Questions about the Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn

Last week I was really delighted to get to talk about a paper I wrote, “The Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn: Reparative futures at a French political protest.” It was at Oberlin College, where my friend Les Beldo is teaching a class on Culture and Activism.

Here’s how my paper summarized itself:

When social actors find themselves at an impasse, perceiving their futures as threatened, how can they respond? If their futures can get broken or interrupted, can they subsequently be reconnected or repaired? If yes, how? Here, I consider an ethnographic case of reconnected futurity drawn from French protest politics: the 2009–2010 Ronde Infinie des Obstinés, or “Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn.” Opposing Sarkozy-era neoliberal university reforms, the Ronde sought to instrumentalize its temporal and political impasse, shifting its relation to the future out from the register of subjectivity and into the register of ritual motion. By situating the Ronde within the fabric of Parisian political space, I show how it synthesized the politics of occupation with the politics of marching, hopelessness with stubborn endurance, the negation of state temporality with the prefiguration of an alternative future. I conclude by reflecting on the place of temporal repair in relation to recent forms of prefigurative radicalism.

I hadn’t actually read the paper for a couple of years, so it was strange to re-read it.

In hindsight, I think the paper really wanted to emphasize three points.

  1. Futures are plural and in conflict with each other: my future might well be incompatible with yours.
  2. Any given future can get broken down. But when a future gets broken, it can be fixed. (Or at least, you can try to fix it.)
  3. Fixing a future does not require that you feel hopeful about it. Sometimes you can be in despair about a future and still be trying to fix it. (As in the case the article talks about: “stubbornness.”)

Anyways, having read the paper, the students (and Les) asked me a bunch of neat questions. But I didn’t have time to answer them all, so I thought I’d write a little in response.

1. Most researchers who write about protests have some sort of relationship to the things they’re writing about. What was your study’s impact on its participants? Or the protest’s own impact on its participants?

Like I was saying in class, I think my relationship to the protest was that of a sympathizer who participated. And people liked that — they were predisposed to like fellow participants, whatever their motives!

As far as the impact of the protest in general, I think it may have given people a chance to make friends, or just to talk, in a university environment where people don’t always get much of a chance for that. It’s nice just to have unstructured social time, which was what you got while you were walking in this circular march.

When I finally published the paper six years after the protest, I think my closer friends in the field were happy that someone had kept alive the memory of their action: had preserved a trace of it. Since otherwise it would largely now be forgotten. That’s one thing you can do as a researcher — give people a trace of their own history.

2. I’m a little skeptical about activism. How does everyone who’s involved know what they’re doing? Are they just there for bad reasons, like just wanting not to go to class?

Firstly, I do think a characteristic of any good social form is that you can participate successfully without completely understanding what you’re doing. That’s what puts the collectivity in social action!

In the case of a protest, I especially think that political significance and personal motivation are two radically different things. Sometimes, for any given social occasion, good intentions yield bad outcomes. And sometimes bad intentions yield good outcomes. Especially in a large protest situation, there is nothing — other than the possible force of shared experience itself — that regulates what everyone is thinking, feeling, or expecting. And yet the protest’s effects are generally going to be judged in aggregate, as a collective social fact. If a political leader resigns in the face of protest, for instance, that has to do with how much collective pressure the protest can muster, not with the specific motivations of any individual protesters.

So again, this decoupling is OK.

That being said, in the specific case I wrote about, the participants were largely professors (as well as some university staff and students). And I think they largely were motivated by political motivations. If they had been tired, they could have just stayed home, since classes were cancelled already during the strike. I think for the most part people were there to try to send a message to the French government, and secondarily, perhaps out of loyalty to the organizers who had encouraged them to come.

3. Graeber talks about prefiguration in radical politics. How does that apply here?

Research (some cited in the conclusion of the paper) shows that lot of “radical politics” doesn’t exactly look like prefiguration, as Graeber described it. In the standard Graeberian image of prefiguration, as I understand it, the means are the ends: you act as if you were already free, prefiguring the freedom you wish you had in the world. In your protest action itself you go outside state frameworks or market frameworks, occupying land or redistributing goods or whatever, and meanwhile the aim of your protest is perhaps also to abolish the form of capitalist exchange or ownership, or whatever.

