A Few Notes on Ranciere’s Demos, Badiou’s Body, and Agamben’s Exception [1]

From Rancière’s La Mésentente we glean the truth that those without specific ‘virtue’ or ennoblement, commercial interest or a particular stake in the economic system, i.e. that part of society which has no part in it, can have as its ‘only’ lot the whole of society itself. From his reading of Aristotle’s Politics, which describe a familiar situation, Rancière finds that in contrast to the aristoï (who have their areté) and the oligoï (who have their investments, their wealth), the demos, the people—the nothing and the nobody that the political economy constitutes as its generic product—having no specific stakes or share in the way the political economy operates, are those who must every day contend with the entirety of society. For The People as such there are no ‘specific’ problems to which specific solutions must be identified, or rather, every specific problem is immediately also a systemic problem, a consequence of the generic wrong or ‘wrongness’ of the system. It is for this reason that the cause of this ‘part with no part’ is the most just, the most universal, and the most common: the demos is wronged in the very way it must live and conduct itself, and it is face to face all the time with the systemic injustice in which it lives and breathes and has its being. Indeed, for The People, their engagement with the social form, unlike that of the oligoï and aristoï, is incalculable—beyond any arithmetic of specific values (axiaï)—because they must always and in all things contend with it, address it. For that reason it is they—we—who can speak of it most adequately. We who are the most identifiable with a human political subject are such because we are always and everywhere subject to the immediate politicity of the social order, subject to its form.

The exact nature of the inscribing social conjugation has varied historically and culturally: we have been, variously, demos, le tiers-état, sans-cullottes, proletariat, sans-papiers, ‘feral underclass’, ‘unlawful combatants’, and so on. The way we are inevitably inscribed into the state has always been a matter of how we are policed, and of the specifics of ‘policing’ (as Rancière aptly names the depoliticisation of our existence). However, our own-most problem has always been the problem of the political as such, the problem of the constitution of a political order in which we are always face to face with policing: constitutively silenced, marginalised and displaced. Access to politics with us has always been a matter of having to wrestle through the question of how we are policed—how our ‘interests’ are articulated and by whom, how we are ‘managed’—to get to the question of the political as such: that, for example, our true interest is not a matter of the specific allocation of resources to particular groups but of the entire distributive order. We are not ‘for ourselves’ because there exists no identifiable part of society, no group, to which specific interests could be predicated on our behalf without this constituting in itself a wrong; our specific interests are immediately universal, concerned with the form of society itself, and as such are political rather than a matter of policing. It may appear an all-or-nothing demand: that society be restructured, or that the structuring principle of society, the reigning politics of class interests, be rejected. Rather, it is an all and nothing situation: we are the nothing for whom politics really exist, as all we have, and as that which fundamentally determines our lives.

A pessimistic reading of Rancière would compare this situation with that of the homines sacrii in Agamben’s account of biopolitics: directly exposed to the policing of the state as problematic object captured on the mobile border of legal rights, all status suspended, a warm and palpitating life denied any form of life or generic communal existence. I think this is a step too far, or perhaps a miss-step, although there is a certain ambiguity in the complete differences of the two analyses. Neither Agamben nor Rancière (or for that matter Badiou) are concerned to reinscribe the supernumerary element into the extant order: neither wish for simple expansion of rights-based constitutions such that symptomal exception is mitigated or somehow done away with, as both recognise that the exception is in fact constitutive to the legal order itself. The point can never be ‘to get oneself included’ by improving the law, by gradualist or reformist measure. The point, at least for Rancière, is rather to rearticulate the whole space from the new universal origin of the supernumerary element. Rancière’s radical democracy as identifiable in particular historical moments, notably the idea of democracy in ancient Athens, is not one in which the demos merely finds expression of its interests among the oligoï and the aristoï, as one interest group among others, but rather a system in which the demos become the fundamental subjective paradigm. When Agamben speaks of instituting a bios whose only content is its zoe or of creating a ‘real’ state of exception, we can see a structural similarity but Agamben’s concepts are working at a different level and doing far more for him, especially in terms of his messianism. We will leave this aside for now. On Badiou’s part the existence of the supernumerary element is evental, a ‘site’, but not yet an Event, which needs a body capable of fidelity to the Truth of the Event and a process of ‘drawing the consequences’. In this respect Badiou is less concerned with rearticulating a radical and ‘historic’ ideal of democracy as describing as a problematic the processes, both ontological (in Being and Event) and ‘objective-phenomenological’ (in Logics of Worlds), through which historical rupture may occur. It is true that both Badiou and Rancière find a common point of agreement in terms of reformulating universality and that they do so via a mathematical ontology of a generic set which exploits the inconsistency of systematic ordering or the ‘counting’ of a state policing (obviously more explicit in Badiou’s case), however Rancière then locates and focuses on the inherent democratic power, the equality, among the protest of those who have no part in this count. For Badiou, this is not enough, and remains only a ‘historical idea’ of the universal, and which can happen only from time to time in popular uprising. Badiou, especially in more recent works (e.g. The Rebirth of History) sees such times of riots and rebellions as ‘intervallic’. They are evental in nature to be sure, concerning ‘sites’ which belong without inclusion, but they are not concerned with the Truth of an Event as such, which would involve the positive prescription of a rupture and the patient detailing of its consequences in a new political vehicle or ‘subjective body’.

To make a vulgar move here, we can say that the old question of the dictatorship of the proletariat lurks within these partial tessellations. It is not a question of the seizure of power, Badiou is emphatic on this point. The appropriation of the State form is not on the cards. However, it is not clear what the new subjective body, ‘face to face with the state but not in the state’, would really be. Are we perhaps talking here about some form of dual power, or if not then perhaps a duality of forms of power?