Alexander García Düttmann
What can literature teach us about political resistance and subversion? Examining Maurice Blanchot's remarks on May '68 and Michel Foucault's on the Iranian Revolution, Alex Düttmann argues that literary fiction provides insight into one of the strongest forms of defiance.
No one has given a clearer and more concise insight into the resistance that lies at the very heart of literature than Jacques Derrida when claiming that literature has no essence, only varying functions, and that, in principle, everything can be read as a piece of literature. Literature is eminently resistant because it seems to abstain from putting up resistance, or because it welcomes whatever has been said or written regardless of its content, its form, and its provenance, or because it has always already overtaken, accepted, and accommodated whatever can be said or written. Its principle of charity is scandalously encompassing. Whether a given text is read as a piece of literature or not depends on the reader’s decision alone and hence on his intention. It depends on external conventions in which the intention of a reader or a group of readers has become objective and taken on a life of its own. It depends on the law, on juridical norms and regulations that can be revised and modified, and that differ from one place and time to the other.
If, however, anything and everything can be read as literature, as fiction, and if, as a consequence, literature may sometimes resemble babble, then the literary text can also say anything and everything, and do so in any conceivable manner. Nothing can be excluded from it. Its submission to a reader’s decision, its lack of resistance, constitutes its defiance, the force of its resistance, and its affinity, which Derrida stresses, to the idea of a democracy to come. But here a distinction must be made, a distinction that introduces a notion of intentionality on the side of the writer, too. For Derrida also claims that literature is an institution that allows one to say anything and everything in any and every conceivable manner. As such, it keeps defying the law to which it submits, the law that institutionalises it in the guise of a domain in which, exceptionally and ultimately precariously, anything and everything can be said in any and every conceivable manner for as long as a difference between fiction and non-fiction is maintained.
Of course, it follows from such an approach to literature that nothing proves more difficult and more arduous than writing a literary text, and that therefore writing a literary text and reading a text as fiction may not be the same thing. Literature may resist fiction up to a point despite the fact that there is no literature without fiction. In literature, to be willing and to be able to say anything and everything and even nothing at all in any and every conceivable manner is not tantamount to engaging in idle talk.
A defiance that consists in submission, and that does so twice over, hovering between spontaneity and receptivity, between a writer’s intentional act and the unconditional surrender to a reader’s intention, is perhaps not only one form of resistance amongst many but the strongest resistance imaginable. One needs to look to literature, then, to fiction, in order to learn how to resist, or to understand what resistance requires and what it means. What makes the resistance of literature so exemplary, so strong and yet so weak, as if strength could only be had at the cost of harbouring a weakness, is the resistance it offers to itself, as it were. But how, exactly, are strength and weakness, the weakness stemming from an indifference towards self-affirmation and the weakness inherent in the constant renegotiation of institutional limits, linked to a resistance that resistance encounters within itself?
To be sure, literary resistance resists itself to the extent that defiance and yielding, weakness and strength, must remain intrinsically related to one another. However, literary resistance also resists itself inasmuch as it splits into two types of resistance that cannot be made to coincide, into a submission that reveals itself to be defiant and a defiance that reveals itself to be submissive, into a defiant indifference towards self-affirmation and a no less defiant renegotiation of institutional and institutionalised limits. The writer’s daring intention and literature’s challenging and quasi-automatic willingness to assist and accommodate the reader who intends to read a piece of writing as a literary piece, no matter what its author intended it to be, keep diverging, even though such reading may presuppose the existence of literature as an institution. The writer, who by virtue of endeavouring to say anything and everything in any and every conceivable manner already renegotiates the institutional limits of literature, displays too much of an effort when compared to the submissiveness with which literature receives what comes to it.
Yet the very impossibility of unifying resistance into a single activity directed against normalisation, against the normalisation of language, fosters its strength as it equips it with a mobility that is difficult to control. Once again, it turns out to be undecidable whether a weakness is not a strength, or whether a submissive disposition is not a gesture of defiance. One expects literature to lead an existence within more or less well-defined and approved institutional limits, only to find that it has broken out of its domain long before it could inhabit it. The more that resistance is unpredictable on account of its inconsistency, the less it can be broken, and the more it exposes itself as a result of its non-identity, its being at odds with itself, the less the outcome of the confrontation can be dissociated from the specific situation in which literature resists normalisation. This is why resistance appears to be an art.
If, though, resistance is an art – what are the situations in which today, in the contemporary world, resistance as a resistance of literature, or fiction, turns into a resistance with politically subversive effects? These situations must be sought in a zone where politics becomes indiscernible from literature, or fiction, and thereby threatens the deliberative common sense to which the hegemonic discourse of democracy, the discourse of its subservience to neoliberalism, or the discourse of austerity, keeps appealing. In other words, the resistance that should be encouraged, supported, and practiced is the resistance that lies in, and derives from, literature’s submissive acceptance of heterogeneous and incompatible utterances that are not intended as literary utterances, at least not in the first place. Two models for such resistance can be found in Blanchot’s writings on the events of May 1968 and in Foucault’s writings on the events in Iran in the late 1970s. These texts are all the more instructive as the way in which Foucault, whose attitude towards the student movement was rather reserved if not dismissive, writes on the Iranian revolt partakes in the uncompromising enthusiasm that Blanchot expresses in his own articles as well. In both cases, this enthusiasm is never simply political and yet always more than merely literary. Perhaps it could be argued that, in a sense, the Iranian revolt was Foucault’s May of 1968, an experience of excess due to the literary, or the fictitious, taking in the political, and the political taking in the fictitious, the fictitious and the political no longer being what the conception of literature as an institution and the conception of politics based on the State and its government want them to be.
