Nonrelation and Untimeliness in Jacques Rancière's The Names of History
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As the full spectrum of Jacques Rancière's work has almost been completely translated into English, two critiques of his work have become common. The first is that his work in general, or his notion of politics specifically, is ahistorical or dehistoricizing. The second is that Rancière’s anti-scientism leaves us without the tools to distinguish between strategy and tactics and without the necessary conceptual purchase on relations of domination. These critiques most often take as their starting point Rancière’s well known volume Disagreement. In this essay, I want to think through these critiques from another point in Rancière’s work, namely The Names of History (first published in France in 1992, this is the work that precedes Disagreement in his oeuvre). I do so because The Names of History will lead us directly into the heart of Rancière's work, but in a way that illuminates his thinking of class(es) and the importance of time in his theory of politics. Briefly, our response to critiques of ahistoricism and anti-scientism will be to examine Rancière's critique of prior forms of historiography and deployment of the concepts of nonrelation and the untimely event. The concept of nonrelation will be familiar to many readers of Rancière, but the concept of the untimely, perhaps less so. In the second half of this essay then, I attempt to demonstrate the centrality of the untimely to Rancière’s work, in particular the way in which it forms the active, non-static ground of Rancière’s notion of politics. In the conclusion, I outline how an excessive dependence on mediation, rather than a lack of it, can be seen as a limit to Rancière’s work, specifically as a form of anti-capitalist critique.
What Are the Names of History?
In The Names of History, Rancière's primary goal is to critique four schools of historiography, which he names as republican-romantic (represented by Michelet), royal-empiricist (represented by royal chroniclers and contemporary revisionists such as François Furet), scientific history (represented by the Annales school), and Marxist historiography, which is discussed only tangentially. Rancière’s task is to outline the conditions of possibility for all these discourses of history and his starting point is the homonym histoire (both story and history in French) and thus the names of history. Rancière charts how each group, beginning with Michelet, positions history in relationship to story and how each approach contrives to use history to suppress both the "excess of words" unleashed by the French Revolution and the anachronism of the event of the Revolution.
As in his earlier book, The Nights of Labor, at the center of The Names of History are the writings of the anonymous persons and workers of the French Revolution. With the "death of kings" and the events of the French Revolution a new set of speakers come onto the historical scene: the democratic and often anonymous masses. Rancière sees in the Revolution an "epistemological break," or what he will term a new poetic structure of knowledge. The basis of this new structure is a nonrelation between words and things or an excess of meaning over meaning. These are precisely the homonyms contained in histoire evoked in Rancière's title: the word history picks out two different "things," and thus serves as an example of the "excess of words”. This excess is what makes possible history as a discipline, as that which tries to escape from literature or to do more than just chronicle or tell stories. Only with the emergence of the excess of words in the Revolution does history have a job, and its job, in the versions that Rancière critiques in The Names of History, is to try to re-establish control over the people, to put the excess of words back into its place. Thus, with the destabilization of structures of knowledge and language, the time of the chronicles or stories of kings has come to an end, from now on "there is history—an experience and matter of history—because there is speech in excess, words that cut into life, wars of writing" (88).
Names and Nonrelation
One of Rancière's central concepts, elaborated throughout his body of work, is the idea of an excess of words, or what he later terms literarity. While some version of this concept appears in every one of Rancière’s books, it receives its first extended, in-depth treatment in The Names of History. Indeed, in three short pages that go to the heart of his project in this book, Rancière unfolds a series of meditations on the excess of words or what he terms here nonrelation. He does so in a discussion of the return to a royalist-empiricist model of history embodied in the work of revisionist historians of the French Revolution such as Alfred Cobban and François Furet. In the following, we will trace Rancière's discussion of Alfred Cobban's The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution, and pursuing the restaging of the excess of words as nonrelation will take us from language into the very heart of what we call "the social". This discussion will put us in a position to respond to the claims of authors who question the role of history and social mediation in Rancière’s work.
Like the scientific history of Annales or the romantic-republican history of Michelet, the revisionists attempt to suppress the excess of words and the event of the French Revolution. However, while Michelet and Annales attempt to erase while maintaining the presence of the speech of the poor, the revisionists are in a sense actually loyal to the event of the French Revolution. It is their drive to become increasingly scientific that leads the revisionists into a repudiation of their very object of research: the event. All anachronism, and thus even the event itself, must be eliminated. Unlike Marxist historiography which is predicated on a split between the past and future, between the not yet and the one more time, the revisionist model is based on a "conjoint disqualification of the categories of past and future" (31). History becomes the pure present, undisturbed by any anachronism and as such by any event. Thus, the revisionist interpretation of the French Revolution "put in its heart the question of anachronism and pursued it to its limit—that affirmation of the nonplace of the event that bears the name revisionism" (31).
Via Alfred Cobban's The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution, Rancière identifies two problems with the revisionist position, both of which emerge from what Rancière terms "the homonymy of social" and both concerning anachronism. The first is that the revisionist approach in general, and Cobban's in particular (as can be seen from his title), marks a shift in the role of the historian. The task of the historian is no longer to recount revolutions, or as in the case of Michelet to give them meaning, but rather to interpret them, "to relate the events and discourses to what founds and explains them" (32). What this means is that the event is no longer self-explanatory: it has to be explained through some non-evental means. This is a transgression, from Rancière's position, against the event, as the event in Rancière has no other truth than itself. And the truth of the Revolution then is simply the overturning of established hierarchies of language and power (putting the excess of words into circulation through political, artistic, and intellectual spheres). The shift Cobban effects by arguing that the event must be interpreted is to turn the historian or the intellectual into the one who will see behind the excess of writing of the Revolution, as the one who will decode this excess and reattach it to an external truth (which Rancière later terms, metapolitics). As Rancière writes, the revisionist "relates the seductive discourse to the nondiscursive reality that is therein expressed and disguised. The historian's discourse is a measuring discourse that relates the words of history to their truth" (32). This relating of words of history to their "truth" is then what interpretation requires.
