May ’68 as a Negative Event

Infrapolitical revolts

Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott

In a revolt, a reality manifests itself that is also objective, collective, exhaustive, exclusive. Parties and unions are driven back by the revolt into the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the revolt itself. Either they accept to temporally suspend their self-consciousness of their own value or they find themselves in open competition with the revolt. In the revolt, parties and unions do not exist anymore—only groups of contenders. The organizational structures of parties and unions can be used by those who prepare the revolt. But once the revolt begins they become simple instruments to guarantee the operative affirmation of values that are not the values of the party and the union but only the intrinsic value of the revolt.

—Furio Jesi, Spartakus, The Symbology of the Revolt

I. – ’68 and the question of radical negativity

         As Kristin Ross affirms in her timely book on May ’68,[1] the debates about the consequences of these events are far from exhausted. The fact that we are still discussing them confirms precisely how alive those events are for us. But what is the nature of these events? In what sense do they, as a constellation, import a different understanding of historical time? Or, alternatively, up to what extent have the events related to May ’68 precipitated a radical change not in time but in our relation to time and its representation? In what follows I will contend that, somehow, May ’68 marked the exhaustion of the modern relationship between philosophy and politics and opened a process of disarticulation between theory and practice that almost all philosophical elaborations in the aftermath would have been trying to rearticulate or to suture. May ’68, as the historical mark of a radical disarticulation, yields a break away from the modern philosophy of history and triggers an interrogation about the categorical order of modern thought.

         It is from this interrogation of the link between ontology and politics that Bataille’s questioning of Hegel’s notion of negativity and Jesi’s questioning of the temporality of the revolt become important, since these interrogations, among others, allow us to understand the general state of culture and politics of those years, not only in France but also in Latin America, without reducing it to a conventional narrative about historical progress, international politics, the Cold War context, or any other customary reference. This is also the reason why I have selected these two prominent names for my subtitle. In fact, Bataille’s radical negativity is already a problematization of the archeo-teleological mechanism informing Hegel’s philosophy of history as an autotelic evolving process, where the end is already set at the beginning. Whether we pay attention to the notion of expenditure or to the question of sacrifice, what matters for me here is Bataille’s resistance to the Hegelian ruse of reason, that is to say, to the positivizing mechanism distinctive of Hegel’s dialectics.[2]

         In fact, “The Notion of Expenditure” and, up to a certain point, Summa Atheologica (of which the first part is The Inner Experience), are, in his own terms, an attempt to elaborate a critique of the “restricted economy” and the nonsovereign experience that supplement the metahistorical functionalization of negativity by attributing to it a final positive function in history.[3] For Bataille, sacrifice does not have a foundational character, as in the French tradition of partisan thought, it rather “performs” a deactivation of conventional politics in so far as politics should not be imagined as the result of an instrumental use of violence, in the form of sacrifice or expenditure—Bataille’s unrestricted expenditure, his negativity without reserve, is not to be politically used as a means to something else. Here lies, certainly, his difference with Sorel and his “functionalist” version of the general strike, but here too the a-principial and amoral character of Bataille’s elaborations becomes explicit, an a-principiality and an amorality that distinguishes him from the modern utilitarian and normative traditions of thought that most of the time are at the core of what we called partisan politics.[4] In fact, Bataille considers sacrifice in two different levels: first, as an exploration of the ontological status of experience, without subordinating it to any principle of reason, to any subjective account or recollection (as in the Hegelian Erinnerung); and it is this “sovereign inner experience” that differentiates him from Hegel and his “subsumption” of experience to the sovereignty of reason and its supplementary conception of the subject. Second, in so far as Bataille deepens his notion of “inner experience,” the sacrifice becomes useless to ground any politics based on a teleological rationality, as in the secret kernel of normative (protestant) asceticism, as well as in the heroic self-sacrificial partisanship of the revolutionary left. In this sense, Bataille, as the anti-Durkheim and the anti-Weber, is also a radical detractor of official Marxism and its restitution of the “militants’ sacrificial commitment” (in economy and politics). In other words, his critique of the “restricted economy” informing our political rationality is also a critique of the common ground to which capitalism and the so-called real socialism belong, in as much as they share the same onto-anthropological understanding of human beings as productive agents of history, but a history already subsumed to the form of an archeo-teleological disposition of temporality that characterizes Western metaphysics.[5]

         Bataille’s critique of Hegel’s negativity is not, in other terms, a naive or hyper-Hegelian attempt to “overcome” it, it is rather a deactivation that “works” as an interrogation addressed to the dialectical mechanism that assigns to negativity a final positive function within the system (which already implies the subsumption of history to that system), a function that only the “sage” can properly perceive. Let me quote Derrida’s clever formulation here.

