Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster may be egalitarian, but it is far from anti-authoritarian. Indeed, what’s curious is the way in which the book implicitly argues for the superiority of traditional forms of authority, against the illegitimacy of modern expertise.

Rancière’s book elaborates on the theory of intellectual emancipation propounded by the Frenchman Joseph Jacotot in the early nineteenth-century. Exiled from France after the conservative restoration, Jacotot found himself in Belgium where he was charged with teaching French to native Flemish-speakers. Knowing no Flemish himself, Jacotot was forced to rely on his students’ abilities to glean the basics of French grammar from the bilingual edition of a French novel. This they did, with remarkable results. Thus Jacotot propounded a novel pedagogic theory whose basic principle was that “one can teach what one doesn’t know” (15).

On this foundation, the observation that teaching is not a matter of communicating expertise from master to pupil, Jacotot develops an entire philosophy, which Rancière in turn seems to affirm. (It is hard to disentangle Rancière’s voice from that of Jacotot.) The practice of explication, instruction, and interpretation is denounced. The true pedagogue enables the student to discover his or her own intelligence, rather than to be illuminated by the professor’s. Or rather, it is suggested that all teaching is a matter of harnessing and guiding the student’s will to learn; “explication is the myth of pedagogy,” whose function is not to communicate knowledge but to produce “a world divided into knowing minds and ignorant ones, ripe minds and immature ones, the capable and the incapable, the intelligent and the stupid” (6). For in fact, all intelligences are equal, or of equal capacity–this at least is the hypothesis or opinion that an emancipatory pedagogy sets out to verify.

Hence the radical egalitarianism: all intelligences are of the same kind and “any human work of art is the practice of the same intellectual potential” (36); it is just that sometimes that potential is developed, and sometimes it is constrained. Moreover, one of the foremost forces to constrain the development of natural intelligence is the very educational system that claims that this is its object. The school doesn’t educate; it stultifies.

But hence therefore the strange reversion to traditional authority: the business of education has to be taken from the educational system and returned to the family. Intellectual emancipation cannot be systematized; “universal teaching belongs to families, and the best that an enlightened ruler can do for its propagation is to use his authority to protect the free circulation of its service” (103).

For it is not that Jacotot (or, implicitly, Rancière) would be done with authority: his students “had learned without a master explicator, but not for all that, without a master” (12). If anything, the new master is more demanding than the old one in forever insisting that the student pay attention and direct his or her will to achieving their own potential: “Is this insignificant? Think about everything the demand implies for the student in the way of an endless task” (31).

So it is perhaps unsurprising, if unfortunate, that the family is chosen as the sole legitimate sphere for universal education on the basis that (and here Rancière is directly quoting Jacotot) it “was the sanctuary where the father was the supreme arbiter” (105). The “natural method of the human mind” (105) appeals to the supposed naturalness of patriarchal authority for its implementation.

All this is strangely anti-social in every sense of the term, and it’s not clear how much it jives with Rancière’s later concern with precisely the institution of the social (however precarious and necessarily incomplete). But it ain’t necessarily so. For surely this strong division between natural families and un-natural social institutions itself merely replicates the false dichotomy between pedagogy and instruction.

After all, explicators and instructors are in fact pedagogues, though they are (ironically) ignorant of the fact: “learning also takes place at the stultifiers’ school; a professor is a thing, less easily handled than a book, undoubtedly, but he can be learned” (102). As such, rather than legitimating the authority of the patriarchal family, surely another route towards emancipatory pedagogy would be the further objectification of the professoriat?


Further to discussions about the field of Latin American literary and cultural studies, Gareth Williams has kindly made available his essay “Deconstruction and Subaltern Studies, or, a Wrench in the Latin Americanist Assembly Line” (.pdf file). This is the English version of his contribution to Hernán Vidal’s Treinta años de estudios literarios/culturales latinoamericanistas en los Estados Unidos, a book which, as I have noted, is not easy to obtain.

Williams’s essay does many things: it provides a counter-history of the Latin American studies group, its demise, and the subsequent “end of the alliances”; it is an argument for the role of deconstruction and against the ideological misreadings of deconstruction within Latin Americanism; and it is an empassioned plea for a new relation to the field.

