Thursday, July 14, 2016

On Rancière and Clastres (and Todd May)

In Society against the State, Pierre Clastres writes,
from its beginnings our culture has conceived of political power in terms of hierarchized and authoritarian relations of command and obedience. Every real or possible form of power is consequently reducible to this privileged relation which a priori expresses the essence of power. (16)
I've been working on a paper that compares Rancière and Clastres to understand their respective projects. I've completed a rough draft of the section on Rancière, which responds to what I consider to be an undertheorized point in the literature: Rancière's account of command and obedience. I argue that Rancière's politics, at least as he outlines it in Disagreement, has two features (two features also relevant to his concept of the police): politics involves both the symbolization of equality (the aesthetics of politics) and the enactment of equality, which more specifically means the disruption and subversion of relations of command.

By emphasizing the latter point, how equality disrupts relations of command, I think we not only gain a greater appreciation of Rancière's work, but we also gain an analytic distinction that contributes to understanding debates in Rancière scholarship. At the moment, we're only going to look at an example of the latter point.

As some of you know, I recently reviewed Martin Breaugh et al.'s Thinking Radical Democracy. In that review, I discuss Rachel Magnusson's chapter on Rancière. I think it's a great and incisive essay, and I follow her discussion through a critique of the work of Todd May, who, she claims, interprets Rancière's work in terms too close to liberalism. There certainly are passages in May's work where it seems that he does verge to close to liberal accounts of equality, despite, of course, his distinction between passive and active equality. Magnusson's judgment, however, has continued to bother me. After working out the analytical distinction between symbolization and command, I now know why. Todd May is cast as both too liberal (by Magnusson) and too anarcho-purist (by Samuel Chambers) because May and his critics emphasize different features of Rancière’s politics: May focuses on the enactment—in his words, the “activation”—of equality against command, while Magnusson and Chambers interpret May as giving an account of political symbolization. Indeed, one of the virtues of May's work, in distinction to much of the literature, is to think Rancière's politics against relations of command.

Next up is to deal with Clastres, who attempts to outline a genealogy of political power, and his hypothesis is that the social division, which is the State, between command and obedience precedes all other hierarchical distinctions. Then I will argue that Rancière's concept of the police, is a critique of this vertical model of political power.

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