To Make Ends Possible Again: An Interview with Eli Thorkelson

The November 2016 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “The Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn: Reparative Futures at a French Political Protest,” by Eli Thorkelson, who is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Whittier College. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Atreyee Majumder conducted with Thorkelson about the article and his broader research program.

Atreyee Majumder: Let me start by picking your brain on the notion of stubbornness. The anthropology of affect has straddled many emotions and their political makings—Cultural Anthropology has, for instance, recently published an Openings collection on refusal—but stubbornness seems something specific. It reminded me very much of Gandhi’s writings and the deliberate, disciplined practice of satyagraha or civil disobedience, where the method, demeanor, and discipline of the protester was itself a political victory regardless of the ultimate outcome. In your discussion of stubbornness, is it fair to say that you and your interlocutors are understanding registers of protest and its victory or failure in terms of means rather than ends?

Eli Thorkelson: Well, I think stubbornness here was supposed to be an affective means that would make ends possible again. The Ronde was invented, after all, in a context where traditional protest forms were seen as failing to deliver. The 2009 protest movement had only a few concrete demands—above all 1) the withdrawal of the Sarkozy government’s LRU university reform law; and 2) “dialogue” (that is, negotiations) over the future form of public research and higher education. And the government didn’t really budge on either of these points. So I think the strategy of stubbornness was about going beyond the conventional methods that social movements have used to bargain with the state.

To put it another way, stubbornness sought to undo the usual means-ends calculus of social movements: you have goal X, so you do conventional protest act Y, like a big street march, to try to make X happen. Here, the state is supposed to recognize Y as a form of pressure and respond with some sort of conciliation. But if the state refuses to respond to all of the conventional protest tactics, then you have to either give up or try something else in order ultimately to return to the scene of bargaining from a more favorable position. So that’s where stubbornness came in as a form and an affective stance that tried to break an impasse in collective bargaining, as a form of radicality aiming in part at a return to convention. As I try to emphasize in the article, on one level, stubbornness was a means to a pre-existing end; on another level it made a space in which political ends could be rethought and reworked; on a third level, as you point out with the interesting satyagraha comparison, it indeed became an end in itself, a form that became compelling in its own right. All three of these dynamics happened in concert at the Ronde.

AM: Methods and forms of displaying dissent have been given a fair amount of scholarly attention; again, to draw on the example of South Asia, I am thinking of recent work on Gandhi by Karuna Mantena (2012) and Ajay Skaria (2016). Amidst the discussion of means and ends, you seem to be pointing out something about the psychology of protest: the protest that does not hope, the protest that accepts inevitable defeat, the protest whose practice is its dissent. This move beyond the polarities of hope and despair is most intriguing to me. Could you say more about it?

ET: Hope and despair are empirical realities but that doesn’t make them theoretical first causes, necessarily. One major thing I found in the field was a set of metastable cultural forms that organized French subjects’ experiences of utopianism and realism, despair and hope, social normality and exception. On a daily basis, it’s of course often very affectively unstable to be in a protest movement, or even just to work in a social institution that’s undergoing massive organizational change, as has French higher education since the first Bologna Process reforms in 2003. So I’ve observed a set of collective dispositions that organize this affective flux and make it navigable and survivable, if not predictable. It’s metastable (but not first-order stable) because it gives predictable ways of dealing with unpredictability. In the book I’m working on now about French radical philosophers, I talk about this as a matter of disappointed utopianism—a way of being utopian that aims at long-term survival partly by expecting disappointment at any moment, by not dwelling excessively on past defeats, by constantly half-expecting internal critique or dissensus, but also by continually repeating anti-institutional, utopian gestures. I think of this disappointed utopianism as a cluster of collective dispositions that gets into the habitus and seems to confer a loose sort of historical durability on politically nonnormative projects. I suppose this is ultimately less about protest psychology per se and more about how political affect gets regimented and instrumentalized, such that affect isn’t a first cause, but is always caught up in larger structures of collectivity, collective reaction, and institutional momentum.

Diagram created by Anneli Joplin.

AM: Circularity as alternative temporality is a trope close to anthropology’s heart. You give us an account of circularity as repetition, endlessness, infinitesimal, looped. A thousand hours! Yet I didn’t quite understand your point about a linearity within circularity. Could you clarify that? Where do you locate the possibilities of protest in repetition and loopedness? And could you say something about the choreography of circularity, especially as it relates to your animated diagrams?

