‘Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics’ reviewed by David W Hill

Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics

Edited and Translated by Steven Corcoran. Continuum, London, 2010. 230pp., £14.99
ISBN 9781847064455

Reviewed by David W Hill

About the reviewer

David W. Hill is studying for a PhD on ethics and social theory at the Department of Sociology, …


Dissensus is a collection of Jacques Rancière’s essays on politics and aesthetics. For those unfamiliar with the work of Rancière it will be helpful to begin by defining what he means by politics – perhaps the more interesting notion for readers of the Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and, arguably, the over-determining notion in his politics-aesthetics coupling. For Rancière, politics is not the exercise of power but, rather, the rationally motivated action of a subject. Democracy is not one form of this amongst others: democracy is politics. Crucially, democracy is made up of not only the members of a given community but by those that it excludes also, making democracy ‘the count of the uncounted’ (33). As such, a distinction is made between politics (which includes the excluded) and what Rancière calls ‘the police’ (a community of division and exclusion). The two are opposed, such that where there is exclusion there is not politics, properly conceived. As such, the role of politics is to create a space in which the two worlds – of the included and of the excluded – become one. Or, put otherwise: ‘The essence of politics is dissensus’ (38). This notion of dissensus should not be understood as mere conflict of interest, of opinions, or of values. Rather, it is ‘a dispute over what is given and about the frame within which we sense something is given’ (69). Consensus, on the other hand, shrinks the political space, reducing politics to the police.

These notions of politics, of democracy, and of dissensus inform the most vital essays collected here. For example, in his ‘Does Democracy Mean Something?’ Rancière explores the titular question posed by Jacques Derrida in his The Politics of Friendship (2005). Classically, the paradox of democracy is that it is a form of government that masters threatening excess – or, freedom – whilst at the same time being that very threatening excess itself. This is a question of the legitimacy of the power to repress freedoms. Put otherwise, ‘democracy as a form of government is threatened by democracy as a form of social and political life and so the former must repress the latter’ (47). But for Rancière, the paradox of democracy needs must also be the paradox of politics, since democracy is, for him, neither a form of government nor a way of social life but politics itself. The paradox, as Rancière sees it, is this: ‘the very ground for the power of ruling is that there is no ground at all’ (50). Those who rule are no more qualified for the role than they are for being ruled: ‘The ultimate ground on which rulers govern is that there is no good reason as to why some men should rule others’ (53). For this reason, democracy allows politics – and not the police.

I find this conceptualisation troubling, troubles that perhaps go to the root of Rancière’s love of democracy. If there is no ground for legitimacy, no qualification other than the absence of reason, then do those in power and those under power become equivalent and indifferent (or interchangeable)? Are unjust actions undertaken by democratic governments – actions such as extraordinary rendition or torture – as much the responsibility of the ruled since there is no good reason for them to be the ruled rather than the ruling? This question of the ethics of shared responsibility is conspicuous by its absence in Rancière’s account of democracy.

More compelling is Rancière’s work on rights. His ‘Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?’ is not only an important addition to a debate that runs through such thinkers as Hannah Arendt, Jean-François Lyotard and Giorgio Agamben, but casts light on his notion of dissensus as two worlds in one. Arendt’s bind was that the subject of the rights of man needed to be either apolitical man or man-as-citizen, making the rights of man either a paradox (apolitical man has no rights) or a tautology (a citizen has rights). Rancière finds a way out. The subject of the rights of man is neither wholly apolitical man nor wholly the citizen but, rather, the bridge between the two. Or, put otherwise, two worlds in one.

I thought Rancière’s short essay on 11 September 2001 – ‘September 11 and Afterwards: a Rupture in the Symbolic Order?’ – to be perhaps the most disappointing. His argument that there was no such rupture, that the order of Good vs Evil existent in the minds of Americans remained intact, is convincing in isolation. What limits this piece is the complete absence of reference to other work in the area. First of all, the article is not situated amongst the debate around 11 September and the symbolic – texts like Baudrillard’s The Spirit of Terrorism (Verso 2003) or Žižek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real! (Verso 2002). Second, despite his concern throughout this collection to dismiss the ‘ethics of the Other’, Rancière makes no attempt to engage with Derrida’s thought on 11 September and justice (in his acceptance speech on receipt of the Theodore Adorno award). It is easy to be convincing when the argument stands in solitude. My final concern here is that the magnitude of the event is not matched with any urgency in writing; I get no feeling of what is at stake here, none of the vitality that comes across in the work of Baudrillard or Žižek in this area. This is perhaps not only a product of the failure to engage these (or other) thinkers in a dialogue – upping the stakes as all the cards are laid out on the table – but also of Rancière’s straight-laced refusal of the sort of aggrandising and impish provocation these thinkers make their own.

Similar things can be observed in Rancière’s discussions of cinema. For example, in ‘The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics’ he approaches Lars von Trier’s Dogville and Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River. The descriptions of each are brief, designed to shed some light on the discussion of the functioning of ethics and politics with regards consensus/dissensus. What someone like Žižek does when discussing cinema is to cast light not only on a theoretical standpoint but also on the film in question. For example, not only can The Matrix illuminate Lacanian psychoanalysis but psychoanalysis brings something to the table too, offering new insight into a watching of The Matrix. Rancière does not achieve this. His case studies are too brief, and are not worked through the theory in adequate detail. They are helpful examples but they do nothing to further the theoretical work, giving the impression of being rather tacked on. Similarly, the theory does little to illuminate the films. Perhaps most seriously, this chapter does not motivate me to re-watch these films, in the same way that watching Žižek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema demands a return to the Hitchcock box set. Again, that urgency and vitality are missing, and, extrapolating, I remain unconvinced of the need to place among my concerns aesthetics alongside politics

As a book this collection of essays and articles is somewhat repetitive. The three essays that most explicitly deal with the issues of rights and humanitarianism – ‘Does Democracy Mean Something?’, ‘Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?’ and ‘The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics’ – tread on each others’ toes. For example, each of these chapters has a similar summary of the man/citizen distinction, the ‘excluded’ of the Holocaust, and Jean-François Lyotard’s work on both. Lyotard’s Amnesty International speech of 1993 is repeatedly summarised in similar ways; having shamefully never read this I find it achingly familiar by its third explication. Repetition is probably to be expected in such a collection, but some editing could have reduced this, for example, by directing the reader back to earlier exegesis – and some bolder editing still would perhaps have merged together essays that cover the same topics. That said, the benefit of this lack of editing is that it offers some hard to find articles in original form.

What is offered here, then, is both an accessible introduction to Rancière’s thought and an essential collection of his essays – it just cannot be both at once for the same reader. The book itself might not read as well as it could – and arguably should – but by the end of it, despite repetition and a few lightweight articles, the novice reader will have come to terms with a difficult and important thinker. At the same time, researchers will find a valuable collection of important essays – albeit one that does not reward a linear reading.

16 July 2010


  • Baudrillard, J. 2003 The Spirit of Terrorism New Edition. Trans. C. Turner. (London: Verso).
  • Derrida, J. 2005 The Politics of Friendship. Trans. G. Collins. (London: Verso).
  • Žižek, S. 2002 Welcome to the Desert of the Real! (London: Verso).

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