PRINT May 2008


Barricade, Paris, May 1968. Photo: Bruno Barbey/Magnum.

ONE THING THAT COMMENTATORS across the ideological spectrum could agree on—one thing that they would repeat like a mantra on editorial pages and evening news programs in France and around the world—was that November 2005 was not May 1968. When the poor, ethnically mixed suburbs of major French cities were set ablaze by their inhabitants for several consecutive weeks that fall almost three years ago, it appeared, for a brief moment, that something like civil war was breaking out between this marginalized population and the forces of the state. But “responsible” analysts were united in their rejection of any comparison to a long-ago spring when the news had also been filled with stories of young people setting cars alight and throwing Molotov cocktails. The very unanimity of opinion should give us pause. Without going so far as to imply some kind of media conspiracy, the repeated insistence that there is no possible connection between 1968 and 2005 does suggest an impulse to efface the historical vectors, the threads of continuity and correspondence, that link an event to a broader current of struggle. Such effacement would certainly be in the interest of the status quo: If May ’68 is a total anomaly, an occurrence with no past and no future, then it can have nothing, really, to say to us in the present.¹

In other words, the vociferous denial of a connection between 1968 and 2005, if taken as symptomatic of a repression, would seem to be a cue that in fact the nature of this association is precisely what we can and must explore. While being mindful that the two events should not be collapsed into a single phenomenon, we might nevertheless ask: What do the casseurs of today’s suburban ghettos share with their predecessors of 1968? The answer, the fundamental commonality, is a shared spatial dynamic—a dynamic analyzed presciently in L’Irruption de Nanterre au sommet (The Irruption: From Nanterre to the Summit) by Henri Lefebvre. Though hardly the famous sociologist’s best-known work among English-speaking readers, this little book is worth returning to now, establishing as it does a point from which connections radiate in various directions—linking theory and praxis, past and future, the colonies and the métropole, into a kind of provisional history of modern revolt.

Hadn’t the famous “events” of 1968 begun, after all, in Nanterre, on a campus of the University of Paris incongruously dropped into the banlieue west of the capital? In the C Building, to be precise, an utterly unremarkable modernist structure housing the philosophy, psychology, and sociology facultés, the revolt that would become the largest general strike in French history germinated. It’s worth considering that setting for a moment—a setting whose peculiarities were best captured by Jean-Luc Godard in March 1967, in a famous long take from La Chinoise in which the camera slowly tracks past the hovels of a shantytown housing thousands of predominantly North African workers to the modern, functional buildings of the university campus. In the movie, the young Maoist militant Véronique, played by Anne Wiazemsky, speaks of awakening to the social contradictions in this landscape. Wiazemsky was herself a philosophy student at Nanterre at the time, taking classes in the C Building and introducing her boyfriend, Godard, to the school’s radical leftist circles. The campus—designed in the early ’60s as a model American-style university and erected on the grounds of an old air-force supply depot—seemed almost purpose-built to heighten that sense of contradiction, with its thirteen thousand students, many of them from the privileged western districts of Paris, dropped onto this isolated site, with no life or attractions, in the midst of the overcrowded zone inhabited by Algerian laborers. “Revolting” was how the Situationist International would describe it in its account of the events of May ’68: a place where “the urbanism of isolation had grafted a university center onto the high-rise flats and their complementary slums. It was a microcosm of the general conditions of oppression, the spirit of a world without spirit.”² Lefebvre, in his own description, characterized the area as “a ghetto of students and teachers situated in the midst of other ghettos filled with the ‘abandoned,’” where education was “subject to the compulsions of production, and driven into an extra-urban existence.”³

