Ranciere! and Urban Studies

After a reading-group discussion today, I realized that Ranciere is more pertinent to urban studies work than I originally imagined. We started to discuss his views on politics, the political, dissensus, and the police.  In contrast to Habermas, the work of Ranciere does not presuppose a particular social and economic order that gives rise to urban politics and communicative possibilities for democracy. Rather, politics is the set of relations that establish a social and economic sphere. For Marxists this means that the class conflict is not as social conflict about structural economic inequalities, but rather a political moment that establishes class in the first place. Even within this notion of class conflict, we still do not recognize the “poor,” as Ranciere calls them,  the unseen, unheard, and non-subjects of political relationships. For Ranciere, politics revolves around the people that are uncounted, not just marginalized (as this refers to something that is at least seen and heard), or that element/person for which other elements/people speak. The social system that distributes the visible and the invisible is what Ranciere calls “the distribution of the sensible”. As Ranciere writes:

I call the distribution of the sensible the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it. A distribution of the sensible therefore establishes at one and the same time something common that is shared and exclusive parts. This apportionment of parts and positions is based on a distribution of spaces, times, and forms of activity that determines the very manner in which something in common lends itself to participation and in what way various individuals have a part in this distribution. Aristotle states that a citizen is someone who has a part in the act of governing and being governed. However, another form of distribution precedes this act of partaking in government: the distribution that [13] determines those who have a part in the community of citizens. A speaking being, according to Aristotle, is a political being. If a slave understands the language of its rulers, however, he does not ‘possess’ it. Plato states that artisans cannot be put in charge of the shared or common elements of the community because they do not have the time to devote themselves to anything other than their work. They cannot be somewhere else because work will not wait. The distribution of the sensible reveals who can have a share in what is common to the community based on what they do and on the time and space in which this activity is performed. (p 12 in The Politics of Aesthetics)

So how do urban professions, such as planning and economic development etc, contribute to this social system, the distribution of the sensible? What are, if any, theoretical linkages that can be made to practice? I think there are many (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this). For example, can planning process address these deep-seated issues of politics that Ranciere discusses? Or are we too deeply entrenched in the liberal political philosophies which presuppose a particular relationship between the state and the individual political subject? Is it even the place of a bureaucratic institution to even care about the properly political? Should planners even care? I think this is a tremendous question when there is so much focus on equity and democracy within planning. Democracy seems to refer only to the processes of political participation in which political subjects act as they should in a system of ruling that mandates this subjectivity and action to begin with. It makes sense, then, that our idea of politics is voting in elections, influencing mayors through campaigning, or focusing on elite actors and politicians and the impacts of investments and finance on urban development. But what is actually going on here is not politics in the sense that Ranciere refers to politics. He suggests it’s something much different.  Take the following quotes from an edited volume referenced below:

Political dissensus is not a discussion between speaking people who would confront their interests and values. It is a conflict about who speaks and who does not speak, about what has to be heard as the voice of pain and what has to be heard as an argument on justice. And this is also what ‘class war’ means: not the conflict between groups which have opposite economic interests, but the conflict about what an ‘interest’ is, the struggle between those who set themselves as able to manage social interests and those who are supposed to be only able to reproduce their life. (2011: 2)

This seems to break down the deliberative and communicative planning frameworks that promise more equitable and democratic outcomes. Perhaps they do facilitate more equitable outcomes, although that is questionable, and certainly they may be better than no participation, but they also could be thought to reaffirm a post-political situation within cities and their management. Process attenuates and assuages political action by including varied groups in techno-managerial deliberations over marginal issues without challenging systemic problems. If a neighborhood is being gentrified, populations displaced, and jobs lost, does it really matter if the community members were able to help decide which side of the street a bike lane should be installed? Is this emergence and inclusion of historically disenfranchised and disavowed communities truly political? Doesn’t the content of their actions, their ability to speak and be heard in Ranciere’s distribution of the sensible matter? But even then, is this merely eliminating struggle to maintain hegemonic power relations that already exist and dominate the outcomes of urban processes?

Therefore, it appeared that the return to the ‘purity’ of the political meant in fact the return to the identification of the political with state
institutions and governmental practice. Consequently, my attempt at defining the specificity of politics was first an attempt at challenging the
mainstream idea of the return to pure politics. (2011:3)

It seems to me that we need to fundamentally question “the police” or the scripts for action in space and time that are asserted through relations of power and maintain a non-political situation.  Can urban scholars contribute to this task of politics?

…the police [is] the configuration of the political community as a collective body with its places and functions allotted according to the competences specific to groups and individuals. There is politics when this presupposition is broken by the affirmation that the power belongs to those who have no qualification to rule – which amounts to saying that there is no ground whatever for the exercise of power. There is politics when the boundary separating those who are born for politics from those who are born for the ‘bare’ life of economic and social necessity is put into question.  (2011:3)


Bowman & Stamp (ed). (2011) Reading Ranciere, London and New York: Continuum.

