“We succeeded culturally. We succeeded socially. And we lost politically.… I always say: ‘thank God!’”
— Daniel Cohn-Bendit in interview on 1968, conducted by Yascha Mounk for The Utopian (2008)
“[O]ne asks with whom the adherents of historicism actually empathize. The answer is inevitable: with the victor.… Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror.… There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.”
— Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940)
In its May 2008 issue, the most commercially successful art criticism publication, Artforum, dedicated its pages to the commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of May 1968. The publication presented contributions by many of the leading figures in contemporary critical theory, all of whom have a distinctive sense of indebtedness to that brief period four decades ago, dubbed by Herbert Marcuse as the “Great Refusal.” Included in the issue’s contents are the reflections of the art historian, Arthur C. Danto, who, while faculty at Columbia University in 1968, witnessed firsthand the student uprising and occupation of several campus buildings; the philosopher Antonio Negri, one of the paragons of postmodern anti-capitalist political theory who earned his stripes as an activist throughout the 1970s in Italy’s Autonomia movement; and Sylvère Lotringer, founder of the journal Semiotext(e) which is credited with bringing the lessons of the Parisian May ’68 into the currents of American intellectual life in the form of French postmodernist theory. In addition to these authors, the issue includes reflections provided by several others who claim varying degrees of notoriety and specialty within the web of postmodern critical theory: Ti-Grace Atkinson, Chris Kraus, Michelle Kuo, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Tom McDonough, Liam Gillick, Sally Shafto, Tom Holert and Gerald Raunig.
In the issue’s editorial statement, Tim Griffin explains that Artforum’s intention was to “[look] at May 1968 specifically in historical counterpoint…[in order to bring] the questions of ’68 to bear on today.” Such a “reflexive” approach, Griffin claims, is a corrective to the intellectual danger that “in approaching these events today, one is inevitably in jeopardy of addressing not the events of 1968 so much as the stories already spun about them; and…one is also in jeopardy of…either succumbing to vapid nostalgia or dismissing the time as the stuff of myth.” Against these reductive modes of interpretation, Griffin counterposes the underling approach taken by the issue’s contributors. He explains, “[f]or throughout these pages, essayists repeatedly underline the ways in which the very creative models and concepts that propelled ’68…are now threads in the vast fabric of commerce and industry. Regardless of whether these observations provide a measure of the success of May’s enragés or of their appeasement…lessons for today become apparent.”
What then are the lessons revealed by reflection on the persistence of 1968’s significance? Is it enough to simply point out that the modes of thought which activated consciousness in ’68 have now become integrated and co-opted? Or, despite the best efforts of the critical inheritors of 1968, do we still lack substantial critical reflection on why 1968 still “bears” on today?
A partial key to this shortcoming is found in the predilection toward the defining ideas, passions, and actions of 1968 exhibited by Artforum’s contributing essayists. For instance, in his column “Before the Revolution,” Arthur C. Danto nostalgically remembers the occupation of several of Columbia University’s buildings as “the great student uprising,” characterized by its “singular political inventiveness.” Chris Kraus, assessing the 1970s radical sex-publication Suck, gives the glib formulation: “Perhaps the greatest promise of May ’68 arose with an eruption of spontaneity that…suggested it might indeed be possible to live differently.”
Danto and Kraus’s banal phrases of admiration indicate one side of the underlying problem with the perspective offered by Artforum. Although willing to recognize that ’68’s inventions and awakenings have been subsumed by “commerce and industry” in today’s society, the essayists nevertheless assume that 1968 was a breakthrough in regards to its own moment. This assumption remains essentially unaltered, even though the essayists are canny enough to modify it by pointing to the inconclusiveness of their understanding of exactly what constitutes 1968’s progressive content. As Sylvère Lotringer claims in his essay chronicling the Parisian events of ’68, “[s]omething happened in the “joli Mai” of 1968—just what precisely remains subject to debate. Yet no one doubts that it was…one of the most seminal political events of the twentieth century.”
Lotringer’s essay and the interview he conducts with Antonio Negri enjoy the chief role of portraying for readers of Artforum the discernable features of 1968’s breakthrough. What is decisive for Lotringer is the sense that 1968’s progress corresponded to “profound [social] changes” in which, “[e]verything was breaking down and shifting around, as in a kaleidoscope.” Lotringer understands the events of 1968 as expressions of a newly emergent political consciousness, which, paraphrasing Herbert Marcuse, he explains was based on the notion that because “[a]dvanced industrial societies [have] successfully managed to integrate the working class…only radical minorities could be counted on… to practice the ‘great refusal.’” The implication is clear. The organized working class had ceased to be the revolutionary bulwark, and therefore it was incumbent upon anti-capitalist theoreticians and practitioners to reinvent politics.
