Want to Know What

James Livingston’s most recent provocation on the crisis of the Left as an intellectual project, as well as his fiery salvo against lingering attachments to the notion of “false consciousness,”  deserve a wide audience. Livingston tackles the classic Left question– “what is to be done?”– and arrives, ultimately, at a different query: “why do we (committed intellectuals) assume that if ‘something is to be done’–and this is far from an innocent presupposition–must we (and who is that, frchrissakes?) be the ones to do it?” This reflection comes on the heels of some timely reflection by Livingston on the imminent obsolescence of the “history professor.” Taken together, Livingston’s writings suggest the need for a new vision of the proper relation between historians and emancipatory movements.

I encourage you to read Livingston’s posts. What they made me think about was not so much how to counter his claims, but rather how I might frame the question of intellectuals and the Left in a different way. I would begin by taking seriously the recent work of  Jacques Ranciere on the politics of pedagogy and aesthetics, then attempt to underline some of the links between Ranciere and two other French heavyweights with whom he is in dialogue–Alain Badiou and Jacques Lacan–and conclude with a brief for a model of intellectual engagement premised on a ethics of desire. Having proposed this as a hypothetical, it seems silly not to try to follow through. I’ll start, in this post, with the Ranciere chunk, with all necessary apologies issued ahead of time for any misreadings or mutilations.

In my experience, all of Jacques Ranciere’s books turn out to be essential reading. They have been appearing in translation at such a steady clip, however, that it is hard to keep up. One Ranciere text that historians may have overlooked is The Emancipated Spectator, a slim volume ostensibly about contemporary art and theater, but also a consolidation of the themes that Ranciere has been working out over the past several decades.

It makes sense to begin with this long quote, not unrelated to Livingston’s argument:

“I belong to a generation that found itself pulled between two opposite requirements. According to the first, those who possessed an understanding of the social system had to teach it to those who suffered because of that system so as to arm them for struggle. According to the second, supposed scholars were in fact ignoramuses who knew nothing about what exploitation and rebellion meant and had to educate themselves among the workers whom they treated as ignoramuses. To respond to this dual requirement, I first of all wanted to rediscover the truth of Marxism, so as to arm a new revolutionary movement, and then to learn the meaning of exploitation and rebellion from those who worked and struggled in factories. For me, as for my generation, neither of these endeavors was wholly convincing. This state of affairs led me to search in the history of the working-class movement for the reasons for the ambiguous or failed encounter between workers and the intellectuals who had come to visit them to educate them or be educated by them. I thus had the opportunity to understand that the affair was not something played out between ignorance and knowledge, and more than it was between activity and passivity, individuality and community” (17-18)

Here we have Livingston’s problematic cracked open like a coconut. The failure of the search for truth, the exhaustion at the end of the experience of spreading the good news of revolution and discovering that the workers’ ears were deaf to scholia on Marx and Engels: what Ranciere takes away from this experience is a renewed commitment to doing a certain kind of archival research, and a revivified curiosity about the relationship between knowledge and emancipation. From this work, as Ranciere’s conclusion illustrates, the focus shifts from the problem of stupidity and wisdom to a politics of time (activity and passivity) and space (individuality versus community).

Already, I think, we are in a happier place than the zone of ambiguity to which Livingston would transport us. At the same time, Ranciere’s supporting arguments resonate harmoniously with Livingston’s broader project–to which I am indebted, from which I have learned a great deal, about which I am almost evangelical in conversations with friends and colleagues–of rejecting the moralizing censure of consumption and social codependence, renewed each year in ostensibly left-wing books, articles, and essays that mourn the death of the self-sufficient smallholder and reup supplies of sackcloth and ashes  to weep over the tragedy of proletarianization and the rise of the corporation. What kind of socialists are we, Livingston asks, who want to return to the farm, to the re-confinement of women to the domestic sphere, to the age of lynching, to the time before our intense reliance on one another in large, anonymous aggregations made socialism the only viable, non-suicidal solution to the problem of how we might all live together?

Ranciere reviews his own history in the context of an essay on “political theater,” and it is worthwhile to reconstruct his itinerary to grasp more fully what he means when he suggests that activity and passivity, individuality and community, are the proper terms in the consideration of what leftists have usually called “false consciousness.”

Ranciere in The Emancipated Spectator takes on the conventional Left theatrical conceit: whether in Brecht’s v-effect or Artaud’s goth rituals, the radical stage has usually been seen as a space for drawing viewers out of their slumbers, waking them up, slapping them around, showing them the reality behind the illusions, revealing to the slack-jawed couch potatoes and rubbernecking looky-loos their passivity, gullibility, castration. (If we are reading alongside Livingston, we might want to add a column for “consumers” alongside this account of the proletarian and the spectator, checking all the same boxes).

“Brecht y Artaud” by gabrio76

Ranciere approaches this tradition via his research into the career of the eccentric pedagogue Jacotot in The Ignorant Schoolmaster, who created a radically egalitarian model of emancipatory education based on the sciences of comparison and self-correction. “The ignoramus,” Ranciere writes, consolidating Jacotot’s discoveries, “advances by comparing what she discovers with what she already knows, in line with random encounters but also according to the arithmetical rule, the democratic rule, that makes ignorance a lesser form of knowledge” (9).

