Ranciere, Politics, and the Properly Political

A pointed reading of Ranciere provides potentially mobilizing fodder for the radically minded academic. With the hope of finding spaces and interventions that are properly political, I found myself reading Swyngedouw, Zizek, Mouffe, and Mark Purcell’s work on political philosophy. There is a constant reference to the work of Jacques Ranciere. In the context of my research on climate change, energy systems, infrastructures, cities, planning, and urbanization, there is numerous moments (for lack of a better word) that seem to encapsulate a resurgence of the properly political in the face of a nearly totally political environmental urban situation or “movement” (in quotes because of the vanguard taken on by corporate and state actors that absolutely bastardize the notion of radical social action and reduce all disagreement into techno-managerial decisions that assume apriori consensus on the underlying social formation rooted in a political system that is not up for disruption or negotiation). Notice, however, that the political foregrounds the social. This is a critical point that Ranciere and others argue is essential to understanding the relations of power in society and potential transformation (more on this point a few paragraphs down, and in his 1o theses on politics, #1 and #9 especially).

Lets review Ranciere’s 10 theses on politics.

1. For Ranciere politics is not the exercise of power, but a system of relations which identifies particular subjectvities and understandings of ruling and a specific order of being.

2. Politics is a paradoxical form of action. Political subjects are at once declared free by their relationship as subjects, and also are ruled and rule. It is in their participation in the power of arche–the beginning/ruling and origin of order: “As far as arche is concerned, as with everything else, the conventional logic has it that there is a particular disposition to act that is exercised upon a particular disposition to ‘be acted upon.’ Thus the logic of arche presupposes a determinate superiority exercised upon an equally determinate inferiority. In order for there to be a political subject(ivity), and thus for there to be politics, there must be a rupture in this logic.”

3.”Politics is a specific rupture in the logic of arche. It does not simply presuppose the rupture of the ‘normal’ distribution of positions between the one who exercises power and the one subject to it. It also requires a rupture in the idea that there are dispositions ‘proper’ to such classifications.”  Ranciere specifically refutes the notion, as Plato suggested, that some are “naturally” meant to rule over others (because of age, wealth, knowledge, etc). That this natural arrangement is the God-given order (arche) on which a perfect democracy can function. Ranceire suggests precisely the opposite: “What thus characterizes a democracy is pure chance or the complete absence of qualifications for governing. Democracy is that state of exception where no oppositions can function, where there is no pre-determined principle of role allocation.”

4. “As we know, democracy is a term invented by its opponents, by all those who were ‘qualified’ to govern because of seniority, birth, wealth, virtue, and knowledge [savoir]. Using it as a term of derision, they articulated an unprecedented reversal of the order of things: the ‘power of the demos’ means that those who rule are those who have no specificity in common, apart from their having no qualification for governing.” And these guys govern “the poor” which refers not necessarily to economically disadvantaged, but those who are “unaccounted for” and who cannot partake in the arche based on their non-qualifications. 

5.”The ‘people’ that is the subject of democracy — and thus the principal subject of politics — is not the collection of members in a community, or the laboring classes of the population. It is the supplementary part, in relation to any counting of parts of the population that makes it possible to identify ‘the part of those who have no-part’ [le compte des incomptés][7] with the whole of the community.”  Ranciere explains that the separation of the “people” is a structural issue: “But the theory of the structural void can be interpreted in two distinct ways: First, the structural void refers to an-archy, to the absence of an entitlement to rule that constitutes the very nature of the political space; Secondly, the void is caused by the ‘dis-incorporation’ of the king’s two bodies — the human and divine body.[10] Democracy, according to this latter view, begins with the murder of the king; in other words, with a collapse of the symbolic thereby producing a dis-incorporated social presence. And this originary link is posed as the equivalent of an original temptation to imaginatively reconstruct the ‘glorious body of the people’ that is heir to the immortal body of the king and the basis of every totalitarianism.”

6. “Rather, there is politics inasmuch as ‘the people’ refers to subjects inscribed as a supplement to the count of the parts of society, a specific figure of ‘the part of those who have no-part.’ Whether this part exists is the political issue and it is the object of political litigation. Political struggle is not a conflict between well defined interest groups; it is an opposition of logics that count the parties and parts of the community in different ways. The clash between the ‘rich’ and the ‘poor,’ for instance, is the struggle over the very possibility of these words being coupled, of their being able to institute categories for another (ac)counting of the community. There are two ways of counting the parts of the community: The first only counts empirical parts — actual groups defined by differences in birth, by different functions, locations, and interests that constitute the social body. The second counts ‘in addition’ a part of the no-part. We will call the first police and the second politics.”

7.”Politics is specifically opposed to the police. The police is a ‘partition of the sensible’ [le partage du sensible] whose principle is the absence of a void and of a supplement.” The police enforce this partition of the sensible. They make sure that only one way of being can be undertaken in a particular space.  The partition of the sensible should be understood both as that  which “separates and excludes,” and as that which allows participation. “A partition of the sensible refers to the manner in which a relation between a shared ‘common’ [un commun partagé] and the distribution of exclusive parts is determined through the sensible. This latter form of distribution, in turn, itself presupposes a partition between what is visible and what is not, of what can be heard from the inaudible…. Politics is first and foremost and intervention upon the visible and the sayable.”

