Tuesday, November 3, 2009

An Interview with Todd May: Ranciere, Deleuze and Anarchism

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.

Mark Raymond Brown: In the conclusion of French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, Gary Gutting observes that the concern with individual freedom as a concrete lived reality has, more than anything else, maintained the distinctiveness of French philosophy throughout the twentieth century. This is certainly a debatable claim, but for the sake of argument I'd like to pose the following questions to you: as diverse as the thought of Sartre, Foucault, and Deleuze may be, the one thing that united them was their political activity, as on several occasions they found themselves involved in political protests. On each occasion they were protesting against the state. Yet, with these thinkers, aside from implicit or explicit criticisms of the state, one does not find any concrete political outline for a social organization that would foster individual freedom. Is such a proposal possible, or even necessary? Or can the idea of individual freedom be used only as a tool to critique existing social policies? Related to these queries is another: is there any positive relation between twentieth century French philosophy, as concerned with individual freedom, and democracy?

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.

Todd May: Rancière argues that the egalitarian presupposition does underlie all political regimes, but he also say something else that's important for understanding his thought. Political regimes tend both to presuppose and to deny the presupposition of everyone's equality. They presuppose it when they assume that people will be able to understand and carry out their orders; they deny it through the creation and maintenance of hierarchies that give orders in the first place. That helps offer a clue as to the redefinition of democracy. If political regimes--Rancière calls them police orders--are based on hierarchies, then democracy is based on the presupposition of equality, a presupposition that is expressed rather than denied. Taking matters this way, it can be seen that the creation of equality is a matter for the people, for those who find themselves at the wrong end of hierarchies. This does not mean that any particular class of people is the people. Just as a society has different hierarchies--racial, economic, gender--so it can have different democratic movements and different peoples. In Rancière's view, these democratic movements form communities, but they cannot form institutions without betraying their democratic character. I'm not sure he's right about this, but I'm not sure he's wrong either. He seems to think that as a matter of principle democracies cannot form institutions. I tend toward thinking that the question of democratic institutions can only be answered by experimenting with them and seeing what turns up.

Devin Zane Shaw: In your presentation at our conference, “Difference and Equality in the Thought of Jacques Rancière,” you expressed a hesitancy regarding Rancière's use of the concept of the speaking being. Unlike many of the other authors who appear in your work, and who we have already mentioned above, who are reticent regarding the 'speaking being,' Rancière engages this concept-- often associated with the work of Lacan-- to twist it in a new direction. This connection of political actors to language as speaking beings is central to the argument of Disagreement. Elsewhere, Rancière goes so far as to state that “Man is a political animal because he is a literary animal who lets himself be diverted from his 'natural' purpose by the power of words.” (The Politics of Aesthetics, 39) By downplaying the role of speech (and I mean this in a broad sense, including both speech and writing), don't we lose something integral to Rancière's approach?

Todd May: It depends on what is meant by downplaying. If I were to say that speaking is not important, I would certainly be doing harm to Rancière's thought. My idea is to embed speaking into something wider. People are capable of creating meaningful lives in concert with others. This requires speech, but is not reducible to it. In the quote you offered above, if we replace the term literary with creative, and see the power of words as a centrally important way in which we are diverted, then I think we arrive at the point I'm trying to make. I don't want to reduce language and speaking to something else; I want to avoid a reductionism to language and speaking.

Devin Zane Shaw: Finally, I would like to return to your comment about democratic institutions. You have emphasized the role of experimentation, but I wonder how experimentation and institutional practices can be compatible. Yet, I would like to add, I don't know if radical approaches to politics can continue to insist that democratic practices must remain inimical to institutionalization. To put this in blunter terms, does not the constant emphasis on resistance accept that capitalist-parliamentarianism is the name of the game?

Todd May: I have this concern as well. If we define resistance in such a way as to preclude institutionalization at the outset, which Rancière seems to do, then resistance becomes in a strange way parasitical upon what it is resisting. This does not mean that things can't get better, but the horizon of their improvement is always the dominant political and economic structure. However, I don't think experimentation, on the other hand, is inimical to institutionalization. We can experiment with institution-building, seeking to discover what kinds of institutions under what kinds of conditions maintain the presupposition of equality. One can't say in advance what those institutions would look like; that's the point of a democratic politics. Democratic institutions must emerge from the political activity of those involved in struggle. But I don't see why they should be precluded at the outset. We don't know what they are going to look like and how or even whether they will work. If they do arise, what is important is that we maintain a Foucaultian vigilance about them: watch where they are going, what they are giving rise to, what other practices and institutions they are intersecting with and with what results.

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