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

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,