Because Montréal, this city, my city, is burning with life, but not burning at all

Have you ever felt that the curiosity of the wanderer has often thrown into a riot, the same joy I feel when I see a guardian of public sleep--city or municipal sergeant, the true army--hitting a republican with the butt of his rifle? And like me you told yourself in your heart: "hit, hit a bit harder, hit again, municipal of my heart; for in this supreme hitting I adore you and judge you equal to Jupiter, the great avenger. The man whom you are hitting is an enemy of roses and perfumes, a fanatic of the utensils; an enemy of Watteau, an enemy of Raphaël, an arrogant enemy of luxury, of fine arts and letters, sworn iconoclast, torturer of Venus and Apollo! He does not want to work anymore, humble and anonymous worker, to the public roses and perfumes; he wants to be free, this ignorant, and he is unable to set up a flowers and new perfumes workshop. Hit religiously the shoulder blades of the anarchist!"

-- Charles Baudelaire, Aesthetic Curiosities, 1868.

Seven years ago you asked me to write about the protests that were then going strong in my native country, France. I couldn't, I thought, do it from Montréal. So I wrote a few lines instead about how it felt to experience politics in the (Parisian) streets at a distance, through the lens of the media apparatus. I wrote how it made me feel like a migrant worker, watching pictures of Caracas on CNN in 1989, back in Santa Monica, in 1992, as I was watching Paris on CBC, unless it was Watts on France 2. At home in front of the TV, in this global turmoil, estranged from this world and that world, in between, witnessing the same patterns of violence and liberation, oh so little liberation indeed.

Seven years have passed and here I am again, in Montréal, my home city, metropolis of a province I will probably never think of as my province, colonial and colonized city of a country that has become the end of my journey. A city, a country, where I have settled, where my son was born and is growing, where I teach and write, still estranged, but where, strangely enough, I have found a renewed sense of hope.

Because Montréal, this city, my city, is burning with life, but not burning at all.

As we passed this week the hundredth day of what was at first a student movement and appears now as a slow growing and maybe even tranquillest revolution, as people are taking to the streets with chants and noise, recycling every night the Acadian Tintamarre, or the French Charivari, as we follow in social meshworks and other digital means the lines of flight of a rhizomatic and definitely molar becoming other, as the young adult spokespersons of an even younger direct democracy brave the corruption suspected clowns posing obnoxiously as leaders and exception-determining law makers, as I experience all this in the streets with a growing uneasiness for the media circus that claims to report it. Now human pride, which always takes the upper hand and is the natural cause of laughter in the case of the comic, turns out to be the natural cause of laughter in the case of the grotesque (Baudelaire again, "On The Essence of Laughter", 1855). Yes, I, who so often felt like Günther Anders, calmly desperate, yes, I found hope again in a fit of laughter.

Of course I am tempted every day to revert to my usual doubts. Of course I have this ongoing discussion with myself about the simulacra of yet another announced revolution that will be facebookized. Of course I cannot believe in the so nice formulas of the even nicer Canadian/ Québecker claims to implement a nationalist social democracy open to all and guaranteed by a charter that makes of tolerance the cardinal value of our society--yes you read correctly, nationalist and tolerance are respectively the first and final words of this counter-intuitive proposition, albeit it might also be the opposite if you read our history backwards: tolerance first, nationalism last. Of course I often think of my fellow revolutionaries as this spontaneous line that always forms here while waiting for the autobus of change, oh so nice, indeed, and so proper. Of course, I resent that all this started because of money, always money, fees, debts and taxes. Of course, of course, of course.

But then again, there is always this little voice in my head murmuring "Why not?" Why not, after all... My students do not bother themselves with my old world doubts anyway; they laugh at them and go back to the streets and tweet and shout, every night for three months and counting. They laugh at me as they laugh at the powers that be, they laugh at the media reports as they laugh when a shower suddenly falls on their demonstration, they laugh and chant, même la pluie nous appuie. Even under a rain of insults and tear gas, even under a rain of police brutality and arrests, even under a rain of disdain and humiliation, yes even then, they keep on laughing, même les pluies nous appuient.

Because Montréal, this city, my city, is burning with life, but not burning at all: the rains of laughter extinguish the fires of violence before they even start burning.

We are more than fifty, much more than fifty, and we disobey with civility.
We are more than fifty, much more than fifty, but who cares for numbers anyway?
We are more than fifty, and we do not count our clicks, our tweets, our status updates.

