Rules for Revolutions

7 Dec

It used to be, back when I began bogey, I wrote birthday posts for my people. The final one was for myself, the year I turned 25; the year I moved to New York. Since then, I realized recently, I haven’t slept alone on my birthday. I did last night, and while I remain too acclimated to the habits of couple-hood to occupy my entire bed instinctively, last night I sprawled. It had been a beautiful day, better than I expected, far better than I had earned, and reluctant to let it end I lay there, awkwardly spread-eagled, and thought about New Orleans.

Several years ago, tipsy outside the Spotted Cat, my companion and I were accosted (during a fraught half-conversation) by a person who identified themselves as a “mystic.” I was drunk enough to leave with that magical bar with someone I barely knew (and wanted with that gutting desire that happens so rarely in life), but not (yet) quite drunk enough to cheat on my then-partner, and I have always been grateful to said mystic for intervening when she did and offering to tell our fortunes. He left, and she informed me that I was “gifted with people” while I gazed in dismay at his receding frame and the promises it carried. (oh, but what if I had gone; that would surely have been a different life.) At the time, broke as fuck, I muttered I would rather be gifted with money and then she got huffy and intoned “you will not be easily forgotten.” I rolled my eyes, walked to my hotel, felt vaguely guilty for a few days, forgot the whole episode. Last night, drunk on my people— who called, texted, and emailed from every continent on earth after months (if not years!) of shameful and sustained neglect— I thanked her for her blessing, so thoroughly undeserved.

This was a difficult year, a lonely year, a transitional year. It was the year in which New York finally became home, by which I mean it became a city I could fathom leaving. Not quite yet, perhaps not even soon, but eventually. Most of all it was a surprising year, with an uncanny knack for allowing me to have only what I didn’t know I needed and literally nothing else. I’m proud to have survived it, and for the first time in a very, very long time, I’m looking forward to being me again. That is a lot to have happened, all in one day, but it wasn’t even all that happened, because last night, trying to explain dialectics to Vajra (as one does) I began thinking about revolutions and then— wait for it— I wrote my first full paragraph in four months.


Windspiral, Bronwyn Berman, 2006.

So, right, revolutions. That’s what this post is actually about, cos this evening I read Supriya’s tweet about Shashi Deshpande’s keynote, the one about MeToo, in which she says that “the breaking of the silence is the beginning of revolution.” Yesterday morning I’d have said, oh fabulous but also what is a revolution, because for a while now I’ve been wondering whether revolutions are worth identifying at all, and whether the usefulness of the concept outweighs the violence involved in theorizing it. All abstraction is inherently violent, of course— to specify is to deny, dialectics 101— and I’m not arguing against, like, thinking. My point is only that concepts have to be useful to justify their own existence: establish a pattern, stake a claim, something that allows us to inflict our thoughts on the recalcitrant world, and for some time now it has seemed to me that “revolution” occludes more than it reveals and that the only patterns it allows one to trace are hackneyed ones.

It was thinking about two books (reading any being currently beyond me) that shifted my stance a very tiny bit: Hegel in Haiti and Foucault in Iran. Both books, as their titles suggest, argue that the thinker in question was heavily influenced by the revolution in question, which is all very well if you’re a Hegel/Foucault scholar, and like to have the sorts of fights academics like to have. Neither of them claims that reading either theorist is useful to understanding the revolution in question— nor, frankly, could they. What Hegel in Haiti does well (in my memory, it’s been a while) is argue that the Haitian revolution provided the historical co-ordinates for Hegel’s reformulation of sovereignty, insofar as it was the concrete condition of possibility for slavery to emerge as the limit condition for freedom (and vice-versa, obviously, this being Hegel) in a moment during which figuring out what it meant to “be(come) free” was both deeply urgent and deeply baffling.

