Palinurus: Engaging Political Philosophy

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Our Police Order - What can be Said, Seen, and Done: An Interview with Jacques Rancière



Can you give a general description of political engagement in the French political or intellectual scene today, after the deaths of Deleuze, Derrida, Lyotard, and others? Who are the people arguing in the political-philosophical way today in France?


It is difficult to say. On the one hand, there is a kind of official philosophy in France, which is very strong and at the same time very weak. There are philosophers like Alain Finkielkraut and Michel Gauchet, who discuss the problems of democracy, that democracy becomes a threat to itself, because it is being reduced to the power of the individual, of consumerism. It is, in fact, a kind of transformation of the Marxist critique of consumerism in an anti-democratic way, with the idea that all is lost because of mass individualism, of democracy, which means consumerism. It is hard to find political thinking in France today. There are of course philosophers like Alain Badiou, for instance, who try to embody a kind of fidelity to a certain type of politics of dissolution.


You have written in the past about the worker and the intellectual in the nineteenth century. Do you think intellectuals in France, for example, are using their power to categorize and use the worker in their discussions?


I don’t think so. Of course, I studied the workers’ emancipation in the nineteenth century in order to rethink a cartain tradition, namely the Marxist tradition. But now I am sorry to say that there is not much interest in those topics. It is taken for granted that all this is over, no more workers’ movement, no more workers’ emancipation. There is a trend in France to consider any kind of workers’ protest as a sign of disease. Workers are seen as an outmoded part of the population who cannot grapple with modernity.


It is interesting to note that Rancière uses the term “police order“ to describe the major part of what we normally understand as politics – the structured embodiment of a society where everything has its place. The police order is the government or process of governance that prescribes our reality or our sensibility – in relation to the underlying norms that define what is allowed or not allowed, available or unavailable in a given situation – in the realm of perception itself. Almost like a code of conduct. There is therefore an underlying division that dictates what can and cannot be said, shown, or done. This creates permanent sets of norms which in turn establish a community that decides who is included or excluded, whose words are significant or insignificant, who is entitled to govern others and who is not. But are there any concrete actors in the police order? Individual politicians, the IT world’s Microsoft, or the neo-conservative American television company Fox News?

We shouldn’t think of the police order only as some institution. I don’t think that the police order is the same as the police with their batons. I think it’s too easy to say that the media is the police, that it is a big machine. The police order is not only a Big Brother, it is a kind of distribution of what is given to our experience, of what we can do. We don’t need a Big Brother like Fox News. I think the same kind of partition between what is possible and impossible for us can be made by more sophisticated channels. It is wrong to focus on a horrible example llike Fox News. The sophisticated media are also part of the police order, as a kind of distribution of what you are and are not able to do. In France, we have some sophisticated newspapers, but they are members of the police order in the same way as Fox News.


You are distinguishing between being political“ and the police order“ – in this regard, do you consider Hardt and Negri’s book about the multitude as a from-the-inside-and-up“ kind of reaction?


From my point of view, Negri’s multitude is still in keeping with what I would call the old economist view of political issues, the idea that the real political stage has to be found in the reality of the productive force, living force, of society. I think Negri is still working on this schema, according to which there will come a real movement from below, which will be the movement of work and transformation of work, and new forms of communication. There is this olf Marxist idea that there will be a subversion coming from the system itself, the idea that productive forces engendered by the capitalist system itself will break the system. I don’t think that capital creates its own gravediggers, according to the Marxist schema.

The philosopher Slavoj Zizek highlights in the afterword to The Politics of Aesthetics precisely how Rancière describes major political systems that stifle political activity: Arche-politics is communitarianism that seeks to harmonize society but stifle all room for politicl action. Para-politics is where one removes the antagonistic element necessary for political action – in such a way as to formulate the explicit rules of the game that must be followed. The political is transformed into a police-logic – the ethics of Habermas and Rawls. In the end, it is the Marxist or Socialist utopian meta-politics, whcich has at its core the suspension of the political aim. It is when the economic infrastructure takes over from the political: the government of the people followed by the government of everything and everyone within a completely transparent rational order directed by the collective will. Zizek himself adds a fourth de-politicizing system: ultra-politics, which is practised through direct political militarization by taking conflicts to extremes – to a
“for us or against us,” “friend or foe” level. In this we recognize the American or Israeli authorities.

