Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Letting Go of the Revolution

The Revolution doesn't happen in our lifetimes. Don't look for it; you won't know it when it happens. It isn't a months- or years-long battle during which the voices of the oppressed reach a crescendo, overflow, take to the streets, and replace the current system with our own. The revolution isn't our dreams - it's impossibly beyond them. Our dreams are of this world order.

The language, the divisions, the categories, the orders of this world aren't just in us, we are them. I don't just talk about liberalism, I am a part of liberalism. I do not exist beyond liberalism no matter how critical of it I may be; it shapes the possibilities of my thought. The same can be said of all other contemporary modes of thought and distinction – of race and sexuality and individualism. We lack the capacity to conceive of the revolution or recognize it if and when it comes.

We fight for a better world, we dream about it, but we are selling our own dreams short to say we know what "after the revolution" looks like. Likewise, we are lying to ourselves if we claim to know our actions are going to bring it about and not just get co-opted for the status quo or some other revolution, not "the revolution" but a revolution - the kind that sucks. You know the kind - the only kind that ever has been (not like the American or the French Revolution) - a revolution in thought and lived experience, like the kind that brought us liberalism and colonialism - that kind of revolution. The kind that's messy, that's slow, that's unexceptional in every way until it has passed and everything is different and we're - well, we're dead. It passed us and we never even knew it happened because we are of the old world order.

As folks at Occupy know, the stakes are high. Real change has nothing to do with democrats or republicans in Congress or the White House. But it is not just that the stakes are high, it is that they exist at all - that the stakes we're trying to move and to transform are liberalism and capitalism or, depending on what working group you are in, heterosexism, racism, and structured oppression in all of its varied and interconnected forms in our movements and in the world. The revolution isn't when heterosexism stops being a problem - it's when heterosexuality stops being an intelligible category. Revolution isn't when we look back at capitalism and think "what were they thinking?" Capitalism was a revolution because today the vast majority of folks can't wrap their minds around the fact that money can exist without capitalism (or that more than two genders are possible). Revolution isn't a blood in the streets thing, at least not the kind of revolution that fundamentally changes the world. Revolution is total and complete incomprehension. And that's why we have to let it go. If it comes and we recognize it, it's not the revolution.

As much as it pains me to say, and as much as it goes against the ways we talk about the revolution so often, if the revolution comes and I'm still a woman, it's not a revolution. Our categories are of the old world order - both the ones we love and the ones we struggle to change and destabilize.

* * *

In the early, heady days of Occupy, I lay in bed with my partner and anxiously whispered, "What if this is it? What if this is the revolution?" Here was something that started like so many other hopeful monsters* that we've never heard of – a few activists had an idea for an event, but instead of passing with a few dozen participants and a comment in a local paper and a three day long argument on a few blogs, it took off. What if I'm wrong, I thought (dare I say hoped?), and revolutions happen just as we hope they do in our wildest dreams - what if this was it? Within a few weeks I was livid and over it - Occupy was just a manarchist party. These days I think Occupy is complicated, a mix of hope and potential and the same fucked up shit we see and fight in all of our movements only bigger and faster. I'm open to the idea that this is part of a revolution, a real one, the kind that radically changes how we think. But I don't think we can know what kind of revolution it is a part of, if any.

We can never know who our movements will help or what kind of change, if any, they will create. This movement, any movement, may do more to entrench capitalism, sexism, or our current government structure than the work of a Republican president. We have no way of knowing. I doubt the doctors who came up with the term "homosexual" were thinking of RuPaul's Drag Race as a natural progression of their work. Maybe they'd be pleased, probably just confused. Likewise, our actions, the systems, and ideas which we create can turn on us just as they can lift us up. They do not belong to us. We do not know what purpose they will serve once they are released into the world. For all of the ideas, actions, movements, and campaigns that exist maybe one will mutate into the revolution we dream of. Millions more will simply putter out of existence without notice or concern. Maybe a few will become revolutions that are truly terrible. Many will probably strengthen or chip away at the world order. Maybe, just maybe, one hopeful monster will become the most amazingly inconceivable revolution possible - the one beyond our wildest hopes and understandings - the one we never even dreamed of because it was so wonderful. The possibilities are incredible. They can also be incredibly terrible.

Despite all the work we undertake to change the world for the better, we do not know what good our actions will do in the long run. Co-optation always looms over movements, especially more successful ones, threatening the possibilities of real change. If the heart of Occupy, or any movement which critiques the foundation of our society as inherently inequitable and unjust, gets lost or silenced and the paraphernalia, the words and symbols become part of the very structures of injustice that perpetuate inequity, we have helped entrench the system we were fighting against. But while co-optation is a fear, it is based on deeper uncertainties.

We have faith that the work we do is good and will, in the long run, bring about more good in the world. We believe we know what is good – what a better world might look like. We have faith that our actions can bring it. But our belief in what a better world might look like is necessarily based on flawed judgement, rooted in the current world order. Not only do we not know what our actions will bring about, we do not have the perspective to know whether our actions, ideals, and dreams are “good.” Our ideas of good are narrow. They are shaped by liberalism and capitalism and everything we know, and they take place on the brink of utter unknowability.. We do not know if our actions or ideas are “for the best.” If we're talking about revolution, real change, we must let go of any idea that we know what is right and that our actions will help bring it about – we will most likely be proven wrong. We do not know that we are fighting for “good” things. We do not know what the future holds. We are little people in little movements in a big world with a long history. This Occupy movement is hope and it's faith, but it is not knowing. We stand with an infinite dearth of knowledge before the chasm of infinite possibility.

It is this infinite possibility that we cannot forget. Despite the not knowing, we on the left keep on going not because this movement is what creates The Revolution, not because we know our struggles will make the world a better place (they may not, they may get co-opted or just further entrench the oppressions we are fighting against). We keep going because we have faith in our work and because the more hopeful monsters we create the more likely it is that one of them will mutate into a wonderful monstrous future that we don't even recognize because it is so incredibly awesome. We especially don't fight for ourselves. Like I said, we'll be dead before we know it happened even if it happens in our lifetime. And that goes for terrible revolutions too - we won't know to be miserable, so I guess there's a silver lining. The possibilities are literally endless. The point is, we can't stop now.

*"hopeful monsters" is a phrase that I took from Radiolab on WNYC where it was used to describe how viruses are created in an episode called "Patient Zero." It contributed to my understanding about movements and change in unexpected ways.

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