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Acta Academica

On-line version ISSN 2415-0479
Print version ISSN 0587-2405

Acta acad. (Bloemfontein, Online) vol.52 n.2 Bloemfontein  2020 



Emancipatory politics between identity and disidentification: Rancière and the Black Consciousness Movement



Matthias Pauwels

School of Philosophy, North West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa. E-mail:




This article addresses the contentious issue of the relation between emancipatory politics and identity-based forms of politics, especially in a colonialist context. More specifically, the stance toward identity politics of radical contemporary philosopher Jacques Rancière will be examined in relation to the politics of South Africa's Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), as expounded in the writings of Steve Biko. The article first tracks Rancière's key articulations of his views on identity politics throughout his work, noting a movement from a rather dismissive treatment to a more nuanced and conditional stance. Second, some of the main challenges and trouble spots in conceptualising and appreciating the key components of the BCM within Rancière's theory of emancipatory politics are considered. While being found to be limited in properly acknowledging the BCM's empowering, therapeutic functions and nationalist tendencies, Rancière's conceptual framework is shown to be more productive in accounting for the complex ways in which both the assertion and denial of black identity have played a key role in the BCM's politics.

Keywords: Jacques Rancière; identity politics; Stephen (Steve) Bantu Biko; the Black Consciousness Movement; apartheid South Africa



Introduction: emancipatory politics, identity and anti-colonial struggle

Among many contemporary European political thinkers, especially those with "radical" leanings, identity-driven forms of politics are often regarded as inimical to emancipatory politics (Shohat and Stam 2012: Chapter 4). French philosopher Jacques Rancière, a key figure within post-Marxist and post-structuralist philosophy, is no exception in this regard. His work, which forms the focus of this article, is centrally occupied with developing concepts - in diverse fields such as politics, history, pedagogy, literature and aesthetics - that stay true to eruptions of the desire for emancipation and equality throughout human history. Recurring examples in this regard are the democratic revolution in Ancient Greece, the slave revolts and plebeian resurrections in Ancient Rome, the French Revolution, workers' and women's movements in 19th century France, and anti-colonial and student activism in 1960s France.

Throughout his work, Rancière has been rather dismissive of identity-based forms of socio-political struggle. Social movements or political projects based on identity markers such as race, origin, birth, ancestry, culture, ethnicity or ethos are commonly disqualified from being political which, in Rancière's specific sense, means emancipatory. This is most explicit in Rancière's focused texts on politics of the 1990s (Rancière 1992, 1999, 2010). Political mobilisation centred on identity or, rather, "identification" as an activity and process, functions here as a main counterpoint in articulations of radical politics. Think for instance of statements from Rancière's "Ten Theses on Politics" (2010) that "Politics exists as long as the people is not identified with a race or a population" (35) and that the people "can [not] be identified [...] with the race of those who recognize each other as having the same beginning or birth" (33). Considering that the people for Rancière constitutes the "atomic subject of politics" (2010: 33), the resolute rejection of its determination in terms of race or origins is quite telling for his stance toward identity politics.

The first aim of this article is to address the issue of the relation between emancipatory politics and identity-based forms of politics in Rancière's work. I do so by considering key instances in which this relation is articulated and point to the main tenets and common threads as well as changing positionings. Specifically, I cover Rancière's early studies on 19th century workers' movements in France, his later, more explicitly political writings of the 1990s and the articulation, more recently, of a "kind of Rancièrean conception of the theory of recognition" (Rancière 2016: 95). I shall rely here on some earlier work on the problem of identity politics in Rancière's social and political philosophy (Genel and Deranty: 2016; Rancière and Dupuis-Déry 1999).

The second aim is to consider Rancière's stance towards identity politics in relation to struggles of historically colonised people where identity categories have played a prominent role. Due to the onslaught of colonialism on the culture and identity of the colonised, the re-assertion of the latter has performed multiple, vital functions in anti-colonial struggles, from providing shared reference and rallying points to mustering a sense of group cohesion, dignity and pride. Writing from a South African context, I take the Black Consciousness Movement (henceforth the BCM) and theoretical articulations of the latter by its key proponent and founder, Stephen or Steve Bantu Biko, as an exemplary, even iconic case of a liberatory, identity-driven anti-colonial politics. The importance of the BCM's assertion of black pride for the liberation of black South Africans and the demise of the apartheid regime is undeniable and its ideas are still highly influential in contemporary South Africa, such as recently in decolonial student protest movements.

Considering its central preoccupation with emancipation, Rancière's work is potentially relevant and useful for conceiving the struggles of the colonised. His dismissive views of identity politics, however, present a major challenge in this regard. Considering Rancière's theory of emancipatory politics from the perspective of identity-based, anti-colonial movements such as the BCM and vice versa, is meant to achieve two purposes. First, to draw out some gaps, limitations and shortcomings of Rancière's views on identity politics and his theory of emancipatory politics more generally. Second, and inversely, to gauge the ways in which the latter may nonetheless serve as a productive framework to conceive of the emancipatory potential of aspects of anti-colonial, identity-based movements.

Before I start, I have to address an important reservation that might be levelled against my undertaking of thematising and problematising the status of identity in Rancière's work, especially in a non-Western, colonialist context. In an interview in 2008, Rancière seems to dismiss, somewhat light-heartedly, the usefulness and validity of such an endeavour as he states the following:

As you probably know, I am French [laughter]. In France there is no identity politics, there are no postcolonial studies. This means I never had to address those kinds of issues that are crucial in other countries. They are systematically ignored in France. So my dealing with the question of the subject never was an attempt to address issues of identity politics or hybrid, postcolonial identities and so on" (Rancière and Dasgupta 2008: 73-4).

