We do not live in an age of categorical revolutionary confrontation . . . there are only solutions of adaption, transition and management. . . François Mitterand to Anne Pigneot in 1964
There is talk of revolution, whispers of reform, and everything seems possible except departure from the norm. Sean O’Brien (“If I May”)
–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 agenda, and not just in the US.
One under-recognized consequence has been the occlusion of revolt being more than reform but less than revolution. More, revolt—if you prefer, “tumult”—is taking place all over the world and unavoidably in our faces. Yet, ironists, catastrophists, and the post-apocalyptics battle among themselves in putting the right corpse to rest.
What’s going on?
–I suggest that it’s better to ask where to start any such crisis scenario, namely: before or after the peak has been reached? Let me take time to 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 rein over what is to come. That way, Lessing argues, the narrative continues in an arc of 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 crisis 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 glare of it all.
The truth of the matter is that before or after the climax, imagination and thought are still at work. Before, in the sense of thinking or imagining about the roads not taken; after, in terms of the what-ifs ahead. In fact, today’s unrelieved stream of crisis scenarios is itself proof of imaginations’ inability to let a prophesied climax do all the talking.
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. 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 only—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.”
 This means the efficacy of imagination can well be over-rated. Novelist Gustave Flaubert quipped imagination was: “Always ‘lively.’ Be on guard against it. When lacking in oneself, attack it in others. To write a novel, all you need is imagination.” A good example of the latter in public policy is labeling something “a failure of imagination to connect the dots.” Not to put too fine a point on it, we are talking here about what you know (not the limits of your imagination) and your ability to avoid all those other dots that vitiate making connections.