Who is Jacques Ranciere?
A French critical theorist and philosophical troll in a world of ivory tower intellectualism, bourgeois academics, and Jean Baudrillard, Ranciere stands out as a kind of anti-philosopher. A University of Paris professor and former student of Louis Althusser, Ranciere has committed his intellectual project to destroying its foundations.
While that may sound a lot like Baudrillard, who wants to remind everyone that everything is simulation and nothing matters, or Nietzsche who attacks the foundations of Western metaphysics, Ranciere takes a different approach. Namely, by accusing every other philosopher of being a shitty Platonist and hating democracy.
While other philosophers deconstruct the metaphysical tradition and replace it with their own project, Ranciere’s philosophy can be summed up by “meh, people will figure it out.” And thus we present: the thought of Jacques Ranciere.
#1 “Fuck the Police” is Pretty Much his Definition of Politics
In his “Ten Theses on Politics”, Ranciere makes a simple claim. There are two kinds of politics in the status quo, fake poser bullshit masquerading as politics and the real thing. Ranciere calls the poser politics the “politics of the police”. Ranciere calls “real” politics “dissensus.”
What the Fuck is Dissensus?
Dissensus is the process by which actors disrupt the politics of the police.
You see, the police are all about telling you what to do and where to do it. Remember that time that cop got all up in your grill for skateboarding in front of 7-11? Or, if you’re a person of color, remember that time a cop arrested you and planted drugs on you for skateboarding in front of 7-11? That’s the police order; the partitions that the police put in place for what can be seen, said and done, and where they can be done. When that cop drove away and you kept skateboarding, you totally disrupted the police partitioning of that space (sort of).
The police says that there is nothing to see on a road, that there is nothing to do but move along. It asserts that the space of circulating is nothing other than the space of circulation. Politics, in contrast, consists in transforming this space of ‘moving-along’ into a space for the appearance of a subject: i.e., the people, the workers, the citizens: It consists in refiguring the space, of what there is to do there, what is to be seen or named therein. It is the established litigation of the perceptible. – Ten Theses on Politics
We can see how these police partitions work in the events of Occupy Wall Street.
You see, some bankers made this park on stolen native land for them to eat lunch in while they rested from robbing the world of millions of dollars with complicated derivatives and other bullshit nobody understands. When some hipsters decided they wanted to camp out on Wall Street, the police were like “GTFO bro”. And when those hipsters started camping out in Zuccoti Park and ruining those bankers lunches, the police calmly reminded the protesters that the park belonged to white people in suits. The police reminded the protesters that if they want to take part in this “politics” business they need to vote like everyone else, or at least have some sort of “concrete demands”. But they didn’t, so then they started pepper spraying kids.
That’s what the police order does, it tells you to take part in the fake politics – casting a ballot, going to a town hall – and tries to divest energy from what Ranciere calls real politics. After all, the Egyptian revolution didn’t start because people started sending nicely worded petitions to the government. It started when people manifested themselves in the public spaces that were once apolitical.
#2 He Doesn’t Get Along with his Colleagues
Ranciere got his first exposure by contributing to Reading Capital with his teacher Louis Althusser.
It may be surprising that a few years later Ranciere put out Althusser’s Lesson which might have well been a raging “fuck off” to his teacher and mentor. The quarrel started over the events of May ’68. While Althusser and other Marxists were asserting the importance of Marxist academia in the French student revolts, Ranciere began to break away from this traditional mode of thought. Marxist intellectuals accused the revolts of being bourgeois and undisciplined. To which Ranciere accused Marxists of being a bunch of little shits:
The underlying idea, to focus solely on the theoretical level, is not only that Marxism is learned exclusively through books, but also that it is learned only from the classics. It is that every development is a betrayal, that every application of Marxism is a deviation into pragmatism, ideology, and political manipulation. We can see quite clearly from the phrase, ‘to focus solely on the theoretical level’, that what was at stake on the practical level was the rejection of the ‘developments’ that Khrushchev, with his successors and emulators, had introduced to ‘classical’ Marxism. This was the time, for example, when it was common to teach that peaceful coexistence was the supreme form of class struggle . . . The purism of theory could not but have political effects. And that was really all that mattered: we could say everything, provided nothing that we said had practical effects. – Althusser’s Lesson
But that was just the start. Ranciere’s project became more and more defined as time went on. From a criticism of Althusser and orthodox Marxism, Ranciere’s message soon became “Philosophy – it’s a big bag of dicks.” Writing Hatred of Democracy, Ranciere attacks the Platonic tradition and ties it to practically every Marxist philosopher. He argues that everyone in the Western tradition, from Plato to Marx, wants to become a philosopher king to shovel Truth into the mouths of the blind ignorant masses. Ranciere carries this line of thought to his other books such as “Disagreement” where he accuses every theorists of democracy of being a Platonic saboteur.
One of his most famous feuds is with fellow Althusser alumn Alain Badiou for his self-professed Platonism.
