1. He was, said Derrida, involved 'body and soul' in the Events. Michel Leiris, in his journals, laughed at him: what was he doing running along with the students? Couldn't he see it would lead nowhere? Levinas, his closest friend, wrote, without identifying him, of an eminent man of letters who 'participated in the May Events in a total but lucid manner'. 'Blanchot is not an ordinary man, a man whom you can meet in the street', says Levinas in an interview. But there he was on the streets, a demonstrator (Denis Hollier writes of his surprise at seeing him at an action committee, 'pale, but real ...'): what was Blanchot's role during May 1968, which he later called 'the most significant political and perhaps philosophical event in the last 20 years'?
Early May 1968 saw the first occupations, expulsions, the first demonstrations. Blanchot was staying with the Antelmes in Paris, and it was with their joint friends Jean Schuster, Dionys Mascolo, Marguerite Duras - they had known each other for 10 years by this time, working together against French colonialism in Algeria, drafting the 'Manifesto of the 121' - and many others (Klossowski, Sartre, Sarraute, Lefebvre) that they signed a petition published in Le Monde supporting the students.
Blanchot was also present on the first night of the barricades, from the 10th to the 11th May, and participated in the great march of 13th. He was there at Stade Charléty to hear former prime minister Mendès-France offer his protection to the movement, in some measure legitimating it, without realising that it did not want or need his help, and at the protests at the Renault factory at Flin on the 10th June, which saw a young militant chased into the river by riot police and drown. And he was present at the end, marching after demonstrations had been outlawed and therefore more at risk of police violence than ever.
But above all, Blanchot was involved in the Students and Writers Action Committee, created on the 20th May, whose participants initially included Michel Butor and Jacques Roubaud, Nathalie Sarraute and Claude Roy. There were 60 writers, journalists, students and television reporters present on the first day, though their numbers quickly dwindled. With Duras and Antelme, he remained at the committee until the end of August.
2. The Committee were responsible for many handbills, posters and bulletins, which were the result of a collective labour and meant as a collective enunciation. Above all, they were not to be read not as representing what happened at the Events, supplementing the accounts of May that were already being published, but to continue their movement.
The writing on the walls, the tracts distributed in the street, posters are 'disorderly words', say one of their texts (published, many years later - with his consent? - under Blanchot's name), words 'free of discourse' that, accompanying the rhythm of the marchers and their shouts belonged, simply, 'to the decision of the moment'; transitory, ephemeral, 'they appear, they disappear'.
What matters is not what they say - the form of signification they would maintain, the idea that something might be said about what is happening, but that something can be said. 'Written in insecurity, received under threat', they are present only to 'affirm the break' - whether their message is lost, forgotten or passed on.
What break? The break with the powers that be, hence with the notion of power, hence everywhere that power predominates. This obviously applies to the University, to the idea of knowledge, to the language relations to be found in teaching, in learning, perhaps to all language, etc., but it applies even more to our own conception of opposition to the powers that be, each time such opposition constitutes itself to become a party in power.
A break with the powers that be ... We remember the well known incidents across France from February 1968 onwards, where students demanded freedom of speech and movement. There came the occupations (Nanterre by the so called 'Movement of the 22nd March' and the Sorbonne on the 13th May, after the suspension of courses there), the day of the national strike, the Théâtre de l'Odéon), teach-ins, the battles in the Latin Quarter between students and the police which saw paving stones and metal grilles wrenched from the street and barricades spontaneously thrown up.
Beyond the university, in a movement that was continuous with that of the student revolt, factories were occupied and strikes planned. By the 16th, says this useful document, 50 factories were occupied including the 6 main plants at Renault; the ports of Le Havre and Marseilles were closed; by the 17th, 200,000 workers were on strike all across France, and by the 18th, 2,000,000. Then there was a general strike of 10,000,000 people. Barricades, sit-downs, refusals to disperse, battles with the police, the tricoloeur set aflame ... each time it was the whole of French capitalist society that was being brought into question.
