[Marxism] Philosophy and the poor

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun May 16 09:41:39 MDT 2004

(courtesy of Xxxxxx B. on ope-l)

The Philosopher and His Poor
by Jacques Ranciere,
Introduction by Andrew Parker Translated by John Drury, Corinne
Oster, and Andrew Parker

Duke University Press
Due/Published March 2004, 280 pages, paper
ISBN 0822332744

What has philosophy to do with the poor? If, as has often been
supposed, the poor have no time for philosophy, then why have
philosophers always made time for them? Why is the history of
philosophy--from Plato to Karl Marx to Jean-Paul Sartre to Pierre
Bourdieu--the history of so many figures of the poor: plebes, men of
iron, the demos, artisans, common people, proletarians, the masses?
Why have philosophers made the shoemaker, in particular, a remarkably
ubiquitous presence in this history? Does philosophy itself depend on
this thinking about the poor? If so, can it ever refrain from
thinking for them?

Jacques Rancière's The Philosopher and His Poor meditates on these
questions in close readings of major texts of Western thought in
which the poor have played a leading role--sometimes as the objects
of philosophical analysis, sometimes as illustrations of
philosophical argument. Published in France in 1983 and made
available here for the first time in English, this consummate study
assesses the consequences for Marx, Sartre, and Bourdieu of Plato's
admonition that workers should do "nothing else" than their own work.
It offers innovative readings of these thinkers' struggles to
elaborate a philosophy of the poor. Presenting a left critique of
Bourdieu, the terms of which are largely unknown to an
English-language readership, The Philosopher and His Poor remains
remarkably timely twenty years after its initial publication.

Editor's Preface vii
Editor's Introduction: Mimesis and the Division of Labor ix
A Personal Itinerary xxv
1. The Order of the City 3
2. The Order of Discourse 30
3. The Shoemaker and the Knight 57
4. The Production of the Proletarian 70
5. The Revolution Conjured Away 90
6. The Risk of Art 105
7. The Marxist Horizon 127
8. The Philosopher's Wall 137
9. The Sociologist King 165
For Those Who Want More 203
Afterword to the English-Language Edition (2002) 219
Notes 229

"Sure to provoke controversy, The Philosopher and His Poor is a
virtuoso performance. I can't think of anyone who has pursued the
populist premise--the intuition that in this or that situation the
grounding of truth or value is to be located in those most
dispossessed--with anything approaching Rancière's degree of
articulateness or philosophical sophistication. I predict that this
book will become a landmark."--Bruce Robbins

"The Philosopher and His Poor is a remarkable work. Jacques Rancière
demonstrates the recurrence throughout the history of western thought
of a particular self-constituting move: the freedom and the right to
think are premised upon a situating and excluding of those whose task
is other than to think, what Rancière calls 'the poor.'"--Derek

This is worth revisiting:

April 30, 2002

Guantanamo, Justice and Bushspeak

Prisoners of the Infinite

by Jacques Ranciere

"Infinite Justice". This was the initial name given to the Pentagon's
offensive against that fuzzy-contoured enemy, referred to by the term
of 'terrorism'. As we know, the name was quickly changed. It had
been, as we were told, a case of language excess on the part of a
president still inexperienced in the art of nuances. If he had wanted
bin Laden "dead or alive", it was obviously due to having seen too
many Westerns at too young an age.

Such an explanation left no one convinced. That's because the 'dead
or alive' principle isn't the one from Westerns. On the contrary,
it's quite common to find sheriffs risking their skin to save
assassins from a lynch mob, and hand them over to Justice afterward.
Infinite Justice, as opposed to the Far West's whole morality, means
justice without limits. It's justice that ignores all of the
categories by which its practice is traditionally circumscribed:
distinguishing legal punishment from the vengeance of individuals;
separating the law from politics, ethics or religion; separating
police forms by which criminals are hunted down from the military
forms by which armies engage in battle.

 From that point of view, there was no language excess. 'Nuances'
would be inappropriate indeed. These traces are precisely what
characterize the retaliatory operations undertaken by the USA. They
involve eliminating the differences that separate war and the police
from all the legal forms by means of which we've sought to specify
and limit the action of war onto justice. We're no longer talking
about 'dead or alive', except to say that nobody knows whether the
accused is dead or alive. Yet no one knows exactly what the charge is
under which the American military is detaining, with the intension of
trying, prisoners who benefit neither from POW status nor from the
ordinary guarantees granted to defendants with proceedings brought
against them. 'Infinite justice' states exactly what's at stake: the
assertion of a right identical to the omnipotence hitherto reserved
for the vindictive God. All traditional distinctions end up by being
abolished with the erasure of international forms of law.

To be sure, this erasure is already the principle of terrorist
action, to which political forms and the norms of law are also
indifferent. But 'infinite justice' is not only the answer to the
adversary's provocation, thus being compelled to share the same field
as him. It translates as well the strange status that the erasure of
the political nowadays grants to law, within nations and amongst them.

Reflecting on the current state of law reveals an extraordinary
inversion of things. In the 1990's, the undoing of the Soviet empire
and the weakening of social movements in major Western countries were
usually celebrated as utopias being liquidated from real and social
democracy to the benefit of the rules of the State of Right.
Whereupon unleashed ethnic conflicts and religious fundamentalism
ended by contradicting this simple philosophy of history. But
identifying Western triumph as the State of Right's has also proved
to be problematic. That's because at the very heart of Western powers
and in their modes of foreign intervention, the relation between
right and fact has evolved in such as way as to tend increasingly
toward erasing the boundaries of law.

