The Politics of Literature

February 24, 2011

Jacques Rancière is increasingly highly thought of by anglophone literary critics and theorists. He has a reputation as a radical thinker, both intellectually and politically: he was a collaborator of Louis Althusser and has written influentially on radical education, literature, social history and human rights. However, this collection of selected essays, which range from general papers to more focused works, from talks to an opera programme, does not give a good sense of either his intellectual range or his radicalism. It also looks oddly dated, and so rather belies his ascendant reputation.

For example, the title essay argues that the politics of literature is not the politics of the writer or a didactic text, but rather that all literature is political, especially if we understand politics to be what Ranciere names the shifting "distribution of the perceptible". By this term, he means only that what is perceived as political, as having importance and weight in our collective life, changes over time and as a response to interventions: "All political activity", he writes, "is conflict aimed at deciding what is speech or a mere growl."

Literature, he argues, especially the novel, has been a powerful and democratising force in this. Where once literature was structured by hierarchical boundaries - epics concerned only the great, comedy the lowly - the literature of the past 200 to 300 years "overturned a whole world order" by making it clear that any subject - provincial adultery, the lives of the poor - was not only literary and worthy but important: literature made everything "perceptible".

Similarly, an essay on War and Peace asserts that literature (and Tolstoy's novel) pits its voice against that voice of the "great men" and the "historians" because it is concerned with the individual, in which the "life of any nobody is just as interesting as the lives of the great". Where the historical account has Napoleon meeting a cossack, who in his simplicity fails to recognise the invader, Tolstoy's Lavruchka knowingly plays stupid in the face of the emperor.

But these points, and many others he makes, are not especially challenging. In fact, this line of thinking, familiar from the work of Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton, is pretty much the critical orthodoxy. Indeed, who, left or right, would deny that literary texts have - as we might brutally and reductively say - put political "issues on the agenda"? Isn't this part of the heritage of EngLit (Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and anti-Semitism, Charles Dickens and the workhouse, Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies and so on) which is at once both honestly radical and fuzzily, warmly, National Trust-ily comforting? Perhaps it is precisely this, the institutionalisation of the once radical, that should worry us (indeed, some of Rancière's other work concerns precisely the institutions of education).

Moreover, the more demanding papers here don't seem to make more difficult claims. In the final, sharpest essay, Rancière discusses the ways in which Alain Badiou uses one of Stéphane Mallarme's poems as "the greatest theoretical text in existence on the conditions for thinking the event", only to show that Badiou fails to take into account its "poetic indistinctness".

Again, literary people have been saying to philosophers for years that when a philosopher argues that a poem says such and such a thing, it is invariably the case that the poem can be seen to say a whole range of other and often conflicting things.

Of course in these essays there are flashes of brilliance - ideas floated, details drawn out and texts transformed. However, this collection is, sadly, far from the major work or even a useful introduction to his thought that one might expect from the title.

In an interview with political philosopher Peter Hallward in 2003, Rancière said that he was working on the politics of literature and "trying to find forms of writing that allow me to make a few points about what is at stake in thinking the aesthetic regime of art - forms that, through significant objects and angles, allow me to say as much as possible in as little space as possible".

Despite the title and brevity of this book, we are still waiting for that.

The Politics of Literature

By Jacques Rancière, translated by Julie Rose. Polity, 248pp, £55.00 and £17.99. ISBN 9780745645308 and 5315. Published 17 December 2010

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