1968-2018: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose(?)

may 68 barricade bordeaux

A working (and incomplete) draft of my talk for the ‘’68 & its Double-binds’ conference (University of Kent)

[ intro ]

50 years on and who would have thought that France’s very own Christophe Castaner (Minister for Parliamentary Relations) would be the one to mark the occasion and set the mood. For Castaner and the institutions which he so valiantly defends, there will be little difference in how the State commemorates its 50th anniversary when, speaking to BFM TV, he assuredly claims that “There will be no lawless zones in France.” And just as it was for De Gaulle’s government in ’68, so too is it for Macron’s: 50 years on and the events of May persist in their significance insofar as they take on the form of a problem. In light of these events, the legacy of ’68 appears to be something more than any presentation of a set of political solutions or prescriptions. Rather, May ’68 persists in the present in the guise of a problem (i.e. the essence of 68 as the form of Problems themselves). Reason being that for thinkers such as Badiou, the problem posed by 68 belongs strictly to the order of politics, while others such as Guattari conceive of ‘68’s problematic as socio-economic in essence. And for others still, such as Jean-Luc Nancy, the problem of May is a decidedly metaphysical problem in nature. So it seems that the fate of ’68 was to become an eternal site of contested historical remembering, always irreducible to any single political issue (i.e. students, workers, filmmakers, youth, women, etc.). Hence the suggestion that “the meaning of May” signifies less a resolution of contradictions and more so a formulation of a set of problems. However, from the vantage point of our present, it is necessary to reopen this debate in order to inquire as to whether or not we still remain ’68’s contemporaries, as Badiou has claimed. In other words, is it as simple as recognizing the fact that contemporary struggles continue to lack the relevant forms and organization of political subjectivity capable of ushering in a qualitative transformation of the forces/relations of production, alongside with the attendant social relations of capital? In what follows, we will see how even this fidelity to ‘68-as-problem a la Badiou must itself be problematized; since, unlike ‘68, the current cycle of struggles find themselves circumscribed by a qualitatively different composition of race, gender, nationality, capital, and class. For our present is defined not only by a ‘crisis’ of capital, but by a direct confrontation with the increasing impossibility of self-reproduction for an ever growing number of surplus populations. And as we will see, contra Badiou and ’68’s discovery regarding the inefficiency of the traditional figure of revolutionary subjectivity, the present appears to be defined more by what Marx termed ‘the multiplication of the proletariat;’ a multiplication, that is, of the number of potentially revolutionary social-positions relative to capital.

[ 1 ]

“I would like to begin by asking a very simple question: why all this fuss about May ‘68 – articles, broadcasts, discussions and commemorations of all kinds – 40 years after the event? There was nothing of the kind for the thirtieth or twentieth anniversary”(Communist Hypothesis, 33). Thus begins Badiou’s reflections on the 40th anniversary of the events, which transpired across the country during that month of May in 1968. And not without justification, for it is indeed strange that May ’68 has become worthy of national commemoration only once 40 years of silence has come to pass (and which to some would be better understood as four decades of historical forgetting). Beginning with this question what we are able to see is that there have been two dominant ways of answering this question. On the one hand, there are a set of answers that can be said to be pessimistic & propose the idea that it is possible to commemorate May ’68 precisely because it no longer has any socio-political influence on the present . Or we could say that this commemoration is possible because what was really achieved through the events of May was the establishment of the conditions of possibility for neoliberalism. On the other hand, there are those answers that are decidedly optimistic – ranging from arguments that view this commemorative moment as a looking towards the past for the inspiration needed to change the present, to those who still hold on to an image of political upheaval that held out the promise of another world is possible. Now, in contradistinction to these positions, and by emphasizing what he takes to be May ‘68’s irreducibly complex character, Badiou argues that there are not two but four different May’s:

…the reason why this commemoration is complicated and gives rise to contradictory hypotheses is that May ’68 itself was an event of great complexity. It is impossible to reduce it to a conveniently unitary image. I would like to transmit to you this internal division, the heterogeneous multiplicity that was May ’68. There were in fact four different May ‘68’s. The strength and the distinctive feature of the French May ’68 is that it entwined, combined and superimposed four processes that are, in the final analysis, quite heterogeneous. (Communist Hypothesis, pp. 34-5)

