By Christian Matheis (September 3, 2015)
“Early in the winter she thought she had found the central texts of the system in a series of poems and treatises called The Arbor. All the maz spoke of it with great respect, all of them quoted from it. She spent weeks studying it. As well as she could determine, it had mostly been written between fifteen hundred and a thousand years ago in the central region of the continent during a period of material prosperity and artistic and intellectual ferment. It was a vast compendium of sophisticated philosophical reasonings on being and becoming, form and chaos, mystical meditations on the Making and the Made, and beautiful, difficult, metaphysical poems concerning the One that is Two that are One, all interconnected, illuminated, and complicated by the commentaries and marginalia of all the centuries since” — The Telling, Ursula K. Le Guin
Do activists, scholars, revolutionaries depend too heavily on two dominant and irreconcilable metaphors: radical revolution as “explosion” versus radical revolution as “harmony”?
Reading various sources of contemporary media stories about social unrest, from intellectual scholarship to activist polemics to poetic reflections, one might get the impression that revolution comes in two forms.
One form takes up the imaginary personification of harmonious patience. Stereotypical imagery of Buddha, Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, masters of Zen meditation, Lilian Ngoyi sewing flags while under house arrest, and fetishized images of a Dalai Lama holding presence of mind, still and certain. A timid librarian meticulously stacking books filled with stories of utopias yet to come, but perhaps someday. Free of rage, dedicated to compassion. This bundle of sentiments and images may seem to lay claim to moral conscience, having the fortitude to remain harmonious amid potential upheaval. Radicalism by refusal.
Another version conjures fantasies of aggressive insurgents, raging protesters, and incendiary speeches from megaphones and pulpits before a field of those gathered in the spirit of militant radicalism. Here, we might invoke blurry mental images of Emma Goldman, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and anyone else we might remember shouting and waving fists whether or not they actually did. It gets the blood rushing. Here, the librarian has forsaken dedication to order and, instead, takes to passing out pamphlets in the street while compatriots hold signs and shout slogans. Rage employed in the service of revolt, suspicious of patience as an instrument of suppression, the resignation of the weak. This one, claiming rebellious action, the truly political. Radicalism by charge.
“There were words she translated as power, mystery, not-controlled-by-people, part-of-harmony. These terms were never reserved for a certain place or type of action. Rather it appeared that in the old Akan way of thinking any place, any act, if properly perceived, was actually mysterious and powerful, potentially sacred. And perception seemed to involve description — telling about the place, or the act, or the event, or the person. Talking about it, making it into a story.” — The Telling, Ursula K. Le Guin
Order or chaos. Calm or frenzy. Patience or protest. Research or riot. Defend or renounce. Silence or shout. Meditate or militate. Harmony or explosion.
All of these as bound up with any other ancient dichotomy: universal or particular, static or dynamic, complex or simple, with us or against us, for or against, fear or trust, etc.
I wonder about why I and so many people in my life find it difficult to feel anything other than dread while attempting to imagine liberation, revolution. Perhaps the dominant metaphor of “explosions versus harmony” functions dichotomously to leave most of us feeling that if we aren’t V in V for Vendetta, or some other conscientious destroyer of infrastructure, then we necessarily wait, ever so harmoniously, for the tanks to run us down in Tiananmen Square.
Who benefits from the polarity of this narrow imaginary?
Profiteers or peasants.
What happens when we question the implicit association of either “politics as radically explosive chaos” versus “morality as radically harmonious order”?
Ballot or bomb.
Which courses of belief, action, resistance, and trust might catalyze the energy of chaos and the will of patience into something that exceeds the description of either or both?
Now or never.
What else besides the binary order-or-chaos might liberatory anarchism help us to imagine?
You and me? I and thou? We and they?
“There was no correct text. There was no standard version. Of anything. There was not one Arbor but many, many arbors. The jungle was endless, and it was not one jungle but endless jungles, all burning with bright tigers of meaning, endless tigers… Whatever she was trying to learn, the education she was trying to get, was not a religion with a creed and a sacred book. It did not deal in belief. All its books were sacred. It could not be defined by symbols and ideas, no matter how beautiful, rich, and interesting its symbols and ideas. And it was not called the Forest, though it sometimes was, or the Mountain, though it sometimes was, but was mostly, as far as she could see, called the Telling. Why?” — The Telling, Ursula K. Le Guin
References and Resources:
- Africa, H. Mental Slavery: The Liberation Chant. Primedia E-launch LLC.
- Buber, M. I and Thou. New York: Scribner, 1958.
- Gasa, N., et al. Women in South African History: They Remove Boulders and Cross Rivers. HSRC Press, 2007.
- Gay, K. American Dissidents: [multiple volumes]. ABC-CLIO, 2012.
- Keck, M.E., and K. Sikkink. Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Cornell University Press, 2014.
- Le Guin, Ursula K. The Telling. New York: Harcourt, 2000.