He would know. Lefebvre had left the University of Strasbourg in 1965 to join the sociology faculty at Nanterre, which boasted a number of progressive intellectuals, including fellow sociologist Alain Touraine (who would go on to coin the term postindustrial society) and Jean Baudrillard (Lefebvre’s assistant at the time). So when the campus became a hotbed of agitation in the months prior to May 1968, Lefebvre had a privileged position from which to observe its unfolding—although he can hardly be considered a mere passive spectator. His place within the leftist community at Nanterre was complicated. His seminars on the “bureaucratic society of controlled consumption,” whose contents are reflected in his abundant publications from the period, clearly provided a vocabulary with which to describe the new forms of alienation and its contestation emerging among the students.⁴ At the same time, though, Lefebvre’s lectures were subject to ever more disruptive interventions by the self-styled enragés of Nanterre, who saw him as an academic “recuperator” of radical theory, and who showed their displeasure by interrupting his lectures with catcalls and well-aimed tomatoes. Despite this sometimes fierce hostility, his sympathies unmistakably remained with the student activists, and in the immediate aftermath of the May events—with the acrid smell of tear gas still in the air, as it were—he penned a series of short essays analyzing society, state, and ideology in light of the revolt. First appearing in the pages of the sociology journal L’Homme et la société, they were collected as L’Irruption and published in France in fall 1968.

Nanterre, France, 1968. Photo: Henri Cartier- Bresson/Magnum.

The book soon appeared in English as The Explosion: Marxism and the French Revolution, a translation that, if lacking in subtlety, is certainly more memorable than a straight rendition of the French (although one regrets the loss of irruption’s connotation of an irresistible breaking-through, of flooding and inrushing flow, in favor of the insistent verticality of explosion). The American publisher, New York’s Monthly Review Press, has reissued the book, long out of print, in conjunction with the fortieth anniversary of May ’68. One can only hope that it finds a more sympathetic reception this time around—when it was published in 1969, it received tepid reviews at best. Historian E. J. Hobsbawm’s description was typical: For him, Lefebvre’s book had “not much to do with the events of May,” which it used “chiefly as a peg for hanging the . . . Hegelian-Marxist observations” of its author.⁵ Not an altogether inaccurate assessment, perhaps, but then again, Lefebvre wasn’t attempting to write a history. His aim, rather, was to compose an “essentially political” analysis, as he explains in The Explosion’s opening pages. And while some passages—the rather tedious accounts of Marxist theory, the arguments with Herbert Marcuse—are dated, at the core of this small book are pages that remain striking. At its best, Lefebvre’s thought captures that blend of theory and poetry, of Marxism and surrealism, characteristic of the student movement of ’68. However, if we turn back to Lefebvre now, it is not simply out of nostalgia for those turbulent days but because his analysis—based finally on a desire to ground political debate at the level of the senses, of the immediately lived—bears directly on our own circumstances.

At the heart of Lefebvre’s concern for the immediately lived lies his interest in urban phenomena. Hence his close attention to the situation of Nanterre, which he calls a “heterotopia”; and while he never explicitly defines the term, its etymological origins in the Greek hetero- (different, other) and topos (place, site) suggest, clearly enough, a sense of segregation. It is an expression that would come to have some currency through the work of Michel Foucault, who used it in his 1967 lecture “Different Spaces,” but in fact, Lefebvre’s employment of it is entirely distinct. For Foucault, heterotopia named “actually realized utopias,” concrete spaces that could simultaneously represent and contest the surrounding world.⁶ His examples tended to come from Enlightenment typologies of architectural and urban form, counterplaces such as cemeteries, gardens, museums, and libraries, which he saw as microcosms of the larger social order. Lefebvre had something rather different in mind. For him, heterotopia named places that are “other”—different in kind or location—but also, we might say, places of the other, where difference is accentuated and where spatial and social uniformity is contradicted. He had first discussed heterotopy in his influential volume Everyday Life in the Modern World, written in 1967 and published early in 1968; in this context, Lefebvre used the word as a derivative not of utopia but of the term isotopy, which had been coined by linguists not long before. The etymological difference is important. Isotopy in its original context was primarily a means of accounting for the semantic consistency of a text by linking all its parts in a hierarchy of significance. What was important for Lefebvre was the notion that isotopy is a force for integration: It is what allows even the most polysemic elements of a text to be subsumed under a single, dominant meaning. Lefebvre’s heterotopy, then, is what refuses to be integrated into the hierarchy, what remains disjointed, fragmented, uncontrollable, excluded, or dissociated. And, he reminds his readers, this dissociation is “not without significance for the analytical study of the urban territory (or urban territories).”⁷