However, Rancière then makes a surprising move: he argues that this is not only what interpretation means, but what social (which Rancière italicizes throughout these pages) means as well. Rancière gives us two explanations of how this could be, and both turn on the homonymy of the word social. First, Rancière argues that the social is both object of knowledge and modality of knowledge, both an object of knowledge (e.g., we can investigate "the social," a thing "out there" in the world) and type (e.g, a type of knowledge different from say politics, economics, or anthropology). In the first sense, the social is concerned with measurement (relations between actors, who causes what event, etc), but this first sense is always superseded by a second; namely, the social as background. Rancière writes: "The social becomes this base or background of the events and words that must always be extracted from the falsity of their appearance. Social designates the distance of words and events from their truth, which is non verbal and does not pertain to events" (32). The second reading Rancière offers leads us straight into the heart of nonrelation. Here the homonymy of social is that it specifies both a set of relations and the very lack of words for adequately naming these relations: social picks out both the background from which relations must be extracted (in order to understand their truth) and these relations themselves. The social then, as a homonym, names nonrelation, or the excess of meaning over meaning, "as a principle" (34). We will pick up this point again in a moment.
The homonymy of the social is the excess of words, which as we have seen above, the revisionists will not let lie: in place of the nonrelation between words and things they try to "see behind the words" and via "social interpretation" to create a truth to which they can bind the words. Rancière and the revisionists might perhaps, in some abstract sense, be in agreement that "there is history precisely because no primeval legislator put words in harmony with things" (35). However, Cobban's Social Interpretation takes this position and marries it with a will to eliminate improper names and anachronism: "Pushed to its limit, the will to liquidate improper names comes down to the will to liquidate the impropriety and the anachronism by which events in general happen to subjects. The declaration of the 'nonrelation' between the words of history and its realities is, finally, the suicide of the science of historical study" (35). What Cobban's work constitutes then is a response to the excess of words, but one that takes it in the wrong direction. Instead of refusing the suppression of the excess of words, of inventing poetic devices to allow it to come forth, Cobban turns the nonrelation between words and things into a practice of suspicion (of looking behind words for a hidden truth) that ends by denying the very event of history itself:
The impossibility of replacing the bad names with the good obliges it to signal itself as such by showing that none of the words corresponds with the reality that it designates. It obligates critical history to deny the possibility that there is an event, unless by impropriety. Ultimately, scholarly history is written as the nonplace of history. This limit has a theoretical name that is also a political name: it is called revisionism. (36)
The difference then between Cobban's work and Rancière's own is that while Cobban's recognizes a nonrelation between words and things, it liquidates "the anachronism by which events happen to subjects" and "obligates critical history to deny the possibility that there is an event" (36). Thus, in a startling fashion, we can see here for the first time that at a very deep level within Rancière's thinking in The Names of History, nonrelation and what I want to call the untimeliness of the event are intimately related. Moreover, what separates revisionist history (i.e., history that recognizes nonrelation between words and things) and the type of "historical" analysis that Rancière is trying to theorize here is not nonrelation but rather the maintenance of the possibility of an improper or untimely event. What makes revisionist history specifically revisionist, in the political sense, is that it denies the possibility of the event in all its untimeliness. Specifying exactly what Rancière means by the "anachronism of the event" will concern us in the second half of this essay, but for now it is enough to emphasize that the full polemical force of Rancière's argument falls upon this point: the acknowledgement of nonrelation is not enough to avoid the bad politics of revisionism, only the untimeliness of the event is a sufficient condition. Moreover, as we will also argue in the second half of this essay, the polemic force of this argument should force a reconsideration of the importance of the untimely for Rancière’s work as a whole.
One final step and we will be able to address the concerns of critics of Rancière who argue that his work is ahistorical or without purchase on relations of domination. What does Rancière mean when he says: “Social designates the nonrelation as a principle” (34)? Here Rancière opens up an important argument about class and how the principle of nonrelation relates to classes and what this means for historical science. Social, Rancière continues, "designates the gap between words and things, or more precisely, the gap between nominations and classifications" (34). Then comes the key insight: Classifications or classes, just as we saw above with social, are always anachronistic and homonymic for the simple reason that they both named themselves and are named. Social, Rancière argues, is a homonym because it designates both a type and an object of knowledge. Classes are also homonyms but follow a slightly different logic: instead of being both an object and a type, classes are anachronistic and homonymic because they are both already a name in the gallery of proper names of power (proletarian, shoemaker, worker) but can be reappropriated by social movements to mean something else (think of Rancière's oft quoted example of Blanqui, the bourgeois, naming his profession as proletarian, a usage both which means something different from the "proper" state usage and which names something that then technically Blanqui is not). Classes, as a type of names, when placed at the service of egalitarian politics always involve two moves: first, they take up already existing language (workers, proletarian, tyrant, queer), which makes them homonymic. They then re-insert this language, they torsion it (to use a figure, as we will see, Rancière deploys in Disagreement), they re-insert it into an open polemic, attempting to force a moment of politics or an encounter between a police or state and egalitarian or social movement logic. Classes then are doubled like the social, but instead of being both object and type, classes are pre-given language (first use) which are re-purposed (doubled) making then anachronistic in the way the ancient Roman word for the class that contributed nothing to the state except reproduction, proletarian, was anachronistic when employed by nineteenth century workers and bourgeois to describe themselves as a “class in society that is no longer a class in society” (Disagreement 84).
