Sunday, 29 May 2011

More on Rebellion and Revolution

One of the many places that one might pick up the problem of the unstable distinction between 'rebellion' and 'revolution' is in current far-left philosophical debates. If according to some the 'revolutionary' for a while seemed somewhat out of fashion in left wing thought (I'm not quite sure it ever was), it is certainly important again in the work of such thinkers as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek.

To open up a can of worms, in this post I'm going to make some all-too-brief comments on Badiou and the rhetoric of revolution.

It's a topic that comes up in Adrian Johnston's recent book Badiou, Zizek and Political Transformations: The Cadence of Change. Johnston notes that for both of these thinkers, what's centrally at stake is the possibility of thinking 'reality-shattering shifts' (xxviii) and hence of a world radically different from our own – a world which does not consist only of variations on the theme of the already-existing status quo. For Badiou the 'event' and for Zizek the 'act' (which Johnston sees as itself being a term drawing on an evental logic) are ways of imagining how such radical alterations come about. The Badiouian event is an 'abrupt rupture [...] interrupting the cohesion and continuity of whatever counts as the establshed order of things [...] [It is] that which, apparently out of nowhere, suddenly and unexpectedly catalyzes processes of transformation.' (xxviii) They are, this is to say, about revolutionary change. Badiou's writing, Johnston notes (7), is peppered with an aesthetic and rhetoric that privileges ways of imagining change that rely on a vocabulary of cataclysm and violent upheaval. (It is, this is to say, posited around a stylistic 'aesthetic' of revolution as sublime.)

There is an implicit opposition working here, which may in some respects relate to the problem I have outlined in my last post, though the terms in which it is staged are slightly different. Here, rather than rebellion, the opposite term of revolution is, essentially, reformism. Badiou and Zizek place themselves in a long line of radical theorists form whom the radical rupture of revolution is held up against some mere fiddling with details that in fact serves only to shore up the system.

There are, of course, differences between the notion of 'rebellion' as defined in my previous post (i.e. as an attempt to topple a particular holder of power, whilst preserving an overall system), and that of 'reformism' in this sense (which is more to do with the issues than personalities). However, in their polar position to the revolution, the two share quite a lot structurally. Such structural similarities are reinforced by the actualities of the actual struggles to which they might refer: a struggle against a ruler or ruling elite is hardly meaningful except in relation to some kind of abuse of power or an unpopular policy with which they are associated. Similarly, campaigns against policies are usually (though of course not universally) carried out in tandem with an opposition to instrumental individuals who are conceived as the authors of such policy, and who rapidly become imagined as an 'enemy'. (This last might perhaps need qualification, in that the identification of the enemy will often only be partial and may also be innacurate. Thus a particular ruler might be marked out, but the unpopular policies they push through may be at the service of an elite 'pressure group' who remain in the shadows and benefit from the policy, who remain, even after the unseating of the ruler, at the heart of a system of power and influence, privilege and profit. I digress, however, and in any case the same problems may well beset those who seek more properly revolutionary change...)

One of the things posed as marking the difference between 'rebellion' and 'reform' is the link between reform and a gradualism which such authors as Badiou and Zizek see as impossible or illusory, understanding 'real' change as sudden, cataclysmic and disjunctive. 'Rebellion' in the sense in which Meadows used it would lie even further along the same end of a spectrum at the other end of which was revolution, implying no change at all – a restoration of values, rather than their transformation. However, even this difference, at least as it finds its place within a revolutionist rhetoric, may itself collapse: after all, the point for such authors is that reformism is ultimately impossible, that things will not get better bit by bit, since the changes in question do not affect a core truth of the status quo, which fundamentally remains what it is, and is only revitalised by the processes of such struggle.

