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Review essay: addressing the people.

As a figure of political thought, the people remain enigmatic. Consider the distinction between constituting and constituted power. For European theorists of democratic constitutionalism, the people create the political order by constituting themselves as a unified body that then wills the order into existence. This implies a paradoxical relation in which the people already exist and are united before the constitution brings them into being as a legal entity. Moreover, if popular sovereignty presupposes that state action is guided by the unified will of the people, how do we square that presupposition with the sociological diversity of people in their daily lives? And what does this difference between people, in all of their complexity, and the people, as a political concept, mean for arguments about the legitimacy of democratic institutions and processes? Who exactly are the mysterious people that democratic institutions or politicians claim to represent and how do they represent an entity that never seems to be fully present in space or time, yet is necessary for the constitution of a democratic political order?

These problems are familiar to democratic political theorists. Recent politico-philosophical debates about the relation between sovereignty and biopolitics have raised them again with renewed urgency. Giorgio Agamben (1998), for instance, has addressed the "semantic ambiguity" (page 177) around the people, noting that in modern European languages the term refers to "both the complex of citizens as a unitary political body ... and the members of the lower classes" (page 176). For Agamben, the terminological confusion is indicative of the central paradox of sovereignty's own claim to totalization. Although the first sense of the people promises a self-legislating citizenry that is unified across time and within specific political jurisdictions, this image is interrupted by the second sense of the people as the "fragmentary multiplicity of needy and excluded bodies" (page 177). Given Agamben's insistence that exclusion of our biological existence is the condition of possibility for any and every sovereign order, this suggests that even democratic states founded on popular sovereignty remain haunted by the ontological relation between sovereignty and bare life. Although a number of critical scholars have been justifiably circumspect with regard to Agamben's "historico-philosophical" (page 10) analysis of sovereignty, (1) highlighting its depoliticizing tendencies and its lack of attention to the diverse ways in which the people are both constituted and abandoned under historically and geographically specific conditions (see, for instance, Coleman and Grove, 2009; Ranciere, 2004a), if his analysis of the paradoxes around the people is correct it does not bode well for even the most democratic political institutions.

Both Paulina Ochoa Espejo's The Time of Popular Sovereignty and Jacques Ranciere's two volumes of newly translated essays from the 1970s and 1980s, Staging the People: The Proletariat and His Double and The Intellectual and His People: Staging the People Volume 2, attempt to rethink a democratic politics that remains grounded in the people without being ensnared in the paradoxes of popular sovereignty. Responding to a similar set of theoretical concerns, however, they mark out radically different visions of democratic politics. Whereas Ochoa Espejo draws on philosophical vitalism and process philosophy to articulate a conception of the people as a process that can nonetheless legitimate democratic institutions, Ranciere examines the people as a name for processes of subjectivization by which the excluded stage a properly political dispute over the configuration of political and social order. Although both scholars conceptualize the people in processual terms, for Ochoa Espejo such a conception reinforces the democratic state's ability to rule, whereas for Ranciere it creates a gap in constituted political orders that continually makes equality visible.

But what kind of processes are we actually talking about, and how does thinking through the people as a process address the paradoxes that arise from grounding politics in the unified will of the people? For Ochoa Espejo, process is an expansive concept that not only refers to the people as a political entity but rather captures "the basic structure of reality" (2011, page 140). Drawing on Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and Nicholas Rescher, she argues that process is nothing less than the ontological condition of being in the world. Thus the political concept of the people is similar to the formation of waves and storms, the rising and setting of the sun, or the fluctuations of markets in that each are dynamic entities composed "by a series of events unfolding in coordination, where what does the coordinating is a self-creative aim" (page 137). This lucid account of process philosophy highlights the permeability of the borders around what are seemingly stable objects. Although we might think of either the people or the sunrise as a thing--the former grounding popular sovereignty, the latter initiating the day--in fact they are a series of events that occur through space and time without ever being perfectly localizable. What coherence these "fuzzy" (page 141) objects have as objects derives from the coordination that organizes a series of events into a recognizable pattern. Coordination, in this sense, means the processes structuring events toward their ends and can include such diverse elements as conscious goals, physical constraints, and the structuring influences and transformative effects of old pathways on ongoing developments in the present. Finally, the processual nature of objects is shaped by creativity and novelty, which attempts to capture the ways in which reality, although coordinated, is never fully determined; the complex interaction of events and their coordination creates the possibility for new lines of development.

