This interview took place during the summer of 2013, in Paris. The conversation is structured in two parts; the first concerns the relations of language and writing, the second the relations of language and politics (as well as some concluding thoughts on the current politics of Europe). The concept of translation sets the context of the conversation and acts as a bridge between the two parts. This interview was originally conducted and recorded in French and transcribed/translated to respect the fidelity of the original interview.
Pablo Bustinduy: I had the chance to meet you while translating one of your books into Spanish, and I guess you’ve had many conversations of the kind we had then. I was looking at your library and wondering: do you know how many languages your work has been translated into? Do you have copies of those editions?
Jacques Rancière: It’s difficult to know, because there have been different types of translations—books, articles, also pirated translations—and there are many that I simply don’t know about. There are probably translations of my work into at least 20 different languages, including many that I cannot read, of course, like Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Turkish or Arabic. I do have plenty of those books. For me, many of them are something like souvenirs of a relationship, not exactly objects of collection but of some sort of witnessing…witnesses of a friendship, a connection, the fact that there are people who read the Korean or Turkish equivalent of what I tried to convey in The Ignorant Schoolmaster, for instance.
PB: I am interested in the limits of this “equivalence.” You have always had a philosophical interest in disagreements and misunderstandings, in their effects and significations. What is your attitude towards the misunderstandings that are at times reflected in the translations of your work?
JR: Evidently, I know there is a considerable risk of misinterpretation, and it is enough to see what people, even those who read the original French texts, can do with a syntagm like partage du sensible. Recently a young person in China asked me whether aisthesis meant sensation or perception. He certainly knew that aisthesis is a Greek word associated with these two meanings, and he was asking which one I would select. This is a classical problem: thinking the meaning of a concept in terms of an identification of the thing that it designates. I could only answer that aisthesis is not the name of a specific reality, but rather the concept of a regime of experience that involves a certain mode of relating sensation, perception and meaning. On the one hand, a concept is not a word. It is the operator of a displacement of the ordinary form of connection between states of things and meanings. On the other hand, a concept still conveys a multiplicity of connotations that are attached to words. For instance, in French it is very hard to keep at bay the connotations of Christian Eucharist attached to the word partage. In translating it to another language, you have to choose between words conveying the sense of “share” and words conveying that of division and exclusion. The worst case is that of the word mésentente, which has been translated as “disagreement.” Of course, this conveys the usual meaning of the word in French, but the concept that I created means much more. It plays with the different meanings of entendre, which in French means at once hearing, understanding and agreeing. Thus, it means a form of polemical rationality, which is very precise and yet remains untranslatable. The gap between the languages redoubles the gap between word and concept.
PB: I was thinking that, during the years of your philosophical training, writing became the object of a certain suspicion or mistrust. This attitude could take the form of the critique of ideology, of certain psychoanalytic precautions, of the practices of genealogy and deconstruction…in general, all these seemed to have in common a sort of critical distance towards the effects of writing itself, as well as an exploration of the blind spots that intervene in the very operation of reading, as a reader “translates” a text into a specific regime of visibility and intelligibility. Is there a connection between the risks of misinterpretation in the translation or the reception of a text—the gaps or margins that you just spoke of—and such a suspicion of the limitations, excesses, or dangers of writing?
JR: I don’t know if there was such mistrust and precaution towards the dangers of writing. One needs to remember that, on the contrary, there was a sort of faith, a somewhat materialist faith in the signifier. My youth coincided with this epoch of great faith in the materiality of the signifier; I would say that the mistrust was mostly directed towards images, towards anything that “made images” or “turned into images.” Against that, I would say that there was a contrary sort of trust in the text: the idea that one needed to stare at the text, to look at it up close, to read at a distance that could let the text appear as a pure signifier, a text without image, while at the same time there was obviously a whole network of images being developed in and around this vision. In those years, I don’t think there was a proper critique of writing; between 1960 and ‘70, structuralism was in a certain way a philosophy of truth, of the truth of writing.
