Proletarian Nights With Rancière, Habermas, Merleau-Ponty, Honneth and Hegel

Interview by Richard Marshall

'Context is key in reading Rancière. His interventions are always that, interventions, logical revolts in specific contexts. He himself shows great versatility in using the same arguments and the same references differently in different contexts. His whole philosophical practice encourages us to use his ideas pragmatically depending on contexts and the aims we pursue. In France, the embrace of Anglo-American political philosophy in the 1980s corresponded with a concerted attempt to reign in left-wing forces associated more or less closely with Marxism. This was the time when the French Revolution was reinterpreted as a non-event or as a prologue to 20th century totalitarianisms, when people who were Maoists a decade earlier were burning the effigies of their youth.' 

'This is another one Rancière’s fundamental ideas, that politics is about subjectivation, about human bodies and spirits being radically transformed when an idea or a value, like equality, or justice, or democracy, takes hold of them. In Short Voyages, Rancière explores this thesis the other way around, so to speak: the underlying message of the book is that deeply political signs can be read in the physical, social, personal and even psychological transformations of people who travel and in their encounters with people from other classes or other places. In the work he engages after Disagreement, which is mostly dedicated to aesthetics, Rancière has provided a fairly systematic framework, with increasing levels of refinement and complexity with each new publication, to show how the modern understanding of “aisthesis”, of the way in which perception and expression relate to the world, make such exchanges between travels, creative actions of all kinds, and politics, possible.' 

'The idea some put forward that critical theory has been progressively anesthetized and moved away from its original radicality as it moved through the generations is simply not true. It reflects a self-serving assessment of the field, which reduces its richness and complexity to just a few figures, Habermas and Honneth basically, who are read tendentiously and ungenerously. Many people today read Adorno and Horkheimer still and show aspects of their work that are relevant in today’s philosophical concerns. Many people continue to engage in debates over the correct reading of Marx, specifically for the purpose of doing critical theory, often with a view to returning to what they defined as the original project. You could say that these are precisely returns to older authors, does this not demonstrate that the current live authors no longer do “proper” critical theory? But the people who reread Marx or Adorno think their exegetical work is for the purpose of a contemporary, critical understanding of capitalist modernity, not just exegesis. If the claim is that critical theory is dead, then clearly their efforts prove that this is not the case.

Jean-Philippe Deranty is a philosopher interested in Social and political theory, especially work, recognition and equality, German philosophy, especially Hegel and the Hegelian tradition, Critical Theory, especially the work of Axel Honneth, Phenomenology, especially Merleau-Ponty and Continental aesthetics. Here he talks about Rancière, Rancière and Marxism, Rancière and revolt, Rancière and egalitarianism, Rancière and Rawls, Habermas , Foucault, Joseph Jacotot, Rancière and aesthetics, Walter Benjamin and art in the age of its digital distribution, Axel Honneth, Rancière vs Honneth, Merleau-Ponty, whether Critical Theory is dead now, work and finally, the influence of German Idealism and in particular Hegel on his thinking.  

3:16: What made you become a philosopher?

Jean-Philippe Deranty: My becoming an academic is not unusual for a particular section of lower middle-class kids in France in the 20th century. I’m not sure if conditions in France have changed in recent decades and similar life stories are less likely to unfold now. My hunch is that this might well be the case with the rise of inequalities in that country as everywhere else. My academic journey is typical of an old sociological pattern that dates back to the days when the teachers, particularly primary school teachers, played a central role in establishing the new republican social contract. 

For lower-class families like the parents of my grandparents on my dad’s side, and my grandparents on my mum’s side, becoming a teacher could be a first step to climb the social ladder. As a child I was surrounded by primary school teachers. Both my father’s parents were teachers. My mum’s twin brother also became a primary school teacher. In that kind of social trajectory, the next generation often worked to cement that personal and family investment in education. My sister is a high school French teacher, my brother runs schools in the West of France, two of his three daughters are training to become teachers, one of them is getting great marks in philosophy. 

In such family context, it is not unusual for one of the kids to enter the Ecole Normale Supérieure, pass the Agrégation, and go on to teach in the tertiary sector. Pragmatic considerations mean that I probably would not have studied philosophy and made some sort of career out of it if I hadn’t been supported financially by integrating the Ecole Normale Supérieure. Once you make it into the ENS, you’re considered a “teacher in training”, you receive a full salary, plus cheap accommodation in the centre of Paris, whilst your peers who study at university need to support themselves. Once at the ENS, I could choose whatever topic I wanted to study and after nearly deciding to specialize in German literature, it’s philosophy I opted for. My decision to study philosophy as opposed to other disciplines was based on purely affective grounds, almost physical, it was not the outcome of a carefully planned, rational or deliberate project. 

That’s why I wouldn’t call myself a philosopher, philosophy for me is just one of the things I prefer doing, but it’s on the same level as my passion for playing with dogs, listening to 1980s English post-punk music, or travelling to countries I’ve never been to yet. From when I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by what I’d call constellations of sense. That’s areas where, as an outsider, you can clearly tell there’s a lot of meaningful stuff going on, a special kind of consistency which makes sense for those who are trained in it, but which at first you are excluded from because it requires work to understand the rules and learn the language of that area. Once you’ve made it into that constellation, some aspect of the world makes a lot more sense, from some perspective or other. A constellation of sense is typically a foreign language. 

When I went to high school in France in the late 1970s, kids who received good marks would study German because it was supposed to be more difficult to learn than English and Romance languages. There was also still in place a state policy to try and tighten the bonds with the country that had invaded France three times successfully in less than a century, by bringing their youths together through linguistic and cultural exchange. I immediately fell in love with German grammar and the German language but I’m quite sure I would have fallen for any language at that stage. A few years later, I learnt English and got into English culture by listening to post-punk music. 

Morrissey’s lyrics were full of references to English popular culture and recent history, I spent hours tracking them down, reading Oscar Wilde’s plays for instance or Sheilagh Delaney’s Taste of Honey to find traces of Smiths songs in them. Learning about foreign cultures was like having the door open to lands full of sense promises. In the last years of high school, I travelled a lot to Germany and fell in love with some of its real inhabitants so the affective, phantasmatic dimension of my love for the German language became literally erotic then. Something similar happened in my first encounters with philosophy. My childhood paradise lies in a small town in Southern Burgundy, where my mother was born and all my family on the maternal side has lived for generations. 

During summer, I would spend long weeks there, fishing and reading my uncle’s eclectic collection of books. My mum’s twin brother is typical of the sociological trajectory I described above. Their father was a carpenter who was always under the orders of some boss or other. My grandmother was a farmer from generations of servants and peasant tenants. Despite their humble social standing, both of them, my grand-father in particular, had great intellectual curiosity and it was no surprise in this context that their son made it into the primary school teacher training school and became a teacher. Because of his voracious intellectual curiosity and encyclopedic knowledge this uncle was like a Guardian of the Keys for me. I’d spend hours in the attic over my grand-father’s workshop reading the books he’d gathered, covering every possible science and area of the humanities. 

One day, I stumbled upon a pile of philosophy books, classics of analytical philosophy. I read the first pages of a few Russell books, but what immediately attracted me were the first pages of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. I spent the afternoon reading the book from cover to cover, not understanding anything of what was going on but unable to drop it as I could sense that something incredibly consistent was unfolding before my eyes, which went right down to the bottom of things. The seed was planted. Philosophy was the ultimate constellation of sense, made up of smaller lands that are incredibly complex and internally consistent, have their own language you must learn, that speak to other similar countries making up a rich history across times. And all the lands of that constellation of sense have no other purpose than to get to the bottom of things, try to understand what the hell this world is all about.

