Ranciere in contemporary politics

A couple of news items caught my attention today. First, I direct your attention to this New York Post headline and description of the Occupy Wall Street protests. The article compares the protesters with animals and the protest itself as a “zoo.”It would be difficult to come up with a more straightforward effort to depict the protests not as expressing things with speech about justice and injustice but as merely indicating with “voice.”¬† Thus, the disagreement concerns account being made of the speech: where the protesters claim to be developing a critique of contemporary power structures and are declaring that their position cannot be represented in the existing order of things, the NY Post declares that their protests are mere noise. This is the essence of Ranciere’s conception of a political disagreement. The protesters (the “party of the poor,” in this case) are declaring that they are uncounted in the existing order; their speech is not heard as such because existing economic and political systems, aided by the media environment, systematically dismisses or mis-hears the kinds of claims they are making. The NY Post (the “party of the rich,” in this case), responds with the common position that everyone is already counted exactly as they deserve to be, and so the protesters are crazy, whining, or brute animals who do not fit in any order.

The other interesting discussion can be seen in Professor Henry Farrell’s post here. Apparently, a number of students at Harvard walked out in protest of an Economics Professor’s class. The interesting bit of this discussion comes with the writer’s suggestion about an alternative protest that would be more effective. Part of the reason for the protest, apparently, is that the professor assigned his own book as the textbook for the course and that the textbook cost $175. So rather than walking out, perhaps the students should have used some of the arguments in the text about monopolies to write a paper against the organization of the class and then demand that the professor debate the matter.

In any case, the interesting bit here is to compare this hypothetical protest with the one the students engaged in. In walking out, the students displayed annoyance with the class, but it is perhaps all too easy to dismiss such a protest as whining. The alternative hypothetical protest, where the students would the text book to argue against the organization of the course and then stage a public disagreement with the professor, seems much more promising and much more in keeping with Ranciere: rather than just saying “no” to the organization of the course (by walking out), this alternative protest would set up a meaningful alternative and demonstrate that the students are intelligent actors. That way it would be more difficult to dismiss them merely as “whining students.” Such a demonstration, one might argue, would provide a much more meaningful and profound challenge than a “walk-out” would, for it would demonstrate and enact a fundamental equality between the students and the professor.

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