Symposium Introduction


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.



Queering Queer

Sam Chambers’s Reading of Rancière on Queer Theory

Sam Chambers ends The Lessons of Rancière asking how we can read the Queer Nation slogan and chant:

We’re here!

We’re queer!

Get used to it!

He asks how we “hear the words and what might they tell us about so-called queer theory and about democratic politics, today?” (159). He is concerned that it can be too easy to “dismiss the idea that this well-known slogan of queer activism does any genuine political work” since it can be neutralised by liberal logic into a simple interest group claim for inclusion based on a queer identity (159). Drawing on his interpretation of Rancière’s democratic politics as oppositional to this liberal model, he argues that queer activism (this chant included) is politics in the Rancièrean sense for it challenges and undermines liberal logic by countering any attempts to read queer activism as an identity-based claim for inclusion. He argues that queer activism claims nothing. It is an assertion of distance from the dominant order based on dis-identification. Consequently, Chambers argues that “the most salient and powerful version of queer politics proves to be a Rancièrean democratic politics” (ref). He thereby suggests that we can use Rancière to read queer activism in order to make visible the way that politics is at work here and resist attempts that might seek to neutralise and suppress its effects. Furthermore, Chambers asserts that reading Rancière and queer activism together also helps us to better understand how Rancière’s politics functions in relation to the police order, since it enables us to identify that the notion of queer is at work in politics to blur and undermine norms, identities and categorisation (158). He argues that queer is at work in Rancière’s thought in two ways:

First: Rancière’s fidelity to the sense of dissensus and to the possibility of disagreement . . . is also a fidelity to a certain queerness, a commitment to a marginality that cannot merely be included within the dominant frame of the current police order. Second, the distinction between the queer or the unintelligible . . . on the one hand, and the marginalized or excluded on the other, hinges on the difference between a liberal police order and a possible democratic politics. The democratic miscount is a queer form of counting and a queer form of politics. (168)

I am inspired by this reading of the resonances between Rancière’s work and queer activism but, in this short piece, I wish to reflect further on this relationship. I will begin by reexamining Chambers’s assessment of how slogans effect politics so as to “pull” this chant “away from liberalism and towards democratic politics” (ref). I will contrast it with Rancière’s own discussion of the politics of speech and political slogans. In doing so I suggest that to avoid reproducing the move that troubles Chambers, whereby queer politics can be neutralised back into liberal police consensus, we would do better to read this chant as positing an alternative that ruptures, rather than coexists with, liberalism. I will suggest that when we untangle liberal claims-based politics from Chambers’s reading, we end up with a reading of Rancière that does not only queer democracy, but also queers queer. On the one hand this can be significantly productive in helping us resist normalisation of any order, but on the other may undermine the specificity of contemporary queer activism a little too much.

Chambers’s Reading of the Queer Nation Chant

Let’s begin where Chambers’s book comes to rest: in discussion of the slogan “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” In Chambers’s reading we can use Rancière to prevent these words being neutralised or reduced into an interest group claim for rights or freedoms on the grounds of identity (159–60). First, all the examples of politics that Rancière provides resist the logic of making claims. Likewise Chambers argues that this chant avoids making a claim from a minority interest group to the dominant liberal order. In contrast he suggests that the chant tells that order “what they have to do” (ref). It therefore takes up a position that asserts that it is those who occupy the centre of the normative order who must effect a change, since it confirms that “those on the margins will continue to be who they are—namely queer,—and argues that any alternative will have to come about by way of broader changes to the norm” (160). Second, inspired by Rancière’s statement that the emergence of the part-that-has-no-part, “in the particular name of a specific part or of the whole of the community inscribe[s] the wrong that separates and reunites two heterogenous logics of the community” (39), Chambers suggests that the chant is a way of declaring “a powerful distance between those who occupy the dominant position and those who chant the slogan”; in particular he notes that the “get used to it!” part of the chant “refuses the opportunity to close that gap” (160). Third, Chambers notes that queer identity is actually a dis-identification:

Whereas lesbian and gay both name identities; queer is a relationality. That is, queer describes a particular, relative position in relation to norms of sexuality.

Indeed, Rancière tells us that politics is a moment of dis-identification, when the identity that one has been given along with its allotted ways of being, saying and doing, no longer makes sense. Consequently, Chambers suggests that this chant captures three elements of Rancière’s thinking of democratic politics: it demands rather than claims, it asserts distance rather than inclusion and operates via dis-identification rather than identification. As a result, we can read the chant as opposing the liberal order rather than simply claiming a part within that order.

Appropriation, Dis-identification, Subjectivation

Given that Rancière has himself analysed political slogans (2007, 1999) and although Chambers is clear that in the afterword he is not writing a Rancièrean conclusion but instead seeking to gesture in new directions, I wish now to investigate what a return to Rancière might add to Chambers’s analysis. Rancière’s work on slogans focuses on the examples of the 1968 Paris student slogan “We are all German Jews” (2007, 561); Blanqui’s appropriation of the term “proletarian” (2007, 565–66); and the Australian left’s reworking of the term “un-Australian” to challenge the use of this term to exclude immigrants and others who are not considered to fit within the image of Australia built by the centre right (2007).1 In previous work I have drawn out three features that combine to bring about politics for Rancière: appropriation, dis-identification and subjectivation (Woodford, 2014; 2016). We can see these at work in Rancière’s analysis of how these slogans are able to effect “politics”: appropriation to break with designation through doubling, dis-identification to enable a new collective self-affirmation resulting in subjectivation that actually relies upon inclusion and synchronicity. Let us briefly examine each of these in turn.

First, political speech creates a problem of designation where the wrong name is appropriated in such a way that “we don’t know how to designate what we see, when a name no longer suits the thing or the character that it names, etc.” (2007, 560). Second, this results in a break between places and identities—a problem of location. This can be understood as a case of “un-identity” whereby those who assert a particular name would not usually be identified as such. Third, this relies on the name used being one that is already in circulation and thus effects a form of doubling where the name stands in for two different meanings at the same time and hence its initial pejorative meaning is overthrown or at least weakened through the resulting confusion. For example, French Catholics assert their German Jewishness; Australian nationals proclaim that they are un-Australian; and workers with professions and trades assert that they are mere proletarians.2 Fourth then, the use of these names consists of a challenge to their given pejorative meaning and demonstrate, in the very instance of their proclamation “a positive collective self-affirmation” (2007, 560).

Furthermore, Rancière refers to this process of politics as the making visible of a “wrong” that until that point had gone unnoticed. This is effected in one of two ways: First, one term doubles for both a part of the population as well as the whole population (as for example, the term “demos” or “the people”). In contrast the wrong exposed by Blanqui’s aforementioned use of the term proletariat “makes the gap between two peoples explicit: between the declared political community and the community that defines itself as being excluded from this community” (Rancière 1999, 38, italics added). Thus

“Demos” is the subject of the identity of the part and the whole. “Proletarian” on the contrary subjectifies the part of those who have no part that makes the whole different from itself.

Although the judge wanted to identify workers within the already existing categories of their professions Blanqui refused this wish and forced into the open an issue that the established order did not want to recognise. He claimed the name proletariat as a legitimate name for all workers, making reference to their miserable conditions that the upper classes refused to acknowledge. His act of naming inscribed “the uncounted in a space where they are countable as uncounted” (Rancière, 1999, 39). It forced the establishment to confront the unsettling fact that their society was not a harmonious count of all parts, but that the proletariat (usually seen to be so lowly and diminished as to not represent a valuable part of society to the extent that they were not counted as amongst its legitimate parts) were suddenly to be included. This is clarified by Rancière’s claim that politics requires the creation of a stage in which you “include your enemy” in order to blur and render nonsensical the existing division between the included and the excluded (Rancière and Lie, 2010, n.p.).

Blanqui’s assertion of the term proletarian only function as politics because “the proletarian class in which Blanqui professes to line himself up is in no way identifiable with the social group” (Rancière, 1999, 38, italics added). It did not denote an identifiable homogenous culture or ethos but instead was fractured by a multiplicity of voices, identities and experiences. Consequently Blanqui’s use of the term “proletarian” did not draw a line of opposition between two already existing identities. Instead, “in the particular name of a specific part or of the whole of the community” this “class” “inscribe[d] the wrong that separates and reunites two heterogenous logics of the community” (Rancière, 1999, 39), by refusing to acknowledge the given legitimate partitioning of that order, thereby rupturing its legitimacy.

Furthermore this clash between identities is not a call for a future world. Rancière avoids use of the term “future” and instead emphasises the urgency of politics through his focus on “today.” “Politics” for Rancière is always a demonstration of an alternative at this very moment—not simply an assertion that an alternative is needed or called for. Blanqui introduced a pejorative and denied name, not clearly identifiable with any existing party, directly on top of a society that denied it existed. Hence, the term has to be used to demonstrate an alternative way of life that is possible today, at the very time, rather than simply suggesting that an alternative could be possible in the future.

Queer Identity

Returning then to Chambers’s reading of the Queer Nation chant as politics, I would agree that this chant “does politics,” however my exposition of these features leads me to understand this slightly differently. To start with we can see that the chant (as well as queer activism more widely) appropriates the term “queer” against its pejorative use. It dis-identifies with heteronormative sexual, gendered identities as well as provides a collective self-affirmation of this pejorative term. In terms of asserting a common stage, in the same way that Blanqui’s use of the term “proletarian” asserted that from now on they were to be included, the Queer Nation chant asserts that “we’re here” already, and hence in hearing the chant, the listener is acknowledging their presence. Finally with regards to synchronicity, we see the chant assert that we are here, now, in this very moment. The “here” denotes that the stage has already been created, such that others can’t do anything about it.

However the extent to which queer activism doubles the meaning of the term queer to efface its pejorative meaning and break with designation is less clear from this single chant and requires a little more consideration. To double the meaning it would need to be interpreted as not only affirming a positive use of the term but also extend the use of the term to apply also to people that the heteronormative order may not identify as “queer.” As it was initially used in a derogatory fashion to refer to homosexual identities, for it to be a doubling rather than simply a reclaiming of the term it would need to be affirmed beyond these identities to blur and undermine existing divisions and render the heterosexual/homosexual binary nonsensical. This would enhance the extent to which the term breaks with the designation of an identity in a particular location (homosexual identity as relegated to the margins of society for example) since in the instance it is claimed, it would not denote an identifiable homogeneous culture or ethos and instead itself be fractured by multiplicity, making it impossible for the heteronormative order to locate and categorise sexual identity. It is when queer starts to double for and blur all other sexual identifications and distinctions that it becomes most effective politically.

At this point however it is worth pausing to question the salience of this exercise. Chambers’s task is to see if we can read the chant in order to demonstrate its challenge to liberal theory. However, although interesting from a theoretical point of view we need to recall that politics is that which breaks open the police. It does not rely on police order being receptive to it. In his focus on how we could best read the chant Chambers is still a little entangled in the liberal interest group claim-making logic separating those who chant from those who receive it, interpret it, respond to it. Let’s unpack these logics in order to see if we can use this discussion to gain a more nuanced understanding of how speech can effect politics and avoid neutralisation.

Untangling Queer Nation: How Queer Activism Opposes Liberal Order

Returning to Chambers’s three claims then: the chant opposes liberal order by demanding rather than claiming, asserting distance rather than inclusion and dis-identification rather than identification. First, in contrast to Chambers’s reading the chant is not so much telling others what to do (still a form of demand) but simply asserting the synchronicity of their existence alongside everybody else, despite the inability of liberal order to make sense of them. As a result, we can asks whether Chambers’s reading of this as an assertion of queer existence apart from the centre, at the margins (ref), too easily accepts the liberal order’s relegation of queer rather than recognising the full force of the claim that they are “here” at the centre, imposing queer identity on top of the heteronormative order to demonstrate an alternative and thereby reconfigure our field of meaning.

