whose depletion of all estimates and all images, like its limitless production of laws and articles designed to foresee and regulate all grievances, will surely be stopped dead in its tracks by the sudden emergence of new avatars of the monster and of a merciless divinity. (98)

Democracy is neither compromise between interests nor the formation of a common will. Its kind of dialogue is that of a divided community. Not that it is indifferent to the universal, but in politics the universal is always subject to dispute. The political wrong does not get righted. It is addressed as something irreconcilable within a community that is always unstable and heterogeneous. This is also why there is no reason to counterpose a postmodern logic of the explosion of language games and the heterogeneity of the differend to the modern logic of grievance founded on the common language of the wrong, the great narrative of the people and the display of the universal victim. (103)

When the apparatus of grievance disappears, what takes over in its stead is simply the platitude of consensus, which does not take long to reveal to those of a realist bent, who are so delighted to see the people’s political passions soothed, its inevitable dark side: the return to the political animal state – and the pure and simple rejection of the other. (104)

And it is the dissolution of the subject of grievance which creates a wordless victim, object of an unquenchable hatred. The immigrant is first and foremost a worker who has lost his name, a worker or proletarian who is the object of an acknowledged wrong and subject who vents his grievance in struggle and disputation, the immigrant appears as at once the perpetrator of an inexpiable wrong and the cause of a problem calling for the round-table treatment. (105)

State and society enter into opposition with each other, in fact, only with the falling into oblivion of politics – with the abandonment of the fundamental relationship of the principled character of politics to the factuality of democracy, to the apparatus of appearance, imparity and grievance. Society no more holds the solution to the state’s problems than the state holds the solution to social problems. The folly of the times is the wish to use consensus to cure the diseases of consensus. What we must do instead is repoliticize conflicts so that they can be addressed, restore names to the people and give politics back its former visibility in the handling of problems and resources. (106)

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