Saturday, 15 December 2007

Abuse of the word "revolutionary"

I was giving a lecture the other day about Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and I found myself calling it "revolutionary" as a piece of radio drama. I couldn't think of any other word - "radical," "original," "path-breaking" didn't quite encompass what I meant; but then nor did "revolutionary." The English language is sometimes an incredibly subtle musical instrument on which one can play everything from the greatest symphonies and operas to the cheapest, nastiest pop songs. But it has its blind spots, and I think the word "revolutionary" is one of them: it's a crude, catch-all word for lots of divergent meanings.

For example, you often see documentaries - normally on BBC2 or BBC4 - on which some fourth-rate celebrity or cultural critic (so-called) is seen sitting next to lots of books declaring that this programme or that film or this celebrity or that pop song was "revolutionary." The person involved generally realises that he or she is only going to have ten seconds in the sun, so he or she has to come out with a startling soundbite .... a soundbite which generally involves the word "revolutionary" in it: "Oh yes, 1970s feminism was revolutionary," "Oh, indeed, the Sex Pistols were revolutionary," "It's obvious to us now that flaired trousers were revolutionary," "Germaine Greer's / Erica Jong's / Salman Rushdie's / Delete where appropriate's first publication was revolutionary," "Anita Roddick's Body Shop was revolutionary," "The invention of the bra - now that was a truly revolutionary moment."

The one thing that's never mentioned on these kinds of shows, of course, is actual revolution. God forbid. What is revolutionary, according to these shows, is everything except revolution. Marx, Engels, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Castro, move over: what's really revolutionary these days is Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, or a piece of lacy underwear.

Now, I'm not saying this is definitely a bad thing. A revolution based on lingerie would, no doubt, be preferable to a revolution based on the murder of the bourgeoisie, induced mass-famine, civil war, terror. But what I am saying is that the word has gradually lost most of its meaning over the last few years, and now gets rolled out whenever anyone is talking about something that is vaguely new. The word "revolution" is no longer the preserve of the vitriolic left-winger - and that's no bad thing - but has become almost meaningless, because it has been colonised by consumerism, middle- and low-brow cultural criticism, capitalism, and daft readings of modern history in which anything vaguely new marks a radical break with the past.

Moreover, these readings of modern history always assume that history is linear and progressive: the invention of the bra, Erica Jong's novel, 1970s feminism, the Sex Pistols were all revolutionary and liberatory moments in which the world got that bit better. Thank God for Erica Jong, they seem to say. Things before her were intolerable. How on earth did the poor benighted people manage?

What these readings ignore, of course, is the real meaning of the word "revolution," which is opposed to a smoothly linear, progressive version of history where things get better bit by bit. Revolutions are violent and radical breaks with a hopelessly corrupt past in favour of a bright new future. They do not fit in with a comforting "things-getting-better-bit-by-bit" version of history, and they certainly don't fit in with a consumerist, capitalist, middle- and low-brow cultural criticism.

Personally, I'd opt for a moritorium on all uses of the word "revolutionary" for the next ten or so years. The word sounds hollow and unconvincing from radical Marxists and BBC cultural critics alike. Why can't we admit that history doesn't get better bit by bit, and nor does it ever change violently and radically for the better? The most we can hope for is that it doesn't change violently and radically for the worse, and just trundles along at the pretty appalling level it's been at for the last two million years.

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