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Jacques Ranciere: An Introduction by Joseph…

Jacques Ranciere: An Introduction

by Joseph J. Tanke

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My experience with The Politics of Aesthetics left me feeling that I needed some help in better understanding Jacques Rancière. I simply don't have the tools (or maybe the patience) to read a philosophical text and feel satisfied with my ability to make good sense of it. I thought it would be nice to have a book-teacher to help me organize the glimmers of interest I felt while reading The Politics of Aesthetics, and I therefore checked this book out from the library. It did the trick. Joseph Tanke did a wonderful job of introducing me to his overarching project, helping me understand his vocabulary, and convincing me that Jacques Rancière is a really cool guy,

He studied under the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser in Paris during the late 60s, and his initial cycle of works react to the Althusserian conception of the philosopher's place in the social movements of the time. Do the people need to be led? Does social revolution need to be theorized and explained to its members? In response to these questions, Rancière affirms the fundamental inequalities at the core of the practices of philosophers from the Greeks onward. Back in the day, Plato distributed roles in in his city and blessed the philosophers with abilities that did not extend to its other members. They ruled, they pursued the truth, they distributed the roles in the city, and they guaranteed that the different orders of the hierarchy remained pure. In the meantime, workers worked, soldiers warred, and the ability to philosophize was not extended to these groups of people. For Rancière, this Platonic arrangement has remained more or less in place up to the present, so when Althusser proposes that the proletariat needs philosophers such as himself to explain and theorize the protests and strikes that are taking place on the streets, he's perpetuating the fundamental inequality established in the Republic. Rancière suggests that the workers who are striking and the protesters on the streets don't need the philosopher to explain everything, that they understand just as well as anyone the injustices they're protesting against and the way of the unjust world they're seeking to change. He suggests a reimagining of the world beginning from equality. Let's say everyone is equal, not just worthy of equal treatment, but truly equal, and see what conclusions we can draw from that position.

His early works seek to document the inherent conditions of inequality that are ingrained in philosophy (the topic of discussion in The Philosopher and his Poor), then show how assumed differences in the sensible capacities of different classes of people are arbitrary and do not correspond to these class's lived experiences. He does this, for example, by examining the artistic practices of working class individuals in the 19th century. Contrary to the oft-held Marxist beliefs that the proletariat takes pride in putting in a hard day's work and resting at night, he shows how many working-class individuals saw manual work as torture and spent their nights not resting but exercising their creative faculties, producing works of imagination that were printed in the working class publications that were the object of his study in The Nights of Labor. In another book (The Ignorant Schoolmaster), he examines the intriguing propositions on education made by Joseph Jacotot. He proposed that teachers shouldn't teach, but rather work from a position of ignorance in order to activate their students' desire to learn. His experience in the classroom led him to radically propose that all humans are blessed with equal mental capacities, with differences in educational success resulting from an unequal development of the will.

After mapping out conditions of inequality and identifying moments when they are transcended, Rancière has gone on to write extensively about politics and aesthetics, focusing on the way that political subjects and artists change the distribution of the sensible. In his terminology, the sensible refers to the set of things that can be experienced, sort of like Kant's a priori knowledge with the added caveat that this set of knowledge is not static. It changes as the world changes, so what we take for granted in a modern, democratic world is far different than what people used to take for granted 500 years ago. What Rancière studies are the events that change our a priori sensibilities. In political terms, this occurs when previously "invisible" parts of society gain entrance in the political realm. Equal freedom for all members of society is assumed as the foundation for modern democracies, but the official democratic world is also full of unrecognized sub-divisions whose members don't experience this freedom. When they are able to make their voice heard and assume a new name (and place) in society, Rancière considers it an act of politics. He labels this confrontation of the established framework of perception in public society dissensus. I think the Occupy movement is a good example. The part that has no part of the society divided along 21st century capitalist lines constitutes itself around a new, catchy term that makes its members and their unequal status visible.

In his work in the field of aesthetic theory, Rancière bases his writings on the idea artistic regimes, sets of conditions that dictate what is possible within artistic processes of doing and making. The past two centuries fall under the Aesthetic regime, characterized by the effacement of the Aristotelian divisions of genre (tragedy for high subjects, comedy for low, etc.) and the resulting necessity of determining relationship between subject matter and mode of representation on a case-by-case basis. This major shift in artistic norms went hand-in-hand with the emancipation of the political subject that resulted from the democratic revolutions of the late 18th century, leading to new considerations of the role of art in human life. When Rancière studies Schiller's consideration of the viewing experience and its ramifications in the creation of a new human subject (as proposed in Letters on the Aesthetic Emancipation of Mankind), he sees a combination of forces at play. On one hand, art can be seen as autonomous and standing apart from life. With the fall of the Aristotelian representative divisions, the connection between life and its representation is freer than ever. On the other hand, art also interacts with and affects life, carrying the potential for contributing to individual and communal feelings of emancipation. For Rancière, this combination of autonomy and heteronymy, of a paradoxical separation-yet-union of art and life, provides a much better paradigm for interpreting the artistic innovations of the past two centuries than the problematic terms of Modernity and Postmodernity.

Then comes a chapter on Rancière's film criticism which I rapidly skimmed through and cannot do justice here, and a concluding chapter in which Tanke offers his two cents. He posits that thinkers following in Rancière's vein would be well served to consider the role of imagination in the human experience. Rancière looks at things in terms of equality and inequality, with certain political and artistic events causing shifts in the distribution of what is doable and thinkable. However, his work doesn't investigate the causes of these events, the sparks that lead to dissensus or to works of art that redistribute the sensible. Tanke proposes that an in-depth study of the individual and collective powers of the human imagination could help us better understand why these revolutionary things happen from time to time.

Tanke writes clearly and reading his book was probably much easier than reading my review. It all made so much sense as I read it, which is exactly what I was hoping for. It's an interesting type of book. You might call it a "Thought Biography," or something like that. It's a history of Jacques Rancière's work. I'm encouraged by the fact that, when I went back and re-read some pages of The Politics of Aesthetics, they made much more sense to me. I may try some similar works on other notoriously difficult-to-understand thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan. I figure I need teachers to help me understand these folks, and since I found such a good one in Joseph Tanke, I might as well try repeating the process. ( )
  msjohns615 | Mar 5, 2012 |
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This is the first comprehensive introduction to one of the most influential French thinkers writing today, exploring Rancie??re's ideas on philosophy, aesthetics and politics.

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