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Ranciere’s ‘literary animals’: the conditions of possibility of ‘political subjectivation’

Lane, Jeremy F.; Lane, Jeremy


Jeremy F. Lane

Professor of French & Critical Theory


© 2020 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group. Jacques Rancière re-inflects Aristotle's famous maxim to claim that ‘man is a political animal because he is a literary animal’. He goes on to relate this characteristic of ‘literarity’ to Plato’s description of written language as an ‘orphan letter’, to a process of ‘disincorporation’ and to a distinction between a ‘body’ and a ‘quasi-body’. These founding assumptions of Rancière's theory of politics have attracted significant attention among commentators. Yet existing commentary on Rancière's work has left a number of key questions unresolved. Does the power of ‘literarity’ depend on the development of mass literacy, of the institution of literature and the development of the printing press? What, precisely, is the value of the distinction between a ‘body’ and a ‘quasi-body’? Is, as many critics have argued, Rancière's notion of ‘literarity’ fundamentally ahistorical, falsely universalising and hence politically naive? Through close readings of Rancière's interpretations of Hobbes’s Leviathan and Balzac's novel, Le Curé de village, alongside its own reading of an incident in Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, this article seeks to elucidate these questions. It argues that ‘literarity’ does indeed function as a transhistorical constant in Rancière’s work but that this does not justify accusations of ahistoricism or naivete.


Lane, J. F., & Lane, J. (2021). Ranciere’s ‘literary animals’: the conditions of possibility of ‘political subjectivation’. Textual Practice, 35(4), 545-563.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Sep 6, 2019
Online Publication Date Feb 27, 2020
Publication Date 2021
Deposit Date Dec 5, 2019
Publicly Available Date Aug 28, 2021
Journal Textual Practice
Print ISSN 0950-236X
Electronic ISSN 1470-1308
Publisher Routledge
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 35
Issue 4
Pages 545-563
Keywords Jacques Rancière, ‘literarity’, political subjectivation, quasi-bodies, Hobbes, Literature and Literary Theory
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information Peer Review Statement: The publishing and review policy for this title is described in its Aims & Scope.; Aim & Scope:; Received: 2019-03-11; Accepted: 2019-09-06; Published: 2020-02-27


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