The events surrounding the protests for the removal of the Rhodes statue located at a focal point on the Upper Campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT) has provided me with an opportunity to revisit Jacques Rancière’s influential contemporary argument on the politics of aesthetics. The focus on a statue obviously lends an explicit aesthetic dimension to these protests and in the many conversations that I have had over the course of the last week, there have been those who expressed a measure of dissatisfaction or at least reservation about the focus on the statue, because they fear that the “real”, underlying problematics of transformation will fall by the wayside of the revolutionary zeal with which the removal of one statue is demanded. I think that the lens of Rancière’s thought can provide valuable insights not only on this politics of aesthetics but also on the politics of transformation and the question of how, to paraphrase Slavoj Zizek, we are to continue to resist the hegemony of forces calculated at the renunciation of freedom in an era of a more or less general emancipatory malaise, from the failed revolutions of the Arab Spring to the exhaustion of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
As far as concerns the point that the protests amount to no more than a feverish aesthetic fixation, the most important point that Rancière makes as far as I am concerned, is that politics is constitutively, that is to say, in essence, an aesthetic activity — which means that whether or not a protest takes a piece of art or other symbol as its focus, politics in the true sense always bears an aesthetic dimension. By this Rancière also does not mean that politics immediately or directly concern the beautiful or the sublime in any conventional sense of these terms, but rather that it is an activity that involves the determination of the conditions of sensuous perception. For Rancière, politics determines and problematises what and who may be seen, heard and indeed, felt, as well as how these bodies are seen, heard and felt (affect). As an emancipatory activity, politics consist, writes Rancière, in bringing on the stage new objects and subjects, in making visible that which was not visible, “audible as speaking beings those who were previously heard only as noisy animals”. I have personally been struck by how the student protests are couched in vocabularies of wanting to authentically be heard and seen and also to affect. Just this very moment, a student representative delivered a flyer to my office publicising the University Assembly scheduled for tomorrow evening with the slogan “make your voice heard”.
For Rancière the essence of democratic politics is dissensus or disagreement. This disagreement arises in the confrontation of two forms of logic, one being what he calls the logic of “the police” (which is Rancière’s term for all those social institutions and forces grounded in Foucaultian disciplinary power) — what we may simply call the logic of the establishment or status quo. For Rancière, this logic is a “police” logic, because it corresponds to and is aimed at the maintenance, sustenance and vehement protection of what he calls a “distribution of the sensible” which is to say an established order’s distribution of inclusion and exclusion, privilege and dispossession, entitlement and oppression. Politics occurs when this logic of the police is confronted with the logic of disagreement, which is not the same as a misunderstanding.
Disagreement represents a fundamental discord that arises when an emancipatory political subject polemically contests her subordinated position in a given distribution of the sensible by asserting that this subordination / exclusion amounts to a wrong that can only be addressed through a reconfiguration of the distribution of the sensible — a calling into question, then, of “the aesthetic coordinates of perception, thought, and action” by way of which oppression is produced. As Zizek has pointed out, Rancière sees the beginning of politics precisely in the demand of the excluded to be included (but on their own terms), to be heard on equal footing and “recognised as a partner in the political dialogue and the exercise of power”. It cannot be denied that the student demonstrations at UCT are fuelled by a good measure of the need to verify one’s equality as a speaking being, to be included, to be and play “a part” as Rancière would put it.
The logic of disagreement, as I see it, that has arisen out of the student protests resides in a fundamental frustration with the slow pace of transformation — at UCT, but also in higher education in South Africa in general. This is a disagreement not just with the continuing and prominent public exhibition of symbols of colonialism, imperialism, apartheid and oppression (which of course entrenches oppressive and offensive space), not just with the lack of representation in the academic staff, but also and perhaps most importantly, with forms and processes of thought and ways of doing, in other words with the “disciplinary” or “conservative” logic that underlies all these phenomena. It is no coincidence that Jacques Lacan referred to this logic as the “discourse of the university” and we should not be surprised that this disagreement produces itself in a university. In Lacanian terms, what we are seeing is indeed a confrontation between the discourse of the hysteric (who, in the Lacanian universe, is the true agent of transformation because she challenges power) and the discourse of the university (as an agent of legitimisation). Of course, this does not mean that everyone who occupies a position in the university participates in the disciplinary discourse of the university and that everyone who participates in the student protests is an agent of the transformative discourse of the hysteric. But it does mean that the #RhodesMustFall campaign has laid bare and intensified the disagreement / politics between the discourse of the university and the discourse of the hysteric that are present simultaneously in the university as a social institution.
Recent so-called “political” events in South Africa (read Sona 2015 and its aftermath) have been overshadowed by a police logic of the most reprehensible proportions. An optimistic reading of the events surrounding the #RhodesMustFall campaign suggests that authentic democratic politics in South Africa is still possible — for this the students deserve our gratitude. A more tentative reading cannot but insist that the work that remains to be done always begins on the day that the statues of the old order collapse.