Beguiled by French theory: On the Relevance of Rancière to South Africa’s Insurgent Citizens

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Our academic culture continues to reward intellectuals who cite big-name, usually white, male, and European theories and theorists. French theorists, in particular, are given special attention. While sympathetic to the compulsion to harness the ideas of great men, one can no longer claim that this is the only way to succeed in the academic publishing world. Though the alternative might garner less attention, Southern theorists (such as Jean and John Comaroff or Raewynn Connell) have opened the way for an alternative way of doing academically accepted, publishable research.

It is this framing that I kept returning to as I read Julian Brown’s South Africa’s Insurgent Citizens: On Dissent and the Possibility of PoliticsIt is at one level unfair to focus on this text when making an argument about over-use of French political theory, but let me focus on it as a specific instance of what I suggest is a wider concern (and note other reviews here and here). 

Academic work generally takes two different tacks: using a case to contribute to theory, or using theory to explain a set of empirics. Brown’s book falls into the latter as he attempts to use Rancière, whom he defines as the most influential theorist for the book, to explain the politics of dissent in South Africa. Much of the introduction is dedicated to Rancière’s ideas, and Brown’s central interest in his argument that “politics begin when an established order is disrupted by a claim premised on a strong conceptual of equality.” And so, throughout the remainder of the text, I sought to see evidence of an established order, and a claim to equality. There is no shortage of assertions, of attempts to link back to Rancière’s theories. But the evidence provided simply does not support a Rancièrian interpretation of what is happening.

First, I am concerned that any description of postapartheid South Africa as having an established order is both empirically inaccurate and reinforces what powers are present. I do not mean to conflate Rancière’s use of the term “order” with a common vernacular meaning, and thus assert that South Africa’s power relations are disorderly. I am instead suggesting that the order- the rules about roles and responsibilities – does not offer much to an understanding South African power relationships. Brown spends several chapters describing state attempts to legitimize participation and delegitimize other avenues, but nothing here goes beyond well established social movement questions of inside/outside cooperation/cooptation/confrontation. More significantly, his presentation turns the state into a uniform entity with a reasonably clear idea of itself that spans national policy and individual police officers.

While the idea of order may make some sense in France – and I make no denial of the rather entrenched presence of (mostly white) capital in South Africa – academics, politicians, civil society and individuals are continuously puzzling over where power, roles and responsibilities lie. Few predicted the rise of Jacob Zuma, and his socioeconomic origins surely defy assumptions of multigenerational powerful elites. Power is much better understood as a dynamic, agonistic relationship between capital, state political power, traditional powers, religious authorities, charismatic leaders and surprising figures or social constellations. I understand Rancière recognizes contestation over these roles, but contemporary South Africa calls into question the utility of starting with a framing of recognizable social roles. In short, of order.

Second, and this is the more substantive point: there is no evidence that equality (in Rancière’s or other terms) is what is being asserted by the insurgents Brown discusses. His penultimate chapter focuses on the use of the courts as venues for claims, and for claims to different types of knowledge. Specifically, he argues that the use of different metrics (journey to school and local knowledge about the number of children, rather than numbers of schools and children provided by the state) is a claim to equality. This is again ground well-trodden by other theorists on the limitations of the use of the courts and the difficulties of translation into legal discourse, and Brown fails to show why their explanations are inadequate. In the co-authored journal publication of this case that preceded the book, Julian Brown and Stuart Wilson are clear that that it took a political change that placed an administrator with ties to the appealing community to get a supportive outcome: in short, it is political connections that matter, a theoretical explanation that Brown has rejected in his introduction. More significantly, there is little evidence that the claimants are actually making a claim of equality: the request to be heard does not necessarily mean the request to be heard as an equal, but can include a request to be heard as a supplicant. More evidence is needed to be able to distinguish between different kinds of claims.

What Brown does, in essence, is write Rancière’s politics over the words of the insurgents in order to demonstrate the relevance of his theory. I am not here arguing against analysis and interpretation, but instead that this must be drawn from the text, not the application of theory.  

Ashwin Desai describes a more general methodological problem of academic-activists who make brief visits and rely on secondary material. But I believe there is a deeper concern here as well, which is an overdependence on big theory, and attempts to make the stories fit. The rewarding of such efforts is clear in the praise that Brown’s work has received, which uniformly focuses on his use of Rancière.

In order to ask- and I do mean ask rather than assert – whether Rancière makes sense in South Africa, two key things are missing. The first is to read the texts with an openness to their content, and not to map theory onto them. The second is a need for interpretation and analysis: to recognize the agency of the insurgents in framing their arguments in ways that cultivate and speak to their audience. Nikhil Anand’s recent book is a useful contrast here: he demonstrates that residents speak differently to different audiences when seeking to access services. Such work shows the residents to be strategic agents, having learned when rights and clientalistic discourses are more or less likely to get them the resources they seek. It also draws in global theorists, but is circumspect in their application; Anand uses his case to speak back to theory rather than to demonstrate its utility. Anand’s work has also received accolades, and this is what gives me hope that there is scope for a different way of writing. It also shows that to understand the strategic use of discourse requires a different kind of methodology: neither the use of secondary material nor brief interviews suffice.

Without Rancière, there may be a smaller claim to be made from the cases Brown reviews about the different strategies available to activists around cooption, cooperation, and antagonism. I believe he has evidence to make some useful contributions along these lines. More generally, I remain open to the possibility that Rancière has something to contribute to scholarship about what is and what can be in South Africa. But whether this framing accurately represents existing claims – and, if not, whether South Africans would be well served to use this strategy – ought to remain an open question that requires deeper investigation.  

*Image: Students applauding the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the UCT Campus. Desmond Bowles / Flickr.

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