Berlin, 2009

Berlin, 2009
We want more voices, thoughts and languages!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

If the Berlin Wall falls in a forest, and nobody hears it, does it still make history?

They stormed the Bastille in Egypt yesterday. Europe barely noticed.

That is, citizens forced their way into the secret police headquarters. They seized documents, went through the locations of detention and torture. It's a moment of incredible importance in any revolution -- the point at which you know the regime isn't just going to see a change of personnel at the top, but will lose some of its power to repress the population. It's Paris 1789, or Berlin 1990 -- moments of both emotional and historical importance.

So I'm left here with a surplus of emotion, asking myself how such an obviously iconic and affecting moment of history could have entirely overlooked. Hence the below splurge. Sorry if it doesn't make sense, but I realized I was heading down a blind alley of introspection, so decided not to spend too much time on it.

Can Butler help? The discussion of emotion in the first chapter of Frames of War can't. It almost connects to the current situation, but makes itself irrelevant by being concerned only with emotion about individual human lives and deaths. There's some of that -- Egyptians finding documents about themselves, visiting places where they were once imprisoned or detailed. But the actors in this drama aren't individuals. They're crowds, institutions, historical events and patterns. So they're outside Butler's framework of affect.

The discussion of time and historical patterns, though, has more to say. Butler cites Benjamin:

the awareness that are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at their moment of action

Marx more famously phrases it thus:

The tradition of all past generations
weighs like an alp upon the brain of the living. At the very time when
men appear engaged in revolutionizing things and themselves, in bringing
about what never was before, at such very epochs of revolutionary crisis
do they anxiously conjure up into their service the spirits of the past,
assume their names, their battle cries, their costumes to enact a new
historic scene in such time-honored disguise and with such borrowed

The Bastille comparison isn't mine. It's from Mahmoud Salem, an Egyptian blogger important both within Egypt and as a bridge to the English-speaking world. And its triple character fits the source. It's a rallying-call. It's an interpretation for the participants, a means o placing them inside a historical constellation, and a way of communicating with an anglophone world more emotional about revolutions of the past than thos eo the present.


Through the events in Egypt, I'm getting a sense of something that's perhaps implicit in Butler -- a relation between time, emotion and community. I'm living in a historical constellation where events in North Africa are now making a massive turning point in history. Berlin as a whole (with honorable exceptions) isn't. That difference, that fact we're living different historical epochs, has two components. First, a different allocation of emotions. I feel engaged, inspired, educated by the current revolutions -- not through grief for their deaths (sorry Butler) but through celebration of their actions. Second, different historical constellations, a different sense of what matters, what is the stuff of history. Does the conscience stop at the boundary of Germany, or the boundary of Europe? And the sense of shared time and shared emotion is the foundation for a community.

-- Dan


  1. The kind of strong, historical contextualizing we need to understand that we are not trapped in our little geographical islands, however important those actions we take locally are.
    But Butler is never taking the emotions or rather affects of individuals as the basis of any framework, and it's hard to see why one might say so. I'm interested. Furthermore, while assertive journalistic language can be admirable, to say that a philosophy makes itself irrelevant, especially one of a philosopher who has spent her life making work relevant to all of our lives is too quick, to say the least. I see that here it functions as a trope, where a certain point of view is ultimately redeemed in the text, and yet I wonder about its timing. Which is to say that
    finally, the last beautiful sentence, or fragment: in my tricky theoretical heart, I like to first ask what things mean, to refer back to the author's intention. Perhaps this is in fact less dubious and more genuine than one would allow. But the question remains: is a shared sense of time, given that we live in a world of irreducibly different times necessary?
    Is a foundation itself the right way to understand what we need for a community? What is a community?
    Forgive these questions, which know well enough that they cannot be answered in a sentence or a small group in a life time, for we will have to have tried in any case, to enter those multiplicities even if it be in the future anterior.
    1. Shall we add to the list of websites on the right?
    2. Did you mean France in 1789, rather than 1989 (the storming of the Bastille?)

  2. Quick answers:
    1. I don't know the website -- I just found it through google news, looking for a summary of the issue. I'd be more inclined to recommend Jadaliyya (which is fairly sympathetic to theory, queer issues and Butler), or (which has linked to us). I've nothing against linking to Al Masry Al Youm -- I just don't know anything about it.

    2. oops. fixed

  3. 'irrelevant' not generally, but to the topic I was interested in. Possibly seems less dismissive if you realise that I was basically writing down my thought process: "This is happening in the world. Maybe Butler can help me understand it? No, she's writing about things which sound similar, but can't help me understand Egypt"

  4. All ist klar. I also should add that in my reading of Butler (which is what prefaces all my remarks on her work of course) her framework is irreducibly relational: this is always the crucial point. Hence, the need to clarify. So shall we add both you recommended above?

  5. "Butler is never taking the emotions or rather affects of individuals as the basis of any framework"

    I freely admit I have only the haziest idea of what she's talking about, and find it near impossible to pin her down to any clear or usable statement (and would therefore ignore her completely were it not for your interest in her).

    But: she spends most of the 1st chapter of Frames of War discussing how great it would be if we devoted more attention to the physical vulnerability of human lives. I'm saying there is no reason why the target of affect should be a person, and that affect about a person is no more beneficial than about a group or an event.

    [I have, incidentally, a very fundamental disagreement with the idea that our political engagement should be driven by emotion rather than evidence and logic. But that's another debate]

  6. um, above probably more bad-tempered than it need be. Sorry. Perhaps I'd best leave Butler to the professionals :)

  7. Not at all. Nothing is best left to so-called professionals (in my amatuer opinion). Especially so-called philosophy. In fact, the "Society of the Spectacle" depends on all us NOT becoming theorists....