An Application of Ranciere

During the course of my studies of political science here at Eastman, a hand full of concepts have immediately become readily applicable to the world around me. The most recent was during our study of Ranciere, and in particular his discussion of speech versus voice and its application to a true political argument.

We have already gone over what he means by speech versus voice multiple times, so I will not discuss that again. However, this binary’s relation to political argument, and indeed political argument itself, is extremely interesting.

From what I have derived, for an argument to actually be political in nature, there must be an inherent inequality amongst those arguing. This is due to Ranciere’s definition of “politics” as the disruption of the current system of domination. The “current system of domination” is what we colloquially consider “government” or “politics” (he labels both these commonly understood terms as “the police” [The dude must have been hard to have a normal conversation with]). Thusly, when we assemble in a town meeting and “argue” as to whether we should pave road X or road Y, and everyone has a chance to stand up and say his or her piece and be equal, we are not actually having a political argument, we are simply conforming to the current system of domination.

Essentially, to be a “political argument”, one person has to break the norms of conduct, and demand that his or her argument be heard. That is politics. This concept was fairly abstract to me, until I put it in “me terms”.

Eastman has a serious issue with its practice facilities. There are just way too few, and they are of extremely poor quality. Last year I decided that I was fed up, and wanted to do something about it. I fired off an email to the dean of Eastman, spelling out the problem, and then went on, more or less, to demand that he fix the issue.

About a week later, he got back to me essentially saying that we will look into it, we understand, the problem will eventually be solved, blah blah blah. Important to this discussion is that he told me, “there are appropriate paths of communication between students and administration (aka the student association), and I should take advantage of them”. I quickly replied that I would be at the next meeting to further discuss my point.

What I was not aware of at the time was that the dean had apparently sent my email to essentially all other school administrators, and it was causing quite a hubbub.

My next step, like the good grass-roots liberal my parents raised me to be, I wrote up a petition, and took it around for a few hours before the student association meeting, gathering about 40 signatures.

At the meeting, when it was time for “comments”, I got up and spelled out the problem and presented my petition. That night, an influential dean “happened to be there”, and after my presentation stood up and said that under no circumstances would the administration ever consider such a petition, nor do they listen to direct suggestions from students. “The student association is the voice of the student body, and so any petition would have to be drawn up by the association, and any suggestion would have to come through the association for the administration to hear it”.

At the time I was just upset, and eventually just found a practice solution for myself as opposed to my initial goal of a solution for everyone. Now, based on my work in this class, I understand exactly what happened.

By sending the email directly to the dean, I inadvertently and completely broke the code of the current system of domination. As a lowly student, I had no right to not only bring up an issue directly to the dean, but to demand action on his part. I took equality, or to put it in Ranciere’s terms, I demanded to be counted.

The dean then, via the administrator at the student association meeting, denied me actual speech, and reasserted the current system of inequality. By declaring the administration would not listen to me or a petition I would present, they reverted my speech-act back to merely voice.

If I had known what I know now, I would have never gone to the meeting. I would have simply continued to email the dean, and encouraged other students to do the same. That would have been pro politics

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4 Responses to An Application of Ranciere

  1. Jake, though I agree you did try to count yourself where you weren’t being counted before, I would suggest that their are better forms of political action. For instance, uniting with the student government (they should, after all, be on your side), and creating a situation where all students who are concerned about this issue (and there are plenty) can gather at some kind of forum and allow a representative to discuss the problems with the practice rooms and the challenges that exist in addressing those problems with a member of the administration. That way, you assert your speech by saying that you have an equal capability of addressing those problems as the administration, and remove the excuse that nothing can be done. In any case, it’s a little less petty and a lot more meaningful than just pestering them via email.

