“The spectacle of contestation is here; contest the spectacle,” declared one of the many phrases graffitied on the walls of the Sorbonne, on the posters, the songs and pamphlets during the May 1968 revolts in France. The aesthetics of Atelier Populaire, a printing cooperative that grew out of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, has inspired an entire generation of “protest artists”: from Basquiat to Banksy, from the Situationists to the Stone Roses. The artistic cooperative’s catchphrases—“be realistic; demand the impossible,” or “it’s forbidden to forbid”—might come across as tacky today. Despite this, the Atelier Populaire’s visual language still reflects the immense potency of the revolutionary spirit.
Francophile filmmaker Wes Anderson has released his long-awaited movie-spectacle The French Dispatch, with the film’s second vignette, “Revisions to a Manifesto,” serving as a homage to the Parisian student revolts of May ’68 and its propagandistic aesthetics (or aesthetic propaganda?). As the most recent commodification of May ’68 mythology (to mark its fiftieth anniversary, Dior and Gucci have respectively launched a celebratory collection and May ’68-themed campaign in 2018, for example), Anderson’s portrait of the revolutionary events, which he paints as carrying no political weight whatsoever, may after all be closer to the reality of ’68 than any of the political reconstructions and intellectual glorifications that have dominated public memory. Have we who know ’68 only through revisionist mythology been fooled about its cultural and political significance? The spectacle of contestation is here; let’s contest the spectacle.
In popular memory, and with the possible exception of the Occupy movement, May ’68 comprised a final glimpse of the possibility of revolution in Europe—not just a contestation focused on political institutions, but on society and life in general. A missed opportunity, perhaps. Largely ignoring how diffuse the social upheaval actually was, narratives of single-minded individual heroism still dominate the reappraisal today: Jean-Paul Sartre, Rudi Dutschke, Jean-Luc Godard, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, to name but a few. What is more, attempts at classifying the events of May ’68 have the tendency to incorporate the causes of later social movements and cultural trends into that conglomerate of progressive disillusionment and moral relativism that is the May mythology. A revisionist mythology that persists. There’s the Feminist May, the Interventionist May, the Marxist May, the Utopian May, the Existentialist May, the Situationist May and the May of Charles de Gaulle, which is usually forgotten.
Wes Anderson belongs to a generation of political theorists, activists and artists whose ideas of May ’68 have been shaped by its commemoration, not through the event itself. His rendition of May ’68 is a non-May in many respects. For a scene that portrays student revolutionaries demanding change on the streets of Ennui-sur-Blasé (yes, that’s the name of Anderson’s fictional Paris), “Revisions to a Manifesto” is preposterously—yet perhaps accurately—under-politicized. It sits as one of the “articles” in Anderson’s meta-narrative which is the The French Dispatch, a France-based journal of politics, poetry, taste and smell and the arts, written by expat American journalists. The French Dispatch is not literally based on the New Yorker, but it was “totally inspired by it,” says Anderson in an interview for that very same publication. When Anderson first discovered the world of literary magazines in high school, and especially the New Yorker, he gravitated to the short stories—fodder for a budding screenwriter. At university in Austin, Texas, he would dig deep into to archives of his local library to pluck out old volumes, with an express interest in finding some hitherto unread J. D. Salinger story. The French Dispatch is the reverse-emigrated Francophile’s love poem to the artful, sagacious, amusing magazine scene that exploded out of the café-lined cities of Europe, launching a generation of writers and artists, and giving a voice to a fleeting feeling of liberation, one for which many Americans—most prominently perhaps James Baldwin—were leaving home.
Have those types of magazines any claim to genuine political relevance, or is it, as The French Dispatch seems to suggest, aesthetics all the way down? Today’s New Yorker, alongside many other progressive literary magazines, has fashioned itself as a serious political publication that approaches politics “Gramsci-style”—through the arts and culture. One could read Anderson—whose colorful, twee aesthetic often eclipses the content of his films—then, as a critic of this ephemeral approach to politics, or The French Dispatch as a comment on the pretensions to political relevance of these (arguably niche) magazines. Or one could see The French Dispatch as a sincere, if slightly devious, homage to the revolutions in lifestyle that constituted, for many artists, writers and magazine editors in Anderson’s generation, the true legacy of ’68.