PB: What do you understand by “image” as it relates to the act of writing? Is all writing a production or a manipulation of images?
JR: I was not making a personal statement about writing. I was just summing up the structuralist belief of that time: truth was put on the side of the signifier -on the relation of one signifier to other signifiers- while the signified was put on the side of ideology, or, in Lacanian terms, on the side of the imaginary. Everything that involved the relation of the signifier to a referential reality was suspected of being an “image,” a reference to the self-evidence of the given. Think of the criticism of the “reality effect” that Barthes opposes to the self-organization of the text. Such a criticism rested on the assimilation of the image to the appearance. If you think instead of the image as an operation, as I tried to do in The Future of the Image, it is clear that writing uses images, and conversely, that there are tropes in visual art.
PB: One could say that this faith in a text without image is in itself pretty old; one could trace it in the analytic dream of a writing without noise or style, the idea of a philosophy that could reduce itself to a series of transparent signs, pure acts of thought and communication.
JR: Yes, it is the old ambition to reach a language that would say exactly what it says; it is the drive and the pretention to define; it is this completely crazy idea, which inspires a trend within analytic philosophy, of making coincide beginning and definition. This is an ideology that our Hegelian training, I may say, has completely kept at bay. Despite everything, and in so far as we were raised as dialecticians, we were shaped into a way of thinking that is aware of the fact that beginnings have nothing to do with definitions, that definitions come at the end, that nothing is in itself in the word, and that concepts are only in the mode of a motion, that they are the result of a process. Already in the structuralist moment there was a clear opposition to this analytic position, but there was, nonetheless, a deep faith in writing itself too. And there was that other front as well, related to the world of psychoanalysis, this idea according to which truth is something that is written, even written on the body. This was certainly not my main aspiration back then. But when I became more sensitive to the fact that words are never definitions of things or states of things but are like weapons exchanged in combat, in dialogue, I naturally found myself very far away from such a conception of language.
PB: In what sense is this criticism not applicable in the case of poetry? One could perhaps understand certain ambitions of poetry precisely along these lines: a language that says exactly what it says.
JR: Yes, there is a certain ideology of poetry as a sort of original language. There is this whole Heideggerian constellation around the idea of a language that would be closest to being. Having spent many years working in the archives, I never found this idea very attractive. What has interested me most about poetry, as well as literature, is precisely the ways in which words spend their time moving and circulating, copying one another, transforming into one another. I am very far away from all these ideas of a first and original language, including the case of poetry. This is what I tried to say in the book on Mallarmé. The great dramaturgy of the “throw of the dice” is in itself a take on Vigny’s bouteille à la mer, which is a way of saying that all poetry and most poets come back to what is already written; they transform what has already been written.
PB: You have mentioned that words are weapons that are exchanged in a combat, and now you insist upon the fact that there is no such thing as a blank page: we always think against the background of what has already been said; we write upon constellations and images that are always already there. Is writing, then, a kind of combat against the past, against the presence of the past in the present? Is this the temporality they are inscribed upon? And if that is the case, does writing imply the necessity of self-reflection or self-critique?
J.R: Writing implies the necessity of a relation to words that already exist, that convey multiple meanings and allow for multiple forms of re-appropriation. I mentioned the polemical use that takes up the words of the adversary and makes them mean something else or changes their value. This relation to another use of the words is not the same as a polemical relation to the past. The latter has two main aspects: on the one hand, it means the possibility of re-enacting words that were more or less disused (I have mentioned somewhere that “proletarius” was an outdated word in the times of the Roman Empire). On the other hand, it means that the words you use are not your own words, that your “personal” use of the words belongs to the impersonal life of language. While oral speech always conveys the idea that you are the origin of your words, writing makes you feel that you come “after,” that you are the effect of the impersonal life of words. It is not a combat against the past. Rather, it is a balance between the will to make words yours and the acceptance of the fact that they come from elsewhere and will go elsewhere. I think this is what is implied in the extended sense of translation that I borrowed from Jacotot’s thinking of intellectual emancipation. Emancipation also implies that you are aware of the limits of “self-critique.”
