Re: (OPE-L) comment on the US election

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Wed Nov 03 2004 - 15:35:42 EST

>interesting post from lbo talk; at one level this election was a
>reaction in all senses to the gay marriages allowed in san francisco
>by mayor gavin newsome; CA courts then struck down marriages!

i don't agree however with the gist of message--to play it safe in
articulating equality in the sense of Jacques Ranciere, famous
critique of Althusserian theoreticism.

"Hieroglyphs of the Future: Jacques Ranci╦re and the
Aesthetics of Equality"

by Brian Holmes
"We're not surplus, we're a plus." The slogan appeared
at the demonstrations of the French jobless movement
in the mid-nineties, in journals, on banners, on
tracts printed by the political art group Ne pas
plier. It knitted the critical force and the
subjective claims of the movement into a single
phrase. To be "surplus" (laid off, redundant) was to
be reduced to silence in a society that effectively
subtracted the jobless from the public accounts, that
made them into a kind of residue -˝ invisible,
inconceivable except as a statistic under a negative
sign. Excluded, in short: cut out of a system based on
the status of the salaried employee. Until they
finally came together to turn the tables, reverse the
signs, and claim a new name on a stage they had
created, by occupying unemployment offices in a
nation-wide protest during the winter of 1997-98. The
people with nothing erupted onto the public scene.
"We're a plus," they said, intruding through the TV
cameras into the country's living rooms. Which also
meant, "We'll drink champagne on Christmas eve."

One way to grasp the aesthetic language of the French
social movements in the nineties -˝ and of the
transnational movements now emerging -˝ is to read
Jacques Ranci╦re's work on equality.
In La M╚sentente (The Disagreement, 1995), he
confronted the philosophy of government with the
scandal of the political.(1) Government fulfills an
ideal of order when it administers, manages, and tries
to totally account for a population; but its reality
is the police. The police keeps everyone in their
place, imposes the calculations of value, apportions
out the shares in society. The political is an
opposite process, and it's rare. It happens when
outcasts stand up to say that the calculations are
wrong, when they refuse the names and the places
they've been given ("we're not surplus"), to claim
both a share in society and another name, which will
signify their particular addition to universal
equality ("we're a plus"). Because the equality of one
speaking being with any other ˝- the fundamental
presupposition of democracy ˝- does not exist in the
abstract. It only becomes universal each time it's
proven, in a new language and on a newly visible
stage. Equality is the groundless claim of a minority
to have the rights of any other group, to be the
demos, the people. But it's a claim whose naked truth
does not suffice, it has to be put to the test,
publicly verified. Which is why the political always
takes the form of a demonstration: a logical proof,
against all prevailing logic, and the mobile presence
of a crowd, against the fixed frames of an

Ranci╦re's description was in synch with its time. It
anticipated the general strike of French state workers
in December 1995, massively supported by the public,
and it accompanied the later revolts of the homeless,
the jobless, the paperless -˝ the "mouvement des sans"
-˝ who rose up to demand a new division and sharing of
the social whole, beyond the accounting systems of the
industrial state. But it also offered a key that could
reopen the airlocks between the aesthetic and the

In an essay written just after La M╚sentente, Ranci╦re
explained that the political always involves a
disidentification with some aspect of the existing
community -˝ for example, with the police state that
expels the jobless or the paperless. At the same time,
it requires an impossible identification with "the
cause of the other."(2) This impossible identification
suggests a new, subjective figure of political
commitment. Its paradigm in France is the
identification of an entire generation on the left
with the Algerian demonstrators thrown brutally into
the Seine by the police in 1961. To identify with the
murdered Algerians was not to speak for them -˝ an
absurd idea, while their fellows were completing a
revolution in Algeria -˝ but to live on in their
place, in opposition to a national institution that
excluded certain citizens (those of the former
colonies) and included others (those of the
metropole). That impossible identification would
return in the transnational, transhistorical assertion
of the students in May '68, "We are all German Jews."
And then again in the specific legal and political
context of the late nineties, with the public act,
often performed in theaters, of parrainage or
"god-parenting," which meant taking a quasi-familial,
quasi- legal responsibility for an undocumented

