By Judith Revel
Translated from the French by Charleyne Biondi
Let’s start with an observation.
The recent writings of the Invisible Committee —from The Coming Insurrection 11 years ago, to To Our Friends in 2014 and Now, published last year in France, on April 21, 2017— are extremely popular among young people, and particularly among students. (I will come back to that very soon.)
I am not mentioning this generational element for you to categorize me as “old”, or worse, as an “old fool” (even though you could). After all, the members of the Invisible Committee are in their 40s, not quite the same generation as their readers. If I mention this generational element, it is because it embodies, in its own way, the essential diagnosis of the book: A disaster that has never been so overwhelming, and which determines, for the youngest of us, the experience of the world that we, older people, cannot share. We may be able to share the refusal to accept the unacceptable, the indignation, the will to resist and fight back, but we cannot share the foundational perception upon which the book is based: A world so profoundly fragmented that only a complete denunciation of all pre-existing hypothesis could ever be valid or legitimate.
The book came out on April 21st, 2017, exactly 15 years after Jean-Marie Le Pen, the extreme-right candidate, faced Jacques Chirac (center-right) in the second round of the French presidential elections. No need to remind you what you already know: Jacques Chirac won the election with 82,21% of the vote, and the French people learned a strange new thing: That defending democracy sometimes requires voting for the opposite of one’s own ideas. This election certainly marked a shift in the understanding of political representation and its validity. The 18-25 years-old of 2018 are precisely those who grew up in the wake of 2002 —they are the children of 2002. And if you add to this landscape other elements that we all have in mind—the crushing of social movements at the G8 in Genoa in 2001, 9/11, the financial crisis of 2008, the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, the repetition of 2002 (with Le Pen’s daughter Marine facing Macron on the second round of the 2017 presidential election), and the rise of nationalist, fascist and populist movements—you have an idea of what the world looks like for a youngster. Does it look the same for us too? Yes, but we’ve known something else.
Agreed, recognizing the disaster is unavoidable. But what bothers me, reading Now, is not its starting point, but the way it engages with a conception of political struggle that seems to be terribly hollowed out, rarefied, aestheticized. As we have little time, I’ll try to proceed methodically.
- The Presentism of Now.
Some years ago, François Hartog suggested that contemporary thought could be read through the hypothesis that we had lost both our ties to the past and our capacity to project into the future, that we had lost the sense of great historical narratives and utopian constructions and were stuck in a compressed history, reduced to grasping the sole dimension of the event, the immediate, the evanescent. I do not believe that Hartog’s hypothesis works in general —and I’ve talked a lot about it, there are many counter-examples to disprove his theory. Now, however, is a strange case of presentism, just as Hartog defines it: from its first pages (“Tomorrow is cancelled”) to its last pages (“For the ones to come”), the text is based upon two highly debatable principles: First, that history means continuity, and thus inherently suffocates novelty; second, that the future, whatever its form, always implies something like a project, which itself necessarily implies some kind of reformism. The variations on that theme are many in the book—from the idea that any revolution fatally reproduces what it opposed, to the eulogy of the “Cortège de Tête.” No temporal thickness should weigh down the purity of the moment, as if a relation to the past or to the future could never be conceived on the mode of discontinuity. Yet, if anything, this Praxis seminar is precisely about discontinuity. In Now, this discontinuity, this rupture is interpreted through deprived, negative, subtractive figures—I will come to that in a minute: destitution, idleness, exodus.
But before I get to those negative figures of destitution and idleness, I want to stress that this erasure of history implies several things. First, by reducing any situation to the tip of the moment, we erase all “historical determinations”; but what determines—socially, politically, economically, demographically, culturally, ecologically—the landscape of a child born in 1998 is very different from what determined a man or woman born in 1968. Historical determinations do not imply historical determinism, they only speak for the singularity of a situation; and there is no possible diagnosis of a situation without careful attention to the conditions that make life what it is at a given time. These actual conditions also determine the possible terrain of struggles. But Now seems to completely dissociate the two: It poses an intense diagnosis as a starting point, but proceeds with complete indifference to the actual conditions of subjection, of suffering, of the plunder of lives.
Now does a very god job recording the present, especially when it comes to criticizing the techniques, Amazon, car-sharing platforms, and more generally the widespread commodification of our lives. But when one reads that “What is truly political is only what emerges from life and makes it a definite, oriented reality” (p.65), one wonders how much attention the authors paid to human existence (other than their own). Lives: affects, revolts, working conditions, or lack of work, worries, relationships, relations of power, relations to space, relations to time; these things do not exist in the void of a world reduced to the experience of the moment. What stupefies here, is the emptiness of the analysis.
I am going to give you an example. The text justifiably criticizes nostalgia as a reactionary principle, and yet it has some surprisingly nostalgic moments — for instance, when it talks about a “class situation,” about what life should be. Once upon a time, we’re told, the spare bedroom was for friends, and not for Airbnb; long rides were an opportunity to daydream, or to pick up a hitchhiker, rather than a chance to sign-up for a car-share; we would give out our furniture to friends and family, not sell it on some Craigslist website. Now concludes with a “theory of the douche-bag”, the douche-bag being a utilitarian, optimizing creature who counts, uses, turns into profit whatever he owns and whatever he is: It is capital, human capital.
