While reading Rancière’s Althusser’s Lesson

Last week, I read Rancière’s tract against Althusser (Althusser’s lesson [1974] 2011) and Karen Velasquez’s first full dissertation draft.  The first has almost mythical status in the scholarship on Rancière.  And I looked forward to the second for its promise (now about fulfilled) of giving us more of the kind of work we need to produce what Rancière started calling for in the late 1960’s and throughout his career as philosopher and polemicist.

What struck me most in Althusser’s Lesson is that it is a kind of time capsule of a time when, as a 20 year old, in May 1968, I looked in much bemusement at the antics of my fellow college students and their impenatrable marxiscist discourses.  Soon most of us went on vacation; I left for the University of Chicago; and I about forgot about “Mai ‘68″ as it faded into myth.  It took me a long time to realize how much of an event the two or three years that led to the riots, strikes and evaporation of whatever it had been, had been for many of the elite French intellectuals of the time.  As I kept reading “May ‘68 established that Sartre bested Lévi-Strauss in the debate the latter had waged in La pensée sauvage.”  What reading Rancière (very long after the events have receded) has given me is an opening on another debate that raged in the late 1960s and early 1970s among the Marxist intellectual elites between, to simplify following Rancière, those who wished to work through the Parti Communiste Francais as against the Maoist “gauchistes.”  As Rancière wishes us to see, this was a fight among the elite of the intellectural elites about another fight (that of the students and the workers of the time) about which this elite knew very little–given that all their practical knowledge was designed to produce … future readers of Marx in elite universities! (Reading Capital being, of course, the title of the book by Althusser to which Rancière contributed as a student).  This elite was produced by the series of famously difficult examinations that lead to admission to the Ecole Normale Supérieure.  The list of famous alumni (Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Bourdieu, etc.) is altogether astonishing: I do not think there is anything like it in the United States and perhaps the world.  How can one institution be so powerful?

The debate was also conducted in a particularly abstruse language which only advanced students in philosophy and Marxism could decipher.  Reading 1974 Rancière reminded me why I was so relieved and satisfied reading ethnography at the University of Chicago in September 1968.

What then struck me—and it is deeply buried—are Rancière calls to pay attention to what the workers and students were actually saying in the 1960s, in the sites and at the times of their struggles.  The whole weight of Rancière’s argument is brought to bear against Althusser’s stance that they could not possible know what produced their struggles, that their discourses revealed their misconceptions, and that only the “scientific” analysis that intellectual Marxists would conduct could reveal conditions and the appropriate discourses.  There, of course, is the Rancière who, later, uncovered Jacotot—and could finally write without tiresome disquisitions about bourgeois sociology (the worst insult he hurls at Althusser is that he was just another Durkheimian!).

Two quotes:

In Besancon, however, when Lip workers began to speak, what they put forward was a coherent discourse about their practices.  There were none of the words, cries of indignation or formulaic sentences that leftist practice cuts from the discourse of revolt and pastes onto the discourse of the spokesperson for the universal proletarian.  What they gave us, instead, was a veritable theory of what they were doing, a theory where the ideas of May 1968 joined hands with the syndicalist tradition, but also one where we recognized a new kind of ‘fusion’: that of the experience of the workers’ struggle with a Christian ideology that yearns, it seems, to be something other than ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature’. ([1974] 2011: 120-1)

‘When the prisoners begin to speak’, Foucault says, ‘they possessed an individual theory of prisons, the penal system, and justice.’  It will be pointed out, certainly, that prisoners are in a privileged position to theorize their condition. ([1974] 2011: 120)

{Note that the quote from Foucault conversation with Deleuze (1972) has a somewhat different tone from his discussion of the Panopticon in Discipline and Publish.}

Of course, I take the comments about the striking workers of the Lip clock factory as a call for detailed ethnographies of workers discourses in the sites of these discourses. Rancière, of course, never said that (that I know) and may have been skeptical of any activity that smacks of social scientism—including ethnography, I’d bet.  This is a frontier we need to explore.  This is where Karen Velasquez’s dissertation comes in.  As some of you know, it is about people from Latin America and Korea getting to work together in Queens restaurants.  What is wonderful about the work—and I do not want to steal her thunder—is her revealing, in detail, what Rancière assumed we would find: complex analyses of conditions, of what can be done about them and with them—in the here and now of various difficulties, in the short and perhaps even longer run.

One thought on “While reading Rancière’s Althusser’s Lesson”

  1. I can’t say I have my head wrapped all the way around Rancière on politics, but here are some unordered thoughts.

    One thing that should be noted about Rancière is how similar his project is to the “history from the bottom” being written in England the decade before. E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill had both written books similar to Nights of Labor. And Thompson had criticizes Althusser along a similar line as Rancière in his essay “The Poverty of Theory.”

    Where Rancière deviates from this line is in his development of a political theory grounded in language. For Rancière language is always excessive, in that it always expresses more than is necessary, or proper to say. He refers to the process of naming and channeling this excesses in several places as “literaity”, and it is this excessive property of language which allows the existing political order to be reordered by anyone with access to language. In particular, the ability of anyone to use language to express disagreement with the “proper” order of the polity by introducing new concepts and terms of understanding is interesting to Rancière. This action of language, perhaps, is the ethnographic point of interest.

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