After that, it took several years for me to gradually focus on philosophy over other possible ways to navigate worlds of sense. For many philosophers in France the epiphany comes in their final year of high school when they encounter a charismatic teacher. Philosophy is a compulsory topic in your final year of study in France, although I’m sure neoliberal governments will put an end to that soon. For me that’s not what happened. I was reading philosophy on my own, my teacher’s lessons were not particularly inspiring, at least not for me. Today she is a well-known author in Paris, but I think she resented being sent to a boring medium-sized town in the North on her first posting. I read anything the local library had in its collections, which wasn’t very much, and typically for what philosophy meant in France at the time, it was all classics. I read a lot of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kant. Aristotle was a puzzle I remember, Plato was much more appealing, with his way of going straight to the core of things. 

A decisive moment that began to crystallise my choice for philosophy was in my first year of study, in the preparatory classes to enter the ENS. The teacher there was very unconventional, a kind of modern day Socrates who wore sandals in the middle of winter (in 1980s France that was more than unusual) and transformed the dead words written in old books into a live language that spoke to the world. It is then that I read Hegel for the first time, which immediately looked to me like the ultimate constellation of sense. Like many Hegelians, I became a convert pretty much straight away. Merely sensing that there was something very large and deep to understand there took over completely and wouldn’t let go for a long time. After I entered the ENS, the opportunities to travel that presented themselves meant I could live in Germany, live and breathe the language and study Hegel. 

One final encounter I should mention that had a big impact on the course of my philosophical career is when I met Emmanuel Renault in a seminar on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, run by Jean-Francois Kervégan who was a mentor for many young Hegelians in Paris at the time. Emmanuel’s mind works like a philosophical machine. A page by him has more ideas and complexity than entire chapters by famous authors. But what impressed me most about his way of doing philosophy was how he did not dissociate his politics from his philosophy. After meeting him, I decided to follow his example and to try like him to do the philosophy of my politics and the politics of my philosophy.The necessities of adult life, the different steps the school and university systems make you go through if you have leanings towards intellectual pursuits, have landed me where I am now, a professional philosopher and a professor, all titles which sound to me as if talking about a completely different person. 

3:16: Jacques Rancière is a contemporary philosopher you’ve written extensively about. He’s very much a philosopher concerned with social justice, class and emancipation – and he takes these perspectives into all areas he philosophises about, and in particular aesthetics. So first perhaps we need to get a general grip on his approach to philosophy. He’s associated with the left emerging out of the engaged events of Paris ’68 – how did May 68 change his philosophical perspective? He had been an Althusserian up until then hadn’t he?

JD:  Rancière has frequently recounted his intellectual and political journey. In particular, a book length interview published 10 years ago, The Method of Equality, gives a lot of fascinating detail about it. For the general background on what May ‘68 was truly about, I recommend Kristin Ross’ excellent May ’68 and Its Afterlives. The American historian shows how radical the events were, indeed there is a passage discussing Rancière’s journal project, Logical Revolts. Ross’s book helps to understand the spirit of what Rancière tries to pursue throughout his writings, the flame he seeks to keep alive after being involved at the heart of far-left militancy in the years following that revolutionary spring.

One way to get a feel for the impact of that event on Rancière’s thinking is to note a striking aspect of his work. In 1965, the text Rancière presented at Althusser’s 1963 seminar on “reading Capital” became the first chapter of that immensely influential book. In that chapter, the 25-year-old ENS student applied with great acumen the Althusserian thesis of an epistemological break in Marx’s work in relation to the very idea of critique. Amongst many other brilliantly demonstrated conclusions, the chapter established in typical structuralist fashion that subjectivity under capitalism was to be conceived as one “position” within the overall organization of production and that subjects under capitalism were therefore utterly mystified. True knowledge about capitalist exploitation as a consequence could in no way be gained from reports about workers’ experience or modes of expression. 

Ten years later, in Althusser’s Lesson, after years of militant activity for the proletarian left, which was translated into a long archival research into the seeds of the labour movement in France in the years 1830-1848 (between two successful revolutions), Rancière demolished all the tenets of this structuralist interpretation of Marx, showing its underlying theoretical elitism and political conservatism. Next to the demolition of his former master’s intellectual and political trajectory can also be found already some of the core intuitions that Rancière would gradually develop in the following decades. What I want to emphasise is this unusual personal trajectory: a complete rupture with a former self at such a young age, and in all the decades following the event that caused the rupture, a never-flagging faithfulness to some of the key commitments made during this event. This rupture and this life-long faithfulness are testimony to the power of the event, on Rancière at least. 

3:16:  Though class is important to him he’s not a Marxist in any conventional sense is he ? He has a problem with theoretical accounts of the social question developed from outside and from . Is the main worry the problem of vanguard politics that seems to follow from theories – the idea that people will need a bunch of experts to lead them? Does he think all theorizing inevitably leads to a hierarchy that condemns most people to inequality – even theorists of the left such as Marx? 

JD: I don’t think Rancière would call himself a Marxist anymore. In fact studying closely his changing relationship to Marx would provide a great lead to chart the evolution of the far-left in France, especially for the period starting a few years before May ’68, when there was already a lot of political dissent, against US imperialism and French colonialism, until the six or seven years immediately following the revolution, before the onset of a rapid subsiding of the radicalism which for a few years shook French social, cultural and political life to its core. Rancière was in the thick of the action during that decade, in theoretical and political terms. 

During the years 1969-1974, at the height of far-left militancy, Rancière rejected the Althussserian idea of an epistemological break in Marx’s work and structuralist readings of his mature writings, but this rejection was still conducted in the name of Marx. In Althusser’s Lesson, an alternative reading of Marx is proposed, a view of Capital as the synthesis, the mouthpiece in the world of social theory, of the multiple proletarian intellectual and political experiences Marx had encountered in travels from Germany to France, Belgium and England. By 1981, when Rancière wrote Proletarian Nights, he has moved away from this idea and there is no reference to Marx in the book. The conclusions he draws from the intensive archival research he conducted during the years leading to this book, no longer establish any direct connection between Capital and the voices and experiences of the proletarians. In fact, the book’s main claims are already directed against Marx, implicitly at least. 

The great lesson learnt from reading proletarian writings of the 1830s and 1840s is that the theorist would not do justice to their militant and literary work if they used them as passive material to try and establish some “scientific” description that would capture from the outside what a proletarian position means within the existing social order, even if that attempt was somehow grounded in their own expressions. What can be learnt from the writings of the workers is entirely different, it is that the struggles, political, personal, literary, people who are exploited and dominated engage in seek first and foremost to denounce and to falsify and overthrow the logics of identification that tie them to a social place, that impose on them a social fate from which they can’t escape. In patiently following all these different attempts at de-identification through their works of self-expression and self-understanding, Rancière in the same gesture defined an epistemological position and an approach that definitely aim to connect the work of social and political theorizing to the experience of social domination. But it does so in a very specific way.

Rancière’s method walks a very narrow path, one that is difficult to follow consistently, to respond to the final part of your question. On one side of that narrow path, there is the now well-identified danger of elitism, which can take many forms. A lot of social and political theorizing, including by some of the most influential thinkers on the left, relies on assumptions, or leads to political consequences, that in fact reassert and indeed even entrench inequality in some form. This performative contradiction, which can take many different forms depending on the authors concerned, always begins when a gap is invariably posited between the level at which the theorist enunciates their claims and the experiential level of those they claim to want to help in their attempts at emancipation. 

