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There in the Beyond – Vinh Pham

“Action! We must have action!” they said once again on their megaphone. As I clumsily made my way through the crowd on a cold Ivy league campus to hear what the action entails, I noticed the overwhelming number of graduate students who showed up to the rally. It might be said that such a sight, if it serves no other purpose than a boost of morale, ought to show us how something so simple as presence could be marked as a sign of political solidarity. “We must act now!” they said, then proceeded to tell the audience the many injustices that are fundamental to the cause of the rally and the proper responses that are expected. Because of my height, which could barely be called as such, I push forward toward the main speaker in the front. There they would stand to convey their disdain, as one would in such a circumstance, with lines like:

“It is with great unhappiness that I should say…”

“It is imperative that…”

“We cannot stand for this…”

“…and only then could we…”

The crowd is at once more riled up and enamored with what the speaker has said. Strong proclamations that make you feel as though your thoughts are heard that, here, amid all the confusion, you have found your company. In seldom other circumstances do we see the power of words reaching their limits and turning listeners into story tellers, and passive bystanders into Historical actors. I, too, feel the clamor that is expected of me, however, I remain unsure of what and how that which we are to achieve will be achieved. The issue does not matter; the process remains the same.

We begin with the discontent, which is not always ungrounded, but invariably has a way of being instrumentalized and reconfigured in such a way as to no longer be representative of its original concerns. Then, we start to see the formation of groups that see themselves as the bearer of the Truth. To convince them otherwise would be both fatal and fruitless. This, then, is followed by weeks of organizing and talks, which on the surface give a platform for a cathartic moment, nevertheless, they too, eventually fall out of memory. “If only we really read Marx…if only we really understood what Althusser meant,” they would say, as if, for all this, it was indeed a matter of hermeneutics. Yes, that is it, we would suppose, somewhere behind and underneath those texts are written pathways to true salvation. I mean this in a non-theological sense, of course, despite the seemingly religious undertone that tends to lend itself to this quest for justice. “Early Marx or later Marx?” Yes! Arm yourselves with books, pick your discursive battles, wage your rhetorical wars, “only then will we get closer to the truth.” Let’s form our reading groups, let’s read every word slowly, let’s do our teach-ins, let’s read until our eyes bleed for surely the answer is there, latent, but there. Do what you can young grad student, do what you were trained to do, dissect the text. Therein lies your answer, your hermeneutic truth, forget the world outside, since what is important, here, as I am reminded once again, is the gesture.

Yes, that wondrous notion of a gesture, to gesture, or rather to make semblance, a simulacrum between what is done and what is to be done. Something so archaic that it pulls us back to our most primordial state of psychic recognition, something that reminds us of the separation between some notion of the Lacanian Real and the symbolic order. What more is a gesture than that conscious split of what is and what it purports to be? Something that always exceeds itself both in its meaning and in what it can offer. There is no such thing as a gesture as such, if it were not for some understanding of faith, that is, an understanding that it was always meant to be more in its absence. It is precisely this notion of more, this unattainable, unrelenting excess that calls for something like faith to secure itself as an indeterminable other and toward which we make these gestures. In more obscure words, the referent or signified of the gesture can only be understood in terms of this incommensurable outside, and necessarily so. Such emptiness. Nonetheless, this emptiness is exactly what makes such faith in the gesture all the more powerful, as if it were a residue of some substitution of a negative theology, but alas, all we have is emptiness. The gesture. The gesture of praxis. Emptiness.

* * *

In thinking of any revolution, we tend to think of either one swift action or a series of critical events that led up to the glorious moment. No one knows what this moment looks like, no one can be sure whether it will produce the promised land at last, or if it will bring about that which we fear the most, and yet, the desire is there. The closest we might get to knowing might be through some historical perspective, but even then, would we see what we sought out to find? Would we recognize this moment in its passing, or would it only come to us after the fact? No, not this again, don’t go back to Hegel, never him. “That’s where we went wrong,” I’m told. But even that might be a better turn since you wouldn’t want to be caught reading something like Ethics, no, not that path. Where is the right turn, then? Oh, young Maoists, Leninists, and you, sons and daughters of Fanon and of Ho Chi Minh, where are you now? Speak to us your memories and the moments we are to find.