Most political philosophies and systems, from Plato to contemporary liberal political thought, have revolved around the will to fight and regulate the destabilizing potential of the political. According to Zizek, in today’s post-politics, one sees the antagonistic in political action replaced by enlightened technocrats. The police order justifies itself, not only through acts of war, but also through bureaucratic, security-related, and economic attiltudes.

There area lot of actors defining the public sphere all the time. For example, when the Bush Administration talks about
“weapons of mass destruction” and “terrorists,” they are setting an order that should perhaps be opposed. Isn’t that a way of constituting the world, which is to say aesthetic activity?


Yes, we can say it is a kind of aesthetic activity, a framing of what is given and what we can see. If you take the example of “weapons of mass destruction:” I was in the US at the time of this huge emphasis on weapons of mass destruction. What struck me was that this was not only a mischievous design of some far Right politicians and members of the media. I remember all the rather well-off Democratic politicians that were also on TV arguing about weapons of mass destruction. What is fascinating is that it is very easy to impose the existence of something which does not exist at all. This is very easy with some words; it doesn’t demand a massive effort of documentation, argumentation, and persuasion. Your are framing what is given, what is visible. Of course, this case is paradoxical, because weapons of mass destruction were precisely invisible, yet it was so easy to accept. The core of this is this kind of gestion of the population through terror. You are threatened, and if you can persuade people that they are frightened, then you can designate what threatens them.

But, on the other hand, can you see the terrorists as a part of this that doesn’t participate, or that is trying to participate?

No, I don’t think so at all. What is done by the so-called terrorists is a form of military and psychological action. From my point of view, it has nothing to do with politics. Politics is when you create a stage where you include your enemy, even if your enemy doesn’t want to be included or you are fighting against that enemy. I think it is very different in the case of terrorism. Terrorism is only a military question: “We wan to destroy or impair the capacity of the enemy.” That is all. The problem is that they don’t help anybody to act against the form of power they are suffering under.

What about the Palestinians, who have been oppressed for generations?

The Palestinians are a tragic example. It is a case of injustice, of obvious injustice. At the same time, it has seemed quite impossible for them to give a kind of political visibility to the injustice. They have not succeeded, of course, because too many people have hindered them from succeeding, but also they have not succeeded in building a political stage between us and them, a place for a political discussion about Israel. We all know that Israel will survive, whatever we think about the birth of Israel, what it meant, and [what] Israel [is] today. The question is, supposing I am a Palestinian, how do I imagine life in the Middle East where I have to live with Israel? This is what I think they could not do and it is tragic.

For Rancière, the process of liberation from the police order by attempting to redistribute what is perceived – what can be said and seen – is based on the notion of universal equality. What it is really about is allowing those whose voices are only perceived as background noise to receive genuine attention. This is similar to how the oppressed Palestinians, landless Native Americans, or Roma ask to be heard and respected for their opinions. They are the excluded. They must be perceived as speaking beings, instead of regarded as “animals.” This will take place when those who are not included, those who are not allowed to participate in decision-making – the proletariat, women, non-whites, immigrants, refugees – break into the police order’s “consensual” system and impose themselves as visible and speaking. For Rancière, this is political action.


Jean Baudrillard has suggested that last year’s riots in the French suburbs, and the protests surrounding the proposed changes in the regulation of the job market this spring, were basically a concept formed by the bourgeoisie to keep the idea of protest alive and protect their own salaries.