In The Philosopher and his Poor, published in 1983, Rancière illustrated this kind of performative contradiction by following in patient detail the arguments of such influential left-wing thinkers as Sartre, Bourdieu and Marx. That book marks the end of the arc in his relationship to Marx. But avoiding this performative contradiction is not as simple as it may sound, it is not sufficient for the theorist to get off their horse, to quote a famous Mao saying, to somehow let the people, or the masses, or the oppressed, speak for themselves. Such a position still assumes a homogeneous social positioning and a collective mode of being and thinking. On the other side of the narrow methodological path, there is the difficulty inherent in upholding the very idea of de-identification. That idea prevents the theorist from making any generalization about particular voices, or historical experiences. Rancière therefore does not study particular expressive or political acts in terms of their truth content or validity, but rather focuses on them in their dynamic logic, the way in which these acts seek to destabilise some hardened forms of social reification in the name of emancipation. 

His method is a pragmatist one in a sense, he looks at the context in which oppressed individuals or groups try to fight off their oppression and focuses on the precise effects they try to achieve. Because he is attentive to the processual and contextual dimensions of social struggles, he also highlights the impasses, the failures, the disappointments particular political experiments encounter. But even in those failures, there is a lesson to be learnt, namely that nobody is in principle excluded from having a voice and contesting their domination. 

3:16: What does he propose to deal with this problem? He uses the term ‘logical revolts’ to summarise his theoretical practice, something he took from Rimbaud the poet. What did he mean by this in terms of what he was doing? 

JD: This follows directly from the above. The term “logical revolt” is a nice summary of his approach and Rimbaud of course is a perfect poster boy for the kind of rebellious spirit Rancière takes as a model of emancipation. But we shouldn’t think of the term as a formula with a set definition. It points to a range of different research, thinking and writing practices, all aiming to destabilize logics of identification that lead to the entrenchment of inequality. Rancière has a strong training in classics. Behind “logical” we should hear the different senses the Greek notion of logos can have. Logical revolts are revolts in, through, against the reasons and discourses underpinning and being reflected in the established ways of thinking, speaking and organizing at a given time in society. Literature can be a logical revolt, even the writings of the bourgeois Flaubert and Proust, if they destabilise established ways of seeing the world, of partitioning it into socially obvious levels and categories. 

The proletarian writers of the 1830s and 1840s, conducted logical revolts when they tried to overthrow the social sentencing that condemned them to muteness and the raw experience of oppressive work and social dimension, especially as they used the very genres and forms of discourse of their bourgeois oppressors. The feminist writer and revolutionary Olympe de Gouges conducted a logical revolt when she applied the very word of the new constitution of the first French Republic, to demand that women by given the right to vote. “Logical revolts” also means that revolt is logical, one is always correct to rebel, as Sartre said. Sartre was the first great influence on the young Rancière and they were actually part of a collective in the mid-1970s when the old Sartre was supporting the proletarian left. 

3:16:  Isn’t there something inherently problematic in theorizing about the anti-egalitarianism of theorizing in the name of egalitarianism? It seems to be a position that really demands you stop philosophizing isn’t it? 

JD: That’s the fine line Rancière tries to walk, which I’ve tried to describe above. He uses a number of strategies to not fall of the cliff. One practice well-known in Rancière circles is his invention of theoretical version of free indirect style. His book on Jacotot is typical in this regard, but you find this writing method in many other books of his. Indeed, the method was forged in the book that is like the engine room of all his mature work, Proletarian Nights. If the “theorizing” consists in reconstructing an intellectual, or political or artistic positioning from the point of view of the persons expressing it, using their words but not pretending to be them, speaking, not in their name, not for them, but with them, through them, by constantly quoting them, and precisely by taking on the voice known in literary theory as free indirect style, then you can hope to “theorise” but not by imposing your voice and your view over those about whose position you’re talking. 

Another theorizing conducted in the name of equality that does not lead to anti-egalitarianism is more straightforward. Here, Rancière’s training in structuralism shows itself unabashed: it consists in conceptual criticism, where you show how what appears to be a sophisticated theoretical positioning, in fact is self-contradictory, or based on unsubstantiated class prejudice, or tautology. One of Rancière’s favourite conceptual strategies, which he shares with his once close friend Alain Badiou, is to conduct a highly sophisticated reconstruction of a complex philosophical or sociological argument, to show that the argument leads “logically” to an absurd or tautological motto. This is a highly sophisticated way of conducting a radical-egalitarian form of class struggle in theory, where you don’t get fooled by the words of the theorist, you show you can hold your own in the exchange of ideas and big words, and you demonstrate that all of this fluff in the end was nothing but an assertion of age-old class prejudice and commitment to inequality. 

One of Rancière’s favourite mottoes of this kind is when the complex edifices constructed by theorists, including left-wing theorists, in the end only prove that dominated people are where they are (social domination) because of what they are (ignorant of some social or economic rules), and are what they are because of where they are. The foundation of those complex edifices is just the crass tautology of elitism: the dominated are dominated because they are ignorant; and they are ignorant because they are dominated. This side of Rancière’s work seems to me to remain utterly relevant today. So much of today’s progressive social and political philosophy, critical theory, continues to be conducted on assumptions of this kind, notably because of the appeal of psychological theories of bias. 

Epistemic paternalism is rife in today’s academic world of critical, progressive thinking, even if people often refrain from drawing the political consequences that should logically derive from it. That’s exactly where Rancière’s unwavering battle for equality, particularly epistemic and discursive equality, remains priceless. 

3:16: How does Ranciere respond to the sort of normative political philosophy of, say, Rawls and Habermas and the genealogical method of Foucault?

JD: Context matters a lot in answering this question. If you read Rancière’s texts of political philosophy, then it seems obvious that his approach is completely different, indeed directly opposed to, the type of constructivist theory of justice found in Rawls. And he has written explicitly in critical terms about Habermas in a chapter of his most well-known book of political philosophy, Disagreement. Indeed, even though Rancière has always been an original, singular voice in France’s intellectual landscape, through some of his texts he does seem to fit into a kind of consensus position amongst left-wing philosophers of his generation who associate constructivist Anglo-American “political philosophy” with liberalism and therefore with falsely progressive or indeed downright regressive political thinking. 

But as I’ve said before, context is key in reading Rancière. His interventions are always that, interventions, logical revolts in specific contexts. He himself shows great versatility in using the same arguments and the same references differently in different contexts. His whole philosophical practice encourages us to use his ideas pragmatically depending on contexts and the aims we pursue. In France, the embrace of Anglo-American political philosophy in the 1980s corresponded with a concerted attempt to reign in left-wing forces associated more or less closely with Marxism. This was the time when the French Revolution was reinterpreted as a non-event or as a prologue to 20th century totalitarianisms, when people who were Maoists a decade earlier were burning the effigies of their youth. 

Rawls was translated and brought into French universities in that context, as a key reference point to normalize French philosophy and French policy debates. For the elites in France, the theory of justice and the notion of fairness, were a method and a master concept to replace and bury for good political theories that took the idea of revolution as granted, or indeed as the central concern of theory, and the appeal to radical equality as the fundamental principle. On the side of far-left politics, Rancière himself, like many of his ’68 peers, was utterly shut out of French academia, stuck in the fledgling university in the suburbs of Paris that had been founded post ’68 to park the most unruly elements. In such a context, Rancière’s pronouncements against academic “political philosophy” as a sign of the erasure of real politics thus has a very specific meaning. Institutionally and politically, in the French context at the time, it makes good sense. But that doesn’t mean that some aspects of Rawls or Habermas could not echo some of Rancière’s concerns, in different contexts, for some specific purposes. 

