Author: mwyndham

Sporadic Commentary on Being a Colby Revolutionary Post-Election

Of all the lectures this semester, Professor Marcus Perez’s final lecture “On Being a Revolutionary” was, for me, the most riveting. I was captivated by his three main points: Why be a revolutionary? What is it like? How are revolutions organized? As Professor Perez noted, revolutions are crucial and nebulous. They are complicated and messy, hard to define, and altogether difficult to experience and notice during real time. Growing up, I always romanticized the 60s and the 70s. I was jealous of my Aunt and Uncle, who attended Woodstock and marched on Washington. They rallied and protested and were fierce activists. They, it seemed to me, were a part of the revolution. Last year, however, amidst heated discussions and arguments about Black Lives Matter, while real people were dying, and real change seemed distance but necessary, I remember talking to my friends about how we were in the middle of it. Or at least the beginning of it. And it wasn’t fun and exhilarating and cool like I imagined the 60s and 70s being. It is painful and sad and heartbreaking and lonely. Now more than ever, questions of revolutions are being asked. Professor Perez talked about how, in social movement theory, there must be an action that sparks and motivates a revolution (at least under some theories). It feels, currently, as if the election of Trump is the push to mobilize that we needed. The pain and rage that is surging through America right now seems to be the stuff of revolutions. It is difficult, however, to trust the outcomes. As Professor Perez taught, there is a reason revolutionaries are thought to be so brave and odd and atypical. They are willing to risk it all for something that may not happen at all. It is a risk with, most likely, no reward. And yet. And yet they do it. They rise up and speak out for what they believe is right. Personally, I find it curious that revolutionaries are questioned so immensely. Of course they exist! Of course they mobilize! How can they not? How can you be complicit in situations of injustice? During moments like we live in currently, I personally cannot imagine staying put and accepting our fate.

Last year, I began to mobilize with my friends on campus. As first years, we are all lost and confused and unsure how anything worked at all. We had liminal (if not altogether not-existence) social movement theory knowledge, but we pursued a revolution anyway. While little action came of it externally, there was great change in us. Amidst times of great violence on campus, we were able to heal. We were able to feel powerful, to feel the power of being a student and having a voice and demanding justice and seeking peace. Ultimately, I ended Professor Perez’s lecture with questions and concerns and list after list of books and theorists to research later. This, to me, is the foundation of my revolution. Post-election, I am rooting my revolution in knowledge. I am arming myself with arguments and questions and humility and curiosity. It is what I am hear to do, at Colby. To learn and to change.

Discrepancies Between Histories

Professor Popkin’s account of the Haitian Revolution was particularly interesting for me because I had recently written a paper in my Anthropology class about Paul Farmer’s conceptualization of systemic violence, specifically using his case study in Haiti. I wrote about the ways the Haitian Revolution has been erased from history by America, influenced by France, and so used as a weapon of systemic violence. This erasure helps progress America’s political reign. When we enact modern embargoes on Haiti, through the means of blocking the Inter-American Development Bank’s promise of a $500-million aid package, the U.S. has more leverage and false innocence when no one talks about the historic embargo we placed upon Haiti after they gained freedom from France. This exploitation of Haiti and the fierce pursuit of trade and tourism systematically builds economies where afflictions can embed. The U.S. has helped create modern Haiti—the same country we pity and send more “aid” and missionaries and voluntourist groups to.

I studied, these implications of the Haitian Revolution. I learned about the reparations from this point of view. I had not heard about Professor Popkin’s side of history in which reparations weren’t for lost slave labor. Regardless, it does not seem fair or just to me that the reparations should occur. It does not seem fair or just to me that France should continue to exploit Haiti. It does not seem fair or just to me that the U.S. should pretend it is so much better than Haiti when they are the main actors in keeping Haiti’s economy crippled and built the systemic barriers that make solid infrastructure or stable health facilities possible in Haiti.

The Haitian Revolution should be in every history textbook. I am fortunate enough that I learned about Toussaint Louverture in AP World History (though I heard a very watered down, U.S.-centric version of the Revolution). In conjunction with the teaching of this vital history, however, we must provide a complex and complete history of our involvement with France to help disparage Haiti. I do not believe an accurate telling of the Haitian Revolution can be told without looking at its effects in the present day.