These statements are somewhat misleading, however, since Rancière has explicitly addressed issues of identity politics in France related to the rise of extreme right movements and increasing multiculturality and immigration from the 1980s onwards. Such issues dominated social and political discourse during a key period in the theoretical articulation of his political thought. Rancière's claim about the absence of the problematics of postcoloniality in France is also quite puzzling if it is not taken as ironic or as hyperbole. France's imperialist past has made its society postcolonial through and through - as is manifested, most conspicuously, in the multicultural composition of its national soccer team. Moreover, Rancière was born in French Algeria and was actively involved as a student in anti-colonial protests in France in the 1960s - mainly against France's colonial wars in Algeria and Indo-China.1 His proclaimed "Frenchness" has thus been fundamentally shaped and troubled by France's experience of decolonisation. In a later theoretical reflection on the position of French anti-colonial activists - such as himself - at the time, Rancière (1998) specified this position as in-between French identity and citizenship and the Algerian liberation fighters. Without wanting to over-interpret Rancière's off-the-cuff remarks, his claim that issues of identity politics and postcoloniality are "systematically ignored" in France might thus be read, rather, as an implicit critique of the fact that not enough attention is devoted to them.


Identity as "imprisonment" and the curious case of 19th century worker-poets

As a first approach to Rancière's critique of identity politics, one can refer to the following statement indicating a key philosophical source in this regard: "I don't approach the political from the perspective of identity. I was marked in my youth by Sartrean existentialism, and there received the impression that every identity is an imprisonment in a role" (Rancière and Dupuis-Déry 1999: 72). However generally formulated, this existentialist association of identity and imprisonment can be viewed as a central intuition behind his views on identity politics. The latter can be summarised as follows: identity politics calls on people to take up fixed, established roles, places, occupations and identities to which they are henceforth confined and which overdetermine their ways of speaking, acting and being. As Rancière expresses it: "What makes me shy away from notions of identity and culture is that people are only allowed to speak in the name of an identity they must act out" (Rancière and Dupuis-Déry 1999: 74). Furthermore, Rancière takes such roles and identities to form part of a larger hierarchically ordered system of roles and identities which he terms, somewhat idiosyncratically, "the partition of the sensible" (1999: Chapter Two). For a group to affirm its identity would be to submit itself to its particular - often inferior - place in this hierarchical order and, hence, to consolidate this order and its inherent inequality.

For Rancière, politics and emancipation are instead about radically challenging and "reconfiguring" (1999: 30) this order in the name of equality. A central principle in Rancière's work is that one should presuppose that all human beings possess equal intellectual capacities and should be treated accordingly. This means that no limitations may be placed - in principle - on what individuals or groups can be, become or do.2 Identity, in contrast, whether it is fitted on to one or whether one asserts it oneself, is taken to do exactly the opposite: it determines what one can do (e.g. one's occupations), how to behave, what capabilities one possesses or can acquire, in what way one can or is allowed to speak, what roles one may perform, one's "proper" place in society, and so on. As such, it bars one from adopting other ways of speaking or occupations that might be more valued by society or qualify one to fully participate in politics.

In order to give some flesh to these general formulations, one can turn to Rancière's archival research into early workers' movements in 1830s France, conducted in the 1970s. Rancière finds evidence here of resistance among workers against attempts to confine their place in society and their identity on the basis of their status as workers. Such attempts were undertaken not only by the bourgeoisie but also by the workers' representatives and advocates such as communists, utopians and unionists. These parties sought to wage the workers' struggles by moulding and propagating a particular proletarian identity - hands on, hard-working, militant, etc. - while upholding a division between themselves as "professional" worker representatives and revolutionaries, and the mass of workers who were regarded as foot soldiers. For Rancière, workers were thus delegated to an inferior place within an inegalitarian framework.

Rancière's research focuses on a minority of workers that, in the early stages of their class consciousness, sought to transgress both bourgeois and proletarian identitarian restrictions and expectations. It concerned workers who engaged in intellectual and artistic endeavours in their time off work, usually in the night hours, as expressed by the title of Rancière's 1981 study on the subject: Proletarian Nights (2012). Rancière speaks here of "an impossible act of self-identification" (2002: 248) through which workers "made themselves other in a double, hopeless rejection, refusing both to live like workers and talk like the bourgeoise" (92). He argues that such acts of "self-othering" on the part of a small group of eccentric, atypical workers were more productive in proving workers' equality to the bourgeoise than later attempts by workers united in communist organisations, whose representatives expected workers to adhere to a stereotypically proletarian identity and ethos.

Rancière's early investigations can be regarded as the most researched and privileged source of his later, more abstract formulations regarding emancipatory politics.3 For example, in the most important collection of his political writings entitled Disagreement (1999), published in 1995, Rancière draws a sharp distinction between two ways of understanding working class mobilisation -referring specifically to his research on early workers' movements - based on the key conceptual opposition in his political thought between "the police" and politics (1999: 27-33). Briefly put, the police can be seen to refer to the aforementioned hierarchical, socio-political-symbolic order that determines the place, role and capacities of different population groups based on certain markers and that "polices" all groups' adherence to their designated place and function. Politics, in contrast, is the process in which this order is challenged and changed.

Correspondingly, Rancière opposes two conceptions of the political emancipation of workers. The first, which is associated with the police, understands it as "a form of [working class] 'culture'" and in terms of a "collective ethos capable of finding a voice" (Rancière 1999: 36). A second, properly political understanding conceives it, inversely, in terms of the negating or "fracturing" of such a working-class culture or ethos. As Rancière puts it, this second conception,

[...] presupposes [...] a multiplicity of fractures separating worker bodies from their ethos and from the voice that is supposed to express the soul of this ethos: a multiplicity of speech events -that is, of one-off experiences of conflict [...] over the partition of the sensible. "Speaking out" is not awareness and expression of a self asserting what belongs to it (Rancière 1999: 36-7).

Ge neralising from this particular case, one can thus say that in assessing the emancipatory potential of an oppressed group's struggle, the focus should not lie on its attempts at gaining consciousness and proud assertion of its supposed culture and ethos. On the contrary, such a potential should be looked for in a group's non-conformity to, or transgression of, such identitarian determinations.


