Image: Elena Feliciano, Resistance
A glance at the way “resistance” has been theorized over time — in both political and extra-political contexts — might help illuminate the Left’s changing sense of its own subjective agency during the last sesquicentenary. Three models may serve as an index to its shifting historical aspirations, and capture its oscillating feelings of hopefulness and helplessness at the prospect of their attainment. Before embarking upon this exposition, however, a few facts regarding its political usages should be particularly borne in mind:
First, as Stephen Duncombe pointed out a few years ago, the concept of “resistance” is in a way inherently conservative. It indicates the ability of something to maintain itself — i.e., to conserve or preserve its present state of existence — against outside influences that would otherwise change it. Resistance signifies not only defiance but also intransigence. As the editors of Upping the Anti put it a couple years back, “resistance” automatically assumes a “defensive posture.” It thus appears to be politically ambivalent: it depends on what is being conserved and what is being resisted.
Secondly, “resistance” as a property can belong to any number of things, whether conscious or unconscious. The world, or nature, can “resist” our conscious attempts to transform it. Likewise society, or second nature, can prove similarly recalcitrant. Either way, this “resistance” tends to be unconscious (always in the case of the first, and usually in the case of the second). With nature, the conditions that obtain at any given moment appear objective and material. With society, by contrast, the conditions that obtain at this or that historical juncture appear quasi-objective and ideological. The situation can be reversed, however. Insofar as society and the world operate unconsciously to transform the general conditions of existence, groups and individuals can consciously choose to resist these processes.
Beyond either its conceptual or attributive dimensions, the language of “resistance” can be seen as linked to conservatism at an historical level as well. Against the rationalism and excesses of the French Revolution, the British statesman and archconservative Edmund Burke praised England for its “resistance” to radical projects of political modernization. He wrote:
Thanks to our sullen resistance to innovation, thanks to the cold sluggishness of our national character, we still bear the stamp of our forefathers. We have not…lost the generosity and dignity of thinking of the fourteenth century…We are not the converts of Rousseau; we are not the disciples of Voltaire; Helvétius has made no progress amongst us. Atheists are not our preachers…We fear God; we look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility.
As late as 1848, “resistance” was a notion still chiefly deployed by reactionaries. Under the July Monarchy, the conservatives founded le parti de la Résistance against the more progressive Parti du mouvement. The forces of reaction in Europe were not merely content to “resist” revolution, however. Later, in the struggle for electoral reform in Britain in the 1830s, the Left once again had to contend with the “resistance” of conservative legislators.
Only in the twentieth century did “resistance” come to be associated with leftist politics, by virtue of a threefold historical development. First, it was ennobled through movements of opposition by colonial peoples, in resisting imperial subjugation. The concept of resistance was romanticized yet further through the experience of La Résistance in France fighting the collaborationist Vichy regime. Many of the Resistance’s most celebrated heroes and martyrs came from the Communist movement. In the hands of postmodern and postcolonial theory, “resistance” finally received the academy’s authoritative stamp of approval. It became consecrated as the standard mode of dissent under late capitalism, rather than one form of protest amongst many. Because I have already traced the history of the concept’s development and utilization within the Left elsewhere, I will refrain from needlessly reprising this narrative.
This paper proposes to look at three prominent models of resistance [Widerstand] in particular: 1. the “resistance” of the world to humanity’s conscious attempts to transform it, as expressed in Wilhelm Dilthey’s concept of the experience of resistance or Widerstandserfahrung in the 1890s; 2. the “resistance” of humanity to its own self-conscious transformation, as expressed in Sigmund Freud’s analysis of the patient’s resistance to treatment or Widerstandsanalyse during the 1920s; and 3. the “resistance” of humanity to the world’s unconscious transformation, as expressed in Michel Foucault’s notion of “resistance” to “power” in the 1970s. These three models correspond to 1. the rise and further development of Marxism in the Second International (Eduard Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin); 2. the crisis of Marxism in the aftermath of the October Revolution and the Third International (the early writings of Karl Korsch, Georg Lukács, Wilhelm Reich); and 3. the rapid decline and eventual collapse of Marxism amidst the disintegration of the New Left (Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Edward Said).
The failure to distinguish these different forms of resistance from one another is not without its consequences, either. For example, the late Jacques Derrida’s gloss on “resistance” in his lecture “Resistances of Psychoanalysis” deliberately confuses the multivalent resonances and associations belonging by the word in different contexts. Seeking to complicate the Freudian assumption that a patient’s resistance to analysis is itself interpretable, or even the notion that overcoming resistance is desirable in the first place, Derrida imports connotations that the word résistance possesses in a specifically “Franco-Latin” idiom. “This word, which resonated in my desire and my imagination as the most beautiful word in the politics and history of this country,” indicated Derrida, in a nationalist gesture, “this word loaded with all the pathos of my nostalgia, as if…I would like not to have missed blowing up trains, tanks, and headquarters between 1940 and I945 — why and how did it come to attract…so many other meanings?” Derrida leans heavily on this political association, glamorizing the patient’s resistance to analysis as a heroic instance of the refusal to give in to the presumptuous universalism of “Enlightenment progressivism.” A barely-contained sense of enthusiasm abounds as he relates cases in which “resistance is prolonged, when one has not succeeded in transforming the patient, the resister, into a ‘collaborator’ (that is Freud’s word).”
An account of these three models of resistance might then help to clear up some of the rampant confusion surrounding the term, as well as track an overall pattern of political regression.
Continue to Three models of “resistance” — 1. The “resistance” of the world to humanity’s conscious attempts to transform it
Continue to Three models of “resistance” — 2. The “resistance” of humanity to its own self-conscious transformation