Second, I wonder if it might be more productive to read the “Get used to it!’ as a call to inclusion, but not inclusion in the liberal sense, according to identity-based politics. Rather it is a statement that we who chant are here: on a common stage with those who are not queer and would deny the existence of that stage. As we have noted, the “here” denotes that the stage has already been created, such that others can’t do anything about it.

Third, when Chambers discusses dis-identification, he does not note the way that this combines with the other elements of politics noted above. This means that he overlooks the particular play of dis-identification vis-à-vis appropriation and so is unable to make use of the more subtle ways in which they work together and in conjunction with subjectivation.3 In particular, this results in a reading of democratic politics that is closer to liberal interest-group models than Rancière’s theory of democratic politics, for it enables Chambers to claim that “politics occurs when the unintelligible make themselves / are made intelligible” (ref, italics added). This moves away from Rancière’s thematisation of the relationship between subjectivation and politics where politics is understood to be stronger the more it is the unintelligible who make themselves intelligible, and weaker the more they are dependent on others to bring about that intelligibility for them (Rancière, 1989). The latter retains the liberal logic of claim-making whilst the former does not.

Finally, Chambers resists any reading of “Get used to it!” as an alternative normalisation. However I wonder if his resistance is necessary. In chapter 2 of The Lessons of Rancière he argues that politics only ever happens in the space of the police, so all politics necessarily invokes a reconfiguration of police. What is more interesting for me here is that the “Get used to it” works against the queering of the previous two sentences as it demands a practice—of normalisation (getting used to something) that counters the practice of queering (understood as de-normalisation). This chant is therefore a vivid example of the paradoxical space-sharing of police and politics that Chambers highlights in chapter 2 (2013).

As a result we see that the subversion effected by this chant is not due to it staking out a separate position in opposition to liberal interest-group politics, but in the extent to which it queers that politics: in particular, the extent to which it doubles the term queer as discussed above will assist it in undermining any understanding of claims or demands and thereby challenge any notion of inclusion within the interest group model with an assertion of inclusion in a completely reworked political community. In this way it operates via appropriation as well as dis-identification in order to effect subjectivation. As a result, we can use this reading of the chant not to assess whether or not it has effected politics, but to demonstrate through this discussion the way that slogans can be used to undermine the very ability of the liberal order to function rather than simply opposing that order with another.

Concluding Thoughts: Queering Democracy, Queering Queer

In conclusion, one issue continues to concern me regarding the ease with which the liberal order can normalise queer politics: the ambiguity of the extent to which queer politics is a new identity or a rejection of identity (and therefore open to adoption by anybody in the undermining of heteronormativity, rather than to express a particular view of how we should understand sex/gender/desire). In Chambers’s reading, queer politics is at its strongest when it rejects the homosexual identities given by the heteronormative order, and instead denies value in the categorisation of sex, gender and desire. However, as he has acknowledged, this is only one position within queer politics. As a result, when we have untangled the issues of claim-making inclusion and subjectivity we get an even stronger position for Chambers emerging where his reading not only queers Rancière, nor merely sees elements of Rancierian politics in queer activism, but that uses Rancière to queer queer politics in a more challenging way than he explicitly acknowledges. Given that politics involves dis-identification with any given ways (Rancière repeatedly uses the examples of ways of being, doing, and saying but perhaps this detour through queer politics enables us to at least add desiring to this list too) it seems that in claiming that “the most salient and powerful version of queer politics proves to be a Rancièrean democratic politics” (ref) he shows how Rancière queers queer politics in return, dissolving any specificity of identity politics in queer activism, thus providing us with queering as a practice of undermining any and all norms of categorisation and identification. This is potentially a powerful and useful tool for not simply opposing but undermining and rupturing liberal claims-based order, creating opportunities for alternative normalisations to emerge.

Indeed, in an earlier discussion of Rancière and queer theory Davis has already raised concerns that whilst queer theory is “suspicious about the nature and strategic usefulness of identity categories” it is not able to “simply abandon or move unproblematically beyond these categories, even as it seeks to loosen their hold, for the subject positions ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ continue to play a powerful and sometimes violent role in our heterosexist societies” (Davis, 88–89). This leads Davis to assert that he is “very reluctant to concede that such identity categories and all of the political projects associated with them can wholly and straightforwardly be ascribed to the logic of the police order” (Davis, 89). I suspect that this fear is misplaced. As Chambers’s reading shows, Rancière’s work would not require any categories to be “wholly and straightforwardly” ascribed to anything, it simply helps us consider where the practice of playing with categorisation and language4 is more likely to rupture police order and where they are less likely to do so. As a result my concern would not be that we render important struggles policing, since—as Chambers has shown—policing is an important and necessary area of work. Instead some may worry that the initial injustices, struggles and inequality that arise from heteronormativity with regards to specific issues of sex and gender, those that led to the emergence of queer politics, could be effaced or at least diluted by such a move. In reading Rancière and queer politics together we do gain an appreciation of the queer in Rancière’s politics, and an appreciation of democratic politics in the queer, but in queering queer, do we push queer politics too far? Whilst gaining an important practice of queering to fight normalisation in all its forms, do we simultaneously lose too much of the specificity of queer politics’ struggle.

  1. See also his discussion of the use of the term “hooligan” by Eastern Bloc dissidents (1999, 59).

  2. Note that Rancière’s use of the Blanqui example depends on his claim that before Blanqui’s usage of the term it simply denoted those who were entrapped in the domestic world of production and reproduction and thereby excluded from the symbolic order of the political community (Rancière, 2007, 564).

  3. See Woodford, 2016, for exposition of this argument.

  4. I elsewhere denote this practice a practice of poeticity (Woodford, 2016, ch. 4).

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    Samuel Chambers


    Political Theory as Forestry


    By academic convention, the role of the author-as-respondent proves quite well established in symposia such as this one. As author of the book under discussion, I am meant to “respond” to the symposium pieces that precede my own essay in such a way as to reestablish the standard roles of author (me) and readers (the preceding symposium contributors). Such responses usually take the concrete form of filling in background context that might explain my intention in writing the book, offering clarifications and elaborations of what I meant when I wrote certain things, and if necessary pushing back against my readers when they have misinterpreted or criticized what I wrote—by detailing how or why my claims and arguments hold up, or illustrating where or in what ways my readers have misread me. I suppose this standard format has come to be, and has perdured, both because it has its genuine value and because it seems so easy to follow. With regard to the former, a traditional symposium response can offer new information for readers of the symposium and the book under discussion, it may expand and develop claims and arguments already in print, and it often stages a lively and interesting debate that both brings out the stakes of the original book and illuminates other important areas and issues in the field. With respect to the latter, there is no more inviting request for an academic author than to ask him or her to elaborate, explain, clarify and argue about what she or he has already said or written. The “author response” is tried and true.

    There is just one problem. Almost everything about the typical response-piece-by-author-in-book-symposium serves to recreate and reify what Rancière so powerfully identified so long ago (and has redescribed in numerous contexts so many times since) as the explicative order. This term helpfully identifies the basic structure—not only of knowledge but also of bodies and sense—that sustains, and is sustained by, a traditional pedagogy of schoolmasters and students. In insisting on his right to explicate the text to a student, even and especially to a student that was previously assigned this very text to read—the schoolmaster consistently establishes and fiercely maintains the gap that serves as the basis of the explicative order. This is a gap in knowledge (knowledge/ignorance) and also a gap between people (master/student)—between an ignorant student and a knowing master. Rancière specifies the problem: the issue is not that teachers or masters know things, or that students do not know things. Rancière would never deny such a simple and incontestable fact: some will, in fact, know things about which others are ignorant. But these facts are almost irrelevant, since teaching is never the conveyance or transmission of a knowledge to a non-knowledge. In the first place, learning does not happen this way; learning is never the learning of this thing that someone else already knows, it is the learning of some thing, whatever it might be. In the second place, the attempt to set up the transmission of a knowledge to a non-knowledge can only serve to convey just the opposite: “equal transmission is predicated upon inequality” (Rancière 2007: 275). It is only because he thinks he knows the precise distance between knowledge and ignorance that the master can set out to “transmit” knowledge, yet in the process he only establishes the explicative order—since his main “teaching” is that there are some who know (masters, authors) and some who do not (students, readers). What the master “knows” above all else is not a concrete knowledge. He knows that he knows; he knows that others do not know. “The master is not only he who knows precisely what remains unknown to the ignorant; he also knows how to make it knowable, at what time and place, according to what protocol” (Rancière 2007: 275, emphasis added).

    The author response follows the symposium protocol that itself remains part of the explicative order. The time and place for my response is here and now: after my readers, the symposium contributors, have said their piece, I am given the opportunity to reestablish the gap between my definitive knowledge of the text (since I wrote it) and their interpretations. Here, particularly, is the space where I might reinforce and shore up any erosions or weaknesses created in the explicative order by the previous contributions.

    Of course to call oneself a student of Rancière means exactly to resist the explicative order, to refuse the role of schoolmaster, and to recognize a different distance between myself and others. This is not the distance between my knowledge and their non-knowledge (nor the reverse), but the distance between my knowledge and their knowledge. To mark this distance is to acknowledge that all “speaking animals are distant animals who try to communicate through the forest of signs” (Rancière 2007: 275). The “master” who emancipates rather than stultifies does so by refusing to mark the distance between herself and her students as that between knowledge and non-knowledge. Instead, she sees the distance as that between what she knows and what her students know, and also between what her students do not know, and what she does not know. An emancipating master is there as a guide: to help students cover that distance. But this means that an emancipating master refuses to teach “his knowledge to the students.” Rather than transmitting his knowledge across the gap to meet their ignorance, the master-who-would-not-stultify must take on a very different role in relation to his students: “he commands them to venture forth in the forest, to report what they see, what they think of what they have seen, to verify it, and so on” (Rancière 2007: 275).

    I wrote The Lessons of Rancière not to explicate Rancière’s texts (presumably for those thought incapable of interpreting the works themselves) but rather to provide a series of reports on what I had seen during my own adventures in the forest. This means that I wrote the book primarily as a student of Rancière. For me, the title of the book signals not the extraction of truths out of Rancière’s corpus (as reported on by the expert), but rather a collection of notes, observations, and verifications of “what [I] think [I] have seen” in my own intellectual adventures. And it is therefore as a student of Rancière that I saw fit to travel places Rancière himself never went (interpretive debates in British and North American professional political theory), and also to locales that Rancière explicitly eschewed (queer theory and politics). Moreover, my understanding of an emancipated student is such that I see the job of that student as making reports to other students, and perhaps himself becoming an (emancipating) teacher. In this way I understand my own subject position as author of Lessons to be complex and overdetermined: I was writing as a student of Rancière, to other students of Rancière, but also as a teacher and also in some cases to those who had no interest in being students of Rancière. And here I would emphasize Rancière’s key point about ignorant (emancipating) masters: in writing as a student-teacher I was not necessarily trying to convey my knowledge to a reader’s non-knowledge, but hoping instead to provoke others to set out into the forest armed with their knowledge. And perhaps then to make reports back on what they have seen, to say what they thought about what they saw.

    I read these incisive and illuminating symposium contributions as just the sort of reports from the forest that Rancière describes and that I myself had hoped to incite when I set out to write a book on Rancière. In refusing the symposium protocols then, I am really only following the lead of these contributors, since none of them allow themselves to be trapped by the standard book symposium structure that would force them merely to comment on or criticize the book under discussion. Quite the contrary, each of these pieces ventures forth into new and important territory, asking significant and resonant questions that go well beyond the terms of both my book and of Rancière’s broader project.

