PRINT May 2008


’68 is an intrusion of becoming. People have sometimes wanted to view it as the reign of the imaginary, but it’s absolutely not imaginary; it’s a gust of the real in its pure state. . . . It’s inevitable that historians do not understand it properly. I really believe in the difference between history and becoming. [May ’68] was a becoming-revolutionary without a revolutionary future. After the fact, people can always make fun of it.
—Gilles Deleuze

WITH THESE WORDS, spoken in 1988 in the only authorized film documentation of the French philosopher’s simultaneously stumbling and streaming thought process, Gilles Deleuze turned against the two primary, if contradictory, ways of interpreting 1968. He rejected the idea of the great revolutionary break, the Leninist rupture that functions as a separating element between a bleak existence in capitalist society and the paradisiacal land of socialism or of the revolutionary future; and, to an equal extent, he opposed himself to the historification, striation, and fixing of the event—or, rather, of the diverse multiplicity of events—that constitutes “1968.” The year’s “becomings,” as Deleuze describes them, explode the continuum and homogeneity of linear history and historiography, and it is for this reason that the events of ’68 are cut down to size so vehemently in all the formats through which history takes shape, from hasty journalistic assessment to the more authoritative categorizations of academic historians. If the first decades after the events were characterized by the struggle for interpretive dominance and by the co-optation of the social movements that came into being in and after 1968, the discourse surrounding their fortieth anniversary, at least in Europe, seems to have conclusively narrowed to self-righteous condemnation. “After the fact, people can always make fun of it,” says Deleuze, and, indeed, this making fun—particularly today’s ubiquitous denunciation, by a strange mix of people ranging from French president Nicolas Sarkozy and other right-wing politicians to leftist renegades such as nouveau philosophe André Glucksmann, who interprets Sarkozy himself as an heir of ’68entirely bypasses the events, the multiplicity of breaks, the quality of the “breach” of 1968.

La brèche: This expression, attributed to social revolutionary Daniel Cohn-Bendit, was used at the time to refer to the breach that rebellious students and workers were able to force in French universities, factories, and streets. Significantly, it also appears in the title of a remarkable book (which has never appeared in English) by Cornelius Castoriadis, Claude Lefort, and Edgar Morin—Mai 1968: La Brèche. Premières Réflexions sur les événements (May 1968: The Breach; First Reflections on the Events). This collection of essays was published by Fayard on July 8—almost in the manner of Karl Marx’s text on the Paris Commune, which appeared right after the end of the “bloody week” that ended it in May 1871. The three French philosophers, who had proved themselves in leftist parties and on the editorial boards of leftist magazines (especially Socialisme ou Barbarie), sought not to set in stone what had happened but to open a debate on the “revolutionary explosion” while they were still midway between partisanship and the sobering up that comes with distance.

But how is it possible to give the events their due while avoiding the pitfalls of, say, assuming the authenticist pose of war reporting? Lefort’s contribution to Mai 1968: La Brèche, titled “Le Désordre nouveau,” demonstrates the possibility of a narrative of 1968 that does not appropriate it for a preexisting agenda, while at the same time addressing the fundamental ambiguity of the term breach. In its simple sense, “to breach” means “to break through fortifications”—not just, in the context of ’68, the material walls of the University of Paris at Nanterre, which sealed off the suburban knowledge factory from the outside world, but also the many social barriers inherent to the repressive order of knowledge production. The sudden realization that, as Lefort says, “the fences of capitalism have an opening,” or, to put it differently, that the dense mesh of these fences can be unraveled at unexpected moments, was a singular experience that is crucial to understanding the events of 1968.

As it was used in 1968, however, breach did not refer primarily to the occupation of the state institutions and other instruments of authority; rather, the social aspects of the term were foremost in importance. As in the expression “to jump into the breach,” the breach in this sense is not merely destructive but also contains the potential for recompositions and uncustomary concatenations. It creates the possibility of a new beginning, “non-state” machines, and what Lefort celebrates as “the new disorder.” As the breach perforates the state rather than taking it over, so, at the same time, it actualizes itself as a distinctive new form of social organization: a line of flight that deterritorializes and is drawn out of striated space—that of the university, factories, and the street—in order finally to create the breach as Lefort’s “non-place . . . where the possible is reborn,” which “starts afresh and changes from event to event,” carrying more and more along with it. Not only was the breach forged through striated space, but it also briefly opened a new, smooth space without striations. The barricades not only served as a protective wall but also delineated the space-time of a new instituent practice, and the beach emerged in the very gesture of tearing up the paving stones.

The student activists of the first few months of 1968 brought about both the deterritorializing and the recompositional breach by means of their practice of rebellion. Instead of being “engaged,” they were, famously, “enraged.” Lefort—who may himself be considered an enragé, as Hans Scheulen argues in the introduction to his recent German translation of Le Désordre nouveau1—points out again and again that it is wrong to interpret their actions simply as a catalyst. They refused to channel their rage into the available political parties or labor unions and instead used Situationist and other artistic-cum-political methods to call for a thoroughly political objective: “L’imagination au pouvoir.” The furious breach of the enragés did not consist of boycotts, concrete demands, or calls for strikes; instead, as Lefort writes, “they disabled institutions, they made the exertion of authority impossible, they publicly established themselves in illegality.” The illegality of the enragés was directed not only toward obvious targets such as sovereign power, the state, and university presidents but also toward the institutions of the Left. Indeed, Lefort attributes the success of the enragés primarily to how they “violated the rules of the game that regulate the life of oppositions.” From the very beginning “without leaders, without hierarchies, without discipline,” they could not be placed; Lefort writes that the traditional Left considered them “irresponsible” and thus not accountable for their actions. This movement steered clear of all state structures, both externally and internally. As Lefort writes, “The breach they are opening in the university is opened simultaneously in the little bureaucracies, which have claimed the revolutionary demands and struggle for themselves.”