The Hegelian Aufhebung is produced entirely from within discourse, from within the system or the work of signification. A determination is negated and conserved in another determination which reveals the truth of the former. From infinite indetermination one passes to infinite determination, and this transition, produced by the anxiety of the infinite, continuously links meaning up to itself. The Aufhebung is included within the circle of absolute knowledge, never exceeds its closure, never suspends the totality of discourse, work, meaning, law, etc. Since it never dispels the veiling form of absolute knowledge, even by maintaining this form, the Hegelian Aufhebung in all its parts belongs to what Bataille calls “the world of work,” that is, the world of the prohibition not perceived as such, in its totality. [. . .] The Hegelian Aufhebung thus belongs to restricted economy, and is the form of the passage from one prohibition to another, the circulation of prohibitions, history as the truth of the prohibition.[6]

In this sense, Bataille is not just criticizing some aspect of Hegel’s philosophy (like his particular reading of the conflict between the master and the slave, or his Pauline conception of universalism and history, to say, of universal history); on the contrary, he is deactivating the general dialectical operation, suspending it, in order to embrace the radical consequences of a negativity, of a sacrifice, that cannot be subsumed to any principle of reason, to any logic of the system.

The blind spot of Hegelianism, around which can be organized the representation of meaning, is the point at which destruction, suppression, death, and sacrifice constitute so irreversible an expenditure, so radical a negativity—here we would have to say an expenditure and a negativity without reserve—that they can no longer be determined as negativity in a process or a system.[7]

Of course, I am not suggesting that people involved in the ’68 uprisings, in France and elsewhere, were fervent readers of the French writer; on the contrary, what I mean is that his problematization of Hegel’s, and more directly, of Kojève’s version of universal history, enables an interpretation of the May ’68 riots and protests far from the conventional reading performed by sociologists and by the official Marxist intelligentsia for whom ’68 is an event or a series of events that confirms the very logic of historical development. In other words, Bataille’s emphasis on negativity without a synthetic recovery allows us to think the riots and revolts related to ’68 beyond the demands for strategic rationality, tactical organization, and subjective command. If you like, the revolts of ’68, as a series of unproductive expenditures, mark the exhaustion of politics as calculative thinking and positions the claims of the insurgents beyond the so-called fights for recognition.[8]

Yet, my whole argument here attempts to read these events as a radical disarticulation of the (naturalized) relationship between ontology and politics, since the modern articulation of ontology and politics (the modern ontopolitics) would have achieved in Hegel its most radical and complex formulation (and in Badiou its most current reformulation). This is, certainly, what makes of Hegel one of the most relevant thinkers of our time, since the onto-political articulation that characterizes our modern conception of history is already fully elaborated on his thought. In other words, I am not calling for a dismissal of Hegel, but for a meditative confrontation with his ontopolitical understanding of history, a confrontation that Bataille is not afraid of elaborating and whose consequences are far from being totally understood.

It is Bataille’s notion of radical negativity that then interrupts and suspends the sequential logic of historical temporality understood already as an archeo-teleological disposition, something Benjamin anticipates allusively in his cryptic but interesting conception of capitalism as religion.[9] This suspension is what I am reading as a disarticulation of politics and ontology, choosing to dwell on it rather than attempting to produce a new suture, as in the general tendency of contemporary post-’68 thought, which in general could be regarded as a permanent reactivation of the ontological determination of history, despite the historical, fragmented, elastic, foaming, objective, and/or contingent condition of these new ontologies.

II. – The revolt as the suspension of historical time

         By the same token, I am referring to Furio Jesi’s singular conception of the revolt. In fact, the recent attention the Italian thinker has received is due not only to his complex elaboration of the mythological machine (as emphasized by Giorgio Agamben[10]) or his disputes with the Hungarian philologist Károly Kerényi and other important mythologists of the twentieth century; it is also related to his singular understanding of the immanent character of the revolt, which is perfectly consistent with our main hypothesis. In fact, Jesi’s reading of the Spartacist revolt in Germany (1919), could be taken as a model to read the singular character of many other revolts, including May ’68, as he emphasizes how the nature of the revolt is the very suspension of historical time, that is to say, the suspension of the temporal structuration of history from a principle of reason that gives reason precisely to the revolt imposing on it a normative schema.[11] In fact, the revolt is without a reason and without a principle, or, as the mystical philosopher Meister Eckhart would have put it, the revolt is like a life that perseverates in living without a why.[12]

