Jacques Rancière: ‘No institution emancipates people’

From the Verso Books Blog (15/02/2023)…

The philosopher Jacques Rancière invites us to fundamentally reconsider our conception of education. Criticising the current ‘teacher-pupil’ configuration, which he believes aggravates inequalities, he proposes a teaching method that is both demanding and intellectually and politically emancipating.

This interview was originally published by Philosophie on 20 January 2023.

Interview conducted by Clara Degiovanni and Octave Larmagnac-Matheron

At first glance, the act of explaining seems indissociable from pedagogical practice. Yet, when reading you, one gets the impression that the will to explain hinders the autonomous emancipation of intelligences.

This was first proposed not by me, but by Joseph Jacotot (1770-1815), whose thought I explained and updated in The Ignorant Schoolmaster. This pedagogue managed to teach the French language to students in the Netherlands without speaking a word of Dutch. In this way he managed to teach something to people to whom he had not explained anything. He carried out this experiment in the 19th century, at a time when the education of individuals raised the question of public instruction. After the Revolution, the question was how to ensure that people were not too stupid, but not too intelligent either – because then they might be a bit too restless. Citizens needed therefore to learn in the right way, in the right order, and above all with the clear understanding that if they can learn, it is because someone is there to explain it to them. In this framework, explanation is not just a technical exercise; it functions as a kind of inequality device. It is based on a world view that nobody can learn anything unless there is someone who knows, to explain to them what there is to know. This logic is therefore part of a whole institutional, social, political and philosophical system that keeps a large proportion of people in a position of intellectual tutelage.

Your analysis of the logic of explanation starts from the study of a pedagogical experience, but isn’t its scope much wider, in particular, political?

Jacotot lived at a time when there was not yet a great system of national education, of public instruction. But he perceived that these systems could constitute a kind of transmission belt. And, indeed, what would succeed the crude forms of domination was a reasonable, legitimised and accepted domination. The representative system, which developed in the wake of revolutions, certainly played a role in this inflection: there is a kind of parallel between the child and the people. The people are minors who must be brought up to a certain level of education, so that though they cannot govern themselves, they can at least judge, that is to say, understand that what the rulers do is in their interest. Like the schoolteacher, the state also functions towards the citizens as a great paternalistic pedagogue. ‘They go on strike because they don’t understand, we’ll explain it to them’, Juppé said during the great strikes of 1995. In the media, newspapers also believe that everything has to be explained to people. This tendency can now be found in what is called ‘decoding’. This means that any fact, even the most trivial, is immediately considered a mystery in the eyes of the public, so that specialists, experts, etc., must be called upon all the time. What they say is usually perfectly trivial, and anyone could say it. But the authority of science proves that the simplest things are much more complicated than we think.

So what you are questioning is the whole functioning of progressive discourse?

The modern progressive vision is characterised by a certain tension. The people must know enough. At the same time, many authors say, if the common people know too much, if they start to judge everything, things become worrying. Of course, progressive people don’t dare to say: ‘It’s dangerous for us’. So, they turn the tables and say: ‘It’s worrying for them’, for the people. A whole discourse developed in the 19th century, consisting of saying that these poor common people will be lost if they are given too much, if too many ideas are put into their heads, if they read too many books. This logic is no longer expressed in this form today, but it leaves traces in the whole conception of the school institution, as the sociology of reproduction underlines. There is a limit to the dissemination of knowledge, because there is this idea that we don’t know what would happen if everyone actually judged for themselves. The operation is all the more pernicious because education claims not simply to distribute knowledge, but to truly emancipate people, to teach them critical thinking. In reality, however, no emancipation can be ordered or guided by an institution. You learn critical thinking yourself, through what you see, what you judge, what you experience. No institution emancipates people. It was Jacotot’s great strength to say that we always emancipate ourselves – that everyone has this capacity for emancipation. Of course, you can emancipate yourself within a community, but you don’t emancipate others. You may create the conditions for emancipation, but emancipation ultimately implies a kind of break. The teacher teaches something, but the pupil learns something else, differently.

Reading you, one has the feeling that equality is not an objective to be reached, to be achieved, but, on the contrary, a presupposition from which we have to start.

