Logically derived resistance against a merciless democratic war
The harsh light faded, turned into red and violet streaks of misty vapour before vanishing. On the last Sunday of November 2007, two youths, Larami and Moushine, lost their lives in a crash with a police car. The major French newspapers announced next morning that the young men had displayed disorderly behaviour on the street and sped wildly through the suburbs on small cross-country motorbikes. Soon, however, statements on the course of events began to become entangled in contradictions. Eyewitnesses reported that a police car followed the two at high speed and drove into them from behind. A description that is not really surprising, for this is one of the standard forms of punishment by guardians of order in Paris’s suburbs. This time, however, the police really went too far in this grey zone of their powers, as they, too, were probably aware: at first they ascribed the serious damage to their vehicle to rampaging youths. The following Tuesday, however, a video made using a mobile phone that was passed on to the daily »Le Monde« was to prove that the police car already had the damage to its radiator straight after the pursuit of the two young men.
In the evening, before the dispute about the course of events began to make waves in the media, there were violent riots in the neighbourhood where the incident took place. Hundreds of young people gathered in the streets, built barricades and set on fire a car dealer’s premises, the library and a police station. The security forces that arrived on the scene were driven back by a hail of stones. Soon, the police was speaking of a new scale of violence, after unknown people shot at the officers with hunting rifles from short range. »They wanted to kill us«, the tight-pressed mouth of a shocked policeman lamented into the microphone held towards him.
The next morning, President Nicolas Sarkozy threatens the rebels from China, where he is on a state visit. From the other end of the world, he recognises as the culprits those immigrants that do not want to integrate, a socially worthless »rabble« that refuses to join the great national community. Those recognised on the fringes as »particular« should merge with the universal, he threatens, otherwise they would have their rights removed. But this utterance also raises the question: what is particular and what is universal? The once great nation or the death of a neighbour of the same age? And from which perspective are rights seen here? Or is perhaps precisely the resistance of the rebels the expression of a universal sign?
Even many critical leftists dissociated themselves from the rebellious youths, saying they were not formulating any »demands« and engaging politically. But the question can also be asked the other way round: whether what happened in the suburbs perhaps became a political language precisely by virtue of the fact that it did not contain any commentating self-explication that would make it possible to channel the resistant element into the prevailing cycle of communication and get rid of it.
Two years previously, the rage of the rebellious youth in the Paris banlieus had expressed itself most visibly in destroyed cars. The explosion of violence strangely articulated a perceptible interruption that eluded familiar readings. It was meant thus: we don’t want your means of transport any more, these promises with which we are meant to move, this little freedom of the road that you want to give us - we simply want to stay here. What happened expressed a »no« to the situation, and at the same time it yelled out a loud »yes«. Yes, we are destroying the vehicles in our district; we are getting rid of the opportunities for movement that you offer us, the involuntary migrants, those displaced by heteronomous movement. Yes, we want to do without these things;we are making ourselves immobile; we are simply remaining where we are.
In the night after the death of Larami and Moushine, someone pointed a shotgun with its scattered projectiles horizontally at the executive organs of the control society and pressed the trigger several times. Does this not formulate a symbol of resistance that is both clear, yet hard to comprehend, to a form of rule that considers it its right to see every movement, be it ever so scattered, in a vertical way? Is it not a sign that hits back into an imageless reality without communicating itself and confirming the lie of the community?
At another knot of the fabric with which France tries to preserve its inner order is the migrant Alain Badiou, who has gone through the »Maoist sequence«. Badiou, a professor at one of France’s leading universities, argues radically against a political philosophy that would lead solely to a weak consensus. What is more, Badiou says, it supports a democracy that has degenerated into authoritarian opinion. He counters this with a confrontation that not only quickly brings to mind a militant process, but derives its possibilities in philosophical manner: »Not offering resistance means not thinking. Not thinking means not risking risk.«
Like Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, Badiou, born in 1937, is a pupil of George Canguilhem, an activist of the French Resistance, whose far-reaching impact as an epistemologist with a special interest in medicine is described as »subterranean«. Badiou, on the other hand, who to this day builds on Canguilhem’s understanding of resistance derived from logic, is attracting more and more attention, in the German-speaking world as well, both because of his prominent followers and a number of translations, which have been published mostly by diaphanes - and this attention has increased once more owing to a slight Merve volume.