PB: Let me move briefly to the “other side” of writing. Some of your recent work focuses on the idea of the spectator. You have written about the ideological underpinnings of the construction of spectatorship, the production of passivity as a kind of political apparatus. I want to ask you about the public of philosophy and whether it is the object of a similar construction. Is there a parallel between the spectator and the public, between the spectator and the reader?
JR: Philosophy has two kinds of public: on the one hand it speaks to students, who, from the point of view of the institution, are in a situation of dependence. On the other hand, it speaks to readers—that is, to anybody. Moreover, the philosopher is sometimes called by the media to speak to a public body of listeners, which is as indeterminate as the public of spectators in a theater. For me, the similarity between them lies in the fact that the understanding of the reader, the spectator and even the student is never dependent on your will. Even when the public is determined, as in the case of the students, they are at the same time indeterminate, they are anyone, and we have to talk to them as one does to a person who, in any case, has an intelligence of her own, the same capacities as any other. As regards to the general public, I have always refused the absolute rule of the media: the imperative to reach out, to lower the bar so as to put oneself within the reach of “the public .” At the university, I always tried as much as I could to talk to students at all levels, and I always refused to make the distinction between different publics: lovers of philosophy, students at the university, people who are interested in art and museums…
PB: So you are saying that one can proceed as an “ignorant writer” after all.
JR: Yes, at least as a writer who is ignorant of his own effects; in any case, we are always ignorant of our own effects. One can write by addressing anyone, everyone, whomever, by trying to say well whatever one has to say, and this is determined by what we are talking about, not by the people whom we speak to.
PB: Doesn’t this imply a certain renunciation of rhetoric? How can writing then project its own task, its own temporality towards the future? Isn’t the calculation of effects one of the essential aspects of any intellectual intervention?
JR: There is a distinction to be made. What you calculate is the best way of saying what you have to say, which simply means of knowing what is it that you say, within the limits of such self-knowledge. This means that the first who benefits from the clarification of thought, the first who experiences its efficiency, is oneself. This happens on the condition that you don’t make the process of clarification dependent on the idea that you are addressing a public that is more or less learned, more or less clever. Even when it comes to publics of “non-specialists,” the point is not whether they feel that you reach out to them; the point is whether they feel that you have something to say that deserves their attention.
PB: Let me get back to the relation between philosophy and its public. The philosopher Dmitri Nikulin noted once in a lecture that today, in the hard sciences, nobody writes books anymore; research is made almost exclusively through articles, and this is increasingly happening in the field of the social sciences, too. Philosophy, however, is still very attached to the book as a form. Do you think that books entail in themselves a certain status of the word, or a certain relation to and between words, that philosophy refuses to abdicate?
JR: Let me say first that I don’t think that there is anything proper to philosophy in itself. The labor of philosophy is always a work of elucidation that is done amidst what has already been said, already been written. For me, writing is essentially a process of research, and there is never a separation between the matter upon which philosophy works and the writing of philosophy itself. Similarly, I believe that “the book” has not one but many forms, that there are different books, in the plural. Used in the singular, I would say, the form of “the book” is the form that is suspected and cursed precisely by those who would want philosophy not to be poetry, poetry not to be literature, writing not to be writing. Think for instance of Power Point: one projects on a screen or a wall not only a few images, but a series of points, first point, second point, third point, and people watch the sentences on the screen; we have the impression that there is no longer writing, that if we suppress the coordinates of writing, we can have something like science, a naked and pure science that would then present itself. Needless to say, I couldn’t be farther from such a spirit. We always write texts, and those texts can assume different forms, including, of course, the form of the article. But it is undeniable that today, the ideology of the article makes it so that, even in philosophy, even in the routine of the so-called human sciences, those who write books are becoming suspicious. Those who are “good” write articles, because the article is some sort of allegory of a science that would present itself without garments.
