A Year of Resistance

At a time when democratic elections enable undemocratic policies, how can we think about resistance inside and beyond the limits of art? An interview with philosopher Howard Caygill.


Pier Paolo Pasolini, Salò (still), 1976.

On the same day that the new president was installed in the White House, a large part of the American art community declared its support for the J20 Art Strike. The next day, Women’s March was held, one of the most attended protests in the history of the United States. And a few weeks ago, residents in Sollefteå in northern Sweden occupied a maternity ward set to close by the municipality.

Often it is temporary events like these that are considered acts of resistance. If the objective is reached, as in Poland last fall when protests forced parliament to reject a bill for banning abortions, it is viewed as successful. But if demands aren’t met, as when mass demonstrations against the Iraq war were unable to stop an invasion by the US and Great Britain, it is regarded as a failure.

Yet how can resistance be understood as a dynamic force rather than as isolated and momentary events? What artistic and other practices function as such a resistance and what does the dynamics of resistance look like historically? These are some of the questions discussed in Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance (2013) by British philosopher Howard Caygill, who took part in the conference What is a Mask at The Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm in January?

Howard Caygill. Photo: Royal Institute of Art.

According to Caygill, resistance is an ongoing force that is absolute in the sense that it neither folds nor is optional. Even art can be analyzed in terms of its ability to create an atmosphere where the potential for resistance increases. He does this in reference to filmmakers and authors like Pasolini and Kafka, thinkers like Marx and Nietzsche, and everything from the French resistance during WW2, the Black Panthers in the US to the recent Occupy movement. He is presently working on a sequel to the book from 2013, in which he is exploring the resistance potential of works by artists incarcerated in mental hospitals.

Josefine Wikström met up with Howard Caygill during the conference in Stockholm to talk about one of the most pressing questions today: in a time when democratic elections enable anti-democratic policies, how can we think about resistance within the boundaries of art and beyond?


In your latest book, Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance, you bring up a number of historical examples such as the French resistance during WW2, anti-fascist movements and so on. Yet you insist throughout on a philosophy of resistance. This might seem problematic as philosophy can be understood as systematizing historical events under certain concepts. Why was it still important for you to approach resistance philosophically?

This is Walter Benjamin’s method. You do philosophy by working through a historical material in a very concrete way. The historical material forces you, so to speak, to move ahead in ways that are unobtainable by working only on a conceptual level.  Yet at the same time you need the conceptual level to recognize history’s systematic character. I wanted to create a kind of resistance archive to demonstrate similarities between different resistance movements.

Meanwhile the book presents a definitive theorization of resistance. I think this is its real contribution. Resistance is often thought performatively as something that happens and then fades out and disappears. Instead I wanted to think about resistance in the way that Prussian war general Carl von Clausewitz would have done in a military context – by approaching what he described as “the capacity to resist”.

“The Black Panthers were a terrific resistance movement because they created an ability to resist in the future. This is what we see in the Black Lives Matter movement today.” – Howard Caygill.

It was important for me to highlight the essential ability or capacity to resist, which manifests itself in individual events such as demonstrations. In a way, this point of view changes the whole idea of resistance. The politics of resistance is not about staging, but about increasing the capacity to resist.

This involves a politics of time as well. An obvious example is how the French revolution left behind a capacity, historically in France, to create more resistance. Therefore to resist is not only about struggle in the streets. It is also about art making and other actions that create conditions for resistance in the streets. This is another reason why I wanted to work with such a wide range of historical material that could show how resistance generates resistance.

To resist is always seen as something that happens tomorrow, but if resistance is about increasing the capacity to resist it is already taking place today.

Your book begins with a critique of Jean-Paul Sartre, who in the essay «An Unprivileged Painter» (1961) uses a painting to analyze a student uprising that he thinks has failed. Your critique of Sartre, as well, seems based in your view on resistance as having to do with force.

The concept of resistance is inseparable from a discourse on force. There’s a relation between them all the way from Clausewitz to Newton, because resistance is a term that comes from physics, electromagnetics and military strategy. These different senses of resistance are united by their relation to force. And because force can be both affirmative and reactive, resistance has to be thought in this way as well.