Always disidentify! Emancipatory politics as heterology

Rancière's negative stance toward identity politics in his political writings of the 1990s can be seen as somewhat understandable considering certain social and political developments in France - and Western Europe generally - at the time. There was an emergence of extreme right movements such as the Front National. In this light, it is not surprising that Rancière sometimes mentions the term "identitarianism" or "particularism" in the same breath as racism (2014: 126). France also witnessed increasingly extreme assertions by different immigrant communities - often originating from France's previous colonies - of their traditional ethnic, cultural and religious identity. Rancière (1992: 59) here speaks of "claim[s] for identity on the part of so-called minorities against the hegemonic law of the ruling culture and identity".

These developments form the context of a text in which Rancière engages most directly with the issue of identity politics entitled "Politics, Identification, and Subjectivization" (1992). He here bluntly states that identity politics has reached a dead end and opposes it to emancipatory politics, an opposition he articulates in terms of the self and the other. Rancière defines the key procedure or "primum movens" of identity politics as "the enactment of the principle, the law, or the self of a community" and, more generally, as "the identification of politics with the self of a community" (Rancière 1992: 59). Based on the passage from Disagreement discussed earlier, it should be clear why such focus on the self disqualifies identity politics from being emancipatory and makes it a form of "police". The police is defined here as a process of "governing" aimed at "creating community consent" and relying on "the distribution of shares and the hierarchy of places and functions" (Rancière 1992: 59), which refers to the aforementioned "partition of the sensible".

An orientation toward the other is, inversely, posited as central to emancipatory politics. As Rancière (1992: 59, emphasis added) puts it, "the politics of emancipation is the politics of the self as an other, or, in Greek Terms, a heteron. The logic of emancipation is a heterology". In similar vein, Rancière (1992: 60, emphasis added) contends that "the enactment of equality is not [...] the enactment of the self, of the attributes or properties of the community in question" but instead, "the formation of a one that is not a self but is the relation of a self to an other". Behind these abstract formulations one can, again, clearly detect some of the key findings of Rancière's work on early workers' movements in France, specifically, the attempts by some workers at what I have called "self-othering".

Rancière here offers other examples as well, such as protests by women in 19th century France over the gender exclusivity of "The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" of 1789. Rancière focuses on the demand of French women to be included in the category of Frenchmen, emphasising its "paradoxical", "nonsensical" and "scandalous" (2012: 60) quality as such a demand denies the seemingly obvious, noncontroversial, accepted differences between the sexes, with women asking to be regarded as men. In line with his conceptual distinction between the self and the other, Rancière emphasises how women here challenged the patriarchal order not by asserting their self-specificity as women but by asserting their likeness to the other sex. As in the case of Rancière's worker-poets, there is something impossible about such self-positionings as the other, involving "an identification that cannot be embodied by he or she who utters it" (1992: 61). Rancière claims that such heterological postures "may prove more productive in the process of equality than the mere assumption that a woman is a woman or a worker a worker" (1992: 60). Again, this clearly implies a critique of identity-based forms of politics with Rancière emphasising that "the construction of such cases of equality is not the act of an identity, nor is it the demonstration of the values specific to a group" (1992: 60).

If Rancière (1992: 62) defines the logic of "political subjectivization" and "emancipation" in terms of "a heterology, a logic of the other", he also stresses that it involves, inversely, "the denial of an identity given by an other, given by the ruling order of policy". He holds that radical politics or emancipation crucially involves a "process of disidentification or declassification" (Rancière 1992: 61) rather than the affirmation of one's self or identity. Especially the term "disidentification" features prominently in Rancière's work on emancipatory politics in the 1990s. In a crucial passage in Disagreement, for instance, he claims that "Any subjectification is a disidentification, removal from the naturalness of a place" (Rancière 1999: 36) and involves the inscription of "a subject name as being different from any identified part of the community" (37). Hence, one might polemically summarise Rancière's stance with regard to identity and emancipatory politics with the slogan: "Always disidentify!"

Two of Rancière's further deductions based on this notion of disidentification are also worth mentioning. The first is that emancipatory politics is often about adopting "'wrong' names" or "misnomers" (Rancière 1992: 62), names that do not refer to "any social group that could be sociologically identified" (61). The purpose of such misnomers is to thwart the police order's attempts to give "'right' names" to different groups in order to "pin people down to their place and work" (Rancière 1992: 62). Secondly, and for the same reasons, the manipulation of in-between states by oppressed groups is also key to emancipatory politics. This can be done by taking up a position "between several names, statuses, and identities", or by performing "a crossing of identities" and "names" (Rancière 1992: 61). Rancière further holds that such an in-between positioning is what first defines an oppressed group as a group and keeps it together (1992: 61) and thus not, as identity politics would have it, a shared, common "self" or identity. This once again exemplifies Rancière's critique of identity politics as a politics of the self.


Enjoy the right not to be considered a special identity

More recently, Rancière rearticulated his stance toward identity politics during a debate with Axel Hönneth in 2009 (Genel and Deranty 2016). I shall focus here on Rancière's claims that further specify his position toward identity politics. Considering the central place of the politics of recognition in Hönneth's work (1995), Rancière has positioned himself toward such a politics and even advanced his own variety. About the struggle for recognition understood "simply as the demand made by a subject already constituted to be recognized in his or her identity", Rancière contends that it can "also" be understood as a "claim[...j not to be assigned that identity" and that this lies "at the heart of the dialectics of recognition" (2016: 90). Or, phrased somewhat differently,

[a] minority claim is not only the claim to have one's culture and the like recognized; it's also a claim precisely to not be considered as a minority obeying special rules, having a special culture. It can be viewed as a claim to have the same rights and enjoy the same kind of respect or esteem as anybody, as all those who are not assigned any special identity (Rancière 2016: 90, emphasis added).

