Carl Lavery: The Radical as Figure

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THE RADICAL AS FIGURE 12 Fragments of Hope for a Friend at a Time of Corporate Violence

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Carl Lavery

THE DROUTH

SUMMER 2016

1 If all dialectics, like all syncopated rhythm, starts with a caesura or beat of negativity, a refusal of sorts, then it makes sense to begin with a negation. In this short text, I am not interested in the radical as an intellectual concept or ideological idea, as such; rather, my concern is with thinking the radical as a figure or trope, trying, in the process, to discover its ‘deepstructure’, or what we might simply call its ‘double movement’. In doing so, I hope to access what the radical is and may still become. My aim is as aesthetic as it is political, as poetic as it is pragmatic. For me, there is no severance between radical politics and radical art, for both, ultimately, are engaged in a quest for new forms, forms that might give birth to what Eugène Pottier, the Communard thinker and author of the Internationale, called ‘communal luxury’ – a socialist ontology wherein abundance substitutes for scarcity, pleasure for work, and, perhaps most tellingly of all, creativity for resentment.1 Radical ontology is both generative and generous – a mode of being, a style of living, that purposefully mines the etymology of the word poesis, which, in Greek, simply translates as ‘making’. To be poetical, or, what amounts to the same thing, to be radical, is to assent to becoming, a willingness to be other than self, and a desire to relate that becoming to new ways of existing as a collective. There is no separation in the radical, no truck with partition, division or exclusion. On the contrary, ‘everything is always already in everything else’, wildly relational, mixed-up, and tempered. In trying, then, to give a figure to the luxury of the radical, to allow us to see and thus live it, I am concerned, above all else, with providing it with an imaginary –something that, on account of its merger of thinking and feeling, practice and theory is always double, more than one – a radiance, an ecstasy.

1 I have learnt much about ‘communal luxury’ – and indeed about the Paris Commune, in general – from Kristin Ross’ two inspiring books The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune (2008) and Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (2015). Her influence is everywhere in this text.

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2 The doubleness of the radical is evident in the images that emanate outwards from its etymological core, like so many atoms. In its origin, the word radical derives from the Latin radix, meaning root. This notion of root or ground haunts, to an extent, our contemporary usage of the word, in both political and poetic discourses. For to be radical is to engage in an act of overturning, in digging up what there is for the sake of some vertiginous liberation. Here, in this image of digging, we can spy the inherent doubleness of the radical at work. For to partake in a radical act is not only to dig beneath the surface of the earth, to get to the root; it also assumes that one extracts the root, throwing it up into the air, tossing it into the sky where it will be borne way by the wind, eroded and ruined. There is, in other words, something aerian about the radical, something untethered that refuses to respect borders and boundaries. The radical is untidy, messy, tempered, an excess not a surplus. 3 The radical act – the motion of digging and throwing, overturning and dissolving – is liminal and composite. It brings together images of the sky and earth. It also intimates a kind of pausing or suspension that recalibrates Karl Marx’s famous phrase from the 1848 Communist Manifesto about ‘all that is solid melting into air’. Whereas Marx saw that ‘melting’ in critical terms, as a tragic example of capitalism’s power to distort and destroy social relations through the phantasmagoria of bourgeois ideology, the radical, as an instance of communal luxury, perceives the dissolution of the world differently. From a radical perspective, the melting of all that is solid, the fact that the earth been sent spinning into the sky, is imagined as an opportunity to make things stutter, to introduce some motion into a petrified and static social order. In this respect, and contra early Marx, we might see the air as a medium that induces a dialectic of fainting, the necessary pause of the formless, a disruption in the current state of things.

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4 In her extraordinary meditation Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture (1994), the French feminist thinker, Catherine Clément gets close to the double movement of the radical in her definition of the syncope as a temporary but necessary negation of the status quo: An abrupt suspension of time, syncope contradicts time’s natural progress. Through syncope the motives of desire are swallowed up: passivity, love, the other, God, emptiness and destruction are there – all mixed up, in the heart of a confusion that one could say was planned. But it is also what sets music, dance, and poetry working. This suppression moves us; this passivity is productive. That is the paradox that must be explained. (Clément 1994: 18) If the paradox of the syncope, this disruption of capital’s teleological history for the anachronism of poetics, is at the basis of all radical art, it is also at the heart of all radical politics. Clément notes: Surprisingly, this glaring weakness contains a raging force. This prostration is creative; from its disorders unknown energies are often born. […] The world in which I have lived until now idolizes power and force, muscle and health, vigour and lucidity. Syncope opens onto a universe of weakness and tricks; it leads to new rebellions. The product of this venture is the brand new, in all its freshness. (Clément 1994: 20) 5 In the paradoxical movement of the syncope, its evaporation of the all-too-solid world, the most ‘radical gesture’, to borrow a term from the Situationist historian Sadie Plant (1992), is to start anew, to uproot in order to begin, to refuse in order to say ‘yes’. But to say ‘yes’ to what exactly? Perhaps this – a creative energy that resists being appropriated, suppressed, made to stay in its place. For if the radical, like the syncope, resists all grounding, and allies itself, as I have been arguing with the air and sky, then its imaginary cannot be contained. There are no limits to the radical: it floats free.

