June 13, 2024

The Affects Of May 1968 – On Liberal Subjectivity And Its Discontents (Roger Green)

Elliot Neaman closes his book, Free Radicals: Agitators, Hippies, Urban Guerrillas, and Germany’s Youth Revolt of the 1960s and 1970s, stating that the battles of the late 1960s persist today, “not on the streets this time, but rather [in disputes] over who has the power to interpret the past correctly” (212).  He claims that rather than leaders becoming more democratic, “German society had changed organically” with “modernization all across Europe” (213). When we think retrospectively on the events of 1968 now in 2018, one thing that emerges clearly is the phenomenon was transnational.

This is essentially the argument Simon Prince made in a 2006 article in The Historical Journal titled “The Global Revolt of 1968 and Northern Ireland.” Prince writes: “American student radicals, who came to prominence earlier than their Western European counterparts because the ranks of adult activists had been decimated by Communist witch-hunts, bridged the New Lefts of 1956 and 1968” (859).  Some were even “anointed” by C. Wright Mills in the early 1960s.

The Youth International Party’s “Groucho Marxism” officially commenced December 31, 1967, and it is well known that despite new tactics, many of its members were influenced by the critical theory of thinkers like Herbert Marcuse.  Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition had already perceptively noted that the almost immediate reaction to the success of Sputnikwas to begin thinking of the Earth as a prison.

That the period still warrants right-wing narratives such as Michael Walsh’s The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory And the Subversion of the West, and sponsored events by conservative Christian groups such as Family Research Council evidences not only Elliot Neaman’s remark above, but also that no matter how seemingly esoteric or “academic,” the language of “critical theory” is an ongoing issue of concern across political spectrum binaries.

Resonating with François Cusset’s remark’s in French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States about the ways U.S. college campuses act as separate zones for brief periods of “radical inquiry” followed by a return to much more conservative behavior, Prince articulates the appeal of revolutionary thinking for 1960s radicals:“Guerrilla fighters […] represented a Romantic alternative to Eastern Europe’s apparatchiks” (864).

But it was not all the romanticizing of privileged liberal youths “identifying” with the world’s oppressed.  There was strategy too: “If the Vietnamese continued to resist and guerrilla campaigns were launched elsewhere, then the drain on resources would undermine the consumer culture that had supposedly neutralized the revolutionary potential of the West’s working class.”  The sleeping violence of the oppressive system would either become starkly visible or give up such costly attempts to stamp out the radicals’ demands.

Activists such as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee knew this well, and the racial situation is especially important here because it was the pan-Africanism that had sparked transnational identity impulses in thinkers like Frantz Fanon that helped synthesize this with psychoanalysis and Marxism in ways that European intellectuals like Sartre were incapable of understanding in full.

While it became fashionable to dismiss Sartre, his intellectual influence was still present in 1968. As François Dosse writes in his History of Structuralism, Sartre was the only intellectual at the Sorbonne allowed to speak in May.  He sympathized with protestors saying they had little other recourse than that of violence.  On May 9, a supporting proclamation published in Le Monde was signed by Sartre, Maurice Blanchot, André Gorz, Pierre Klossowski, Jacque Lacan, Henri Lefebvre, and Maurice Nadeau (113).

Prince ties the events in May of 1968 at least in part to the Berlin SDS International Vietnam Congress in February of that year, and certainly one could trace some of this impulse back to the 1965 Vietnam Day Committee, noting: “It was through the media that radicals around the world were able to conceive of themselves as belonging to the imagined community of global revolt” (867).  Yet the burst of radical impulses preceded returns to more conservative regimes, law and order politics, the “war on drugs,” etc.

Still, there were a series of more immediate events that preceded May in Paris on the continent.  Prince notes that the arrest of four students protesting American imperialism led to 142 students occupying buildings at Nanterre and signing the “March Resolution” as an echo of Fidel Castro’s “July Movement.” He writes, “Within the space of a few months, the cycle of provocation and repression initiated at Nanterre had brought tens of thousands of students to the Parisian streets” (869). Prince notes that the resonance would echo in Northern Ireland later that year.

