Devin Zane Shaw, Egalitarian Moments: From Descartes to Rancière. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016; 224 pages. ISBN: 978-1472508218.

Reviewed by Matthew R. McLennan, Saint Paul University  

Devin Zane Shaw’s Egalitarian Moments situates, defends, and operationalizes the work of Jacques Rancière by linking it to “an egalitarian concept of subjectivity” distilled from Descartes. “Cartesian egalitarianism” dovetails with emancipatory, collective politics and, as Shaw demonstrates, the micropolitics of aesthetics. It does not however entail “adherence to other Cartesian principles, such as the often criticized dualism that splits thinking substance from extended substance.” (51) Shaw’s aim is nothing less than to outline an avowedly political and egalitarian “frame of reference for rethinking modern philosophy after Descartes.” (19) The gesture is bold and, in the end, compelling. As I will explain below, it also leaves open the question of what might be awkwardly termed “really existing natural sub-political subjectivity”—i.e. the question of empirical humans and nonhuman animals who really cannot participate in politics in the ways plotted out or assumed by Shaw’s study and, therefore, who trouble its basic “supposition of equality.” (30) Put simply, readers of Shaw’s excellent book should demand that he produce a further volume addressing what Egalitarian Moments leaves largely untheorized.

First though, it is important to take the measure of what Shaw sets out to accomplish. It is already a great deal. The book speaks to an urgent, incomplete task of contemporary philosophy: to be done with its decades-long tradition of scholastic, ritual self-flagellation and get on with the business of thinking the emancipatory transformation of the world. Shaw’s contribution to this task is impressive, erudite, and takes a path less travelled. While giving Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek their due for restoring political subjectivation as “central to conceptualizing radical political practice” (23), he openly challenges their near-dominance of contemporary radical discussions by insisting upon what he calls “the supposition of equality.” (30) The problem is that while Badiou and Žižek do reactivate a certain version of Cartesianism for the purpose of emancipatory politics, their gesture is “programmatic.” (Ibid.) Shaw turns to Rancière to plot out a more substantial political Cartesianism that holds human equality as an irreducible horizon of emancipatory practice. He does this by a) investigating subjectivity and subjectivation, as read through the lens of the history of philosophy in its Cartesian-egalitarian and existentialist moments (Part I), and b) articulating the micropolitics of aesthetics, as emerges in Rancière’s encounters with Greenberg, Benjamin, and Badiou (Part II). It is important to note that, while it does link up in a rough and ready thematic way to Rancière’s corpus, Shaw’s book is neither an overview nor an introduction to Rancière. Rather, it puts Rancière to work in establishing a philosophical program of Shaw’s own (or: the appropriation of Rancière allows Shaw to situate his own work both in the history of Cartesian egalitarianism and with respect to a critical appropriation of existentialism, with an emphasis on micropolitical as opposed to monumental art practices). Thus while cleaving to Rancière rather than to Badiou or Žižek in the contemporary discourse on political subjectivation and related debates on aesthetics, Shaw’s contribution is a creative gesture in its own right. He underscores the appearance of a “hermeneutic circle” or an aspect of “historical fiction” where it is a question of using the history of Cartesian egalitarianism to clarify Rancière and using Rancière to clarify Cartesian egalitarianism. Much to my liking, he essentially says “so be it” since his measure is not absolute historical fidelity, but “new and compelling possibilities for thinking our present engagements with politics and art.” (19)

The core of Shaw’s Cartesian egalitarianism is found in the Discourse on Method. Broadly, Descartes’s program in science presupposes in-principle verification by an equal, universal minimum of human intelligence, which he cashes out as “bon sens” (“good sense”). (2) But Descartes’s work “wavers between egalitarianism and the constraints of method,” working radically on epistemological and metaphysical questions while pulling shy of “encouraging a thoroughgoing critique of all social conventions.” (30) Hence, although Rancière himself argues that Descartes’s ego sum, ego existo “is the prototype of egalitarian political subjectivation,” Descartes himself was not a Cartesian egalitarian (177). Cartesian egalitarianism proper runs from early feminist Poullain de la Barre to Rancière, wherein bon sens is explicitly deployed to destabilize fixed, hierarchical social categories. In this connection, I particularly like Shaw’s inclusion of Simone de Beauvoir in the brief history he sketches, since it portrays her as a better egalitarian and, therefore, perhaps a more internally consistent and advanced thinker than Sartre. Shaw is likewise careful to link his study, at least tangentially, to non-Western scholars or those with a complicated relationship with the Western canon like Frantz Fanon, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Note that for Shaw, as for Rancière, the Cartesian egalitarians are simply not concerned with squaring the metaphysical and epistemological with the egalitarian elements of his thinking. To repeat, their aim is expressly political. “Politics” in this tradition names “the enactment of the logic of equality through a process of political subjectivation that emerges through disagreement, challenging a wrong that has been committed by a given regime of policing.” (4) In essence, politics involves the declaration of human equality against a fixed social order (often, but not necessarily, a state order) as well as its practical demonstration in militant forms of self-organization; as Shaw puts it, “[t]he activation of egalitarian logic […] opens new ways of speaking, being, and doing.” (59) Politics is thereby distinct from “policing,” which names “a set of procedures that organize society, distributing roles—such as the rights and duties of those who rule and those who are ruled—and legitimating the concomitant inequalities that are part of these procedures.” (3) Therefore politics is always enacted as a process of rupture, of “disidentification,” inasmuch as identities and roles are distributed according to police logic. (75) As one might expect, politics is therefore “rare,” and it is unclear whether it is possible or desirable to give it permanence. (12)