However, I do wonder about history and memory. What kind of conception do students have of the Haitian Revolution who sat through Professor Popkin’s lecture who had not previously learned about the Revolution? How does it compare to my understanding? What gaps exist for me that do not for them? What truths do I hold about the Revolution that Professor Popkin does not? And vice versa? How might we discern the truths of the events from the blameless bias we each hold? I would love to have been able to sit down with Professor Popkins and Professor Besteman (my Anthroplogy professor) to discuss the discrepancies between their individual understandings of the Haitian Revolution. I would love to hear this discourse, decide between the disagreements, and bask in well-informed arguments. Moreover, what does the distortion of memory do to how we understand the events of the Haitian Revolution? In other words, beyond our own biases, what have the biases of time and past done to distort the truth?

Connecting the Dots of Latour

Professor Keith Peterson argued to us that “We Have Never Been Revolutionary.” According to Bruno Latour, we have never even been modern. Admittedly, I found it challenging to follow this lecture. My friend Erin, who is taking KP’s Feminist Philosophy course, began to explain the lecture to me in greater detail after the lecture, but I still had difficultly understanding connections to some of his points. I found it difficult to understand the models of the products of deeper processes under the Principle of Symmetry. From what I came to gather, Latour argued that we have an asymmetrical explanation in which we oftentimes suppose a dualistic rendering of constructivism versus reality; however, Latour proposes a both/and combination approach, instead. In believing in merely a temporary stability, Latour translates essence into existence back into essence.

I followed Latour’s arguments for understanding us as a part of a constructed universality. What I was left puzzled about, however, was how all of this ties back to modernity. Where are the correlations? What is the logic here? How does the Principle of Symmetry prove to be evidence for amodernity? How does the actor-network theory connect to modernity and revolutions?

Latour’s conception of progressive was intriguing, as well. His argument for a radical break with the past and entailing a specific understanding of time seems to mold a circle, which we both create and mobilize. We, as KP quoted from Latour, “also mobilize Nature.” The Antimodern discussion KP ended with asked, “What do new revolutionaries have to reject?” I felt all the while puzzled if Latour was arguing against the conception of the Oppressor in his actor-network theory. Is his mode of thought so constructivist that the systems of injustice are not perceived as systems at all? I slowly began to conceptualize the actor-network theory more and more, however, as the lecture went one. His understanding of objects as actors allows for the complexity of oppressive networks. For example, in his ethnographic book The Land of Open Graves, anthropologist Jason De Leon argues for understanding the Sonoran Desert as an agent (under the power and force of the U.S. Border Industrial Complex). With tools provided by Latour, this becomes easier and more readily complicated into this philosophical framework.

In this proposed reworking of our mental landscape, I wonder what Latour’s argument against modernity might do for the Western Imperialist mindset. What are the implications of loosening the fierce grip of Progressive? Of Best? Of Better? Of Modern? Because, after all, if we have always been tribal, then what distinguishes the West from the East? Or from the states, tribes, cultures, peoples the West continually ignores? Overall, I was left unsure about the logic of Latour’s argument and unable to connect many of the dots. However, the satellites I absorbed seemed to make sense. I hope, in the future, to connect the dots and understand Latour’s highly influential argument in We Have Never Been Modern.

Post-Truth/Big Data

Now that Oxford Dictionary has positioned the word of 2016 as “post-truth,” perhaps it is the perfect time to study the origins of data. As Professor Aaron Hanlon said, after all, “data is a big deal.” If big data is about how we ‘see’ information, though, I wonder what it says about our current understanding of big data. Coming off this election, many argue that America is anti-intellectual. Many Americans would rather hear comments during Presidential Debates with words they can understand rather than trying to parse through the educated political arguments former candidates brought to the podium. Policy? Foreign Affairs? None of that seemed to matter this election—and neither did any ounce of fact checking.

