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A Thing in Common

I recently finished the Ignorant Schoolmaster. It was quite a read — full of a spunky, insistant, assertion of intellectual equality — and is really a bit inspiring, and just about made me want to go over to my shelf, dust off the top of my Greek grammar and flip through some Herodotus. A thing like that, I think, would really be the point, or would be to make Rancière’s point for him. But some people — I’m specifically thinking of a couple of blogs I read recently, and a couple of the reactions some of my peers had — seem to find the notion that human intelligence is equal as laughable. Which it is, if you don’t really know what Rancière is getting at when he says it.

Intelligence being equal doesn’t mean that everyone is going to get the same IQ score, or the same grade on a calculus test, or even draw the same meaning from Middlemarch — not these things at all. What Rancière is trying to convince us of here is that intelligence is merely the capacity to engage meaningfully with the world, and that any one who has learned to speak is equally endowed with it; differences that show up via whichever metric you choose come about after the fact and are, as he repeats often, in his opinion, merely the results of differing levels of effort. And the capacity to speak really is just an example; but I’ll leave it alone for now. The simple fact that people have the capacity to engage the same object is enough, for Rancière, to argue that they share an equal intelligence. This is what intelligence is for him: the ability to make sense through intentional interaction with things. And what makes it equal is the things in common. If you and I share access to some thing, then our intelligence, our capacity to work with it and fashion some intelligent — directed, sensible, meaningful — response to it is equal. Neither one nor the other is superior.

So, if a person wants to act in an intelligent manner, if she wants to exercise her common intelligence, all she has to do is look at, pick up, study whatever object — whether it is a book, movie, dance, poem, election result or painting — and pick out the things that are in it, respond to them, and use them as what they are: elements of sense. Anyone can do this; the only thing that it requires is the will to direct attention.

Categories: Asides.

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7 Responses

  1. seem to find the notion that human intelligence is equal as laughable”

    well it is funny, almost as if you said the planets and constellations were all equal in their influence over those bloggers intelligences regardless of their dates of birth. i mean obviously minds created under the sign of the crab and those under the sign of scales are different, you wouldn’t try to weigh your salad dressing for the weight watchers scheme on a crab I think?

  2. Perhaps there are two settings of intelligence, the capacity present in all people - on and off. People who accept “the abstraction of intelligence as a single entity” and consequent schemes, hierarchies and rankings are “off”, everybody else is “on”.

  3. People who unreflectively buy into the notion that intelligence qua intelligence can be measured and ranked in relation to the ruler used to determine it seem to me to be thinking in a way characteristic of reification, forgetfulness of one’s activity, of how things grow and accrue through slow and gradual acts in the world.

    I have a one track mind tho — I blame a lot of stuff on reification.

  4. I just think its funny because unavoidably ironic…”g” is so ludicrous, such a snake oil and taking it seriously requires excessive gullibility. It’s supposed to rank susceptibility to the kind of con that it itself is, among other things, while those who believe in it tend to believe their own levels of it are “high”. If you have robust “IQ”, it should protect you from being taken in by such absurdities as “IQ”. But people find the flattery of the idea, like Calvinist election or astrology, irresistible.

  5. Deborah Meier was on Doug Henwood’s radio program this week, discussing the metrics we have put in place in the US to rank the success of education. It’s very much like the other sort of abstracted and bureaucratic methods often spouted, like power-words or shibboleths, to make points or stop dissenting opinions. The movement to ‘teach to the test’ in US grammar and high schools likely dovetails with some of what roger was getting at over on Traxxus’ blog, the decline in interest in narrative and the like. Not only do we not teach children to think ‘critically’, we do our best to ensure that they think like minor functionaries, by given them predetermined answers and telling them to think A,B,C,D or E? Very sad.

    Having taught SAT prep courses, I can say that those of my students who were the most likely to think critically about things — that is, the one’s least likely to be duped — had to be reminded, again and again, that the test was only trying to fool them in specific ways.

  6. That is to say: the kids who reflected the most would often ‘overthink’ the test, and choose the wrong answer.

  7. oh shit you read The Ignorant Schoolmaster and you taught test prep? Me too! Are you also from a small town in northern illinois? cuz if so the resemblence will begin to feel downright creepy…. I fucking love that Ranciere book and you’ve just made me decide to reread it again this summer.

    w/r/t the laughability of “eveyrone’s intellect is equal” I find Ranciere’s response to that really satisfying. “It’s an opinion, I don;t have proof. If you can prove to me that intellects are not equal I will agree,” while providing means for undermining such attempts at proof.


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