Thursday 7 May 2015

A response to Kristin Ross’ May ’68 and its Afterlives,

by Nica Cornell

And the walls pull back, they are transparent and they pull back, they separate, they fade away, they leave room, and it’s now and now and now (Kaplan cited in Ross, 2002: 141).

The old End Conscription Campaign slogan “Waar is die grens nou?” translated as “Where is the border now?” is pertinent to Kristin Ross’ book May ’68 and its Afterlives. The slogan was used to engage white South Africans on the question of the presence of troops in the townships. Here however, the same question points to a more positive reality. As seen in the above quote’s description of life within the May ’68 movement, the book has a trope of national, social, spatial and teleological borders being breached as the movement “swept away categorical territories and social definitions” to form alliances rendered impossible within the existent framework of the social division of labour “between very diverse people working together to conduct their affairs collectively,” (Ross, 2002: 7). This is encapsulated by the main idea of May - “the union of intellectual contestation with workers’ struggle” (Ross, 2002:11). This remarkable expansion to overcome prescribed social identities and encounter people located in different categories is a key tenet of what makes May ’68 distinct. This response will therefore focus on that process of transcending borders, because it was this character that necessitated such a forceful and meticulous confiscation of the events of May ’68. The experience of May’s transcendent equality could not be represented within the available forms of representation because it could not be felt within the established social functions. These had to be disregarded for movement to develop. This disregard for that which was previously thinkable “threatens everything that is inscribed in our repertories for all the various ways we have to represent the social” (Ross, 2002: 11), hence the state response at the time and the containment and erasure since then. This character is also what created the possibility of afterlives, rendering the text relevant to 2015.

This book is relevant in many ways one of which is that the memories and experiences that the book recovers provide inspiration for contemporary struggles. While May has been falsely constructed as a student struggle, contemporary South African student struggles can look to May’s characteristics of a living praxis, the openness to different political subjectivities and the refusal to be reduced to their prescribed social category as the basis for an expanding movement. Importantly, and as articulated by Ross (2002: 213), the afterlives of May do not position it as a prescriptive “’model’ that could be repeated, successfully or unsuccessfully, later on.” Instead, the division separating “’those who know’” from those who are “considered incapable of knowing” (Ross, 2002: 213) emerges as a theme that was contested prior to May 68, in the Algerian War, the Vietnam War, Mao’s China (Ross, 2002: 27), and again in the 1995 strikes in France. Rather than providing a model or a definition of what change should look like, the re-membering and opening up of the memory of May ’68 and its capacity to refuse standard borders of social life, “expand[s] the field of the possible” (Sartre cited in Ross, 2002: 32) and allows one to “think the present as something that can change” (Ross, 2002: 120).

The centrality of borders being breached is immediately apparent in the description of May ’68 as “the first general strike that extended beyond the traditional centers of industrial production to the whole sphere of social reproduction” (Ross, 2002: 4). Contrary to the social histories that reduce the event to something to be “measured, categorized and contained,” the manner in which this event exceeded the “expectations and control of even its most alert protagonists” (Ross, 2002: 4) establishes its scope. This immediately suggests the expansive capacity of this event and therefore the possibility of new afterlives, including here. The events around May ‘68 – specifically approximately two decades from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s – support its magnitude and relevance by preventing its depiction as a comet that came from nowhere and disappeared as swiftly (Ross, 2002: 26). Prior to 1968, the social category of nationality and the national borders along which it is constructed were overcome or discarded. Slogans such as “Vietnam is in our factories,” (Ross, 2002: 11) relay the identification and intersection between organising against the Algerian or Vietnam War and learning that one is not defined by a single social category – in this case, being French. Therefore the boundaries of nationality were breached by the May ’68 movement.

The soluble and contestable nature of borders was already present in the first of these two wars, as France’s colonial relations with Algeria were a manifestation of the “thought disorder that is colonialism” (Ross, 2002: 53). As far back as 1848, Algeria had been put under the charge of the Minister of the Interior, and therefore was considered part of France –legitimating the reduction of the Algerian War to a “domestic, interior affair” (Ross 2002: 49). As of the 7th of March 1944, Algerians were classified as French citizens. However, the boundaries of social categorization did not end with official nationality, with classifications such as “Muslim French” and “Muslim French from Algeria” (Ross, 2002: 54) featuring in orders or ‘recommendations’ from the Prefect to obey a curfew. This curfew and the repression of its enforcement led to the first mass demonstration of the 1960s – a peaceful protest of 30-40000 Algerians organised by the Front de Liberation Nationale Algerien (Ross, 2002: 42). Police opened fire almost immediately.

