Revolution Or Creativity

Jan. 2004

We stand at the foot of revolution. Energy is high, rhetoric is explosive, the mood is atmospheric. Old methods of doing things have deteriorated and lost meaning. The culture we once called our own worked out its plans and schemes, rode them ragged, and turned them over to rob them of loose change. Institutions that remain are bulky, inefficient and cumbersome.

They are in the way of progress, the direction of which can be seen in the new technologies and communities forming despite the hindrance. When they gather enough steam and their virtues are made clear to enough people, their dominance will require the elimination of the old obstacles and a new era will begin. We are on the verge.

The sense that revolution is approaching or that it is already upon us brings excitement. The thought of it is empowering and energizing. Its mention brings the thought that all troubles will be striped, all problems solved and all people happy. No more oppression, no more work, no more responsibilities. All will be good because the old way, the traditional, the static, the boring and tiresome will all be gone! The tyrannical, the unjust, and the greedy will be overthrown! We will be emancipated and free!

Revolution's pervasiveness is not just rhetorical—the theme is everywhere one looks. There are 'revolutionary drugs' offered for the sick and 'revolutionary bills' passed in congress on a yearly basis. In physics, we are nearing a 'revolutionary breakthrough' that will unify all our knowledge. A great automobile manufacturer trumpets an 'American Revolution' as they present their new line of cars and the president of the United States is heralded as an 'American Revolutionary' 230 years after the country's founding. 'Revolutions' in gaming offer a more realistic portrayal of humans every other year and fashion designers are making 'revolutionary' advances in the way we look. Revolution finds a residence in the music industry whether it is through blues, jazz, swing, rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll, punk, new wave, hip hop, grunge or electronica; consult one of the industry's newest magazines, Revolver, for proof.

Historical revolutionaries find never-before-seen popularity even if it is the shallow kind offered by the image-oriented modern consumerism. Karl Marx is seen as a genius. Ernesto "Ché" Guevara finds his militant image on the shirts of pre-teens and ragged Baby Boomers alike even if they're not quite sure who he is. He represents revolution and that is all that matters. Lenin, Mao and Castro do not hold commercial potential as of yet, but do find special places in the hearts of academics across the West. Who will be the next great revolutionary? One can only guess, but one does find a method for practice in the video game called Revolution, where the player hands out flyers and gives speeches at rallies in effort to overthrow his government.

When one takes in our culture's adoration for revolution, one must assume that revolution is upon us. But, what are we so eager to revolt against? Are we even eager to revolt at all or is the talk of revolution just that? Sure there are problems here and there that one might like to get rid of, but most of us are happy with our lives. This is a generality for sure, but contentment, especially if it is general is never an ingredient for true revolution. When I say true revolution, I mean revolution the way Barzun defines it, a violent shift of power and property in the name of an idea. That is the concept that underlies all of our culture's focus on revolution, so it is fitting. However, despite that fact, we just don't have the energy to go through all that.

It could be argued that energy is lacking in this society as a wide-ranging principle. Everywhere one looks one can sense a tone of apathy or insouciance, whether it is at school, at work, or at the clubs. Advocates of revolution are no exception. The average teen that wears the Ché shirt is slovenly and inexpert, awkward and immature, not full of ideas and passion. The professor who cherishes Lenin is measly and pitiful, not charismatic or compelling. There are the occasional outbursts of violence that demonstrate revolutionary eagerness as in the case of the school shootings of the late 1990s or the uprisings in black ghettos in the early 1990s, but the speed with which the society regains composure and heals itself is swift relative to times of true revolution and uncovers the fact that those outbursts are by the very small minority, not the influential majority.

What restrains revolution most is the condition that there are no unifying ideas in modern society. Revolutionary ideas are appealing to most, but do not command action. Something holds back the audience of revolutionary rhetoric. Mostly it is devotion to day-to-day activities that interferes with the success revolutionary ideas. The audience might agree with the speaker in general but cannot agree with the conclusion, which ultimately seems like more of an amusing stretch than logical deduction. The speaker, who has submerged himself in his revolutionary thought, forgets that most people are submerged in social activity and rely heavily on the approval of friends and the public opinion. Only by capturing the mind and will of that public does one stand a chance at compelling any kind of social change. The main problem with an attempt to do that in today's society is that the only thing that captures the mind and will of the public is the mind and will of the public. It is the logical condition for a highly social culture like ours and its rigid self-absorption is most restrictive.

