BE REASONABLE, DEMAND THE IMPOSSIBLE

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THE EVENTS OF MAY ’68 IN FRANCE HAVE BEEN SEEN AS THE EXPRESSION OF A RESURGENT MARXISM, AS AN EXISTENTIALIST REBELLION, AS A POST-MARXIST LEFTISM, AS THE POLITICS OF DESIRE, AND EVEN AS POSTMODERN POLITICS. WHAT WERE THE IDEAS AND ASPIRATIONS THAT DROVE THE EVENTS?

“Let us conclude: those who are unable to change methods when the times demand it doubtless prosper as long as they remain in step with fortune; but they are lost as soon as fortune changes. As for the rest I think it is better to be too bold than too cautious…”
Machiavelli, The Prince

Something that characterises most accounts, books and articles on May ’68 in France (but not only) is their author’s preface on the difficulty in ‘writing’ about the events, due to the complexity of the time-space frame in which they happened, and of the multiple forces, ideas and aspirations that moved them. The same difficulty I found when I sat down to plan my essay. Here, it seems, theory does not help. As ‘hedonistic’ Roland Barthes wrote in a special number of Communications (1968), “To describe the event implies that the event was written. How can an event be written? What can the writing of an event mean?”
Something that I always find in a way frustrating is the ‘emotional’ narrowness of the approach that I am forced to have, not having lived the event, and therefore having to confide in secondary sources to unravel the skein.
Probably the best reading of the events would be to consider them as a flow of ‘spirit’, an ‘alternative’ way of living within a way of living, a ‘structure of feeling’, to borrow from Raymond Williams. Certainly for me, the best understanding of the events came from focusing my attention on the many photographs, pamphlets, lyrics, designs, films, music, art, free poetry and more, produced during that time, where we can best grasp their dynamism.

In this piece I shall start off by introducing our subject-matter in its dialectics with the historical and political situation of the years closely preceding it, to then look at the events more specifically.
My analysis will subsequently move to give a reading and interpretation of some of the many and main ideas, aspirations, hopes, motivations and beliefs that sparked the events, which will give me a chance to look at the role some intellectuals played in their development.
Lastly, I will shift my focus on parallel cultural forms, like music and film at the time, in virtue of an icastic reconstruction, which will take me to craft my conclusion on readings of May ’68 within the modernity/ post-modernity debate and to look at its significance for posterity.

“Be reasonable, demand the impossible.”

What sparked my interest in May ’68 was a film I watched a few years ago, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970). Set in the United States, the film deals in an extremely poetic and innovative way (however clichéd the content, we might a posteriori argue) with the revolutions that originated from Western societies’ inability to welcome art, play, dissent, jokes, love.
What we have here is an argument that the teleological processes of increasing rationalisation of late capitalism ended up producing, as a primary effect, an augmenting ‘chaoticisation’ of the cities, of interpersonal relations, also noticeable in the indirect version of the elders’ and the youth’s solitudes and anomies, or directly, for example, in the manifest blindness of the infamies of the Vietnam war. On a parallel line with Cinema Novo Glauber Rocha’s aesthetics, Antonioni portrays violence as a legitimate tool of any people unsatisfied with their social conditions. Violence bursts out inevitably and unexpectedly – and can be, sometimes ought to be, disastrous.

May ’68 roughly really happened from the mid-‘50s to the beginning of the ‘70s. So what was going on at the time? On a simplistic scale, “what are normally thought of as the causes of May are frightening in their banality. The student grievances of 1968 and before have, as Roger Duclaud-Williams shows, barely changed since then: overcrowding and underfunding, high failure rates, inadequate maintenance, lack of contacts between teachers and taught and above all fear of selection at entry to university.” But obviously, like in good old complicated cultural studies fashion, things were not that straightforward (heterogeneity rather than homogeneity of causes).

France at the time had been under General de Gaulle for ten years. Yet, everybody knows that de Gaulle did not appear on the political scene only in 1958: he entered history during WWII, in 1940. May ’68 in France therefore has its first curiousness: it was a fight to be won against a legend, and with him the course of history that has been officially accepted and revered. But de Gaulle is not only remembered for his role in WWII; he is also the leader who put France back on the track of global economic forces. Yet, as Maurice Agulhon points out, “prosperity was not total. It the optimist can show that the majority of workers and peasants attained a material standard of living not far removed from that of the middle classes, the pessimist can point out that social inequality was intensely polarised at either end of the hierarchy.”

