In 2006, Todd May came to the University of Ottawa for a graduate student conference organized by the journal De Philosophia. He delivered the keynote address, “Difference and Equality in the Thought of Jacques Rancière,” and and was kind enough to spend some of his time afterward giving an interview conducted through email. It was originally published in De Philosophia, Volume 19, n. 2, pp. 1-4. May's most recent books are The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière and Death.
Devin Zane Shaw: In 1994, you published The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism, a book which has taken on a life of its own. Anarchist circles took to the book because of the connection you draw between 19th century anarchism and the concerns of French post-structuralism, despite their avowed political differences (for instance, Foucault rejects anarchism in the final lecture of Society Must Be Defended). However, the book does not stop there; it also proposes an ethics drawn from post-structuralism emphasizing innovative practices instead of the various ethics proposed in other philosophical circles. In retrospect, this book appears to have launched your trajectory of inquiry into creativity and innovation. Has the reception of this book influenced your subsequent line of inquiry?
Todd May: Certainly. Since the book's publication, I have gotten a number of invitations to speak in anarchist or anarchist-inspired venues. Most of these venues are intellectually exciting, in part because anarchism doesn't have the rich theoretical tradition that Marxism does, which leaves it more open intellectually. Perhaps foremost among the places I have been able to speak and converse is the annual Renewing the Anarchist Tradition in Plainfield, Vermont. In any case, the discussions at these events have been unfailingly fascinating. I've had my ideas challenged, extended, and twisted in unexpected ways. My work now on the thought of Jacques Rancière is a result of these discussions. I'm trying to use his work to help develop areas of radical democratic thought that were not addressed in the earlier book. In particular, I want to be able to frame a positive conception of egalitarian politics that is informed by the healthy skepticism of thinkers like Foucault.
Devin Zane Shaw: Before moving to your recent work on Rancière, we would like to raise a few related questions about the well-known representatives of French thought, such as Foucault. One criticism often addressed to such thinkers as Foucault or Deleuze, is that they lack a normative or positive conception of political action. For instance, it was noted in a recent review (in De Philosophia v. 19, n.1, by Stephen B. Hawkins) of your Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction that Deleuze's emphasis on experimentation, despite its exhilarating possibilities, could also lead toward a resignation “to the endless production of monstrosity.” I take it that the shift toward the thought of Rancière aims to remedy these problems regarding how to evaluate political actions?
Todd May: Exactly, although we need to be careful here in keeping the proper distinctions alive among different thinkers. Deleuze has a normative view. In fact, my book argues that his view is largely normative. It not only commends experimentation with the possibilities the virtual offers, but also and more deeply seeks to design an ontology that responds to his larger normative orientation. The problem cited by the reviewer, and I believe it has political bearing, is that Deleuze does not distinguish among those experiments or give any criteria for distinguishing the better and the worse. By contrast, Foucault's writing, while normatively inflected, does not offer an overt normative view. However, critique is all over the place in his writings, particularly the genealogical ones. Foucault was always reticent to speak in openly normative terms. I think this is because he worried about becoming another Sartre, addressing the world from on high. (My book on the moral theory of post-structuralism argues that this reticence is misplaced.) However, if one looks into his normative orientation, I think one will find that it can be taken in a direction of the kind Rancière articulates. Foucault's politics, in short, is radically egalitarian. What Rancière has accomplished is to think that egalitarianism through more rigorously.
Todd May: I'm hesitant to introduce the idea of individual freedom as a goal of political activism for several reasons. First, in Deleuze's case, the concept of the individual as a centerpiece of politics is put in question. Deleuze's ontology has among its central purposes to make it a point of indifference whether to address organization at the level of the individual, pre-individual, or supra-individual. Foucault is less concerned with the individual per se than with the subject. One can read him as seeking to return from the subject to individual freedom (Pierre Hadot does), but I'm not sure that's an accurate interpretation. Foucault does speak of freedom, but the contexts in which he does so seem to focus as much on a collective creation as on individual freedom.
The question of democracy is a distinct one altogether. It makes a central appearance in Rancière's thought, although not so much in that of Foucault and Deleuze. I believe the latter two thinkers probably seek to avoid it because of the amount of baggage that concept brings with it, while Rancière instead takes as his project a redefinition. I mentioned above that I believe Foucault can be thought in terms of a Rancièrean democracy, although I would hesitate to say as much for Deleuze.
Devin Zane Shaw: Here I think it is appropriate to ask: how would you frame a positive conception of egalitarian politics through Rancière's redefinition of democracy? As Rancière frames it, democracy is not a particular regime, but an egalitarian presupposition which underlies any particular regime such as parliamentarianism.