I wanted to start this blog entry with the hope of creating a continuing discourse on the working definition of revolution proposed in class. I asked Dr. Rockhill for the exact wording of the following definition, which he put forward in class, so that we could work closely with the text in our treatment.
Revolutions are historically specific attempts, on the part of multiple points and types of agency to leverage and displace the deep normative frameworks operative in society; they are endeavors to immanently recreate the social order by reconfiguring the norms structuring existence.
I think the definition has several significant virtues. First of all I think it the notion of “multiple points and types of agency” frees revolution from its traditional conception as a mass movement. This definition allows for a revolution to be as large or as small, as broad or as focused as it happens to be. This makes the definition flexible enough to encompass a global revolution as well as an individual one. The importance of having a concept of an individual revolution cannot be over-emphasized. The normative relations governing society cannot be changed except through individual or personal revolution. This is the essence of Gandhi’s maxim to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” [i] This act of conducting your life or reconsidering your feelings or outlook in a manner contrary to the societal norm is an act of revolution not to be discounted. This is not to say that a personal revolution is enough to assure a successful revolution, but our definition neither requires success nor forbids failure, it merely asserts that an attempt be made.[ii] Similarly the idea of “multiple points” allows for a freedom of action and disconnection that also differs from traditional notions. Distinct types of agency may work independently of each other to affect change and for very different (even contradictory) reasons, but revolution will and must make strange bed-fellows and this definition allows for that fact.
Another virtue of this definition is the emphasis on the reconfiguring of social and not just political norms. This aspect allows for a wide breadth of interpretation as to what constitutes a revolution, anything from a regime change to the adopting of a replacement for the QWERTY keyboard arrangement could and should be considered revolutionary activity. This definition treats political, economic, social, educational, religious, and even technological norms in the same manner as far as they structure large swathes of a given society.
More critically, I think that the phrase “deep[iii] normative frameworks operative in society” is problematic in two ways. First and most obviously because the generally ambiguous nature of what constitutes a society combined with equally ambiguous notion of depth leaves ample room for the inclusion of almost any norm as the object of revolutionary action. The second problem resides within the idea of depth itself, for it is the process of revolution to uplift a deep structural norm[iv] before it can be removed. This process can be modeled, and in fact, has been by game theorists. Allow me an illustration: let’s say we invent a new and more rational keyboard to replace the ubiquitous QWERTY keyboard. The incentive to learn a new approach for those already familiar with and currently using QWERTY would be virtually nil in the very beginning. The revolutionary task of displacing QWERTY would be Sisyphean in shape. Movement would be hard at first, but as the more and more people make the switch a momentum builds. If that momentum can be sustained long enough an interlude of ambivalence would be achieved; the zenith of hill, so to speak, the place where each system was more or less equally established as a norm (a 50/50 split). Should the new system tip the scales QWERTY, which has neither momentum nor the force created to leverage the new system, would suddenly and rapidly drop out of sight in the culture (the boulder plummeting down the other side of the hill) as the system quickly returns to its natural equilibrium (everyone using a single established system). When we think of this process in relation to our definition of revolution: the QWERTY system was effectively “leveraged and displaced” in the ambivalent middle, not when the norm has been reconfigured, but when things are still up in the air. This is reminiscent of the problem Arendt elucidates in On Revolution regarding the danger of making the uprooting of the old norm (and not the establishment of a new norm) the end of revolution. I don’t think that this Arendt read is manifest in our definition, but I do not think that our definition sufficiently guards against what Arendt’s history seems to establish as a nearly unavoidable misstep. The second independent clause does a better job of instituting the measure of completion, in suggesting the reconfiguration of norms and not their displacement as the end of revolution.
However, reconfiguration is itself problematic in that it leaves ambiguity as to what exactly must change with regards to the norms to be considered revolutionary. The divide between a negligible reconfiguration and a substantive one is not addressed. It is all too easy to imagine a reconfiguration of a deep structural norm of society that leaves the status quo entirely intact. For example, we could imagine reconfiguring the patriarchy by conversion into matriarchy. This switch undeniably reconfigures the norm, but in a nominal way only, substituting one gender for another and leaving the structure of society (domination by a single gender) unaltered. I propose the definition be reworded to reflect the idea that any reconfiguration must affect the indispensable characteristics of the targeted norm in the Aristotelian sense of that which is essential.
[i] Incidentally this quote is probably a compression of what Gandhi actually said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”
[ii] An argument could be made that simply existing in a state of dissidence is not an act at all and so cannot constitute an “attempt” or an “endeavor.” I would argue however that dissidence in and of itself is vital to revolution because it presents people with alternatives providing them the space to question the established norm, which they would not have done on their own. Note that the celebrated Stanley Milgram experiment found that the factor that brought about the lowest completion rate (people’s choice to administer lethal levels of electricity to fellow subjects) was the presence of a dissenting authority figure.
[iii] I am assuming here that the word “deep” means broad and well-established, as in deep seated, but this word might be more trouble than it is worth.
[iv] This is even suggested in this definition by the use of the word “leverage” which invokes notions of lift.