“Revisions to a Manifesto” sees a middle-aged journalist, Lucinda Krementz—a character loosely based on Mavis Gallant, a Paris-based Canadian short-story writer known for her portrait of the demonstrations in the French capital, “The Events in May: A Paris Notebook”)—having an affair with the juvenile-yet-charismatic revolutionary leader Zeffirelli, whose “manifesto” she copyedits. The political substance of the revolution is kept elusive, deliberately, I assume. Political mantras in the style of the Atelier Populaire, however, bordering on the nonsensical, abound: “Tout Éducation Est Une Forme De Lavage De Cerveau” [All education is a form of brainwashing], “Nous Sommes Ne Pas ‘Sleepy’!” [We are not ‘sleepy’!], the punchy “Nothing Doing,” the juicy “Free Access to The Girls’ Dormitory.” Anderson refers to the revolutionaries themselves as Le Sans Blague (which, coincidentally, is the name of the Rive Gauche-styled café in which the young revolutionaries plot the upheaval, and most likely Anderson’s allusion to the sans-culottes, the militant partisans of the French Revolution). The revolutionaries in “Revisions to a Manifesto” do not get bogged down in political strategy, or in discussing the ethics of revolution; instead Anderson centers the “touching narcissism of the young.” The youth, the fictional journalist reports, want “freedom”—as empty a political buzzword as can be. They demand the freedom to “disagree.” But to disagree with what, exactly? They “obliterated a thousand years of republican authority in less than a fortnight,” we are told. And what did they seek to replace it with? Anderson doesn’t answer.
Aesthetically, “Revisions to a Manifesto” bears the influence of the French New Wave. It is Anderson’s ode to Jean Renoir and Jean-Luc Godard. The sequence shifts (with no evident reason) between textured black and white and a cool-toned, rose-quartz color palette. The film frequently hopscotches between aspect ratios, and occasionally detours into animation. Politically speaking, Anderson’s May ’68 is as blank as his color visuals. Brushes with racism or the carceral complex are glossed over. The mood is droll throughout, suggesting nothing of real importance is at stake in the revolution. Zeffirelli’s manifesto—the corpus eponymus—remains “up for revision.” The revolt’s slogan—“The Youth Are Grumpy”—is a belittling and yet almost amusingly apt caricature of today’s (for-future) protest culture: its self-referentiality, the poster girls, the shallow political demands. For what it’s worth, though, Anderson’s take on May ’68 may be closer to the actual spirit of ’68 than any of the retrospectively imposed and over-politicized meta-narratives.
Other notable representations of the soixante-huitards have been no less skeptical of their long-term political significance. The British journalist Gudie Lawaetz stitched together hours and hours of archive footage chronicling all the turning points of the revolts. It answers the question of what happened in May ’68 so conclusively that following alternative narratives seems almost futile. Very much like Anderson, Romain Goupil closes in on May ’68 as a period of identity-seeking, of sexual experiments, high-flying intellectualism and artistic exploration. His 1982 film Half a Life pictures the great euphoria of the attempted revolutionary and the even greater dysphoria that came after. The pinnacle, however, of the “nonchalant boho students living in Paris during the revolution, making art and smoking opium” genre is perhaps Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, which takes May ’68 as little more than a backdrop for explorations into polyamory.
Importantly, there is more than one “real story” of ’68, and which one you get will depend on whether it is being told from the perspective of its different characters: the students, the workers and the government. What most reconstructions have so far ignored is that underneath the intellectual scaffolding provided by Sartre & Co there yawned a gulf between how the workers saw the events of ’68 and what those same developments meant to the students. Meanwhile, when the initial excitement of May had ebbed out and the police retook the Sorbonne on June 16th, both the worders and the students would take a back seat to de Gaulle’s government, which won the greatest victory in French parliamentary history (his party took 353 seats versus the Socialists’ meagre 57). Contrary to being an exercise in utopian thinking for which May ’68 is usually praised, the events of May tell a success story about the craft of maintaining the status quo. Mavis Gallant, writing for the New Yorker, summarized the post-68 Stimmung: “We are all living in a future, in something that has not taken place.” De Gaulle’s anti-May eventually made the day. La lutte didn’t continue.
The civil unrest began with a series of student protests against capitalist consumerism, the government, the conservatism of the educational institutions and the growing influence of American imperialism on France. Being somewhat late to the game, in his 1972 book, Counterrevolution and Revolt, the philosophical poster boy of ’68, Herbert Marcuse wrote:
To extend the base of the student movement, Rudi Dutschke has proposed the strategy of the long march through the institutions: working against the established institutions while working in them, but not simply by “boring from within,” rather by “doing the job,” learning (how to program and read computers, how to teach at all levels of education, how to use the mass media, how to organize production, how to recognize and eschew planned obsolescence, how to design, et cetera), and at the same time preserving one’s own consciousness in working with the others.
The students quickly broke with the traditional leftist idea of the state as the instrument of political change and the harbinger of liberation. Traditional power structures had over centuries shaped France’s political institutions so as to be almost useless to the revolutionary struggle. Revolution had to bypass the state. The long march through the institutions had to be abandoned.
Faced with the brutal power of the state, the revolutionaries had to reconsider their strategy quickly. Ranks of police charging at the unarmed protesters has become something of a leitmotif of the anti-statist May ’68 glorification industry. France’s trade union confederations called for sympathy strikes after the police’s draconian tactics came to light. Allegations were made that the police had escalated the riots through spying on the demonstrators and having agents provocateurs throw Molotov cocktails from within their midst. The wildcat spirit in response to the police brutality spread more quickly than expected to involve eleven million workers. It was the largest general strike ever to be attempted in France. In reality, those strikes were scattered across the country, hardly aware of a common political goal, and official numbers are unknown. On the other side of the ideological fence, on May 30th more than half a million people paraded on the Champs-Élysées in support of President de Gaulle. Unlikely as it may seem given the myth of ’68, this was likely the largest single political demonstration of the period.
