On Eric Hazan, French turmoil, and doing something to keep the spirit of 1789 alive

Check out the latest interview with Eric Hazan on the Verso website, then read on.

What can you say of a man whose work is sometimes inspiring, and whom you’d like to admire for his long and principled life, but …  I have to admit I have a problem with people like Hazan who don’t vote and claim it is some sort of civic act.  Or incite people to think of making others “vanish.”  Revolution did happen so you could vote! And so we could avoid violence in public affairs.   Democracy demands that we believe it matters, remain informed, and make elections count. France does have deliberative processes by which change can happen without violence. When Hazan speaks of “thinking about the means of insurrection,” and dismisses the ‘intermediate stages’ such as “election of a constituent assembly etc.,” what exactly is he encouraging?   The ambiguity is irresponsible.

After reading the Verso interview, I think it only fair to give a “tip of the hat” to a group in France which is trying to bring about change from within the system, using the tools inherited from the revolutionary past, for the better.  They are called Association pour une Constituante:  www.pouruneconstituante.fr .

A personal note:  My admiration for the ideals of the Fr Rev (plus having kids come of age) has led me to start teaching a weekly class of writing for children, which I’ve been doing since 2012. It seems so puny and insignificant next to the “revolutionaries” calling for “insurrection” or “vanishing” of institutions.  But equality is my personal dream, and giving underprivileged kids a way to speak and be somebody is my chosen method.  My wish for all of us is peace, and to have a chance.   What is yours, readers?

How Does it Feel to be a Revolutionary? Hari Kunzru seizes the day.

Hari Kunzru my-revolutions

No book captures so passionately the effervescent anxiety of revolutionary action better than Hari Kunzru, My Revolutions,* a book I just discovered by chance.  Should be required reading for any student of revolution of any period.  It is one of those books you have to put down now and then, simply to make the experience last longer.

Consider the passage below, which relates the thoughts of an underground group of young activists during the build-up to their most radical phase.  It begins with a reproach against violence, and ends with … well, you’ll see.

Q:  Your gesture is infantile.  The revolution will be led by the working class.  A terrorist is just a liberal with a bomb, arrogantly presuming to lead the way.

Rubbish.  You’re covering up your cowardice with quotations.  Change is imminent.  It’s happening around the world.  The slightest pressure will tip the balance in our favor.

One spark, a thousand fires burning.

We were so impatient.  We wanted the time to be now.  Of the core group, only Matthias and Helen remained seriously troubled by what we’d done.  We were supposed to be protesting against war.  Surely a peaceful gesture would have been better?  I accused them of fetishizing nonviolence, telling them they’d just internalized the state’s distinction between legitimate protest and criminality.  Leo and I were censured for our individualism, but the logic of confrontation did its work.  By the end of the meeting, everyone was in agreement.  We would go further.

*Hari Kunzru, My Revolutions (New York: Plume / Penguin, 2009), 173-74.

The Shock of Recognition, and an Update for Jean-Philippe Mathy

Mathy artwork

Tonight I had a rare readerly experience: a shock of self-recognition.
It happened while I was reading Jean-Philippe Mathy’s provocative book, French Resistance: The French-American Culture Wars. As a scholar of the French Revolution, I have long suspected that my politics and history were involved in this choice (see related MLA Commons site).

But what Mathy explains so startlingly, and what I did not suspect until now, is the generational tide of this return to the Republic. My eccentric (to me) embrace of republican ideals in 2014, here in South Bend, Indiana, is actually not so unusual or odd. Rather, it is a generational phenomenon shared by a cohort of intellectuals who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s. Mathy calls it a “return to la République” and argues that this move is akin to regression: it is “a retreat to a fall-back position on the part of a generation of progressive intellectuals non-plussed by the demise of the emancipatory narratives that they had championed in more idealistic times and fearful of the consequences of an amoral, relativistic capitalist culture” (French Resistance, p. 25).

Mathy concludes that this nostalgia for a happier moment has ground into an impasse. French intellectuals think that they are under siege on two fronts: “On the one hand, we have countless descriptions of the way the liberal solvent has eaten away at the moral fiber of republican humanism; on the other, discussions of extreme cultural pluralism as striking a decisive blow at the integrity of the nation, understood in the tradition of Michelet and Renan as a voluntary association of free and equal individuals” (French Resistance, p. 107).

Paradoxically, those morose thoughts have left me energized tonight. Energized because much has changed since 2000.