Western society in the 1960s offered a closer glimpse of the revolutionary atmosphere. Riots were more numerous and led to greater reform. The university system nearly came to a standstill because of the revolutionary spirit. It seems that people, especially the young, were prepared to take part in some sort of action, initiative that seems to be completely absent in today's society. But even when the initiative was there in the 1960s, the energy that came about wasn't enough to truly reverse the culture's structure. Universities were overcome to some extent, not the statehouses.

One would have to regard the 1930s or further back to the first decade of the century to witness an air that could lead to something like a violent shift in power and property. The tumult that reigned in those decades actually looks like revolution even though the rhetoric of the time didn't emphasize the word. Compared with those times, our revolutionary rhetoric looks like just hot air. Playing the game Revolution would have been laughed at then as it should be now. One cannot begin compare what goes on now with periods where true revolution actually did take place whether it was in 1917 Russia, 1789 France or 1516 across Germany. There just isn't the same condition that compelled those revolutions.

A question naturally follows this recognition: if revolution is so promoted these days, why is it not followed through on? Or, conversely, if revolution is not seriously considered, why do we promote it so? One might answer that very little in our society is seriously considered whether it is promoted or not and revolution is just one part of it. Even the most important institutions we have at hand in politics, science, religion, the arts and technology are treated with minimal zeal. Most people are simply too busy to bother with these topics. When dialogue on important matters does arise, it is simply filling space or a way to demonstrate one's individuality or it may become a way to prove oneself right while proving the next person wrong. The latter is especially true with politics and religion. There is plenty of visionary and penetrating work about our culture, whether it is in letters, film or even music, but if the masses get a rare hold of it, they abruptly strip it of depth, consume and discard it for the sake of bettering their own image.

Revolution is just another one of those weighty things that the popular culture chews up and spits out. Revolution has become bubble gum and that is why pre-teen girls can consume it at the same time scruffy professors do. Consequently, all the significant talk out there on social norms and progress ends up being tossed to the sidewalk and trampled on or stuck underneath the classroom desk. The condition is a wasteful one as much good inspiration results in naught, but it is a predictable one for a culture that is decadent like our own. As Barzun would put it, the decadent culture consistently asserts thoughts without following through, which is exactly what we do. Most ironically, the solution to such a problematic decadent culture must be revolution. Nothing else is seen capable of overturning the impasse.

But when revolution is so dear to the culture, even revolutionaries are stuck. To do their job of getting rid of the culture, they must necessarily become a part of the culture. At once, the culture is despised and embraced. This is the prospect of all democracies. The aim of revolution is to overthrow a government that rules a people disagreeably. When the government is the people, such as with democracies or democratic republics like America, overthrowing the government consists in overthrowing the people—they must destroy themselves. While many have accepted this conclusion as reflected throughout society with various forms of self-deprecation, most people find it objectionable and only talk of revolution insincerely.

Talk of revolution, therefore, persists in democracies if only because dissent is thought to be an integral a part of democratic government. The thought is that one must disprove of or disparage his government in order to take part. If he agrees with what is being done, his voice is not heard and the nation is a dictatorship. One is encouraged to talk of reform even when it is not needed; revolution is preached even when there is nothing revolting about the government. All this, in attempt to be a part of the government. Witness flag burning as the supposed quintessential show of free speech. It is thought that the ability to burn the flag of one's own country shows that freedom has been granted to the people. Freedom, in itself, is the primary motive for revolution. When it is granted, the citizenry feels no compulsion to revolt. To speak of revolution or to symbolize it in a flag burning then is to many the best way of making sure revolution is not needed.

The false inference is made that in a democracy one must speak against his country in order to speak freely. Speaking freely means that no one is dictating one's speech and since one's fellow countrymen are most likely the ones who would dictate that speech, denigrating them is thought to be automatically free. The conclusion is that the speaker cannot be indicted of blindly following the surrounding culture. That is true, of course, unless the surrounding culture aligns itself against itself. If it does, like it does in our society for instance, speaking against one's country would be more a sign of blind following than free thinking. The one who supports his country is more likely the free thinker in this case. Neither showing support for nor dissent from something is automatically free in thought. Blind following can result in either, and so our encouragement of free thinking should not presuppose either agreement or revolution as its aim.