Chapter available here:  http://chtodelat.org/wp-content/uploads/2006/08/ranciere_-thinking_of_dissensus_2011.pdf

More here on aesthetics. http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2011/08/03/ranciere-politics-aesthetics-and-ooo/


About anthony



  1. dmf

    going back to St. Turner by what means does this “the distribution of the sensible the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within” possibly happen, and what could it mean to speak of “self-evident” facts? Isn’t this just another attempt to revive structuralism?

    • anthony

      Definitely! I think its strange to separate the social from the political. However, I do feel that it seems our use of critical social theory needs to be supplemented with critical political thinkers, usually political philosophers, if we want to enact change. People like Ranciere, although perhaps he could be labeled reductive in his structuralist tendencies, actually sees everything relationally without structures, or with structures that are illusory and need to be broken down. He sees social theorists as actually reinforcing a structuralist view of the world instead of fighting against unequal power relations. He wants to influence practical political action instead of the one-way-ness of class-led revolution. I am sure he is a product of his intellectual history and trajectory, just as all academics are, but I still find his work useful for at least questioning the typical ways of either situating political philosophy between a state and individuated subjects (liberalism) or in the social-economism of some orthodox marxists. I would like to think that I can be a marxist, a post-structuralist, and an anarchist all at the same time.

  2. anthony

    I am not sure about the “self-evident facts”. It seems that if “self-evident facts” refer to social facts, then Ranciere would be claiming they are only self-evident in the sense that they demand a particular political order, the police, for those facts to come to being, and the fact that they are social facts means they arise out of the social, not the political, and thus perpetuate a further apolitical situation. Those elements outside the systems are essential to its constitution, but are not visible or audible, they are the unaccounted for elements that only become visible in a political moment, in dissensus, where this unaccounted for sense meets with the “common” sense. For me, I think of structuralism as a particular way of explaining the social, whereas, for Ranciere, he is concerned with the political and politics which, for him, is not about relations of power, but the system of relations that enact certain modes of ruling and being ruled and the subjectivities that requires, while at the same time it creates those who are entirely excluded. To be sure, Ranciere’s work seem to be focused on the human experience alone, and does not apply to things or other beings, but this is something that has been noted elsewhere. Also, Ranciere was refuting Althusser’s work on Marxism which puts him against a budding structural Marxism, no?

    • dmf

      never been convinced that we can separate social human activities from political human actions, but back to the enacting of “modes” what could that mean other than people reacting to one another and again what would make that structured? can’t structuralists work against each other?

  3. dmf

    do you find political theorists (and their students/fans) to be effective political agents? must say this hasn’t been my experience at all.

  4. anthony

    No! I do not. I agree with you totally. Thats the problem, perhaps, that even Ranciere falls into his own critique of philosophers who do nothing besides critique from a keyboard. How can we be effective public intellectuals with such difficult critiques? Does political theory even have an aim towards practice? Or is that just organizational, social, or practice theory?

    • dmf

      not sure about the intentions of those folks but the connection to actual (nonacademic) practices seems tenuous at best, part of the problems with abstraction and relative privilege. I think we need new approaches that are much more in the midst/mix of things working with living people and the very concrete particularities that they are facing, and then work on our ways out (into wider connections/influences) as needed to make a difference, to make something new and hopefully better suited for those effected. We need to get into the heart of places that make a difference in the lives of people and develop the kinds of skills/understanding that will serve such interests and environs/assemblages, or fashion working and sustainable alternatives.
      If you are not at the table were decisions get made than where are you?
      So how to be in a position to make a difference that makes a difference?
      or something like that…

      • anthony

        Exactly! That’s why the field of urban studies seems so damn relevant and important! People live in cities; they face real socio-environmental problems that impact their everyday life; the processes for participation seem to be blind to the fact that people are excluded; how do we include them in something that they can actually contribute to and “speak” and be heard? Is it a problem of process? Or is it just about more just outcomes? What role does politics play? Is the current system so horrible that we need to flee from it completely? Or can our institutions change? I think these questions help to get at why Ranciere might inform radical political practice.

      • dmf

        well I’ll certainly stay tuned to see how you might put him to such uses, have you ever read about the life/work of Jane Addams?

  5. anthony

    I will now! I am interested in pragmatism, but still unsure of how I feel about it. There is some interesting work by Colin Koopman at Oregon on pragmatism and genealogy that I need to read. He puts Dewey and Foucault in conversation and tries to bridge the two traditions. http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/product_info.php?products_id=806494

    Thanks for the comments and the conversation. I’ll be posting more as I develop my dissertation. Most ruminations will make it on here as I try to work through to the concise and distilled versions for papers and the eventual dissertation!

    • dmf

      sure, yeah colin is doing some interesting work with paul rabinow&co: http://cwkoopman.wordpress.com/
      Adams told her colleagues in sociology that they were welcome to come work with her settlement-house community but not on them. also check out richard sennett another pragmatist:

  6. anthony

    Adams sounds awesome! Yeah Sennett is great! A tremendous public intellectual and author.

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