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Slavery in Plato's Allegory of the Cave: Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, and the Militant Intellectual from the Global South

  • Andrés Fabián Henao Castro

In this article I argue that Plato's allegory of the cave dramatizes democracy's dependency on slavery. Plato's cave forces the theatre, the political space of ancient Greek representation, to confront its material dependency upon a space from which it is otherwise visually and territorially separated: the mines where intensive use was made of slave labor. As many have argued, the most salient aspects of Plato's allegory of the cave are the complete absence of lexis (speech) and praxis (action), the evacuation of the acoustic and the distortion of the visual. These are also the most decisive features when delimiting the border between the free and the unfree in Greek antiquity:

Do you think these prisoners have ever seen anything of themselves and one another besides the shadows that the fire casts on the wall of the cave in front of them? … And if they could engage in discussion with one another, don't you think they would assume that the words they used applied to the things they see passing in front of them?

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1. See Arendt, Hannah, “Philosophy and Politics,Social Research 57 (1990): 73103, at 96; Irigaray, Luce, The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger (Austin: Texas University Press, 1999), 91 ; Cavarero, Adriana, For More Than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 40 ; and Rokem, Freddie, “Voices and Visions in Fingal's Cave: Plato and Strindberg,” in The International Strindberg, ed. Stenport, Anna Westerstahl (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2012), 127–44, at 133.

2. Plato, Republic, trans. Reeve, C. D. C. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004), 208 (515a5–515b5).

3. Ibid., 209 (515c5).

4. See Heidegger, Martin, The Essence of Truth (New York: Continuum, 2002).

5. See Puchner, Martin, The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

6. Plato, 52–5 (373b1–376b1).

7. See Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998), 221–30; and Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin, 2006), 91141 .

8. Badiou, Alain, “The Lessons of Jacques Rancière: Knowledge and Power after the Storm,” trans. Tho, Tzuchien, in Jacques Rancière: History, Politics, Aesthetics, ed. Rockhill, Gabriel and Watts, Philip (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 3054, at 37–8.

9. In fact, one could even argue that Plato works, for the various disagreements between Badiou and Rancière apropos the relationship between philosophy and politics, as some kind of aggregative metaphor. Nowhere is this more visible than in their mutual disagreement vis-à-vis the reading of their more direct intellectual father figure, Louis Althusser. As happens with Plato, whereas Badiou praises Althusser for having arrived at a conception of subjectivity without a subject ( Badiou, Alain, Metapolitics, trans. Barker, Jason [New York: Verso, 2011], 64), which is at the heart of Althusser's theory of interpellation, Rancière criticizes, since the publication of La Leçon d'Althusser (Paris: Gallimard, 2000), the authoritarian character of Althusser's theoreticism, which he links to the reactionary political authority of the French Communist Party, and even dismisses Althusser's theory of interpellation for its metaphysical assumptions ( Rancière, Jacques, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, ed. and trans. Corcoran, Steven [New York: Bloomsbury, 2013], 37). In synthesis, Rancière's break with the Schoolmaster leaves no substitute standing; Badiou's break delivers him from one schoolmaster to another, from Althusser to Lacan in a metonymic substitution of schoolmaster Plato.

10. Rancière, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Elliott, Gregory (New York: Verso, 2011), 1718 .

11. Marx, Karl, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, pt. 1: The Process of Production of Capital (New York: Penguin Classics, 1990), 163 .

12. In Rancière, Jacques, Proletarian Nights: The Worker's Dream in Nineteenth Century France, trans. Drury, John (New York: Verso, 2012), Rancière explores the correspondence among locksmiths, tailors, shoemakers, and typographers from the nineteenth century. From the joiner/floor layer Gabriel Gauny to the Christian Socialists of L'Ateleier and the Icarian communities in the United States, Rancière follows the workers’ dreams of a fraternal community, their discussions of poetry, art, and their imagination of a communist utopia, expressing their irreducibility to a working class in socioeconomic terms. In their nightly correspondence, Rancière found that workers already engaged in the kind of activities that were presumably reserved for those who did not “belong” to the cave.