We favor free thinkers for several good reasons. Mainly, it is because of their ability to see life from different perspectives including ones that are not their own. For example, a free thinker might be able to see perspectives other than those of a whole country with an unjust government. With different perspectives, one can be more objective; one can thus point out injustices and offer alternatives. Free thinking allows for innovation and creativity among other things and thus can be the source of true progress. Given extreme circumstances, free thinking may be a requisite in order to topple an unjust government and so it is credited with being the bringer of revolution.

In the end, however, the aim of free thinking is creativity, not simply seeing things differently and certainly not revolution. If the result is not creative, the thinking, free or otherwise, has failed. Most would say that a revolution is creative in itself and so, if free thinking leads to revolution, it is successful. But revolution is destructive if anything. It is not just a group of politicians that must be overthrown; a whole cultural body represented by the head must be dispatched. And none of the body or head intends to lie down for the rebels—they will need to be forced out. Such a task necessitates violence and destruction.

Even after the destruction has subsided, creativity is still absent from revolution. One might argue that destruction fertilizes cultural soil, the pieces of fallen institutions supplying nutrients for future ones; but the outcome of revolution is often the overthrown culture's opposite and cannot be considered original. Indeed, doing the opposite of something is no more than imitation of the original. This reverse flattery is why some Americans accept or even encourage protestors' burning their flag. Overcome with flattery, the supporters neglect all that is defeated.

The fact is that America is not founded on dissent or revolution like most would claim. Nothing can be founded on revolution because revolution does not build. It takes something that was built and destroys it. A culture that cherishes revolution as much as ours does is therefore empty and self-destructive. As soon as something is created, the culture instinctively destroys it. Knowing this reflex, the creative are silenced to a large degree. A great wealth of production is lost because of this. What survives the holocaust is branded by it, signs of which include the sarcasm and self-deprecation so widespread in today's youth and creative class. By nature, a filmmaker is compelled to create, but in order to communicate his art, the unmoved society forces him to admit the futility in doing so. His characters are cynical, his plot is unintentional, and his themes are disingenuous. Just like any modern art, modern film is still irresistible as a consequence of the artist's bond with living, but it does little more than perpetuate the emptiness of the age.

Irony pervades the culture of revolution. There must be something to overthrow, so it is not uncommon for people to produce something just so they can knock it down. Witness the popular rock band whose members dress in a coat and tie and tennis shoes. The image made is one of revolution. The members claim to be destroying the culture of the past, one when band members automatically wore suits. But that past culture has already been destroyed. Band members haven't worn suits seriously since the Beatles. Wearing a coat and tie these days, then, is to fabricate a culture in order to destroy it.

There was an idea behind musicians wearing suits, which was to present the most respectable image to the audience. The thought was that the better a musician was dressed, the better his musical product would be. The practice originated with classical music performances where the conductor and musicians would dress in the best apparel available. Since around the 1960s, however, the intent has shifted from looking respectable to looking casual and free-spirited, a look which necessitated the removal of suits. That revolution in apparel had roots as early as the 1910s, and expanded after the 1960s to a point in the 1990s where musicians were silently forced to dress as ridiculously as possible. The more obnoxiously one was dressed, the better his musical product would be, or so it seemed to music fans. Once an 'artist' had broken down a barrier and established a new low of respectability, that low would also have to be demolished. The trend has continued to the extent that musicians gain credibility by piercing their faces and tattooing everything.

With the new century, musicians began to run out of room in their attempt to look obnoxious. Many must have realized that the downward path could only lead to self-destruction and no one can make music or money when they are destroyed. Still, it was not an option to get rid of the revolutionary air since it was so integral to existence for them. The solution was to manufacture something in order to destroy it. It is not 'pure' revolution, but it's good enough.

Music genre has seen a parallel to this kind of revolution. In the late 1990s, swing music made a great comeback and with it came various forms of culture nostalgic for styles of the past including the clothing and ritual of the 1940s or '50s. Around the turn of the century, one could attend any number of shows featuring a band with a full horn section and an audience dressed impeccably like the youth of the middle century. They would swing and dance like they did 50 years ago, like they did before rock 'n' roll took over. The intent was doubtless to reach back and grasp some sense of decorum from a past that seemed to have an abundance of it.