Yes, of course, he’s a critic. I think there were real riots in the suburbs in late November. The problem is that there was a real rebellion against certain states of things, certain ways the people in those areas are disqualified from the stage. At the same time, there was no real political proposition. What I mean by political proposition is when people are able to think not only for themselves, but for anybody. So it was much more a kind of struggle between those parts of the population and the politics of the state. But, it was a very significatif. What was also very significant was the reaction of certain intellectual elites, who said it was nothing, just a rebellion of young consumers, all they want is to consume more, that it was inspired by Islamism, etc. So there was a very strong negation of the reality of that rebellion. At the same time, it is true that it didn’t fulfil the proper meaning and vision of the word.

Every political community is also an aesthetic community due to the previously established “distribution of the sensible,” of what is visible, what can be said and done. Thus we talk about the politics of aesthetics.


The distribution of the sensible is where the political and the aesthetic meet. But precisely with the Internet, blogs, and mobile phones of the network society, we also have “flash mobs,” ad hoc networks that mobilize in protest – people assemble at prearranged times and places to take part in short and unambiguous demonstrations. Disseminate texts and collect lists, videos, and images on the Internet. Then there are the combinations of media and “street” – like the impromptu demonstrations against the treatment of French youth or the Islamists who attacked embassies following the publishing of caricatures – actions that demand to be political by being visible and audible.


Rancière gives the concept of aesthetics” a meaning different from the one ascribed over the last few centuries. Why does he not prefer to use another concept?

Aesthetic has to be rethought precisely in its political meaning. What “aesthetics” meant when it was created at the end of the eighteenth century was something very different from beauty or a philosophy of art. It was a new status of experience. Aesthetics meant that for the first time, artworks were not defined according to the rules of their production or their destinations in a hierarchical system, but taken for a kind of specific sensation. So artworks were no longer addressing a specific audience or social hierarchy. This was conceptualized at the time by philosophers like Kant and poets like Schiller, who thought there was something specific, a new kind of equality, involved in the aesthetic experience. At this time, the idea was born that in aesthetic experience and in aesthetic community there is a possibility for another kind of revolution.

So, you use “aesthetics” as a means for understanding how meaning is constituted?

What I meant is that aesthetics is not a discipline dealing with art and artworks, but a kind of, what I call, distribution of the sensible. I mean a way of mapping the visible, a cartography of the visible, the intelligible and also of the possible. Aesthetics was a kind of redistribution of experience, the idea that there was a sphere of experience that didn’t feed the traditional distribution, because the traditional distribution adds that people have different senses according to their position in society. Those who were destined to rule and those who were destined to be ruled didn’t have the same sensory equipment, not the same eyes and ears, not the same intelligence. Aesthetics means precisely the break with that traditional way of embodying inequality in the very constitution of the sensible world.

“Relational aesthetics” is one way of bringing social criticism back, bringing the people back into the discussion. It’s not just looking objects, it is a way of acting out. How does this relate to your idea of bringing forward the silent, outside the hierarchical system you describe?


I think relational aesthetics is a contemporary offspring of a wider tradition which was part of modernity – the idea that art asked to suppress itself, to become a real form of life. That idea had a kind of intensity at the beginning of the twentieth century, especially with the Soviet revolution, the idea that painters don’t paint their paintings on canvases any more, but are framing a new form of life. Relational art is a kind of late offspring of that tradition and I would say sometimes it becomes a parody of that tradition. Of course, we should not simply make fun of relational art, say it’s just “telling people there’s nothing to see in that gallery, but we can discuss.” However, the manifestation of relational art has been very weak.

How can those who don’t take part get involved? Should they be educated, should they use violence? How can they be empowered? Should they just be heard? Herber Marcuse talks about the repressive tolerance, that being heard is not enough to gain the power to change things.

It’s difficult to know what is enough. There’s that old French joke that democracy means cause toujours, that democracy means that you can speak, but it doesn’t matter, it has no outcome. What I consider to be the real emergence of free speech occurs precisely in places that were not supposed to be places for free speech. It always happens in the form of transgression. Politics means precisely this, that you speak at a time and in a place you’re not expected to speak.