Karl Wilhelm Wach, portrait of Carl von Clausewitz, 1830.

The students that Sartre writes about were having a legal meeting in a building on the west bank of Paris when they were provoked with teargas by young fascists. This forced the students out in the street, which made it an illegal and violent protest. In this way the students were choreographed by the fascists into a reactive resistance without initiative. Sartre saw this as a failure for the students, while I see it as the beginning of a capacity to resist that later escalated during the 1968 movement.

I was reminded of this while teaching in Paris about a year ago when the students were striking against new labour laws in France. If one contends that acts of resistance should achieve certain goals after a certain event then all resistance will be viewed as a failure. But if resistance instead is about creating conditions for further resistance, there is a more affirmative Nietzschean force to this.

You have written about everything from Kant’s Third Critique about aesthetic judgement to the concept of art in Benjamin and taught Italian and German philosophy, to mention a few of your interests. How come you started writing a book about resistance?

The whole thing was quite random, starting from a very practical situation. I was working at Goldsmiths University in London as a professor of History of Ideas about six or seven years ago. The institution’s political landscape was changing radically and I therefore decided to leave my position. This led me to teach my last course on the theme of resistance in contemporary thought, and I started understanding how difficult it is to think resistance as a concept, let alone creating a syllabus and reading list. I found the term everywhere but when I really tried to understand what resistance is it proved to be a very elusive concept.

The following semester I was teaching at the University of Paris 8 through my new professorship at Kingston University. Sociologist and philosopher Françoise Proust was there too, who had written one of few systematical works on resistance. At the same time I was working on my ever unfinished project about Franz Kafka, and the book on resistance was a way to pause from this work.

Gilles Caron pictures were included in Georges Didi-Huberman’s Soulévements (2016–2017) at Jeu de Paume in Paris, which according to Howard Caygill viewed “acts of resistance as performative spectacles”.

Despite studying Kant in depth I’ve always had trouble with the notion of secure knowledge. I wanted to write a trilogy of books that would do the opposite of Kant’s critiques. What would happen if we articulated a critique that turned all of that upside down? A first critique exploring truth, a second that brings Kant’s notion of the practical to a head by analyzing extreme acts of resistance, and a third critique exploring creativity drawn to its limits by looking at artists incarcerated in mental hospitals. 

Philosophy of Resistance is the second part of this anti-critique. The first, on truth, will be published this spring and is about Kafka, and I’m working on the third right now. I don’t want to exaggerate the notion that this is a Kantian trilogy in reverse. But it is what I had in mind.

You refer to well known philosophers who have written about resistance such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, but primarily to Carl von Clausewitz. Who was he?

Clausewitz was a Prussian general in the Napoleonic Wars who died around the same time as Hegel, who he met once over a game of cards. He is known mostly for his book On War, which was published posthumously. To me this book is a Kantian philosophy of war. According to traditional readings of Kant by thinkers such as Fichte, Schelling and others, Kant is a philosopher of freedom. Clausewitz was entirely uninterested by freedom. To him, freedom was an illusion and moreover dangerous, because it leads to poor strategic decisions in battle.

According to Clausewitz one is always entangled in resistance and struggle. It is always going on and it is something you have to do. It was very concrete for him since he was confronted by Napoleon’s army. War at that time was not, like today, about professional armies pretending to fight yet without wanting to kill or die. The French Revolution led to a kind of people’s army where everybody armed themselves and were prepared to go to war and defend themselves.

Black Lives Matter in Washington 2015.

Clausewitz developed a theory based on confronting such an army with guerrilla tactics and other strategies. Yet if you read Clausewitz there is a risk you will never want to take part in any act of resistance, because it is characterized by a politics of death, a thanatopolitics. It is only possible to resist if you already consider yourself dead. If you attach yourself to your family or home you cannot resist. You don’t have the power to sustain power. Very few can create resistance. In other words, it is not a romantic duty.

There appears to be similarities between your way of looking at resistance – as both a physical force and as politics – and French philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman’s exhibition Soulèvement at Jeu de Paume in Paris, which can be seen as a kind of archive of different uprisings.

