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Title: Let the dead (revolutionaries) bury the dead
Post by: σα(ρε)μαλι on 17 Aug, 2007, 01:54:00
30 χρόνια μετά το θάνατο του Πρίσλεϊ. Ώρα να μιλήσουμε για επανάσταση (όχι εγώ, ένας Γάλλος κοινωνιολόγος). Επανάσταση που εκκρεμεί και θα συνεχίσει να εκκρεμεί, γιατί όπως έγραψε κι ένας άλλος θεωρητικός: Any break will have to be forced from small cracks within the existing order, small mutations in its repetitious progress.*

*Sven Lutticken Unnatural History New Left Review vol 45 May/June 2007 σ. 130

For a special issue of the Turkish journal of sociology Birikim edited by Koray Caliskan)

If we follow the various historians of the social sciences who have tried to understand how the notion of "society" emerged, we can summarize the result by the following statement :  society emerges to make sure the revolution is closed È  . In other words, the sociology of society is the explicit construction of thinkers, mostly French, who wanted to avoid the coming back of revolution, or who wanted to declare closed the era of revolutions. In Bauman's analysis, the argument goes even further when he shows that society is actually invented to shortcut the very notion of politics [2] . Exhausted by almost a century of turmoil, French sociologists —or sociologists terrified by the French traumatic experience— saw the composition of society by sociologists as the only alternative to the (mad) composition of the Body Politic by political means. Either you have a society, and sociologists may then play the legislator's role and help manage or engineer painless change —as in Auguste Comte project—, or you have a Body Politic and there will never be an end to revolutions. [3] In other words, societies cannot be revolutionized, because they have been invented, precisely, not to be revolutionized.

This argument is very telling because it reorganizes the chronology of revolutions in interesting new ways. Revolution, a term borrowed, by the way, from the scientific and not the political domain, [4] is a notion that has a clear sense for the Body Politic but no sense when applied to societies. This means that the word has a meaning for the English Glorious  Revolution, the American Revolution and the beginning of the French political revolution. Revolution is something that happens to political order when the Body Politic is subverted to invent this strange but rather efficacious hybrid called the representative government [5] . Thus, revolutions stricto sensu, pertain to the 18th century, to the political order, and to the agonizing process of devising the complex machinery of representation by bricolage. It is a limited historical term and has a direct connection with the scientific and industrial revolutions of the roughly similar period. The proof that this use of the term is very limited, is that it can be safely used when people try to regain a representative government today, for instance in Ukraine or Belarus: it is clearly the institution of the Body Politik, here again, that is at stake, not the society that is to be subverted.

But then, one could say, why has the term lasted two more centuries and why has it received so many adjectives in addition, such as the communist or even islamic revolutions ? Why have people earnestly tried to apply a notion tailored for introducing radical changes in the Body Politic to the recalcitrant substance of the society that has been invented to not being subverted ?

This would remain a mystery, if not for a complete metamorphosis in the notion magnificently diagnosed by Bernard Yack: after the bloody failure of the French revolution, something happened that entirely transformed the notion from a political to a total revolution [6]. Total  does not mean —at least not immediately— totalitarianism —this would remain the "achievement" of the 20th century— but rather it implies the amazing idea that the people itself, the stuff out of which the other 18th century revolutions had been made, where not of a good enough quality. This time, it is people, man itself in its physiological, psychological, legal make up which should be entirely remade so as to render possible a "real" revolution. To change the Body Politic and to end up with a mere representative government, this is now considered as a rather disgusting limitation of the possibility of demiurgic action on matter. More is possible: a total revolution. Yack shows how this extraordinary metamorphosis of the notion goes from Rousseau, then to Kant, Hegel, Marx and then Nietzsche —he could have continued his argument all the way to the disciples of Negri or even to the militants fighting violently for a new Califate : the revolution is either total or nothing. The 18th century notion, applied to the Body Politic, requested a violent action, then a success and then a new equilibrium: in the end, a compromise was reached to the simple question of the political order. But the 19th notion is marked by a radical disappointment about the very fabric of humanity and, for this reason, requests the necessary transformation not only of the representative government —this bourgeois solution— but of the very fabric of humanity. Hence the word longing so important for Yack : an odd mixture of sex, passion, folly and certainty. It is now not only society but also humanity in its its very core which has to be subverted. And, sure enough, the failure of such an enterprise has been as total as the total revolution that it envisaged. It remained the dubious task of the 20th century to turn it not only into a total failure, but also into crimes of gigantic proportion.

