Jacques Rancière: disagreement, wrong, subjectification

May, T. (2010). 5. Wrong, disagreement, subjectification. In J.-P. Deranty (Ed.), Jacques Rancière: key concepts (pp. 69–79). Durham: Acumen.

Disagreement (May, 2010, pp. 73-74)

In everyday democratic political movement, there is a conflict between those who act in the name of equality (and those in solidarity with them) and the social order that presupposes their inequality. That conflict Rancière calls a disagreement (une mésentente), a term that he uses to name his most comprehensive political book. He defines a disagreement this way: “We should take disagreement to mean a determined kind of speech situation: one in which one of the interlocutors at once understand and does not understand what the other is saying” (D x). A bit further on he writes:

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. This extreme situation- first and foremost- concerns politics. (D xii)

This is an unusual way to define a disagreement in general and a political disagreement in particular, and what we should unpack what Rancière means by it.

Rancière’s definition of a disagreement is indebted to a passage in Aristotle’s Politics, where Aristotle argues that what makes man alone a political animal is the capacity for speech.

Speech is something different from voice, which is possessed by other animals also and used by them to express pain or pleasure; for their nature does indeed enable them not only to feel pleasure and pain but to communicate these feelings to each other. Speech, on the other hand, serves to indicate what is useful and what is harmful, and also what is just and what is unjust. (Aristotle, Politics, 1253a)

Slaves, for Aristotle, do not engage in speech, properly understood; they are more like animals that can emit sounds but do not engage in language. Or better, what sounds like language among salves is only a series of brute noises and cries. In Aristotle’s words, “the ‘slave by nature’ is he that can and therefore does belong to another, and he that participates in reason so far as to recognize it but not so as to possess it (whereas the other animals obey not reason but emotions)’ (Aristotle, Politics, 1254b 16).

Of course, when slaves make these noises, they certainly sound as if they are speaking. But the elites or the oligarchs cannot recognize their authors as speaking beings. If those same noises were uttered by someone they recognized as an equal, they would understand them as human speech. To put the point another way, those at the top of the police order do recognize the uttered noises as sounds that would be words, but cannot be because of who is uttering them: they at once understand and do not understand what the other is saying. And the reason for this is that they do not recognize the other as capable of forming words and chains of words similar to their own.

This is a disagreement. A disagreement does not concern, or does not primarily concern, competing views over an issue, for example whether a group of workers is underpaid. It concerns who gets to speak, whose voice counts. And, more deeply, it concerns who actually has a voice, who is capable of speech. Workers’ demands, women’s demands, the demands of those who are marginalized by race, class, immigration status and so on are not recognized as demands because they are not recognized as issuing from people capable of making real demands.

Now one might argue that in contrast to Aristotle’s time, those at the top of a police order, particularly in contemporary societies that are usually thought of as democratic, do not really think that the demos is incapable of speech. Strictly speaking, it is true. However, we are not so far from Aristotle’s view as we might think. For most of the elites, whether in politics, business or elsewhere, even if the demos is capable of speech, it is not capable of saying anything worth hearing.

Wrong (May, 2010, p. 75)

A democratic politics is a matter of confronting a disagreement. The term Rancière uses for this confrontation is a wrong.

“Wrong”, Rancière says:

is simply the mode of subjectification in which the assertion of equality takes its political shape… Wrong institutes a singular universal, a polemical universal, by tying the presentation of equality, as the part of those who have no part, to the conflict between parts of society. (D 39)


We hear a great deal these days about politics being a matter of victimization. Everyone complains that he or she is a victim and therefore deserves recognition from the governing powers of a society. Rancière denies that the concept of a wrong is one of victimization. In some ways, the concept of wrong as he understands it is the opposite of victimization. With victimization, one claims to be wronged and demands compensation. The onus of recognizing equality lies on those who are supposed to provide that compensation. With a wrong as Rancière defines it, the project of recognizing equality lies first with the demos, with those who act on their own behalf. By expressing their equality, they display for all to see that the police order has all along denied it.

Subjectification (May, 2010, pp. 78-79)

Subjectification is the process of becoming a collective subject through acting out of the presupposition of equality.

By subjectification I mean the production through a series of actions of a body and a capacity for enunciation not previously identifiable within a given field of experience, whose identification is thus part of the reconfiguration of the field of experience. (D 35).

(p. 78)

We should not see subjectification as a result of a democratic movement, but rather as part of one. We noted above that Rancière defines a wrong as “the mode of subjectification in which the assertion of equality takes its political shape”. Subjectification, then, is not the result of a democratic politics but one of its elements. It is the element that is constituted by a collective we that is co-extensive with collective action. The we is neither the source of the action nor its outcome. It emerges alongside the ongoing activity, feeding and being fed by it.

For Rancière, then, politics- a democratic politics- has nothing to do with what people are given or what they can expect. It has nothing, at least nothing directly, to do with fair treatment. Democratic politics is not something that happens to people. It is something they do. The do it when they act together, alongside those in solidarity with them, under the presupposition of their equality within a police order that does not recognize that equality.



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