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During May 1968, students and workers in France united in the biggest strike and the largest mass movement in French history. Protesting capitalism, American imperialism, and Gaullism, 9 million people from all walks of life, from shipbuilders to department store clerks, stopped working. The nation was paralyzed—no sector of the workplace was untouched. Yet, just thirty years later, the mainstream image of May '68 in France has become that of a mellow youth revolt, a cultural transformation stripped of its violence and profound sociopolitical implications.
Kristin Ross shows how the current official memory of May '68 came to serve a political agenda antithetical to the movement's aspirations. She examines the roles played by sociologists, repentant ex-student leaders, and the mainstream media in giving what was a political event a predominantly cultural and ethical meaning. Recovering the political language of May '68 through the tracts, pamphlets, and documentary film footage of the era, Ross reveals how the original movement, concerned above all with the question of equality, gained a new and counterfeit history, one that erased police violence and the deaths of participants, removed workers from the picture, and eliminated all traces of anti-Americanism, anti-imperialism, and the influences of Algeria and Vietnam. May '68 and Its Afterlives is especially timely given the rise of a new mass political movement opposing global capitalism, from labor strikes and anti-McDonald's protests in France to the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle.
R. Castro (a former Maoist leader, since psychoanalyzed by Lacan): May '68 wasn't political, it was a movement purely of words. . . .Amid this discursive and syntactic jumble May, once again, comes to incorporate everything and therefore nothing. The mainstream media, working in conjunction with ex-gauchistes, maintain a haziness or blurring of focus on the event, a blurring that succeeds in dissolving the object through chatter. Viewers witnessing the verbal delirium of ex-gauchistes on television might well be drawn to form the same conclusion as the sociologist I encounteredin Princeton, particularly when the '68 goal of "seizing speech" is represented as having produced nothing much more, in the long run, than the contemporary spectacle of the commemoration as talk show. Still, the starkness of the sociologist's pronouncement bears further commentary. "Nothing happened in France": nothing changed, major institutions remained unaltered. Was this the voice of the professional sociologist, he whose task it is to say why things invariably remain the same, for whom a rupture in the system gets recuperated so as to reinsert it back into a logic of the same, the logic of the continuous, the logic of reproduction? It is for that reason that sociological interpretations of May and other events have always seemed to me to verge on the tautological. And facts seem to be explained according to the terms of their existence. "Youth rebelling" is one such hypostatic sociological category frequently mobilizedin relation to May: youth rebel because they are young; they rebel because they are students and the university is overcrowded; they rebel "like rats or other animals, when forcedto live at an excessive density in a confinedspace." This last is the analogy that another sociologist, Raymond Aron, came up with shortly after the events--marshalling an animalizing vocabulary underused since the time of the Paris Commune.
R. Kahn (ex-gauchiste, convertedto liberalism): It's true . . . the terrible evil of replacing reality with words . . . the idea that anything is possible . . . one of the most lamentable periods . . . children who no longer have any culture . . . even the National Front is a result of '68.
R. Castro: May '68 was a crisis of the elites.
R. Kahn: Sure, now we listen better to kids . . . the system of the petits chefs was shaken. Alfonsi (the TV moderator, to Castro): Are you wearing a "Don't touch my buddy" ["Touche pas a mon pote"] button?
R. Castro: Yes, it makes me feel less anxious.
Police intervention in public space is less about interpellating demonstrators than it is about dispersing them. The police are not the law that interpellates the individual (the "hey, you there" of Louis Althusser) unless we confuse the law with religious subjection. The police are above all a certitude about what is there, or rather, about what is not there: "Move along, there's nothing to see." The police say there is nothing to see, nothing happening, nothing to be done but to keep moving, circulating; they say that the space of circulation is nothing but the space of circulation. Politics consists in transforming that space of circulation into the space of the manifestation of a subject: be it the people, workers, citizens. It consists in refiguring that space, what there is to do there, what there is to see, or to name. It is a dispute about the division of what is perceptible to the senses.Is the sociologist's relation to the past that of the police to the present? For Ranciere, the police and the sociologist speak with the same voice. Even the most discriminating sociology returns us back to a habitus, a way of being, a social grounding or set of determinations that confirm, in the final accounting, that things could not have happened in any other way, that things couldnot have been any different. Thus, any singularity of experience--and any way in which individuals produce meaning that attempts to capture that singularity--is cancelled out in the process. The police make sure that a properly functional social order functions properly--in this sense they put into practice the discourse of normative sociology. The "police," then, for Ranciere, are less concerned with repression than with a more basic function: that of constituting what is or is not perceivable, determining what can or cannot be seen, dividing what can be heardfrom what cannot. For ultimately the police become the name in his view for everything that concerns the distribution of places and functions, as well as the system that legitimates that hierarchical distribution. The police do their counting statistically: they deal in groups defined by differences in birth, functions, places, and interests. They are another name for the symbolic constitution of the social: the social as made up of groups with specific, identifiable ways of operating--"profiles"--andthese ways of operating are themselves assigneddirectly, quasi-naturally, to the places where those occupations are performed. These groups, when counted, make up the social whole-- nothing is missing; nothing is in excess; nothing or no one is left uncounted. "Move along, there is nothing to see." The very phrase is a perfect adequation of functions, places, and identities--nothing is missing, nothing is happening.
Excerpted from May '68 and Its Afterlives by Kristin Ross Copyright © 2002 by Kristin Ross. Excerpted by permission.
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List of Abbreviations
1. The Police Conception of History
Sociology and the Police
2. Forms and Practices
The Critique of Specialization
"Vietnam Is in Our Factories"
Entering the Tigers Lair
The Illusions of Representation
3. Different Windows, Same Faces
Reprisals and Trials
Anti-Third-Worldism and Human Rights
Philosophers on Television
4. Consensus and Its Undoing