‘On Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance’ reviewed by Tom Bunyard

On Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance

Bloomsbury Academic, London and New York, 2013. 264pp., £20 hb
ISBN 9781472522580

Reviewed by Tom Bunyard

About the reviewer

Tom Bunyard works at the University of Brighton and is currently writing a book on the theoretical …


As its subtitle indicates, Howard Caygill’s On Resistance is an attempt to develop a ‘philosophy of defiance’: a project that the book pursues through a set of critical reflections on a wide range of writers, philosophers and movements associated with political resistance. This is an extraordinarily rich book, and Caygill’s selection of struggles and authors is both eclectic and erudite. In keeping with its focus on resistance and conflict, many of the book’s discussions involve placing its subject matter in confrontational relations: Clausewitz is read through Kant; Freud is set against Lenin and Lukács; Greenham Common is placed in relation to the Black Panthers and the Zapatistas, and so on. A genuine host of names and events are treated in this manner, and serve as sources for novel, and occasionally surprising interpretations. These readings are admirably lucid, but the book’s overall presentation of its ‘philosophy of defiance’ can become somewhat buried within them; there is however a sense in which this stems from the manner in which Caygill sets out to address the topic of resistance.

Resistance, for Caygill, stands in contrast to resolution and unification, insofar as resolution is taken to entail the end of opposition. Many of the book’s discussions thus serve to develop ideas that imply the preservation of resistance, or advocate treating resistance as ‘an end in itself’ (186) (as opposed to a means towards an end that might, once achieved, render such resistance redundant). This concern with the closure afforded by resolution extends to conceptual unification and synthesis, and thus obliges the form of the book to conform to its content to some degree: A philosophy of resistance’, as Caygill puts it at the outset, must ‘resist the pressure of concept formation’, and thereby avoid reducing resistance to a ‘single concept amenable to legitimation and appropriation’ (6). Rather than simply describing his overall position, Caygill thus allows it to emerge through a series of interacting discussions. This entails that the book can feel, at times, as though it is reaching towards an ideal of resistance that resists its own final conceptualisation, and which the book can only refract through its various readings. More accurately, however, this strategy is an attempt to address resistance per se: to consider it shorn of presuppositions, and thus of the concepts of freedom, revolution and emancipation to which it is often rendered subservient (97). Perhaps surprisingly, the result is a politicised subjectivity that seems akin to a stoic virtue-ethics: a position that is attractive in some respects, but which, as will be suggested below, also seems to invite recourse to the themes of freedom and revolution from which this project initially departs.

The book employs three different strategies. The first is a ‘critique of resistance’, which sets out the primary ‘frames’ for thinking resistance (albeit a critique that avoids ‘exhausting [resistance’s] capacity’ to resist its own schematisation) (9-10). This informs the first three chapters’ discussions of issues concerning consciousness, violence and subjectivity. Caygill’s second strategy is to look at the history of political resistance; the third considers the ‘valencies’ (10) of resistance, i.e. its relation to the concepts of freedom, revolution and repression, etc., with which it is often associated. This is a complex approach, but it allows the book to evade and address presuppositions as to what resistance actually is and does. In that vein, Caygill begins by rejecting the assumption that resistance should be understood as the stance adopted by a subordinated party within a power relation. Instead, it operates on both sides of such a relation of force: correcting an account given by Sartre of a political demonstration, in which resistance is cast in terms of the choice and meaning of the demonstrators, Caygill stresses that ‘The police are called to resist the anti-colonial demonstrations as much as the demonstrators are resisting the police’ (5). This point is then reinforced through reference to Hegel’s discussion of mutually soliciting and solicited forces in the Phenomenology, and to Newton’s contention that if a horse draws a stone, the stone will also draw the horse.

This would seem to imply that a philosophy of resistance should concern itself with both parties in such a relation. The book’s focus on the struggles of the oppressed, rather than on those of both oppressor and oppressed, may thus require rather more justification than it receives. It is however the case that resistance is being used here as a vehicle towards the development of a ‘philosophy of defiance’, rather than of resistance alone; hence the focus on more defiant instances thereof. Nonetheless, there is a sense in which this focus entails that themes of freedom, emancipation and revolution remain implicit throughout the book’s discussions, and are by no means pushed to one side. The contention that resistance must be located within a play of forces is however crucial to the claims that follow in the book; a point that Caygill first begins to develop through his reading of Clausewitz, whose claims constitute a thread that runs throughout the entire book.

As noted, one of On Resistance’s primary virtues is its sheer wealth of novel and surprising interpretations, and Caygill’s handling of Clausewitz is a case in point. Much is made of Clausewitz’s key idea that participants within a struggle possess a capacity for resistance that each aims to extinguish within the other, so as to bring their struggle to an end. Caygill’s use of this idea is inflected by his claim that Clausewitz should be understood as a Kantian, rather than as the more Hegelian figure with whom one might otherwise be familiar. In his view, Clausewitz’s description of the escalation of combat to a total or ‘absolute’ level ‘rephrases’ (17) Kant’s warnings as to speculation’s unwarranted advance towards the absolutes of reason. Clausewitz is thus cast not solely as a theorist of the conduct of absolute war, but also of means of resisting it. Seen in this light, the actualisation of the capacity for resistance can pertain to attempts break the cycle of escalating violence that leads to absolute war (a theme that the book develops chiefly through its readings of Mao, Gandhi and Levinas); furthermore, and most importantly, it is also shown to pertain to the maintenance and perpetuation of that capacity within conditions of apparent defeat and domination.