    Clare Woodford homes in on the aspect of my project that already pushed hardest against Rancière’s published claims. In denying Rancière’s assertions that queer theory and politics were reducible to the very sort of identity politics that his thought categorizes as a part of the police order, I had hoped to show a powerful affinity between Rancièrean democratic politics and a particular theorization of queer and queerness. Woodford begins her reading at this exact location (that is, well outside the terms of Rancière’s project) and then tries to push further—further from liberalism, further from identity politics, and further from any academic project of political philosophy. In a manner that I see as complementary to my own approach to Rancière, Woodford resolutely refuses to allow a reading of Rancière to turn into a game of philosophical categorization. And when it comes to the vexed question of Rancièrean politics, Woodford fiercely defends, at every turn, the most radical version she can articulate. Hence, while still centered on the thought of Rancière, Woodford’s contribution continually and helpfully reminds readers of the concrete political stakes of democratic and queer politics.



The Point of the Lesson

On Samuel Chambers’s The Lessons of Rancière

It is emblematic of the challenges Samuel Chambers faces in his The Lessons of Rancière that to praise his accomplishment as masterful is in a sense to condemn it. This is because to offer a clear, sympathetic, and comprehensive treatment of Rancière’s thought, laying to rest misreadings and misunderstandings that continue to circulate around it, as Chambers has surely done, is at the same time to betray that thought. Chambers is well aware of the paradoxical nature of this enterprise. As he never tires of reminding us, Rancière’s work is an attack on the very idea of mastery, and above all of any claim to know better than others. Moreover, insofar as Rancière has always denied that he possesses any “theory” or “philosophy,” insisting instead that his work, like the politics (art, etc.) it grapples with, can only be practiced with direct reference to an object, Chambers would at least appear to have set himself the task of capturing a way of thinking inherently resistant to being captured.

In part because of his sensitivity to these difficulties, Chambers has in my view succeeded marvelously in respecting the claims of Rancière’s work while tracing its distinctive logic as faithfully and systematically as I can imagine. Indeed, I am so persuaded by Chambers’s interpretation—he might prefer to call it an extension—of Rancière that I am often uncertain whom the questions the book raises for me are for; I will refer to both, and at times to Chambers’s Rancière. I have learned an enormous amount from Chambers’s Lessons, and will henceforth find it all but impossible to attribute to Rancière certain ideas I have attributed to him in the past. Yet at the same time I worry that Chambers’s reconstruction of Rancière’s thought in a sense succeeds too well. My central concern is that, in his fidelity to the spirit of Rancière’s thought, Chambers gets it under better control than Rancière does himself. He thereby ends up scouring it of certain impurities that in fact make important contributions to it—in particular those moments that give his work the impression of being more pointful, more practical and normative, than it in fact may be. Chambers has convinced me that Rancière’s work has been widely perceived as being more practical than it is, and that such moments in his work conflict with his expressed meta-theoretical intent. What I will question is the point of policing Rancière’s thought in this way, since it seems to me that such impurities contribute enormously to its power and appeal.*

The Lessons of Rancière is staged as a journey through a series of major Rancièrian themes (politics, police, literarity, critique), but its trajectory is also, appropriately enough, polemical. Chambers’s reading of Rancière emerges not only through contrasts with other, more or less proximate thinkers (Arendt, Foucault, Lyotard), but also confrontations with some of Rancière’s best English-language interpreters. Rancière himself is of course a famously polemical thinker in the sense that his thinking and writing always take the form, not of general, apodictic “theory,” but of punctual interventions against particular theoretical and political foils. Unlike Rancière’s polemics, however, which take a specific disagreement as the occasion to demonstrate his own way of looking at things, Chambers’s are by and large rectifications, situated on the plane of true and false, adequate and inadequate, rather than the politico-aesthetic plane Rancière himself prefers. Chambers wants to get Rancière right, to school Rancière’s readers,1 and does so very effectively.

This work of rectification, which proceeds through some of the most fine-grained elucidation Rancière’s thought has received to date, is moreover always carried out with an acute sense of the political as well as the interpretive stakes. By taking on the influential interpretations of Christina Beltrán, Jean-Philippe Deranty, and Todd May, Chambers is able to delineate not only the specificity of his own readings, but also the differences between Rancière and three major positions in contemporary political theory to which his work has often been assimilated: republican Arendtianism (Beltrán), Hegelian critical theory (Deranty), and anarchism (May). This is very valuable work in clarifying the contemporary critical landscape, and in appreciating the distinctiveness of Rancière’s contribution. Two differences between these positions and Rancière’s seem central: first, that for Rancière there is and can be no pure politics, and, second, that for him politics cannot be bound to any teleology.

The first point, that for Rancière politics is never pure, is clearly right and important. Insisting on it and working through its implications is one of Chambers’s major contributions. It corrects a pervasive misunderstanding—namely, that for Rancière there is politics, which is good and ought to be promoted, and police, which is bad and ought to be replaced by politics. Chambers forcefully shows that this view is not only too simple, but also seriously misleading. It leads the Arendtian and the anarchist in particular to imagine that Rancière’s point is that we should overthrow the police in order to make room for politics. To the contrary, as Chambers argues, “Politics happens on the terrain of the police” (64). Politics can only arise, as the title of Rancière’s first collection of essays on political theory put it, “on the shores of the political”2—at the edges of a given political order, public space, or distribution of the sensible. “The political” has no essence for Rancière because politics only occurs at the singular point at which politics meets and interrupts the police.3 interruption of social order, making way for and disappearing into a new order.

While Chambers insists that a politics thus situated at the edge of the existing order can remain committed to “changing, transforming, and improving our police orders” (85), however, he provides little indication of how his Rancière can help us with this. He quotes Rancière’s familiar concession that, despite the apparent leveling performed by his politics-police distinction, which seems to divide all of social reality into just two categories, “there is a worse and better police” (72), but has little to say on the difference between them. Like most commentators, he omits the rest of Rancière’s sentence: “the better one, incidentally, not being the one that adheres to the supposedly natural order of society or the science of legislators, but the one that all the breaking and entering perpetrated by egalitarian logic has most often jolted out of its “natural” logic.”4 This passage has long seemed to me to imply a way of thinking politics that not only can discriminate among institutions, but can do so in normative (“worse and better”) and even progressive (“most often jolted”) terms—the germ of a Rancièrian democratic theory. A better police, the passage suggests, is one that facilitates politics (in Rancière’s sense), typically because it has been repeatedly subject to past political interruption or struggle; a worse police order blocks or prevents politics, typically because it has not.5 I am curious how Chambers would respond to this proposal, which emerges from a major text yet violates the normative abstinence of his Rancière.

This normative abstinence brings me to the second element of Chambers’s reading, and the heart of my unease with his Rancière: his strict eschewal of any teleology. In a sense, as I understand it, the three interpretations against which Chambers outlines his own are guilty of teleologizing Rancière’s ideas: the republican wants to bind his thinking to the creation of public space in which politics can be practiced, the critical theorist to a teleology of recognition, the anarchist to overcoming the relations of hierarchy and command associated with the state once and for all. Here teleology refers not only to metaphysical views that attribute a grand purpose to history and claim to predict its course, but more broadly to assigning politics, history, or society a point or purpose.6 Each imposes on Rancière’s politics an end, goal, or point that would motivate it and give it a rationale.

While I recognize that Chambers’s anti-teleological reading is faithful to Rancière’s meta-theoretical intent, that Rancière himself consistently resists any teleological, normative, or practical distillation or translation of his work, I am nevertheless in some sympathy with these misreadings. It seems to me that Deranty and the others cling to the presupposition that politics is undertaken in particular cases for good reasons, leading them to fold Rancière’s politics into an Arendtian, Honnethian, or anarchist story about realizing freedom or winning recognition. If these stories make Rancièrian politics more pointful than Rancière intends, I think they also expose a tension within Rancière’s work that Chambers is too eager to rectify. My suggestion is that Rancière’s political (and possibly other) work has always been written on the shores of the normative, which is also to say on the shores of practical philosophy, and that it consistently flirts with an engaged, even prescriptive view of the political field. My worry is that by policing Rancière’s work to remove these normative or humanist impurities, Chambers risks depriving it of an inconsistency that accounts for a good deal of its force and interest.

At least two aspects of Rancière’s writing make the anti-normative purity Chambers claims for it hard to sustain. The first is the attitude of political actors in the episodes Rancière recounts. While Rancière strains to maintain a third-person, aesthetic perspective in his writings rather than a first-person, practical one, such a neutral, analytical, or aesthetic perspective cannot be attributed to the participants. From the first-person perspective of the actors who populate his stories (or, in posthumanist terms, the subjects created in and through the political actions he describes), from the Roman plebeians in revolt to Olympe de Gouges and Rosa Parks, the point is to get themselves and their claims heard. These are claims for recognition as equals. Indeed, political action simply is teleological in this minimal, practical sense of being pointful. We are Aristotelians when we act.

Beyond this, there is Rancière’s own attitude toward politics. As has often been noted, Rancièrian politics never refers to xenophobic or oligarchic disruptions of relatively egalitarian, inclusive police orders, only inclusionary, egalitarian disruptions of exclusionary, inegalitarian ones. Thus, even as on one level Rancière strips politics of any positive charge and reduces it to pure disruption, by counting only egalitarian disruptions as properly political he makes politics egalitarian and democratic by definition. Chambers rightly points out that Rancière does not do this at the level of ontology—by claiming, for instance (with much of early-modern political thought) that men are equal by nature, that despite the fact that everywhere they are in chains (police orders) they are born equally free.7 The basis of political equality for Rancière is nothing more than a decision, by the political actor and presumably also by the theorist, to posit equality and draw the consequences. But this means that Rancière’s conception of politics in general is based on a choice that is hard to understand as anything other than normative, practical, and prescriptive.

I am not troubled by the decisionism or cryptonormativity of this egalitarian starting point, nor I do not require any justification of Rancière’s egalitarianism. My concern is rather how it comports with Rancière’s “official” anti-normativism, which Chambers is determined to sharpen and indeed to purify. It is worth noting that other thinkers whose work tends to be considered alongside Rancière’s, such as Lyotard, Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, and Laclau, typically deal with this difficultly by affirming that, while difference, contingency, or conflict may be valued for opening a chance for something good (emancipatory, egalitarian), they may equally bring an opening to the bad. For the Lyotard of the 1980s, for instance, there are only “phrases in dispute,” and the main force of his work of this period is that we must recognize their plurality.8 Rancière works on this register too, and wants us to recognize the irreducible difference and contingency of politics, but he takes the further step of strictly indexing politics to equality. I wonder, though, if this last, normative, practical, or partisan step, which would seem from a strictly non-normative or posthumanist perspective to be inconsistent with the metatheoretical underpinnings of Rancière’s work, is not in fact vital to it.

Consider in this context Chambers’s “queering” of Rancière. To be sure, queer politics is a perfect example or analogue for Rancière’s thinking, and Chambers has made an important contribution in drawing this connection. But if the destabilization and de-essentialization of identity mirrors the underlying logic of Rancièrian politics, it also brings out its ambivalence. For Chambers, the logic of queer politics is captured by the slogan, “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” On his reading, what is important about the slogan is its refusal to make any specific demand—which, if granted, would allow queerness to be folded back into the social order and thereby incorporated into a teleology of inclusion. Instead, Chambers argues that the slogan “insists on a certain distance from the norm—get used to it—and thereby refuses to be absorbed within the terms of that norm” (165). Chambers allows that “one could plausibly argue that ‘getting used to it’ names a process of normalization.” Indeed, on the face of it, this (“we’re not going anywhere, so accept us and treat us as equals”) would seem to be the slogan’s literal meaning and the one that best fits the recent history of LGBTQ politics.9 But he reads it instead as “an insistence that deviation from the normal will persist” (165–66, italics original).

