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May 27, 2012

Because Montréal, this city, my city, is burning with life, but not burning at all: the paradoxical rain of the data shower extinguishes the fire before it incinerates the real, whatever that means.
No, this is an old reflex, a symptom of a baudrillardian infection, no need to add anymore, whatever that means. You know what it means when you experience it. You know how it feels to feel alive when you could be complaining, lamenting or even mourning. You might have to pause and pinch yourself once in a while, thinking, what, no death? Where are the corpses and the clashes? How come the cops do not kill, as it always happens in such times, unfortunately? Why, you may ask, is Montréal not burning? “Because Montréal, this city, my city, is burning with life, but not burning at all.” by Thierry Bardini, Montreal, May 25, 2012.

About Thierry Bardini (retrieved from

Agronomist (ENSA Montpellier, 1986) and sociologist (Ph.D. Paris X Nanterre, 1991), Thierry Bardini is full professor in the department of communication at the university of Montréal, where he has taught since 1993. His research interests concern contemporary cyberculture, from the production and uses of information and communication technologies to molecular biology. He is the author of Bootstrapping : Douglas Englebart, Coevolution and the Genesis of Personal Computing (Stanford University Press, 2000), Junkware (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) and Journey to the End of the Species (in collaboration with Dominique Lestel, Éditions Dis Voir, Paris, 2011).

• • •

A couple of notes on the 2012 Quebec student protests:

  • Although it is tempting (and natural) to draw analogies between this protest and others, it’s also important to keep the ability to think their differences: Montreal is not Santiago, nor Occupy Wall Street, nor the Iranian Green Revolution, nor May 68 (Bardini makes that point quite clearly in his essay). This differentiation may not be easy to make (and to maintain) because there is a strong desire to see unity1 in them: one global gathering of protestors, one common feeling of being fed up with the way certain things are. Some thinkers have stressed out the fact that this strong longing for a belonging is inseparable from the production of divisions and differences. There cannot by an all-inclusive body politic2, a single harmonious community because the process of being together drives on a process of exclusion:

    In this sense, our age is nothing but the implacable and methodical attempt to overcome the division dividing the people, to eliminate radically the people that is excluded. This attempt brings together, according to different modalities and horizons, Right and Left, capitalist countries and socialist countries, which are united in the project – which is in the last analysis futile but which has been partially realized in all industrialized countries – of producing a single and undivided people. (Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer, tr. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford University Press, [1995] 1998, p. 101)

    In his short essay “Conloquium”, Jean-Luc Nancy draws similar observations (see previously here: Jean-Luc Nancy’s “Conloquium” (1999): living together, dying apart). I come back to this idea in the last note. In his book Parables for the virtual: Movement, affect, sensation, Brian Massumi also acknowledge this problem while linking its root to capitalism:

    It was argued earlier that the mode of power was usurpation. What is being usurped here? The very expression of potential. The movement of relationality. Becoming-together. Belonging. Capitalism is the global usurpation of belonging. This is not merely a lament: power, it must be recognized, is now massively potentializing, in a new planetary mode. But neither is it necessarily cause for celebration: the potentialization is just as massively delivered to proliferating spaces of containment. It is the inescapable observation that belonging per se has emerged as a problem of global proportions. Perhaps the planetary problem. Neither celebration nor lament: a challenge to rethink and reexperience the individual and the collective. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002, p. 88)

  • It could be interesting to refrain ourselves from attributing values to this somehow intense longing for belonging. At least for a moment, it could then become possible to think about it not as something good nor bad, but for what it is in the first place: a manifestation, a phenomenon that manifests itself. Other questions could then be asked: What is being manifested? What conditions allowed this to emerge and, as importantly, to maintain this manifest quality (as opposed to it being hidden, or silent)?3

  • As it is often the case when an ongoing crisis gains some proportion, most mainstream media lose (some of) their ability to provide analytical distance from the situation. This distance is necessary to evaluate and contextualize events, to compare them with other historical events, to distinguish between exaggerated claims and actual facts, etc. Of course a newspaper is a medium and does provide a form of mediation, but not the mediation needed by the public to properly understand the situation. By simply relaying and constantly repeating the same claims and facts one could argue that mainstream media virtually immediatize events. They basically add to the confusion and, in the process, feed back the crisis by amplifying it. A good example could be found in the various video feeds that were played in loop, endlessly, after 9/11. In a way, those feeds synchronized and amplified the sense of threat experienced by the Western world at that time.

    In order to gather proper news and assemble a balanced view of major events, the public has a good amount of work to do. The more effort and time is invested in filtering, evaluating and fact-checking each bit of information the more valuable the perspective will be. It is not an easy task. This issue also raises another interesting problem: Is there a difference between a community based on a shared feeling of fear (for example the Hobbesian fear of violent death) and one based on more joyful feelings (during a live match of football for example)? If so, what is the nature of this difference? Does the way by which those feelings are induced have any importance in that matter?