But do we start to run into trouble if taking up such a position? The difficulty would seem to me to be in accounting for a change which is no change – the modification which leaves things as they are. This seems a very particular way of imagining society (and/or politics, culture, etc.) that delineates between the essential and the merely contingent, imagining a set of 'core' things which determine the other things in society with no reciprocal influence. It is a model ultimately rather like the famous base/superstructure distinction: mere fiddling with culture or philosophy will not have an effect on things whilst the economic base remains the same. It raises the problem of just what is or is not significant change as opposed to superficial change – especially when we consider the problem of cause and effect. Johnston notes that some changes may seem trivial but have far-reaching effects, whilst others may seem to shake things up to the core but actually rapidly land us back where we started. What, then, if such distinction (between cataclysmic change and the small change, between revolution and reform and between revolution and rebellion) does not hold?

This dilemma poses a core problem for Badiou's work (as I've managed to decipher it at least) and as a body of writing which sets out to privilege revolution over reform it returns repeatedly to ways of upholding this distinction. Badiou's response to what amounts to a profound dilemma for the radical left is to set out an ontology – based in set theory – that seems to categorise different kinds of change, thus providing a theoretical grounding for judgments between significant and insignificant. At different moments in his career, Badiou seems to have formulated these differently. What is interesting in Johnston's account of these changes is that it highlights the fact that Badiou seems increasingly to be discovering shades of grey between the radical 'event' of revolutionary change and the mere novelty that leaves everything the same.

As described by Johnston (8), In "Beyond Formalization" (2002), Badiou categorised four kinds of change:-
1. modifications (which are consistent with the current 'transcendent regime')
2. weak singularities (novelties with 'no strong existential consequences')
3. strong singularities (important existential change, but still measurable)
4. events proper (whose consequences are 'virtually infinite')

What still seems a problem to me here, is that though it might be possible to uphold a theoretical or mathematical difference in set theory between measurable and immeasurable change (which is where it would seem Badiou would want to locate the difference between the start of a revolution which changes everything and a campaign for higher wages or more holiday or some such thing ), in the case of our messy, complexly interconnected social/political/cultural world, the distinction may never be so clear. After all, does an achieved demand for more wages end with those increased wages?Or are there other implications – a shift of power between workers and bosses, altered legislation, changing consumption patterns of working people, the encouragement of others to strike, the growth in solidarity of those that struck for that aim, altered subjectivities...? How would we possibly 'measure' all of this?

In Logiques du mondes Badiou went even further in laying out the grey area between the event and the novelty. In this work, change, or 'becoming' is first split into the distinction between 'modification' (which as before is some kind of change which has no real content or consequence) and 'site', a place with the potential to give rise to real change. Such a 'site' could, in turn involve either the 'occurrence' which lacks a 'maximal degree of intensity' or the 'singularity' which has this. The singularity in its turn can be either 'strong' or 'weak'. The consequences of the weak singularity are not 'maximal' whilst those of the strong are. (See Johnston, 8.)

It seems to me, however, (and I'd be glad to be corrected by a Badiou scholar!) that whilst Badiou does establish a kind of a framework within which there are ontological distinctions between kinds of change, and though these have a form of logical coherence, such a framework would be only a necessary precondition of the ability to distinguish between the revolutionary and the merely rebellious or reformist in practice, rather than that which is sufficient in order to do so. As I hope my example above of the demand for more pay suggests (even if it's not the most perfect one!), in practice the social world we live in is far too complex and interconnected to posit any human action as having merely finite or measurable consequence. It seems to me that most human endeavour would seem to be positioned not either on the polar opposites of pure event or pure (and mere) modification, but in the grey zone Badiou's theory has found itself increasingly having to admit. And in this grey zone – neither mere rebellion nor pure revolution, we would probably have to locate most political struggle (that of peasants and workers for better conditions or less tyrranical rulers, trades union activity, perhaps even most of the activism of people in revolutionary parties today) and perhaps most (popular) cultural production, with its working over of social contradictions that it can never ideologically contain and which it aways places back in motion. (Perhaps part of the great value of Cultural Studies has been to suggest, precisely, that the cultural 'novelties' of consumption are far less finite in their outcomes than they seem at first glance, whatever their powerful producers would want of them.)

