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diacritics 30.2 (2000) 113-126

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Dissenting Words:
A Conversation with Jacques Rancière


Davide Panagia:

In your writings you highlight the political efficacy of words. In The Names of History, for instance, this emphasis is discussed most vividly in terms of what you refer to as an "excess of words" that marks the rise of democratic movements in the seventeenth century. Similarly, in On The Shores of Politics, you begin your discussion with an excursus on the end of politics as the end of the promise. Finally, in Dis-agreement you speak of "the part of those who have no-part" as voicing a "wrong" for the sake of equality.

In each of these instances, however, your treatment of words (and language more generally) is very different from those thinkers of the "linguistic turn" in political philosophy who expound on an ethics of deliberation as the first virtue of modern democracies. For that matter, your approach is quite different from those thinkers who focus on the aporias of language as such.

Could you discuss this thematic of the proliferation of words in your thinking about democratic politics?

Would it be fair to characterize your research on and exposition of democratic thinking as a "poetics of politics"?

Rancière's Reply:

In order to address your question adequately, it would be wise to enlarge the sense of "linguistic turn" you invoke. In its most generally accepted sense, the linguistic turn in philosophy consists in ascribing to linguistic processes certain phenomena and specifiable modes of relating objects attributed, in a previous instance, either to factual processes or lines of thought. This approach is not limited to the two figures you invoke in your question. The linguistic turn also has two stages of development that, from my experience, have been more noticeable in France than in the United States. The first phase, then, emerged with Lévi-Strauss and his structural approach to social relations founded on a linguistic model of relationality, subsequently reprised in Lacan's psychoanalytic notion that "the unconscious is structured like a language" that, in its turn, conjoins the energetic mental processes Freud discusses to linguistic practices. The primacy of "the linguistic" thus granted language all the properties of the Freudian unconscious [End Page 113] along with those of a Marxist notion of infrastructure. The Saussurian opposition between langue and parole provided a privileged status to a linguistic model whose role was that of a general law that unconsciously structures the behavior of individuals and societies. It is on the basis of these parameters that the structuralist moment of the linguistic turn was constituted. At one and the same time, the analysis of speech acts became first and foremost a "symptomatic" analysis of those procedures of misrecognition that linguistically structured both the behavior of individuals and social relations. When we "read" Le Capital with Althusser, the interpretive and methodological schema for linguistic phenomena operated like a kind of "policing of the enunciated": that is, a search for those unsuccessful (i.e., inadequate) modes of expression that exemplify such symptomatic procedures of misrecognition.

The second phase of the linguistic turn constituted itself more ambiguously. For those who shared intellectual experiences similar to my own, this version involved a critique of the langue/infrastructure model; that is, a further and more favorable consideration of the value of the political and the linguistic games therein that, according to the Althusserian/Marxist model (and, indeed, with structuralism more generally), were to be treated as ideological artifacts. In a very real sense, it all began with the May '68 assertion that "we are all German Jews"--an entirely ideological statement, the validity of which, if analyzed at the level of its content, one finds to rest entirely on the capacity to overturn the political relationship between the order of designations and that of events by emphasizing the gap that separates subject and predicate. From there, an entire field of understanding speech acts as political gestures opened up: a field that reconfigured the division between words and things while rearranging the distinction between legitimate...