8. “The principal function of politics is the configuration of its proper space. It is to disclose the world of its subjects and its operations. The essence of politics is the manifestation of dissensus, as the presence of two worlds in one.”  The police “asserts that the space of circulating is nothing other than the space of circulation. Politics, in contrast, consists in transforming this space of ‘moving-along’ into a space for the appearance of a subject: i.e., the people, the workers, the citizens: It consists in refiguring the space, of what there is to do there, what is to be seen or named therein. It is the established litigation of the perceptible, on the nemeïn (to divide) that founds any communal nomos (law/order/divisions of).”  And here is where it starts getting really good. “The essence of politics is dissensus. Dissensus is not the confrontation between interests or opinions. It is the manifestation of a distance of the sensible from itself. Politics makes visible that which had no reason to be seen, it lodges one world into another (for instance, the world where the factory is a public space within the one where it is considered a private one, the world where workers speak out vis-à-vis the one where their voices are merely cries expressing pain). This is precisely why politics cannot be identified with the model of communicative action since this model presupposes the partners in communicative exchange to be pre-constituted, and that the discursive forms of exchange imply a speech community whose constraint is always explicable.”

9. Philosophy reinforces the idea that police and politics are one and the same in democratic political systems. It also suggests a social body on which these politics and order are emergent or even necessary. This idea is refuted by Ranciere as he suggests this is precisely what is at issue in the “political secret” at the center of political philosophy, that  “the distinguishing feature of politics is the existence of a subject who ‘rules’ by the very fact of having no qualifications to rule; that the principle of beginnings/ruling is irremediably divided as a result of this, and that the political community is specifically a litigious community…”  As he continues, “No matter which side one rests on, the opposition between the ‘political’ and the ‘social’ is a matter defined entirely within the frame of ‘political philosophy;’ in other words, it is a matter that lies at the heart of the philosophical repression of politics.”

10. Ranciere refutes both the “end of politics” and the “return of politics” arguments as they root there discussions in a social body or statist approaches.  He explains that “[t]he essence of politics resides in the modes of dissensual subjectification that reveal the difference of a society to itself. The essence of consensus is not peaceful discussion and reasonable agreement as opposed to conflict or violence. Its essence is the annulment of dissensus as the separation of the sensible from itself, the annulment of surplus subjects, the reduction of the people to the sum of the parts of the social body, and of the political community to the relationship of interests and aspirations of these different parts. Consensus is the reduction of politics to the police. In other words, it is the ‘end of politics’ and not the accomplishment of its ends but, simply, the return of the ‘normal’ state of things which is that of politics’ non-existence. The ‘end of politics’ is the ever-present shore of politics [le bord de la politique] that, in turn, is an activity of the moment and always provisional. ‘Return of politics’ and ‘end of politics’ are two symmetrical interpretations producing the same effect: to efface the very concept of politics, and the precariousness that is one of its essential elements.” 

Now, what is useful from these 10 theses on politics for urban planning, environment, and energy/climate issues? I argue, much like Swyngedouw and Zizek, that there is a fundamental issue with supposing that our environmental problems are problems merely of governing, problems in the social sphere.  As Swyngedouw argues that there is nothing more we can do with critical social theory, I tend to agree. It seems we must address the properly political. The politics of consensus, undergirded by the police, is really a “post-political” moment wherein our contentions are merely struggles over techno-managerial decisions. The problem is, this view does not allow for radical disagreement. For Ranciere, disagreement, or dissensus, is the basis of political  moments. Of capturing the actual disagreement that exists requires making visible and audible those who are marred and silenced. This breaks the basis of consensus, the police, and transcends the partitions and boundaries that establish arche. An-arche, I would agree then, is the basis of the political and truly democratic.  In the environmental movement, this seems only to be occurring in violent protests. Are there other options? Can there be more “incremental” properly political moments that aren’t violent?

Further inspection of the work on politics is needed. But I leave this for a future discussion.

Here are some links to Ranciere’s work and other interesting thoughts on his work.





This article/blog about Ranciere and Brokeback Mountain: http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2011/08/03/ranciere-politics-aesthetics-and-ooo/

This: http://www.palgrave-journals.com/cpt/journal/v11/n1/full/cpt201041a.html

And this: http://www.critical-theory.com/who-the-fuck-is-jacques-ranciere/

The underlying idea, to focus solely on the theoretical level, is not only that Marxism is learned exclusively through books, but also that it is learned only from the classics. It is that every development is a betrayal, that every application of Marxism is a deviation into pragmatism, ideology, and political manipulation. We can see quite clearly from the phrase, ‘to focus solely on the theoretical level’, that what was at stake on the practical level was the rejection of the ‘developments’ that Khrushchev, with his successors and emulators, had introduced to ‘classical’ Marxism. This was the time, for example, when it was common to teach that peaceful coexistence was the supreme form of class struggle . . . The purism of theory could not but have political effects. And that was really all that mattered: we could say everything, provided nothing that we said had practical effects. – Althusser’s Lesson


About anthony


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: