Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"And so then we ask ourselves again the question: is this a Rebellion?": reading Camus.

Wednesday, november 9, in the morning, Albert Camus' classic text l'Homme Révolté, a.k.a. The Rebel, a.k.a. De Mens in Opstand, gave rise to a lively discussion of some 8-10 voices at the green army tent at Occupy Amsterdam. Daniel Rovers reports:



- Why this text?

- And, why did Hans Achterhuis mention this text referring – in a positive way – to the Occupy Movement?

- Hans Achterhuis?

- He is the so called Thinker of the Fatherland in the Netherlands.

- Basically this is a text about saying No. It’s not about gradual improvement, it’s about radical change. That’s why it can be considered a text useful in thinking about this Occupy movement.

- But is Occupy really about beheading the master? Aren’t things a lot more complex, aren’t we all in a way involved in the system we want to radically change?

- This notion of a master-slave relationship as quintessential for a rebellion, as Camus writes, it is highly problematic. Specifically what he writes on page 14, saying that the ‘problem of rebellion only seems to assume precise meaning within Western thought’, and that, and he is agreeing here with Scheler, ‘that the spirit of rebellion finds few means of expression in societies where inequalities are very great (the Hindu Caste System) or, again, in those where there is absolute equality (certain primitive societies).’ That is to say that rebellion in the colonial world is not legitimate.

- And the interesting aspect is that he wrote this text in 1951, after the independence of India, Indonesia.

- The problem here is that Camus wants to counter Scheler in his thesis on humanism and resentment, arguing (Scheler was) that humanists are good at loving humanity, but do not love really human individuals. Camus wants to develop a more militant, or less vulnerable version of humanism. But in striving for a new universalism, he arrives only at (t)his Western version of universalism. This being the reason for a more post-structuralist thinker like Foucault being anti-humanist; arguing that humanism, as developed by European philosophers, was just a fancy way of universalising Western man.

- And that why it is so interesting that Achterhuis evokes this text. Him being a former Maoist who came to be a vehement critic of all sorts of utopian thought. He is a classic sort of post-ideological, post-political leftist thinker. Playing safe. Why not mention Fanon in this respect, or Zizek, or Rancière – who actually take universalism one or even several steps further.

- Ok, so in this respect this text is absolutely dated; but what about what Camus writes abouts values – that a rebellion already entails a specific value or set of values. I quote: ‘Not every value entails rebellion, but every act of rebellion tacitly invokes a value.’

- That is the paradox or contradiction in this text; on the one hand denying the possible rebellion in non-Western cultures, on the other hand saying that every rebellion involves certain values – which then can or could be universalized.

- And could we then not say that in that respect what is lacking in Camus’ thinking, is what is lacking, or rather, what is so disturbing in the ideas of the current radical enlightenment, translated into politics by, for example F. Bolkestein and A. Hirsi Ali, namely the absence of a really universal way of thinking.

- A way of thinking that you could call multicultural?

- I don’t know if you should call it multicultural, being a highly contested term; although it can’t overstated that this kind of radical ‘enlightenment’ stops at the border, so to say, it draws a line between who is in (The West), and who is out (Islam and the Islamic World). Where as really Enlightenment is –

- Sorry, but the problem with these discussions is that we are having them for so long now. Let’s not forget why we are here, that is not because of some cultural difference, but because of this overwhelming, devastating system called capitalism. And multiculturalism, in the end, is a product of capitalism, in that it clearly defines a value system of different essential ‘cultures’.

- Ok, you’re right. Although I hesitate in making a classic Marxist move of blaming it all on the system, one should indeed focus on the economy. The economy of this Occupy movement and camp in the first place.

- What I found interesting to see here, is how Occupy deals with these problems, civic problems basically, or multicultural problems, if you will, on ground level. Dealing with the homeless, the drunk, the so called outcast of the system in an alternative that is set up around the idea of radical equality.

- That’s right, and I see two tendencies, two ways of thinking about these real problems here within the camp. The first one being of care, that Occupy should be a movement that through care makes a point, makes the world a better place as well, creates goodwill, and so forth. The second being that Occupy is not a charitable organisation, and that one should aim for higher, political goals.

- But it’s not about people who cause problems, and those who don’t. It’s about people who contribute, and those who don’t. In The Hague, for example, one of the most active people in Occupy is someone who has been homeless for more than 4 years.

- And so then we ask ourselves again the question: is this a Rebellion? We know the criticisms of the so called outside world – that we are just a bunch of spoiled brats who are not willing to go all the way and sacrifice themselves.

- Well, to again refer to Camus, maybe it is very important that this is not about all or nothing, about outside or inside, about rebellion or resentment. It is, and that is what I find so fascinating, being here with your body, sleeping here, and in that way sacrificing something, your time, your autonomy, in a way. And what I also observe is a reconfirmation of what classical marxism called the ‘Common’, the stage before property was being claimed, transferred, sold. This is also a very concrete way of thinking again about the common.



Daniël Rovers

[De vertaling in het Nederlands week, met name als Camus aan Scheler refereerde, af van het Engels, die bovendien enkele duidelijke fouten bevatte (‘turn fats into values’). De Franse tekst was niet voorhanden, maar werpt mogelijk een beter licht op Camus’ positie ten opzichte van Scheler en diens opvatting over de mogelijkheid van een opstand buiten de geschiedenis van het Westen.]

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