First, it seems to make sense to say something about what I take the terms “resistance” and “revolution” to mean. Of course, as terms or concepts, both have been hopelessly appropriated by advertising, especially the term revolution. In the U.S. at least, every purchase signals a revolution. Think of the transformed life you could have with a thinner waist or faster car or cuter ass or whiter smile or larger television or high speed internet access or a washing machine, etc. So this has to be taken into account in any analysis.
Also, it should be noted, perhaps it is taken for granted, that what follows is neither argument nor scholarship. It is more of a what I happen to be thinking about the current topic at the present moment. I make no claims for its originality or rigor.
That said, I take revolution to mean the actual overturning of the government and transformation of the society as a whole. This is possible and it happens. The French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution are the two obvious and most theorized and discussed examples. However, we might also consider as Marx himself does, in the Communist Manifesto the industrial revolution, i.e. capitalism itself as a revolutionary force, a constantly revolutionary force, and the bourgeois as the first revolutionary heroic class. There is a more specific kind of revolution, though, which is what people most often mean, I think, when they speak of the revolution in a political context today, and it suggests that the people or persons or the multitude or whatever problematic term one wants to use are in fact the agential forces of the transformation of the governement and society. Revolution in this sense is necessarily collective.
In this context, I do have a few subjective axiomatic notions about what a revolution would be or look like. I think of a moment when, all of a sudden, a collective will emerges and what it is that must be done becomes clear. We must all rush to the White House to defend it, for example. This would occur if and only when there is a collision between the material conditions of existence as it is experienced (something which is in itself not knowable and only becomes clear as a second order phenomenon, the real, History, whatever we want to call it) and an articulated set of concepts, a narrative or what Walter Benjamin called a thought-image that is capable of shedding a new light on the historical situation. Affects and emotions that were previously nascent or unclear or simply repressed emerge in such a context, and when one realizes that these emotions are shared, are not just some private, hidden set of feelings, this gives one an enormous sense of power and burst of energy.
Along such lines, I also follow Benjamin in thinking that revolution is necessarily melancholic that is, it is motivated by and through the losses that linger and the hope of redeeming them. The revolutionary therefore must continually mine the past for the images that would resurface in the present to make it appear anew, make it seem possible not even necessarily to recover our losses, but to finally feel the emotions that we feel about them. Revising Marx in The 18 th Brumaire , Benjamin points out that collective political action is almost always preoccupied with an image from the past which provides a motivating, rallying point. (This is in On the Concept of History.) He writes of the French revolutionaries acting the part of Romans.
Experientially, for Benjamin a revolution in this sense is also likely to be surprising, or more nearly will be like the taste of the madeleine was for Proust: surprisingly familiar. Indeed, at moments Benjamin makes explicit the connection between the Proustian memoire involontaire and revolutionary temporality; he refers to the dialectical image, the key to him for stimulating an revolutionary consciousness as the thought-image which can turn the past into part of humanity’s involuntary memory.
There is no necessary political alignment to this melancholic structure, however. So, for example, one might think, in a more reactionary context, about the images of old churches sacked long ago that motivates the Serbians in their efforts to cleanse some city or other or non-Serbs. Alternatively, images and particularly the songs of slavery were key galvanizing points for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and in fact American music as a whole blues, jazz, rock and roll, hip hop is all rooted in the songs of African slaves. This may help explain why this musical tradition has been turned to time and again for meeting places and rallying cries in the American (but not only American) tradition of collective political resistance from below. The image of enslaved ancestors not liberated grandchildren, Benjamin insists, is what motivates people to revolutionize. The future is too abstract , too lacking in emotional heft to really motivate anyone. Whereas our experiences of losses of various kinds textures our emotional lives nearly tout court .
