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?

Quashing nasty rumours

There’s a rumour going around, perpetuated by bumper stickers and politicians, that “God is pro-life.” It’s an interesting claim, and since everyone seems to want God (i.e. the heavy guns) on their side, I thought I’d examine it.

Michael Sandel, (yes, that Sandel) while working on the presidential Council on Bioethics, wrung this statement from expert witness John M. Opitz, MD:

Sandel: “…[W]hat percent of fertilized eggs fail to implant or are otherwise lost?”
Opitz: “Estimates range all the way from 60 percent to 80 percent of the very earliest stages, cleavage stages, for example, that are lost.

Hmmm…. so, in 2003, there were about 4 million babies born in the United States. Given the most conservative estimate of 60% lost before parturition, that means that 6 million embryos were destroyed by natural causes. This is convenient, as it is the most popular estimate for Jewish deaths during the Shoah (Holocaust). Since I’ve previously railed against the equation of abortion with genocide, this seems apropos.

If I can find some global population statistics that chart total human population throughout history, I’m thinking of putting up a running total: Abortions: God v. Man. This would be especially interesting given plague and disaster death rates, plus historical v. current infant mortality rates. Sadly, I’m not a statistician, I’m a philosopher, so I’ll continue to depend on the experts. The CDC recorded 857,000 abortions in 2000, so, to keep the numbers round, let’s say 1 million.

For 2003:
Humans: 1 million
God: 6 million

I would argue that any God worthy of invocation (i.e., an intelligent designer, deist or participatory) would not design a system with such a lousy success rate if this deity were concerned primarily with the survival of all embryos. Thus, God is objectively not pro-life. If you believe in predestination or election, then all conceivable omnipotent and omniscient creator-Gods must be understood as pro-choice (not ours, though) and pro-death.

South Dakota

A fellow PSU alumnus, Dom Eggert over at Sentiments of Rationality, has been worrying about those crazy South Dakotans’ test-ban on abortions. He cites the reluctance of conservatives to actually criminalize abortion in the way that seems consistent with their views, i.e. by charging mothers who seek abortions with murder. The upshot of the famous “Fire in the Fertility Clinic” test (which would you save, a freezer full of embyos or an unconscious nurse?) is, for my colleague, that pro-lifers must fully prosecute abortions if they want to ban it at all. It is not sufficient to prosecute the doctor who performs the procedure if we allow the mother seeking it to go free.

I like this argument, (since it’s sound) but I have some concerns. I suspect I missed a talking points memo, because I’ve seen similar arguments popping up throughout the liberal blogging community. Obviously, there’s been some strategizing over on the fundie side of things, and they’re starting small. The liberal response has been mostly from the gut, however. I can’t help wondering if the apparent contradiction between what pro-lifers think they can pull off politically and what their position entails is a gap we should be exposing.

The thing is, “embryos are human-beings,” is a first-order proposition for these people. It’s the primary principle of their moral and political identities. That’s why they can call abortion genocide without investing equal energy and political capital into curtailing the Sudanese genocides, for instance. Militant pro-lifers, militant marxists, militant feminists, and militant cross-stitchers all derive a crucial sense of self from their position: they can’t sacrifice those positions just because they are absurd. Instead, they’ll twist the rest of their reality to fit the endangered proposition.

Won’t pin-pointing contradictions in their position only help them to clarify it? When my students are trying to figure out how to be existentialists, I’ll often work with them through this kind of maieutics. That’s because I’m basically on their side… and that’s what they pay me for. Right now, fundamentalists everywhere are trying to figure out how to deal with their new political hegemony. Why should we help them formulate their policies? I know it seems like we’re making them look like fools, but that’s not the effect I anticipate. When they realize they can’t outlaw abortion without prosecuting mothers, they’ll simply convince themselves to prosecute the mothers. And the result will be some self-satisfied, internally consistent fundamentalists, and a bunch of unwanted children with felons for parents.

Actually, *politics* is the experimental wing of political philosophy….

“Social software is the experimental wing of political philsophy, a discipline that doesn’t realize it has an experimental wing. We are literally encoding the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of expression in our tools.”

Notes from a talk by Clay Shirky(?)

Shirky compares a Buffy fansite to Slashdot and suggests that moderated listservs are tyrannical. Ok, fine: troubling if true. But he’s not just grandiose, he seems to be on to something.

Just asking

I’m very interesting in the way questions are framed. Here’s an interesting set of questions from the Guardian’s Gary Younge, who seems similarly interested:

Do you think of yourself as white or British or both? Does it worry you that you got your job just because of your race? Where are you from? No, but really? Since this is where you live, don’t you think you should try and integrate with other races more? Is your first loyalty to your God, or to your country? Is it true what they say about white guys? Given the genocide, slavery and colonialism unleashed in the name of Christianity over the last two centuries, do you feel your religion is compatible with democracy? Mr Grant, do you think of yourself as a white actor or an actor who happens to be white? I don’t mind white people, but if they want to live here then why shouldn’t they have to fit in with our traditions? Shouldn’t the police be doing more to tackle white-on-white crime? Given the objectification of women in your culture and the rise in teenage pregnancies, don’t you think it’s time to ban young girls wearing make up? What do you make of the tribal conflict in Ukraine? I thought you asked for flesh-coloured tights? Don’t you feel that this politically correct belief that we have to respect white people’s feelings has stifled honest discussion and debate? Isn’t it a shame that white people cannot pick more responsible leaders? What do you mean, you can’t Morris dance? Don’t you ever worry about being pigeonholed as a white person? Why aren’t you doing more to check the rise in Christian fundamentalism? Who are your community leaders? Why should we balance our belief in human rights with our tolerance for Christians? What do white people think about Jews? How would you define “white” style? Mr Amis, why do you write about white people all the time? Don’t you find that limiting? What are you doing for your people? Have you seen what the Bible says about women? Are you the token white guy? Don’t take this personally, but why are white men so aggressive? Now the Olympics are over, can we finally admit that white people are genetically equipped to excel in archery and rowing? What is it with white people and homophobia? You know what white women are like, don’t you? I understand that as a white person you come at this from a particular place, but can’t you try to look at it objectively for a moment? Why do you people have such a chip on your shoulder? Don’t get offended, I was only asking.