Revolution. Say it with me, “r-e-v-o-l-u-t-i-o-n.” Ah, there is that wonderful word in which we hold all our hopes and dreams. Surely, the uncertainty of the future is all that we can be certain of, so why not put my trust in the eternal future? Surely, what lies out of reach must necessarily be better than what I, in my own historical moment, could imagine. Look at Jena, look at Dien Bien Phu, look at Algiers! Were they not glorious? Such are the affirmations one makes when the word revolution is called forth, otherwise what would be the point to desire it? Yet, surely, there in the beyond lies the answer to the injustice of my material condition. It must be so. What of “red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives?” Strap on your Red-wings, your soviet pins, your green war jackets, your Doc Martens, your moleskines, your worker’s jeans, your intellectual’s glasses, your packs of American Spirits, and most importantly, your copy of Kapital, in English, of course.

What of the land reformations? What of the barely literate populations left to run a state that was never theirs? What of the burnt temples, villages, and the reeducation camps built by the very people who were to be in them? What of the petite bourgeoisie that leaves nothing but hopes and dreams that this is the best we can get? Is it not the case that, “[I]n the liberation struggle […] people who were once relegated to the realm of the imagination, victims of unspeakable terrors, but content to lose themselves in hallucinatory dreams, are thrown into disarray, re-form, and amid blood and tears give birth to very real and urgent issues”? What day do we look to for our historicizing so that we can rightly place fault? Is it ’67, or is it ’68? Or is it ’75? Which ’75? “Pax Americana? What is that?” Surely this depends on where you look on the map. There in that imaginary map lies your common, your dreams of a linear history, your dreams of deliverance, your utopia, your el dorados and Shangri-las.

The map. Boats, oceans, thirst, starvation, pirates, feces, drowning, refugees, yellow, brown, bodies, children, freedom. Thousands, millions, the 70s, the 80s, now. No, we cannot think of them. Revolution is beyond them. Put differently, revolution is for those who live to tell the story, to tell their tale for them. Revolution is for those whose names refer to the 12 disciples. Revolution is for those who have never known starvation. Those who starve, starve not only for food, but for Freedom as well, contingent as it might be. No, let’s tell their story for them. Them, the genderless, faceless, nameless, and voiceless them. “But we must tell their story!” you say, otherwise how will we know their truth? All this, as though their truth were something for us to know. What kind of knowledge are we to call this? Surely some unknown person named Spivak must have said something about it and about them, those people. But do not mind her, surely a labor revolution will have its losses and revolution was never really for them. How could we ever have been so foolish to think otherwise?

So, continue young revolutionary, bring the revolution you think we all deserve, play “Hasta Siempre,” while you march and chant “Arbeit ist Freiheit” with your Che T-shirts. I salute you for your bravery, such bravery. I must admit, however, that even all this is wholly preferable to those that came after. By this, I mean those revolutionaries whose weapons are beyond my comprehension, inarticulable perhaps both to me and themselves. Here, on the surface, the difference is not so apparent. Seemingly, here also lies the question of hermeneutics. “The text makes sense, it must, it must!” In our quest to move away from referentiality, for a periodization that does not encapsulate us, we cannot be named. “Did you not hear the freedom bells ring? Think of the lignes de fuite mon petit, liberate yourself from reference!”

It is at this moment that I am even more perplexed. If the former revolutionaries were merely gestural in their radical stance, then I am not quite sure what would accurately define the latter groups. Without hope, perhaps? Oh, but how could I not know? Ah, that is it, curse this brown body that cannot deterritorialize itself from language and border. Curse this tongue that leaves a trace on every language it pronounces, like a reminder of that excess of which we are too afraid, and incapable of putting down. Had I only known that such banalities, like referentiality or analogies, would never let me discover what flows are or how they functioned. If only I had the luck of seeing myself through the perspective of the universal, but no. “Where do you really come from (brown person)?, Speak to me your truth, your essence.” So, no, I’ll take my particularity, psycho-affective body and all. Lines, relationality, madness, freedom, give me Ethics, there beyond the endless plateaus is redemption, take away my organs!  

No, for all this, I cannot be unhappy. What more could be asked from those who have no answers? As for myself, I have no more access to the answers, than what I would expect others to have. Yet, for all this, we cannot resign. Resignation is the answer for those who no longer seek a life other than despair and discontent. So, I return to my small, dark office, reading into the text hoping for those better days that lie beyond. When the moment comes, if it does, I should only hope I would know how to see it.