Thus, as far as I am concerned, the first problem with creating a revolution is not one of hitting upon the correct critique or a true understanding of the nature of our oppression. We all know how fucked up everything is. A better theory of it might only make us more depressed. The problem is linking up a critique of things as they are with a mood or a structure of feeling that enables us to not be depressed about it. Its about creating an emotional investment in the life that we all share and our material conditions of existence and being convinced and feeling not so much that change is possible , but feeling an overwhelming emotional investment in the possibilty of change, regardless of its actual or seeming possibility. This emotional investment has to feel urgent, compelling, and also pleasurable, rewarding, interesting. For this reason, any articulation of the current circumstances that would work in mobilizing people would have to address the emotional life of people as it exists right now: the song on everyone’s tongue, the TVshow you make sure you are home in time to watch, the new dress you’ve been eyeing, the way you identify with your sports team, your toska for lost loves or relatives, the anger you feel at the bureaucrat who through whimsy has just added 5 hours of work to your day. In such places lie the source of revolutionary affect. Which is to say that mass, consumer culture trades on precisely this desire to redeem the past. It too has a melancholic logic. Umri toska chitay mk . If one is looking for where unmet, nascent, ready-to-be articulated political emotions exist, then one must look these days to mass culture. It is the only form that currently exists that already has created mass consciousness, and indeed, perhaps for the first time, even a global consciousness. (See my notes on the global spectacle for a more developed argument along these lines.) Reality TV, the first global TV genre, seems especially important to consider in this context.
So finally then let me say a couple things about resistance. Unlike revolution, resistance happens all the time. Par Foucault, wherever there is power there is resistance. It is not always successful in changing anything, and it is often singular. We all find our ways to resist domination, sometimes they are private and personal swearing under our breath, gossiping, keeping a private personal space which is impervious to the shocks of the outside world other times they are collective, such as the aforementioned songs of the African-American slaves. In prisons, schools, armies, shopping malls, movie theaters and so on, we all develop varying levels of resistance within the logic and strategies that impose themselves on us. Foucault notes, for example, that as soon as the term homosexuality was invented in oder to pathologize a certain kind of behavior and create a new set of institutionalized normalities which affected everyone, the very term and category homosexuality was immediately turned around and used as an organizing point, as the basis for political and social movements. (This is in the History Of Sexuality , Vol. 1.) Foucault notes that big revolutionary paradigm shifts are rare, but ubiquitous are the mobile and transitory points of resistance, producing cleavages in a society that shift about, fracturing unities and effecting regroupings, furrowing across individuals themselves, cutting them up and remolding them, marking off irreducible regions in them, in their bodies and minds. Just as the network of power ends by forming a dense web that passes through apparatuses and institutions, without being exactly localized in them, so too the swarm of points of resistance traverses social stratifications and indiviual unities. And it is doubtless the strategic codification of these points of resistance that makes a revolution possibile. (96, H of S, english version, I have the french too, if that helps.) This is not a bad description of the current situation, I think. The strategic codification that Foucault speaks of here would have to travel along the lines of the emotionally resonant thought-images of which Benjamin speaks to be successful. They would also have to be strategic in the sense of accurately understanding how the tactics of power actually work and how they could be disrupted. Stalin, for example, appears to have been so successful in consolidating his power after Lenin’s death, not only because he understood how to manipulate peoples fears and desires, but also because he understood the importance of the party bureaucracy if he could control this, he could effectively dominate the nation and society as whole. Resistance would have to be cunning and knowledgable in this way as well to succeed. As Foucault also notes, Machiavelli may remain the best guide here.
Most recently, the organized protests against the American domination of globalization, what we might call the movement for a democratic globalization, with protests in Seattle (in the US already famous) and elsewhere, seems to hold the most promise. (However, the emergence of the rhetoric of terrorism poses a real challenge to this movement.) And I take Hardt and Negri to be basically correct in saying that we are moving towards a moment where it is possible to say that around the world there is a newly shared form of alienation and connection, alienation from the new forms of biopower, taking place in the modes of desire that emerge in relation to consumer objects, international bureaucracies, and mass culture. (Regarding bipower: Look at the sports clubs emerging in Moscow! I could never have imagined. To be sure, so far an elite desire, but still.) The task of intellectuals these days, I think, is to mine the past and the everyday life of the present in order to find the elements of a new global consciousness, to find thought images that will motivate and electrify people across national boundaries. If the television executives and Hollywood producers can do it, then so can we.
Nationalism is the greatest danger at this point, and it is on the rise, not only in Russia but in America too, since it offers the nearest and most convenient thought-image that can give people a sense of emotional direction in relation to the material conditions of our existence. And perhaps I am mistaken, but it is difficult to imagine, given the global nature of the economy and of the forms of bipower to which we are subject, that nationalism will not simply be an easy way for the oligarchs (and I include Bush here for sure, and Putin as well, for surely he is the biggest oligarch in the strict sense of the term, though perhaps we should speak of a monarch here) to mask the source of their domination and manipulate the situation to their advantage.