Defiance or emancipation?

On Howard Caygill, On Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance, Bloomsbury, London, 2013. 264 pp., £20.00 hb., 978 1 472522 58 0. Numbers in parentheses in the main text refer to pages of this book.

What is resistance? Rather than offering a conceptual definition, Howard Caygill’s new book approaches resistance as a problematic and elusive practice that calls for reflective judgement in the Kantian sense. His point of departure is the claim that resistance demands appreciation on its own evolving terms, rather than as an instance of a more general faculty or as a means to some deeper or more normatively binding end. Rather than posit a concept up front and apply it to a range of examples, then, Caygill assembles a constellation of diverse figures from a broad ‘archive of resistance’ (13) and works through them in order to tease out an interpretation of resistance as a distinctive experience.


The figures under consideration range from pioneers of the revolutionary Marxist tradition (Lenin, Luxemburg and Mao) and anti-colonial fighters (Gandhi, Fanon, the Zapatistas, the Black Panthers) to campaigners like the women of Greenham Common, theorists like Freud and Vaneigem, and artists like Pasolini and Genet. This range of reference, along with the warmth of Caygill’s evident sympathy with most of the many characters he considers, is enough to set this remarkable book apart from the great majority of recent philosophical reflections on our contemporary moment,most of which serve, one way or another, to help justify quiet acceptance of a version of the status quo. Though reluctant to return to openly revolutionary motifs (for reasons I’ll address in a moment), Caygill’s ‘philosophy of defiance’ marks a stirring and striking break with the prevailing philosophy of resignation.

The drama that links Caygill’s varied cast of characters is his quest to explore what he calls an ‘affirmative capacity to resist’, understood as an ability or ‘energy’ that links traditional virtues like courage and fortitude with a readiness to hold one’s ground, whatever the cost and for however long it takes. Fully committed resistants are those who dedicate their lives to the cause they embrace, to the point of effectively laying it down in advance and of thereby assuming the position of being, as the German Communist Eugen Levin put it, ‘dead men on leave’ (98). The Zapatistas in particular offer Caygill an illustration of what it means to commit to ‘the death in life of a resistant’, and at the price of being ready to die to a world of oppression and injustice, to escape the condition of being held ‘hostage to life’ (126). Perhaps the most concise way of describing the theoretical arc of the book is as a movement that culminates in an affirmation of ‘vital energy’ that nevertheless resists an attachment to life as it is currently administered or governed.

The book begins with consideration of Carl von Clausewitz’s post-Napoleonic analysis of newly powerful forms of ‘military energeia’, forms that have become ‘capable of drawing political logic into a self-destructive escalation of violence’ (20). As Caygill explained in the pages of this journal last year, Clausewitz has a special place in the history of the concept of energy.

[He was] one of the most consistent users of the term before it was taken over in the mid-nineteenth century by the theory of thermodynamics, where it remains. He understood energy in terms of the Kantian modal category of actuality, as an Aktus or event, deviating from the standard idealist focus on the modal category of possibility and its correlate of freedom.1On Resistance builds on this insight drawn from Clausewitz’s On War, and explores various ways in which resistant energy might be converted into forms of life or affirmation. It considers, for instance, with Luxemburg, the way that ‘ceaseless economic struggle with the capitalists keeps [the workers’] fighting energy alive in every political interval’;2 or, with Benjamin, the way ‘interruption and the potential vested in the future can serve to energize the capacity to resist in the present’ (144); or again, with Vaneigem and the Situationists, the way that ‘intensification’ of a ‘level of lived experience’ deeper than the domain of ideological representation might fuel ‘a capacity to resist that provide[s] the energetic resources for actualizing resistance to the spectacle’ (179–80).

Over the course of their long campaign against the British military and its nuclear weapons, the women of Greenham Common arrived at an especially clear understanding of the link between resistance, energy and a committed way of life. As Caygill presents it:

[their] capacity to resist is actualized, as in Clausewitz, through energy, but not the destructive energy released by nuclear weapons. It is an energy capable of arresting the evil course of the world, with resistance conceived as an empowering nonviolent interruption of these routines of evil… The energizing of the capacity to resist, as in [Gandhi’s] Satyagraha, requires concentration and singleminded attention to the objective of resisting the military. (119, 121)

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