Last night I was pleased to discover that Ranciere’s first book, Althusser’s Lesson is now available. Ranciere is the political theorist that comes closest to the Lacanian spirit and flat ontology that informs my own political thought. When I refer to a “Lacanian spirit”, I am referring to how Lacan conceived the relationship between analyst and analysand in the actual praxis of analysis. What makes Lacanian analysis so unique is that the analyst is not conceived as a master who knows, such that the analysand is placed in the subordinate position of being a pupil that must come to internalize the superior knowledge and understanding of the analyst. Rather, the only subject that knows in Lacanian analysis is the analyzand’s unconscious. The analyst functions as a midwife of that knowledge that has no knowledge or mastery of his own.
This is very much in line with Ranciere’s conception of politics. Althusser’s Lesson is a lesson in a theory of what politics shouldn’t be and of the type of politics that shouldn’t be followed. In other words, Althusserianism is the villian in this book. In a new preface written for Althusser’s Lesson outlines his own project, remarking that,
From the very beginning, my concern has been with the study of thought and speech where they produce effects, that is, in a social battle that is also a conflict, renewed with each passing instant, over what we perceive and how we came to name it. From the beginning, I have confronted the philosophies of the end of history with the topography of the possible; indeed, we can see the contours of this project appearing beyond the theses specific to Althusser, the book has its sights trained on the much broader logic by by which subversive thoughts are recuperated for the service of order. The principle of this process of recuperation is the idea of domination propogated by the very discourses that pretend to critique it. These critiques in fact all share the same presupposition: domination functions thanks to a mechanism of dissimulation which hides its laws from its subjects by presenting them with an inverted reality. The sociology of ‘misrecognition’, the theory of the ‘spectacle’ and the different forms assumed by the critique of consumer and communication societies all share with Althusserianism the idea that the dominated are dominated because they are ignorant of the laws of domination. The simplistic view at first assigns to those who adopt it the exalted task of bringing their science to the blind masses. Eventually, though, this exactled task dissolves in a pure thought of resentment which declares the inability of the ignorant to be cured of their illusions, and hence the inability of the masses to take charge of their own destiny. (xvi)
In other words, this style of theory– common to ideology critique, must Frankfurt school thought, and so on –recapitulates the very form of domination by characterizing the dominated as ignorant dupes in need of knowing masters inescapably in need of the academic theorist to overcome their chains. Ironically, this style of theory ends up being based on the very premise that oppressive forms use to justify their privileged place: that because the masses are ignorant they are in need of a leader to organize their existence. Ideology critique, for example, is premised on the idea of a constitutive and essential inequality of the masses with respect to the master theorists. In The Philosopher and His Poor Ranciere carefully tracks this logic throughout the history of political theory.
To this Ranciere opposes his own position.
My book declared war on the theory of the inequality of intellegiences at the heart of supposed critiques of domination. It held that all revolutionary thought must be founded on the inverse presupposition, that of the capacity of the dominated… The prevailing view of the Cultural Revolution at the time, and it is a view the book shares, was that of an anti-autoritarian movement which confronted the power of the state and of the Party with the capacity of the masses. (xvi – xvii)
A form of “revolutionary” theory that merely recapitulates form of domination is, in the end, not much of an egalitarian or revolutionary theory. Indeed, as Ranciere will disdainfully suggest later on in the book (11 – 12) that the real aim of these intellectuals is to justify the necessity of their own academic positions and jobs rather than anything revolutionary at all.