Professor Jacqueline Rose explores the push and pull of resistance from politics across literature, feminism and psychoanalysis.
Resistance must surely be one of the most appealing, seductive words in our political lexicon.
Never more so than today in a political moment which seems to many to bear all the signs of a fascist resurgence as the election of Donald Trump, Brexit in the UK, the tightening grip of President Erdogan in Turkey, the clamp down on dissent in Hungary, the military dictatorship in Egypt, the smudging of Holocaust memory by the (mercifully unelected) Marine Le Pen in France – to name just a few instances – all seem to feed off, and intensify, a cruel, self-serving, racist, nationalism that is darkening the political skies
When Trump repeated 'America first' in his inauguration address, he may or may not have been aware that this was the clarion call of the Americans who had opposed US intervention into the Second World War, most famously Charles Lindbergh whose anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi sympathies were clear for all to see. In such moments, resistance starts to feel, not just like an obligation, or necessity, but as the only means of survival, the only means of assuaging political grief. For the millions who poured onto the streets in protest at Trump’s election, for all those who are continuing to organise across the world in the face of rampant inequality and injustice, resistance becomes, however perilous, the only way to breathe.
Resistance is also exhilarating, ramped up by its own confrontation with despair. Following the riots against then French President Nicholas Sarkozy in 2007, the protest group the Invisible Committee, launched their pamphlet on The Coming Insurrection: "From whatever angle you approach it, the present offers no way out. This is not the least of its virtues". Resistance can take on the aura of the sacred, notably with reference to Resistance to Hitler – the only version of resistance which, with its capital R, is seen to merit the status of a proper name. And it can be the object of intense longing (as in sehnsucht or yearning, which was one of Rosa Luxemburg’s favourite terms). "This word," writes Jacques Derrida with reference to the French Resistance, "which first resonated in my desire and imagination as the most beautiful word in the politics and history of my country."
If resistance is so powerful as an idea, it might also be because it is one of the rare words in our political discourse that contains at its core an acknowledgement of how difficult, as a state of being in the world, it is to achieve and maintain.
Paradoxically, the possibility of being quelled feeds the urgency of resistance.
Janus-faced it turns to a better future, while remaining alert, in every passing moment, to the possibility that it might fail. This is one reason why Howard Caygill subtitles his 2013 book on resistance 'A Philosophy of Defiance'. Resistance by definition includes the recognition that, whatever it struggles for, the powers-that-be will do everything they humanly, and inhumanly, can to resist in turn. Not for nothing do we talk of crushing resistance. Think of the modern-day manhunt which cuts down the enemy with no legal process or possible path of escape, reducing its targets from human to prey: the Indian Government’s explicitly named 'Operation Green Hunt' against Indian tribal peoples, Obama’s drones.
Resistance both enacts, and provokes in response, a desperate refusal to comply.
We do not diminish resistance as a concept if we say that it embodies an adolescent spirit, provided we add, as the feminist psychoanalytic thinker Julia Kristeva reminds us, that adolescence is the moment when the human mind first takes the measure of its own scope, when it discovers what it means in life to be propelled by an ideal. Resistance is the political term in which, whatever the dangers, we lodge our better selves for safe-keeping.
But resistance also has another aspect which is perhaps less often talked about. And that is its capacity to stir up the undercurrents of a political moment which the dominant order would prefer to hide from our sight. Resistance fighters will often appeal to the idea of self-sacrifice in a cause for which they will willingly give their lives. But they can also play on a more uncanny musical chord, as for example in the case of the mid-1990s Mexican Zapatista Liberation Movement which drew its moral authority from claiming to speak on behalf of the 'resistant dead': "Everything for everyone says our dead. Until this is true there will be nothing for us." Note how radically counterintuitive and therefore powerful is their claim. The resistant dead arrive as ghosts on the scene to issue their call for social equality and redistribution of wealth, that is, for a form of inclusiveness – 'everything for everyone’ – to remedy the flagrant iniquities of an unjust, discriminatory world. It is through the dead that the Zapatistas make their appeal to the universal dimension, death as the great equaliser that flies in the face of society’s most ruthless and violently defended distinctions (the distinction between rich and poor being the most glaring).
Here, literature – one of our primary sites for the expression of resistance – also has a key role to play. In the final volume of Philip Pulman’s famous trilogy, His Dark Materials, the main protagonist, Lyra, and her companions manage to gain access to the world of the dead. "The rich ones are the worst," says the boatman who ferries them across to the island, "snarling and savage and cursing me, railing and screaming: what did I think I was? Hadn’t they gathered and saved all the gold they could garner? Wouldn’t I take some now, to put them back ashore? They’d have the law on me… they fall silent in the end." The Zapatista’s resistance may be death-defiant but it is also through the voices of the dead that they give us a glimpse of utopia, of a truly equal world. Resisting the given order of things as drummed into us on a daily basis, such a world would expose flagrant wealth for what it truly is: not just corrupt but, in the final hour, impotent and destitute.