In place of both optimistic and pessimistic mystification, what goes by the name ‘May 1968’ was a political sequence that was effectuated due to the interplay of (i) the student/university uprising, (ii) the general strike organized by workers and unions, and (iii) the cultural protestations which arose most notably from young people and filmmakers. And it is for this reason, says Badiou, that it comes as no surprise that the symbolic sites of ‘68 are “the occupied Sorbonne for students, the big car plants (and especially Billancourt) for the workers, and the occupation of the Odéon theatre” (39).  Now, while each of these segments of ‘68 correspond to the first three iterations of May’68, what constitutes this supposed ‘fourth’ May? And what is its relation to the university, factory, and the struggles of everyday life? Straightforwardly, this ‘fourth May’ was the generalization of a refusal, or rejection, that crystalized with respect to ‘68’s social movements relationship to the history of the workers movement. It was a disavowal  of a certain set of assumptions about just what it is that must be done; an absolute rejection of the Dogmatic Image of (Political) Thought that Badiou perfectly describes in the following terms:

At the time we assumed that the politics of emancipation was neither a pure idea, an expression of the will nor a moral dictate, but that it was inscribed in, and almost programmed by, historical and social reality. One of that convictions implications was that this objective agent had to be transformed into a subjective power, that a social entity had to become a subjective actor. For that to happen, it had to be represented by a specific organization, and that is precisely what we called a party, a working-class or people’s party. That party had to be present wherever there were site of power or intervention. There were certainly wide-ranging discussion about what the party was…But there was a basic agreement that there a historical agent, and that that agent had to be organized. That political organization obviously had a social basis in mass organizations that plunged their roots into an immediate social reality…This gives us something that still survives today: the idea that there are two sides to emancipatory political action. First there are social movements…[T]hen there is the party element. (Communist Hypothesis, p. 40-41)

This fourth iteration of May, then, was the movements rejection of the Marxist-Leninist outline of how revolutions were to be carried out – replete with its workers’ parties seizing state power with professional revolutionaries organizing the masses and founded on a confidence in the power of Party led unions and a belief in the transformative potential of electoral politics. Moreover, this rejection of revolutionary orthodoxy doubled as the grounds for the unification of ’68’s various movements. Thus, Badiou will define this fourth May as the collective attempt to construct“a vision of politics that was trying to wrench itself away from the old vision… [a politics] seeking to find that which might exist beyond the confines of classic revolutionism” (43). In addition to distancing itself from ‘the confines of classic revolutionism,’ the other decisive factor of the fourth May was its rejection of working-class identity as being the sole determinant of one’s revolutionary potential. So what must understood regarding the ‘events of May’ is that 1968 was that it was political sequence that was able to be realized due to students, workers, cultural producers, and historically marginalized identity groups sharing the same horizon of struggle, which rejected both the politics of parliamentarianism, party led unions, and transitional programs and the figure of the proletariat as the sole bearer of revolutionary potential. A sequence, says Badiou, whose guiding question was the following: “What would a new political practice that was not willing to keep everyone in their place look like? A political practice that accepted new trajectories…and meetings between people who did not usually talk to each other?” (45). Thus, we can say that ’68 marks the birth of a political subjectivity defined by an unrelenting defiance of the social positions (‘places’) allotted to it by Capital – so much so that Kristin Ross will go on to describe this ‘68-subject’ in a manner quite similar to that of the Badiouian militant who remains ever faithful to its Evental origins:

What has come to be called “the events of May” consisted mainly in students ceasing to function as students, workers as workers, and farmers as farmers: May was a crisis in functionalism. The movement took the form of political experiments in declassification, in disrupting the natural “givenness” of places; it consisted of displacements that took students outside of the university, meetings that brought farmers and workers together, or students to the countryside—trajectories outside of the Latin Quarter, to workers’ housing and popular neighborhoods, a new kind of mass organizing (against the Algerian War in the early 1960s, and later against the Vietnam War) that involved physical dislocation. And in that physical dislocation lay a dislocation in the very idea of politics — moving it out of its…proper place, which was for the left at that time the Communist Party(May 68 And Its Afterlives, p25, emphasis mine)  

And so… Badiou’s framework of there being not two but four May’s retain its usefulness since it allows us to conceive of ‘68 on its own terms, as a form of politics whose horizon of struggle was one that rejected past and present iterations of left-wing politics and gave consistency to its collectivity via the fourth-May-as-diagonal ‘that links the other three [to one another].’ In this way we are led to the conclusion that it was only by virtue of the diagonal function of the fourth May that ‘68 succeeded in giving a new meaning to struggle itself; a vision of struggle no longer subordinate to any party line; no longer in want or need of recognition from the established institutions of the Left; no longer faithful to a notion of revolutionary agency confined to the point of production; and thereby making it possible to (briefly) live in reality what we have long been said to be in truth: non-alienated, collective, and thus free.

