An anonymous man confronting a column on Chinese tanks in Beijing, on June 5, 1989. Photo by Jeff Widener

The Atlantic / In Focus: “A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing’s Cangan Boulevard in Tiananmen Square, on on June 5, 1989. The man, calling for an end to violence and bloodshed against pro-democracy demonstrators, was pulled away by bystanders, and the tanks continued on their way.”(AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

As usual Alan Taylor does an amazing job putting together a relevant yet concise iconographic archive. This time, he marks the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Here’s how he introduces this particular collection of historical photographs:

Twenty-three years ago today, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) violently cleared Beijing’s Tiananmen Square of protesters, ending a six-week demonstration that had called for democracy and widespread political reform. The protests began in April of 1989, gaining support as initial government reactions included concessions. Martial law was declared on May 20, troops were mobilized, and from the night of June 3 through the early morning of June 4, the PLA pushed into Tiananmen Square, crushing some protesters and firing on many others. The exact number killed may never be known, but estimates range from several hundred to several thousand. Today, China’s censors are blocking Internet access to the terms “six four,” “23,” “candle,” and “never forget,” broadening extensive efforts to silence talk about the 23rd anniversary of China’s bloody June 4 crackdown. Here is that story, in images and words, Please share it widely.

To learn more about the iconic photos (there are more than one) depicting what came to be known as “the tank man” see:

  • LENS (The New York Times photography blog): “Behind the Scenes: Tank Man of Tiananmen” by Patrick Witty, June 3, 2009.

  • PBS Frontline: “The Tank Man” Season 24, Episode 5, first aired on television on April 11, 2006 (60 mins). The complete episode can be viewed online. PBS also offers a rich repository of complementary documents: podcast, interviews, timeline, etc. Here, for example, what Robin Munro (a researcher for Human Rights Watch) thought of the event (excerpt only, the whole interview is much longer):

    We know what he stood for. […] [H]e didn’t need to have a name. He spoke for the masses, the many who’d been silenced on June Fourth. He was all of them, you know. He didn’t need a name because the point he made, everyone got it. It will endure long after this regime has become history. (…)

    Images from this documentary strongly reminded me of the film footage depicting the students uprising at the Athens Polytechnic in 1973, while Greece was under “The Regime of the Colonels”. This footage can be seen in the BBC documentary The Seven Black Years. Links and further explanation can be found here: “This anomaly must stop”: George Seferis’ Declaration of March 28, 1969.

A few months after those events, the original Italian edition of Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community was published (La Comunita che viene, Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1990). It was translated into French the same year as La Communauté qui vient1 and into English three years later. The very last chapter is simply titled “Tiananmen”. The very short comment about the man-vs.-tanks encounter reads as a paradigmatic illustration of the book’s general thesis. As others have noted, some of those remarks made more than twenty years ago are still relevant today:

What was most striking about the demonstrations of the Chinese May was the relative absence of determinate contents in their demands (democracy and freedom are notions too generic and broadly de­fined to constitute the real object of a conflict, and the only concrete demand, the rehabilitation of Hu Yao-Bang, was immediately granted). This makes the violence of the State’s reaction seem even more inexplicable. It is likely, however, that the disproportion is only apparent and that the Chinese leaders acted, from their point of view, with greater lucidity than the Western observers who were exclusively concerned with advancing increasingly less plausible arguments about the opposition between democracy and communism.

The novelty of the coming politics is that it will no longer be a struggle for the conquest or control of the State, but a struggle between the State and the non-State (humanity), an insurmountable disjunction between whatever singularity and the State organization. This has nothing to do with the simple affirmation of the social in opposition to the State that has often found expression in the protest movements of recent years. Whatever singularities cannot form a societas because they do not possess any identity to vindicate nor any bond of belonging for which to seek recognition. […]

Whatever singularity, which wants to appropriate belong­ing itself, its own being-in-language, and thus rejects all identity and every condition of belonging, is the principal enemy of the State. Wherever these singularities peacefully demonstrate their being in common there will be a Tiananmen, and, sooner or later, the tanks will appear. (tr. Michael Hardt, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, Fourth printing [1993] 2003, pp. 84-86, emphasis in the original)

Agamben’s “whatever singularity” gives the title to this entry (in French I could have wrote “Une position quelconque” even though it’s not quite the same thing). It’s not an easy concept to grasp, maybe precisely because it isn’t only a concept. It’s a form of life (an ethos in Agamben’s words) oscillating between universal abstractions and particular cases. I first read Agamben’s book in 2006, and have returned to it many times since. I came to believe ―in a posture that has nothing to do with certainty― that the “whatever singularity” is something I need to keep thinking about in order for it to keep making (some) sense.

Here’s the translator’s note about his choice of the word “whatever” to translate the Italian qualunque (p. 106):

Whatever (qualunque). This adjective-pronoun has many uses in Italian that are rather awkward in English. The thematic centrality of the term, however, has required that we preserve its position every time it occurs in the text. The corresponding French term (quelconque) has a resonance in the work of other contemporary philosophers, such as Gilles Deleuze and Alain Badiou, that unfortunately may be lost on English readers because various translations have rendered it differently, as “particular” in some cases and “general” in others. As Agamben makes clear, however, “whatever” (qualunque or quelconque) refers precisely to that which is neither particular nor general, neither individual nor generic.

Previously here:

• • •

1. A shorter version of the printed French edition is available online for free at Multitude: “La communauté qui vient. Théorie de la singularité quelconque”, uploaded online on May 1990 ↩︎︎

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