Intellectual emancipation, for Jacotot, was the living verification of the “equality of intelligence.” (Here, we should recall that the brief against “false consciousness” is almost always built upon the charge that “false consciousness”-hunters believe in the inequality of intelligence–and pay attention to whether a Jacotot-ian paradigm might provide a way to preserve what is meant by “false consciousness” while removing the sting of the insult). “The human animal learns everything in the same way as it initially learnt its mother tongue,” Ranciere writes, channeling Jacotot, and calling to mind Noam Chomsky, “as it learnt to venture into the forest of things and signs surrounding it, so as to take its place among human beings: by observing and comparing one thing with another, a sign with a fact, a sign with another sign… From this ignoramus, spelling out signs, to the scientist who constructs hypotheses, the same intelligence is always at work–an intelligence that translates signs into other signs and proceeds by comparisons and illustrations in order to communicate its intellectual adventures and understand what another intelligence is endeavoring to communicate to it” (10). The “poetic labor of translation,” then, is at the heart of all learning. That makes she who knows more and she who knows less equals, and clears the way for a collective act of learning–perhaps, as in Cornelius Cardew’s beautiful work, a “Great Learning”–without bullies and bullied, smart and stupid.

In contrast, radical theatre-makers proceed from a position in most ways identical to the pompous authoritarianism of traditional educators. The schoolmaster is tasked with abolishing the distance that separates the ignorance of the pupil from his or her own expert knowledge. But the form of the schoolmaster/pupil relationship ensures that this distance is never really reduced: “To replace ignorance by knowledge, (the schoolmaster) must always be one step ahead, install a new form of ignorance between the pupil and himself.” Why? Because in traditional pedagogical logic, “the ignoramus is not simply one who does not as yet know what the schoolmaster knows.” Rather, the ignoramus “is the one who does not know what she does not know or how to know it.” And the schoolmaster is not only the master of knowledge: he or she alone knows how to select from the vast body of potential knowledges of the world those elements that count.  Because at the heart of the power asymmetry separating schoolmaster and pupil lurks an inconvenient fact: students are not empty-headed containers. “For, in truth,” Ranciere writes, “there is no ignoramus who does not already know a mass of things, who has not learnt them by herself, by listening and looking around her, by observation and repetition, by being mistaken and correcting her errors” (8-9).

The schoolmaster, then, must forge a new conception of knowledge, one that would separate “ignoramus knowledge” from the real stuff.  “What the schoolmaster knows,” Ranciere insists, “is that ignorance is not a lesser form of knowledge, but the opposite of knowledge; that knowledge is not a collection of fragments… but a position” (9). What the schoolmaster teaches, first and above all, is the incapacity of the student.  “In its activity,” Ranciere writes of traditional education, “it thereby constantly confirms its own presupposition: the inequality of intelligence,” an endless confirmation of what Jacotot called “stultification” (9).

Here, I am very grateful to Ranciere (and Jacotot) for giving a name–“stultification”– to a thing that I have encountered many times in experimental music and Left politics. Hatred of “stultification” is why my friend Martin, perhaps the world’s most devoted listener to the music of John Cage, hated so passionately “4’33”– a “bullshit Romantic tone poem,” he always said. It’s why so much Left writing, agitprop, Adbusters, etc., is so fucking annoying and enervating. It speaks to a problem of power and desire with which the Left still must grapple.

Ranciere’s reflection on “stultification” versus “intellectual emancipation” leads to a final point of convergence with Livingtson: both authors see their intellectual adversaries as stuck in an infantile or adolescent protest against reality, in particular the refusal to accept that we can live with the fact that words and things are different from one another. When this fact of life that words and things are scored on different staves bothers us, it bothers us because we can’t tolerate that distance, that bit of white paper, that separates names from objects. Both Livingston and Ranciere counsel: there is nothing to be done about this. “Distance is not an evil to abolished,” Ranciere writes, “but the normal condition of any communication.” “Human animals are distant animals who communicate through the forest of signs” (10).

From the fact of this distance, and out of the pain that it causes us, we often get tripped up and identify immediacy with sensuous materiality (and the “good”) and reflection/witnessing/observation with corruptible artifice (and the “bad”). In this way, we remain both vulgar Marxists and vulgar Platonists. And the presuppositions and a prioris that structure these beliefs, like the ideology of traditional education, have a nasty habit of migrating from form to content, becoming, in the end, a lesson in our own incapacity rehearsed endlessly in both school and theater:

“What makes it possible to pronounce the spectator seated in her place inactive, if not the previously posited radical opposition between the active and the passive? Why identify gaze and passivity, unless on the presupposition that to view means to take pleasure in images and appearances while ignoring the truth behind the image and the reality outside the theatre? Why assimilate learning to passivity, unless through the prejudice that speech is the opposite of action? These oppositions–viewing/knowing, appearance/reality, activity/passivity–are quite different from logical oppositions between clearly defined terms. They specifically define a distribution of the sensible, an a priori distribution of the positions and capacities and incapacities attached to these positions. They are embodied allegories of inequality” (12).

If there is a place where Livingston and Ranciere converge perfectly, I think it is here: in the absolute refusal of “embodied allegories of inequality.” And the medicine prescribed by Ranciere would, I think, be seconded by Livingston:

“Being a spectator is not some passive condition that we should transform into activity. It is our normal situation. We also learn and teach, act and know, as spectators who all the time link what we see to what we have seen and said, done and dreamed. There is no more a privileged form than there is a privileged starting point. Everywhere there are starting points, intersections and junctions that enable us to learn something new if we refuse, firstly, radical distance, secondly, the distribution of roles, and thirdly the boundaries between territories. We do not have to transform spectators into actors, and ignoramuses into scholars. We have to recognize the knowledge at work in the ignoramus and the activity peculiar to the spectator (17).

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