Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Kairos I: Exemplary Acts of Revolutionary Potentiality

Kairoticism: Exemplary Acts, the Whatever-Messiah & Revolutionary Post-History

There is no revolution without exemplary acts... moments when revolutionary potentiality was not only present but was affirmed in a negation that, while opening a void and stopping time, also pointed toward the future... 
- Maurice Blanchot, May 1968

Part 1. Exemplary Acts

Writing in Paris during his intellectual and political engagement with the tumultuous events of the student revolts of May 1968 –  a revolution successful at best in part – Maurice Blanchot, in Comité (a single issue publication) defines the “'exemplary act' [as being] such because it goes beyond itself while coming from very far away, superseding itself and in an instant, with a shattering suddenness, exploding its limits.”[1] Two exemplary acts will serve as our approach to the problematic of the eminently temporal conditions of possibility for revolution, to a concept and experience of time as kairos. First, an event of May '68 itself:

Daniel Cohn-Bendit
The highest violence was no doubt in an instant of non - violence,when, to reject the ban (the banning of (Daniel) Cohn-Bendit was the pathetic “exemplary act” of the powers that be), thousands of workers and students – revolutionaries in an absolute sense – stamped their feet and chanted: “We are all German Jews.” Never has this been said anywhere, never at any moment: inaugural speech, opening and overthrowing the frontiers, opening and disrupting the future.[2]

Delacroix - Liberty Leading the People
 Second: In Walter Benjamin's fifteenth thesis of “On the Concept of History,” we are presented with a tableaux of a peculiar event that took place during the July Revolution, a rare instance of successful insurrectionary action, one of the very few truly hopeful images “On the Concept of History.” The episode in question took place during the course of a spontaneous revolution, which swept Charles X out of power in the course of three days. On the evening of July 27th 1830, without any form of coordination or plan, “revolutionaries’ fired upon the faces of clock-towers ““at the very same hour, in different parts of the city. [And this was the expression not of an aberrant notion, an isolated whim, but of a widespread, nearly general sentiment.”” [a21a,2] [3]

The Great Revolution introduced a new calendar. The initial day of a calendar presents history in time-lapse mode. And basically it is this same day that keeps recurring in the guise of holidays, which are days of remembrance [Tage des Eingedenkens]. Thus, calendars do not measure time as clocks do... On the first evening of fighting, it so happened that the dials on clock-towers were being fired at simultaneously and independently from several locations in Paris. An eyewitness, who may have owed his insight to the rhyme, wrote as follows:
Qui le croirait! On dit, qu'irrités contre l'heure,
De nouveaux Josués, au pied de chaque tour,
tiraient sur les cadrans pour arrêter le jour.[4]
This moment of revolution acted upon what Benjamin calls “Joshua's Intention,” that is, the intention to interrupt the course of time, “to interrupt the course of the world... The intention of Joshua.. From this intention sprang [Baudelaire's] violence, his impatience, and his anger; from it, too, sprang the ever-renewed attempts to stab the world in the heart of sing it to sleep.”[5] This is the intention, emerging when desire causes patience to give way, behind all exemplary acts, “moments when revolutionary possibility not only was present but was affirmed in a negation that, while opening a void and stopping time, also pointed toward the future.” [6] This episode did not escape Blanchot's notice; the following reflection upon Benjamin's thesis also appeared in Comité:
As soon as, through the movement of forces tending toward rupture, revolution appears possible, in a possibility that is not abstract but rather historically and concretely determined, It is in these moments, at these instants, that revolution takes place. The only mode of presence of revolution is its real possibility. Then there is a state of arrest and suspension. In this suspension, society undoes itself entirely. The law collapses. Transgression occurs: for a moment, there is innocence; interrupted history. [7]
Walter Benjamin - Paris, 1939
Now, were this moment, instant, interruption to be thought in terms of the present, of being present, it would then be fixed and ossified in the form of an atemporal entity (which is absurd), and it would be reduced to any moment of chronological time n’importe qui (the present – whether present or not – as a moment inhering in the attempted atemporal representation of time). In The Writing of the Disaster (1980), we find one fragment in which this thinking of the moment of revolution is once again formulated, this time on a less explicitly political-historical register, retaining an implicit reference to Benjamin’s reflections on time and history: “…from what comes to pass, the present is excluded. Radical change would itself come in the mode of the un-present which it causes to come, without thereby either consigning itself to the future (foreseeable or not), or withdrawing into the past (transmitted or not).” [8] It is this moment, which is always now, and yet never present, in relation to our unquenchable desire both for it and that for which it serves as a transcendental, that is at the center of this work. The word kairos signifies “the opening of a discontinuity in a continuum... a decisive moment that must be caught in passing,” [9]  while the kairic designates the mode of temporal experience to which kairos corresponds – experience in which time itself is invested with desire. An experience and concept of time in the kairic mode is as much a condition of possibility for revolution, for a foreseeable future to which action must be subordinated  is every bit as stultifying as the constraints of the past upon the present. That revolutionary insubordination with respect to the future itself is now possible is emblematic of a break with the political thinking and epoch of modernity, for both Benjamin (as a first apostle) and for all of us, responding to the bankruptcy of the Enlightenment project of the progress of reason by recognizing that it is up to us to live in a world of experience and to fashion a future without thereby forgetting to or devaluing the present. An exigency of our time might well be to invent new ways to tell stories, to narrate our events as a history that oppresses none. How coincidental it was that the closure of history in its modern guise was announced in a book edited by Raymond Queneau, who would later take up this very task and be among the founders of the OuLiPo.

