Having finished editing chapter five of the ecophilosophy project, I took today to work on my tenure-track job applications and do some pure research on the utopias project. So I dove back into the Critique of Dialectical Reason, a book I’m sure you’ve all become utterly sick of hearing about. Despite that, it’s my blog, and my small audience seems to like what I do.
In honour of the United States’ upcoming humanitarian intervention by bombing the fecal matter out of the sketchy quagmire of the Syrian civil war, I’m writing about a curious little idea Sartre develops about how a state’s government can start a war with its own citizens. He does this in a chapter analyzing several aspects of the fall of the Bastille in the French Revolution, taking this as an example of a historical period when aggregate collections of pissed off people unified themselves into an active group.
His point is that this spontaneous unification, in which each individual within a collection of people (pretty much) simultaneously begin acting with the same, or at least a convergent, will.* But this can only happen very rarely, when circumstances create a need or a threat common to all people in a community, and when those people become aware not only of the need or threat, but the commonality of that need or threat at the same time. High standards, but sometimes achievable.
* Continuing the analysis of group action that began with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the general will? Maybe. But I don’t know that I really care very much about making historical parallels through the history of philosophy. More often than not, it makes a trivial and not-particularly-enlightening point for a quirky piece of secondary material, while also requiring a gargantuan effort of textual comparison and sorting of established critics of both writers, that researching and publishing such papers are barely worth the effort if you instead have an otherwise original idea of your own.
Sartre describes how this was achieved in the storming of the Bastille, and the process is fascinating in its simplicity. The king had heard that there were various rumblings by extremists trying to stoke violent uprisings. He drastically over-reacted to this, ordering the army and loyalist militias onto the streets of Paris in numbers of tens of thousands with orders to prevent the people from acquiring arms. Before this happened, none of the people really gave much of a crap. They were upset about economic conditions, but never felt themselves under threat.
Then the military police showed up on every street corner frisking every citizen under suspicion that they were carrying weapons. In response to that ridiculous display of state violence, hundreds of thousands of Parisian people saw a simultaneous common threat in those omnipresent policemen. Each of them could see the fear of their neighbours in the face of this, and began to take action and illegally arm themselves to be protected from the police.
Short form: Fearing that the populace was arming itself against the government, the king put police on the street. Seeing police on the streets, the populace began arming itself against the government.
This is the self-destructiveness of political paranoia.
William Sewell writes about this in his article on events as a theoretical concept. He notes that only some events become Big Events -- his topic is also the storming of the Bastille but it applies equally to the fruit vendor lighting himself on fire and other seemingly arbitrary triggers for collective action. That one event triggers other events some undeniable; but many other, equally exceptional or unacceptable or oppressive acts don't.ReplyDelete
Sewell sees this history very differently than Sartre, and for him the question is why the relatively minor events at the Bastille became elevated (rather than ignored or neutralized) and thereby triggered massive social change. He answer this in terms of the arrangement of social and cultural structures: events must be capable of being narrated in terms that disrupt the existing structures; but effort must be expended to publicize the significance and relevant meaning of the event. More generally, he argues that historical events should be studied in terms of propensity in existing structures to come into conflict with each other and thereby trigger a felt need for change.
Anyway, that's Sewell's take, which I think moves things along from Sartre's position by (a) specifying how people seem to spontaneously coordinate action and (b) accounting for seeming inconsistency in responses. This asks more questions than it answer, though.
The contemporary analogue is scandal and outrage produced in the mass public through news media, e.g. suddenly, Syrian chemical weapons are outrageous, when yesterday they were routine. Big questions, no answers yet.