May '68 and Its Afterlives

May '68 and Its AfterlivesBoth a rescuing of the radicalism of May from its neoliberal interlocutors and a brilliant account of what the project of making May safe for consumption and celebration within the frame of the post 68 French state entails, Ross s book is also a terrific account of what was truly revolutionary about the student and worker revolts and their tactics Really impressive work of cultural history, and wonderfully written. Three passages from May 68 and Its Afterlives For May 68 itself was not an artistic moment It was an event that transpired amid very few images French television, after all, was on strike Drawings, political cartoons by Sin , Willem, Cabu, and others proliferated photographs were taken Only the most immediate of artistic techniques, it seems, could keep up with the speed of events But to say this is already to point out how much politics was exerting a magnetic pull on culture, yanking it out of its specific and specialized realm For what does it mean that art should suddenly see its purpose as that of keeping apace with events, with achieving a complete contemporaneity with the present and with what is happening around it The incommensurability or asymmetry that seems to govern the relation between culture and politics holds true for the 68 period in France In fact, that incommensurability is what the event is about the failure of cultural solutions to provide an answer, the invention and deployment of political forms in direct contestation with existing cultural forms, the exigency of political practices over cultural ones Nowhere is this apparent than in the experience of the Beaux Arts students who occupied their school in mid May 1968, proclaimed it the revolutionary Atelier populaire des Beaux Arts, and began producing, at breakneck speed, the posters supporting the strike that covered the walls of Paris during those months The message of the majority of posters, stark and direct, was the certification, and at times the imperative, that whatever it was that was happening the interruption, the strike, the moving train that it simply continue Continuons le combat La gr ve continue Contre offensive la gr ve continue Chauffeurs de taxi la lute continue Maine Montparnasse la lute continue Nothing, that is, in the message aspires to a level of representing what was occurring the goal, rather, is to be at one with at the same time with, contemporary with whatever was occurring Speed, a speedy technique, was of the essence students learned this soon enough when they abandoned lithography early on because, at ten to fifteen printings an hour, it was far too slow to respond to the needs of a mass movement Serigraphy, which was light and easy to use, yielded up to 250 printings an hour Speed and flexible mediums facilitated the absolute interpenetration of art and event achieved by the posters, but speed is not the most important factor in rendering art capable of living the temporality of an event Writing thirty years later, one of the militants active in the Atelier populaire, G rard Fromanger, recalls the genesis of the posters in a brief memoir His title, Art Is What Makes Life More Interesting Than Art, goes far in giving a sense of the dizzying opening created when the social refuses to stay out there, distinct from art, or when art achieves presentation, rather than representation May 68 was that Artists no longer in their studios, they no longer work, they can t work any because the real is powerful than their inventions Naturally, they become militants, me among them We create the Atelier populaire des Beaux Arts and we make posters We re there night and day making posters The whole country is on strike and we ve never worked harder in our lives We re finally necessary.Fromanger describes in greater detail the stages in the dismantling of art and artists during May how, as the mass demonstrations got under way in mid May, art students first got down off their horses to gather the flowers, as the Maoists would say, how they left art behind as they ran from demo to demo We artists had been in the movement for ten days, we run into each other at the demos We had separated from everything we had before We don t sleep in the studios we live in the streets, in the occupied spaces We no longer paint, we don t think about it any The next phase describes a retreat to familiar spaces We painters say to ourselves that we have to do something at Beaux Arts, that we can t let the buildings be empty, closed up An old lithograph machine is located the first poster, USINE UNIVERSITE UNION, is produced immediately The thought at that point is for someone to run the thirty copies down to a gallery on the rue Dragon to sell them to help the movement But it is at this point that the real, in the shape of the movement, literally intervenes, short circuiting the steps that art must take to be art in bourgeois culture and hijacking it, so to speak, off that path, bringing it into the now There is no time, it seems, for the art object to remain a commodity, even one that had been redirected in the service of the movement On the way to the gallery, the copies are snatched out of the arms of the student carrying them and plastered immediately on the first available wall The poster becomes a poster Bourgeois culture, reads the statement that accompanied the founding of the Atelier populaire, separates and isolates artists from other workers by according them a privileged status Privilege encloses the artist in an invisible prison We have decided to transform what we are in society On October 17, 1961, the first mass demonstration of the 1960s occurred, organized by the FLN to protest a recent curfew set by the prefect of police that prohibited Algerians in the Paris region from being on the street after 8 30 PM Informed in advance of the demonstration, the police, along with the CRS and the mobile gendarmerie, are armed with bidules, a longer version of the matraque with greater leverage and range, capable of breaking a skull open in a single swing when adroitly applied The police have also been virtually exonerated in advance of any police excesses that might occur in the preceding weeks Papon has visited the various commissariats, imparting these messages Settle your affairs with the Algerian yourselves Whatever happens, you re covered, and For one blow, give then back ten And, to overcome the scruples of certain hesitant members of his forces, he adds You don t need to complicate things Even if the Algerians are not armed, you should think of them always as armed The Algerians between thirty and forty thousand men, women and children are, in fact, unarmed, and the demonstration is peaceful Many of the Algerians are wearing their best Sunday clothes, in the interest of impressing the French and the international communities with their peaceful motives Nevertheless, police