Saturday, January 26, 2019

Teaching about The Revolution in Urgent Times

This is the syllabus and overview of the course “The Anthropology of Insurrections and Revolution” that I’m currently teaching at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, to 67 second-year undergraduate students. Several people asked me to make the syllabus public, so here it is: my 2 cents on how to teach about insurrections and revolution at a time when the world is headed toward an environmental-social catastrophe unless we manage to generate truly revolutionary changes. No syllabus can do justice to this topic, so I’d love to hear suggestions, comments, criticisms, etc.


Insurrections and revolutions have been among the most transformative events in history, for they destroy powerful systems while creating new ideas, values, relations, and experiences. The modern world, in fact, is largely the outcome of several waves of revolutions and counter-revolutions. In this course, we will examine, on the one hand, the specificity of some key insurrections and revolutions in different places and historical moments. At the same time, we will analyze each case-study (from the Haitian Revolution to the eco-feminist revolutionary collectives in western Syria) in order to debate broader conceptual questions about the power, rhythms, intensity, failures, and liberating possibilities of rebellions and revolutions in recent history and, especially, in our fraught present. This course has been conceived with the conviction that debating the question of revolution is an urgent collective task giving the environmental and social catastrophe looming over the world.

After discussing why the urgency posed by global warming is reviving the question of revolution, we will be examine, first, what could be called the “enigma” of revolutions: why they take place in some moments and places and not in others; or as Rosa Luxemburg put it, the enigmatic fact that revolutions seem impossible until they happen, and are subsequently felt as inevitable (case study: the rebellions that led to fall of the Berlin Wall). We will then analyze how the general contours of the modern world were largely forged by the great revolutions of the late 1700s on both sides of the Atlantic. Our main case-study will be, in counterpoint to the French and American Revolutions, what was then the most radical insurrection in world history, the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), led by people of African ancestry enslaved by French colonialism. We shall then de-masculinize the image of insurrections by highlighting the role of women as revolutionary subjects and the growing salience of feminism as a force for radical change (case studies: witch-hunts in the European middle-ages; the Paris Commune; the Spanish Civil War; the Argentine feminist rebellion). We will subsequently analyze two contrasting forms of revolutionary action: the commune and the party. First, we’ll focus on the Paris Commune: the festive, popular rebellion that took over Paris for two months in 1871, only to be massacred by the French army. The following week we will focus on the most famous revolutionary party: the Bolshevik Party that led the 1917 Russian Revolution, and especially how it countered the alleged organizational limits of the Paris Commune with leadership, discipline, and attentiveness to logistics and terrain. We will then examine those cases in which revolutions lead to “revolutionary terror,” i.e. unbound violence against the (alleged) enemies of the revolution, partly replicating the state terror that they had sought to fight (case studies: the Algerian anti-colonial insurrection and the French Jacobins). The following week we will discuss the emotional and bodily nature of insurrections, and the fact that what makes multitudes rebel are usually affective rather than purely ideological reasons (case studies: the Central American insurrections of the 1970s-1980s).

In the last section, we will see discuss how in the past few decades radical practices of resistance worldwide have moved away from the old (and largely failed) paradigm of revolutions as explosive events led by a leader-vanguard and toward the cultivation of everyday, territorial, bottom-up forms of insurgent, anti-systemic power. We will first examine the leading role played by indigenous people in rethinking rebellions as grassroots forms of territorial and communal control (case studies: the Zapatista uprising in Mexico and radical indigenous activism in Canada). The following two weeks we will discuss, first, the leaderless insurrections that shook the world in 2011 by creating large assemblies in public spaces (case studies: the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street) and the blockades that seek to interrupt the flows and infrastructures of the global metropolis (case study: the blockade of fossil fuel infrastructures in western Canada). We will conclude the course with a discussion on the grassroots efforts, taking place on multiple continents, to rethink revolutions via a revival of the figure of “the commune” as the territorial manifestation of radical democracy (case studies: ZAD and NOTAV in Europe; the Venezuelan communes; the Rojava revolution in western Syria).

Course Schedule and Readings

The texts listed as "further readings" are optional, but their relevance for that week's topic will be discussed in class.

Week 1. Introduction

Week 2. Thinking About the Revolution in Urgent Times

  • The Invisible Committee. 2017. Now. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e). Chapter 1: Tomorrow is Cancelled (pp. 7-18). 
         Further Reading

  • Klein, Naomi. 2014 This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Environment. New York: Simon and Schuster. Chapter 2: Hot Money (pp. 64-95).

Week 3. The Enigma of Revolutions: Why do People Revolt? Why They Don't?
  • Marx, Karl and Fredrik Engels 1992 (1848) The Communist Manifesto. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Chapter 1: Bourgeois and Proletarians (pp. 2-16).
  • Roseberry, William. 1994. Hegemony and the Language of Contention. In Everyday Forms of State Formation, edited by Gilbert Joseph and Daniel Nugent. Pp. 355-366. Durham: Duke University Press.
Further Reading
  •  Yurchak, Alexei. 2005. Everything Was Forever, Until it Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Conclusion (pp. 282-298).

Week 4. Revolution in the Colonies: Radical Universalism vs. Eurocentric Liberalism (Haiti, 1791-1804)
  • Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1995. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press. Chapter 3: An Unthinkable History (pp 70-107).
Further Readings
  • Arendt, Hanna. 2006 [1951]. On Revolution. New York: Penguin. Chapter 1: The Meaning of Revolution (pp. 11-48).
  • Guha, Ranajit. 1999. Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India. Durham: Duke University Press. Introduction (pp. 1-17). 

Week 5. Women as Revolutionary Subjects: Undoing Patriarchy (Medieval Europe; The Paris Commune; Revolutionary Spain; Argentina)

  • Film: Libertarias (1996, directed by Vicente Aranda; excerpt)
  • Federici, Silvia. 2004. Caliban and the Witch. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia. Preface (pp. 7-10). 
  • Thomas, Edith. 2007 [1963]. The Women Incendiaries. Chicago: Haymarket. Introduction (pp. i-xiv) and Chapter Ten: Ambulance Nurses, Canteen Workers, Fighters (pp. 133-149).
 Further Reading

  • Lines, Lisa 2009. Female Combatants in the Spanish Civil War: Milicianas on the Front Lines and in the Rearguard. Journal of International Women’s Studies. 10(4): 168-187.

Week 6. The Revolutionary Commune: Radical Democracy (Paris, 1871)

  • Film: The Commune (2000, directed by Peter Watkin; excerpt).
  • Ross, Kristin. 2016. Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune. London: Verso. Chapter 1: Beyond the “Cellular Regime of Nationality” (pp. 11-38).
  • Badiou, Alain. 2008. The Communist Hypothesis. London: Verso. Chapter III: The Paris Commune: A Political Declaration on Politics (pp. 168-228)
      Further Reading
  • Marx, Karl. 1988 [1871] The Civil War in France. New York: International Publishers. Parts III and IV, pp. 54-85.

Week 7. The Revolutionary Party: Leadership and Logistics (Russia, 1917)

  • Luxemburg, Rosa. 1940 [1918]. The Russian Revolution. Workers Age Publishers: New York. Chapter 1: Fundamental Significance of the Russian Revolution.
  • Malaparte, Curzio. 1931. The Technique of Revolution. Aurora, IL: Morris. Chapter 1: The Bolsheviks’ Coup d’Etat and Trotzky’s Tactics.
Further Readings

  • Miéville, China. 2017. October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. London: Verso. Chapter 10: Red October (pp. 256-304).
  • Luxemburg, Rosa. 1940 [1918]. The Russian Revolution. Workers Age publishers: New York. Chapter 8: Democracy and Dictatorship.

Week 8. Revolutionary Terror: Unbound Negativity (Algeria and the French Jacobins)

  • Horne, Alistair. 2006. A Savage War for Peace: Algeria, 1954-1962. New York: New York Review of Books. Chapter 9: The Battle of Algiers (pp. 183-207).
       Further Reading
  •  Žižek, Slavoj. 2008. In Defense of Lost Causes. London: Verso. Chapter 4: Revolutionary Terror from Robespierre to Mao (pp. 157-210).

