Impure Politics: Samuel Chambers’ The Lessons of Rancière
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Impure Politics:
Samuel Chambers’ The Lessons of Rancière
Samuel Chambers, The Lessons of Rancière. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 240 pg. $24.95 (pbk). $36.95 (hc). ISBN: 9780199927210

I rode several of my favorite escalators in Philadelphia, taking notes up and down the vantages. At the bottom and the top of the ride, I would show photographs of myself to strangers and ask, “EXCUSE ME, have you seen this person?” Sometimes there was confusion, “ISN’T THAT YOU?,” I would reply, “No, many people think I look like HER, but have you seen HER?”

(C.A. Conrad, M.I.A. Escalator).

As “literally, the word that comes after the word,” Samuel Chambers’ describes the afterword to his recent book, The Lessons of Rancière, as “une part des sans-part” – a part of the work that is paradoxically without part in it (158). In the spirit of this Rancière-inspired interpretation of its name, Chambers uses the afterword to his text to make a declaration that Rancière himself might only hear as noise. Chambers asserts that Rancière’s account of democracy renders it “a queer politics,” while also noting that Rancière “has explicitly rejected queer theory, and subtly resisted aligning his work with that field” (158). This makes Chambers’ naming of Rancière’s politics as queer – as he himself readily acknowledges – a gesture that may well be in the spirit of Rancière’s work, but that certainly goes against its word.

One way to read Chambers’ especially well researched, contextually attuned, and scholastically exacting new work on Rancière’s democratic politics is to begin with these words after the word. One of the main contentions in Chambers’ book is that, for Rancière, politics – always fundamentally coupled with a “prevailing” of the dēmos, or democracy – is constitutively impure (135). This is because it is intractably engaged in a disruptive relationship with what Rancière calls the police. The police names an order of inequality and domination that delimits subjects as well as their interests through “le partage du sensible” – a division of the sensory realm that partitions “spaces for being in the world,” and thereby determines both the visible and the sayable, or “what can be seen and what can be heard” (70). By reading Chambers’ book as if its afterword were instead its first word, one can engage with Chamber’s commitment to the impurity of Rancière’s politics with eyes open to where this commitment can lead, and to what it might look like in action.

Chambers notes that when the term ‘queer’ first emerged as a political signifier in the 1990s, it was used to mark a difference between the subject to which it referred and any subject with a fixed sexual identity (160). This is one fundamental respect in which a queer politics, for Chambers, is an impure politics that disrupts the police order. Rather than “start[ing] with the idea that there is a given and known subject of discrimination or oppression,” the most powerful versions of queer politics, for Chambers, are also versions of a Rancièrean democratic politics: They force the police order to take account of those without an identity within the divisions of subjects and interests it both erects and defends (161). These versions of queer politics thus insist, paradoxically, on the part of those who will always remain without part in the police order, a position Chambers suggests can be heard in the chant, “We’re here!/We’re queer!/Get used to it” (159–160). In addition to finding this politics at work in this popular chant, one might also locate it in C.A. Conrad’s simultaneously playful and socially disruptive gesture of showing passing strangers a photo which seems to be of ‘herself,’ but in which Conrad can find no ‘her’.

Chambers’ additionally suggests that Rancière’s notion of the “miscount” can be deployed to explain the social disruptions such moments of queer politics create (167). They contest the order of the sayable and seeable established by the police in demanding the count of a part that has no...