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May 1968

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A series of street protests that began in a number of universities in Paris but rapidly spread to incorporate a wide cross section of French society. Some historians estimate that as many as 10 million people participated in the mass strikes over the course of several weeks. Known by a variety of different epithets such as ‘the events of May’, and the ‘long summer’, May '68 was not a single event, but rather a series of events interlinked by a common theme or purpose, which is difficult to define but essentially boils down to a nationwide transformation of what Raymond Williams called, in a different context, the structure of feeling. For the first time in French history, workers and students (effectively the future managerial class, and therefore the class enemies of the workers) united together to stage their dissatisfaction with the state of French society and more especially the way it was governed. Whole sections of the workforce went out on strike, perhaps most notably the garbage collectors, with the result that Paris was soon inundated by trash piled high on street corners. The police did not know how to respond, and many peaceful marches became violent, the cobblestones in the older parts of Paris being turned into handy missiles. The reason these events, rather than the numerous other protest events that occurred that year around the world (e.g. 1968 was also the year of the so-called ‘Prague Spring’), have such significance for critical theory is not clear, though in all likelihood it is simply a matter of it happening at a time when French theory was hegemonic. Consequently, the reflections of French critical and cultural theorists (e.g. Alain Badiou, Michel de Certeau, Gilles Deleuze, Raymond Aron) on their national situation were transformed by an international readership into thoughts of more universal significance. In particular they raised the question of whether resistance is possible and if change can be achieved by non-violent means. Interestingly, in French politics May '68 is often derided as ‘nothing’, but in such a way as to confirm that it really was ‘something’, although no one is ever quite sure what.

Further Reading:

K. Ross May '68 and its Afterlives (2002).

Subjects: Literature

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