My definition of “Revolution” is the personal or macroscopic destruction of conceptual schemes in the formation of a new reality. This change is not particularly positive nor negative.
However, when you are told to imagine a revolution, what do you think of? Most of us see a cinematic montage of revolutionary icons: Vladimir Lenin, Che Guerra, the Civil Rights Movement. These images of revolution become inseparable from our perception of the historical realities they portray. However, the truth about “Revolution” is that it exists more so in our collective imagination than it does in the real world.
“Revolution” holds the promise of positive change, while it seldom delivers for most. The American Revolutionary has embedded itself in the American imagination as a fight for freedom and self-determination. However, the sad reality is that the power structure failed to change. The Americans who were in power before the war ultimately kept the power after it.
The sad reality of Revolution is that it simply swaps one powerful minority for another. It does little to change the actual structure of a society’s hierarchal power structure. As Jeremy Lapham describes the cyclical nature of revolution:
“The plot line [of revolution] tends to repeat itself—first the new flag on the roof of the palace, rapturous crowds in the streets waving banners; then searches, requisitions, massacres, severed heads raised on pikes; soon afterward the transfer of power from one police for to another etc.” (21)
If “revolution” so often fails to deliver upon its promises, why do we continue to fall into its alluring trap? The reason is that we repeatedly fantasize future possibilities when new situations arrive for revolutionary change. This ties into the definition of “revolution” that I gave in my research paper on Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square. I go on to describe what makes certain artifacts “revolutionary”. I based my definition of Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of “defamiliarization”. In his essay, Shklovsky claims that great works of literature (such as those by Pushkin and Tolstoy) do not create new ideas, rather they simply present them in new “defamiliarized forms”. Marxism, capitalism, communism, can be seen as just another -ism used to capture the public imagination and give power to the few.
Revolution is a “meaningless magic word [that has turned] into a commodity” (Lapham 21). As we have learned through the example of Ulrike Meinhof and the RAF, “revolution” often pitifully fails to reach the ideals it claims it can achieve. Instead, it is often a thin veil that hides the true identity of what it describes.
Despite all of this, this is not to say “revolution” is not possible or that it does not manifest itself in micro and macroscopic terms. Revolution does not simply refer to the political upheaval of the established powers that be. Rather, it is the moment in which a group or an individual fundamentally changes their reality.
Changing reality requires imagining and discovering new possibilities. In order to do so, one must break free of their existing conceptual schemes. Creating a new invention or economic theory requires changing the definition of what is possible.
In Dr. Robb’s unit on the Copernican Revolution, we learned that the starting point for a revolution involves overcoming the pre-existing schema of thinking, otherwise referred to as “conceptual schemes”. Conceptual schemes represent the semantic truths that we believe about ourselves and the world. They are what we use to string together interconnected fabrics of meaning. Whether that be through religious ideology or repression of one’s very own sexual identity. Conceptual schemes are the barriers that must be overturned in order for a revolution to take place. They are always supplanted by new schemes. Hence, the cycle of revolution is an endless upward spiral. Where new ideas are always replacing the old ones until they too become in need of change.
One of the barriers to revolution similar to conceptual schemes is our incapability to look beyond ourselves. Even in the case of extreme violence, our capacity to standby and ignore the plights of others is a painfully easy tendency. This is a result of our own ability to rationalize our behavior, which perfectly fit into the framework of previous conceptual schemes. The vicious cycle of violence in Africa, for example, fits within the West’s primitivist view of African people. Hence, why are we not doing more to help and stop systemic violence in Africa? Answer: Because it has always been violent. We fail to recognize that they are people just like us, who have been caught in the traumatic legacy of slavery and colonialism.
In humanities, we’ve discovered a number of ways in which conceptual schemes have been broken in revolutions
In Dr. Ingram’s unit, we learned that one of the catalysts for revolution, or perhaps simply just the voice of it, is rhetoric. In order to shift perspectives, one must appeal and understand their audience. In MLK’s “A Letter from Birmingham Jail”, the speaker drives the voice of revolution by appealing to his audience and arguing points using the framework of a previous conceptual scheme. This is analogous to how Copernicus achieved his scientific revolution, by first appealing to the original way of thinking before adding changes. This goes in contrast with Audre Lorde, who argued in her paper “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” that only through embracing difference can revolutionary change occur.
In the units on modern art and Paul Celan, we learned that there are other devices besides rhetoric for catalyzing revolutionary change. For example, the use of reductionism in art was revolutionary in its ability to redefine what constitutes art. In the poetry of Paul Celan, his poetry is both intentionally ambiguous and complex which spurs the observer to ask questions. The atmosphere of his poetry is permeated with this imperative to head to this source of light, and away from the darkness. The confusion, the “darkness that attaches to his poetry”, in a Manichean sense help distinguish what is light from what is dark. And help illuminate how we ought to live in an age after “that which happened” (Auschwitz).
The last way of causing revolution is through violence. In Dostoevsky’s Demons and in our unit on the RAF in post-WWII Germany, we learned how violence and chaos are utilized in order to make those question the legitimacy of the current system. Although idealistic sentiment was prevalent in both the nihilists in 1860s Russia and the communist beliefs of the RAF, both highlighted the corruption of revolutionary ideals.
Revolution causes us to question and challenge everything we have come to know in favor of something new. Whether that be a new self-perception, new technology, or a new form of government. Regardless, the term is ever-shifting and elusive. In trying to define Revolution over the course of this year, I have learned only that my definition will always be incomplete. There will always be more questions and new discoveries in terms of what it means to be “Revolutionary”.