drucken Bookmark and Share

Ruth Sonderegger


According to the position paper for the conference the discussion should revolve around the notion of community "in the field between aesthetics and the political". I therefore want to introduce Jacques Rancière, whose reflections on community[1] are almost by definition anchored in that field. The space opened up by the aesthetic, the political and the communal is, however, complicated by the fact that Rancière assigns a key function in this space to the notion of equality, in other words to a category which – as formal or legal equality – is usually connected to the concept of society as opposed to that of community.

With the notion of a 'community of equals' Rancière does not intend to pitch societies, which claim the universality of equal rights, against communities, which claim a particular but substantial core of commonalities. Nor is Rancière concerned with a reversal of the relation – community at the expense of society. What he emphasizes is rather the common ground between the phenomena of community and society, which since Tönnies had been held to be distinct: that they are equally based on more or less hidden distributions of what is perceived, experienced and discussed, and that they thereby also determine what does not have a place in a community or society. In Rancière’s view these distributions are challenged and made accessible by 'in-consistent' (CE 123) communities of equals. In other words, Tönnies’ community belongs to the field addressed by Rancière as "police" (in the wide Foucauldian sense of administrative matters), or occasionally as 'politics', just as much as what he calls society. To this police order Rancière juxtaposes those rare political events that are brought about by an inconsistent community of equals.

That means, in summary: not only communities – even seemingly symmetrical communities such as monks in a monastery or workers in egalitarian communism, which Rancière analyzes in CE – but also societies that regulate the co-existence of individuals with minimalist interventions and universal laws produce exclusions. Rancière focuses on the inaudible exclusions which can become a subject matter of discourse only once a political event has brought them out of the sphere of the inaudible and made them perceptible.[2] Such inaudibility, dubbed 'disagreement' by Rancière, does not indicate a misunderstanding but rather the limits of what within a given community or society can be perceived, discussed and thus negotiated. "Disagreement is not the conflict between one who says white and another who says black. It is the conflict between one who says white and another who also says white but does not understand the same thing by it or does not understand that the other is saying the same thing in the name of whiteness. […] It is less concerned with arguing than with what can be argued […] An extreme form of disagreement is where X cannot see the common object Y is presenting because X cannot comprehend that the sounds uttered by Y form words and chains of words similar to X’s own."[3]

In Rancière’s work, marking inaudible exclusions and thus bringing about political events is both a matter of aesthetics (in the sense of making something perceptible) and an issue for the community of equals, i.e. the unheard community of the included with the excluded. According to Rancière, the equality between them comes into play in the hybrid form of a presupposition. While this equality is rarely acknowledged, it is always presupposed in human activity, even in the act of exclusion. To command someone means at the same time to acknowledge that he understands, and that he understands in the same way as the person who instructs him. Even torture is administered according to what torturers perceive as humiliating and painful for people like themselves. Even in the act of exclusion the equality of the excluded with the included is thus realized at the same time as it is negated. Rancière therefore consciously and paradoxically speaks of the participation of those who have no part in the communal.

Although such references to a minimum of symmetry in situations of extremely unequal treatment sound like Habermas, Rancière does not understand them as ultimate arguments to establish equality. He is not concerned with proving that even those who kick and beat equality with their feet and fists must acknowledge at least a little bit of equality, and indeed have always already acknowledged it. Firstly such arguments from principles change little about the behaviours of those who are thus taught something about themselves, and secondly such arguments negate the active part[4] played by those who have been excluded in the creation of a community of equals. Most importantly, however, ultimate arguments suggest that they provide everything in terms of enlightenment and critique that it is (humanly) possible to say and do.

In Rancière’s view, however, political action only begins, or could begin, at this point. But it is impossible to predict from which situations of disagreement, of which there are inconceivably many, a political event will emerge. With Rancière one can only say that a political event originates from those who are treated as unequal or who are excluded. Equality is not something that can be given or granted – as a grace or as a gift. It must be taken – because those who could give it do not even see what they are reserving for themselves. A range of rather different political events mentioned by Rancière – such as the secession of the plebeians on the Aventine Hill in Rome, Rosa Park’s demand for a seat for white people on the bus, the insistence of Saint-Simonian craftsmen in the 1830s and 1840s in Paris that they be recognized as writers and philosophers – are always events in which those who have no part succeed in demanding their participation in a community of equals in such a way that the other side begins to perceive, admit, or even correct the wilfulness of the exclusion.

This presupposes that the part of those who had no part succeeds in creating a 'stage' for their demands. With this metaphor Rancière emphasizes various aesthetic moments in the demand for equality by and through resistance:

1 The categories upon which the inclusions and exclusions rest are usually not enunciated, and they are barely conscious; instead they hide in habitual patterns of action and perception. The only way in which they can be marked and denaturalized is by making them amenable to sense perception.

2 Those who have no part must constitute themselves as equals in such a way that the other side pays attention to their demonstration – and even performance – of categories of perceptibility. With respect to this self-constitution as equals Rancière also speaks of processes of 'political subjectivization'. It can consist in leaving a community of unequals (cp. the secession of the plebeians) as much as in the demand for a centre of power. The former is likely where exclusions are openly declared, the latter in case of a denial of exclusions.