On the back cover of the book, in which Alain Badiou lays out his concepts of an affirmative movement, is written the sentence: »It is better to do nothing at all than to work formally on the visibility of something on whose existence the West insists.« So much impossibility, hovering desire and resistance has a certain attraction. The title contrasts with this passivity: »Third Draft of a Manifesto for Affirmationism«. In the short foreword to the manifesto, the philosopher refers at first to the way the various versions came about and explains that this third version tries to break away from the rhetoric of »empire« in order to move out of the lee of the bestseller of the same name.
Many readers had seen the much-discussed book by Michael Hardt and Tony Negri as a mixture of world formula and doctrine of salvation. This reception cannot be blamed solely on the authors, but their manner of writing contributed to the way an emerging resistance lost itself in an abstract, enigmatic terminology that was to be repeated like a mantra, without its finding the firm basis it needed to allow powers of resistance against the prevailing order to become effective. »Empire«, bolstered by the events of September 11, triggered much wandering about in circles, and no one seemed to have the strength to interrupt this movement and be consumed by fire.
The first step that Alain Badiou proposes to give resistance back its power is to abandon »the joys of a niche existence, of ambiguity, of endless deconstruction, of the fragmentary« to take command again of the »inhuman power of affirmation«. He counters the retreat into particular sectoral public spheres with the work on truths and universals, which Badiou, in brackets, calls beauty. It was possible partly the yearning for the latter that at first paved the way for the text to be translated into German. This path went via an intermediary stop that is not exactly well-known as a site of resistance: the text was made available with the kind permission of the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum, where it had perhaps been read in the hope of sublime art after the end of post-modernity.
The increasingly unpolitical Merve publishing house also promoted the text primarily as a contribution to the aesthetic discussion, even though it can be read very differently. Although the balancing act on a narrow ledge between art and politics makes the text appear ambiguous in certain passages, it also contributes to its controversial character. Badiou describes as »postmodern« »that which bears witness to a capricious and unlimited influence of particularity«. Badiou expects nothing more of it than repetitions from which nothing results besides a relapse into a »romantic formalism«. Quite a lot can be understood by this: the most recent fashions on the art market saw themselves very affirmatively as something aiming in this direction, but even the German nation was probably born in 1848 from a version of romantic formalism. Badiou, on the other hand, uses the term to describe the confused search by avant-garde movements of the 20th century for an end to art. He contrasts this movement in dead-ends with the »affirmationists«. This imagined movement scorns the old pseudo-avant-gardes and their subjective will to expression as depraved »didactic romanticism«, which in the end still adheres to the rubble pile of classicism like an old piece of chewing gum.
Badiou, like so many others, sees the most recent culmination of this sticky situation in September 11 2001. Even if his interpretation of the attack on the World Trade Center - »the ice-cold staging of a hackneyed motif: the rebellion of the cunning barbarian against the saturated empire« - sounds terribly aesthetic, his conclusion is politically acute: with its answers to the attack, democracy has begun to become »obscene«. Anything that does not correspond to what the West wants to call »democracy« or its consensus is from now on branded as »pathological«, and brutal measures are taken against it. Sarkozy practises this on migrants who are not willing to integrate, and George W. Bush against the rest of the world. At the same time, the radically hostile offensive against people deviating from democracy has insinuated itself everywhere into the particular and exacerbated thousands of lines of conflicts between the sectoral public spaces. But is it possible to use art as a platform to counterargue against this explosion of violence in the name of democracy? Badiou tries this by choosing the form of a manifesto. By using the precise, perhaps universal sign language that their rebellion releases again and again, the youths in the banlieues of Paris, far removed from art, succeed in creating an affirmative language in street grammar that says »yes« by radically rejecting the negation of life caused by the prevailing circumstances.
