Will I Follow or Will I Be? Better Than Tragedy, Research Time, 03/05/2016

Continued from last post . . . So where does this idea of fidelity leave us? It’s the romance of the lost cause. Again, this is one part of the many reasons why Alain Badiou chose the Paris riots of summer 1968 as the event to which he was faithful.

The book where Badiou lays all this out, Being and Event, is a big, long, complicated book that relates political principles and activism with deep ontological conceptions, like how set theory is the best way to understand the fundamental nature of the universe. It’s huge and it’s weird. 

The 1960s saw plenty of student activism and riots around
university campuses throughout the West, but the Paris
riots saw true political radicalism (compared to liberal
democracy) in that community for the first time. There
were seriously a lot of genuine Maoists in the French
student community of the time.
But one essential point of his thinking in what I want to think about today is how important that one pivotal event is in each of our lives.* Because that one event literally defines each of our lives. 

* Leave aside all his ontological stuff. One, it’s too complicated to explain as a side point among what I actually want to discuss in this post. Two, it ends up delegitimizing all political positions but a communism so extreme as to deny the singularity of individual people. So yeah. Glad I don’t roll with any of his ontology.

Your pivotal event defines your life because its memory lingers with you, and provides the spark that animates everything you care about. But why does it linger? What is it about human psychology that would make some event linger with us, sticking around in our minds to inspire our political and social lives, and our very identity as people?

Because there’s nothing that lingers in our memories like disappointment. And in a political context, the greatest disappointment is failure. Our fidelity to the event that shaped us is a memoriam to its potential. Because in our real experience, that event petered out into failure and disappointment. 

The ruined potential of our formative event becomes, in our fidelity to its memory, a dream of a perfect future. Utopia in the counterfactual, in the possible world that was denied to us. “What might have been.”

For Badiou, that disappointment was in the reactionary movement that crushed the idealism of the May ’68 demonstrators. I can see that disappointment today when I look at the social media feeds of dedicated Bernie Sanders supporters in the United States, now that he has virtually no path left to the Presidential nomination. 

Yet those radical times are easily romanticized in our
memorials to them. Take Bernardo Bertolucci's The
, which understood the riots and their political
radicalism through the symbology of dirty sex.
At least those few – isolated and loud though they are – who believe that the Presidential campaign is really all the movement is about.** The ones who don’t know that Sanders is a lucky ally of the wider social movement that began with Occupy – the actual revolution in Western politics.

** Are there even any of these people?

The problem with this way of thinking about political inspiration is that it presumes idealism to serve only impossibilities. The only events that can inspire us to build a better world are moments when we could have, but which came crashing down. The idealism of the graveyard. 

Why would Antonio Negri contrast this vision with Michel Foucault’s conception of the event in politics? Because it makes the best contrast. However, it doesn’t necessarily make the clearest concept. At least not to me.

Because I’ve been trying to write about this more creative conception of the pivotal event, rooted in present action, for the last two days. And I’ve just ended up waxing poetic about Badiou’s politics of regret for two days in a row. It’s useful, as there will probably be a more poetic passage about this idea of Badiou’s memoriam.

An aspect of their personal lives and positionalities as people will probably play a role in this too. Badiou is a lifelong academic, who was inspired in his aggressive political radicalism through a period in his life when France was almost profoundly changed in an uprising that began on campus.

Pictured: The barest hints of transgression and a vision of
a new kind of humanity.
May 1968 was the only time in European history after the Second World War when a student movement grew truly radical and could have massively changed the country. The rest of his life, Badiou could only talk and write about such change. He could only ever memorialize and remember.

Foucault was himself a gay man, whose writings and everyday life constituted a kind of activism. His ordinary, everyday desires constituted a radical set of new social and political possibilities just by existing. 

I think I’m figuring out how to talk about this. I’ll try again along these lines tomorrow. . . . To be continued

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