Given that process describes reality, one could presumably address any object in terms of the events, coordination, and creativity that shape their becoming. Ochoa Espejo seeks to identify the particular elements that give rise to the people as a democratic body and attempts to do so in a way that avoids the logical paradoxes that emerge from founding democratic legitimacy on the unified will of the people. Thus she focuses on people events as the political moments that constitute the people, which can range from the grand (wars, famous court decisions, elections) to the minute (an individual conversation or experience). Ultimately "what makes some political events people events depends on the coordination that structures the series" (page 158). And Ochoa Espejo is precise about the coordination that constitutes people events into the people: "People events are those events that are part of the practices of constituting, governing, or changing the institutions that are the highest authority for those affected by the institutions in question. So political events restricted to your club, your city block, or your province don't count ... . In most modern countries, the institutions that are the highest authority are those of the sovereign state" (page 158, italics in the original).

Two aspects of this notion of coordination are notable. The first concerns the democratic presupposition of freedom and equality that undergirds Ochoa Espejo's account. Although basically all accounts of democracy and popular sovereignty presuppose the freedom and equality of subjects, Ochoa Espejo presents freedom and equality not as normative ideals, rational outcomes of self-governing individuals, or innate aspects of human psychology, but as central to conceptualizing people themselves as processes. In the same way that all processes have creativity and novelty as constitutive elements that shape events over time, people are structured by the open-endedness that allows new entities to emerge in the world. Ochoa Espejo terms this "creative freedom", and presents it as the form of "creativity that pertains to persons" (page 152). Since all entities emerge through events over time, creative freedom means that individuals and groups emerge through the socially and biologically coordinated events that make them what they are. Creative freedom emphasizes that such processes are both relational, in that we only emerge as persons through the relations and connections that define us as such, as well as open ended, in the sense that our becoming as persons is never fully determined from the outset.

Like actor-network theories, this account focuses on the relatedness of objects and the novelty of the political future. These aspects are difficult to square with the second component of Ochoa Espejo's theory of coordination, which implies a certain telos of development. In the same way that the term 'rose' describes a host of biophysical and ecological processes inasmuch as it results in a particular flower, or 'tornado' covers a set of climatic processes only retroactively considered as such once its characteristic tube of violently whirling air touches ground, 'the people' in Ochoa Espejo's account are only recognizable in terms of state sovereignty. Ochoa Espejo resists this reading, suggesting that the focus on process means that the future can retroactively determine the meaning of events in the past. In this sense, the people as process might lead to new configurations of authority which as yet are unrecognizable, but are nonetheless legitimate outgrowths of the development of coordinated people events. She also persuasively argues that if the people's status as a political subject depends on the coordination afforded by those affected by sovereign institutions, then it creates far different metrics of inclusion and exclusion, as well as different spatio-temporal boundaries from those characterizing modern nation-states. The types of events that Ochoa Espejo treats as constituting the people routinely include the participation of individuals excluded from citizenship in conventional liberal democratic theory. Especially in an historical moment characterized by rapid movements of people, goods, and ideas between sovereign jurisdictions, the focus on people events implies an expansive domain of participation in governing institutions of the highest authority. Ochoa Espejo gives the examples of the US-Mexico border as an area in which individuals have conflicting and overlapping claims to peoplehood. In a context in which "interactions have increased up to a point that today even the most inhospitable parts of the Arizona desert have become rife with political events coordinated by the legal institutions of the two countries", individuals may hold on to distinct notions of peoplehood, but nonetheless participate in events in which those conceptions "merge or diverge" (pages 166-167) between discrete groups and individuals.