On the basis of Rancière there are at least three points which I find remarkable for the discussion of contemporary notions of community:

1 His community of equals is not a regulative idea and thus not always a coming community but rather one that is always already realizable and one that has again and again been realized temporarily.

2 It can never be closed because it occurs only in a challenge to inequality and thus opens a space "in which everyone can feel themselves counted in, because it is a space in which the uncounted are counted". Since any space of the uncounted can ever be opened only with regards to a specific issue, no demonstration and taking of equality will ever be constituted in such a way that it puts an end to inequality.[5]

3 Most importantly, however, in articulating his concept of a community of equals Rancière draws attention to an agonistic structure, which will escape those who juxtapose a closed community or society with a society that "tears itself apart" or "opposes itself within itself"[6] , or a society that is essentially fragmented and which must and can affect itself by repeating yet again its unfounded founding.[7] Such conceptual models have too homogenous a conception of community and society. For they suggest that communities and societies could themselves repair or at least reflect on their crime, not once and for all but at least in a retroactive mode.

Rancière, however, insists that the fragmented communities or societies conceived, for example, by Nancy or Vogl (following Derrida and Habermas) cannot grasp their exclusions themselves. It is not the specific community or society that can critically impact on itself. Only the part of those who have no part is capable and willing in moments of political subjectivization to demonstrate to a society the structures of its distribution of the sensible and the exclusions that result from them. Rancière’s insistence on the incommensurability of the perspectives of those who have no part with the representatives of the so-called 'consensus' resembles the criticism that has often been voiced with respect to Kant’s abstract monological conception of the moral standpoint. According to Kant this standpoint consists in empathizing with the perspective of everyone who could be implicated, and then subjecting one’s own judgement to a critique from that standpoint. This is an abstraction in the sense that only the engagement with real rather than imagined others can clarify what those others actually want. Rancière seems to make an analogous argument on the level of communities: Only those who have been excluded can represent, demand and take what has been excluded; the representatives of a structured community, however, are almost by constitution blind for that which they exclude by virtue of their categories and structures.

It would be against the background of Rancière’s corrections to the discourse of necessarily split communities or societies that one would have to discuss the criticism that Rancière often understands the demonstration of dominant categories of the sensible as individual acts and has relatively little to say on the question of how collective alliances can emerge from individual political subjectivizations. Another remarkable aspect in the context of a discussion of communities in the interface between the aesthetic and the political is the fact that in his more recent reflections on art theory Rancière has increasingly transformed himself into a guardian of the boundary between the political and the aesthetic in the arts.


Ruth Sonderegger. Until 2009 Professor for Philosophy (Chair "Metaphysics and Its History") at the University of Amsterdam. Now Professor for Philosophy and Aesthetic Theory at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna. After studying Philosophy and Literature in Innsbruck, Konstanz and Berlin she received her Ph.D. from the FU Berlin in 1998; 1993-2001 academic staff member at the Institute for Philosophy at the FU Berlin; since 2001 Lecturer at the Institute for Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. Publications: Diedrich Diederichsen / Christine Frisinghelli / Matthias Haase / Christoph Gurk / Juliane Rebentisch / Martin Saar / Ruth Sonderegger (ed.), Golden Years. Materialien und Dokumente zur queeren Subkultur und Avantgarde zwischen 1959 und 1974, Graz 2006; "Eine legitime Nicht-Kunst. Pierre Bourdieus Algerien-Fotos im Kunsthaus Graz", in: Texte zur Kunst, Nr. 54, June 2004; Für eine Ästhetik des Spiels. Hermeneutik, Dekonstruktion und der Eigensinn der Kunst, Frankfurt a. M. 2000. Books by Ruth Sonderegger; Kern, Andrea / Sonderegger, Ruth (eds.): Falsche Gegensätze. Zeitgenössische Positionen zur philosophischen Ästhetik, Frankfurt a. M. 2002



1 Cp. in particular Jacques Ranciere, "Die Gemeinschaft der Gleichen“, in: Joseph Vogl, Gemeinschaften. Positionen zu einer Philosophie des Politischen, Frankfurt a.M. 1994, pp. 101-132; abbreviated here as "CE". [Engl.: The Community of Equals]

2 Jacques Rancière, Disagreement. Politics and Philosophy, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press 1999 (French 1995).

3 Ibid., p. x and p. xii..

4 Todd May, The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière. Creating Equality, Edinburgh 2008.

5 For example, Rancière discusses the question to what extent the French workers’ movement of the 19th century was blind for the demands of women. Cp. Jacques Rancière and Patrick Vauday, "Going to the Expo: the worker, his wife and machines", in: Adrian Rifkin and Roger Thomas (eds.), Voices of the People. The Social Life of 'La Sociale' at the end of the Second Empire, New York and London 1988, p. 23 ff.

6 Jean Luc Nancy, Die herausgeforderte Gemeinschaft, Zurich/Berlin 2007, p. 14, emphasis by R.S. [Preface to the talian edition of Maurice Blanchot’s The Unavowable Community]

7 Josef Vogl, "Einleitung", in: CE, p. 7-27, here p. 20 f., emphasis by R.S.

Go back