‘Egalitarian Moments: From Descartes to Rancière’ reviewed by William Hebblewhite

Egalitarian Moments: From Descartes to Rancière

Bloomsbury Academic, London, 2017, 224pp, $114.00 hb
ISBN 9781472505446

Reviewed by William Hebblewhite

About the reviewer

William Hebblewhite is an independent researcher. He received his PhD from Macquarie University in …


Continental Philosophy, especially variants which hail from the Anglophone world tend to appear in two stages. The first stage is exegetical in nature. It takes a relatively unknown figure, most often from France, and then publishes countless books and articles which attempt to elucidate and interpret the newly translated or un-translated works of those theorist for a new audience; this we might call doxagraphy – the study of opinions. While the debates over what the maître à penser means continue after each successive interview with the author or after new work is published, another stage begins to take form. This stage is less interested in what the author, who is now a household name, actually says, but in what can be done with what the master may mean, and how to extend that beyond the master’s own grasp of the subject.

It is in this latter vein that Devin Zane Shaw’s Egalitarian Moments: From Descartes to Rancière is presented. Not content with just presenting another interpretative text on the work of Jacques Rancière, Shaw’s work attempts the astounding feat of situating Rancière’s work within a little known historical canon that Shaw calls “Cartesian egalitarianism”. By considering Rancière’s work in such a vein, Shaw, as the blurb of the book announces, ‘argues that Rancière’s work provides an opportunity to reconsider modern philosophy and aesthetics in light of the question of equality’. Shaw thus attempts to take up Rancière in a productive light, in order to do something with the intriguing philosophy that Rancière has developed, and not just say something about Rancière’s philosophical interventions.

The book is structured in two parts, each consisting of two chapters each. The first part, entitled Subjectivity, attempts to elucidate a presupposition of equality, which is a hallmark of Rancierian thinking, by situating it within a historical lineage which runs from Descartes to De Beauvoir. Within this, the second chapter presents a critical comparison between Rancière and Sartre. This section, as a whole, is an exciting development in Rancierian scholarship, and one which Shaw deftly navigates. However, questions do arise over Shaw’s understanding of relatively important aspects of Rancière’s philosophy.

The second part, entitled Aesthetics, sees Shaw return to standard explorations of Rancière’s aesthetics, developing Rancière’s own account through philosophical encounters with Clement Greenberg, Walter Benjamin and Alain Badiou. While I did not find anything truly enlightening about Rancière’s aesthetics, Shaw’s presentation is erudite and shows a great interest into how to think past the theoretical nature of Rancière’s philosophical intervention. The second part focuses on an important aspect of Rancierian literature, namely, the relationship between politics and art. Rancière himself has always been critical of attempts to attribute political action to artworks, though Shaw attempts to show how the “aesthetic regime of art” finds itself prevailing over a political dimension which is not necessarily acknowledge by Rancière.

Shaw’s starting point, in developing the radical egalitarian historical lineage that he takes Rancière to be a part of, is an epigraph found in one of Rancière’s earlier works, The Philosopher and his Poor. The epigraph details the story of Dirk Rembrantsz, a tradesman who in his spare time was intrigued by mathematics and astronomy. It recounts the story of Rembrantsz attempts to meet René Descartes, which he finally achieved on the third try. Shaw draws on this obscure story of a meeting between a shoemaker and a philosopher and its recreation as an epigraph by Rancière to begin an investigation between the Rancierian ideal of the “equality of intelligences” and the Cartesian conception of “good sense”, which according to Shaw, Descartes held to be the best distributed virtue in the world.

Following from the initial development of a lineage called “Cartesian egalitarianism”, Shaw then brings into focus other theorists who fit the purview of thinking ‘political agency as a practice of subjectivity, even if its proponents differ on how political practice is subjectively engaged’ (27). This lineage introduces the “tradition” of Cartesian egalitarianism through the work of Francois Poullain de la Barre, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, whom Shaw dedicates a whole chapter to, with brief incursions into the work of Franz Fanon. The discussion of Sartre is interesting, and informative, even given Rancière’s own critical perspective of the existentialist. Though I found myself much more interested in Shaw’s discussion of Poullain and de Beauvoir. It is through these authors that Shaw magnificently develops the egalitarian ethos that one can detect throughout the text, and more excitingly, develops a subjective feminist egalitarianism. Bringing this into line with Rancière own perspective, Shaw illustrates how these authors ‘conceptualize how a wrong is introduced into social distinctions between subjectivity and alterity’ (39). It is in drawing on these diverse thinkers in the context that he does that Shaw importantly opens up new avenues of inquiry for emancipatory struggle which need to be accounted for.

There are a number of issues that I have with the book. Because I do not see it as an aspect of Shaw’s project, I will put aside some of the interpretative differences that I have with Shaw on his reading of Rancière. While few and far between, these interpretative differences will jump out at any close readers of Rancière. Because I read Shaw as not offering an interpretation of Rancière, but merely using his work as a foundation upon which to build on, I do not think that these interpretative differences harm his overall goals. More importantly, the book itself doesn’t really say anything enlightening about Rancière. Rancière’s radical egalitarianism is used as the lens by which to perceive a particular strand of egalitarian, feminist philosophy that runs from Descartes to Sartre via Poullain, and de Beauvoir. Shaw develops a reading of Descartes as a political figure, negating the oft-idea that Descartes has nothing really to say about politics or the political. A point of concern, then. is that readers interested in this book would also be familiar with Negri’s treatment of Descartes, and while Shaw does make a number of brief references to Negri’s interpretation, it seems that Shaw’s own position runs up against Negri’s. While Shaw does say briefly what the differences may be (29) this could be elaborated upon to mark clearly the interpretation Shaw is putting forward.

The Cartesian egalitarianism that Shaw beautifully develops in the first half of the book seems lost in the second half when Shaw moves onto Rancière’s aesthetic theory. It isn’t exactly clear how the two parts of the book connect in any meaningful way besides the fact that Rancière has written on both politics and aesthetics. It feels that times that these are two separate books. This does not undermine the amount of excellent scholarship that exists in these parts, but rather that the book is disjointed, and it is often hard to navigate the single line of argumentation that I believe Shaw is trying to develop.

One may be able to guess from this review that I found part one of the book more engaging, and in a word, fun to read. The second part of the book is impressively crafted and researched. Yet while illuminating this part is also I believe more taxing on the reader. It requires a much more extensive knowledge, not only of Rancière, but also his interlocutors. And while Shaw does not present his book in any way as an introduction, one feels that the second part of the project could use more signposting and hand-holding in an attempt to guide the reader through the various arguments that Shaw develops; though, in saying this, a readers patience is well rewarded.

Shaw’s work provides an important contribution to Rancierian scholarship and continental philosophy alike; his discussion of less well known secondary material in the history of philosophy is brilliantly used to advance his position, and makes one wish, at times, that Shaw had spent the whole book on the historical lineage of Cartesian egalitarianism, rather then moving off to discuss aesthetics. It sets itself the imposing task of making Rancière’s political thought and his aesthetic work together. This is a task which, despite calls to the contrary, often is marred in difficulty and obscurantism. However, Shaw does so in a way that not only illuminates on Rancière’s own work, but provides philosophers, political and aesthetic alike, to move past the master’s words and establish modes of thinking about the emancipatory potential of the political and aesthetic worlds. To finish, using Shaw’s words themselves, the book provides us with, principally, ‘new and compelling possibilities for thinking our present engagements with politics and art’ (19).

4 October 2017

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