What Foucault in Iran does well, meanwhile, is suggest that revolutions are moments when the implicit contradictions that sustain any hegemonic order decay into explicit confrontation. A revolutionary eruption, in this sense, is effectively a moment in which politics and ethics collide, and their gatekeeper— the law— breaks down. All of which is to say: the forms of legal reasoning are precisely what are at stake in a revolutionary moment, right down to the base premise that rules exist and command compliance. This is why revolutionary moments are marked by a sharp rupture between cause and consequence, and Foucault would say (and I imagine the Hegel writing Phenomenology would agree) that revolutions can’t be criticized for failing— all revolutions fail, because all revolutions end— and they are worth undertaking nonetheless. Foucault in Iran’s insistence on this “irreducibility” of revolt is, I think, useful, but the main thrust of the argument seems to be about whether and how “political spirituality” provides a way beyond what Foucault once called the dialectical traps of modernity. His argument is basically that a form of reasoning that traps human subjectivity into the ineluctable dialectic of an alienated self** cannot then liberate said self, so we need to look elsewhere for revolutionary openings. Be that as it may, my point is that Foucault’s focus is mostly on how revolutions are made, while I am more curious about how they are betrayed, perhaps because I follow Benjamin in thinking they can be made any old time.


Ivan Forde, The Birth of Enkidu, 2015

It seems to me that the only useful trajectory a category like “revolution” can help us track are the strategies used by the people leading (or perhaps here I mean exemplifying) them to exclude and marginalize others in structurally predictable ways, so as to reduce their rebellion to realm of the contingent. This involves two related things: the politics of naming (and erasing) revolutions retrospectively, and the ways in which calls to solidarity during revolutionary moments silence dissension. Revolutions inevitably fail, but they fail some people worse than others, and reducing that inevitability to the floating detritus of expediency seems to be a categorical misreading of the abstract dynamics of a revolutionary moment. Foucault in Iran’s most helpful contribution, in my opinion, is inadvertent: it highlights that a “man in revolt” is, even for Foucault, that supple theorist of sexual discursivity, always a man. Only when men revolt is it a revolution; when women do (as let us never forget they frequently have) it is hysteria and witchcraft. Revolutions fail women in random, haphazard, contingent ways, but they fail men in inevitable patterns that must be metaphysically overthrown. And on and on it goes, while people like me helpfully make tea.

All of which is to say: is #MeToo a revolution? I don’t know. I do know that if we are to think through it as one we have to retheorize revolutions. I also know that so long as the conversation about the relationship between social reproduction and sexual exploitation remains trapped in legalistic debates about the efficacy of listing “offenders,” individual responsibility, due process, and appropriate or adequate punishment, it has already been defeated. Failure might be the fate of revolution, but defeat is the denial of one.

*It might be worth remembering here that the Hegelian dialectic, as laid out in the Phenomenology, unfolds as a chiasmus. To use a more mundane image, he rolls down a logical hill and then climbs up again. I explain that claim better in a paper I once wrote about Hegel’s use of Antigone in the chapter in which the whole thing flips (or in which the abyss is, um, achieved) but basically the entire book is one long exercise in figuring out how people—particular, situated, limited— can both make the boundless world and be broken by it. It begins with the universal and ontological unity of consciousness (in other registers, agency or reason), which collapses in its encounter with solid reality (necessity and norms). This confrontation destroys both consciousness and reality, which must then “recognize” their mutual imbrication and thus begins the painstaking process of reconstructing an alienated self that is nevertheless capable of making ethical choices in a shifting world. The Phenomenology is not a historical argument; far as I can tell, it is a methodological one about how to go about the messy business of abstracting truth from contingency. (In a post-Kant world, to paraphrase Adorno, abstraction is always a business.)

