Review by Steven Poole, ‘Non-fiction reviews roundup’, The Guardian, 29 June 2012
The agitator for a “people’s theatre” seeks “to moralise the people through the spread of art”; the sociologist claims to be the only one able to see what is, like Poe’s purloined letter, in plain view; and the public intellectual performs the “ideological function of representing the social to the political”. This volume of 1970s essays by the French philosopher worries in different ways at the question of the construction of “the people” by those who claim to be speaking for them. Central is a long and fascinating discussion of the role of the intellectual in France, contrasting Sartre’s “universal vocation” with Foucault’s “local struggles”, and sneering at the emerging nouveaux philosophes.
The new philosopher, Rancière writes, is a “Pangloss”, an adventurer in “social seismology”, a “panoptic thinker”, a “traveller without luggage” – which might describe not only the Bernard-Henri Lévy of today but many of our own commentators. The republication of these essays is justified by the frequency with which Rancière’s sardonic formulations resonate beyond their original context: “There is no conformist thought today that does not complacently proclaim itself the unprecedented upsetting of everything that everyone believes.”