Monday, July 6, 2015

The Embodiment of Hope: Françoise Vergès' “Happiness & the Revolutionary,” by Rachel Rothendler

Vergès began with a discussion of the word bonheur (“happiness”) in French. She tied its etymological relation to luck and good fortune into her discussion of happiness of the revolutionary as inextricably related to hope; emancipation and freedom, she argued, are a promise of a different future. Happiness here, Vergès explained, is “deferred.” She gave a broad range of historical moments of the revolutionary, which she described as a process of disturbing a certain border amidst the struggle for social change. Vergès stated that the goal of her discussion was an attempt to revive the revolutionary as a moment in which there exists both the possibility of defeat and sorrow but also of happiness. She firmly grounded her discussion in current events as well as in historical moments, illustrating her claim that the revolutionary is an ongoing history of global, or collective defeat: despite attempts by various groups to appropriate revolutions, “it is really owned by everyone… it is a common.” The examples she presented ranged from Léo Ferré’s 1961 song “L’affiche rouge” to a mural in Cairo after the 2011 uprisings had been crushed (on the mural was painted, “We’re locked in a counter revolution. Fuck you and your passion.”) to a clip from Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film, “The Battle of Algiers,” to speeches from the Civil Rights Movement era in the United States. Vergès also discussed the body’s critical role within the revolutionary moment. The space of cities (including transportation) has transformed as a consequence of the physical protests and marches. The revolutionary becomes a moment both of moral, as well as physical courage, and the bodies of individuals represent the popular body. Vergès highlighted the role of women, in particular, and their bodies in these manifestations, as they represent a dual interruption of both the political and, in many contexts, the social norms against the presence of female bodies in public space. They are also often the bodies against which the greatest violences have been committed. One question that arose for me here was whether bodies are agentive actors within the revolutionary or whether they are more the objects/subjects upon which traces of the revolutionary are permanently inscribed. Can they be both? My mind kept returning to what is widely considered the starting point of the Arab Spring: Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in front of a government building in Ben Arous, Tunisia on January 4, 2011. I wondered whether such a violent act of, on the one hand, defiance, but on the other, desperation and perhaps hopelessness, could still be considered an embodiment of hope and a promise for a new future, despite self-immolation being a moment of death, a violent and precocious termination of (some)body's life. What does it mean that this act was then repeated across the region during the uprisings? As a counterpoint to a notion of happiness within the revolutionary and leading into her argument for a new politics of decolonization, Vergès, citing Derrida, explained the difference between mourning and melancholia with regards to the revolutionary moment. In mourning, one is aware of what one has lost, the lost object becomes a new object, and the process of mourning will eventually end. In melancholia, on the other hand, one is not necessarily aware of what one has lost, the lost object becomes a part of one, forever a foreign presence within oneself. Citing Paul Gilroy, she asserts that postcolonial melancholia is a global thought (reaffirming the global nature of the revolutionary); it is a result of the inability to mourn the initial moment of the postcolonial. I wondered at the place of the writing of the revolutionary and I was greatly reminded of Assia Djebar's 1985 book, L'amour, la fantasia (translated into English as Fantasia, an Algerian Cavalcade). The text, switching between different periods of Algeria's history, includes accounts of French soldiers from the beginning of Algeria's colonization in 1830 as well as the voices of Algerian women during the War of Independence and in its aftermath. But one of the most poignant aspects of this book is the language, both in the words given on the page and in the ones purposely left out because unable to be inscribed. In the interweaving narratives, Djebar leaves words in both Arabic and Berber untranslated. The language of the woman's body is also a significant, indescribable (and un-inscribable) presence within the stories. Does writing itself represent a bodily act of revolutionary defiance? Does writing/translation offer some sort of closure, enabling people to mourn or does it serve to prolong the revolutionary moment, perpetuating postcolonial melancholia? Personally, I feel that Djebar deploys language as a geographic space in which to construct it as her own. Concerning the possibility for a new politics of decolonization, Vergès said that this may involve an abandonment of our idealization of that first moment of the postcolonial. This rethinking of decolonization in a global way is a “fabrication of a new territory within the sovereign space.” Circling back to the dual possibility of the revolutionary, Vergès concluded that mourning is actually “the basis of hope and the promise of a future happiness.” Her continuous emphasis on the possibility of a future reminded me a lot of Derrida's extensive writings on theories and rhetorics of democracy and its use as a referent for the futur à venir ("future to come"). It made me wonder whether there is a valid link between democracy and happiness. Perhaps the use of a rhetoric of democracy as a future to come is tied into the promise of happiness within the revolutionary. Rachel Rothendler Duke University,

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