In Didier Daeninckx’s detective novel Meurtres pour memoire, the detective discovers the extent of the government’s cover-up of the massacre and exposes “the way the state and police archives limit what is perceivable and knowable by the public, and names that limitation as the crime itself” (Ross, 2002: 45). In such a context, information is itself “an act of militancy” (Ross, 2002: 85) and its political potency is evinced by the reality that this cover-up was for many French people, their first experience of having such a restriction imposed. This caused a “chasm opening up in many peoples’ identity as French” (Ross, 2002: 57) – a breach of an established social category, necessary to open people to other forms of political subjectivity. Acknowledging the cover-up and its politically awakening implications is to acknowledge that May was not a comet. Rather it was an event with a “long preparation” (Ross, 2002: 26) of which the October 17th massacre is a part. This preparation entails neither that it was an inevitable chapter in the linear march of ‘progress,’ nor that it was a turbulent adolescent rebellion destined to end. Rather, it renders visible the past of May ’68, and if it has a past, it renders possible a future afterlife. For if “the action took place, at a time when everyone judged it to be unthinkable, then it can happen again” (Sartre cited in Ross, 2002: 1).

On October 5th 1961, the Prefect issued the curfew, stating that it was “advised” that “Muslim Algerian workers” (Ross, 2002: 54) stay out of the streets between 8.30 pm and 5.30 am – effectively that they may only leave the house to go to work. This form of social control shows how time is utilized to create boundaries, as an instrument for the pursuit of a capitalist “unilinear conception of progress” (Ross, 2002: 204) as maximum productivity. It also ascribes to a capitalist specialization process which separates “manual and intellectual work” and professional or cultural qualifications are used to justify “social hierarchies and systems of political representation” (Ross, 2002: 79). In such a framework, the sole function and identity of a worker is that she works, while it is the task of a particular elite to ‘be political’.

“We want time in order to live,” (Ross, 2002: 32) chanted Renault workers in 1964. This demonstrates that the refusal of the division of labour cannot be reduced to a battle to improve work conditions. It was a refusal of the capitalist functionalist understanding of social identity, and a breaching of the prescribed narrow units with which one was allowed to identify. This breaches the boundaries of a specific teleology in which May ’68 is a necessary chapter, a sociobiological rebellion of the youth “’acting out” (Ross, 2002: 204) because they are young that would end because youth passes. Another strand to this false representation is its portrayal as the “’movement of modernization’” (Cohn-Bendit cited in Ross, 2002: 211) the goal of which was contemporary liberal, capitalist society. The borders of the established teleology were also disrupted by the praxis of those within the movement - living as though the social distinctions and divisions, and the structures that prescribed and enforced them, had already been obliterated (Ross, 2002: 96). This utopian view was an immediate one and shed the Leninist-Marxist model of a vanguard communism – instead, people experienced the immediate transcendence of boundaries into a different kind of collectivity, where existent divisions are discarded and overcome, without attempting to obliterate difference.

Spatial borders are also breached. The occupation of factories entails the “appropriation of the space of the dominant power” which should ideally lead to the expansion of the workers’ movement beyond the borders of the factory (Ross, 2002: 71). However the occupation strategy also constrained workers to their “proper, habitual place” (Ross, 2002: 71) and broke the communication networks between different factories. The connections between the students and workers of May were centred on the forms and practices that grew up around militancy that developed in response to the Vietnam War. These forms and practices brought students “into direct, concrete contact with workers and with others outside the university” (Ross, 2002: 92) – rooted in a physical dislocation out of their prescribed spaces to create new social relations (Ross, 2002: 95). This seems particularly relevant to contemporary student struggles – the university is a site of struggle within a society and just as the critiques emerging at universities relate to wider society, communication with and movement between different sites of struggle remain integral to the development of a critical student movement that cannot be reduced to the affairs of students alone.

To mobilize against the Algerian War or later the Vietnam War, to “espouse the cause of the Other,” required one to construct an “impossible ‘we,’ a subjectivation that passes by way of the Other” (Ross, 2002: 57) and breaches the boundaries of one’s own social category, hence its impossibility. This depends on a “political opening to otherness” (Ross, 2002: 25), centred in the years prior to ’68 around two particular figures, “the worker and the colonial militant” (Ross, 2002: 10). This process is an expansive one – the opening grows. Such a process of identification requires a certain level of disassociation with the social category assigned to oneself, often growing from similar breaches as encountered by some French after the October 17th massacre and cover-up. This is supported by William Gardner Smith’s novel The Stone Face which tells the story of the political awakening of the protagonist Simeon, a black American in France, whose identification with the Algerians depends on his “first disidentifying with his own social group” (Ross, 2002: 46), an experience of disidentification and declassification (Ross, 2002: 57). “There is no student problem any longer. The student is not a valid notion,” (Ross, 2002: 206) read a tract from the middle of May.  This articulates the reality that according to Ross (2002: 3) it was “a shattering of social identity that allowed politics to take place.” This is in stark contrast to the constructed memory of May as being a student or youth movement. While students were the initial instigators of the protests, the movement “consisted mainly in students ceasing to function as students” (Ross, 2002: 25) and workers who refused to be reduced to being only that.

