Revenge: A User’s Manual

By Mikkel Krause FrantzenMarch 20, 2021

Revenge: A User’s Manual

Disorder by Leslie Kaplan

“REVENGE IS A DESIRE that almost never becomes an act,” says a character in Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel, The Names. But in Leslie Kaplan’s new novella, Disorder, it does. In fact, revenge becomes a series of violent acts committed by workers and other exploited people against their bosses. Here’s the first act: “A model employee at a bank, twenty-five years of service, who suddenly drops a safe on the head of his director.” And on it goes, in this tiny book of no more than 50 pages. Kaplan does not describe unusual crimes in great detail, but rather briefly, laconically. A mechanic strangles his boss, and it takes the author exactly one sentence to cover the incident. It is the same with the next murder, and the one after that.

As readers of Kaplan’s work will know, writing dry, declarative, unsentimental, yet strangely gorgeous sentences has been her style since her first book, Excess — The Factory (1982). However, Disorder (originally published in 2019 in France and now available from AK Press in a superb English translation by Jennifer Pap) is less poetic than her debut. It reads like an exercise, highly experimental and list-like in execution, yet it does contain a plain and simple story: people kill their bosses, managers, and supervisors, over and over again. The story, as the subtitle has it, is a political fable — or is it a crime story, where the mystery is not who but why? Why do these people all of a sudden strike back? What are the causes behind the crimes?

No one knows, apparently. There is obviously a class aspect, as the narrator notes, and there are also incidents that bear on issues of race and gender, racism and sexism. One case revolves around a Moroccan immigrant, Ali (“that wasn’t his name but everyone called him that”), who kills three people in the suburbs of Paris. Another mentions a grocery stocker of Senegalese descent who drops a bag of coffee beans onto the head of his boss at the supermarket where he works. We also read about a “literature student, 21, union supporter, getting a Masters Degree”: “Taking the oral exam on Diderot’s Memoirs of a Nun, two paragraphs into her analysis, she grabbed the professor seated next to her by the tie, shouted ‘Hands off me you dirty bastard,’ and strangled him on the spot.”

Another woman, working in “the cosmetics department of the Monoprix St Michel,” knocks down her boss with a stool because he calls her “sweetie.” There are, in other words, plenty of causes, as well as a contemporary context that is hard to ignore (the book resonates with the anger expressed by the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements).

Still, “[w]hat no one could understand was why all these crimes were occurring simultaneously, why all at once?” The acts of revenge spread like an infection, the desire to get even multiplying, but no one knows why. Newspaper articles are written, academic papers circulated, books published. Some go back to Foucault, Freud, even Hegel to find a proper explanatory framework, a key — any key at all — yet to no avail. Maybe, though, the question should not be “why does it happen now?” but “why has it not occurred sooner than this?” As Peter Weiss writes in his magnum opus, The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975–’81), “the only surprise was when people asked why this had not happened earlier.”

I reference Weiss because Kaplan is ultimately a writer preoccupied with resistance. From May ’68 to the Yellow Vests, she has been trying to understand what is at stake in France’s insurrectionist moments, trying hard (just like Weiss but through different forms) to represent and resist the violence of capitalism. In my LARB review of Excess — The Factory, I referenced Kaplan’s fondness for a particular Kafka quotation (“To write is to jump outside the line of the assassins”), and in the illuminating afterword to this publication, translator Pap quotes from a recent interview with Kaplan: “For me, the catalyst for writing was the feeling that violence was spoken of everywhere, and that the foremost violence, namely police violence, was spoken of much less. The question I asked myself was ‘where does this violence come from?’” It is indeed impossible not to read Disorder as a comment on the gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests) protests on the streets of Paris and elsewhere in France, impossible not to hear the movement’s slogan echoing: “End of the month, end of the world, same struggle.” At one point, a police commissioner commits suicide because he can’t stand “to look at himself in the mirror any more.” A coincidence? Hardly.

But we are not dealing with a direct and unequivocal connection. In fact, there is no real movement in Disorder. The narrator is very clear on this. At most, it is a “movement,” with quotation marks surrounding it. We have a series of crimes but no collective subject making demands. There are no programs, no propositions, and no positivity. It is pure negativity, pure gesture. Does that make the crimes less political? Some commentators cited in the book seem to think so: “Someone would talk about the latest crime, and immediately add, ‘But it isn’t political.’” But Kaplan doesn’t seem to mind, or care really, whether the crimes are political or not. Maybe that is not the crucial question either.