Rancière always emphasizes creativity, allowing and being prepared for the emergence of the new, notably when it comes to asserting equality over inequality. It is not being faithful to him to harden disciplinary boundaries and pit a “continental” way of doing political philosophy against an essentalised mainstream Anglo-American one. It is entirely possible that in some contexts, he would say that some ideas of Habermas overlap with some of his, echo some of his concerns. Something like this happened in his discussion with Axel Honneth a decade ago. To push through with this and develop a speculative example: we might single out two possible ways to read the difference principle from Rancière’s point of view. One way would be to emphasise the radical egalitarian spirit the principle embodies. A thorough implementation of the difference principle strikes most existing equalities as unjustified. Indeed, social contract theory, if used as a rhetorical tool to frame existing social divisions under justificatory light has often been in the service of radical political consequences, not just in Rousseau, but even in Hobbes, who as a matter of fact uses it to assert the necessity to transport natural equality into the civil realm, as Thomas Corbin, who just finished his PhD with me has just demonstrated in his thesis. You could imagine one of Rancière’s 19th century proletarian characters coming up with a version of the veil of ignorance to denounce existing inequalities. On the other hand, the difference principle remains a tool to justify inequality, on some ground or other. Another one of my PhD students has tried to show, fairly convincingly I think, that Rawls’ difference principle is typical of a line of post-Kantian political philosophy which, if read from Rancière’s point of view, is caught up in a typical Rancierian contradiction: asserting inequality in the name of equality. 

My point with this speculative example is just to highlight that Rancière’s way of doing political philosophy is entirely shaped by the specific context in which political arguments are mounted. There are a few axiomatic principles he wants to defend: epistemic and discursive equality; the idea that human beings in principle can always share what they have, ideas, or goods. Beyond these fundamental principles, his sophisticated and subtle conceptual analyses always aim to combat specific theses in specific contexts and so it is not really helpful to reify his attitude to any other philosopher.

As for Foucault, he explains his relationship to him at length, in personal and intellectual terms, in The Method of Equality. I can only recommend that readers look for the details there. Rancière’s relationship to Foucault is the reverse image of the paradoxical link to Rawls I’ve just established in fairly speculative fashion. The Foucault of Discipline and Punish, the Marxist Foucault of the early and mid-1970s, had a big influence on Rancière when he was in the process of establishing his own “method”. Rancière describes this influence well in the book I just mentioned. These passages are particularly enlightening to understand how Rancière does philosophy. I’ve just highlighted his contextualist approach. 

Another defining feature of his thought is its specific form of materialism. For him, philosophy is most relevant, ceases to be mere word play or the assertion of intellectual superiority, when it shows how ideas, concepts, thoughts, arguments, artistic expressions, are elements of the world that have efficacy in their own contexts and in turn are impacted by their context. It’s a very specific kind of materialism: ideas have material effects because they organize institutions, drive people’s actions, for instance inspire forms of resistance, but they are also products of their times, not just symbolically, as “ideological” artefacts we might say (a term clearly utterly alien to Rancière’s vocabulary), but even literally, to the extent for instance that symbolic productions depend on their material media. The 30-year old Rancière found in Foucault’s writings of the 1970s, leading up and including Discipline and Punish a model of this kind of approach. But the structuralist Foucault of The Order of Things, or the Foucault of the biopolitics hypothesis, or even the strand in the analysis of disciplines that appears to assume some homogeneous, anonymous logic of power combining all the different disciplinary techniques to produce one giant form of confinement, all these aspects of Foucault’s work are aspects Rancière explicitly and specifically rejected. 

3:16: Who is Joseph Jacotot and why is he important to understanding Ranciere?

JD: Rancière is very generous on a personal level, but tends to be more on the sharp critical side when it comes to intellectual discussions. There are very few thinkers who have influenced him significantly, like Althusser or Foucault. Hegel is another one he mentions. Mostly he defines his own position in theory more by what he doesn’t want to be doing than positively. If your baseline position is one of “logical revolt”, that’s no surprise. Amongst the very few people who have had an altogether positive impact on his thought are two anonymous figures: Gauny, the philosopher-carpenter whose work diary is the paradigm for all of Rancière’s subsequent work in politics and aesthetics, and Jacotot, a typical late Enlightenment figure who became an officer of the revolutionary armies and went into exile in Belgium during the Restoration in the 1820s. 

Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster is an amazing text, probably the best entry point into his way of writing and thinking. It is a typical application of his method of free indirect reconstruction. You can’t say with absolute certainty that any of Jacotot’s provocative theses are wholly endorsed by Rancière, and yet if you read this book, it is like finding the door that opens onto the rich but complex universe of his later writings in poetics and aesthetics, including the philosophical foundations of his defence of radical equality. There are two ideas that are present in this book that I would like to emphasise as particularly important for the understanding of Rancière. 

The first is the idea of speaking and thinking as work and translation, as poiesis, in the sense of production and in the sense of literary creation. When you read Rancière’s reconstruction of Jacotot’s theory of language and cognition, it looks a lot like a justification of his own approach. On that conception, all languages, natural languages, scientific and artistic expressions, are translations, each in their own media and each aiming for particular effects and audiences, of something a subject tries to process for themselves, a thought, a sensation, a belief, an affect. Interpersonal communication designates attempts by someone to translate their own self-translations for the purpose of sharing them with another, who in turn will have to do their own work of translation, to understand and to reply and possibly to engage with other people, and so on and so forth. You can see that we’re not very far from Habermassian interests here. Anyway, this poietic view of thinking and language as work of translation gives a strong foundation for the idea of an equality of intelligence, even if that principle is justified by Rancière in other ways elsewhere. 

On the poietic vision of language, any being with the capacity to formulate affects into a symbolic language is in principle included in the circle of communication, has the right but also their own capacity to translate for themselves and for others. 

3:16:  Short Voyages to the Land of People is an important text in him developing this perspective isn’t it. What does Ranciere argue in this book - and why are artists like Rilke, Buchner and Wordsworth so prominent? It suggests he sees a pretty tight link between the political and the poetic realms when approaching proletarian voices and radical emancipation. He broadens out latterly from just treating the poetic to discussing all sorts of aesthetic forms doesn’t he? Can you tell us something about his engagement with aesthetics – for many it’s in aesthetics that he’s most interesting isn’t it? So what does he do with aesthetics?

JD:  I will answer these two questions in one long reply, as the first leads neatly into the second.

That book Short Voyages to the Land of People is on the more esoteric end of the spectrum. Rancière is not an easy author to read by any means. His book on Mallarmé, Politics of the Siren, the recent book on the poetry of Philippe Beck, the chapters in The Flesh of Words, are also quite difficult to read. In many of his texts the threads remain implicit, many of the connections are not easy to follow. The Distribution of the Sensible is much more approachable to understand the tight links Rancière establishes between the aesthetic and the political, as is the long historical analysis conducted in Mute Speech, a wonderful study of the shift between pre-modern and modern aesthetic paradigms. 

By now, Rancière’s concept of the “distribution of the sensible”, which is one of the lynchpins connecting the aesthetic and the political, is well-known, particularly in the art world. If you look at it from the social and the political side, it’s an idea that has intuitive appeal, and that overlaps with many contemporary critical sociologies and theories of epistemic injustice: the social world is organized in such a way that some types of bodies are not seen, some voices are not heard, some social activities count for nothing. Redressing political injustices and exclusions therefore involves not just having the right economic and social policies or the right moral or political philosophy, it involves identifying and hopefully redressing “aesthetic” distortions, in the original sense of “aesthetic”: that is, frames of perception that organize the social field, carve it up and introduce hierarchies, points of focus and blind spots in it, such that people’s qualities, speech and activities are predetermined in the eyes of others. More provocative and also much more slippery to sum up in just a few words is the thesis if you read it ontologically. This ontological level has already been mentioned when I discussed Rancière’s very peculiar form of materialism. 