3. Remembering the Events in 1983, Blanchot writes,
It was not even a question of overthrowing an old world; what mattered was to let a possibility manifest itself, the possibility - beyond any utilitarian gain of a being-together that gave back to all the right to equality in fraternity through a freedom of speech that elated everyone. Everybody had something to say, and, at times, to write (on the walls); what exactly, mattered little. Saying it was more important than what was said.
A being-together, a community, a communism ... in which, as he says in another text, it became 'almost easy [...] to forget all particularity, and impossible to distinguish between young and old, the unknown and the too well-known'. Despite the incessant disputes and differences, debates and controversies, Blanchot says, 'each person recognised himself in the anonymous words inscribed on the walls'; like the handbills and posters, the graffiti 'never declared themselves the words of an author, being of all and for all, in their contradictory formulation'. What was happening belonged to everyone.
It is to this kind of 'freedom of speech' that Blanchot looks as quite the opposite of the speech of the engaged intellectual - of the thinker who would speak on behalf of everyone else. The movement needed no political representation - whether through established channels like the French Communist Party (which repeatedly condemned the student left, even as it sought to associate itself with the movement) or the various trade unions (which sought, in the main, to use the Events merely to bolster their bargaining position), they need no one - no vanguard - to speak on their behalf.
In the action committees, Blanchot remembers in 1996, the street demonstrations, 'there were no friends, only comrades who immediately addressed each other without formality and accepted neither age differences nor the recognition due to prior celebrity'. Then the role of the action committees was merely to answer to and uphold the freedom of speech in the same manner as the collective, anonymous writings of the Students and Writers' Action Committee.
Freedom - from what? From conventional social structures, to be sure, that kept student and worker apart - and also the workers within an organisation, the shop steward from cheap immigrant labour. But also from the ordering of speech, of language, by the university, the system of knowledge, and, more generally, culture at large.
Here, I suppose, it should be acknowledged that the France remained at once powerfully conservative but also ready for change. Schools and universities remained rigidly conformist, factories undemocratic. But then, too, the new France of the consumer boom, which demanded long hours and commutes for its workers was equally intolerable. Capitalism was also a target for the movement, and in a manner far different than was permitted by existing political parties and trade unions.
Alongside conventional media and the whole system of publishing which reflected both old and new France, overseeing the transition into consumerism, handbills, bulletins and posters circulated in the streets. Alongside conventional politics, the committees allowed anyone allowed to speak, breaking with old hierarchies without, however, replacing them with a bourgeois individualism.
Speech was collective without being subordinated to a unitary source of power or value. But it was so insofar as it was drawn back into a capacity to speak that belonged to everyone. It was enough that anyone could speak, and that speaking, thereby, was withdrawn from the familiar channels in which language was organised.
4. What does this mean? In Grammar of the Multitude, Virno points us to the importance of what Heidegger called idle chatter as part of a more general attempt to rethink political praxis. As he notes, the Marxian analysis of labour power comes to complete itself in the wake of the Fordist mode of production. Marx's notion indicates 'the aggregate of those mental and physical capacities existing in the physical form, the living personality, of a human being'. Under contemporary capitalism, with the transition from material to immaterial forms of employment, labour power includes the most generic of human aptitudes, says Virno, 'the totality of poietic, 'political', cognitive, emotional forces', thus encompassing every aspect of experience.
Considered for itself, idle talk resembles background noise, Virno argues; it is not tied to anything in specific, as a drill is to drilling or the roar of an engine to a motorbike. Open-ended and improvisational, operating without script, idle talk does not describe or represent the existing world so much as open beyond it - temporally, spatially - by breaking apart the perfect fit between production and execution to which labour power seems to lend itself. As idle talk, language vouchsafes another commons, another sense of being-in-common as it awakens those poietic, cognitive and emotional forces as yet uncaptured in contemporary models of capitalist production. But it does so, crucially, by refusing to speak in the first person, and it is here that it resonates with Blanchot's conception of speech.
5. Speech, for Blanchot, is primarily the capacity to speak, to say, but not simply to speak in one's own name. For him, like Virno, the value of idle speech is that it is generic, escaping the authentic self to which Heidegger contrasts it. When Blanchot writes of the crowd or the people, it is as an anonymous mass, precisely the kind of which Heidegger feared - Das Man, the 'they' or the 'One' encountered all at once, in which no one can lay claim to speech in the first person.