Three brief quotations, then. First, a salutary caution about any declaration of manifestos:

The last twenty years have coincided with the full-blown consolidation of the neoliberal corporate university in the United States and beyond. In this time I have been struck by the way U.S.-based Latin Americanism has succumbed increasingly to the false authority of phrases such as “what we need to do . . . ” or “what should be done is . . .” which are repeated with disconcerting ease in both writings and professional meetings alike. Of course, what these sentences generally do is function as stand-ins for actual conceptual labor, and it is perfectly understandable that Latin Americanists based in Latin America, for example, should take umbrage at such phrases since they are by no means completely disconnected from the far reaching babble of contemporary corporate arrogance. (2-3)

Second, another account of the “end of the alliances”:

At the Latin American Studies Association International Conference that took place in Washington D.C. in early September 2001, Néstor García Canclini announced the “end of the alliance” between the varying strands contained within the Latin American cultural studies paradigm. I do not mean he inaugurated the end of that alliance. I think he was merely responding to the fact that university discourse on Latin America, in all its distinct registers and loci of enunciation, had definitively succumbed to the corporate logics of market forces; that is, that Latin Americanism had embraced the commodity fetishism of its own thought and language, without further ado, and had become nothing more than market force and competition in action. Needless to say, without a commitment to collective theoretical reflection this situation will not improve, because the alternative is that prospective students to Ph.D. programs who ask questions such as “Does your department do postcolonial theory?” will be perfectly justified in reproducing the banal competition of the Latin Americanist assembly line. (20)

And third, a discussion of the “decision for vitality” that faces us:

It is up to all of us to assume responsibility for, or to turn our backs on, the practical and theoretical decision for the struggle of the part of those who have no part (and, therefore, for philosophy as class struggle at the theoretical level). We can decide for the positivity of the police or decide for affirmative political subjectification. Make no mistake, it is a vital decision, a decision for vitality, or not, in which the future lasts forever with or without us. The decision for the future, indeed, the decision that there be a future for the democratic practice of a theoretical politics of culture in Latin Americanism, is, in this regard, yours, ours, for the taking. That decision for the future, within the context of the corporate police university, is a decision for real philosophical and political responsibility toward Latin America and its truth, in theory and in practice. It is a decision for something other than the reduction of thought to the technical reproduction of our corporate police order and its ideas. (54-55)

Beyond this, I won’t summarize the entire essay; I urge you to read it.

Moreover, in the particular context of this blog, the essay is also important in that it offers a strong defence of at least one version of “posthegemony,” drawing on Alberto Moreiras’s The Exhaustion of Difference. I have outlined my own differences with Gareth and Alberto’s versions of posthegemony elsewhere (.pdf file), so I won’t do so again at length now. I’ll merely note that here, Gareth also takes up Rancière’s distinction between police and politics, rightly (I think) arguing that projects for hegemony are always in the end police actions, rather than politics strictu sensu. But his suggestion seems to be that politics in this sense is always democratic; i.e. that the state always and only works through “police thought’s calculated management and distribution of places, powers, functions, locations and loci of enunciation” (52).

I beg to differ, and indeed would point to Gareth’s own marvelous analysis of the “Atlacatl affect” in The Other Side of the Popular as evidence to the contrary. In this analysis, Gareth shows how the elite Atlacatl battalion of the Salvadoran army, responsible for the El Mozote massacre among other grievous war crimes, equally incarnated an excess that went beyond any logic of distribution or calculation. And of course, we see precisely such excess in, say, Guantánamo, or indeed anywhere and everywhere else the state imprints itself on our bodies. To put this another way, the state, too, is posthegemonic; it is not a question of positing a putatively liberating posthegemony against a stultifying hegemony. Of course, we need to be done with the concept of hegemony, but that in itself is not enough. Posthegemony opens up the terrain on which the grounds of politics and policing alike are disputed by multiple actors. A politics of affirmation is not exhausted by deconstruction and its “the negative work it carries out against hegemony” (46).

Or to put things in still other terms, the more local ones of the discussion of the field of Latin Americanism: it is surely not enough simply to put a “wrench in the Latin Americanist assembly line.” That assembly line also works by breaking down, by breaking up alliances and cutting the wind from our sails. Heck, sometimes we must surely all want the university to be a place of rational calculation. But each and every day we can come up with evidence that it is anything but. Hence a politics of knowledge must also go beyond critique, even beyond the most rigorous and unflinching critique provided by deconstruction.


The question regarding democracy is whether or not we can imagine an anti-democratic, or better non-democratic, politics. In other words, is politics tied to democracy, or can it be imagined beyond democracy?