This is what the texts in Short Voyages are about. Rancière doesn’t draw any explicit political conclusion from the stories, even though it is clear that they are all animated by a political vision. They are stories, told through a mixture of narration, literary and conceptual analysis and free indirect voice, of social as much as geographical, physical travels. These are physical travels of individuals visiting foreign countries, crossing borders, oceans, the boundaries between town centre and poor suburb; and social travels of individuals having close encounters with individuals from other social classes. By simply narrating these travels, Rancière attempts to perform what he defines as one of the most important gestures of “theory”, whether that theorizing work is performed by an intellectual or a person “of the people”. This gesture is what he calls “verification”. This is to draw some “theoretical” lesson, not through the usual formal process of deduction from axioms or principles, or through the abduction or generalization from empirical data, but by identifying real, material effects, however minute or transitory, occurring in the world, that derive from someone acting in it in the name of an idea, an ideal, a value, a slogan, and so on. 

Obviously for Rancière the most interesting ideas are about equality. When you perform such a verification, the boundaries between the ideal and the real, the symbolic and the material dissolve, ideas have direct material effect and require materials, notably material bodies, to achieve this, which means that they also depend on materiality. This is what I meant by the ontological dimension of the distribution of the sensible. All the characters mentioned in Short Voyages, whether they were famous writers or anonymous persons, in performing their physical and social travels, materially demonstrated that existing distributions of the sensible can always be challenged, if only in minute ways. And as they verified this possibility for themselves, and as the theorist (Rancière) himself verifies that possibility by narrating their travels, what we find basically is that a radical change is always in principle possible. In particular, no individual is fated to live only their social destiny. All of these individuals travelled also within themselves, changed themselves. 

This is another one Rancière’s fundamental ideas, that politics is about subjectivation, about human bodies and spirits being radically transformed when an idea or a value, like equality, or justice, or democracy, takes hold of them. In Short Voyages, Rancière explores this thesis the other way around, so to speak: the underlying message of the book is that deeply political signs can be read in the physical, social, personal and even psychological transformations of people who travel and in their encounters with people from other classes or other places. In the work he engages after Disagreement, which is mostly dedicated to aesthetics, Rancière has provided a fairly systematic framework, with increasing levels of refinement and complexity with each new publication, to show how the modern understanding of “aisthesis”, of the way in which perception and expression relate to the world, make such exchanges between travels, creative actions of all kinds, and politics, possible. 

Mute Speech provides a historical narrative contrasting the classical with the modern conception of the link between world, action and meaning, or between matter, speech and symbol. This is an understanding that is articulated in many different versions by the philosophical and artistic avant-gardes, starting with the Romantic revolution, which is premised on a collapse of the ontological boundaries between the symbolic and the material. In a wonderful little book called The Aesthetic Unconscious, Rancière formulates this idea via the double formula of the pathos of logos and the logos of pathos. “Mute” things begin to speak as soon as they are integrated in some poietic work of translation. Bodies become meaningful for instance, in dance and theatre, colours have spiritual meanings for Kandinksy, the façade of a house is full of social meanings in a Balzac novel, and so on. 

Conversely, symbolic articulations never manage to fully render whatever meaning they seek to express, they remain stuck in their material expressions so to speak, and behind the most rational discourses lurks unreason, madness, absurdity, pure arbitrariness, confusion, and so on. From this latter point of view, the concept of the distribution of the sensible entails the idea that meaningful arrangements always entail some arbitrariness and senselessness, and conversely that it is always possible, in principle, to propose a new arrangement, to establish new correspondences between meanings and things. This a priori availability of the world, of things and of symbols, means that the world is in principle open to the capacity for thinking in common, and for sharing the commonality of the world. To say it in one formula (not Rancière’s but I think it captures his intentions): the condition of possibility for communism is not principally economic, it is not reducible to the question of whether or not it is realistic to want to abolish the private property of the means of production; a more fundamental condition of possibility of communism is “logical” and “aesthetic”. It has to be based on first assuming the equality of intelligence, on verifying as demonstrable fact the possibility for all human beings to share the world as equals, and the in principle openness of worlds to be shared by all. 

3:16: You’ve written about art in the age of its digital distribution which pivots off Walter Benjamin to discuss the notion of ‘aesthetisised politics’ which seems a pretty Rancierish thing to do. What are you arguing there?

JD: I wrote this article with Michael Olson a young colleague from Marquette University, after we taught a course together on politics and aesthetics. Mike is not as committed to Rancière as I am. There are aspects to our analyses that Rancière would appreciate I think, if he read it, the historicization of ontological categories, the fairly systematic aspect of the analysis, the idea that power always expresses itself aesthetically, which can be examined in artworks but also in modes of perception. But the concept of “aestheticized politics” we try give some flesh to is different from Rancière’s way of interlinking aesthetics and politics. 

The article does several things. First, we offer a “structuralist” reading of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay on the artwork in the age of its technical reproduction. At the end of the essay, Benjamin added a note to contrast the aestheticized politics of the national-socialists then in the ascendancy in Germany, with a politicised aesthetics that was a inherent in the new forms of artistic production and reproduction present at the time. On first impression, the essay seems quite disjointed, Benjamin seems to be changing topic regularly between the short sections without explaining why or how. If you look carefully, however, we argued, you realise that he actually systematically goes through all of the factors that are involved analytically in any form aesthetic production and consumption, from the medium of artistic creations, to the ontological features that are specific to those media (the fact for instance that a painted image or a hand-sculpted object are singular objects, unlike reproducible ones), to the way different ontological features of artworks in turn select for different kinds of audiences and different ways of consuming the artwork. Artworks also take on different aesthetic value and play different functions across history. In total, we numbered twelve such formal factors. 

Then Mike charted the many functional relations Benjamin established between these factors in the course of his analysis, noting when one factor impacted another, for instance if technological means available at a particular historical period made particular media more prominent than the others, say photography and cinema when the camera and film became available. What Mike noted from bringing out these structural links was very interesting: one of those twelve dimensions, the social function of art, is directly impacted by five particular dimensions, which in turn are densely connected to each other but more loosely connected to the remaining ones. These fives dimensions are: the dominant art form in a particular time, the value form of art (the specific value “exchanged” in artistic consumption), the audience, the aesthetic attitude, and the mode of perception or aisthesis cultivated by the work of art. 

What we concluded from this first study of the text was that “Benjamin offers an aesthetic theory of the social function of art insofar as it is determined by the interrelation of five primary, historically variable aesthetic dimensions, which are themselves woven into an even wider field of related concepts”. In his text, Benjamin also gives a schematic historical rendering of how these structural factors relate to each other and fulfill the social function of art. In pre-industrial times, he argues, painting and sculpture are the predominant art forms. They are created for just a few spectators and to be “consumed” in an aesthetic attitude of contemplation. The privileged mode of perception is visual and the function of the work of art is ritualistic, its aim is to represent some sacred meaning for contemplation, in order to assert symbolically the power of whatever is represented in the artefact (a god or a king initially). In industrial times, cinema becomes the dominant art form, its value is of “exhibition”, the artwork reveals, “exhibits” the social basis of artistic meanings. Aesthetic production in industrial times is aimed at the masses and touches them in quasi-tactile fashion. Its ultimate function, he claims, is political. 

