1871 marked the establishment of the Paris Commune, an autonomous worker and artisan-led government that ruled the French capital for 72 days. This radical experiment remains a subject of curiosity and fascination for scholars, artists, and activists alike, continuing to inspire popular forms of self-governance, autonomous models of education, and designs for a political commons. Walter Benjamin identified the Paris Commune as a critical highpoint for the crafting of revolutionary theory, one based on “the immediacy of enthusiasm and energy [for] the creation of a new society.” Yet the Paris Commune itself was only one of several examples of resistance in 1871, occurring in tandem with the Mokrani revolt in Algeria and the insurrection of Martinique. Indeed, one could trace the structure of the commune along temporal and geographic contexts that both precede and succeed the Parisian example, from the 1791 Haitian Revolution to the massive 2021 protests around self-determination seen in Colombia, Cuba, Myanmar (Burma) and Palestine exactly 150 years after Communard control of the French capital.
A bundle of silences (1871) began as an exploration of artifacts related to the Paris Commune at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam with support from the Rijksakademie. The project recognises the potential of the archive in both kindling and detonating configurations of solidarity, particularly in times of collective urgency or violence elicited by “the silencing of the past”—a term identified by Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot in an effort to decenter and reposition exclusionary historical accounts. As such, A bundle of silences (1871) implemented objects, images, and audio recordings from the IISH and archives abroad into a series of actions commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune from a global and trans-historical perspective, in connection to different episodes from the past and present. This conversation with Esther Leslie, Pepijn Brandon, and Quentin Deluermoz serves as the first public presentation of this project, all of whom have been instrumental in shaping and supporting the foundational premises for A bundle of silences (1871).
Esther Leslie is Professor of Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck, University of London. Her books include various studies and translations of Walter Benjamin, as well as Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant Garde (Verso, 2002); Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry (Reaktion, 2005); Derelicts: Thought Worms from the Wreckage (Unkant, 2014), Liquid Crystals: The Science and Art of a Fluid Form (Reaktion, 2016) and two projects on milk and dairy, Deeper in the Pyramid (with Melanie Jackson: Banner Repeater, 2018) and, for the Limerick Biennale 20-21, The Inextinguishable (with M. Jackson, 2021). Future work includes research for Chemical City, an exhibition at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art on the chemical industries of the Northeast of England.
Pepijn Brandon is Professor of Global Economic and Social History at the VU Amsterdam and senior researcher at the International Institute of Social History. His work focuses on war, forced labour and colonialism in the history of capitalism. He coordinated the City of Amsterdam's official research project into the history of slavery, which laid the foundation for formal apologies for the city's involvement in global slavery by the mayor of Amsterdam. He also published widely on the history of labour movements and socialism, most recently as co editor of the volume Worlds of Labour Turned Upside Down: Revolutions and Labour Relations in Global Historical Perspective (Leiden: Brill, 2020, with Peyman Jafari and Stefan Müller).
Quentin Deluermoz is a Professor of History at the University of Paris and specialist of orders and disorders in the 19th century (French and European empires), as well as on the epistemology of history and the social sciences. His publications include Commune(s), 1870-1871: Une traversée des mondes au XIXe siècle, (Seuil, 2020); with P. Singaravelou, Pour une histoire des possibles. Approches contrefactuelles et futurs non advenus (Seuil, 2016, forthcoming as A Past of Possibilities: A History of What Could Have Been, Yale University Press, 2021); Le Crépuscule des révolutions, 1848-1871 (Seuil, 2014); and Policiers dans la ville: La construction d’un ordre public à Paris, 1854-1914 (Éditions de la Sorbonne, 2012). Together with other colleagues he also created in 2015 the interdisciplinary review Sensibilités, Histoire, Sciences Sociale et critique.
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