The Ignorant Politician

Original text published on October 26, 2011:


One of Jacques Rancière’s most read and influential books is The Ignorant Schoolmaster. In it, Rancière gleans and embraces the experience of the French pedagogue Joseph Jacotot, when in 1818 he had to exile to Flemish territories, and work as a teacher with students whose native language was utterly unknown to him. Jacotot discovered there that he could teach from the impossibility of conveying anything to his students. He found that his students could be put in the position of learning for themselves by undertaking the use of their own intelligence. This discovery, an internal revolution in a teacher’s consciousness, took place during the Enlightenment, at the time when social and political life began to be pedagogised under the doctrine of progress. Jacotot blew up this doctrine. With his teaching from ignorance, Jacotot put in question Enlightenment’s emancipatory promises and their assumptions. But he did not do it from counter-revolutionary reaction, but by exposing the pitfalls that the very idea of ​​emancipation entails, when it defines some as emancipators, and others as those in need of emancipation. Jacotot exposed inequality’s new alibi, clad as freedom’s promise.


I would argue that the ignorant schoolmaster is the key to Jacques Rancière’s thought and to his reformulation of the emancipatory tradition for our times. The ignorant schoolmaster is the central character, the exemplary figure of an emancipatory proposal that is not intended as a promise but as a method, that is not an ode to freedom, but the requirement of a concrete and always situated verification of the equality of our intelligences. Through the ignorant schoolmaster and his thorough method of equality, Rancière calls for a politics of those who have no part, a politics understood as a process through which an unforeseen and unpredictable dissent emerges in society, giving voice to those who could only scream and implementing the capacity of those who could only exist in passivity, helplessness, and obedience. Jacotot’s thoroughness and humility should not deceive us: his politics calls for a war between worlds, an an-archic, groundless rupture of the order of representation that situates and sustains us. Equals are not those who can recognise one another. Rather, they are those who are equally capable of reshaping the world.

But, what kind of politics are we talking about? Is the ignorant schoolmaster a valid figure from which to propose today a regeneration of the politician, of our politicians? Absolutely not. The politician may be ignorant, but s/he will never be an ignorant schoolmaster. Rancière is quite clear about it: the art of government has for its task the removal of struggle from politics. Its procedures are well known: pacifying through consensus, fragmenting interests and basing the community on some kind of identity or common essence. The de-politicisation which we have experienced in recent decades is not a deficit or a failure of the party system: it is its true success. The art of government is de-politicisation, the ‘political suppression of politics,’ the closing of dissent and of democratic an-archy.

So, when is there politics? Who does politics?  There is politics when those with no-name break into the  public space and reconfigure it with their languages ​​and new capabilities. There is politics when s/he who is not qualified to remake the world takes it in his/her hands. There is politics when each of us “breaks ranks” and leaves “his/her post,” his/her place of recognition, and ventures into a process of declassification. That which makes politics is the strength of anonymity, a collective potency that can never be appropriated by identities or representative bodies. These are not abstract words and there is no need for the safeguard of the pristine Greek agora to find an example of this. The occupied squares in the Arab world and in our own cities during this year are the most accurate realisation of what Rancière understands as true politics: not a mere protest movement nor a visibility strategy, but an unpredictable process by which we the incapable (disenfranchised youth, the unemployed, the victims of the crisis, powerless citizens, etc.) have decided to leave our placements and take the world in our hands. So much knowledge and so many knowledges are discovered in what just seemed to be a great sea of ​​ignorance. This is the lesson that no politician can ever teach us.