The nice thing about prefiguration is that it gets away from this glum, instrumentalist image of protest where any means are justified in the pursuit of a higher cause. It tells you that you should not have to be miserable now as you pursue a better world that may never actually come into existence. It opposes political expediency as well as political boredom.

And in a sense, that image of prefiguration does fit the case I wrote about. French protesters were protesting market-oriented, competitive higher education, and then in their protest they also enacted egalitarian, horizontal social relations. (There’s a section of the paper that talks about this in more detail: “Stubbornness as compensatory form and prefigurative content.”)

Yet Graeber tends to give “prefiguration” a particular affective tone. He pictures it as joyful. But in the protest I studied, people were basically ambivalent. They were incapable of feeling too much joy or optimism, since they were after all in the process of being politically defeated. They described their feelings as “stubborn,” which is almost like a way of avoiding your feelings, rather than living them intensely.

I ended up thinking that stubbornness was less a way of living out a future in advance, but rather was a way of fixing a future that had been broken.

And my more general thought is that, of course some activists do seek to act “prefiguratively,” but that is only one possible approach among many possible political temporalities. Sometimes you are acting “reparatively,” which seems like a different temporal stance.

4. What was the process of your research? Do you speak French? How did people respond to being your being an American, a foreigner? And if a foreclosed future motivated the protest, what was that like?

I definitely speak French. And since I was studying mostly fellow academics, everyone understood pretty clearly already what it meant to do research. There are tons of foreign academics in Paris, so I was not a Martian; I was just a stranger. People were generally more or less comfortable with that. Of course, some are more interested in you than others. Sometimes you become useful (a useful idiot, perhaps)…

On the other topic, I think “stubborn” and “ambivalent” is what it feels like to encounter a foreclosed future!

5. What were the immediate difficulties of participating in the protest?

Well, I think it was physically a bit intense to have to walk outside for sustained periods of time. So the main challenges were probably inclement weather, fatigue, sore muscles, maybe thirst or hunger, and boredom. The challenges of everyday life, more or less.

6. How did people feel about your presence? Were they aware of your being a researcher?

As a point of protocol, the current American ethical standards say that you can observe “public behavior” (without interacting with anyone) without having to get consent, but that once you start to talk to someone, or do anything that could identify someone, or pose any risks to them, then you have a pretty standard informed consent process.

So basically, if I was just taking some notes on the general scene of the protest, which was in a public square in Paris, I wouldn’t have needed to discuss my project with anyone.

But as soon as I started talking to anyone, I obviously explained that I was a researcher, etc, etc. They made me write a script for “oral consent” in advance. In practice, it was a very relaxed process, since people were expecting to talk to strangers in a protest, or even to talk to journalists.

Meanwhile, after I had been coming for a while, word got around about who I was, so it was easier to introduce myself to new people because people were already familiar with my presence.

7. Can you talk more about activism and temporality? We usually think of activism as creating a better future, but that’s challenged by your case, where activists are facing this foreclosed future. And can you say more about Graeber’s opposition to ideology [in the sense of an explicit doctrine that organizes direct action]?

Well, on the doctrine front, I think it’s important that, in Paris, not all activist causes are very “doctrine-driven.” Some activist causes are more “issue-driven,” as in my case, the university politics case. And with issue-driven causes, it’s usually understood that the participants will show up with a range of political ideologies. While some participants might be attached to a particular ideology or doctrine, others might only have vaguer or more situational commitments. Thus, acceptance of ideological diversity tended to become a practical requirement.

My experience in the French university world was that it was very rare to hear activists — or more broadly, politically engaged people — talk about any specific doctrine or ideology. They tended instead to talk about their analyses of situations, about their coalitions or allies, about the “balance of power” (rapports de force), about shared values or points of tension, or even about specific personal relationships that had become politically salient.

The big question then becomes, how does this sort of down-to-earth politics actually fit together with some larger theory of the future? I don’t think there is any single answer to this question; different activists try to answer it differently, depending on circumstance.

