In What Time Do We Live? [1]

Jacques Rancière
European Graduate School

Volume 4, 2013

I have been asked to speak in the framework of a series entitled “The State of Things”. Such a title suggests a preliminary remark. Strictly speaking, the state of things is a fiction. A fiction is not an imaginary tale. A fiction is the construction of a set of relations between sense and sense, between things that are said to be perceptible and the sense that can be made of those things. A “state of things” includes the selection of a number of phenomena that are said to be characteristic of our present, the use of an interpretive frame within which they take on their significance, and the determination of a set of possibilities and impossibilities that derive from that given and its interpretation. In that sense, a “state of things” is a form of what I have proposed to call a distribution of the sensible: a set of relations between the perceptible, the thinkable, and the doable that defines a common world, defining thereby the way in which, and the extent to which, this or that class of human beings takes part in that common world.

Every description of a “state of things” gives priority to time. There is a simple reason for this. A “state of things” presents itself as an objective given precluding the possibility of other states of things. And time is the best medium for exclusion. When Plato describes the first components of his Republic, he says that artisans must be found only in their workplace because “work does not wait”. As a matter of fact, work often keeps people waiting for it. It is time that does not wait, and time’s impatience transforms everyday experience into the experience of a hierarchy of positions.

I will return to this issue shortly. But there is a still simpler way in which time works as a principle of impossibility: the very simple separation of the present and past.

A formula such as “times have changed” seems quite innocuous, but it is easy to convert it into a statement of impossibility. “Times have changed” does not simply mean that certain things have disappeared. It means that they have become impossible, no longer belonging to what the new times make possible. The empirical idea of time as a succession of moments has been substituted by an idea of time as a set of possibilities. “Times have changed” means: “this or that is no longer possible”. And what a particular state of things readily presents as impossible is, quite simply, the possibility of changing the state of things. That impossibility thus works as an interdiction: there are things you can no longer do, ideas in which you can no longer believe, futures that you can no longer imagine. “You cannot” clearly means: “you must not”.

Our present provides us with a fine illustration of this point. When we ask what has changed in our world since the turbulent sixties we are offered a ready-made response encapsulated in the word “end”. What we are supposed to have lived is the end of a certain historical period: not only that of the division of the world into a capitalist bloc and a communist bloc, but also that of the end of a vision of the world revolving around class struggle and, more broadly, of a vision of politics as a practice of conflict and as a horizon of emancipation. This is not only the end of specific revolutionary hopes or illusions, but of utopias and ideologies in general, or, in its most comprehensive formulation, of the “grand narratives” and beliefs regarding the destiny of humankind. This is the end not only of a particular historical period but of “history” itself understood as the time of a promise to be fulfilled. The time in which we live can thus be described as the time that comes after the end, a “post” time.

I think we must take a closer look at that narrative of the end and ask the question: What precisely has come to an end? What exactly are those “grand narratives” that are said to be over? A grand narrative means an all-encompassing account that proposes the understanding of a global evolution determining the transformations of our lived world. What is said to be over is the optimistic narrative that makes history both a principle of intelligibility in relation to the “state of things” and the scene of a possible transformation of that “state of things”. That narrative entailed two principle theoretical articulations. The first linked evolution to its own knowledge: evolution produces knowledge of evolution and this, in turn, allows those who know to have an impact on evolution. The second linked the state of things to the possibility of its destruction: the very reasons that account for the existing order are the same reasons for which it will be superseded. The future will come about for the very same reasons that hinder it from being present. The most accomplished form of that narrative was provided by Marxist theory: the same necessity that has produced the state of things named capitalist exploitation has also produced the knowledge of that state of things, that is, the knowledge of the historical necessity that entails the destruction of capitalist exploitation. Knowledge provides both the intelligibility of the phenomena of our lived world as well as weapons in the struggle for a new world.

In short, the idea of the grand narrative entails a sense of historical evolution, a sense of the intelligibility of our lived world, and a sense of its possible transformation. My point is that what is described as the end of that narrative, what is presented as the “time in which we live”, is in reality a rearrangement of those elements. Our time—meaning the dominant description of the state of things that constructs the frame of our present—has not disavowed historical necessity. Nor has it disavowed the Marxist mode of intelligibility in relation to our lived world. It has only disconnected them from the sense of the possible to which they were linked. The celebrated end of the grand narrative changed only one articulation in that narrative: it changed the way in which it staged the relation between the possible and the impossible. But, even in doing that, it remained faithful to its logic.