I use the word revolt [says Jesi in his work on the Spartacist riots] to designate an insurrectional movement that differs from revolution. The difference between revolt and revolution should not be sought in their respective aims; they can both have the same aim—to seize power. What principally distinguishes revolt from revolution is, instead, a different experience of time. If, following the ordinary meaning of the two words, a revolt is a sudden insurrectional explosion, which can be placed within a strategic horizon but which does not in itself imply a long-distance strategy, and revolution is a strategic complex of insurrectional movements, coordinated and oriented over the mid- to long term towards ultimate objectives, then we could say that revolt suspends historical time. It suddenly institutes a time in which everything that is done has a value in itself, independently of its consequences and or its relations with the transitory or perennial complex that constitutes history. Revolution would, instead, be wholly and deliberately immersed in historical time.[13]

The main consequence of Jesi’s understanding of the revolt and its distance from the modern, conventional notion of revolution, including the official Marxist version of it, is that revolution seems to confirm, even if accelerating, the very logic of historical development, while the revolt is an interruption, not a confirmation, of this logic and cannot be subsumed to the notion of accident without subordinating it at the same time to the archeo-teleological disposition of temporality. Certainly, from the progressists’ point of view, the revolt not only differs from the revolution and its systematic and strategic orientation toward a “revolutionary goal,” it also might be conceived as a reaction in so far as it represents a deterrence and/or a delay from achieving this goal. Actually, it is not by chance that we tend to associate the revolt with irrational irruptions, nonstrategic riots, and liminal subjectivities, remainders of the past, not fully articulated as revolutionary subjects. The prestige of the revolt within revolutionary circles is no different from the prestige lumpen and other “fragmentary” subjectivities might have, something that Ranajit Guha, among many others, has emphasized.[14]

         This is, indeed, the most complicated claim I am making here since the revolt in Jesi, as the radical negativity in Bataille, are not to be homologated to the conventional notion of “event” as a rupture that seems to interrupt the sequential representation of time, but only to confirm it as a preexistent disposition in which every single event, every single rupture, should be inscribed. The immanent (and imminent) character of the revolt implies a new relation to history and not only the inversion of the necessity/contingency binomial, neither of the causality/accident metaphysical pair, since the revolt is not an event that happens in history, but a radical dislocation of the historical time, that is to say, a dislocation of the historical form of time, the main consequence of which is the possibility of a formless historicity (not subsumed to its archeo-teleological disposition). In this sense, any attempt to rationalize the revolt, to give a positive or negative account of it, to subsume it to a principle of reason is already a reduction of its immanent character, a sort of “teleologization” that is also a “theologization” of the event. The revolt is neither singular nor plural; it implies a multiplicity that is inherent to it and not derivative, a sort of singular-plural character that avoids any account that might fetishize it. If the constellation of events associated with ’68 are to be thought according to this logic, that is to say, according to this phenomenology of the revolt, then what defines them is their particular relation to temporality, one that is immanent and imminent at the same time, as this “imminence” is what radically secularizes the notion of miraculous event, turning it into a profane potentiality, a possibility of the real.

         Obviously, there is much to be done in comparing and contrasting Bataille and Jesi’s works, starting by the crucial role festivity plays in both, as expenditure and ritual, since both the French and the Italian thinkers were concerned with the mythological dimension of life rather than with the anthropological indirect knowledge of the myth. Nonetheless, in this text I want to refer to their particular understanding of the revolt as a negativity without reserve, to take Derrida’s notion, and negativity as a revolt, that is not only different from the orthodox and modern notion of revolution, but also different from the contemporary notion of the event that still is snared by an exceptionalism that reinscribes its occurrence within an unproblematized understanding of historical time. In fact, the revolt, understood as the suspension of the historical time, can no longer be thought of as the negation nor as the realization of a particular plan, whether we are referring to the so-called plan of nature or about our historical destiny. The classical Marxist demand that denounces any given revolt for their hypothetical lack of strategic rationality does not matter any longer here, since the very logic of the revolt cannot be subsumed or capitalized by the principles of a strategic or transformational action. As in Rancière’s Proletarian Nights[15] during the revolt, the actors do not perform a previously given role, they do not embody the sacrificial libretto of a story organized according to identities and positions already given and easy to be recognized; on the contrary, they emancipate themselves from those pregiven positions in an almost ritual act—an act that implies the dissolution of their preassigned identities in a collective and circumstantial convergence (in the city, at the streets) that might be thought of as oriented to an experience of jouissance beyond guilt.