The simple question we asked ourselves then, in the second part of the essay was the following: if we follow Benjamin’s analysis, borrowing both his core categories and the historical delineation he offers, then what happens when we shift to a post-Fordist mode of production and “post-industrial” times. What becomes of the work of art in the age of its electronic distribution? What we did then was to propose new historical contents for each of the main formal, structural categories highlighted by Benjamin. Our proposition, following well-known art theorists, is that the new paradigmatic art form is curation, the new value of art works is what we call “investment”, the investment by a collective of individuals in an expressive object. Expressive artefacts today, we argue, are targeted at collectives of a new kind, no longer the elite few or the crowds of industrial times, but what some political theorists call multitudes. And the new mode of perception that is privileged is “libidinal”, in the sense that the active engagement and investment in the object is an intrinsic feature now of what counts as relevant “artistic” artefact. The function expressive artefacts are to fulfill in this new historical constellation, we argue, is no longer political but social, in the sense that the new aim of representations today is predominantly to create specific collectives around objects that acquire value precisely as a result of being shared by multiple individuals investing their interest in them. Such collectives range from the interest-based communities that are created on the internet over an infinite number of possible human interests, from kittens to making illegal bombs, to communities of consumers targeted by business seeking to trigger buying reflexes, to political communities gathering around, say, justice or environmental issues. 

In the last section of the article, we focus more particularly on the commercial example, best exemplified by the economy of attention the social media engage in, and on the political example of how the Arab Spring of the early 2010s emerged precisely from political communities that were initially created online by the “curation” of images that galvanized people in those regions, whether of police brutality or of successful mass gatherings.If we had the time Mike and I would very much like to extend this long article into a small book. Benjamin’s rich model would allow us I think to propose an original and useful model to think about art and politics today. 

3:16: Axel Honneth is of course another figure of interest for you, another contemporary figure interested in critical theory which I guess can be summarized as exploring the relationships between social experience, knowledge and critique. I suppose when we think of critical theory we think of the Frankfurt School – so what does Honneth bring to this with his analysis of modern society in terms of the concept of ‘recognition’? Is he like Ranciere concerned with how exclusion and domination work in modernity – andwhat does the phrase ‘beyond communication’ claim? 

JD: A first step in answering your question is to point to Chris Zurn’s book on Honneth, which is truly excellent. This is the place where readers who don’t know Honneth’s work should start if they want to find a comprehensive and accurate picture of his work. In response to your question about Honneth and the Frankfurt School tradition it’s difficult to answer in just a few words. Honneth’s book on recognition is his second thesis, the work German academics have to write in order to become professors. His PhD dissertation was a critical analysis of influential philosophical theories of power in modernity: Adorno and Horkheimer, Foucault and Habermas. His book on recognition and all his other work around that time aims to fulfill a number of theoretical aims, not least of which is to provide a rich critical perspective onto our capitalistic present. But one aim it also tries to fulfill, as many other articles at the time show as well, is to renew the critical project of the Frankfurt School. Honneth identified problems in Habermas’ attempt at moving the critical theory project past the impasses of the “first generation”, and tried to move past these problems by developing a new paradigm, focusing on a new central concept around which the main axes of a critical theory project can converge in a new way. 

The term “beyond communication” is my choice of title for my study of Honneth’s progress until he published his second magnum opus, Freedom’s Right. In this latter book, by the way, a new model, still related to recognition but also markedly different from it is proposed. There are many aspects to the shift from communication to recognition as the conceptual headline for the new paradigm Honneth proposed to renew the Frankfurt School style of critical social theory. The one I would highlight in particular is the relationship between theory and practice, which is a defining feature of that tradition. Unfortunately, in order for my remarks to make any sense, I need to sum up in very, very rough traits some of the fundamental moves Habermas made in trying himself to move the Frankfurt School project forward. 

Habermas criticized his predecessors for engaging in critiques of modern rationality that were so radical they were no longer able to secure the ground from which the critique of social phenomena could justify itself. Once you make rationality itself a social pathology, what is the ground upon which you can base your arguments in order to criticize the social order, and point out avenues for future emancipation? The proper ground for critique, Habermas famously argued, is uncovered once you establish a distinction between different types of rationality, and you realise that instrumental efficacy, the power to rule over nature and to efficiently organize the human collective, is not all there is to human rationality. Human beings also rely on a communicative form of rationality, the one that underpins everyday interactions when we have to coordinate our actions not by simply following technical or institutional rules, but when we try to work out what is going on in the world, through exchanging views to try and establish some form of knowledge, or when we agree or disagree on what is an appropriate way to treat each other, or even more simply when we try to understand how others are feeling or we try to make others understand who we are ourselves. These different types of communicative rationality no longer operate on the logic of the most efficient choice of means for particular ends. They rely on everyone implicitly committing to basic forms of truth and objectivity. It is this communicative form of rationality that provides the ground for critique. 

Once we have in view this thick layer of social life that relies on communicative interactions of different kinds, then we can study precisely how the institutional mechanisms of modern bureaucracies and market mechanisms invade and affect them, and in doing so affect crucial forms of interaction, for example in families or in the public sphere, as well as cultural reproduction and psychological development. And the ideal of emancipation is also clearly outlined by this move to communication: it is simply the democratic ideal of a society in which everyone can freely and equally participate in decision making for any decision affecting their lives. Honneth’s work grows out of a critical reception of Habermas. Whilst he adopts the spirit of Habermas’ critique of the forefathers, he is critical of Habermas’ new ground for critical theory. 

The problem for him is the following: one key desideratum of critical theory, since the days of Marx, one that Habermas himself fully endorses, notably in an early collection of essays, is that there should be a strong link between theory and practice, in the sense that whatever theoretical explanations are given to criticize society and point to a better future, this should be reflected in social experience, both in the negative, in terms of the description of “social pathologies”, and in the positive, regarding the image of emancipation. As the young Marx wrote: critical theory should be the “self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age”. Or Horkheimer in his manifesto article of 1937, “the intellectual side of the historical process of emancipation”. Or Habermas himself: “Critique understands that its claims to validity can be verified only in the successful process of enlightenment, and that means: in the practical discourse of those concerned”. But by focusing on the pragmatic logics that underpin communicative action, the link between theory and practice is actually not restored, as Habermas had hoped. The explanation of social pathologies and injustices as distortions of communicative rationality, as the encroachment of one type of rationality by another, does not reflect people’s experience of them, nor does it do justice to how they themselves raise counter-claims to denounce injustices and pathologies and aspire for a fairer future. 

It is not violations of linguistic rules we should focus on as critical theorists, Honneth claims, but violations of deep-seated moral claims that are essential to our very identity. In this first model, for a number of theoretical reasons, Honneth argues it is through various forms of social recognition that individuals expect different essential aspects of their identity to be confirmed and constituted and it is various forms of denial of recognition or imperfect recognition that lead to pathology and injustice. It is recognition therefore that provides the link between theory and practice: the “practical” level of everyday expectations is made up of anticipations of full recognition for everyone in terms of their justifiable moral claims; and theory has to be provide the explanation of how this image of a full recognition of each and every one came about in history, and how exactly it is distorted in modern society. We have thus moved “beyond communication”, into a new paradigm. 

What is striking about this theoretical move is the Rancierian flavor of some of the moves I’ve just described: if you insist, as Habermas does in the quote above, that critical theory is validated by the practical discourse of those concerned, that seems roughly like the attitude Rancière himself took to the battle against structuralist Marxism in the 1970s. And Honneth’s criticism of his master that as a matter of fact Habermas’ focus on language precisely did not allow for such a validation, sounds like raising a Rancierian concern against him. Raising the possibility that there might be a thematic overlap between Rancière and critical theory is anathema, since it ignores the boundaries that have been erected within the discipline. But Rancière did not fail to see the link when he dedicated a significant part of chapter 2 of Disagreement to a discussion of Habermas’ model of communicative action. The objections he raised at the same recognize the closeness of their models. And in their recent discussion which my colleague Katia Genel organized and I helped in transforming into a published book (Recognition versus Disagreement), again, whilst there are obviously strong differences between them, there are also strong overlaps. 