First point: the sense of historical necessity. So-called postmodern discourse has readily described our time as a time of disorientation. Belief in a historical promise is said to have been lost along with faith in any promise of the future. But a belief is not a mood. Nor is it an aspiration to an ideal paradise. A belief is just the presupposition that makes a state of things function. There may be few singing the praises of a world without greed and hunger today, but faith in the rationality of the historical evolution that links greed and hunger has not disappeared. The dominant narrative about the contemporary world proclaims the global triumph of world capitalism and global liberal democracy over Marxism. But that triumph itself has to absorb the core of Marxist belief, that is, economic necessity, or more precisely, the equation between economic necessity and historical necessity. Once upon a time mainstream discourse stigmatized that Marxist equation as “historical determinism”, and counter-posed to it the liberty of people openly exchanging their products on the free market. Now, with the interweaving of all markets in the global economy, this “freedom” is clearly viewed by its champions themselves as the freedom to submit to the necessity of the global market. What was yesterday the necessity of the evolution leading to socialism becomes today the necessity of the evolution leading to the triumph of the global market. Not surprisingly, this displacement has been advocated by many former Marxist, socialist, or progressive scholars and thinkers who converted their faith in the historical achievement of Revolution into a concomitant faith in the historical achievement of Reform. What Reform means since the era of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher is the reconstruction not only of work relationships but also of all forms of social relationships in accordance with the logic of the global free market. All forms of destruction of the Welfare State, social security, labor laws etc. have been justified by the need to adapt local economies and legislation to the constraints of this inescapable historical evolution. Thereby all forms of resistance to those destructions have been deemed reactionary attitudes assumed by sectors of the population that are still clinging to the past, afraid of the historical evolution that will destroy their status and privilege, and that consequently stand in the way of progress. In the 19th century Marx paved the way for the socialist future by denouncing the artisans, petty bourgeois and ideologues who fought against the development of capitalist forms that threatened their demise. In the same way, any struggle to resist this logic of “Reform” has been denounced increasingly not only by governments, but also by the left-wing intelligentsia, as the backward resistance of selfish workers eager to sacrifice the future for their short sighted defence of privilege.

The account of historical necessity is always present, and all the more “necessary”, as necessity becomes the law that gives its seal of approval to the ever-increasing identification between the power of states and the power of the market. Historical necessity has become all the more necessary to the extent that it has become disconnected from faith in an immanent principle of self-destruction. Accordingly, the narrative that both justified the system of domination and announced its death has been divested of its second function. It has become the mere justification of that order and the demonstration that any form of struggle against it is both reactionary and impotent.

