May '68 and Its Afterlives

May '68 and Its Afterlives

by Kristin Ross

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226728001
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/26/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 247
File size: 584 KB

About the Author

Kristin Ross is professor of comparative literature at New York University. She is the author of The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune and Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture.

Read an Excerpt

May '68 and Its Afterlives

By Kristin Ross

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2002 Kristin Ross
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226727971

The Police Conception of History


"But nothing happened in France in '68. Institutions didn't change, the university didn't change, conditions for workers didn't change--nothing happened." The speaker, a well-known German sociologist, was responding to a talk I had given about the problems presentedby the social memory of '68 in France. He continued: " '68 was really Prague, and Prague brought down the Berlin Wall."

Nothing happened in France, and everything happened in Prague--this was an interpretation I had not encountered before in such a succinct form. Certainly, a more international perspective on '68 than the one I offered that day has long been available, one that emphasizes the convergence in the 1690s of the national liberation struggles (Cuba, Indochina), the antibureaucratic struggles (Hungary, Czechoslovakia), and the anticapitalist and anti-authoritarian struggles that erupted in the imperialist metropoles of Europe and North America. But the direction of this remark was clearly different. Not only had the third world been eliminated from the picture, but now France was disappearing as well. It was not that many different things happened throughout the world in a brief set of time, it was that only one thinghappened; it happened in Prague, and what happened in Prague were the seeds that wouldlater fulfill a triumphant Cold War teleology: the end of actually existing socialism. Was this the post-1989 voice of the Cold War victor, sweeping up everything that occurredin the twentieth century into that one framework, into that one lone narrative? And if something doesn't fit in that narrative, such as May '68 in France, does it then have no significance? Has change become unthinkable outside of that narrative?

The fall of socialism and the seemingly undisputed hegemony achieved by capitalism distances our world from the world of '68 to the point where it becomes quite difficult to imagine a time when people once envisioned a world different in essential ways from the one in which we now live. In this sense, the sociologist's remarks at Princeton are in keeping with much of the post-1989 assessment of May, a recasting or a forgetting that harnesses May's energy directly to the inevitable outcome of the world of the present. Even French May, by some accounts now, when it is acknowledged to have happened, had this outcome--the world of today-- as its goal. Through a curious ruse of history, the assault from the left on the reformism and bureaucracy of the French Communist Party had the paradoxical effect of sounding the death knells for the hope of any systemic or revolutionary change from that moment on--and this, according to some ex-gauchistes claiming an after-the-fact prescience, was precisely what was desired at the time. In this view, the years separating '68 from the virulent anti-Marxism of prominent ex-gauchistes in the mid-1970s are erased from memory, so that those counter-movement phenomena can be made to appear as the secret "meaning," the "underlying desire" of the event all along.

Was the succinctness of the sociologist's assessment of French May grounded in the confidence with which the discipline of sociology--the field that has dominated the interpretation of the May events--claims the ability to measure change and even determine the criteria according to which change can be measured? The feeling that "nothing happened" in May is, of course, frequently expressed--with differing political/affective tones--throughout France today. "Nothing happened, except for the women's movement--and look what that has done to the family"--that is, nothing happened, but everything that did happen was regrettable. This is one version. Another version sounds like this: "Nothing happened. The French State was able to absorb all that political turbulence and now all those guys have fabulous careers and are driving BMWs"--as though those French driving BMWs today were the only participants in the movement then. Or "Nothing happened politically--but culturally the changes were enormous." This is perhaps the most prevalent version heard in France today, an assessment that relies on a view that the two spheres of politics and culture can be definitively isolated the one from the other. Andan assessment where the surfeit of culture's visibility--lifestyle, customs, habitus--exists in direct proportion to the invisibility of politics, the amnesia that now surrounds the specifically political dimensions of the '68 years.

What, in fact, can be perceived about those years now? It is perhaps when viewing French television commemorations of the '68 events, particularly those that accompanied the twentieth anniversary of May, that the viewer is most clearly left with the suspicion that "nothing happened." Is this their purpose? Frequently, the commemorations create the impression that everything happened(andso nothing happened); a global contestation of just about everything--imperialism, dress codes, reality, dormitory curfews, capitalism, grammar, sexual repression, communism--and therefore nothing (since everything is equally important) occurred; that May consisted of students saying absolutely anything and workers having nothing to say; or, as in this representative conversation between two former gauchistes on a 1985 television commemoration:

R. Castro (a former Maoist leader, since psychoanalyzed by Lacan): May '68 wasn't political, it was a movement purely of words. . . .

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.
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.

Or was it the voice of the police? "Nothing happened." In a recent text, Jacques Ranciere uses that phrase--only in the present tense: "Nothing is happening"--to represent the functioning of what, broadly speaking, he calls "the police."

