4 minute read



La Résistance was the name adopted by the French citizens who fought against the Nazi occupation of France. But the specter of oppression didn't disappear with the defeat of Fascism in the postwar West. Instead, totalizing power was identified everywhere and resistance was redefined as an everyday battle with no end in sight.

This total resistance against totality finds its roots in existentialism. Existentialists argued that the fate of humanity is to choose and to act; indeed, it is only in these actions that one defines who one is. "Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself," Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) writes in Existentialism Is a Humanism (1946; p. 349). If the importance of action (or resistance) was once judged on its efficacy in bringing about (or protecting) an ideal or country, Sartre was now arguing that it was the choice, and the action that follows, which matters. In the Myth of Sisyphus (1955), Albert Camus (1913–1960) retells the tale of Sisyphus, condemned for eternity by the gods to roll a rock up a hill only to watch it roll back down again. In this task Camus identifies the human condition as being condemned to an action that brings no certain result, but also finding definition—and happiness—in the absurd and ceaseless labor.

In 1961 Erving Goffman (1922–1982), an American sociologist influenced by the existentialists, wrote Asylums (1961), discussing "total institutions." Observing patients in a mental asylum, Goffman agued that the job of total institutions is to create—or recreate—their charge's identity in order to integrate them into the world. Individuals, however, don't always do what they should. The patients Goffman observed elided institutional demands and created an "underlife" where different values reigned. Indeed, it was in resisting the definitions pressed upon them that inmates of institutions developed their own sense of identity. Asylums was an implicit critique of the postwar "Free World" of big business and the welfare state, mass media, and compulsory education. But, Goffman argues, this institutionalization and homogenization of thought and behavior need not lead only to despair, for as Goffman's mental patients taught him, "It is against something that the self can emerge" (p. 320).

Meanwhile, youth cultures such as the beatniks, and later the hippies, were busy acting out identities of resistance, defining themselves by what they were not as much as what they were ("I'm gonna wave my freak flag high," sang Jimi Hendrix in 1968). The freak, mental patient, artist, native, and resurrecting an old ideal of nineteenth-century anarchism, the criminal, were celebrated (and idealized) in their "otherness"; their resistance—conscious or not—to the world of the white-collared conservative. In 1968 the world seemed to explode. Vietnamese nationalists were defeating the most powerful military in the world, U.S. college campuses and urban ghettoes were in upheaval, young people stood up to dictatorships in Mexico City and Prague, and perhaps most dramatic of all, students and workers, together, took to the streets of Paris in May 1968. The world was rocked to its core, yet politically little seemed to change: the ruling powers in these countries continued to rule.

In Paris of the 1960s Michel Foucault (1926-1984), like Gofffman, was examining total institutions such as prisons, asylums, and schools, but the French intellectual was interested in institutions of the mind as well, such as disciplinary boundaries and classification systems. The failures of the political resistance in 1968 confirmed what Foucault had already known: that power was not something out there—easy to identify and to overthrow. Instead it was everywhere, "the disciplinary grid of society," which was continuous, anonymous, intimate, and even pleasurable (1980, p. 111). Whereas previous critics of totalitarianism, from the left and the right, elevated the ideal of the individual subject resisting against totalizing society, Foucault countered that the individual was itself problematic. This Enlightenment creature that made new ideals of personal freedom possible also opened up a new site of oppression: the individual's mind, body, and spirit. Because power is impressed upon and internalized into the subject, it raises the vexing problem of who resists and what exactly are they resisting. Can one resist the very subject thing doing the resisting?

Resistance remains a stated goal for Foucault, but it must be reconceptualized. The ideal of developing the pure subject in opposition to the corrupting object of society must be rejected. "Maybe the target nowadays," he suggests, "is not to discover what we are, but to refuse what we are" (1984, p. 22). Foucault's refusal to provide an answer, to spell out what the resistant subject is for or against, is characteristic, as it is the answer, the category, the truth which constrains us most of all.

In his essay, "The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media" (1985) the playful postmodernist Jean Baudrillard (b. 1929) extends Foucault's ideas to their—perhaps illogical—conclusion. Baudrillard argues that strategies of resistance always change to reflect strategies of control. Against a system that excludes or represses the individual, the natural demand is one of inclusion: to become a subject. This, however, is not the modern world. In twenty-first century Western society people are bombarded with appeals for their participation: "Vote!" and "This Bud's for You," and yet they also know that their choice or vote matters little. Against a system that justifies and sustains its existence by the consent (or consumer purchases) of those it governs, the masses have devised their strategy of resistance: apathy—"a spontaneous, total resistance to the ultimatum of historical and political reason" (p. 588). Popular politics is "no longer a question of revolution but of massive devolution … a massive desisting from will" (p. 586). It is a resistance to resistance.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Reason to RetrovirusResistance - Conservative Roots, Anti-colonial Resistance, Totality, Cultural Resistance, Resistance Refuted And Reimagined