While queer politics has always been a politics of the non-normative outside, of those who stand outside the reigning regime of bodies, sexualities, identities, etc., it seems clear that it has also, and often primarily, been a movement for inclusion, equality, and recognition, against the subjugation, invisibility, and violence suffered by LGBTQ people—a struggle, in short, for a better, more just, equal, and inclusive police order.10

If it were only about the fact that some people, behaviors, or things always remain outside the social order, “queerness” would be by definition not only illegible but permanent because a logical fact about the social world. (To this extent there would be no need to insist on it.) More seriously, it would be indeterminate and normatively indifferent; it would be very hard to see why it matters.11 On Rancière’s account, as I understand it, it is only through the inscription of queerness as equal that society is made to see that, in a particular case, it does matter. Now, Chambers is right to insist that queer politics not be reduced to the goal or moment of recognition—not least because it may not start that way, and becomes intelligible as recognition only in retrospect. But I fear that seeking to do without the normative-egalitarian moment of recognition altogether risks depriving this or any politics of its point.

I think that something parallel happens with Rancière’s thought itself, in its reception and perhaps even in its presentation. This would explain why the historical examples with which Rancière illustrates his disruptive notion of politics are all movements for inclusion, emancipation, and recognition, movements to which he and his audience are sympathetic and fit a liberal or Hegelian narrative of a long march to equal freedom, even if this march is uneven, unpredictable, and without any guarantee. Chambers makes a strong case that such examples have misled Rancière’s interpreters, who have been tempted to insert a dose of teleology, humanism, or normativity—of pointfulness—where it doesn’t belong. My worry is that this policing of Rancière’s thought represents a scrupulous removal of its pointfulness, pulling out the cryptonormative support that makes it compelling in the first place.


If my first concern about Chambers’s Rancière revolves around his cryptonormativity—or rather, Chambers’s attempt to purge this cryptonormativity—my second concern has to do with the formalism or emptiness of the resultant account of politics. I will pursue this via a detour, starting with Chambers’s embrace of Kirstin Ross’s wonderful insight that Rancière is the true thinker of May ’68 (23–24 and passim). Rancière’s emphasis on the overthrow of mastery, his distillation of politics to an emancipatory negation of the limits of existing orders and institutions, is indeed closer to the rebellious spirit of the events and their spirit than perhaps any other thinker.12 Chambers takes a soixant-huitard slogan as epigraph for each chapter (“Democracy is in the streets,” “The barricade blocks the street but opens the way,” and so on). I would suggest another: “Il est interdit d’interdire” (“It is forbidden to forbid”). More than the others, this slogan expresses a rebellion against institutions, norms, and order as such—one very much like Rancièrian politics, that resists replacing them with anything in particular even as it recognizes that they will inevitably be replaced.

A worry that has long followed the rebellious negativism of ’68 is that there is a more than incidental link between it and what followed historically, namely the rise of neoliberal capitalism. Beyond yippie-to-yuppie generational narratives, the suspicion is that the contentless negativism of ’68 played into the hands of post-Fordist individualization and flexibilization, which likewise sought to dissolve existing orders—only to place newly liberated subjects at the disposal of the free market.13 The problem with a strictly negative conception of politics like that pursued by the soixante-huitards and theorized by Rancière, on this account, is that because it concerns itself only with disrupting or overthrowing whatever orders happen to exist, it lacks a way of discriminating between them—either to say which to disrupt and how, or to take any interest in what might replace them.14

To be sure, Rancière’s thinking of politics cannot itself be accused of complicity with neoliberalism. Against this speaks not only his long-standing opposition to capitalism in all its forms, but also his relatively early understanding that post-Fordist capitalism, far from simply being just a matter of deregulation, is in fact an order and an ideology. The problem is rather that the formalism of Rancière’s account of politics renders it impotent against a social-political system that is itself based in significant part on disruption and flexibilization. I must acknowledge that this general concern is unoriginal not only as a diagnosis of the spirit of ’68, but also of Rancière’s conception of politics. Jodi Dean, for instance, has complained that in aligning himself with a hazily defined “democracy,” Rancière merely echoes the reigning ideology of liberal capitalist states. Anita Chari has argued that without engaging with neoliberal capitalism as a social formation that goes beyond relations of visibility, approaches like Rancière’s cannot address the underlying causes of violence and injustice. And Lois McNay makes Rancière a central target in her broadside against the “social weightlessness” of contemporary political theory, which fails to investigate real experiences of harm and injustice—a necessary precondition, in her view, for grappling with the structures and mechanisms that underlie them.15

The point on which these criticisms converge is that by restricting politics to the disruption of other social spheres and logics while refusing to engage with their substance and specificity, Rancière is left with little critical purchase on society—or for that matter on politics. Chambers broaches this concern when he asks how a Rancièrian thinking of politics might rise to the challenge of neoliberal capitalism, a discussion he frame in terms of how we might reconceive “critical theory” along Rancièrian lines. Tracking Rancière’s thinking on the theme of critique since the 1960s, Chambers finds that it has moved farther and farther not only from providing any sort of normative or practical account (of the kind that concerned me in the last section), but above all from pronouncing on the “truths” behind appearances or “mechanisms” behind social phenomena—a logic of “inversion” that Chambers’s Rancière would have us replace with a logic of “reversal.” The new form of critique Chambers extrapolates from Rancière’s would not produce any new knowledge (153), nor would it consist merely in a Foucauldian project of exposing what seems natural as contingent. Instead, it would, on the model of Marx’s Capital, “show how capitalism operates, how it works, and what its effects are”—along the way serving to “denaturalize, render contingent, and call into question some of the mechanisms of capitalism (perhaps even the system as a whole)” (156).

I confess that I am not at all clear on how it could do this while respecting Rancière’s injunctions against trying to peek behind the scenes of politics, produce knowledge, or understand things in terms their causes or contexts. I will not repeat any of Rancière’s well-known polemics against Marx for attempting precisely this, which Rancière denounces as a “metapolitical” attempt to disarm politics. One consideration that speaks in favor of Chambers’s otherwise unlikely effort enlist Rancière into a renewed critique of capitalism, however, comes from an aspect of his thought on which Chambers is revelatory: Rancière’s determined resistance to ontology and ontologization. The correlate of this principled refusal of ontology, according to Chambers, is Rancière’s “fundamental commitment to historicity” (21). And indeed, many of Chambers’s best insights about Rancière come from following this advice and historicizing the latter’s ideas, restoring them to the particular conjunctures from which they emerged.

The idea of history as the antidote to ontology is a wonderful lesson to take not just from Rancière, but from Marx, Foucault, and others besides. Unfortunately I fear that it is available in too weak a form from Rancière. The problem is that Rancière is too often content to show that things are historical, rather than how they are historical. He tends to opt for, as Chambers puts it, “historicity” over “history”—for the fact that things emerge from particular historical conjunctures rather than the specificities of those conjunctures. The limit of this kind of analysis is that it shows that things are historical in general (political in general, aesthetic in general, etc.), rather than learning anything of substance from their history.16 The risk of this is then of simply doing inverted or negative ontology, insisting that disruptions or events occur only in particular contexts while by the same stroke reducing them to a single (historical, elemental, contextual) logic that is itself indifferent to context. In sum, to say that there is no nature or essence of “the political” because “politics” consists only of specific interruptions amounts to little if all these interruptions occur according to a single formal logic.17

My suspicion is that a critical theory of capitalism—or of politics—like the one Chambers begins to limn at the end of his last chapter could only get off the ground by moving decisively beyond Rancière’s own thinking of politics, likely in a direction that looks more like Marx or Foucault. Such a theory would not be content to posit a single logic of “politics” and analyze the ways in which it is suppressed and misrecognized. Instead, it would seek to understand the different forms capitalism or politics takes and the mechanisms that give rise to them. This, I think, is something more than what (Chambers’s) Rancière can offer because it involves moving behind the scene of politics (and its other, the police)18 and trying to understand what accounts for them in their variability and specificity. This social and historical purchase would then need to be complemented by the practical impetus that inhabits nearly everything Marx and Foucault wrote, and does not fail to appear in Rancière’s texts as well. Such a critical theory would provide neither “unshakeable epistemological grounds” nor “a guaranteed road to revolution” (156), but it could allow us to better understand and act within the present.


Recent conversations in political theory, of which Dean’s, Chari’s, and McNay’s could be taken as representative, create the impression that Rancière’s lessons have been absorbed and that there is now an impatience to move beyond the negativism both of the politics he depicts and of the lack of social-political-historical analysis that underpins it. Indeed, Rancière himself has suggested that he will not be publishing more on politics and democracy. If so, Chambers’s interpretation may turn out, in a rather un-Rancièrian way, to be definitive. This would in my view make the care he has taken to remain within the spirit of Rancière’s thought even as he goes beyond its letter all the more important. For here we have Rancièrian conception of politics, democracy, political language, subjectivity, and much else besides that allows us to appreciate its singularity and originality. My hope is that Chambers’s masterful book will at the same time keep that thought open to the “breaking and entering” of new initiatives in political thought and practice for a long time to come.

  1. And translators. One of Chambers’s most impressive works of rectification gets to the bottom of something that has long bothered me about the Julie Rose’s translation of La mésentente. It turns out that by relying on an English version of the Politics that contradicts Rancière’s own French rendering of Aristotle’s Greek, Rose literally makes nonsense of Rancière’s argument (92–95). Such critical coups de théâtre abound in Chambers’s book.

  2. Not, as it appeared in English, On the shores of politics. In another critical tour de force, Chambers resolves the apparent inconsistency that had Rancière (and his commentators) variously distinguishing between “police” and “politics,” “policy” and “emancipation,” and “police,” “politics,” and “the political” (176n31). Here I would only expand the context. It seems likely that Rancière invoked “the political”/“le politique” (e.g., in Aux bords du politique) at least partly in response to the much-vaunted “renaissance of political philosophy” in France starting in the 1980s—one of his main targets in La mésentente. This renaissance was associated with the abandonment of radical and revolutionary thought, a turn to liberalism and republicanism, and the import of Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss, among others. This context also helps explain Rancière’s (even for him) polemical and rather tendentious readings of Arendt and Claude Lefort, taken in France as leading prophets of “the political.”

  3. As I understand it, this is how Deranty reconstructs “the political” in Rancière. I am not persuaded by Chambers’s charge that this interpretation is ontologizing. There are important differences between Chambers’s and Deranty’s Rancière, but I think they fall more under my second heading, teleology. All politics is thus defined by and against a particular police order, taking its content from the distribution of the sensible it contests. Consequently, politics is only ever a “fugitive”[footnote]One connection Chambers does not make is to the later work of Sheldon Wolin, perhaps because Wolin’s thoughts on fugitive democracy can be assimilated to what I’m calling left-republican Arendtianism. All the same, considering Rancière’s thinking alongside Wolin’s—or Jason Frank’s, which seems to be inspired by both—would expose interesting points of difference, and possibly also some important Rancièrian blind spots for (solidarity, institutions, the specificities of history . . .)

  4. Rancière, Disagreement, 30–31.

  5. The idea that democratic institutions are ones that allow for or promote political contestation chimes with the work of Claude Lefort but also with theorists who accord a central role to “contestability,” be it in tempered versions like Philip Pettit’s all the way to theories of agonistic democracy. Such theories, like Michael Freeden’s notion of ideology as decontestation (Ideologies and Political Theory: A Conceptual Approach [Oxford University Press, 1996]) or Christopher Meckstroth’s idea of democratic change as Socratic enlenchus (The Struggle for Democracy: Paradoxes of Progress and the Politics of Change [Cambridge University Press, 2015]), tend to be based on a strictly negative standard that nevertheless allows for substantive criticism and even a conception of progress.