         In other words, as Walter Benjamin would have put it, the very suspension of the sacrificial structuration of historical time brought about by the revolt is already a suspension of guiltiness as a demanding mechanism that extorts the living in the name of an equivalential notion of restitution and justice (the mythical violence of law).[16] In this sense, the revolt in Jesi, as the atheological inner experience in Bataille, interrupts the time of progress and modernization, but also the very principle of reason that informs that time, deactivating the hegemonic logic and the identitarian organization of the political, and disclosing, at the same time, how hegemonic and calculative political thinking are always fed by the time of the guilt, which is the time of philosophy of history.[17]

II. – ’68 as a negative event

         So, let me come back now to Kristin Ross’s seminal intervention. Her main goal is to confront the strategies of depolitization of May ’68, as if these events were no more than a generational quarrel, a national crisis, an eventless event, or something that we can explain drawing on social psychology or even on a brief economic crisis. And, I would argue, she is quite right in opposing this depoliticizing strategy, but not because May ’68 represents a new, unheard-of type of rebellion, in France and elsewhere, but because ’68, far beyond France, became an exemplary historical sign that refers to a series of phenomena that cannot be explained only within a national frame. Ross, in fact, wants to oppose, in the field of political memory, both the ritualistic memorialization of ’68 and its opposite but symmetrical dissolution, a dissolution somehow similar to the way some French historians have attempted to dissolve the eventful character of the French Revolution, whether referring to the lack of a strong command during that period (François Furet) or to the alteration of the internal and international markets (Ernest Labrousse). The afterlife of ’68, for Ross, is indeed a political problem, in so far as what matters for her are the disputes about the signification of the revolt, the meaning of ’68 for our contemporary debates. Hence, it is also today that the events of ’68 demand a political stand against every strategy oriented to monumentalize them, but also, against any attempt oriented to ignore, silence, or forget them. She specifically confronts the normative or sociological reduction of May ’68 to a version that seems to respond to a generational crisis, supplementary of the mass-media image of these events as a series of students’ manifestations with no workers’ involvement and without the brutal repression performed by the French police.

         My goal nevertheless is to interrogate three different but interrelated aspects of the ’68 revolts, aspects that are not only or primarily of a historical nature but concern our own historical occasion.

  1. What do we mean by depolitization and repolitization of the ’68 revolts?
  2. In what sense has ’68 become a historical sign and what is the nature of this sign?
  3. How to think about ’68, expanding its customary referential frame toward the Latin American series of events occurring during those same years?

         Regarding the first question, I would claim right away that we should not take for granted what repolitization means when we have characterized the events of ’68 as an exhaustion of the classical overdetermination of politics by ontology, expressed as philosophy of history. If May ’68 marks the exhaustion of the modern correspondence between theory and practice, an exhaustion that Reiner Schürmann relates with the ongoing problematization of humanism that would have started with Heidegger and achieved its fully articulated expression by the time of the so-called poststructuralist turn,[18] then this very exhaustion implies the impossibility of invoking a conventional notion of politics and politization as the response to the strategies of depolitization. In other words, what would be the nature of the “politics” that emerges from the very exhaustion of modern political thinking triggered by those events? Up to what point is the real problem here not just opposing depolitization with more politization, but opening instead a radical interrogation about the nature of politics in the context of an historical crisis, an interregnum, that cannot be subordinated any longer to the principle of reason or to the narrative mechanism proper to modern philosophy of history? In fact, what I am contending is precisely this: in so far as the events related to May ’68 could be read as a radical disarticulation of politics and ontology, they also trigger the possibility of a radical thinking of the political that is not limited by the superfluous, even if honest, demand to rearticulate (suture) ontology and politics in order to rehabilitate a “new” radical stand. To think this disarticulation beyond the “suture” and the political anxiety related to it is the task that should concern us today. This is, in other words, an infrapolitical task.

         As one can see, this question opens an important discussion beyond Ross’s intervention and recovery of what she called a politics that broaden the scope of classical representation. In fact, the question of disarticulation aims toward a discussion about the nature of our historical, globalized, and heterogeneous occasion and about the kind of politics we need in order to oppose, with certain efficacy, diverse forms of domination today. But not just that, since here lies another question: one aimed to the dichotomic structuration of the depolitization and repolitization circle, as if these alternatives were the only ones we can draw on. Of course, it is within this context that Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue Labarthe spoke about a retreat of the political, a retreat that was also a rethinking and a withdrawal, a form of desistance from conventional politics and political philosophy.[19]

         To ignore the events of ’68 means not just depoliticizing them, but also repoliticizing them in a conventional, thoughtless way, without assuming how these events make ’68 a particular kind of historical sign, one that far from the Kantian reading of the French Revolution, does not confirm, verify, or forecast human progress or humanity’s moral disposition, since as a sign, ’68 is the sign of a radical disarticulation between philosophy and history, a disarticulation that interrupts the very logic of modernity’s grand politics.[20] In other words, to simply politicize ’68 is to forget its singularity in the name of a political command that subsumes the imminence of the revolt to the strategic and calculative will to power.