PB: Certain trends of critical sociology have been obsessed with the mission of theorizing the general relation between language and power. Can we reach such a formula, a theory, a conception of the relations between writing and power? Can we still have a strong notion of “ideology” without any such theory behind it?
JR: I don’t think we can have a general theory, especially when one raises the question of what we mean and understand by writing, because there are different concepts of writing that imply different relations between writing and power. Writing might refer to a reserved science, a domain that only the few can enter. Such was the power of the priests in many religions or the power of the mandarins in China. You can also think of funny examples as that of the famous Soviet Constitution, which was “the freest in the world” but to which nobody could have access. The concept of writing that I have put forward stands at the opposite of this, but it certainly does not cover all the practices and modes of writing. Rather, it refers to that movement of words spreading among different orders and “speaking” to people who were not their normal addressees, producing effects that we are never quite sure of, so that we often do not know what they are. I have always insisted on cases in which words do not end up producing the effect that was intended, but rather the exact opposite effect; words that are re-translated, re-coded by their auditors, integrated in new sorts of linguistic sequences, affected by their senses of the tolerable and the intolerable, of the just and the unjust. This movement escapes the will and the intention of the one who put those words forward and confirms the idea of writing as a sort of language that circulates without protection or safeguards. I don’t think that we need a “strong notion of ideology,” if this means a theory based on the traditional idea that power works through dissimulation, which means that it works by exploiting the incapacity of the ignorant. Power does not work through dissimulation. It works through consensus, which means the restriction of the possible ways of constructing the given, the meaning of that given and thereby the possible. That’s why the first problem is to reopen perceptive possibilities, to invent new possible connections of events, new ways of making sense, rather than constructing a general theory on the relations of power and language.
PB: I wonder about the relation between this whole life of writing beginning after its death, and the risks of misunderstandings, misperceptions and misinterpretations that we were mentioning before. Both seem to escape any form of control by the writer or the author, who is then himself left in a certain position of passivity.
JR: Yes, but for me this loss of control is really part of what we can refer to with the concept of art. This is precisely what distinguishes writing, thought and theory understood as art from that which presents itself as science, as the formulation of truths in a language that claims to be free of ambiguities. When we do what we call theory, we produce sequences of words that say something, that are an intervention in the field of significations, but that always end up somewhere else. It is necessary to consent to this departure, even if it means that one will be forced to intervene again later.
PB: My first question on translation was aimed precisely at this point, because the translator is in a certain sense the first critic of each work. The translator is forced to make choices. He ventures into that no man’s land between the reading of a work and the rendering of it into another language (which is a sort of rewriting), and he is exposed to that delirium in which one can believe to have understood the text better than the text itself. There is the issue of the ethics of translation, how far can one go, what are the margins of this kind of work and what happens there. So I am curious to know about your attitude in this respect: must there be a principle of trust or confidence towards the translator? Is this also part of that productive loss of control that you alluded to before?
JR: I think that the translator is after all guided by a global principle of fidelity. What I would ask from a translator is for him to trust the text. Very often, what happens is that the translator is confronted with a choice between an idea that he understands and the language that he speaks, and he faces the impossibility to express the former in the latter. Very often I am told: “This cannot be said in English, or in Spanish or in German,” and I usually reply to this: “But it cannot be said in French either!” This is where the question of translation is posed, because the translator is not just another reader—he is somebody who will have someone coming after him, saying: “This is not what the author meant; this cannot be said in this way; this word does not exist in our language.” So I always try to remind translators of the fact that an author is always someone who forces the language, and that consequently the challenge facing the translator is the following: how will I force the language so that what I say will both echo that other forcing by the original text and still resonate in my own language.