  6. I lack the space here to properly disentangle three issues on the basis of which Chambers tries to distance himself and his Rancière from the normative and practical temptations that I join these other interpreters in reading in (perhaps into) his work. (1) Teleology: here Chambers is determined to ward off that political actions or sequences could be predicted or set out in advance, but tends to expand to assimilate any notion of that politics might have an aim or point. This is partly due to his campaign against (2) humanism, which he rejects as positing a reified and essentialized subject, but again tends to expand so as to preclude talking about subjects, agency, choices, and so on altogether. In this way it tends to preclude (3) normativity or prescription in any form, which Chambers tends to assimilate to moralism and the desire to submit situations and subjects to abstract schemas set out in advance.

  7. Of course Rousseau does not try to prove that men are born free in On the Social Contract. Instead, rather like Rancière, he posits equality and sees what follows.

  8. I am convinced by Chambers’s effort to bring Rancière closer to the Lyotard of the 1980s than Rancière himself allows. Rancière’s cagily posthumanist formula for how a “tort” or “wrong” is “processed” in La mésentente—“il se traite” (“it is dealt with”)—strikes me as so Lyotardian as to amount to an homage.

  9. For a rich overview of the current “trans” moment that focuses on the dilemmas and double binds of queer politics, see Jacqueline Rose, “Who Do You Think You Are?,” London Review of Books 38:9 (2016): 3–13.

  10. Importantly, even overcoming heteronormativity or whatever maximally ambitious LGBTQ goal would not avoid this problem, since it is structural: politics as practiced almost always has a point beyond mere disruption; politics as theorized by Chambers’s Rancière does not.

  11. I mean to flag with this term that I think that something similarly crypto-normative occurs is going on with Butler’s famous account of the materialization of matter, performativity of identity, etc. in Bodies That Matter. The important difference from Rancière’s work is that, at least in her early books, Butler carefully keeps the normative, programmatic, or practical voice out of her account, whereas Rancière builds this voice into the heart of his.

  12. Certainly more than the assortment of thinkers (Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Bourdieu) named in Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut’s highly influential La pensée 68. Essai sur l’antihumanisme contemporaine (Paris: Gallimard, 1985; translated as French Philosophy of the Sixties by Mary H. S. Cattani for University of Minnesota Press, 1990). That book argued that what was then discussed in English as “poststructuralism” could be traced back to the soured aftermath of ’68. This thesis was vigorously contested, in part because none of these figures had much to do with ’68, be it as inspirations, participants, or spokespersons.

  13. See, e.g., Régis Debray, “A Modest Contribution to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Tenth Anniversary,” New Left Review 115 (1979); Gilles Lipovetsky, L’Ère du vide. Essais sur l’individualisme contemporain (Paris: Gallimard, 1983); Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2007).

  14. Today’s entrepreneurial enthusiasm for “disruption”—to be sure, techno-organizational rather than political—might also feed our suspicions. In this way, it not only cleared the field for a new assertion of capitalist power; it allied itself with a neoliberal project that was able to justify itself in a language of individual empowerment and emancipation.

  15. Dean, “Politics Without Politics,” Parallax 15:3 (2009): 31–32; Chari, A Political Economy of the Senses: Neoliberalism, Reification, Critique (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 48–60; McNay, The Misguided Search for the Political: Social Weightlessness in Radical Democratic Theory (Cambridge: Polity, 2014), ch. 4. Peter Hallward goes so far as to interpret Rancière’s work, in a Jamesonian spirit, as a reflection of the postmodern, incipient neoliberal moment of its emergence: “Rancière  . . . came to embrace the rhetoric of mobility and liminality at precisely the moment when, newly mobile, ‘fragmentary’ post-Taylorist forms of production deprived them of any clear critical purchase.” “Staging Equality,” New Left Review 2:37 (2009): 125.

  16. Chambers correctly takes the demand for such substantive lessons from the history of particulars as one of Marx’s central demands in Capital. It is one that I fear Rancière is unlikely to satisfy.

  17. This is in fact more or less what Oliver Marchart does in Postfoundational Political Thought and its extended German version, Die politische Differenz. As Marchart understands it, for Rancière, as for most of the “left Heideggerian” theories that make up postfoundational political thought, “the political” is simply the absence of any single foundation, and thus a perfectly general condition that follows from the recognition of deep—call it ontological, epistemological, or metaphysical—contingency.

  18. I take this metaphor from Étienne Balibar, Politics and the Other Scene (New York: Verso), esp. “Three Concept of Politics,” 8–21, where he takes Marx and Foucault to exemplify a conception of politics that emphasizes the need in order to get beyond the (given or apparent) political realm in order to transform it.

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    Samuel Chambers


    Response to James Ingram

    James Ingram’s piece goes well beyond a response, and proves to be an impressive work in its own right. It plumbs the depths not just of my book, but of Rancière’s thought, and makes a generous and important contribution to the broader discussion. Moreover, of all the pieces gathered here, it perhaps pushes back the hardest—laying out a number of significant and important lines of critique. The first thing to say in response is that it seems to me that some of Ingram’s battles are to be fought with Rancière, not with me, and more to the point, that Rancière’s own texts may provide some of the answers that Ingram seeks. Thus, when Ingram raises the “worry” that “the rebellious negativism of ’68” may itself be partially to blame for “what followed it historically, namely the rise of neoliberal capitalism” (Ingram 10, this symposium), he trots out a well-worn line of logic perhaps best known in the English-speaking world through Boltanski and Chiapello’s New Spirit of Capitalism (2006), which argued that the slogans of May ’68 were themselves appropriated by neoliberal “management” texts that focused on autonomy and “flexibilization.” Ingram fails to note, however, that Rancière has already answered this charge in his own polemical way: “in itself, the thesis is pretty flimsy,” says Rancière (Rancière 2009: 34). I would give a similar, but perhaps more incredulous reply to Ingram’s worries that Rancière’s thought is not concretely historical enough (Ingram 12); to me the concern rings false when it poses as criticism against a scholar who spent more than a decade in historical archives.1 This is not to say that Rancière’s work is somehow immune from challenges on historical grounds, but I think the better line of argument would require its own historical specificity. Rather than making a general claim that Rancière’s treatment of history is too general, one would need to look at the history, something Rancière himself does in numerous places, but certainly in Proletarian Nights and the writings originally published in Les Révolts Logiques.

    Finally, we must circle back around to the one substantive difference between me and James Ingram – the question of semantics and rhetoric. I’m flattered yet surprised that Ingram would accuse me of “cryptonormativism” (Ingram 7): flattered because it places me where I do not belong, the company of Foucault; surprised because I thought one of the results of the exhaustive and exhausting Foucault/Habermas debates was the realization that “cryptonormativism” was an empty charge. I myself have argued, with all the polemical force that I can muster, that there is no non-normative (Chambers 2014: 16). So Ingram and I surely agree that any claim has normative orientations and implications; hence any argument is a normative argument. But Ingram obviously means something different by normative than I do. In his piece for this symposium, Ingram writes about the “practical” the “pointful” and the “normative” (Ingram 1; cf. 6). In contrast, in my book I wrote about “normative grounds” and about systematic “normative philosophy” (Chambers 2013: 56, 75, 92–97). I showed a link (in certain readings of Rancière with which I took issue) between the ontologization of Rancière’s concepts and the construction of a systematic normative philosophy around those concepts. And I insist that the eschewal of systematic philosophies proves essential to Rancière’s project.2

    But none of this is to say that Rancière’s thought is not practical, that he does not have (or is trying not to have) a point. Of course he has a point! He has many of them, and he presses them polemically. I also see no reason to conclude that his points, his interventions, his polemics, do not have practical implications (or implications for practice). But one can make practical suggestions without taking up the systematic practice of normative political philosophy as it has been carried out in recent decades by Rawlsians, Habermasians, and others. Indeed, as the case of Rawls makes clear, much of normative philosophy is itself thoroughly impractical. When we report back from the forest we most surely—at least if we have been paying attention (which Rancière says we must)—have some thoughts and suggestions about which way to go, how to proceed, which pitfalls and dangers to avoid, and what to see or do along the way.

    1. I should clarify that I do not at all disagree with one of the concrete conclusions that Ingram draws out from his engagement with Rancière on the question of history, when Ingram says that a critique of capitalism would need to call on resources other than Rancière’s thought. The difference between us may be that Ingram presents this claim as if it were some sort of criticism of Rancière, whereas I think Rancière himself would concur with the claim but see in it no form of critique. At times Ingram seems to be operating under the model in which critique requires working within or applying a systematic “political theory,” but this is precisely what Rancière says he refuses to offer. And this is not just because he did not want to create one, but because politics, and history, do not work that way.

    2. I suspect that the delineation of these differences on the normative may help to explain our different accounts of “queer politics,” a crucially significant topic that I simply do not have time to give the proper treatment here. Ingram claims that “queer politics . . . has also, and often primarily, been a movement for inclusion, equality, and recognition,” and, he continues, if its focus was only on queerness as marginal then “it would be indeterminate and normatively indifferent; it would be very hard to see why it matters” (Ingram 8, emphasis original). I would like to make two quick but meaningful points here in the footnotes. First, in my book, and in much of my other work on queer theory (e.g., Chambers 2009), I have been at pains to distinguish a liberal LGBT interest group politics, on the one hand, from a distinct, non-liberal, queer politics, on the other. It goes without saying that of course the term “queer” has frequently been used differently, that it has been deployed to refer to a liberal identity politics of recognition, inclusion, and equality. However, that empirical fact does not preclude the possibility of making the conceptual distinction. Moreover, that fact does not erase another fact: historically there has been a practical movement of queer politics that has itself refused the terms of liberal, representational politics. So when Ingram asserts, with emphasis, that queer politics has primarily been a movement for inclusion, he both collapses my conceptual distinction and erases that queer political history. Put simply, and therefore inadequately, both Michael Warner (in his groundbreaking and field-forming introduction to Fear of a Queer Planet) and ACT-UP (in their direct-action queer politics) were refusing inclusion, equality, and recognition. Second, Ingram seems to see only two options: liberal recognition, or something like fully unintelligible non-recognition. But queer politics eschews the game of recognition by challenging the force, the hegemony of heteronormativity. The subversion of heteronormativity is absolutely not “normatively indifferent,” since it is precisely a challenge to the normative force of heterosexuality. Ironically mirroring Lee Edelman’s position (for Edelman the “queer” is opposed to, outside of, all politics), Ingram seems unable to imagine a politics that is not liberal (Edelman 2004). But together with a long line of queer theorists and activists before me, I insist that one can pose a political challenge to the dominant norms without asking for inclusion or recognition.



Politics Freedom and Communism

On The Lessons of Rancière

The title of this contribution is, in one respect, deliberately provocative—surely it is equality rather than freedom that should be linked to politics in Rancière’s sense and doesn’t Rancière abandon Marxism? In raising the topics of freedom and communism, I do not intend to deny these points but to complicate the picture in the light of the lucid exploration of the work of Rancière that Sam Chambers has offered us. At the heart of Chambers’s reading of Rancière is the important claim that “politics must be other to police, but not purely other” (50)—a paradoxical relation that should not be resolved. In explicating this claim, Chambers rightly resists attempts to introduce “the political” as a third term that denotes the space in which the encounter between politics and police takes place, rather he argues:

Rancière refutes directly both the idea of politics having a proper place and the notion of the political providing a space for politics to occur: “The exceptionality of politics has no specific place. Politics ‘takes place’ in the space of police, by rephrasing and restaging social issues, police problems and so on.” (63)

Thus: “Politics happens on the terrain of the police” (64). This strikes me as both right and important. The two questions that I will address in these comments concern the relationship between politics and police in the context of, first, the judgment of police orders and, second, the idea of communism. This issue arises because there are two worries that a reader of Rancière may have concerning the account of politics and police that he offers. The first is that it provides no basis for the evaluation of different police orders—all police orders are characterized by hierarchy, regimes of knowledge qualification, etc., and politics as the insertion of an egalitarian logic into a police order is the erasing of a particular distinction characteristic of this police order. The second is that it is not entirely clear why one should not imagine an egalitarian order in which politics and police have merged, where this order may be called “communism.” Why, then, should “the communist horizon” (in Jodi Dean’s apposite phrase) not serve as a critical regulative ideal for understanding the relation of politics and police? These two questions are linked in that the assertion of communism as the normative horizon would also provide a way of articulating the normative superiority of one police regime to another. I think that these questions involve misreadings of Rancière that Chambers’s book contests, but I want to push him on how he would respond to issues raised by these naïve questions that point beyond Rancière’s own project as Chambers reconstructs it.

