Sunday, 24 April 2016

The Embers of Easter and the Coming Insurrection

On this day, 100 years ago, Patrick Pearse, James Connolly and their comrades took over the General Post Office on Sackville Street in the heart of Dublin.  After they had invested the building, sent the Post Office workers home, and run up the flag of the Irish Republic, Pearse stepped back out onto the street, and read aloud the text of the Proclamation of the Republic.  As with other kinds of rhetorical performance, this act of itself brought its object into being.

Over the last four months, Ireland has been 'celebrating' or 'commemorating' the Rising and its central figures, tenets and incidents.   Thousands of events have been held all over the country.  Some have been organised by the State, many others have been organised and run by a plethora of political, civil, local and popular bodies or institutions - towns and villages, schools and universities, unions and campaigning organisations, local history societies, academic and popular historians, political theorists, political parties, cultural groups and institutions.  For the most part, the events held appear to have been conducted in a genial and good-natured manner.  Such has been the range of events; such has been the effort made to be accessible and 'inclusive', to highlight the involvements in the Rising of women (listening to RTE or reading the Irish Times one might be forgiven for thinking that the Rising had more female participants than male), Protestants, atheists, children, eccentrics of every stripe; such has been the effort to make the large State events 'family-friendly' with music of no particular pertinence, anachronistic dance or art, speculative performance pieces (the de-politicising Toibin/Dennehy effort on Casement and Conrad); such has been the effort apparently to 'internationalise' the Rising and  its legacy, that one has the impression that the events of Easter Week 1916 themselves have been muffled, partly occluded, de-centered by context, hidden. 

Furthermore, it must be noted that the social category which has been relatively neglected in this welter of 'commemoration' is that of class.  Every commentator rightly notes the commitment and intelligence of James Connolly, but this is where the analysis tends to halt.  Connolly was a brave, clever and energetic man; he was also, utterly unapologetically, a Marxist revolutionary, and described himself as such.  He was an important leader of working-class agitation in Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century, in America from 1903 till 1910, and then again in Ireland for the rest of his life.  But he was not a lone figure, and to overlook the class ferment of Ireland in the years leading up to the Rising, and even more in its wake, is unhistorical and reductive, detaching the revolutionary elements from their social bases.

Ernest Renan, writing in 1882, famously noted how much had needed to be forgotten for the making of the French nation:  'Yet the essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things. No French citizen knows whether he is a Burgundian, an Alan, a Taifale, or a Visigoth, yet every French citizen has to have forgotten the massacre of Saint Bartholomew, or the massacre that took place in the Midi in the thirteenth century'.  Renan's wider point is that modern nations are built on foundational acts of accumulative and centralising violence even as they retroject a claim to an ancient legitimacy, and this means that our contemporary 'commemoration' of the Rising is as much about state-sanctioned forgetting as about remembrance.  This is then illustrated by timid, bungled and ignorant state-sponsored efforts such as the ludicrous video put out last year by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht under the leadership of the gormless Heather Humphreys, 'Ireland Inspires 1916', which failed almost entirely to mention the Rising while somehow including Bono, Ian Paisley, Bob Geldof and David Cameron.  

To invoke the name of a great philosopher like Gilles Deleuze after those of such mediocrities may seem bizarre, but in Logic of Sense, and A Thousand Plateaux, he produced a theory of the 'event', or more accurately a critique of the concept of the event, which has some pertinence here.  Where, he famously asked, is a 'battle'?  Everywhere on the battlefield struggles are taking place, but does the 'battle' inhere in all of them or only some?  How to choose?  For Deleuze - a little as for Stendhal in the hilarious scene in The Charterhouse of Parma where Fabrizio arrives on the field of Waterloo only to find it a confused muddle and only for him to be summarily removed from his horse and dumped on his arse in the mud - the battle is neither collective nor personal, but instead a series of individual moments that communicate without being reducible to each other.  It is anonymous, evanescent, an infinitive outside conventional time:

If the battle is not an event among others, but rather the Event in its essence, it is no doubt because it is effectuated in diverse manners at once, and because each participant may grasp it at a different level of effectuation within its variable present ... But it is above all because the battle hovers over its own field, being neutral in relation to all its temporal effectuations, neutral and impassive in relation to the victor and the vanquished, the coward and the brave; because of this, it is all the more terrible.  Never present, but always yet to come and already passed, the battle is graspable only by the will of anonymity which it itself inspires.

Deleuze argues that the way to deal ethically with such a situation is to 'will the event'. As Ronald Bogue, a leading commentator on Deleuze, puts it, '[w]hat soldiers should affirm in the battle is not so much any specific outcome as the pure event of the battle, the virtual "to battle" that plays through any of the diverse actualizations of the battle that may take place.  To be worthy of what happens is to will the virtual event immanent within one's ongoing actualization in the world'.

Deleuze describes some of the effect of the 'commemorations' of the Rising, and hints at some of the reasons that the Rising alarms the Irish state and political class so much, even to this day and why the attempts to muffle it may fail.   If the 'event' of the Rising is or has been rendered indeterminate in the way described above, then there remains the fact that it is 'always yet to come and already passed'.  To grasp the Rising in a Deleuzian manner is to affirm the 'to battle' which underpins the diverse and various actualisations of the Rising which took place.  The strength of a Deleuzian reading of the Rising and its commemoration is to find resources even in the occluding clouds of cross-hatching discourse by which 'the battle' of the GPO is accessible to us now.

Here are some decently inflammatory  readings to mark today's centenary:

First, the greatest single piece of radical commentary on the spur of events: Marx on the counter-revolution of 1851 in France, and its aftermath:

Then, Marx, just a few years earlier, theorising revolutionary philosophy by thinking through Feuerbach:

Theses on Feuerbach

Next, Walter Benjamin's great set of maxims of historical materialism, 'On the Concept of History'.  I think that sections VI, VIII, XIV and XVI, in particular, are interesting at this moment: 

Antonio Gramsci, theorising the workers' revolution in 1919:

The development of the revolution

A review of a fine new biography of Ireland's greatest Marxist activist, James Connolly:

The Real Revolutionary

A late statement in The Workers' Republic by Connolly:

We Will Rise Again

And a manifesto of resistance, rising and 'willing the event' from contemporary France:

The Coming Insurrection - About Tarnac9


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