  2. jakehanegan says:

    Thank you for the reply, Ryan! I see where you are coming from, but disagree. With the inclusion of some details I initially left out, maybe you will get a clearer sense of why the form of taking which I initiated is possibly the only way.
    When I presented to Student Association (SA), I was actually the only instrumentalist at the meeting that A) didn’t have my own practice room, and B) lived on campus (the rest were vocalists). Thusly, when I said practice rooms are an issue, it was met with wide skepticism.
    The reason that this is problematic is that, according to the administration, SA is our, the student’s, voice. Because of the timing of the meetings, most violinists can never attend SA meetings do to studio class, along with a few other direct and continuing conflicts amongst other instrumentalists. Thus, the instrumentalist’s opinions are not heard. Our voice is actually not being represented in the SA meetings, and is certainly not being presented to the administration. We are not counted.
    Moreover, after we were done “discussing” the practice room issue in the SA meeting, we moved onto the theme of the winter ball. This is important because, as Benhabib would point out, we must also be able to question the mode of discussion. SA is great for planning apple picking trips, decorating the main hall, and organizing free doughnut days, but it is not an appropriate venue for discussion of essential tools to our learning process such as practice rooms. By continuing to email the dean directly, and formulating my own petition, I would not only have taken speech, but denounced the current mode of discourse.
    On to your last point, I removed the excuse of nothing can be done by consistently presenting three options for more practice space: 1) Turn the collaborative piano studios in to practice rooms in which collaborative pianists have priority 2) Move three of the four harpsichords to the fourth floor of the school (They are not in use according to the harpsichordists I spoke with) 3) Allow practicing in the dorms from 11am to 7pm (this is what was on my petition). It wasn’t that I was pestering the dean, or SA, it was that I had a real proposal that would have fixed the problem, as was, I felt, inline with the feelings of the student body that were not being heard do to the current system.
    I still feel as though simply trying to affect any change through the systems put in place would be fruitless. If we want real change on this issue, we must demand it from the administration. We must created a new mode of communication that adequately represents the true general will of the student body, not just the opinions of the few that can make it to SA meetings. We, who are paying thousands of dollars to study here, need to address the administration on this issue not from a position of those being ruled and those ruling, but from one where we are equals. Then we would see real change.

  3. The issue I still see with your argument Jake is that you are attempting to fight fire with fire as the Scythian slaves did. You must remember that political change also involves re-defining the current political order, not just interrupting it. Thus, you can’t just dismiss the powers that be: you must act in a way that alters how they see the problem as well. Therefore, if you got 40 signatures, I would say that this would be an indication that a separate meeting (at a time when people don’t have myriad conflicts) that involves SA and the administration and the student body proper is due. That way you count yourself by acting in a way that forces the powers that be to recognize you as legitimately acting on the interests of all students in a serious and appropriate fashion. This way you are interrupting and re-defining the current power structure by asserting your speech in “Eastman” society. I agree that SA is not, as it is at the moment, the solution to your answer, but by doing something along the lines that I suggest, you transform it into the powerful force of student speech that you need it to be. Sorry to say, but constantly sending emails is just going to piss people off and will not change anything!

    P.S. the fact that you have concrete suggestions is a good thing, and bringing these suggestions up in this way will force them to acknowledge them as possibilities. And even if they are dismissed, the point is that it will force the administration to consult the student body on a solution that will work for everyone, instead of not involving them in the first place.

    P.P.S. if acting in the way I suggest doesn’t work, then maybe the time will come to protest with emails, petitions, and maybe “practice room occupations,” but until then, you have to have a little faith in your school to be able to change.

  4. jakehanegan says:

    I again see where you are coming from, but again disagree with your insistence on culmination on strictly logistical grounds. I don’t know if you have tried to schedule many rehearsal/meetings with four or more people during your time here at Eastman, but I assure you it is like herding cats. People are tremendously busy seven days a week, and finding a time that would work for people to have a meeting of “SA and the administration and the student body proper” is utterly impossible. Thusly, any vision of working within the system as such is a non-solution.

    Moreover I completely agree that one must not only interrupt, but re-define the current political order. However, I believe my actions did just that: by collecting signatures and contacting the dean directly, I interrupted the current system, and asserted a new mode in which students can talk to the administration directly about their issues. The actions I took were far more closely aligned with that of the Plebeians because I confronted the administration with a fully functioning grass-roots system of communication, and also a plan that in some ways mimicked what a solid SA plan would have looked like.

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