For leftists, Le musee du Carnavalet, a free museum tucked away in the Parisian Marais, is a treasure trove. The museum presents the history of the city of Paris, depositing artifacts, paintings, and relics of the tortured history of this tortured city. Paris has long captivated the leftist imagination, not simply for its prominence in literature nor only for its demonstrated and longstanding left resistance, but precisely because of its history. Paris, the city of 100,000 novels as Balzac once called it, is singular in its revolutionary history — the site of the decapitation of the king, the streets barricaded during the commune, the vibrancy of the resistance movement during the Nazi occupation, the bravery of Algerian resistance fighters during the struggle for decolonization.
Those interested in the Carnavalet's Revolution collection usually come to marvel at Couthon's chair, displayed in the middle of the room, or to look at Saint Just's pistol, to have their hearts palpitate at Robespierre's membership card to the Cordelier club. These artifacts of history, these possessions of great men, they are no doubt inspiring. And standing in front of it, my partner and I even joked that one day, we could use the lock of Robespierre's hair to do a Jurassic Park style resurrection. There is a kind of awe and grandeur imbued in these objects that the revolutionary heart of mine aches for in longing. One feels inaugurated into the gravity and the force of Revolutionary history, with all its contentions, struggles, vanities, sacrifices, and torrid demises by standing before it.
This part of the collection, the great things of great men, is complemented by another, a more understated assemblage of objects, but one which might, for all that, be more important. This aspect of the exhibition contains the quotidian objects of the revolution, the quotidian objects made revolutionary objects, the ordinarily mundane and unremarkable things that encased the daily experience of the Revolution. Tobacco containers emblazoned with revolutionary slogans, pocketwatches engraved with images of the guillotine, armoires and figurines and inkwells with depictions of what the revolution had done and what, still, it could become.
These ordinary things owned by ordinary people — these are the revolutionary objects that captivated this leftist's imagination and tender heart.
I do not mean this as a glorification of the common or a declaration of the necessity of a history of the demos — or at least, I don't mean only that. I mean rather that there is something about revolution that only makes sense when the ideas, moments, declarations, and aspirations saturate the field of life so that every object, no matter how mundane, stands as a confirmation and testament.
Marxist critic Walter Benjamin once wrote in a letter to Gershom Sholem that after the revolution, everything would be the same but just a little bit different. Everything would be the same and yet everything would be different. We think often about the great structures, the big things which would be different: the organization of production and reproduction, the redistribution of resources, the rebuilding of vital and resilient commons, the freedom of knowledge, and education, the end to the misery, toil, and alienation which structures existence under capitalism. But I think we rarely think of the little things which would also be just a little bit different — the way that a sweater would feel different against the skin, the way the palate would shift, the slight alteration in the matrix of sensibility which would change, only a little, but decisively, the content and form of experience itself. And when we do consider these things, they seem to mere afterthoughts, addenda to the much more important project of political reorganization.
It might seem absurd to claim a stark difference in the experience of drinking morning coffee from a mug with a radical slogan, and more absurd still to deem it the necessary complement to revolutionary politics; in fact, it might seem not just absurd, but pernicious, a very slippery and icy slope toward the position that consumption is revolution. This latter position is indeed unconscionable; it interprets the guillotine pocket-watch as a tactic: if we just produce enough iconography, surely radicalization will follow. This position, I think, is incredibly naïve. It instrumentalizes objects so as to aestheticize or "radicalize" everyday life. Rather, I think, the meaning of combs emblazoned with symbols of solidarity, of streets named after antifascist activists, of the permeation of liberatory narratives and icons, are revolutionary only when seen as the effects of shifts in consciousness, sensibilities, desires, modes of living and creating that the word 'revolution' promises to hold. The discourse of class consciousness, so problematic and broken in so many ways, in this case obscures the entirely other aspect of revolution: the development of class sensibility. Instead of the idealism of class consciousness, we must begin to develop theories of the materialism of class objectivity, class embodiment.
Contemporary leftism falters on the question of class consciousness. If asked, the leftist will tell you that the French Revolution or the Commune erupted because of a critical saturation of working class consciousness. The problem in the contemporary world, they say, is that the "people" — from whom they are always, even if only implicitly, separate — don't understand that they are exploited. But perhaps it is that they understand too well. Does anyone really believe that the families of Ferguson don't understand that we live under a system of racist exploitation? That the people of Detroit who have had their access to water shutoff because decades of de-industrialization has left them unable to pay their bills don't? The millions of undocumented workers who have fled suffocating conditions of neocolonialsm? Does anyone believe that as a class, as a nation, as a stratum of dispossessed, we don't understand that we are the latest whipping children for four centuries of racist, sexist, heteronormative, ableist, capitalist accumulation? And does anyone believe that the tenured professors in the hallowed halls of the academy, with access to all of the data and analysis in the world — does anyone believe that they have been made better revolutionaries for their "consciousness"?
