Occupation : Jacques Rancière

Mathilde Roussel / Training Session, level 1

Mathilde Roussel / Training Session, level 1

Occupation : Jacques Rancière

Contributing to a lexicon of political terms normally supposes that you take for granted that politics exists per se as a well-established sphere of human activity, so that one should choose either a concept belonging to that sphere or a concept dealing with its foundations, be they ontological, theological, or other. My own contention, however, is that this existence per se is dubious, that the homogeneity of the multifarious practices, rules, and institutions subsumed under the notions of politics, policy, or the political is questionable. In my book Disagreement I proposed to conceive politics as an alteration of a normal order of things, which means a normal distribution of places and functions, identities and capacities.1 I tried to show that politics is an activity that reframes the mode of visibility of the common. It is the configuration of a space and a form of temporality in which some affairs are seen as common affairs and subjects are given the capacity for dealing with those affairs. This also means that politics is a conflictual process in which the very meaning of the words is at issue. That’s why I am not interested in proposing a concept explaining what politics is. Instead I am interested in examining words whose meaning is at issue in situations where the identification of politics is itself at issue. From that point of view, words that are worth examining to rethink politics might be words that have two characteristics: first, they are not specific to politics but they designate alterations in the visibility of what is normally thought to be the stage of the political; second, they link the question of the common with matters of time and space.

This is precisely the case with “occupation.” It is not a notion that normally belongs to the political corpus. Until the last few years it seemed to concern politics only as a side issue, as something belonging to either the military sphere (as in the Israeli occupation of Palestine) or the social sphere (as in those strikes that were named in the US “sit-down strikes” and in France “grèves avec occupation”). It is only in recent movements that the word popped up on what is normally thought to be the political stage. And it popped up on this stage as something disturbing it: as an ephemeral upsurge of inefficient aspirations, deprived of any political program, for both our governments and our leftist strategists; as “real democracy” pitted against the lie of representative politics for those who took part in those movements. We can add that this aspect of exceptionality was marked by the privilege given in English to the verb “occupy” over the substantive “occupation.”

This first point is strictly connected with a second. Occupation deals with matters of space and time. But it deals with them in a way that evinces a tension between two uses of space and time. You may occupy a space in a normal way, as owner or tenant. But the notion takes on its full meaning when you take possession of a space which is not yours (in the case of military occupation) or when you use it in a way that is not its normal use: for instance, if you put your tent on a square that is made for urban circulation and make it a space for living and discussing. That matter of space becomes still more explicit if, as was the case in the occupation of Gezi Park in Istanbul, the conflict dwells on the very use of a space. Second, occupation deals with time. But it does so in a seemingly contradictory way. On one hand, the occupation of a space always appears to be something provisional: a military occupation is not an annexation. And the occupation of a park is an interruption of the normal course of time which is not intended to last forever. On the other hand, an occupation is the activity to which you devote your time, which means that it designates not only a specific job, but a normal use of time. The idea of occupation entails the idea of a regular activity taking place within a regular order of time and distribution of activities. In that sense an “occupy” movement might be defined as a movement interrupting the normal order of social occupations, as was condensed in the slogan of one protester in Zuccotti Park: “Lost my job, found an occupation.” My contention is that this interruption, and the very tension between two meanings and two connotations of the notion of occupation, may help us to think how politics is connected to or disconnected from a certain order of time and distribution of spaces.

To test this hypothesis I will approach the notion from two angles. First I will deal with the forms of spatialization and temporalization of politics at issue in the recent Occupy movements. Then I will make a short journey through the history of the notion in order to discern what kind of original knot between politics, time, and space may be inherent to that notion. Then I shall return to the present to think about the possible shifts in the meaning of the notion.