On Chambers’s account, police orders are simply the social orders that we inhabit where these are conceived as a distribution of “people and things into locations and roles” (70) that is manifest in the partition of the sensible that characterizes subjectivity within such an order. Any police order is characterized by a particular distribution of the sensible—or, as one might also put it in Wittgensteinian terms, a particular order of continuous aspect perception. Politics as the interruption and disruption of this order is the reconfiguration of the partitioning of the sensible, that is, politics has the form of aspect-change. In this sense, we can distinguish police orders in terms of the unique distributions of the sensible that they involve—but this does not by itself seem to provide any criteria for evaluating them. Chambers is clear that Rancière does distinguish police orders as better or worse (72), referring to a brief consideration of this question in Disagreement where Rancière remarks:

There is a worse and a better police—the better one, incidentally, not being the one that adheres to the supposed natural order of society or the science of legislators, but the one that all the breaking and entering perpetrated by egalitarian logic has most often jolted out of its “natural” logic. The police can procure all sorts of good, and one kind of police may be infinitely preferable to another. This does not change the nature of the police, which is what we are exclusively dealing with here. . . . Whether the police is sweet and kind does not make it any less the opposite of politics. (1999: 30–31)

Accepting Rancière’s point that he is, here, dealing exclusively with the formal character of the police/politics distinction does not, however, remove the question of how to evaluative distinct orders of police. Here Rancière gestures, first, towards a distinction based on goods provided and, second, to the thought that what shifts one to a better police is that the society has been repeatedly subject to the disruptions of politics. However, these two gestures stand in tension to one another—and neither seems sufficient.

On the tension, it may help to clarify this issue to note a distinction drawn by Forst between two pictures of justice:

To put it in a (simplistic) nutshell, since the ancient formula of justice to each his own was coined, philosophical thinking about justice has developed along two very broad lines. One line focuses on the goods persons receive in a distributive scheme, comparing their share either with what relevant others have or with what persons need or deserve by some ethical standards, or both; the other line focuses on the relationship between the persons involved and their relative standing within a scheme of exercising power. One could call the first a focus on distributive justice, the latter one on political justice.1

On Rancièrian lines, we can offer an analogous distinction between a logic of evaluating police orders in terms of the goods they provide or, contrastingly, in terms of the relationships and modes of responsiveness that they instantiate and facilitate. Politics is always impure because intimately bound up with police, but (as Chambers insists) the forms of impurity may vary in that some orders of police may facilitate politics more than others. We may note, for example, that the costs of attempting to undertake politics or the forms of individuality and openness to aspect-change may vary widely across police orders. It is surely the criterion of relationship and responsiveness that matters for evaluating police orders in relation to the politics/police distinction rather than that of the goods an order provides because this criterion points to the police-politics relation as the fundamental issue at stake.

But if it is the egalitarian logic of politics disrupting police that is important for distinguishing police orders in terms of better or worse, it cannot simply be sufficient to appeal to a matter of quantity—of frequency of “jolting”—but rather of quality, that is, the relationships and modes of responsiveness to which a given political disruption gives rise. The important point here is that it would be a serious mistake to imagine that police orders are distinguished solely in terms of a partition of the sensible as what is visible as what, audible as what, etc., and not also as a mode of relation to seeing or hearing otherwise than they do. Thus in relation to any political disruption, it must be asked not only what distinction has been erased but also how this affects the openness of the new police to further politics. There are two consequences of this point to note here. First, this makes the issue of responsiveness conceived as the ability to see or hear differently central to the question of evaluating police orders. Second, different police orders may have differentially entrenched (elements of the) partition of the sensible. As Foucault remarks

a system of constraint becomes truly intolerable when the individuals who are affected by it don’t have the means of modifying it. This can happen when such a system becomes intangible as a result of its being considered a moral or religious imperative, or a necessary consequence of medical science.2

Note that Foucault is not saying here that individuals subject to such a system of constraint cannot develop the means for modifying it, rather his point is that a particular partition of the sensible or elements of such a partition may be differentially entrenched such that getting free of the grip of seeing x as y (which is the requirement of engaging in politics in Rancière’s sense) may make differential demands on our powers of responsiveness. We can augment these powers through practices such as genealogy (and here I note that this focus may align with Chambers’s willingness to mark overlaps between the critical practices of Foucault and Rancière but also call in question as too hasty his divorce between critique as a critical practice of the self on itself and critique as a critical account of a social formation [154] since it is the very relation between self-formation and social formation that is at stake here). In augmenting our powers in this way, however, we also cultivate a particular sense of history that helps to obstruct our subjection to the kind of aspectival captivity3 to which Foucault refers, one in which it is not the case of a limit (or distinction) which we have not brought before the bar of reflection but one in which the limit (or distinction) appears to us on reflection as natural, necessary or obligatory (hence as legitimate).

My remarks thus far have sought to draw attention to a point that we may put like this:

  • any order of police can be viewed as a particular ordering of bodies and things but it is also a relation to this ordering and any distribution of the sensible is a particular manifesting of what is available to the senses but also a relationship to this manifesting; this relation is not something additional to, or separate from, police but is internal to it and marks its relationship to (and the kind of impurity of) politics;
  • these relations can take different forms that are more or less open to being or seeing otherwise, that differentially cultivate powers of responsiveness;
  • a better police from the standpoint of the police/politics distinction is an order of police that is more open to being or seeing otherwise, that is, to the eruption of politics.

What is this ability to be or see otherwise? In Nietzschean terms, it is freedom—an agonic relation of self-overcoming towards oneself, both the capacity and disposition to overcome one’s current (police) constitution. Put in social terms, it is the ability of those subject to a police order to contest this order and their disposition to do so, where the cultivation of this ability and disposition is internal to the police-politics relation internal to this police.

Let me now turn to the question of communism or of the communist horizon. How should we conceive of communism? There are two ways to answer this question. The first is that communism denotes a telos, the end of (pre)history, that is to be realized. It is true that we cannot specify the features of this communist state of affairs from here, but it will involve the overcoming of all hierarchy in the organization of social and political life. If we think of communism in this way, it is fairly clear why Rancière would reject communism as an ideal. He would do so because the egalitarian logic of politics is incompatible with its being realized as a determinate order of police (Chambers is very clear on this point). However, we can conceive of communism otherwise than as a transcendence of politics/police marked by the realization of politics as police but as an immanent realization of the aporetic relation of politics/police as the form of social activity. This is not the realization of the egalitarian logic of politics as an order of police, but rather of a mode of government that is the perpetual egalitarian overcoming of itself, less the disruption of an order than an order of disruption. Communism viewed in this way is not a telos to be realized, a relation between the real and the ideal, but a process, the movement from the attained to the attainable. Rather than seeing politics as an exceptional moment (in the sense of rare and fleeting acts), the processual idea of the communist horizon supports an agonic mode of relation to the government of self and of others in which the political disruption of police in one’s relation to oneself and to others is an ongoing project. Communism is a practical attitude to be sustained rather than a goal to be realized. But notice further that communism in this sense is the social form of freedom in the Nietzschean sense specified earlier—it is occupying the aporetic relation of politics and police as a processual relation to the government of self and others. But this is also to say that communism just is the perpetual democratization of police.

In offering these remarks in relation to Sam Chambers’s The Lessons of Rancière, I have not engaged directly with “interpretive” issues concerning his reading of Rancière’s texts. Rather I have sought to augment or interrupt it by raising two naïve questions and showing, although in their naïve form, these questions misread Rancière, they also lead us to reflections that point beyond Rancière’s own formulations and perhaps also beyond Chambers’s own thinking with and beyond Rancière.


  1. R. Forst, “Radical Justice: On Iris Marion Young’s Critique of the ‘Distributive Paradigm.’” Constellations 14:2 (2007), 260.

  2. M. Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-84. Edited by L. D. Kritzman. London: Routledge, 1988, 294.

  3. D. Owen, “Criticism and Captivity: On Genealogy and Critical Theory.” European Journal of Philosophy 10:2 (2002) 216–30.

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    Samuel Chambers


    Response to David Owen

    This brings me to David Owen’s creative and brilliant development of Rancière’s thinking of police orders, and his (Owen’s) own attendant polemical interventions regarding freedom and communism. When it comes to producing a productive dialogue between Rancière’s work and the project of normative political philosophy, Owen poses perhaps the most important question possible: how does one distinguish between different police orders, or provide evaluative criteria for judging them? In working with and writing about Rancière’s thought for the past fifteen years I have frequently asked and been asked this question, and as far as I am concerned Owen gives the very best possible answer. First, one simply cannot evaluate police orders based on their allocation of goods, resources, or even liberties. Second, the criterion that matters must be that of “relationship and responsiveness”; this includes a police order’s “mode of relation to seeing or hearing otherwise” (Owen, this symposium) and the very openness of that order to the irruption of politics. To reiterate, I think that if we are to evaluate police orders—and Rancière himself tells us that there are better and worse orders—then these are the very best grounds on which to adjudicate. But as with Nichanian’s effort to think the politics of institutions, here too we must mark a potential break with Rancière (for better or worse). It is not that I think Rancière would offer a different set of criteria to evaluate police orders, but simply that I think he might remind us that the task of evaluation cannot itself be dissociated from a project of policing (one that we borrow from political philosophy). This does not mean that there are no criteria in the world, but just that politics itself has no criteria—it is simply not subject to “evaluation” in this way. Therefore we should not conflate the evaluation of police orders, according to the criteria Owen incisively lays out, with the work of politics—or even with the historical work of “emplotment” of those very moments of politics, which is itself not politics, but is also not political philosophy.

    Owen closes his comments with the most radical suggestion I see posed to Rancière’s thought in this symposium—the idea of communism not as telos but as process and ethos, communism as “the perpetual democratization of police” (Owen, this symposium). This is not the communism of nineteenth-century utopian socialists; it is not the communism of twentieth-century communist regimes. This is a communism of becoming, premised not on sameness and solidarity but as what Owen calls “the social form of freedom in the Nietzschean sense” (Owen, this symposium).

