Revolution is redefining who is able to tell the story. Nothing is completely unbiased, and human perceptions of reality are innately connected to our paradigms or the “stories” we tell ourselves about the workings of the world. By retelling, redefining, or reversing these stories, our ideas and actions experience revolutionary shifts. I consider this definition prescriptive, as the current usage of revolution does not always reflect the connection to changes in perspective that I consider essential to my understanding of revolution.
This theme is seen through my focus on works by women and people of color, who have historically been unable to control the narrative of their portrayal and perception. The revolutionary act of listening to their stories allows us to change our perception of the world, forcing us to create concrete and revolutionary change through our own lives. For this reason, each work analyzed in my portfolio addresses, in one way or another, this retelling and redefinition. My textual and non-textual works also connect to this theme of retelling – the poem I wrote is based upon family stories whispered by women over the kitchen table after the cooking is done, and I wanted to redefine the narrative in the context of its impact on my own life and to revolutionize my own perception of these women in my life. In the dance I created for my non-textual work, my sister performs a retelling of my adolescence. At age fifteen, she uses physicality to evoke the experiences I felt while growing into womanhood, reliving my past story while considering her own present.
In effort to explain my definition more clearly, I am using examples from several parts of our Humanities course to represent revolutionary retellings in different contexts, using the list method. Within Lapham’s Quarterly, several works helped me to formulate this definition of revolution. Written from a Berlin prison, anti-war activist Rosa Luxemburg’s famous 1916 letter “To March or To Creep” specifically evokes the idea of revolution as a change in the manner in which one views the world, as I noted on the attached notebook page. I was particularly struck by Luxemburg’s powerful definition of herself – “I have never been soft, lately I have grown hard as polished steel.” Luxemburg’s personal retelling challenges preconceptions of prison’s impacts on her femininity – replacing the idea of female weakness with incredible strength and determined resistance. Another text found in Lapham’s Quarterly, Maria Tsetsaeva’s “Crying Out for Mother” was striking in its retelling of a civil war through the female perspective, using motherhood to emphasize “human form (shared) and political difference (man-made)” as I explored in my notes. I also addressed the explicit powerlessness of women in the poem, questioning the role of the mother’s perspective – “What can the ‘Mother’ do but look on in horror at what her children have created?” Through these works, I was able to refine the theme of my portfolio – revolution as redefining who is able to tell the story.
During President Quillen’s unit, we discussed the revolutionary retelling of human rights to property – not by a divine ruler’s command over the body, but control of the workings of one’s own body as property. With Professor Robb, we discussed the retelling of celestial movements, scientific methods, and discoveries that changed the narrative constructed to justify human existence and purpose in the time period. Through the challenging discussion of violence against others in the Rwandan Genocide with Professor Tamura, we experienced the retelling of Philip Gourevitch‘s depictions of the violence committed upon neighbors, friends, and the culture of an entire nation. This revolutionary depiction of the truth of humans who commit inhuman violence forces us to consider the human capacity to commit and even enjoy violence against others, to redefine our perception of humans with moral impulses and conscience. We have also discussed the justification of racial segregation, subjugation, and violence within the United States with Professor Wills. Her unit studied writings that analyze the methods by which humans could psychologically justify such dehumanization of others, as well as the revolutionary work of Black Civil Rights activists and scholars. Through the revolutionary redefinition of humanity in their writings, as well as their nonviolent actions, we – as well as the audience during the 1960s – are forced to confront the history of this nation, our part in that history, and the injustice of America’s treatment of people of color. My notes on this unit reflect the striking comparison between the history of people of color and the documented history in the South. How has society changed so much during a few generations? This revolutionary shift in the stories that we tell ourselves is based upon the brave and self-sacrificial acts of those involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
In Professor Bory’s unit, we experienced the revolutionary physical retelling of experience through dance. Her unit artifact, Bill T. Jones’s performative epic Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land,explores Jones’s experience as a gay black man in the 1990s. By retelling his experiences through the movements of dancers, Jones evokes connection through the physical relationship between audience and dancers – by affirming the physicality of the performers, we are forced to confront their humanity. As I explored in one of my essays for this unit, the audience begins to view the traditionally transgressive act of nakedness as heavenly – “the utopia of the real,” as Jones utilizes deeply real dancers to retell his story as a black gay man. Professor Munger introduced us to revolutionary retelling through artistic media. With presentations on different examples of abstraction, we were able to explore the unique relationship of artists to their work, comprehending their unique perspectives and stories. My presentation, which can be found here, discussed Gustav Klimt’s The Embrace. Klimt created the image with elaborate gold ornamentation drawn from ancient Byzantine and Egyptian arts and architecture, while depicting a deeply human scene of love. This revolutionary abstraction in retelling demonstrates his theme of the transcendence of love and sensuality above earthly life. With his unique depiction of humanity, Klimt retells the experience of love in an abstract manner, juxtaposing the familiar with the divine. With Professor Ewington, we entered into the Stalinist Terror of 1930s Russia. We experienced retelling through dramatic personal stories in semi-autobiographical works such as Sofia Petrovna and Burnt by the Sun, or humorous, morbid interpretations of historical events in The Death of Stalin. These retellings forced us to understand Russia in an entirely different perspective. Personally, I instinctively connected Russian citizens to their Cold War-era stereotypes, humorous caricatures of sneering, heavily accented English that I had only heard in films or on television. By entering into the powerful, multi-dimensional experiences depicted in this unit, I was able to challenge this preconception and comprehend the complicated truth of their humanity – a truly revolutionary act. To finish our journey in the Humanities course, we discussed one of the most difficult stories – Ulrike Meinhoff and the Red Army Faction. In the retelling of her story from a nuanced and comprehensive perspective, I realized my own conflicted view of the movement. In one way, their work was incredibly powerful – Meinhoff was well-spoken, intelligent, and created brilliant written works to explain her perspective. Much of her work and the movement led by the Bader-Meinhoff Group connects to my own experience – I understand the repression youth can feel in a society that seems to ignore and undermine their calls for change. However, with the consideration of other voices, it is clear that many acts committed by the RAF were terrorist actions that harmed innocent civilians. As we studied the implosion of their movement, I was forced to challenge my original perceptions and come to a revolutionary understanding of their views and their failings, balancing my initial connection with their lofty aims with the often-horrifying results of their efforts. In this retelling, I could apply the stories of youth movements for change to those of today – will the youth-led movements for environmental protection and gun control someday seem as pointless as the efforts of the RAF? What concrete change occurred based on their actions? What did Ulrike Meinhoff die for? Through my exploration of these topics, retold through films and writings that provoked personal connection with the individuals involved, I was able to enter into revolutionary contemplation of the roles, challenges, and legacy of Ulrike Meinhoff and her compatriots.