Rancière’s Ignoramus

Jacques Rancière prepares for us a parable. A student who is illiterate, after living a fulfilled life without text, one day decides to teach herself to read. Luckily she knows a single poem by heart and procures a copy of that poem, presumably from a trusted source, by which to work. By comparing her knowledge, sign by sign, word by word, with the poem she can, Rancière believes, finally piece together a foundational understanding of her language:

“From this ignoramus, spelling out signs, to the scientist who constructs hypotheses, the same intelligence is always at work – an intelligence that translates signs into other signs and proceeds by comparisons and illustrations in order to communicate its intellectual adventures and understand what another intelligence is endeavoring to communicate to it.

This poetic labour of translation is at the heart of all learning.”

The Emancipated Spectator (2008)

What interests me in Rancière’s example is not so much the act of translation as the possibility of mis-translation. Taken in light of The Ignorant Schoolmaster we can assume that Rancière is aware of the wide gap that exists between knowing something and knowing enough about something for it to be valuable. But what distinction can we uncover between the ‘true’ and the ‘false’, hell, even between the ‘true’ and ‘almost true’? How does one calculate the value of what is effectively a mistake?

Error appears to be a crucial component of Rancière’s position. In a sense, Rancière is positing a world that has from first principles always uncovered itself through a kind of decoding. A world in which subjects “translate signs into other signs and proceed by comparison and illustration”. Now forgive me for side-stepping a little here, but doesn’t that sound an awful lot like biological development? Here’s a paragraph from Richard Dawkins (worth his salt as long as he is talking about biology):

“Think about the two qualities that a virus, or any sort of parasitic replicator, demands of a friendly medium, the two qualities that make cellular machinery so friendly towards parasitic DNA, and that make computers so friendly towards computer viruses. These qualities are, firstly, a readiness to replicate information accurately, perhaps with some mistakes that are subsequently reproduced accurately; and, secondly, a readiness to obey instructions encoded in the information so replicated.”

Viruses of the Mind (1993)

Hidden amongst Dawkins’ words, I believe, we find an interesting answer to the problem of mis-translation I pose above. A mistake is useless if accuracy is your aim, but what if your aim is merely to learn something? To enrich and expand the connections that exist between your systems of knowledge. As Dawkins alludes to above, it is beneficial for life that errors do exist and are propagated by biological systems. Too many copying errors and all biological processes would be cancerous, mutating towards oblivion. Too much error management (what in information theory would be metered by a coded ‘redundancy‘) and biological change, and thus evolution, could never occur.

Simply put, exchange within and between systems is almost valueless unless change, and thus error, is possible within the system. At the scale Rancière exposes for us there are two types of value: firstly, the value of repeating the message (the poem) and secondly, the value of making an error and thus producing entirely new knowledge. In information theory the value of a message is calculated by the amount of work saved on the part of the receiver. That is, if the receiver were to attempt to create that exact message, entirely from scratch.

In his influential essay, Encoding, Decoding (1980), Stuart Hall maps a four-stage theory of “linked but distinctive moments” in the circuit of communication:

  • production
  • circulation
  • use (consumption)
  • reproduction

John Corner further elaborates on these definitions:

  • the moment of encoding: ‘the institutional practices and organizational conditions and practices of production’;
  • the moment of the text: ‘the… symbolic construction, arrangement and perhaps performance… The form and content of what is published or broadcast’; and
  • the moment of decoding: ‘the moment of reception [or] consumption… by… the reader/hearer/viewer’ which is regarded by most theorists as ‘closer to a form of “construction”‘ than to ‘the passivity… suggested by the term “reception”‘


At each ‘moment’ a new set of limits and possibilities arises. This means that the way a message is coded/decoded is not the only controlling factor in its reception. The intended message I produce, for instance, could be circulated against those intentions, or consumed in a way I never imagined it would be. What’s more, at each stage there emerges the possibility for the message to be replicated incorrectly, or, even more profoundly, for a completely different component of the message to be taken as its defining principle.

Let’s say I write a letter, intending to send it to my newly literate, ignoramus friend. The letter contains a recipe for a cake I have recently baked. For some reason my letter is intercepted by the CIA,who are convinced that the recipe is a cleverly coded message for building a bomb. At this stage in the communication cycle the possibility for mis-translation to occur is high. Stuart Hall would claim is that this shows how messages are determined by the social and institutional power-relations via which they are encoded and then made to circulate. Any cake recipe can be a bomb recipe if pushed into the ‘correct’ relationships. Every ignoramus, if they have the right teacher, can develop knowledge that effectively lies beyond the teacher’s.

What it is crucial to understand is that work is done at each “moment” of the message. As John Corner states, decoding is constructive: the CIA make the message just as readily as I did when I wrote and sent it.

These examples are crude, no doubt, but they set up a way to think about exchange (communication and information) through its relationships, rather than through its mediums and methods. The problem here that requires further examination is thus:

What is ‘value’ and how does one define it within a relational model of exchange?

Like biological evolution, information theory is devoid of intentionality. Life prospers in error, in noise and mistakes. Perhaps, as I am coming to believe, if we want to maximise the potential of art, of writing and other systems of exchange, we first need to determine their inherent redundancy. Or, more profoundly, to devise ways to maximise or even increase that redundancy. To determine art’s redundancy, and then, like Rancière’s ignoramus, for new knowledge to emerge through mis-translation and mis-relation.

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