Reviewing Rancière. Or, the persistence of discrepancies

Dossier: The Althusser–Rancière Controversy

RP 170 () / Article, Dossier, The Althusser–Rancière Controversy

In the nearly four decades since its original publication, Althusser’s Lesson has acquired a certain mythical aura as the dark precursor of things to come. Even with the wealth of translations of Jacques Rancière’s work that have been published at an increasingly feverish pace over the past few years in the wake of the author’s worldwide success as a bestselling thinker of politics and aesthetics, this book – in my eyes inexplicably – had so far been forgotten by translators and publishers alike, or at least it had remained at the bottom of their to-do lists for a very long time indeed. And yet, though unavailable to English-language readers (except for Chapter 6, ‘On the Theory of Ideology’, translated in Radical Philosophy 7, 1974), this book was always famed for containing a ruthless settling of accounts with Rancière’s one-time mentor, the philosopher who precisely was not an ‘ignorant schoolmaster’ but a ‘knowing schoolmaster’, the very epitome of the master-thinker supposed to know the difference between ignorance and knowledge, or between ideology and science. Now, at long last, thanks to the careful labour of Emiliano Battista, we can read Althusser’s Lesson in English, more or less in its entirety. (Rancière has chosen to remove the self-critical notes added in 1973 to the 1969 ‘On the Theory of Ideology’. These remain available in English only in the Radical Philosophy translation.)

Does this mean that the book will soon lose its aura as the theoretical equivalent of a Molotov cocktail, one that perhaps, paradoxically, was all the more appealing the more it remained unknown and enigmatic? Will this book – Rancière’s first single-authored publication, several years after his contribution to the collective Reading Capital with a text on the different concepts of ‘critique’ in Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts and Capital, an orthodox Althusserian text that would be excised from subsequent editions for being ‘too structuralist’ – enable the retrospective establishment of a single uninterrupted trajectory, or a steady forward march leading up to later books such as The Ignorant Schoolmaster and The Emancipated Spectator? Or will Althusser’s Lesson retain the razor-sharp edge of its polemic as a stylistic oddity unlike anything else in Rancière’s oeuvre? I mean a book that at times can be exceedingly sarcastic – ‘Althusser has as many chances of catching up to the revolution as Achilles has of catching up to the turtle’ (AL 178) – but also at times poignantly self-critical: ‘assuming, of course, that all of this is something more than a scholarly pastime tailor-made to swell the existing ranks of Marxist and para-Marxist literature’ (AL 123).

We can easily predict the two most obvious paths that the reception of this particular work might take. Rancière’s growing army of followers and admirers – it is hard not to like him – can either dive into the pages of this book in pursuit of early anticipations of notions such as the equality of intelligences, the distribution of the sensible, the order of the police, or the logic of political disagreements and paradoxical litigations; or else they can highlight the prior necessity, in order for these notions to come into being in the first place, of a radical break with the whole legacy and pedagogical machinery of Althusserianism. The two options thus would consist in either reaffirming the sharp discontinuity with regard to Althusser’s work or else establishing a hidden continuity within Rancière’s own oeuvre.