         Here then our second question, what is the nature of a historical sign as the one related to the events of May ’68? If we agree in understanding these events as a historical sign, a series of events that is not to be reduced to the regularity of things, events that interrupt the continuum of historical temporality, then, what is the nature of this sign? As I have anticipated, I consider the Kantian reading of the French Revolution as a very illustrative counterexample, precisely because Kant was able to read the Revolution as a sign that confirms, verifies, and forecasts his own conception of historical progress and human’s moral predisposition. However, that conception of history and human predisposition does not seem pertinent today, and not because it has been refuted or replaced by another one, but rather because the riots of ’68 mark its radical exhaustion, its disarticulation. So, how are we to read this historical sign in a time of disarticulation when, situated in the interregnum, we cannot draw on the old understanding of politics and history, progress and meaning? As one can see here, the line that goes from Benjamin to Bataille and Jesi seems relevant again: If the revolt is a historical sign, it is a negative one that discloses history as dislocated from the sovereign principle that commands it. As a sign, it discloses history as the place in which sovereign exceptionality and the exception from sovereignty are always (nonexceptionally) at work. Certainly, Benjamin’s “real state of emergency” is exceptionless, in so far as it is the opposite of the exceptionalist conception of history as a continuum to be interrupted by an event that still happens within its sequential disposition.[21] In other words, Benjamin’s notion of the “real state of emergency” implies a profane conception of history that distinguishes it from the theological notion of miracle, in as much as Bataille’s notion of negativity resists radically any attempt to subsume it to the system, and as much as Jesi’s notion of the revolt prevents any calculative, strategic, principial, political utilization.

         Let me put it another way, among the series of events related to ’68, in France and elsewhere, we should mention not only the riots of May, but also the general student mobilization in other European countries; the student movements in Latin America that led to the most important university reforms in those years; the student and political movements in America; and so on. But we should also consider Vietnam, the Israeli-Palestine Six Days War (the Intifada of 1967), and the end of the dollar-gold convertibility as part of Nixon shock policies that led to the end of the Bretton Wood’s system, producing a general deregulation of the economy that triggered, eventually, the ongoing neoliberal globalization. So, ’68 as a negative event or series of events does not say anything about a new political foundation, a new revolutionary time, because it also signals to the deregulation of classical sovereignty, and its mutation in what today we might call the sovereignty of capital. Then, why do the May ’68 events matter if, as we know, those events also generated a sort of metamorphosis of sovereignty and power? They matter because as events they disclosed the policing role of sovereignty, at the political and at the philosophical levels, producing a suspension of the commanding principle of reason and power that organizes the narratives about this historical constellation, granting to it a form (spatial and temporal) that inscribes it within the archeo-teleological (sacrificial) structuration of time. In this sense, the constellation of events related to May ’68 needs to be rethought beyond the distinctive self-referentiality characteristic of many approaches that inscribe it within the logic of the archive and the monument, pointing instead toward its worldly consequences.

IV. – The Mexican ’68

         In fact, the ’68 constellation, understood not as a Kantian sign of human progress but as a dislocation or disarticulation, discloses too the new strategies of control and domination that are associated with the intensification of biopolitical mechanisms of control and vigilance in its aftermath. Here, I would like to introduce my third and final argument by referring to the Mexican ’68, which is a paradigmatic case that shows both sides of this disarticulation: the undecidability of the event and the intensification of control and domination that followed it.

         The Mexican ’68 took place from early May to the bloody night of October 2nd, and culminated with the execution of hundreds of students by the Mexican army, days before the Olympic Games in Mexico City. Besides its inner complexity, this constellation of events has been reduced to a single incident, mostly defined by the killing of the students in La plaza de Tlatelolco. As such, this unfortunate and isolated “excess” has become a referential point both for academic discourses and for political narratives interested in consecrating it as a sacrificial turning point in Mexican history. Even if we do not have time to analyze the whole series of discourses produced around these events, I will mention here a few different scholarly approaches that contribute to expanding and resituating the conventional narrative about the Mexican ’68.

         First, Sam Steinberg’s Photopoetics at Tlatelolco[22] seems crucial as it attempts a demonumentalization of ’68 that has become a mythical and foundational moment for the sacrificial logic of contemporary Mexican politics. In fact, his study is concerned not only with the repression of the students and the rationality of the State justifying that repression, but also with the process of shaping and limiting the “archive” and the historical narratives about these incidents. Steinberg, in other words, interrogates the relationship between archive and event, showing their cobelonging to a particular, salvific, and sacrificial conception of history. His interrogation of the logic of monumentalization, which feeds and organizes official discourses and commemorations, shows how the Mexican ’68 has been systematically neutralized (preempted) not only by the use of brutal force, but by the configuration of what Guha called a “prose of counter-insurgency.”[23]

         Thanks to this, Steinberg reopens in a clever way the problematic dimension of this constellation and shows how we still dwell in the same disjointed temporality, a dislocation that the conventional academic discourses and the political narratives of monumentalization have been trying to suture and normalize from the beginning.

