Politics and Aesthetics and Social Movements! (A How-To Guide, Extracted from the Brain of Jacques Rancière)

Image from the cover of Rancière's "The Emancipated Spectator"

Image from the cover of Rancière’s “The Emancipated Spectator”

Jacques Rancière is a political philosopher who is all the rage in art circles right now. His theories are geared to help emancipate the peoples’ imagination about how social change can manifest, and who can enact it. However, his work can sometimes be a little cryptic and not-so-straightforward, and this essay is an attempt to group all his scattered writings about social movements into a single, cohesive strategy document. And it uses the history of the student movement as a way to help you understand the way that Rancierè’s theories can manifest concretely. Enjoy, and use widely. Please contact me if you’d like the full text, or the bibliography.

The following is an excerpt from a thesis I wrote in the CalArts Aesthetics & Politics MA program. The thesis was titled The Unintended Revolution: A Rancièrian Analysis of SDS, The Weathermen, and the End of the Student Left. 


During the era known as “the sixties,” Americans witnessed an explosion of political energy, particularly among college-aged youth. The genesis of the student movement can be traced to a 1962 manifesto by Students for a Democratic Society called the Port Huron Statement, a scathing indictment of the status quo that laid out an expansive vision for remedial action. In the coming years, SDS became the nation’s largest and most influential student organization, touching nearly every front of the counterculture. Boasting a massive membership that reached between 70,000 and 100,000 official members by 1969, plus thousands of others who joined their public demonstrations, SDS is remembered today as a driving force for ending the Vietnam war. But to suggest that the sixties revealed the unequivocal virtue of American democracy is to overlook the repressive conditions that permeated the student movement during its decline, when both students and the American government abandoned the democratic principles that each one claimed as their ethical foundation. As the decade wore on and the U.S. government became increasingly violent towards civilians at home and abroad, the Port Huron hope for democratic reform slowly withered away. Students became increasingly frustrated with their inability to stop the Vietnam war, prompting increasingly violent reactions from students who were desperate to end oppression carried out in their name. In 1969, as internal factions polarized the organization, a group of radical student activists took control of Students for a Democratic Society. Calling themselves the Weathermen, this collective initiated a series of coordinated domestic bombings designed to render the effects of the Vietnam war visible to the general American public. They discarded nonviolent tactics in an effort to raise the stakes of the debate on a seemingly passive American people. To the leadership’s surprise, the movement’s support atrophied rapidly. Within a matter of months, participation plummeted to a mere fraction of what it once was, rendering the group ineffective to implement their vision for an improved society.

In the modern history of the United States, the sixties rouse an unusually broad array of discordant interpretations. Many on the left cherish this time with a fond nostalgia as the gold standard for social reform and as a blueprint for crafting future political victories. Others recall a time of great turmoil, division, indecency and chaos that infected an otherwise stable nation with divisive furor. A number of others believe that not nearly enough was achieved. Conventional wisdom suggests that these interpretations diverge radically from one another, yet what unites each of these three perspectives is that each measures its own success by its ability to influence the dominant institutional structures of the United States. However, to focus too narrowly on judgments towards institutional reforms is to overlook what enabled the sixties movements to gain momentum in the first place: their ability to affect the everyday behavior of individual citizens. In a public appeal for support, the activists demonstrated alternative values to the public, and they succeeded in portraying their alternatives as superior syntheses of rhetoric and action. By identifying pervasive apathy and empty rhetoric as their ideological enemy, the student movement emerged as a leading force among a coalition of marginalized groups committed to finding new forms of political engagement.

The sources and effects of the student movement’s subsequent transformations have occupied many social and political theorists in recent decades, and it is essential to reexamine the general consensus that the movement’s ability to implement a more egalitarian regime was necessarily intertwined with gaining control of the nation’s institutional apparatuses. Tom Hayden, co-founder of SDS and the lead author of the Port Huron Statement, declares the movement an overall success, attributing to it a string of legislative and political accomplishments that continue to reverberate today (Long Sixties 22-30). Hayden cites the government’s oppressive actions as the motivation behind the group’s transition to violence, and argues that these later missteps do not tarnish the movement’s policy victories. Others, such as Weatherman co-founder Mark Rudd, argue that the group’s increasingly militant tactics were helping them achieve their long-term goals, until it led them to neglect the mass movement (Rudd 190-91). Both perspectives offer insights into what is a convoluted issue, yet both constitute relatively minor amendments to the dominant framework of institutional reform, which gauges a group’s success by its ability to exert control over the government and other powerful organizations. “The measure of an era is not taken in membership cards or election results alone,” writes Hayden, “but in the changes in consciousness, in the changing norms of everyday life, and in the public policies that result from movement impacts on the mainstream.” (“Way We Were” 28) It is that final point—the necessity of affecting institutional structures—that propelled both SDS’ program of radical reform and the Weathermen’s militant revolutionary tactics.