Professor Hanlon showed us the Ngram Viewer and its results for “data,” “fact,” and “truth.” The graph clearly demonstrates there has been a sharp decline in “truth” over the years, while “data” has seemingly surged from the abyss. But what does this mean in a post-truth year? If data is “a thing given” and anyone can label anything as data nowadays without real evidence backing it up (aside from fancy credentials or buckets of corporate money behind them), then anything can be that which is given. Data, perhaps, has become exclusive from truth. After all, Professor Hanlon explained how data as we know it now was born from Scriptural Data. These givens were practiced by Bernard in Faithful Shepherd back in 1607; indeed, he claimed that the church needed to be more plain and use less verbose language for the “truths” of scripture. The image became the trusted source because words “can mislead us.” I wonder, though, what this means in this day and age of Photoshop. Can we trust images? Can we trust words?

What is more, in this age of post-truth and anti-intellectualism, does anyone really read the data? Or is it something to attach to a tweet or a HuffPost blog post that will be taken as fact without a second glance? Professor Hanlon ended his lecture with four main points: 1. Data has always been visual 2. “Big Data” was a conceptual revolution as much as a technological one 3. When data becomes the main form of evidence, that’s revolutionary 4. All data is rhetorical and theory-laden. In response to his third point, he commented that we must be more discerning between which questions deserve which responses. But what implicit value judgments are made in “data?” How does one attempt objectivity? What else is implied in ‘just observation’? And if it is true that “context shapes quality,” who today is truly discerning the quality of the context of data? While there are plenty of websites fact-checking President-Elect Trump’s comments (even real-time tweet fact-checkers), I think it is pretty clear that no one cares if he is lying. No one cares if he is racist. No one cares if he brags about sexual assaulting women. No one cares. We are in the age of post-truth. Is this actually a revolution? Are we experiencing of revolutionary moment?



The Killing Fields

Have you ever been moved to tears by a monument? Have you ever been angered? Moved to action? Encouraged to rest in gratitude? How have monuments impacted you, and what have your relationships been to them? What levels of empathy have you experienced with your various encounters with various monuments? What cities have you seen the bleeding heart of? Personally, I can think of many moments with monuments that have shaken me to my core. The MLK Memorial in D.C. The Vietnam War Memorial, also in D.C. The Holocaust Memorial in Boston. The Killing Fields in Cambodia (arguably a monument/memorial site).

The latter was perhaps the most uncomfortable. For me, it was about a deep uncovering of lies I had been taught to reside in. It was learning about the U.S.’s involvement in facilitating the rise of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. It was coming to terms with the lies we read in the history books to cover, silence, ignore, and erase the Cambodian genocide. It was looking my privilege and perpetuation of oppression in the eye when I met survivors on the streets of Phnom Penh. It was letting myself grieve the dead at each and every site. It was deeply unsettling and absolutely necessary.

Professor Jeffrey Schnapp spoke to us of the Bolzano Monument, helped us question what a (modern) monument was, how an anti-monument could be conceived, and what it meant to be behind the scenes of monument making. Some claim, such as Lewis Mumford, that this built environment should be in service of the living and not the dead. But, I wonder, whose life gets to be monumentalized? Who—living—gets to be serviced? In what ways can monument making be a step in the long, quietly destructive process of the erasure of history?

Moreover, Professor Schnapp showed us what it might mean to create “possibilities for transformation beyond replacing or destroying.” This Bolzano monument lives in the cracks and crevasses of this possibility and clearly draws in thousands of tourists every year. Questions should be asked—and have been—about the sustainability of this monument. But this should, certainly, be asked of every monument. Is it still doing its job? What is its purpose? What is trying to be evoked in its creation and resurrection? How does the past get communicated through the architecture of a monument and through the curatorial choices laid down brick by brick?

I am curious about the answers to all these questions for the Killing Fields. In what ways might it need to be revitalized? It has a simple, subdued, grieving purpose. It is not meant, most likely, to invoke revolutions. (Though great revolutions have come out of grief, I’m sure). Rather, the monument here is one of remembrance. It—in negation to Lewis Mumford—does seem to pay more service to the dead. It is a place for the living to go and to learn and to remember, but it also seems to be about honoring the dead. Those who, to much of the world, were invisible.