Nicholas Daum (cited in Ross, 2002: 144), in the introduction of his book about May as a mass movement, says something remarkable. Referring to his refusal to caption interviews with tidy descriptions he explained as such, “This kind of reductive and insignificant detail will remain an insignificant mystery because Adek is not only a painter, J.-P. is not only a physician, etc.; they say it themselves, they are many other things as well.” This is central to the relevance of Ross’ book to current events. Students involved in the May movement did not pretend not to be; rather they ceased to fulfil the prescribed social function of a student – to be only that. Similarly, Jean-Paul Sartre (cited in Ross, 2002: 177) describes how “It isn’t by saying that I’m not petit-bourgeois that the intellectual can join with workers. But rather, on the contrary, by thinking I am petit-bourgeois and simply, by criticizing myself and by becoming more and more radicalized, I can refuse – without it interesting anyone but myself – my petit-bourgeois conditioning.” This is relevant at present because as a white student on Rhodes campus, I am trying to comprehend how to be part of a movement that is centred on the experiences of working-class black people, how to believe in the importance of that movement while knowing that my experience is mostly not important there.

The understanding of social category as not reductive does not make it less real, and a nuanced telling of May seems to grasp that. The question of how to accept one’s social categories and how to acknowledge their implications without being reduced to them is one of the aspects of May that I believe to be relevant here and now. The importance of not reducing people to their social category is emphasized by Ross (2002: 78) in her conclusion that, “In a mass movement, what matters is the concrete form that the real movement takes and the meaning individuals attribute to their actions.” Simultaneously, Simeon does not stop being American, Sartre does not stop being petit-bourgeois, and I do not stop being white. Nor do the social structures that enforce divisional categories immediately wither away because of one’s political subjectivity. May’s realization of this is important because it is part of why the events were not merely homogenizing or coercive. Finding a community of people with whom one could live equally allowed people to live as different and therefore not be limited by or reduced to it. While the contemporary student struggles occur, this offers something of an ideal to aspire to.

Sartre’s specification that this is only of interest to him is important because May ’68 has been written as a “moment of individual, spiritual transformation” (Ross, 2002: 178). This is not the case, and is one of two frequently trotted out depictions – either it was about “losing one’s self to the masses in a quasi-religious abjection or a purely lucid instance of self-expression” (Ross, 2002: 100). Once again, May ’68 is about breaching the boundaries – in this case the binary between the individual and the collectivity. Martine Storti’s (cited in Ross, 2002: 101) testifies that, “Everyone was living beyond their intellectual, emotional and sensorial limits: each person existed above and beyond himself.” This is a description of a self who, within the movement, was being constituted in such a way that they held “individual and collective identity together in an unresolved, unresolvable manner” (Ross, 2002: 101). Evelyne Sullerot (cited in Ross, 2002: 101) supports this when she describes how many participants viewed the short-wave transmitters as “endow[ing] every individual with his own autonomy of judgment without cutting him off from the mass.” Gathered in clusters around the radio, they would listen together and then each decide for themselves where to go, based on what they heard. The pleasure of “overcoming both physical and social compartmentalization” (Ross, 2002: 104) described by Storti offers an alternative conception of the good life to that provided by the contemporary capitalist order – “this work was pleasure” (Ross, 2002: 103).

The response of the state and specifically Charles de Gaulle reveals the nature of the movement he viewed himself as ‘up against’ – a rally to “to all the different fractions of the middle class to unite against the common enemy” (Ross, 2002: 59). Unite with one’s class and chant slogans such as “Let students study, workers work, teachers teach, and France be French” (Ross, 2002: 60). This attempt to restore ‘order’ was necessitated in his view by the movement before him – which disrupted and dislocated the established functionalist hierarchy. Jacques Ranciere (2002: 23) supports this when he describes the role of the police, enforcer of the state, as establishing “what is or is not perceivable” and maintaining that division. This is why these structures are threatened by the May movement which “took the form of political experiments in declassification” (Ross, 2002: 25), bridging and breaching prescribed social categories. The classification framework also positions the state as the structure of legitimate power. This allows May to be reduced to a failed attempt to seize state power and limits the definition of the political to the state, erasing the political aspects of the movement that “may in fact have constituted the true threat to the forces of order” (Ross, 2002: 74) in their refusal to be contained within the existent hierarchies.
This response immediately reveals the distinctive characteristics of May 68 as a movement that was constituted by the transcendence of prescribed social and political categories and the hierarchy between them. The re-membering of the breaching of these borders, in allowing participants to wonder where the borders are, expands the realm of possibility for here and now.


Ross, K., 2002, May ’68 and its Afterlives, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.