I will first examine some aspects of the use of the notions of “occupying” and “occupation” in the recent movements and notably in “Occupy Wall Street.” Most of the narratives about Occupy Wall Street begin the story with the decision to change the sense of a political demonstration by changing its use of the space. Protesting in the streets of a city always entails that you use a space devoted to circulation as a metaphor of the “public space” of citizenship. In normal protests, however, this metaphorical use is associated with the notion of movement. Protesters take to the streets and go over them to both make their demands visible and embody the dynamic of their protest. This is a diversion from the normal use of the streets, but this diversion is still in keeping with this normal use (moving), which also means that it remains faithful to a certain distribution of the roles and the places, opposing the walkers who circulate their demands to the sitting authorities to whom those demands are addressed. A deviation from that normal diversion thus consisted in the decision to break with that material and symbolic distribution of roles. It was the decision to stay instead of to keep moving, and discuss among themselves instead of shouting their demands to the authorities. This shift involved two forms of structuration of the space: the assembly and the tent. The assembly is the canonical form of identification between the material configuration of a space and the symbolic configuration of a community. It is par excellence the “common place” or the “place of the common.” Making an assembly instead of marching in the streets thus means reconfiguring the common, setting aside the existing configuration of the relation between the power and the protesters by transforming the latter into a sort of constituent assembly that decides to ignore the existing authorities and discuss the very sense of politics or the very essence of a political community. Making an assembly in a park meant beginning politics again, reinventing a public space out of the very disposition of bodies on a ground and the mode of their speech. That’s why, in the Occupy movements, the circular structure of the assembly was completed by another spatial feature: horizontality. The new assembly is an assembly wherein all individuals are sitting on the common ground, at the same level, without presidents, leaders, or professional orators.

My point is not about the validity of the representation of the political community that animated the Occupy movements. It is about its significance. From this point of view, what was significant in the questionable idea of consensus that prevailed in those assemblies was not the fact that the decision should be unanimous (which obviously had always been the case in the authoritarian practices of so-called “democratic centralism”) but the fact that it could be blocked by the disagreement of one person. Horizontality thus works as a complement and a correction of the circle, a way to constitute a public space wherein the collective implementation of equality is based on the direct manifestation of the equal capacity of each speaking being. It works as the affirmation of an anti-hierarchical subversion which questions the usual distance between individual capability and collective power, and, by the same token, the boundaries separating the time of political life and the time of private and everyday life. This is how the assembly connects with the tent. The tent is a multifarious symbol, combining the militant—if not military—occupation, the friendly youth party, and the refusal of a mainstream form of life. The tent is a symbol of both a provisional settlement and a global contestation of the normal way of “dwelling” in society. “Occupation” then seems to connect a reconfiguration of the political space with a wider reconfiguration of the way in which life in general is “occupied,” in which time is divided into various spheres of activity requiring appropriate individual capacities and appropriate forms of relations between individuals. This connection is also made perceptible through the strange extensions of the use of the verb “occupy” that made it the signifier of a global conversion to another way of inhabiting the world: “Occupy language,” “Occupy imagination,” “Occupy love,” and eventually “Occupy everything,” which seems to mean: change your way of dealing with everything and with all existing forms of social relationships. The Occupy movements have thus revealed, in an exemplary way, how the existence or inexistence of politics is embedded in forms of spatialization and temporalization and in uses of space and time; it rests on a distribution of activities and capacities which is also a distribution of the common, the public and the private. They have evinced a conflict between two distributions of the sensible.

We can move forward in the understanding of this conflict by briefly tracing the history of the word “occupation” and of the tension between its meanings. If we look at dictionaries, we cannot but be struck by the difficulty they have finding the right order of derivation for the various meanings of the words “occupy” and “occupation.” What is the exact relation between the exceptional military occupation of a foreign country and the usual job or way of life of an individual? Between the fact that you reside in a place and the fact that your time is occupied in this or that way? Between the act of occupying and the fact of occupation? In the Oxford English Dictionary the first definition given for “occupy” is “reside in,” whereas the first definition for “occupation” is “what occupies one; a means of passing one’s time.” It is not so easy to go from this “pastime” to “the act of taking possession of a place by military force.” We can ask the French language (from which the English word was borrowed) the reason for that ambiguity. But there we meet new problems: the Thesaurus of the French Language (Trésor de la langue française) first defines the verb “occuper” as “to fill a space,” and derives from this the fact of “holding a job” as well as that of taking over a territory. Then it moves to a second meaning which is “to absorb, to fill,” meaning by this that something is the concern in which one is absorbed. As for occupation, it is defined first as the act of occupying a space, then as the act of devoting one’s time to something, then as the action to which one devotes one’s time, and finally, “by metonymy,” as “the thing to which one devotes one’s time.” This “metonymy” is obviously a strange derivation since the historical examples collected by the same Thesaurus show exactly the contrary: the first meaning of the word in the history of French language is “the thing which is your concern, the thing to which you devote your activity,” a meaning which, as is confirmed by Wartburg’s Etymological Dictionary, existed two or three centuries before the military sense of the word.2 It seems then that occupation as the “thing to which you devote your time” is a category much prior to and possibly independent of any idea of “seizing hold of.”