Internally divided, the protests lacked a unifying vision. May ’68 was not one event; it was many events. There were the student protests, the strikes and the party politics. The moderate Communist Party, for instance, opposed a revolution because they maintained that it was only through elections that the party could legitimate their power, never through brute force. Influenced by the orthodox Marxist concept of the working class as the vehicle for revolution, the students trailed to the factories and exhorted workers to join their ranks, not as their future bosses but rather their asserted allies. Both the students and the workers wanted de Gaulle out of power, but the students failed to connect to the practical demands of the workers, and the workers saw little appeal in the realization of post-Hegelian philosophy. The outward image of workers and students standing side by side, united behind the revolutionary cause, is a figment. The students shared an idealist desire for the absolute liberation of the human self—“The hindrances placed on pleasures incite unhindered pleasures,” another slogan goes—while the workers expressed more pragmatic needs: better wages, sick pay, holidays.
The workers demanded bread and butter while the students fought for the emancipation of the intellect. What could such deprived workers possibly make of cynical Atelier Populaire propaganda, like the “Never work!” slogan, for example? Many workers were skeptical of the sincerity of the students’ demands and didn’t understand their motivations. Colette Danappe, who worked at a factory outside Paris, turned against the revolution when the students set cars on fire: “I’d say to myself, ‘You save all your life to buy something and then someone destroys it.’” Alain Krivine, a self-proclaimed Trotskyist, was supposedly aware of the predicament: “We marched with the workers, but there was no connection.” That lack of connection has persisted in the representations of the events; despite the fact that the actually political demands came from the workers, it was the student protests that have been widely commemorated and remembered as the main political event. Anderson’s cinematic portrayal thus nicely captures the political shallowness of the “Sorbonneans,” which chimes well with the somewhat blasé middle-class liberal writing of the early New Yorker. In that sense, Anderson stays true to his object of adoration. On a more critical view, Anderson’s focus on the pseudo-radical bohemian students may be thought offensively to erase the real political stakes of the movement. May ’68 was not non-political, but what made it political, workers’ struggle, is absent from his film as it is from so many other depictions. The final power grab of the de Gaullists is equally politically significant. So, from two perspectives, May ’68 was about politics proper. The artsy student protests, on the other hand, were, most likely, about as non-political as Anderson paints them.
Anderson’s apolitical depiction of the students’ ’68 suggests a revision of received public opinion. The scholarly debate, however, is in agreement: outside the academy, the student protests had symbolic significance only. It was the spark, but also, eventually, the water to the flame. In his oral history of the period, Mitchell Abidor quotes one of the students answering whether he threw paving stones at the police: “Oh yeah. I had no problem doing that. And I threw marbles as well that we stole from stores.” The students were casting the first stone, literally. But their inability to connect to the workers ended up hobbling the revolutionary cause. It is interesting, though, that within the academy, May had wide-reaching ramifications. As concerns the cultural sphere, it was for once not the hand of the victor of some past conflict (i.e. de Gaulle) that reached out to extend its grip to the present and the future, as political philosopher Raymond Geuss puts it. What then is the cultural legacy of May ’68?
Jean-Jacques Lebel, a Parisian artist, didn’t think that any of the social movements that arose after ’68 could have happened without it. This may qualify as, at best, an equivocal diagnosis. Many contemporary social movements suffer from a similar illness, which is the inability to convince a critical mass of one’s revolutionary cause.
In Western intellectual history, in fact, May ’68 is considered a turning point—and not in a positive way. From the perspective of social theory, May ’68 made apparent the inability of orthodox Marxism to explain changing reality and provided a fertile soil for the emergence of New Social Movements Theory. Michel Foucault, for example, argues that the anti-Marxism of May ’68 was not only the product of the failed revolutionary struggles, but also what made the revolts possible in the first place. The Parisian revolutionaries put under scrutiny what hitherto had been a truism: that revolutions are, almost by definition, Marxist. The aim of Foucault’s subsequent work was to theorize social change through different, non-Hegelian categories. In 1984, Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote several times on the subject, published his most systematic analysis of May ’68, concluding that its “most durable effect” was as a “symbolic revolution,” one that highlighted “the otherwise strongly repressed political dimension of the most ordinary symbolic practices.” Nevertheless, as a “revolution,” he later wrote, May had “failed.”
Wes Anderson’s characteristically comical and superficial portrait of the student revolts of May ’68 adds to the mythology, but it is refreshingly reluctant to retrospectively impose yet another political meta-narrative on that infamous spring. If anything, Anderson paints the revolutionary students as what they are: students, young people with high-flying ambitions, with teenage vertigo, with a suave sense of dress and, frankly, things other than toppling capitalism on their minds. Failing to make sense of the revolution, Anderson tells the youth to “stop bickering, go make love.” And so they do.