This theatrical fiction, like the poetics of the '68
slogan, points to the specifically artistic aspect of
political engagement, sketched out in a few pages of
La M╚sentente. Ranci╦re begins by opposing Habermas's
view that the surprise of aesthetic experience, the
opening to the world effected by metaphor, must be
distinguished from the norms of communicative action.
He claims instead that the uncertain reality of art,
the shift or transport of meaning that defines
metaphor, is an inherent part of every political
dispute, where the argument itself bears first of all
on the legitimacy or even the reality of one of the
fundamental elements that configure the disagreement
(its place, its object, its subjects). The
place-changing action of metaphor ˝- one thing or
person for another ˝- is what allows the creation or
extension of a community of speaking subjects; and
this potential extension of a community is needed for
any argument about equality. This is why the modern
forms of political group-formation, or
subjectivization, are historically linked to the
emergence of an autonomous aesthetic dimension split
from any practical manipulation of usable objects: an
unpredictable, infinitely extensible realm defining "a
world of virtual community -˝ a demand for community
˝- superimposed upon the world of orders and parts
that lends everything its use."(3)

Metaphors are the hieroglyphs of an unknown language,
the demand for an unheard-of community. When the group
Ne pas plier, in collaboration with the jobless
association l'APEIS (l'Association pour l'emploi,
l'information et la solidarit╚), raised Marc Pataut's
anonymous portraits above the crowd in 1994 ˝-
singular faces above a sea of demonstrating humanity
-˝ the question was not whether these meter-high
photographs, carried on a wooden picket, really
represented identifiable jobless people. The question
was whether a social issue could be extended beyond
individual cases, to call for a general
reconfiguration of society; whether each anonymous
face was potentially the face of the unemployed peuple
reclaiming its right to speak; and whether the
gesticulating debates on Republic Square could compare
to the ones in the National Assembly. A visual
uncertainty, a metaphoric possibility of "one-for-
another," intertwined with a political argument
bearing on proper or improper names, on the proper or
improper division and sharing of resources, of roles,
of sensuous reality. In lieu of an answer, the
question itself gestured toward a possible future that
could only be opened up, among the existing divisions
of the world, by an argumentative logic knit together
with an artistic metaphor.

A Change of Regime

Ranci╦re's thinking of the political was formulated in
the early 1990s, during the long French slide into
recession and racism, when the status of salaried
labor was falling into tatters along with
welfare-state guarantees, when immigrants were being
outlawed in the name of union jobs and the unemployed
were being proclaimed the impossible political
subject. Yet the threat of the flexible,
transnational, networked regime -˝ the so-called
"economic horror" ˝- sparked original forms of protest
and debate. A breach was reopened, marked in political
economy by the work of Andr╚ Gorz, Mis╦re du pr╚sent,
richesses du possible (Poverty of the Present, Wealth
of the Possible), which turned the questions of
flexible work and unemployment back on an entire
system, to explore the reasons for maintaining a
politics of scarcity in a society of automated

That breach seems to have closed today. La M╚sentente
had already shown how certain forms of political
consensus act to freeze social identities, eliminating
the disruptive claims of equality. There is the
welfare-state conception of society as an interplay of
"partners" (unions, businesses, public services); the
neoliberal idea that society does not exist, only
desiring, enterprising individuals; the multicultural
vision of separate, Balkanized communities, each bound
by their own beliefs. All exclude the political
conflict formerly brought by the subject called
"proletariat" ˝- the most recent name of the antique
demos or the revolutionary peuple. After integrating
much of the National Front's racism, the French
socialist party has now found an original mix of the
first two forms of consensus: they intensify the
neoliberal program of flexible transnational labor
relations, in hopes of returning to the salaried
employment on which the postwar social contract of the
nation-state was based! As though the challenges
raised by the "mouvement des sans" never even existed.

But what is happening now, far beyond France, is that
similar movements are expanding, proliferating, in an
attempt to meet their adversaries on another stage:
the stage set by the transnational corporations. This
proliferation involves an identification with the
cause of an impossibly distant other, Mayan peasant,
Brazilian autoworker, Nigerian tribesman, Indian
farmerÍ What are the metaphors that can speak on a
world stage? To explore the role of art in these
movements, I think we had better start with something
much closer to home: the language machine that knits
the transnational system together, and the kind of
labor that is done with it.