And the story goes on… Inequality was not only a tormenting issue in the motherland, but also in France’s colony, Algeria. Kristin Ross in May ’68 and its Afterlives recognises in the Algerian war one of the main igniters of the ’68 revolts. “What the longer periodisation allows me to argue is that May ’68 was not a great cultural reform, a push towards modernisation, or the drawing sun of a new individualism. It was above all not a revolt on the part of the sociological category of ‘youth’. It was the revolt of an historically situated cross-section of students and workers alike, for some of whom the war in Algeria provided the background noise of their childhood.” The Algerian war (which ended in 1962 with the Algerian declaration of independence), a part from its economic and political roots, raised all issues on the notion of civilisation and France’s paternalistic attitude and alleged civilisation. “Had everything in the ‘civilising mission’ been a mistake?”, Agulhon asks? Had France’s motto ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’’ become outdated? What kind of existential issues did this bring along in a society that was thriving more and more on consumerism and commodification of culture? These issues, along with, on a global scale, the injustice of the Vietnam war, Franco’s regime in Spain and the Chinese cultural revolution, inevitably propelled what historians agree to call a ‘crisis of values’. This ‘global’ aspect of May ’68 is a core one in understanding the specificity and historical uniqueness of such events.

To this regard, we should also mention here the importance of the developments in technology that made travel and communication – the advent of television! – cheaper and faster. In fact, the Vietnam war, for example, became a war not only fought in Vietnam, but on the streets of Paris too, as on those of Berkeley, Milan, Berlin, etc., thanks to its international daily coverage. Other issues at the time were related to racism (the Apartheid system in South Africa and the assassination of M.L. King (1968) – even though the students revolts and the racial demonstrations never developed any categorically direct links) and in general the birth of civil rights movements.

This overall picture (however brief we have had to make it, for logistical reasons) was what frightened authorities the most: everything became politicised, everything had to be political; demands were not really clear. It was a war in some sense in post-modern politics fashion, a war not fought on ‘army’ grounds, if we accept standard ideas on post-modernity. What was certain was that the power relationships within society were crying to be redefined, and possibly (this is probably where the utopianism of the movement – according to many – lays) even abolished.

The situation seemed (or at least seems to us today) ripe for all groups of society that felt they had something to say to gather in protest. On multiple occasions the union workers joined the students in the streets of Paris that by now were fast becoming chaotic Vietnam-style. Specifically, most events took place between May 3, which saw the students demonstrating at the Sorbonne (a traditional institution even more sacred than de Gaulle) and the CRS (French riot police) being sent in to ‘fight the menace’ – the riots spreading in the Latin Quarter -, to May 30, when General de Gaulle, after a two-day ‘reflection honey moon’ in Baden-Baden, across the German border, gave a televised speech in which he condemned the ‘Communist threat’ and stated he was ready to use every mean necessary (including the army) to fight the civil war silent.
Yet, as we are now about to see, political authority might have been re-established, yet it would take other means to re-establish the old order, if it ever could be re-established.

“Those who talk of the revolution and class struggle with no explicit reference to daily life, without understanding the subversive nature of love and the positive aspects of refusal have a corpse in their mouth.”

Something that I would want to put forward on the basis of my research, and for future analysis, is the suggestion that arguably every intelligentsia seemed to create, as a general trend, actually, their own myths, from Adorno to Marcuse, from Reich to Sartre, on the basis of the necessities, circumstances and conveniences.
Having said this, let us now give some more precise examples of these ideas and aspirations that we have so far looked at in their socio-cultural context, by considering the work of some of the intellectuals or influent groups that played a role in shaping them.

