The Eclipse of Politics (2 of 4): A Crisis of Historicity

Since 1977, Deleuze insightfully grasped the deception and the reactionary logic inherent to, the then nascent new philosophy: “the habitual threshold of bullshit is on the rise (…),” says Deleuze. “The hatred of 68, resentment of 68 (…). The revolution must be deemed impossible, uniformly and at all times…” The most talked about themes at the time were tears, tissues and goodbyes: a farewell to proletariat, a farewell to the revolution (“we have loved it so much!”), and a farewell to the event as “an opening up to the possible.” It was all about the “negation of all politics.”1

But, paradoxically, Deleuze’s own philosophical discourse did contribute to this absent-mindedness: “Becoming is not to progress or regress following a series (…). Becoming does not produce anything other than itself (…). It is the point that should be explained: how a becoming does not have a subject distinct from itself or an appointed end (…). In short, becoming is not an evolution, at least not an evolution by descent and filiation. Becoming does not produce anything by filiation. Becoming always pertains to an order other than that of filiation. It is of the order of alliance (…). Becoming is a rhizome, it is not a classificatory or genealogical tree.”2 The philosophy of becoming set itself against the one-way path of history and the teleology of progress by opening up to the abstract possibility of other life choices. But by doing so, it was also renouncing all intentions to give this becoming the form of a project. Similarly, Guattari sought to undermine “programmatic logic” by means of the “logic of situations,” a transformation, he says, that is processual and pragmatic in some sort of do-it- yourself and groping around manner. This method consisted in a series of trial and errors freed from the anxiety-causing or guilt-inducing obsessive fear of victory and defeat. (Micropolitiques, 235)

By thus challenging the meaning of history in favor of an immanent logic of becoming, Deleuze and Guattari were renouncing all strategic conceptions of politics in order to gambol along a thorny path, to improvise without a goal, and to shoot arrows in every direction in a random fashion with no specific target in sight. “What matters in a path, is always the middle, not the beginning or the end. We are always in the middle of a path, in the middle of something. In becoming there is no history.” (Dialogues, 37) The Deleuzean becoming then, does not constitute a history open to the plurality of possibilities, but rather an antithesis of history and a repudiation of any sizeable or victorious undertaking. “Becomings are minoritarian, every becoming is a becoming-minoritarian (… ) And this is a political question (…) It is the opposite of macropolitics and even of History where it is rather a question of knowing how a majority is achieved or conquered.” (MP, 356)

This becoming-minoritarian, always in the process of beginning over and over again to the exact opposite of the majoritarian ambition or to the power-aspiring among the makers of History, is undoubtedly such a beautiful idea. And of equal beauty are indeed those other waves of dissidence and heresy where the minority is not a question of number but one of subtraction from all that homogenizes, petrifies and makes a mass. “Angry with his time,” and with all those who in the 1970s have buried away their youth by suppressing the memory of the General Strike and by reducing May 68 to a mere episode of a “social” modernization; Deleuze refused obstinately to read into the latter event “the eruption of becoming in its pure state” or even less so, a sudden revelation of “the pure site of the possible.”

The exit from history via the happy footpaths of becoming might as well have flirted with pilgrimage to the origins of being which Deleuze was doggedly shying away from. “Never plant.” He was certainly thinking of finding in the enumerative conjunction of becoming (and… and… and…) the means to ward off the ontological temptation and to “uproot the verb to be” to make room for the “logic of relations.” Becoming was thus expected to welcome with open arms the event, which would arrive unexpectedly in the guise of the untimely and the inopportune (“another name for becoming, the innocence of becoming, that is to say, forgetfulness versus memory, geography versus history, and the rhizome versus arborescence” MP, 363). The concept of Becoming promised to hatch an authentic novelty in contradistinction to a driveling history. “To make an event” was then, very precisely, “the opposite of making history.”