We can try to test this hypothesis by continuing our journey into the past. As it turns out, we perceive a similar discordance in the Latin language, from which the French word comes. While “occupare” clearly conveys the meaning of “seizing hold” or “taking over,” “occupation” mainly designates the thing to which the activity of a person is dedicated or the concern occupying his mind. This relation between the activity of a person and the kind of concern occupying his or her mind can be made more explicit if we move to Greek and examine a word whose root is different but whose use is quite close. This Greek word is epitèdeuma, often used in the plural: epitèdeumata: the activities of the mind and the body, the concrete ways of being and doing whose acquisition, according to Plato, is part of the education of individuals and citizens, along with the disciplines of the abstract sciences (mathèmata). An epitèdeuma—allow me to translate this as “occupation”—means both the way in which an individual passes his time, the kind of activity that he exerts, but also the way in which he exercises his mind and his body to make them apt to the exercise of that activity—which means that it is not simply the fact of doing something but the fact of doing it as the thing for which you are made. In fact, the substantive epitèdeuma comes from the adjective epitèdès which means “appropriate.” According to some dictionaries, epitèdès is made of the preposition epi and the demonstrative tèdé. Being epitèdès would thus mean being “for that.” An occupation is a demonstration of appropriateness, the demonstration that you are made for the activity that you perform just as it is made for you. Such is the principle that rules Plato’s Republic. This is how the education of the guardians of the city firstly implies the selection of those whose nature is appropriate (epitèdès) for that occupation (epitèdeuma).3 On the opposite side, the exclusion of poetic mimesis is based on a principle that reads as follows: “everybody should be occupied by one sole occupation.”4 This is also why the artisans must stay all the time in their workshop and do only the job for which they have the appropriate capacity.5 The point is not the number of hours required for doing the work or for acquiring the skill for doing it. A capacity is more than a skill: it is a destination. And time is not a duration. It is a location. Plato’s statement locates the artisans in the time of an eternal everyday, a time of immediate material needs incompatible with the time of common affairs. The only way in which the shoemaker takes part in the common of the city is the private activity that consists in making shoes. Such is the principle of police, the principle of a hierarchical distribution of the sensible: an occupation is a way of being in time and of being at the place where the rightness of your being-there is endlessly demonstrated by the exercise of your activity. This “demonstration” might be a rough translation of what is euphemized in a famous sentence by Hannah Arendt, commenting on the diverse forms of the vita activa in The Human Condition: “Each human activity points to its proper location in the world.”6

This matter of “location” makes it possible to substantiate my hypothesis that sees in the recent “occupy” movements the pitting of one form of “occupation” against another. Occupation is a notion that can take on opposite meanings, which means that it signals a conflict of two distributions of the sensible. It points to the connection between “activity” and “location” that defines either the order of police—as the fact of doing the activity “suitable” to your place—or the possibility of a political disruption—as the use of a place in a way that disrupts the normal use of that place. The occupation of a place disrupts the distribution of the spheres of activity. This is something that we can also understand in relation to the distinctions made by Hannah Arendt to sustain her division of human activities. As is well known, she denounced the rise of the social which, she thought, was predicated on the confusion between the public and the private. Such a rise for her blurred the specificity of the political. For my part, I argue that politics happens precisely when the normal distribution of roles between the private and the public is thrown into question, which means that the “social” is a privileged place for observing how politics happens. And it happens precisely as a dis-location of activities or a disruption of the normal set of relations defining the time and space of an activity, along with the kind of capacity or virtue that it sets to work. “Occupying” and “occupation” appeared on the public stage with the occupation of the factories which took on the character of a mass practice during the general strike of 1936 in France. From the point of view of those who dwell on the separation of the spheres, it is just a weapon in a social struggle, opposing the interests of the workers to those of their bosses. I took an exactly opposite view of it: this kind of strike is the climax of a long historical process through which matters of work and employment—which were supposed to be private or domestic affairs—were transformed into a public affair. This process entailed that its actors distance themselves from their “occupation”—meaning their way of fitting the work that fitted them. It entailed that they become participants in the construction of a common stage which was built as “common” through dissensus itself. The occupied factory was not simply the takeover of the space and the machines of the enemy, as an economic weapon in the struggle. Nor was it simply an affirmation that that space and those machines belonged to the workers. It was the transformation of this space into a public space. This becoming public did not happen, in the Arendtian way, by clearly separating the domain of public action and public “excellence” from the space of domestic life. On the contrary, it happened by the fact that the role given to a space was blurred. A place made for working became a place for living: for eating, sleeping, or organizing friendly parties. The process of occupation is not simply the takeover of a space: it is a takeover which changes the very use of this space in the distribution of social occupations and social spheres. The “occupation” of the workplace was part of a whole reconfiguration of the public space: the latter was no longer beside the spheres of domestic life, economic negotiation, etc. Instead it was built by disrupting this distribution of spaces and competences.