    This is a novel and radical rethinking of communism that surely brings it much closer to a Rancièrean account of democratic politics. How, then, might we move Rancière’s thinking in that same direction—not, of course, to meet in the middle, but perhaps to pass one another in the forest, to become entangled together in the undergrowth? Owen’s communism as process seems to me to depend upon (as it also calls forth) a refusal of any simple individual or collective subjectivity. This strikes me as a thoroughly Rancièrean move. Rancière refuses the very idea (central to liberalism) of an individual that would precede politics. But he also rejects the straightforward notion of a collective subject (central to recent accounts of communism, such as Jodi Dean’s). Rancière writes about a “collective power that is . . . not the status of members of a collective body”; he describes a “common power” that “is not the capacity of aggregation of a collective” (Rancière 2007: 278, 279, emphasis added). This common/collective power, this communist power, can only be the same power that is in play when we resist the explicative order, the power at stake in intellectual emancipation, which might just be Rancière’s name for political freedom. In a language that echoes Owen’s description of communism as “relational process,” Rancière calls this collective power “a particular kind of interactivity.” He continues:

    It is the power to translate in their own way what they are looking at. It is the power to connect it with the intellectual adventure that makes any of them similar to any other insofar as his or her path looks unlike any other. The common power is the power of the equality of intelligence. This power binds individuals together to the very extent that it keeps them apart from each other; it is the power each of us possesses in equal measure to make our way in the world. (Rancière 2007: 278)

    We are not the same; our knowledges are not the same; yet, somehow, we are equal. Anyone who has thought hard with and through and against Rancière’s texts has asked themselves, or asked him, “How?” How, exactly, are we equal? As I read his text, Owen’s account of Nietzschean freedom as self-overcoming (with less emphasis on the self that does the overcoming and more emphasis on the self that is overcome) provides a potential answer. We are equal because we share the common power of the equality of intelligence. Our equality thus makes possible and calls us toward just the kind of communist horizon that Owen names. Of course, the equality of intelligence itself must always be grasped carefully (and tenuously). “The equality of intelligence is not the equality of all manifestations of intelligence. It is the equality of intelligence in all its manifestations” (Rancière 2007: 275).

    To affirm this polemical formulation means to reorient the very work that something like “political theory” would or could do. Equality is not a substantive given from which we could build analytic frameworks or normative structures or ideal states. To take seriously the idea of the equality of intelligence in all its manifestations means to refuse the role of the master explicator who would order and structure those manifestations. Rancière’s thought suggests to political theorists that rather than explicate, we must translate from one manifestation to another. The power to translate is itself nothing other than the common power of the equality of intelligence. Our translations can and must eschew the project of overcoming a gap in knowledge. We must instead treat “any distance [as] a matter of happenstance” and use our own work in political theory to make connections in the forest (connections of knowledge to knowledge, of knowledge to ignorance); to report and verify what we have seen; and to call on others to venture forth on their own intellectual adventures.

Daniel Nichanian


A Politics of Surprises

Daniel Nichanian, University of Chicago1

“Above all else, these events took the world by surprise,” Samuel Chambers writes of the revolution in Egypt in 2011. “How would we restore to our understanding of politics—inject into the study of politics—the very sense of wonder and shock that the world shared while watching the events in Egypt at the beginning of 2011?”2 With this programmatic question, Chambers states his intention to conceptualize politics not as a practice of managing the way things are but as a more radical practice of inaugurating and ushering in the new. In a landscape populated by explicit calls by both political practitioners3 and political theorists4 to depoliticize democracy, he provides a much-needed defense of politics as a way to bring about meaningful transformations, struggle for alternatives, and give nonordinary phenomena a form of visibility they usually lack. But what makes his book so rewarding is that, by developing a revisionist reading of the lessons Jacques Rancière imparts, he also challenges some of the broader assumptions that shape and constrain what we have come to expect such a radical politics to look like.

In this review, I highlight three strands of Chambers’s argument that can each be seen to challenge a common view as to what it means to associate politics with surprises and with the experience of something novel. (1) Against the view that politics can only take a radical guise if it withdraws from spaces of domination and confronts them from a distance, Chambers suggests that a radical politics cannot hold itself to such purity. (2) Against the view that politics can only play a critical function by uncovering what is concealed by spaces of domination (what lies beneath them), he proposes abandoning the quest to unearth deep ontological truths. (3) Against the frequent privileging of political events’ immediate moment, he draws attention to the distinctive role that Rancière attributes to philosophy vis-à-vis the police, which can alert us to the importance of how unexpected events get interpreted post hoc.

But I shall propose pushing each of these strands further, for I see them to still be in some tension with other claims that I read Chambers to be making. At the very least, these tensions can serve as productive sites to explore three specific complexities as to the implications of a politics of surprises. (1) If politics is never pure, can surprises take an institutional guise, rather than be what interrupts and transforms institutions? (2) Absent ontological guarantees, can political events ever be breathtaking enough to “take the world by surprise”—to compel onlookers to view them as surprising—and how can politics be sustained when what strikes some as shocking is just not experienced by others as such? (3) If posthoc interpretations matter, does the “wonder and shock” of something being experienced as surprising necessarily unravel police hierarchies (is it a necessarily emancipatory experience), or can the implications of this “wonder and shock” be more ambivalent? Let me explain why I take these three questions to be at stake in The Lessons of Jacques Rancière.

Surprises and Institutions

One of this book’s core contributions is its demonstration that, contra widespread readings of his work, Rancière is not isolating political action in a hermetically sealed sphere when he famously distinguishes “politics” from “the police,” and that he is committed instead to “the impurity of politics” (64). What Chambers means by this is that for Rancière politics cannot entail withdrawing from the sites in which one experiences oppression and marginalization, nor can it entail creating a parallel world in which one can experience oneself and others in a manner untainted by inequality and the social categories that sustain it. Rather, his “politics begins with the hierarchy, inequality, and structural domination of all social orders,” so that “a theory of democracy inspired by Rancière depends not on dismissing or rejecting all police orders, but on investigating and grappling with them” (68). I strongly share this characterization of Rancière’s project. More broadly, I appreciate the help it can provide in dealing with a central dilemma in agonistic or radical democratic perspectives: Can a practice be meaningfully transformative if it does not fully rupture with what it is transforming? The promise of Chambers’s book is that Rancière’s texts contain neglected resources with which to appreciate why one need not be absorbed within a social formation when one “works within its terms” (62), and to articulate how practices that engage with the prevailing order’s institutions and spaces can have a transformative or critical drive.

Yet I believe that this call to recognize the impurity of politics can be developed further to also interrogate a view I find in parts of Chambers’s book: that the business of government (the institutional and bureaucratic practices that occur during processes of rule and policy-making) remains distinct from politics. He shows that Rancière does not demonize the police, and that his politics is concerned with “transform[ing]” social orders rather than “undo[ing]” them. (He writes for instance that Rancière means the encounter between politics and the police to manifest itself in “a renegotiation of the very police order in which we live.”) Yet claiming that politics can work to improve institutions is different from claiming that institutions can do political work, and on many occasions Chambers resists that second move. He for instance invites us to classify the stuff that happens in them (“the actions of assemblies and parliaments; the decisions of courts; the work of politicians; and all the efforts of bureaucrats”) “under a nonpolitical heading” (41). His politics is an “insurrectionary moment,” “a matter of interrupting rule” rather than “a matter of ruling” (8, 135). Thus understood, politics does concern transforming how the business of government is conducted, but still not the actual undertaking of that business; it renegotiates social orders by disrupting “the actions of assemblies and parliaments” or “the efforts of bureaucrats,” not by engaging the substance of their work. Chambers asks, “What would it mean for the word politics to point not toward legislative decisions and judicial decrees, but to moments of irruption like those in Egypt?” (8). While this question speaks to his valuable project of reversing the spotlight political science shines on the former type of activities, my concern is that it leaves us in the familiar position of prejudging that certain practices are insufficiently transformative based solely on the fact that they participate in institutional politics, care about what courts decide and what politicians advocate, or engage the content of governmental processes.

What would it take for politics to be surprising—transformative, contestatory, and egalitarian—even while still pointing (among other things) toward legislative processes and policies decisions? Put otherwise, can the world be taken by surprise not only by irruptive and fleeting moments but also at least occasionally by some of the slow and maybe even tedious work conducted in organizations, institutions, even bureaucracies? Here I am thinking of Bonnie Honig presenting US assistant secretary of labor Louis Post’s legal maneuvers during the red scare as an example of political resistance,5 Patchen Markell expanding received meanings of “rule” to argue that even practices that preserve “regularity and continuity” and sustain institutional arrangements can be practices of freedom (as he puts it, “a kind of novelty . . . can also be present in moments that . . . follow existing patterns, or continue observable regularities”),6 and Paul Apostolidis claiming in the context of immigrant workers’ activism that even a “regular, institutional politics” can be a means to “inaugurate new forms of ‘politically significant relationships.’”7 What these essays suggest is that something new can be constructed and experienced in practices that are not revolutionary in the sense of the events in Egypt; it is this possibility that can get neglected when a politics of surprise is defined in opposition to various forms of institutional work.

I do not think this is a fundamental challenge to Chambers’s argument. On the contrary, I believe that his case for the importance of impurity, and for the need to think how politics can be paradoxically other without being cut off, can bring further conceptual clarity to the sort of situation Honig, Markell, and Apostolidis are working on. It can serve as a resource to think further about how to resist understanding politics as the mere identification of predictable patterns, while still allowing that a sense of wonder can emerge even through activities we would expect to be all too mainstream and conventional.

Surprises and Ontology

I have discussed for now what kinds of things may be surprising. We need to consider as well what it even takes for something—anything—to be perceived as surprising, and what follows from that perception. As I mentioned earlier, Chambers is highly cognizant that a major obstacle to political action is the preponderance of perspectives that deny the prospect or importance of surprises. To illustrate this, he cites Rancière’s remark in a 1996 essay that “political science[’s] . . . axiom is that nothing is ever surprising.” In reading the full passage from which that remark is drawn, I was struck by just how complex a role surprise plays:

At the heart of the supranational and liberal West, marching toward the absolute rationalization of social behaviours and the elimination of all ideological archaisms, racism is back. This march against time is something that might be wondered at. But political science is not philosophy. If, according to Aristotle, the latter begins with wonderment, the former’s axiom is that nothing is ever surprising. And one of its favourite exercises is to demonstrate the utter predictability of the phenomenon that, moreover, it was powerless to foresee. When it comes to racism and xenophobia, the explanation is always pre-prepared. These are phenomena, we are told, of backwardness.8

I want to highlight two aspects of this passage. The first is Rancière’s point that political science wields its axiom retrospectively: Its “pre-prepared” explanations serve to not just deny that surprises can happen, but to also deny that what has already happened is surprising. The second is the contrast between political science and philosophy, which Rancière says “begins with wonderment.” Considering that he is highly critical of philosophy and its “dangerous” project to “replace politics with police” (77), this hints at an ambivalence as to what follows the recognition that something surprising has happened and that events have defied “pre-prepared” explanations. In this section, I consider the implications of the first problem to suggest that more can be said about what it takes for people to feel surprised by any event, including revolutionary ones; the next section asks what we should make of the point that philosophy’s starting point is wonder.

An important focus of Chambers’s book is to draw out Rancière’s concern that resorting to ontology is an evasion of politics (19). He lays out one important implication in the fourth chapter, when he delves into Rancière’s challenge to the traditional understanding of critical theory as a demystifying enterprise. He documents the evolution of Rancière’s thought to show that he grew increasingly wary of philosophical paradigms that offer predetermined accounts of the way things are—for instance of people’s true (class) interests—and that can then be used to denounce the position of mastery wielded by prevailing elites from the vantage point of another position of mastery, the one offered by knowledge of deeper social laws (146). Chambers explains that Rancière proposes replacing such paradigms with “critical procedures” that do not take emancipatory premises as things that can be known and established prior to politics, but as things to be verified in the course of acting (149). “Equality can only ever be assumed as we approach the world and verified as we witness events within it” (151). Political action is a risk, in the sense that it rests on enacting an uncertain presupposition. Here again, I agree with his reading of Rancière’s thought; and here again I believe it to be particularly valuable in clarifying the stakes of a problem that contemporary theorists have faced: How can we dispense with philosophical demonstrations that prevailing social relations conceal hidden truths bound to subvert them without endangering the possibility of critique and emancipation?