Week 9. The Affective Power of Insurrections: Emotional Warfare and its Afterlives (the Central American Insurrections: 1970s-1980s)
  •  Cabezas, Omar. 1986. The Mountain Mourns a Son. Fire from the Mountain: The Making of a Sandinista. Pp. 115-128. New York: Plume Books.
  • Beasley-Murray, Jon. 2010. Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Chapter 3: Escalón 1989: Deleuze and Affect (pp. 125-173).
  • Guest speaker: Professor Jon Beasley-Murray (French, Hispanic and Italian Studies, UBC).
     Further Reading
  •  Anderson, Jon Lee. 2018. “Fake News” and Unrest in Nicaragua. The New Yorker. September 3, 2018.

Week 10. Indigenous Insurrections: Making Territories in Rebellion (The Zapatistas in Mexico and radical indigenous activism in Canada)

  • Speed, Shannon. 2007. Rights in Rebellion: Indigenous Struggle and Human Rights in Chiapas. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Chapter 7: “Improving the Paths of Resistance” (pp. 155-173).
  • Coulthard, Glen. 2014. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Conclusions: Lessons from Idle No More: The Future of Indigenous Activism (pp. 151-179).
  • Guest speaker: Professor Glen Coulthard (First Nations and Indigenous Studies and Political Science, UBC).
Further Reading
  • Simpson, Leanne. 2017. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. Conclusion: Toward Radical Resurgent Struggle (pp. 233-247).

Week 11. Leaderless Insurrections: Assemblies in Public Squares (the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street)

  • Bayat, Asef. 2017. Revolution without Revolutionaries. Making Sense of the Arab Spring. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Chapter 6: Square and Counter-Square (pp. 113-134).
  • Winegar, Jessica. 2012. The Privilege of Revolution: Gender, Class, Space, and Affect in Egypt. American Ethnologist. 39 (1): 67–70.
Further Readings

  • Butler, Judith. 2015. Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Chapter 5: “We, the People”: Thoughts on Freedom of Assembly (Pp. 154-192).
  • Dean, Jodi 2016. Crowds and Party. London: Verso. Introduction. 
  • Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2017. Assembly. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Preface (Pp. i-xxii).

Week 12. Interrupting the Metropolis: Blockades, Sabotage, Counter-logistics

Further Reading

Week 13. The Coming Communal Revolution? Final Discussion

  • Clover, Joshua. 2016. Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings. London: Verso. Chapter 9: Riot Now: Square, Street, Commune (pp. 175-192). 
  • Ross, Kristin. 2018. Preface: Making a Territory. In The ZAD and NOTAV: Territorial Struggles and the Making of a New Political Intelligence, by the Mauvaise Troupe Collective. London: Verso (pp. ix-xxiii). 
  • Ciccariello-Maher, George. 2016. Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela. London: Verso. Introduction (pp. 1-12), Chapter 1: A History of the Commune (pp. 14-28), and Conclusion: A Communal Future? (pp. 121-135).
Further Readings
  •  Badiou, Alain 2012. The Rebirth of History: Time of Riots and Uprisings. London: Verso. Chapter 8: State and Politics: Identity and Genericity (pp. 71-84).
  • Saed. 2017. From the October Revolution to Revolutionary Rojava: An Ecosocialist Reading. Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, 28 (4): 3-20.

Friday, December 23, 2016


Forthcoming in Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen, edited by Anand Pandian and Cymene Howe (2017, Punctum).

           The wind was strong and steady, regularly shaking up the wooden structure of Martín’s home while we were inside talking and occasionally pausing to feel the power of that unruly atmosphere. Gushes of air and dust occasionally got inside, for the house’s door-less entrance was covered by a tarp that every now and then relented to the air’s pressure. That opening also let us see clouds of dust churning wildly outside. Those swarms of dust briefly receded to reveal some of Martín’s cattle fifty meters away, only to form again constellations of particles blurring most objects and their forms in a haze.

