Monday, May 31, 2010

For we have been expected upon this earth

"The past carries a secret index with it, by which it is referred to its resurrection. Are we not touched by the same breath of air which was among that which came before? Is there not an echo of those who have been silenced in the voices to which we lend our ears today? Have not the women, who we court, sisters who they do not recognize anymore? If so, then there is a secret appointment between the generations of the past and that of our own. For we have been expected upon this earth. For it has been given us to know, just like every generation before us, a weak messianic power, on which the past has a claim. This claim is not to be settled lightly." --Walter Benajmin

There may be many genealogies of poststructuralism, but according to Robert Young, it was born in Algeria. This statement does some violence to poststructuralism, which is, if anything, a heterogeneous discourse that refuses the notion of nativity. There may be, however, no way to characterize poststructuralism without mischaracterizing it, without enacting violence upon its discourse. Young is speaking figuratively, in any case, but one is tempted to take the point much more literally. Both Althusser and Derrida were born in Algeria, after all, as was Helene Cixous. In Young’s rendering, however, it is not birthright or national origin that gives rise to the poststructuralist moment; it is the Algerian revolution. The struggle within Algeria fragments French intellectual culture in the 1950s and 60s, much as it literally fragments France (Algeria, after all, was a department, not a colony). According to Deleuze and Guattari, for much of the twentieth century, French intellectuals were tethered—however distantly—to certain strains of Marxism and psychoanalysis. One could stray, but never too far, from Big Daddy Marx and Papa Freud. The Algerian revolution changed all that; not, of course, by the stroke of a wand, but by contributing to the destabilization of successive French governments, helping to consolidate Communist power within France, and forwarding the aims of the non-aligned movement among post-colonial states.

For the generation of intellectuals and activists that came of age in the 1960s, the Third World revolution was perhaps the most visceral riposte to the ideological numbskullery spun by the belligerents in the Cold War and the intellectual toadies that served their agendas. It provided the intellectual resources through which they were able to stage their disidentification with the metropolitan discourses of the Cold War. Although both the US and the USSR understood the decolonization process as a manifestation of their grand ideological struggle—eventually turning the Cold War very hot in places like Korea and Vietnam—neither party was particularly interested in the potential of decolonization as a world-making movement. Although there is precious little in poststructuralism that could claim an enduring fidelity to this movement or its potentiality, the Third World revolution nevertheless remains its condition of possibility and, perhaps, the truth to which it must eventually return.

Schematic as it may be, this is the line of thinking that brings me to Algeria—again figuratively, as an intellectual and political location and, eventually literally, as a place. Algeria remains a site of enduring contradiction and contestation, yet somehow, it seems like the place from which we might begin to imagine resolution, the place from which we might begin to think about how to redeem the myriad failed revolutions of the last fifty years.

to be continued...

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