In light of Chambers’s argument that political theory should not ground critical work on philosophical certainties, I believe that we can also rethink what it takes for social orders to be confronted with events that challenge their expectations. On this, I understand Chambers to be arguing that the value of political moments lies in how they “take the world by surprise,” so that politics happens when onlookers experience an event’s undeniable novelty, when they witness something that exceeds the explanatory paradigms available to them. As he writes, when politics “occurs,” it is “at just this political moment” when “a claim is heard as a political claim” (164). Chambers does not rule out the possibility of failure; not every insurrection will catch the world’s attention. But he is confident that certain events, if actors succeed at giving them exposure and visibility, are bound to provoke shock. He contends that “liberalism is unprepared for the surprise that is the emergence of a new political subject,” or that “liberalism cannot manage or process the force of literarity,” literarity being “the power of the demos that will always undo Plato’s kalliopolis” (90, 103, 115). This view that certain events, when visible, will be obviously surprising relates to Chambers’s interpretation of Rancière as a thinker who “exposes what we might call the constitutive outside” of liberal regimes (103): Indeed, if there is always an “irreducible remainder; . . . a persistent unaccounted-for within any count” (167), and if “the unintelligible can never be eliminated” (153), then there is always an unaccounted-for whose politicization the prevailing order cannot be prepared for and therefore cannot contain.

Here I take a different approach. I read Rancière to be arguing that politics occurs, not in the construction of a stage whose events compel onlookers as surprising, but in the disputes that arise over whether events are surprising. I earlier cited Rancière’s remark that political science uses pre-prepared frames to interpret events as predictable (a protest may be framed as yet another instance of popular backwardness, or of mob impulsiveness) because I broadly understand Rancière to be drawing our attention not to moments when events rupture through and catch police representatives unprepared, but to ongoing undecidable disagreements as to whether these events fit the interpretive frames that are already available to the police. Chambers is attentive to this dynamic when he discusses Kristin Ross’s book on May 1968; he describes the police response of “put[ting] everything back in its proper place” by claiming that “nothing happened in May 68” (22–24, 177). I am suggesting that this conflict between differing reactions to May 1968 is emblematic of the fact that politics involves a sustained dispute over whether something (novel) has happened. It takes political work to make events seem surprising rather than accountable with pre-prepared explanations; it takes political work to persuade publics that their preexisting perceptions cannot make sense of what they have witnessed and that they should orient themselves to the world differently. My worry is that, if we overdetermine certain events’ breathtaking or excessive quality, we may minimize the difficulty and uncertainty involved in litigating such tensions as to whether something novel or transformative has occurred, or as to whether an unrecognized equality has been verified.

Surprises and Philosophy

One of Chambers’s most intriguing arguments is that insufficient attention is paid to the different roles Rancière attributes to philosophy and the police. He writes that for Rancière only philosophy exhibits a systematic drive to substitute political action with policing (77). While I would dispute part of this claim (I think that for Rancière the police does seek to “supplant politics,” though I also think that this does not condemn politics to stake a strictly negative stance against it), Chambers’s argument for the specificity of philosophy’s manner of eliminating politics struck me as a productive lens through which to ponder Rancière’s aforementioned remark that, unlike political science whose “axiom is that nothing is ever surprising,” philosophy “begins with wonderment.” So how does philosophy’s unique propensity to acknowledge surprises and to play with the resulting shocks relate to Chambers’s point that philosophy is distinctively positioned to seek the eradication of politics?

In discussing Rancière’s critique of philosophy, Chambers writes that philosophy’s “inception rests on the very discovery of the scandal of democracy,” so that “philosophy is post hoc: It already arrives on the scene too late” (135). Now, in the previous section I argued that the police can have a post hoc outlook as well, and that political science is as invested as philosophy in the retrospective denial that something politically meaningful has happened. What I want to suggest here is that they do so differently: While political science does this in terms of pre-prepared explanations, thus denying an event’s surprising quality altogether, philosophy recognizes the unexpected equality that politics has verified and works to explain away its significance, to justify hierarchy in light of that equality. Chambers repeatedly makes the latter point. He describes how for Rancière “philosophy exposes fully this scandal of democracy, but rather than embrace this as a paradoxical form of rule, philosophy, in the hands of Plato, proceeds to translate the fact of democratic rule into a fatal flaw” (135); similarly, Hobbes “starts with equality,” but rather than infer from it anarchic implications, he makes it “pla[y] a foundational . . . role” in his painstaking case for sovereign authority (26). While it is beyond this review to discuss this in depth, I believe this gets to Rancière’s core interpretive strategy in reading canonical philosophers (as well as other intellectual schools like nineteenth-century literary critics9): He shows them to be constructing a new distribution of roles and functions on the basis of recognizing that something has happened that do not fit the prior ones. If Chambers shows that “a new thinking of politics can only start with la police,” the converse would then be that a new thinking of order (philosophy) starts with politics.

If I am right that philosophy and politics both play with surprise, that both wrestle with what follows the experience that something does not fit pre-prepared explanations, then this complicates Chambers’s call to “inject into the study of politics” a “sense of wonder and shock” in that this same sense may also be the starting-point of philosophers’ antipolitical drive. The relationship between politics and philosophy here becomes quite ambiguous. On the one hand, philosophy seeks to eradicate the egalitarian promise of politics by updating the pre-prepared frames that can no longer contain it. This suggests that surprises need not have emancipatory repercussions because they can serve as the impetus for new inegalitarian partitions; what to do with the unexpected then becomes a central issue for political subjects to keep litigating against philosophers. On the other hand, if philosophy works by building on notions of equality that had until then hardly registered—even if it is just to explain away the “scandal” it is witnessing—then philosophy may be what political movements and verifications need if they are to have lasting effects. In other words, it may serve as an unlikely ally of politics.

  1. I thank Jason Altick for inviting me to this symposium, Samuel Chambers for his response, and Patchen Markell and Linda Zerilli for their feedback on my comments.

  2. Samuel Chambers, The Lessons of Jacques Rancière (Oxford University Press, 2013), 7–8. I indicate subsequent citations from this book with parenthetical references.

  3. See Alan Blinder, “Is Government Too Political?,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 1997, 115–26, and Peter Orzag, “Too Much of a Good Thing,” New Republic, September 13, 2011.

  4. See Philip Pettit, “Depoliticizing Democracy,” Ratio Juris 17:1 (2004): 52–65; for a critical perspective, see Nadia Urbinati, “Unpolitical Democracy,” Political Theory 38:1 (2010): 65–92.

  5. Bonnie Honig, Emergency Politics (Princeton University Press, 2011), ch. 3.

  6. Patchen Markell, “The Rule of the People: Arendt, Arche, and Democracy,” American Political Science Review 100:1 (2006): 7–8.

  7. Paul Apostolidis, “Feminist Theory, Immigrant Workers’ Stories, and Counterhegemony in the United States Today,” Signs 33:3 (2008): 546.

  8. Jacques Rancière, Chronicles of Consensual Times, trans. Steven Corcoran (New York: Continuum, 2010), 12.

  9. See Jacques Rancière, Mute Speech (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

  • Avatar

    Samuel Chambers


    Response to Daniel Nichanian

    Indeed, I think that Daniel Nichanian’s contribution broaches the question of historical grounds for political arguments in important ways. Nichanian’s may well be the most thoroughly “Rancièrean” piece here, in the sense that it soberly, powerfully, and with deep insight works through a series of Rancièrean accounts of politics and philosophy, all as a prelude to creative twists or turns of thought that ostensibly cut directly against the grain of so many “established” accounts of Rancière. If “there is no ‘pure’ politics” then surely there is no pure” police; hence just as politics cannot be romanticized as an unadulterated rupture or a perfect moment, so institutions and institutional work must not be demonized as inherently violent or anti-political. As students of Rancière we should know better than to rule out the possibility of surprise from any quarters (that, after all, is what genuine surprise must be), including from institutions. I would add to Nichanian’s account: we know well from the patient work of historians that “moments of politics” are almost never just “moments”; they are made possible by exactly the “slow and maybe even tedious work conducted in organizations, institutions, even bureaucracies” (Nichanian, this symposium).

    Here we come to the crux of the difference between careful historical understandings, on the one hand, and polemical interventions, on the other. In polemicizing against the early twenty-first-century French phenomenon that he names “hatred of democracy,” Rancière offers a number of examples of democratic politics, moments when a political subject emerges, “working the interval between identities” and radically reshaping the distribution of the sensible. One of his examples is an allusion to Rosa Parks, “the young black woman of Montgomery, Alabama, who, one day in December 1955, decided to remain in her seat on the bus, which was not hers” (Rancière 2006: 61). The standard narrative of Parks’s courageous and spontaneous act fits well within Rancière’s polemic. As Holloway Sparks explains, that narrative tells the story of a tired woman who “suddenly snapped” and defied the law; as Rancière frames it, Parks claimed a right she did not have by staying in the seat that was not hers. But the standard narrative is not really true: Parks was 43 at the time (so not so young), had been a former secretary of the NAACP (which had been searching for a while for a test case to challenge bus segregation), was a current and longstanding member of the WPC (which during contemporaneous discussions with the bus company about the behavior of white drivers had already threatened a boycott), and a few months before her arrest she had spent two weeks at the Highlander Folk School for an activist training workshop (Sparks 1997: 91–92). On top of all of this, Parks was actually not sitting in a seat which “was not hers”: she was not sitting in the front, “whites only” section of the bus, but in the middle section that was reserved for blacks. Her arrest was not for claiming a seat that was not hers, but for refusing to give it up when asked by the bus driver (Sparks 1997: 92). To return to Nichanian, if Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott offer an example of democratic politics, then it is one that simply cannot be grasped outside of its institutional and organizational context.

    All of this only sharpens without answering the question that Nichanian nicely raises—what to call such work? My own effort to thread the needle would be to follow Rancière in reserving the name politics for definite moments of dissensus, while potentially parting with him by extending the name “political” to just these sorts of institutional efforts. In other words, the actions of institutions are not themselves “politics,” but the work of organizations can aptly be called “political work,” just as Nichanian suggests. To some, this may sound like semantics. But in response to them I would point out that polemicization is inextricably tied to semantics; politics and rhetoric cannot be dissociated.

    Given the constraints of time and space I can only intimate that I think something similar might be said about Nichanian’s other substantive proposal—namely, the effort to rehabilitate the term/project “philosophy” for a Rancièrean democratic politics. That is, according to Rancière’s own terminological usage, it seems a definitional impossibility for philosophy to become an “ally of politics,” however unlikely. But that does not undo the importance of the conceptual work Nichanian carries out, and with which I agree, to show the potential complementarities between a philosophical project that starts with wonder and a politics of surprise. In my reading of Rancière there is a potential opening to be created by widening the gap between Socrates and Plato, a gap Rancière himself seems keen to close down. Whereas for Plato philosophy is a project of ordering without remainder, for Socrates it is an adventure.

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      John Altick


      Surprises… politics needing to be “progressive”? reactionary?

      I’ll write more later… but I’d been mulling this over even before the recent unpleasantness. But the questionable ensemble of Rancierean politics re a) ontology, b) dislocatory politics (politics of surprise) c) egalitarian politics.
      What do we do with reactionary / populist political “events” or “surprises”? Seems to me that these sorts of things bring very seriously into question Ranciere’s hesistancy to POLITICALLY theorize ontological questions or the traditional “structural” “philosophical” side of politics. This was a thread running through many of our commentaries here… I particularly think of his critique of Deleuzian politics here. I guess I’m wondering how we would specifically contend that reactionary right-wing populist politics aren’t properly “egalitarian” politics in this way WITHOUT ontological / structural / “philosophical” or “police” theorizing? or if they “are” politics and poilitics is directionless “normatively” speaking etc etc. Anyway, again, kinda in a rush now. will have a more coherent thred soon. haha Enjoyed the piece and look forward to continuing discussion!