In April, the assassination attempt on German SDS leader Rudi Dutschke resonated as well.  But students were only a part of it.  There were 10 million strikers across the country, according to Dosse (112).  Criticism of American hegemony was part of all of this.  Neaman notes that the German youth were quick to see what had happened in the U.S.:

For a brief moment, U.S. foreign policy formulated and formalized the new spirit of the times, only to succumb to a new ideology, quasi-religious anti-communism.  In the minds of the German students, the United States had simply picked up the imperial torch on which the British and French were gradually losing its grip. (213-4)

Again, the solidarity with Vietnamese against invading forces was a signal, along with intrigue about Maoism as opposed to Russian forms of Communism.  Disidentification with the U.S. and returns to various nationalisms seems to have prevented the kind of sustained transnational impulses that fueled the pan-African movement, leading to later hopes in third world coalitions.

But Vincent Harding’s opening essays in the Eyes on the Prize: Civil Rights Reader detailing how disaffected with Communism African Americans had become when their cause was put aside by the Communists for WWII.   This left a window for liberalizing tendencies in American politics to take more inclusive approaches to democracy for people of color against the human rights critiques that slung every-which-way as discussions of genocide and human rights swirled in postwar rhetoric.

Ultimately with respect to Germany, Neaman argues that the 1968 generation over-determined its actual influence by over-reading their efforts in the succession of historical European revolts. 1968 was simply not 1933, yet the students read the state of exception as indicating the return of fascism and “the mistakes of the Weimar Left,” who did not see it coming soon enough.  He also cites Adorno’s disgust at the misreading: “I built a theoretical model, but how could I have anticipated that people would want to realize it with Molotov cocktails?” (219).

Writing more generally of the experiences of older Germans who were sympathetic to democratic liberalism, Neaman writes, “The crux of the matter was that the academics of the previous generation had experienced actual censorship, suppression, and often exile, so they embraced tolerance as by natural reflex. They cringed often enough, but in the end supported the right of the students to have their say” (220).

Neaman also notes that the radicals did not want to be merely “tolerated,” and that for some a return to nationalistic impulses ultimately won out. Prince echoes this with respect to Northern Ireland, where localized sectarian conflicts came to take priority of issues of class conflict that might have otherwise perpetuated a global movement.

In comparing to recent situations with activists such as Julian Assange, Neaman points to another case of mimetic revolutionary impulses and that rightwing ties were developed from the 68ers as well as leftwing ties: “Left and Right are not the key political categories to understand this phenomenon, but rather power and subjection.  The German 68ers and today’s anarchists share a hermeneutics of suspicion against any kind of authority” (227-228).

While Prince’s remarks about what we now refer to as globalization was occurring through media forms coalescing in similar impulses transnationally, Neaman adds the important point about a similarity between the 68ers and the Arab Spring and Occupy.  All these movements, though touted as having been made possible through the democratizing effects of media technology, have lacked strategic planning in contrast with the multi-decade approaches of the civil rights agendas that surfaced in the early 1960s.  The loudness of their voices lacked civic organizational grounding to implement their demands.

While I think that Prince and Neaman are correct about many things, it seems that the longer history of discipline among pan-African and African-American groups has not lacked this civic organizing, but the foregrounding of racial tensions in the U.S. in the era of “post-racism” evidences a larger rift.  Liberal comfort was too enticing for white people to really get on board with the emergent connections intellectuals like Fanon had seen with the violence of post colonialism. They could merely “accept” the “inclusion” of marginalized people into an idea of liberalism with infinite space instead of dealing with the more difficult work of systemic transformation.

In many ways, the violence we see today must be tied to the slipping of U.S. hegemony.  The violence that comes from this situation is both the violence of shifting powers and the necessary violence accompanying decolonization that Fanon pointed out in The Wretched of the Earth. The strategies of using the colonizer’s tactics against him, however, is lost on those unaware of their investments in such power, and therefore unable to see that the imaginary of finance capital is bankrupt.

Both Neaman and Prince point to the abstracted violence brought about by fragmented historical and social memory that is decontextualized. This also produces what Olivier Roy has called the deculturing effects of Holy Ignorance, a license for cartoonish “religio-political” violence.