Treating resistance as ‘an end in itself’ (186) might seem to imply nihilism, but this association of resistance with the preservation and affirmation of defiance allows its identification with a more positive and affirmative stance. Caygill’s discussions of resistance are in fact coloured by a theme of Nietzschean affirmation, and this is first introduced through a reading of Marx that places the latter’s remarks on the Paris Commune in relation to Nietzschean ressentiment. Although Caygill admits that Marx’s discussions of the anger and vengeance of the Communards contain a current of ressentiment, he maintains that they also express an ‘unquestionable nobility’ (37). Nobility, he claims, ‘consists…in overcoming a predicament of ressentiment’ (39): rather like their proletarian status, the oppressed must therefore overcome and shrug off this ressentiment. Marx’s comments are held to accord with this view, as they affirm the emergence of an ‘affirmative/expansive political form’ (38): a form that corresponds to a more vital and exuberant dimension of resistance that resists ‘subsumption under existing, repressive political concepts such as the state’ (38-9). Caygill’s decision to address resistance per se, rather than to consider resistance as a means towards revolution, thus seems informed by the view that the latter’s neutralisation of resistance pertains to Leninist notions of ‘taking’ the state; as against this, the book appears to adopt an unstated, but implicit anarchist stance.

Caygill’s emphasis on affirmation can seem almost Spinozan – the ‘defiant life’, he claims, ‘is not negative’ (208) – and also entails a rejection of dialectics. Although the movement of Hegelian thought lends itself to conceptions of permanent rupture and unrest (the readings advanced by Wahl or Hyppolite would seem relevant here), Caygill seems to associate it with ‘the Aufhebung of enmity’ (57): with closure, resolution, and thus with resistance’s demise. Yet if Clausewitz is the thread that runs through the text, Hegel is perhaps the spectre that haunts and in some ways defines it. This is because Caygill’s desire to preserve resistance from dialectical subsumption pertains directly to his presentation of resistance as ‘an end in itself’ (186), and thereby to the virtue-ethics that emerges from his arguments.

The readings employed in the book’s development of the latter position are too numerous to be summarised here, but its discussions of Gandhi, Levinas and the Zapatistas carry much of the weight. This is because they also convey the surprising emphasis on death that inflects Caygill’s concerns with affirmation. Resistance, with Gandhi, becomes a way of life, and thus a continual affirmation of a condition of defiance; yet for Caygill, the ‘strength’ of the ‘resistant subject’ that takes up Gandhian Satyagraha ‘comes from the courage produced by being vowed to death’ (114). ‘Resistant subjectivity’, he writes, ‘is in a sense already dead’ (98), as it involves a commitment that entails accepting one’s potential death at the hands of the enemy. Thus, whilst the positive qualities of resistance stem from the affirmation of the capacity to resist, that same affirmation requires the resistant subject to be open to death; yet by the same token, that subject is also freed from the self-preservation that might allow its terrorisation into submission to the opponent (or, presumably, to any Party, state or concept that would claim it). During his discussion of the Zapatistas, Caygill frames this as an avoidance of the Hegelian relation of master and slave. Because the fear of death induced by the master has been overcome, the master is accorded no ‘recognition or legitimacy’ (126). The affirmation of this life-in-death thus accords with the implicit anarchist current that can be discerned within the book.

These views also emerge from Caygill’s reading of Levinas, which introduces the need to recognise and maintain one’s situation within a ‘predicament’ (96) of potential violence and death. Overall, resistance is held to entail a stoic fortitude: a kind of virtue-ethics, attached to a politicised and relational notion of subjectivity. As Caygill himself indicates, this recalls the ‘traditional cardinal virtues of justice, courage/fortitude and prudence’ (12), and its maintenance also appears to possess a moral dimension: a point that seems particularly apparent in Caygill’s discussion of Genet, who ‘stands alongside those who resist,’ but who will resist them in turn if they adopt ‘brutality’ (131). This then brings us to the implications of this position.

The book’s Afterword is a discussion of Kafka’s Man from the Country: a figure who requests admittance to ‘the law’, who is refused entry, and who should instead have ‘pursued the solidarity of … other resistants’ outside the law (211). These closing comments allude to themes of collectivity and communality that also remain largely implicit within the book, but which clearly inform its overall stance. For although Caygill has separated resistance from the purportedly neutralising rubrics of revolution, freedom, communism, etc., he has not arrived at an apolitical position: instead, he embraces (to quote his discussion of Greenham Common) ‘a constant and uncompromising posture with respect to the authority of the state and its agents’ (121). Yet this raises questions: does a philosophy that advocates the continual maintenance of opposition hypostatise the power and domination that this opposition would resist? If so, does recourse still need to be made to a notion of revolution? Or is it instead the case – as the discussion of Genet may indicate – that this implicitly anarchist ethics entails a readiness to adopt a resistant subjectivity, and is thereby characterised by a condition of continual vigilance against the possible impositions and recurrences of power? If so, resistance would then seem to have drifted back under the heading of freedom. Consequently, the question with which the book leaves us is: how far can one go by pursuing resistance in isolation from its attendant concepts? Nonetheless, the very fact that it raises this question is testimony to its insight and ingenuity. This is an excellent, interesting and provocative work, and is to be highly recommended. 

17 August 2014

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