4/ “Learning to revolt”

Session 4 – Introduction Part II / Monday, 4 January 2021 / 2:30 – 4:30 pm (Paris)

Leyla Dakhli, Project Investigator ERC DREAM (CNRS/Centre
Marc Bloch, Berlin)

“Learning to revolt”

This seminar is a proposal of the research group gathered around the DREAM project. Within the framework of this project, we are looking at revolutions in the Arab Mediterranean world. The aim is to understand how projects and dreams of emancipation are developed in the societies of the region. The ambition is important, perhaps a little excessive, it is based on a genealogical conception of history, inspired by the work of Michel Foucault. Genealogy is not a causalist approach that seeks regressions, origins. We are therefore not looking for a historical cause for the events that have been labelled “Arab revolutions” or “Arab springs” in 2010-2011. Rather, we are looking for clues to elucidate the conditions for the expression and deployment of multiple and multifaceted contestations that took place in the past or continue to exist in the present, or even those that were projected and were not put into action in political forms and may have slipped into other social worlds.
This programme also examines the notion of event in a multidisciplinary way. A privileged – but always complex – territory for historians, the event is here conceived as a territory to be explored, to be unfolded so that it can be elucidated. Tracing the revolt means first of all taking note of the heuristic capacity of the event, which allows it to be brought to light, to be shown. The two years of working together have enabled us to start unfolding a certain number of “moments-events”, and to identify recurrences and figures that can be spotted in this space and that can allow us to enter into comparison.
At this stage of our work, after the writing of the book L’Esprit de la révolte and the work undertaken on the Algerian hirak (book to be published by the CNRS), the work on the “bread riots” (special comparative issue of the International Review of Social History), I think it might be interesting to identify some avenues of committed research, avenues that I claim for myself as a result of the collective and multiscalar work begun two years ago with the dream-team.
These avenues are reflected in the formulation of this seminar, and they are intended to be extended in much of the discussions during the seminar. Other avenues and part of them also extend into the individual work of researchers, who will hopefully present them here.

1. The experience, the experimentation

When we were working on the collective book, as we were walking between the notices, it appeared to us that the revolution was very much a matter of experience. It is on this pragmatic note that we agreed to conclude the work. It appeared first of all as a provisory stage, a sort of pragmatic assessment which is expressed by “what we have seen” and describes a set of practices which are forged in mobilization. In this sense, to mobilize is at the heart of the experience. Both its primary meaning and its use derived from the military vocabulary encourage us to think about the fundamentally practical aspect of political experience. It perhaps moves us away from the more weakened use that makes us hear an act of militant ‘communication’ (outreach). The very etymology of the French word, from the Latin “mobilis”, “mobile”, that can be easily moved, shows mobilization as the action of mobilizing, of implementing, of being motivated, of being ready to act. Military usage comes even closer to what we have tried to describe, and it points us to some paths. It contains this dimension of “being standing at the ready/being ready to go into battle”, of setting in motion, but also a dimension more linked to temporality, that of the recall of reservists, of reserve classes to complete an army. What happens in revolutionary time can indeed be related to this “setting in motion”. The forms of this motion are multiple, and in this the general strike is a general mobilization. The mobilization is also an exercise, routine forms of training are solicited when it extends. It is important to understand from then on what is at stake in the mobilization, the recall and the convocation, the different movements which are induced by the call of the event.
I don’t want to extend too much the metaphor here, I just want to say that we have done more than just take stock. I think we have identified a key place for understanding revolts, pragmatic and constructivist. We are not the first, of course. Amin Allal and Thomas Pierret, by situating themselves “at the heart of the revolts”, as early as 2012, gave some clues to situate themselves in a place, that of the practice of revolt. It is also of course the track traced by Kmar Bendana in her chronicles. The very exercise of the chronicle puts the present at the centre, even more so if it is worked on by a historian.
In the framework of this seminar, we seek to extend the gaze on the practice of revolt to “colder” moments: this means extending the space of experimentation to spaces that are not mobilized, that are apparently immobile. This can be done by picking up traces, archives, stigmata (and I don’t use these words at random because they are at the heart of the anthropological work of Giulia Fabbiano and Melanie Henry‘s historians, both on Algeria). This can also be grasped “on the spot”, through the work on biographical backgrounds with the actors and actresses.
This is obviously at the centre of our exploration of learning, which should be conceived in a non-scholastic way. But it will include a questioning of the notion of school, the schools of revolt and the link between school and revolution. Part of pragmatics is also pedagogical, and schools will be there, not just in a metaphorical form, during presentations.

