- Jacques Rancière and the Politics of Theory
In his forward to the English edition of Althusser's Lesson, Jacques Rancière (2011, xvi) writes that his book "held that all revolutionary thought must be founded on the … presupposition … of the capacity of the dominated." Even a cursory reading of Rancière's work since 1973 will show that he has not abandoned this idea; later in the same forward he writes, "I have not changed when it comes to the principle … that only the presupposition of a capacity common to all can found both the power of thought and the dynamics of emancipation" (2011, xvii). But while this presupposition is a necessary condition for challenging domination, it is by no means sufficient; Rancière notes wryly that Althusser's Lesson "bears out, at its own expense, the thesis that there is no theory of subversion that cannot also serve the cause of oppression" (2011, xvii).
Rancière's central concerns with oppression, revolutionary thought, and the capacity of the dominated mark his work quite clearly as critical political theory. His critical engagements with both his contemporaries (Althusser, Bourdieu, Deleuze) and the history of philosophy (Sartre, Marx) have consistently set out to challenge the "logic by which subversive thoughts are recuperated for the service of order" (2011, xvi). But if Rancière's polemics are consistently good at rooting out the inegalitarian assumptions of his fellow critical theorists, he has been less clear in laying out just how "theory" can be set to work serving "the cause of oppression" and what it means for "subversive thought" to work in "the service of order." What is the relationship between philosophy and politics—and what can this tell us about Rancière's own practice of philosophy? [End Page 1]
As Samuel Chambers (123) notes, Rancière's writing "can be understood as polemical in the sense that [he] seeks to provoke, that he tries to test and probe, and that he refuses to systematize." But even without demanding some Grand Unified Theory from Rancière, it seems entirely fair to ask where Rancière himself stands, where he fits into his own critical interventions. Chambers (125) puts the matter thus:
Without a doubt, Rancière maintains a certain vigilance in keeping his work polemical, interventionist, and local, but never analytical, conservative, or general. While I accept the force of his arguments and the importance of his interventions, here I ask whether polemicization also depends upon (and needs to work with) a broader concept of critique—a wider critical apparatus. Do not local interventions somehow need to be linked or connected, one to another?
This set of questions sends Chambers looking for a "critical dispositive" that might workably underlie Rancière's interventions. My own project springs from the same line of questioning Chambers lays out in the material I have just quoted, but with a somewhat different focus. In this article, I want to ask about how Rancière conceives of the relationship between theory and politics and of the role of theory in politics. While I accept the importance of Rancière's interventions, I will argue that his mature work is unable to marshal adequate resources to really make them stick. However, it is my hypothesis that we can find such resources in an earlier moment of Rancière's career—resources that, as I shall attempt to show, Rancière himself has been unable to fully utilize. The "earlier moment" I have in mind is Rancière's break with Louis Althusser following the events of May 1968. Buried within this break we find, albeit momentarily, an understanding of the political possibilities of theory very different from the one that underlies his work from the late seventies on. Furthermore, I will argue that this alternate understanding of the relationship between politics and theory might allow us to put Rancière's thought to work in a way that avoids a lot of the standard frustrations encountered by his readers. By recovering a certain early Rancière, we might find tools to better address the valid issues raised by his latter-day interventions. As I...