Jacotot did not seek to establish equality as an ultimate goal. In his view, if one sets equality as an objective, as a point of arrival, one will never get there. Postulating an initial inequality that must be overcome – in this case, the inequality of intelligence – amounts to maintaining this inequality by discouraging and curbing self-emancipation. For, implicit in this objective of reducing inequality is the acceptance of an inequality which places one person in a position of superiority over another. In contrast, Jacotot advocates taking equality as a starting principle. It is a question of considering that all individuals are equal and taking this postulate as a starting point. The equality of intelligences must function as a maxim in the sense of Kant, i.e. a principle that guides our conception of the world and whose logic is developed, whose effects are verified. Conceived in this way, equality is not a proven fact, but a proposition that has to be proved. It is not a question of saying, formally, that ‘all men are equal’, but rather, ‘we must act under the presupposition of equal intelligence’. The equality of intelligence, in a way, is first of all what defines your own practice: you speak, you write, you act with the idea that you are addressing equals.

That reversal of our usual logic seems to require great strength of will.

With Jacotot, what we call ‘will’ is not simply personal effort. It is already a judgement on the community to which one belongs: wanting to make oneself capable is at the same time something like wanting a world of equals. The whole issue is to know which opinion to choose: the opinion of equality or the opinion of inequality – in the strong sense of opinion, as a vision of the community to which one belongs. A person who has no will is one who doesn’t see why he should bother to see himself as equal to others and consider others as his equals. The device of inequality creates a logic of consensus that feeds on laziness. I don’t feel equal to others, but more importantly, I don’t feel others are equal to me and I can wallow in this state. For Jacotot, inequality works both ways. The student who, belittled and discouraged by the explanatory device, says ‘I’m not capable’, is at the same time saying something else: ‘I don’t care about your thing.’ His declaration of inability is at the same time a declaration of inequality. The attitude of the pupil who says ‘I don’t understand anything’ is a way of asserting a certain superiority over the explanatory teacher. The great popular movements suddenly break this logic. Through these collective struggles, it is not only that people discover themselves capable: they discover that others are too.

So there is something very demanding in this desire to break the logic of inequality?

Yes, at least in a certain sense of exigency. I’m not at all in favour of a pedagogy that would say: ‘You mustn’t be too strict, too demanding’; on the contrary, you must be very demanding in relation to what the other person is capable of doing.

Do we need to transform institutions to promote emancipation?

The whole social machine functions on the presupposition of inequality. But equality circulates – in society, in companies, everywhere. Equality circulates as soon as people make the resolution, the initiative, to consider that intelligences are equal – and act according to this postulate. From this point of view, if we take democracy seriously, as a regime that is rooted in the presupposition of equality, it is not an institution but a practice. The time of the institution can never be the time of emancipation; but equality can be produced in it, in an unpredictable way, without possible anticipation. The time of emancipation is completely random, unlike that of the institution. It depends on encounters, paths, ways that are followed. It has a temporality that is completely independent of that of institutions. Consequently, I think it is dangerous to imagine that by changing institutions, by delegating this issue to the reform of institutions, we will start to produce equality.

Emancipation cannot be instituted. But when a moment of emancipation occurs, doesn’t it often lead to others in its wake?

When the apparatus of inequality is shaken, there are cascading effects. All great revolutionary movements, insurrections and great moments of equality, are periods when something like an accelerated effectiveness of equality occurs. In these situations of egalitarian demonstration, one is struck by the extent to which people are able to do at an absolutely incredible speed what they were supposedly unable to do. This is what Marx said in 1870 about workers taking over the state machine and showing themselves capable of organising a collective life. A month before, they had been seen as incapable, so they had also seen themselves as incapable of taking charge of the affairs of a community. We find the same thing in all the major protest movements, especially in their modern form. All of a sudden there is a kind of exit from normal temporality. Emancipation is the institution of another temporality.

What emancipation movements inspire you today?

I have in mind what’s happening in Iran, this capacity to make possible what was considered absolutely impossible. This movement is now more than two months old. It is persisting under extremely harsh repressive conditions. I see in it the manifestation of this decisive idea: we are capable individually because we are capable collectively. I had already been struck by the large demonstrations in Iran before the Arab Spring, during the rigged elections. All of a sudden, people went out into the street and said: ‘We are not afraid’. There is a very strong link between not being afraid and having confidence in the ability of others to mobilise, to follow suit. One can always, individually, remove one’s veil; but if this movement is not supported, underpinned by the confidence that one has in others, women or men, it cannot stand.

Translated by David Fernbach

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