However, it is precisely that point that Jacques Rancière, contemporary political and aesthetic theorist, rejects as a means for judging a movement’s efficacy. Rancière’s writings offer an entirely new lens through which to judge the success of political movements: through its ability to transform the behavior of everyday citizens. The popular view during the sixties, which remains dominant today, defines society through its officially recognized structures of authority, namely the government and other economic powers. The alternate view espoused by Rancière argues that society is defined by the aggregate set of behaviors by its participants at any given moment. “Society here is made up of groups tied to specific modes of doing, to places in which these occupations are exercised, and to modes of being corresponding to these occupations and these places.” (Rancière, Dissensus 36) Rejecting the traditional view that determines a movement’s strength by its ability to generate institutional reform, Rancière instead stresses that a movement’s power is located in its ability to alter the dominant assumptions regarding who is entitled to behave politically, and how they may appropriately do so. This perspective reveals the early sixties—roughly 1962 to 1967—as a brief and unique window wherein the student movement served in an emancipatory role to the general population.

At the core of Rancière’s political theory is the idea that individuals determine their social behaviors through recreating the concrete examples they observe in society, the total set of which constitutes what he calls the distribution of the sensible. Fundamentally, he believes that each individual’s identity is a unique collage of the prominent modes of expression in a society. He identifies the police as the set of powerful interests who limit the range of publicly perceivable actions in order to perpetuate the status quo. By keeping all forms of dissent hidden from public view, the police perpetuate an illusion that the given set of behaviors constitutes every possible mode of expression. For Rancière, democracy is the singular, anarchic social force that resists all forms of political organization. The only moments of true “democracy” come from these unexpected acts of politics: actions that disrupt our expectations and broaden the distribution of the sensible. Rancière argues that political expression is self-interested by nature; politics describes the actions of a group of individuals—who beforehand are not considered to be legitimate political actors—publicly demand equal recognition. “Politics, before all else, is an intervention in the visible and the sayable,” he writes. (Rancière, Dissensus 36-37) These political actors articulate a grievance that demonstrates the hypocrisy of the given order, and accordingly they become living proof of the dominant order’s inability to uphold its stated values. “Political invention operates in acts that are at once argumentative and poetic, shows of strength that open again and again, as often as necessary, worlds in which such acts of community are acts of community.” (Rancière, Disagreement 59) Indeed, the primary power of a political action is that it creates a parallel, opposite world within the same society, which demonstrates an alternative way for crafting individual behavior.

If we accept Rancière’s premise that the truest form of democracy is a heavy dose of anarchy to counteract institutional rigidity—that the right of the people to make up their minds is, in its most radical sense, opposed to all attempts to codify “universal” standards—it follows that democracy is also opposed to the very concept of government, whose role it is to provide continuity to society through repressing anarchic impulses. “There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as democratic government,” writes Rancière. “Government is always exercised by the minority over the majority.” (Hatred 52) Indeed, “democratic government” necessarily implies a hierarchy: the interests of a powerful minority trumping those of the majority. We may define as institutions all existing organizations whose actions reflect the dominant rationale in support of the given distribution of the sensible, resisting democratic change in order to maintain or expand their power and influence. Rancière elaborates that the police retain power over society so long as the illusion they propagate—which states that the given distribution of the sensible is impermeable and inevitable—remains unchallenged. But as long as this is the case, the system remains permanently hierarchical, which contradicts Rancière’s definition of true democracy: “What democracy means is precisely… [that] constitutions and laws never rest upon one and the same logic.” (Hatred 54) Indeed, he argues that we must embrace complexity and contradiction in order to better serve the people. In Hatred of Democracy, Rancière explains that occupying a position of power is inherently antidemocratic, even as an elected representative in democratic government, for doing so tends to perpetuate a singular rationale, at the expense of all who suffer from the established hierarchies and who would benefit from alternative ways of thinking.