First off, it is important to note a certain ambiguity about the exact status of Rancière's contentions. They may be understood, first, on a descriptive, analytical level as a determination of what minority claims "are" or "involve" -as an actual property or as their underlying desire. Rancière's statements could also, secondly, be understood in a normative sense, as indicating a criterion or prerequisite that must be present if a claim toward recognition is to be emancipatory. Thirdly, Rancière's expressions might also express the need for a different way of interpreting recognition claims, an alternative hermeneutics, geared to demonstrating that what a group demanding recognition actually or ultimately wants, is something quite different, opposite even.

However it may be understood, Rancière's statements point to an inherent complexity, ambiguity and even self-contradictoriness to some or all recognition claims, with a group both demanding recognition and respect of their specificity and not, or perhaps, demanding something more than such recognition. This contrary or supplementary claim can be seen to express a desire towards being treated in a non-specific, generic way. This is not to be understood as a desire for the denial or erasure of one's identity. It can rather be seen as a second-order demand that one's identity is not the cause for being treated differently in terms of one's "rights" or the "respect" and "esteem" one receives (Rancière 2016: 90). Or again, it expresses the desire for one's identity to be regarded as a "mere" cultural or social difference without any importance as to how one is treated politically or intellectually.

One implication of this paradoxical logic with regard to responding to recognition claims is that they cannot be taken at face value. Simply granting a group's demand for its particular culture and identity to be acknowledged and respected might go counter to the additional, contrary claim and thereby cause offence in another sense. It might, for instance, create the feeling of being pigeonholed or treated as a special case - perhaps a charity case even - that has to be approached with kid gloves and that may only be held to its own, unique, group-specific standards that might, however, be implicitly regarded as inferior by the dominant society. As such, this goes against the arguably larger, more far-reaching demand behind recognition claims, namely, that the ruling societal order is changed in such a way that one is no longer viewed as a group in need of special treatment, but merely as one group among, and equal to, others.

To illustrate how the straightforward granting of respect for the particular identity of an oppressed group can be experienced as insufficient and even insulting, one can refer to the decolonial protests by mostly black university students in South Africa in 2015 and 2016 (Booysen 2016). A key source of discontent here was the predominantly Eurocentric orientation of South Africa's tertiary education, mainly, but not exclusively, in terms of the curriculum. Against this, demands were made for the proper recognition of African, indigenous scholastic traditions and knowledge systems. In the past, universities have appeased such demands by setting up specialised centres or study programmes devoted to African Studies. However, turning indigenous scholarly traditions into a niche is perceived by current student protesters as a clever way to retain the overall, Eurocentric character of the university. Against such a piecemeal form of recognition, students demanded a more radical, general overhaul of South African universities in a way that indigenous knowledges no longer appear as a specialty field, but as one tradition among others, on the same standing and equally determining the university's overall character and curriculum, if not more so.4

As far as Rancière's positioning toward identity politics is concerned, his positing of an entanglement of two contrary claims in demands for recognition, makes for a less dismissive, more nuanced and "dialectical" stance. In the earlier work discussed previously, Rancière seems to simply disqualify categories such as race, culture or ethnicity from emancipatory politics.5 Associated with the "police", such identity markers seem to be entirely dismissed and "evicted" as improper sites or objects from the realm of emancipatory politics. This creates the impression that for Rancière, emancipatory politics is a process purified and abstracted from all "police" elements such as identity attributions.

Rancière's later, more complex positioning is not necessarily inconsistent, however, with the conceptual framework expounded in Disagreement. One must take heed here of an intricate feature of the relationship between the police and emancipatory politics. Although their logics are considered to be "entirely heterogenous" (Rancière 1999: 31) and "opposed in principle" (27), they are at the same time held to be inextricably "bound up together" (27), with Rancière speaking of an "entanglement" (1999: 33). The reason given is that emancipatory politics does not have any "objects or issues of its own" (Rancière 1999: 31). Instead, it is said to "act[...] on the police [...] in the places and with the words that are common to both, even if it means reshaping those places and changing the status of those words" (Rancière 1999: 33). Consequently, Rancière asserts that "nothing is political in itself" or, put the other way around, that nothing is non-political in itself, or again, that "anything may become political" (1999: 32). The condition for becoming so is that something must "give [...] rise to a meeting" of the logic of the police and the egalitarian logic (Rancière 1999: 32). As such, Rancière emphasises how emancipatory politics is more about the "form" of an action than its "object" (1999: 32). Based on these intricacies, Samuel Chambers has argued that emancipatory politics in Rancière's understanding is better understood as a "supplemental" feature or dimension - he speaks of a "logic of supplementation" (2013: 59-60) - that may cause an aspect or dimension of human life or society to become political.

Such a logic of supplementation is also clearly central to Rancière's dialectical conceptualisation of claims for recognition. Such claims are not so much disqualified or banned from the sphere of emancipatory politics as such. Rather, they may become emancipatory on condition that they are supplemented by a counterclaim for non-recognition and non-identity or, that is, for equality, for being treated similar to other groups. The more radical dimension granted by this additional demand may be owed, then, to the fact that it commands a more drastic, universal overhaul of the existing order, as opposed to the more limited implementation of specific measures that satisfy the particular demands of a group. It remains the case, however, that the second, supplemental claim of not wanting to be treated as a special group or identity is valued by Rancière as the more fundamental one that makes a claim for recognition truly emancipatory. As such, there is little doubt as to how Rancière would answer the key contention that Katia Genel (2016: 24) identifies as being at the heart of the debate between Rancière and Honneth, namely, "the central question of the transformation of the existing order. Is the impulse that makes us break with it a need for recognition or rather a desire for equality?"


"Merely" therapeutic?