13. See Rancière, Jacques, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Rose, Julie (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); and Badiou, Alain, The Communist Hypothesis, trans. Macey, David and Corcoran, Steve (New York: Verso, 2015). (For “an-archy,” see Rancière, Dissensus, 34.) Badiou's resignification of communism and Rancière's resignification of democracy are driven by the same commitment to equality as the defining feature of the emancipatory horizon that I call here the axiom of equality. Hence, Badiou conceives of communism in the sense of Babeuf's mid-1790s Society of Equals, and cites Rancière favorably, claiming that “emancipatory politics is essentially the politics of the anonymous masses; it is the victory of those with no names, of those who are held in a state of colossal insignificance by the State”; Badiou, Alain, “The Idea of Communism,” In The Idea of Communism, ed. Douzinas, Costas and Žižek, Slavoj (New York: Verso, 2010), 114, at 9–10. Rancière also agrees with Badiou's definition of communism in L'Humanité as “a form of universality constructed by those practices [of emancipation]”; Jacques Rancière, “Communists without Communism?,” in Idea of Communism, 167–78, at 167. And yet, for Rancière's “attempt to salvage the word ‘democracy,’” Badiou interjects, “a detour through the Idea of communism is unavoidable” (Badiou, Communist Hypothesis, 249 n. 10). This is a detour to which Rancière seems to have conceded when he claimed that “the future of emancipation”—understood as “the autonomous growth of the space of the common created by the free association of men and women implementing the egalitarian principle”—should probably be called communism and not democracy (Rancière, “Communists without Communism?,” 176).

14. Rancière, Jacques, Moments Politiques, trans. Foster, Mary (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2014), 145 .

15. Badiou, Metapolitics, 141–2.

16. My reading is influenced by Bonnie Honig's reception of James Porter's distinction between classicism—an empty aesthetic claim to universality—and classicization—an interpretative technique that, while focused on the present, “turns for understanding to ancient circumstances, scripts, or images for analogies that might illuminate our condition or even mirror our circumstances”; Honig, Bonnie, Antigone Interrupted (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 32 . See Porter, James, “Feeling Classical: Classicism and Ancient Literary Criticism,” in Classical Pasts: The Classical Tradition of Greece and Rome, ed. Porter, James (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 301–52. According to Honig, “classicization that treats the classical past as alien and resistant to appropriation” may prove “more instructive … than the sort that seeks and finds our stammering selves in the mirror” (32). I want to keep the conditions of production of Plato's text alive because another mirror—what Macherey, Pierre adequately calls a “broken mirror” (A Theory of Literary Production [New York: Routledge, 2006], 134–50; quote at 135)—survives in this very different appropriation of the text's foreignness for a more troubling contemporaneity of Plato's allegories.

17. See Fine, Gail, “Knowledge and Belief in Republic V–VII,” in Companions to Ancient Thought I: Epistemology, ed. Everson, Steven (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 85115 ; and Barney, Rachel, “ Eros and Necessity in the Ascent from the Cave,Ancient Philosophy 28.2 (2008): 357–72.

18. See Strauss, Leo, The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964); Bloom, Allan, The Republic of Plato (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968); and Burnyeat, Myles, “Culture and Society in Plato's Republic,Tanner Lectures on Human Values 20 (1999): 215324 .

19. See Wilderbing, James, “Prisoners and Puppets in the Cave,Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 27 (2004): 117–39.

20. See Chanter, Tina, Whose Antigone? The Tragic Marginalization of Slavery (New York: SUNY Press, 2011); and Cynthia Patterson, “Metaphors of Body and Soul in the Phaedo,” paper presented at a workshop on Plato's Phaedo at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., 30–31 October 2015. For alternative associations of the cave to other material sites, see Irigaray, Luce, Speculum of the Other Women (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985); and Ustinova, Yulia, Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind: Descending Underground in the Search for Ultimate Truth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

21. See Plato, 119 (433d1); Morrow, Glenn R., Plato's Law of Slavery in Its Relation to Greek Law (Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1939); and Vlastos, Gregory, “Slavery in Plato's Thought,Philosophical Review 50.3 (1941): 289304 .