This has an interesting secondary consequence for Rancière: history is always a history of names (kings, etc). Classes in their doubling and anachronism are unable to enter into "history" as traditionally practiced. Rancière writes:
The evil is slight as long as the kings—whose names, with the exception of a few impostors, guarantee their identity—make the history. It risks becoming irremediable when classes take the place of kings, precisely since these classes are not classes. This constitutive defect is not simply the sin of Marxist interpreters. It is the sin of the very actors in the event, the sin by which events are produced—by which simply there is history. (Names 34-5)
Thus, there is history because speakers name both themselves and others with names that do not "belong" to them (thus Rancière's frequent citation of the ‘68 slogan "We are all German Jews"). However, Rancière goes a step further than the class and history argument: for these speakers "what makes sense for them and what they make an event out of is precisely what, for the royal-empiricist historian, is 'without relation'—it is the intricacy of what he asks us to distinguish: the juridical and the nonjuridical, the persona and the real, the past and the present, feudal privilege and bourgeois property" (35). Thus, in The Names of History, history, events, are made out of the disjunction between words and things and between temporal modes in any given moment, and a class, then, "is precisely a conjunction of these disjointed and noncontemporaneous traits" (35). In Rancière, while the social thus designates nonrelation as a principle, a class is both an excess of meaning over meaning and untimely, noncontemporaneous, anachronistic. Moreover, it is in moments like these when Rancière’s commitment to Marxism comes to the fore: Rancière’s position is not that “history is the history of class struggle”, but that without classes there is no history—the doubling of class and the doubling of histoire are intimately related. The difference between them is that class, for Rancière, refers to a polemical concept that puts the excess of words into play, and that directs history toward the occurrence of an untimely event resulting from the putting into play of the nonrelation between words and things. It should be clear by now that Rancière’s disagreement with Marxist historiography lies not with the concept of class struggle (a concept that Rancière argues for throughout his work in a myriad of different ways), but rather with a specific poetic structure of knowledge that pretends to apprehend either the “reality” of past struggles or to guide current ones. While Rancière has largely refrained from addressing the latter (except in a negative fashion to condemn the scientism of Althusser), his position on the former is clear: the poetic structure of knowledge that Rancière has developed over thirty years has two components, nonrelation and anachronism, or the untimely. Only a poetic structure of knowledge which guards against the suppression of nonrelation and the untimeliness of the event will have a chance of avoiding the pitfalls of the four schools of historiography (and by implication the theories of the social that underlie them); republican-romantic (represented by Michelet), royal-empiricist (represented by royal chroniclers and contemporary revisionists such as François Furet), scientific history (represented by the Annales school), and Marxist. We are now in a position to address the arguments of the critics of Rancière to whom we alluded at the opening of this essay, and that turn on a critique of the place of the social and of history in Rancière's work. First, however, allow me to give these critiques a little more substance.
Gabriel Rockhill is one critic who makes the ahistorical charge, arguing that "it is necessary to resist Rancière's political ahistoricism in the name of a sociohistorical analysis of political cultures" (205). For Rockhill, “while there can be differences in the banal factual configuration of politics through the course of empirical time, the conceptual nature of politics nonetheless remains a historical constant for Rancière” (203). Peter Hallward, on the other hand, is uncertain as to whether Rancière's thinking of nonrelation (Hallward employs the term interval) "can give effective analytical purchase on the forms of relation (relations of oppression, exploitation, representation, and so on, but also of solidarity, cooperation, empowerment) that shape any particular situation" (2009, 154). For Hallward, the problem is that Rancière’s “relative indifference to questions of organization and decision leaves little place for direct engagement with the issues that pose the most obvious challenge to his egalitarian stance—issues bound up with the forms of knowledge, skill, or mastery required for effective political action as much as for artistic innovation or appreciation” (155). This would be a case of Rancière taking the fight against Althusser too far. I want to balance these positions against the notions that we have developed above out of The Names of History, specifically, the importance of the untimely event and Rancière’s thinking of classes and the social.
As for the first charges of dehistoricization or ahistoricism, which are frequent and fast becoming a shorthand critique of Rancière, it is difficult to think that the authors who make it have spent much time with The Names of History. Without delving very deep into this book, the degree and depth of Rancière’s investment in defining a practice of “doing” history and, moreover, of thinking the relationship between an account of history and the events that constitute politics is obvious. It is difficult to miss the importance of the untimely in Rancière’s attempts to think the relation between historical analysis and the event of the French Revolution, in ways that are perhaps not apparent in Disagreement. The “history” that emerges from this analysis as “history” is not what we commonly see in casual, social scientific versions of “historical” research. Rancière’s aim in The Names of History is to sketch a poetic structure of knowledge that would serve as an alternative to revisionist, orthodox Marxist-Leninist, royal-empiricist, and republican-romantic theories of history. This structure has two parts, or faces, which cannot be separated (in the same way histoire and class cannot be separated in their doubling): nonrelation and the untimely. Thus, this work is not dehistorical or ahistorical, it is profoundly concerned with history and, moreover, with the proper conceptual tools and narrative devices for realizing the impropriety of history as untimely event. Does Rancière give us a full-blown theory of how to do this? No, and in this sense the project of The Names of History has a limit. But this lack does not mean the charge of dehistoricization or ahistoricism can stand. The ground of disagreement would rather have to be with either the form of poetic knowledge that Rancière sets up or with the tools he develops with respect to his notion of history.
I would argue that Rancière’s project in The Names of History is explicitly Marxist, but in an expanded sense, which is why he does not spend a lot of time critiquing Marxist historiography. It is clear though that Rancière is calling for a different thinking of history, but this thinking is based in a different thinking of class. Rancière’s aim, against the scientism of some forms of Marxist historiography, is to hold on to class as a key analytic category (which continues into works such as Disagreement). As we have seen above, class is anachronistic and homonymic; it is the torsion of a prior term into a new meaning in the context of a present struggle (“We are all German Jews,” for example, or Blanqui’s calling himself by the ancient Roman category, proletarian). The event, as analyzed in The Names of History, is also untimely and anachronistic. Thus, in The Names of History, we have a rewriting of Marxist historiography under the sign of a different thinking of the event of politics. The untimely event produces a new subject, the anachronistic, homonymic set of possible classes who call themselves into being by exploiting the nonrelation between words and things. I think it is an admission that politics involving class (as classification) can take many forms, that there are many concretely realized forms of the abstract category proletarian, that is many forms of dispossession. Now, is this sufficient as a critique of capitalism? Can it help us think the distinction between production and circulation that has underpinned the last thirty years of failing capital accumulation? No, but this is not the critique of either Hallward or Rockhill, as far as I read them. If Rancière has his limitations with respect to thinking changes in forms of capitalist domination and accumulation, he does help us in the project of rethinking the nature of class struggle outside the bounds of orthodox Marxist Leninism.
