nolege is power: Rancière’s lesson in inequality

By Stefanie Felsberger

Seeing this picture of the tattoo “nolege is power” for the first time made me laugh. The message of the tattoo stood in such stark contrast with the fact that it was misspelt. But soon after I remembered a quote by Jacques Rancière in his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster where he argues that all intelligence is equal: “there are not two levels of intelligence, […] any human work of art is the practice of the same intellectual potential.” Instead of having laughed at the tattooed mistake I should have recognized its display as what it was: a lesson in inequality. Does the spelling mistake really make the quote that much less intelligent or meaningful? The correct spelling after all is nothing more than one of the tools ‘we’ – as it is explained to ‘us’ – have to acquire as academics, intellectuals, or educated people in order to be taken seriously. Essentially, it is a way of distinguishing between those who have been well educated and those who lack education, those whose minds are formed through pedagogical resources and those who have not had this experience.

Rancière refers to this distinction between different intelligences as a pedagogical myth. According to this myth, Rancière tells us, the only way to overcome the difference between a correctly spelt “knowledge” and wrongly spelt one is education and explanation. The ignorant mind (of the student) has to be guided, formed and moulded by the honed intelligence of the teacher. The teacher’s task is to disentangle a complex subject matter into smaller, simpler, better understandable elements of learning, which he transmits to the student – in “an ordered progression, from the most simple to the most complex.” However, Rancière postulates that explanation is not necessary to learn. Children learn by encountering a riddle, or a problem. They might stumble over random riddles and each child might learn different things at different times. Almost all teach themselves their mother tongue. He further cites the story of a class of students who taught themselves how to speak and write in French without a single grammar lesson. Through their own will to learn, they learned with the help of only a bilingual book in their mother tongue and French, and a teacher who could not explain a single thing as he was incapable of speaking their mother tongue. A teacher is hence not a pre-requisite to knowledge.

It is at school, in our encounter with the teacher, that we are made to abandon this natural way of acquiring knowledge. The teacher’s task is to make children understand and it is this very word ‘understand,’ which Rancière identifies as the culprit in dividing intelligence in two; the intelligence of an animal blindly stumbling over riddles and figuring out random things and those of a learned man, who is made to understand lesson by lesson, from the simple to the more complex. The fiction that people can seldom learn new things by themselves is created and reified by the very process of explication: by assuming his superiority over the student, the teacher creates the very inferiority his lessons are supposed to eliminate. This logic locks people into a state of dependency; instead of creating equality, it reinforces inequality. Rancière put it as such: “It is the explicant who needs the incapable and not the other way around; it is he who constitutes the incapable as such. To explain something to someone is first of all to show him he cannot understand it by himself.”

What further perpetuates this pedagogical myth is also a “temporal structure of delay:” the presumed inequality is described with terms pertaining to velocity – lagging behind, backwardness or ‘underdevelopedness.’ From this temporal distinction between developed and underdeveloped, formed and unformed, arises the need to elevate and educate those lagging behind. There is not only a need to teach but also the question of how to best educate the ignorant. Knowledge in its entirety is cut up in lessons and steps, so that the ignorant can be guided and progress on their path to knowledge, in Rancère’s words, “Progress is the new way of saying inequality.”

This construction of progress transcends the logic that lies behind institutionalized education: it applies to a broader societal dynamic between the uneducated masses and the intellectual elite. Progress means the perpetual effort of the elites to educate the masses and to reduce the inequality between them. At times, the progress mind-set extends to the most progressive of causes such as labour activism and revolutionary politics. As Rancière puts it, “All kinds of men of goodwill … were preoccupied with instructing the people: rulers wanted to elevate the people above their brutal appetites, revolutionaries wanted to lead them to the consciousness of their rights, progressives wished to narrow, through instruction, the gap between the classes.”

Much of this societal dynamic owes its presence to the world of the academy, which is also a site of critique by Rancière. Since the 1970s, academia and the social sciences it produces have increasingly sought to bring to light hidden discourses, structures, and powers which all prove the existence of inequality. While intending to do the opposite, the function of these inquisitive processes is to further marginalize the marginalized. Often these academic endeavours presuppose inequality, prove it and by doing so are bound to rediscover it over and over again.

These academic constructions leave their imprint on the work of international institutions built around the ideas of development and democratization: there, the myth of inequality dominates the relation between the developing and the developed world and is mediated and perpetuated in an institutionalized form. Through this institutionalized form, development agencies shape a more or less defined goal for all countries to reach the desired progress – liberal market-based democracy. But the path there is not definitive. Early arguments stipulate a so called cruel choice for populations in underdeveloped countries, where it is deemed impossible to both progress economically and to achieve democracy at the same time. The proponent of this notion is Seymour Martin Lipset who argues that countries had to focus on social and economic progress first, as they were prerequisites for stable democracies. He sums up his argument in this statement: “the more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy.” The argument is supported by a spread belief that a danger of focusing on democracy is found when elected governments take “economically correct and financially prudent but tough decisions,” which are not favoured by their electoral base but necessary for the economic future of the country. The argument is consolidated later by the success stories in South East Asia such as South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore, whose former prime minister said, “what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy” (Bhagwati 1995, 51).

But the experience from Eastern Europe which both advanced democratically and economically leads to a new paradigm, especially, after it becomes apparent that many countries, which have neglected democratic endeavours, also perform poorly in terms of economic growth and development. Suddenly, democracies become better at providing a more equal, transparent inclusive society, which is less prone to the extravagance of the rulers, especially those in pursuit of national projects undertaken mostly for prestige.

This is when the relationship between development and democracy is seen as less straightforward and the debate starts to shift towards good governance, the fight against corruption, and the need to establish the rule of law – all new lessons for developing nations to learn. Yet the shift in the debate remains incarcerated in a logic where developing countries need to learn as much as possible from developed countries in order to catch up.

Today, the traditional progress-locked debates continue to exit the doors of the academy to enter the realm of practice through international development agencies. Rancière’s “temporal structure of delay” is reinforced time and again, albeit under a different cloak: first, countries must learn how to progress economically, then, to establish democratic structures, and, finally, good governance must be guaranteed, corruption weeded out and the rule of law implemented.

Instead of making assumptions around societies’ underdevelopment and backwardness, Rancière elucidates us to imagining everyone sharing the same intellectual potential. If the assumption of an equality of intelligence is the starting point, there is no need to continue to look for inequality everywhere. Equality would be a presupposition and not a goal, a practice rather than something situated firmly in the unattainable future.

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