Writing in 1974, long after the revolutionary misfirings of May 1968 had fizzled out, the French queer theorist Guy Hocquenghem recognized that we could not, “like a dog retracing its steps to smell the places where it has pissed,” return to the same strategies that animated the failed insurrection against the capitalist order—in Paris and across the world—six years earlier. Mere revolution, simply “turning the wheel around the untouched center,” would not suffice; inevitably, the revolution sours, compromises are reached, and the staid, miserable institutions once destined for the junkyard are returned to their places, perhaps with a new coat of paint.
Instead, Hocquenghem saw the need for a multiplicity of volutions aimed at “digging up the structure wherever one can undermine it.” Social reality must be “cut up”—the family abolished, “stable” gender and sexual identities dissolved—if we are to have any chance of putting a stop to capitalism’s depraved indifference. No small order.
An essential complement to his groundbreaking text Homosexual Desire, the writings collected in Gay Liberation After May ’68 (originally published in 1974, though only now appearing in English) and excerpted here, offer a guidebook for our perilous moment, when the forces of reaction have toughened their assault, cheating to abolish rights we once thought secure, all while bitching of the left’s contempt for civility. The capitalist system may appear to glitch like a mortally wounded slot machine, but we cannot afford to let the chips fall where they may.
An attitude that would no longer even be revolutionary in the sense of reversal return . . . but volutionary, in the sense of Wille [will], in the sense of willing whatever is possible.
—Jean-Françoise Lyotard, “A Fanatical Capitalism,” Critique, November 1972
We will no longer do Re-, the laurels are cut. Recap, resent, rehash, repeat—they were right to baptize May a “dress rehearsal.” There is no Re-volution, we no longer want to share the prefixes that moor the flight of our wills, their overflow dissolving our powers. Above all when these prefixes reinfect us with their sickness of the past: the tradition of the worker movement, their stupid idea of change; we rehash other ideas and restart civilization—the same civilization we want to forget. Changing words while keeping the prefixes—and thus Revolution becomes reactionary.
That is to say that here we are not recapitulating or making a revolution. The desired disruption can’t be reduced to repainting in red, to returning everything to its place, to paying off the debts of the proletariat—in short, to making a revolution, a world turned upside down, showing the real truth of its hypocritical intentions, merely turning the wheel around the untouched center: Man, his wife, and his children.
Without Law or Self
The revolutionary side only exists “in relation to”: in relation to the bourgeois world against which it wants to rise up. Its existence only lays claim to the assumed debts of the exploiters. An especially fake claim since capital tends toward a cynicism where it drags along a growing part of the population that is mesmerized by the media. Why invoke justice, demand so-called rights for the oppressed, when the system answers, “the real guilty ones are the victims and not the assassins”? When, in the U.S.A., members of the military who are guilty of genocide, like Lieutenant Calley, get called misunderstood heroes? When we see leftist campaigns face not the incomprehension, but the actual hostility of the “people”? . . . We can’t—we can no longer—count on bourgeois guilt. The revolutionary side plays the game of morality while capital cheats and wins.
To be revolutionary or not, to take it or leave it, to be in or out. Leftist superiority, the irrevocable judgment of revolutionary normality. Sacred words—revolution more than any other . . . It’s not even about choosing between bourgeois vice or its opposite, the virtue of revolutionaries. This is what the latter hide from us, with their mythology of the “revolutionary subject,” “the proletariat,” and their sacrosanct “strategy”: the immense number of paths unexplored, untraveled, or abandoned too early.
If we add up the tracks in question with the encompassing term cultural revolution, we might win the respect of Leninists and the bourgeois, whatever the case may be. But we then lose the invaluable splintering of all the false alliances. We lose it because this packaging kicks off the game of representation, where they speak in the name of and in the place of the so-called totality about the results of an exploration they haven’t even made. Above all, we lose hopelessly if we are blackmailed by revolutionary bias and accept the lowest common denominator: revolutionary politics as the phallic culmination of all the local organizing. This universal currency makes all strategies interchangeable; this steady compromise between ideological imperialisms consolidates the revolutionary side like gold consolidates the bourgeois side, where we can count, measure, compare the forces of each.
We have no need to measure our upheavals by this abstract universal standard, the “Revolution,” which invariably lets the bourgeois see the level of danger—measures it, localizes it, and confines it. Instead, we should be going in all directions. Shaking off the civilizing power that tails us. Digging up the structure wherever one can undermine it. Always surprising the enemy from behind. Never being exactly where they expect. And so it becomes obvious: there is no revolutionary subject, no subject at all. There are historical drives that make this piece of our social skin bristle, that make that organ of our social body quiver. By breaking away from our identities, we are without limits to our passions.
Of course, at first we invoked our multiple selves against the despotic Grand Subject of History, treating them as irreducible. But when brought fully into light, this self—which they have used to scare and shame us—actually describes our real strengths, which spring up, wild and unsuspected. The trap of subjectification—which puts all of reality under the domination of the subject—vanishes. By looking at ourselves instead of hiding and whimpering, grumbling, fighting against the misery of the world, we have seen our image decompose, our self shrivel, crack, shatter into pieces thrown to the four corners of the universe right before our eyes.
Civilization: The Nervous Breakdown
But at the heart of its troubles the dying civilization finds an effective venom to inject in us: the arsenic of the Crisis. For minds immune to the fascisms, the wars, consumerism and other even stronger emotions, only the scene of the millennium can still control the bleeding of the old world’s credibility. The form of the apocalypse is a convenient representation to give to the wish to be done with the old codes, to contain, drown, and defuse possible outbreaks.