However, have I not just avoided completely, instead of answering, the dehistoricization question? Is Rancière not in fact saying that the French Revolution is ground zero, the beginning of the conditions of the present, thereby implying that the facticity of the present or thirty years ago does not really enter into his thought? And thus isn’t his thought profoundly ahistorical? My response would be to say that Rancière is not an ahistorical thinker, but rather a thinker of periods, like Foucault in the The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences. Rancière’s claim then is that we are still in the period of class and of classes; the untimely nature of class is of our age because our age is the period of nonrelation, of the excess of words and things brought about by the French Revolution. Rancière’s trick then is to broaden the category of what counts as class. It is not just what falls under the traditional Marxist-Leninist notion of the universal class, but any classificatory category that can be re-appropriated in struggle: classes are anachronistic and homonymic because they are both already a name in the gallery of proper names of power (proletarian, shoemaker, worker) but can be reappropriated by social movements to mean something else, all of which can be torsioned and placed at the service of struggle. There is a split then between empirical and conceptual history, because from Rancière’s point of view, not much has changed. We could see Rancière then not as a dehistoricizing or ahistorical thinker but rather as a thinker of continuity, of the wrongs that have not been righted, of which there are many, and whose rectification, Rancière counsels, will not be found in thought but in struggle. Instead of an ahistorical or dehistoricizing thinker, Rancière the realist. Instead of ahistorical thinking, a pragmatic pointing to what has not changed, a defiant insistence in the face of discourses of biopolitics, neoliberalism, globalization (words that occur rarely in Rancière) on the simple fact of on-going domination.
As to the questions of social analysis and anti-scientism in Rancière, of course it would be silly to argue that social movements have not frequently found analysis of the forms and mechanisms of domination useful in their struggles. But I am not convinced that Rancière is not careful to preserve a space for this in his work, as we saw above in his rethinking of class and the social. And in The Names of History it is clear that his target is not so much analysis, thought in the service of struggle, but rather the rise to a hegemonic position of economics, demographics, and the social sciences, all of which are disciplines from within which the social and what is possible and impossible in the political are named and ordered. What Rancière argues against is a subordination of politics to ordering, but not against the existence of analyses of relation and domination per se. Moreover, when Peter Hallward begins using language like “effective analytic purchase,” it is hard not to feel that a privileged role for the intellectual, one that Rancière would have us strenuously question, is not being introduced through the backdoor. What is “effective” and who gets to decide? Do we need to wait for someone’s analysis to become “effective” before we can act? I find Rancière’s account of the various “sciences” of history in the forms of Michelet, Annales, Furet and the way they work to suppress the untimeliness of events damning, and there is no positive argument in Hallward other than “politics needs this,” and this argument and others like it are unconvincing.
At the same time, it would be foolish to deny the centrality of the critique of Althusser to Rancière’s work, or that Rancière’s anti-scientism is frequently excessive, or perhaps the issue is simply that its target (Althusser) is no longer ours. However, I think that in reading Rancière we have to keep two projects separate: the desire of many on the communist Left right now for a radicalization and a return to class analysis does not mean that the accounting with forms of more orthodox analysis should not continue. If we separate out these two projects, Rancière is not actually arguing for a wholesale ban on discussion of social and class, but rather a rethinking of the science of suspicion that came to so effectively manage their interpretations in the twentieth century. Maybe Rancière’s notions of class and the social are flawed, not antagonistic enough. This might be true, but this again would be another critique entirely. From the position of The Names of History, I believe, Rancière, in the simplest terms, is arguing for class war without suspicion.
However, I think there is a deeper point here about the connection between thinking and politics. I believe there is space in Rancière for an analysis of forms of domination, for a reading of how the domain of the possible is set up, and the existing connections between words, bodies, and things. However, what I think Rancière offers us, specifically in his rethinking of the category of class and the social which first occurs in The Names of History, and which I think is something not found anywhere else in the contemporary Left, is an argument about the limits of thought in relation to politics. Throughout his work, Rancière repeatedly insists that he does not think politics can be thought; rather, politics, political action, must be done. When I say thought, what I mean is that it is clear from Rancière’s formulation that thinking always comes after politics, it arrives late to the scene. Thus regardless of the historiographic form that it takes, it attempts to order, contain and suppress the prior political event. Analysis of domination would be one thing, but a thought that attempts to say “here politics will appear” or “here politics did not appear” is something else. And what would a thought look like that both accepts its lateness and refuses to order? It would be a thought that does nothing more than point to the untimeliness of the event. Hic Rhodus, hic salta. It would be a thought that does not assume that it is doing political work but rather that preserves, in its modesty, a separation between two domains—thinking and the political—and that says that the salto mortale of politics, the throwing of oneself into action, the subjectivization that accompanies political action, cannot be thought. It is a thought that allows itself to be combined into a process of subjectivization as a form of analysis, as an experiential outlining of the chokepoints and weak spots of any system of domination, of any police order, but that does not try to a priori or a posteriori guide this project.
There is, however, another critique of Rancière’s position on social mediation which I want to argue is critical to make, but in order to render it legible we will have to have a clearer idea of what it means for an event to be untimely, and thus pass once more through The Names of History.
The Place of the Untimely
Our discussion of nonrelation has consistently run up against another idea, the untimely or anachronistic event, which is key for understanding Rancière’s The Names of History and for his work as a whole. We saw the beginnings, in the previous section of this essay, of how this idea can help answer concerns about a transhistorical, static, or ahistorical reading of Rancière’s work: untimely events are never static nor ahistorical as they involve, in Rancière’s account, a doubling, a repurposing of a past language for a new polemical use. In this section, through a brief close reading of Rancière’s analysis of the other revisionist of the French Revolution discussed in The Names of History, François Furet, I will give a more robust account of Rancière’s notion of the untimely event and how it forms, along with nonrelation, the overlooked but highly critical second pole of his thought, and the foundation for his celebrated conception of politics.
In his most recent work, in response to mounting criticism of the kind we discussed with reference to Rockhill and Hallward, Rancière has returned to emphasizing the importance of the untimely event in his work. Here is one example from his afterword to the recently published Jacques Rancière: Aesthetics, Politics, History, a collection of critical essays on his work of which Rockhill and Hallward’s form a part:
The untimely method of equality implies another way of thinking the Universal. The Universal is not the law ruling over the multiple and the particular. It is the principle at work in the operation which calls into question the distribution of the sensible separating universal matters from particular matters. Accordingly, untimeliness is a way of thinking the event in terms of multitemporality, in terms of intertwining plots. This way of thinking the event is opposed to the conception of the transcendence of the Event or the stroke of the Real or the Thing that has been shared by many contemporary thinkers, from Derrida and Lyotard to Badiou and Zizek. (2009, 283)
For some readers of Rancière this emphasis on untimeliness might appear to be new, but in fact, as I am arguing (and as Kristin Ross has argued in “Historicizing Untimeliness”), it has played a central role in his work from the very beginning. As we will see in Disagreement, untimeliness is displaced into a different register (into the figures of staging, new place, and torsion) but the language of “intertwining plots” in the above quote is exactly the language used in Disagreement to describe the relationship between police and politics. Thus, the connection between the untimely and Rancière’s idea of politics is a direct one; it only remains for us to follow this thread that runs between the untimely event and staging, torsion, and the new place in Disagreement. Since it is in The Names of History that we find the most complete and complex elaboration in Rancière's work of a notion of the event as untimely, it is to this text that we will turn in order to forge a deeper account of what it means for an event to be untimely or anachronistic. This will then provide a basis to trace the category forward into Disagreement. To address this issue and build a fuller account of the untimely event, we have to pass through the second of Rancière's commentaries on the revisionist historians of the French Revolution, this one on François Furet's Interpreting the French Revolution. With Furet the suicidal drive that Rancière locates is an elimination of all anachronism which, when pursued to its limit, leads to placing the nonplace or void as the cause of the event.
Rancière's discussion of Furet opens by noting a similarity between their positions: Furet also reproaches Marxist historiography for converting the event of the French Revolution into nothing but a series of statements on presumed social causes (the nobles were motivated by this, the shoemakers by that, etc). While Rancière and Furet share this criticism of Marxist historiography, Furet has another trick in store for suppressing the event: "vacancy and substitution", or the placing of a void in the place of the event. Furet, in Interpreting the French Revolution, argues paradoxically that the French Revolution was in fact a non-event, or that it was not the revolution that it thought itself to be. Furet argues that the revolution took place not against the monarchy but rather within a vacancy of power, because "from 1787, the kingdom of France is a society without a State” (154). Thus, in Furet's reading the revolution had nothing to overthrow and in fact had already been completed! For Furet it is, then, the void that "provokes the excessive speech of the revolution", not the revolution itself, not the speech events or acts that composed it (Names 38).
However, Rancière's analysis moves one step further: the theory of the nonplace deployed in Furet invents "a theory of the imaginary and gives a very particular status of reality to the vacancy" (38). Furet, then, not only places a nonplace at the center of the event (instead of speech acts of the poor, for example), his work also ontologizes the nonplace into an imaginary. In Furet’s case the imaginary that is constructed is one in which the people are ignorant, yet in which they think that they are creating a revolution that in actuality has already been completed. Most importantly, however, the vacancy that is conjured up by Furet "has the structural, not accidental, property of being unpresentable" (36). At this moment in Furet, Rancière locates the opportunity to construct a critique of the unpresentable, which will later be extended in his work on Lyotard. To this end, Rancière offers a devastating reading of the following lines by Furet: "From 1787, the kingdom of France is a society without a State. . . .The revolutionary consciousness . . . is informed by the illusion of defeating a State that has already ceased to exist"(quoted in Names 38). To this Rancière simply says: "But nonexistence is the most difficult thing in the world to see" (39). Succinctly, Rancière points out the central difficulty of any discourse that relies on the void or the unrepresentable: such philosophical positions are always open to a critique that would ask after the conditions of knowability of the void or the unrepresentable.
To return to Furet: the consequence of substituting the nonplace for the event is to purge all the event of all anachronism. Thus, there is no event because everything has already happened. Everything is already present and the appearance of "making the Revolution" is nothing more than the illusion of the ignorant masses who fail to realize that what they are combating no longer exists:
The explanation of the revolutionary event, then, comes into agreement with the categories of the royal-empiricist model: the nonplace, which brings about the vertigo of speech and the illusion that makes the event, always has the same cause. The historical actors live in the illusion of creating the future by combatting something that, in fact, is already in the past. And the Revolution is the generic name of this illusion, of this false present of the event that is the conjunction of a misapprehension and a utopia: the misapprehension of the past character of what one believes to be present, the utopia of making the future present. The Revolution is the illusion of making the Revolution, born from ignorance of the Revolution already being made. (39)
We can see also how Furet's interpretation, like Cobban's and Michelet's, has a secondary consequence of creating a privileged place for intellectuals, intellectuals (Rancière polemicizes "the scholarly name that comes in place of the political name ‘philosophes’" ) are those who will place the nonplace at the heart of the event and then bring it into being, so that it may then be subject to interpretation. Thus, Furet substitutes in place of the untimely nature of the event the nonplace, the intellectual, and interpretation.
We are at a point now where we can specify both what Rancière proposes in place of the nonplace and what it means to say that an event is anachronistic. Is his solution some kind of relativism, a set of language games, or just another set of "relations of discourse and narrative mak[ing] possible history in general?" (28). No, Rancière in fact proposes a very specific type of "relation" between the event (of the Revolution) and the excess of words, which helps us specify exactly what it means to say an event is anachronistic:
Every event, among speakers, is tied to an excess of speech in the specific form of a displacement of the statement: an appropriation "outside the truth" of the speech of the other (of the formulas of sovereignty, of the ancient text, of the sacred word) that makes it signify differently—that makes the voice of Antiquity resonate in the present, the language of prophecy or of belles lettres in the common life. The event draws its paradoxical novelty from that which is tied to something restated, to something stated out of context, inappropriately. The impropriety of expression is also an undue superimposition of time periods. The event has the novelty of the anachronistic. (30)
The relation then is that the event is a speech event, one that takes the language of authority, sovereignty, and the sacred, and does not so much resignify these as it makes this language "resonate in the present." The excess of speech, that while the Bible says tyrant to mean x, we can say tyrant to mean y, then makes possible the untimeliness of the speech event. The event is anachronistic both because it takes something from the past and forces it to resonate anew, differently in the present, and because it causes a rupture in the present itself. Thus, the event is never a void, a vacancy, a nonplace, it always involves an anachronistic restaging of past language to create a new place in the present. Instead of the cause of the event as the void, Rancière gives us the new place as the consequence of the event.
Events, political events like the French Revolution, are untimely in Rancière inasmuch as they result from an “impropriety of expression” and “an undue superimposition of time periods”. Events are untimely then insofar as they are anachronistic, insofar as they take something from the past and force it to resonate anew and differently in the present. Now in The Names of History, Rancière’s examples are primarily linguistic (e.g., words like tyrant and class). However, isolating the importance of anachronism for Rancière’s argument in The Names of History can help us frame the extent to which time and the untimely have been a central concern of his work from the very beginning. Rancière’s concept of the excess of words or literarity is widely hailed and recognized as a central conceptual innovation of his corpus. I want to argue that the other major concept developed in The Names of History—namely the untimely, anachronistic event—deserves the same recognition and extensive treatment. Elevating the centrality of the untimely event in our readings of Rancière is the only way of making sense of numerous theoretical commitments and statements in Rancière’s body of work. Take, for example, these more-or-less randomly selected statements on time moving from Rancière’s earliest to most recent work:
The world upside down begins around the evening hour when normal workers should be tasting the peaceful sleep of people whose work scarcely calls for thinking. (Nights vi)
Time as a form of distribution of the possible and of the impossible: the investigation of this 'aesthetic' topic has been at the core of my whole research, from my emphasis on the 'night' of the proletarians — meaning their breakaway from a distribution of time in which you cannot do 'two things at the same time' — up to my polemics against the modernist paradigm in art, which also supposes that an essence of the 'epoch' defines what you can or cannot do in art. Substituting a topography of the re-distribution of the possible and a multiplicity of lines of temporality for the order of time prescribing the impossible has been a red thread in the process of my research. I never switched from politics to aesthetics. I always tried to investigate the distribution of the sensible which allows us to identify something that we call politics and something that we call aesthetics. (“From Politics to Aesthetics” 16)
It is also what occurred with some workers in the nineteenth century who began to put into circulation the word proletariat, which literally means “those who multiply” and refers to a class of peoples in ancient Roman times whose sole existence was defined in terms of their reproductive capacity. In reappropriating these abandoned terms, these seventeenth-century preachers and nineteenth-century workers were able to designate an entire category of political subjectivity. Political subjectivity thus refers to an enunciative and demonstrative capacity to reconfigure the relation between the visible and the sayable, the relation between words and bodies: namely, what I refer to as “the partition of the sensible.” (Panagia 118)
If the error of Furet is the nonplace, for Rancière the untimely event establishes a new place. The idea of the new place allows us to establish an important connection between The Names of History and Disagreement and allows us to argue for the importance of reading these two works together. In The Names of History, Rancière argues that the event can never be a void, a vacancy, a nonplace; rather the event always involves an anachronistic restaging of past language to create a new place in the present. This argument, which is a minor one in The Names of History, takes center stage in Rancière’s Disagreement. I want to trace briefly how this category emerges in Disagreement. I will make two quick arguments: first, that Rancière’s idea of “new place” emerges out of a notion of torsion (which is strangely similar to that advanced by Badiou in his Theory of the Subject); and second, that a critical component of the “staging” or the event of politics, of the moment that egalitarian and police logics are forced to meet is the creation of a new place.
The reader of Badiou will know that the concept of torsion is a central conceptual innovation of Badiou’s work, a key component of his theory of the event, and therefore of his theory of politics. In Theory of the Subject, in some ways Badiou’s Leçon d’Althusser as a retrospective analysis of the ’68 moment in France, Badiou develops a critique of Lacan and Althusser which centers on their theory of structural causality. Badiou’s critique is that at the heart of both Lacan and Althusser’s theories is the void; a void that is both unpresentable and transhistorical and therefore, on Badiou’s account, impossible to get rid of, to overcome, or to destroy. The parallels here to Rancière’s critique of Furet are hopefully clear and perhaps a little startling. Badiou argues that the concept of an unchangeable void is what led both Lacan and Althusser to repudiate the May ’68 movement: from within their theories, so Badiou argues, true change is unthinkable. Badiou’s philosophic problem in Theory of the Subject, and one could argue throughout his entire corpus, is how can real change occur. The solution that is offered in Theory of the Subject is the concept of torsion (which for readers more familiar with Being and Event is similar, in very general terms, to Badiou’s concept of forcing). In Theory of the Subject, Badiou does not break definitively with the idea of the structure; Badiou thinks that the world of appearance is decisively structured and that change is only a rare occurrence. The way that change occurs however is through torsion, which Badiou describes as when the structure splits and acts upon itself to change itself. Badiou’s prime example of a moment of torsion is when the proletariat breaks from the fully ordered space of the bourgeois world, and affects a torsion of this space both to destroy parts of it and to create something new.
Rancière, in the first chapter of Disagreement, mobilizes a parallel idea of torsion as the creation of the new, and demonstrates the connection (a subtle but highly important one) between torsion/twist and the untimely:
Now, politics comes about solely through interruption, the initial twist that institutes politics as the deployment of a wrong or of a fundamental dispute. This twist is the wrong, the fundamental blaberon that philosophical theorizing about the community runs up against. Blaberon signifies “that which stops the current,” according to one of the invented etymologies in Cratylus... (13)
Or again later in the first chapter of Disagreement:
The setting-up of politics is identical to the institution of the class struggle. The class struggle is not the secret motor of politics or the hidden truth behind appearances. It is politics itself, politics such as it is encountered, always in place already, by whoever tries to found the community on its arkhe. This is not to say that politics exists because social groups have entered into battle over their divergent interests. The torsion or twist that causes politics to occur is also what establishes each class as being different from itself. The proletariat is not so much a class as the dissolution of all classes; this is what constitutes its universality, as Marx would say. The claim should be understood in all its generality. Politics is the setting-up of a dispute between classes that are not really classes. (18)
While it would be possible to give detailed readings here of how Rancière’s concept of torsion is being set into relation to both the untimely (the blaberon as “that which stops the current”) and nonrelation (class as a homonym), what I want to draw out is how important this language is for Rancière’s theory of the political. Just like Badiou, Rancière uses torsion to signify when the fully structured world of police breaks, when a something “new” is created in the moment of a political event. However, in Rancière, the twist is “what causes politics to occur” and “also what establishes each class as being different from itself.” The twist then is the Disagreement version of what in The Names of History was the untimely. The twist or torsion, in Rancière, is the forcing of a meeting between police and political logics, or what Rancière refers to throughout the rest of Disagreement as “staging.” Throughout Disagreement, Rancière uses torsion, staging, and new place to name the same process: the meeting of police and egalitarian logic, or, simply put, the moment of politics.
The phrase “new place” occurs just once in Disagreement but, as Bruno Bosteels (2003) has noted, it does so in such a way as to connect it directly to staging and torsion. Moreover, if we keep in mind Rancière’s critique of the void in Furet and his invocation of torsion we can see how staging, resulting in the creation of a new place, forms his response to Furet:
When French workers, at the time of the bourgeois monarchy, ask the question, "Are French workers French citizens?" (in other words, "Do they have the attributes recognized by Royal Charter as those of Frenchmen equal before the law?"), or when their feminist sisters, at the time of the Republic, ask the question, "Are Frenchwomen included in the 'Frenchmen' who hold universal suffrage?", both workers and women are starting with the gap between the egalitarian inscription of the law and the spaces where inequality rules. But they in no way conclude from this that the case for the egalitarian text has been dismissed. On the contrary, they invent a new place for it: the polemical space of a demonstration that holds equality and its absence together. (Disagreement 89)
We might say that The Names of History—the untimely event, and the analysis of Furet—asks a question that Disagreement then extends: How can politics create the new and avoid placing the void, vacancy, or nonplace at the center of the event?
In Rancière’s account, this can only be done by inventing a “new place,” a polemical space of demonstration where equality and absence come together. In other words, the only way to avoid the error of the nonplace (as found in Furet) is through what Rancière calls the “new place,” “staging,” or “a meeting point between police logic and egalitarian logic” (Disagreement 34). Moreover, this staging, the wrong that is the twist or torsion that “institutes politics”, is always, in Rancière’s account, the untimely deployment of a term that highlights the included exclusion of the part with no part (be they “Frenchwomen,” “proletarians,” or “citizens” in the case of the sanspapiers). It is the untimely event of putting into polemical circulation a prior term that constitutes the torsion, the new place, the staging of an encounter between the police and those who would contest its exclusions.
I believe bringing these two moments of Rancière’s work together, and giving the untimely its due place in his theory of politics, give us then a new vision of Rancière’s thinking of politics: not ahistorical, not conceptual, not static, but rather a breaking with the “what is” through the active forcing or staging of the given into a new place, into a confrontation between a police and an egalitarian logic. Moreover, what makes this break possible is the untimeliness of the event which uses the nonrelation of words and things to take a conceptual piece of the given (what is named by class, tyrant, proletarian) and which then torsions or twists this word, doubling upon itself, to name a wrong and a new political subjectivity (the class of workers or Blanqui’s proletarians). The untimely, then, forms the active, non-static ground of Rancière’s notion of politics. It answers the question as to how politics can create the new without placing that void or nonplace at the center of the event.
Having traced Rancière’s development of the concepts of nonrelation and untimeliness in The Names of History, we can see how Rancière’s mature theory of politics draws heavily on this work and deploys in key ways the event’s anachronism. Moreover, it is clear the extent to which Rancière’s idea of politics as a staging of a confrontation between a police and an egalitarian logic that results in a new place develops as a response to his reading of Furet and the position of the nonplace in revisionist readings of history. Moreover, we can see that a thinking of Rancière’s notion of the political which does not take into consideration untimeliness or the construction of “new places” or stages out of this untimeliness, will be a thinking that misses much of the form of the political in Rancière. Hopefully, it will appear now more reasonable than at the opening of this essay that the category of the untimely is essential to Rancière’s work, that it stands in an intimate relation to the category of nonrelation or literarity which is widely recognized as among Rancière’s most important conceptual contributions, and that it provides us with a different picture of Rancière’s idea of politics (active, non-static) than that which frequently appears in the criticism on Rancière.
I have spent the better part of this essay arguing either explicitly or by implication that Rancière’s work is neither ahistorical nor without its spaces for thinking social mediation. In many ways, the readings of Rancière I have offered here place Rancière back within a Marxist ambit, attempting to pull his work back from being lost in comparisons and critiques with new historicism that have painted him almost as a reactionary figure. In fact, what is most surprising about criticisms of Rancière’s work is the idea that he leaves no room for social mediation (for measuring, for examining relations of force, etc), for what strikes me about Rancière’s work is precisely how mediated his thinking of politics is. Unlike Rockhill, I am not concerned with Rancière’s possible formalism or ahistoricism. The gravest concern I have with his work is the consistent necessity for state mediation. From The Names of History, On the Shores of Politics, Disagreement and Aesthetics and Its Discontents to The Politics of Literature, Rancière’s thinking of how politics happens has frequently been channeled through the distinction between the universality of the rights of man and the selectivity of political rights for a few or the contradiction between inclusion (rights of man) and exclusion (rights of citizen), and thus through the state.
In his 2004 essay “Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?”, Rancière argues (against Hannah Arendt) that “the Rights of Man are the rights of those who have not the rights that they have and have the rights they have not” (302). As numerous examples from Disagreement will attest, one of Rancière’s favorite examples of this is the right of women to vote. Women were born equal citizens and therefore technically had “rights”. However they did not actually possess these rights within the French state. As a result, women “acted as subjects that did not have the rights that they had and had the rights that they had not” (“Who” 304). We can see how rights then functions as another key homonym in Rancière’s thought. As he explains in this essay:
A political subject . . . is a capacity for staging such scenes of dissensus. It appears that man is not the void term opposed to the actual rights of the citizen. It has a positive content that is the dismissal of any difference between those who “live” in such or such sphere of existence, between those who are not qualified for political life.” The very difference between man and citizen is not a sign of disjunction proving that the rights are either void or tautological. It is the opening of an interval for political subjectivization. Political names are litigious names, names whose extension and comprehension are uncertain and which open for that reason the space of a test or verification. Political subjects build such cases of verification. They put to the test the power of political names, their extension and comprehension. They not only confront the inscriptions of rights to situations of denial; they put together the world where those rights are valid and the world where they are not. They put together a relation of inclusion and exclusion. (304)
Politics as staging, torsion, or creating new places always involves for Rancière a bringing together of two logics, or the creation of a relation between inclusion and exclusion where there was none previously. Rancière’s most frequently cited example of how this inclusion and exclusion is marked is the split between the categories of man and citizen.
The result of this is that politics in Rancière always implies a heavy dose of state mediation, for there are no citizens without states. In addition, Rancière’s theory is that an egalitarian logic confronts a police logic, and while he is careful not to reduce the police to the state there is certainly a lot of state in any police logic. This means that the stage where these logics confront each other is ubiquitous and the stage most easily imagined at a state level. In a 2003 interview, Peter Hallward asks Rancière for his opinion on the anti-globalization movement. This is the heart of Rancière’s response:
The anti-globalisation movements want to take on capital as world government directly. But capital is precisely a government that isn’t one: it isn’t a state, and it doesn’t recognise any “people” inside or outside it who might serve as its point of reference or offer themselves for subjectivation. The idea of the multitude proposed by Negri and Hardt is a direct response to this absence of points at which political subjectivation might take hold. In the end, their idea rests on the transposition of a Marxian economic schema by which the forces of production break through the external framework of the relations of production. Capital escapes all political holds. The vast demonstrations of recent years have, in fact, sought to force it onto the political stage through the institutional or policing instruments by which it operates. The idea of a direct relation between the multitude and empire seems to me to bypass the problem of constituting a global political stage. I’m not sure that we will ever attain a directly political form of anti-capitalist struggle. I don’t think there can be an anti-imperialist politics which isn’t mediated by relations to states, bringing into play an inside and an outside. (Hallward 2003 18)
Rancière’s take on globalization is that it is not impossible to directly confront capital, but that in order to do so a stage has to be constructed. Here we are running up against a limit of Rancière’s work, which is the requirement for state mediation and the impossibility then of addressing capitalism as a world system.
For anyone who has spent any time either in the milieu of Latin American social movements or researching the history of Latin American colonialism, the deficit of Marxist theories when it comes to theorizing the international aspect of capitalism, which is of course absolutely crucial to its functioning, is painfully obvious. This is a difficulty that Rancière’s work appears unable to address in any substantive way. If the only possibility for addressing the international aspect of capital is to build a “stage,” this appears, from a Latin Americanist perspective, to accept too quickly a notion of globalization as the leveling of international difference. Oh, to have the problems of the limited application of the universality of rights! In a part of the world where direct and indirect domination by center countries and capitalist interests is the most important force of oppression, a theory of politics and of history that does not address the deficiencies in this part of the Marxist tradition only reinvents a (broken) wheel. We could say, then, that Rancière’s work names and helps us to confront two problems within the Marxist tradition: first, class as the motor of history or as the essence of politics and, second, the science of suspicion and its attendant dispositifs (ideology, the intellectual). However, Rancière does not help with the problem of Marxist theory that seems most directly related to the concerns of the periphery and a specifically anti-capitalist response: capitalism as an internationally articulated system of domination. While history, class, and social may be homonyms, it appears that capitalism, in the end, has only one name.
It was Bruno Bosteels (2003) who first noted the importance of the category “new place” in Rancière, in conjunction with its critical relationship to the notion of the nonplace. My usage of this term and following discussion draws upon the perspective opened up by this essay.
This is precisely the ground, however, on which I would disagree with Bosteels’ later reading of Rancière’s police/politics distinction as a form of “speculative leftism”, or as an overly reductive distinction between oppressor and oppressed (2011). This reading too quickly overlooks the accounts of subjectivization and staging that are central to Disagreement.
- Badiou, Alain. Being and Event. Trans. Oliver Feltham. New York: Continuum, 2005.
- ———. Theory of the Subject. Trans. and Intro. Bruno Bosteels. London and New York: Continuum, 2009.
- Bosteels, Bruno. "Nonplaces: An Anecdoted Topography of Contemporary French Theory." New Coordinates: Spatial Mappings, National Trajectories. Eds. Bob Davidson and Joan Ramon Resina. diacritics 33.3-4 (2003): 117-139.
- ———. The Actuality of Communism. London: Verso, 2011.
- Furet, François. Interpreting the French Revolution. Trans. Elborg Forster. London: Cambridge UP, 1981.
- Hallward, Peter. “Aesthetics and Politics: An Interview With Jacques Rancière.” Angelaki 8(2) (August 2004): 191-211.
- ———. “Staging Equality: Rancière’s Theatrocracy and the Limits of Anarchic Equality”. Jacques Rancière: Aesthetics, Politics, History. Eds. Gabriel Rockhill and Philip Watts. Durham, Duke UP, 2009. 140-157. http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/9780822390930
- Panagia, Davide. “Dissenting Words: A Conversation with Jacques Rancière”. diacritics 30.2 (Summer 2000): 113-126.
- Rancière, Jacques. The Names of History. Trans. Hassan Melehy. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1994.
- ———. Nights of Labor: The Worker's Dream in Nineteenth-Century France. Trans. John Drury. London: Verso, 1995.
- ———. Disagreement. Trans. Julie Rose. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999.
- ———. “Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?” South Atlantic Quarterly. 103.2/3 (2004): 297-310.
- ———. “From Politics to Aesthetics?” Paragraph. 28.1 (2005): 16-32.
- ———. “Afterword/The Method of Equality”. Jacques Rancière: Aesthetics, Politics, History. Eds. Gabriel Rockhill and Philip Watts. Durham: Duke UP, 2009. 273-287. http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/9780822390930
- Rockhill, Gabriel. “The Politics of Aesthetics: Political History and the Hermeneutics of Art”. Jacques Rancière: Aesthetics, Politics, History. Eds. Gabriel Rockhill and Philip Watts. Durham: Duke UP, 2009. 195-215. http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/9780822390930
- ——— and Philip Watts Eds. Jacques Rancière: Aesthetics, Politics, History. Durham: Duke UP, 2009.
- Ross, Kristin. “Historicizing Untimeliness”. Jacques Rancière: Aesthetics, Politics, History. Eds. Gabriel Rockhill and Philip Watts. Durham, Duke UP, 2009. 15-29. http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/9780822390930-002