John W.P. Phillips: On Rancière and Derrida on Plato


For the original version of this interview, and other TCS material, go to the TCS Website

Following on from our interview with John Phillips on the TCS Blog in September, we’ve been asking John to clarify and elaborate upon some of the complex theories and concepts to which he’s referred. Here is his second response: on Rancière’s and Derrida’s readings of Plato, and a new logic for addressing the metaphysical questions of space, time and death.


Simon Dawes: From their respective readings of Plato, Rancière comes up with the ‘axiom of equality’ while Derrida comes up with ‘dissemination’ and the pharmakon. Could you explain the links (that is, the similarities and differences) between these concepts (within the context, perhaps, of distinguishing between the approaches of Rancière and Derrida)?

John Phillips: Equality in Rancière’s discourse serves as a force of disruption to whatever situation settles in the form of a supposedly natural order (the distribution of the sensible). It is thus disruptive in principle of any political situation, any hierarchy, any institution whatsoever. Two incommensurable kinds of logic are thus at play: “the logic of the mark of equality or that of the police order” (Disagreement 35). Again we are dealing, if only by analogy, with the mathematics of incommensurables rather than the arithmetic of addition, subtraction and equalization. There’s nothing in the field of politics that could be opposed to the natural order, nothing that could in the manner of an exemplary figure (e.g., the proletariat) be exhibited against such an order unless it had the power to undo the logic that constitutes the field itself. The proletariat already has its place in such an order. What mark could have an impact that would shift the proletariat subject from its place? Strictly the axiom of equality has no content. Its force is felt only as a form of indeterminacy (non meaning). The proletariat enter the field of politics by constituting another community in the empty name of equality, but in the concrete form of a struggle, thus producing, in this name, a community whose rights call on the very principle that founds the democracy: equality. Equality then appears as a kind of aesthetic (visible, sensible) disjunction between a police order and its alternative. How does this work?

Rancière’s key example in the poor people of Athens, the demos, helps to illustrate classical alternatives (via the difference between Platonic and an Aristotelian regimes of art). But the disruptive quality of the example is taken from Plato. Plato’s treatment of art and artists has in this sense a direct correlative with his treatment of the political constitution of the republic. Rancière is quite correct of course to point out (against residual confusion even today) that Plato’s attitude towards art and artists has less to do with the content of the works than with the formal role of art in the politics of a community. Simply, art occupies an other space (fiction, the stage) and thus takes artists and audiences out of the political order in which they ought otherwise to be engaged in useful works. This has to do with the metaphysics of time and space. You cannot be in two places at the same time just as you cannot exist in two different “nows.” The practical side of this metaphysical truth works like this: “artisans cannot be put in charge of the shared or common elements of the community because they do not have the time to devote themselves to anything less than their work. They cannot be somewhere else because work will not wait” (Politics of Aesthetics 12). Look at the underlined phrases: not have the time; somewhere else; work will not wait. They point inescapably to a temporality–finite historical–and a mortality governed by the fundamental constraints of time, space and death. OK. What does this have to do with art (Plato on poetry, tragedy, comedy, epic)? Rancière makes the connection explicit: “The Platonic proscription of the poets is based on the impossibility of doing two things at once … The question of fiction is first a question regarding the distribution of places” (13). Theatre particularly serves a disruptive role in the distribution of places. It is at once a space of public gathering and a space for exhibiting fantasies. It therefore “disturbs the clear partition of identities, activities, and spaces” (13). What we require then is a clear connection between the disruption in a single place (a place divided) of identity, activity and space, on one hand, and the tendency for Plato to identify in the artist the empty repetition of an otherwise “full” discourse. Art, remember, is an analogos rather than a logos. Rancière again makes the connection explicit with a reference to Plato’s treatment of writing: “By stealing away to wander aimlessly without knowing who to speak to or who not to speak to, writing destroys every legitimate foundation for the circulation of words, for the relationship between the effects of language and the positions of bodies in shared space” (and so on – 13-14). So with the Platonic treatment of writing we now can identify the pattern according to which the logic of equality (the axiom of the political) serves as a kind of illimitable resource. The indeterminacy that Rancière attributes to equality proceeds exactly according to the technical indeterminacy of the written mark. To make more explicit what Rancière takes rather for granted I’m now going to go into some slightly dry commentary … There are not many rules. But the following can be taken as axiomatic. A written mark (an inscription) must be repeatable in principle to infinity. It must be able to operate in the absence of an addressor, addressee, referent or even a sense. No natural or necessary law connects the mark to any of those events where meaning can be said to be present. (A letter, like the letter a, must be able to wander aimlessly in order for it to be attached to those temporary determinations we know as the events of reference called speaking). We can now establish quite clearly the nature of what I think of as a new logic for addressing the metaphysical questions of space, time and death. But for this we need to refer to Derrida.

