My New Article on Ranciere and Hip Hop

Check out my new article in Transformations special issue on Jacques Ranciere, “These.Are.The Breaks:Rethinking Disagreement through Hip Hop“. Here’s the intro:

The idea of the “break” is central to both Jacques Rancière’s theory of disagreement and to hip hop aesthetics. Hip hop’s four elements (rapping, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti) all practice the cutting and remixing of samples (of other rappers words, of songs, of gestures, or of images). While the Kurtis Blow quote in the title refers to the sampling of “breakbeats” (the most rhythmically active part of a song is called the “break,” and this is often what DJs sample and remix), Tricia Rose identifies “the cut” and “rupture” as a central element of hip hop aesthetics. [1] The break is also the focal point of Rancière’s theory of dissensual politics. Arguing that “politics comes about solely through interruption” (Rancière, Disageement 21), Rancière describes the staging of disagreement as “an interrupted current” that “short-circuits” the social order (13). As I will discuss in more detail below, disagreement is a “break” in a society’s otherwise coherent distribution of sensibility, a break that forces a reconfiguration or “remixing” of hegemonic distributions.

In this paper, I argue that it is productive to read Rancière’s theory of political practice – what he calls “disagreement” – with and against Kodwo Eshun’s theorization of hip hop. Thinking disagreement through hip hop helps flesh out how, exactly, disagreement works, particularly at the level of individual embodiment and consciousness. While Rancière himself gives us many examples of interruptions to the political body (the demos speaking, Jean Derion asserting the non-universality of “universal” man, etc.), I am interested in examining how these interruptions work in, on, and through individual bodies. How is it that we become aware of the ways that distributions of sensibility – particularly hegemonic ones, which are most likely to be normalized and imperceptible by virtue of their ubiquity – structure our corporeal schemas? How does one’s corporeal schema reinforce or interrupt dominant distributions of sensibility? Can we stage an interruption of our own corporeal schemas, and if so, how?

In what follows, I respond to these questions by first situating them in the context of Rancière’s general theory of politics, and in particular his concept of “disagreement.” Then, I look to Eshun’s argument that sampling is a form of “motion capture” which grants us access to and conscious awareness of the body’s prereflective habits and comportments. Early hip-hop DJs sampled a song’s “break,” the most rhythmically active part of a piece. Eshun claims that these breaks are human movement (sense perceptions, dance moves), encoded in music; accordingly, in the remixing of songs, the body itself is remade. The sampling and remixing of sounds produces corporeal disagreement – it interrupts the body’s habitual distributions of sensibility. Because, as we know from feminism and from Foucault, the personal is political, the interruption of individuals’ corporeal schemas can have wider and more far-reaching impacts. [2] Following and expanding on Eshun, I argue that because sample-based musics interrupt distributions of sensibility, they can be tools for both raising awareness of and intervening in dominant distributions.

One final aim of this paper concerns less what it directly argues and more with how it suggests some new directions for Rancière scholarship. First, I want to begin by opening Rancière’s work, which focuses almost exclusively on visual and literary arts, to the study of music, musicology, and music theory. I focus on the musical dimensions of hip hop because rapping and DJing are very well-known and widespread practices of musical sampling. In general, hip hop differs from other styles of musical sampling (e.g., musique concrete) because it is informed by Afrodiasporic aesthetic priorities – e.g., the cut, the privileging of rhythm, etc. – that often resonate with Rancière’s own theoretical and politico-aesthetic commitments. Thus, second, because Rancière is so resistant to the very idea of “identity,” I want to start to consider the ways that his critique of the Western tradition often parallel critiques made by/in the name of identity-based groups. So, I choose to focus on hip hop in this article in order to open Rancière’s work to discussions of music and of social identity.