Literary and Critical Theory Jacques Rancière
Oliver Davis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0002


Jacques Rancière (b. 1940) is a French philosopher and cultural critic whose work spans history, politics, philosophy, art, and aesthetics. He is particularly known for his work on equality and for his writings on art, literature, and film. He is professor emeritus of the Department of Philosophy at Paris 8 (the experimental campus founded at Vincennes in the aftermath of Mai’68 and which moved to Saint-Denis in 1980). He lives in Paris and Brittany and is regularly invited to speak at a wide variety of international venues. Rancière began publishing in the mid-1960s while a student of Louis Althusser, the leading French Marxist philosopher of the postwar period. Yet in the aftermath of Mai’68 and through the 1970s and early 1980s, Rancière publicly distanced himself from Althusser and other leading intellectuals of the French left, while undertaking historical and historiographical work of his own in the archives of the French labor movement. This brought him into contact with the History Workshop group in the United Kingdom, with whose politically resonant historiographical commitment to “history from below” Rancière’s work shares affinities. The concern with equality developed in writings of this archival phase coalesced in the 1980s and 1990s into a radically egalitarian critique of mainstream politics and the discourse of political philosophy. Since the late 1990s, Rancière’s main focus has been on art and aesthetics, with extensive theoretical and critical engagement with film, literature, visual, and contemporary art. In recent years Rancière’s work has increasingly been read by artists and in art schools, where his suggestion that the interconnectedness of art and politics may readily be understood in terms of le partage du sensible (the division, distribution, and sharing out of the Kantian “sensible”) has gained considerable currency, as has his emphasis on the perceptual elements of political disagreement with the term “dissensus.” Some educationalists have found his provocative work on the teacher as intellectual emancipator to be a useful contrast to more traditional conceptions of teaching in terms of delivering content and achieving results. Rancière has characterized his own body of work as “indisciplined” for the way in which it readily traverses established disciplinary boundaries. This radically interdisciplinary approach has yielded singular reflections on central political and aesthetic concepts including equality, consensus, democracy, and Modernism.

Primary Texts

Rancière’s first publication was in 1965, and he continues to publish new work. As his ideas have become better known, the interval between the original publication of his work in French and that of English translations has tended to diminish. Moreover, publishers have commissioned translations of previously untranslated work from earlier decades so that most of Rancière’s work is now available in English. Rancière has rightly characterized his own work, in relation to established academic disciplines, as “indisciplined”; readers should accordingly be aware that there is something more than usually schematic and tentative about the subdivision of his writings by academic discipline which is proposed here: history and historiography, politics, literature, art and aesthetics, film, and interviews and occasional writings. Some of the most striking moments in his work occur when disciplinary boundaries are overstepped, but these have also given rise in some cases to confusion in the reception of his work; for example, Proletarian Nights (Rancière 2012, cited under Primary Texts: History and Historiography) brings to bear a very close scrutiny, which could be described as literary-critical, on material which is not mainly literary and in a way that many historians found problematic because they mistakenly took Rancière to be offering a causal account of political unrest in the 19th century on the basis of a reading of the work of a small number of exceptional individuals. Similarly, Rancière often uses striking juxtapositions of heterogeneous material to frame his approach to a topic; in The Philosopher and His Poor (Rancière 2003, cited under Primary Texts: History and Historiography), for example, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s account of aesthetic judgment is questioned by way of a fragment from the writings of 19th-century worker-intellectual Louis-Gabriel Gauny. Gauny pauses for a moment from his labors in the mansion of a wealthy employer to admire elements of his surroundings with disinterest and detachment in a way that certainly does not disprove Bourdieu’s analysis but that nevertheless sows seeds of doubt that Rancière will go on to cultivate in his argument proper. Some of the most stimulating of his work, for instance, The Ignorant Schoolmaster (Rancière 1991, cited under Primary Texts: Politics), is almost impossible to classify but has been widely read by educationalists, philosophers, historians, and artists, among others.

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