The same can be said of the second aspect of the grand narrative previously mentioned: namely, its ability to work as a form of intelligibility in relation to our lived world. The strength of the grand Marxist narrative rested mainly on its ability to provide an explanation of all the phenomena of our lived world that appeared as effects of the global process. More precisely, it rested on its ability to identify the effect of the process with the dissimulation of that effect. The core of this logic was to be found in the Marxist analysis of the commodity as both the completion and dissimulation of the process of exploitation. The Marxist tradition of the 20th century elaborated extensively on the correlation between the process of commodification of social relations and the construction of a whole world of images and appearances designed to structure the thoughts, desires, and behaviours of individuals. Adorno’s critique of the aestheticization of everyday life, Greenberg’s denunciation of kitsch, Barthes’ analysis of mythologies, Baudrillard’s analysis of consumer society and Debord’s denunciation of the spectacle are some of the landmarks on the long road toward that elaboration. All these analyses have contributed to the constitution of what can be called a critical common sense, an entire network of descriptions and interpretations of the lived world that have served as a common matrix for sociological analysis, artistic practice, and political denunciation. The uncovering of the colonization of the lived world via the critique of commodification, ideological inversion, and the spectacle was supposed to demystify the illusions that subjected individuals to the rule of domination, and to empower those who struggled against that rule by providing them with knowledge of its inner mechanisms. It is clear that this body of descriptions and interpretations has not vanished as a result of our postmodern loss of belief. On the contrary, it is more active than ever. Every day we can hear innumerable voices denouncing the way in which everything—everyday life, art, politics, sex, communication, and so on—has become mere commodity and spectacle. The body of interpretation has not changed. What has changed is the way it is staged and the sense of the possible it entails. Denunciation has simply been disconnected from its horizon, that is, from the perspective of a revolutionary change that made it work, at least in the imagination, as a weapon in a struggle. On the contrary, denunciation now demonstrates that commodification and the spectacle have accomplished the colonization of individual life in such a way that the reign of the commodity and the market is today nothing more than the reign of mass individualism. In this way, what was formerly denounced as the vice of a system that subjected individuals is now denounced increasingly as the vice of the individuals themselves. Capitalism is said to be nothing other than democracy, which in turn is said to be nothing other than the reign of narcissistic individuals greedy for any, and every, form of consumption and enjoyment. This statement lends itself to two forms of narrative: there is the narrative of repetition that describes the system as eternally reproducing its conditions without any possible disruption, and there is the narrative that describes the so-called democratic reign of the commodity and spectacle as a disastrous disruption of all social bonds, and indeed as the destruction of the symbolic order that orients human societies. Critical discourse on commodification and the spectacle in this way becomes the resentful denunciation of a world in which greedy democratic individuals lead us all toward apocalypse. This inverted account thus becomes a spiral that denounces all forms of struggle against the existing order as accomplices to disaster. This is indeed the very way in which the anti-capitalist students’ movements of the 60’s and, more specifically, the French movement of ‘68, were accused, in retrospect, of having paved the way for the triumph of the market. Through their criticism of authority and of authoritarian institutions (or so the argument goes) the students attacked the only institutions that were capable of limiting the power of the market such as religion, family, or schools. By doing this, they opened up all doors to the empire of the marketplace. They allowed our societies to become free aggregations of unbound molecules whirling in the void, deprived of any affiliation, and entirely available for the empire of market forces. This is also how in 2005 the spokespersons of the “left” intelligentsia in France stigmatized the violent riots that burst out in poor Parisian suburbs populated mainly by families hailing from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. They explained that the desire of the young rebels was merely to eliminate all that stood before themselves and their objects of desire: the TV images of consumer societies’ ideal goods. In this way the inhabitants of the poorest suburbs were said to embody the narcissism and hedonism of consumer society. And this so-called democratic hedonism was staged as the possible forerunner of a new totalitarianism.

So the two main aspects of the modernist grand narrative are still with us. The “end” of this narrative is in fact a new montage of its elements and an inversion of its meaning. It proposes two alternative versions of the same overall account: either the progressive and optimistic discourse, which combines Marxist historical necessity with faith in economic liberalism through the invisible hand that makes evil serve good in the end; or the pessimistic and reactionary version that shows us democratic humankind destroying itself as a result of its passion for consumption. The two versions may look contradictory. How is it possible, for example, to stigmatize the backward elements that resist the need to install the global market yet simultaneously accuse them of criminal complicity in the disastrous triumph of the same global market? Both storylines lead however to the same result: they conclude with the impossibility of resisting the law of time. Both make time a principle of impossibility. They do so because, in spite of the opposite directions they take, they put to work the same storyline about time. They construct a time that is unique and linear and that always goes in the same direction. This time is said to determine what is possible and what is not. But it is not the whole story. This homogeneous time is also a principle of inner differentiation, for it is a time that makes those who live in it unable to master it; unable to understand what it makes possible or impossible. Both accounts construct a global one-way time as well as an inner differentiation of that time that renders the individuals who live in it unable to understand how it proceeds and where it leads, for they are always moving too quickly or too slowly to find themselves contemporaneous with its intelligibility.