Because Montréal, this city, my city, is burning with life, but not burning at all: the paradoxical rain of the data shower extinguishes the fire before it incinerates the real, whatever that means.

No, this is an old reflex, a symptom of a baudrillardian infection, no need to add anymore, whatever that means. You know what it means when you experience it. You know how it feels to feel alive when you could be complaining, lamenting or even mourning. You might have to pause and pinch yourself once in a while, thinking, what, no death? Where are the corpses and the clashes? How come the cops do not kill, as it always happens in such times, unfortunately? Why, you may ask, is Montréal not burning?

We laugh in the streets because we know that the simulacrum went full circle, and that there is now only one world to experience it, and laugh. Yes it was very close: just after the law of exception was passed, last weekend, we were scared. Very scared. Yes, there were, and there still is, violence, physical and symbolic. Yes, a student lost an eye, many were and still are kicked and shoved in police trucks (an average of 150 a night). Yes, paranoia was in the air, you could feel it. Some claimed that the clowns fed it with a Queen's day military parade on Monday--also the day of the Patriots, by the way: in one more desperate attempt at symbolic intimidation, rumors had it that they had altered the direction of troops from their usual yearly promenade, rerouting them through the streets of downtown. Here we go again, we feared. Back to October 1970, here it comes again-- martial law and its dance of terrorism and resistance, counterterrorism and repression, this macabre dance. But in the meantime, Montréal, I repeat, is not burning, the dance has not begun, so far.

On this rainy Tuesday I took my riot kit, my bicycle helmet and my scarf, my camera and my sound recorder, and I went down to the streets, not knowing how it would turn out, not knowing how many would turn out, and how many would stay at home, intimidated and scared. Arriving at the Place des Arts where we were supposed to meet, I was still wondering. There were not many people at first, there was still tension in the air. But then I noticed more and more music and drums, funny, yes funny slogans and posters. There were a few signs that hope could still exist: the unions were there, the virtualities of a general strike answered those of the troops. But more importantly, there was music and fun. A colleague from another university had retooled a baby stroller into a boogie kart. It blasted protest songs such as Libérez nous des libéraux, people danced around while we waited two hours for the march to begin. The sun started to shine, we burnt a bit, the Maple Spring was here again. Suddenly there were rumors of astonishing numbers circulating within the crowd, some said there are half a million of us. I started to relax. I noticed a poster that portrayed the emblem of the movement, the red square, as Bolognese sauce over a plate of spaghetti. Another claimed that "78", the number of the emergency law that turned the movement around [1], away from a student protest to a civil protest, "was not his preferred position."

Then we started to march. We soon heard that we were indeed disobeying the law: one student organization intentionally deviated from the itinerary other students organizations had, following compulsory legal requirements, given to the police, in agreement with Bill 78. They then deviated at the first turn, going left instead of right, of course. There were cops and riot police squads, cars and trucks. The march moved on one block, the cars moved on to the next, and so on for five blocks, for half an hour of high tension. Then the cops vacated the streets and the march went on. Everybody followed the illegal itinerary, the cops kept retreating, always a block away at least. We saw them a few blocks later: oh not that many in fact... Only a dozen of them actually, guarding the building hosting this most popular institution, Loto Québec. I think that this was exactly where and when I finally understood.

I was not in Montréal the week before, when the law was passed. I was in the Netherlands for the V2 Dutch Electronic Art Festival. I came back on Sunday and left immediately to spend the day of the Patriots with some of my friends in the Eastern Townships. I did not see the troops parading, I did not roam the streets at night with the students provoking and escaping the police until they were arrested in large numbers. I did not. Instead I enjoyed myself in the after hour parties of the Festival, or resting by a lake, watching our kids play. I was not disconnected, though. I followed the events on Facebook, checking the websites of the newspapers and television channels to witness it all from an ocean away, while listening to Chumbawamba, Laughter in a time of war.

Take my life and sing it back to me
My big mouth, it's my own worst enemy
Funny how it all sounds better in harmony
Laughter in a time of War
Oh my soul
The people at the top have further to fall

I was not laughing yet, though. I was mad, and my big mouth and little brain were full of angry words and strong and not so strong concepts. My Marxist education, my punk late teenage years, my Deleuze and my Foucault was being remixed by the events in my head. Not a pretty song, even if a minor voice said, wait and see, wait to experience it in the streets, the Arab Spring did not start on Facebook and Twitter, but with one guy who set himself on fire in Tunisia. Nobody had set him or herself on fire here yet, there was still hope of avoiding this, the minor voice in my head kept saying. But there was still madness and paranoia, disinformation, propaganda and lies: I was under the spell of the digital representation, where truth and lies blur in a mist of zeroes and one. I felt estranged, again, trapped in the false desert of the virtual, and it made me mad enough.