Meanwhile, the present was inescapable. One would notice that in addition to the retro clothing styles, most of these characters also had tattoos and heavy makeup on. The tattoos covered arms and necks and the makeup was applied with such violent intensity so as to disallow it from accentuating feminine beauty and rather to imply a Halloweenish ghostliness. The facial expression on some of the participants reflected that eerie mood, if it was recognizable behind the piercings. It was as if these creatures actually were ghosts who found no swing music in hell and were forced to seek it back on earth.

The theme of hell and some impression of evil stained a good portion of the music itself as well. Bands prospered with themes of devilishness and obscure notions of cult ritual. Of course such satanism was not unusual for modern music. It was the norm. Contributing swing bands only spiced up the prosaic by inserting the initial premise of 1950s innocence and decorum, after which satanism seemed that much more destructive. The technique breathed new life into a revolutionary trend that was running out of appeal and youths of the early 21st century bought into it wholeheartedly.

Pocket revolutions like this make their ways throughout our culture in much less extreme forms. I was recently invited to a cocktail party for 20-something peers that revealed the same intent of building something only to destroy it. To 20-somethings, a cocktail party represents a party where men and women get dressed up in suits and dresses and mix and mingle with style and grace like they used to do sometime in the olden days. It is assumed to be a far stretch from the usual style of the modern party where people get together in dingy rooms, dressed as fashionably slovenly as possible, drink and do drugs while listening to loud, offensive music and permit games only if they promise sexual activity or recklessness.

Someone like me cherishes the opportunity to raise the level of respectability in a social situation and it seems like others do as well. I don't think the party would have been devised if there wasn't some obscure notion that people deserve more in a party than what modern decadence dictates. Nevertheless, this desire for elevation couldn't overcome the compulsion toward revolution. The invitation included a list of tips on cocktail etiquette that effectively reversed traditional tips. Partygoers were encouraged to 'talk about sex, politics and religion' and to 'get drunk,' contradicting the traditional guidelines of not getting drunk and not conversing on topics that tend to divide the group and raise tempers. Getting dressed up was mocked as well by mainly the men who did so with exaggeration by wearing tuxedos or with the musician's approach by wearing sneakers with the suit. One man wore a dress because of course, it wasn't stipulated which gender was supposed to wear the dresses and suits. It seemed that all were compelled to revolt against at least one aspect of decorum at this mocktail party.

What is most disturbing is that all of this was done without fully understanding the virtues and benefits of the ridiculed customs. It was done because we live with the assumption that all things old are backward and must be overthrown, not because we have found something terrible about the past that we must make right. Given a chance, I'm sure that all would find something rewarding in the practice of dressing well and acting intentionally. It isn't even contemplated.

This is to say that the cocktail party's participants were unaware of their revolutionary behavior. They were not trying to destroy a culture as I make it out to seem. If anything, they were just trying to have fun and some good laughs like they would at any party. But revolution is the consummate tool for having fun and good laughs. There is nothing funnier than guy with a dress on in the midst of serious, more appropriately dressed people, acting and behaving as one normally would at a cocktail party. During social events, revolution is hilarious and when revolution takes a more serious form, like with economic and political revolution, it enlivens the spirit and raises the blood level, both of which may not produce laughs, but certainly feel good especially to the modern man dulled by a mechanical existence. Our quest for that enlivening reinforces revolution's command over our culture.

Good humor results when something is very close to the truth and still absurd. The partygoer dresses well, acts decorously, and performs like he should surrounded by serious mixers, the conglomerate of which represents the truth. He wears a pinwheel hat representing absurdity and the joke is complete. Humor's tricky position between truth and absurdity makes it difficult to achieve and so a good comedian must be treasured. It is often the comedian's joke that makes clear a previously unseen truth and so he is not uncommonly regarded as a genius. Indeed history exalts some of the best comedians for their wit alone. Wit is rightly regarded as a height of human capability and sarcasm can perk any casual conversation. Even good slapstick should be relished as a purely physical humor.

What cannot be disregarded in our embrace of humor is its dependence on truth. There must first be truth to have absurdity and thus to have humor. There must be an agreed standard of etiquette before someone can mock it for laughs. Piecing the standard together in the hopes of mocking it is not the same thing. That practice is itself absurd and when reality is absurd, humor is impossible.