The Internet has widely (and rightly) been seen on the
left as providing the infrastructure for what is
called "digital capitalism."(4) But what the leftist
commentators forget -˝ one wonders why? -˝ is that the
simplest net application of them all, email, has
offered an extraordinary chance to what Ranci╦re calls
"the literary animal." As large parts of the former
working classes gained education, refused industrial
discipline, and split away from their former position
in the social hierarchy, they became "immaterial
laborers" facing the new predicament of flexibilized
conditions(5) ˝- but they also found themselves in
possession of a new writing tool. And as they taught
themselves to use it and invented more applications
every day, what did they claim, against all prevailing
logic? That here, everyone is equal. The virtual
realities of the 1990s saw the return of a utopia
whose emergence Ranci╦re has chronicled in his
accounts of the self-education of the artisan classes
in the early nineteenth century: "Thus one can dream
of a society of emancipated individuals that would be
a society of artists. Such a society would repudiate
the divide between those who know and those who do not
know, between those who possess or who do not possess
the property of intelligence. It would recognize only
active minds: humans who act, who speak of their
actions and thereby transform all their works into
ways of signaling the humanity within themselves and

That dream was bound to run up against what Ranci╦re
has called "the society of disdain." In the late
twentieth century it took the usual form of the
expropriation of a popular language, and its
replacement by manipulated simulacra. Yet even as the
dominance of the Internet by the commercial and
financial spheres became clear, even as the figure of
the shareholder emerged as the only one with a right
to participate politically in the new economy,
political activism took a new twist, and disruptions
began appearing in the fabric of corporate and
governmental speech.

Since 1993, the anonymously run ĂTMark group has been
launching parodies into the ideological mix:
consultancy and funding for consumer-product sabotage,
following the actions of the infamous Barbie
Liberation Organization; direct email campaigns
promoting subversion, like the Call-in Sick Day to
celebrate the non-holiday (in Anglo-Saxon lands) of
May 1st; pseudo-official sites like,, or Masquerading beneath
a corporate- bureaucratic veneer ˝- lackluster logos,
deadpan graphics, pompous speech -˝ the ĂTMark
websites start off believable, waver in midflight,
then tailspin into scandalous denunciation by an
excess of liberal truth. Another movement, Kein Mensch
ist Illegal, more recently took up the same kind of
strategy with its Deportation-Class campaign:
websites, a poster contest, information kits,
super-activist mileage programsÍ all opportunities for
Lufthansa's stockholders to find out just how much it
could cost them to go on deporting illegal immigrants
for the police. Then, in a parody of the "Oneworld"
airline alliance, the Deportation-Alliance emerged,
with collaboration from ĂTMark and many others.
Meanwhile, a group of slow-thinking Austrian lawyers
stumbled on the site and wanted Mike Moore of
the WTO to come pep up their meeting in Salzburg.
"Mike Moore" declined, but sent two substitutes -˝
later revealed to be the "Yes Men" -˝ who stood before
the unwitting lawyers to explain a vast but rather
shocking program for the extension of free tradeÍ The
whole incident was documented on video ("tactical
embarrassment," as the activist Jordi Claramonte likes
to say).

Through mimicry and imagination, groups like ĂTMark
create a short-circuit between the anonymous, abstract
equality of immaterial labor and the subjective
exceptionalism of art. "The mimic gives the 'private'
principle of work a public stage. He constitutes a
common stage with what ought to determine the
confinement of each to his place," writes Ranci╦re in
Le partage du sensible. But this "common stage" is a
scene, not of stifling unity, but of dissensus: the
mimic transmits "blocks of speech circulating without
a legitimate father," literary and political
statements that "grab hold of bodies and divert them
from their destination," that "contribute to the
formation of collective speakers who throw into
question the distribution of roles, of territories, of
languages ˝- in short, political subjects who upset an
established sharing and division of the sensible."(8)

ĂTMark or Deportation-Class are ways for immaterial
laborers to claim a voice, a non-economic share,
against the stock-market rules of a shareholder's
society. They are also vectors of a new kind of
transnational collaboration or reciprocity. They offer
a way to rejoin the direct action movements, Art and
Revolution, Attac, and hundreds of other organizations
˝- the newest way into a much older configuration of
the aesthetic and the political, which is also called

Because the duplicity of art/work hardly began with
Internet. It reaches back to what Ranci╦re calls the
aesthetic regime of the arts, which emerged, not
coincidentally, at the end of the Ancien Regime.
Aesthetics is the name of an indistinction, where fact
is inseparable from fiction, where the lowest can
become the highest and vice-versa. The aesthetic
regime of the arts ruins the historically prior regime
of representation, with its hierarchies, decorum, and
strict separation of genres, but also its Aristotelian
distinction between chaotic, accidental history, and
well-constructed, plausible fiction. Working initially
through mimetic or testimonial techniques ˝- realist
literature or painting, photography or cinema -˝ the
new regime determines the paradoxical beauty of the
anonymous subject, of whoever or whatever: "The
ordinary becomes beautiful as a trace of the trueÍ
when it is torn away from the obvious and made into a
mythological or phantasmagorical hieroglyph." (9)

Before and beyond any "modernist" or "postmodernist"
program, the aesthetic regime "makes art into an
autonomous form of life, thus simultaneously positing
both the autonomy of art and its identification with a
moment in a process of life's self-formation."(10) The
understanding of activist art begins right here, with
the notion of life's self-formation.

