Contents Disappointed Utopia Introduction: Utopia in a Shattered World

Emancipation and fire

Early on in France, my ears pricked up when I saw some senior philosophy professors at Paris 8 pledge allegiance, in the midst of their gritty urban campus, to a now-outmoded, half-forgotten, naively-radical project: emancipation. In the Department, the notion of emancipation was closely associated with 19th century radical thought, and it had figured prominently in left philosopher Jacques Rancière’s book about radical pedagogy, The Ignorant Schoolmaster. I met several aging professors who did research on the concept of emancipation. My ears pricked up when I heard about it, because the idea of universal human emancipation does not really scan in our historical moment, which continues to be dominated by the perma-nausea of systemic crisis. As the “slow death” of Third Way neoliberalism gets increasingly subsumed by ecocrisis and racist nationalism, if not outright neofascist violence, it remains difficult to maintain even “compromised egalitarian” projects like social democracy and social welfare. More uncompromising radical projects often seem even less available. And yet—

A few years before I arrived in France, these urban spaces had transformed into perhaps the most iconic banlieue scene: flames rising in the night. The fires, shown widely on national television, clawed bare the metal bones of the cars, and hollowed out the empty streetscapes, and outburned the efforts of the firefighters. Nervous smoke rushed and swirled, turned amber and drained away into the sky. It was early November 2005, in a moment of Black and Brown urban uprising that was widely called “the riots,” though some on the left called it a “popular revolt.” It began in the Paris banlieue in Clichy-sous-Bois, a few kilometers east of Saint-Denis, and soon expanded widely across the country, lasting three weeks, leaving thousands of cars burned and hundreds injured. Helicopters and searchlights obsessively criscrossed the public housing projects, which the media cast as symbols of the immiserated masses and margins. The protests had erupted after two young men, Bouna Traoré and Zyed Benna, were electrocuted. Benna and Traoré, accompanied by their friend Muhittin Altun, were walking home from a pickup soccer game when the police came to investigate them. They had committed no crime, and they hid from the police in an electrical substation, whose equipment carried lethal voltages. As their deaths prompted national revolts by young men and their families, a national emergency was declared. The police response was managed by Nicholas Sarkozy, then a young conservative Minister of the Interior, not yet President. It was Ramadan. Tensions rose when the police tear-gassed a mosque at prayer time. A few days later, in Courneuve, a TV crew filmed the police beating a young man they had thrown to the ground.

Those two incidents were officially disowned, but they fit neatly with Sarkozy’s authoritarian, deeply racist stance towards the banlieue’s working classes. Mere days before the revolts, Sarkozy had visited a housing project in Argenteuil, a few kilometers west of Paris 8. When the residents greeted him with insults and hurled cans, he declared angrily to the watching media, “You’ve had enough of this scum [racaille]; we’ll get rid of them for you.”[8] He had previously spoken of “cleaning” and “sandblasting” the banlieues, which one Anglophone commentator described as “as close as one can get to hollering ‘ethnic cleansing’ without actually saying so.”[9] Conservatives read the 2005 riots much as they had read the protests in 1968: as a disastrous breakdown in “public order.”

Even mainstream intellectuals rarely saw the revolts as a “legitimate” protest movement. After all, the revolts did not look like the normative image of a French protest — that is, a street march of white citizens along a Parisian boulevard (Pigenet and Tarkowsky 2003). Instead the revolts drew on more primal revolutionary symbols like battles with the police and fires. The more sympathetic white mainstream commentators read them as a mass reaction to the sociology of urban abandonment, whose high unemployment rates, bad schools, unmaintained public housing, social exclusion and poverty were widely cited. One of the philosophy professors at Paris 8, the heterodox radical Eric Lecerf, was moved to respond to the debates. Lecerf was someone I later became close to; I admired his lifelong commitment to political organizing. He wrote that in the debates about rioting, “there is a word that has remained singularly absent: that of emancipation” (2007:122).

For Lecerf, emancipation was not initially a political ideology or label or narrative; it was an immediate, affective experience. “The first task for anyone who cares about giving some meaning to the concept of emancipation does not consist in giving lessons to the rioters… but in trying to experience it firsthand, an exercise which does not go without saying, inasmuch as this shift to experience implies that one must partly renounce one’s own articles of faith [champs de certitude]” (132).

A certain cynicism about emancipation had nevertheless taken root in the French left, Lecerf argued. He became preoccupied with the French left’s cynical detachment from its putative values. “How indeed is it possible that a generation that forged itself in this labor of critique, fueled by the often scrupulous reading of Gilles Deleuze or Jacques Derrida’s texts, does not feel engaged by the riots of this autumn? In any case, not sufficiently engaged to insert this movement in a larger process oriented towards the horizon of conceptualizing new forms of emancipation?” (129–30). The left’s scrupulous veneration of radical icons was not, as Lecerf pointed out, any guarantee of good politics. In French public discourse, Lecerf lamented, emancipation had become nothing but “a rhetorical figure” (122). He hoped to reframe the riots as an unfolding moment of emancipatory action, an “authentic sign of life” (134), but he was obliged to characterize emancipation’s very absence from French public discourse as a symptom of a “strange, but sweet melancholy” that pervaded his historical moment (123).

Lecerf wound up ambivalent about emancipation: his stance became at once affirmative and critical, at once future-oriented and mournful, at once disappointed and utopian. He wrote that the very “absence of any reference to the idea of emancipation unveils the limits of a historical subject” (123). This was also a rather masculine subject: the political subject of a street revolt is most often a male subject. What does it mean that masculinity lay at the heart of this philosophical image of emancipatory action?

  1. “Nicolas Sarkozy a-t-il vraiment utilisé le mot kärcher?”, Libération, 21 March 2018,  ↩

  2. “Inflammatory language,” The Guardian, 8 November 2005,  ↩

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