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The Legacy of May '68 in the Era of Consensus Joan Brandt THE QUESTION OF REVOLT and of its very possibility was clearly on the minds of the French in the spring of 1998, exactly 30 years after the tumultuous student-worker revolt of May 1968. The occasion was commemorated throughout the month of May on French television and radio as well as in printed publications—which included not only the major French newspapers and magazines, but some 200 books placed on display in various bookstores throughout Paris. Despite the proliferation of commentary, however , or perhaps because of it, our understanding of the events remains no more complete than it was 30 years ago. Indeed, the many tracts, documentaries and analyses that have been published over the years serve only to underscore the complete lack of agreement among critics as to the ultimate meaning of those events. And a quick perusal of the May 1998 commemorative issue of Magazine littéraire shows that little progress has been made in that regard, for there are still many conflicting readings of May '68. Some critics continue to claim that the insurrection provided a radical critique of the capitalist order and its bourgeois values, while others insist that the struggle for individual autonomy became nothing more than another stage in the development of bourgeois individualism and thus served the political and economic needs of the capitalist system. Among the many contradictory analyses generated during the post-May period, however, the one view that does seem to prevail among the majority of critics is that, given the ultimate failure of the student rebels to effect any real political change, the events of May '68 marked a significant turning point in the French consciousness, setting into motion a process that ultimately brought the myth of revolution to an end. That process, which began with the betrayal of May '68's revolutionary ethos following De Gaulle's reinstatement by an overwhelmingly popular majority and which was reinforced by the eventual disaffection among French intellectuals with Marxist-Leninist revolutionary ideals, is itself subject to multiple interpretations—with one version claiming that the exhaustion of France's revolutionary heritage signals the advent of the postmodern, bringing with it the demise of aesthetic avant-gardism and a questioning of the concept of universal emancipation upon which all revolutionary, avant-gardist notions depend. In this case, the exhaustion of France's revolutionary heritage reflects not only a profound disenchantment with revolutionary action, which, Vol. XLI, No. 1 3 L'Esprit Créateur whether it be that of the aesthetic avant-garde or the French revolutionary "Terror" of 1789, often becomes just as oppressive as the social order it sets out to oppose. It also stems from an outright mistrust of the philosophical precepts upon which the revolutionary model is founded. Indeed, if the myth of revolution has been called into question, it is because such "metanarratives" of political emancipation have been caught up in what has been described as a generalized crisis in the narrative function, recognized less for its truth value and more for its role in maintaining power and control. In this case, the revolutionary myth of human liberation comes to be seen as a remnant of a "totalizing " philosophical tradition whose unifying and legitimating constructions conceal the fact that an exclusionary and potentially oppressive logic often undergirds such appeals to universality. The other version, which moves in a completely different direction, retains many of the values of the modernist tradition by discussing the exhaustion of France's revolutionary heritage in terms of an emerging democratic consensus. In this instance, the revolutionary model has not been challenged on philosophical grounds but on the grounds that radical political change is, in effect, no longer necessary, that with the collapse of Marxism and the end of the Cold War, division and class conflict belong to the past, having been replaced by what Jean-Joseph Goux and Philip R. Wood describe in the introduction to their recent collection of essays Terror and Consensus as a progressive "normalization " of French society based on the formation of a "consensus" around the fundamental values of "the West"—"democracy, liberal capitalism and human rights."1...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-0234
Print ISSN
0014-0767
Pages
pp. 3-7
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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