In a previous interview, Rancière spoke about an “equality that destroys all of the hierarchies or representations and also establishes a community without legitimacy, a community formed only by random circulation of the word. Everything comes to pass on the written page.” Is he thinking here of the Internet?

From my point of view, the Internet is similar to what writing was at a certain moment. It meant the circulation of words and knowledge which could be appropriated by anyone. It is not a question of giving knowledge to everybody, it is a question of having words circulate in a free and desirable way, and I think that this is what’s happening with the Internet. That is probably why some reactionary people are so angry with the Internet, saying it’s horrible that people log on to the web and they can find everything they want, that it is against research and intelligence. I would say no, it is the way intelligence, equal intelligence, works. You wander randomly in a library the same way you surf randomly on the Internet. This is, from my point of view, what equality of intelligence means.

You are talking about those who don’t participate, and getting them involved. But in the media, there are a lot of reality shows, like Big Brother and the like. In a way, it’s their way of getting publicity, isn’t it? Is this a way of giving the word back to these people, the people who don’t participate?

You know, that is the problem. I don’t watch TV very much, or those shows. I know some people are upset, they say it’s the end of culture, of civilization, of everything. I don’t watch it because I don’t watch TV. I think you can consider it from different angles. It is true that there is a kind of new circulation, a new set of possibilities. Does this new circulation of possibilities really mean an access of more people to free speech? I don’t think so, because there is also a kind of standardized democratization, a standardized framing of everybody’s experience, and, of course, in the end it results in nothing.

Speaking about free speech, what is your position regarding those who, in the controversy surrounding the Mohammed cartoons, stepped forward and said “we are oppressed, the West is oppressing us, making fun of our God”?

It is an intricate question. My own view is that religion has caused so much evil that we must be authorized to criticize it. In that case, the people who ridiculed the Islamic religion had a specific form of hatred of Muslims that corresponds to a certain idea of what Western civilization means. At the same time, I cannot at all agree with these revolutionary movements. I don’t agree with any kind of movement that says that you are not allowed to say this or that.

You have a huge interest in film. These days there’s a revival of political documentary and semi-documentary movies, like Syriana. Film is also a space that has a political side. Where did you get this interest from?


What is interesting about film? In a certain sense, it is the paradox that film was once considered a despicable thing outside of the real art. It’s very striking that now when people think about authorship and art they don’t think so much about, for example, sculptors, but about people like Godard. Film is now, I would say, in a certain way the paradigm of art. On the other hand, there is this possibility to show and say things, to give an oval landscape of the visible, of what our world is. It is true that there has been a strong revival of documentary films over the last ten years. There has been an attempt to make film participate on a political stage by giving information that is not given elsewhere.

Do you think the easy distribution is the reason it’s taking over the art scene? Artworks, sculptures, and paintings are difficult to distribute, contrary to film, video, and television. Is part of your focus on film motivated by its wide influencece?

In the world of art, there are strong discussions and also many forms of would-be political actions. There is a part of the art world, which is involved in political projects and who think they really can perform political actions. It is not the same case for film. At the same time, film has a kind of audience which is not the same as the audience in places like galleries, museums, and biennales. This is one part of the question. The other part is, now there is this new kind of connection between film in the theatres and film in the museums and with video there is a new circulation of film between different places. There are places where film is presented in a traditional way – in the movie theatre you are seated in front of the screen – but in the museums there are many forms of presentation of film and video, where you are just strolling by, stopping a little while. There are very different kinds of perceptions. What is interesting in film now is this kind of double existence.

In closing: you are a philosopher – what does philosophy really mean to you?

I do not believe that philosophy has a distinct identity that gives it a distinct mission. Philosophy has no specific object. There are no definite associations between philosophy and aesthetic experience. I would describe philosophy as a place in motion.

Originally published in Le Monde diplomatique, (Oslo) 8 November 2006.