open fire almost immediately Confrontations occur simultaneously throughout the city wherever the Algerians are concentrated Police combat groups charge the crowd in the main thoroughfares and boulevards, while other police ranks stand behind in the side streets, blocking escape routes and splitting the crowd into small pockets of two or three individuals, each of whom is then surrounded by police, and men and women are methodically clubbed Along the Seine, police lift unconscious and already dead or dying Algerians and toss them into the river A document published soon after the massacre by a group of progressive police describes what went on in one part of the city At one end of the Neuilly Bridge, police troops, and on the other, CRS riot police, slowly moved toward one another All the Algerians caught in this immense trap were struck down and systematically thrown into the Seine At least a hundred of them underwent this treatment The bodies of the victims floated to the surface daily and bore traces of blows and strangulation.Some of the arrested men and women are taken to the courtyard of the prefecture of police where, as Pierre Vidal Baquet reports, If I believe the testimony of one policeman, gathered immediately after the event by Paul Thibaud and that I ve often had occasion to evoke since then, Papon had several dozen Algerians beaten matraqu to death in front of his eyes in the courtyard of the police prefecture Some six thousand others are taken to several sports stadiums reserved by police for that purpose In all of these places, people die while in custody of wounds they had already received or of new blows administered by police welcoming committees arranged in a kind of gauntlet outside the entrance to the sports arenas.On the night of October 17, the police publish a communiqu stating that the Algerians had fired on police, who were then forced to return fire The official death count, originally two, was revised the next morning by Papon s office to three The almost total news blackout that surrounded the event makes it very hard to determine the exact number of Algerians for no police were injured who actually died Most knowledgeable estimates put the number at around two hundred But the real question, I believe, lies elsewhere, outside the parameters of revolution, failed or not Why did something happen rather than nothing And what was the nature of the event that occurred The attention given to the problematics of power has effaced another set problems at issue in May, and 1960s culture generally, which we might begin to group under the heading of a no less political question the question of equality I mean equality not in any objective sense of status, income, function, or the supposedly equal dynamics of contracts or reforms, nor as an explicit demand or a program, but rather as something that emerges in the course of the struggle and is verified subjectively, declared and experienced in the here and now as what is, and not what should be Such an experience lies to the side of seizing state power outside of that story The narrative of a desired or failed seizure of power, in other words, is a narrative determined by the logic of the state, the story the state tells to itself For the state, people in the streets are people always already failing to seize state power In 1968, seizing state power was not only part of the state s narrative, it expressed the state s informing desire to complete itself that is, to totally assimilate the everyday to its own necessities Limiting May 68 to that story, to the desire or the failure to seize centralized power, has circumscribed the very definition of the political, crushing or effacing in the process a political dimension to the events that may in fact have constituted the true threat to the forces of order, the reason for their panic That dimension lay in a subjectivation enabled by the synchronizing of two very different temporalities the world of the worker and the world of the student It lay in the central idea of May 68 the union of intellectual contestation with workers struggle It lay in the verification of equality not as any objective of action, but as something that is part and parcel of action, something that emerges in the struggle and is lived and declared as such In the course of the struggle, practices were developed that demonstrated such a synchronization, that acted to constitute a common though far from consensual space and time And those practices verified the irrelevance of the division of labour what for Durkheim was nothing and nothing less that that which holds a society together and guarantees the continuity of its reproduction As such, these practices form as direct an intervention into the logic and workings of capital as any seizure of state perhaps so.. During May , Students And Workers In France United In The Biggest Strike And The Largest Mass Movement In French History Protesting Capitalism, American Imperialism, And Gaullism, 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 In France Has Become That Of A Mellow Youth Revolt, A Cultural Transformation Stripped Of Its Violence And Profound Sociopolitical ImplicationsKristin Ross Shows How The Current Official Memory Of May 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 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 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 A lucid and convincing challenge to those who attempted to reduce the significance of the events of May 68 in France by compartmentalising and categorizing those who took part Ross passionately argues against the misrepresentation of the protesters, their background and intentions and advocates for the real significance of those amazing times. 4.5 Ross argued that, in French historical discourse, the French state, allied with the few spokesmen of the insurrection, worked to defang the largest general strike in the overdeveloped world after World War II, and the largest in French history, three times the size of any of the largest strikes in the Popular Front era in 1936 The 6 week May June 1968 general strike, which was started as university occupations against capitalism, consumerism, American imperialism, and the traditionalist Gaullist regime, quickly spread to factories where workers occupied their place of work At its height, the French economy ground to a total hault, with nothing at all getting done, and nearly 11 million people involved The Communist backed unions helped end the strike, as it had its workers report back and the students eventually dissipated into summer recess During May 68 , artists became part of the street actions, and all hierarchies melted away Ross argued that the revolution was a sort of Luxembergist building of socialism from below, also a sort of anarchism Ross also argues in 4 chapters that in the years afterwards, repentant ex Maoists helped distance