3:16: Ranciere challenges Honneth’s notion of recognition by saying it relies too much on an overly substantial conception of identity and subjectivity. What’s the argument, how does Honneth respond – and importantly, where do you stand on this dispute? Does the materialism in Honneth’s theory help him here?

JD: The discussion you’re referring to, that was published in the book I just mentioned, ends up in an impasse. Whilst the two authors are generally speaking on the same side of the political spectrum, and both see their work as challenging existing frames of inequality, and indeed Honneth explicitly declares he is ready to take on Rancière’s aesthetic extension of the project, the two authors nevertheless reiterate their own fundamental starting points, which are incompatible, and that’s where the discussion ends. 

On the issue you raise, from my point of view, you can take two different attitudes to this impasse. You can follow Rancière’s lead and say: it is not the job of philosophers to state what it is individuals truly or actually need or desire, and we shouldn’t try to ground our social and political philosophical statements on such a thick ontological basis. It’s not that recognition theory is necessarily wrong. It’s just that it goes into territories political philosophy should not have to go into. If anything ontological at all, political philosophy should be interested only in political ontology, what governing and being governed means. Many other critics have raised similar worries, expressed in different ways and from other angles, but amounting to the same, for instance Nancy Fraser. 

Another attitude one can take to the stalemate between the two authors is to say that Rancière is entitled to his dislike of substantive statements about human subjectivity, but that’s not really an objection, just a different way of approaching the matter at hand. Honneth might make mistakes in the content of his philosophical anthropology of recognition, but the route itself he chose to take is not really barred by Rancière’s own approach. I would even go further. Whilst I have the utmost respect and admiration for Rancière as a thinker, I find his statements against thick ontological arguments about human subjectivity are a little in bad faith. As we saw, he specifically intends to situate the analysis of the effects of ideas, concepts, ideals, culturally significant beliefs, in the material world, to see how symbolic statements are impacted by material aspects of the world and in turn can transform materiality. He focuses more particularly on the bodies that voice and act out all that symbolic stuff. His materialism consists precisely, as we saw, in dissolving the ontological boundaries between the symbolic and the material. He titles one of his major collection of essays The Flesh of Words. His description of the individuals caught up in frames of exclusionary perception is “speaking bodies”. I could multiply the examples to show that as a matter of fact, Rancière’s political and aesthetic thinking reaches all the way to material ways of “being in the world”, in a deep, embodied sense. 

One strand of philosophy you haven’t mentioned in your questions is phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology in particular. For me these different strands can be usefully connected, in fact for me that’s the way to go: Merleau-Ponty’s work is exemplary in showing precisely how thick descriptions of embodied social life can be connected meaningfully to critical social and political analysis. This can allow us to produce a kind of immanent critical analysis that emerges out of the description of social life and does not import its norms from outside, which is what critical theorists are after. Once you look at it like that, there’s no issue with combining thick philosophical anthropology with social and political theory arguments of the kind Rancière does. I must admit that this kind of synthesis is highly idiosyncratic. I know that from the point of view of the current consensus in critical theory, this looks highly heretical. All I’d say in my defence is that, none of the classics to which French and German critical theorists themselves refer, had any trouble referring to some fundamental human traits as key assumptions for their explanatory, critical and political projects. I would also add that current research in the philosophy of science and the philosophy of biology shows that it is perfectly legitimate to refer to such traits if you do so in minimalist, non-exclusivist ways, both descriptively and normatively. There are sophisticated models in the philosophy of science that show not only how this is possible, but in fact is logically implied in any serious research in the humanities and social sciences, including research that targets unjustified exclusions. The work of Maria Kronfeldner is the most important one to cite here, since she presents a model for pluralist, non-essentialist uses of the concept of human nature as a result of an impressive critical synthesis of all the recent debates in epistemology on the concept of human nature. I would invite my colleagues in critical theory to read this literature before they reject out of hand arguments of an anthropological kind.

3:16: Some argue that critical theory is dead because the Rawls/Habermas normative approach is far too far removed from the original theorists like Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and Marx which was about diagnosing capitalist modernism. What do you think about this and should we be looking critically at how a kind of Marxist analysis collapsed into bourgeoise ethics? And what would Ranciere think? 

JD: The diagnosis you suggest would be true only if all there was to critical theory today was Habermas’ writings post the Theory of Communicative Action, or work in the legacy of Habermas, for instance the type of development of critical theory that has been performed by Rainer Forst. But that is clearly not the case. And Rancière himself did not make that claim in his discussion with Honneth in Frankfurt, indeed he was very careful not to fall into that trap. 

The idea some put forward that critical theory has been progressively anesthetized and moved away from its original radicality as it moved through the generations is simply not true. It reflects a self-serving assessment of the field, which reduces its richness and complexity to just a few figures, Habermas and Honneth basically, who are read tendentiously and ungenerously. Many people today read Adorno and Horkheimer still and show aspects of their work that are relevant in today’s philosophical concerns. Many people continue to engage in debates over the correct reading of Marx, specifically for the purpose of doing critical theory, often with a view to returning to what they defined as the original project. You could say that these are precisely returns to older authors, does this not demonstrate that the current live authors no longer do “proper” critical theory? But the people who reread Marx or Adorno think their exegetical work is for the purpose of a contemporary, critical understanding of capitalist modernity, not just exegesis. If the claim is that critical theory is dead, then clearly their efforts prove that this is not the case. 

But in any case, it is highly contentious to claim that today’s living critical theorists have somehow toed the line and abandoned the more radical, or distinctive aspects of the original project. Even if we agreed that Habermas’ mature work no longer offers a substantive critique of capitalism, a claim that is itself debatable, the general diagnosis of “embourgeoisement” does not reflect the reality of the field. To begin with, arguments in earlier works of Habermas, which were much more clearly targeting modern capitalism and in the line of the classics continue to be used by many people for their own purposes. Whatever one thinks of Honneth’s writings, and he has many critics, one cannot deny that his project aims at providing the tools to criticise modern society and capitalism more specifically. And then there are important critical theorists today, working explicitly in the Frankfurt tradition, who develop rich and powerful theoretical models specifically and explicitly to help us understand where capitalism comes from, why and to what extent it is destructive of social bonds and natural environments, and what avenues there are to try and overcome it. 

The best-known authors to cite are Amy Allen, Albena Azmanova, Rahel Jaeggi and most importantly, the work of Nancy Fraser in the last decade or so. There are also many colleagues who are not as well-known as the four critical theorists I just mentioned but who also do original work in the tradition, by using all kinds of theoretical tools, most notably in recent years, social ontology and substantive reference to John Dewey. For me the book Nancy Fraser wrote a few years ago following conversations with Rahel Jaeggi is the best example of what critical theory in the Frankfurt sense of the term can contribute to the critical understanding of our time. 

3:16: The pandemic has alerted everyone to the fragile nature of work – unemployment is beginning to take off and many of us are feeling very frightened that the unemployment may be long term. Alongside this there’s the technological revolutions that continue to displace many traditional kinds of modern work. Critical theorists are beginning to look at the concept of work again as it now seems a concept housing a crisis. What do you make of all this and what does it tell us about the role of work in our lives? Do you really think robots won’t stop us doing it? 

