The last post was left hanging on a cliff, right as we were in a position to begin to consider Rancière’s position of ethics in detail. We know that Rancière’s conception of politics is a break-in from the outside, although in reality it was already within society. This paradox is informed by the fact that those who claim political subjectivity are both part of society and not part of society. Resisting the paradoxical nature of politics means insisting that society is in the final instance countable: that all elements of society can be represented. It is this denial of the internal difference of society to itself that Rancière calls police.

For Rancière, most of what is presently called politics is not deserving of that name, because it is in the final instance part of police logic. It is a status quo that only gives voice to some. To reduce politics to a management of the social is to destroy politics itself, and the contemporary method of reducing politics to police is consensus.The problem with consensual politics is that it is centered around a fixed set of reference points that is the locus of negotiations and compromises by the various parties. Consensual politics thus closes off political space by only allowing the existence of well-defined groups that together have to produce an outcome.We ended the last post by foreshadowing the connection between consensus and ethics: “the extreme limit of the logic of consensus” is the dissolution of all political differences and juridical distinctions into the indistinct and totalising domain of ethics” (Rancière 2004, 7-8).

The best way to flesh out this connection is to consider Rancière’s dismissal of what he calls the ethical turn of politics. Like Mouffe, Rancière does not think that political categories are being swapped out for moral ones. Indeed, Rancière differentiates between the ethical and the moral, stating that morality reflected a “distinction between fact and [moral] law, what is and what ought to be”. Ethics, on the other hand, is “an indistinct sphere” where not only that distinction between fact and law is dissolved, but also the specificity of political practices (Rancière 2007, 28). He goes on to say something that may surprise us: “The division of violence, morality, and right has a name. It is called politics. Politics is not, as is often said, the opposite of morals. It is its division” (ibid). This is a puzzling statement. ‘Division’ seems to recall the fact that politics breaks into established systems of norms. It would be natural to swiftly conclude that Rancière identifies morality as a region of the social. Recall that he blames ethics for indistinction: the non-separation of fact and law that reduces the possible scope of justice to what is already the case, which amounts to a strategy of complete depoliticization. Ethics is therefore the polar opposite of politics. Ethics pulls together and stifles what politics takes apart and sets in motion. Rancière underscores this by claiming: “(…) “[I]t is not their ethos, their “way of being,” that disposes individuals to democracy [i.e. politics] but a break with this ethos (…)” (Rancière 1999, 101).But what is morality, then? Let us scrutinize the language Rancière uses.

[I call] this transformation of the interpretive schemes of our experience (…) the ethical turn. The essential aspect in this process is certainly not the virtuous return to the norms of morality. It is, on the contrary, the abolition of the division that the very word ‘morals’ used to imply. Morality implied the separation of law and fact. It implied concurrently the division of different forms of morality and of rights, the division between the ways in which right was opposed to fact. The abolition of this division has one privileged name: it is called consensus. (Rancière 2007, 31)

The first point to note is Rancière’s insistence on understanding morality as a matter of the past. When describing morality, he often adds a qualification like “the old word morals”, “the old term morals” [both la vieille morale in French], or speaks about it in the past tense (cf. the quote below) (Rancière 2007, 28; 29; 31). In addition, by using ‘morals’ [la morale] and ‘morality’ [la moralité] interchangeably and opposing it to ethics, Rancière seems to assume that all morality ‘in the old sense’ includes an element of multiplicity. But then it is not clear what it means to say that politics is the division of morality. The alternative interpretation is that some elements of morality (or morals) are internally divided and some are not. Then politics should be seen as dividing the form of morality that does not have this feature of division: and, consequently, ‘already divided morality’ should be seen as itself a form of politics, which Rancière after all equates with a division of unified morality.

The key to understanding the relation between morality and politics, in Rancière’s sense, is to recognize the fact that politics necessarily involves an element of performance. It was not Olympe de Gouges abstract right to vote that makes her an example of politics, but her factual claim to have the rights she did not have. We wil return to this point in a later post.

What we have seen thus far is that Rancière’s counter to the ‘ethical turn’ and the indistinction it represents is an insistence on keeping things separate. This is true in a more general sense of his work on the relationships between politics and concepts belonging to other domains. Rancière offers a rather sweeping account of philosophy in the post-utopian age (i.e. after the official collapse of Marxism).

From this point on, a philosophy and a practice of harmonious agreement between fact and law were established. Philosophically, the loudly proclaimed return to Kant and to the primacy of law as the basis for morality was mirrored by a more or less diffuse, if not rampant, Aristotelianism: an idea of distributive justice, or the fair distribution of the shares proper to each, tends toward a state of equilibrium that makes the legal subject and the empirical subject one and the same. (Rancière 1992, 252)

Here we once again see how the ‘moral’ distinction between fact and norm collapses into an ‘ethical’ perspective of indistictness. For Rancière, this is not only the fault that characterizes contemporary political philosophy – it is not hard to recognize Rawls in the quote above – but also of its modern and even classical predecessors. It is of course true that political philosophy has often been phrased in terms of an “anthropological invariant” (Rancière 2004, 4) such as the unique logos of man, from which we can then deduce the shape that our life in common, our politics, should take. This is also true of theory-building premises like sociability, which postulates a “political virtue native to the human animal” (ibid, 6) from which everything political straightforwardly follows. In those cases, ontology takes precedence over politics and forces it to comply. Rancière insists that to be human is always to exceed system: and this includes ontological schemes of the Aristotelean/Rawlsian kind. His strategy, which is a central feature of post-foundationalism in general (we have considered Mouffe and Laclau), is to reverse the priority relations between the ontology of the social and the political by politicizing that ontology itself. As Rancière himself puts it: “politics is possible because no social order is based on nature” (Rancière 1999, 16).

Before moving on to the ethical aspect of depoliticization, we should briefly restate the ‘case against ethics’ that follows from what we have been doing these past few weeks. That will be the topic of the next post.


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