Abundant Questions for “The Dreamers”

Admittedly, I am awestruck by this film. I am thankful I watched it alone in my room and not in the confines of a public movie theater, because throughout my viewing I exclaimed in shock and earnest confusion nearly every other scene. Firstly, it is fascinating to see Paris during the 60s, juxtaposed alongside America during similar periods of civil unrest. Matthew’s commentary on the Vietnam War, particularly in the bathtub scene with Theo, as well as their heated (and violent) discussion on Maoism left me bewildered and questioning. What does it mean to be a revolutionary, and could either of these really count as one? Or at least a member of an attempted revolution? As the film closes and Matthew is left stranded in his morals while his two loves running chasing after violence and revolution and riot and thrill, I could not help but be drawn back to last week’s lecture on social movement theory. Matthew exclaims that this–this violence–is not them. That they are brains and love and passion. Books–not molotov cocktails.

The “perverted sexuality and extreme cinephillia”, as one film critic claims, of the film is infinitely Parisian. The radical nature of Theo and and Isabelle proves to be one of self-destruction, and ultimately is not a path Matthew is willing to walk down. These moments of tension and disagreement with the ardent chants “you’re one of us” provide the unsettlement constantly present throughout the film. Bertolucci’s production of radicalism begs questions, then, about what is productive counterculture and what is simply futile disruptions by the bored children of French writers. The interior world this triad constructs may be appealing (if not for the incest), yet the exterior surrounding them stirs greater unrest inside their mansion of sex and alcohol and cinema. What is sustainable about the world they create? How could it ever be applied in the real world revolutions? The Dreamers ultimately displays the cavalier, romanticized, radicalized notions of young Paris in the 60s. It portrays the sexual allure of young, attractive, wealthy, and frivolous, as if this were common place and truly achievable. All the while, the world is in disarray and the marches outside on the streets refuse to hold this fantasy.

The passage from innocence to experience is muddled in The Dreamers. It is altogether bizarre and strange, the relationships and intimacies struck up in this Bertolucci masterpiece. The creation of the 1968 summer student riots in Paris as a backdrop for the development of these three curious characters illuminates underlying themes of radicalism and frivolity, romanticizing the revolution and dismissing the immoral. Within the context of this course, I find it particularly interesting to ask, Was this a revolution at all? Can it count if it failed? What is the context for the riots, and do their roles in it really matter? What is the true difference between Theo and Matthew (violence and books)?

The Dangers in the Darwinian Revolution

Professor of Biology Judy Stone spoke with exuberance and engagement about “The Unfinished Business of the Darwinian Revolution.” Though I was out of town during the last lecture on the ever intriguing Darwin, I heard only extraordinary things. And as I sat in Lovejoy 100, colorful pens in hand, eager to jot down notes from slides and thoughts from minds, I realized how much I wish I had been able to attend that lecture. The Darwinian Revolution is one that has been highly popularized and taught throughout the American education system. The ramifications of this particular revolution have been felt all over the world as the ideas behind evolution, natural selection, and the tree of life have permeated Western philosophy since the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1854. I found great pleasure in Stone’s deconstruction of the common depictions of evolution and the dangers of typological thinking. As an anthropology major, I am forever reading about the actions built upon the faulty foundational belief that race is genetic. Stone agrees, clearly, that race is constructed. It was such a relief to hear from an evolutionary geneticist that we seemed to be on the same page.

Moreover, I loved learning more about Darwin and evolutionary genetics, as it is not something I regularly study. When she spoke about the pre-Darwinian view of evolution (the ladder-like scheme/Great Chain of Being), I was actually reminded of the famous utilitarian philosopher, Peter Singer, and his ladder-like scheme of consciousness and preference. In it, he argues that some beings have more important interests than others. In effect, most Western philosophy would argue that killing a beetle is nothing in comparison to killing a human. To some extent, I disagree with Singer’s claims and find them to lead to rather dangerous thinking. In the same vein, this Great Chain of Being certainly bore a hierarchy of humanity that lives on in our modern culture. While Stone and others clarify that the Great Chain of Being has been toppled over by the Darwinian Theory of Evolution, I think it is safe to say that this thinking has influenced modern day discourse, such as that with philosopher Peter Singer. Hitherto, I want to emphasize, just as Stone does as well, that typological thinking will have a long lasting impact, too.