Steinberg’s book is important because it not only reopens the question about how ’68 should be read, punctuating by that gesture history in a different way, but also because in doing so it discloses the inner complicity between the violence that characterized the original contention of the revolt and the violence that limits its memory and shapes the visual, literary, and cultural discourses about these events until today.

         Another important and recent intervention is Susana Draper’s 1968 Mexico: Constellations of Freedom and Democracy.[24] Similar to Steinberg’s, her approach not only situates the Mexican ’68 in the cultural, philosophical, and political global context, but also questions the reductionist logic that feeds official accounts of it. Draper complicates the masculine and salvific narrative about the Mexican 1968 beyond the providential version that assigns almost exclusive leadership to male students and dismisses the ebullient cultural and political background of these events, focusing mostly on the bloody night of October 2nd. Against the grain of this exceptional narrative, her interrogation of cultural practices, women’s participation, and diverse theoretical elaborations of that period reopen a necessary discussion regarding not only the limits of historical archives and narratives but also the temporality of this constellation. The word constellation as a key word in the book could not be more pertinent, beyond its Benjaminian resonance, as it implies a decentering effect that disarticulates the unilateral logic feeding conventional accounts and their complementary monocausality.

         Particularly telling in this regard is the chapter 3 of her book titled “Where are the Women of ’68? Fernanda Navarro and the Materialism of Uncomfortable Encounters.”[25] Far from a simple (liberal) claim of recognition and fair representation of women in the events of Mexico ’68, Draper, by way of an intelligent use of Navarro’s work and Althusser’s aleatory materialism, questions the patriarchal inclination of official and nonofficial versions of these events as another evidence of their adscription to the exceptionalist logic. If this constellation expresses a dislocation regarding official discourses, it also expresses a deidentification process regarding the performative role State narratives have had in shaping the idea of a good citizen, complicating the heteronormative and patriarchal representation of political subjects. As we said regarding Jesi’s notion of the revolt, the revolt not only differs from the exceptional logic of the miraculous event, pluralizing this event in an immanent and imminent relation to history, but also dislocates the subject of the political by opening a process of deidentification and desubjectification the main consequence of which, then and now, is unveiling the necessity of a radical interrogation of patriarchalism and its manifold reproduction in the constitution of archives, narratives, and the sacrificial version of history.

Draper’s contributions, in other words, are not to be read just as a plea to widen the archive and its representation; on the contrary, her intervention is timely and necessary in so far as the deidentification process proper to the revolt questions not only the exceptional character of the Mexican ’68’s official narratives, but the reproduction of a heteronormative and male-focused version whose consequences are important not only in the past but today. After all, the revolt also discloses the inherent violence of the process of sexuation that characterizes any form of domination (beyond gender domination) and its “reproductive” narratives.

         Finally, my third reference is the crucial reading of these historical events elaborated by Gareth Williams in chapter 5 of his 2011 book titled The Mexican Exception: Sovereignty, Police, and Democracy.[26] Williams, indeed, develops an alternative genealogy of Mexico ’68 that incorporates the sovereign logic of the revolutionary State apparatus as a crucial aspect of these historical events. His reading of ’68, on the other hand, is fed by the 1971 inaugural account written by Luis González de Alba and titled Los días y los años.[27] Certainly, González de Alba’s testimonial account could be considered as a phenomenology of the revolt, far away from what Guha termed as the prose of the counterinsurgency. By the same token, in his book, Williams, following the skeletal narrative presented by González de Alba, relates the student protests of July to October of ’68 with the pending situation of the railroad political prisoners of the late 1950s, whose repression and incarceration would have marked a radical turn within the Mexican revolutionary party-State policy. Let us remember that by February 25, 1959, the railroad workers strike started, triggering in the short time a national movement that claimed better conditions of labor for the workers. This movement almost inaugurated the new administration of Adolfo López Mateos as the entering president of Mexico and who, instead of opening a negotiation process, responded with systematic violence, murder and imprisonment of the movement’s leaders. The continuity between this national strike and the ’68 events become apparent when the ’59 strike is understood as one of the first and most important social mobilization against the so-called revolutionary government.[28] 

         Following the analyses of Williams, it is clear that the conditions for these protests are not to be found only in the students’ agenda, as they also come from a social memory of resistance against the State repression and expropriation of the revolution’s social meaning. The revolt, even if immanent and imminent, never takes place in an empty social space; rather, it happens as an explosion of many accumulated energies and social fights that decenter the disciplining (counterinsurgent) character of official discourses.