In this sense, both accounts highlight a combination of alternative models of historical time that are internal to modernist narrative. On one hand, modernist thought thrived on the model of a time—forged in the age of Enlightenment—that rendered human history a one-way process moving from barbarism to civilization just as the child moves from ignorance to knowledge. It also thrived on the belief in a global harmony that makes evil serve good, in such a way that egoism and misery end up contributing to common prosperity. On the other hand, it also retained something of the antiquated vision of a historical time understood as a succession of cycles beginning with a golden age and devolving into an increasingly corrupt period of decadence capable of initiating a new revolutionary cycle. The counter-revolutionary thought of the end of the 18th century created a specific intertwining of a plot of historical necessity with a plot of decadence. That account made the French Revolution, for example, into the accomplishment of a process of dissolution of all social bonds deemed inherent to modernity. That process tore to pieces the old fabric of material and spiritual bodies that had previously gathered, protected, and educated individuals (namely, religion, monarchy, aristocracy, and corporations), and transformed society into an anarchic whirlpool of unaffiliated individuals available for both industrial exploitation and political terror.

My point is that this account was more or less accepted as an adequate description of modern society, even by those who were at odds with the ideology of counter-revolution. From this point on, the thought of historical time became a combination of the narrative of progress and of the narrative of decadence. Marxist narratives combined the progressive plot about the development of common wealth—via private appropriation—with the counter-revolutionary narrative about a common social fabric torn to shreds by individualism. Even now, the same Marxist principles can cultivate the apocalyptic account of the destruction of Humankind alongside affirmations of a new revolutionary thought. The development of immaterial production and cognitive work has been interpreted either as the development within capitalist production of a communist form of property destined to explode the capitalist relations of production, or as the last step in the dispossession of human labor in which even the cognitive power of the human psyche has become captured in the process of industrial production, now objectified as a technical power beyond the human mind itself. Conversely, the apocalyptic account of the destruction of all social bonds hand in hand with the self-destruction of humanity has been rephrased as the last stage of nihilism; a prelude to the coming insurrection that will make the future emerge from within the impossibility of futurity itself. But what is most important is not this endless dialectic of progress and decadence. It is the temporal account that makes it possible: the account that makes time both a homogeneous principle of possibility and impossibility, and a principle of division of times and capabilities. The opposition between the champions of historical necessity and the prophets of the impending disaster rests, in the final analysis, on the very conjunction between the plot of homogeneous, one-way time, and the inner splitting that renders it impossible for individuals to be contemporaneous with the time of this process and with the knowledge of what it makes possible. One Step Forward, Two Steps Back is not only the title of a well-known book by Lenin. It is the core of the modernist account of time and of the science it presupposes: that is, of knowledge regarding the divergence of the time of the global process and that of the lived world of individuals. On one hand it is the strategic knowledge of the ways of making these divergent temporalities coincide while, on the other, it is the exploitation of the power that lies in the assertion of non-coincidence. This double-edged knowledge was once the privileged perspective of the revolutionary avant-garde. But now it has been appropriated by the forces of domination, and this appropriation is at the core of the construction of the “time in which we live”.

For me, this is the blind spot in most of the discourses about “our time”, including those that propose to provide its radical critique, for they all presuppose an immediate common identity between global time and the time of individuals. They construct this in the simplest terms as a common identity between the time of capitalist production and that of individual consumption. That identity is presented as the reign of an absolute present in which everything—production, consumption, information, production of images, etc.—proceeds at the same accelerated pace. I would like to counter these analyses of the reign of the present from a completely different perspective: that of a time that is not framed by the sole speed of the development of capital. This perspective is framed in relation to the institutions that make temporal coincidence and non-coincidence their main affair. Our world does not function according to a homogeneous process of presentification and acceleration. It functions according to the regulation of the convergence and divergence of times.

We can distinguish at least three main procedures within this regulation: the first establishes the divisions of time; the second organizes the imaginary convergence of times; the third constructs the divergence between the time of the individual and the time of the global process. The first is the establishment of the calendars that give rhythm to the time of public life, which also means that they constitute the time of the common as such. For instance let us consider the function of elections. It is possible to dispute endlessly whether elections embody the real power of democratic choice or whether they are the mere artifice of “formal democracy” masking the reality of domination. But the main point about elections is the way in which they construct the visibility of a time for the political that, in the end, is reduced to two periods: pre-electoral and post-electoral time. In this way, the time of the political coincides entirely with the time of the state. Let us remember the promise made by Hosni Mubarak at the beginning of the Egyptian uprising in 2011; he promised to change the results of the previous elections in order to afford greater representation to the opposition. For Mubarak, acknowledging electoral fraud was still a way of asserting the power of the state as the master of time, which included of course the power to change the past.