Dissemination, the name of the book by Derrida first published in 1972, contains two now classic readings of Plato: “Plato’s Pharmacy” and “The Double Session.” Dissemination, the word, had been around for a while. It might be helpful to think of it first as a term by which the poststructuralist notion of polysemy could be addressed critically. There’s much at stake theoretically. Roland Barthes particularly had championed that property of a sign according to which it may contain more than one meaning–several in fact (poly–for many and semeion–indicating meaning). The etymology of the seme lurks behind words like sign and meaning as well the sciences dedicated to the study of signs, semiotics and semiology. But it also lurks behind words (especially in biology) concerned with aspects of the reproductive process, with conception (insemination) both in animals and plants (dissemination). Derrida’s works of the 1960s and 70s rather systematically explore the intricate connections between philosophical procedures and those that belong with the world of reproduction, sex and death. With dissemination Derrida contests the idea that a word might “contain” meanings. There’s actually not much difference between one and many, if one accepts the metaphor of containment implied in both conceptions. Instead, meaning is said to be a function of what Derrida calls iterability. Iterability combines the senses of repeatability and difference. Iterum in Latin means “likewise” but there’s also a Sanscrit word, itera, meaning “other.” A fine example of dissemination. The same word across eons and across languages comes to have more or less opposed meanings. This is obviously not because the one word “contains” or already in some sense implies all its possible meanings. No. The possible meanings that a word might one day “have” are in principle illimitable (like the axiom of equality) because in essence and at origin (if origin has any meaning at all in a world of purely repeatable elements) the word contains no meaning. Every determination depends upon 1) an in principle irreducible indeterminacy and 2) a sphere of determinacy (the finite sphere of finite languages). In the first case we look towards the future and in the second case we fall back on the past. The principle of the mark and of iterability therefore splits the past and the future in terms of a division that is neither past nor future … nor present. Or rather (here recall Rancière’s doubled space) the present is conceivable only as a division: the two impossible “nows” at once (theatre, writing). That is dissemination and it is exactly analogous to what Freud had identified as the arbitrary (accidental or chance) meeting of sperm and ova. It’s the “seminal adventure” that Nietzsche (for one) had inaugurated. To identify this process is one thing. Careless readers tend to think that Derrida merely argues this. On the contrary Derrida is rather on Plato’s side in attempting to come to terms with the disturbing truth of these indubitable, simultaneously creative and destructive, processes.

This then is what Plato, in a quite dizzying layering of registers and arguments, pits his philosophy against. The logos must be established at the centre and as the centre of the Republic, pushing to the outside everything that disrupts or disturbs its orderly ratio. Hence the Republic is built on strictly logocentric principles. “Plato’s Pharmacy” charts Plato’s attempt in several works to address the unavoidable and yet irremediably disruptive character of the written mark. Derrida establishes the intricate connection between equality, democracy and writing: “At the disposal of each and all, available on the sidewalks, isn’t writing thus essentially democratic? One could compare the trial of writing with the trial of democracy outlined in the Republic … Equality is equally dispensed to equal and unequal alike (558c)” (Dissemination 144). This comparison follows.