Fictionable Futures

The originality of Ranci╦re's work on the aesthetic
regime is to clearly show how art can be historically
effective, directly political. Art achieves this by
means of fictions: arrangements of signs that inhere
to reality, yet at the same time make it legible to
the person moving through it -˝ as though history were
an unfinished film, a documentary fiction, of which we
are both cameramen and actors.

That would be one way to describe an event like the
"Carnival against Capital," staged by the ten thousand
actors of Reclaim the Streets in the City of London on
June 18th, 1999. Wearing masks of four different
colors, the crowd wove converging paths through the
City, displaying signs, creating images, knitting its
mobile music and language into urban reality ˝-
weaving another world in order to tangle with the one
managed by finance capital (and to tangle directly
with the police). June 18th taught us to read a new
story at the center of finance capitalism. But no
privileged viewpoint could wrap up the film, gather
the whole of this "artwork" into a totality and reduce
its contradictions -˝ because the idea had already
crisscrossed not just Britain but the earth, spreading
and dividing like the wildfire of equality. By tracts,
images, Internet, and word of mouth, by collaboration
and spontaneous reinvention, the "disorganization" of
Reclaim the Streets and the Peoples' Global Action
network had mapped out a new kind of world, in which
collectives in over 70 different countries could
protest against the same abstract processes of
neoliberal capitalism, under vastly different local
conditions but on the same day. Did the "film" of
Seattle, Prague and so on begin right here, with this
"artistic" event? But where was "here"? And what did
the "event" really consist of?

If anarchic, artistic demonstrations like June 18th
are political, it is because they involve a
disagreement, a direct confrontation with the existing
divisions or shares of sensuous reality. They make
visible the "invisible government" of the
international financial institutions (i.e. the new
world police). But if they are aesthetic, it is
because they bring a blur of indistinction to the
proper subjects, objects, and places of the debate.
They create another stage for politics: like the
protesters in London opening a fire hydrant to
symbolically return a long-buried river to the surface
of the street, to reclaim that stream from the layered
abstractions of capital. Or like the social forces in
Porto Alegre displacing the wintry Davos economic
forum to the summer weather of the South, turning the
agenda and the very seasons of capitalist
globalization upside down.

It is certain that such confrontations must become
more precise, more reasoned, more explicit, if the new
claim to equality is to have any effect on the
existing divisions of the world. The aesthetic "plus"
of the demonstrations must find a way to return to
each local environment, to the specific frameworks
that govern the homeless, the paperless, the
unemployed. This is the risky gambit that the far left
is now making, on a world scale. But to be explicit is
not to speak the opponent's language (neoclassical
economics) ˝- which would always be to play an unequal
hand in a losing game. Instead, it is to engage in an
unstable mimicry that seeks to prove its claim to
equality on a public stage, while inventing new signs,
new pathways through the world, new political


1. La M╚sentente, (Paris: Galil╚e, 1995). (Throughout
this text I will quote and summarize ideas by Jacques
Ranci╦re; but the contemporary examples of political
and aesthetic practice, and the conclusions drawn from
them, are my responsibility alone -˝ BH.)

2. "La cause de l'autre," in: Aux bords du politique
(Paris: La Fabrique ╚ditions, 1998).

3. La M╚sentente, p. 88.

4. Cf. Dan Schiller, Digital Capitalism, (Cambridge:
MIT Press, 1999).

5. On the refusal of industrial discipline and the
emergence of immaterial labor, see the arguments and
references in Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, Empire,
(Harvard University Press, 2000), chapters 3.3 and

6. Le maËtre ignorant (Paris: Fayard, 1987), pp.

7. The first two sites were forced to change names and
can now be found at, along with the other
ĂTMark projects.

8. Le partage du sensible: esth╚tique et politique,
(Paris: La Fabrique ╚ditions, 2000), pp. 68, 63-64.

9. Ibid., p. 52.

10. Ibid., p. 37.

"The authority of laws rests only on the credit that is granted to
them. One believes in it; that is their only foundation"

- Jacques Derrida

Do you Yahoo!?
Read only the mail you want - Yahoo! Mail SpamGuard.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Thu Nov 04 2004 - 00:00:01 EST