–To anyone such as myself, a product of the Sixties, it’s clear that the belief in and practices of revolution have dropped off the so-called change agenda in the US.
One under-recognized consequence has been the occlusion of revolt as more than reform but less than revolution. More, revolt—if you prefer, “tumult”—is taking place all over the world, in case you didn’t notice it.
But rather than scripting better what has been happening to the beliefs in and practices for revolt, what’s been going on? Ironists, catastrophists, and the post-apocalyptics battle among themselves in putting the right corpse to rest.
What to do instead when it comes to really-existing scenarios of revolt and tumult?
–I suggest that it’s better to ask where to start any such scenario, namely: before or after the peak has been reached? Let me explain.
For Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, 18th century German Enlightener, the point is not for the sculptor or painter to portray a crisis at its climax, when visualizing a single moment. Better to choose a moment before or after the apex of destruction, so as to allow the viewers’ imaginations freer reign over what is to come. That way, Lessing argues, the narrative continues in an arc of further reflection that is not cut short by any climax’s overpowering intensity:
since the works of both the painter and the sculptor are created not merely to be given a glance but to be contemplated. . .it is evident that the single moment and the point of view from which the whole scene is presented cannot be chosen with too great a regard for its effect. But only that which allows the imagination free play (freies Spiel) is effective. The more we see, the more we must be able to imagine. And the more we add in our imagination, the more must think we see. In the full trajectory of an effect, no point is less suitable for this than its climax. There is nothing beyond this, and to present to the eye what is most extreme is to bind the wings of fancy and constrain it, since it cannot. . .shun[ ] the visible fullness already presented as a limit beyond which it cannot go.
Rather, the moment chosen should be pregnant—fruitful, suggestive—of possibilities that are not foreclosed because imagination has been arrested by catastrophizing the worse. Instead of picturing Ajax at the height of his rage and slaughter, better he be depicted afterwards in the full realization of what he has done and in the despair leading him to what must come next.
–One problem with today’s dystopian scenarios is the preoccupation with or fixation on a visualized climax. Obviously, the worst can vary for the crisis scenario—post-apocalypse can be pictured as even deadlier. But the point holds: In today’s scenarios, the worst is imagined and imagination stalls there, like shining deer at night, with the enormity of it all.
The truth of the matter is that before or after the climax, imagination and thought are still at work and fully so. Before in the sense of thinking or imagining about the roads not taken; after in terms of the what-ifs ahead. Indeed today’s unrelieved stream of crisis scenarios proves imaginations’ inability to let a prophesied climax do all the talking.
But where does this leave us?
Empirically, it’s far better to study revolt and tumult before or after they happen than it is to be in the grip of their climaxes. For all we know, the Occupy Movement, Yellow Vests Movement, Hong Kong protests, the Extinction Rebellion and more are the apex of their respective revolts. To push belief and practice further, the entire point of revolt may be revolts. Any disappointment that one or more have not (yet) culminated into revolution or other “far-reaching substantive change” is but one scenario—which on reflection may not be the most fruitful, suggestive moment to focus on anyway, let alone be overawed by.
Gaiger, J. (2017). Transparency and imaginative engagement: Material as medium in Lessing’s Laocoon. In: A. Lifschitz and M. Squire (eds) (2017). Rethinking Lessing’s Laocoon: Antiquity, Enlightenment, and the ‘Limits’ of Painting and Poetry, Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK: 279 – 305. Other essays in this wonderful volume also discuss Lessing’s notion of “the pregnant moment.”