So far, I have traced and discussed Rancière's different positionings toward identity politics within his broader theory of emancipatory politics. I have demonstrated how he moves from a rather unqualified dismissal of the emancipatory potential of identity politics to a more nuanced and conditional stance. In the remaining sections, I shall examine whether Rancière's critique and alternative articulation of identity politics can be productively used as a framework for conceptualising and assessing a key movement within the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), of which Steve Biko is the most prominent and well-known proponent.6

The BCM is an anti-racist and anti-colonial political movement that, while undoubtedly radical and emancipatory, at the same time seems to fit Rancière's definition of identity politics as based on the identification and enactment of the "self" of a community, in this case South Africa's black population. Think of Andile M-Afrika's (2018) statement about Biko's BCM, that "Being black was propelled by the co mmonness between and among black groups as well as the universality of the black experience. The overbearing need to define oneself, and not be defined by another, was the most pervasive spirit". By constructing a positive black identity, the BCM aimed at undoing the impact of the pejorative racial categories imposed by South Africa's white supremacist order on the black population, as well as building solidarity among the latter.

A first, somewhat obvious limitation of Rancière's theory of emancipatory politics is that its deeply engrained concern with the restrictive and oppressive aspects of identity politics stands in the way of properly acknowledging the BCM's positive, empowering role in anti-colonialist struggles. Or again, it results in the undervaluation of the importance for emancipatory politics of simply asserting one's self-identity, without the supplemental claim that Rancière considers to be key to the emancipatory potential of identity politics. The important, enabling function of identitarian assertions by the colonised can be regarded as one of the BCM's fundamental insights. It is the foundation of Biko's diagnosis of the devastating effects on the sense of self and self-worth of black people caused by the shameless promotion of the supremacy of "white", Western values and traditions while, inversely, systematically denigrating the black, native ones. As a result, Biko found black people to suffer from an "inferiority complex" (1987: 21), leading them to "surrender their souls to the white man" (49) and to enter into a futile competition among themselves to prove their conformity to white values (91). Having observed how many black people had thereby lost all grounding, Biko famously stated "that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed" (1987: 68).

By creating self-awareness among black people of their roots and traditions, the BCM helped black people to regain the ability "to coherently define themselves" (M-Afrika 2018) and construct a sense of "pride and dignity" (Biko 1987: 29). It reasserted and revalued African cultural values, beliefs and practices in contradistinction to "Western" values. Biko highlights, for instance, the human-centred nature of African societies as well as the importance of solidarity and sharing, contrasting the latter with the individualistic, cold, materialistic and technology-driven character of white, Anglo-Boer culture. Although some essentialising is involved here, with Biko asserting certain African values as "authentic" (1987: 40) and "pure" (41), he is not fundamentalist or purist in this regard. Biko for instance does not restrict African identity to the precolonial era, allows for new, modern influences and accepts a certain degree of acculturation (1987: 130) insofar it is not enforced or one-sided - as was the case under apartheid - and is accordant with core African values.

Insofar as its essentialist tendencies are concerned, one could view the BCM as an instance of what Paul Gilroy, in relation to black cultural politics, has dubbed "therapeutic essentialism" (1993: 14), albeit somewhat denigratory. This refers to an oppressed group's resort to essentialist notions of their cultural, racial or ethnic identity for "therapeutic" purposes, such as propping up its sense of self-worth or undoing feelings of inferiority inflicted upon them. The BCM's emphasis on the importance of a positive self-identity also chimes well with multiculturalist theories that acknowledge the grave impact of the derogation of a group's culture and traditions on its members' social and political agency. Monica Mookherjee, for one, has argued that a group's "inherited set of values and customs" or "cultural structure" constitutes a "primary good" that is "necessary for the capacity to make meaningful choices" (2008: 224). One can thus argue that even without any supplemental claims in Rancière's sense, the positive recognition of an oppressed group's identity functions as a crucial precondition for its sociopolitical agency and can thus be regarded as emancipatory in itself, rather than fundamentally opposed to it.

From a Rancièrean perspective, with its inherent suspicion towards identity politics, emphasis would no doubt be placed on how the BCM's assertion of black identity will inevitably produce its own, internal oppressions, exclusions and hierarchies by imposing "the 'One' of identitarianism" (Rancière 2014: 54). Or again, that the liberatory effects of restoring black pride will always be dampened or even threatened by the repressive "police" processes generated by its identitarian determinations. Think for example of black activists policing the black community to make sure that its members stay true to who they supposedly "are", which can become rather petty and ugly, such as shaming black people for using hair straighteners.

Still, the association of therapeutic identitarianism with the police does not necessarily mean that it is therefore to be valued entirely negatively in Rancière's terms. Rancière acknowledges that police orders come in better and worse forms and that they can "procure all sorts of good", making some "infinitely preferable" to others (1999: 31). The construction of a positive self-image among South Africa's black population by the BCM and the ensuing empowerment could be regarded as such a "good". Yet, no matter how much "good" police orders may do, for Rancière they remain police orders regardless. As he formulates it somewhat mockingly, "whether the police is sweet and kind does not make it any less the opposite of politics" (1999: 31). The fact that Rancière does not in any way specify the kinds of good done by police orders also says a great deal about his low estimation of their importance for emancipatory politics.

While self-restrictive police mechanisms might be an inevitable, negative side-effect of therapeutic identitarianism, it is perhaps more a matter of assessing how these are outbalanced by its positive, empowering aspects. The positionality of the theorist-assessor and the specific context - anti-colonial struggles - undoubtedly play a crucial role here. As the first is concerned, Rancière's emphasis on the negative aspects of identity politics and, inversely, his undervaluing and undertheorising of its positive aspects might be explained by the fact that, although not in an entirely uncomplicated way, Rancière is relatively secure and positively recognised in his self-identity. Think of his aforementioned self-positioning as "French" which, however ironically intended, indicates a stable sense of self that might be taken for granted as a precondition for the type of emancipatory politics that Rancière propagates, with its emphasis on disidentification, and might explain the focus on the potentially oppressive aspects of identity.

