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Rancière's Lost Object
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Althusser was troubled by Lacan's assertion that a letter always arrives at its destination, an assertion that seemed to him to be based "on the most classical notions of destiny and finality" (1996, 91-92). Althusser finally responded not by merely inverting the assertion to say that a letter never arrives at its destination, but rather with the qualification that "it may arrive that a letter does not arrive at its destination" (92), as if the letter (and not simply an epistle but the typographical mark) were diverted by an originary swerve at odds with, to use the language of Lucretius, the decree of destiny and the logic of destination. Such a swerve or clinamen could not absolutely prevent the letter from reaching its destination but, in disrupting the straight line of its movement, rendered that reaching of its destination nothing more than one possible encounter among others.

A lesson, like a letter, is delivered to someone, to a recipient or recipients (in French, a destinataire) in a specific time and place and, in written form, may like a letter be delayed, so delayed in fact that it misses the addressee. I refer here not to the lesson that Jacques Rancière attributes to Althusser but to his own lesson on that lesson. There is something strange about this text, now nearly forty years old, clearly intended for an audience other than that which will receive it, an audience that in an important sense no longer exists in that it was inseparable from a context that has long since vanished. Rancière's lesson therefore risks not only being misread (which, after all, could mean being read in a new way), but proving in a fundamental sense illegible, a letter/lesson from an exchange to which its present recipients were not privy, as if it were sent to the wrong address: a dead letter.

But the diversion of the letter from its proper destination, as Althusser invoking Derrida against Lacan without mentioning his name reminds us, is essential to the letter itself: it was already a dead letter not only because the audience to which it was addressed and the context that conferred such urgency on the task of criticizing Althus ser from Rancière's perspective were in full decomposition even in 1974, but also in the sense that, as a text, it contained its own deviation (in both the Lucretian and Leninist senses), a deviation from itself. It represents Rancière not as he would become, that is, as he is now in 2013 and has been for at least three decades, but a Rancière suspended in time between a Cultural Revolution Maoism clearly no longer sure of itself, or of its theoretico-political framework and reference points, on the one side, and a virulent anticommunism focused on the tyrannical pedagogy of Master Thinkers, on the other. To be sure, these tendencies did not easily coexist, and their antagonism confers on the text of Althusser's Lesson the disorder proper to it. Rancière would over the next few years disentangle himself from this contradiction, finally rejecting both of its terms, but perhaps not without incurring a certain theoretical and political cost and certainly not without a struggle, which I would argue continues to be constitutive of his work as a whole, against the influence as powerful as it is insidious of Althusser. This does not mean that Rancière's corpus possesses an underlying unity that its development would gradually reveal. On the contrary, the struggle against Althusser's influence, and even the struggle to contain the urge to continue this struggle, marks nearly everything he has written since, whether or not the name Althusser appears. Far more than a proper name in Rancière's texts, "Althusser" designates that phantom presence (or presences: is there a unified entity corresponding to the name?), against which otherwise obscure polemics are directed, but which also appears in formulations that are distinctly Althusserian, as if Althusser were turned against himself, beginning with Rancière's declaration that he will read Althusser's work according to its political effects.

Rancière warns us at the outset not to read...

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