A horror show. Strange shocks quake a fissured ground. Noxious gases escape, heralding the mysterious birth pangs that gasp from below, creating inconceivable monsters for us. In the minds of the elderly, wars without a Red Cross; for much of the youth, the end of capitalist growth and the return to an ecological prehistory. The Crisis steps up its theatrics: only pompous speech can pull together a decomposing social body in the midst of terror, and breathe the semblance of a soul into the rule of Capital.
No more controlling history. After the misfire of revolution, after the failure of the hope born after-May of fashioning a social reality by will alone, comes the great black hole “from which we will never return,” the doomsday device of a crisis that no one can do anything about, even the militants advocating “human responsibility.” Farewell, progress of Man, enlightened and scientific. Farewell also to his mirror image, the Revolution as pinnacle of social progress, the highest realization of humanity. Greetings to the monsters of the historical unconscious, a procession of unused pyres and slums, pyres and mysticisms, comets and regressions.
The wheel of history turns like mad, with the danger of dislocating or decentering the earth’s axis. It will turn backward from now on toward a new Middle Age. The end of dialectical temporality: who would dare brag again that Crisis breeds Revolution? There’s no point in acting, fighting, writing, the tragic voice screams: what will remain when the hell of Crisis is unleashed? Impossible to wish when all that remains is for the rats to find a calm corner in the ship tossed about by the hurricane. The repetition of terror, not of orgasm, takes hold.
This is what the most shocking geopolitical management is trying to establish today, a social energy crisis that could empty hearts and bodies. An extraction of the new energies unveiled by the outbreak of deconstructive desires. A good dose of collapse, of pileup, of weakening of productive forces but also of forces of desire. A grand battle in our brains on a planetary scale, and the stakes are no longer only the pumping of black gold, but also the hijacking [détournement] and—why not?—the drying up of desire.
The great multinational soft machine tries to achieve dehumanization in the face of the desiring flood, to outstrip it by eroding vital power through a brutal devaluation of hopes. A terrible branding is restored. The law of the great transcendent power, which must be terrible and imposing since in the end the supposedly orgasmic fires of consumerism have only heated up volutionary desires instead of satisfying and sedating them. Since you don’t want to be sated, you will be bludgeoned [matraqués] by that shadowy repression emerging from nowhere, the Crisis. The thrill of the great unknown we were promised only turns out to be the forerunner of a long bed rest. The little desires are put to bed—here comes the great corpse.
We already knew that we didn’t know what awaited us—and that is what inspired us. Give to this unknown the mask of the Crisis, and game over, the enemy exorcized. Tragic superiority and historical fatalism—those old and repulsive fogeys—replace the coming attraction. The Crisis is Mr. Thiers suppressing the commune of our desires, the Versailles of difficult necessity gunning down the hopes of after-May. Man is once again wolf to man—moreover, he had never ceased being a wolf according to the phony appearances of indefinite progress. You know it well, you have shouted about it enough, so what are you complaining about?
Besides, the Crisis is the ultimate cure for boredom—Viansson-Ponté’s topic. The refreshing and merry Crisis for those rallied by a new Bastille Day. New scam. A con trick to trap the desire for change. The final manipulation of desire for jouissance turned into desire for repression and apocalypse. Civilization and its discontents instead of liberation of flux. The last seduction: the multinational octopus brings you its new show, melodrama where farce failed. The face of the death drive tops off the dance of civilization. Through the looking glass of the end of history, our eyes do not see Alice’s field of speaking flowers, but instead the bitter return toward the difficult periods of humanity.
There are also the perverts of the Crisis, those who anticipate the orgy of the great catastrophe. The old morality buried, here come the cynics, sequined and made-up, ready to drink champagne in the ruins. Decadents like Bowie, bittersweet salon queens, snobs of the latest fashion, who come to lick the feet of the great collapse. Confusing decryption and decadence, apostles of the fin de siècle trend of an end of world ideology, they turn the call for the transversal into a scandal in the halls of the Académie française. They get the nervous pleasure of believing in their elegance during the crisis of civilization. Glorifying the corrupt. In short, just another way of reattaching to the civilized world and its fantasies. Even if it means playing the unworthy children, wasteful heirs participating in the furious potlatch of the collapse of values: debilitating and egotistical claim of being the last debauchees, and not the first mutants.
Enough of the hopeless ones easily softened by their own fates. Ex-militants doomed to getting high joylessly, who have already seen everything but not lived at all. In their own eyes, born too late in a world too old—already an old tune. Ridiculous like children born late to that elderly couple, fascism and fashion. In a new 1929, we have new Cocteaus; it’s once again “Surprise me, Jean,” without surprise but drunk with remorse. Pleasure is reclaimed from failure by those who find themselves agreeably kept by the future fascisms, failed copies of a Maurice Sachs or of those women shaved by the Liberation, swimming in caviar that tastes like ashes. Images only good for selling the idea of “no longer believing in anything,” as if it were a question of belief. Not beyond, but on this side of Good and Evil. The allure of an unhappy consciousness nurturing its unhappiness with the pleasure of dancing on the volcano. Such is the libidinal charm of the fascism cropping up today.
But why bother enjoying the leftovers and burning their ships in the final party of ressentiment? We are talking about going elsewhere, leaving the ideological rot still studded with glitter; splitting, no longer giving in to the civilized neuroses tasting of angst. The fumes of the contemporary nervous breakdown only affect weak heads. That doesn’t mean taking pleasure in the chance of being born during an epoch doomed to decay. On the contrary, let’s speak, let’s take action, let’s cut into this flaccid reality of twentieth-century daily life. Let’s get rid of the embittered implications heavy with meaning that give our actions the perfume of disillusioned, aged youth. Putting on makeup, dancing, making love, should not imply merging into the sickening slime of the suffering of the final days.
— January 1974
From Gay Liberation After May ’68 by Guy Hocquenghem, translated by Scott Branson. Copyright Duke University Press 2022.