The end of the end
Badiou’s manifesto does not reinvent the wheel, but does arrive at the right time to ignite thought. A flame with the positive objective of emancipation and the fine desire »to combine art with the constructive project of the revolution« instead of falling further into line with the pessimism of the conventional order. Badiou’s talk of the end of the end can be read as an exciting forward look towards the horizon of the future, while resistance has long left text and entered new bodies on the street.
Badiou has often stressed that he sees no reason for philosophy to commentate on current events. However, he says, certain aspects of current happenings send out signals whose reception enables philosophy to formulate the problems resonating in them. He calls the transmitters of these demands »philosophical situations«. In these situations occurs the »interreferentiality of two concepts« that have no relationship to each other. Without such an intersection, Badiou says, the relationship leads to »events or ruptures« that can no longer be discussed; confrontation becomes inevitable. In such an exceptional situation, all those involved are forced to decide in favour of a way of thinking. A »resistance to the simple continuous flow of life« occurs – an interruption that allows thought to imagine that which is not. The imagined possibilities overcome contracts that have been made and force a breach of contract. With the departure from consensus and the annulment of the institution, the universal comes into the world. Such interruptions of the smooth order of things force their way into an environment at first as something alien, forming an »asocial singularity« that eludes prevailing knowledge, invisible and »clandestine«. As something that is »unobjective«, these disturbances must be produced by subjects. While this is happening, the surroundings begin to suspect that something is there. People even talk about it, precisely because it does not allow itself to be seen – it preserves a degree of intangibility that makes any channelling of resistance through the prevailing order impossible.
Perhaps the revolt by the youths in the suburbs of Paris can also be seen as a philosophical situation in Badiou’s sense – or remain incomprehensible. Those who have been shunted out of the public picture into the suburbs and the French state are related. But for years the latter has refused to create a relationship, unless someone wanted to call questionable social projects or the low-key control by the police a relationship. The revolts interrupt the simple flow of life under a false order. Precisely because the youths do not voice demands or concrete criticisms, something which causes them to be accused of lacking a voice, they remain, in their actions, the asocial singularity that eludes prevailing knowledge. Their vague and thus undecidable questioning of the order extends their unobjective resistance. Or, to use the situationist picture of the great sleep, they remain as an intangible break – a nightmare that is about the endless affirmation of life. If they were to explain themselves in demands – that is, to »politicise« themselves sufficiently – there would be, in Badiou’s language, an »event-statement«. This would allow the prevailing order to pass judgement on the self-confessed resistance and to get rid of its power in capitalist self-destruction. Something that had begun to evolve as a rebellious universal is dumped into the order again, and soon everything looks as if nothing had happened. The mechanisms of the control society work constantly on the expurgation of that which is not meant to be, bring it into line with standard norms or shove it out of sight. Perhaps it is precisely this state strategy of permanent cleansing of the picture that gives the undesirable nightmares the chance to evolve into militant traumas as things that have been »swept under the carpet«.
Nicola Sarkozy seems to fear this and at the beginning of February declared a »merciless war«, for which he mobilised a several-thousand-strong special unit against the rebels in the suburbs of Paris, who were now seen across the board as »drug dealers«. There is a strangely carefree coldness about the way a democratically elected sovereign wants here to assert himself against his people. Two years ago, Sarkozy chose the brutal picture of the »Kärcher« which he wanted to use to clean up the suburbs. The idea of the pressure cleaning device seems almost mild this year in the face of war imagery that threatens to lose itself to reality. Sarkozy’s »policies« follow, in ever more radical fashion, that which Badiou calls the »lowest function« of the State: »the inegalitarian reckoning up of human beings«. The rabble on the margins, which, he says, has forfeited its rights, is reckoned up against 4,000 police. Badiou draws a line from Saint Just to Mao in opposition to this militancy of state democracy: the affect of injustice legitimates revolt as a politics of truth.
Translation: Tim Jones