Interview with Jacques Rancière
Conducted by Lawrence Liang
Lodi Gardens, Delhi, 5th February 2009
Jacques Rancière (born Algiers, 1940) is Emeritus Professor, Philosophy, at the University of Paris (St. Denis). He came to prominence when he co-authored Reading Capital (1968), with Louis Althusser, the Marxist philosopher. He subsequently broke away from Althusser and wrote The Nights of Labour, a work that examined the philosophical and poetical writings of workers in 19th century France. Through an examination of the lives of these worker autodidacts, Rancière introduced a new way of thinking about the idea of the worker, and of the injunction that divides between those entitled to a life in thought and those born to do manual labour.
He went on to write The Philosopher and His Poor which looks at the figure of the poor artisan from classical philosophy down to Marx and Sartre. In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, inspired by the experiences of a radical early 19th century teacher, Joseph Jacotot, Rancière sought to rethink the idea of pedagogy away from the idea of moving form the unknown to the known and from those who possess knowledge to those who don’t, to look at how all forms of ignorance are also conditions of knowledge.
He was in Delhi recently, on the occasion of the release of the Hindi language edition of The Nights of Labour.
Le us begin with a quote, which will help us draw people unfamiliar with your work, into the heart of The Nights of Labour. Why is a worker who composes verses more dangerous than the one who performs revolutionary songs?
I did not exactly say that the one is more dangerous than the other. You have to see it historically. The fact is that in France in the 1830s there were a lot of workers doing verse, doing literature, and I think the bourgeoisie felt that there was a danger when the worker entered the world of thought and of culture. When workers are only struggling, then they are supposed to be in their world and in their place. Workers were supposed to work and be dissatisfied with their wages, their working conditions and possibly still work again, struggle again and again. But when workers attempt to write verses and try to become writers, philosophers, it means a displacement from their identity as workers. The important thing is this dis-placement or dis-identification. What I was trying to show was that there was no real opposition. I don’t mean that all workers who are attempting to write verses had entered the revolution or anything, but it was a kind of a general movement of people getting out of their condition.
A common sentiment shared amongst those involved in emancipatory politics suggest that “Another world is possible”. And yet this suggestion is often premised on the idea of the material improvement of existing worlds. I read in Nights of Labour another suggestion, which is not as interested in the improvement of the material conditions of existing worlds, as much as in fleeing it. You suggest that these worker-writers were already participating in the impossible by redrawing the lines. How do you conceptualize the relationship between emancipation and the politics of impossibility?
It all depends on what you understand by the word impossibility. It was only not about looking for something which was absolutely impossible, I was looking at situations as the distribution of positions. It means what can be seen, what can be said and what can be thought of as being possible. A situation determines a set of possibilities, and the impossible is the limit. I was looking at the idea of the emancipated worker, where the question is always of crossing the borders of the impossible. Because what was ironically possible was the improvement of the conditions of work and wages, but it was not enough. What they wanted was to become entirely human, with all the possibilities of a human being and not only having what is possible to do for workers. So that there is not necessarily an opposition between material improvement, and this attempt. I hope I did not give the impression that on the one hand there is concern with these material improvements and on the other hand the greatest impossible. The question of what is possible and impossible is really at stake in every situation, and I think the intellectual impossible and the material impossible are connected with one another.
What was impossible was really changing a form of existence, and that is why the book was called The Nights of the Proletariat, because what was most materially and intellectually impossible for a worker is precisely not to sleep at night. This was entirely material and entirely intellectual at the same time. That was what made it important for me
Your imagination of equality is radically different from liberal ideas of equality. Equality in your work is not an ends to arrive at, but the point of departure. Your work assumes that everyone leads an intellectual life, but recognizes that material and economic differences determine our ability to perform this intellectual life. How does this idea of equality differ from the general struggles for equality? And I think this is quite relevant in a context like India where we are on the one hand marked by very sharp social and economic inequality, but the only way in which one finally finds forms of addressing that is from a very unequal place. That’s why the pedantic and the pedagogic comes in – the struggle for finding terms of addressing what may be material inequality, but which actually take the quality of thought as a starting point.
