Jacques Rancière, while being a decidedly difficult thinker to engage, continues to be a provocative and influential voice in contemporary political theory. In his complex authorship, Rancière articulates innovative insights, logically subtle and nimble interventions, and distinctive critical-readings. But it is difficult to “put it all together,” to figure out what Rancière is really saying and if it is really as innovative, logically coherent, or theoretically useful in assessing contemporary politics as it might first appear. Certainly one immediately obvious response from those familiar with and sympathetic to Rancière’s work will be that part of this difficulty is due to Rancière’s distinctive style and purpose. He purposefully does not intend for his always particular, situated, polemical/political interventions to be read as a systematic theory or traditional political philosophy, or to contribute a new general “theory of politics,” or a blueprint of political legitimacy. Nor, similarly, does he follow some of his like-minded contemporaries and develop a theory of politics from an ontological/metaphysical perspective even if these are ontologies of contingency, lack, or abundance.
Indeed, Rancière’s theoretical intervention taken as an overarching oeuvre entails these critiques of philosophy and political philosophy. This is why he engages politics as he does, viz., “polemically.” Accordingly, his interventions are always particularly oriented around some specific, contextual interjection. Not surprisingly, then, his emancipatory politics get expressed in his distinctive style and form since this style is itself an important aspect of the philosophical substance of the positions presented. This means that Rancière does not theorize as an expert from the Ivory Tower, but rather as amongst equals who are fully situated and engaged within some particular existent milieu. His aim is to tease out the hidden inequalities and hierarchies that lie within that context in order then to disrupt and distort them toward the end of exposing or manifesting equality. It is thus challenging to write a book about the “theory” or “philosophy” of Rancière, or to write about his work in the “typical” (in an entirely non-disparaging sense) manner of secondary literature in political philosophy. Rancière purposefully (and maddeningly to some) discourages such endeavors openly. It is with this in mind then, that Samuel Chambers tackles this awkward and delicate task impressively and deftly in his The Lessons of Rancière.
Chambers’s effort is distinctive amongst scholarly engagements with Rancière insofar as he consistently resists the very understandable temptation “merely” to collapse Rancière’s project into some other theoretical framework. In this way, he stays true to Rancière’s very purposeful and stylized conceptual apparatus. He seeks to hold firm to Rancière’s conceptual insights and push them toward some of Rancière’s own limits and then beyond those limits in directions that Rancière does not himself go. Much of Rancière’s project involves rearticulating terms, conceptual landscapes, and theoretical spaces. Impressively, Chambers resists the temptation to reduce to or reorient Rancière within conceptual frameworks that are foreign to his own thinking. Chambers convincingly argues that Rancière meaningfully transforms the political-philosophical/theoretical milieu of our democratic tradition and that his “new” definitions and rearticulated theoretical milieus and conceptual landscapes have an underlying conceptual continuity and consistency to them. In this way, Chambers has arguably gone the furthest among the contemporary scholars in “taking Rancière at his word” in continually pressing interpretive, translational, and conceptual issues in both Rancière’s own work and in a wide range of leading secondary literature on Rancière. In doing so, Chambers articulates a critical extension of the robust-originality of Rancière’s theoretical artifice.
Chambers specifically engages Rancière’s critique of modern “consensus” democracy and the liberal-democratic theoretical apparatus and practices. He describes Rancière’s now famous distinction of politics from the police and deftly fleshes out the conceptual contours of the “blending,” and never “merging,” character of politics and the police. “Politics is not; politics disrupts,” Chambers’ indicatively tells us (38). He thus argues that there is no third-term here for the meeting of politics and the police where they might be dialectically or determinatively synthesized nor is there some pure politics to be achieved or pursued. He holds steady to the logical consistency of Rancière’s politics of immanent contingency or “disagreement”/“dissensus” where politics does nothing other than “renegotiate and reconfigure” the general logic of social ordering that Rancière terms the police. Politics is always conflictual, particular, contingent, and entirely contextually situated within particular disagreements manifesting a generic undifferentiated equality of anyone and everyone. Chambers further describes Rancière’s development of the distinctive sort of equality that politics “turns upon” as depending on a notion of “literariness”—i.e., a sort of “excess of words” which relates to Rancière’s much-remarked-upon and controversial articulations of the aesthetic character of politics. This literariness conditions the political power of the undifferentiated equality of speaking beings. This general equality of speaking beings underlies and potentiates our intrinsically hierarchical, inegalitarian social orders, which Rancière terms our “police orders.” Political subjects ultimately manifest this equality in articulating egalitarian declarations of being wronged by the police order in question.