PB: There is an interesting tension between, on the one hand, the fidelity principle and, on the other, the need to force the language. I was thinking of something that might sound very different, but perhaps there is a connection to be made. In the relations between theory and practice, in a political context for example, the model you have always combatted is one that conceives the application of theory as a sort of translation, a translation of thought or speech into actions, bodies and facts. But one could think that in the relation between ideas and practices there is also a certain principle of fidelity; there are ideas that inspire; there are watchwords and concepts that generate their own forces, because they stand for principles to which we are bound by a certain commitment, a sort of political loyalty or fidelity, even if one is often obliged to force them, to exercise some sort of violence against them, in order to make them productive and to stabilize the very realities upon which they stand.
JR: But it is necessary to realize that here too we are in the realm of a certain forcing. There are two important things to be noted. The first is that we must put an end to this way of thinking that there is something called thought that is here and something else called action that is there. A theory is always an assemblage, the assembling of intellectual acts, and a practice is also an assembling of intellectual acts. So we do not pass from theory to practice, we move from a series of forms of intellectual action to another series of forms of intellectual action. The second thing is that there is forcing from both sides, so that in the end the question is how do we transpose that forcing from one side to the other. This is a movement that goes in both directions—something happens in the streets, and there is an interpretive forcing that says, this is no longer a demonstration, this is an occupation, and of course “occupation” means something completely different, so that one is forced to ask the next question: if what we are doing is not simply to protest or to demonstrate, but to occupy, how does that translate or not into effects? There is a sort of constant referral, a constant back and forth between formulations and effectuations, and each time one is forced to participate in that movement, in that very movement of forcing.
PB: What is the role of critique within that motion of constant referral? Has it a force of its own? Is thinking reduced to a problem of orientation, where there is no outside to that movement at all?
JR: I am a bit suspicious of the way of thinking that isolates “critique” as a specific form of intellectual activity, implying a specific ability to say what words truly mean or to see what remains hidden to ordinary people. If we leave aside “critique” as a specific social activity, telling to readers or spectators what they should like and dislike, critique has no force different from the force of thinking in general. It is a matter of discerning and a matter of displacing. This force is applied in different contexts to different objects. Thinking is not reduced to a problem of orientation; it deals with the rearrangement of the relations between the perceptible, the sayable and the doable, which is inherent in intellectual research and in social practice as well.
PB: Well, one could provocatively say that there is an unbalance between these two dimensions. There are certainly many instances for the production of discourse—we have refined and interesting theories—but one could say that they mostly stay at the level of thought, that they do not have much of a grip on social reality, that it is all a great monologue of theory. And there is the persistent idea among movements of resistance that it is necessary to “move into action.” It could be interesting to think that the revolutionary question par excellence, What is to be done?, should be doubled in these contexts by a second one, What is to be said?, and how must it be said. Perhaps this anxiety could be understood in the sense that we have advanced on this second assembly line much more than on the first, to use your own terms.
JR: Yes, but I would say that the opposition is essentially not between words and actions, but rather between actions and the consequences of those actions. The real problem appears once we relinquish the model according to which there is something called Theory, there is something called the Class that is armed by Theory, and there are the Stages that will lead step by step to the Revolution. What we have then are always series of actions to which we try to give a satisfactory formulation, in order to illuminate or clarify them. Hence, we have a series of acts and a series of formulas, but one still needs to ask: to what wider, common sequence do these words and these actions belong? In what temporality are they inscribed? In a sense, there is no difference here between words and actions, because words can always claim that it is actions that must verify them, but there is a moment when actions must verify themselves too—they must prove that they bear within them a temporality, a signification and a world of their own.
PB: Does such a world presuppose hence the need for an autonomy of language, for a vocabulary and a grammar of one’s own?
JR: Yes, I think that formulation is always an essential aspect, because formulation also means to put something in form, to give a form to it. There are people in the streets, but people can be and do all sorts of different things in the streets: think for example of the recent mass demonstrations against equal marriage in France, which count among the most impressive in Europe in recent times. Formulation is essential to define what we do, to what world belongs what we do, what world does it open. It is clear, concerning what we were saying before, that words are not enough on their own, that actions are needed, but it is nonetheless true that actions are judged in relation to their own words, that they live in and through them.
