SubStance 29.2 (2000) 3-24
[Access article in PDF]
Literature, Politics, Aesthetics:
Approaches to Democratic Disagreement
interviewed by Solange Guénoun and James H. Kavanagh
"Pour que l'invitation produise quelque effet de pensée, il faut que la rencontre trouve son point de mésentente."--La mésentente (12)
[In order for the invitation to produce some effect of thought, the encounter must find its point of disagreement.]
The Principles of Equality, Education and Democracy
SG In reading your work, one has the impression that you have had a kind of revelation or "nuit de Pascal" in encountering that extraordinary nineteenth-century pedagogue, Joseph Jacotot, to whom you have devoted a book, Le maître ignorant (1987).
JR It was not a "nuit de Pascal," but certainly an essential encounter for re-asking the question of politics and equality. In fact, Joseph Jacotot proposed, in an incredibly provocative way, two radical principles that placed the pedagogical paradigm alongside the progressivist logic generally identified with democracy. First of all, equality is not a goal to be attained. The progressivists who proclaim equality as the end result of a process of reducing inequalities, of educating the masses, etc., reproduce the logic of the teacher who assures his power by being in charge of the gap he claims to bridge between ignorance and knowledge. Equality must be seen as a point of departure, and not as a destination. We must assume that all intelligences are equal, and work under this assumption. But also, Jacotot raised a radical provocation to democratic politics. For him, equality could only be intellectual equality among individuals. It could never have a social consistency. Any attempt to realize it socially led to its loss. It seemed to me that every form of egalitarian politics was confronted by this challenge: to affirm equality as an axiom, as an assumption, and not as a goal. But also to refuse a partition between intellectual equality and social inequality; to believe that even if egalitarian assumptions are alien to social logic and [End Page 3] aggregation, they can be affirmed there transgressively, and that politics consists of this very confrontation.
SG What strikes me is the way this has allowed you to intervene in the politico-socialist conjunction in the 1980s, on the ever-burning questions of education and teaching in France, and thereby to carve out a place for yourself vis-à-vis the two then-current forms of "progressivism."
JR The French debate over democratic schooling was at that time--and still is--monopolized by two positions. On the one hand, the sociological tendency, inspired by Bourdieu, was calling into question forms of transmitting knowledge adapted to an audience of young "heirs." It proposed to reduce scholastic inequality by adapting the style of the schools to the needs and styles of underprivileged populations. On the other hand we saw the development of the so-called "republican" thesis, summarized in Jean-Claude Milner's De l'école, which made the universality of knowledge and its mode of diffusion the royal road to democratization, and denounced teachers and sociologists as destroyers of republican schools. Jacotot's ideas about intellectual emancipation placed back-to-back these two positions, which based equality either on the universality of knowledge and the teacher's role, or on a "science" of the social arrangement for transmitting knowledge.
SG One of the striking aspects of your work is that it presents both a series of shifts from one discipline to another, and the recurring quest for an object that will cut across all these disciplines. Thus, you have passed from "the poetics of knowledge" in history, to literary criticism with your interpretation of Mallarmé's work, and finally to the concept of literature, and now you are concerned, among other things, with "the aesthetic idea" and with cinema. While all the time pursuing, from one terrain to the other, an object that relates to politics, as can be seen by most of your subtitles: La mésentente. Philosophie et politique (1995), Mallarmé. La...