ET: This gets back to your question about means and ends. Circularity at the Ronde Infinie was, to rephrase my earlier point, not only an end in itself; it was also supposed to take people somewhere new, politically. I guess by pointing toward a linearity within circularity, I’m gesturing toward the fact that this circular march was not just obstructionist for its own sake; it was also ostensibly instrumental, even strategic. In other words, marching in rounds was supposed to actually conjure up a linear temporality leading to a democratic future (which was a partly undefined term, of course, but in context seemed minimally to entail a set of nonmarket-oriented, loosely social-democratic institutional ideals). Does that make any sense?

As far as the more general question about protest and loopedness, I do think that collective effervescence (without which mass protest forms don’t usually get far) is necessarily about affective looping. That is, crowd affects are self-reinforcing and autopoietic. In terms of the temporal structures and rhetorics used in protest, though, I really don’t know if there is any necessary relation to circular time as such. I find it useful to think generally about political protest as a materialist poetics of the future: to protest X is to enact some practice that aims at a future moment (even if it is a very near future) where not-X will obtain. But there are a lot of ways of arranging time and political action in the pursuit of not-X, and I’m not in a position to do a Lévi-Straussian structuralist analysis of protest forms that would look comparatively at their relations to circularity. I think that’s what a rigorous answer to your question would entail!

I do have a methodological point of departure here, though, which is that temporalities are always multiple and formally complex, frequently overlapping and not always entirely coherent. It seems to me that anthropology of time is a thoroughly post-modernist field today—meaning that I don’t know anyone these days who thinks that linear time = modernity/modernization = the West, or who opposes linear time to some ritual circular time of tradition (sigh). That whole complex of dead thoughts only survives now as a sort of ideological corpse whose lingering proponents are outside cultural anthropology, as far as I can tell. Nevertheless, it remains a good exercise to try to visualize the formal structures of time that different ethnographers encounter in the field. That’s why I have all the diagrams of blocked futurity: to help us think a little more systematically about the intense diversity of temporal forms that are flourishing in the post–Cold War era.

As far as the choreography of circularity, I would distinguish the experience of circularity from the logistics of the circular march. One can ask, “What does circular choreography feel like?” Here, the animated diagrams in my article are just one strategy among others that I use to help communicate a little bit of the affective tenor of the circular march. But if one asks instead more logistically, “How does circularity get orchestrated or stage-managed?” then I think the answer was quite straightforward for the Ronde’s organizers — people do know how to walk in circles, if you can give them a good reason to do it!

AM: The exchange between you and the professor about “the madness of marching in rounds” was the most exciting moment of the article, for me. Here, you give us madness as wisdom, as break from the prison of rationality, and as you say later, as transcendence of the hope–despair binary. This is a different valence of madness than the one we typically encounter in Foucauldian anthropology. Would you agree? What else would you say about the madness of protest?

ET: I suppose I see the madness of protest as emerging from the materialist stance toward the future that I associate with protest activities. By referring to a materialism of the future, I have in mind that in France there are forms of social determination that render certain historical, institutional, and individual trajectories overwhelmingly likely (and others incredibly improbable). Often these have to do with state policy: if the state does X, it will likely result in Y. (For instance, if public universities are made “autonomous” from the state while remaining dependent on shrinking state funds, then budget crises will result).

Along with this, there’s a culturally standardized stance toward state action that is very determinist or consequentialist—social actors expect that Y will follow from state action X, for various values of X and Y. Unlike, say, American doxa about how anything can happen, the future isn’t really a zone of total openness for most of my French activist interlocutors. It follows that protesting X can come to seem like “madness” in the sense that it involves rejecting the material force of social causation—the weight of which is very apparent on the ground. So madness consists in recognizing that the future is always already determined, often in a bad way, and yet still wishing to intervene in it.

AM: I come from a province habituated to protest. Everyone in the Indian province of Bengal, especially of an older generation, grew up in and around protests: violent ones. This trope of authenticity or genuineness is commonly used to critique political action today; “but they work at a funded NGO,” one version goes, or “they live in uptown Manhattan.” What is your response to the criticism of activists on a metric of genuineness or authenticity?

