Critical assessments

Jacques Rancière

Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1999, 37-39, 83-84, 137-138.

[…] The difference that political disorder inscribes in the police order can thus, at first glance, be expressed as the difference between subjectification and identification. It inscribes a subject name as being different from any identified part of the community. This point may be illustrated by a historic episode, a speech scene that is one of the first political occurrences of the modern proletarian subject. It concerns an exemplary dialogue occasioned by the trial of the revolutionary Auguste Blanqui in 1832. Asked by the magistrate to give his profession, Blanqui simply replies: ‘proletarian’. The magistrate immediately objects to this response: ‘That is not a profession’; thereby setting himself up for copping the accused’s immediate response: ‘It is the profession of thirty million Frenchmen who live off their labor and who are deprived of political rights’. The judge then agrees to have the court clerk list proletarian as a new ‘profession’. Blanqui’s two replies summarize the entire conflict between politics and the police: everything turns on the double acceptance of a single word, profession. For the prosecutor, embodying police logic, profession means job, trade: the activity that puts a body in its place and function. It is clear that proletarian does not designate any occupation whatever, at most the vaguely defined state of the poverty-stricken manual laborer, which, in any case, is not appropriate to the accused. But, within revolutionary politics, Blanqui gives the same word a different meaning: a profession is a profession of faith, a declaration of membership of a collective. Only, this collective is of a particular kind. The proletarian class in which Blanqui professes to line himself up is in no way identifiable with a social group. The proletariat are neither manual workers nor the labor classes. They are the class of the uncounted that only exists in the very declaration in which they are counted as those of no account. The name proletarian defines neither a set of properties (manual labor, industrial labor, destitution, etc.) that would be shared equally by a multitude of individuals nor a collective body, embodying a principle, of which those individuals would be members. It is part of a process of subjectification identical to the process of expounding a wrong. ‘Proletarian’ subjectification defines a subject of wrong-by superimposition in relation to the multitude of workers. What is subjectified is neither work nor destitution, but the simple counting of the uncounted, the difference between an inegalitarian distribution of social bodies and the equality of speaking beings.

This is also why the wrong exposed by the name proletarian is in no way identical to the historically dated figure of the ‘universal victim’ and its specific pathos. The wrong exposed by the suffering proletariat of the 1830s has the same logical structure as the blaberon implied in the unprincipled freedom of the Athenian demos, which had the audacity to identify itself with the whole of the community. It is just that in the case of Athenian democracy, this logical structure functions in its elementary form in the immediate unity of the demos as both part and whole. The proletarian declaration of membership, on the other hand, makes the gap between two peoples explicit: between the declared political community and the community that defines itself as being excluded from this community. ‘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 it­ self. Plato railed against that demos that is the count of the uncountable. Blanqui, in the name of proletarians, inscribes the uncounted in a space where they are countable as uncounted. Politics in general is made up of such miscounts; it is the work of classes that are not classes that, in the particular name of a specific part or of the whole of the community (the poor, the proletariat, the people), inscribe the wrong that separates and reunites two heterogenous logics of the community. The concept of wrong is thus not linked to any theater of ‘victimization’. It belongs to the original structure of all politics. Wrong is simply the mode of subjectification in which the assertion of equality takes its political shape. Politics occurs by reason of a single universal that takes the specific shape of wrong. Wrong institutes a singular universal, a polemical universal, by tying the presentation of equality, as the part of those who have no part, to the conflict between parts of society. […]

[…] Class is the perfect example of one of those homonyms over which the counts of the police order and those of the political demonstration are divided. In the police sense, a class is a grouping of people assigned a particular status and rank according to their origins or their activity; in this sense, class may denote a professional group in the weaker sense. One thus speaks, in the nineteenth century, of the class of printers or the class of hatters. In the stronger sense, class is synonymous with caste. Whence the apparent paradox whereby those who are counted without any problem in the count of the working classes more often than not refuse to recognize the existence of a working class constituting a division of society and giving them a specific identity. In the political sense, a class is something else entirely: an operator of conflict, a name for counting the uncounted, a mode of subjectification superimposed on the reality of all social groups. The Athenian demos of the proletariat, in whose ranks the ‘bourgeois’ Blanqui counts himself, are classes of this kind, that is, forces for declassifing social species, those ‘classes’ that bear the same name as they do. […]