2. The places, the space

One of the ways of tackling experimentation led us to look at space. It is about places, about location, about an object that may seem diffuse.  Here too, we have to go against common sense and expressions about the “rumbling revolt”, the waves and other natural elements that serve to define these particular moments. We have to stand somewhere to be able to watch. Of course, as Asef Bayat has shown, perhaps it is life itself that is political, and perhaps the ordinary is the place of change. But if we look at it more closely, revolt is indeed an “art of presence”, as he writes, but perhaps in another sense, more derived from martial arts. An art of presence that builds a sensitive relationship with space.
This is what happens within the framework of mobilizations, which construct a very specific relationship to space, transform it, rename it, take possession of it. In this, revolutionaries always engage in a relationship with the State, the holder of power, to modify spaces and which uses or even abuses them. This relation to the State must not be understood only in the manner of a revolutionary project of destruction or overthrow. It is around this notion that Youssef el-Chazli, for example, works, and it is also one of the strong aspects of what we have been able to explore around the bread riots, when it is a matter for the insurgents laying bare power and designating it. Power is not just an authoritarian regime embodied by a dictator, but a whole system, an order (nidâm) that is familiar to the rebels, which they decipher and thwart at the same time as they reveal it. Places are the main witnesses to this work of revealing. Working on a revolt means first of all locating it, mapping it and making space speak. All revolutionaries practice this relationship to places. Many of the actions carried out by the protesters put space at the centre: whether it be demonstrations in Syrian salons, in the squares of big cities, on the routes of demonstrations, in the sit-ins of the poorly housed or the families of martyrs or prisoners.
The urban, in its multiple forms, therefore seems to be at the centre of our questioning. But in order not to drown them in an “urban whole”, our spatial objects must be characterised and understood in depth. We need to give them back their dimensions: temporal and memory depth, structuring on different scales (axes, infrastructures, micro-neighbourhoods, more or less connected suburbs…).
This approach could be described as multisituated, but it is not simply a question of locating the actors and locating them on a map, but of showing how space is produced, by them, by others… physically or remotely (in particular via the different diasporas). Here too, we are not inventing anything, we take Henry Lefebvre’s proposals seriously, after so many others; it is a question for us of observing and describing producers of spaces.

3. Time: Dreaming and Projecting/ Remembering

One of the ways of understanding space, as Henry Lefebvre says in his famous article The Production of Space, is time. “And even if there is no general code of space, inherent in language and languages, perhaps particular codes have been established over the course of history, resulting in various effects; so that the interested “subjects”, members of this or that society, had access to both their space and their quality as “subjects” acting in that space, understanding it (in the strongest sense of the word)”. We then know the description and criticism of the time of modernity and its hold on the space/spaces. He describes the revolution as a contestation of this neutralization of time and space, which is part of modernity and its struggles.
For us here, more modestly, it will be a question of including a temporal dimension in the understanding of uprisings, or even dreams of emancipation. If one emancipates oneself, it is because one becomes master of oneself, but this emancipation does not necessarily take place for everyone at the same level, at the same time; it does not immediately create something common, does not establish itself in the unique register of the universal of rights. But we will also have to introduce a little more complexity into our approach of ” modernity “. This reflexion is based on Partha Chatterjee’s work on India and “most of the world” in The Politics of the Governed. Reflections on popular politics in most of the world (Columbia University Press, 2004).  It aims to complexify the very notion of modernity when applied to postcolonial spaces. Rather than opposing ‘pre-modern’ and more modern spaces in societies (most often by opposing rural and urban, uneducated and elite, etc.), it thus proposes another, less rigid definition of the universal: “the aspiration here is to affirm an ethical universal that does not deny the variability of human wants and values, or cast them as unworthy or ephemeral, but rather encompasses and integrates them as the real historical ground on which that ethical universal must be established”.
Beyond the present, the fact of being at the heart and of experimenting, there are in learning and in revolutionary progression links to time which are twofold. Thus, the power of projection into the future, on which we often insist in the theories of revolution, and which makes it possible to find ourselves in cases of revolutions without revolutionaries, because without a project, is not the only operative one during revolutionary moments. Unless we give this project another meaning. A project is a design, an objective, but it is first of all something that one launches, a draft. Its completion marks its end. In this sense, the revolution is a project, like something that one would constantly launch and which would never be completely accomplished. These re-enactments of the revolutionary draft, in multiple forms which are not all labelled as “political”, form a whole from which the actors draw. They have as much to do with the past and its unfulfilled potential as with an imagined future or a brighter tomorrow. In this indecision, a relationship to the future as well as a relationship to the past is as much at stake as a relationship to the past.
Thus, when it comes to imagining the futures of a past, the historian confronted with the archive finds himself on familiar ground, as at home. It is his job, in order to be able to write the past, to trace its unfulfilled futures. In other words, this activity, taken as a daily exercise, is a way of replaying and rethinking the historical dialectic, a permanent tension between a “level of expectation” projected towards the future and a “field of experimentation” anchored in the past, as expressed in Reinhart Kosseleck’s now classic considerations. But this is a memory that retains its depth, its enigmas, its legacy and its defeats, its unfulfilled hopes, as Daniel Bensaïd magnificently shows in his work on Benjamin (Walter Benjamin, sentinelle messianique, new edition 2010 with a preface by Enzo Traverso). The present time, jetztzeit in the simple German locution, is a kernel in which the past is found and updated.
If the messianic ideal seems very far from our contemporary times, there could be another form of presence, which can be defined as the presence of ghosts, with Yassin al-Haj Saleh. These are not necessarily revolutionary heritage or legacies, but forms that come to haunt the present, even by their absence. Yassin Al Haj Saleh, أصوات الغائبين: أفكار لإصلاح التفكير (Voices of the Absent: Ideas towards the renovation of thought, Al Jumhuriya, 2 April 2020). One can also think of the beautiful thoughts of Fadi Bardawil on the ‘past past’ in his book Revolution and Disenchantment. Arab Marxism and the Binds of Emancipation (Duke University Press, 2004).