Stay tuned for three more installments. Coming up: Part 2 - Kairos at the End of Modernity, Part 3 - La Révolution Post-Historique, and Part 4 - Going Out of Synch(rony) with the Whatever-Messiahs. A full version was presented at a conference last weekend; Prof. Rowan knows he cannot hide - if you've got a few operational neurons, you can easily find a copy of it.

[1] Maurice Blanchot, “Exemplary Acts,”Political Writings: 1953-1993, Trans. Zakir Paul (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 98-9.

[2] Ibid. 99.

Wiki: "In Nanterre, Cohn-Bendit was a leader in claims for more sexual freedom, with actions such as participating in the occupation of the girls' premises, interrupting the speech of a minister who was inaugurating a swimming pool in order to demand free access to the girls' dormitory. This contributed to attracting to him a lot of student supporters later to be called the '22 March Movement', a group characterised by a mixture of Marxist, sexual and anarchist semantics. In the autumn of 1967 rumours of his upcoming expulsion from the university led to a local students' strike, and his expulsion was cancelled. On 22 March 1968 students occupied the administrative offices, and the closing of the university on 2 May helped move the protests to downtown Paris."

[3] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 737.

[4] Walter Benjamin, “On The Concept of History,” Trans. Harry Zohn, in Selected Writings, Volume 4, Ed. Howard Eiland & Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard 
University Press, 2003), 389-400. 395.

[5] Walter Benjamin, “Central Park,” Trans. Edmund Jephcott and Howard Eiland, in Selected Writings: Volume 4, 161-199. 170.

[6] Blanchot, “Exemplary Acts,”Political Writings: 1953-1993, 98.

[7] Maurice Blanchot, “[A rupture in time: Revolution],” Political Writings: 1953-1993, 100.

[8] Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, Trans. Ann Smock (Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 114.

[9] Francoise Balibar, Philippe Büttgen, Barbara Cassin, “Moment, instant, occasion,” in Barbara Cassin (ed.), Vocabulaire européen des philosophies. Dictionnaire des intraduisi­bles. (Paris: Le Robert/Seuil, 2004) 813-818. 815. Trans. H. Jordheim, 2007.

Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011.

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