One can find in Foucault the same breakthrough in the analytic study of history from the point of view of events (événementialité), the same interest in moments of historical irruption and in that which drills holes, so to speak. “I am not interested in that which does not move,” says Foucault, “I am interested in the event.” Against a quantitative history prescribed in a long duration and exclusively tethered to give birth to the regularity of structures, Foucault welcomed the “return of the event in the field of history,” while regretting the fact that the latter had hardly ever been thought in terms of a “philosophical category.” (Dits & écrits, 450)

Uprooted from its historical conditions and difficult to think or fathom; the event was in reality imperiled by the movement of its heedful engulfment in theological antecedents: the Immaculate Conception of some unconditional miracle. While he was well aware of this difficulty, Foucault described what he called “événmentalisation” as a “breach of the factual” from whence a singularity is bound to emerge. This break up is however insufficient to account for the completely new, the unthought-of which pierces the hardened crust of facts and appearances. It is the very possibility of revolution as act and as thinking, which is at stakes.

The historians’ disaffection with the event revealed, at times, their suspicion and at other times their disillusionment about the revolution itself as in the endeavor of Francois Furet to “think the revolution” without the revolution. With the “linguistic turn” of the 1970s, the event was disencumbered of its social depth, detached from its historical inscription and, from then on, relegated to the symbolic order of the sign. In that sense, the event endowed “with a recall value, and a demonstrative prognostic value” was defined in terms of its function to “make a spectacle” that would be attested only by the disinterested enthusiasm of the spectators.

This surreptitious de-politicization resonated with a hint of doubt that was then gaining ground in Foucault. “It is the desirability of the revolution which is causing a problem today.”3 He thus sensed, instantaneously, the change at work in the spirit of the time. “Since 120 years, this is the first time that there is no longer on earth a single point from whence could shine the light of hope. There are no bearings to be found anymore.” (Dits & écrits, 397)

Undoubtedly, this disenchantment was thenceforth the price to pay for past engagements. After Russia, both China and Indochina failed to carry through the struggle and hope for emancipation. And if there was “no single country” left which we could “claim to be representative of in order to say: that’s how things should be done,” it’s because European revolutionary thinking had lost its base of operations.

Foucault’s enigmatic idea of a return to 1830 emerged from such lessons about the birds and the bees and was informed by this gradual falling out of love towards the (imaginary) lost homelands of socialism.

In place of encouraging the extension of the sphere of struggle, the revolution was called upon to restrain itself to a revolution of techniques and lifestyles. Such were the leftovers of the revolution when no longer thought as a “political project”. This is how one can resign to thinking of the revolution in prosaic terms “as a style, as a way of life with its aesthetics, its asceticism, and its particular forms of relation to oneself and to others.”

In that sense, the revolution must no longer seek to conquer any little share of power whatsoever. But in order to, at least, save the idea of the revolution in the great surging away of the 1970s, Deleuze, Foucault and Guattari applied themselves to changing its meaning with great dedication. Deleuze did so by differentiating “the future of revolutions in history” from “the becoming revolutionary of a people.” When asked in 1982 in Brazil about the difference between Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, Guattari explained that a “problematic of molecular revolutions” had been germinating following the events in Iran, Poland and Brazil. Granted that talking about the revolution at the time, sounded corny and old-fashioned and that it was silly to imagine an “authentic revolution,” it was imperative to redefine what revolutionary “means, or wants to say”. “We can call revolutionary a process engaged in an irreversible track, and which, for this reason, writes history in an unthought-of way.” (Micropolitiques, 257) As always, revolution as concept was losing in precision what it was gaining in extension, subsuming indiscriminately: political, technical, cultural and sexual revolutions. The revolution was transiting from the field of political and social action to that of political philosophy or metaphysics. Let’s bring on miniature revolts, minimalist revolutions, and a postmodern pleasure menu to choose from, along with “processual micro-politics” which will rebuild modes of subjectivation, ways of life and a variety of unheard of behaviors.

