Maintaining dissent, with Jacques Rancière

In this interview, the philosopher reflects on Covid-19, conspiracy theories, social media and the political upheavals of the past year.

Mathieu Dejean and Jean-Marc Lalanne: In our last long interview with you in 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, you observed a “beginning of politics”. Ten years later, where are we now? What has become of these beginnings?

Jacques Rancière: It is a principle of mine never to make grand historical reflections. Of course, the classical analysis would say that this beginning failed because it was all spontaneous, ephemeral and unorganised. It’s true that these movements ran into the sand. But, nevertheless, there was a genuinely political sequence, in the sense that the beginnings you mention opened up other temporalities. The time of emancipation breaks with the use of time determined by the power of the state. It is certainly rare for springs to turn into summers – we have our own experience of this. So, there is indeed a break compared to now. Even before the pandemic, in 2016, the other political beginning that was Nuit Debout was unable to withstand an electoral situation. This is also what we have seen in Spain and Greece: emancipatory political movements have not been able to break the rules of the game. Some people draw the conclusion that they lacked a political organisation. But what they think of as organisation is always homogeneous with the temporality of the state. So you have to choose: either there is no politics at all – which is, after all, a hypothesis – or there is one and it is defined by the openings made by these kinds of moments.

Dejean and Lalanne: According to your definition of emancipation as the visibility of people who were previously in the shadows, has the moment of the health crisis not been exactly the opposite? A moment when the words of experts crush other voices and cast the invisible people into darkness? 

Rancière: Yes, but the epidemic is not the only cause. It has been the accelerator of a policing organisation of the world that was already under way. The fact that everything happens at a distance, remote working, distance learning: all of this is homogeneous with the view of the world held by the dominant powers. I do not believe that this amounts to an absolute control of our lives by computers. It is rather a world in which social relationships no longer imply sharing the same space. But politics requires encounters between people who live in separate spaces with separate visibilities. The dominant utopia is not so much control as the fact that everyone should be in their proper place: the teacher, the student, and so on. At the same time, in-between spaces such as the street are controlled by the police, who are as much an organisation of the visible as they are a repressive force.

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Dejean and Lalanne: Do you share political theorist Giorgio Agamben’s acute concern about the gains that the security industry and surveillance can draw from this crisis, to the detriment of our liberties?

Rancière: It seems to me that the situation of the pandemic actually proves the opposite of what some people try to demonstrate, namely this omnipresence of a security power controlling minds and bodies. What the pandemic has produced is not so much a society of control as a society of dispersion. I think there is a great paranoia bound up with the very concept of biopolitics, which has been added to the older paranoia of Marxist logic, which always points to a great hidden power. All of this has led to this situation where most thinking that wants to be in opposition shares this great obsession with an irresistible power that takes hold of our minds and our bodies. Insofar as representations are not idle ideas but ways of organising our perceived world, to assume this power is to make it operative.

Dejean and Lalanne: What is needed then is to produce more utopian representations rather than the dystopias that saturate contemporary fiction?

Rancière: One cannot invent utopias or futures at leisure, but one can have stories that construct a divided present. One in which adherence to the dominant vision of things is not unanimous, despite the efforts of the powers that be. What is interesting today is that the supposed conjunction between power and science had all the means to prove itself. Now we can see that there is a gap: it is not medical science that is the basis of the organisation of sensibility by our governments.

Dejean and Lalanne: However, it is the words of the medical profession that have the ear of the executive. What is your analysis of this? Are not the keys of collective destiny more than ever in the hands of the knowing masters?

Rancière: It is the logic of consensus to rely on a discourse of necessity. Medical power lies today in this mode of distribution of speech, which is manufactured essentially for the speech of the economic expert. In fact, this power speaks less as the wielder of science than as the manager of hospitals, whose resources have precisely been reduced by economic experts. Medical power embodies a form of radicalisation of this consensual logic that it did not create.

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Dejean and Lalanne: Doesn’t this conjuncture, where the issues are ones of life and death, weaken the possibility of the emergence of dissent? Hasn’t the virus in this sense precipitated a kind of “end of history”?