Fair Enough. But I’d like to answer: In what social world do men and women have spare bedrooms to offer, time to daydream in their car, and can afford to renew their furniture? In what social world today can people afford not to count, and optimize? I don’t mean to legitimize, nor justify, the widespread commodification of everything, but simply interrogate a discourse that seems to me both aristocratic and prescriptive—a discourse which does not see, or does not want to see, its own class situation. The class situation from which this discourse tells others what they are: pick your side, comrade, are you a douche-bag or not?
Thus, the text involuntarily raises the question: Does praxis imply to tell others what they are, to speak for others, or about others? I believe we are paying a high price for that kind of superiority in Europe and in the United-States today: The hatred of the elites, from Trump to Salvini, is haunting political speeches and movements. Elites used to be the super-rich, the bankers, the financiers. Today—and that well may be the defining trait of the new populisms—the hatred of the elites is directed towards academics, book readers, theater lovers, travelers. The hatred is addressed to us, us who have spare bedrooms and time to daydream. It does not mean that this new hatred is good, or justified, but it is fascinating. It means that we have to acknowledge the extent to which our blindness has fueled this hatred: Our world is not the world in general.
- First Coating of Aristocratism: A Philosophy of Bodies.
To cover the complete disappearance of class elements and the class contempt which transpires in the text, Now executes several operations.
The first is to reduce lives—as socially determined existences—to bodies. The reference to bodies has a central place in contemporary French philosophy—one thinks of Deleuze and Guattari, obviously referred to in the text; one also thinks of Foucault, and others. But here, bodies allow the authors to not think about the possibilities of subjectification, the ways in which subjects who are prescribed by others one day decide to speak and act for themselves. The vitalist uprising to which the text refers to (let us remind you of the main argument of the book: In this fragmented world, small, autonomous nuclei are freeing themselves, and their strength and energy is visible in the deployment of the Cortège de Tête) neglects what also makes the bodies.
Paradox: The authors are aware of that problem, but only, it seems, when it is faced by others. They rightly point out the political weaknesses of the Nuit Debout movement of 2016, by asking: In this festive display, where were the non-whites? The inhabitants of the “banlieues”? The non-Parisians? Well, I believe that the same question should be asked about the Cortège de Tête. The issue is not about the violence of the Cortège, about the moral judgement of the “casseurs” who are not representative of the rest of the Cortège. The issue is that the Cortège is composed of bodies who are not just bodies, but lives—lives in which, precisely, we know what it is to daydream, to take the car for a spontaneous escapade, to have a spare bedroom at home and a bookshelf full of books. Lives who cannot imagine that others may not even be able to imagine their kind of life. The political question starts when we ask how to also aggregate the lives of the banlieues, the lives of the under-qualified, the lives of those who hang out in staircases, the lives of housekeepers, factory workers, migrants: all those who are fundamental actors of any social transformation because they live most profoundly the immediate violence of capital, that is to say, the sacking of lives by some biopowers.
- Second Coating of Aristocratism: The Disqualification of the “Social.”
I used the adjective “social” in various expressions: “Social determination,” “social position,” “social qualification of lives.” The book, on the other hand, talks about the “social corpse.” It is easy to understand the criticism of the modern opposition between the society and the state, when society is—at best—imagined as a compensatory mechanism against the failings and violence of the state, or as a “counter-democracy” that would replace the literal disintegration of traditional democratic mechanisms. It is also easy to understand why one would willingly disentangle the other pair of society vs. the individual—society being so often presented as the space in which what is individual is overcome by a false and artificial sense of collective belonging. “Society,” usually in quotation marks in the book, must then be deconstructed as the mystification that it actually is. But the abolition of any reference to the “social” which follows from that deconstruction of society ends up being counterproductive: In fact, lives are still made of a multiplicity of relations of power, with their effects, their stratification, their intersection and the transformation of their rationality. Not a word is said about that. What is, then, the real, material, tangible space in which the “fragmentation” takes place?
- Third Coating of Aristocratism: A “Cortège de Tête” Policy.