Badiou, whose goal is to revive an “egalitarian Platonism,” penned an essay about Ranciere titled “The Lessons of Jacques Ranciere: Knowledge and Power After the Storm,” whereby Badiou acknowledges that the shittiest thing he could ever to do Ranciere is agree with him:
“To speak only well of Jacques Ranciere is not an easy task, given the positions that the two of us occupy. Perhaps my constant praise might, in fact, be the worst fate that I could have in store for him. Would doing so be precisely the most underhanded way to attack him? If, for example, I were to announce that we are in agreement on a number of important points, how would he take that? Would he rather just as soon change his mind on all those points and leave me behind?” – Jacques Ranciere: History, Politics, Aesthetics
And then there’s Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard, who started his career by telling everybody to “Forget Foucault” is an academic troll par excellence. The theorists of simulation has taken Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and turned it into a nihilistic portrait of doom and despair. But Ranciere ain’t got time for that. Writing in “The Misadventures of Critical Thought” he says “theorists of simulation” (a not-so-subtle reference to Baudrillard) are at the heart of simulation itself.
The Marxism of the denunciation of the mythologies of the commodity, the fallacies of consumer’s society and the empire of the spectacle. Forty years ago, it was supposed to unmask the machineries of domination, in order to provide the anti-capitalist fighters with new weapons. It has turned to exactly the contrary: a form of nihilist knowledge of the reign of the commodity and the spectacle, of the equivalence of anything with anything and of anything with its image
…The current disconnection between the critical procedures and any perspective of emancipation only reveals the disjunction at the heart of the critical paradigm. It may make fun of its illusions but it remains enclosed in its logic. This is why I think it is necessary to re-examine the genealogy of the concepts and procedures of that logic and the way in which it got intertwined with the logic of social emancipation.
#3 He Thinks Your Professor is Worthless
It might seem ironic for a teacher to conclude “fuck smart people.” But in The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Ranciere makes that very claim. You see, Ranciere has been hating on philosophers from the very beginning. From his very start in Althusser’s Lesson, to Hatred of Democracy, to The Philosopher and his Poor, Ranciere is constantly accusing philosophers of proposing a capital T truth to reign down in a golden shower of truth onto ignorant masses. That makes a really compelling case for why I shouldn’t be reading Ranciere at all, and maybe just fucking up the police on my own terms.
But in The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Ranciere takes teachers to task. You see, teachers are trying to make you stupid. Really stupid. Like you would be better off thinking about shit really hard instead of taking a class on something. Why does he say that?
There was this dude named Jacotot, and he was awesome. He was a French guy who went to teach in Belgium after the French Revolution. He was teaching French, but his students only spoke Flemish. He, by the way, did not speak Flemish. So doing what any responsible teacher would do, Jacotot gave them a recent version of this book Telamaque that had the French on one side of the page and the Flemish on the other side and said “figure it out.”
And they did.
Ranciere advocates this form of “universal education” and says the traditional teacher/student model is only meant to perpetuate societal inequality and keep students in a state of stultification. Stultification – that’s a fancy word for stupid. The implications of this philosophy are A) You don’t need a teacher like Ranciere to teach you anything and B) An illiterate parent could teach their children to read by plopping a book down and saying “figure it out.”
The crazy part? This shit works, and not just around random corners of Europe where the tradition was born.
You know how your dumb ass can barely figure out how to change the settings on your Kindle? Remember that fancy college degree you spent more than $100k on? Well fuck you, because kids in Ethiopa who don’t even know what a tablet is can not only fix your settings but remove any pesky security measures while they’re at it.
You see, someone at One Laptop Per Child had the bright idea of just dumping a bunch of Motorola Zoom tablets in an Ethiopan village full of kids. The children did not speak English, which was the language loaded on the tablet, and they had never seen a computer before. Within weeks these kids were fucking wizards with the things so much so that they actually figured out how to jailbreak them.
“We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.”
There’s more. These other researchers decided to give this whole universal education thing a shot and gave a bunch of molecular biology textbooks to a bunch of Tamil-speaking kids in South India. The text books were in English.
Left on their own for two months, without external help or instruction, the researchers felt that surely this task would demonstrate that ‘yes, we need teachers for certain things’ (Mitra 2010). Indeed, after two months, when Mitra asked them what they understood of molecular biology, the children confirmed that they understood nothing. What gets the biggest laugh at Mitra’s numerous talks, however, is the response of one girl from the group, who explained: ‘Apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease, we understood nothing else.’ – Of Slumdogs and Schoolmasters – Jacotot, Ranciere and Mitra on Self-Organized Learning
When given an exam on the material, however, the kids all failed. And by failed, they averaged 30%, which is exactly 4 points lower than I scored on my high school physics final that was administered in a language I speak.
Want to Learn More About Ranciere?
If you’d like to explore the thought of Jacques Ranciere, you can read his Ten Theses on Politics for free on Scribd. You should also check out this Ranciere blog, run by Paul Bowman and Michael O’Rourke. Paul Bowman, by the way, is really into writing about the intersections of Bruce Lee and Ranciere.