Following this logic, we could say that heterotopy is the linguistic equivalent of uneven development in the capitalist economy. If the latter accounts for lags and imbalances between sectors of society, the former is an account of lags and imbalances between signifying units and of the dominance of core, isotopic meanings over peripheral, heterotopic ones. And indeed, in The Explosion, Lefebvre returns to the law of uneven development as a means of parsing the increasing complexity of the contemporary world. We shouldn’t be surprised to find cities, which themselves may be understood as texts of a kind, structured along similar lines, with well-integrated centers and concentrations of wealth and capital alongside marginal, segregated ghettos of various sorts. Hence Nanterre, with its university ghetto hard by the North African bidonville, both pushed out to the suburban belt beyond Paris. The city in the West, from the ancient world onward, had represented humanity’s quest for perfection, had been the very basis of civilization, Lefebvre writes; but Nanterre, by contrast, “might be described as a place of damnation.” Unlucky students and foreigners alike were excluded from the paradise of the city, confined (though under very different conditions, of course) to this space of perdition. DEBOUT LES DAMNÉS DE NANTERRE! (Arise, you wretched of Nanterre!) read one of the most famous lines of graffiti adorning the university walls in the spring of 1968.

Police searching neighborhood residents during an outbreak of unrest in Watts, Los Angeles, March 15, 1966. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis.

We should understand this slogan as a détournement not only of the first line of the “Internationale,” that anthem of international socialism—“Arise, you wretched of the earth!”—but also of Frantz Fanon’s own appropriation of this phrase. His study of decolonization Les Damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth), which appeared in 1961 and by the later ’60s had become a key reference in French leftist thought, is, among other things, an examination of uneven urban development. In the book’s opening pages, Fanon describes the city of the colonized—“the native town, the Negro village, the medina, the reservation”—as, in effect, a heterotopia set parallel to the isotopy of the settlers’ “strongly built town, all made of stone and steel.” The settlers’ city is a space of hierarchy and order, well lit, paved, and clean, while the city of the colonized is a space without organization, its inhabitants’ simple houses “built one on top of the other.” The indigenous city, moreover, is “a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute.” As in the Lefebvrian schema, these two spaces—isotopy and heterotopia—stand radically opposed to each other in a relation that Fanon describes as one of “reciprocal exclusivity,” in which “no conciliation is possible.”⁸

And while Lefebvre does not so much as mention Fanon in The Explosion, the great theorist of decolonization seems to have provided him with one set of terms for understanding the nature of contemporary French society. The “wretched of Nanterre” was not simply a gratuitous analogy. As Lefebvre remarks, once the postwar process of decolonization had begun in earnest, advanced capitalist economies embarked on a program of internal colonization, concentrating on their domestic markets “in order to utilize [them] according to a colonial pattern.” Thus, the colonial experience had been carried “into the midst of the erstwhile colonizing people.” As it had for Fanon, for Lefebvre this social arrangement had important spatial correlates: “The population in the metropolis is regrouped into ghettos (suburbs, foreigners, factories, students), and the new cities are to some extent reminiscent of colonial cities.” Nanterre stood, as a city of the colonized, in a position of radical exclusion from Paris as urban center, with its concentrations of decision making, power, and wealth.

Hence the powerfully spatial character of the May revolt, which Lefebvre describes as “a dialectical interaction between marginality and urban centrality.” Originating in the heterotopia of Nanterre, the movement set out to storm the gates of the heaven from which it had been expelled—namely, the Latin Quarter, with its cafés, entertainments, and atmosphere. There, centered on a Sorbonne draped with red and black flags, it constructed a “concrete utopia” in which “laughter, unfettered speech, humor, song,” replaced exclusionary, class-bound pedagogy. With this influx of the excluded, with this reappropriation of the space of the urban center, Paris was liberated, restored to its true self: “the vistas, the streets, the Boulevard Saint-Michel which, rid of automobiles, again became a promenade and forum.” The echoes of the liberation from German occupation some two decades before are unmistakable. Lefebvre implies that May ’68 was an attempt to make good on the failed promises of that earlier, partial liberation, which had succeeded in removing the foreign invader but not the national expropriators. But of course, as he states in The Explosion, the strongest echoes are those of the Paris Commune of 1871. “In March 1871,” he writes, “as in May 1968, people who had come from the outlying areas into which they had been driven . . . assembled and proceeded together toward the reconquest of the urban centers.⁹

