1968

I remain perplexed by the place of the May 1968 spontaneous Paris worker-student uprising in French intellectual history. This was the most significant challenge to the status quo in a Western country since the aftermath of World War I, but not nearly as substantial as Paris 1870, which also did not lead to permanent change. It was the 1960s and spontaneity expressed the spirit of the time, but it also ensured the transience and superficiality of those colorful events.

I find staggering the suggestion by Badiou and others that May 1968 represented some kind of world-historic new political paradigm. People seriously concerned for social change should know better. The most important concrete social consequence of the events that I am aware of was the formation of the new experimental university of Vincennes, which eventually became much more mainstream.

Reportedly, “Structures don’t march in the streets” was grafittied onto a Paris wall (I presume by some existentialist who already had an axe to grind). Exactly what consequence was supposed to follow from this is unclear. It implies a silly, sophistical argument that should not have bothered any serious person.

The peculiar thing is that a number of leading French intellectuals who said very positive things about so-called structuralism before May 1968 and were undisturbed by previous anti-structuralist polemics suddenly wanted to rhetorically distance themselves from it afterward, when not much had changed about their own positions. (This later led comparative literature people to reify into existence a category of more-radical-than-thou “poststructuralism” unknown in the French context, and to exaggerate its difference from a by then said-to-be objectionably conservative “structuralism”.)

The important thing is not whether or not we call ourselves structuralists (or jabberwocks, or whatever). The important thing is what we actually manage to articulate, and the kind of practical doings to which we commit ourselves, and in which actually engage.

Rhetorical considerations do matter in social situations. We can also argue about more substantive questions of the status and value of particular kinds of synchronic analysis and understanding.

But given all that, no dumb event as such (and empirical events, I insist, are dumb) can refute any analysis or understanding that is valid in its own right. Only new analysis and understanding can do that. This might be stimulated by an event, but the important thing would still be the quality and content of the new analysis and understanding, which has to be shown. (See also Historiography.)