The Situationists, whether rightly or wrongly, are seen as having played the role of the precursor in the events of May ’68. Guy Debord, one of the leaders of the Situationists along with Lefebvre, developed the idea, already back in 1957 (and that sees in Surrealism its artistic analogous), of libertarian hostility to all forms of state authority, a concept that will be dear to the Punk movement in the late ‘70s. He said that we live in a societé du spectacle (from which the homonymous book, published in 1967) where détournement and dérive serve to get away from it. He claimed that all human experience is now mediated through images, and gave such notion a teleological stance. The Situationists provided the movement with a series of slogans that more than everything seemed to create a rupture within the system, formalising through soundbites that rupture between society and the ‘social’, as Arditi differentiates (with the difference that for Arditi the social is a manifestation more of a minority, more on a smaller scale, but the concept remains the same and as applicable to our discussion).

To the extent of the social rebellion, post-Marxist leftism (one would not be surprised) had some potential appeal. Definitely those involved in the movement studied the thought of Marx and Lenin, Trotsky and Mao, Lukacs and ‘Che’ in depth. Albeit, it is important to note that the movement did not associate itself fully with the PCF. Rather, the discussion was more on the lines of what Cohn-Bendit talks about as ‘obsolete communism – the left-wing alternative’ (in his homonymous book published at the end of 1968, a sort of ‘manifesto’). And there would be friction between the two. As Agulhon recalls, “The Communists displayed as much tenacity in stigmatising the ‘irresponsibility’ of the leftist ‘splinter groups’ as they used in legitimising the workers’ protest action and organising its fight.” Once more, we are talking here of such a huge number of microcosmic interventions that have underlining characteristic of essential irreducibility to one formed strand of thought. As Agulhon goes on, “It became evident that the battle was being played out between not just two but three camps: the government of the state, the Movement (vast, diffused, indefinable, ‘leftist’) and lastly the PC (or, according to its own saying, the ‘working class’).”

An intellectual that will eventually develop sympathies for the PC, without ever joining the party though, is Jean Paul Sartre. Sartre’s philosophy, Existentialism, both fed and was fed by the revolts – inevitably. Defining Existentialism ‘humanism’, Sartre (who was told to keep brief at the movement’s meeting, in good ‘equalitarian’ fashion) certainly provided some strong motivations, with his conceptualisations of freedom and responsibility. Here we have a philosopher who is telling us that we are the makers of our own destiny; that we choose what we want our essence to be, given our existence (of Kierkegaardian memory), and that in this journey we are free to go whichever direction we believe more appropriate for us, as individuals. This is what distinguishes us from plants, animals and ‘things’ in general. Now it is obvious that in an epoch where consumerism is starting to worry people, such reaffirmation of the free essence of the human being was a very attractive formula. As Vladimir Fisera argues, “Intellectuals and student intellectuals, divorced from social roots and even from professional work, could, in the events of May, […] find the opportunity to overcome the ‘cult of the book’, the cult of abstraction and even a desiccated form of knowledge. They could, at last, as Sartre had advocated, put existence itself, at its most trenchant, in the forefront of things and at the top of their priorities and values.”

A different stance is offered (a posteriori) by Michel Foucault, who left us one of the most comprehensive genealogies of power and its workings. As Foucault himself said, an extended analysis of power (that was not Marxist) and its mechanics could only “begin after 1968, that is to say, on the basis of daily struggles at the grass-roots level, among those whose fight was located in the fine meshes of the web of power. This was where the concrete nature of power became visible, along with the prospect that these analyses of power would prove fruitful for all that had hitherto remained outside the field of political analysis.”

Foucault (who only went back to Paris at the end of ’68) read the events as deeply de-centering. According to a reading of his work, the events of ’68 are to be read as resistance to an ‘unjust’ system, yet provoked by power itself. “Where there is power there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power. […] Hence there is no single locus of Great refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case: resistances that are possible, necessary, improbable; others that are spontaneous, savage, solitary, concerted, rampant or violent; by definition, they can only exist in the strategic field of power relations.”