[ 2 ]

Unlike the movements of 1968, those of 2018 increasingly find themselves confronted with the crisis of (social) reproduction for both capital and labour; and unlike our present moment, the struggles born out of ’68 found themselves in that postwar period, which saw the annual growth rate of France’s GDP continuously outperform its G7 counterparts (and it was only at the beginning of the 1980s that France’s annual growth fell below this postwar growth rate):

Taking economic growth as a key indicator, France can be seen to have outperformed other G7 states consistently in the postwar period, right until the early 80s. In the period of 1960 to 1967 the French annual growth rate was 5.4 percent, as compared with a G7 average of 5.0 percent….from 1968 to 1973 France moved even further ahead of the G7 average, with its rate of 5.5 percent as against the G7 average of 4.4 percent; while in the globally depressed market is the 1970s, France grew at 2.8 percent each year in the period 1974-1979, as compared with 2.7 percent across the G7 states. (Gallois, After the Deluge, p. 56)

That said, the conclusion to be drawn is not the banal fact that France’s underperformance vis-a-vis it’s postwar boom demonstrates how the contemporary terrain of struggle is different from that of ’68. Rather, the implicit point being made is that the decline in France’s annual growth rate is indicative of the structural shift accumulation away from production and toward circulation – for it is this turn away from production and toward circulation as dominant site of accumulation and realization of value that has been identified as the key factor in understanding the particular way in which the capital-labour relation has been reconstituted as the contemporary terrain upon which struggles are played out. And according to the recent work of theorists such as Joshua Clover, what is perhaps the chief consequence of this recomposition of capital according to the logic of circulation is the transformation in the form resistance takes, where collective action turns away from the strike as tactic and assumes a revitalized riot-form (i.e. riotprime). Contra Badiou, it is better to say that the current cycle of struggles are defined less by ’68’s realization of the insufficiency at the heart of the traditional figure of emancipatory politics and more so by the fact that, as Clover puts it, we are witnessing what Marx called the multiplication of the proletariat:

It is by now impossible to suppose…a labor market that tends toward “full employment”…The long-term tendencies are apparent, and the signs we might expect to indicate a secular reversal [are] nowhere to be seen. There are no sails on the horizon. In this context class might be rethought…Given the relative dwindling of this form of labor [industrial/factory based], Marx must have meant something else when, arriving at this conclusion regarding surplus populations, he proposes that “accumulation of capital is therefore multiplication of the proletariat. (Riot. Strike. Riot., p. 159, my emphasis)

Rather than any absence of emancipatory subjectivity, our present is defined by its proliferation (‘multiplication’); ours is an era defined by a substantive re-working regarding who does and does not count as those said to harbor within themselves the potential for communism; that is, the potential for becoming one more participant in “the real movement that abolishes itself and the present state of things” (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology). And so, to recap: we are not the contemporaries of ‘68 precisely because this ‘multiplication of the proletariat’ characteristic of circulation struggles suggests, however vague, the possible existence of emancipatory figures, or forms, revolutionary subjectivity (and despite the current cycle of struggle exhibiting analogous attempts at building a movement premised on the notion that the problems of students are also the problems of workers and vice versa). If 1968 was defined by its confrontation with the impotence of the fabled subject of history, 2018 appears to be defined by the possibility of realizing a form of subjectivity that is, in the words of Aimé Césaire, “a universal rich with all that is particular, rich with all the particulars there are, the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of them all” (‘Letter to Maurice Thorez’).

fuck may 68 fight now




Alain Badiou, Communist Hypothesis, tr. David Macey and Steve Corcoran, (Verso: London, 2015)
Aimé Césaire, Letter to Maurice Thorez (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1957), p. 6, p. 7, pp. 14-15.
Joshua Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (Verso: London, 2016)
William Gallois, ‘Against Capitalism? French Theory and Economy After 1945,’ in After the Deluge: New Perspectives on the Intellectual and Cultural History of Postwar France, ed. Julian Bourg (Lexington Books: London, 2004), pp. 49-72.
Karl Marx and Frederic Engels, The German Ideology
Kristin Ross, May 68 And Its Afterlives (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2002)




