March 14, 2007

Notes on Revolution



Yesterday I stopped into our local cafe (Via Cafe in ChinaTown), there was a crowd of people there, and on the tables I noticed a new edition of the publication of issue #5, the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest (available in Spring '07):

An issue dedicated to the speech, conversation and discourse that creates meaning and facilitates movements.
Intrigued, I kept thinking "Aesthetics of Protest"... No no, it was "Aesthetics and Protest"... did they want to protest looking good or did they want to look good protesting? Oh, ok. One was placed next to each other. Somehow, I didn't think aesthetics would get much of a treatment in their publication. The two seem antithetical to me. Perhaps their book about "experiments in aesthetics and social practices" is about the aesthetics of social practice, that beautiful social activity is the objective? There seems to be a tangle between embodying virtue versus forcing virtue.

For those who want to bring about a better world, beauty seems to get in the way of their project. Perhaps the beautiful for them is the veritable path to paradise. The problem I have with art and the far Left is that art isn't really possible there --because there is only one valid subject in that direction (in either direction Left or Right, actually), and that would be the subject that advances the revolution however beautiful that might be in the moist eyes of revolutionaries.

I don't think that you are an artist if you constrain yourself to a single subject. It's about freedom after all.. People who abandon themselves to this constraint are a kind of illustrator, a design professional in a political dimension. Our art world has long been highly charged politically and after the history of the early 20th century (I'm thinking of the Spanish Civil War for example), it is no surprise that the assumption that virtue would be located towards the left. But is this true after the utter wreckage and exhaustion of the socialist enterprise at the latter half of the 20th century? Today, an artist who doesn't want to be identified as a "lackey of the system" will adopt the oppositional resistance stance of the Left. But isn't it possible to be a lackey of that end of the spectrum too? I mean, if the murder of over a 100 million people in the last century wasn't enough, wouldn't the sheer bossiness of a world designed by committee just drive a good artist up the wall?

Crossing the street as I left the cafe, I looked around and I realized that I like this world we have built together: safe traffic, international travel, the information age, creative people everywhere flying their freak flags... I mean, we certainly do have problems and improvements have to happen as they have happened already... but... revolution? Do they really want to tear all this down?



Certainly, revolution means many things to many people. For the extreme Left, it is a blunt instrument to force a fast tracked utopia. For the less extreme, it is a vague promise of a better day, the allure of the well intentioned path. Between the milquetoast and the bomb thrower, there are many other kinds of revolution.

We have revolution and alienated youth. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye is a marvelous and a perfect exemplar of this type. The mix of adolescence struggling to emerge into adulthood and the indivdual struggling to redefine adulthood (another Oedipal turn, an echo of the generational churn of art history) is captured perfectly in the protagonist as picaro. Hints of insurgent mental instability set against an upsurging youth, the dark intentions of the protagonist that lurk beneath his idealizations point subtly toward nondualism. For all of his appealling characteristics, Holden Caulfield could almost (not) grow up and become a Theodore Kaczynski. For all of power inherent in this idiom, can this really function as an organizing or cardinal principal for a generation of creative work?

Then there is revolution as the rumble of technological change, the thunder of modernity as it burst onto the historical stage. The most recent example of research in this direction was a noted in an article by Kurt Anderson written for Time Magazine, 1848: When America Came of Age:

...I was repeatedly flabbergasted to discover while researching my new novel, which takes place from 1848 to 1850, a perfectly accurate reckoning of the late 1840s as well. And while it's an excellent parlor game to point out the resonant particulars--history really does rhyme, if not repeat itself--I've also become sincerely convinced that that mid--19th century moment is, more than any other, when modern American life really began. The future--that is, our present--came into sight. The way we live now is the way we started to live then.

Consider all that happened in the first remarkable months at the beginning of 1848...

He then goes on to list a few particulars: the Mexican-American War, Marx and Engles published their infamous manifesto, the California Gold Rush, photography, Samuel Morse's telegraph, railroads and migrations, Darwinism, Abolitionism, Feminism, the expansion of magazines and newspapers, the first department store, the first advertizing agencies and the first modern presidential campaign, P.T. Barnum, the first international superstar... his list goes on and the list is only a North American one. The contemporary astonishment regarding modernity and change can be found in Raymond Kurzweil's Technological singularity, truly exciting stuff.

