Monday, July 6, 2015

A Response To Françoise Vergès’ Lecture on Happiness and the Revolutionary by Mohamed Wajdi Ben Hammed

On January 14, 2011 Tunisian protestors flooded the avenue Habib Bourguiba, the main street in the Tunisian capital, and gathered in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs chanting in one voice, “Al-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ al-niẓām” (“The people want the fall of the regime”), a slogan inspired from a monumental poem by the Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi (1909-1934) entitled The Will to Life. The original line/prophecy articulated by the Tunisian poet in the midst of French colonialism states, “If one day people will to live / then destiny must obey.” A verse that aimed to mobilize people against the oppressive machine of the colonial system, and has been co-opted and emptied of meaning as the opening line of the anthem of a totalitarian postcolonial state, is rescued from the graveyard of history and summoned to accompany the drumbeats of the revolution. The way the protesters appropriated the poetic line and infused it with the affective and political power of the revolutionary moment reminds us of Frantz Fanon’s enduring prophecy, “Each generation must discover its historical mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.” The happiness of fullfilling this sacred misson is captured in the surge of revolutionary euphoria that not only shakes political structures but also imaginaries of the self, the nation and the future to come. Revoultions are moments in which collective action shifts happiness from the realm of individual affect to emboddied collective practices that are located in a liminal space between life and death. The uniqueness of the happiness they offer stems specifically from this very liminality. Françoise Vergès’ lecture entitled, “Happiness and the Revolutionary: Singing, Dancing and Marching,” engages the political imaginaries and embodied practices of happiness within revolutionary moments in post-colonial states. Vergès explores revoltionary happiness as primarily the “happiness of doing and not being,” highlighting the interlockedness of bodies within the flow of the revolutionary act and the fusion of individual voices within a unified shout for social justice. The flow of the bodies projects revolutionary happiness as the very moment in which the social and political production of normativity is suspended not just because of the freedom procured within collective action but precisely because of the precurious and ambivalent nature of the revolutionary moment as bodies are located in the midst of conflicting potentialities: between the risk of total annihilation and the euphoria of self-determinsim. Another aspect of revolutionary happiness, Vergès, argues, is its ability to inhabit the present in a perpetual state of differal that resists the ephemeral nature of the now. Revolutionary happiness is then also a promise of a new future to come, and an alternative politcal community to be born. This futurity can only be achieved through a radical reinterpretation of the politics of loss and the acceptance of the risk of defeat. The state deploys the defeated body as a prohibitive signifyer of coercion and a counter-political promise while popular affective reinterpreation through the practices of mourning (mourning the martyrs/ funerals turned into new spaces for protest) redifines the defeated body and challenges the meaning of defeat. Similaly, Vergès emphasizes that decolonization is a historical process built on the acceptance and reinterpretation of phases of failure and defeat. The recognition of the role of failure and loss allows for a project of decolonization conscious of the perils of idealization and feteshization that end up reproducing oppressive politics. Vergès’ lecture presents a formidable analysis of the manufacture of happiness in revolutionary times and the historical missions it summons. Mohamed Wajdi Ben Hammed University of Notre Dame

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