The Maagdenhuis as an “elsewhere” space: Q&A with Jacques Rancière

Today, the French philosopher Jacques Rancière came to speak at the Maagdenhuis. Rancière would be an honour to have at any event, but his presence is particularly apt in the context of the current Maagdenhuis appropriation and student protests. A former student of Althusser, he broke away from Althusser’s theories during the 1968 student uprising, for which Althusser had no clear insights to offer. In addition, Rancière has written extensively on education and the role of teachers, propagating the idea that facilitating equality among people should not be seen as the aim of education, but rather as the starting point for mutual communication and development.


It was a very full Maagdenhuis today, with six or seven rows of people standing, sitting, or otherwise trying to squeeze themselves into the crowd as best as they could. Cameras and phones were taking pictures from every direction. I was glad to find myself close to the speaker system, which would at least allow me to hear, if not see everything. Centre stage were the Q&A facilitator and Monsieur Rancière, the latter looking around as if hoping the space itself would offer clues about his audience. He needn’t have worried; the applause was long and loud when he was introduced.

As a first question, he was asked to shed his light on the current situation of management against protesters. This set the scene for a debate that would outline Rancière’s thinking, largely in the context of the current situation. Questions from the audience would range from practical advice to more philosophical standpoints. Though Rancière himself was gracious in repeating that he did not know the ins and outs of the current situation at the UvA, his insights offered an interpretation of the recent events that was in many ways refreshing and different. He did not shy away from asking students and staff present to consider their situation carefully and looking to the future.

For Rancière, managerialism at universities not only revolves around practical and financial issues. It is born out of developments within society at large. Thus, the university becomes a metaphor for the society it exists in, through managerial practices. The situation that universities find themselves in, are therefore not (entirely) to blame on those in positions of management. As members of society and members of the university, we, students and staff, have also collaborated within this system for a long time. Thus, any uprising such as this, is not just an insubordination against issues such as financialisation, but it constitutes a process of finding a new way of the “being together” of students and staff.

Spaces are an important issue in, what Rancière sees as, a political struggle. The Maagdenhuis itself has become a different place, because it has been stripped of its former function and become an autonomous space, removed from the previous order. A member of the audience asked specifically about the often-mentioned word “elsewhere” in the English translation of Rancière’s work. Rancière himself was rather bemused by this question, saying that the French ailleurs is a much more common word in everyday speech than the English ”elsewhere”, which seemed to have more weight. However, he did go on to explain that occupation can turn one place into another kind of place. For him ailleurs can be the same location, reinventing itself in a different, oppositional context.

This struggle and process of finding different ways to connect with each other, directly bears on the student-teacher relationship. Places and contexts suggests their own hierarchy, but this can be broken down. I dare say that many of us, both students and staff, have found it incredibly liberating over the last few weeks to deal with each other on a more equal footing. Rancière sees equality as important in this relation. However, a teacher could choose to try to achieve equality, or to start from the premise of equality in the first place. For him, the latter is infinitely more preferable. Of course there are differences between us as human beings, but we all have interests, experiences and capacities. A good university should offer possibilities of learning outside of the system and the curriculum. Enabling the innate capacity to learn and “produce” knowledge is for Rancière much more important than to simply affirm existing knowledge as (the only) truth. University education should not be about the affirmation of what we think we know, but more about the emancipation of intellect and knowledge.

This also becomes clear when Rancière talks about research: too many people equate research with publication. True research is more demanding, and should not be bound by existing disciplines. It should not even be interdisciplinary, but rather be in-disciplinary, i.e. not take note of existing disciplines whatsoever. Disciplines and spheres should and can be broken down, not just within a university context, but also within society at large. Every sphere – be it art, academics, politics etc. – comes with rituals, gestures and discourse, and constitutes a performance that places artificial boundaries within a constructed world. To question these boundaries allows for different ways of thinking to exist together, but more importantly, it stimulates the processing and production of knowledge in general.

As students and staff, however, we have all made our efforts to engage other people in this struggle, both within the university and in society at large. Sometimes this is successful and sometimes less so. When this point was made, Rancière had an important, yet heart-warming analysis: Everything important that happens is local. We cannot hope to engage with the rest of the world. Each place has its own local struggle, and there is no specific place for emancipation. The best we can do is make the broader point and think about where to go from here, and what exactly it is that we envision as a better university.

Rancière gives us (or me, at least) a lot of food for thought. Voices have gone up recently to abandon the Maagdenhuis, but looking at it from his point of view, the place in its current state has become an important metaphor for all that we wish to change. It has itself changed as a space, because of the functions, discourse and events that now take place within it. It is much more than the core location where our local struggle takes place. But we do need to consider where to go from here: this will inform when or whether we decide to engage with the CvB. Thankfully, there are many working groups looking to propose concrete suggestions on many different issues. However, engaging with the current managerial hierarchies from the position of presupposed equality is difficult, if this equality is not recognised by all parties.