I left the talk with several questions. Firstly, I wonder about the Theory of Forms that Stone reviewed. When Plato claimed that every object or quality has an idealized essence was he claiming that they are universally idealized? Because what is seen as “perfect” or “ideal” in one culture may be separate from what another culture sees as “perfect” or “ideal.” Time and space contort the idealized essence so that it cannot be universal. Stone spent little time on this topic, but I wish she had lingered. It is, I presume, at least partially the foundation for the typological categorization of species, and this search for perfect specimen is perhaps even more dangerous than the effects of the Great Chain of Being.

[you will not find answers here]

It is difficult to cling onto a single thread from Khalid’s talk last week. It is difficult to understand fully what the quilt he crafted with his language, his emotion, his presence–all in relation to our language, our emotion, our presence–might look like. Looking at my notes from the talk, purple arrows leap out from the page. They suggest, perhaps, some kind of causality, a sequence of thoughts, some knitting together in conversation. This, of course, may be true. Certainly answers followed questions followed answers followed questions followed thoughts followed silence. But it does not seem right in this blog post to write with some cause and effect or even a thesis. That seems too neat. Too complete. Too polished. In reality, when I think beyond those purple arrows I recall holes, gaps, threads of conversation hanging loose and teasing me to follow them down the rabbit hole. Khalid is here as the Oak Fellow. He is here to shake up our campus (though, admittedly, I doubt this is Colby’s motivation–but it is his). He is an artist who rests and stays abreast in anger and also in creation. He is a man I know little about; drawing art about revolutions I, frankly, know little about. And yet. As he talked I grasped onto floating clouds of passion as if they were condensed from my own daydreams.

[Anger creates art]

[Art is a universal language]

[We have this obsession with the past because we are broken]

[We still have time]

Khalid is here at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, up on Mayflower Hill, sitting in Lovejoy 100, speaking to a classroom of young undergraduates. Khalid is here, but he keeps creating because the revolution does not stop [revolutions take time]. He spoke of how [Western media likes to make heroes], so O’Neill pushed further about how he is English speaking / well-dressed / charismatic. The kind of dark hero America can swallow. And yet. Khalid spoke of how he was ashamed of this fame, how it is [something I didn’t deserve]. Because he might be here at Colby College, but we must not forget the work he does. He and his colleagues and his fellow creators and shakers and revolutionaries are risking their lives every day–some more than others. This saliency existed in the silence, in the emotionality present in Khalid’s eyes. I could see it, feel it, hear it, sense it from all the way in the back. It is chilling–those moments of truth when you zoom out from the blue light on Mayflower Hill and remember that life is more than the papers, the books, the theories. Revolutions are real and they are not safe and they are not secure and they are not equitable and they are not a block of time written on in the history books. They scream of the page, begging to be graffitted on walls and plastered on News Feeds. They deserve more then 15 seconds of viral fame.

[the thing about revolutions is it just happens]

The Interrogation of Humanitarian Aid, Historically & Otherwise

Certainly the Tambora Revolution is not a well-known or commonly referenced revolution. Regardless, as Gillen D’Arcy Wood addressed in his lecture, the parallels to today’s refugee crisis, the socio-cultural implications of climate change, and the consistent influence of atmosphere on literature are not as easily shoved aside or put back in a drawer. Ultimately, I find it important to dig into those teleconnections Wood so ardently champions, as well as briefly interrogate the history of humanitarian aid in the context of Tambora.

The class stratifications that Wood emphasized articulate the fluctuating answer to the question, “What does it mean to be a victim of environmental disaster?” Clearly the effects of the Tambora eruption were heard ’round the world, but I want to briefly note that the effects we heard about during this particular lecture were decentralized from the physical eruption site. Wood postulates in his book that we do not know much about Tambora precisely because of its Eastern location and physical removal from the Western, Eurocentric conscious. This, then, highlights yet another “cognitive dissonance,” in addition to the way we have historically understood the Year Without a Summer. Moreover, as Wood spoke on, the third part of his “Stages of Climate Shock Response” –“Flight into Hell”–is an incredibly classist one. The famished, the hungry, the devastated bore witness to this stage, and I am curious as to the manifestations of departure from the traditional laissez-faire nation-state towards a more humanitarian focus.