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.

But if the "police" is the name Ranciere gives to the broadest possible agency of sociopolitical classification, that agency includes not only the various sociological, cultural, and medical classifying functions that set up groups andtheir functions and that "naturalize" the relations between the two, it also includes the police as we customarily understand the police-- the cop on the street. Both senses overlap, as in the perhaps apocryphal anecdote recounted by Henri Lefebvre at Nanterre in 1968 who, when asked to provide the deans with a list of the more politically disruptive students in his classes, is said to have replied: "Monsieur le doyen, je ne suis pas un flic."

Writing in 1998, Ranciere proposes a theorization of politics andthe social order substantially informed by the events of '68 in which he participated thirty years earlier. In the immediate aftermath of '68, years that saw a veritable hypertrophy of the French state in response to a palpable panic among the elites, French theory became populated with police figures. The police appear regularly in the 1970s, as characters, as forces, within theoretical speculation: in the status of example (the "hey, you there" of the interpellating cop on the street in Louis Althusser's staging of how ideology functions); in Michel Foucault's vast meditations on state repression (Surveiller et punir, 1975); in Jacques Donzelot's Foucauldian analysis of how the family comes to be inserted into an intricate web of bureaucratic institutions and systems of management(La Police des familles, 1977). Their presence is a constant in Maurice Blanchot's analyses of the movement written in conjunction with the Comite d'Action Etudiants-Ecrivains, and it can be felt in a 1969 text like "La parole quotidienne." In the wake of '68, a period of massive concern with public order andits breakdown, when the government's tangible fear of the population taking to the streets again had manifested itself in a dramatic increase of police presence everywhere--in cafes, museums, on street corners, wherever more than two or three people gather--philosophy and theory begin to bear the trace of that presence. Thirty years later, the trace of May and its aftermath can still be found in Ranciere's theoretical conceptualization of "the police" as the order of distribution of bodies as a community, as the way places, powers, and functions are managed in the state's production of a chosen social order, and in his analysis of politics as the disruption, broadly speaking, of that naturalized distribution.

In what follows I want to keep each of these registers visible. The empirical police, whose activities made up such an essential part of a regime like de Gaulle's, born in 1958 of a military coup, will dominate my discussion in this chapter about the proximity of the Algerian War to the May events. In the next chapter, I will turn to the forms andpractices developed during May that went about "denaturalizing" past social relations-- and, in so doing, disrupting "the police" as a kind of logic of the social: the logic that assigns people to their places and their social identities, that makes them identical to their functions. For May '68 in fact had very little to do with the interests of the social group--students or "youth"-- who sparked the action. What has come to be called "the events of May" consisted mainly in students ceasing to function as students, workers as workers, and farmers as farmers: May was a crisis in functionalism. The movement took the form of political experiments in declassification, in disrupting the natural "givenness" of places; it consisted of displacements that took students outside of the university, meetings that brought farmers and workers together, or students to the countryside--trajectories outside of the Latin Quarter, to workers' housing and popular neighborhoods, a new kind of mass organizing (against the Algerian War in the early 1960s, andlater against the Vietnam War) that involved physical dislocation. And in that physical dislocation lay a dislocation in the very idea of politics-- moving it out of its place, its proper place, which was for the left at that time the Communist Party. The logic of the police workedthroughout this period to separate students from workers, to prevent contact, to isolate students in the Latin Quarter, to prevent student-worker interaction during the June battle at the Flins factory and elsewhere. The vehemence with which that work was carriedout--whether by CGT functionaries, de Gaulle, the Communist Party, or the police themselves--gives some notion of the threat such a politics posed. May '68 had less to do with the identity or interests of "students" per se, than with a disjuncture or fissure created within that identity. That disjuncture, as Ranciere has suggested elsewhere, took the form of a political opening to otherness (represented by the two classical "others" of political modernity, the worker and the colonial subject) that was itself the result of that generation's particular historical andpolitical memory, a memory boundup with and inscribed in decolonization. (And the story of decolonization was a story in which the police, of course, playeda starring role). It was that disjuncture that allowed students and intellectuals to break with the identity of a particular social group with particular self-interests and accede to something larger, to politics in the sense that Ranciere gives it, or to what Maurice Blanchot has singled out as the specific force of May: "in the so-called 'student' action, students never acted as students but rather as revealers of a general crisis, as bearers of a power of rupture putting into question the regime, the State, society." They acted in such a way as to put into question the conception of the social (the social as functional) on which the state based its authority to govern. The political opening to otherness allowed activists to create a rupture with that order, to displace, if only briefly, the places assigned by the police, to make seen what was not seen, make heard what could not be heard.


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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
1. The Police Conception of History
Sociology and the Police
Algerian France
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

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