The Commune is another important historical current informing Lefebvre’s reading of 1968. His 1965 book La Proclamation de la Commune offered a spatial analysis that prefigured The Explosion, as well as Le Droit à la ville (The Right to the City), an extended essay he published early in 1968. La Proclamation de la Commune had also proposed four great forces at work in the popular uprising that convulsed Paris in 1871: the demonstration of a widespread, creative spontaneity; the concrete transformation of everyday life; the emergence of that free society, without fixed organization, dreamed of by Charles Fourier and the French utopian socialists of the nineteenth century; and, finally and above all, collective festivity.¹⁰ Lefebvre would reprise each of these themes in The Explosion, positing them as central to the events of May.

At this point, a consideration of The Explosion leads us back to the group of artists, architects, and theorists so inextricable from any discussion of May ’68. All of Lefebvre’s thinking on and around the Commune owes a particular debt to ideas developed among the members of the Situationist International; in fact, it was Lefebvre’s study of the Commune that precipitated his falling-out with the SI over accusations of plagiarism. In 1962, in the wake of discussions on the subject, he had asked Guy Debord, Attila Kotányi, and Raoul Vaneigem to draft a few pages clarifying their views of the events of 1871, which he proceeded to publish in the journal Arguments under his own name as an excerpt from his forthcoming book. Today, this question of intellectual priority seems obscure, but there can be little doubt that the Situationists were in large measure responsible for the currency of these ideas in 1968. Lefebvre, for his part, had insisted rather strenuously on the purely historical significance of his theorization of the Commune, taking the SI to task in 1967 for promoting the idea of festive revolution in words he would soon regret: “Do they really imagine that one fine morning or one decisive evening people will look at each other and say: ‘Enough! Enough toil and boredom! Let’s put an end to them!’ and that they will join the everlasting Festival and the creation of situations? If this happened once, at dawn on 18 March 1871, this conjuncture will not recur again.”¹¹ The Explosion reads, at least in part, as atonement for this statement, a kind of self-critique prompted by the scrutiny of history’s tribunal. If Lefebvre was running to catch up with history as he feverishly penned this book early in the summer of 1968, he was also, then, running to catch up with the Situationists—who, perhaps unsurprisingly, go unmentioned in the text. Despite that silence, however, The Explosion is profoundly obliged to the SI; it is another leg in the intellectual relay Lefebvre and the group were engaged in throughout the decade.

Detail of a page from Internationale Situationniste 10 (March 1966). Guy Debord, “Le Déclin et la chute de l’économie spectaculaire-marchande” (The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy).

Certainly, Fanon’s vision of the Manichaean divisions of the colonial world, and the figure of the Commune as festive reappropriation of urban space, are interpretive frameworks that had been articulated in the pages of the journal Internationale situationniste prior to 1968. To trace them to the specific text in which they converged is to locate an important correspondence between May ’68 and an earlier, American upheaval: the Watts riots of August 1965. In his brilliant analysis of the Los Angeles revolt, published in the journal in 1966, Debord claimed that what had happened in Watts was no mere protest against poor living conditions, inadequate education, or high unemployment; the black residents of the LA ghetto were not asking to benefit equally from the promises of America’s much-touted society of abundance, so much in evidence in nearby Hollywood and Beverly Hills. The looters, he wrote, “take at its word the propaganda of modern capitalism, its advertising of abundance,” and were demanding precisely what that system could not provide within its own terms: the immediate satisfaction of desires. Like the colonial subject who, per Fanon, turns on the white settler’s city “a look of envy” that expresses “his dreams of possession,” the Watts rioters, said Debord, “want all the displayed and abstractly available objects at once.”¹² But Debord went further than Fanon with this claim: The looters yearned not simply for possession but for expenditure—rejecting the commodity and exchange-value, he claimed, “they want to use” and use up all that spectacle culture has to offer.

