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Sunday, January 8, 2012

“The Revolution Will Not Be Traumatized”


This mini-essay is a response to the seminars with Drucilla Cornell and Étienne Balibar at the Birkbeck College Critical Theory Summer School in London in 2011. I was rereading Sartre to better understand his support for violent revolution and wrote this ...

“The Revolution Will Not Be Traumatized”

            On se revolte par haine, on devient révolutionnaire par raison. Les deux en même temps.          
            —Jean-Paul Sartre

            We rebel out of hate, we become revolutionary through reason. Both at once.
—Jean-Paul Sartre (my translation)

My insight into why revolution will not happen until we address the question of the intergenerational transmission of trauma explains why I chose a career in psychology and psychiatry rather than in politics and philosophy. My disquiet stems precisely from the way Sartre expresses his ambivalence in the word-pairs, “rebel-revolutionary” and “hate-reason”—experienced simultaneously. Trauma will not yield event and hate will not be transformed into reason. We will have much hate and much rebellion and revolt, with intifadahs and uprisings to spare. Mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism (cf. René Girard) will ensure that the hate will be propagated and disseminated. But they will create a chasm that will not be breached.

When all of the conditions are met for a revolution (cf. Étienne Balibar), we will still be left with our hate, as Sartre stated, our ressentiment—about which Nietzsche wrote so forcefully—and our traumas, as the contemporary world teaches us, will reduce us irredeemably to bare life in a perpetual state of exception (cf. Giorgio Agamben).

“The revolution will not be televised,” wrote Gil Scott-Heron in a famous American poem and song of the 1970s. You will not be able to stay home, there will be no instant replay, slow motion or still life and no re-run, he advised his listeners. In a brilliant riff on Madison Avenue advertising slogans, the revolution will not “be right back after a message,” and no one will be concerned about “a dove in your bedroom,” “a tiger in your tank,” “the giant in your toilet bowl” or “germs that may cause bad breath.” It will, however, “put you in the driver’s seat” because “the revolution will be live.” Scott-Heron’s song was a wake-up call to all those who were asleep in the mediatized, pacified life of television where traumas are passively relived: “There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers in the instant replay.” A revolution has to be lived, has to become an event that we must name and be faithful to, not vicariously experienced on television (cf. Alain Badiou). The traumatized subject is not “a kind of survivor” (cf. George Steiner), nor is the revolutionary “a bourgeois reformer,” as Sartre had the courage to admit about his political activities in his later years (Gerassi, 2009/2011). You have to be there to risk being traumatized; you have to show up for the revolution. That is why I say, the revolution will neither be televised (passive), nor traumatized (foreclosing change)—or it will not be a revolution.

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