In an article published anonymously in Les lettres Nouvelles during the summer of 1969, Blanchot looks back at the civil unrest provoked by the students’ and workers’ protest that he had endorsed from the beginning and that he will continue to celebrate in his later book on the unavowable community, in which May 68 is distinguished from a traditional revolution on the grounds that those who participated in the events were not driven by a will to gain power or propelled by a project to replace one form of power with another. The importance of the retrospective article can be gauged from the refusal to concede that the revolution that has just taken place in France may have failed and may need to be repeated or pursued so as to finally succeed. Blanchot sees its achievement in that it must be credited not with disclosing a new future but with bringing about an irreversible rupture in the present, a destruction of the State and of society, a rejection of the revolutionary tradition inscribed in history, in a history that has come to an end. If, in a previous letter, he had referred to a political death embodied by De Gaulle and to a latent civil war that had forced the French “progressive forces”, the students, the workers, and the intellectuals, to live as dissidents in occupied territory, he still considers the events of May 68 downright revolutionary one year after their occurrence. In his eyes, they have overcome death and terminated war. The writer and critic does not hesitate to use capital letters when stating that the revolution is now a matter of the past because it has been the only revolution worth carrying its name: “Let us not be mystified. Let us question everything, including our own certitudes and our explicit hopes. THE REVOLUTION IS BEHIND US, it is already an object of consumption and at times also of pleasure. But what is ahead of us will be terrible and has no name yet.” While Deleuze, along with Guattari, warns against confounding history and revolutionary becoming, and against measuring events such as May 68 in terms of their historical success or failure, thus suggesting that normal and normative causal explanations of history cannot touch upon the clairvoyance of a society that suddenly notices the intolerable violence it contains, Blanchot vindicates a unique intersection that creates an “absolute void” rather than advocate a series of bifurcations that engender the possible over and over again, as if the lines of history and becoming had ceased to part from one another and had cut across each other in an incomparable instant, in a revolutionary instant that abolishes the revolution once and for all. Thus the ones who transform the revolution into “an object of consumption and at times also of pleasure” wish to fill the “absolute void” of the past and miss out on the “absolute void” of the future. They miss out on the revolution.
In his many statements on the Iranian revolt of the late 1970s, Michel Foucault, who travelled to Teheran as a kind of journalist, mentions May 68 on more than one occasion so as to emphasise the difference between the two insurgent movements. On the one hand, the Iranian people seek to attain a specific political goal, namely the downfall of the Shah and his regime. But they do so without the aid of a party or without relying on an avant-garde. On the other hand, the Iranian people share with the participants in the events of 68 an ambition to overthrow a social and political “whole”, though their upheaval does not aim at a “liberation of desire”. They aspire to release themselves from every single aspect that characterises the global hegemonic presence imposed upon their country. Foucault denies that the situation in Iran can be described as a revolutionary situation, as a situation traversed by contradictions that unleash the dynamics of class struggle and social conflict, or as a situation in which a political ideology has an arousing effect on the people. Although he sometimes speaks of the Shiite religion as the form adopted by the “political struggle” in which the Iranian people have engaged out of dissatisfaction, hatred, misery, and hopelessness, he is also adamant that this struggle, and the spiritual “force” at work in its manifestations, do not partake in politics. They lack a revolutionary set-up and refuse the game played in the political arena. Only when the illuminating “light” that the integrative will of the people has kindled, a light composed of multiple radiancies, expires, shall the diversity of political currents come to the fore. A people breaks loose, it “stands up”, Foucault observes, and in an article for Le Monde he maintains that the Iranian upraising remains an “enigma”, a moment in an “oneiric history” that cuts through causal historical connections, elevates itself into the realm of spirit, and escapes all inquiry into the “deeper reasons” that might explain the incidents in question. It is as if the will, a political will that does not strive for the fulfilment of an agenda, had entered the realm of fiction, of the literary, when constituting itself through, and imbuing itself with, spirituality. Foucault knows that the idea of a political will is a construct of political science, a fiction, and he acknowledges that the French, or the Europeans, or the Westerners, will not be able to refrain from laughing when reading his articles and hearing of the relevance of political spirituality, of a spirituality both political and non-political, for a collective revolt fuelled by the feeling of life having become unliveable. Yet if, beyond a stubbornness that can be too easily denounced to deserve derision, he insists on being right nonetheless, then probably because, for him, fiction has entered the realm of the real with which politics should be concerned – not to the detriment of a transformative activity but in its favour.
The art of resistance that promotes the submissiveness of literature, or the promiscuity of fiction, and focuses on enthusiasm, exaggeration, intransigency, spirituality – in short on the surplus of the literary, or the fictitious, within the political, or within the real, and on the surplus of the political, or the real, within the literary, or within the fictitious, a double surplus that must itself persist in its indiscernibility in relation to the discourse of historical normality and normativity, and that therefore unhinges a conventional understanding of reality; this art is an art that in some regard may also rely on literature as an institutional practice. For literature may be more sensitive to the intolerable, the unacceptable, or the unlivable that triggers the kind of rebellion at stake here. It may be more responsive than the disciplines of the human sciences, simply because it may be more attentive to the infinite adaptability that undermines resistance and underpins conformism, as if, in the end, conformism, in its own unsuspected limitlessness, were another form of resistance, a resistance in the guise of patience. Hence the question that should guide and sharpen the art of resistance at the present time should be worded as follows. When, at which moment of incalculable precipitation and imperceptible urgency, does patience, the patience of suffering, touch upon impatience and interrupt the course of things.
This paper was delivered in the context of the Literaturfestival Berlin on the 18th of September 2015. It preceded a conversation with Gayatri Spivak, Jack Halberstam, and Armen Avanessian. The topic of this conversation, hosted by Philipp Felsch, was the relationship between literature and resistance.