Here then is a freedom of speech that manifests itself in the 'immense common powerlessness' of the crowd - the way it escapes all kinds of organisation. A freedom that, for Blanchot, becomes possible only in the 'change of epoch' for whose signs he searches in many of his essays from the late 1950s onwards, where old nationalisms and racisms, old forms of enrootedness or attachments to place have begun to wither away. A speech that belongs to the man or the woman of the street, free from allegiance to a particular homeland or a people, and, as must be made clearer today, from a bourgeois separatism that dissolves any sense of the collective.
The crowd must remain, for Blanchot, disorganised and unorganisable. If the action committees of the Events, to be sure, took on some of the responsibilities of civil administration, but in no way formed a rival centre of government. They were only 'pretending to organise disorganisation while respecting the latter', says Blanchot; they did not distinguish themselves from the "anonymous and innumerable crowd, from the people spontaneously demonstrating"'. The committees did not represent the movement, articulating the interests of the men and women of the street, but allowed them to speak and thereby give voice to the generic power to speak, confirming a new way of being together, of being-in-common, speech, even in their vigorous debates.
Confronted by the crowd, the old powers did not know how to act; something new was happening, something altogether unexpected. Mendès-France, sympathising with the protesters, was still unaware that the movement was not a political force like any other (it was 'a movement that was only movement'). When, on the 19th May de Gaulle spoke on behalf of the men of power at the Élysée, 'La reform, oui; la chienlit, non' this was only a way of marking this ignorance. The word chienlit, which means a ragtag, a mess, from chie-en-lit, shits in bed, gestures feebly at what Blanchot found in the 'common powerlessness' of the crowd.
What did they want? They quickly rejected offers of an increase in the minimum wage and average salaries; they refused the offer of a referendum. The offer to release the students imprisoned at the beginning of the Events did not placate them. De Gaulle's fumbling address to the nation on French television on May 24th impressed no one. When, on the 29th, de Gaulle left France altogether, panic spread in government circles. The people on the streets were the 'carnivalesque redoubling [...] of a command that no longer commanded anything, not even itself, contemplating, without seeing it, its own inexplicable ruin'.
But for this same reason - its disarray, its lack of leadership, the sense that it belonged to everyone and no one, the movement was at the mercy of the same institutions whose structure it refused to reduplicate. On the 29th, de Gaulle, holing up in Germany with the French military, had no idea what to do. But by the next day, he returned to Paris, having decided to deploy the military if necessary, and called for a General Election. The revolutionary movement began to fade away even as the French Communist Party welcomed this new turn.
Addressing the nation once again on TV in June, de Gaulle threatened to introduce a state of emergency unless the ferment died down. On the 12th June, far left groups were banned and subjected to intense harassment, and the student union called for a stop to demonstrations. On the 16th, as the result of a massive police effort, the Sorbonne was retaken and the police infiltrated schools and universities. Workers returned to work, and by the end of June, the Gaullists were voted back to govern with a respectable majority.
5. What, then, had happened? The revolution failed. This, on Blanchot's account, should not surprise us. A movement that exhibits an 'absence of reaction' to already constituted powers leaves it vulnerable to those powers. Historians tell us that the Events, nevertheless, saw the transformation of French society - this is the generation of 1968 Sarkozy affects to despise. The revolution failed - but did it fail?
For Blanchot, writing in the 1980s, with Mitterand's government in power, what mattered in the Events was speech - not simply the fact that one could speak, that anyone was allowed to speak, but that speech was directed towards others, fellow marchers, fellow strikers, in a form of 'friendship, a 'camaraderie without preliminaries' without precedent. Freedom is given in the relation friendship would name, insofar as one can address the other anonymously, impersonally, speaking as no one in particular to no one in particular in the turbulence of the crowd.
What, indeed, was the crowd but this field of relations, in which freedom belonged not to the individual who would possess speech, laying claim to it in the first person, but to the speaker who is borne by friendship and camaraderie? Did it fail - or was this success success enough? Is the revolution given only in speech or does the gap between camaraderie and politics open too widely?