If the challenge set to the fetish of Revolutions with a capital letter has signed away any possibility to think politics strategically, it was meant to liberate the notion of a secular revolution from the spell of the sacred Revolution.

As a matter of fact, since almost two centuries, the representation of History placed under the condition of the Revolution has structured the field imaginary of the left: “Then the age of the Revolution came into force. It jutted out over history, organized our perception of time and polarized hopes. It represented a gigantic effort to acclimatize the uprising within a rational and controllable history.” (Dits & écrits, 791) We then ended up thinking of the revolution as some sort of labor and even went as far as professionalizing the revolutionary subject. The apocalyptic myth of the Big Night has thus been used to postpone action till the following day while we carried on chanting away the politics of emancipation. It also served the purpose of misrepresenting the conquest of power in the image of a deadly leap in the unknown. If this way of seeing, it is true, had been often prevalent amidst revolutionary movements that were heirs to Christian eschatology, one needs to remember that it did cohabit with as much comfort and ease with the diffuse conscience of a processual revolution of lifestyle, both before and after the seizure of political power.4

Once the intoxication of 68 cleared away, it was about time for Foucault, at the turn of the 1970s, to ask (himself) the iconoclastic question of knowing whether “the revolution is worth it.” (Dits & écrits, 269) He advocated the need to lose one’s fondness for “the empty form of a universal revolution” in order to apply oneself to thinking the plurality of secular revolutions and their irreducible excess as opposed to the reductionist myth of the great Revolution, because “the imaginary content of revolt did not clear away in the broad daylight of the revolution.” This is how the buried away heresies, the stubborn resistances and irreducible dissidences resurfaced again.

In this context, the Iranian revolution would serve as the symptom of a reversal in perspective and as a new semantics of historic times. “February 11, 1979, the revolution took place in Iran,” announces Foucault dryly. However, following this long succession of celebration and bereavement, “it was difficult for us to call it a revolution.” At the turn of the 1970s and 1980s, the words became uncertain.

Whether it should be welcomed or not, the Iranian revolution foreshadowed revolutions to come but ones which are of yet another nature: history had just

“stamped, at the bottom of the page, the red seal which authenticated the revolution.” But we had to be wary of decoding this singular event as the simple repetition of an already known scenario following which religion having played the role of curtain raiser, the “main act” of “the class struggle” was soon to commence.

According to traditional approaches, the Iranian revolution was reminiscent of old ones but with Imam Khomeini cast in the role of Pope Gapone. The mystic revolution represented, according to this classic scenario, the provisional envelop of a promised social revolution. Class struggle would set free the social chrysalides from its religious coating. “Is it that certain?” asks Foucault. In fact, nothing of the kind will become a certainty. Wary of a normative conception of modern revolutions, Foucault reminded us that Islam “is not only a religion, but also a way of life, an affiliation with a history and a civilization which threatens to turn into a gigantic powder keg.” (Dits & écrits, 759) This end of century ambiguity signaled, to his mind, a transition that any attempts to name would often bring about more confusion than clarifications. Thus, he categorically challenged the chronological illusion, which consists in placing modernity on a calendar in such a way that it is followed by “an enigmatic and disturbing postmodernity.” Rather than constructing a historical period, Foucault would rather chase out an attitude, a trace of a discontinuity, or the signs of a present carried away by speed and ironically hailed as a hero. In the beginning of the 1980s, this critical point signaled a displacement of categories as it was indicative of the changing roles in relation to which all the major conflicts of that period had taken place. The struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeois, of a people against imperialism, seemed to have retreated from the stage of a world where henceforth the shadows of totalitarianism and democracy were battling it out. As such, Foucault participated, though unwillingly, in the ideological rehabilitation of a certain brand of capitalism in which market and democracy would be consubstantial.5