PB: But we do constantly mobilize political words that are not new, words that are in fact pretty old, that are like wounds which have been reopened: capital, representation, violence, party, the State, organization, democracy. Perhaps one could say that in such circumstances a polarity or polysemy appears within these words that had been silenced or did not exist before, and that this distance between different meanings and significations becomes then politically fertile. But, in turn, that would generate the fear of a new closure, of the redefinition that will put an end to the movement and hence to the very possibilities and potentialities of transformation. Is this something that you would deem typical of a political moment, of a moment of intervention? Is there a way to escape this instance that befalls when digressions are closed and the political wounds of language “heal” again?
JR: I would not put this in terms of a timeless necessity but as something proper for the situations in which we live. Now, for example, we are in relation to this double closure that is signified, on the one hand, by the integration of all the supposedly leftist discourses in the global discourse of today’s capitalism, and on the other hand, by the logic of the party, the vanguard, the logic of Marxism. So we have a hegemonic discourse and a dead discourse, and the task is to revive the words of that dead discourse, including the words which that discourse itself had covered, buried, appropriated, because those are the words that can make a difference in the present. When I republished some of the texts from the journal Les Révoltes Logiques in a book called The Scenes of the People, the introduction was titled “The Big Words.” There are words like People, Emancipation, etc., that can be considered too great, too big, too serious to be used lightly, but that still need to be reopened, turned into objects of struggle. We must re-introduce difference in them once again. In this sense, I care about keeping the signifier of “the people” precisely because it is the signifier of a conflict about the meaning of the word itself (while for instance, everybody can agree in principle on the word “multitude”). The problem is that we actually never agree; in some sense, politics is precisely the conflict about what “the people” means.
PB: What about “communism”? Is it one of these swear words too?
JR: I think that communism is indeed one of those words, on the condition that we employ it together with the consciousness of its own history. We cannot act as if communism was simply the signifier of a politics of the idea: communism is the signifier of a history that we know, we know precisely what it signified in terms of appropriations, of diversions, of criminal deviations. Today, it is still the name as well of several regimes, including what is perhaps the most developed capitalist regime in the world, China. So I think that we can only bring into play the name of communism by confronting what we want to resignify with the very history of the word. I think that this is doable, that these are words that we can try to breathe new life and value into. But if this translates into a merely provocative gesture, if it is mobilized only to the rescue of an exhausted anti-democratic discourse, then I cannot see the point of it.
PB: Democracy also has a very long history behind it. Is this work of memory and consciousness similarly necessary in the case of democracy, even in the restricted sense in which you have employed the word?
JR: That is why I have always preferred the word “emancipation,” because it has never been the name of a regime, and hence of a criminal government either. That said, I think that “democracy” is still the signifier that it is most urgent to re-signify. In the field of the conflictive significations of the people, of the power of the people, there is a wealth of forces to be mobilized that cannot be found anywhere else.
JR: I would just say that it is important not to be duped by words, because it is not enough to attach the word “constituent” to create something real, an actual subject that would be the subject of a constitution, the subject of a people from the future. If the word leads us to believe that in some sense such a subject is already there, then it is probably a harmful thing. We have to give to the word “constituent” its inchoative meaning; we must try to constitute something that has a center of gravity of its own. In that respect, the word is still very important.
PB: This refers as well to the question of the institution, to the relation between autonomous movements and the logic of representation. In reference to the European context, do you have hopes for the advances of the “left of the left” on the institutional front?
JR: I believe that such institutionalization is only meaningful if it can be truly autonomous and independent from the dynamics in which the so-called “left” is always already placed. In France, the experience of this “left of the left” has been too often a simple mirror reflection of the “right of the right”; that is, the party that constantly tries to justify its being outside the system so as to have its own place in the system itself. This is obviously not a valid perspective for the future. Such a perspective would require the possibility to intervene in and to transform the current European order, including its mechanisms of institutional representation, while at the same time keeping both feet on its own ground. There is a minimum of autonomy that must be consolidated in order to be able to act against what the system itself proposes and organizes. That said, I would not want to play the part of the exiled international leader, telling people what they should and should not do.
