I consider equality, in its political and aesthetic forms, as a significant problem within the history of philosophy from Descartes to Rancière. The purpose of Egalitarian Moments is to outline an egalitarian frame of reference for rethinking modern philosophy after Descartes. The analyses of a number of egalitarian moments in philosophy are meant to engage Rancière’s terse and sometimes polemical historical shorthand. For example, he insists that political subjectivation is modeled on Descartes’s ‘ego sum, ego existo,’ and in Chapter 1, I aim to make historical and conceptual sense of this claim. But what follows is not an exegesis of Rancière’s—or anybody else’s—work. Instead, I place Rancière’s work in a historical context of considering equality as a political, philosophical, and aesthetic problem, while reading the history of modern philosophy from an egalitarian standpoint. Using Rancière’s concepts and arguments to reconsider the history of philosophy while using this counter-history of egalitarian moments to situate Rancière’s work amounts, perhaps, to a hermeneutic circle or, as he would say, a historical fiction. But it is no more of a historical fiction than the way that the predominant frameworks of continental philosophy—such as post-Heideggerian phenomenology and deconstruction, psychoanalysis, and post-Marxism—formulate historical or genealogical accounts of thinking their present problematics. What counts is whether or not Rancière’s work and this history of egalitarian moments offer new and compelling ways to think our present engagements with politics and art.
The Egalitarian Moments is motivated by the fact that evaluating Rancière’s work using the assumptions and methods of these established frameworks in some way occludes important aspects of his thought. If one supposes that politics—or the political (which is something other than politics)—must be grounded in political ontology or the deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence, Rancière’s work might seem disappointing or even incoherent. Likewise if one expects his politics to decipher in the surfaces of political discontent the true demands of radical struggle. However, I do not attempt to adjudicate the differences between Rancière’s egalitarian method and these established theoretical frameworks and problematics. Instead, by tracing a provisional—and let me stress that it is provisional and non-exhaustive—account of a history of egalitarian moments in philosophy, I hope to show, first, how Rancière, in ways unforeseen by other approaches in contemporary continental philosophy, asks compelling questions and makes compelling claims about equality. More importantly, though, I hope to draw attention to previously overlooked concepts and claims that could still be taken up by new forms of dissensus.