         Williams, at the same time, shows us how the brutal repression of these protests that led to the infamous assassination of hundreds of students in the Plaza de Tlatelolco, makes of the Mexican ’68 not only a negative sign of history—the history of the Mexican revolution and its expropriation by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the perfect party-State system that commanded the country through the twentieth century—but also closed the window opened a few months before October by the student protests, since those protests actually questioned not only the repressive character of the government and its use of the Granaderos army to control the civil population, but were actually questioning the whole State apparatus of control and police repression that defines the sovereign relation the State privileged with the civil population since the beginning of the century. Williams in fact tells us that the government of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, the president and final person responsible for the “Night of Tlatelolco,” as the former, prerevolutionary government of Porfirio Díaz, were regimes of absolute control and total detachment from society. Despite this sovereign power and control, nonetheless, the revolts of the Mexican ’68 disclosed the exhaustion of the Revolution, the most important political and cultural “discursive device” supporting the social contract that perpetuated the PRI at the presidential Office. Therefore, the brutal repression of these revolts marked a turning point in the configuration of a State apparatus and its policies of control and administration, disclosing the exhaustion of the revolutionary official rhetoric while opening a new logic related to the brutal implementation of neoliberal control and precarization of life. As we see here, the ’68 events in Mexico appear as a disarticulating moment preceded by the historical articulation of the revolutionary agenda and the State-party during the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution and continued by the neoliberal and repressive orientation of the Mexican State from the 1970s through today.

Williams’s reading of the ’68 revolts makes two things absolutely clear. first, the nature of these events generated a radical suspension of the sovereign principle informing conventional politics, and, as such, the revolts suspended sovereignty and its force, opening the social to the possibility of something other than a political relation, to a “passive decision” that always differs from the decisionism of politics and its multiple strategies of depolitization and repolitization. But second, Williams also shows the Mexican ’68 as a disclosing moment (a confrontation with the Real), in which the fetish of the Revolution is put in question, radically. And this is something the conventional progressist intelligentsia is not willing to accept, as the revolution keeps feeding the fantasies of many people who do not understand the immanent and imminent logic of the revolts: the general suspension of any calculative, strategic thinking, as a temporary enactment of radical democracy.

         I hope with these short references I have made the case for the relevance of expanding ’68’s self-referentiality; for the need to question our conventional notion of historical events; and for the disarticulation triggered by this constellation; a disarticulation in which we are still situated, and which demands from us something other than the classical restitution of the political. The phenomenology of the revolt not only interrupts the prose of the counterinsurgency but also opens the possibility of a formless historicity, one that is not to be reduced to the archeo-teleological disposition of time according to a sacrificial, subjective, and guilt-ridden conception of history and its supplementary hegemonic and calculative logic. In as much as this remains a possibility, it is the possibility of a jouissance beyond guilt (even if momentary) from which we only have the image that comes to us not from the myth but from the festivity of the revolt.

         One last thing seems pertinent here. The actuality of the ’68, which is what brings us together, is not to be reduced neither to a conventional historiographical narrative nor to a politicizing celebration, since what the ’68 inaugurates for us, in a rather decisive way, is the need to formulate another understanding of the political, an infrapolitics liberated from the sacrificial structuration of historical temporality. It is this possibility what links, indeed, the historicity of the ’68 revolts and the social revolts that have disrupted Latin America and the world in recent years. 


[1] Kristin Ross, May ’68 and Its Afterlives (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

[2] Bataille’s confrontation with Hegel started already in the 1930. See, for example, Georges Bataille, “The Critique of the Foundations of the Hegelian Dialectic,” and “The Notion of Expenditure,” in Vision of Excess. Selected Writings, 19271939,trans. and ed. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 105‒15 and 117‒29. These early texts are from 1932 and 1933, respectively. One should also keep in mind the extent to which Bataille’s reaction to Hegel’s dialectic is also a reaction to Kojève’s version of it. See also his “Hegel, Death and Sacrifice,” Yale French Studies 78 On Bataille (1990): 9‒28. This is a piece originally published in 1955.

[3] Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, trans. Leslie Anne Boldt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988). Originally written in 1943.

[4] For a general elaboration on the French sacrificial tradition of political thought see Jesse Goldhammer, The Headless Republic: Sacrificial Violence in Modern French Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005).

