TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

“Then and Now,” and Now

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Devin Lefebvre looks at Claude Lefort’s “Then and Now” from Telos 36 (Summer 1978).

For many today, Claude Lefort is a thinker known mainly by association, someone whose work emerges where others are asked to situate their projects relative to his thinking of the political. He is a prominent, if not central, figure for the more post-structuralist thinkers of radical democracy. Lefort’s sense of democracy—as that form of society where the place of power is empty—is vital to those projects that would likewise tie democracy to the symbolic character of power, and to the distinct workings of politics and the political. Interestingly, while debate over the correct translation of le or la politique seems to almost always return to Lefort, it remains the case that for his own part Lefort was never much interested in post-structuralism. For him, the post-structural turn, itself bound up with the legacies of May 1968 and the new knowledge, obfuscated almost as much as it made clear.

Looking back in 1978 on the decade following the uprising of ’68, it was clear even then, that life had sprung from the student action in a way that far exceeded its hasty classification as a “cultural revolution” born of a failed political one. In his essay “Then and Now,” Lefort maintains that the restoration of the pre-May order in France is bound together with a certain indeterminacy, a definite, if perhaps not locatable, heritage. Certainly the claim can be made that the social struggles of the 1970s, not only in France but also across Western Europe and North America, shared in something like a spirit of ’68—in a common rejection of organizational viewpoints and an opposition to attempts at deepening homogenization. But there was for Lefort something more to the ghost of May ’68, something that set it apart for him in 1978, and that likewise keeps it around for us today.

Lefort’s twofold claim is that the afterlives of ’68 are marked by their particular interrogations of its enigma, by the lingerings-on, not only of the breach opened on the streets in May, but of that opening’s plastering over by its very adherents. Here, in a first place, the actions taken from the contours to address the void that was opened, and then left untended by the break with Althusserian Marxism, produced, in their “rupture,” a certain continuity. And in an admittedly meandering way, this is what the text first comes to speak to, the new life that the pre-May order comes to find in the thought that thrives off the very overcoming of this order.

For Lefort, from that thought which can no longer stand above its object, but must instead bury itself in social reality, comes a new sense of distance, an ideological inversion that is brought about by the relational understanding of power and this understanding’s locating of power as an object of knowledge singularly within society’s ambit. And while he concedes that this equation of knowledge and power does rightfully, and successfully, do away with the demiurgic power of the grand ideas of scientism, he nevertheless asserts that this new order, like the Althusserian scientism it opposes, bars the testimony of sense, truth, and experience in society’s self-knowledge. Setting all power in the production of knowledge, the new order closes itself off from its subtending unknowns, and in this way, closes the means by which society’s present and historicity can be confronted and interrogated.

When scientific and philosophical thought leads to the abandonment of both the idea of a reality separate from the knowledge of it and the idea of a subject constituting reality through his activity, then ideology restores certainty by simply inverting the assertion of reality and subjectivity. It denies the existence of both, and outlines networks of operations whose validity is measured by coherence alone. (33)

Gauged in the coherence of its production, the new ideology forestalls the question of thought’s relation to itself and its socio-historical space. Ordering the world within a space internally axed on (1) coercion and repression, and (2) the desire to oppose either of these productions, power, through the production of its own object, instead becomes its own aim, and knowledge attendantly becomes the means of eliminating indeterminacy (34–36).

It is worth noting that Lefort is of course being highly uncharitable in his account of post-structuralism. And by no account does his reading show an interest in itself yielding to installation in a world organized by the œuvre of, say, Michel Foucault or Gilles Deleuze.[1] It follows from this that if today we are to gain something from Lefort’s interrogation of the new knowledge’s relation with ’68, we need to ask, with regard to our own relation with the afterlives of ’68: (1) what are the hollows opened by his retrospective, and (2) what interrogations should in turn follow from his determinations?

Clearly “Then and Now” vehicles an anti-ideological discourse aimed at the occlusion of the new knowledge and its closure to experience. Crucial for Lefort is power/knowledge’s dissolution of the real border between knowledge and reality. An assumption that in his reading fills in the opening between being and representation, and which in turn produces a dulling effect in the accounts that follow from it. Comforted by the harmony it articulates onto a disorder, the new knowledge essentially retains scientism’s neutralized history, leaving knowledge of the world as the void to be filled, only this time by the technical products of a nominally identified discipline rather than by a structure conceived from a “proper” ordering of a series of historical signs (36).