What if, rather, when asked about the French Revolution, the Commune, the Black Panthers, the Algerian War — what if, when asked about uprisings and insurrections, we spoke rather of aesthetics? What if, instead of romanticizing the politics of insurgency, we endeavored to feel it? We might be able to avoid the trap of tearing down old idols and creating more anew, of treating the vital legacies of resistance as static facts to be mined and applied, as though revolutions could be churned out on a factory belt, all identical and neatly in a row. There are indeed times when past revolutions are available to us by their analyses, their strategies, their tactics; but more often, the lesson of past revolutions is not nearly so didactic. They bequeath rather a mode of seeing, of experiencing, of witnessing the unraveling of a broken world. They bequeath a revolutionary aesthetics.
What do we mean by "aesthetics"? A mode of sensibility. The way in which one feels the world, the way it feels to the body, and the mind. A frame of interpretation experienced in the minutia of sensory and affective experience. In this way, developing an aesthetics of resistance is always more than what we usually call “art” or even “craft”, however loosely we might use these terms. Such an aesthetic would allow us, not to see something we've never seen, but to see differently altogether. A revolutionary aesthetics would allow us to see, feel, experience differently, to experience every moment as a potential opening, however small, into a world of possibility that we might not be able to describe, but we can feel acutely, even if only ever by its absence.
While philosophical paradigms of dualisms are unhelpful when conceived as brute ontological facts, there is at least one way in which the old dichotomy between reason and sensibility speaks to a certain truth about the present condition. The more we know about the systematic exploitation we call capitalism, the more we know about the ways it infects every activity, every thought, every movement, every breath, the less we might be able to feel, or even imagine feeling, the openings of its destruction. If we know too well, if we know what we are up against, if we can chart its histories, spout its statistics, explain its formulae, this knowledge runs the risk of desensitizing us to our real experiences of something that might be other. As situationist Raoul Vanegeim wrote, “People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have corpses in their mouths.”
One shouldn't read this analysis as a polemic against theory. On the contrary, I think we have much too little theory in our lives (though, of course, the social organization of the production and distribution, to say nothing of the definition and purview, of theory must be radically and constitutively transformed if it is to make good on the possibilities it holds for us). Rather, it is an exhortation to think the conditions under which certain ideas resonate and reverberate, how and why the idea of resistance becomes liveable.
The French Revolution — just like all revolutions, revolts, insurrections, insurgencies — did not happen because the women of Paris read tactical tracts on the necessity of marches, because the people of France read disputations on the logical inconsistencies of theories of divine right. And it was because that aesthetic, that ability to feel, imagine, and experience the world as otherwise was a collective project.
Martinique-an revolutionary Frantz Fanon spoke about the habituation of life under colonial capitalism as more than an internalization of ideas, but as an "epidermalization" of modes of existence. One of the most eloquent explorations of what I have been calling a "class sensibility," The Wretched of the Earth (Les Damnees du Terre) charts the ways in which the violence of this world becomes the skin we all live in, even as it constructs black skin and white skin (and brown skin and queer skin and black queer skin and... ) under different modes of violence. The sensuous skin, our material interface of sensibility with the world, has been made in capitalism's image, a grotesque creation story in which we are all damnees. It is not our consciousness which has been malformed, but our bodies, our skin, our eyes, our tongues, which bear the world into which we were born. Or rather, it is because our bodies have been abused, beaten, normalized, disciplined, dehumanized, disregarded, and exploited, that our consciousness reflects the broken conditions of the world. Our bodies are battlegrounds. And revolution, as Fanon reminds us, is not only about rebuilding a new world from the ashes of the old, but building a new humanity, one enveloped in different skin, one that feels differently.
As good historical materialists, we know that our bodies have histories and those histories themselves have histories. We know also that that ideology springs directly from material conditions. Why are we so reluctant to merge these two insights, to consider that revolution itself would be grounded in the way our bodies feel, react, interpret, sense the brokenness of the world?
To make good on this provocation, we would need neither the aestheticization of politics nor the politicization of aesthetics, but rather a materialization of both aesthetics and politics, a regrounding of political consciousness in the every day and a reanchoring of aesthetics in the body's sensory capacities. What would it mean to live in a society in which all of our bodies pulsed with rage every time a Trayvon Martin or a Mike Brown was slaughtered by the police state? What would it mean to collectively develop a vision in which the sight of homelessness made all of our eyes bleed? What would it mean for our skin to burn at the news of Marissa Alexander's incarceration or CeCe McDonald's or Monica Jones'? What would it mean for the lived realities of others to reverberate so deeply within us that we felt their pain as acutely as our own?
That would be the revolution — of everyday aesthetics.