Nuit Debout: Reading an occupation

The principal function of politics is the configuration of its proper space.  It is to disclose the world of its subjects and its operations.

Jacques Rancière, Ten Theses on Politics

The occupation of the Place de la Republique of Paris by “Nuit Debout” has stopped time in eternalising the month of March (it is today the 73rd of March) and removed space from the enforced flows of everyday production and consumption: the Place de la Republique has become the Place de la Commune.

Prohibited by the authorities from camping in the square permanently, everday, late morning or early afternoon, the occupiers return with tarps, tents, sound systems, tables, cooking ware and the like, to mount their nocturnal city and then dismount it; a mobile agora with supporting kitchen, infirmary, public order service, television and radio, and at its heart, the general assembly of the rebellious.

Hundreds, often thousands, participate in the general assembly to take their lives collectively into their hands, freeing speech from the fear and silence of the everyday.  In taking space, it is time that they conquer, “occupy”, to liberate language from its impoverished instrumentalisation; to give flesh to words such that they become flesh themselves.  Lives are bared, affinities are woven and engagements gain form.

To remain impassive before this event for reasons of ideological purity, or worse, for fear of discovering/revealing the impotence and irrelevance of the same, is testimony of intellectual and emotional death; and sadly, tragically, many on the “traditional left” are but living corpses.  (The violent hostility of the “Right” and the french State to Nuit Debout is predictable and more significantly, more lucid, in at least understanding the dangers that such a movement represents for the reigning (dis)order).

We speak of a movement, when however there is no such thing.  Nuit Debout, if its beginnings can be traced to specific organisations and individuals, to concrete plans and particular dates, has largely overflowed whatever initial intentions animated it (Click here).  The nightly general assemblies, the multiplicity of working groups and commissions that work in parallel (e.g. structural commissions: logistics, communication, international, action, democracy in the square, feminism; thematic commissions: anti-pub., architecture, visual arts, library, constitution, popular education, franceafrica, and so on, to a number of over 90 – to see more regarding the commissions at Nuit Debout Paris, click here), the inconstant flow of participants (and the proliferation of Nuit Debouts throughout france), render events in the square intrinsically disorderly, resistant to any overarching formal organisation – however persistent efforts are to domesticate the occupation.

Nuit Debout, as with earlier “occupy” movements, overwhelms by its multiplicity and fluidity. Participants in the general assemblies can vary greatly from day to day.  Anyone can try to create a commission.  Affinity groups and individuals can and do initiate protests, interventions, eruptions from the occupied space: with every line of flight, the movement re-forms, assuming shapes and expressions impossible to predict or control.

Nuit Debout exists in the balance between equilibrium and disequilibrium, or in the terms of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, between territorialisation and deterritorialisation.

The assembled many, in occupying an identifiable, limited space, are called upon to organise, to program, to formulate demands, to dialogue with authorities for their right to dialogue.  But no common voice can be found in the assembly, either by chance or intention – the dynamic of refusal which initiated the occupation remains permanent both internally and externally as a refusal of a common, consensual voice and of a dialogue with the State. The space occupied thus reveals itself as not delimited by the confines of the urban physical geography of the Place de la Republique.  It is instead an imaginary space, a commune that serves as a threshold for the making of events and subjectivities.

For some, this is fatal.  Nuit Debout must become a movement, or die.  It is obliged to constitute itself vertically, ideologically, as a united people, so as to do battle with the vertical institutions that exercise power.  And its success or failure is to be measured exclusively in terms of its ability to move, bend or conquer those institutions (a preoccupation emblematically expressed in the concern of many in Nuit Debout with citizenship, rights, democracy and the need for a new constitution/republic).

Yet equally present, and what I am tempted to call the animus or soul of Nuit Debout, is something that lies elsewhere: the rejection of constitution, of any kind of democracy, at least as this last is conceived of as an alternative form of sovereign power that will include and exclude, to then govern both.  The horizontal, collective self-management through assemblies, which is everywhere, both resists control and offers an example of a form of life desired, made reality.  And herein resides Nuit Debout’s power of seduction, as well as its source of possible resonance.

To insist that Nuit Debout must answer the question “What is to be done?”, failing which it is condemned to irrelevance, ignores the far more fundamental question, “What does one want?”  It is in the answer to this second question that will come the answer to the first – an answer necessarily subject to constant criticism.  And the answer to “What does one want?” is precisely what needs to be debated, imagined and lived among a “people” assembled as a collective of equals, freed of the socially assigned functions and identites that are constructed in and through multiple relations of power.

Nuit Debout is not without fragilities.  But they are to be found elsewhere from what is commonly thought.  In the general assembly of Paris, on May 8th (March 69th), a first experiment in collectively deciding upon the “values” of Nuit Debout Paris was essayed. The imposed time limits on the interventions of each individual (ranging from two to four minutes), the predominance of the commissions in the setting forth of propositions, the inability of many to participate regularly in the commissions, even if they should wish, umdermined the exercise and showed the extent to which the general assembly is susceptible to either banality and/or the domination and manipulation by potentially desguised groups (yet all under the cover of democratic procedure).  And such groups may then position themselves to direct a desired for movement, now in the singular, towards more “realistic” means and goals.

The only resistance possible to such efforts is to simultaneously intensify the openness and centrality of the general assembly as a space for autonomous self-creation and not the arche of another ruling party.

For Nuit Debout Paris, the weekend of the 7th-8th of May (68th-69th of March) was accompanied by a call for activists in france and beyond to meet in Paris, to discuss and debate experiences and construct shared knowledges, in preparation for a global Nuit Debout on May 15th (March 76th).

From a Nuit Debout collective in Madrid emerged the following statement, a statement that eloquently captures the imaginary of 15M spain, and of all of the “occupy movements” of the last five years …

A Call for the Convergence of Struggles

I am not a woman, but I will struggle against patriarchy.
I am not a refugee, but I will struggle so that you are welcome.
I am not a student, but I will struggle so that you may study without indebting yourself.
I am not elderly, but I will struggle so that you may live without without necessity.
The forces of the State did not harass me, but I will struggle so that they do not harass you.
I am not LGBT, but I will struggle against homophobia.
I am not an anarchist, but I will struggle so that you may organise yourselves.
I don’t want a state, but I will struggle so that you can write our own constitution.
I am not a worker, but I will struggle so that your conditions of labour are dignified.
I want to organise myself, but I will struggle for your public services.
I have a home, but I will struggle so that you may have a house worthy of the name.
I am not, or yes …
I am, yes, or not …
Who am I?  It’s without importance, if your struggle is inclusive and horizontal, I will struggle with you.
From what is common, together, we will struggle.


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