While Chambers argues that, by Rancière’s account, politics is always particular, polemical, and immanently exhausted in its particular grievances each and every time, he highlights how politics turns upon this distinctly political egalitarian logic that is a presupposition manifested when politics actually occurs. This is part of the payoff of Chambers’s distinctive intervention. In insisting upon a certain consistency and purposefulness to Rancière’s redefinitions and critical interventions, Chambers pushes beyond other secondary efforts which merely stop at grasping a sort of distinctive “conflictual” character to the clash between politics and the police. Chambers is thus able to push the critical edge of Rancière’s theory toward the implications that it might have for democracy and democratic thought, critical theory, and perhaps even for queer theory, which he develops in his afterword. Chambers thus combines a thoroughgoing exegesis on Rancière’s entire oeuvre, along with precise and careful translational critiques in order to more accurately grasp certain crucial concepts of Rancière’s thought. Showing subtlety and critical awareness in the care he gives to the secondary literature on Rancière’s thought, Chambers nonetheless crafts his own distinctive critical narrative that extends the conceptual intuitions that Rancière offers to contemporary political theory.
In this symposium, Clare Woodford, James Ingram, and David Owens, and Daniel Nichanian, each offer insightful contributions that press toward new dimensions of both Chambers’s and Rancière’s thought. First, Woodford picks up on Chambers’s afterword on Rancièrean politics and queer theory. She is sympathetic to Chambers’s suggestion that a Rancièrean democratic politics might be a fruitful approach to conceptualizing and actualizing queer politics beyond liberal identity politics. But she is somewhat concerned with the intersections of theoretical insight with the concrete embeddedness of actual queer theory. However, in wondering if we might “lose too much of the specificity of queer politics’ struggle” in being overly concerned with “queering queer politics,” Woodford’s appropriation of Chambers is not without critical bite. Here she offers a subtle analysis that situates queer politics in opposition to the liberal order and liberal identity politics,
Subsequently, James Ingram offers an interesting inquiry into whether Chambers has perhaps been too effective in clarifying the conceptual continuity and consistency in Ranciere’s thought. This is to say, Ingram suggests that Chambers has perhaps “cleaned up” Ranciere’s thought despite his insistence on the impurity of Ranciere’s politics. Ingram is very sympathetic to Chambers overall effort, but highlights that “[his] worry is that by policing Ranciere’s work to remove these normative or humanistic impurities, Chambers risks depriving it of an inconsistency that accounts for a good deal of its force and interest.
Next, David Owens’s contribution draws attention to a pressing concern that has also animated much of my own work on Rancière—viz., the normative question of how to assess better or worse police orders in a principled manner. Owens takes up this question of the intermingling of politics and police orders, and how politics only occurs within policed spaces, and offers distinct criteria with which to assess police orders. Interestingly, as Rancière is more noted for a distinctly egalitarian politics, Owens suggests a certain Nietzschean reading of a politics of freedom in regards to envisioning communism as a political process of disruption as opposed to a teleologically achieved egalitarian order.
Finally, Daniel Nichanian draws attention to the unexpectedness and ruptural character of Rancièrean politics, and takes up Chambers’s emphasis on the “impure” notion of Rancièrean politics. Nichanian pushes Chambers, and Rancière, on this notion of impurity toward what this might imply about the impure nature of the police, as well. Here he is interested in the meeting place of politics and the police, and draws attention to the way in which Rancièrean politics takes place as a process along both of these impure and mixed dimensions simultaneously. Therefore Nichanian demonstrates the ruptural process of politics as also taking place within the institutional, hierarchical, and ordering dimension of the police.
In his final responses, Samuel Chambers thoughtfully replies in a distinctive, and distinctly Rancièrean, way that addresses the questions and concerns raised in the symposium while also opening new spaces for continued thought and engagement. Hopefully, all of our readers will participate in this conversation with us and disrupt these narratives, offering even further avenues of political engagement—certainly a very Rancièrean political process.