The chapter on Sartre, in addition to providing a mutually enriching reading of his and Rancière’s work, demonstrates how one might get bogged down in the problem of giving permanency and stability to egalitarian politics without betraying it. The hinge between the two parts of the book is precisely this question of how, if politics is both rare and distinct from policing, a program such as Rancière’s might be said to provide support and the possibility of continuance for political struggle. If equality is institutionalized, then politics has become policing, foreclosing politics in a way that Rancière wishes precisely to resist. But if politics is also rare, then it figures as essentially quixotic if not tragic; it happens infrequently, we can’t force it to happen, and we can’t build anything from it without betraying it. Here Shaw makes a convincing transition to Part II by taking up Rancière aesthetics as suggesting a micropolitical take on artistic practices. He carefully delineates it from competing approaches while tying it to the egalitarian supposition. Particularly interesting is Shaw’s framing of the almost-debate between Rancière and Badiou, which ably and fairly demonstrates how two giants of contemporary thought with similar backgrounds and trajectories can end by speaking past each other. Shaw positions Badiou (and historical predecessor Schelling) as engaged in an all-or-nothing “monumental” or evental vision of art, tying it to the Idea, and at the expense of micropolitical, artistic struggle. Rancière and historical predecessor Schiller, by contrast, speak to the micropolitical activation of possibilities already inherent in orders of appearance. Shaw is careful to point out that it isn’t a matter of choosing between Schelling/Badiou and Schiller/Rancière; some works of art can indeed be monumental. But Shaw works to defend Schiller/Rancière precisely because they emphasize how one can chip away at the police logic of the situation through experimentation with different forms of appearance on the assumption that a Kantian sensus communus, a universal community of good aesthetic judgment, is possible. The link with the first part of the book is clear: with Schiller/Rancière we have art as “sensible imbrication of emancipatory practices of good sense.” (169)

In sum, Shaw works within the contemporary return to subjectivation while tracing a minority approach. He builds to this approach through a re-reading of the history of philosophy, reconstructing a line of thought running from the early Cartesian egalitarians to Rancière, with a substantial stop-off at the Sartrean alternative, and through a discussion of aesthetics, pairing Schiller/Rancière against Schelling/Badiou to elaborate a regime of aesthetic practice as micropolitics. As far as this goes, the book is important and well-executed. The basic wager of Badiou/Žižek is retained but rethought in the hope of overcoming what some have identified as the aristocratic residues of their thinking. Egalitarian Moments immediately raises a difficulty however: as mentioned, it requires the writing of a second book. This is by no means a condemnation, and no doubt Shaw would be undaunted by this prospect, and I pose it here to encourage him in this direction.

To be clear, I risk committing an injustice to Shaw by underscoring the discussion of naturalism that he mostly elides. Cartesian egalitarianism, to repeat, rests upon the supposition of human equality. And the supposition of equality is precisely what undergirds/undercuts philosophical naturalism: in order for naturalism to get off the ground the human community (or at the bare minimum, the community of scientists and philosophers who stand in for the human community) is presupposed to have equal basic intelligence. If the scientific method and the naturalistic approach to the world were in principle inaccessible to certain subsets of humanity, then science might appear to be a non-starter, an “aristocratic science” standing in for science. A basic standard of equal human intelligence is built into the very endeavor; it is through and through inter-subjective, based on method, and in principle anyone should be able to participate in the work of verification. Nonetheless, there exist powerful temptations to defend the presupposition of human equality on naturalistic rather than transcendental grounds. Faced with the tiresome persistence of “scientific” racism and sexism for example, it is tempting to want to attack one’s opponents head-on and be done with it. The problem with such a naturalistic version of egalitarianism would, however, be at least twofold.

