Rancière and Democratic Equality

I wrote this essay for a “Contemporary Democratic Theory” class several years ago. It covered a lot of topics that I don’t think about too much anymore, but I enjoyed writing it and am posting it here largely for my own reference.

Contemporary debates over democratic theory often center on questions of political subjectivity, of who should be included in democracy and how that inclusion should function. The deliberative democracy of Iris Young, for example, attempts to expand modes of democratic participation to turn back the tides of political apathy and exclusion. Chantal Mouffe, on the other hand, calls for a radical ‘agonistic’ democracy which seeks to maximize disagreement against the risk of stale ‘consensus.’ Against both of these positions, I consider a democratic politics concerned not with particular models of subjectivity or participation, but with the relation through which democratic citizens rule and are ruled. For Jacques Rancière, democratic politics begins with a presupposition of equality, from which political relations emerge that do not rely on any qualifications for rule or participation.

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History, Life, and Uses for Nietzsche


Nietzsche seems to mean by history something like memory or remembrance. In section 1 of his essay, he refers to animals as “unhistorical” things on account of the fact that they are continually forgetting what they have to say, so they ultimately say nothing at all (60-61). History is, like animal “rumination,” a re-digestion of past events (62). However, historical sense is present not only in individuals, but in peoples, cultures, and governments as well, meaning it can occur above individual memories to bolster or weaken cultural and national identities as well (62). History is a means of broadening one’s horizons; the ignorant person who knows little of history has a very narrow (albeit pleasant) perspective on the world, but an over-historical person may grow ill from the continual flux of his historical horizons (63). This, however, is really a definition of history in terms of how we study or relate to it. As for history itself, Nietzsche suggests that it is a series of negations (contra Hegelian dialectical resolution) or struggles “against history” (106). In other words, history develops according to those who momentarily step outside of history, who act “counter to [their] time” (60).

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Nietzsche, Cohen, and Positivism

Jonathan Cohen interprets Nietzsche’s critique of metaphysics in Human, All-Too-Human as operating within the tenets of a “positivist” scientific methodology (Cohen 103), in which truths are universal, objective, and foundational, and are preferable to non-truths or tautologies. For Cohen, Nietzsche’s argument can be divided into ‘possible alternative explanations’ and ‘origins,’ which work in tandem to both decenter metaphysical claims to truth and provide positive justifications to be averse to metaphysics. Cohen concludes that this cannot effectively challenge metaphysics because it concedes the possibility of positive truth (as ascertained by science, either by the free spirit or the metaphysician) and does not adequately develop a perspectivist epistemology that could confront metaphysics’ claims to logical wholeness. My contention is that Cohen’s reading of Nietzsche’s science too quickly discards a few important nuances that distinguish it from pure positivism, such that Cohen fails to see how this Nietzschean science is designed precisely to handle the concerns Cohen puts forward.

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Zarathustra and Going Under

I am interested in the ways in which TSZ’s fictional form, in which most narration is spoken through the voice of the titular character, Zarathustra, is perhaps designed to escape the trappings of the heady moralism which Nietzsche railed so vigorously against. I contend that TSZ is an experiment undertaken by Nietzsche in which important parts of his philosophy are demonstrated actively, and not merely described or suggested normally. In particular, the character of Zarathustra is produced as a ‘friend’ or an ‘other’ which displaces the notions of personal identity and Platonic spirit that Nietzsche wishes to criticize.

For Zarathustra, the self and the ego are distinct entities, the latter being an invention of the former (and the former being a representation of ‘the body’).[i] The body is a container for drives (referred to at one point by Zarathustra as a “ball of snakes”) for whom ‘reason’ is merely one of many instruments, rather than an overarching, guiding power or principle. The Platonic notion of the ‘soul’ is an error, assuming some concept of selfhood separate from (and usually above, metaphysically speaking) the immanence of the body. This soul is constructed alongside and for the same reason as an ‘afterworld’ is: to escape bodily “suffering and incapacity.”[ii] Consequently, the body is separated from the soul, the former being rendered contemptible and inferior. This separation engenders a kind of arrogance, demonstrated in German idealism’s adoption of a transcendent capacity for reason above and beyond the material world. It also begets a resentful moralism which judges “doers,” not “deeds,” which Zarathustra calls “madness.”[iii]

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