themselves from the revolution and work to defang its memory, calling it a cultural or spiritual revolution rather than political one, since no one seized power nor did it change anything in the day to day Ross argues strongly that this argument takes away agency from the millions of participants who participated in the weeks of breakdown of traditional social institutions Simply put, it was in the interest of those in power to forget May 68, and indeed, footage of violence of those days did not appear on French television for nearly twenty years The years of the Algerian War had slowly built agitation amongst youth, which spread out to workers Key Themes and Concepts Ross uses biological or personalized and sociological approaches to looking at public memory of May 68 She argues strongly that sociological views have taken the militancy of those days out Anti authoritarians and anti establishment spokespeople of the rising became neoliberals and therefore sought to distance themselves from revolutionary spirit of May 68 France imported countercultural music from England and the United States, but instead binged on philosophy as a form of rebellion The spirit of May 68 was against specialization, rigid hierarchy, and sought to blur all lines, of which Maoist notions of going to the people were heavily influential in the years afterwards TV, mail, and all other forms of communication were shut down, reading skyrocketed Art was everywhere, totally grassroots and organic. I thought this book was fascinating, as Ross tends to be, and only revert to four stars on account of its academic tone, which I don t mind but which might annoy someone else It is not always easy going, and I will admit that there were some pages that left me scratching my head wondering what in the hell she was talking about Ross can hit you with some big words and ideas at times I m not sure that I m fully up to the task of communicating what the author does in these pages, but, on a basic level, she argues that the events of May represented far than a benign student revolt The fact that May ended without a political victory for the left hardly signals that nothing happened in May, as sociologists and popular memory like to insist May, to Ross, was a dramatic example of the alternative possibilities that are implicit in all history, of millions of people looking and stepping beyond their familiar social environments and identifying with a broad range of Others in a manner that sociological frameworks and categories cannot explain I recommend reading FAST CARS, CLEAN BODIES for a lighter presentation of Ross s ideas, and if you like it, pick this up Even then, it s important to let Ross lead you where she wants you to go Sometimes the chapters make little sense on their own, and it s not until three chapters later that you see why so much time was devoted to an earlier topic My experience has always been that Ross is always piecing together some kind of puzzle for you, and as long as you stick with her and trust her, she drops you off in a coherent place Some social scholars obviously wouldn t agree with Ross Tony Judt in POSTWAR declares that May was a victimless revolution, which in the end meant that it was no sort of revolution at all, which I suspect was a direct shot at Ross, given that both walk the halls at NYU , but I m inclined to side with her in large part, as are other big names on France, such as Rod Kedward, who insists that May affected areas of life untouched by any other civil disturbances of the century, and its social and cultural ideals did not disappear with the success of the counter events of June Kedward also notes that over 1,000 were injured during the course of events, which countermands Judt s assertion that May and June were victimless But Ross isn t into counting She s after something deeper than numbers, and usually she finds it. Cohn Bendit and his sell out cohorts finally get their ass kicked here May 68 gets a correct academic analysis in a book that every library should own and everyone that cares about ourstory should read All is good with the world at least concerning the events of 68 Paris General Strike and its reverberations Kristin Ross is an intellectual force worth experiencing Anyone interested in the topic and times should hunt for a copy Who wouldn t want to read a reliable analysis regarding Revolution in The Sixties Viva La Rev About damned time someone rescued May 68 from Daniel Cohn Bendit, et al Ross opens up May beyond May and the Latin Quarter, and discusses the implications afterlives that have both limited the event temporally and spatially have for contemporary debates.I found Ross s discussion of how the third worldism of the 1960s has given way to a discourse on human rights that denies agency and voice to those in the third world particularly compelling and important. Other reviews here have covered Ross arguments well, so I ll just share a couple of my favourite quotes from the book.1 May 68 had very little to do with the social group students or youth who were its instigators It had much to do with the flight from social determinations, with displacements that took people outside of their location in society 2 3 2 Discourse has been produced, but its primary effect has been to liquidate or render obscure, the history of May 3 3 I am less interested in the revisionist terms of the official story whether it be the great rebellion by angry youth against the restrictions of their fathers or its corollary, the emergence of a new social category called youth I am concerned with how that particular story came to prevail, how the two contradictory methods or tendencies, the experiential and the structural, converged to formulate categories generation , for example whose effects were ultimately depoliticizing 6 4 The principal idea of May was a union of intellectual contestation with workers struggle Another way of saying this is that the political subjectivity which emerged in May was a relational one, built around a polemics of equality The experience of equality, as it was lived by many in the course of the movement neither as a goal nor a future agenda but as something occurring in the present and verified as such constitutes an enormous challenge for subsequent representation 11 5 In May, everything happened politically provided, of course, that we understand politics as bearing little or no relation to electoral politics 15

Kristin Ross is a professor of comparative literature at New York University She is the author of numerous books, including Fast Cars, Clean Bodies Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture and May 68 and its Afterlives.

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  • Paperback
  • 247 pages
  • May '68 and Its Afterlives
  • Kristin Ross
  • English
  • 09 April 2017
  • 9780226727998

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