In the end, Foucault finally came to see the Iranian revolution as the expression of “a collective and perfectly unified will.” Fascinated by the happy nuptials of state-of-the-art technology and ways of life “that have remained the same for a thousand years,” he reassured his readers that there was nothing to worry about, because “there would neither be a Khomeini party” nor “a Khomeinist government.” On the whole, the events in Iran were to his mind, the preliminary sketch of an anti-power deprived of any ambition to gain power. He hoped that this “tremendous bottom-up movement” was a break up with the binary logic of modernity and a thrust forward beyond the frontiers of Western rationality. “On the borders of sky and earth,” the Iranian revolution was in any case a turning point with respect to dominant revolutionary paradigms since 1789. It is in this sense, and not for social, economic or geostrategic reasons that Islam could become a formidable “powder keg.” It was not just the opium of the people, but well and truly “the spirit of a world without spirit,” the conjunction between a desire for radical change and a collective will.6

In contrast to the general mood of disenchantment with history, Foucault was attracted to this presumed emergence of a new form of spirituality in a world becoming more and more prosaic. To him, this new spirituality seemed susceptible to respond to the misadventures of dialectical reason and to the growing dimness of those Enlightenments, which had once invented the disciplines at a time when they were also discovering freedoms. In his eyes, the very idea of modernization (and not just the illusions of progress), have become archaic. In a sense, this interest in Shiite spirituality and its martyrology resonated with research on concerns about, and techniques of the self; but more importantly it echoed an upturn in Papal activism under the pontificate of Jean-Paul II, the role of the Church in the Polish popular movement or the influence of the theology of liberation on Latin America. Guattari, too, interpreted those religious revivals in the same way he interpreted other collective processes of subjectivation, and acknowledged for instance in the case of the leaders of Solidarnosc, their merit in inventing in Poland “a kind of deterritorialized Catholicism” which would no longer be “a genuine religion.” Today, we know how this fictional tale subsequently unfolded.

As for Foucault, what he feared the most was that historians might reduce the Iranian revolution to a trivial social movement at a time when the voice of the Mullahs was thundering in his ears with the same terrible accents which not so long ago were spoken by Savonarole or the Anabaptists of Munster. He perceived Shiism as the very language of popular rebellion, which “molds the discontent, hatred, destitution, and despair of the million into a collective force.” Foucault was fascinated by such an effort seeking to “politicize structures that are inseparably social and religious.” In response to Claud Mauriac’s question about the damage that the coalescent alliance of (religious) spirituality and politics may cause; Foucault retorted: “and what about politics without spirituality, my dear Claude?”

This was a legitimate question although the understated reply was worrying. The intricate politicization of social and religious structures under the hegemony of religious law translates as a fusion of the political and the social, of the public and the private, not as a result of the withering and death of classes and the State, but through the dissolution of the social and the political in the theocratic State. Fascinated by a revolution without an avant-garde party, Foucault did not want to see in the Shiite clergy anything other than the unmediated incarnation of a plebe or a molten multitude. This infatuation was informed by the idea of an irreducible difference between two discourses and two types of society: the Orient and the Occident. This is where the anti-universalism of Foucault faced its practical test and where the anti-totalitarian rhetoric of the end of the 1970s found “its third way” between Nazi totalitarianism and “communist” totalitarianism.

Is the Iranian revolution that long lost (spiritual) form of emancipation? There was a hint of despair in Foucault’s response that was, on the whole, in line with the pathetic idea saying that in 1978 humanity had possibly lapsed into its “zero point.” Via some sort of a return of Orientalism, salvation would henceforth reside in an irreducible Iranian alterity. Didn’t the Iranians “have the same regime of truth as ours”? Perhaps! But a cultural relativism doesn’t authorize an axiological one. Foucault had strongly criticized Sartre’s conceit to set himself up as the spokesman of the universal. But to set oneself up as the spokesman of singularities without a horizon of universality, is not less perilous. The condemnation of slavery or of the repression of women is not a question of climates, or tastes. Such questions are not negotiable according to changing ways and customs. Similarly, civic, religious and individual liberties are not less important in Tehran than in London or Paris.