First writing:

“It rolls this way and that like someone who has lost his way, who doesn’t know where he is going, having strayed from the correct path, the right direction, the rule of rectitude, the norm; but also like someone who has lost his rights, an outlaw, a pervert, a vagrant, an adventurer, a bum. Wandering in the streets he doesn’t know who he is, what his identity–if he has one–might be, what his name is, what his father’s name is” (143). There’s more, of course, reproducing Plato’s peculiar anthropomorphic idiom.

And on democracy:

“The errant democrat, wandering like a desire or like a signifier freed from logos, this individual who is not even perverse in a regular way, who is ready to do anything, to lend himself to anyone, who gives himself equally to all pleasures, to all activities–eventually even to politics and philosophy–this adventurer … simulates everything at random and is really nothing. Swept off by every stream, he belongs to the masses; he has no essence, no truth, no patronym, no constitution of his own” (145). And so on.

The notion of Pharmakon is evoked by Derrida to unravel the complex strands of argument in Plato that reveal a deep ambivalence characteristic of (it seems) all western philosophy. Every indication of the evil of writing–of its dangers and perversions, its improprieties and detachments–has a counterpart in some kind of more or less repressed or distorted recovery of writing for its unavoidable or even necessary qualities. For instance pharmakos names the ceremony, held on the same day every year, during which certain outcasts (degraded and useless beings) were sacrificed as “scapegoats.” I recommend a slow patient reading for the full effect but I’ll cut to the chase here. Not only is this day the same fateful day on which Socrates was himself executed (scapegoated as a wanderer, bum, useless philosopher, etc.), but also, in all kinds of other ways, Socrates emerges as the very figure of the written mark if one only follows Plato’s own logic. So the true values of the Platonic philosophy are revealed in terms of the predicates to which he ostensibly opposes it: time, space, sex and death! The nature of the pharmakon is, therefore this: in order to maintain your sphere (sovereign, subject, political constitution, logos, truth, etc.) you must exclude from it the very elements and predicates by which it was inevitably established. There’s no avoiding this, it seems.

I do not mean to imply any lack of originality in Rancière’s notion of equality (and wrong, disagreement, police, and so on) by identifying this philosophical grounding as underwriting it. To the contrary what Rancière does with this ground remains brilliant and provocative. It’s merely to identify what is most radical and significant in the philosophical heritage. And to show why I believe that the engagement with Badiou and Rancière can help to reveal this deeper fissure in the same heritage (in the slightly submerged figures not only of Derrida and Lacan but probably also Althusser too, if only we had more time and space). What distinguishes Rancière from Derrida? A great deal of course. For one thing Rancière clearly would not have sided with Plato and the logos, which would have put him, in his reading, on the side of the police. But coming from a reading of “Plato’s Pharmacy” that kind of decidability isn’t really available, because to side with one (the indeterminate wanderer) is to find yourself unexpectedly in the very centre of things (and no less logocentric than is the defender of the logos, who, by this switch has reemerged on the outside haunting his own defenses). Rancière nonetheless protects himself from this by refusing institution in any manner, retaining for politics the single axiom that remains outside politics: equality. It’s part of a deconstruction, without going the whole way. The strategy of affirming all the negatives belonging to a system apparently built on their exclusion can only take you so far. Derrida’s reading leaves us (distressed at this truth) affirming also the very agency of the exclusion.

John W.P. Phillips is Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore, and an editorial board member of TCS. He writes on philosophy, literature, critical theory, aesthetics, psychoanalysis, urbanism and military technology. He is co-author with Ryan Bishop of the forthcoming Modernist Avant-garde Aesthetics and Contemporary Military Technology: Technicities of Perception (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), and he is currently researching a project on autoimmunity in biotechnology and political philosophy.

Simon Dawes is the Editor of the TCS Website and Editorial Assistant for Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society

Go here for John’s first follow-up response ‘On Mathematical Logic’

Go here for the original ‘Interview with John W.P. Phillips on Badiou, Rancière…and Žižek’

You can access the article, ‘Art, Politics, and Philosophy: Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière’ (TCS 27.4) by John W.P. Phillips here

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