Like Deleuze, Lefort interprets the journalistic commentary on and classification of the events that make up the signifier “1968” as aspects of the retroactive restoration of order: “They would like to forget what has taken them by surprise, reattach the discourse of today to that of yesterday, and quickly take advantage of the occasion—just like plunderers after an earthquake.” Indeed, the plunderers of 1968 seem to pick over the remains again and again. In their analyses, they seem to want to pave over the singularity of the event, the breach, and the rupture ever more unabashedly and completely, in order finally to reach a point where, as Lefort said in a 1988 essay, “history could just as well have omitted the event itself.” This general disposition of episteme to negate the events—at most vouchsafing them the ceremony of a regularly recurring burial—is evident again in the discourse surrounding the current anniversary. In 1988, Lefort also noted, “Twenty years later, they are celebrating nothing.” Forty years after ’68, it is easy to see that the spectacular strategy of European commentators today to outdo one another in condemnation results from their problem of having to senselessly multiply this nothing times ten times four.2

“But the trace of the rupture will remain, even after the veil has been woven anew,” says Lefort, and this is clearly evident in his own textual rendering of 1968. Nevertheless, becoming-revolutionary must be realized differently today than it was then, and we must go beyond Lefort’s primary interest, which is that of the participant who discovers the specific situatedness of the moment and examines this on the site of his participation. From a contemporary perspective, we need to complement Lefort’s view of the geographic and social contexts of 1968 (which can seem strangely narrow) with translocal and postcolonial thinking about 1968, as well as with an analysis of the events that goes beyond the wild self-organization of the students. But given today’s increasingly complex forms of governmentality and the convoluted interweaving of voluntary machinic enslavement and repressive social subjection, a return to Lefort’s analysis of the social field of the university, for all of its reductiveness, may prove particularly valuable. He saw the university as a site of privilege and, at the same time, as a place where at least the model of society that was convulsed and transformed in 1968 was best concealed, and demands we ask “what was new in the action undertaken at Nanterre and why the University is a place from which the protest is able to spread to the rest of society.” He was, moreover, prescient of where we would end up heading after the transformation of the universities—after, that is, the period of student codetermination and self-administration in the ’70s and ’80s—remarking that the collective administration of higher education “could be circumvented by sleight of hand if the students yield to the seduction of a new, seemingly democratic pedagogy, internalize what has been a predominantly external pressure, and take on, for example, the grading and judgment of their own work; if they thus make themselves the initiators of a regimentation that locks them into the grid of a narrowly specialized and quasi-professional education.” Forty years later we have—also outside the universities, with the pervasive commercial appropriation of knowledge and intellect—more or less arrived at the form of confinement that Lefort predicted: rigid orientation toward the service economy; continuous evaluation; thorough bureaucratization, not only of individuals but also of all processes, conditions, and relationships; and all this in a governmental regime of pseudo-freedom that urges subjects to regulate their own machinic enslavement.3

With this bleak situation in universities and elsewhere, it is less revolutionary pathos than probing questions that can help us find a way out. For instance: How and where can the processes of becoming be brought to bear on contemporary modes of subjectivation and the knowledge economy? How would a struggle take shape that could prevent the breach of 1968 from remaining historiographically closed and instead encourage the establishment of new breaches, even in ever more complex contexts? What enraged rather than merely engaged behavior can lead to a new double breach—that is, to viable forms of resistance against the neoliberal transformation of the university and, beyond that, to alternative forms of knowledge production and new modes of self-organization of cognitive labor?

Such questions are pressing in our age of cognitive capitalism, and they are increasingly urgent, not only in the urban centers of the “West.” As for the present invisibility of any breaches on the horizon, we should note that Lefort points out in his 1968 essay that the “objective” political climate in France before May 1968 did not in any way portend a revolutionary situation. The state’s authority was stable, the economy was expanding, the parliamentary opposition was weak and ineffectual, and the population was by and large interested in politics only during election season: “No, all of this did not indicate that in the near future there would be barricades in the streets of Paris and ten million people on strike . . .”

Gerald Raunig is a philosopher based in Vienna. He is co-editor of the recent German edition of Claude Lefort’s writings on 1968.

Translated from German by Elizabeth Tucker.


1. Claude Lefort, Die Bresche: Essays zum Mai 68 (The Breach: Essays on May ’68; Vienna: Turia + Kant, 2008).

2. If the yellow press blames 1968 for all the evil in the world (youth delinquence, loss of identity, antisocial behavior, etc.), leftist renegades disparage it in equal measure. In Germany, for instance, former leftist historian Götz Aly has proposed bizarre analogies between the young soixante-huitards and Nazi “intellectuals” in 1930s Germany.

3. For more on this topic, see Félix Guattari, “Machinic Heterogenesis,” in Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995) 33–57; Maurizio Lazzarato, “The Machine,”; Gerald Raunig, “Excursus on Machines,” in Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007) 138–149; Gerald Raunig, Tausend Machinen. Eine kleine Philosophie der Maschine als sozialer Bewegung (A Thousand Machines: A Concise Philosophy of the Machine as a Social Movement; Vienna: Turia + Kant, 2008).