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  • Ceci n’est pas un argument: An Introduction to the Ten Theses
  • Davide Panagia (bio)

The Ten Theses on Politics[1] is not an argument about politics if, by argument, one intends a philosophical justification of the nature of the political. It is, rather, a series of considerations on political thinking that parallel Rancière’s inquiry, in Dis-agreement, into “the set of reflective operations whereby ‘political philosophy’ tries to rid itself of politics, to suppress a scandal in thinking proper to the exercise of politics.”[2] The Ten Theses is thus a critical intervention into the manner in which a philosophical orientation to political life attempts to purify politics by “effac(ing) the litigiousness constitutive of politics.” (Thesis 9) Rancière’s site of critical attack is recent attempts to restore and protect the political against the encroachments of the social. This includes the rise of “New French Thought,” exemplified in the prose of Alain Renaut and Luc Ferry, along with neo-Kantian versions of consensus democracy. In these instances the political is identified with the state, “placing the tradition of political philosophy in the service of the platitudes of a politics of consensus.”[3] Rancière’s appreciation of politics differs substantially from such statist models. Politics, he posits, is a term of art synonymous with democracy; it refers to an evanescent moment when tensions arising from a human being-in-common produce instances of disruption, generating sources of political action.

The reader of the Ten Theses will notice Rancière’s repeated use of essentialist language. Expressions like ‘proper to politics’ and ‘everything about’ or ‘essence of politics’ pepper the Ten Theses, emphatically asserting Rancière’s position. And this is precisely the point: Politics is the practice of asserting one’s position that ruptures the logic of arche; that is, politics is an event initiated by individuals or groups who insist that the ordered configuration of a political arrangement (what he calls ‘the police’) is wrong. Such proclamations, however, do not sound like anything because they are unrecognizable as speech; they are a version of the Aristotelian blaberon.[4] What The Names of History calls ‘the excess of words’ — coincident with the democratic revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries - is the voicing of a wrong (tort)[5] that falls on the deaf ears of the police. These ears are deaf, however, not because they cannot hear but because there are no recognizable protocols by which the dissonant humming of the blaberon may be acknowledged. Contrasted to ‘polite’ deliberation, the political blaberon looks and sounds like a kind of billingsgate that is at once crude and disruptive. “For political philosophy to exist,” Rancière explains, “the order of political idealities must be linked to some construction of city ‘parts,’ to a count whose complexities may mask a fundamental miscount, a miscount that may well be the blaberon, the very wrong that is the stuff of politics.”[6]

This is why appeals to procedures of deliberation are an insufficient account of democratic politics. The assertion of an utterance is crucial to political life but speech act theory is ill equipped to consider the blaberon. Political interlocution “has always mixed up language games and rules of expression, and it has always particularized the universal in demonstrative sequences comprised of the meeting of heterogeneous elements.”[7] The difficulty of democratic politics, then, is not in determining the causes, effects, and correctives for communicative failure. Rather, “the problem is knowing whether the subjects who count in the interlocution ‘are’ or ‘are not,’ whether they are speaking or just making noise.”[8] In other words, consensus theories fail because they presume that a communicative scenario is already in place when contesting groups come together; these theories assume further that communicative participants know what they are talking about. In contrast, Rancière characterizes political speech as excessive and noisy because there is no pre-established agreement regarding either the status of the speakers or the objectives they wish to pursue. This noisy populace is the ‘no-part’ of ‘the part of those who have no part:’ not only a miscounted element within the larger ordering of a polity, but also the...

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