Rancière: It is obvious that the possibilities of dissent today are extremely weak. We can easily see how people who try to make refusal of lockdown or vaccination an act of dissent fall into a conspiratorial paranoia. It is true that this space is very confined at the moment.

Dejean and Lalanne: Is it because of the extreme repression of the possibility of dissent that political antagonism is expressed today only in an irrational register, in the form of conspiratorial thinking?

Rancière: The types of response to the situation vary greatly. People who obey the existing power do not do so because they consider it to be legitimate, or scientific, but because there is no reason to risk death simply to contradict official speech. The consensus is therefore largely a consensus without underlying consent. Which is why non-consensus is found somewhere between Agamben and QAnon.

Dejean and Lalanne: The present period is characterised by the massive advent of a new anxiety-generating lexicon which fills our everyday life: “at war”, “lockdown”, “curfew”, “safety measures”, “state of emergency”. Will this injunction to withdraw into yourself have effects after the crisis is over?

Rancière: It is very hard to predict what our reality will be like after the crisis. But I think that people have acquired habits of obedience rather than habits of confinement, which will be hard to uproot, as we were faced with death where we didn’t expect it. This is what makes for the specificity of the situation. The West has rather forgotten war. But the return of death as a natural phenomenon, constricting possibilities of everyday speech and behaviour, is something unprecedented for us. Yet it is not a new situation. If the Black Death was a rupture in the history of the West, the cholera epidemics or the Spanish flu did not produce new figures of thought. We can believe therefore that life will resume its course after Covid-19, except that there were forces of struggle at those times that are rather extenuated today. The great speeches of denunciation that have accompanied the pandemic in our case are a rhetoric without purchase on what we are feeling.

Dejean and Lalanne: Isn’t the discourse of contestation being replaced today, in the context of a health crisis intimately linked to the climate crisis, by a kind of disaster thinking? Hasn’t “collapsology” been strengthened during this period?

Rancière: It’s rather complicated. My feeling is that collapsology, catastrophism, have more weight on politically active sections of the population than on the population in general. There are not many people who genuinely believe in catastrophe, but those who do are activists who 20 years ago struggled against imperialism and capitalism. So, there is a substitution: the Anthropocene has taken the place of capitalism, possibly renamed “Capitalocene” so as not to lose the thread. As I see it, this idea of a single cause on which everything depends has always paralysed the thought of the Left. Today, it has shifted to the climate crisis, with the resurgence of figures from the past such as Andreas Malm’s “ecological Leninism”. The problem of catastrophism is that it affects a part of the population that wants to move, wants to create dissent. But if the planet replaces capital as the great cause, I think this will be still more paralysing.

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Dejean and Lalanne: Have social networks created a circulation of speech that you see as favouring equality?

Rancière: I don’t believe this has liberated an egalitarian speech. It has provided an enormous mass of information, it has created a scientific universe accessible to all. Now this is again being taken in hand. And the type of speech it has created is rather a mixture of resentment and paranoia: on the one hand, we say “‘everything weighing on our hearts”, everything we’re happy to hate. On the other hand, it’s the clever speech of “I don’t let myself be taken in. I know how to look underneath”. This combination is more the Trump recipe.

Dejean and Lalanne: How do you view creativity in forms of political activism today? Are post-situationist graffiti on walls, slogans full of puns, signs of a poetic invention in the way of doing politics?

Rancière: Politics has undoubtedly become closer to artistic forms than ever before. I talk about this in Les Mots et les Torts [Words and Wrongs – a recent book not yet translated into English]. There is a whole series of language games at the heart of political speech, which have replaced the great slogans of yesteryear on banners or from loudspeakers. Political activism has taken a turn that brings it closer to certain forms of artistic intervention. As a result, everyone comes with their own placard, their own slogan. That is really very visible in the last 10 years. It’s part of the sensibility of this time. People recreate an experience of the world outside of the great syntheses, starting from fragments that are shared with art. You could say that today we do politics like Godard did cinema 50 years ago.

This interview was first published in English translation on Verso Books. It has been edited for clarity and length.

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