The second procedure addresses the construction of the long-term convergence of times. We are often told that we have done away with the times and politics of state interventionism. But what about the way in which our states create supranational institutions harmonizing the time of the economy, the time of the institutions, and the lived time of individuals? Let us consider for instance the so-called Bologna Plan for the harmonization of higher education systems in Europe. It is not simply a question of establishing common legibility and equivalence of diplomas. Equivalence becomes the point around which a whole fictional correspondence between the time of education and the time of the global economic process is constructed. In this process equivalency between the individual acquisition of skills and employment opportunities provided by equivalency are in turn equivalent to specific forms of economic growth. This is a fiction. But again a fiction is a reality: it structures the relationship between the time of individuals and the time of the system.

The third procedure is the construction of the divergence of times, which refers to the construction of the barrier separating those who know from those who do not. I think it is from this angle that one must consider the role of the mass media. This point of view is quite different from the mainstream denunciation of the media. The latter tells us that they are the reign of the absolute present: they overload us with images, making us live every event as if we were present, thereby nurturing an emotional relationship to the event that makes us unable to understand it. But it is not true. On the contrary, the media cannot show us an event without splitting it, introducing a distance between the fact and its meaning. In my country, specifically, a new doctrine has been formulated in relation to journalism which states that its role is not to provide information because people already access events through other sources. Rather, it is to “decipher” information. Concretely, this means that the very things that are supposed to be considered empirical facts immediately become enigmas; effects or causes in a causal plot or symptoms of the evolution of our world. For this reason any event can immediately be turned into an object of commentary and discussion by experts. An interesting case emerged in France some years ago in the case of a woman travelling with her baby on a suburban train who received no help from her fellow commuters when she fell victim to a savage, anti-Semitic attack perpetrated by a group of black and Maghrebi adolescents. The brutality of the attack, together with the indifference of her fellow commuters, gave rise to a myriad of comments regarding the sad evolution of our civilization until, that is, it was discovered that the woman had fabricated the whole story. This may be an extreme case, but it stages the construction of the divergence of times and capacities that the system of information utilizes in the regulation of the relations between time and the structural distribution of the sensible today. The forms of critical thinking that obtain today smoothly follow the dominant account since the logic of domination has integrated the logic of its own critique by asserting both the homogeneity of a global process of historical evolution and the inner splitting that allows those who live in “this” time to understand the way in which they are swept along by that same process.