Like scientism, Lefort maintains, the problem that the modish non-exteriority of the post-’68 thinkers leaves for its adherents is an inability to account for the genesis of totalitarianism as politics. Unable to apprehend indeterminacy without articulating it, the new knowledge cannot seize on society’s externality to itself—its internal division—because the formulation of power/knowledge cannot allow for a political space that would exceed given reality. For Lefort, “the political dimension does not designate either an ensemble of institutions in society or a network of relations.” Rather, “it poses the question of identity and that of ‘external reality,’ i.e., the question of individuation and of access to a common framework” (40). Closed off from this kind of self-questioning, the new knowledge cannot seize on the coincidence of the power of representation, which in its identity refuses indeterminacy and contradiction, and the unifying action of totalitarianism, which posits a society without history.[2] Having exorcised from itself the philosophical mysticism that ties the questioning subject to the object of question in science, the new knowledge—presumably the genealogical method—cannot distinguish history from ideology, and is forced to confront as pathology what for Lefort is instead the erasing of constitutive conflicts and divisions.

But what is it about ’68 that spurs Lefort toward the specificity of totalitarianism? What hollow does this particular contour open up? For his part, Lefort suggests that together with totalitarianism, ’68 and its plastering over beg the question of a foreclosed genesis (40). They together demand an interrogation of the social-historical conditions that produce specific social formation, and point to the enigma that the origin of society poses to itself—especially where nothing exterior is permitted. And it is in this second sense of indetermination that Lefort claims political philosophy makes its return: in the indeterminacy of ’68 the ambition to distinguish between social formations despite the risks such distinction and questioning entails is already revealed. For Lefort, the success of ’68 was found in the indeterminacy that was lived by the participation in an experience of freedom conquered from modern society thorough an instantiating of what was foreign to it.

[May ’68] attacked the predominant model of science, which legitimates the organization. It did so by contraposing the “subject” to bureaucratic anonymity and the “collective” to the atomization of individuals, by articulating a “primitive” communication, and by appropriating a controlled space. (37)

It might be suggested then that on the street in May was vehicled something of a determinate indeterminacy, an indeterminacy that even in its plastering over retains the enigma of society’s necessary exteriority and interiority.

Forty years on, what we gain in a retrospective on retrospection is no doubt contestable. Clearly Lefort’s musings about the coincidence of the new knowledge’s effacing of power and the formidable absorption of civil society by an expanding state have been thrown off by the collapse of Fordism and the cementing of neoliberalism, and taken with the diminished specter of totalitarianism the need to revisit these writings may appear diminished. But perhaps what we can find in “Then and Now” is a first articulation of ’68 with what has come in recent years to be cast as the critique of the resistance paradigm. Banished, Lefort maintains by Althusser’s rigidly periodized Marx, and post-structuralism’s affront on Freud, is the requirement of interrogating the text, of partaking in a complicity that allows for an opening that from its determinations produces something of the enigma, the task, that these determinations first sought to address. This complicity is not an abandoning of critical engagement, or of a questioning of the work but is instead to see that what the work offers us is not a self-sufficient truth but rather a hollow conditioned at once by its opening and by the present.

Lefort finds in ’68 what we might today call a dis-identifying politics. An impurity that precludes any sense that politics can be brought about by the destruction of the thought, present, and space that came before it. An impurity that compels us not to erase, but to interrogate. Instead of starting anew, politics must be borne out in an appropriated space, and in a way that harnesses the historicity that ties these spaces to a here and now. In interrogating May ’68, Lefort provides a contour that suggests that the aim of critique’s revealing of the avoided, is not to exorcise these hidden determinations and in so doing tame indeterminacy, but is to vehicle them into further indeterminacy, questioning, and conflict. It is to suggest that without exteriority and excess, the most a politics can accomplish from the purity of its articulation, its neat and manageable continuity or coherence, is to produce a comfort, a closure to experience that condemns particularity and difference in the very name of its championing. What Lefort asks is that we instead yield to installation in the world of the text, and open ourselves to its risk, and even to its dangers.


1. A complicity he maintains elsewhere is necessary to avoid interpretation’s taming of indeterminacy and its satisfaction with the illusion of knowledge. See Claude Lefort, Machiavelli in the Making, trans. Michael B. Smith (Evanston, IL: Northwestern Univ. Press, 2011), p. 38.

2. Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory, trans. David Macey (Cambridge: Polity, 1988), pp. 15–16.

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