But I like to bear in mind the difference between velocity and acceleration. Surging from zero to sixty in five or ten seconds is impressive, but maintaining great velocity is sometimes more impressive in a regime of smaller accelerational change. In other words, the world at the turn of the previous century was certainly astounding (speaking through wires between continents, the first appearance of tanks and gas in the battlefield, the first ignition of electric lights...) but we certainly absorbed the emergence of the information age via the internet/personal computer at our fingertips in the past ten years with a remarkable ease! I'm suggesting that the only way to replicate the acceleration of civilizational change in the previous epoch is for space aliens to land on the White House lawn, for cold fusion to actually work, for some genius to actually rig up a functioning time machine.

Now, that would be revolution. What we are experiencing now is something akin to a great velocity but not a great acceleration. The feeling of revolution that our contemporary revolutionaries are reaching for has faded since our last the background radiation of the big bang, a glowing narcotic buzz of television snow/static noise.. and not like the scorching bonfire burn of aristocrat furniture.



There is another purpose for the revolutionary impulse: as a symbol for the dynamic of the churn of innovation. Everytime we strive to make fresh any creative act, we must break an antecedent conception in order to find a way forward. Systems, habits, mores, customs, traditions all must be broken so new ones can take their place. Joseph Schumpeter's creative destruction is a norm today, a hard lesson for societies still mired in degrees of atavistic states but still they are striving to adopt it. Static systems resist change, this is normal. Force must be applied for the new to emerge, this too is normal. Congealing coagulation must form as it must be broken for the new to have an opportunity to coalesce. The open question is the measure of finesse which is summoned for the job. We tend to forget about the role of artifice in the construction of ideas, argument, theorization. Any story does an injustice to reality on some level. I summon the Didion quotation in the colophon of the front page of this blog:

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live... we look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of the narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.
We tend to take the fairy tales of intellection too seriously, we confuse the map for reality all the time. A rhetorical device is still a device, an artificialty, an artifice. But if revolution is what art serves, it is interesting to consider how the rhetorical device of irony has been weaponized towards that end:
Irony as infinite, absolute negativity
While many reputable critics limit irony to something resembling Aristotle's definition, an influential set of texts insists that it be understood, not as a limited tool, but as a disruptive force with the power to undo texts and readers alike. This tradition includes S?ren Kierkegaard, 19th-century German critic and novelist Friedrich Schlegel ("On Incomprehensibility"), Charles Baudelaire, Stendhal, and the 20th-century deconstructionist Paul de Man ("The Concept of Irony"). Briefly, it insists that irony is, in Kierkegaard's words, "infinite, absolute negativity". Where much of philosophy attempts to reconcile opposites into a larger positive project, Kierkegaard and others insist that irony ? whether expressed in complex games of authorship or simple litotes ? must, in Kierkegaard's words, "swallow its own stomach". Irony entails endless reflection and violent reversals, and ensures incomprehensibility at the moment it compels speech. Not surprisingly, irony is the favorite textual property of deconstructionists.
(Emphasis mine.)



Revolution has a romantic resonance to young ears, but the young are famous for being insensitive to the human cost of violent change. Youth have their excuse. But what of adults who becon heedlessly, recklessly, the destructive potential of revolution? Sometimes they are simply called psychopathic. The Ur-philosopher Socrates might have been the first to transform the rhetoric of persuasion into a blunt instrument to be used for aggressive purposes. What follows is an extended selection from I.F. Stone's Trial of Socrates, page 154:

Socrates could have been asked at his trial why he did not leave the city, particularly after the execution of Leon of Salamis had shown him the injustice of the regime. Was that not enough to demonstrate --as it had to moderate oligarchs like Theramenes --that democracy was at least a lesser evil, safer and more just than a narrow oligarchy?

But Socrates was protected by the amnesty too. He could not be prosecuted for anything he had said or done before the the restoration of the democracy nor for having been a teacher or associate of Critias or Charmides. Had the indictment covered these earlier activities, it would have been attacked at the trial as a blatant violation of the amnesty and we would have heard about this from Plato and Xenophon.

The indictment, to be valid, could cover only the activities or teachings of Socrates in the four years between the overthrow of the Thirty and the trial. Socrates must have resumed the same teachings and inspired the same kind of following as before the Thirty. And his accusers may well have feared that these youths might again attempt the overthrow of the recently restored democracy. Just such an attempt was threatened in 401 B.C., only two years after the amnesty and two years before he was put on trial.