In these countries, we've seen two phenomena emerge. On the one hand,
there's an interpretation of law in terms of the rights granted to a
whole series of groups. On the other, legislative practices have
aimed at harmonizing the letter of the law entirely with new
lifestyles and workstyles, new forms of technology, and the family or
social relationships.

This is how the political forum, shaped in the gap between the law's
abstract literalness and the polemics over its interpretations, has
been found to have shrunken as much. Thus celebrated, the law
increasingly tends to be the record of a community's lifestyles.
Ethical symbolization has substituted the political symbolization of
power and its limits, and the law's ambivalence. What's now familiar
to us is a relation of consensual inter-expression between the fact
of a society's state and the norm of the law.

What the American response asserts is the unmediated likeness of law
and fact in the way a community lives. Yet this is also what the
American Constitution's dominant representation symbolizes: the
ethical identity between a particular lifestyle and a universal
system of values. As we know, 'ethos' means sojourn and lifestyle
before referring to a system of moral values. The recent manifesto
issued by American intellectuals in support of George W. Bush's
policies highlighted this point well: the United States are first and
foremost a community united by common moral and religious values, an
ethical community more than one of law and politics. The Good, by
which the community is founded, is therefor the identity between law
and fact. And the crime perpetrated against thousands of American
lives can be immediately considered a crime perpetrated against the
Empire of Good itself.

Yet for some time already this rise of ethics to the detriment of
justice has characterized the forms by which the Western powers have
intervened abroad. Blurring the limits between fact and law has taken
on another face, one opposite and complementary to consensual
harmony, i.e. the face of the humanitarian and 'humane interference'.

The 'right of humane interference' has enabled the protection of some
populations of the former-Yugoslavia from ethnic liquidation.
However, this was carried out at the cost of blurring symbolic
boundaries as well as State borders. It has not only consecrated
giving up a structural principle of international law, i.e. the
principle of non-inference--whose virtues were admittedly ambiguous.
It especially introduced a destructive principle of limitlessness
regarding the very idea of the gap separating law and fact, which
otherwise endows the law with its status.

Back in the days of the Vietnam War or of the coups American power
engineered more or less directly in various regions throughout the
world, there existed an explicit or latent opposition between the
great principles as asserted by the Western powers and the practices
subordinating those principles to their vital interests. The
anti-imperialist mobilizations of the 1960's and 1970's had denounced
this split between the founding principles and real practices.
Nowadays the polemics over means and ends seems to have vanished.

The principle behind this disappearance is represented by the
absolute victim, a victim of infinite evil, forcing a response of
infinite reparation. This 'absolute' right of the victim has come to
full fruition in the framework of 'humane' war. It was backed up
during the last quarter century by the major intellectual movement
that worked on theorizing infinite crime.

We've undoubtedly not heeded the specific features enough of what
could be called the second denunciation of Soviet crimes and the Nazi
genocide. The first denunciation had aimed at establishing the
reality behind the facts while also reinforcing the determination of
Western democracies to struggle against an ever-present and
ever-threatening totalitarianism. The second kind, developed during
the 1970's as a record of communism, or in the 1980's when returning
to the way in which the European Jewry was exterminated, has acquired
a whole new meaning. Not only have the crimes been transformed into
the monstrous effects of regimes that have to be fought against, but
into the forms whereby an infinite, unthinkable and irreparable crime
was made manifest_the work of an Evil power exceeding all legal and
political measure. Ethics has become the way to think this infinite
evil, which has created an irremediable break in history.

The ultimate consequences of the excess of ethics over law and
politics is the paradoxical constitution of an individual's absolute
right whose rights have, in fact, been absolutely negated. This
individual actually appears as the victim of an infinite Evil against
which the fight is itself infinite. This is the point at which the
one defending the victim's rights inherits absolute right.

The unlimited feature of the wrong perpetrated against the victim
justifies his counsel's unlimited right. American reparation for the
absolute crime perpetrated against American lives has brought the
process to its culmination. The obligation of attending to the
victims of absolute Evil has become identical to the fight without
limits against this evil. And this is identified with deploying
unlimited military power, acting like a police force in charge of
restoring order to every part of the world where Evil can find
shelter. This military power is also a legal one, exercising the
mythical power of Vengence in hot pursuit of Crime against all
alleged accomplices of infinite Evil.

As the saying goes, unlimited right is identical to non-right.
Victims and culprits alike fall into the cercle of 'infinite
justice'. These days this translates into the total indeterminacy of
the law as it deals with the status of the American army's prisoners
and the way of qualifying the facts held against them.

Hegel had already sunk into the night of the Absolute in which "all
cows are gray". The lack of ethical distinction, in which politics
and the law drown nowadays, has transformed the prisoners of
Guantanamo Bay into captives of the same type of infinite, with gray
being switched to orange.

Legal and political symbolization has been slowly substituted by
another ethical and police symbolization of the lives of so-called
democratic communities and of their relations with another world,
identified by the sole reign of ethnic and fundamentalist powers. In
the one corner, the world of good: that of consensus eliminating
political litigation in the joyous harmonizing of right and fact,
ways of being and values. In the other: the world of evil, in which
wrong is made infinite, and where it can only be a matter of war unto

Jacques Ranciere's most recent work in translation is Disagreement:
Philosophy and Politics, (Julie Rose, translator) University of
Minnesota Press, 1998; and in French: L'inconscient esthetique,
Galilee, 2001.

Translated for CounterPunch by Norman Madarasz.


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