(A supplmentary question might then be whether or not we can and should imagine a beyond to politics itself: a post-politics.)

The prevailing consensus would seem to be that politics is unimaginable without democracy, that it is only democracy that opens up the possibility for politics. Without democracy, all we are left with is (variously, or perhaps in combination) power, administration, fanaticism, hatred.

Jacques RanciereSuch is the view of Ernesto Laclau, but also, for instance, Jacques Rancière, who writes:

There is politics, the art and science of politics, because there is democracy. Politics is encountered as already present in the factuality of democracy, in the very strangeness of the combination of words which joins the unassignable quantity of the demos to the indefinable action of kratein. (On the Shores of Politics 94)

Rancière traces the mixed fortunes of both politics and democracy from its invention in Athens to the current “end of politics.”

For Rancière, democracy (and so politics) is characterized by three conditions, which together constitute a split and antagonistic subject:

Politics is a function of the fact of democracy, of the way in which democracy’s factuality presents itself in three forms: the appearance deployed by the name of the people, the imparity of the people when counted and the grievance connected with the antagonism between rich and poor. (96)

In our post-political, post-democratic age, all three of these conditions are now undermined, ironically for the sake of democracy’s correction or perfection, in other words to erase the split that (for Rancière) characterizes the democratic subject:

Exhibition in place of appearance, exhaustive counting in place of imparity, consensus in place of grievance–such are the commanding features of the current correction of democracy, a correction which thinks of itself as the end of politics but which might better be called post-democracy. (98)

There is, however, a tension in this formulation: first, the declaration that this correction only “thinks of itself as the end of politics” implies that in fact politics continues; and second, the admission that this correction of democracy is itself in the name of democracy implies that it is less post-democratic than, in fact, a limit internal to democracy.

Meanwhile, the threat of post-democracy, as Rancière sees it, is that it summons up “the spectre of the great all-devouring Whole” (65), “the rule of the principle of unification of the multitude under the common law of the One” (88), an “ochlocracy” (33), that is, the “turbulent unification of individual turbulences” (31). And what is most monstrous about this threat, we are told, is that its unity is impossible, fantasmatic, and depends only on the violent, passionate exclusion of the racialized other; it conjures up therefore a world of “fear and hate” (36), “the return of the animalistic aspect of politics” rather than “the democratic virtue of trust” that inheres in democracy’s “polemical space of shared meaning” (60).

So democracy has to be split, has to depend on inequality and grievance, so as to ward off the threat of radical difference incarnated in the multitude and its purported others.

We have here, therefore, something like a mirror image of Negri’s conception of the multitude–with, of course, the difference that for Negri the multitude’s passion is not hatred but love.

Moreover, Hardt and Negri’s wager is that the (self-)rule of the multitude might still be termed democracy; indeed, that in that it escapes the entire problematic of (in)equality and identity that (as Rancière points out) bedevils democratic theory and practice, replacing it with the combination of commonality and singularity, multitudinous immanence is now a better bearer of the name democracy than are actually existing political regimes. “Post-democracy” therefore invokes this new, more democratic, democracy of pure immanence.

Angela Mitropoulos and Brett Neilson condemn this move as at best a form of “diplomacy” (and “diplomacy is already a technique of statecraft”), but more importantly because it thereby “fails to confront the politics of the demos and the kratos that invocations of democracy set to work” (“Cutting Democracy’s Knot”). I’m not so sure; refusing to confront democracy’s entanglements might also be seen as a strategic evasion, another mode of cutting the knot.

More importantly, however, it would be worth taking seriously the notion that the multitude might equally be characterized by hatred as by love; I see no obvious reason for simply assuming that the multitude’s passion is the latter rather than the former. Certainly not if we look at groups that are otherwise organized very much along the lines that Negri argues are characteristic of the multitude: Sendero Luminoso or al Qaida, for instance. We need, at the least, to distinguish between multitudes good and bad–though that distinction may turn on ethics, rather than on politics.

Or take the image that provides Rancière with his book’s title, of maritime flows and desires that have to be domesticated by shepherds on shore. Rancière writes that

The great beast of the populace, the democratic assembly of the imperialist city, can be represented as a trireme of drunken sailors. In order to save politics it must be pulled aground among the shepherds. (1)

But without romanticizing shipboard life and lusts, and while recognizing that it was maritime power that built terrestial empires, can we not rescue a politics of perhaps something like democracy from the interstitial, unbounded spaces of the high seas?

Crossposted to Long Sunday.