The question is to try to understand why a notion such as that of revolution which had a comprehensible application to a set of scientific and political subversions, remains the ideal of so many movements, for two centuries, in spite of an ocean of blood. The reason for this tragedy is that the two notions of society - that which is to be subverted radically and that of society made to shortcut politics just as radically - flow in parallel, each one making sure that it counterbalances the other. In other words, the new notion of revolution is made to be impossible —and by consequence bloody. This consequence is built up in the notion of society ; as a metallurgist could say, it is a simple question of resistance of materials. With the notion of society, one thing is impossible: the progressive composition of the common good : society is a block, a system, a structure, a whole where everything is interconnected. The consequence is not very surprising: the more the notion of society takes the room of political composition and transforms everything into a system (in the eyes of the sociologists, that is), the more a) it resists changes, thus the more b) it should be changed radically, thus c) the more any radical action will either fail miserably or have costly consequences. The whole thing turns around to be a little pun which would be very funny if it were no so tragic: the sentence "No change is possible, without a radical, total, systematic subversion of the whole;" becomes "Thus no change is possible!" [7] Even though a flood of blood can mimic efficient action for a while, but at a price that is to be paid until the fourth, fifth, sixth generation.

Such a series of catastrophic consequences, should have killed the notion for good. But alas, the worse is yet to come in the rather sinister history of the notion: during the end of the 20th  century and during what can be already detected as a rather sinister 21st century, the notion of total revolution has been transmogrified yet again in a psychopathology of great interest: the will of total subversion is still there in some circles, but has now become even more immensely satisfying because it is also connected with the certainty of failure while maintaining the absolute comfort of being morally superior, nothing beats such an accumulation of secondary effects, as psychoanalysts would say. And this goes a long way toward explaining why the minority parties of the ultra-left are still able to intimidate all of the other movements: you are the best and the brightest; you will fail; failure will never be counted against you, only against those who failed to be as radical as you.

But the really interesting question is to detect how the notion of revolution can be safely put to rest and how it can be circumbscribed to only designate the two 18th century English and American inventions of the representative government (plus the first part of the French Revolution before it became a bloody experiment in its total variant). The enemy of revolution is naturally the very notion of society, this famous system made to short cut political composition and which, naively enough,  revolutionaries from the 19th and the 20th  have tried to subvert without realizing it had been invented to insure their failure. Much the same thing has happened recently, albeit in a less disastrous way, when ecologists have tried to use the notion of nature tailored to shortcut politics in order to prop up a new politics of nature, thus insuring another sure defeat —at least until now [8] ". The solution, at least in my eyes, is to get entirely rid of the notion of society and to try to bring the notion of composition back into focus. One makes a difference only in a world made of differences. To try to imitate the revolutionary today is as ridiculous as when the French revolutionaries imitated the Roman or the Spartan. As for changing the very fabric of the humans, we should leave this to the only total revolutionaries left: the Raelians; let them clone the new human race [9] . The rest of us can shift at last from the 18th century Body Politic to the 21st century collective —leaving the 19th and 20th  century bloody mix up of society and revolution to the historians and to those who mourn their dead. To conclude, if there is one thing the Left needs less than the plague, it is this remnant of the past: the specter of revolution, this valley of dust and whitened bones. Can we stop imitating the past to take the future, at last, into account ?

 Foucault, M. (1997). "Il faut défendre la société" (cours de 1976 sous la direction de Fran�ois Ewald et Allessandro Fontana). Paris: Le Seuil.

[2] Bauman, Z. (1992). Intimations of Postmodernity. London: Routledge.

[3] Karsenti, B. (2006). Politique de l'esprit : Auguste Comte et la naissance de la science sociale Paris: Hermann.

[4] Rey, A. (1989). "RŽvolution" histoire d'un mot. Paris: Gallimard.

[5] Manin, B. (1995). Principes du gouvernement reprŽsentatif. Paris: Calmann-LŽvy.

[6] Yack, B. (1992). The Longing for Total Revolution: Philosophic Sources of Social Discontent from Rousseau to Marx and Nietzsche. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[7] Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[8] Latour, B. (2004). Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[9] Boltanski, L. (2002). 'The Left after May 68 and the Longing for Total Revolution'. Thesis Eleven, 69: 1-20.

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