We can locate this in the debate about education because in our countries, education is supposed to be the way to make people equal, starting from inequality. It is at the same time the logic of pedagogy and also the logic of progress, and a progressive thinking that of course people are not equal, and lower class people are not equal, and that precisely this derogation regenerates equality and we can get out of that condition etc etc. This is the normal pedagogic and progress of your thinking. When I encountered the works of Joseph Jacotot, I was very challenged. It is very difficult to categorise him. Was he a philosopher, a professor? His work led me to rethink the very idea of pedagogy, and what it means to teach. Similarly in the 1820s there was a lot of concern about how we can educate the people, slowly, progressively: but that was not the point, the idea of starting from inequality to reach quality; it’s impossible because in the very process, you ceaselessly recycle practices of inequality. You must not go towards equality, but must start from equality. Starting from equality does not presuppose that everyone in the world has equal opportunities to learn, to express their capacities. That’s not the point. The point is that you have to start from the minimum equality that is given. The normal pedagogic logic says that people are ignorant, they don’t know how to get out of ignorance to learn, so we have to make some kind of an itinerary to move from ignorance to knowledge, starting from the difference between the one who knows and the one who does not know.
The idea of Jacotot and the idea of intellectual emancipation was that there is always some point of equality. There is always something that is shared, for instance when the teacher is explaining something to the student, on the one hand it supposes that he has something to explain, that the student is unable to understand by himself or herself etc, so this is a relationship of inequality, but it can work only if the master supposes that that the students can simply understand the explanation, understand what the master is telling him.
So there is a kind of equality in the fact that they atleast share the same language. So the idea is not that we consider everybody as equal etc etc, rather it is about thinking about the process of learning, not as a process from ignorance to knowledge but as a process of going from what is already known or what is already possessed, to further knowledge or new possessions. I think it is a very important point so the idea is that the ignorant always knows something, always asks something and always has the capacity, and the problem is how to make the best of this capacity and start from equality. When I wrote The Ignorant Schoolmaster there was a big debate in France because there sociologists were saying that education is a lie, that education supposes that all the kids are equal and can understand the same thing, and that’s not true, so you have to adapt education to the background of the students, especially of the lower classes. At the same time there were the Republicans saying equality means that we have to consider everyone at the same level, which means that they are all ignorant but had to become learned. So that was the debate and I tried to subvert the debate, to state precisely that all those people are looking for the best path – from inequality to equality, but the only good part is to move from equality to equality.
How would you distinguish between the ignorant schoolmaster and something like the pedagogy of the oppressed?
When I wrote The Ignorant Schoolmaster, I was not very concerned with a pedagogy of the oppressed, mainly because it was not a part of the French debate. The pedagogy of the oppressed is also about linking general education with political education, so I think that if there is something common between intellectual emancipation and pedagogy of the oppressed, it is the idea that education first means enablement, that you first deal with the capacity possessed even by the oppressed, or by the lower class people. But at the same time, it is true that intellectual emancipation means that there is no specific pedagogy of the oppressed, that there is no specific education for poor people or oppressed people etc. If there is a specific pedagogy of the oppressed, then it must be thought of as a specific case in the general idea of intellectual emancipation, because basically the idea of emancipation is the same for rich people and for poor people.
Nights of Labour recasts the relationship between aesthetics and politics: At the heart of the book is an ‘aesthetic revolution’ which is fundamentally about the reordering of time (workers wresting away the ‘intellectual nights of the writer’ challenge the assumption that labour exhausts the labourer and hence is not able to participate in intellectual life). How would you revisit this thesis in the contemporary era of global capital? It is said that the contemporary reordering of time destroys ‘forms of life’ and subjects it to the tyranny of time.
Of course it is not the same situation and the Nights of Labour dealt with a period of history when there was no legislation about labour hours and things like that. But it was also a period when practices of auto-didactism were very important amongst the working-class. So both the questions of the partition of time and access to education and culture were quite different and certainly the power of intellectual emancipation was linked to a specific time. But at the same time, I would really question the idea that in contemporary capitalism all life is really framed within the capitalist organization of time and of life. In a way it is always the same. Of course, the possibilities of life are different and the organization of private and public life is quite different, as is the relationship between what is work and what is outside work. Everything has changed. What I think remains the same is that in each situation you have the choice between two positions. You could say that life is entirely subjected to the empire of domination, which means at that time during the whole day all the people were subjected to the law of the workshops, and they just had time for work and rest, and they had no time to waste, and they had to go to work the following day. But the workers said no, it is not true, it is possible to break the circle.
