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New Left Review 37, January-February 2006

The ‘theatrocracy’—sovereignty of the audience—condemned in Plato’s Laws is reinstalled as a radical principle of egalitarian politics in Jacques Rancière’s work. Peter Hallward examines the implications and limitations of his approach. Is today’s post-political order vulnerable to theatrocratic attack?



On Rancière’s Theatrocracy

In the last few years the work of Jacques Rancière has finally, after a long period of neglect, begun to receive the attention it deserves. One of the most brilliant of Althusser’s students at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in the mid 1960s, he contributed an important section to the Reading Capital project at the precocious age of 25. Several years later, however, in the wake of May 68 and a move to the new philosophy department at Vincennes, he wrote a stinging critique of his former teacher and collaborators (La Leçon d’Althusser, 1974) before devoting himself to a series of archive-based projects—The Nights of Labour, 1981; The Philosopher and His Poor, 1983; The Ignorant Schoolmaster, 1987—that essentially turned Althusser’s theoreticist principles on their head. Althusser had privileged scientific insight over popular delusion; Rancière has explored the consequences of the opposite presumption—that everyone is immediately and equally capable of thought. Against those who argue that only the appropriately educated or privileged are authorized to think and speak, Rancière’s most fundamental assumption is that everyone thinks. Everyone shares equal powers of speech and thought, and this ‘equality is not a goal to be attained but a point of departure, a supposition to be maintained in all circumstances.’ [1] Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, tr. Kristin Ross, Stanford 1991, p. 138. Earlier versions of this article were presented at the University of Pittsburgh, March 2005, and at Cerisy, May 2005.

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Peter Hallward, ‘Staging Equality’, NLR 37: £3

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