[5] In order to understand the general scope of Bataille’s project, one should pay attention to his three volume La Part maudite, published in English in two: Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, vol. I, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1991), and The Accursed Share, vols. II and III,trans. Robert Hurley (New York; Zone Books, 1992).

[6] Jacques Derrida, “From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1978), 275.

[7] Derrida, “From Restricted to General Economy,” 259.

[8] What I mean by “fights beyond recognition” is a “politics” that differs from the ontological determination of history that, starting with Hegel, finds in Kojève a symptomatic expression. Let us recall here how for Kojève the end of the Second World War was not only the end of history (its anticipated fulfillment), but also the end of politics in so far as the social struggles that mobilized history in the past appear now reduced to a “fight for symbolic recognition,” dissolving by this postulation the master-slave dialectic into the diplomatic and mercantile exchange between Europe and its former North-African colonies. See Alexandre Kojève, “Colonialism from a European Perspective,” Interpretation 29, no. 1 (Fall 2001): 115‒30. The understanding of historical quarrels beyond the logic of recognition is something that could also be read in Fanon’s interventions, something we unfortunately cannot elaborate properly here but something that would complicate, for sure, the reading of the Martinican as a partisan promoter of violence.

[9] Walter Benjamin, “Capitalism as Religion,” in Selected Writings, vol. 1, 19131926 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 288‒91.

[10] “Acerca de la imposibilidad de decir yo. Paradigmas epistemológicos y paradigmas poéticos en Furio Jesi,” in Agamben, Giorgio. La potencia del pensamiento (Buenos Aires, Argentina: Adriana Hidalgo Editora, 2007), 137‒54.

[11] Furio Jesi, Spartakus: The Symbology of the Revolt.

[12] Reiner Schürmann, Wondering Joy: Meister Eckhart’s Mystical Philosophy (Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2001).

[13] Jesi, Spartakus, 46.

[14] Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999).

[15] Jacques Rancière, Proletarian Nights: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France, trans. John Drury (New York: Verso, 2012).

[16] Walter Benjamin, “Capitalism as Religion,” and “Critique of Violence,” inSelected Writings, Volume 1, 19131926 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 288‒91 and 236‒52.

[17] Werner Hamacher, “Guilt History: Benjamin’s Sketch ‘Capitalism as Religion,” Diacritics 32, no. 3/4, Ethics (Autumn‒Winter, 2002): 81‒106.

[18] Reiner Schürmann, Heidegger on Being and Acting: From Principles to Anarchy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987). Of course, Schürmann was aware of the “American” origin of the notion “poststructuralism.”

[19] Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Retreating the Political, trans. and ed. Simon Sparks (London: Routledge, 1997).

[20] See the series of texts collected in Immanuel Kant, Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss and trans. H. B. Nisbet (New York; Cambridge University Press, 1991). See also the seminal essay of Michel Foucault, “What Is Enlightenment?” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rainbow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 32‒50.

[21] In the Fragment VIII of his “On the Concept of History,” Benjamin says: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight. Then we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism,” 392. Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” Selected Writings, Volume IV, 19381940 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 389‒400. Contrary to the common, messianic, understanding of this, the real state of emergency is exceptionless in so far as it refers to a profane conception of history and not to a theological notion of miraculous event (as in Schmitt’s sovereign exceptionalism).

[22] Samuel Steinberg, Photopoetics at Tlatelolco: Afterimages of Mexico, 1968 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016).

[23] Guha, Elementary Aspects.

[24] Susana Draper, 1968 Mexico: Constellations of Freedom and Democracy (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).

[25] Draper, 1968 Mexico, 127‒55. No wonder that Althusser’s random or aleatory materialism becomes in her analyses uncomfortable.

[26] Gareth Williams, The Mexican Exception: Sovereignty, Police, and Democracy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). Williams, in the chapter titled “‘Under the Paving Stones, the Beach!’: Chance, Passive Decision, Democracy, July‒November 1968,” 117‒52, develops one of the most radical approaches to the events of ’68, never falling prey to the exceptional narratives and complicating historically the genealogy of these events by bringing to the discussion the whole logic of the revolutionary State apparatus and the logic of sovereignty feeding it through the twentieth century.

[27] Written in prison during 1971, this testimonial account still represents an indispensable document that portrays the series of incidents in a way that is not so much affected by the normative logic of the official narratives that proliferate later. Luis González de Alba, Los días y los años (Ciudad de México: Ediciones Cal y Arena, 2018).

[28] See Fernando del Paso, José Trigo (México: Siglo XXI, 2002), the novel that, originally published in 1966, presents a sort of continuity between the Mexican Revolution, the Cristeros war, and the series of events related to the 1959 workers’ strike.

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