Ochoa Espejo thus identifies critical problems with democracy and offers a convincing account of the importance of process in working through them. Yet the most vexing element of The Time of Popular Sovereignty is the way that process, as an ontological condition of reality and politics, is marshaled in service of the modern nation-state. As Ochoa Espejo claims, the book eschews a full "theory of democracy" for the more modest goal of a theory of the people that can "solve the problem of legitimizing rule democratically as the people's composition changes" (pages 13 and 196). Although this entails new ways of thinking about what the people is, how the people interact with the state, and how states govern, Ochoa Espejo repeatedly attempts to bracket questions about democracy itself for the narrower problem of how democratic theorists have legitimated the democratic state. Thus we are encouraged to adopt a processual ontology because the "indeterminacy of popular unification undermines the foundations of democratic theory" (page 9). Note, democratic theory, but not democracy. Moreover, the focus on democratic theory, as opposed to democratic politics, is maintained throughout the text, as the middle chapters of the book (chapters 3-5) locate the problem of the indeterminacy of the people in major schools of liberal political thought, including the majoritarian democratic theory of Robert Dahl, the liberal contractual theory of John Rawls, Jurgen Habermas's discourse theory of the cooriginality of public and private autonomy, and the dualist democracy thesis of Bruce Ackerman. As a disciplinary exercise, Ochoa Espejo's reading of liberal democratic scholarship is informative, clear, and impressive. It also suggests that the problems confronting democracies today are the result of the ontological commitments of democratic theorists rather than the actions of states and individuals.

More troublesome, the focus on the legitimacy of the democratic state allows Ochoa Espejo to avoid engaging some of the most trenchant political theorists writing on the problems of democracy and popular sovereignty, writing off theorists who identify a persistent gap between democratic theory and democratic institutions, including Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Ranciere, and Bonnie Honig, as simply "tolerating paradox" (pages 9-10). Ochoa Espejo worries that by becoming "too smitten by the depths of logical paradox you risk sacrificing the very possibility of democratic legitimacy" (page 183). She thus finds such a position "ultimately unsatisfying because sustaining a paradox is a form of intellectual capitulation" (page 10). If this is intellectual capitulation, however, it might be giving up to reality itself. Indeed, Ochoa Espejo scarcely considers the possibility that paradox is not just a condition of our thinking about democracy but that democratic politics itself might be shaped by moments of paradox, contradiction, and antagonism, which theory can only call attention to, without resolving. It is also possible that a commitment to democratic politics means, at times, risking the legitimacy of the state. Ochoa Espejo's dream of maintaining state legitimacy without paradox or risk, on this account would be the very evacuation of politics.

To this, Ranciere's work stands in marked contrast, showing us, with a storyteller's eye for detail, political events full of paradox, tension, and theoretical incommensurability, while also attacking the claims of scholarly and theoretical expertise that seek to settle debates in the political field. The two volumes of Staging the People provide English translations of articles Ranciere published between 1975 and 1985 in the journal Les Revoltes logiques. These were the same years that Ranciere worked on and published his major studies Proletariat Nights (2012a [1981]), The Philosopher and His Poor (2004b [1983]), and The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1991 [1987]), and the newly translated articles provide short-form introductions and explorations of the themes and concepts that he would come to develop in those longer works. Thus, the new volumes have something of an aphoristic quality, dropping the reader into the 19th-century working-class cafes, goguettes, theaters, and bars of the barriere; the correspondence of migrating French laborers who left France after the 1848 revolution for the California gold rush; the anxieties of artisans upon witnessing the power of machines at the Exposition Universelle in 1867; the union halls, factories, and workers' journals where workers and their representatives debated the prospects of collaboration with and resistance to National Socialism during the interwar years; and, of course, the lecture halls, newspapers, and the Parisian streets of the 1970s and 1980s as left intellectuals considered the meaning of 1968 and its aftermath. These are lovingly rendered bits of social history, cultural criticism, and political intervention. The thread that connects them is Ranciere's own theory of the democratic people, which is scattered throughout the essays, often embedded in these vignettes rather than offered in full, logical exposition.