Johnston's book begins to make this problem in Zizek and Badiou clear – and in fact very perceptively argues that the kind of focus on the grand transformation which Badiou and Zizek foreground (seemingly coming from nowhere, unexpectedly and beyond analysis or pre-calculation), eschewing the smaller and more piecework struggles of everyday activism, may well 'risk discouraging in advance precisely the sorts of efforts of transforming the world of today that they so ardently desire' (xxviii).

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Revolution vs. rebellion?

Jet Li, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau in Warlords (2007), set amidst the Taiping Rebellion.

"Of all the nations that have attained a degree of civilisation, the Chinese are the least revolutionary and the most rebellious."
Thomas Taylor Meadows, The Chinese and their Rebellions, Viewed in Connection with their National Philosophy, Ethics, Legislation and Administrations (London, 1855), 25.

Meadows had been British consul to China, and his strange book is largely a proposal that the Chinese imperial examinations should serve as a model for creating a meritocratic civil service for Britain. For Meadows the long stability of the form of the Chinese imperial state (in spite of changing dynasties) was due largely to the creation of the class of scholar-bureaucrats which the examinations fostered.

His statement above, however, is of interest to me since it might prompt some of the problems which would dog an understanding of kung fu cinema as a cinema with something to say to revolutionaries. Might we not say the same thing about these films as Meadows does about China: that they are the apotheosis of rebellion, but that they are not the least bit revolutionary?

But Meadows's book is brought up here as a place where contradictions and problems might gravitate to the point of hyperdensity at which they go supernova. Meadows's statement, after all, hits us with the historical equivalent of dramatic irony. How could one say such a thing about the land that gave us Mao, and exported Marxist guerilla insurgency not only across Asia but also the world? Since Meadows wrote, where has been more revolutionary than China, that great idol of the revolts of 1968? To make such a statement as Meadows nowadays would seem at the very least to require a rather complex redefinition of what counts as radical or revolutionary. (Mao as a kind of a latter-day Confucian…) But I would argue that the question of what counts as properly radical is, in any case, something that needs to be made problematic.

For Meadows, the distinction is simple enough. He glosses his argument thus:

"Revolution is a change in the form of government and of the principles on which it rests: it does not necessarily imply a change of rulers. Rebellion is a rising against the rulers which, far from necessarily aiming at a change of governmental principles and forms, often originates in a desire of preserving them intact. Revolutionary movements are against principles; rebellions against men" (25).

In the light of such criteria, at first glance there is a lot of common sense in Meadows's assessment, even if China was, as he was writing, undergoing one of the biggest and most awful civil wars that history has given us: the Taiping Rebellion in which at least 20 million people lost their lives. From an English perspective, in 1855, and in contrast to the European upheavals of the previous decade, with all the radical theory that fuelled these – this is the decade, after all, in which the Communist Manifesto was written – China's turmoil might have seemed rather backward, and lacking in the genuine revolutionary impetus of the thoroughgoing critiques proposed by Marx and the like. Hong Xiquan (in spite of his millennial theology) could easily be imagined by Westerners as simply a man who intended to set himself up as an alternative Emperor in the stead of the Qing dynasty, and who would be expected to rule in just the same way that they, and the dynasties of the preceding two thousand years, had always done.

Marx himself would seem to concur in his articles on the Taiping uprising in Die Presse:

"Some time before the tables began to dance, China--this living fossil--started revolutionizing. By itself there was nothing extraordinary in this phenomenon, since the Oriental empires always show an unchanging social infra-structure coupled with unceasing change in the persons and tribes who manage to ascribe to themselves the political super-structure" (cited by Daniel Little, "Marx and the Taipings," Understanding Society, at Feb 13 2009 (accessed 8 April 2011).)

