Voyou Désœuvré

It was very considerate of Nina Power to publish an article on Rancière, Feuerbach and the early Marx just when I’ve been trying to figure out this relationship, and so when I’m in a position to take advantage of her very clear discussion. One thing that’s not clear to me, though, is the relationship between universality, which was the central term for the Young Hegelians, and equality, which is the central term for Rancière. Nina seems to consider the two terms to be more-or-less interchangeable, but I think there’s a crucial difference between the two. The distinction is what Marx calls:

a question of the opposition of the universal as ‘form’, in the form of universality, and the universal as ‘content’.

In science, for example, an individual can fully perform public affairs, and it is always individuals who do so. But public affairs become actually public only when they arc no longer the affair of an individual but of society. This changes not only the form but also the content (Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State).

Equality would be the universality of form, universality in the sense of a potential accessible to all. But the problem with this kind of formal universality is that it has no content: Rancière’s hypothesis of equality tells us nothing about how collective participation in the universal might be realized. Rancière’s understanding of equality is both individualist and idealist, that is to say, the conception of equality characteristic of capitalism. For all it’s abstraction, it seems to me that Badiou’s notion of the generic is much more materialist, and more useful here, because it forces us to consider the process of construction, that is to say, the process of collective change, required for any achievement of universality

Comments

  1. R, 2:22 am, September 1, 2009

    “…a question of the opposition of the universal as ‘form’, in the form of universality, and the universal as ‘content’….

    …But public affairs become actually public only when they arc no longer the affair of an individual but of society.”

    Do you think there’s an affinity here with the distinction between volonté de tous and volonté générale in Rousseau?

    This is mentioned inthis book, where (in chapter 7) the author makes the suggestion of a distinction between universality and generality, or “abstract universality and the universality of the concept”. The former is like Locke’s Idea, and involves a reduction in content, whilst the latter are “not universals merely in the sense of higher genera” and do not involve a “diminuation in content”.

    I’ll quote the example he gives:

    “The latter conception also allows us to say some very simple things, such as that it is the case that tigers have four legs, without any fear of contradiction from inconveniently intrusive three-legged tigers. It enables us to say there is something wrong with such a beast, wheras Locke would merely say it was different.” [My italics]

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