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  • Rhetoric and Truth:Tacitus's Percennius and Democratic Historiography
  • Shreyaa Bhatt (bio)

The democratic man is a being who speaks, which is also to say a poetic being, a being capable of embracing the distance between words and things … which is not deception, not trickery, but humanity; a being capable of embracing the unreality of representation.

Jacques Rancière, On the Shores of Politics

Democracy is not the parliamentary system or the legitimate State. It is not a state of the social either, the reign of individualism or the masses … Democracy is the name of a singular interruption of this order of the distribution of bodies in a community that I have suggested should be conceptualised as police. It is the name of that which interrupts the smooth functioning of this order through a singular process of subjectivization.

Jacques Rancière, Disagreement

In the political thought of Jacques Rancière, the term democracy is used to denote a type of activity that challenges the organization of role and place within a given hierarchy. For Rancière such hierarchies are governed by the police, a term used to refer to "all the activities which create order by distributing places, names and functions" (Rancière, cited in Nash 1996, 173). Rather than being a constitutional mechanism, Rancièrian democracy is an act of political "subjectivization," a process of declassification and equality that challenges the way in which regimes organize their citizens.1

Rancière argues that political cultures operate so as to enforce a system of social division that defines those who are political subjects, that is, those who are enabled to take political action, such as speaking within political contexts. This regime is, in Rancière's terms, a police order. That order not only governs our social reality but also prescribes our perception of that reality through the distribution of ways of seeing, hearing, and [End Page 163] thinking. In this way, the police order determines how seditious acts are to be perceived, whose words should be heard as legitimate "discourse" and whose as illegitimate "noise" (Rancière 1999, 30–33). For Rancière, our perception of reality is tied to the realm of aesthetics, the name he gives to a historically-determined regime for artistic representation; this regime determines what should be made visible, audible, and, most importantly, meaningful.2

In this paper, I apply Rancière's concepts of democracy and aesthetics to Tacitus's writing of history in order to test the traditional perception of the exclusive (elitist) nature of Tacitus's political thought. I see in Tacitus a form of democratic historiography, which, following Rancière's formulation of democracy, may be understood as historical writing that breaks with established modes of representation and by doing so allows previously invisible or inaudible actors to be seen or heard.3 The ways in which Tacitean historiography does or does not account for those normatively marginalized have attracted considerable attention, notably from Eric Auerbach and Rancière himself.4 In their analyses of the speech Tacitus gives to Percennius, the rebellious soldier who provoked the Pannonian mutiny in 14 CE (Ann. 1.16.3–1.17.6), Auerbach and Rancière raise issues of who speaks, how, and why, and address the role of rhetoric in making the past speak and the relationship between rhetoric, historiography, and truth.5

In the first half of the paper, I reconsider Auerbach's treatment of Percennius's speech to argue that the ambiguity of speaker and perspective in this speech provides a notable instance of democratic representation. While Tacitus employs tropes associated with madness and disease, which imply that there were no 'valid' motives behind the soldiers' mutiny, I argue, contra Auerbach, that the soldiers are also presented as aggrieved, reasoned, and fully conscious political agents. The social distinction between soldiers and senators is not employed to suggest that only the senators possessed political significance and legitimacy.

In the second half, I consider Rancière's treatment of the episode by paying particular attention to his analysis of Tacitus's blurring of legitimate and illegitimate speakers. I argue that this blurring can also be read in Tacitus's writing of misrecognition...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1935-0228
Print ISSN
0160-0923
Pages
pp. 163-189
Launched on MUSE
2017-09-29
Open Access
No
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