A second factor in weighing the positive and negative aspects of identitarian self-assertions by the oppressed is the specific context which, in case of the BCM, is that of a struggle against a white-supremacist regime. On one occasion, Rancière has in fact considered contextual factors in applying his theory of emancipatory politics and has adjusted his assessment of identity politics (Rancière and Dupuis-Déry 1999). He acceded that in a situation with an extremely powerful "hegemonic, dominant type" - referring specifically to the Northern American context, with minorities facing an all-pervasive "White Anglo-Saxon Protestant" identity - the "assertion of identity" is a valid, progressive strategy because it constitutes "a demand to be able to exist in the face of this type" (Rancière and Dupuis-Déry 1999: 75). The BCM's form of identity politics can be seen to make a similar demand in the face of an even more extreme, white-supremacist regime. Interestingly, Rancière here emphasised the need for the "translat[ion] [.] of the language of struggles" between contexts and, further, admitted to the ideological "fluidity" of notions such as nationhood, patriotism and, so one might add, identitarianism (Rancière and Dupuis-Déry 1999: 75). Another article would be needed to explore the deconstructive effects and implications of such self-parochialising comments on the key conceptual and normative opposition between dis-identification and identity at the heart of Rancière's political theory.


The "supplemental" politics of Black Consciousness

If Rancière's conceptual framework might ultimately be too limited to account for the therapeutic, empowering effects of the BCM's assertion of black, African self-identity, it looks more promising with regard to another, important aspect. Over and above its claim for the recognition of the value of African culture, there is an additional demand that goes beyond the "particular", has a broader, universal reach and affirms a desire for equality. This additional demand seems similar to the supplemental claim in Rancière's dialectics of recognition and might thus open up one way to conceive of the BCM as a form of emancipatory politics in Rancière's terms. I shall argue, however, that there are also significant differences which, here also, are due to the specific colonialist context of the BCM and require some considerable translation and transvaluation of key Rancièrean concepts.

For Biko, the affirmation of a positive, common black identity - which, as argued previously, is to be regarded as engendering a liberatory effect in its own right - is not the BCM's only or ultimate goal. Rather, it forms a crucial first step in the larger endeavour to defeat white supremacy and establish a new, post-apartheid society. Biko envisions the latter as "a country where colour will not serve to put man in a box" (1987: 25) or again, "a non-racial, just and egalitarian society in which colour, creed and race shall form no point of reference" (139). This emphasis on non-racialism and equality can be seen to express the desire that is key to Rancière's supplemental logic of recognition, namely, to no longer be viewed as a special, cultural group with its own specific rules, but merely as one of many different cultures in South Africa that is equally valued and whose specific culture is inconsequential to its members' rights and life opportunities.

To be sure, this should not be taken to mean that the gaining of black consciousness merely serves as a strategy or "means to an end" to realise a new, non-racial, egalitarian post-apartheid society, an understanding that Biko explicitly rejects (1987: 51). He emphasises that "our adherence to values that we set for ourselves" - i.e. in the initial stages of the struggle - cannot be "reversed" at the moment of "synthesis" (Biko 1987: 51). The latter refers to the moment at which the building of a positive black identity has reached the point that it can "counterbalance" and "offer a strong counterpoint" to the hegemonic white culture, undoing its racist determinations of blackness and thereby opening the way to the envisioned, new post-apartheid society (Biko 1987: 51). However, Biko's insistence on the persistent assertion of a strong black, African identity in the post-apartheid era does not necessarily contradict his commitment to non-racialism as expressed by what I identified, in Rancière's terms, as the BCM's supplemental claim. As explained earlier, such supplemental claim has to be understood as a "second-order" claim. Accordingly, the black, African identity mustered in the initial stages of the BCM's struggle is still affirmed in the "end" stage - the new, post-apartheid society - but with its status changed from being oppositional and "special" in its antithetical relation to the hegemonic white culture, to being one among many, equally respected cultures.

So again, in this "Rancièrean" reading, Biko's reference to non-racialism is not to be taken literally to express a desire for the eradication of all racial and cultural differences and the creation of one common South African identity and value-system, but rather a vision of a pluralist, multiracial society where all cultures are equally valued and race is irrelevant to one's status, rights, privileges and opportunities. Such a commitment to pluralism is also what Rancière has posited as a key criterion for assessing the progressive value of identity-political movements. He did so on the already mentioned occasion when he considered applications or translations of his political theory to the Northern American, "multicultural" situation (Rancière and Dupuis-Déry 1999). Of the demands made by minority groups for "cultural exemptions" - or, as it is also called, "group" or "cultural" rights - he stated that although finding "something disagreeable" about it, he supports it if it is intended to "defend[...] cultural diversity" and not as a means to prop up "nationality and identity" (Rancière and Dupuis-Déry 1999: 73). Applied to the BCM, its assertions of black, African identity would thus be supported by Rancière insofar as there is a larger ideological commitment to cultural diversity and pluralism.

In Biko's writings, there is, however, also textual support for a more nationalist-identitarian vision of the future, post-apartheid society. For instance when Biko emphasises that South Africa is "essentially a country in Africa", "naturally inhabited by black people" (1987: 122). It is further said that white people, while being allowed to live in South Africa, must do so "on terms laid down by blacks on condition that they respect the black people" (121), or again, on condition of "their acceptance of whatever conditions blacks in this country shall lay at a certain time" (Biko 1987: 122). The proposed renaming of South Africa as Azania also clearly expresses this African-nationalist tendency.7 To be sure, Biko explicitly states that all this is not to be understood as a plea for "separation on the basis of cultural differences" (1987: 45) or as "anti-whitism" (121).

One can thus detect a tension between an ideological commitment to pluralism and nationalism, with only the first being defensible from a Rancièrean perspective based on his stance toward identity politics in the North American, "multicultural" context. Another translation would be required, however, to gauge his assessment of nationalist claims of the colonised as expressed, albeit moderately, by Biko. Apartheid South Africa shared key features the North American situation as highlighted by Rancière, most importantly the domination of a white-supremacist identity. As indicated earlier, Rancière considered claims for recognition by oppressed minorities to be legitimate from a progressive political perspective to the degree that they posed a "demand to be able to exist".