            I was in Salta Forestal, a rural area located 80 kilometers east of the town of Las Lajitas and one of the hotspots of the soy frontier in northern Argentina. This was once a heavily forested part of the western Gran Chaco —the tropical lowlands that encompass much of northern Argentina, western Paraguay, and southeast Bolivia. But when the price of soy rose dramatically in the early 2000s and led to the Argentine soy boom, businessmen and officials saw those forests inhabited by campesinos as available space to be turned into soy fields. Bulldozers, often supported with armed civilians and the police, began pushing forth against the forest and its human and non-human inhabitants. As the wind raged outside, Martín and Ana, his wife, described how a decade earlier they had confronted and stopped eighteen bulldozers that were crushing a forest two kilometers from their home. With the help of over 200 other residents from a wide area, they set up barricades and forced the drivers to abandon the machines. After a long legal dispute, a sympathetic judge eventually ruled in their favor, for Martin’s family was able to prove that despite lacking legal titles they had been living there since the 1930s —which under Argentine law gives families ownership rights. Their struggle managed to save 5,000 hectares of forests where they raise 200 head of cattle. But this was a localized victory that could not stop the deforestation of surrounding areas. The forests that Martín and Ana’s family saved from destruction, in this regard, are now surrounded by fields planted with genetically-modified soy and regularly sprayed with herbicides.
            As I was listening to Martín and Ana’s accounts, our conversation kept returning to the power of the wind. “This wind is unbelievable!” Ana exclaimed, raising her voice as the noise of things battered outside by the wind increased. “It’s because of the fields,” Ana said again. Martín nodded. They explained that winds like that did not exist when the area was covered with forests. With most of the forests gone, they said, powerful winds appear out of nowhere, blowing through those open fields and scattering huge amounts of soil into the air. On windy days, blue skies acquire a brownish tone. Without the forests, as a woman in another town put it, people now have to brave “tierrales horribles,” “horrible dust clouds.” The air is so full of microscopic particles that residents suffer epidemics of allergies previously unknown in the region. Everybody agrees that the air is drier and hotter, rains are scarcer, and droughts are longer and more intense. Scientists have confirmed this perception, for the destruction of forests meant the disappearance of the moisture that forests absorb and release into the atmosphere.
             Local people’s perception that the very texture of space has changed makes apparent that the soy boom has created much more than political, cultural, and territorial transformations. Those socio-political transformations have, indeed, been profound. What once was peasant territory formed by families sharing the forest as a commons has become a largely deforested, depopulated, privatized constellation of mechanized farms that produce for the world market. As a result, the sensibilities of residents forced to resettle in towns are now under the influence of urbanized patterns of consumption and new class inequalities. But something else has changed in the region: the ambient texture, forms, and rhythms of terrain. The tactile materiality of terrain, in particular, has adopted new levels of ambient thickness: that is, of palpable intensities that in the form of wind gushes, heat waves, or dust affect people’s mobility, visibility, and sensory experience. This ambient density has been made all the more intense by the impact of climate change, of which deforestation by industrial agriculture is one of the most important contributors. 
            Global warming challenges human-centered views of places, landscapes, and territories as socially configured spatial fields for a simple reason: it confronts us with the vast, uncontrollable physicality of terrain. I propose “terrain” for our lexicon of the future because only this term admits that all actually-existing places have volumes, forms, and textures that are irreducible and indifferent to human practice, and whose dynamism becomes most apparent in the elusive physicality of the wind. And the air moves because we live in a planet in motion that rhythmically exposes the ocean and the atmosphere to the heat of the sun, creating temperature imbalances, flows, and currents in a state of flux.
            In the most materialist sense of the term, “climate change” names the atmospheric process whereby the planetary terrain is thickening: that is, increasing the intensity of the physical pressures it imposes on human bodies and on all life forms through more intense heat, droughts, storms, or rising sea levels. Terrain, like the deforested terrains of the western Argentine Chaco, is thereby not a rigid “thing” but a figure of multiplicity and becoming: a processual, turbulent field of trajectories, objects, and pressure points that are atmospheric in nature. Atmospheric events, so-often reified as “the weather” or “nature,” are thereby nothing but part of the ever-shifting physicality of terrain. And this is a bodily materiality crucial to understanding what global warming entails for life on Earth. “The era of humans,” or “the Anthropocene,” might be the era, ironically, when modern humans learn to appreciate, and fear, the power of terrain.