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had no interest in stratification and bureaucracy. For where the State always seeks to create a When I think of the limitless potential of the ground for itself, to fix itself in laws and buildings, radical, its airborne refusal to take a place, to impose conformity, the Commune, by contrast, I think, by association, of the Belfast writer Maria was opposed to such a logic of identity and stone. Fusco’s brilliant commitment to what she calls The Commune’s movement was a groundless mo‘working class method’ – a form of poetic and ment; it sought to uproot and to proliferate, to mix political praxis that is more rhythmic than the local and global, to dissolve classes mimetic, more open-ended than finalised.2 In and gender, to overturn all divisions of labour. working class method, the working classes are It wanted to be airborne, to export what it termed no longer an object of representation; they are a the Universal Republic. It was also a movement of force in motion, a potential that is always coming severance, a negation of the filial for the affiliate. into being, as generous and heterogeneous as the Consider Walter Benjamin’s telling insight from air itself. Working class method is radical method: his unfinished counter-history of the city of Paris, inspirational, we breathe it in, knowing it to be The Arcades Project: a collective spirit, something that we are Just as the Communist Manifesto ends dependent on and enveloped by. the age of professional conspirators, so the Commune puts an end to the phantasmagoria that dominates the earliest aspirations of the 7 proletariat. It dispels the illusion that the task If we were to historicise the poetics of the radical, of the proletarian revolution is to complete wanting some concrete illustration of its double the work of ’89 in close collaboration with movement, we could do worse than to return the bourgeoisie. This illusion had marked to the example of the Paris Commune, those the period 1831-1871, from the Lyon riots amazing 73 days in spring 1871, when the city of to the Commune (Benjamin 1999, 24). Paris itself declared itself a free zone, a ‘universal Republic’. This is how the anarchist geographer and Communard, Elisée Reclus defined the Commune in 1897: 6

The Commune…set up for the future, not through its governors but through its defenders, a more superior ideal to all the revolutions that preceded it…a new society in which there are no more masters by birth, title of wealth, and no slaves by origin, caste or salary. Everywhere the word ‘commune’ was understood in the largest sense, as referring to a new humanity, made up of free and equal companions, oblivious to the existence of old boundaries, helping each other in peace from the end of the world to the other. (Reclus in Ross 2015:5) Implicit in Reclus’s words – his affirmative reflection on the Parisian spring – is the idea of the radical as a boundless trope, as something as free and elusive as air. The Commune, as Marx and Engels realised, is the opposite of the State. It arose spontaneously from below. It knew no theory. Rather, it was a poetico-political movement, an improvisation of a social order that 2 Maria Fusco introduced this term in a talk on her wonderful piece Master Rock at the University of Glasgow on 18 February, 2016.

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Citing Marx’s important and transitional text The Civil War in France (1871), Kristin Ross underscores the aesthetic doubleness of the Commune’s radicalism, its attraction to sky not soil. Tellingly, Ross’ metaphors are theatrical ones. She appears to realise that theatre, of all the arts, is the most radical: the one that leaves no object, the one that remains stubbornly unfinished, that allies itself with the air:

