Barbarians Knocking: Bourdieu, ’68, and The Demand for Demands

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1988). Homo Academicus. Peter Collier, trans. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Of Bourdieu’s 1984 offering Homo Academicus, some of the most striking (pun very much intended) and relevant directions that Bourdieu goes in are those in which he discusses the dynamics and mechanics of the May ’68 strike in France.

This brief essay will focus particularly what can be seen as the translation of “the contagion” of broad social unrest undertaken by what Bourdieu refers to as “permanent political institutions” such as political parties, trade unions, the media into forms more amenable to recuperation and redirection or, failing that, derision and demonization. To this end we will address one of the most salient binaries produced by such translations within contexts such as May ‘68 before arriving at a discussion of the supposed raison d’être of the strike and the social movement: the demand.

To address the first point, these seemingly amorphous masses of discontent are filtered through these standing political apparatuses and then carefully rendered into the kinds of reductive binarisms that are digestible by society at large. Bourdieu points to the framing of these binarisms as reflective of the interests of whatever institution happens to be doing the translation. Concerning some of these institutions, in particular politicians and the media – both of which possess a penchant for binarisms, it is temporally relevant, as we will no doubt be seeing a good deal of this kind of rhetoric employed as the Quebec 2015 strike progresses, to look at what is often referred to as the “good protester/bad protester” paradigm. Although there are a dearth of other binarisms both contemporary and historical which could be pointed to (devout/heretical, citizen/barbarian, etc) that have been constructed and painstakingly sustained by the aforementioned permanent political institutions, in the interests of time we will only unpack what the supposed qualities and proclivities of the “good protester” are and how they contrast with their foil in the eyes of said permanent political institutions.

The divisive, overwrought and oversimplified rhetoric of good protest/bad protest is tertium non datur at its most egregious. This kind of myopic binarism is severely lopsided and often translates neatly into binary discourses of commendation and diatribe. To illustrate, a good protester is peaceful to the point of being cordial with authority, articulates acute and specific demands reflective of their reasons for demonstrating, and seeks solutions to grievances which entail the least amount of disruption with regards to the functioning of society. A bad protester is beyond the pale of acceptable protest. Their demands are wild and unrealistic and their tactics seen as chaotic and often violent through the lens of the dominant narrative. In Quebec, they are painted alternately as spoiled miscreants who bite the hand that feeds and malcontented harbingers of orgiastic chaos bent on reducing the world to ashes.

From the vantage point of those concerned with maintaining the status quo, the former articulation of protest is “good” insofar as it can be controlled by directing it through specific institutions whose practices and goals it will internalize whereas the latter is “bad” insofar as it tends to frustrate efforts to co-opt, misdirect or ultimately control it. Where good protest makes space to accommodate the dominant narrative, bad protest impinges upon and, in its best moments, directly challenges or undermines it, tearing away the veil and exposing it for what it is: a carefully crafted ruse maneuvered so as to obfuscate a population’s political power and limit its sense of social and political responsibility. Underscoring all of this is the author’s contention that middle ground can never be acknowledged to exist lest these counter-hegemonic discourses be conferred with a degree of legitimacy, however marginal, which might then take root within popular consciousness.

In a way, “bad” protest seeks the collective fracturing of falsely collective narratives that serve to elicit and thereby produce a clearly defined demand or set of demands. That said, the very practice of issuing demands can be seen as a response to the demand from outside for demands.

There are multiple dimensions at work when demands are demanded. The more particular a demand is, the less broad support it is likely to achieve. While it could be argued that we are all alienated, we are not all alienated in the same ways. To ignore this fact is to largely ignore the many and varied positionalities of the heterogenous actors which comprise any given large scale social movement.

Conversely, when demands articulate positions which aim to be expansive or broadly applicable they often take the form of “vague slogans, abstract manifestos, and formal programmes” (179) and the permanent political institutions of which Bourdieu speaks are quick to deride such dictates as ineffectual, unorganized, and ultimately unrealistic.

Lastly, the logic and language of political demand is tied to capital in particular ways. If your demand is heard, those higher up on the chain will supply some kind of remedy so that we will continue to consent to being governed as, our demands having been addressed, it would appear that we have no rational reason not to. The issuing of demands does the market research necessary to provide the customer/subject with the goods/concessions they require so as for them to enjoy a satisfactory enough experience with the product/government to be content and thereby docile.

To move elsewhere, the ’68 strike was terrifying not just to the university administration but also, as Bourdieu seems to point out, to the more entrenched faculty who displayed a loyalty to their respective institutions that bordered on Stockholm syndrome. Curiously, this faithfulness to the conventions of academia had as much to do with a genuine feeling that the hitherto sacrosanct practices of conferring knowledge and even knowledge itself would be compromised and diluted, as it did with positional concerns. The fear was not just for their own standing but was a noble and principled concern. “If we let the barbarians in” they thought, “they will fell the giants upon whose shoulders stands all knowledge worth knowing”. That, to avoid stagnation and inertia, the evolution of knowledge ought to run in tandem with the evolution of theory and praxis related to its dissemination and that this might be a desirable thing, was a strain of thought which appeared not to have occurred among many of the faculty Bourdieu discusses.

In many ways the above can be viewed as a microcosmic example of societies living in a crisis of imagination. One of the most enduring war cries from the anti/alter globalization movement was that of “one no, many yeses”. In some ways, this concept might still have the traction to stand against the demand for demands. There are points of convergence where many can agree that things must change and a galaxy of particular formulations of how and in what ways they ought to change. Can we imagine for a moment that the one does not negate the other?

In conclusion, to acquiesce to the demand for demands is to play a curious game. On the one hand, a broad reaching demand or set of demands will be much more likely to elicit a broad base of mobilization and on the other, authority will never concede to demands that compromise itself or gravely wound its narrative. Where the demand for demands can be seen as an interpellation returning us to the realm of subjects proper, perhaps it is time to relegate the demand to the dustbin of history and concern ourselves with formulating and enacting practices that choose to ignore the hails of the dominant narrative.

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