Strike Till Retirement (notes on Precarias a la Deriva’s ‘A Very Careful Strike’)


[Note on the translators introduction: Crucial for our understanding of the particular fusion of political activity with knowledge production that comes out of Precarias a la Deriva is their novel use of the Situationist derive. As they note in ‘First Stutterings of Precarias a la Deriva,’ “In our particular version, we opt to exchange the arbitrary wandering of the flaneur…for a situated drift which would move through the daily spaces of each one of us, while maintaining the tactics multisensorial and open character. Thus the drift is converted into a moving interview, crossed through by the collective perception of the environment” (34). One could even say that more than a mere modification of situationist methodology, Precarias a la Deriva’s methodology of the ‘moving interview’ combines the dérive (and its attention to the ways in which the reproduction of urban existence liberates or constrains the precarity that conditions the reproductive labour (unwaged, emotional, affective, sex, and care work), and particularly women’s labour) with the form of the ‘Worker’s Inquiry’ – the latter published by Marx in 1880 and was an attempt at gathering responses to 101 questions from workers themselves with the aim of achieving an exact and precise knowledge of what contributes to or detracts from working class struggle.]


  1. Sex, care, and attention are not pre-existent object, but rather historically determined social stratifications of affect, traditionally assigned to women.

Precarias a la Deriva begin their argument for a ‘very careful strike’ by understanding that the current form taken by unwaged reproductive labour (sex, care, attention) is the outcome of a long historical sequence. And the common element that binds contemporary unwaged labour to previous instances is the reproduction of patriarchal gender norms; these norms that split subjectivity thereby forcing upon it the choice between the good mother or the bad whore:

“The history of sex and care as strata is ancient. Almost from the beginning of Christianity, both were associated with a bipolar female model, which located on one (positive) side the Virgin Mary, virtuous woman, mother of god, and on the other, (negative) side Eve, the great sinner of the Apocalypse, the transgressor, the whore” (34).

Thus, if reproductive labour is a historical formation and not a natural given, then its chief accomplishment is what Precarias rightly call the ‘stratification of affect’ – the process of rendering certain modes of being (sex, care, attention) as attributes of some bodies (women) and not others (men). And following from the Christianity of the Medieval period we see the reappearance of this stratification of affect, but now in the period of the Enlightenment. The specific process of stratification of the Enlightenment period, however, would become something unlike that of the Middle Ages and would erect legal sanctions in place of religious doctrine in order to modify and reproduce these old divisions between the woman of virtue and the woman of vice and further distinguish one’s womanly virtue (loving-mother, loyal housewife, single-virgin) from her vicious double (transgressor-whore). And it is due to this substitution of secular right for religious judgment, says Precarias, that we can find in places such as the US, Great Britain, and Australia, the creation of laws aimed at regulating the exchange of sexual services for money, ‘which in many areas…included the regulation of the exchange of sexual services for money. It was in this manner that prostitution appeared in the way we know it today, that is to say, as a specialized occupation or profession within the division of labour of patriarchal capitalism, and how it was restricted to determine spaces and subjects (ceasing to be an occasional resource for working and peasant women)” (35). Moreover, and regarding our present moment, it is this historical formation of those strata of affect (sex-care-attention) that have entered ‘into perfect symbiosis with the bourgeois nuclear family that capitalism converted into the dominant reproductive ideal’ (35).

  1. Our journeys across the city…have led us to abandon the modes of enunciation that speak of each of these functions as separate and to think…from the point of view of a communicative continuum sex-attention-care.