22. See Rancière, Jacques, The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing, trans. Mandell, Charlotte (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).

23. Rancière, Emancipated Spectator, 4–5.

24. Ibid., 5.

25. Rancière, Jacques, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, trans. Ross, Kristin (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).

26. Peter Hallward summarizes this isomorphic relationship between theatre and politics, à la Rancière, as leaving the provisional status of the actor in the same plane of contingency: “every thinking has its stage or scène, every thinker ‘plays’ or acts in the theatrical sense. Every political subject is first and foremost ‘a sort of local and provisional theatrical configuration’”; Hallward, Peter, “Staging Equality: Rancière's Theatrocracy and the Limits of Anarchic Equality,” in Jacques Rancière: History, Politics, Aesthetics, ed. Rockhill, Gabriel and Watts, Philip (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 140–57, at 141. For an analysis of theatricality in Rancière see Parker, Andrew, “Mimesis and the Division of Labor,” introduction to The Philosopher and His Poor, by Rancière, Jacques (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), ixxx . For a critique of the link that Rancière establishes between the theatre and democracy, see Halpern, Richard, “Theater and Democratic Thought: Arendt to Rancière,Critical Inquiry 37.3 (2011): 545–72. I thank one of the anonymous reviewers of this essay for leading me toward these excellent references.

27. Badiou, Alain, “Rhapsody for the Theatre,Theatre Survey 49.2 (2008): 187238 .

28. Badiou, Metapolitics, 23.

29. Rancière, Jacques, On the Shores of Politics (New York: Verso, 1995), 32–3, quote at 33.

30. Hallward, 143.

31. Rancière, Dissensus, 36–42.

32. Rancière, Emancipated Spectator, 13.

33. Badiou, “Rhapsody for the Theatre,” 209. Italics his.

34. Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in The Marx-Engels Reader: Second Edition, ed. Tucker, Robert C. (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978), 473500, at 475; cited in Badiou, Alain, Plato's “Republic”: A Dialogue in 16 Chapters, trans. Spitzer, Susan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 275 ; and Rancière, Jacques, Hatred of Democracy, trans. Corcoran, Steve (New York: Verso, 2014), 17 .

35. Rancière, Disagreement, 30.

36. Plato, 99 (414c5). In an excellent essay on the question of slavery in Plato's Republic, Gregory Vlastos highlights the passage at 433d (using a different edition than Reeve's shown here) as conclusive evidence that Plato did contemplate slavery as part of the structure of his utopian polis: “Or is what most contributes to making it good the fact that every child, woman, slave, free person, craftsman, ruler, and subject each does his own work and does not meddle with what is not?” (Plato, 119). Vlastos, Gregory, “Does Slavery Exist in Plato's Philosophy?,Classical Philology 63.4 (1968): 291–5, at 294. It is worth noting that it is the governing logic of this passage, the arithmetic restriction of one body to one role, that runs throughout Rancière's constant invocation of Plato as the mega-architect of the police order. I am, however, less interested in the philological dispute over Plato's commitments to slavery, in which some participants claim Plato's law of slavery to be harsher than any known slave legislation of classical antiquity (see Morrow, 126). Like Rancière, I am not interested in defending Plato as an emancipatory author. And yet, like Badiou, I am interested in the ways in which his allegories can be mobilized for emancipatory purposes, precisely by attending to those historical contexts (ancient and contemporary) that, despite their strong intertextual resonances with the theatrical images composed in the dialogue, never enter the canonical text.

37. Nehamas, Alexander, The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 35 .

38. Plato, 186–7 (493a10–493c3).

39. Gorgias, cited in Critchley, Simon and Webster, Jamieson, Stay, Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), 16 .