François Dosse’s History of Structuralism is useful again here because he describes in detail the methodology of structuralism as a critique of both Darwinian linear history and dialectical materialism, hence the heavy interest in Nietzsche’s thought and genealogy as method.

So much of the decultured violence that Olivier Roy points to is based on the notion that traumatized individuals often come to seek stability in rigid worldviews, particularly where a moral authority can help determine right from wrong.  I see this particularly among liberal subjects with the desire for experience, to feel, and I would say the affective impulse is broader than political “extremists.”

The songwriter, John Grant, has an appropriate line here in a song called “Pain.”  He says, “Pain, it takes so much pain / to help you feel if you can’t feel at all. / […] And if you think you need more pain, / you can get all that you need. / You can get it all for free. / Just keep doing what you are.”  Like people who want their lovers to punch them during sex, the desire is complex. It is more a survival instinct than a “death drive,” and so it strangely embraces the 1960s mantra, “death to the death drive.”

The desire is to be made a subject according one’s own conditions: If I am to endure pain, I will do it my way, even if I cede power to a lover/abuser.  Here the “safe word” ought to be connected to neoliberal “safe culture.”  Violence hovers at the liminal space of representation. So long as the subject can risk the punch, the result is an embodied pleasure, a contained ecstasy that is felt because it is contained.

Such are the solutions we hear today among liberal subjects calling frequently for more regulation, more rule of law, more authority, more liberalism. Punch me again, but really mean it this time!  Of course, when the game is no longer recognizable as a game, representational play gives way to either unmitigated tyranny or wholesale bloodshed. The fun is over.  Time to reread Georges Bataille.

It is easy to be cynical here.  But I want to stay with this cruel optimism that liberal subjectivity imposes, to borrow Lauren Berlant’s term here.  Deculturation, like C.I.A.-backed experiments in behavior modification catalogued in The Project MK-ULTRA Compendium, presents an eviscerated deterritorialization.  On whatever level one encounters this phenomenon, there is a breakdown of liberal subjectivity and a potential “return.” The question is, to what?

As we have seen globally in recent years, the yearning for nationalism, for Germans and Americans who want to say “enough is enough” to immigrants, especially among dispossessed citizenry, erupts in a return to nationalism.  This is a phantasy structure to return the the subjective containment that once was, a denial of the force of history, or as Carl Raschke has put it more genealogically, The Force of God.

Shifts toward animality and affective assemblages, toward biological and biopolitical analyses, present another move, importantly looking to causes and connections outside of subjectivity and debates about sovereignty. Didier Debaise has recently attempted to ground such thought by way of Whitehead’s critique of the bifurcation of nature at the outset of modernity in Nature as Event.

Other forms of the critique of sovereign-subject relationship exist in recent work as well.  Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, a veteran of the 1968 generation, sees similar potential with Amerindian Perspectivism.  Alain Badiou continues to theorize events and militancy.  Joshua Ramey sees potential in the dividual self against Wendy Brown’s lament for the fraying of civil discourse.

One big difference between now and 1968 is that a generation of people today were not erased by the violence of World War, even though the U.S. has been “at war” for most of the last two decades. There has been no C. Wright Mills passing the torch to a younger set of intellectuals.

Ta-Nehisi Coates comes to mind as his Between the World and Me echoes James Baldwin’s 1962 “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” which performs some of the tactical reversals suggested by Fanon.  Tradition persists in thinkers like him.  But certainly older liberal academics, as I’ve written elsewhere, seem to have missed the boat on initiatives such as Black Lives Matter, confusing an older and deeper lineage with mere neoliberal identity politics.  Another way to see it is the affective and unconscious, intersubjective impulses from a long history of dispossession, and the inability for utopic conceptions of space to accommodate dispossessed people, or even own up to the past violence that perpetuates the production of wretchedness.

The legacy of 1968 continues to playout in critiquing the assumptions about subjectivity that underwrite rights-based culture during a time of crisis.  We might ask ourselves what forms of self-violence we’ve been consciously or unconsciously asking for in order to capitalize on our experience.  Beyond the personal as political, how is the automaton ennatured rather than naturalized?

Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics.  His doctoral dissertation, Beware of Mad John (2013) explores connections between political theology and psychedelic literature.  He is currently working on a second PhD in Religious Studies and Theology at University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.



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