If Mathy’s narrative of Franco-American relations is correct, then my experience must be part of a new phase. Because what motors my embrace of la République is not a reaction against cultural pluralism, but rather an attempt to reignite the “emancipatory narratives” of more idealistic times and indeed to make the 2010s a time of renewed civic engagement. And I am not alone. The people whose work I feel most connected to are French, not American.* In their words and their deeds, people such as Martial Poirson, Jean-Clément Martin, and Guillaume Mazeau exemplify an openness to Franco-American influence and exchange. As far as I can tell, they neither view Americans as a corrupting enemy nor is dialogue a mere slogan. In Skype-organized bilingual sessions on subjects of mutual concern, an extraordinary new book that traces revolutionary iconography over time and around the world**, the creation of conferences, exhibits, and other concrete actions, these scholars are re-kindling respect for la République among French and non-French sympathizers alike.

Moreover, this healthy international dialogue has propelled some new kinds of civic activism among us academics. Initiatives such as theater performances, writing workshops for kids, and other sorts of Public Humanities outreach are routinely part of our workaday worlds.

So cheer up, Jean-Philippe Mathy. The Revolution is going fine. And Franco-American relations are going fine along with it.

References: Jean-Philippe Mathy, French Resistance: The French-American Culture Wars (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

*Two major American inspirations remain the fascinating work on newspapers by Jeremy Popkin and all of Robert Darnton’s work, always.

**La Révolution française et le monde d’aujourd’hui: Mythologies contemporaines, ed. Martial Poirson (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2014).

Revolution Now: Keep Robespierre’s Memory Alive!


Since launching this site in 2009, and more recently agreeing to co-host a session on the Popular Culture of Revolution for ASECS 2012, I am increasingly convinced that pop culture is where the action is. The scholarly action and the political action. I have seen an astounding improvement in classroom dynamics when allusions to films, advertising, and “real-life” scenarios are brought to bear on historical topics. The articles on the Marie-Antoinette pager, Coppola’s film, and the Dolce & Gabbana “Hot Baroque” line systematically draw more hits than any other on this site. (The wildly popular Bastille Day quiz was a rare opportunity to make Revolution relevant to the non-initiate.) In a society where people consult their phones more frequently than their fellows, and where the president requests citizens to “twitter” their representatives instead of joining hands in traditional protest action, is it any wonder that we are increasingly drawn to ponder the instantaneous cyber-effects of cultural action?
One curious by-product of this situation is the call launched by the group known as Friends of Robespierre to demand that a museum be constructed in honor of the Incorruptible in his one-time home in Arras.
Headed by Alain Cousin (webmaster of the group; not to be confused with Alain Cousin, Deputy of the Manche district), this group is surprisingly effective. To date, more than 500 internautes have signed on (including yours truly). This has considerably grown the paper petition campaign which wielded 473 signatures so far.
To join forces with the Friends of Robespierre and demand a museum in his honor, or to learn more about this group’s activities, click here.
To be continued!

Running on Hope

“Running on Empty” (1988) is a must-see for anyone pondering what it means to be political. Director Sydney Lumet treads a fine line in this story of antiwar activists who, despite their fugitive status because of an inadvertent crime committed in a napalm lab in 1971, remain committed to leading lives that matter. Although the film shows them uprooting their two adolescent boys from school and friends, and focuses on the story of the 18-year old son in particular to convey a message about the difficulty of letting go, this family unit is also strong, intact, and joyful. The parents are devoted to their children at the same time as they are devoted to the cause of democratic political activism. With each new move, the father in particular tries to keep on empowering the people he touches with a message of political activism. A poignant scene towards the end shows him forced to leave his small restaurant, wistful about the relationship established with his employees and the efforts he’d made to ensure that they earned a living wage in decent work conditions. In the scene featured here, the mother meets with her father after a long absence, admits how hard her life has been, and asks him for help. Running on empty? I think they’re also running on hope. As the emotionally tortured father (Judd Hirsch) reminds the guilt-stricken mother (Christine Lahti), “we are trying to make a difference.” Clearly, it’s hard to balance family and political action, and this couple takes the challenge to extremes. But it is rare to find an honest representation of that challenge in our popular culture. Kudos to Lumet for this brave portrait of radical activists who suffer the consequences of walking the talk.

Will activism save the trees of Les Halles?

On a recent trip to Paris, we returned to one of our favorite greenspaces, the garden of Les Halles, and were pleased to see that the trees which appeared endangered of succumbing to urban renewal in June 2009 (see photos) are still there. But their days are numbered. If Mayor Delanoë moves forward on plans for a new Forum des Halles, the trees will fall to make room for “improvements.” It will be interesting to see if the local activists can make the city planners realize what seems obvious to we ordinary people: these trees, this cool and living space, matter. They matter right now, every day. They matter to all of us who wander through, live nearby, or seek shelter in the shade. One need only visit the area on any sunny day to witness its significance for the population. What will it take for Paris to live up to an authentically environmental politics, and provide reliable, mature, and widespread greenspaces for its millions of inhabitants, as do London and New York? We applaud the participants of last weekend’s “vide grenier” in Les Halles, and second their efforts to save this garden. À bas les nouveaux bûcherons de Paris.

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