This is exactly why, when back in Montréal on this cloudy Tuesday morning, I decided to join the street--À qui la rue? À nous la rue. This is exactly why I decided to go see and experience it for myself, with my riot kit and my half-baked concepts. I had a hunch I might experience the frontal clash of representative and direct democracy, and wondered how frontal that might get. Well, the only frontal fact I experienced that glorious day was that of the nudity of two young women running wild in the cortège, getting naked for their rights, and laughing like chubby amazons, weaponless. Instead of a frontal clash, I followed for a while the meanderers in the street of young "radical elements" carrying signs.

So yes, I think I finally got it that Tuesday. The law of exception is this ultimate simulacrum, these so-called political representatives are its makers, these cops, too tired to think, too lost to join in, its passive guardians, these journalists its pushers. This version of democracy, law and order, has outlived its time, it is becoming the mere zombie of former times, à peine lingering on... Laughter will dissolve it like acid rain. Laughter will prevail, hopefully.

Last night, amidst the tintamarres, in the embarrassingly proud silence of those who still claim to govern while young people rule the streets, while the population is slowly joining in the drumbeat of kitchen pots and pans, we were still laughing. Without a hint of cynicism, we just laugh.

We are more than fifty, and we laugh at the grotesque simulacrum going full circle,
We are more than fifty, and we laugh at a time where there could be war,

Oh my soul
We got oil for the pan
We got rock n roll
Laughter lines run deeper than skin
And the world's just
Something that the cat brought in

Thanks to the SNS Gang, and especially Heraclitus, for his Baudelarian plugs.
Montréal, May 25, 2012.


[1] Bill 78 is an emergency law, or "loi spéciale," titled "An Act to enable students to receive instruction from the postsecondary institutions they attend," and passed on 18 May 2012 by the National Assembly of Québec. Bill 78 was drafted by members of the Québec Liberal Party, and introduced by Education Minister Michelle Courchesne in response to ongoing student protests over proposed tuition increases of 75% in the next five years. Bill 78 declares illegal any picket or "form of gathering" by strike supporters within 50 meters of the "outer limits" of the "grounds" of any university or College d'Enseignement Général et Professionnel (CEGEP) building. The bill requires student associations, unions representing teachers, and CEGEP or university employees to "employ appropriate means to induce" their members to comply with its provisions, or face prosecution. Article 9 of the bill states that the Minister of Education, Recreation and Sports is granted the right to modify any Act of law to provide for any dispositions deemed necessary to enforce continuation of sessions throughout the duration covered by the bill. The bill furthermore declares illegal all demonstrations of over 50 people, organized for any purpose and at any location in Québec, unless the dates, times, starting point, and routes of those locations and also the duration of the venue and the means of transportation that will be used by participants, if applicable, have been submitted to and approved by Québec police. It is then possible, at the police authority's discretion, to modify the location and date of the protest if it judges that the protest would pose a serious threat to the order and security of the public. According to the provisions of the bill, any infraction against its prohibitions require offenders to pay fines, which are paid for each day of infraction. Those fines amount to $1,000-$5,000 for individuals, $7,000-$35,000 for student or union leaders, and $25,000-$125,000 per day for student or labor organizations. Fines are doubled following a "second offence." Universities or institutions which do not comply with the provisions of Bill 78 are subject to the daily fees paid by student or labor organizations. The bill establishes a date after which all education employees must return to work, and prohibits them from striking should this, "by act or omission," prevent students from receiving instruction, or indirectly impede services. Bill 78 suspends winter semester classes at 11 universities and 14 CEGEPs where over 150,000 students remain on strike; classes at those locations will be completed in August and September, if not earlier. The law expires on 1 July 2013 [adapted from Wikipedia, entry Bill 78]

Agronomist (ENSA Montpellier, 1986) and sociologist (Ph.D. Paris X Nanterre, 1991), Thierry Bardini is full professor in the department of communication at the university of Montréal, where he has taught since 1993. His research interests concern contemporary cyberculture, from the production and uses of information and communication technologies to molecular biology. He is the author of Bootstrapping : Douglas Englebart, Coevolution and the Genesis of Personal Computing (Stanford University Press, 2000), Junkware (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) and Journey to the End of the Species (in collaboration with Dominique Lestel, Éditions Dis Voir, Paris, 2011).