When Debord evoked “the 2,000 counted fires, by which the pétroleurs of Watts illuminated their battle and their festival,”¹³ he was clearly drawing a comparison to the Commune of 1871 and its reclamation of the city by the working classes (including the mythical arsonists known as pétroleurs, after the cans of oil they reputedly used to set the buildings of Paris alight). The festival of the Commune had taught him to see the constructive appropriation of capitalist space in the methodical looting and burning of stores during LA’s nights of unrest. Further, it had taught him to understand these purposeful acts of vandalism as a refusal of the degraded urban ghetto (Lefebvre’s heterotopia) and as a tactic of transformation through destruction. A photograph clipped from Time magazine and reproduced in Debord’s article had its original caption—“Pillaged furniture store blazing out of control”—replaced with a new one: “Critique of urbanism.” This was a realization of the themes approached in Lefebvre’s writing on the Commune’s history, and it in turn taught the enragés of Nanterre how that study might itself be deployed in the present. Things come full circle—from theory to practice and back again—in Lefebvre’s description of the fierce street battles between students and police in 1968, when, he writes, “the movement oscillated between urban celebration and violence, between playfulness and urban guerrilla warfare.” The violence of those weeks cannot be compared to that of the Commune’s final days, or that of Watts, but a structurally similar breakdown of the rigid hierarchies of urban space was at stake in each case.

So what, then, is the currency of The Explosion? It resides, in brief, in the analysis of the emergence of new social actors from the sociospatial conditions of advanced capitalist society. For Lefebvre, modern society is characterized by a void—simultaneously political, cultural, and ideological—created by what he calls “absolute politics.” Absolute politics consists in the arrogation of power to an abstract and increasingly authoritarian state, and the concomitant marginalization of civil society. Between the two lies . . . nothing, a void, intermediary bodies having disappeared or been rendered ineffective. “The evil of this power derives,” Lefebvre writes, “from the fact that it is a malevolent force that destroys the social life surrounding it.” The result is that individuals, as well as social groups, are denied political agency and are completely transformed into “subjects” of power. The project of the student movement might be understood as a determination to fill this void in order to take part in true political debate and in order to, at the same time, expose the real nature of power. This is why the movement, starting from the university at Nanterre—which Lefebvre deems a “negatively privileged” place because of its marginal character and its peculiar urban situation—immediately confronted the “top,” i.e., the Gaullist regime. It had, in this analysis, nothing else to confront, nowhere else to go.

Nowhere, that is, but the streets. The institutions of French society—those political, cultural, and finally ideological “superstructures”—having been eaten away from the inside by the logic of absolute politics, having been voided of any autonomy or independence from the state, the movement occupied the interstitial spaces of the city. “It was in the streets that spontaneity expressed itself—in an area of society not occupied by institutions.” Against the omnipresent political void, the “public” thoroughfare became politicized. Breaking out from imposed heterotopias, from socially and spatially marginal locales, the movement constructed a concrete utopia at the heart of the urban center. And there, Lefebvre writes, a new figure appeared on the political chessboard: Beside the “archaic” tendency (i.e., the conservatives) and the “modernist” one (the part of the movement, from the “liberal center” to the French Communist Party, that was content with reforming and more efficiently planning society) was the “possibilist” tendency, those who “view the ‘realm of possibilities’ as still open . . . proponents of the potential rather than the real” who “go so far as to proclaim the primacy of imagination over reason.” As the famous slogan spray-painted at the entrance to the Sorbonne amphitheater had it: ALL POWER TO THE IMAGINATION!