When revisiting, a quarter of a century later, articles where Maxime Rodinson and Michel Foucault engaged in a public debate about the Iranian revolution, one can find there the seeds of current controversies. Rodinson identified in the “awakening of Islamic fundamentalism” an indisputable tendency towards some “type of archaic fascism.” The words were doubly ill chosen. To reduce the unfamiliar phenomenon of a clerical dictatorship in the age of market globalization to the familiar face of European fascism was hardly of any help, as it later came to be accepted, to think about specificities and contradictions of this event. To describe it as archaic took us back to the same chronological scale where any distance with regard to the norm of progress would mean a lapse into the past, when in reality, it could well be indicative of a worrying premise of the future and, in any case, of a specific product of the present. Without excluding the possibility of a “provisional (tactical) alliance” against one form of despotism (that of the Shah) with the people, a large number among whom were already dreaming of another form of despotism, Rodinson showed, however, more awareness than Foucault about the political risks inherent to their revolutionary logic.7

Show 7 footnotes

  1. In Deux regimes de fous (131), to the question: “what do you make of the new philosophers?” Deleuze replies: “what disgusts me most is very simple; the new philosophers are professing a martyrology. They live on cadavers.” A necrophilic greed for victims has never ceased, since then to thrive and prosper. It’s the macabre accounts of the Black Book of Communism with its hallucinatory wanderings of Andre Glucksmann in the shoes of an imaginary Dostoyevsky in Manhattan.
  2. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 291. And once again: “becoming is not history; today again, history designates only the sum of too recent conditions that they are that which we turn away from in order to become, that is to say, to create something new.” (G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, What is Philosophy? p. 92.)
  3. I have underscored elsewhere this slippage from the dialectic of needs to the neo-marginalizing metaphysic of desires (Daniel Bensaid, Une lente impatience, Paris, Stock, 2005).
  4. This necessity has found its poetic voice from Rimbaud to Mayakovski. It found its political voice with Trotsky in Literature and Revolution, as in The Permanent Revolution or in the Gramscian question of hegemony.
  5. Foucault’s interest in the Iranian revolution is not an anecdotal parenthesis. Foucault went for a first time in Iran ten days after the massacre of 8 September 1978 committed by the Shah regime. On November 5th, Foucault publishes in Corriere de la sera, an article titled: “A Revolution with Bare Hands.” He then analyzed the return of Khomeini and the foundation of the mullahs government in a series of articles published in Italy namely: “A Powder keg named Islam” in February and “Is it Useless to Rise?” (Le Monde, 11-12 May 1979). For a close scrutiny of Foucault’s articles on the Iranian revolution and the related documents on his controversy with Maxime Rodinson, see Janet Afery and Kevin Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, Chicago UP, 2005.
  6. We have, initially, supported the classic schema criticized by Foucault, thinking that we have identified in the movement against the dictatorship of the Shah the religious beginnings of a social revolution. But after reading Michel Rovere’s series of newspaper reports (published in Rouge at the time) and the public trials of August 1979 against our comrades of Abadan, “charged” with supporting the workers’ strike of the oil industry, all this quickly made me reconsider my initial position. Since August 1979, we were demonstrating in Paris against repression in Iran and the dictatorship of the Mullahs.
  7. In an article published in the Nouvel Observateur (19 March 1979) on the “primacy of the spiritual”, Rodinson warned against the dangers of applying the Islamic law. Feminist demonstrations took place on March 8, 1979 in Tehran in opposition to the Islamic headscarf and the nascent dictatorship of Khomeini.
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  1 comment for “The Eclipse of Politics (2 of 4): A Crisis of Historicity

  1. NS
    30 July 2011 at 10:40 pm

    I’ve been waiting eagerly for this translation. My gratitude to Hager Weslati and others who are involved in this project. Would be grateful if anybody could let us know when this book will come out.

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