ET: You hear that sort of thing in France too. “Paid to go on strike!” some people said about the Ronde’s faculty protesters. And there is massive protest habituation in France, of course, where the manif is such a predictable form. I guess what I would emphasize is that this is a dialectically evolving relationship—protest forms reinvent themselves in reaction to external criticism or failure—and so it is never a settled issue. By definition, any social form can start out as a historical rupture, get normalized, and in turn elicit new forms that momentarily appear as rupture again. I think the deconstructive critiques of protest inauthenticity are just a moment in that broader process.

As to the other question about whether privileged people can still protest, it is a very antipolitical gesture to allege that anyone other than the most oppressed and wretched of the Earth have a right to protest social orders that don’t work for them. University students have long been involved in protest; this tells us a lot about how radicality can emerge from zones of social ambiguity and ambivalence. Documenting the privilege of academic protesters, or more generally understanding activism’s social conditions of possibility, is certainly a good thing—whatever side one is on—but if that becomes a way of repressing political difference, then I find it pretty hollow. It just raises the obvious rejoinder: what about the privilege of those who denounce the privilege of activists?

AM: Protest has also been touched by the golden wand of capital in recent times, especially in the popular culture industries. It is cool to sound a bit subversive. Is this dynamic at work in France? In its dissing of American university culture, is France recuperating a pure public and political threshold of life, in the language of Bhrigupati Singh (2015)? Is something about Frenchness (and the hurt pride of Europe as part of the larger game of competitive imperialism) being articulated in this narrative of pride; in the talk of French versus American academic tradition?

ET: I’m not sure what I think about protest chic in the French case. It’s hard to overestimate the difference it makes to have had such a powerful Communist Party in the country, and its effect on what standard oppositional politics looks like. Communists in France are generally not at all countercultural: they dress conventionally, speak with conventional authority, and have sometimes wielded a fair amount of traditional political power (see, for instance, Stovall 2001). Of course there are many other far-left groups in France—anarchists, autonomes, anticapitalist militants—who are often younger and have more countercultural appearances, but on the whole, I certainly wouldn’t say that large street marches in France are particularly cool. Much of their social composition is culturally mainstream. And French faculty protesters, in particular, look about the same at a protest as they would in a classroom, except that they might have coats if it’s cold, and carry protest signs. (Meanwhile, when there are encampments or occupations by homeless or undocumented people, they usually become visible as sites of intense poverty and cultural marginalization, without much in the way of bohemian reappropriation.)

As far as the aspiration to purity that the Ronde may have embodied and the question of bruised imperialisms, nationalist pride and doubt around French universities have been around since the nineteenth century at least, formerly taking German/Humboldtian universities as the point of competitive reference but then increasingly fixating on American academia in the first decades of the twentieth century (see Charle 2003). I won’t go into this in great detail here, but my general sense is that French politics remain structurally deeply nationalist, such that references to foreign contexts are often ruses or phantasms introduced for ideological reasons into discursive fields that remain deeply focused on the traditional nation-state. In terms of how purity enters politics, the state apparatus in France often gets summoned up phantasmatically as a potentially good actor that can dispense and guarantee justice, and overcome or at least buffer societal contradictions.

So yes, I somewhat agree with you that in protest actions, when the state gets called upon to solve some problem or right some wrong, an image of a better world can get raised up as something potentially, if never actually, pure. That, in turn, can be contrasted with images of an unmediated, ruthless capitalism that America sometimes symbolizes. I find it useful to recall that this melodramatic symbolic formation is not without a certain historical referent, as removing barriers to American imports was a condition of postwar Marshall Plan aid imposed by the U.S. government, creating intense debates about coca-colonisation and the like (Kuisel 1991).

References

Charle, Christophe. 2003. “Les références étrangères des universitaires: Essai de comparaison entre la France et l’Allemagne, 1870–1970.” Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, no. 148: 8–19.

Kuisel, Richard F. 1991. “Coca-Cola and the Cold War: The French Face Americanization, 1948–1953.” French Historical Studies 17, no. 1: 96–116.

Mantena, Karuna. 2012. “Another Realism: The Politics of Gandhian Nonviolence.” American Political Science Review 106, no. 2: 455–70.

Singh, Bhrigupati. 2015. Poverty and the Quest for Life: Spiritual and Material Striving in Rural India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Skaria, Ajay. 2016. Unconditional Equality: Gandhi’s Religion of Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Stovall, Tyler. 2001. “From Red Belt to Black Belt: Race, Class, and Urban Marginality in Twentieth-Century Paris.” L'Esprit Créateur 41, no. 3: 9–23.