The Commune’s hostility towards the State’s exploitation of blood and soil as the ground of all propriety and property is not only seen by the fact that it opened its arms to foreigners, poets and women; it is also apparent in its restructuring of social space, its ‘attack on verticality’ (Ross 2008: 5), its DIY aesthetic. For of all the images associated with the Commune, the ones that have seared themselves most intensely into collective memory, are the images of the When Marx wrote that what mattered most barricades that sprung up in the streets of about the Paris Commune of 1871 was not any Paris in the spring of 1871. These extraordinary ideals it sought to realise but rather its own working existence, he underlined the extent to structures of defence – one thinks of the which the insurgents shared no blueprint of the shoemaker Napoléon Gaillard’s on the Place de la Concorde – were created by digging up the society to come. The Commune, in this sense, was a working laboratory of political inventions, paving stones of Haussmann’s boulevards and improvised on the spot or hobbled together out by tearing down hated monumenst, such as the Vendôme Column, which William Morris, a great of past scenarios and phrases, reconfigured as supporter of the Commune, pilloried as ‘that need be, and fed by desires awakened in the base piece of Napoleonic upholstery’ (Morris in popular reunions at the end of the Empire…. Under the Commune Paris wanted to be not the Ross 2015: 60). Again, Benjamin is an insightcapital of France, but an autonomous collective ful commentator: ‘The barricade is resurrected during the Commune. It is stronger and better in a universal federation of peoples. It did not designed than ever. It stretches across the great wish to be a state but rather an element, a boulevards, often reaching a height of stories, and unit in a federation of communes that was shield the trenches behind it’ (Benjamin 1999: 24). ultimately int ernational in scale. (Ross 2015: 12)

Barricade de la Rue Ramponeau, 20th Arrondissement, 1871

Destruction of Vendôme Column, 1871

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If the barricades mark the first movement of the radical figure during the Commune of Paris – digging up and overturning – then the second movement, the aerial thrust, belongs to its theorists and poets. One thinks here, for instance, of the writing of Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue who, exiled in London and reflecting back on his experience of the Commune, wrote Le Droit à la paresse (Right to Laziness) in 1880. Against the attacks of the bourgeois press who accused the Communards of delinquency and decadence throughout the 1870s, Lafargue chooses not to respond in a manner that would deify work and labour. Rather, for Lafargue, work in a class-dominated society is an evil. The point is not to demand the right to the work, but to abandon work altogether, to rethink the very basis of what it means to live creatively and politically. Unlike the world of work that demands discipline, control, punctuality and alienation, laziness is a state of permanent potential, a mode of existence that rejects poverty for luxury, the factory for the open field, the soil for the sky. In Lafargue’s terms, laziness is both a right as well as a new form of production: one that is rooted in a desire for desire, not simply for commodities.

We see the same attachment to the aerian quality of the radical as figure in the lyrical poetry of Arthur Rimbaud who, at the age of 17, left his home in Charleville Mézières in the Ardennes to join the Commune. Rimbaud is the poet aux semelles de vent, the artist with ‘the wind at his heels’, the adolescent who refuses to work and instead looks for un dérèglement de tous les sens (‘a deregulation of all the senses’). Regardless of the suspicions of some critics who see Rimbaud’s investment in anarchistic becoming as reflective of capitalism’s own commitment to deterritorialisation; his theory and practice of deregulation are not of the same order as neo-liberal economics. What Rimbaud is after is a deregulation that refuses all rules – economic, political, aesthetic, sexual – and which seeks an extraordinary birth in which the subject celebrates and affirms multiplicity. Rimbaud’s poetry is a poetry of vagabondage, of perpetual movement and constant motion. Rimbaud is the whirlwind, the drunken boat, the wind talker, the poet who refuses to tether himself to any ground. In Délires II, a poem from Une Saison en enfer (A Season in Hell, 1873), Rimbaud poses a question that gets to the very heart of the communal luxury inherent in the figure of the radical. Here, Rimbaud has no interest in money, standing or security. Like the seeds of a flower, he prefers to scatter himself, generously and excessively, to the wind: ‘Quick! Are there other lives? It seemed to me that everyone should have had several other lives’ (Rimbaud in Ross 2008: 71)

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12 The song of the Communards, written by Jean-Baptiste Clément and Antoine Renard in 1866, was Le Temps des cerises, a song that conjures images of cherry blossoms blown by the wind. The image is a tragic one. The revolution was defeated when Adolphe Thiers’ troops, stationed at Versailles, attacked the city in late May 1871. Typically, the retribution was excessive and brutal, a bloody spectacle of ruling class violence. 25,000 Communards were massacred, tens of thousands were deported and sentenced to forced labour, and others lived the remainder of their lives in exile. Cherry blossom is fragile and light: it appears to defy gravity. It is also resonant and seductive. The seeds germinate wherever they fall. We remain astounded by it, loyal somehow to its transient passage, waiting for it to flower again as a privileged image in our attempts to figure the radical.

NOTES Benjamin, Walter (1999) The Arcades Project, trans. H. Eiland and K. McClaughlin, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Clément, Catherine (1994) Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture, trans. S. O’Driscoll and D. Mahoney, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Plant, Sadie (1992) The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, London: Routledge. Ross, Kristin (2015) Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, London: Verso. Ross, Kristin (2008) The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune, London: Verso.

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