One of the most persuasive arguments in Hegel in Haiti (a slim book with a lot of stuff going on) is that the master-slave metaphor that Hegel uses to stage the initial encounter is only possible in a post-Haitian-Revolution world, when that matrix of associations can be imagined. Hegel’s hill, so to say, is conquered through a ladder of metaphors, which broadly run as follows— consciousness:reality:: individual: collective:: agency:necessity:: slave:master:: reason: norm (it’s possible I have the third and fourth rungs confused and have probably forgotten a few, but I am never fucking reading the Phenomenology again, sorry). The order and specificity of the metaphors involved is important, of course, for any method to produce an actual theory about the world— i.e., actually thinking rather than thinking-about-thinking. But Phenomenology isn’t the place to look if you want to know what Hegel actually thought was going on with the world, which is a good thing because his thoughts about the world are worse than useless, imo (this is when the famous idealist/materialist trope about Hegel and Marx becomes pertinent; but let us not digress within a digression). The most ambiguous word in this very ambiguous book is law, because that is, as I mentioned earlier, precisely what is up for consideration in this emphatically post-revolutionary text. Hegel’s project is about re-evaluating the boundary between the ethical and the political and the  most normative (and influential, in terms of his legacy) association he makes, as I see it, is

ethical: political


consciousness: reality.

I’ve skipped a bunch of rungs and flipped the hierarchy of Hegel’s ladder to point out what I think is most important about it, the fact that it establishes what Benjamin would call a constellation: not two binaries that are functionally related, but four concepts with certain constitutive tensions. Thinking dialectically, to my mind anyway, is all about noticing how concepts have, historically, come to play and then messing with them (and more often than not discarding them).

** Foucault makes the argument that dialectical reasoning is inherently bourgie in Society Must be Defended (he does by staging what is in my reading a fairly obvious dialectic, and what that does to the claim— prove it? invalidate it? — I can’t tell you.)  This is a critique, I should note, of Marx as well as Hegel. A lot is made of Marx’s inversion of the Hegelian dialectic, but while Marx inverts the shape of Hegel’s logic (which has profound implications, because it changes the hierarchy of metaphors) he accepts the method, and what Foucault has in mind here is that the conundrum of alienated consciousness that (re)produces dialectical thought as a distinct style of reasoning (in Ian Hacking’s helpful phrase) is itself modern/capitalist/imperial/whatever. As such this is not controversial, but the implication (in fairness, it never quite amounts to a claim) that one must (or can?) escape this by hiking East, as it were, is why Foucault’s thoughts about the Iranian Revolution are vulnerable to being dismissed as an Orientalist fantasy (a reading, I must admit, that was almost too deliciously ironic to resist). I read this bit as saying simply that the postcolony understands “European modernity” better than it understands itself. To say the Enlightenment (oh, for lack of that sordid word) happened only in Europe (or worse because Europe) is to accept it on its own terms, and why anyone would ever do that I don’t know. I leave the elusive quest for alternate rationalities and undivided souls that sing in effervescent harmony to classicists and fabulists, and make my way in the (modern, capitalist, imperialist) world we inherit. It’s always amused me that the people who harp on about alienation and division of labor as the primordial wellspring of modern woe never seem to acknowledge the existence of reproductive labor.

(I wrote this on December 6, but then life happened, and I forgot to post it. Please forgive the weird temporality of the first couple of paragraphs. I wanted to post this before I talked myself out of it by trying to edit it. Usual disclaimers apply: this is just the Current State of my Brain, and my thoughts about any given thing will probably change in the next ten minutes. I said something like this a few years ago and was accused of “savarna despair,” a marvelous phrase I continue to savour. Thus I should probably add that obviously the argument can and should be expanded intersectionally, but since I already have a thesis to write, I figure it’s enough that nothing I’ve said suggests, either logically or historically, that gender is the only axis along which revolutionary solidarity can be betrayed, or that feminist revolutions are somehow immune to the same exclusionary dynamics. My point is merely that revolutions are, in Hegelian language, the “complex unity” of solidarity and betrayal, which is not to justify the latter at the expense of the former. Limits are like laws; they exist only until they dissolve. Also, well, if the given world doesn’t drive you to despair you aren’t paying attention, but the trick with reality [as with any epic fantasy] is to plod along regardless.)


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