Spectacular Politics and Rancière’s Radical Egalitarianism

The other night, my friend Steve Maloney was asking me whether politics, and specifically political theory, has been reduced to public relations. I like to think that, while it may be that our task is PR, (a) it may always have been, and (b) that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Peter Hallward has an article in the January/February New Left Review that where he basically takes up the same problem. It’s entitled “Rancière’s Theatrocracy,” (sorry, paying subscribers only) and mostly deals with the work Rancière has done on the the relation between liberation politics and the staging of equality. In this “staging,” we’re meant to pick up a double entendre: both the theater and civil society involve a crucial staging. Public relations shades into pretending, costuming, and play-acting.

The Platonic critique of the poets and actors has always been closely associated with his distaste for Athenian democracy, since the same audience that could so easily be moved by the narrative manipulations of the tragedians could also be persuaded by passionate rhetoric and illogical sophistry. Many contemporary progressives find, in the light of democracy’s recent failures to supply satisfying electoral outcomes, that democracy may not be all it’s cracked up to be. The democratic penchant for short, assymetrical conflicts, combined the resurgence of the spoils system, suggest to these fair-weather progressives that a poorly-educated populace may not always be the best group to consult. In a number of different contexts, I’ve seen a creeping elitism amongst people who would once have cringed at the thought of hierarchies. As I understand it, the original neo-conservatives followed this same trajectory, moving from vanguardist communism to meritocratic rule-of-law.

This is where Rancière comes in. Like many of the other students of Althusser (Badiou, Balibar, Foucault, etc.) he has been trying to account for emancipatory politics without utopian teleology or deterministic materialism, the collapsed havens of orthodox marxists. The question that drives these thinkers, and my own thought, is how to side with the dispossessed, the dominated, the invisible, without falling into despair? Rancière began answering it by turning towards the pre-Marxists workers communes and proletarian self-emancipation projects theorized by Marx the scholar, and celebrated by Marx the pamphleteer. Rancière’s first presumption is that Marx’s efforts have come to stand in for the various and sundry projects that inspired them; by returning to the original source material, he hoped to wipe the slate of the tyrannical nation-state capitalisms of the Stalin and Mao, the absurd in-fighting and orthodoxies of the French Communist Party (PCF), and the association of communism with fascism and totalitarianism. His goal, in other words, has been to find what was lost in the institutionalization of these private and local liberations.

The best text for deriving his theory of emancipation remains his book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, which takes up the theories of Joseph Jacotot, exiled from France when the monarchists came back into power during the Second Restoration. Stuck in Belgium, Jacotot still managed to teach poor children, with whom he did not share a language, to read Flemish. He developed an egalitarian pedagogical theory that levels the last bastion of elitism: intellectual superiority. He located supposed differences in capacity in the poor distribution of attention and knowledge, such that even motivational deficiencies can be charged to the inadequate expectations of the teacher. The trick Jacotot is famous for is showing illiterate parents how to teach their children to read! This removes even the supposed expertise of the teacher, and is definitely a spiritual ancestor (though apparently not an acknowledged contributor) to John Dewey’s methods. This is radical egalitarianism indeed: you can see now the opposition I was pushing earlier between the vanguardist Trotskyists, who in their despair at the unteachable proletariat became corporate neo-conservatives, and a thoroughgoing equality that trusts the demos.

Hallward notes that this trust of the audience is partially dependent on removing even the distinction between actor and viewer: thus, the political demonstrations of recent globalization and antiwar protestors look more like Rancière’s definition of politics than anything that happens between Russ Feingold and the GOP. Participation and festivity are key elements of the democratic theater Rancière wishes us to embrace. Being part of a crowd, demonstrating to yourself and each other the potency possible even to the disenfranchised, is the space where egalitarian staging takes place. This equality can be dissipated in an instant, of course, just as a crowd can be quickly whipped into a directed frenzy by a skilled orator, losing its self-direction along with its anarchism by submitting to the manipulations of a leader.

So long as it persists, however, this spectacular politics entails a Rousseauist carnival of freedom. No masters, no slaves, just a public, relating to itself without mediation. Rancière says, “All my work on workers’ emancipation showed that the most prominent of claims put forward by the workers and the poor was precisely the claim to visibility, a will to enter the political ream of appearance, the affirmation of a capacity for appearance.” As Hallward himself notes, this model of political action is incapable of sustaining or institutionalizing itself; it is spontaneous and ephemeral, improvised and aleatory. It happens and then subsides, leaving no great documents or lasting legislation. The real question is why we ever thought that emancipation could come by cementing our powers for collective action in established bureaucracies whose task is to suppress the very spontaneity that founded them?

One thought on “Spectacular Politics and Rancière’s Radical Egalitarianism”

  1. I would add as recommended reading for your list, Michel Foucault's "What is Enlightenment?" which reclaims Kant's essay of the same title and saves the idea of enlightenment from the Enlightenment iteslf (it's that good!). As stirring as I find Fouacult's essay, I wonder if this idea of enlightenment holds any currency for the demos (I think Foucault would be cynical about this as well). Here, I agree with Arendt, that "rule by everyone is rule by no one", and rule by no one is not a real phenomenon as long as will and action are separate. I have trouble believing that the disciplinary power of the world will do anything more than change form, and I think that means that all the normative suggestions of the future moral world as descrbied by MacIntyre, Rorty, Marcuse, Marx, Weber, etc. are not going to be realized, and I wonder if all of these worlds that they make are not simply acts of Nietzschean self-creation and revaluation that can guide aware selves in a world of shaped and molded "last men"… but it's late and I'm taking Benadryl, so who knows.

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