This makes Ranciere's new preface to the articles a useful embarkation point for the two volumes as well as his thought more generally. There he outlines the collective project carried out in Les Revoltes logiques as a political and intellectual intervention in the post-1968 context. In particular, the journal adopted a critical stance toward a number of distinct tendencies characterizing left debate during the period: the dogmatisms of official Marxism and Althusserian theoreticism, the renewed interest in plebeian popular culture as the authentic voice of resistance, and the emergence of the "'new philosophers' who went on to build their fame on denouncing 'concentration-camp Marxism' and identifying with its victims" (Ranciere, 2012a, page 9). In each of these instances, Ranciere and his comrades identified an intellectual vanguard summoning a political subject to settle debates over ongoing revolutionary politics while also securing the position of intellectuals with respect to those movements. In contrast, Les Revoltes logiques sought to rethink the relationship between history, meaning, and power as it developed through the "complexities and contradictions of two centuries of struggle" (page 9). This entailed less of an interest in a specific group or class as the clearly demarcated subject of historical progress, as was found in the figure of the Marxist proletariat along with the new fervor for the plebs and their popular culture. Instead, Ranciere focused on the distribution within the social field that assigns particular roles and subjectivities to individuals and groups, and the practices and discourses that police their boundaries. The studies in these volumes thus highlight the multiplicity of lived experiences subtending concepts like the people, and the tenuousness by which political identities--or what Ranciere calls "a polemical configuration of ways of acting, ways of seeing and ways of speaking" (page 15)--come to be perceived and understood as stable. His primary interest is, therefore, not who the people are, but the conflicts and struggles that disrupt the existing order, creating the conditions under which the people are constituted and come into view. In this sense, "a 'people' of this kind is not an assemblage of social groups and identities. It is a polemical form of subjectification that is drawn along particular lines of fracture, where the distribution of leaders and led, learned and ignorant, possessors and dispossessed, is decided" (page 15).

Politics, then, concerns the "provisional and polemical" (page 14) gaps that open between singular experiences of particular individuals and the attempts to harness those events to an overarching logic, process, or way of being in the world. This is the same analysis of politics that Ranciere subsequently articulated in Disagreement (1999 [1995]) as "a conflict over the existence of a common stage and over the existence and status of those present on it" (pages 26-27). There he also described the emergence of politics when "those who have no right to be counted as speaking beings make themselves of some account, setting up a community by the fact of placing in common a wrong that is nothing more than this very confrontation, the contradiction of two worlds in a single world: the world where they are and the world where they are not, the world where there is something 'between' them and those who do not acknowledge them as speaking beings who count and the world where there is nothing" (page 27).

Staging the People, however, is remarkable for ferrying us into these performances. In the first volume the staging is primarily historical and genealogical. For instance, The Proletariat and His Double presents an overview of the work subsequently published as Proletarian Nights and focuses on French working-class culture between the 1830s and 1860s. Ranciere identifies a gap between the activities and expressions of workers during that period and the ways they would subsequently get represented by both Marxism and utopian socialism. Upon stumbling into the archives of a "Saint-Simonian carpenter-poet", Ranciere found not "texts on working class labour and conditions of life" but "the only direct first-person experience that remains of what it really did mean to be a worker. Not a chronicle of work, but the commentary of a genuinely philosophical experience: how to live the working class condition philosophically" (2011, pages 25-26). This was far short of a unified working-class consciousness, as it entailed workers grasping and struggling to find the language and philosophical tools to think through their experiences. Of particular interest, then, is the way these workers disrupt the social order between those who produce (artisans, the proletariat) and those who think (philosophers, intellectuals). The focus on disruption of the social distribution of groups as the key element of politics is also the subject of "Heretical knowledge and the emancipation of the poor", which examines Joseph Jacotot's radical pedagogy of self-education and emancipation. In both cases, the radical nature of workingclass thought was the way it reappropriated the terms of bourgeois reason for whatever ends singular groups of workers needed as they lived through their own historical moment. "Good times, or, pleasure at the barriere" best captures the disruptiveness that occurs as people move out of the social locations to which they are assumed to belong, examining the attempts to police spaces of popular leisure through both bureaucratic and moral discourses following the 1848 revolution. What remained provocative about these spaces of leisure was not their centrality to an emergent proletarian class-consciousness but the ways they afforded "odd apprenticeships in a common culture" that threatened the entire social hierarchy. As Ranciere put it, "the worker who, without having learned to spell, tried his hand at making verses to the taste of the day, was perhaps more dangerous for the existing ideological order than the one who sang revolutionary songs" (page 181).

