Reading Ranciere Symptomatically

Jacques Ranciere might be the epitome of a revolutionary teacher. The book I am writing, Student as Producer: how do revolutionary teachers teach? provides a symptomatic reading of some of Ranciere’s major works to reveal the nature of Ranciere’s revolutionary appeal. A symptomatic reading is a type of revolutionary science, drawing out from  a text what is not obvious from a superficial reading and may not even be apparent to the author: a result of their subconscious thinking (Davis 2010); and, in this way, ‘to produce the visible invisible’ (Young 2017) when reading a text. This type of reading was advocated by Louis Althusser in relation to reading Marx. Ranciere was Althusser’s student, before Ranciere denounced him  as an armchair theorist and  an authoritarian teacher, while going on to create his own democratic approach to teaching and social theory (Ranciere 2011).

I offer this symptomatic reading of Ranciere not as a ‘condescending philosophy’ (Davis 2010 14), but as my own contribution to interpreting Marx through  a ‘discourse(s) of struggles’ ( Ranciere 2011 119), as a student, not as a teacher, and as an expression of my own intellectual emancipation.

One reading of Ranciere is as a polemical anti-Marxist. I want to challenge this view by arguing that Ranciere’s most compelling concepts: equality of intelligence, intellectual emancipation, subjectification, distribution of the sensible, part of the no part,  declassification, democracy and police are based on a method of theorising that has its roots in Marx’s  value-form theory.  Ranciere did, after all, write a paper setting out the basis for Marx’s revolutionary theory of value, which has become a key text for the ongoing reappraisal of Marx’s writings known as ‘ the new reading of Marx’ (O’Kane date). What makes Ranciere’s value-form paper more  fascinating is that it  was originally published in Althusser’s ‘Reading Capital’ (1965) but was removed from subsequent editions.

There is other work that claims Ranciere as a Marxist although not in relation to  value-form theory  (Renault 2014; Lefebvre 2015), as well as interpretations that draw out the significance of work and workers as an underlying theme in Ranciere’s work without any reference to the law of value (Deranty 2012). There is scholarship that recognises the significance of Ranciere’s unpublished paper as a way of understanding the significance of Marx’s value-form theory (Nesbitt 2017;  Chambers 2014) but not in a way that underpins his subsequent theorisations.

Ranciere may have denounced Marx and what he claimed was his derogatory attitude towards the working class, but he acknowledges the explosive power of the identity of opposites: use-value and exchange value: the value-form, which threaten to blow capitalism apart, even if Capital has managed to avoid its own catastrophic destiny up until now (The Philosopher and his Poor 2004).  Ranciere’s work points to a  theory of resistance to Capital as oppositions  conjured out of the value-form  and its most regulatory function: the principle of equivalence on which equality is based.

Ranciere sets out his theory of  equality  in  The Ignorant Schoolmaster: five lessons in intellectual emancipation (1991). Ranciere assumes, following Joseph Jacotot, a French teacher and educational philosopher during the Bourbon Restoration period, that everybody’s intelligence is of the same nature, and, therefore, everybody has the same ability to learn given the will, circumstances and object of study: the thing in common. Ranciere  tells us that Jacotot refers to this capacity as the equality of the intellect. It is the role of the teacher to develop a context in which such learning can take place, so that the intellect of students can be emancipated. This does not mean teachers explaining things to students: teacherly explication is a form of student stultification. The  most radical claim of ‘the ignorant schoolmaster’ is that  teachers  can create a situation for students to learn something the teacher knows nothing about. Ranciere, after Jacotot, refers to this as universal education.

My claim, based on a symptomatic reading of Ranciere, is that  the idea of equality, and the concept of equivalence on which it is based, is  derived from Marx’s value-form theory, where labour (abstract labour) is what all objects (commodities) have in common, and  what is recognised in  the act of exchange: as equivalent amounts of abstract labour. However, in the case of universal education, equivalence is not a form of social regulation, but the method by which that regulation can be resisted, superseding in a dialectical fashion the exchange relation, as a pedagogy of excess (Neary and Hagyard 2010). The pedagogy of excess is when the law of value and its principle of equivalence is turned against itself, as the capacity of labour to resist the law of value through a process of self-valorisation. Self-valorisation puts people and the planet before profit. Self-valorisation includes the production of knowledge about labour’s own predicament as a radical form of political science (Cleaver 2017).

This  emancipation of the intellect is extended by Ranciere beyond teaching and learning as a theory of political society. Emancipation  moves from  new forms of knowing  to new forms of political subjectivity: subjectification and declassification emerge as resistance to the dominant social order expressed by Ranciere’s theory of police (Disagreement 2004). Revolutionary subjects are not already prefigured as sociological types: anti-racists, feminists and workers, in what Ranciere refers to as the distribution of the sensible, distributed by the police as the arbiters of what counts as radical politics; but, rather ‘the part of the no part’: those  who have yet to find a voice and be recognised as an act of political dissensus . Dissensus is a social event at the level of society, even if Ranciere  does privilege  individuals rather than homogenous groups, like the proletariat. Once again, symptomatically, he is following Marx for whom revolution is not merely the triumph of the working class but the coming into being  of the social individual.

Marx conceptualises the social individual in terms of emancipating the productive powers of individuals and, therefore, the productive capacity of society as a whole. He does this specifically in relation to the production of knowledge and science to be appropriated for the benefit of society, by reclaiming what Marx refers to as  ‘the general intellect’ (Grundrisse). The concept of the general intellect bears a close resemblance to Ranciere’s notion of the emancipation of the intellect.

So how does this help us to answer the question ‘how do revolutionary teachers teach?’ Revolutionary teachers can support the wilfulness of their students by setting out an emancipatory circumstance as well as things in common, which might be considered as a form of ‘communism without the communists’ (Ranciere 2010) about which we all have much to learn.


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