I truly enjoyed the movie Bodyguards and Assassins which was released last year and tells the riveting, somewhat action packed tale of a group of motley bodyguards who have to protect exiled and most wanted Chinese nationalist and revolutionary leader Sun Yat Sen while he is visiting Hong Kong for a few hours so he can make a plan for overthrowing the Qing Dynasty. In the movie, we see regular folks, from different parts of China, some of whom are not even fighters, sacrifice themselves in order to protect Sun Yat Sen and the dream of a unified, modern and democratic China that he is represents.
My favorite part of the movie is when we at last see the face of the man that the Qing government wants dead at almost all costs and whom so many people are willing to risk their lives for. After meeting with represents of various provinces in China he thanks them for coming to the meeting and shares with them some of his thoughts on the meaning of revolution. His words are very profound and they struck close to my own beliefs about radical social change.
Some spoilers ahead for those who haven't seen the film. What Sun Yat Sen says in the meeting is manifested in the streets around him. The bodyguards who initially volunteer to protect the leader during his short stay in Hong Kong end up protecting a double instead. They do not know this, but they fight and die to protect someone who is pretending to be Sun Yat Sen in order to buy the real Sen the time to safely have his meeting. They bleed and die in the streets for something, we are shown that it is important, that it is good, that it is part of some larger and very important plan. But are each brave bodyguard falls, and on the screen near their corpse flashes their year of birth and death and home province, you cannot help but feel how pointless it was. How even if we know they died for something important, there is still such a nothingness to it. Although they did die for something, they literally died for nothing. They died protecting someone who was only important in this movement, because he could die for it!
Ten years ago Qu-yun and I discussed “the revolution.”
I said: revolution will bring prosperity to 400 million countrymen and put an end to hunger and poverty.
Ten years have passed, I saw many comrades sacrifice their lives.
My exile ended; here I am again.
“Revolution” no longer has the same meaning for me.
Today if you asked me, ‘What is revolution?’
I would say: A nation cannot progress without sacrifice. The road to modernization is paved with blood.
And that blood, is called revolution.
The bodyguards of the film are the blood which Sun Yat Sen talks about. Revolution is not some paradise, but it is the willingness to accept the violence that is necessary in order to change a society.
But, even if we stray away from the explicit bloodiness of this particular mention, the message remains the same. Revolution is not something which can ever be planned out ahead of time. It is not something for which there can be a map ahead of time, because the nature of revolution is a break in the normal, a break in the given. It is something which creates a vortex of chaos and uncertainty in order to create the means for something hopefully different to emerge. There is not revolution with some form of metaphoric or symbolic or physical violence, it is literally the force which tears the fabric of a society and creates the possibility for it to be rewoven in a new design. If everything can be planned out ahead of time, then nothing new can actually happen. The inherent indeterminancy or danger, the risk involved in revolution is necessary, it is the most important part. Without it you have reform, you have a general reproduction of the hegemonic order, and the illusion of movement.
As I wrote in my article "Acts of Decolonization" which is supposed to be published in the volume Sovereign Acts sometime this coming year. The power of a revolutionary act is also its risk and its danger. That combination is what gives it its power. In my article I discusses this in terms of Nasion Chamoru and their early stages of activism where they transgressed numerous perceived norms of Chamorro and Guam society and ended up reshaping it in some radical (albeit unintended) ways
The actions of the members of Nasion Chamoru, in jumping the fence and in spitting on the police officer, were not protected by the symbolic network. There was no insurance for them within what was considered to be the current socio/political order. By taking on these actions, they took on a potential social death, but by doing so were able to trace the movement of pure drive which constitutes and obliterates all attempts at symbolization and meaning. For a moment, they stood at the center of the symbolic network, and forced a reworking of the symbolic in the wake of their Act. In essence, they "enact[ed] the impossible, namely what appears impossible within the co-ordinates f the existing socio-symbolic order."
Interestingly enough, this discussion of revolutions actually reminds me of a song and video from the comedy group The Lonely Island, which is famous for the songs/videos "I'm on a Boat!" "I Just Had Sex" and "Jizz in My Pants." The song I am thinking of is "Boombox" which tells the tale of a boombox which seems to have magical powers as the singer takes it to different places and blasts it. At a whitewashed country club, he plays the boombox and all "the old white people" start dancing. In the middle of dirty and gritty New York City, the playing of the boombox creates "a rainbow coalition of dancing." In the final scene, the boombox is taken to an old folks home where the people there are listless and being taken advantage of by the orderlies. The singer flips on the "turbo base" and the unexpected happens. Instead of getting up and dancing like everyone else, the old people begin to "f**k like rabbits" because "the music was way too powerful."
Many people seek revolutions in order to achieve the sort of changes we see in the first two verses of the song. The first which transforms the oppressors into tools or objects of the revolution. The second which takes a diverse and antagonistic group of peoples and transforms them into a coalition, revolutionary movement or force. In fact, that second possibility is the dream of so many would-be revolutionaries. The seeking of some way that people can at last become united. Even smaller interventions are meant to take on these two tasks. To confront and challenge and subvert or to unite people, to bring them together. But, although people hope for the power that both of these acts might represent, they live in fear of the third verse. The possibility that everything could get away from you, that you might open up pandora's box, or in the case of the song, you might open up Marvin Gaye's Let's Get it On Box. There is always that fear that nothing that you have hoped for will happen and that you may be repulsed by what you accomplish, that it could all "be disgusting to say the least."
In truth, no matter what you accomplish, whether your efforts do indeed revolutionize things or not, the sea of oversexed old people from the "Boombox" song, like the sea of blood from Bodyguards and Assassins will always be present. It will always be there in some shape or form. The question is always, is one willing to put up with the possibility of your efforts becoming twisted into something grotesque and unrecognizable to attempt to realize some greater dream? Are you willing to use your revolutionary boombox to try to unite the people, even if it might lead to an outbreak of old people having sex? If you aren't willing to accept this risk, then what you end up with is revolution without the revolution. You end up with just noise. It may feel more comforting since it doesn't risk much, but it only feels that way, because it changes nothing.