Given the historical stratification of these affects it is not hard to see why, for Precarias, they belong to one and the same continuum, to the same historically formative process (and all the better to emphasize “the elements of continuity that exist under the stratification…in concrete and everyday practices”). However, Precarias also give another justification for their understanding of these stratified-gendered affects: their ‘journeys across the city’ and placing their ‘precaritized everyday lives’ under close examination. And what is discovered is that it not solely the work of history that certain affects have become seemingly natural attributes of particular subjects. In addition, what is discovered is the increasing complexity by which this historical stratification is carried out. Hence, “a continuum because…the traditional fixed positions of women (and of genders in general) are becoming more mobile, and at the same time new positions are created. The whore is no longer just and only a whore…the sainted mother is no longer such a saint nor only a mother.” For Precarias a la Deriva, the stratifications of affect proper to the present cannot and should not be understood in light of its previous iterations (i.e. via mere substitution as in the Enlightenments replacement of theological doctrine with secular law). Today, the stratified (re)production and (re)alignment of social functions such as sex, care, and attention can only be understood on the basis of their increasing ‘mobility’ or ‘diversification.’ But what is exactly mobile and diverse about the contemporary gender division of labour? The present stratification of affect is

  • diverse due to the increasing variants of the classical ‘sexual contract.’ This ranges from traditional matrimony and sex-work (prostitution) to the renting out of women as surrogate mothers, to the well known phenomena of spouses for hire (‘mail order brides’). And with this transformation in the sexual contract (i.e. the social relations that regulate sex, sexuality, and reproduction) follows a transformation of the model of the Fordist nuclear family (‘and the proliferation of other modality of unity…monoparental or plurinuclear homes, transnational families, groups constituted by non-blood bonds…’).


  • mobile insofar as what once was accomplished in the home is now outstripped and accomplished by the market (“many of the tasks that were previously conducted in the home now are resolved in the market”) – e.g. fast food/ready meals, which accomplish a mother’s daily task of meal preparations, or  middle-, upper-middle class, and wealthy (white) women (residing in the global north) are relieved of their duties of childcare by hiring women from the global south to carry out what once were her traditional roles of caring- and domestic-labour, and so on.

In the end, Precarias are right to emphasize the novelty of this novel stratification-(re)articulation of the gender division of labour, since this stratification is a process whose outcome is the condemnation of more and more individuals to live under conditions of an ever deepening uncertainty. And just as the increased variations of the sexual contract corresponds to a crisis of the traditional nuclear family, so too does the ‘externalization of the home’ correspond to, what Precarias call, ‘a crisis of care’ – and a crisis that begins with the decline of the Welfare State. So, along with the ‘crises’ (or transformations) in the forms of familial and domestic labour, there exists a corresponding transformation in the very ‘physiognomy’ of precarious labour and realizes itself the now common phenomena of one’s “lack of time, resources, recognition, and desire for taking charge of nonremunerated care.”Moreover, says Precarias, these crises – of the family, domestic labour, and of lack – are circumscribed by a fourth and final problem: “In last place, we have urban question: the crisis (and destruction) of worker neighborhood and their strong sense of community has given place to a process of privatization of public spaces.”

  1. Care, with its ecological logic, opposes the security logic reigning in the precaritized world

Now, just as this socio-economic stratification of the sex-care-attention continuum as ‘capitalist axiomatic’ (i.e.all degrees of difference along the continuum are convertible into value) the contemporary norm of governance on the part of nation-States is that of a ‘macropolitics of security,’ which realizes itself in the ‘micropolitics of fear.’ For Precarias, it is in light of the logics of security and fear that govern everyday life that precarity finds its other meaning:

In this context of uncertainty…precarity is not only a characteristic of the poorest workers. Today we can speak of a precarization of existence in order to refer to a tendency that traverses all of society…Precarity functions as a blackmail, because we are susceptible to losing our jobs tomorrow even though we have indefinite contracts, because hiring, mortgages, and prices in general go up but our wages don’t. (‘A Very Careful Strike,’ 39)

Thus we have a dual-process where the ‘externalization of the home’ is coupled to what we can call the ‘externalization (or generalization) of precarity.’ In other words, if Precarias are right to conceive of precarity as a general tendency of society, it is because precarity is a process that continuously produces ever greater conditions of uncertainty for a greater number of workers; particularly with respect to their lives as conditioned by the demands of (re)production. Thus the question naturally comes about: what to do in situations such as this one? how to go on living when “we don’t know who will care for us tomorrow”? Precarias a la Deriva propose a project of “recuperating and reformulating the feminist proposal for a logic of care. A care that…in place of containment, it seeks the sustainability of life and, in place of fear…bases itself on cooperation, interdependence, the gift, and social ecology.” And in order to implement such a project, Precarias provide us with four key principles for organization and collective struggle: affective virtuosity (attempt to break the racialized and gendered sex-care-attention continuum and view each affect as an essential and creative aspect of life as a whole), interdependence (mutual aid according to the logic of the gift), transversality (refutation of any fixed and clear distinction between labour- and leisure-time), and everydayness (local instantiation of care as a form of social organization). Without distracting ourselves from the exigency of precarious life, it is helpful to highlight the fact that Precarias a la Deriva’s list of principles adopts one of Guattari’s key terms: transversality or what he sometimes calls ‘transversal connections.’ And so it is no surprise that for both Precarias and Guattari the category of transversality fundamentally means the (collective) development of ‘a political struggle on all fronts.’ Alternatively, we could use the language of Guattari and define transversality as a concrete rule for effectuating abstract revolutionary machines of desire and whose function is the coordination of various struggles taking place across the Full Body of Capital. In other words:

