On the Revolution
These are excerpts from a lecture by Michel Foucault titled, “The Art of Telling the Truth” (1983). In this lecture he discusses several themes appearing in Emanuel Kant’s texts, “What is Enlightenment?” (1784) and “The Conflict of the Faculties” (1798), including Kant’s ideas on the constant progress of mankind, and the signs that can prove such a disposition.
I chose these excerpts, because they might help us realize what an unmistakably historic moment we live in right now. The trauma of the Revolution, and the fear of what’s next, are so enormous as to completely blind us to this fact. These might be sad times, but they are great ones as well. Our collective memory as the post-Naksa generation is taking its first real shock and whatever the outcome may be, we will never be the same again, as people.
… A sign of what? A sign of the existence of a cause, of a permanent cause, which, throughout history itself, has guided men on the way of progress. A constant cause that must be shown to have acted in the past, acts now, and will act in the future. Consequently, the event that will be a sign: rememorativum, demonstrativum, prognosticum. It must be a sign that shows that it has always been like that (the rememorative sign), a sign that shows that things are also taking place now (the demonstrative sign), and a sign that shows that it will always happen like that (the prognostic sign). In this way we can be sure that the cause that makes progress possible has not just acted at a particular moment, but that it guarantees a general tendency of mankind as a whole to move in the direction of progress. That is the question: “Is there around us an event that is rememorative, demonstrative, and prognostic of a permanent progress that affects mankind as a whole?”
You have probably guessed the answer that Kant gives; but I would like to read to you the passage in which he introduces the Revolution as an event that has the value of a sign. “Do not expect this event,” he writes at the beginning of paragraph VI, “to consist of noble gestures or great crimes committed by men, as a result of which that which was great among men is made small, or that which was small, made great, nor of gleaming ancient buildings that disappear as if by magic while others rise, in a sense, from the bowels of the earth to take their place. No, it is nothing like that.”
… One cannot carry out this analysis of our own present in those meaningful values without embarking on a decipherment that will allow us to give to what, apparently, is without meaning and value, the important meaning and value we are looking for. Now what is this event that is not a “great” event? There is obviously a paradox in saying that the Revolution is not a major event. Is this not the very example of an event that overthrows, that makes what was great small and what was small great, and which swallows up the apparently secure structures of society and states? Now, for Kant, it is not this aspect of the Revolution that is meaningful. What constitutes the event that possesses a rememorative, demonstrative, and prognostic value is not the revolutionary drama itself, not the revolutionary exploits, or the gesticulation that accompanies it. What is meaningful is the way in which it was welcomed all around by spectators who did not take part in it, but who observed it, attended it, and, for better or for worse, were carried away by it. It is not the revolutionary upheaval that constitutes the proof of progress; because, firstly, it merely inverts things, and secondly, because if one could carry out the Revolution again, one might not do so. … It is not then the revolutionary process that is important, it does not matter whether it succeeds or fails; this is nothing to do with progress, or at least with the sign of progress we are looking for.
… On the other hand, what is meaningful and what is to constitute the sign of progress is that, around the Revolution, there is, says Kant, “a sympathy of aspiration bordering on enthusiasm.” What is important in the Revolution is not the Revolution itself, but what takes place in the heads of those who do not make it or, in any case, who are not its principal actors; it is the relationship that they themselves have with that Revolution of which they are not the active agents. The enthusiasm for the Revolution is a sign, according to Kant, of a moral disposition in mankind. This disposition is permanently manifested in two ways: firstly, in the right possessed by all peoples to give themselves the political constitution that suits them and, secondly, in the principle, in accordance with law and morality, of a political constitution so framed that it avoids, by reason of its very principles, all offensive war.
Michel Foucault, “The Art of Telling the Truth” (1983)