We know how important this idea of the “occupied space” became in the movements of the 1960s, notably with the occupation of the universities. The occupation of the Sorbonne in 1968 claimed to transform an instrument of reproduction of the elites into its opposite, a forum open to everybody for discussion and for the invention of a non-hierarchical form of society. This view however entailed a split in the idea of occupation that was illustrated by one of the most famous episodes in Paris, May 1968, when the occupants of the Sorbonne decided to join the workers occupying the emblematic Renault factory and found the gates closed. Two forms of occupation then were colliding: the student’s forum and the workers’ fortress.

This tension can help us think about the specificity of the recent Occupy movements. They are both the heirs of the workers’ occupations and their antithesis. The new “occupation” takes up the principle of transforming the function of a space. But this space is no more an inside space, a space defined within the distribution of economic and social activities. It is no more the inner space of work, as a space of concrete struggle between capital and labor. It is the space outside: in front of the offices of the financial power which destroys jobs and relocates factories; in the streets of the towns where the leaders of an invisible global power meet and make their decisions; against the cranes and excavators that a State power sends to change the destination of a park; or against an electoral process of reproduction of the ruling elite. As the locating power has increasingly become a power situated nowhere that dislocates the “inside” places wherein the order of times and spaces, activities and capacities could be challenged, the place that remains to be occupied is the “public space” that still lends itself to a multiplicity of various and possibly antagonistic activities: the streets, destined for the circulation of individuals and commodities, which busy persons cross and where unemployed persons remain; and the parks that symbolize the common possession of a space whose use is indeterminate. Such places lend themselves to symbolizing a common space opposed both to the economic dislocation of the common spaces and to the abstract representation of the common in the State buildings. The occupying process no longer takes place inside buildings destined for a specific activity, as a subversion of that destination by its normal occupants. It happens in this “public space” of the streets and parks which is at the same time the space without specification that everybody crosses for various reasons and the symbolic space of public demonstrations. And it is no more the action of people that the capitalist process has gathered. On the contrary, it is the action of people that this process has scattered into a multiplicity of forms of employment, unemployment, and part-time employment, a multiplicity of connections and disconnections between the time and space of education, the time and space of the job market, and the time and space of art. This means that the occupying process is no longer about transforming a given manner of being in common in a place. It is about transforming separation into community. It is about creating a place for the common. In a sense, the assembly and the tent are the fragments of a lost totality. But this loss also accounts for the strong emphasis on the assembly as a form of being-in-common and this aspiration to consensus, which has so strongly struck all those—including myself—for whom such forms of action are understandable as forms of dissensus. It can be said that the consensus among the participants is one thing, the dissensual aspect of their practice with respect to the normal order of things is another. Nevertheless, it sounds as a division in the idea of occupation, as if the desire for community or the desire for a new life exceeded the specific operation of conversion of a space, as if the desire for politics exceeded politics. Occupation, then, might be this strange word that marks the paradoxical status of politics, the status of an activity which is always beside itself.


Jacques Rancière is a Professor of Philosophy at European Graduate School in Saas-Fee and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris VIII: Vincennes—Saint-Denis.


Published on December 25, 2016

1. Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1999).

2. Walther von Wartburg, Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch: Eine darstellung des galloromanischen sprachschatzes, Vol. 7 (Basel: R. G. Zbinden & Co., 1955), 300-302.

3. Plato, Republic, III, 394e.

4. Plato, Republic, II, 374c.

5. Plato, Republic, II, 370b-c.

6. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 73.