Plumb Lines

March 3, 2009

Revolution and its Discontents

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 11:00 am

800px-french_revolution-1792-8-10

In reading some live-blog coverage of the recent ado about nothing at NYU, I was struck by this reflection from the blogger:

…it was a weird, funny, occasionally exciting event, but not a serious protest. The most exhilarated I saw the protesters was when there was a crowd outside at 1 AM on Friday morning: they craved support, intrigue, chanting, and slogans; the demands felt like an after thought. They wanted glory, to “be remembered.” And in that quest they didn’t even stop to think about violating their own guiding principles in order to chant and cheer from the balcony.

Helen’s entirely justified snark about starting a protest-themed amusement park is just shy of the mark. Everything indicates that these students believed themselves to be reenacting ’68, but it’s not just the regalia, the chants and slogans of the student protest movement that’s so appealing for us disaffected 20-somethings. What we want is revolution: to be remembered for arguing violently over principles, for expelling and being expelled from the inner circle, for delivering death sentences from a cafeteria table — not that we necessarily want to change anything in particular, mind you.

This desire is an understandable response to modernity. In a society of job-holders, no one has any scope for real political action, “the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter,” as Arendt said. A real revolution bestows on its participants the freedom to act — to do things no one predicts, because they do not originate in a system with predictable outputs, but in the free self. This NYU business indicates that if we can’t achieve actual political action, we’ll settle for a simulacrum. So maybe Helen’s amusement park is just what we need after all.

David Schaengold

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