Other articles focus on the reverse of the equation: not the worker-poet who speaks in a language that is forbidden, but the worker who attempts to stabilize the distribution of roles and status, often in fidelity to a theoretical or scientific conception of workers' interests. These accounts are riven with ambivalences, showing working-class people navigating multiple uneven power relations--challenging some but reinforcing others. "Off to the exhibition" focuses on workers' accounts of the Exposition Universelle of 1867. Part of the response of skilled workers to capital's display of its industrial machinery, however, was a resistance to equal wages for women workers and a justification for a gendered division of labor. "From Pelloutier to Hitler: trade unionism and collaboration" considers the contorted logic by which French syndicalists collaborated with state economic planning under the Vichy regime because they thought it promised an expansion of working-class power and interests.

In the second volume, The Intellectual and His People, this same critique is directed at intellectuals. "Joan of Arc in the gulag" and "The philosophers' tale: intellectuals and the trajectory of Gauchisme" consider Andre Glucksmann and the 'new philosophers', examining the ways their participation in radical politics during May 1968 legitimated their subsequent attacks on Marxism. Ranciere raises the issue not because Marxism was beyond reproach but because the practice of the 'new philosophers' reinstated the same forms of authority (in which intellectuals speak for the people, the proletariat, or the masses) that were primary targets of the 1968 revolts. "The ethics of sociology" extends the discussion to Pierre Bourdieu's sociological analysis of class distinction. Tracing a genealogy of sociology both in its scientific and in its ethical register, Ranciere examines the ways the new sociology of Bourdieu came to occupy "the position of sole legitimate denouncer" (2012b, page 160) on the basis of its ability to detect the symbolic misunderstandings that allow for the reproduction of class distinctions. What most concerns Ranciere is the way Bourdieu's sociology depends on and reproduces its own hierarchy of practical knowledge, albeit one that places sociology and the sociologist in the primary position.

This is a conceptualization of the people in relation to democracy that, like Ochoa Espejo's, is dynamic and always in process. Yet the dynamism is not rooted in ontology but in the classical definitions of politics and democracy, which, as these volumes amply demonstrate, only manifest themselves in singular, and historically and geographically specific forms. Ranciere argues that the people are constantly in emergence as they raise the issue of the account (which is always a miscount) that sets the distribution of lots in the city in terms of geometric proportions. "For the city to be ordered according to the good, community shares must be strictly in proportion to the axia of each part of the community: to the value it brings to the community and to the right that this value bestows on it to hold a share of the common power" (1999, page 6, emphasis in the original). For Ranciere, politics always concerns this miscounting and the uneven spatial distribution that flows from it, and democracy always involves the process by which those without a part in the existing spatial distribution claim, in the name of freedom and equality, the share that the constituted order formally denies them. The essays thus give further credence to the centrality of geography in constituting both politics and the political sphere (see Dikec, 2005), which Ranciere elsewhere terms the police (Ranciere, 1999). Ranciere argues that a critical component of Les Revoltes logiques was an attempt to rethink history, and he presents these essays as new "histories of borders and barriers" (2011, page 13). Whereas academic history, like vanguard politics, was always grounded in oppositions--between history from below and from above, spontaneity and organization, reality and representation--that structured the production of historical knowledge, the histories of Les Revoltes logiques emphasized that "there are only indistinct barriers" (page 14), which the spatial practices of individuals continually disrupt and rearticulate.