A significant contextual difference with apartheid South Africa, however, is that such demands are made not so much by cultural or ethnic minorities whose aims one could still express in Rancière's terms of being equally recognised and respected as the mainstream culture in a pluralist set-up. Since black people constitute the majority (just over 75 percent) of the population in South Africa, over and above being the indigenous population, its demands for recognition are, understandably, more far-reaching. Apart from disbanding the apartheid regime and its ideology of white supremacy, such demands also involve its replacement by a society with a predominantly African character - as expressed in the aforementioned statements by Biko. To be sure, non-African, minority population groups would be equally respected and allowed to offer their particular inflection to the country's dominant character proportional to their demographic representativeness and relative nativeness. Such a reversal of the previous hegemony can be seen as justified by the violent constitution of colonialism with its bases in unprovoked military conquest and large-scale dispossession of native peoples. If I mentioned earlier how Rancière, faced by the task of translating his "language of struggle" to other, now-Western contexts, granted the ideological fluidity of notions that are rather incompatible with his theory of emancipatory politics, such as nationhood (Rancière and Dupuis-Déry 1999: 75), one may wonder if this fluidity would stretch so far as to defend the nationalist tendencies of anti-colonial movements such as the BCM.


Blackness as a disidentifying operator

Possible accommodations and translations aside, based on the issues raised, Rancière's conceptualisation of emancipatory politics might be found to be somewhat ill-equipped to fully account for the emancipatory force of an anti-colonial movement such as the BCM. There is one important aspect of the BCM's politics, however, where Rancière's theory of emancipatory politics, and its focus on disidentification specifically, can in fact be productively used to highlight, theorise and appreciate a particular intricacy and complexity of black identity politics in the struggle against apartheid. For all its obvious emphasis on black self-determination, the BCM simultaneously negotiated a complex, dialectical course between self and other, with self-identifications as "black" also operating, importantly, in non-identitarian or even anti-identitarian ways.

The BCM not only served as a resolute response to the denial of a positive, dignified identity to black people. It also had to fend off the perfidious, perverted forms of identity politics deployed by the apartheid regime that were clearly meant to "divide and conquer" the different non-white population groups and, as Biko put it, to "fragment" (1987: 33) the anti-apartheid opposition. On the one hand, certain privileges were granted to the coloured and Indian populations, such as a limited degree of political representation and self-rule. Hence, Biko took issue with the launch of the Coloured Representative Council and the preparedness of the Coloured Labour Party to participate in this council. Biko valued the Coloured Labour Party as a form of strategic identitarianism that was highly effective in "galvanizing" and "organizing" the coloured communities (1987: 38). He objected to it, however, insofar as it tended to withdraw from the larger, anti-apartheid "programme of emancipation" by creating "an 'I-am-a-Coloured' attitude" and by trying to win piecemeal concessions for itself from the apartheid government, (Biko 1987: 38).

Potentially even more damaging to the BCM's project of black liberation was the apartheid's regime's euphemistically named Black Homeland or Bantustan Policy.8 The latter was an attempt to isolate and confine each of the different black African ethnicities (Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Venda, etc.) to tiny, usually barren areas in South Africa, which would hence be their "rightful" territory to be governed by themselves. This was done under the pretence of respect for the customs, values, laws and forms of governance of the different black ethnic groupings.9Biko rightly regarded the bantustan policy as an attempt to "balkanize" (1987: 86) the African population. This posed a real threat to the BCM because some African leaders and communities - like their Coloured or Indian counterparts -were tempted to go along with this seemingly progressive scheme, regarding it as an opportunity to achieve self-determination. In order to maintain unity and solidarity among the black population, it was thus crucial for Biko to denounce the bantustans in no uncertain terms and reveal their true nature as "apartheid institutions" (1987: 35). Biko thus offered an incisive, damning critical analysis of the bantustans in terms of their geographical, economic and political aspects and aims - from the apartheid regime taking the largest and best parts of the territory for itself and quashing the black people's hopes and visions for a future South Africa, to denationising the African population in order to exploit them all the more as "migrant labour" (1987: 82-83).

As regards the bantustan policy's identity politics, the BCM's key challenge was to thwart the attempt at "tribalising" (Biko 1987: 86) the African population or, one might also say, retribalising this population, considering the fact that substantial portions lived a relatively detribalised, urban existence. For Biko, this strategy of re-ethnicisation was designed "To boost up as much as possible the intertribal competition and hostility that is bound to come up so that the collective strength and resistance of the black people can be fragmented" (1987: 84). His stance in this regard was clear, stating that "we cannot have our struggle being tribalised through the creation of Zulu, Xhosa and Tswana politicians by the system", which would effectively lead to breaking up the collective struggle into multiple, smaller struggles waged separately by each ethnical grouping in its "tribal cocoon" (Biko 1987: 86).

It is in light of its resistance to the apartheid state's sly application of identity and recognition politics, that the BCM's somewhat equivocal determination of blackness, as its key identity category, must be understood. On the one hand, the "black" in the BCM can be seen to refer to South Africa's "African" population that was officially categorised as such by the apartheid regime and occupied the bottom rung in its racial hierarchy, bearing the brunt of its oppressive and discriminatory practices. On the other hand, "black" was simultaneously defined in a multiracial way to include other non-white population groups in South Africa that were oppressed to varying degrees, including Coloureds and Indians (Biko 1987: 48). Think of Biko's citation of who qualifies as "black" from SASO's policy manifesto, namely, all "those who are by law or tradition politically, economically and socially discriminated against as a group in the South African society and identifying themselves as a unit in the struggle towards the realisation of their aspiration" (1987: 48). In his writings, Biko plays on both the latter, broader sense of the term "black" as well as the former, more narrow sense, for instance, when speaking about African cultures or values (1987: 49).