Moving along, one of the greatest conceptualists of modernity (and one whose thoughts I often find excitingly powerful), Marshall Berman, finds a ‘way out’ to such claustrophobic views: “After being subjected to this for a while, we realise that there is no freedom in Foucault’s world, because his language forms a seamless web, a cage far more airtight than anything Weber ever dreamed of, into which no life can break. The mystery is why so many of today’s intellectuals seem to want to choke in there with him. The answer, I suspect, is that Foucault offers a generation of refugees from the 1960s a world-historical alibi for the sense of passivity and helplessness that gripped so many of us in the 1970s. There is no point in trying to resist the oppressions and injustices of modern life, since even our dreams of freedom only add more links to our chains: however, once we grasp the total futility of it all, at least we can relax.”

“We must develop our own standard of beauty” (King Mob, Echo 3)

I would now like to concentrate briefly on the role of ‘art’ in our conceptualisation of the May events, where we can find the most eloquent examples of a fracture otherwise, as we have seen, very hard to formalise. To this purpose I will concentrate on music.

To talk of art (in its widest meaning) requires me here to refer back to the work of another major theorist of modernity, Walter Benjamin. In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin introduces the concept of ‘aura’ in order to discuss its decay in contemporary times. In the age of mechanical reproduction of works of art, he argues, “the greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public. The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticised with aversion.” Benjamin is highly critical (and rather pessimistic), in concluding the essay stating that the self-alienation of mankind “has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”

I have two comments two make at this point. Firstly, (and I guess I am here giving a Foucaultian reading) the ‘revolutionary beauty’ of the events of May ‘68 would have arguably not taken place if it was not for this sense of ‘decay’ of art and the questioning of it by those who fought for a re-affirmation of their own individuality in their works of art. Art (as we have seen with most avant-garde movements) became politicised, and this opened up a whole series of animated discussions that would eventually proceed to a re-evaluation of the aesthetic (and elitist) notion of the superiority of an alleged ‘high art’ as opposed to ‘low art’. Precisely, pop/ rock music became a means of expression appropriated by the revolutionaries of ’68. Secondly, it will be modernity and technology itself that will provide them the practical means to ‘think globally’ (as we have seen earlier) and to employ more efficient and wider-reaching means of communication (even if still of un incomparable scale if compared to those of the dominant circles), like megaphones.

On this attack on modernity, Berman has once more something inspiring to say. Something that makes me shiver with emotions and ask myself how much beauty there is right there, in front of our eyes. And we are free. It is up to us to take all that up and become something beautiful. “When students at Columbia University rebelled in 1968, some of their conservative professors described their action as ‘modernism in the streets.’ Presumably, those streets would have been calm and orderly – in the middle of Manhattan, yet! – if only modern culture could somehow have kept off them., and confined to university classrooms and libraries and Museums of Modern Art. Had the professors learnt their own lessons, they would have remembered how much of modernism – Baudelaire, Boccioni, Joyce, Mayakovsky, Léger, et al. – has nourished itself on the real trouble in the modern streets, and transformed their noise and dissonance into beauty and truth.”

Coming towards a conclusion, I would like to concentrate on the role played in May ’68 by music, as that art expression with the highest, in my opinion, reactive power and the most immediate potential for translating space and time into something perceptible to our senses, while at the same time transcending those same categories. “Melody gives birth to poetry over and over again”, Nietzsche said. “Music is accordingly, when viewed as the expression of the world, a universal language to the highest degree, which even has roughly the same relationship to the universality of concepts as concepts have to individual things. Its universality is, however, far removed from that empty universality of abstraction, and of a completely different kind, linked with a clear and thorough definition.”
And I see a lot of that need of re-enhancing those discussions of freedom in ’68 as related to those of the dialectics between the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

There would be far too many examples that I could cite here, but for the occasion I have chosen Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone, where the ‘rolling stone’ is an allegory for a nomad, for a person who does not have a fixed habitat, but lives in constant transformation. Written in 1965, the song clearly talks of many of the high singing issues that motivated the revolutionaries at the time. After all, is the point not that of a journey, of flying so high and so low to define what we are, what we want?
And here, finally, goes the song…