There is not one specific battle to be fought by workers in the factories, another by patients in the hospitals, yet another by students in the universities. As became obvious in `68, the problem of the university is not just that of the students and the teachers, but the problem of society as a whole and of how it seems the transmission of knowledge, the training of skilled workers, the desires of the mass of the people, the needs of industry and so on…[So] this dichotomy between social reproduction and the production of desire must be a target of the revolutionary struggle wherever…repression works against women, children, drug-addicts, alcoholics, homosexuals, or any other disadvantaged group. (Guattari, ‘Molecular Revolution and Class Struggle’)

  1. In the present, one of the fundamental biopolitical challenges consists in inventing a critique of the current organization of sex, attention, and care and a practice that, starting from those as elements inside a continuum, recombines them in order to produce new more liberatory and cooperative forms of affect, that places care in the center but without separating it from sex nor from communication.

Why is the transformation of the current order of sex-attention-care seen as a ‘biopolitical’ challenge? And what would it mean to “place” care at its center? The social transformation of situations of precarity into the means for collective emancipation is biopolitical to the extent that it emphasizes the the conditions by which every day life under capital perpetuates and sustains itself; these conditions that, with the aid of mechanisms of control, surveillance, and repression, make life ever more consistent with market demands. Thus, it is because Precarias see the task of social transformation as being waged in sites of (waged and/or unwaged) reproductive labour that ‘placing care at the center’ becomes imperative. And it is care, says Precarias, is actually the emancipatory underside to understanding what reproductive labour could become. What Precarias will go on to call a ‘careful strike’ envisions a coordinated diversity of struggles centering on sites of reproduction and organized so that those who have been historically tasked with society’s extra-socially necessary labour time can refuse to satisfy their social function without the threat of incurring some penalty, be it material, legal, social, or otherwise. As Precarias eloquently write,

[T]he strike appears to us as an everyday and multiple practice…there will be those who propose transforming public space…those who suggest organizing work stoppage in the hospital when the work conditions don’t allow the nurses to take care of themselves as they deserve, those who decide to turn off their alarm clocks, call in sick and give herself a day off as a present, and those who prefer to join others in order to say “that’s enough” to the clients that refuse to wear condoms… there will be those who oppose the deportation of miners from the “refuge” centers where they work, those dare – like the March 11th Victims’ Association (la asociación de afectados 11M) – to bring care to political debate proposing measures and refusing utilizations of the situation by political parties, those who throw the apron out the window and ask why so much cleaning? And those who join forces in order to demand that they be cared for as quadriplegics and not as “poor things” to be pitied, as people without economic resources and not as stupid people, as immigrants without papers and not as potential delinquents, as autonomous persons and not as institutionalized dependents…Because care is not a domestic question but rather a public matter and generator of conflict. (43)  

5. Utopia & una huelga de mucho cuidado

The caring strike: the means for collective struggle centered on questions historically seen as irrelevant – and precisely to the extent that they were the very conditions of possibility for the ‘relevant’ issues to be addressed. The caring strike: identifying as one’s own the problem of discovering the means of acting in concert with different and perhaps distant movements (e.g. the recent wave of teachers strikes throughout the United States, the development of the ‘social’ strike and what Precarias/Guattari would see as its transversal set of relations incarnated in their platform  – though in its current form, however, these transversal relations largely exist within Western, and to a lesser extent Eastern, European countries). The caring strike: putting an end to one’s participation in a labour, which makes us strangers to one another, and is especially addressed “to the men – “are we going to end with the mystique that obliges women to care for others even at the cost of themselves and obliges men to be incapable of caring for themselves? Or are we going to cease to be sad men and women and begin to degenerate the imposed attributions of gender?”