This is why, in my view, a way out of that logic should be a way out of its time, a way out of the plot of the homogeneity of time and of the incapacity of those who live in it. It has to call into question the thesis of the homogeneity of time. There is no global process subjecting all the rhythms of individual and collective time to its rule. There are several times in one time. There is a dominant form of temporality, for sure, a “normal” time that is the time of domination. Domination gives it its divisions and its rhythms, its agendas and its schedules in the short and long run: time of work, leisure, and unemployment; electoral campaigns, degree courses, etc. It tends to homogenize all forms of temporality under its control, defining thereby what the present of our world consists of, which futures are possible, and which definitely belong to the past—thereby indicating the impossible. This is what consensus means: the monopoly of the forms of describing the perceptible, the thinkable, and the doable. But there are other forms of temporality, dissentious forms of temporality that create distensions and breaks in that temporality. We can distinguish two main forms. I will call them intervals and interruptions. Intervals are created when individuals and collectives renegotiate the ways in which they adjust their own time to the divisions and rhythms of domination; they adapt it to the temporality of work—or to the absence of work—, to the forms of acceleration and deceleration dictated by the system. At the beginning of my talk, I evoked the role that Plato gives to time in the determination of the place of the artisans in the community. Their “lack of time” was said to fit their specific “aptitude”—which meant in fact their inability to be elsewhere and to do anything other than work. But the point is that although work does not wait one does very often wait for work, and individuals and collectives are determined by this fact as they dissociate their time from the “time that does not wait”, distancing themselves from the “aptitudes”—and inabilities—that adjust them to that time. In my research on workers’ emancipation, I set out to illuminate the ways in which 19th century artisans constructed their forms of subjectivization in relation to a broken temporality determined by the accelerations and stoppages of work. Instead of being subjected to the will of their masters via the acceleration and stoppages of work, they could take advantage of them and incorporate into their workers’ time that which had always been the opposite of work, namely, leisure. A very old distinction already formulated by Aristotle opposes rest, which is an interruption in the time of work, to leisure, which is the use of time by those who are not subjected to the constraints of work. Emancipation therefore meant using the breaks in the time of work to blur the distinction between the time of rest and the time of leisure. In that sense, the re-distribution of times went hand in hand with a re-distribution of the aptitudes and inabilities tied up in the possession or dispossession of time. The reappropriation of intervals was tantamount to the experience of living in several times at once, and sharing in several worlds of experience. That re-partition created a breach in the logic of domination by separating “aptitudes” from their destination. From this point on, succumbing to exploitation could also be a means of refusing it one’s mind; exercising one’s capacities for the tasks commanded could equally become a means of training those capacities for other uses. This is what emancipation means: the practice of dissensus, that is, the construction of another time in the time of domination, the time of equality within the time of inequality. That experience of living in several times at once had been more or less erased by the Marxist vision of the education of the working class through the discipline of the factory. But contemporary forms of work once again foreground the issue of the intervals of work and their transformation into intervals of subjectivization: constant shifts from employment to unemployment, the development of part-time work and all forms of intermittence; the multiplication of people taking part both in the time of salaried work and in the time of education, or in the time of cultural creation; the multiplication of people doing a job other than the one for which they have been trained, of people working in one world and living in another (which is also what “immigration” means). Rather than trying to define the unique figure of the worker, such as the “cognitarian” worker, we should investigate the multiplicity of the lines of subjectivization and the forms of rupture produced by the reappropriation of all those intervals that put the seemingly outdated temporality of emancipation back on the agenda. Thirty years ago I published a book called Nights of Labor (also called Proletarian Nights) examining forms of workers’ emancipation and their relation to the question of time in 19th century France. A week ago an Indian art collective, The Raqs Media Collective, premiered a video projection in Paris called Strikes at Time which was based on the experience and words of contemporary part-time workers and writers who had read the Indian translation of that book.

There are intervals and there are interruptions: moments when one of the social machines that structure the time of domination break down and stop. It may happen with trains and buses; it may happen with the school apparatus, or perhaps with some other form of machine. There are also moments when crowds take to the streets in order to oppose their agenda to that of the state and its temporality of exploitation. It is from this point of view, I think, that we must consider the Arab insurrections of 2011 and the European movements such as the “Indignados” in Spain, or the protest of the “Geraçao à Rasca” (The Precarious Generation) in Portugal. What these movements have in common is that they weave together a combination of times that disrupt the dominant—consensual—combination of convergence and divergence. They oppose the time of the immediate presence of the people to the time of the “people” organized by the state. In Tunisia and Egypt the movement affirmed that presence is incompatible with the time of power. In Spain, the takeover of La Puerta del Sol made evident the opposition between the time of the electoral process and the time of “real democracy”. This conflation of times also indicates a short circuit in the time of the dominant mainstream media. The role of social media in these movements—Facebook, Twitter, and others—has been emphasized. If social media could send so many people out onto the streets at any one given time, providing them with a new courage and a new sense of dignity, it was at least in part because they short-circuited the time of the mainstream media which constantly makes people confront their own incapacity as a result of the continued reproduction of the distance between event and meaning. Thinking does not take so much time, nor does the courage of taking to the streets, and this is the lesson that those events have opposed to the dominant logic of explanation that separates the present from itself. This means that what the “new media” and the “social media” provided is not only a form of acceleration. It is also a redistribution of capacities, new forms of expertise that can be appropriated by anybody in order to help constitute a people of the anonymous, a people of indeterminate individuals at odds with the people governed by the dominant system. We have been told of the “heterogeneity” of the crowds gathered at Tahrir Square and La Puerta del Sol, meaning that it is impossible to break them down into specific identity groups. We have also seen the way in which global claims about democracy have been linked to claims about unemployment (particularly noteworthy is the role played in the Portuguese and Spanish movements by college graduates to whom the global European politics of education had promised a bright future as managers and scholars, while the reality of the system has left them unemployed or with only part-time or provisory jobs). This is the other significant character of these demonstrations: they denounce the lie that is the ideal convergence of the time of individual life and the global economic process that is implied in national and supranational education policies. As they denounce the lie of temporal convergence, those unemployed graduates also illustrate the way in which the contemporary rhythms of employment and unemployment open up gaps in which the capacities that were supposedly destined for the job market can be diverted and possibly used for constructing alternative times from within the holes in dominant time; that is, another possible world within the existing world. At this point, it is possible to think of a convergence between the time of intervals and the time of interruptions. This means for me that it is possible to find a way out of those forms of criticism that denounce interruptions as ephemeral outbursts after which everything returns to the normal order of things, and the exploration of intervals as an unwitting contribution to neoliberal logic. Critical as it strives to be, that monotonous denunciation of any creation of intervals as an adjustment to the logic of the market, and of any interruption as a contribution to the reign of the spectacle, is entirely consonant with the dominant distribution of times and capacities. It is a convenient way of forgetting the core of the paradox: that emancipation is in fact a way of putting several times into the same time; it is a way of living as equals in the world of inequality. The forms of subjectivization by which individuals and groups distance themselves from the constraint of “normal” time are at once ruptures in the sensory fabric of domination and ways of living within its framework. That is why it is so easy to capture them in the ready-made discourse that reduces the contradictions of emancipation to tricks of domination. However, it may be more interesting to examine the dynamism of that contradiction and the extent to which it can construct forms of temporality independent of the agendas of domination.