Now of course the circle is constructed differently. People say that people work less and that there are some forms of protection etc. But now their life is entirely dominated by the rhythms of labour on the one hand and on the other hand by all the apparatuses of consumption, or with the power of the media etc. So in a way it is always the same discourse that says that life is entirely subjugated with the idea that every change is a new form of subjugation. For instance many people, when they read Foucault, they got from Foucault the idea that all forms – of welfare state, social security etc – were forms of administration of government and of the life of people. I do not think this is true because you have the same debate on the same choice, but you can use it differently. And you can think of it quite differently. Now people say for instance that with television and the internet life is entirely subjugated. But we all know of examples with the internet, that it can be subjugated with the dominant ideology or you can create new forms of discussion and discourse etc. So my point is that there is this kind of lingering discourse that life is entirely subjugated or exhausted, and I think the idea of bio politics has something very harmful about it. Because there’s this idea that in bio-politics, life is entirely governed, and even inside us, even our blood and flesh is governed by power. But I don’t think so and I remember in the 70s and 80s, we tried precisely to take a distance from this view that was also becoming dominant in left wing thinking.
While reading Nights of Labour the one thing that had struck me, was the fact that what Gauny and his friends were fighting this idea that your life has been exhausted, your life has already been decided and that there is no other possibility. This is something that as intellectual labourer or cultural labourers in the late 20th and early 21st century, we recognize, we seem to be continuously fighting social theory and forms of discourse that keep reminding us that our selves are already exhausted, the possibilities of creative expression are exhausted through commodification etc, the possibility of forms of visioning life are exhausted because of bio politics which has taken over. So it seems like we are somehow actively possessed by Gauny, to keep ourselves alive. So in a sense, Nights of Labour is not about the past, but is written for the future, and for thinking about intellectual and cultural labour in the contemporary.
Yes, certainly what is interesting in the case of Gauny is the construction of a counter economy, which sounds rather paradoxical because he tries to reduce his consumption precisely to get free from the empire of necessity and in a certain way you could even say that he is a forerunner of the ecological movement and things like that. But the point is not whether he is a forerunner of ecology, rather he is the forerunner of the idea of emancipation, which means that you can always turn the conditions around.
Following from that, one could say that the common account of the revolution is an account where the revolution comes after time. But in the Nights of Labour, by breaking the distinction between the aesthetic and the political revolution, the revolution is one which is in time, and is happening – along with us. Could you elaborate on this distinction.
When I tried to think of the idea of intellectual emancipation, there is no distinction between the idea that – now we are struggling, now we are constructing and now we are preparing the future and the future will be wonderful. The art of emancipation is precisely to get out of this relationship between means and ends, which in the leftist tradition is based on the idea that now we create the conditions for a better future, we are preparing the weapons for the future, which means a certain phase in historical necessity. But what I think is at the heart of emancipation is precisely the idea that time is everyday. This does not mean that you have to be entirely swallowed in the everyday, but that the question of time is not to be thought of in terms of present and future, it has to be related to the partition between here and now, between time as a form of constraint and time as a possibility of freedom; and what is important in Nights of Labour was this idea of the subversion of time, and what happens in the here and now. My point is that this idea of the future, and the use of time as a form of prohibition, that you can have it in the future but you cannot have it in the present, an idea of deferred time, so the idea of historical necessity and historical process, is part of this repressive idea of time. Because the main point is whether you can or cannot and whether you use time to say yes we can, or no we can’t.
In many ways the Nights of Labour can be read as a poetics of curiosity (the figure of the auto didact), and yet curiosity itself seems to be under theorized in your own work.
I didn’t elaborate on the idea of curiosity and perhaps somebody can elaborate on this now, but at that time what was important for me in the idea of curiosity can be seen through the prism of looking: You look on the side, you look at places or questions that are not supposed to be your place or your questions. For instance in Gauny’s book there is this relationship of the day to work, but there is also a disjuncture at a particular moment – between the eye and the look – to go aside. To look through the window, to take an imaginary possession of the neighbourhood which is at the same time not a real possession but is something real, because it means that you are not only working or only a worker working with his hands, but also his eyes are looking at what his hands are doing. So curiosity for me is in this mode, I was interested in the idea of transgression. So you’re putting your feet or you’re looking in other places apart from the one that you are supposed to be in.
An underlying assumption of a number of movements is the idea of representation, and utility: But your own interest has been in the idea of the non-representative individual and in his relationship to non-utility and things which are useless. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Nights of Labour was not accepted in its time, because both these categories are crucial for the labour historian and the philosopher. But given the changes that have taken place in the last 30 years, are we now in a position to relook or think about how the figure of the non-representative individual and the idea of non-utility are now opening up possibilities today?