At times, there is an even further deracialisation of the term blackness, with Biko defining black consciousness in terms of a specific "mental attitude", defined in terms of a certain pride in defying white supremacy and racism, rather than as a "matter of pigmentation" (1987: 48).10 Interestingly, this makes Biko consider the possibility of people being non-white in terms of their racial features, yet not "black" or really black (1987: 48), in the case of non-white people who aspire to whiteness. In this wide understanding, blackness becomes more a political than a strictly racial or identitarian category. But even when speaking more specifically of South Africa's black African populations and their identity and culture, Biko speaks of "African values" in a more generic sense, including the black peoples of sub-Saharan Africa in general.

The BCM's determination and deployment of the category "black" as a multiracial, supra-tribal and even trans-African, subcontinental category can be seen to have generated an important effect of disidentification, and to have played a key role in its project of black liberation. Broadly defined, the term "black" can be seen to have functioned as a disidentifying operator, a complex, political "name" in Rancière's sense of being a "misnomer", resisting the police practice of "right names" of the apartheid regime's pseudo-multiculturalist bantustan policy. And indeed, this policy was deceitfully legitimised by the seemingly noble intention to speak more accurately and respectfully about the black African population's specific ethnicities, giving each its due cultural and political recognition. This was promoted as a progressive development that broke with the previous colonialist habit of lumping all black people together and denying their internal differences.

Apart from ignoring and refusing apartheid's false respect for cultural differences, the BCM's insistent deployment of a wider understanding of blackness can also be seen to have created a nonsensical, scandalous political subject in Rancière's sense, especially within intra-black politics. For a black South African to conceive and assert oneself foremost and primarily as black in the broadest possible sense and only secondarily, if at all, in terms of one's actual or designated tribal identity - perhaps even denouncing the latter - can be seen as a scandalous, controversial gesture in the context of the aforementioned willingness on the part of black leaders and communities to go along with the bantustan policies and practices. As Biko's invectives against such black leaders indicate, the BCM's struggle was not simply a struggle against white supremacy but also against a retrogressive, anti-emancipatory, co-opted form of black identity politics that, although instigated by the apartheid regime, was supported by opportunistic factions among the black population and often resulted in authoritarian modes of government.11



In conclusion, one can say that the article's structure consists of a double movement. While Rancière's dismissive stance toward identity politics has been shown to become increasingly nuanced and complicated, the BCM's assertion of blackness and African values was shown to be part of a broader commitment to pluralism. Rancière's theory of emancipatory politics thus came to appear somewhat less incompatible with the BCM's brand of black identity politics, yet some important challenges and trouble spots remained in conceptualising and appreciating the BCM in Rancière's terms. The first concerned the difficulty in properly acknowledging the crucial, "therapeutic" role played by the affirmation of a positive black identity within Rancière's conceptual framework, and how such an affirmation is empowering and emancipatory in itself. A second trouble spot concerned the BCM's larger vision for a future, post-apartheid South Africa. While its pluralist version was shown to be compatible with Rancière's supplemental logic of recognition, its nationalist articulation proved to be more challenging to translate into Rancière's terms. Despite these shortcomings, however, I argued that Rancière's theory fares better in articulating and conceptualising the complex course navigated by the BCM between the assertion of identity and strategies of disidentification. It was shown how the BCM's demand for the recognition of black people's culture and identity was, at the same time, the refusal of the apartheid regime's tribalised form of pseudo-recognition, through an insistence on a less particularistic, generic blackness.



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First submission: 19 February 2020
Acceptance: 6 October 2020
Published: 31 December 2020



1 On the rare occasions that Rancière refers to the struggles of "people of colour" (e.g. 1992, 59) no detailed analysis is offered. It is suggested that the same fundamental logic of emancipation of his more central cases of workers' and women's struggles also applies.
2 Rancière is not claiming that all people are equally intelligent as a matter of (natural) fact. On the contrary, he holds that no factual proof of human equality - or inequality - is possible and that precisely for this reason one may assume, as a political choice, that it is the case and see what consequences follow from such an assumption. For his most explicit treatment of the topic, see Rancière's The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1991).
3 For a more complex account of the relation between Rancière's early work on workers' movements and his later political writings, see Jean-Philippe Deranty (2016: 41).
4 The more radical decolonial student activists thus reject the idea of what is also called the "pluriversity" and, instead, want to establish a predominantly "African" university where non-indigenous scholarly traditions occupy a minority position with special centres for European or Western studies.
5 Insofar as Rancière, in the article "Politics, Identification, and Subjectivization" (1992), does emphasise the need for a more complex account of identity politics (1992: 62), this is not much expounded on and goes somewhat counter to the general, dismissive treatment of identity politics.
6 The BCM rose to prominence from the end of the 1960s onward, with the foundation of the South African Students' Organisation (SASO) of which Biko was the first president. Its importance in the anti-apartheid struggle is often determined as having filled the hiatus caused by the incarceration of many leaders of the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations in the early 1960s. The BCM is also seen to have served as a key inspiration for the youth uprisings of 1976. Biko was murdered while being detained in September 1977.
7 The term Azania, originally a Greek denomination for the southeastern parts of Africa, was adopted by different nationalist parties in South Africa in the struggle against apartheid.
8 This policy was initiated through a series of acts passed in the 1950s and 1970s such as the Bantu Authority Act (1951), the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act (1959) and the Bantu Citizenship Act (1970). In the late 1970s, four bantustans were declared independent: Transkei, Ciskei, Bophuthatswana and Venda.
9 Mahmood Mamdani (1996) has offered an excellent analysis and critique of this homeland policy.
10 But, compare this, for instance, with the following statement by Biko addressing black African people, saying that the latter "must rally together around the cause of their oppression - the blackness of their skin" (1987: 84).
11 Think for instance of Lucas Magope's rule of Bophuthatswana - the designated homeland of the Tswana - from 1977 until the bantustan's dissolution in 1994. When his rule was challenged, Magope heavy-handedly crushed popular protests with police brutality and even military interventions, resulting in many wounded and deaths.

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