First: any attempt to provisionally prove the equality of human intelligence naturalistically, which is to say scientifically/experimentally, poses a problem of strategy. One cedes the terrain of debate to the inegalitarian naturalist. Is there, for example, a link between race and intelligence? Assuming that “race” is a stable biological category (it is not), the question could be answered provisionally and experimentally. So it is indeed in some sense “scientific.” But the very posing of the question is probably racist, since it is of no obvious interest beyond supporting (or at best contesting) the ideological entrenchment of existing or proposed systems of racial oppression and exclusion. It is one thing to demonstrate that “scientific” racism and sexism are politically motivated and methodologically unsound; this is worth doing, since regrettably the inegalitarian naturalist is a stubbornly persistent figure. But the egalitarian might be tempted to go further and make a positive claim. Suppose she tries to demonstrate experimentally that African Americans, for example, are no less intelligent than European Americans – adjusting the claims of the “scientific” racist for the effects of poverty, diet, educational quality and the like. This already gives the racist too much; it implicitly cedes that how African Americans are treated, their social position, what opportunities should be available to them, depends in some way upon their average natural intellectual capabilities. Thus the question of social justice is reduced at a blow to a question of hereditary biological power. In ceding terrain in this way, the egalitarian upholds the farce of the “racial scientist.” It is worth noting that this line of reasoning has been presented by Noam Chomsky, arguably a Cartesian egalitarian who claims, nonetheless, to be a philosophical naturalist (see for example The Chomsky Reader, Pantheon, 1987). Shaw does not address him in his book, but I believe an encounter is inevitable.

Second: in adopting a naturalistic version of egalitarianism, the Cartesian project becomes vulnerable to absorption into psychometrics and the shifting winds of the debate over the modularity of intelligence. Descartes’s good sense, an all-purpose capacity for reasoning and grasping one’s world, sounds a lot like the “general intelligence” or g of psychometrics. If it is, then so much the worse for it; the existence of g rests upon a methodological circularity. But let’s assume that intelligence is rather more modular – i.e. that it can be parsed out into different modules or functions with varying strengths (people on the autism spectrum being exemplary here). Wouldn’t the modularity of intelligence undercut precisely what the egalitarian naturalist would defend under the banner of an all-purpose good sense?

The egalitarian naturalist seems therefore to be caught in a dilemma. For strategic reasons it might seem obvious that we should stress equality as a presupposition of science rather than as an experimental result. But on the terrain of naturalism, outlying cases of persistent, perhaps irremediable factual intellectual inequality undoubtedly do exist, so this retreat remains problematic. Simply, while many cases of average factual inequality can be adjusted for environmental inequalities to suit the Cartesian presupposition – for example, in the manner of Poullain or John Stuart Mill in their treatises on the equality of the sexes – some individual cases cannot.

What I have in mind here are, for example, cases of human beings with Severe Intellectual Disabilities (SIDs). Such cases are especially challenging because they imply stark if not completely irremediable factual inequality; whereas average women’s purportedly lower scores in some areas of intellectual performance can be adjusted for the environmental effects of patriarchy, there is a point beyond which remedial measures for a person with a SID cannot go (disability is certainly a social phenomenon, but it is not entirely so). But, and this is the crucial point, irremediable factual inequality as implied by SIDs does not imply the absence of subjectivity. To use the language of Barbara Smuts, when a person has a SID there is “someone home” (“Encounters with Animal Minds”, Journal of Consciousness Studies 8/5-7: 293–309, 308) and it is, therefore, meaningful to ask about how a limited form of agency (including perhaps political agency) might be facilitated with and for that person. Note that when Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka pose the question of SIDs, it is in connection with the persistent problem of nonhuman animal intelligence; with many nonhuman animals, it is also the case that “someone is home” and therefore (at least concerning domesticated animals, i.e. those already belonging in the human community) the possibility of assisted agency and mediated political participation are also legitimate. (Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. See also Eva Feder Kittay, Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependency. New York: Routledge, 1999).

So we can ignore factual inequality for political and heuristic purposes; perhaps we should, since thereby we avoid ceding strategic ground to the inegalitarian naturalist. But this move, perhaps necessary, gets us into trouble immediately; by trying to avoid the strategic pitfalls of naturalism, we end up setting the bar for political participation high enough that we exclude the most marginal human subjects as well as nonhuman animals in appearance, if not in principle, from any participation in the egalitarian project. I do not for a moment suggest that Shaw’s Cartesian egalitarianism is incompatible with a wider, social model of participation, I simply await the next step in the argument. He himself seems aware of the problem when he addresses Descartes’s doubts about madness in the Meditations—though madness is only one aspect of the problem, and the admission is tucked away in an endnote. (47) It remains for Shaw to bring this line of thought to the forefront.

Thus from a friendly, agonistic and by no means antagonistic position, I pose this challenge and await Shaw’s commentary on those aspects of subjectivity that escape or are outstripped by his focus on the egalitarian presupposition of good sense. Egalitarian Moments is a considerable achievement, and it awaits its supplementation by an expanded account of social, if not expressly political, participation.

Read Devin Zane Shaw’s review of McLennan, Philosophy, Sophistry, Antiphilosophy: Badiou’s Dispute with Lyotard, here.