JD: I’m not sure critical theorists are looking at work again, at least not if we speak of critical theory in the Frankfurt School sense of the term. With Emmanuel, Christophe Dejours and my colleague at Macquarie, Nicholas Smith, we titled our joint book on work “The Return of Work”, but it’s not a statement of fact, it’s an appeal for further research in that direction. 

There are very interesting discussions of work today, from different angles, in other areas of contemporary philosophy, not to mention in the disciplines in economics and social sciences that focus on all the different aspects economic and social life, but not so much in critical theory in the Frankfurt School sense. The consensus in critical theory today, as I intimated a moment ago, is for an uncompromising constructivist and historicist take on anything normative, which means the rejection of any argument that refers in slightly descriptive depth to structures of human subjectivity or human sociality. These references are rejected as metaphysical, essentialist, ethnocentric, and so on. I think this attitude is not helpful. When critical theorists utter the word metaphysical to denounce thick, descriptive arguments, I’m not sure what they mean exactly. Metaphysical means a priori philosophizing, it refers to the old vision of philosophy as a form of thinking that had direct insight into essences. This is not what contemporary theories of human nature are about. Precisely, they are post-metaphysical, they are fallibilist modes of theorizing informed by the sciences. By necessity they imply a naturalistic take on human affairs, which starts from the obvious assumption that we are a product of natural evolution, like all animal species, but animals with a special history, the products of the evolution of a species which at some point a million or so years ago, began to bifurcate drastically as one branch in the tree of life, and quickly developed powers other species only have in rudiments of, if at all, like technology, language, sociality, morality. 

This naturalistic take on human beings is a powerful strand in the tradition of modern European philosophy, which existed before Darwin and of course was revolutionized by Darwin’s discoveries. This naturalistic take is present in the Hegelo-Marxist tradition from the beginning until the 20th century, all the way to Habermas really, who in his early work consistently frames his arguments in just such a naturalistic view of the human species. This is the very tradition critical theory comes from. To do robust critical theory that speaks to its time, I personally think critical theory needs to move beyond the hackneyed historicism inherited from Foucault, or the normative abstinence inherited from philosophical liberalism. From the perspective of philosophical anthropology, it is simply a trivial fact that humans have to work to survive and social organization includes as an essential part the division of labour. This involves the distribution of all kinds of tasks between the members of the collective: care, food production, maintaining critical infrastructure, ensuring the socialization and education of the next generation, maintaining the cultural reproduction of society, implementing its legal code, producing and refining specialized technical instruments, defending the collective against external attacks. In turn this distribution of tasks is connected to the distribution of tools and techniques and of the products of labour. 

Anthropologists today, those who don’t concentrate on one particular culture but study the evolution of anthropos, as does James Suzman in a recently published book, or Gerd Spittler in Germany, historians who focus on long history, like Andrea Komlosy, evolutionary epistemologists like Kim Stereleny, have no compunction in seeing work, the specific ways in which humans use and collectively organise techniques to reproduce individual lives and the life of the collective, as a defining feature of the species. The necessity to work, they show, has shaped our bodies and our brains, has been a central vector in our strong tendency to cooperate, and live and act together. From this deep, evolutionary perspective, it is clear that today’s hominins, as inheritors of this long evolution, have just too much invested in work to be able to just shed it as post-work theorists invite us to do. None of this means that the current organization of the world of work, the amount of time we spend working, cannot or should not be changed. Indeed, it is precisely if you see how deeply work fashions who we are and how we live together, that you see how pathological and in need of reform the current world of work is. For better or for worse, we just are beings who find meaning in producing stuff to fulfill other peoples’ and our own needs, who need to hone in our amazing capacities for learning and exercising fine-tuned skills in doing things that are meaningful, and that are meaningful to a large extent because other people beside ourselves acknowledge those skills and what they’ve achieved, if only simply by consuming or utilising those outputs, and by asking for more, or as we simply can see they need those outputs. Robots might in theory be able to replace humans for many tasks in some undetermined future. 

Empirically, if only for basic economic reasons, or indeed because of the way our current economic organization creates new needs, I doubt you or I will see the day when robots truly replace human workers en masse in most or indeed in all industries, as some reports claim. More deeply though, if we imagine such a time, then the species will have to have shed many of its current features inherited from its long history before the end of work is synonymous with serious dystopia. 

3:16: German Idealism – and Hegel in particular - seems to loom over much of your thinking. Why do you find Hegel so important to your approach to contemporary critical theorizing, and how does his concept of flesh work – you’d have thought that as an idealist with a full-on Geist doing all the heavy lifting, so to speak, flesh was more the point Marx was to make rather than Hegel? What’s going on? 

JD: There have always been many ways of reading Hegel and finding inspiration from his work, today more so than ever. The tradition I’ve been pointing to in the previous answers to your question is strongly connected to Hegel for me. There are several aspects of Hegel’s work that influence me more particularly, and that I try to take as guiding lights in my research. I wouldn’t say as guiding principles because that would imply I am able to master them myself. 

The first is the general method of trying to think beyond dualisms, to avoid reductive positions, to think in terms of complex interactions. The ideas of feedback loops, of reciprocal interactions, of levels of description applying to the same reality, of different epistemic stances corresponding to different epistemic or practical interests, of causal interdependences between more basic and more complex realities, with the complex influencing the factors that constitute it, the very idea of system in which units make sense through the role they play within the whole and their relations to other units, all these ideas that are at the basis of modern epistemology can be found in Hegel. He deploys such methods for thinking the complexity of reality throughout his writings. Another aspect is the vision of the place of philosophy in the world, as an engaged, worldly practice that tries to extract meaningful structures, which can be articulated in logical schemes, but not through external a priori analysis, instead working at extracting those schemes as the conceptual grammar of established ways of doing and speaking within the world, typically the existing sciences when it comes to knowledge, but also social practices when it comes to ways of doing. 

If you read Hegel like this, then there is no problem in naturalising dialectics, to apply dialectical modes of thinking on the basis of naturalistic premises, even if he lived before Darwin, and to use dialectical thinking to understand natural processes, including human ones, since humans are themselves a product and a part of the great book of nature. Once you look at Hegel like this, then you realise that a powerful strand of modern philosophy, from Feuerbach to Marx to many influential 20th century philosophers, like Dewey, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, tried to do exactly that, to naturalise dialectics. You can even read Nietzsche as someone who tried to do that without realizing that Hegel could have been a model for him. And you can also see this naturalised Hegelian influence at play in important strands of modern thinking outside of philosophy, in psychology for instance, in the Russian school between the wars, or in contemporary philosophy of biology. 

For anyone who knows Hegel beyond the cliches, there is much in today’s 4E model of cognition that strongly echoes Hegelian tropes. In a recent article, I’ve tried to extract a Hegelian model of the flesh, on Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of that notion, as a concept that helps to show how the immersion of human beings in their environments is not just a source of dependency, but also, reciprocally, how human embodiment is also where meaning and normativity emerges for them. From the point of view of this naturalized Hegel I’ve just alluded too, this attempt hopefully doesn’t seem as odd as it may sound if you think of other interpretations of Hegel that put more emphasis on the theological or his general metaphysical position. 

3:16: And finally are there five books other than your own that you can recommend to the readers here at 3:16 that will take us further into your philosophical world? 

JD: These are five books that are currently quite important for me at the moment:

 Hegel, Philosophy of Right

Marx, Capital, Volume 1.

Merleau-Ponty, Lectures on Nature 

Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi, Capitalism. A Conversation in Critical Theory

Maria Kronfeldner, What’s Left of Human Nature 

(thank you to Mike Olson for helping me tidy up the English expression)


Richard Marshall is biding his time.

Buy his second book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

Buy his second book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Time series: the themes

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