40. Rancière, Jacques, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, trans. Paul, Zakir (New York: Verso, 2013).

41. Plato, 208 (515a4–5).

42. Critchley and Webster, 60.

43. Although the notion of the Global South uses a geographical metaphor to describe a locus of knowledge production, it is ultimately irreducible to definite territorial demarcations. Rather, the Global South should be understood as an epistemological and political project that advocates for equality in the global production of knowledge; a claim to equality that confronts the silent privilege given to the Euro-American academy by drawing from histories and subject positions that trouble and complicate this imaginary circumscription. See Levander, Caroline and Mignolo, Walter, “Introduction: The Global South and World Dis/Order,Global South 5.1 (2011): 111 .

44. Harries, Martin, Scare Quotes from Shakespeare: Marx, Keynes, and the Language of Reenchantment (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 91 .

45. Ibid., 98.

46. Agamben, Giorgio, Nudities (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 13 .

47. Marx, Karl, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte ([1852] New York: International Publishers, 2004), 16 .

48. Susan Buck-Morss, “The Second Time as Farce … Historical Pragmatics and the Untimely Present,” in Idea of Communism, 67–80, at 78. Italics hers.

49. See Buck-Morss, Susan, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009).

50. Badiou, “Idea of Communism,” 11.

51. See Mignolo, Walter, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

52. Buck-Morss, “Second Time,” 79.

53. Ibid. Italics hers.

54. Hence, after decades of decolonial critique against the productive and exclusive power of the Eurocentric gaze, the romantic portrayal of the “primitive people,” later called “savages” too, in Badiou's Republic, passes unchallenged, just to mention one of several examples in that text. Badiou, Plato's “Republic,” 68.

55. Rancière, Hatred of Democracy, 61.

56. Rancière, Dissensus, 33. On the relationship between the demos and the proletariat see Rancière, Disagreement, 18.

57. Rancière, Disagreement, 8.

58. See McClintock, Anne, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995); Aníbal Quijano, “Qué tal Raza!,” paper presented at the conference organized by the Coloniality Working Group, at SUNY–Binghamton in New York, 2000; and Wynter, Sylvia, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, after Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,New Centennial Review 3.3 (2003): 257337 .

59. Kenneth Reinhard, “Introduction: Badiou's Sublime Translation of the Republic,” introduction to Badiou, Plato's “Republic,” vii–xxiii, at xi–xii. Italics his.

60. Kant, Immanuel, “Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics” with Selections from the “Critique of Pure Reason,” ed. Hatfield, Gary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), §58 at 108.

61. See Mitchell, Timothy, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (New York: Verso, 2011).

62. Sassen, Saskia, “At the Systemic Edge: Expulsions,” in Resisting Biopolitics: Philosophical, Political, and Performative Strategies, ed. Wilmer, S. E. and Žukauskaitė, Audronė (New York: Routledge, 2015), 219–35, at 227.

63. See Sassen, Saskia, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

64. See Goldhill, Simon, “The Audience of Athenian Tragedy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, ed. Easterling, P. E. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 5468, at 60–5.

65. For a sociological analysis of Athenian tragedy see Hall, Edith, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991); and edith Hall, “The Sociology of Athenian Tragedy,” in Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, 93–126.

66. Jones, A. H. M., Athenian Democracy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 17 .

67. Ibid., 14. For an analysis of slavery in antiquity and the extensive employment of slaves in the mines see Isaac, Benjamin, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004); and Dubois, Page, Slavery: Antiquity and Its Legacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

68. See Arruzza, Cinzia, “The Private and the Common in Plato's Republic,History of Political Thought 32.2 (2011): 215–33; quote at 220.

69. See Dubois, Page, Torture and Truth: The New Ancient World (New York: Routledge, 1991).

I first discussed the ideas presented in this article at the 2014 Performance Philosophy Conference in Paris, and at the 2015 ASTR Annual Conference in Portland. I thank both the organizers of the respective panels and the participants for the wonderful conversations. I would also like to express my gratitude to Nicholas Ridout, Ashley Bohrer, and the two anonymous reviewers, for their constructive criticisms.

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