8. Everyone else already asked what I was going to talk about! But can you talk more about democratic administration in French universities?

Hey, actually I wrote a different paper about this, and it just came out officially this month: “A Campus Fractured: Neoliberalization and the Clash of Academic Democracies in France.” It goes into lots of detail about how this works and how it breaks down in the face of neoliberal policy.

9. Arguably revolution became impossible after 68, in part in the face of social constructivist doctrines. Is revolutionism dead, in your view?

There’s a lot to say about this, and I tend to think it has less to do with constructivist theory than it does with 20th century geopolitics. There aren’t the same sorts of anticolonial revolutions now because we aren’t in the same colonial conjuncture that obtained in the mid-20th century. The old colonial empires are gone, or radically transformed into economic-cultural modes of domination that rely on more punctual military interventions. (France still intervenes militarily in West Africa, while the United States currently maintains about 500 overseas military outposts…) And the Eastern Bloc has collapsed, which removes the big strategic ally of would-be left revolutionaries, even though Russia and China continue to be involved in militarized conflicts around the borders of their spheres of power, as in Ukraine or the South China Sea.

So it’s a different geopolitical conjuncture now, and within that conjuncture, I suppose it’s true that “revolutionism” meaning the armed overthrow of governments has declined somewhat as a recognized strategy for political change. Nevertheless, it must be said that in our generation there are still plenty of armed conflicts and insurrections, some of which probably deserve to be called embryonic or potential revolutions. ISIS in Iraq comes to mind. There’s an armed truce in Gaza. Maoists fought a civil war in Nepal that ended last decade. There’s a Maoist/Naxalite armed insurrection in India that Arundhati Roy wrote about. In Libya, the Arab Spring culminated in a civil war and a splintered state. So the pursuit of politics “by other means” continues, if those means are arms, and I presume that this image is at the heart of the stock image of a revolution, à la the American Revolution.

What does seem to have dwindled since the mid-20th-century is a more utopian image of specifically left-wing revolution. At least, this loss of revolutionary hope is what happened in the French left, and surely in the American left too. (The Weather Underground are no longer even thinkable, it would seem.) There used to be a moment when Vietnam, Cuba, and Algeria (and in the background, the Russian and Chinese revolutions) seemed to be key models of anti-imperial revolutionary action, giving us this romance of the revolution which Fanon theorized in The Wretched of the Earth (deeply based on Cuba). That model used to echo even in the “Global North”; it no longer does so.

A few more factors besides the geohistorical ones come to mind.

1) We’ve seen plenty of right-wing revolutions lately, which puts a dent in any expectation that armed revolution is an intrinsically “progressive” strategy. The Taliban are revolutionaries of a kind too, right?

2) This is hard to quantify, but I do suspect that it makes some difference that lots of 20th century revolutions ended badly, especially in the long term. At best, the results have been profoundly ambivalent. Utopia has not yet been realized on earth. (This isn’t saying that revolutions produced nothing of value — obviously it is easy to understand why an Algerian would wish to abolish French rule.)

3) Meanwhile, the coercive powers of states have probably amplified since the mid-20th century. Surveillance is much easier; weapons technology is more advanced; repressive police tactics have been further elaborated. Thus, armed overthrow of the state may now be logistically much less plausible than it used to be, especially in the more functional nation-states.

4) At the same time, we’ve seen a series of non-revolutionary strategies for pursuing utopian dreams. These include alternative social institutions; altermondialisation; solidarity economies/”fair trade”; free schools; back-to-the-land projects; new forms of kinship, love, gender and sexuality; ecopolitics and animal rights politics; communes and co-operatives; radical art, music and culture; some forms of direct action… Such projects testify to a new optimism that flourishes in the face of pessimism about seizing state power. Implicitly, they dwell on questions like: Do you have to seize the state to create a utopian society? What if you don’t want a state at all, as we currently picture it? Which gets back to the Graeberian means-ends question — can a nonviolent society be created by force, or a utopian world emerge from war?

What’s interesting is that even though these questions remain radically unanswered, the notion of revolution still has some lingering purchase. If only as metaphor.