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).

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