Accordingly, institutions temper citizens’ ability to redress the injustices they face, by fostering a general distrust in one’s ability to affect change. “Peaceful oligarchic government redirects democratic passions toward the private pleasures and renders people insensitive to the public sphere.” (Ranciere, Hatred 74) By this he means that the dominant rationale, when unchallenged, categorically prohibits the kind of democratic change when we learn of new, countervailing ideas. Society is only proven democratic through its perpetual transformation; it is only democratic over the long term when there exists a rotating seat of power, since at every snapshot it demonstrates a clear hierarchy. And since those in power have a perpetual interest in maintaining that power, they actively resist the systems and ideas that would create any change in the distribution of meaning. Rancière believes that “true democracy” is “the movement that ceaselessly displaces the limits of the public and the private, of the political and the social.” (Hatred 52) A movement is therefore constituted by a group of individuals who engage in political action to disrupt the dominance of the existing institutional rationale. These individuals must necessarily be somewhat invisible to the mainstream, and the more frequently invisible political movements emerge, the more democratic the society. For Rancière movements emerge in self-interest—citing the inherent injustice of minority-rule to reject the illusion that there can be any single satisfactory ideological consensus about how to behave in society. Their self-interest is what allows them to break the illusion of consensus, generating a political moment that manifests as dissensus. Thus, Rancière proposes that movements are not defined by the character of their specific beliefs and actions, but rather occupy a structural position in opposition to police institutions. Political actions influence the distribution of the sensible not because their policies are inherently superior to those of any other rationale, but rather because they actively negate the police order, and publicly demonstrate new options for participation. This broadens the public’s awareness of what is possible, a necessarily emancipatory action.

I propose to subdivide the sixties into three relatively autonomous periods wherein the student movement manifested three fundamentally distinct forms in relation to the distribution of the sensible: The early period of SDS, roughly 1962 to 1967, which saw the movement emerge as a social force because of its (unknowing) embrace of Rancièrian political tactics; the intermediate period from 1967 to 1969 when SDS rejected its original tactics as ineffective for achieving the institutional reforms they desired, for which found a powerful but unsustainable growth in their numbers; and finally the period from 1969 until 1974, when the Weathermen’s efforts to build a wide-scale revolution backfired, and turned nearly all supporters away from the movement. This thesis is organized according to these three periods. Chapter 1 begins by reframing the early period of SDS as a quintessential Rancièrian political movement. The group’s early incarnation—from the Port Huron Convention in 1962 until the International Days of Protest in 1975—demonstrates a nearly flawless embrace of Rancièrian political philosophy, although their awareness of fulfilling those tactics varied significantly. The second chapter examines the movement through SDS’ own lens, identifying the ways that SDS justified new strategies that distanced them from their initial adherence to Rancièrian tactics. From 1967 to 1969, SDS gradually adopted tactics of police logic, transitioning from an emancipatory political movement into a repressive institution looking to consolidate their own power rather than provide a moral counterpoint to the mainstream. Paradoxically, this was the movement’s most influential phase. Although the student movement continued to experience unprecedented growth in active participation, its unsuccessful wager on victorious revolution required it to reject the conditions that initially generated its public support, a decision that eventually compromised its efficacy at affecting the public’s actions. Chapter 3 defines the incongruities between the Weathermen’s political rationale from Rancière’s rationale. In light of years of uninterrupted and unprecedented growth for the student movement, the Weathermen discounted the possibility that the public might judge their actions negatively. Surprisingly, the Weathermen did not constitute a political movement under Rancière’s definition, but rather used institutional strategies in an attempt to consolidate their support and deny the feasibility of any alternative strategies. Their accomplishments towards manifesting an alternative rationale for political action soon backfired, as they unintentionally inspired a public distrust of political movements, the very condition that SDS initially rebelled against in 1962.

This essay examines specific public actions by the student movement, and relates them back to the available theories of political change. To think through the specificity of these three phases, I propose that the student movement’s ability to redistribute the sensible be framed by the representation of their public actions in the news media, and by the numbers of individuals actively reifying the movement’s principles in public acts of solidarity. In order to limit the variables that constitute the “sensible”, I will examine the public’s reception of the student movement’s activities through a single mediating news source, the New York Times. I will pay particular attention to articles that appear on the paper’s front page, which, by Rancière’s standards, carried greater influence upon the public’s actions and opinions, due to its greater visibility. During the sixties, the New York Times was the nation’s largest metropolitan newspaper, claiming a readership that went unmatched by virtually any other daily publication in the United States, and the writings of several Weathermen identified the New York Times as emblematic of the national media’s coverage of their public actions. Much can be derived from each article’s presentation of facts, and its implicit priorities regarding what information is most important to disseminate to its readers. The headlines and accompanying photographs are essential indicators of what side, if any, is presented as more understandable and sympathetic to the paper’s readership. In addition to their coverage of particular events and demonstrations, the New York Times periodically conducted extensive interviews with radical students, which helped define the discourse surrounding their actions. These articles prove to be an invaluable source for extrapolating the public opinion towards these groups. Furthermore, the memoirs of the student participants—notably Mark Rudd and Tom Hayden—provide an essential guide to the movement’s intentions, against which their actions and the public perception thereof can be related. These detailed accounts help to identify the degree to which the movement’s actions embraced Rancièrian concepts. In so doing, this thesis tests the resilience of Rancière’s political model through rigorous practical application, in search of insightful instances where the students’ successes can offer validation of the underlying concepts, and instances where greater specificity can be extracted. Additionally, it searches for moments of discord and inconsistency between Rancière’s theories and the movement’s evolution, which demand the model’s further expansion.

