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  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/