[…] The political community is a community of interruptions, fractures, irregular and local, through which egalitarian logic comes and divides the police community from itself. It is a community of worlds in community that are intervals of subjectification: intervals constructed between identities, between spaces and places. Political being-together is a being-between: between identities, between worlds. Much as the ‘declaration of identity’ of the accused, Blanqui, defined it, ‘proletarian’ subjectification affirmed a community of wrong as an interval between a condition and a profession. It was the name given to beings situated between several names, several identities, several statuses: between the condition of noisy tool-wielder and the condition of speaking human being, between the condition of citizen and the condition of noncitizenship, between a definable social figure and the faceless figure of the uncounted. […]

‘The Radical Gap: A Preface to Auguste Blanqui, Eternity by the Stars’. Radical Philosophy 185 (May-June 2014), 24-25.

[…] With Nietzsche, as with Blanqui, the scientific argument counts for less than what he is trying to stage: the redoubling at the very heart of repetition. Repetition does not entail resignation. On the contrary, it splits in two, and this split obliges us, every time, to replay one repetition against another. The people we face will forever return, all of them alike, each time rehearsing the same situations. ‘The man of whom you are weary, the little man, returns eternally.’ Faced with the eternal return of mediocrity (Nietzsche) or oppression (Blanqui), it is necessary, with each return of the dice, to once again place your wager on the regenerative shock. For, precisely, the only ones who can confront mediocrity or oppression are those who know – which is to say, those who axiomatically posit – that the same situation will ceaselessly reappear, and that each time one must act as if one had chosen it for all times.

Between Nietzsche and Blanqui, it is nonetheless the latter who attaches the most radical conditions to this choice. Not only does he multiply the repetition in an infinity of coexisting worlds while the former limits it to a succession of worlds, but he excludes the possibility of this knowledge ever forming a new type of man or overman. He does not, however, exclude all hope or expectation [espérance]. That situations replay themselves eternally, with the same characters, does not mean that the outcomes are and will always be the same. Hope in progress is barred. But there remains a hope in bifurcations. Each similar conjunction may play itself out in a diferent fashion. It is not that the myriad other Blanquis will ever draw the lessons from their experience:

I hope that more than one copy [sosie], better advised, will have had the         intelligence to go right or go left, and to separate his destiny from those who have blundered. I hope for it, and I strongly doubt it. Such variations would be thoroughly contrary to the laws of physiology.

And so only chance can ‘send two doubles down different paths’. This unforeseen inclination of the atoms that compose the person of Auguste Blanqui can itself be understood in two ways. Another Blanqui, through the aleatory concatenation of circumstances, might turn out to be an inoffensive citizen. But, yet another Blanqui might turn the chance of insurrection in his favour. This does not mean that he must sit and wait for chance to play its hand. No doubt it is he alone who might one day make the insurrection triumph. No willed plan will ever abolish the necessity of a return to throwing the dice [Aucun plan de la volonté n’abolira jamais la nécessité de s’en remettre au lancer des dés]. But, conversely, the only insurrections that have a chance of triumphing will be those that intelligent and courageous men have meticulously prepared and executed in all their details, leaving nothing to chance. Nothing, except for the only thing it comes down to [qui lui revient en propre]: fortunate bifurcation.

One must therefore, each time, deny and affirm chance simultaneously. At this price, perhaps, of one of the myriad Blanquis may at some point glimpse the dawning of a world of free men. Perhaps one among them, elsewhere, has already glimpsed it, on one of those planets from which no news shall ever reach us. This, of course, changes nothing, on the scale of infinite spaces and times. He who consents to pass his life in the prisons of power, so as to liberate himself from the prison of submission, knows that the earth where this is all happening is, itself, just another enclosure, fenced of from every other earth and, like them, fated to vanish without a memory. If he knows all of this, he would not be wrong to hope and try for the impossible. This is L’Enfermé’s incredible message, and it is once more worth the effort of listening to it, in our bleak age so adoring of every form of necessity. What other revolutionary, of thought or action, has ever proposed such a radical gap between the ‘objective conditions’ of action and the courage of his enterprise? It is understandable that posterity has preferred to retain the reassuring image of an unrepentant conspirator who was regrettably ignorant of the laws of history.