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.’footnote1

In most of the work he undertook during the 1970s and 80s, Rancière defended this supposition through a painstaking reconstruction of the subversive and elusive world of working-class intellectual production that thrived in the 1830s and 40s, the years immediately preceding the Marxist interpretation of class struggle. In much of his subsequent work, he has pondered its implications in fields ranging from historiography to aesthetics (The Names of History, 1992; Malaise dans l’esthétique, 2004) and from political to literary theory (Disagreement, 1995; La Parole muette, 1998). The most significant and consistent of these implications is essentially anarchic. According to Rancière, equality is not the result of a fairer distribution of social functions or places so much as the immediate disruption of any such distribution; it refers not to place but to the placeless or out-of-place, not to class but to the unclassifiable or out-of-class. ‘The essence of equality is not so much to unify as to declassify, to undo the supposed naturalness of orders and replace it with controversial figures of division. Equality is the power of inconsistent, disintegrative and ever-replayed division.’footnote2

The basic argument that recurs throughout Rancière’s work is thus one that pits the presumptions of a disruptive equality against the advocates of an orderly, hierarchical inequality. In general terms, he has always sought to explore the various resources of displacement, indistinction, de-differentiation or de-qualification that are available in any given field. His notion that ‘everyone thinks’ is premised on the individual’s freedom of self-dissociation: there is no necessary link between who you are and the role you perform or place you occupy; no one is defined by the forms of thoughtless necessity to which they are subjected. On this score, at least, Rancière’s starting point is not far from Sartre’s familiar account of conscious freedom as indeterminate being-for-itself, a way of being that ‘must be what it is not and not be what it is.’footnote3

Perhaps the most fundamental, and illuminating, dimension of Rancière’s anarchic conception of equality is that which relates to theatre—in both the literal and metaphorical senses of the term. Rather than defining equality as a principle of order or distribution, Rancière presents it precisely as a pure ‘supposition that must be verified continuously—a verification or an enactment that opens specific stages of equality, stages that are built by crossing boundaries and interconnecting forms and levels of discourse and spheres of experience.’footnote4 As Rancière describes it, thinking is more a matter of improvisation than of deduction, decision or direction. Every thinking has its stage, every thinker ‘plays’ or acts in the theatrical sense. In particular, every political subject is first and foremost ‘a sort of local and provisional theatrical configuration.’footnote5

The thematics of the stage are certainly omnipresent in Rancière’s work. In the mid-1970s, Révoltes logiques had proceeded from the assumption that, rather than a matter of ‘popular savagery’ or ‘historical necessity’, revolt is first and foremost ‘a staging of reasons and ways of speaking.’footnote6 In line with this definition Rancière went on, in Disagreement, to define politics as a matter of

performing or playing, in the theatrical sense of the word, the gap between a place where the demos exists and a place where it does not . . . Politics consists in playing or acting out this relationship, which means first setting it up as theatre, inventing the argument, in the double logical and dramatic sense of the term, connecting the unconnected.footnote7

Before it is a matter of representative institutions, legal procedures or militant organizations, politics is a matter of building a stage and sustaining a spectacle or ‘show’. Politics is the contingent dramatization of a disruptive equality, the unauthorized and impromptu improvisation of a democratic voice. As Rancière puts it in a recent interview in which he accounts for his critical distance from Negri and Hardt, ‘politics is always about creating a stage . . . [it] always takes the form, more or less, of the establishment of a theatre . . . For me, politics is about the establishment of a theatrical and artificial sphere. Whereas what they [Negri and Hardt] are after, in the end, is a stage of reality as such.’footnote8 In what follows I will try to tease out the several ways in which this theatrical metaphor helps illuminate Rancière’s conception of equality and politics, before considering some of the more obvious difficulties posed by such a conception.