The Delicacy of Radicalism

Squander. History does not wait for the sleepers to wake; it is written by the wakeful alone. What, from those hours of sleep, is worth the history books taking notice of and setting down? Surplus hours of no benefit or purpose; and yet these hours do not wither and fade away like pointless superfluity but grow in number, night after night, to become a strange assemblage. Strange, because unlike other assemblages these hours take on no weight worth mentioning however numerous they become, hovering perpetually in the background to no effect, unaddressed; a neglected nook that all know and never speak of. And so, down the years, sleep remains thus, cast over the pages of history like scattered dust. It might be condensed into the form of a dream here, or there a vision, but otherwise it lives outside these pages, a spirit that haunts all that is unwritten. The response sleep gives to this distancing is repetition. Like all authentic things, sleep returns to the fray night after night, creating from repetition a law. It comes back at us every evening with all its negativity and loss and failure, its insistence on continual squandering, reasserting its affiliation with the tragedies of the past. Expelled from history, sleep neither moves things forward nor holds them back, neither produces nor accumulates, and even so it marks the line beyond which progress’s arrow cannot pass. What can the subject in history do, confronted by this daily squandering? What can she do with all these hours of sleep? Reduce them as much as she can? Forget them utterly as soon as she wakes? Press them down, one atop the other, like pastry layers that she then eats? Walk among them like autumn leaves? Abandon herself to them? What to do?

The people of the cave. Disaster is the point at which the nature of the struggle changes totally to become another kind of struggle, which thus requires another kind of resistance. In this sense, disaster is not an extension of struggle but rather the locus of its radical transformation, a point whose afterward has no connection with what came before, and so requires neither a search for solutions nor a widening of the struggle, but wants instead a new beginning to create new tools of resistance—that new and eagerly-awaited start that is generated not by managing the disaster or ameliorating its impact but rather by acceptance, by permitting the collapse it occasions to run its full course. And this is sleep’s function, to take us to the very bottom, which must be touched if we are to rise back up to the surface. Sleep, with all the brokenness and surrender it brings, is not a tool of resistance in the struggle. It is disaster’s dark shadow, the twin without which it cannot come into being. When the youths take refuge from the cruel city in their cave, they do not found a just society based on the precepts of the religion for whose sake they were persecuted, nor do they make their refuge a fortress from which to sally forth against those who did them wrong. They simply sleep. For three hundred and nine lunar years, they do nothing but sleep. The sun dawns and sets a thousand times, their recumbent bodies motionless, and then the disaster passes and they wake. The cave where they repaired is not, therefore, a site of resistance. It is a place of absolute brokenness, the final disjuncture. A place that can only be exited though a fresh bout of birth pangs. The sleepers do not wish to resist: they are giving birth to a new beginning, and the new beginning that emerges from the womb of their disaster is the awakening that follows their sleep. Each awakening is an attempt, however weak it may seem, to begin a new day.

Reassured. Beyond the social as space for negotiation and struggle, for the exchange of views and dialogue, another hidden aspect emerges: the social as an arena for shared silence. Sleeping on public transport, in squares and lecture halls, at work, is a redoubled rejection of the social act, for it takes place not in the bedroom but in the traditional sites of social interaction. The sleeper at work prevents himself from working, the sleeper on the bus fails to view the roadside advertisements, the sleeper in the square aborts his communication with others. Sleep taps the public sphere with its wand and transforms it from a space for negotiation and struggle into a site of silence and absence, both of which become a collective activity and not a private matter. Yet for all its social inadequacy, sleep does not transform the public sphere into a place of coldness and deliberate disregard, but—how strange!—into a site of trust and reassurance; for there, at the heart of the social disengagement created by sleep, a new trust in others can be discerned. A trust whose origin remains mysterious, for the public sleeper neither negotiates nor struggles with others, does not ally or interact, but instead surrenders himself, reveals to them his weakness, his insubstantiality, his incapacity. Sleeping in public is, therefore, a declaration of faith in the random other. The other of the public square, beside whom the sleeper lies contentedly, is not one individual but a group of strangers, a group whose members the sleeper has no desire to know but whose plurality he finds reassuring, allowing him to become, like them, a stranger.

The delicacy of radicalism. Bodies that walk in public are primed, their veins charged with the exact quantity of tension that enables them to interact with their surroundings and deliver the appropriate responses. The radical public act requires bodies that are more highly strung, ready to confront any dangers that may bar its way. They are bodies that have entered into open conflict with the authorities for the purpose of reshaping public space. Among the many varieties of radical act, the sit-in stands apart in its extreme complexity. On the one hand, it constitutes the most extreme manifestation of the protest movement and its riskiest act, because it seizes the initiative and manufactures a new reality by “occupying” public space. On the other hand, it can only be made complete by another, deeply fragile, act, an action that is almost its antithesis: to fall asleep at the protest site. Sleeping at the sit-in is the very essence of it, the act that all participants are seeking to perform. A sit-in without protestors carpeting the ground is on shaky foundations, which is why there is always a battle to prevent sleep from taking place; once they manage to do so, the sit-in has political consequences. The act of staging a sit-in, with the clear risks it poses, only becomes radical when it denies its own nature and is replaced by an act that denies the very principle of action. Sleep is that low-energy act; it is this “sluggishness” that has the power to meld public and private: to make the public sphere private and vice versa and thereby realize the sit-in’s objectives. The radical body, tensed and primed, unwinds and slackens; it drops its defences, reveals its weakness and frailty. Through this accumulation and contiguity of weakness and frailty, the sharing of weariness and pain and their exposure to the public, sleep becomes a source of strength and a means for change. The sleepers at a sit-in do not return singly from the field of battle. Lying side by side, they become brokers of a new reality, and their dreams the language of this reality, which they strive to decode.