The caring strike, then. For it is not only men, or capital and the various human forms it takes (bankers, presidents, police officers), who dream of kingdoms. Like all exhausted people, precarious workers imagine utopias of rest.     




Space & Time: Notes on Nietzsche’s Interpretation of Anaximander and Heraclitus

Emmet Gowin.jpg

“That which truly is, concludes Anaximander, cannot possess definite characteristics, or it would come-to-be and pass away like all the other things. In order that coming-to-be shall not cease, primal being must be indefinite. The immortality and everlastingness of primal being does not lie in its infinitude or its inexhaustibility, as the commentators of Anaximander generally assume, but in the fact that it is devoid of definite qualities that would lead to its passing. Hence its name, “the indefinite.” Thus named, the primal being is superior to that which comes to be, insuring thereby eternity and the unimpeded course of coming-to-be. This ultimate unity of the “indefinite,” the womb of all things, can, it is true, be designated by human speech only as a negative, as something to which the existent world of coming-lo-be can give no predicate. We may look upon it as the equal of the Kantian Ding an sick…“Rather, when he saw in the multiplicity of things that have come-to-be a sum of injustices that must be expiated, he grasped with bold fingers the tangle of the profoundest problem in ethics. He was the first Greek to do so. How can anything pass away which has a right to be?”

–Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, p. 47-8.


It may strike some as odd; this return to the ‘pre-Platonics’ as a means to comprehend the philosophical and historical constitution of the problem of space and time in relation to thought. However, as we will see below, by reminding ourselves of what Nietzsche valorized in his reading of the pre-Platonic thinkers we will better understand the way in which space and time remain metaphysically distinct and yet mutually condition the other’s actualization. Namely, the reality of space and the reality of time are the cause of the unification of reality and not the principle of the unity of reality as such. And it is precisely this difference between that which is a cause of unification and that which is the principle of unity that is present with Nietzsche’s reading of Anaximander and Heraclitus. As will be shown, both space and time can be legitimately said to cause unity without claiming that it is due to the primacy of space over time, or the primacy of time over space, that defines the principle of unity – or the requirements that need to be met in order for unity to be actualized.

I). The Ethical Question Behind Every Question of Metaphysics

To begin, two quotes from Nietzsche bear citing since they illuminate the way that Heraclitus himself addressed the same problem that concerned Anaximander but in a more sophisticated manner. Nietzsche writes the following:

“Rather, when he [Anaximander] saw in the multiplicity of things that have come-to-be a sum of injustices that must be expiated, he grasped with bold fingers the tangle of the profoundest problem in ethics. He was the first Greek to do so. How can anything pass away which has a right to be?” (p. 48).

“…he puts a question to all creatures: “What is your existence worth? And if it is worthless, why are you here? Your guilt, I see, causes you to tarry in your existence. With your death, you have to expiate it. Look how your earth is withering, how your seas are diminishing and drying up; the seashell on the mountain top can show you how much has dried up already. Even now, fire is destroying your world; some day it will go up in fumes and smoke. But ever and anew, another such world of ephemerality will construct itself. Who is there that could redeem you from the curse of coming-to-be?” (p.48).

For Nietzsche, then, there are two implicit claims being made regarding the nature and structure of reality: 1). If something has a right to exist, then it must not cease to exist. 2). If something does not have a right to exist, it must cease to exist since it should not have been in the first place and it is through this finite being’s death that Time delivers its justice in accord with its impersonal and eternal nature (we have here an account of a quasi-temporal definition of natural right). Here Nietzsche’s interpretation recapitulates Anaximander’s own position without much controversy: the legitimacy regarding the existence or non-existence of a thing is determined according to the ordinance of Time-itself. In addition to the impersonal nature of the justice given through the Time of the Apeiron, the ‘ethical’ question that motivates Anaximander is interpreted as a question about the value of existence vis-á-vis the fact of finite existence.

