Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Know your Place

The following is what happens when you combine teaching Plato’s Republic with reflecting on the current election, specifically the Republican National Convention.

In the end, glorification of splendid underdogs is nothing other than the glorification of the splendid system that makes them so.
-Theodor Adorno

One of the many merits of Jacques Rancière’s The Philosopher and his Poor is that it reveals how much Plato’s Republic is structured around an understanding of work. Rancière underlines a very basic point, that the definition of justice that we get in Book IV (doing one's own work and not meddling) is a repetition of what was already stated in Book II as an essentially economic argument, that every person must dedicate him or herself to one job. As Rancière writes: "The image of justice is the division of labor that already organizes the healthy city." Plato repeatedly praises the virtue of the craftsman or worker, the dedication to a single task, going so far as to see the worker as the solution to all of the decadence of society. When it comes to sickness, the craftsman understands that he has no time for a lengthy cure, for anything that would keep him out of work for a long time. The craftsman must return to work, even if this means death. The singular dedication to a task is, in the end, the ideal of a society in which everything is in its place. As Rancière writes: “The Platonic statement, affirming that the workers had no time to do two things at the same time, had to be taken as a definition of the worker in terms of the distribution of the sensible: the worker is he who has no time to do anything but his own work.” The well-known objects of criticism, artistic imitation and democracy, are in the end criticized for violating this fundamental economy of focus: they are fundamentally out of place, and displacing. What threatens the order of the city, an order that is at once aesthetic and political, is anything that deviates from its assigned place: the worker who thinks or the artisan that imitates the voice of a general or the appearance of a king.

I think that Rancière’s reading of Plato, which I have hastily tried to summarize here, could be taken as a model of a certain kind of right-populism. (Yes, I know that there is more to it than that). At least this is what occurred to me as I was watching the Republican National Convention. The Republicans favorite rhetorical ploy is to criticize the Democrats for their disdain of the simple working folk, for “saying one thing in Scranton and another in San Francisco.” Against this the virtues of rural life are repeatedly espoused, moose hunting, church, hard work, etcetera. This vision of the charms of simple life is of course first and foremost patently false; case in point, Giuliani’s claim that Palin’s hometown is perhaps not cosmopolitan enough for Obama is beyond satire, as is the claim of “outsider” status for a party that has been in power for over eight years. More to the point it is fundamentally regressive, the praise of the values of the small town worker are the praise of people who know their place and never step out of it. It is a life entirely dedicated to the private sphere, to work and family, a life that leaves the state and politics in the hands of the true political subjects, the corporate interests. Thus the criticism of “community organizers” was not simply an opportunistic attack on a detail of Obama’s biography but an expression of a fundamental principle: communities should not be organized but dispersed to the vicissitudes of an entirely private life.

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