PB: You just pointed however towards an essential problem of scale. Today, the critical issues are decided at the level of the European markets and the continental structures of political and economic power. I wanted to ask you about another signifier, that of “Southern Europe,” which today seems to many the only platform that could perhaps accumulate enough forces to reach such a meaningful level of autonomy.
JR: The opposition between the South and the North is an overly determined one. It resonates in a history that is in itself older, because the North/South polarity began to function as soon as the East/West polarity started to lose its primacy. After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the opposition of North and South, meaning the opposition of the capitalist countries and the so-called underdeveloped countries of the Third World, came to the fore. I think that this case retains something of this partition. The North/South divide still designates the relations between the capitalist hard core and the most exposed fringes of labor. However, this is a complex construct, because it simultaneously designates the contemporary form of economic domination and a certain sort of war of paradigms. According to the dominant logic the South corresponds to the image of laziness, of those who live off the State and the rich, the same old theme of the working, protestant, thrifty North versus the catholic, spendthrift, parasitic South. Of course, it is always interesting to reverse these schemas, to make this sort of relation polemical, but I still don’t think that the world of labor, what we used to call the proletariat, can be federated under the concept of the South. There is certainly something important in it, because the South today designates all those who suffer most violently the effects of the European world order, but I am less certain that it positively designates an opposition force to that order. When the European Union came to be identified with the Europe of finance capital, this created in fact a new partition, marginalizing the countries where the social benefits conquered by the social movements were still an obstacle to the power of the market. We can conceive of rethinking a Europe that would be the Europe of labor, a social Europe against the Europe of capital. But politics always happens locally. We can dream of a new International. But an International is the association of movements that have developed in local struggles.
PB: So what are the chances for the democratization of Europe?
JR: Europe, as it exists, is an oligarchy in which the real power belongs to a Commission that has not been elected. The European Parliament hardly meets the requirements of so-called “representative” democracy, let alone being capable to fight against the joint power of the market and the European Commission. A democratic Europe can only be the conjunction of political forces that are autonomous with regard to the current forms of national or international representation, as with those who occupied the Puerta del Sol in Madrid. To the extent that the European government is increasingly akin to the power of financial institutions, we can certainly say that “real democracy now” involves a frontal opposition to capitalism.
PB: These debates about democracy, institutionalization and representation often lead to the same crossroads, where different political positions translate different conceptions of power—the revolutionary notion of the conquest of power, for instance, and the model according to which all power is a relation, a capillary bond, which can only be built and exerted from below. Apart from the fact that both sides face their own strategic limitations, there is a moment in which they reach the point of silence, where they can no longer engage in an exchange with one another, and this clearly posits a political problem for the left. Is there a way out of this scenario?
JR: We are far from our starting point, and I have never done well in the role of the prophet. There is certainly a point where scholarly disputes about power and revolution become silent, because they have exhausted all the rhetorical possibilities allowed by the combination of those signifiers. My point is always the same: the futures can only stem from the configurations of the present. Therefore the only point that is worth debating today concerns the possibilities of expansion and duration of the forms of autonomy that have been manifested in the recent “occupy” movements or other similar movements. If we look simultaneously at the growth of far-right movements claiming that they are the real people, the alternative to the dominant oligarchic system, the debate is about what “the people” means today, about the tension between “demos” and “ethnos” that resurfaces with the failure of our oligarchies.
PB: Now I have to translate the interview…
JR: We are always trapped in the paradox anyways.
Jacques Rancière (Algiers, 1940) is a philosopher and emeritus professor at the University of Paris St Denis. He has written extensively on politics, aesthetics, the philosophy of equality and emancipation. His most recently translated book is Aisthesis:Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, translated by Zakir Paul.