With the image of dancing tables – it also figures in a footnote to Chapter 1 of Capital – Marx is referring to the craze in the 1850s for seances, nicknamed at the time "table turning," an enthusiasm he suggested was a substitute for rebellion, emerging in the context of the blocked desires created by the defeat of the 1848 uprisings. Chiming with such spinning tables, the 'revolutionising' of China in the Taiping uprising becomes an empty rotational spectacle, rather than any meaningful turning of history's wheels, and the European fascination with the phenomenon is, like that of the occult, a mere pathological symptom of the impossibility of real rebellion at home.

But Marx's and Meadows's judgements alike are coloured by an orientalism which – as Daniel Little notes in an interesting blog post on Marx and the Taiping – imagines the East as eternal and the West as the locus solus of historical change. Little notes that Marx's usual acuity with regard to class is missing in his discussions of China, and any proper examination of the Taiping movement – its social programme, for example, or the reasons why a peasantry flocked to it – are foreclosed, and that recent scholarship has done much to complexify such a vision of the Taiping as merely aiming to replace one Emperor with another.

In this regard, and especially in the light of the nationalist and communist revolutions of the twentieth century, China's history might start to look much more revolutionary than merely rebellious. Were the peasant revolts that echoed through its histories, from the "yellow turbans" of 184-205 AD that ended the rule of the Han dynasty to the Boxer Rebellion at the dawn of the twentieth century, only about restoring and rejuvenating the order of the status quo, or can they be seen as involving radical social projects? The yellow turbans, famously, were a Taoist sect which espoused equal rights and equal distribution of land. (Terry Kleeman, in his book Great Perfection has documented a similar utopian and millennial Taoist sect which held out as a separate state across much of present-day Sichuan for over half a century in the tumultuous fourth century AD.) As Little notes, whilst Marx and Meadows saw nothing truly revolutionary in the Taipings, for Mao they figured as heroic forebears engaged in a proto-communist endeavour.

The historical ironies that surround Meadows's remarks, then, as they are visible from this end of the twentieth century, point to a certain problematic which was already in place at the time they were written. The attractive neatness of the formula has the hallmark of a simplification through which history is made malleable to ideological manipulation. The easy dichotomy between rebellion and revolution hides a surreptitious set of distinctions between what is or is not "essential" or "fundamental" in change (and what are merely superficial alterations); and, we might add, recent scholarship would suggest that the judgment about these things may well be much more culturally and historically relative than either Marx or Meadows imagined when they were writing.

Raising this, of course, at the current early stage in proceedings of this research, is more to lay out a question than provide an answer as to how we might deconstruct or dialecticise this pair of terms, how they might play out in Chinese history, and how the impetus for 'rebellion' and 'revolution' may be at stake in martial art films. This is all work to be done. The usual assumption (as I note above) would tend to be that martial arts movies are only "rebellious" (seen as a bad, watered-down, unproductive thing, mere table-turning, if you like, spectacle and not substance) rather than in any sense being truly "revolutionary" (in the sense of opening on to "real change"). There are, of course exceptions: Vijay Prashad and M.T. Kato both find in Bruce Lee an authentic revolutionary hero – Kato even talks about a kung fu "cultural revolution". But in these, just as in the case of those who think that martial arts films never amount more than pseudo-revolutionary posturing, there is the mobilisation of this pair of terms to come to a judgment about the political meaning of the kung fu genre or its particular films and stars.

Of course, there are wider stakes too. The discourses of or around "popular culture" and its value more generally have revolved around this point of whether it has seeds of revolutionary (real, fundamental, meaningful) change, or whether it only involves those surface novelties which allow capitalism to remain, under the surface, always the same. (If some might view martial arts films as all rebellion and no revolution, this is only because this is an attitude generally taken up towards popular culture more generally.) These issues, then, lay at the heart of the discipline of Cultural Studies (and its debates with its opponents on the left), and more generally around the New Left movement from which it emerged, as it tried to rethink a radical but more 'democratic' politics in the face of existing totalitarian socialisms. It also haunts the current returns (in Zizek and others, for example) to a position which sees in the New Left (and its investments in the popular) suspiciously liberal traits.