01-05-2006 - Traces, n.5

Countering the virus of nihilism

Life Is Uncertain:
The “No” Generation

This was the name given to the French youth who marched for the abrogation of the law on the first employment contract. But what this rebellion really cries out is that “without certainties, we cannot live”

by Davide Perillo

A lot of the slogans were the same, from “Ask for the impossible” to “Under the paved path, the beach.” Even the faces and mechanisms were similar, with those photogenic little leaders who, between one march and another, let their portraits be drawn in three-quarter pose, with dark background and the thoughtful gaze of intellectuals, by television networks and newspapers eager to pamper and please them in a very politically correct conditioned reflex that kicks in every time a crowd of student protesters hits the streets. It took quite a while before anyone got past the recollections of those “formidable years” to dig into the differences and contradictions, to discover that the protests of 1968 have little in common with the student protests of recent weeks that have led to the abrogation of the CPE, the first employment contract for those under 26 (two years of trial, then the risk of being fired without just cause). Before, utopia was in power and there was the will to change it all. Now, the issue is defense of the status quo, and a permanent job as the horizon. Rather than revolution, resistance, to the point that some have called these students “the no generation,” and the protagonists have been forced to admit, “The 1968 protesters were dreaming; we have to deal with reality.”

Superfluousness and replaceability
Even so, now that this battle has been archived as “an epochal victory against job insecurity,” if you dig around a bit, you will see that something denser is at issue, something that goes beyond the unemployment statistics and the tables confirming that the world has changed and that the guarantees of a generation ago are almost impossible in today’s times of ferocious competition and obligatory flexibility. Maybe the law shouldn’t have been thrown out entirely, who knows? But this is not the main issue. It’s the word that, if taken seriously, makes you seasick, because it’s too big to be stuck like a label on a labor dispute. “They want to leave me with no certainties and no future,” said one of them in one of the thousands of interviews from the street. It’s an alarm button that involves much more than the risk of being kicked out of a telemarketing job with no particular grace. Deep down, there is “an acute perception of their individual superfluousness and replaceability,” to use the sociologist Luciano Gallino’s apt synthesis. It’s not just the desire to be unique, it’s the fear of being useless. It’s not so much a rebellion of burned cars and violence by casseurs, as it is a rebellion crying out, “Without certainties, we cannot live.” As the philosopher Luce Irigary asked, “How is it possible to plan a future without certainty on the level of life itself, affections, convictions? We shouldn’t be surprised that people have become so violent against themselves, others, or the world. They no longer have the possibility to plan a future for themselves–not in the other world, but here and now.”

The circle and the X
This is what the young people in Paris were crying out. Were they wrong? Wrong about what? Is the “certainty needed to live” just about a permanent job, to the point that those without it despair and turn to violence? These questions bring back to mind the famous circle–remember? It was the world, the environment, “society”–and that little point drawn inside: the “I.” At the mercy of highs and lows and various waves. Insecure. Ephemeral. Prey to everything, if it weren’t for its bond with the big “X” that Fr. Giussani drew outside the circle, above it: Mystery. Mystery has been completely excluded from the comments on the new Parisian uprisings, as it is from the lives of those rebellious young people; none of the editorials or interviews took a step forward. Nobody asked what the seasickness and the nostalgia for solid land to stand on had to do with the earthquake that has crushed education in recent decades, leaving only ruins. Relationships, family, ideals–even the words “freedom” and “truth.” Everything pruned, cut away. The “no generation” has been raised and trained to tear itself away from everything so as to believe in nothing. More so, it has been incited to lay claim to this tear as if the “I” can only become adult in this way, in the name of nothingness, in the name of nihilism.

The Kleenex generation
In the end, this is the contradiction that breaks your heart when you see those hearts crying out for certainties. You can get out and protest, scream and demand loudly–and rightly–not to be the Kleenex generation, “disposable,” without realizing that you have already been disposed of. Worse still, that you’ve been educated to dispose of yourself. After all, the drama comes down to the only word from which you can start anew: education. You need someone who takes you seriously, deep down, who introduces you to reality, all of reality, who takes a risk on you and your freedom, and in so doing helps you to risk, even in work. The circle can bounce around all you want, but that “X” is there, and if you acknowledge it, your freedom is forever, not on a short-term contract.