what is revolution?

Isn’t it strange that one definition of the word revolution is a circular orbit, beginning in one place and ending up back at the same place again? As we studied in Unit 2 about the Copernican Revolution, when our planet completes a revolution around the sun, it ends up back in the same place it started, just a year later. It is a continual cycle. Yet the other form of revolution is, as Merriam-Webster describes it, “a sudden, radical, or complete change.” These two things seem to be opposites, or at least very different, yet we use the same word to describe them. The question I aim to answer is this: what is revolution?

In its most basic sense, a revolution is not simply something that changes society. It’s something that radically alters something else. In my opinion, one event or object cannot be a revolution. A revolution is something that usually takes years or more to come to fruition. It happens over time rather than in a single instant. “Revolutionary” acts can contribute to a revolution, but revolutionary has a much different meaning than revolution. According to Lapham, the adjective form “revolutionary” is the only version of the word that the general public seems to care about, such as when referring to “a new cellphone app or a new shade of lipstick.” Can mundane objects like these truly be revolutionary? My impulse is to say no; however, on further thought, it could be true that any object could be used in a revolutionary way. While the object is not a revolution, it could certainly be revolutionary.

For example, though cellphone apps as in Lapham’s example do tend to be mundane, they can be used in many different ways. Something like a game for entertainment would most likely not be revolutionary, but an app that provided political knowledge such as candidates’ voting records could be revolutionary because it could affect society by providing people with access to more information. This could affect the way that they vote, and thus directly impact the government. Though Lapham is right in some ways to scorn the use of the word “revolutionary” for banal actions and objects, he overlooks the diverse uses for each object and also the potential for personal revolution. Something that is revolutionary is something that simply changes a viewpoint or introduces something never-before-seen. That’s why we see all sorts of pop culture products being labelled as “revolutionary” when they aren’t actually contributing to a full societal revolution. On its own, I believe that no one thing is a revolution. But when multiple objects or acts come together, they can create much greater change.

An example of an artifact that is somewhat revolutionary, but is not a revolution, is Dance Theatre of Harlem’s production of Creole Giselle. (For more information on this artifact, feel free to read my research paper, which is also in my portfolio!) Because of the dance theatre’s colorism and the irreconcilable inherent whiteness of the ballet Giselle itself, Dance Theatre of Harlem was unable to quite achieve the level of “revolution.” However, Dance Theatre of Harlem contributes to a legacy of black dance in America that has been fighting for visibility and recognition for many years. Though Creole Giselle is from 1984, some other notable examples of black dance from our current day are “APESH*IT” by Beyonce and “This Is America” by Childish Gambino. Dance Theatre of Harlem helped to pave the way for these modern artist’s works, thus bringing more representation for people of color in art and dance.

One phenomenon of revolution that Lapham identifies is not knowing what exactly the revolution is for. He describes the scene of America in the late 1960s when several rights movements were happening and people were fighting for societal change. Many of the people heavily involved in this movement, rather than being the people benefitting directly from it like African Americans, LGBTQ+ people, etc., were actually people like intellectual professors and “self-absorbed movie stars” – people who were fighting for the less direct goal of “more life, more love, more drugs, more celebrity, more happiness, more music.” In my opinion, what Lapham describes here is more of a personal revolution as a result of a political revolution for other groups of people. This is a good example to show how a political revolution can inspire personal revolutions in people, in addition to the political impact.

Contrary to many conceptions of revolution, a revolution does not need to be violent; it simply needs to drastically alter something. Lapham points out Jefferson’s quote on revolution, which says, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” Personally, I believe that Jefferson’s conception of revolution is too narrow. How could violence be revolutionary when, throughout history, it has been one of the standard ways of managing and controlling people of a society? Achieving change without violence is a much more revolutionary means of activism in my opinion, because it refuses to use the typical and often state-monopolized means to change.

Of course, violent acts can be revolutionary. For example, Ulrike Meinhof, a German political activist and terrorist, used violence to make political statements. Meinhof states that “protest is when I say I don’t like this. Resistance is when I put an end to what I don’t like.” Meinhof’s attitude is revolutionary; rather than going through the modes and methods of society to achieve the change she wants, she is willing to go to any cost to obtain it – even violence. In saying that Meinhof is revolutionary, I am in no way endorsing or supporting her actions. However, overall, making value judgments about moral vs. immoral revolutions or revolutionary actions is unnecessary since change can be either good or bad.

This is a page from my red notebook from Dr. Robb’s Unit 2 that I believe is very relevant to the definition of revolution. It describes the different types of revolutions that can occur (political, technological, cultural, etc.) and at the bottom includes lots of scientific information to show how science can also be related to revolution and to the humanities.