The Art of Occupying: Romanticism as Political Culture in French Prefigurative Politics

Catarina Pessanha Gomes

Research output: Book/ReportPhD thesis

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Prefigurative social movements seek to enact the types of society they want to bring about, imagining novel ways of organizing social, political, and economic relations. While occupations and prefigurative politics are part of global struggles to radically transform current institutions, the discourses and practices of these activists are influenced by local epistemologies and historical contexts. My thesis contributes to the literature on prefigurative politics by considering the influence of Romanticism both as a cultural movement and a political culture that provides activists with resources to legitimate prefigurative practices within the context of French politics. While previous literature has shown how prefigurative politics has inherited values and strategies from an anarchist heritage, influencing horizontal and self-organizating, considering Romanticism as a political culture enables us to understand locally situated practices such as imaginative, cultural, and symbolic forms of interventions aimed at bringing future worlds into present spaces.
Firstly, this thesis focuses on historical developments that have informed an axiological appreciation of creativity, imagination, and experimentation, and on how values inherent to artistic work have been progressively mobilized within political strategies. Applying a pragmatic sociology perspective that takes conflicting moral values into consideration, Romanticism is here understood as a cultural movement aspiring to recover a relationship of grace and inspiration between oneself and the world that has been undermined by industrial capitalism. These values are mobilized within a critique of a competing worldview based on values of rational, science and progress. Within this conflict, Romanticism draws on resources and objects, first and foremost the imagination, constructed as a political object capable oftransforming social and political structures. I emphasize three properties of the Romantic conception of imagination that are central to prefigurative politics. First, as a poietic force imagination can lead to radical change by generating new images and reconfiguring meaning through language. Second, as a collective capacity it constructs organic communities through shared significations. And thirdly, as a proleptic process there is no gap between what is imagined and reality, thus the imagined world is already upon those who envision it
Secondly, this study engages with political cultures that have emerged from the Romantic opposition to modernization and industrialization. Romanticism serves as the starting point for two political grammars: one based on the Nietzschean emphasis on imagination and creativity, the other an Alternative grammar that focuses on alternative forms of organizing outside the state. While both grammars attribute a political value to imagination in its capacity to produce alternative futures, the Nietzschean grammar mobilizes imagination in cultural, artistic, and sometimes destructive interventions. Within this form of engagement, artistic creation is above all the creation of situations, the very production of a civilizational alternative in a space-time of its own. By contrast, the Alternative grammar is formed through a compromise between values of the inspired city and the civic city and aspires to another form of human organization in which the inner self is fully restored. This grammar supports forms of engagement aimed at constructing vibrant communities outside the state in which individuals are brought together by affective experiences resulting from a shared life and the enactment of pre-capitalist values.
Thirdly, this thesis uses the French social movement of Nuit Debout and its consequent occupation of public space in spring 2016 as an illustrative case to study how activists mobilize forms of justifications built upon an axiological appreciation of imagination and creativity to legitimate prefigurative politics and utopian ideals. While the occupation of the Place de la République was brought about through the coming together of different streams within the radical left, including Socialists and Republicans, participants who mobilized a Nietzschean or Alternative grammar were more likely to support prefigurative actions over traditional forms of engagement. Nevertheless, these participants did not conceive of prefiguration in identical ways, for while the Nietzschean grammar supports forms of cultural and symbolic prefiguration, the Alternative grammar partakes in collective utopias and forms of democratic organizing conjointly with a Social Republican grammar. The prefiguration of another world combines both artistic and symbolic interventions, while the constitution of new forms of organization give rise to alternative forms of political representation. These competing values gave rise to conflicts between a critique of democratic institutions and constituent initiatives and a critique targeted at symbolic prefigurative actions that invest a discursive field without considering asymmetrical power relations.
While my analysis discusses the pitfalls of political Romanticism, including its spontaneity and indecisiveness, it also emphasizes how imaginative politics engages both strategically and symbolically with the notion of utopia. Values of imagination and creativity support tactics that generate symbolic performances of world-building, reinforcing the group’s consciousness of its capacity for self-creating, fostering direct democracy, and promoting other models based on collective ownership. By shedding light on the intellectual and moral heritage of prefiguration, this dissertation provides a new understanding of the role of prefigurative politics in reactivating the creative capacities of the social body and ultimately in empowering society’s capacity to challenge instituted significations as well as to institute new collective rules. The art of occupying, I argue, is to do so without drifting into an eternally creative and thus ultimately self-destructive process.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationFrederiksberg
PublisherCopenhagen Business School [Phd]
Number of pages308
ISBN (Print)9788775680832
ISBN (Electronic)9788775680849
Publication statusPublished - 2022
SeriesPhD Series

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