Acting Through Inaction: The Distinction Between Leisure and Reverie in Jacques Rancière’s Conception of Emancipation


  • Alison Ross Monash University



Rancière, Critical Theory, Aristotle, theories of work, the work/leisure distinction, states of reverie, dreams, action, disengagement of the will, emancipatory experiences


The classical distinction between leisure and work is often used to define features of the emancipated life. In Aristotle leisure is defined as time devoted to purposeful activity, and distinguished from the labour time expended merely to produce life’s necessities. In critical theory, this classical distinction has been adapted to provide an image of emancipated life, as purposively driven, fulfilling and meaningful activity. Aspects of this adapted definition undermine the classical leisure/work distinction to the extent that the demand for meaningful work, i.e., a leisure-work conjunction, is now used as a critical perspective on unfulfilling, oppressive labour. Rancière, however, is critical both of this idea of an extended franchise for leisure and of its dependence on craft and artisanal labour as the model of satisfying, skilled work. Instead of Aristotelian leisure, or ‘fulfilling’ work, Rancière identifies in the state of reverie an alternative marker for the emancipated life. The theme is consistent across the scattered archival, historiographical, philosophical, literary and aesthetic contexts his writing treats. But since reverie is defined as disengagement from action, the position raises a number of difficulties. 

This article examines how Rancière connects reverie to emancipation. It focuses on two questions: the nature of the relation between his definition of reverie and the classical, Aristotelian concept of action; and, whether, given the constitutive non-relation between reverie and action that he outlines, Rancière’s position can address the persistent problem in critical theory of the motivation for the emancipated life. It is argued that his highlighting of the potential communicative significance of modes and scenes of emancipated life is relevant to this problem. The key argument is that rather than developing a ‘theory’, his approach to emancipation focuses on and values communicable experiences of emancipation, and that states of reverie are one such type of valued experience.

Author Biography

Alison Ross, Monash University

Alison Ross is based in the Philosophy Department at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. Most recently, she is the author of Revolution and History in Walter Benjamin: A Conceptual Analysis(New York: Routledge, 2019).