The criticisms of the “Cortège de Tête” in the media and in political discourse, on the right as well as on the left, led to disgusting variations on the theme of violence/non-violence, and translated, in practice, into a will to distinguish the good demonstrator from the bad—both being, in any case, gassed by the police. Now is right to recall that. Having said that, this is no basis on which to assume that the “Cortège de Tête” is a political actor. Of course, the Invisible Committee takes some oratorical precautions: They don’t speak of a political subjectivity, but a political receptacle; it is a gesture, inscribed in the present of the moment, it is a situation. But gradually, throughout the text, the “Cortège de Tête” ends up embodying a certain assemblage (agencement). An assemblage that cannot, that should not be unified, or united. How is that possible? The question remains unanswered. “To love is never to be together but to become together,” asserts the text (p.142). We’d like to agree. In fact, we absolutely agree. But what about the conditions of that becoming? How does that becoming ignite? The Invisible Committee essentially mentions negative characteristics: It is not about the collective, it is not about unity, it is not a form, it is not about de-totalization. It is an experience. What type of experience? Can it be transmitted? Or not? And if not, does it mean that this experience is only valid in the very instant it happens? Sometimes, the text tolerates for itself what it denies to others: “What is truly political is only what emerges from life and makes it a definite, oriented reality. And it is born from what is nearby and not from a projection towards the far-distant. The nearby doesn’t mean the restricted, the limited, the narrow, the local. It means rather what is in tune, vibrant, adequate, present, sensible, luminous, and familiar —the prehensible and comprehensible” (p.65). We would like to know what these words entail —in tune, vibrant, adequate, sensible, luminous… We would like to know if this isn’t, simply, a return to some avant-garde way of thinking, since the very last lines of the text seem to suggest just that: “The only verticality still possible is that of the situation, which commands all of its components because it exceeds them, because the sum of forces in presence is greater than each of them. The only thing capable of transversally uniting all the elements deserting this society into a historical party is an intelligence of the situation. (…) Based on that intelligence, an occasional vertical expedient needed to tilt certain situations in the desired direction can well be improvised” (p.157-158). A nice return to Leninism, in a text so fiercely anti-Leninist…
- The Call to Communism as Hatred of the Assembly.
The text reaches the culmination of its argument with the idea of communism. Here again, the argument is twofold. On one hand, there is the diagnosis—which starts with the necessity to tear the idea of communism from its historical incarnations. On the other hand, there is the prospective—and that’s where things get complicated.
First, I believe that we can agree that the common, defined as “what is given as a shared experience,” has nothing to do with the traditional forms of the collective. These collective forms, in fact, should now be analyzed for what they are: empty mystifications.
Second, the fragmentation of the world releases a kind of power of the common (puissance), in the form of a proliferation of assemblages (agencements) between singularities. The example given in the text is that of the ZAD of Notre-Dame des Lances: “New collective realities, new constructions, new encounters, new thoughts, new customs, new arrivals in every sense, with the confrontations arising necessarily from the rubbing-together of worlds and ways of being” (p.44). Fragmentation is not only the condition of a capitalist world that crumbles under its own weight and is no longer capable of resisting its inner-contradictions, but it is also, paradoxically, what “contains the promise of communism” (p.44). However, these new frictions are always approached negatively (“Every creation is born of a splitting off from the whole” (p.45)): laceration, tearing away, further fragmentation… It makes sense, then, that the word “destitution” is not only understood as the destitution of what must be overthrown (i.e the reference to Marx’s German Ideology: “Communism is the real movement that destitutes the existing state of things” (p.89)); but as a form of pure political power. And yet: “Without at least the occasional experience of community, we die inside, we dry-out” (p.133).
Third, any questioning of a common future, or what the authors of Now call a “becoming together,” necessarily introduces a principle of order. As the text asserts, we must seriously and critically consider the “methods of militant constructions.” But by the end of the book, again, it radicalizes its stance: whenever the form is questioned, it is a ruse of the collective. As such, any reflection on the modalities of assembly—even if its goal is to experience new modes of assemblages—is immediately disqualified. Even the theme of horizontality (the idea that political assemblages underlie other assemblages that are the hallmark of contemporary capitalism and its labor organization, therefore urging us to imagine a new common upon which to base a new communism) is characterized as nothing but a new expression of a transcendent verticality of commandment. “The question of organization is still and always the Leviathan” (p.155).
I have in mind the title of a beautiful text that Foucault wrote in response to the controversy about his comments on the Iranian revolution: “Is it useless to revolt?”. Here, the question could be: “Is it useless to assemble?”
- Destitute, idle, decompose, flee.
My last comment will be shorter. I just want to ask what is the viability of a thought that seeks to radically destitute —to desubjectivise, to idle, to subtract. Not that one shouldn’t seek to overthrow—to destitute—the order of things; not that one shouldn’t denounce the way in which subjects are objectivized, crushed between the duty to be good and egocentric consumers, and the necessity that is imposed upon them to refuse more and more their collective belonging; not that one shouldn’t be able to escape, to be elsewhere.
But what happens if we get rid of the constitutive dimension of praxis? The Invisible Committee, again, tolerates for itself what it refuses to others: In their text, power (puissance) seems to be a crypto-deleuzian magic word, a form vitalism at the heart of assemblages. “If communism has a goal, it is the great health of forms of life. This great health is obtained through a patient re-articulation of the disjoined members of our being, in touch with life. (…) Life gradually gives form to whoever refuses to live beside themselves, to whoever allows themselves to experience. They become a form of life in the full sense of the term” (p.143).
I don’t have time to comment on the Agambien accents of their analysis, or the way in which destitution rests upon the Agambien concept of inoperosità (which also combines the idea of a retreat from the world on one hand, and the power of bodies on the other —a power of the bodies as idle bodies, subtracted from the influence of the other).
All I mean is that I think I prefer Bartelby’s version of idleness: I would prefer not to. There was no need for an elegant quote from Heiner Muller on the superiority of communism as “absolute solitude” for us to catch a glimpse of what this aestheticized scarcity of praxis can lead to.