This is very difficult to answer, because what made it possible for me to write this book was the context of 1968 and the things that happened around ’68. It was precisely because a lot of the things that were thought impossible had become possible, and one of the impulses when I began my research was the fact that in ’68 there were meetings in factories between students and workers. I was surprised by the kind of questions that were put forward by the workers. They were not unionists, and in that sense they were not representative individuals. But it did show that they had a number of strange preoccupations and strange interests and concerns which were not the normal concerns of workers, or least their leaders.
So on the one hand there was an actuality of what I was dealing with in the book, but when the book came out 13 years later, the Socialist Party had already taken over power and the context had entirely changed. It was no more intelligible, and old categories were coming back. There was a certain kind of social science that had become dominant. There was very little concern with philosophy and everything had taken an empirical turn. There were two ways of thinking about the worker at that time: you were either a part of the indistinguishable mass of workers or you were the representative of workers, and you either represented this faction or the other. It was therefore impossible for them to grapple with this kind of material and with the range of non-representative individual that I was talking about in my book. What was impossible for them to think about was what symbolic rupture means. In ’68 it was easier to think of what symbolic rupture meant – when people start talking about things that were not supposed to be their business – but it was no more intelligible in ’81.
And now I think it is possible to understand it because in ’81, when the book came out, the Socialist Party was taking more or less a straightforward Marxism. There was this idea of the class as the totality and a movement. And we know intellectually what came after that. It was the era of postmodernism and skepticism where there was a sentiment that the entire world was now headed towards a global petit bourgeoisie of mean people, and the idea was that there was no possibility of any subversion. So over a period of time people have begun to appreciate what I was saying. And our conditions changed with the so-called crisis. People are now again beginning to feel that perhaps the capitalist machine is not eternal. So what seems to have changed now is the possibility of understanding the idea of time in an anti-evolutionist manner, and the destiny of historical necessity. And at the same time, it is possible to understand that those individual destinies mean some form of strong symbolic break.
What would constitute the archives of new labour, where days and nights are exchanged, through labour. Nights are precisely when one engages in labour, and the day is when one sleeps?
What is different now of course is that the internet exists, so a lot of thoughts and writings that would have entirely disappeared in other contexts can now remain, be written, be exchanged. The archive that I worked with is of course a very little part of what the workers were writing. Now there are many more channels that people can write in and go through. So the question might be not about whether people can express themselves, but how the self-expression is related to the idea of dissent and subversion, and how is this related to official dissent or official subversion because the problem now is not self-expression any longer. All of this itself is now categorized, and it is now more difficult to think of this kind of an archive of dissent. So I’m not sure if I can answer, but probably for people who work through the night and sleep during the day, there is the same problem. Being able to spare a part of the day and to escape this kind of cycle and to find forms of practices and expression.
One of the lines that touched me the most form the book was “What if the truest sorrow lay not in being able to enjoy the false ones”. This line speaks to me about ways in which we can move from the pedantic and pedagogic impulses of many movements of solidarity which relates to marginalized subjects, not through subjectivity but through piety.
Finding pleasure in sorrow, finding pleasure in pain is indeed the very definition of a certain form of aesthetic pleasure. For instance, the very definition of classical tragedy is precisely a certain form of performance which deals with painful events, but which at the same time is destined to bring about pleasure for people. But it also means that in the classical order only people of privilege, or people of leisure and culture are able to enjoy such sorrows and to take pleasure in pain. What was important in the 1830s in the experience of the workers was the fact that they were living at a time of the great romantic poets and writers. These poets were for example writing about sorrow, the sorrow of being born, the sorrow of having nothing – no place in society, no place in the world. At the same time it was pleasure, the pleasure to write those lines or those verses about the sorrow of being born, the sorrow of having no place in society etc, and what was interesting for me was the way in which those workers could take up this paradoxical pleasure. Because, of course, they had a place in society, and what was difficult for them was to be in the other place, so it was important in a way for them to escape their place, and to play precisely the part of those who had no place, and to share the sorrow of those who had no place and nothing to do in society. What I also tried to say was, the very definition of proletarian – it is an old Latin word – which at the beginning had nothing to do with factory and work, and it only referred to people who had children, or people who are only able to reproduce life, or people who were really attached to what Agamben would call bare life. So it was quite important for them, I think, to rephrase the condition of people who were doomed to the mere production of life, and to rephrase each life as a kind romanticist sorrow – what a pity I was born in the world that had no place for me. The important thing is the possibility to exchange one sorrow for another, and in a sense the pleasure in literature and culture is the ability to exchange one sorrow for another sorrow.