I would like to examine some consequences of these reflections in relation to what is called the politics of art. This politics can also be viewed as a way of addressing the convergence and divergence of times. From this vantage point we can distinguish three main figures. The first gives radical form to the demand for convergence. It is the figure of historical Modernism, that is, the figure of an identification between art forms and life forms. The privileged medium for that identification is that of a time that turns all differences into manifestations of one and the same global movement. For many years the synchronism of movements was the privileged form of the identification between art and life. One art form in particular embodied that synchronism: namely, cinema, the art of the direct correlation between human movements and the movements of the machine. Moreover, one filmmaker emblematized that identification more than any other: Dziga Vertov. He was the filmmaker who most explicitly thought of cinema as the movement linking all movements, equalizing them all by absorbing them into a single all-encompassing rhythm. This is how Man with the Movie Camera captured the movements of a dancer, the gestures of a woman working on an assembly line, traffic in the streets, the gestures of a manicurist in a beauty parlour, the flight of airplanes, or the tricks of a magician, all in the same rhythm. The synchrony of all movements thus constitutes a homogeneous time without intervals or interruptions, and without any distinction between life, work, and leisure. The result is the production of communism as the synchronicity of all movements. Communism is thus the emancipation of movement as such—an emancipation that presupposes that all movements lose their specificity and are torn away from those who perform them, who are reduced to their mere temporal measure.

It withdraws from the politics of absolute contemporaneity fabricated for the success of the opposing politics, which accentuates the divergence of times and the incapacities it produces: namely, the critical or dialectical model that found its privileged place on the theatrical stage, even though it proved itself capable of overcoming the limits of that stage. The latter conceived of the stage of artistic presentation in general as the site for the construction of a specific time in which movement could be modelled and rendered intelligible. For instance, the fragmented time of the Brechtian plot was intended to allow spectators to understand History—with a capital H—as the meaning of the appearances and movement that had expelled them. But what was staged was much more the division of the visible that we see captured in two well-known formulas: the Brechtian formula found at the end of Arturo Ui: “Learn to see instead of gaping ”; and Roland Barthes’s sentence about Brecht’s Mother Courage; “Because we see Mother Courage blind, we see what she does not see”. But the fact of seeing that somebody is blind has never provided the vision of what he or she does not see. On the contrary, one must already know what he/she does not see; one must know where the movement leads in order to see that he/she is blind. In addition, Mother Courage is not blind. On the contrary, she adapts herself cynically to what she sees as the law of history, namely, the law of profit. And the critical art that was intended to teach us through her ignorance may end up joining her in her cynicism. This is often what art does today as it endlessly accompanies the exercise of domination while purporting to reveal its secrets to people who are far from ignorant of what those secrets are.