The Athenians had thought their troubles over in 403 when their opposing civic factions made peace. But there was a loophole in the amnesty agreemnet, and this was to cause fresh conflict. Some of the aristocrats who had supported the Thirty refused to be reconciled. Rather than renew the civil war and subdue them by force, the Athenians agreed to let them withdraw to the nearby twon of Eleusis and establlish a separate and independent city-state of their own.

The bitter enders seem to have prepared for just such a contingency with characteristic foresight and ferocity. Whenthe growing armed resistance to the Thirty won its first foothold in Attica by capturing a hilltop border stronghold at Phyle, Critias and his supporters decided to prepare a refuge where they could fight to the end should they be forced out of Athens. They picked Eleusis by force, and execued three hundred of its males --probably the whole citizenry of this small town.

This massacre --quite in the style of Critias --is attested by two contemporary sources, one pro-democratic, the other anti-democratic. The former is Lysisas and the other Xenophon. They agree on Critias' motive and the number killed is supplied by Xenophon in his fuller account. Xenophon's Hellenica describes the trickery by which Critias siezed the threee hundred and then intimidated an Athenian assembly in giving the executions a semblance of legality by voting a mass death sentence without trial.

This climatic horror of the doomed dictatorship prepared the way for the events of 401, which poisoned the atmosphere of Athens with fresh suspicion and --I believe-- finally triggered the prosecution of Socrates.

Not long after the massacre in Eleusis, Critias and Charmides were slain in battle with the growing forces of the resistance. The dictatorship began to fall apart and the path was cleared to reconcilliation. When peace was made, the minority of bitter-enders withdrew to Eleusis. The Athenians thought their troubles were over. But such men do not give up easily. The unreconciled came from the ranks of the wealthiest Athenians, with ample funds to hire mercenary soldiers. Hardly two years had passed when Athens learned that the Eleusians were preparing to attack the city.

Xenophon tells us that the Athenians at once mobilzed "their whole force against them," killed the commanders, "and then, by sending to the others their friends and kinsmen, persuaded them to become reconciled." So the civil conflict finally ended. "And, pledged as they were under oath, that in very truth they would not remember past grievences," Xenophon writes, "the two parties even to this day live together as fellow-citizens and the commons [demos>] abide by their oaths" not to take revenge.

That was 402 B.C., just two years befroe the trial of Socrates. I believe there never would have been a trial had he, too, demonstrated his own reconcilliation with the democracy, had he paid some tribute --as Xenophon did --to thte magnanimity of the majority in the peace settlement. Had any such change in his attitude taken place, he would have allayed fear that a new crop of "Socratified" and alienated youth might emerge from his following to unleash civil war again within the city.

But there is no evidence, either in Plato or Xenophon, of any such change in Socrates after the overthrow of the Thirty. Socrates resumed his antidemocratic and antipolitical teachings. His tone had been more offensive than his doctrine. Neither was altered. The sneer barely below the surface of his irony was still there. He remained unreconciled. He seems to have learned nothing from the events of 411, 404, and 401.

It is as if he continued to live apart from the city, in the clouds above it, still looking down on it with disdain. He shows no awareness --either in the Platonic or the Xenophonic accounts --that his fellow citizens had reason to be concerned.

(Emphasis mine, again.)



Lyrics float in my head:
You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it's evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know that you can count me out...

For a fascinating discussion about the French Revolution:, see/hear "The Terror in revolutionary France" via the BBC's excellent radio series "In Our Time", hosted by Melvyn Bragg, highly recommended for download via podcast. Random notes follow:

...three governments in three years, all conventions overturned, anarchy in the streets, war with Austria coming nearer the capitol, internecine rivalry turned into total war: "The real enemies are not outside, the real enemies are within, and if they are not dealt with everything will collapse..." The republicans turned on themselves... you can't just have a disagreement and eject someone from office, you have to say that someone is a traitor someone is wrong... violence becomes an instrument of or towards government... looking for the fifth column.... the corruption of the concept of virtue by conflating its' definition with terror... the constitution was suspended, a license to kill... utopia year zero, rewriting the calendar, to change people's conception of time as well as everything else.... sheer power...
Outside of truth, there is nothing but power.

Posted by Dennis at March 14, 2007 5:58 PM

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