The “seismic soul searching” that Wood recommended to all of us is one of great importance, and a recommendation I typically would gladly take the torch on; however, in the historic analysis of the Baroness de Krüdener and also of Sir Thomas Raffles, the founder of “British Singapore,” I implore that we think critically about our modern engagements with humanitarian aid. Indeed, I know little more than what Wood spoke to us about last week surrounding the specific aid and refugee crisis during 1816. I do know a tad more, though, about the types of humanitarian aid the United States and other “world leaders” have indoctrinated today. To be frank, modern humanitarian aid often plays the tired hat of neocolonialism and dehumanization. It does not acknowledge the global systems (typically a domino effect started by those foreign countries providing aid & relief) that lead to the civil strife or economic/environmental hardships wreaking havoc on Syria, Somali, the list goes on and on. Humanitarian aid, in effect, most typically reifies the confines of the nation-state and does little on the side of “revolutions.” It maintains the status quo–that being the deep (economic and socio-political) power imbalances of the foreign aid provider and recipient. The purpose of my analysis of modern humanitarian aid is to raise questions about how we present historic “saviors” (i.e. the Baroness & Raffles), the class and racial inequities that led to the necessity for creative sympathy, as well as the historic dismissal of the Tambora eruption.

Wood rests his case on teleconnections. I urge us to do the same. I urge us to think more critically about what we view as “good work,” as humanitarian relief, and ultimately use this concept of “creative sympathy” to engage in the tough conversations about the way our own situation in a global context impacts the world.

Whose Revolution?

One of the primary questions for this class is, “What constitutes a revolution?” I would like to take this question a step further by asking, “Who gets to say what constitutes a revolution?” Professor Cohen had the slides at the ready, prepped for the inevitable questioning of the Eurocentrism of his presentation. While he may have minutely quelled the intrigue, the question remains: Who gets to say what constitutes a revolution? What revolutions do we teach and who are the leaders of said revolution? Professor Cohen resolved that what really came from the Scientific Revolution was “a revolutionary metaphor,” and he admitted that “winners get to write history,” but with this reflection, do we not have the control over how we get to teach history? Why allow the non White Christian men to be sidelined when there is the potential to center them? As we delve into the question of “What is a revolution?” I think it is only proper to examine the current Academy’s potential for revolutionary acts of pedagogy. Will we revolve around the Eurocentric pedagogical approach, or will we revolt against the continual erasure of Othered thinkers?

In my examination of revolutions, identity, pedagogy, and power in this presentation, I want to underscore the danger in assuming an “objective body of knowledge” without asking the key questions of “whose revolution?” and “whose world view?” After all, what is modernity and who claims it? Growing up, my education centered the Medieval world view without much acknowledgment of the multiplicities of world views. There continues to be an assumption that the Medieval world view is “our” world view, is the world view; what is more, these assumptions birth ethnocentric comments that the “West is the best” and so on. I believe Professor Cohen subtly highlighted these assumptions as he spoke of the attempts to overthrow Aristotle. In this dissection, it is clear the intellectual hierarchies as Bacon, Copernicus, Galileo sought to become the “great authority.” They presented what they believed to be “objective bodies of knowledge.” Moreover, as we think about the ways power shaped the Scientific Revolution and our perception of it, I would like to point out the Biblical underpinnings of Professor Cohen’s presentation. As Professor Cohen articulated, we speak of the Scientific Revolution as if it is unique–like a creation story. It serves as this period of 1572-1704 in which we often think of the current dominant understanding of how the world works to be invented, and thus the inventors or creators of these stories become a prophet. Newton is  Adam. These great authorities deliver the laws, as if some greater force thrust the knowledge (and thus the power) onto them.

Yet, if what Professor Cohen is true–that the fundamental background came from Pagans, Jews, and Muslims–then when are we going to dismantle the creation story as it stands? When are we going to give credit where credit is due? And why are we still upholding hierarchical historic academia when we have the potential and the capacity to at least question the benefits of giving and seeking “great authority” because of academic discovery? Ultimately, as we study the Scientific Revolution I find it helpful and important work to think about the revolutions that have not happened. Those that are imbedded in the creation stories, the scientific stories, the exclusionary stories. Those that have the potential to be, to create new metaphors and new meanings, if only we are willing to admit that none of us exist in a vacuum, and to use the term a “great authority” may be neglectful of all the collaboration and creation inherit in knowledge making.