A slogan does eventually arise, though: “Stop the bullshit.” It actually appears before the book has even begun, with plenty of spacing, one word per page: “Stop” (turn page) “the” (turn page) “bullshit.” It is repeated after a machinist has pushed someone under a bus:

The machinist only said one thing: “Stop the bullshit.” [Ça suffit la connerie!] The sentence was strong, peremptory. It struck the imagination. For that matter, imaginations were all the more struck when two days later, in quite a different vein, the journalist who wrote the personals column of a widely circulating women’s magazine was strangled with a boot lace by a reader. She only said one sentence, and it was the same one, “Stop the bullshit.”

An enticing slogan, eminently quotable (also bringing to mind the Occupy slogan: “Shit is fucked up and bullshit”). Indeed, I have a colleague who has it posted on his door. I understand the temptation, the revolutionary lure of it. But is that the point of Kaplan’s book — to go around quoting that, patting the comrades on the back? Maybe. Maybe not.

What is certain is that Kaplan is not one to parrot catchphrases. Even though the fable as such is well suited (to quote Fredric Jameson’s foreword to Weiss’s novel) “to convey a point which would be unsophisticated and programmatic in the form of a philosophical position,” Kaplan avoids any jargon. At times, she even mocks it explicitly. Referring to the suicide of the police commissioner mentioned above, the narrator declares, tongue-in-cheek:

This suicide immediately inspired several doctoral theses at the universities at Rennes and in other places, “Division of the subject and maintaining order,” “Everyone hates the police, the lasting effects of a slogan,” “Virility and Femininity: Police Gender and Policing Gender.”

Hidden in this quotation is another French slogan from the world of anticapitalist graffiti: “everyone hates the police” (tout le monde déteste la police). The anonymous and insurrectionary collective The Invisible Committee uses this for a chapter heading in their third book, Now (Maintenant), from 2017. Another chapter, a not entirely celebratory one on the Nuit debout movement, is called “Death to Politics.” It is not that Kaplan necessarily disagrees, but she takes the liberty of having a bit of fun in an act of revolutionary self-criticism and ducks, as a consequence, the temptation to offer the reader the pyrrhic victory of an all-too-easy and clear-cut conclusion.

In spite of the political seriousness of its topic, Disorder is a very playful book. “At least ten farm workers, each in a completely different region of the country, ran over their bosses with a tractor,” reads one passage, accompanied by a childish illustration of a tractor. “A manager of a dairy in the Auvergne was drowned in milk, another in cream in Brittany” — evoking another scene as funny as it is fleeting. The book is, to a very large extent, a comedy — in some cases, a comedy of errors, in the sense that some crimes are committed against the wrong persons:

In the Bordeaux region a farmer knocked down an employee of the Ministry of Culture, it was of course the Ministry of Agriculture that had been the target. Realizing his mistake he just shrugged his shoulders. A journalist (regional newspaper) enjoyed coming up with “Culture, Agriculture, One Struggle, One Fight,” he was fired the same day.

It’s the worst of all mistakes: conflating the two pillars of French national identity: culture and agriculture! In the next scene, a worker on the assembly line in a factory (reminiscent of Kaplan’s ExcessThe Factory) takes an interpreter to be the CEO of the company and kills him. This is not history repeating itself as farce; the comedy is instead an integral part of the generalized state of disorder. In these cases, Kaplan’s book reads less like Das Kapital (or The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, for that matter) and more like Some Like It Hot.

Part of Disorder’s humor comes from how the explanations for the acts of revenge advanced in the mass media collide and collapse. Analysis simply seems pointless: no intellectuals, academics, philosophers, columnists, journalists, or chief editors are able to understand, let alone explain, the disorder. Why do these people turn arbitrary objects into dangerous weapons, their imminent implosion into vengeful explosion? Why do they turn their misery and their anger inside out? But we, as readers, have to understand.

