Some thought the Arab Spring could not have happened without social media. But the necessity makes the means and not vice versa. May ’68 didn’t need Facebook. They had transistor radios. Kristin Ross quotes one activist:

It was instant information, and everyone could work out his own personal strategy. […] People clustered around to listen to the transistors. Then they went off again, and everyone made up his own mind after he had listened, sometimes after a quick remark to the people who had listened with him: “Well, that’s where they’re going! Let’s go see whether it’s getting hot there. We mustn’t leave the guys on their own!” Or: “That’s where we can duck out,” when one did not feel like getting into the brawl…. Listening to the transistor, I had the feeling that I was running the game.

In the aftermath, the speaker might have wondered: What was that game? Writing from Paris in June of 1968, not long after a trip to Hanoi, Mary McCarthy told Hannah Arendt, “I found the events here shaking. Hanoi was shaking too but this more because closer to home both figuratively and literally. All one’s habits, possessions, way of life, set of ideas were called into question, above all one’s critical detachment — I had not realized how detached I was.” After reading that — and sharing McCarthy’s tendency to make a vice of detachment — I had to look a little deeper into all that shaking. I found this: a remarkable piece of research, reflection, and polemic all at once — no detachment here. That almost everything we think we know about “the events” is ideologically inflected hogwash, Ross proves beyond a doubt. They were not Parisian events but French ones; it was not a student uprising but one that briefly erased the labels “student,” “worker,” “intellectual,” “farmer,” etc.; it was not a social or cultural upheaval but a political one; and so on. Okay, but when she dismisses a detractor’s charge that “nothing happened in France in ’68. Institutions didn’t change, the university didn’t change, conditions for workers didn’t change — nothing happened,” I have to wonder. Yes, something happened in the moment, with echoes that went on resonating for a few more years — but really, what long-term upshot did it have? That it’s hard to point to one is sobering, and to brush that aside seems to me too much like turning an uprising into (an unfortunate understanding of) a work of art: useless, complete in and of itself, to be admired, wondered at, and taken as exemplary. From May ’68 to the Arab Spring and Occupy, these beautiful apparitions, so easily quashed, can seem in retrospect a great argument for Leninism, and I can’t help sympathizing with, of all people, the embittered Maoist veteran of May, quoted by Ross, who came away from it with the lesson: “Never seize speech without seizing power.” Except that anyone who thinks they know how to do that is probably deluded.

Kristin Ross’s May ’68 and Its Afterlives (2002) is published by University of Chicago Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

The Latest

Required Reading

This week, Godard’s anti-imperialism, in defense of “bad” curating, an inexplicable statue, criminalizing culture wars, and more.

Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso,...