In other words, how one answers the question ‘what value does an existent have?’ – as meaningful/valuable or meaningless/valueless –  is what determines the ‘right to exist’ in accordance with the ordinance of this Time-of-ApeironThus, we have the equation between ethics and the meaning/value of existence; where the meaning/worth of one’s life is the true concern for that branch of philosophy termed ‘ethics.’ On Nietzsche’s interpretation, if one’s existence is meaningful one can be legitimately deemed (judged/evaluated) as innocent and just, and if one’s existence is meaningless one can be legitimately deemed (judged/evaluated) as criminal and unjust. These categories of innocence and guilt are determined from the perspective of Time as such.

However, innocence and guilt are determined from the perspective of Time not because history will be our judge (that is, not because we are some how free from taking responsibility of our actions in the present since the truth and value of their consequences for humanity can only be assessed in the fullness of time). Rather, it is because the future of History as such is constituted by the act of judging, evaluating, and determining the meaning/value of existence in the present and as it relates to the past. At this juncture, Time is what determines the ethical valence of the living and the dead according to a wholly impersonal criteria.

II). Space and Time: Essentially Distinct While Mutually Conditioning 

If Anaximander is praised by Nietzsche for understanding the essentially ethical (or, as he sometimes phrases it, ‘moral’) preoccupation regarding our concern with the nature and structure of reality, it is Heraclitus who is elevated to the status of the most significant pre-Platonic since he provides us with an insight into Anaximander’s problematic; one which hinges on the relationship between what causes (or gives) order to the perpetual process of the coming-into-being and passing-out-of-being of finite things. As Nietzsche writes,

“Heraclitus achieved this [overcoming Anaximander’s aporia of the eternal coming-to-be as not having fully eliminated from existence-as-coming-into-being] by means of an observation regarding the actual process of all coming-to-be and passing away. He conceived it under the form of polarity, as being the diverging of a force into two qualitatively different opposed activities that seek to re-unite. Everlastingly, a given quality contends against itself and separates into opposites; everlastingly these opposites seek to re-unite. Ordinary people fancy they see something rigid, complete and permanent; in truth, however, light and dark, bitter and sweet are attached to each other and interlocked at any given moment like wrestlers of whom sometimes the one, sometimes the other is on top. Honey, says Heraclitus, is at the same time bitter and sweet; the world itself is a mixed drink which must constantly be stirred. The strife of the opposites gives birth to all that comes-to-be; the definite qualities which look permanent to us express but the momentary ascendancy of one partner. But this by no means signifies the end of the war; the contest endures in all eternity […] the Will to Live, which is seen as a self-consuming, menacing and gloomy drive, a thoroughly frightful and by no means blessed phenomenon. The arena and the object of the struggle is matter, which the natural forces alternately try to snatch from one another, as well as space and time whose union by means of causality is this very matter” (p. 54-56).

What is clear, in this passage, is that both space and time have a reality that is not simply subsumable, or identical, to one another. The nature of space and the nature of time are independent of the nature and reality of the other. Additionally, what we see here is what constitutes Heraclitean becoming. That is, the eternal struggle and perpetual war without end that is at the heart of the reality of things is interpreted as the mutual determination or influence that space and time have upon one another. Thus, while space and time remain essentially and qualitatively different they are actualized, or instantiated, in a co-constituting relationship. Thus, space and time are essentially distinct and logically non-identical while being existentially conditioned by their relationship to each other. Thus, when Nietzsche posits the eternal struggle as the fight over how space and time are unified by means of causality, this suggests to us that what gives order and structure to the world is how either space or time is actualized as the determining factor in-the-last-instance within a specific historical juncture, or a specific moment in the infinite process of becoming.

III). Concluding Remarks: from the Ethical to the Political

The main consequence of space and time’s contingency in terms of their existence as the cause of unity in the world, and regarding any further political analysis, is the following: at certain periods in history and under certain determinate conditions it is space (spatialization/globalization/the means of production) that acts as that which determines the reality and ordering of geopolitical life. At other moments in history and under certain determinate conditions it is time (temporalization/global synchrony/the relations of production/superstructural determination) that act as the determining and organizing factor of the reality of geopolitical life.

As Heraclitus already understood, what causes the world to be unified is the endless struggle between space and time. In other words, space and time must be understood as the cause of unification and not the principle of the unity of reality as such. Thus, both space and time can be legitimately said to cause unity without claiming that it is due to either space or time, taken as an exclusive disjunct, that serves as the principle of the unification of reality as such. Thus, what motivates Nietzsche to baptize Heraclitus as the most innocent of philosophers is this distinction between what is a cause and what is a principle for the unification of reality.