Instead of reaching for the usual suspects — Foucault, Freud, Hegel — one might bring in others: Max Haiven’s new book Revenge Capitalism (2020), for instance, which begins with the proposition that “[w]hen you live in someone else’s utopia, all you have is revenge.” Haiven’s book analyzes the violence and vengeance inherent in capitalism, both as fantasies and as actual acts. His goal is to understand capitalism better, as well as the reactionary movements that have spread around the globe in recent years: the alt- and far-right, neofascism, so-called populism. This is what Haiven calls revenge politics, but he cautions the reader not to be too judgmental regarding fantasies of revenge per se (a case in point would be the liberal horror at — and utter inability to even begin to understand — the fantasies and acts of the Yellow Vests). In Haiven’s words:

To dream of revenge is, in part, to hold fast to the knowledge that what you love has value in a world where it is made worthless. (It is the height of arrogance to condemn fantasies of revenge without asking how their bearers are structurally or explicitly prohibited from (or made cynical toward) more capacious dreams of collective liberation.) For so many, a dream of revenge is all they have …

This is a useful framework for reading Disorder. It entails asking questions such as these: Revenge, on whom and for what? Whose crimes are we talking about? Crimes against what? Can the crimes bring justice? Why are we only able to grasp the motivation of personal acts of revenge, in which people inflict harm on others who have inflicted harm on them? Why is agency located in the individual alone? Can there be a revolutionary revenge politics, a revenge communism, or does the phenomenon, rather, bear witness to a historical impasse of the revolutionary, emancipatory imagination? Is Kaplan’s novella a testament to a left that cannot imagine change except in the form of senseless acts of violence and revenge? Is this what Kaplan shows us, that capitalism shapes our understanding and realization of revenge (or, as Haiven writes: “How we imagine revenge is shaped by a system of revenge”)? Is it the case in Disorder that (again quoting Haiven) “[i]n the absence of a revolutionary vision or strategy, radical tactics can become obsessive and vindictive, narrowly targeting individuals, corporations or policies in ways that inhibit, rather than contribute to, collective liberation”?

These are obviously difficult questions, but no one said that planning a revolution was going to be easy. And they are pertinent questions too, whether the context is France, or the ongoing protests in the United States, or in Chile, or …

So many questions. Some of them will have to be asked, but some also should not be. Some are simply unanswerable, but others can and ought to be answered. For example, the crimes should clearly not be viewed as mere expressions of ressentiment. The “criminals” are not trapped in a vicious, endless, and counterrevolutionary cycle of reactionary revenge. In other words, the ambiguity is not abysmal, the uncertainty not unlimited. Some questions do not at all “cut both ways.”

The ending of Disorder is quite explicit. Having repeated the word “disorder” three times like a chant, the last page reads, in its entirety:

The country couldn’t go on this way.

In the end the guillotine was reinstated.

After it was reinstated, the first crime was the act of the President of the Republic who in a fit of omnipotence and prey to an “irresistible impulse” strangled his bodyguard.

Immunity was revoked.

The 21st of January was chosen as the date for the execution.

After the execution, order was immediately restored.

In fact the guillotine was abolished.

Some revenge this is: the president, executed; the guillotine, abolished. And the date is not insignificant. January 21, 1793, was the day Louis XVI was guillotined in the Place de la Révolution in Paris. In accordance with the demands of the fable genre, Disorder is indeed a short tale intended to teach a lesson, though it is a political rather than a moral one. The final lesson of Kaplan’s fable, then, of her small crime story, is that it is not a question of whether the revolution will come or not, but when it is going to come and in what form. The lesson is that we cannot live in someone else’s utopia anymore. The lesson is “Stop the bullshit.” The lesson is, as Ernest Mandel pointed out in his 1984 book, Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story, that capitalist society in and of itself “breeds crime, originates in crime, and leads to crime.” Why? Because this society, with its private property and exploitation of work, “is, when all is said and done, a criminal society.”

At the same time, Kaplan begs us to be aware of the fact that beyond present bullshit lies future bullshit. Beyond the island of utopia lies another one, yours or theirs.

Disorder seems to show that every revolution begins with the fundamental feeling that enough is enough. But how to transform this feeling, this individual desire to seek revenge, into a collective one, a more permanent, sustainable, and effective act, Kaplan’s book doesn’t show us. Instead, it calls upon its readers to imagine and take action themselves. Hic Rhodus, hic salta!


Mikkel Krause Frantzen is the author of Going Nowhere, Slow: The Aesthetics and Politics of Depression(Zero Books, 2019). Currently, he is a postdoc in the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies at the University of Copenhagen.

LARB Contributor

Mikkel Krause Frantzen is an associate professor in environmental aesthetics at the University of Copenhagen and Humboldt Fellow at Humboldt University, Berlin. He is co-PI of the research project OIKOS: A Cultural Analysis of Care and Crisis in the 21st Century, and the author of Going Nowhere, Slow (2019) and Klodens Fald (2021). He is also the author of the LARB essay “A Future with No Future: Depression, the Left, and the Politics of Mental Health” (2019), of which “Endgame Emotions: The Melting of Time, the Mourning of the World” is a continuation.


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