The aim should not be humor, then, it should be truth since truth can stand on its own and can bring about humor by adding its opposite. One might argue that it is all good and well to seek the truth, but it is boring to do so. The truth is static and dull whereas absurdity is stimulating. It is much more interesting to say with a laugh that a young woman is 'not at all attractive,' than it is to say she is 'really good looking.' If she is attractive, it is obvious, and stating the obvious is tiresome. The sarcasm adds a twist and it is that twist, that curve of life, that is what fascinates. We look for that fascinating motion in everything. When we bring it to the sociopolitical arena, we call the change revolution.

In this regard, the argument against truth is not incorrect: the various forms of revolution do excite by virtue of their tendency for change and motion. The fallacy lies, rather, in the notion that revolution is the exclusive bearer of change or even that it is the best method. Revolution seems like the only way for change because we are accustomed to it. It seems like the best because it is the easiest. Revolution is change in a downward direction—from order to primal disorder. And since disorder comes naturally, revolution can depend on the pull of natural instincts to bring that change about.

On the other hand, change in an upward motion—from disorder to order—is not a phenomenon that comes naturally and so that kind of change cannot rely on nature's pull. It is more difficult, requires concentration, and is therefore less agreeable. But it is change, just like its counterpart, and so it provides us with the curve of life that we adore so. In addition, the upward kind of motion isn't based in disintegration, so using it doesn't run the risk of self-destruction. The upward kind of motion is based in building and creating, which leave mankind at least something once the change is complete.

Disregarding this upward kind of motion is most foolish simply because the upward kind of change is much more enjoyable than the destructive kind. Even one who finds the allure of revolution irresistible can agree that creativity is enthralling in its own right. All one must do is give the upward kind of motion a chance. They will see that putting together good speech and conversing skillfully is energizing; that dressing well emphasizes the essences of both women and men, bringing out beauty and grace in the former and sturdiness in the latter; and that uniting several people for relaxing and informative gatherings such as with cocktail parties compels respectfulness and rewards with the priceless sensation of appreciation. Upward motion provides a more sophisticated enjoyment, so one cannot expect unbridled indulgence of the senses when pursuing it. It is actually close to the opposite of indulgence as it requires reserving those delights for appropriate times. When the time is right, satisfying the senses is a great deal more enjoyable for having been formerly suppressed. Meanwhile, one will be captivated with the practice of gathering problematic fragments and assembling a solution that can be regarded as creativity.

This creativity is the truth that revolutions put and end to. It is a tragedy because no one really wants to terminate creativity. They only lack the understanding that explains how creativity consists in building and arranging. Their intimacy with modern culture tells them that the fruits of building and arranging—order and exactness—are impossible; and so those targets are replaced. Since the opposite of building provides the same exhilaration of change, their replacement is its opposite and the drama comes to tragic end.

Tragedy is not the necessary conclusion. The culture that revolution would destroy is made up of us and so we can rely on resistance by virtue of the innate human compulsion toward self-preservation to stifle the progress of destruction. Meanwhile it is possible to recognize what creativity truly is and begin to actually create. To avoid revolution's tragic victory over us would require nothing less than a widespread movement of ingenuity and creativity. The only thing that can successfully revolt against revolution is the introduction of a great period of creativity. In short, the only thing that can overthrow revolution is creativity. That means that we cannot dwell on revolution in the anticipation of destroying it; we must look to something altogether new and work upward to attain it.

It is a possible prospect and requires the elements that we are familiar with despite our devotion to revolution. This new movement toward creativity requires energy, unity, and an idea that serves as the guiding principle. The upward motion that is creativity would certainly provide the energy; unity would come from the creative impulses native in all humans and the obscure inkling that we deserve to treat each other and be treated better; and finally, the guiding idea would be the notion of a return to order, exactness, and even perfection—in short, the idea to lead this movement of creativity would be elevation.

However far-stretched it seems to find success with these crucial elements given a culture so averse to them, they are possible. The free thinking that we are not averse to may provide a doorway to this new period of creativity, for if one is not an actual free thinker, one who exalts free thinking must be required to uphold it. That doesn't mean accepting all ideas, but rather to at least consider all possibilities even if they are not one's own or those of the surrounding culture. Given the absolute virtue of a culture of creativity and the objectionable nature of the culture of revolution, one can be certain of the preference.