# POLITICS /// Arthur Rimbaud + Swarms, Multitude, and Activism in a Time of Monsters


Arthur Rimbaud by Ernest Pignon-Ernest

This Wednesday (7pm) in New York, will be held a conversation with Ana Méndez de Andés for Sixteen Beaver (thank you Greg). This event, entitled beautifully Swarms, Multitude, and Activism in a Time of Monsters, connected in my mind with the book that I just re-read, The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune (see previous article) by Kristin Ross. In this book, K. Ross interprets the poems that Arthur Rimbaud wrote during  the Paris Commune in 1871 in relation to his extended work as well as its description of space. In a chapter entitled Swarms that Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt referred to in their book Multitude, she introduces (probably inspired by Elias Canetti) three poems by Rimbaud that describes what can be called the collective revolutionary body and its multitude of microsensations.
The use of the word ‘Monsters’ is perfectly appropriate to the comparison of this event with Rimbaud’s poetry. The monsters are not to be assigned to the oppressors here, but rather to us, the multitude, as seen by them. That is how Rimbaud evokes the irreversibility of the crowd, seen not by its body’s particles but by the dominant power which uses the terminology of abjection to describe it. “That Sire, is the Scum. It drools round the walls, it rises, it seethes…” The following text is an excerpt of K.Ross’s book:

The Swarm
by Kristin Ross

[…] But the sensation of being covered with enormous swarms of tiny insects, of losing oneself in a hyperindividuated or cellular tingle, is not solely an erotic sensation in Rimbaud; it contributes to the scatological grotesque of such satiric or invective-laden poems as “Le Juste,” “Les Premières Communions.” And “Accroupissements.” In these poems the monstrous flux one is caught up in is suddenly and nightmarishly perceived to be made up of masses of tiny things – things that are alive: a grotesque hypertrophy of life, too much life: “Le cerveau du bonhomme est bourré de chiffons: / Il ecoute les poils pousser dans sa peau moite.” (“The old fellow’s head is crammed with rags: He listens to the hairs growing in his moist skin”: “Accroupissements.”) A microscopic or molecular attention to the concrete; the auditory phantasmagoria of individual hairs growing in a latrinal dankness becomes a horrific fascination with the body dissociated into its component cells, each cell alive and “growing.” In “Les Premières Communions,” a similar sensation results from being slapped across the face by a priest:

L’enfant se doit surtout à la maison, famille
Des soins naïfs, des bons travaux abrutissants ;
Ils sortent, oubliant que la peau leur fourmille
Où le Prêtre du Christ plaqua ses doigts puissants…

[The child’s duty is first to his home, his family
Whose cares are simple, whose work stupefying and honest;
They leave forgetting how their skin crawls
Where the Priest of Christ has struck with his powerful fingers.]

 Once again it is important to notice the impersonal, reflexive form: “la peau leur fourmille”; “on se sent aux lèvres un baiser.” Whether erotically or grotesquely weighted, this awakening of colonies of the skin, this breaking down of the body into the cells that make it up, goes hand in hand with a vacillation of the self under the onslaught of the power of the swarm. The experience of “Je est un autre” for Rimbaud is not, in other words, a metaphysical experiment. It is above all corporeal, a lived sensation on both a micro- and a macrolevel, of the body “getting away from you.”

 In the late 1860s and early 1870s, the expression charmer les puces, in working-class circles, meant to get drunk. In Rimbaud a rhetoric of intoxication often serves to articulate the micro-and macrolevels of the “crowd effect”: on the one hand, the almost “delirium tremens” phenomology, that focused and intense sensation of “skin crawling,” the trend toward the concrete and the small that has some resemblance to a dissociation of the body into its component cells; on the other, the contagious, euphoric element that sweeps through a crowd of people increasing in number. Louis Barron, in his Commune memoirs, describes this sensation as well:

 Thus great and sublime movements begin with solemnities, festivals, and cheerful battles. Viable revolutions begin and continue this way. One comes down from the peak of intense excitement as if awakening from a dream. But a delicious memory remains of an instant of intoxication; it gives you the illusion of fraternity.

 One of the verbs most associated with crowd movement in Rimbaud and in nineteenth-century cliché, fourmiller, carries with it both of these associations: to grow to great numbers very quickly and to be the site of a sensation of prickling as if one is buried alive in an anthill: the dispersion of the body’s surface into a thousand microsensations (la peau leur fourmille”):

Il le prend par le bras, arrache le velours
Des rideaux, et lui montre en bas les large cours
Où fourmille, où fourmille, où se lève la foule
La foule épouvantable avec des bruits de houle,
Hurlant comme une chienne, hurlant comme une mer…
« C’est la crapule,
Sire. Ca bave aux murs, ca monte, ca pullule… »

[He takes him by the arm, and tears the curtain
Back, and shows him the courtyard below
Where the mob swarms about, seething beneath them,
The awful mob that makes a roaring like the surf,
A howling like a bitch, a howling like the sea,…
“That Sire, is the Scum.
It drools round the walls, it rises, it seethes…”]

(“Le Forgeron”)

In “Chants de guerre parisien” Rimbaud uses a familiar cliché, the fourmillière or anthill, to designate the space of collective insurgency within Paris during the Commune ; in the following passage, the jaunes cabochons are the bombs dropped on Paris by the Versaillais, and the Communards’ activities, significantly, are designated by the verb bambocher – popularly, “to be on a drinking spree”:

Plus que jamais nous bambochons
Quand viennent sur nos fourmilières
Crouler les jaunes cabochons
Dans des aubes particulières

[More than ever before we carouse
When onto our ant-heaps come
Tumbling the yellow heads
On those extraordinary dawns.]

Ross Kristin. The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune. New York: Verso, 2008.

To go further:
Excerpt from Negri and Hardt’s Multitude about K.Ross’ book
Parisian War Song (integral poem by Rimbaud)
Essay Pulse Demons by Eugene Thacker