The exhaustion of these formulas of critical art may give a new visibility to a third politics of art; a politics that intertwines different times within miniscule machines or dispositifs that construct alternative possibilities for addressing the present, at a remove from both the absolute convergence of times and the critical construction of their divergence. I propose to call these dispositifs “heterochronies”, a term that Michel Foucault coined in parallel with the term heterotopias that he proposed in order to designate spaces that do not fit within the normal distribution of territories. Heterotopias, he said, are combinations of spaces that are normally incompatible. In the same way, heterochronies are combinations of times that are normally incompatible. Among the heterotopias that are linked to heterochronies Foucault listed the theater box and the cinematographic screen, together with the colony and the graveyard. Those four heterotopic spaces are literally or figuratively present in a cinematographic sequence that I would like us to consider, for I think it gives us a good sense of what a heterochrony is. It is a sequence of Juventude en Marcha (Colossal Youth), a film by the Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa. This is the third film of the trilogy that he dedicated to the lives of a small number of marginalized youth and immigrant workers from Cape Verde living in the suburbs of Lisbon. While the film follows their everyday existence, first in the shanty-town that is being demolished and then in the new white cubes to which they are re-housed, it may at first glance appear to be a documentary chronicle—a genre that seems most suitable for the poor, for those who live in the everyday and only encounter History through misery, pain, or distress—. But it soon appears that this “chronicle” actually provides us with a fabric of heterochronies. I would like us to consider one of the most troubling. It is an episode at the end of the film that focuses on two people. The first is Ventura, the main “character” of the film, a former mason who through the course of the film has assumed the role of a king in exile rather than that of a poor immigrant. In contrast his pal, Lento, offers us the face of the coarse illiterate immigrant worker who is incapable of learning to write the love letter he wants to send, in spite of Ventura desperately trying to teach him. In the final sequence Lento opens the door of his charred apartment and seems to become transfigured. He stands theatrically, hand in hand with Ventura, before an imaginary audience. Their dialogue takes on the tone and rhythm of tragic psalmody. He then recites the love letter he had hitherto been unable to pen. Meanwhile, he tells us about the fire and how he jumped through the window with his wife and children. The problem is that the Lento we have known up to this point had neither wife nor children. In addition, we had already seen him die after having fallen from an electric pole. The character we see now is a living dead, an inhabitant of the Inferno returning to our world. His body is now able to condense all the events that happen, or may happen, in relation to all those who share his condition of living dead—which is also the case of the family that was actually burned in that apartment during the shooting of the film.

The episode presents us in the final analysis with the interweaving and conjunction of two incompatible times: the time of documentary and the time of tragedy; the time of the immigrant worker come from afar, who, at the end of a life of work and unemployment, has received an ID card and an apartment with water, gas and electricity; and the time of the living dead haunting our suburbs and living within the reign of shadows. That conjunction is condensed by the love letter the characters recite, a letter that Pedro Costa composed by intertwining fragments of letters written by immigrant workers with fragments of the final letter penned by the French poet Robert Desnos as he was on his way to his death at Terezín concentration camp. This temporal montage composes a scene from The Last Judgment, but this last judgement is not a narrative of disaster. Instead, it is a form of suspension of the usual plots that absorb every situation into the global process, on the way dispossessing those who live in “our time” of the ability to understand it. A heterochrony is a redistribution of times that invents new capacities for framing the present.

I have proposed an illustration of what I call a heterochrony. This does not mean that I have proposed a model of politics for art today. It would be difficult to propose such a model today even for people who are generally more accustomed to saying what has to be done than I am. But I think that it is possible to investigate the potentialities of art forms that work at the crossroads of temporalities and worlds of experience. I think it is possible to explore their capacity to echo what happens in the intervals and interruptions that tend to distend or disrupt the time of domination. Today, just as yesterday, the tension of living in several times at once remains unsolved. This means that it remains at work.


01. This inaugural lecture by Jacques Rancière was given on June 1st, 2011 at the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti in Venice, officially opening the conference ‘The State of Things’, commissioned by the Office for Contemporary Art Norway. This event was organised by its Director, Marta Kuzma and OCA’s Associate Curator, Pablo Lafuente in coordination with Peter Osborne, Director of the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University, London.