4. The ages of revolt: biographies

The question of revolutionary times brings us quite naturally to the question of ages, generations and the place of the biographical in what we are looking for. We have made it the subject of the pre-seminar, around the work of young researchers. I simply want to point out here how much it is not simply methodological questions that are at stake, to approach the cold times before and after the revolt, to reconstruct routes and developments.
This was said during our discussions, the question of the spaces of the political in this biographical affair is also at stake: the individual, individuation through and within the revolt (as opposed to or accompanying experiences of fusion or communion), the private and the public, the role of the family, for example, in experiences of learning about politics. It is noteworthy that siblings are extremely present in the engagement, as are couples and children, the wider family nuclei and the way in which they can be the place of exercising politics, the place of reverberation, of maintaining revolt or of putting into contradiction. All of this requires special investigative tools, work based on oral history (see Raphaëlle Branche’s recent book on Algeria, Papa, qu’as-tu fait en Algérie ? La Découverte, 2020), silences, traces again. We return to what is often considered to be infra-political, but which we discover as a place of extremely determining politicization, especially in authoritarian contexts.
Beyond the spaces of intimacy, biographies move through places of meeting and discovery which can be clubs, books (and reading clubs), holiday camps, mosques. As Kmar Bendana often says about the “little things” she sees in Tunisia today, groups that are being formed, local initiatives, new questions that emerge, works of art or research subjects: “That’s what revolution is all about! “, perhaps more than the governments that are being formed and dissolved.
This angle of research, which we will favour here in our investigation of the learning and detours of politics, constitutes a way of accessing another space of revolt, which is that of the body, of bodies in interaction and of the little things that constitute them. At the heart of this work is also work on youth as an age of possibilities. The notion of generation as classically worked on by Karl Manheim Das Problem der Generationen, 1928 (Le Problème des générations, French translation Nathan, 1990) is here reused in a more individual perspective. It is probably in the tension between the individual and the collective that we can capture this generational dimension by stripping it, at least in part, of its sacrificial romantic aspect.

5. Revolutionaries and revolution

Let us come here to the reflections that emerged from the work undertaken on Algerian Hirak with Giulia Fabbiano, Amin Allal and Layla Baamara. By way of provocation, we launched this formula “revolutionaries without revolution”, contradicting the one that spoke of “revolution without revolutionaries”, that is to say without a project, caught off guard, in the perspective of Asef Bayat (Revolution Without Revolutionaries. Making Sense of the Arab Spring, Stanford University Press, 2017).
As social scientists, social historians, it seems clear to us that there are revolutionaries everywhere. In short, there are few revolts in relation to the number of outraged people, and obviously in relation to the many reasons for revolt. The question then becomes, what is it that resists?
The question of commitment, of mobilization, is not the question of “what happens for the revolution to happen?” but rather: “when and how do the revolted constitute themselves into a revolutionary people? How do they make the revolution happen?”.
If we want to get out of a causalist approach, which is doomed to deadlock, it is therefore necessary to explore, at the level of individuals and communities, the places and moments when revolt occurs. We have called these places ‘schools’, for want of any better term. They are places of practice, they are material and/or theoretical places, they are surfaces of projections or more real projects, they are projected things that we don’t know whether they will be seized on the fly or recovered as traces decades later. The revolt becomes a baggage that is transmitted according to logics that are not necessarily vectorial or directly transitive, that of the family or the party. It becomes something dynamic because its logic of transmission is not to be situated in a two-dimensional plane but is multi-situated in different places in society, whether in objects, senses, individuals, ideas or emotions. Here, it is probably in Latourian sociology that we must draw theoretical resources and practical inspiration, taking distance from the object while including in a profoundly reflexive way our gaze on it. It is this set of interactions to the present and in time that we could call the space/the ground/the revolutionary.

6. Political emotions, can it be learned?

Finally, I wouldn’t want to conclude this introduction in the form of a short progress report without mentioning the question of political emotions and revolutionary sensibilities. They are perhaps a way of grasping the links that are missing, of understanding the silences and “faulty acts”, of not taking literally, at face value, everything that happens. The task is complicated, but emotions leave traces in all documentation, the most institutional archives are full of them.
In order to capture them, we will focus on ruptures, breaches; on flaws and links; on attachments and devotions.
The learning we want to capture is not just intellectual, it is also emotional (and often it is emotional first). It is in intellectual and emotional work that revolutionary “values” are forged, those of justice, freedom, dignity. Both enchantment and disenchantment are forges for social and political revolt; melancholy and fatigue can therefore be associated with this forge, as well as the direct or mediated experience of violence.

(To be continued).