restricted access Chronicles of Consensual Times (review)
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Reviewed by
Jacques Rancière. Chronicles of Consensual Times. Ed. and trans. Steven Corcoran. London: Continuum, 2010. 168 pp.

The very title of this book, which collects a series of thirty-four short texts published by Jacques Rancière between 1996 and 2005, alerts anyone even remotely familiar with the work of the French philosopher to the kind of issues that will surface throughout the book. Rancière himself, in his new preface to the volume, explains how one is to read the two key notions raised in the title: the form of the chronicle and the political concept of consensus. In terms of generic form, the chronicle talks of “a specific configuration of that which happens, a mode of perception of what is notable…of the possible and the impossible” (vii). This definition is very important because it clarifies for the reader that although all the texts address specific events—that occurred either in France or in other parts of the world within a specific timeframe—what Rancière wanted to comment on were not the events themselves, but the sociopolitical framework of their possibility. In the post-Foucauldian understanding that is typical of Rancière’s philosophical position, we are faced here with an attempt to tie certain historical occurrences to what the French philosopher has defined a “regime of visibility,” an esthetico-political paradigm that allows a certain population to perceive and register a certain kind of event. In this respect, it is telling that Michel Foucault and his legacy [End Page 404] are evoked here, in a short text commenting on the 2004 commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of his death, as the attempt to upset “the relations between positive knowledge, philosophical consciousness and action” in a way that “constitutes a new map on the terrain of [an] effective and decentered thought” (126). In many ways, Rancière inherits Michel Foucault’s legacy, since these chronicles constitute in fact a kind of “mapping” of the current relation between power and knowledge, consciousness and action. And it is this relation that is defined by Rancière by the notion of “consensus,” the other defining notion the book’s title.

Consensus is, for Rancière, the main political and esthetical operator in the system of power reigning over our current “Western democracies.” By the mid-1990s, the date of inception of these chronicles, the end of the Cold War had already operated a disquieting flattening of the esthetico-political imagination. We can no longer make sense of what happens except through a lens that we are supposed to share with everybody else. Our perception of objects and events is dependent on the rhetorical and visual instruments that surround us. As Rancière says in his preface, “the consensus governing us is a machine of power insofar as it is a machine of vision” (viii). Even more importantly, the consensus machine seriously constrains our ability to imagine and plan for a different future: we are supposed to be convinced that “what is, is all that is” (viii).

Rancière is careful to tell us right away that consensus is not at all a synonymous of peace: on the contrary, it is the perfect ideological ground from which to continuously wage war with those societies still unable to participate in the consensual unison promoted by the dominant “machine of vision and interpretation” (viii). The first Iraqi war and, even more, the second one are perfect examples of the wars of consensus: in geopolitical terms, the ambition to enforce a common politico-esthetical paradigm has been disastrous. In the essay entitled “Borges in Sarajevo” dated March 1996, Rancière clearly names the promoters and enforcers of the new consensus when he says that “the great supranational spaces are for democracies…. As far as the rest of the world is concerned…it is better for it to be governed, as in times of old, according to the ‘natural’ criteria of birth, tribe and religion” (5). But by embracing this common-sense double standard, the Western democracies in fact either wage or encourage wars that are no less destructive than the ones fought during the Cold War years. In this highly...