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
People’d call, say ‘Beware doll, you’re bound to fall’
You thought they were all kiddin you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin out
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal
How does it feel, How does it feel
To be without a home, like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
You’ve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street
And now you find out you’re gonna have to get used to it
You said you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him do you want to make a deal?
How does it feel, How does it feel
To be on your own, with no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down and did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain’t no good
You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you
You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain’t it hard when you discover that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
After he took from you everything he could steal
How does it feel, How does it feel
To be on your own, with no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They’re drinkin’ thinkin that they got it made
Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things
But you’d better lift your diamond ring, you better pawn it babe
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you ain’t got nothin you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal
How does it feel, How does it feel
To be on your own, with no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

In conclusion, what we have argued in this essay is that May ’68 came out of a multiplicity of heterogeneous discourses, emotions, art forms, politics, cultures, aims, beliefs and passions, and that its strength lays in the fact that all of these cannot be reduced to a one paradigm, one defined categorical system. Through a careful selection (yet limited, due to the length of the piece) of such various ideas and aspirations, we have placed the movement within the modernity/ post-modernity debate, and we have related it to nearly a century of philosophical and political thought.

Ultimately, as Vladimir Fisera sums up, May ’68 became a “‘historical revealer’ and accelerator,” the Prometheus of the post-war period.

Sociological studies became very much in vogue and sociology as a discipline seemed to offer the appropriate tools to exemplify the cult of rebellion and of dissent, and the complaint on the social construct of deviation and depravation.
And then the women, the drugs, reflections on power and free time, military service and prisons, madness and sanity, ‘normality’, should be framed within a ‘philosophy of money’ of which the sociologist Simmel already anticipated the most interesting categories. Arguably, there is a link between the new doors it opened for the birth of counter-cultures and sub-cultures, like the Punk movement; it ‘accelerated’, once more arguably, the ‘crisis of values’ of the ‘70s and ‘80s, with the strengthening of women’s and gay rights’ movements (stonewall, for example, was to take place in 1969), and all the way down to the ‘anarchist’, quasi carnivalesque style of the antiglobalisation protests of Seattle and Genoa.

I would like to end this piece with the words of an advertisement I saw some time ago. “We shape the things we build; thereafter they shape us.” I cannot recall the product that was being advertised. Let us say, therefore, to each their own.

FOOTNOTES

1 Reader, K. A. The May 1968 Events in France (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), p. 1
2 Hanley, D. L. & Kerr, A. P. May ’68 Coming of Age (London: Macmillan Press, 1989), p. 3
3 Agulhon, M. The French Republic 1879-1992 (Oxford: Blackwells, 1993), p. 416
4 Ross, K. May ’68 and its Afterlives (Chicago: university of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 26
5 Agulhon, M. The French Republic 1879-1992, p. 419
6 Agulhon, M. The French Republic 1879-1992, p. 426
7 Ibid.
8 Hanley, D. L. & Kerr, A. P. May ’68 Coming of Age, p. 200
9 Rabinow, P. (ed.) The Foucault Reader (London: Penguin, 1984), p. 58
10 Foucault, M. The History of Sexuality: I (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 96
11 Berman, M. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (London: Verso, 1983), p. 35
12 Benjamin, W. Illuminations (London: Pimlico, 1999), p. 227
13 Ibid., p. 235
14 Berman, M. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, p. 31
15 Nietzsche, F. The Birth of Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2000), p. 39
16 Ibid., p. 87
17 Hanley, D. L. & Kerr, A. P. May ’68 Coming of Age, p. 195

BIBLIOGRAPHY

• Agulhon, M. The French Republic 1879-1992 (Oxford: Blackwells, 1993)
• Benjamin, W. Illuminations (London: Pimlico, 1999)
• Berman, M. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (London: Verso, 1983)
• Cohn-Benedict Obsolete Communism The Left-Wing Alternative (London: penguin, 1968)
• Dazed & Confused May 1998 issue (for the Situationists’ slogans)
• Foucault, M. The History of Sexuality: I (London: Penguin, 1976)
• Hanley, D. L. & Kerr, A. P. May ’68 Coming of Age (London: Macmillan Press, 1989)
• Nietzsche, F. The Birth of Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2000)
• Rabinow, P. (ed.) The Foucault Reader (London: Penguin, 1984)
• Reader, K. A. The May 1968 Events in France (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993)
• Ross, K. May ’68 and its Afterlives (Chicago: university of Chicago Press, 2002)

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