Such expressions of utopian hope may seem foreign to our own, rather darker moment, but the logic of Lefebvre’s analysis still has lessons for the present, whether we are considering the alter-globalization protests of the past fifteen years or the events that set the banlieues on fire almost three years ago. In the latter case, Lefebvre’s discussion of the heterotopic situation of Nanterre resonates in the writings of Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, who contrasts the current situation of the banlieue with that of poor neighborhoods in the nineteenth century, which were still located within the city of Paris. The novelty of today’s banlieues, these spaces where the poor are penned up, he writes, is their radical exteriority—the ban- in banlieue signifying a place that is a non-place, a place under erasure, as it were. The pariahs who live there share with this space their defining trait: They are, like trash, at once exterior and interior to society. This paradoxical topological situation is precisely that of heterotopia.¹⁴ In this more recent instance, too, we can see the unexpected emergence of a political actor of great importance, a figure that comes into view precisely because the population of these suburbs has no choice but to react to the deployment of force organized by the state and charged with keeping a lid on things. Continual humiliation and harassment by a frequently racist police force has led to the invention of a new politics of resistance. And this situation is hardly unique to France. The crucial insight of Lefebvre’s writing is that the most important stake of social organization is precisely the way individuals live in their skins, they way they live in relation to society, with all their impulses, desires, and needs for pleasure and creation. Despite their apparent nihilism, the youth of the banlieue, no less than the members of the counterglobalization movement, are what he would have called possibilists: All are seeking to break out of the ghettos that a new and yet more stifling type of absolute politics has constructed at the margins of its isotopic centers of power.

Tom McDonough is associate professor of modern architecture and urbanism in the Art History Department at Binghamton University.


1. This neoliberal effacement of May ’68 has ironically been abetted by the reluctance on the part of a segment of theorists of the Left to historicize the events, and a tendency to nostalgically exempt them from criticism. For an exception to this trend, see Kristin Ross, May ’68 and Its Afterlives (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

2. René Viénet, Enragés and Situationists in the Occupation Movement (1968), trans. Loren Goldner and Paul Sieveking (New York: Autonomedia, 1992), 21.

3. Henri Lefebvre, The Explosion: Marxism and the French Revolution (1968), trans. Alfred Ehrenfeld (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969). All quotes unless otherwise attributed are from this text.

4. Most significantly, Critique of Everyday Life (1947–81), 3 vols., trans. John Moore (London and New York: Verso, 1991–2005), which has recently been issued in a new paperback edition; and Everyday Life in the Modern World (1968), trans. Sacha Rabinovitch (New York: Harper & Row, 1971).

5. E. J. Hobsbawm, “Birthday Party,” New York Review of Books, May 22, 1969, 8.

6. Michel Foucault, “Different Spaces” (1967), trans. Robert Hurley, in Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984, vol. 2 (“Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology”), ed. James D. Faubion (New York: The New Press, 1998), 178.

7. Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World, 162. Isotopy had been coined as a linguistic term two years earlier in A. J. Greimas, Structural Semantics: An Attempt at a Method (1966), trans. Daniele McDowell, Ronald Schleifer, and Alan Velie (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983).

8. All quotes from Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961), trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1968), 38–39.

9. This is a succinct restatement of one of the central theses of Lefebvre’s study of the Commune, published three years earlier and avidly taken up by his most radicalized Nanterre students active in the numerous anarchist, Situationist, and revolutionary-communist “groupuscules” on campus, as was testified to by “Épistémon,” the pseudonym adopted by Didier Anzieu, one of Lefebvre’s colleagues at the Nanterre faculté. See his Ces Idées qui ont ébranlé la France (Nanterre, novembre 1967–juin 1968) (Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1968), 22.

10. Henri Lefebvre, La Proclamation de la Commune (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, “Trente Journées qui ont fait la France,” no. 26, 1965).

11. Henri Lefebvre, Position: Contre les Technocrates (Paris: Gonthier, 1967), 6.

12. Guy Debord, “The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy” (1966), in Situationist International Anthology, ed. and trans. Ken Knabb (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), 155 (trans. modified).

13. Debord, “The Decline and Fall,” 153 (trans. modified).

14. In the manner of Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer, from which Belhaj Kacem borrows. See Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, La Psychose française: Les Banlieues, le ban de la République (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006).