By giving specificity to the movement’s shortcomings, Rancière’s writings can provide direction to future political actors. The Weather Underground can hardly be blamed for adopting a losing strategy under unprecedented circumstances. However, I argue that their actions nonetheless leveled irreparable damage to the image of the student activist and seriously hampered the ability of future democratic movements to attract mass participation. Neither SDS’ radical reform model nor the Weathermen’s revolutionary model proved capable of anticipating certain key developments that affected the student movement. Its adherents have retrospectively extracted lessons from the movement’s shortcomings, identifying specific situations and actions to be avoided by future activists, but its foundational principles remain in tact. Ultimately, Rancière’s model explains the movement’s trajectory with far greater simplicity and consistency, offering explanations for the movement’s demise that its own political models could not anticipate. But it remains incomplete. Rancière rejects violently revolutionary tactics, but offers no clear remedial action against a government that refuses to permit political acts that foster democracy. Additionally, Rancière fails to account for the specific process of a movement’s decline. Contrary to Rancière’s presumptions, I will show that when a movement acts in radical self-interest it can sometimes limit the emancipatory potential for future movements. Indeed, the Weathermen’s self-empowering actions turned the masses away from politics and back towards the private sphere, leaving the police with ultimate control over the distribution of the sensible. The example of SDS and the Weather Underground situation begs for an alternative to the model of pure self-interest. Ultimately, I argue that Rancière’s theories open possibilities for a new kind of political movement: one that defines its self-interest by that which supports a solidarity among all structurally-disadvantaged and invisible citizens, who have a common interest in resisting the logic that shields the very concept of true democracy from the minds of the citizenry.


The bedrock of Rancière’s theory is that at any given moment only a limited set of identities, and actions appropriate to those identities, are made visible to the general public. Individuals choose from this set of actions and identities, which together comprise what Rancière calls the distribution of the sensible, in constructing their everyday behavior. These particular behaviors are presented to the citizenry as the total set of possibilities, producing “a system of self-evident facts of perception based on… what is visible and audible as well as what can be said, thought, made, or done.” (Rancière, Politics of Aesthetics 85) Rancière’s collected writings propose that a political movement’s success be measured by its ability to rupture and expand the distribution of the sensible. Rancière’s 2010 book, Dissensus, marks his clearest articulation to date of the principles that enable successful political action: “Politics ought to be defined in its own terms as a specific mode of action that is enacted by a specific subject and that has its own proper rationality.” (27) From this statement we may extract three prerequisites for manifesting political change: 1) articulating a new political identity, which Rancière calls political subjectification; 2) creating and communicating an alternate rationality for understanding the world, which serves as the foundation for the subject’s everyday actions; and 3) demonstrating, through public action, methods for embodying those principles in daily practice. Personal accounts by the student participants, and the media’s depiction of public events, articulate SDS’ success in satisfying all three of these conditions. SDS’ success can be attributed to an overriding unity between the group’s internal guiding principles (i.e. their ultimate ends) and their techniques for using the media to disseminate their principles to potential allies (i.e. their means). Indeed, SDS created an opposite world of political action that existed in active negation to the mainstream: “The essence of politics is the manifestation of dissensus as the presence of two worlds in one.” (Rancière, Dissensus 37) The success of a political movement, therefore, rests upon demonstrating the hypocrisy of mainstream institutions and in presenting an alternative that appears more consistent. For Rancière, fostering opposite worlds is the ultimate goal of a political action. However, SDS had other aspirations; they eventually became dissatisfied with the pace of institutional reform. Each of Rancière’s three conditions is noteworthy not only for contributing to the movement’s ascent as a political force, but also for providing a frame with which to understand the movement’s eventual demise, as each of these tactics was reversed by later incarnations of SDS. Though their brief adherence to Rancièrian politics was largely an unintentional coincidence, Students for a Democratic Society nonetheless exerted considerable influence over the distribution of the sensible in such a way that opened up possibilities of political action for all.

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