We might call this the psychic undercurrent of resistance, that is, its ability to tap into our inner worlds. Resistance does not just belong on the streets, but in the heart where it often finds itself at odds with our most fervent aspirations to make the world, to make the mind’s domain, a better place. For the earliest psychoanalysts, resistance referred to the rejection by polite society of the most troubling discoveries of psychoanalysis itself: the perversions of the soul, the sexual transgressions of the psyche, the violence inside each and every one of us which we always prefer to think is the exclusive property of somebody else. "We are only sorry," wrote psychoanalyst and novelist Arnold Zweig to Freud in 1930 in response to one of his mentor’s more pessimistic moments, "that you do not feel that so vital, dynamic and revolutionary a principle as yours, once launched upon the world, will continue to be effective, until it has finally overcome all the blunt resistance the world can offer." Psychoanalysis, as revolutionary impetus against the norm, felt itself besieged. As, indeed, it turned out to be. According to one story, when the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938, it was the old man in Vienna that Hitler had foremost in his sights (the Nazis burnt Freud’s books).
By the end of his life’s work, the idea of resistance darkens in Freud’s mind as it creeps into the consulting room, where it proves to be more and more obdurate, the chief obstacle to the task of psychoanalysis itself. Famously, resistance is often seen as psychoanalysis’s best tool in deflecting criticism (‘you are resisting!’). But Freud was talking about something else: more like an inertia in the human mind – he called it the death drive – which stalks our efforts at self-knowledge and blights our struggle to transform ourselves. "The 'inner world'," wrote the analyst Joan Riviere in the 1950s, "encounters a two-fold resistance": an incapacity to understand it, but more important, a passionate emotional rejection beyond the scope of reason. The mind resists knowledge. There are things we prefer not to think about. This version of resistance also resonates profoundly in today’s abject political world. The politics of fear exploited by so many leaders expertly plays on what the mind rebuffs and feels it has to protect itself against. In the recent UK Brexit referendum, 'Take Back Control,' a slogan targeted above all at migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, was the mantra on both sides.
It is perhaps for this reason that in the field of resistance, artistic, literary and cultural activity, as celebrated in many of the pieces that follow here, has such a key role to play. One example from literary writing resonates especially powerfully on the complexity of our theme. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act passed by Nehru’s government in 1958 against the secessionist Nagalese is generally recognised as the most sanguinary single piece of repressive legislation of any modern liberal democratic state. Out of the tragedy that followed – the licensed destruction of villages, the rapes and the killing – the Nagalese Resistance emerged, celebrated by the writer Temsula Ao in her 2006 collection of stories, These Hills Called Home – Stories from a War Zone. Ao does not flinch from describing the worst of what took place, alongside the acts of courage, often by women who were also the foremost targets of the government-sanctioned viciousness. But at the same time, she does not shy away from describing in no less intimate detail the violence of the Resistance fighters themselves (it is central to Caygill’s argument that resistance, most often embedded in scenarios of war, gets caught in a spiral of violence). There is a tendency to idealise resistance, and for good reason, but that should not lead us, Ao’s stories suggest, to shutting down the question of the human price paid for those who fight on its side. Remember Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth which opens with his call for insurrectionary violence and ends with his psychiatric case-studies of the deep inner torment suffered by fighters and government officials during the Algerian war, the victims and perpetrators of torture alike.
One of Temsula Ao’s stories, An Old Man Remembers, opens with a former freedom fighter resisting his grandson’s pleas to tell the story of his life in the jungle. Crippled by his own refusal to remember, he finally speaks the truth in what can only be described as a 'talking cure': "as though an ancient attic door had suddenly become unhinged and all the accumulated junk of a lifetime had come tumbling out of dusty storage spaces, threatening to engulf him". When he starts to speak it is like "the massive gush of a waterfall that threatened to drown both storyteller and listener". The story he did not want to tell is of his own lost innocence, of one particular act of violence which as a young boy he had committed with his companion against enemy combatants, whose bloody, lifeless bodies they both felt the following morning that they must return to see – out of a sense of guilt but also of shared humanity. In a single stroke, Ao takes her reader from outer to inner landscape, condensing onto the same page the political and psychic meanings of resistance. She is instructing the champions of a brutally oppressed people (resistance as uprising) to remember the worst of who they came to be (resistance as the agonies of self-knowledge, as inner psychic reckoning and pain).
As psychoanalysis also teaches us, not only individuals but also the group can be in flight from memory. Over the past two years, students in South Africa have risen up against the still present colonial heritage, the continuing racism and inequality of the post-apartheid world. While garnering widespread support, their protests have also, as I discovered during a recent visit, been met with anger and dismay – they were meant to be the 'born-frees' no longer stricken with the past iniquities of their land. Instead, by raising their voices, they are claiming their place in a history that has not gone away. We should be thankful to them for reminding us of the power of resistance to uncover the unconscious of a nation.
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Jacqueline Rose is internationally known for her writing on feminism, psychoanalysis, literature, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her books include Sexuality in the Field of Vision (1986, Verso Radical Thinkers, 2006), The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991, Virago Classics 1996), States of Fantasy (1996), The Question of Zion (2005), The Last Resistance (2007), Verso Radical Thinkers (2017), Women in Dark Times (2014) and the novel Albertine (2001). The Jacqueline Rose Reader was published in 2011. Her book on mothers will be published by Farrar Strauss Giroux, New York and Faber, London in 2018. A regular writer for The London Review of Books, she is a co-founder of Independent Jewish Voices in the UK and a Fellow of the British Academy. She is Professor of Humanities and Co-Director at Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London, and since 2016 Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Social Justice, ACU, Sydney.