  • Immediacy is obviously not a problem per se. It’s a modality of being or a quality (in the sense of “characteristic” not in the sense of “virtue”). That’s mainly what’s at stake in the excerpt from Thierry Bardini’s essay. There can be rational reasons for us to coexist, just as affects can sometimes fuel a sense of belonging4. Ideologies, claims, demands can all motivate a crowd to assemble. But someone could just as well be drawn by a strong, undefined feeling to leave his balcony and join a passing march (even if he or she doesn’t know exactly what the march is about). A community is not necessarily a homogenous assemblage of individuals who all think alike and share the same feelings. Which in turn explains why it can be so tricky to use broad categories to speak or write about such gatherings: “protestors”, “students”, “crowds” or even “cops” for that matter.5

  • It’s also an interesting hypothesis to consider that there may be more to those ongoing events than the official reasons we’re hearing about (tuition fees, emergency law, etc.). It would most likely be a mistake to dismiss or ignore them on the pretense that one isn’t directly concerned by those specific aspects. This very dismissal may precisely be one of the forces driving the manifestation to manifest itself in such ostensible manners6. What becomes more prominently visible when groups of individuals are confronting other groups (citizens against police forces, for example) are the conditions of our collective coexistence: both the facts that we’re trying to live together under certain conditions and that it isn’t working perfectly. Those stakes concern everyone, even or especially those who do not feel like they belong or do not want to belong. The process of exclusion cannot be thought of without the complementary dynamic of inclusion (and vice versa). For us and since the foundation of the first city, there’s no way to escape this common problem: we also share what divides us7. Or to put it in a more circular way: living together is what happens when we’re collectively trying to figure out how to do it. This process is without end or as Giorgio Agamben puts it in a lesser known essay:

    Another interesting aspect of Aristotle is that movement is an unfinished act, without telos, which means that movement keeps an essential relation with a privation, an absence of telos.[…] Movement is the indefiniteness and imperfection of every politics. It always leaves a residue.8

    The civil movement identifiable to the 2012 Quebec student protests could be seen as a particular declination of this general dynamic.

• • •

1. About the desire to believe in a mythical unity see Jean-Luc Nancy in his essay “The Confronted Community”:

What is coming upon us is an exhaustion of the thought defined by the One and by a unique destination for the world: this thought is exhausting itself through a unique absence of destination, through an infinite expansion of general equivalence or, then again, and as a repercussion of this, in the violent convulsions that reaffirm the all-powerfulness and the all-presence of a One become—or re-become—its own monstrousness. […]

But once the world completes the task of becoming global and once man completes the task of becoming human (it is in this sense, too, that he becomes ‘the last man’), once ‘the’ community sets itself to stammering a strange uniqueness (as if there should only be the one, and as if it should possess a unique essence of the common), then ‘the’ community takes in the fact that it is the community itself that gapes—yawningly open to its unity and to its absent essences—and that it confronts within itself this break. (“The Confronted Community” by Jean-Luc Nancy, tr. by Amanda Macdonald, Postcolonial Studies, vol. 6, no 1, 2003, pp. 23-25; originally published as La Communauté affrontée, Paris: Galilée, pp. 12, 17, November 2001)

See also Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment:

For the Enlightenment, only what can be emcompassed by unity has the status of an existent or an event; its ideal is the system from which everything and anythings follows. (tr. by Edmund Jephcott, California: Stanford University Press, [1974] 2002, p. 4) ↩︎︎

2. In Homo Sacer, Giorgio Agamben seems to suggest ―although mystically― that it could be possible in a “messianic kingdom”:

When one looks closely, even what Marx called “class conflict,” which occupies such a central place in his thought – though it remains substantially undefined – is nothing other than the civil war that divides every people and that will come to an end only when, in the classless society or the messianic kingdom, People and people will coincide and there will no longer be, strictly speaking, any people. (tr. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford University Press, [1995] 1998, p. 100) ↩︎︎

3. [UPDATE–June 20, 2012] See Slavoj Žižek about the 2005 civil riots in France:

The riots were simply a direct effort to gain visibility. A social group which, although part of France and composed of French citizens, saw itself as excluded from the political and social space proper wanted to render its presence palpable to the general public. Their actions spoke for them: like it or not, we’re here, no matter how much you pretend not to see us. Commentators failed to notice the crucial fact that the protesters did not claim any special status for themselves as members of religious or ethnic community striving for its self-enclosed way of life. On the contrary, their main premise was that they wanted to be and were French citizens, but were not fully recognised as such. (Violence, New York: Picador, 2008, p. 77)↩︎︎

4. Bardini writes about feeling whereas I mention affects and feelings. Although the two words can certainly be used interchangeably, they could also be differentiated. See for example Brian Massumi’s “Notes on the Translation and Acknowledgements” in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (New York: Continuum, [1980] 1987, p. xvii). See also “Feeling, Emotion, Affect” by Eric Shouse (M/C Journal, vol. 8, issue 6, December 2005). ↩︎︎

5. It brings back a problem of representation about which I wrote before: see Occupy Wall Street and Black Friday. ↩︎︎

6. In Montreal for example there are spontaneous “pans protests” where people will gather in the streets, usually at dusk, to bang loudly and continuously on various objects, often pots and metal cookware. See OpenFile: “Founder of Montreal posts and pans protest surprised by success” by Tomas Urbina, May 24, 2012. ↩︎︎

7. Peter Sloterdijk once used a similar formula: see previously here “We share the separator” (2005). For a much more developed view on this aporetical conception of the community, see Roberto Esposito’s Communitas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, [1998] 2010). Previously here: all entries tagged “communitas”. ↩︎︎

8. “Movement” by Giorgio Agamben. It’s the transcription of a seminar held in Padova at the Nomad University on the theme of war and democracy on March 8, 2005. English translation by Arianna Bove. See The European Graduate School for more translations or listen to the audio recording of this seminar in Italian over at the Internet Archive. ↩︎︎

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