The problem with Didi-Huberman’s exhibition is that it views acts of resistance as performative spectacles, represented in ways that in the gallery can look rather Benjaminian. But the exhibition does not expose how resistance can be viewed as something continuous and which is never a choice. In my book I stress the opposite, that resistance does not have to be the great performative event in the street. It is enough with a small gesture that then develops into another and so on. 

The Black Panthers were exceptional at this. Even though they were always armed and skilled at spectacular fighting, they also did things such as handing out free breakfasts and making sure people could visit their families. They were a terrific resistance movement simply because they created an ability to resist in the future. This is what we see in the Black Lives Matter movement today.

Situationist slogan with an enduring nachleben.

The autonomous work of art that we find in Benjamin, Adorno among others, stands for a negation and withdrawal from reality that is said to be resistance in and of itself. And in Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance you discuss works and artists that are considered as part of the modern paradigm of art, such as Pasolini’s Saló, the Situationists and Jean Genet. What is an art of resistance for you?

This is a classic question that began with Peter Weiss. I was interested in looking into art through its capacity to resist. I also wanted to question the notion that an art of resistance has to be either socially engaged or autonomous in Adorno’s sense. If one instead views art as a capacity to generate resistance it falls into neither of these categories. Rather, we could speak about works of art or artistic practices as contributions to a wider practice or movement of resisting.

Yet you specifically write about art in a way that resonates with Kant’s reflective judgement and Adorno’s concept of art. For instance you discuss poetry as a potential for indeterminacy and even as an act of freedom. All of your examples could also be viewed as classic avant-garde or modern art… So isn’t there something to this after all?

The concept of resistance definitely includes the notion of the autonomous work of art. And even if most examples in my book are taken from modernity, contemporary art presents many examples as well.  I recently collaborated with artists Karen Mirza and Brad Butler. They were interested in the idea that one doesn’t need to have an art practice whose effect is resistance, but an art practice that can contribute to a broader movement of resistance.

This is another aspect of Kant’s philosophy that relates to actuality. One never knows what acts of resistance are capable of doing, they are not predetermined. Neither is it possible to predict the effects of an artistic practice. You cannot predict what follows from a work of art. This is important.

Asger Jorn, The Avant Garde Doesn´t Give Up, 1962.

Toward the end of your book you refer to a passage in Kafka’s famous fabel, Before the Law, which forms a part of The Trial, where a farmer stands before the door to the law his whole life. It turns out that the door, or the law, is merely a manifestation for the farmer alone. What is it about Kafka that interests you?

Kafka’s works are often read as fables about dominance and submission. I want to do the opposite and read him as a writer of absolute resistance. Kafka was an anarchist with strong ties to the Czech anarchist movement. In my forthcoming book I show this by juxtaposing his literature with his work in insurance. Every book in my trilogy ends with a different reading of Kafka’s fable. In Resistance I describe how the farmer fails to understand that he is confirming the law by standing in front of the door, and that he really should have turned and walked away.

In my next book – the first of the trilogy which is all about Kafka – I go on to emphasize that the farmer cannot grasp that his misery is not individual. This is what the law wants us to believe. But the farmer’s misery is structural and he therefore has to look around for others with the same fate. In his work as an insurance bureaucrat Kafka saw that accidents are structural. This is visible in his novels as well.

At a lecture that I attended in London in 2011 you described that year as a year of resistance in reference to the resistance movements in Syria, Egypt, England, the United States and so on. Today, five years later, post-Brexit, post-Trump and Syria like an open wound, would you still describe it as a year of resistance?

If one considers resistance as a capacity to resist that question can only be answered by looking at what these movements left behind. And I actually think that there today is a greater capacity to resist in these countries. We must remember that resistance is not an ideology. It is a military strategy that is neither left nor right. I read an article recently about how the leftist movement in the United States is now looking at the Tea Party movement and how they managed to create a resistance to the neoliberal paradigm. If the left succeeds in appropriating some of their strategies perhaps this will become the year of resistance?

An image from a recent production of Peter Weiss’ The Investigation (1965) at Orionteatern in Stockholm.