To Ochoa Espejo's project of state legitimacy, Ranciere's vision of the people in process not only provides no mechanism to legitimate a state, it also suggests that any institutional form for democracy only emerges from the cessation of democratic politics. Although such a conclusion seems bleak, it enables a powerful inversion of Agamben's rendering of the people as the bare life within sovereign power. Ranciere's essays suggest, to the contrary, that democracy remains a permanent potential in every social order. Presumably, this would be as true for a 'post-democratic' or 'post-political' age as it was for the 19th century (Ranciere, 1999 [1995]; Swyngedouw, 2011). Yet if this is true, it still leaves the problem of institutional form stuck between those seeking to legitimate the state for its own sake and those celebrating the moment of disruption and insurrection. Samuel Chambers (2011), for instance, has called for additional attention to the different configurations of police orders, since "politics happens 'very little'" (page 18, quoting Ranciere, 1999 [1995]). Here, Ochoa Espejo's 'process' conception of the people might be very useful in recognizing the ways in which various spatial distributions both endure and change over time. Ochoa Espejo's theory of process could help us conceptualize the duration and transformation of the political in relation to the disruptive nature of politics. Moreover, this would allow us to conceptualize the indeterminacy of the people, not as a fatal paradox, but as something that enables institutional change in relation to a democratic dispute that is never settled. (2)

doi: 10.1068/d3103rev


Agamben G, 1998 Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life translated by D Heller-Roazen (Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA)

Agamben G, 2009 The Signature of All Things: On Method translated by L D'Iasanto with K Attell (Zone Books, New York)

Chambers S, 2011, "The politics of the police: from neoliberalism to anarchism, and back to democracy", in Reading Ranciere: Critical Dissensus Eds R Stamp, P Bowman (Continuum, London) pp 18-43

Coleman M, Grove K, 2009, "Biopolitics, biopower, and the return of sovereignty" Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27 489-507

Dikec M, 2005, "Space, politics, and the political" Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 23 117-188

Disch L, 2008, "The people as 'presupposition' of representative democracy--an essay on the political theory of Pierre Rosanvallon" Rediscriptions 12 47-71

Ochoa Espejo P, 2011 The Time of Popular Sovereignty: Process and the Democratic State (Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA)

Ranciere J, 1991 [1987] The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation translated by K Ross (Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA)

Ranciere J, 1999 [1995] Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy translated by J Rose (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN)

Ranciere J, 2004a, "Who is the subject of the Rights of Man?" South Atlantic Quarterly 103(2/3) 297-310

Ranciere J, 2004b [1983] The Philosopher and His Poor Ed. A Parker (Duke University Press, Durham, NC)

Ranciere J, 2011 Staging the People: The Proletariat and His Double translated by D Fernbach (Verso, New York)

Ranciere J, 2012a [1981] Proletarian Nights: The Workers'Dream in Nineteenth-century France (Verso, New York)

Ranciere J, 2012b The Intellectual and His People: Staging the People Volume 2 translated by D Fernbach (Verso, New York)

Swyngedouw E, 2011, "Interrogating post-democratization: reclaiming egalitarian political spaces" Political Geography 30 370-380

(1) Elsewhere, Agamben (2009) has termed this method 'philosophical archeology'.

(2) For an interesting reading of what such an approach to institutions might look like, see Lisa Disch's (2008) reading of the work of Pierre Rosanvallon.

([dagger]) A review of The Time of Popular Sovereignty: Process and the Democratic State by P Ochoa Espejo, Pennsylvania State University Press, State College, PA, 2011, 232 pages, US $64.00 (42.00 [pounds sterling]) cloth, ISBN 9780271037967

Staging the People: The Proletariat and His Double by J Ranciere, Verso, New York, 2011, 192 pages, US $29.95 (19.80 [pounds sterling]) paper, ISBN 9781844676972

The Intellectual and His People: Staging the People Volume 2 by J Ranciere, Verso, New York, 2012, 184 pages, US $29.95 (19.80 [pounds sterling]) paper, ISBN 9781844678600

Joshua Barkan

Department of Geography, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602 USA
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Author:Barkan, Joshua
Publication:Environment and Planning D: Society and Space
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Jul 1, 2013
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