What can democracy mean today?

26 January 2011: Talk by Jacques Rancière at Aristotelio university and discussion at Narghis

Seeing as how we’d already done a few readings by French philosopher Jacques Rancière, including “The Emancipated Spectator” and a passage from “The Future of the Image”, we thought it only fitting to schedule Société Anonyme’s first meeting in conjunction with Rancière’s talk at Aristotelio university. Entitled “What can democracy mean today?”, the talk focused on the ideas that Rancière develops in his book “Hatred of Democracy”, which was recently translated into Greek. Looking around the jam-packed room, it was exciting to see just how many artists, curators, art historians… had turned up despite the fact that the event was held by the department of Political Sciences.

In his talk, Rancière argued the necessity to significantly rethink the notion of democracy. He began by discussing some of the critiques that have been leveled against democracy since its “apparent” triumph over totalitarianism following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He mentioned, for instance, how democracy was being posited by some as a regime that threatens the public good by promoting mass individualism in a society of the spectacle, ruining traditional filial ties to usher in the rule of the free market.

As a means of redefining the idea of democracy away from its current governmental form – representative democracy – Rancière revisited Plato’s critique of Athenian democracy. He used it to demonstrate how democracy’s true scandal lies in its lack of any natural legitimizing title, such as the power of the strong over the weak. Democracy, he argued, is a form of radical anarchy based on the arbitrary drawing of lots. It is not the power of the people, but rather the power of those who have no title to govern.  Our modern democracy is a form of compromise between the principle of universal suffrage (the power of anybody) and the reproduction of oligarchic interests. To render our current system more democratic, Rancière suggested that we notably limit and shorten the duration of political mandates while promoting the creation of autonomous institutions.

Finally, based on Francois Jacquotot’s notion of the equal capacity of intelligence, Rancière argued that democracy is the only alternative to oligarchic power as it signifies the equal power or capacity of everyone to govern. He stated that this equal capacity must be affirmed as a given rather than a goal to be achieved, criticizing Hardt & Negri and Badiou in the process for their Marxist adherence to historical necessity.

After the conference ended, we pursued our discussion over Nan Bread and Chana Masala at Narghis. Though the restaurant was unusually loud and crowded for a Wednesday night, it still felt like a good place to catch up following Art Night’s 6 months hiatus and to relaunch our discussion series under its new moniker.



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