Liberty! or Liberty? // Revolution! or Revolution?

We concluded our Age of Revolution seminar by walking Boston’s landmark Freedom Trail with historians and guides from the Boston National Historical Park Service and the Bostonian Society. Nat Sheildly, a historian from the Bostonian Society, discussed the challenges he faces at the Old State House in interfacing with so many visitors coming from such varied backgrounds, with such varied expectations of their time on the Freedom Trail. One key insight he shared with us that he tries to impart to visitors was shifting their approach to the American Revolution from “Liberty!” (exclamation point) to “Liberty?” (question mark).

That shift from exclamation point to question mark is a useful takeaway. In theory, there is already a question mark attached when scholars study revolution: there were plenty of questions about revolution that were embarked upon when coming into this seminar. But for me personally, at least, I have come away from the Age of Revolution seminar questions not only about the revolutions themselves, but also about the ways we study revolutions. To oversimplify, my attitude towards my own work has shifted from “Revolution!” to “Revolution?” (complete with a “whose/which/why/how” modifier attached). In this post, I want to briefly highlight a few key (and hopefully not too disconnected) threads that I don’t want to lose as we move into summer.

Over the year, we were exposed to a range of diverse methodologies and approaches within the various disciplines that provoked a number of useful questions (please forgive me if I liberally use the pronoun “we” to refer to seminar members—please do elaborate/contextualize/disagree in comments!). A primary concern that has arisen over the course of this year is what, exactly, constitutes a “text”? I’ve realized that I came into this year thinking I had a far more liberal definition of the word than I actually do: the word itself is deeply imbricated in print culture, and my own push to learn to think “outside” disciplinary, heavily “western” lines in terms of what constitutes a primary source, or a text, has been further challenged by the availability of sources. The bibliography assignment (for graduate students) is what brought this to the foreground, and is what proved perhaps the most useful in highlighting how very “western” and textually oriented our disciplines are. How do we include experience in a bibliography? Ceremonies, places, rituals, performances, riots, meetings: these are difficult (but not impossible) to translate into textually dominated disciplines. There is space for representing visual culture (e.g. Laurent DuBois’s presentation of the blocks from Duke’s Haiti Lab—, but the ecstasy, passion, or violence of experience can be uncomfortable. I share Faith Smith’s concerns over the discomfort with voodoo; this seemed a prime example where the seminar shied away from non-“traditional” texts/experiences, possibly due to lack of expertise with content, but also quite possibly because we lack the/shy away from/do not privilege the acquisition of a vocabulary for discussing a non-textually based tradition. However, in my own research for both bibliography projects (in which I endeavored to locate sources that worked with voodoo), the amount of scholarship within my own discipline that was grappling with this problem of what constituted a “text” was quite limited. To re-ask and elaborate on a question of Jane Kamensky’s from many seminars ago: what is the difference between what is left out and what is narrated over, and where is the overlap, and are those two things different depending on the historical time?

This question of “experience” is part of what appeals to me about Nagmeh Sohrabi’s question posed to the seminar in our final discussion, as to the “rupture” between experience and history and whether revolution can be studied in the long durée. Jane Kamensky noted that the “oscillation” between the ordinary and extraordinary can be hard to capture, and “oscillation” seems a useful word to keep in mind in thinking about revolution (partly since the etymology of “revolution” has become so distant from the word itself). I think it is critical to keep thinking about how time “flattens” experience (again, quoting Sohrabi)—and this makes it even more important to continue seeking out areas (like the blocks, like artistic representations, the room in the Old State House, like novels) that seek to recapture the experience, that seek to imbue some of the texture back into the history: that try to breathe life into the moments we spend so much time staring at on paper.

These questions of how and what we study have often led to a discussion of “success,” albeit in varied capacities. The word “success” has become increasingly triggery and suspect for me over the course of this year. The word first cropped up with our first seminar session in which we asked what revolutions counted, essentially based on what constituted success—whether the American Revolution was actually just a civil war (the first time I’d ever heard of such an idea), whether the Haitian Revolution should count at all based on inclusion in historical study (a different kind of success). This continued to be a question asked during Q&A at our symposiums, but also in varying ways throughout our seminar sessions. So, can we “successfully” study revolution in the long durée? Which revolutions were “successful”? Is a revolution only a revolution if it was “successful” in keeping the new government in place? What constitutes “success”? This isn’t to say that evaluative questions, of both the revolutions and of how we study them, shouldn’t be asked. But the framework and language of “success” that is built around the Age of Revolution strikes me as limiting in that it is a very easy rabbit hole to go down and get stuck in. Perhaps this is because the “success” of these revolutions, from a content/historical standpoint, is so tied up with an Enlightenment framework and discourse. When Phil Gould visited the seminar, he talked about how difficult it was to discuss revolution without using an Enlightenment discourse. I’m not sure if/how that bears on the particular “success” framework that so influences our respective studies of these revolutions.

I’d like to close by just bringing a few threads together that deal with the post-revolutionary period. It seems that a focus on the post-revolutionary period of each revolution and a subsequent lengthening of the timeline, or a potential shift in focus away from temporality, may be helpful for contextualizing or further nuancing the “success” framework. During our closing symposium and also our during our Freedom Trail walk, there was much discussion of the increased need in revolutionary study for a focus on the post-revolutionary period, particularly as a counter to the “Liberty!” (exclamation point) ideology (or, potentially, the fixation on “but was it a success?”). It’s particularly interesting that the need for a focus on the post-revolutionary period was discussed in direct relation to public history (the Freedom Trail walk) and public education (Jill Lepore’s talk). The post-revolutionary is, as Sue Lanser called it a few seminars ago, both tragic and ironic, and provides a marked counter in tone.

I am (predictably) ending the year with far more questions than answers. The questions and issues raised by this seminar will surely keep on expanding/growing/spinning out, and I look forward to continuing this discussion off-line and in person—though, sadly, no longer together in seminar. Thank you all for a truly remarkable year.

About Jeanna Kadlec

Jeanna Kadlec is a doctoral student in the Department of English at Brandeis University.
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1 Response to Liberty! or Liberty? // Revolution! or Revolution?

  1. Haram Lee says:

    Thank you for the post that beautifully summarized the issues that ‘we’ (again) have grappled with throughout the seminar. I am particularly interested in your question about ‘success.’ I do absolutely agree with you that this dubious notion of ‘success’ is deeply interconnected with the Enlightenment discourse. (Hence, one questions whether the Haitian revolution is a successful revolution, given that it ended up the dictatorship of Dessalines.) So I wonder if we could regard the label of ‘success’ as an indicator of whether the revolution brought out the political and social changes in conformity with the values of Western modernity or not. In fact, the Haitian revolution is definitely a ‘success’ according to this criteria. It replaced slave labor with free labor; it eventually achieved the sovereignty that Western countries maintained. It would be interesting to add more definitions of the ‘success’ in the dictionary of revolution.

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