Of course, Lotringer and the other essayists are not so one-sided as to completely cut the working class out of their conception of revolution. Instead, acknowledging the former Marxist theoretical system—or at least their idea of it—they offer rationalizations for what Lotringer calls their “tinkering.” In his conversation with Lontringer, Negri does not style his political theory as post-proletariat; instead he claims that the proletariat has been fundamentally transformed through the “rejection of Taylorist and Fordist organizations of labor” coupled with the rise in importance of “immaterial labor.” Such statements, while seemingly insightful, are in fact equivocations. Only vulgar Marxism is rendered obsolete by the recognition that postmodern capitalism may have transformed the proletariat and the concrete labor it does. In its best exemplars, Marxism theoretically explains why the proletariat—and the society determined by its existence— is necessarily subject to ceaseless transformations (which remain however out of its conscious control). The proletariat’s dynamism is equally decisive for Marxist politics, which sets itself the goal of bringing the dynamic under conscious control in order to initiate a process of global transformation into a new form of social “metabolism.” Despite Negri’s recognition that the proletariat is subject to change, he cannot see it as the actual element of continuity binding our moment to past arrangements of capitalism. Instead, he argues that 1968 “was a jump, a division in history, a rupture.” By basing their politics on the affirmation of this “rupture,” the so-called radicals of ’68 missed an opportunity to consciously shape their historical moment. Instead, their historical moment shaped them. They ended up accepting the ideological confusions and social degradation wrought by the breakdown of the welfare-state form of capitalism, and adjusted their politics accordingly.
This accounts for why the essayists cannot help but to portray the narrative of the actual practices of 1968 as reckless posturing and festive abandonment, despite their claim to have historically advanced political theory. In his reflections on the student revolt at Columbia, Danto recalls an incident when he tried to negotiate the release of Harry S. Coleman, a dean of the school held captive in his office by students occupying the building. When Danto attempted to argue that it was wrong to hold Coleman hostage, he was howled out of the scene. Before leaving a group of students told him that he “didn’t understand what was happening, that this was the revolution!”—an assertion repudiated within days, when the police cleared the building. Lotringer, also tells a story of the Parisian events countervailant to the achievements in theory. He writes that “They [the French students] stole France, took it for a joyride, and then just as suddenly, dropped it in a back alley with no more than a few scratches.” In other words, the actual events of 1968, whether in New York or Paris, were characterized by a complete lack of goals and a delusional sense of strength. Nevertheless, Lontringer assures us that “May ’68 left a lasting trace: From its ashes arose the most vital political theories to emerge in the West over the past half century, as if the political creativity of the French May, thwarted in every other way, found in philosophy its most potent outlet.” But this begs the question of the relation between theory and practice.
The underlying premise informing all of Artforum’s essayists is that 1968 represents an unprecedented and unique political event which, as Negri argues, ruptures historical continuity. Thus, they affirm the same false sense of “progression” that lead students in ’68 headlong into the streets to confront the human masks of unknown and unalterable forces; and who, upon being beaten back, nonetheless claimed victory for having elucidating the limits of the ability to change the world. To avoid this painful problem the enragés of May ’68, and their disciples today, reinvent politics along the edges of the shattered pieces of their smashed practice. Upholding this fractured arrangement to be a theoretical breakthrough they lose contact with a fundamental aspect of Marxian critical theory— the ability to recognize continuity in change and change in continuity. It is this blindness that accounts for their inability to see in the “sui generis” political event of ’68 the imprint of the ongoing destruction of theory (Stalinism and Cold-War Social Democracy), and it accounts for their blindness to the fact that in 1968’s inept revolutionary practices laid the seeds for the future (today’s) degradation of politics. Consequently the relation between consciousness and practice is obscured by contemporary theory, which has the effect of dissolving theory into aporia and accommodating practice to a degraded reality. Theory becomes affirmative of a reality it cannot consciously affect, and therefore cannot understand. Instead of considering this complicated and still growing problem, the authors opt for the introduction of abstruse categories to re-imagine the antecedent class-conscious theory; for example, “multitude” (Negri), “youth as a class” (Lontringer), “cognitive labor” (Raunig), “difference” (Gillick), “heterotopia” (McDonough). These categories are not difficult to concretely grasp because the political philosophy situating them is so advanced; instead, their conceptual fuzziness and lack of political specificity result from the failure to discern the actual depth and contours of the problem.
Thus to Griffin’s suggestion that we have lessons to learn from 1968’s continued significance, we say: the only lesson worth learning is how not to repeat the past. Artforum’s example shows us that remaining beholden to 1968 offers no way out of the mire it created through its political impetuousness and confused beliefs. Griffin may be correct in pointing out that a “pro” versus “con” framework for understanding 1968 is inadequate because it assumes an anachronistic condition of possibility—that one could somehow choose or reject what has already transpired. Yet we can still reject ’68 as our model of “progress,” whether in theory or practice. For the critic of today’s barbarism, this is an essential lesson in brushing history “against the grain.”