Revolutionary Time: First Thoughts on a Concept

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Melissa Rosario who is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology at Bowdoin College. Melissa is a cultural anthropologist interested in the politics of autonomy for Caribbean peoples and marginalized U.S. groups, particularly Puerto Ricans. She is currently writing a book tentatively titled Revolutionary Time: A Treatise on the Cultural Logics of Resistance in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.]

These days, I have been thinking a lot about revolution. Names of places—Ayotzinapa, Ferguson, Staten Island—now immediately trigger an affective response in me as evidence of the unbroken chain of state repression against black and brown and indigenous bodies. I don’t want to rehash all the extremely apt analyses of all that has remained the same—women’s bodies remain marginal to our collective outrage; the prison industrial complex operates as the new Jim Crow; we are waking up to the violence of the status quo; there is an ironic distance between Obama’s position on Mexico as a uncivil state who must be held responsible for killing innocent youth while remaining silent on the murders of unarmed black youth—but rather to think about what has changed. To do that, we have to turn to the mass mobilizations themselves, the creative responses, the emotional outcry and think about how they move us towards another way of imagining our present predicament and our collective future. As a Diasporican and scholar of the Caribbean, I know that others have been spending their time trying to unthink concepts like revolution and sovereignty. While I agree that the way we understand these concepts need to be redefined, I want to push us in another direction, and ask, what might it mean to reclaim them through communal presence even amidst today’s radical uncertainty?

This riff is a collection of first thoughts on the concept of what I call revolutionary time. I started playing with this idea in 2010, when I was in Puerto Rico doing research on antiprivatization struggles on the island. I arrived in 2009, just after then Governor Luis Fortuño passed an emergency law that authorized an austerity plan for the island, laying off thousands of workers, reducing the funds given to the public university by approximately 25%. These moves led to a truly radical moment: marked by mass protests as well as a sense of dissatisfaction with politics as usual. While a large scale general strike never materialized, these events helped catalyze the first system-wide strike in the University of Puerto Rico. This was a belated “coincidence,” that led many (myself included) to experience an embodied sense of political possibility—a revolution—that made intentional intimate politics a viable avenue for protest and transformation.

These witnessing-experiences led me to the idea that revolution is ultimately a temporal project: one that requires a continual practice of delinking from systemic logics—of recognizing ultimately that both linear and cyclical understandings of time are insufficient for achieving liberation. I am not only positing that we think of revolution in a more holistic way but also that we see it as a practice of unfixing the future from a knowable thing to malleable thing.

I’ve been ruminating over the truth of my own claims about what makes a revolution. 2010 was in many ways, a more hopeful moment. And yet, the current conjuncture seems to be providing us with a less naïve, and more robust revolutionary time. I am physically dislocated from the epicenters of protests, but even from here—temporarily housed in the whitest state in the country—I can feel something shifting. Both in the negative sense—the perfunctory grand jury process has become contentious, the difference between corrupt state and extrainstitutional forms of power are untenable—we are now inhabiting the ruins of our past possibilities, only thinly veiled by a postracial narrative propped up by a stubborn belief in individualism and the symbolism of the first black president. But I can feel changes in a positive sense too—in the images being shared of the marches, take overs of streets/highways/bridges, enacting symbolic spaces of social deaths that help protestors to reflect on and feel blackness as a zone of nonbeing. These are practices that not only signal resistance, they help us to remember what is always in danger of being forgotten. We know this is wrong. We feel it in our bodies. And this knowledge itself appears to be a great possibility and potential vehicle for healing.

I think that as scholars, we must reject the pessimism that normally shapes our analysis. We need to become vehicles for other visions being crafted in the streets. The better we are at paying attention to these subtle signs, to cultivating compassion for ourselves and our feelings, the better we will be at facing those that tear us apart with their blind acceptance of the status quo.

We need a revolution capable of healing our wounds. We can and should rage. We can and should reject calls for peace that are meant to pacify us, that are meant to keep us off the streets. But we also must recognize that battle is an untenable position in the long run. What I want to call for is an exploration of tools for staying present to the vastly unjust realities that we inhabit while we envision new ones. Like song. Like the altar for the 42 still missing in Ayotzinapa, composed of empty chairs and candles on a basketball court outside the school.

I am especially inspired by the queer Black and Latina feminists healing artists who are leading us towards healing justice.   Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ reminder that we C(h)ant.Breathe Black feminist visions to make space for more of us to breathe and to burn up this rage. We breathe together, or not at all.

This Thursday, December 18, I invite you to join the healing justice movement. Many radical healers will donate all proceeds generated on this day to the Black Lives Matter Ferguson Bail and Support Fund. If you want to donate yourself, click here. To find healers in your area, click here.

Whether you participate or not, I encourage you to reflect on what it might mean to find a sense of ease in your daily resistances—knowing that these practices, when paired with collective forms of action are already anchoring a new vision of interbeing into our present(s) and future(s).



Carole McGranahan

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

One thought on “Revolutionary Time: First Thoughts on a Concept

  1. I am not only positing that we think of revolution in a more holistic way but also that we see it as a practice of unfixing the future from a knowable thing to malleable thing.


    Coming at this statement from a position tangential to the main thrust of your argument, I note that one could easily substitute “marketing,” “design,” or “strategy” for “revolution,” and the statement would still ring true. Serendipitously, I am pondering time and times in relation to my research on the advertising world in Japan. Back in 1995, I wrote an article titled “Malinowski, Magic and Advertising: On Choosing Metaphor,” in which I observed that while advertising has much in common with ritual, the common element in magic and religion, it is different in one vital way. Ritual may vary in practice but is committed in principle to repetition of established forms. Advertising may be imitative but is, instead, committed in principle to “something new.” Or, as you have so nicely put it, unfixing the future and making it malleable.

    I note, moreover, that what you say about revolution is consistent with what Zygmunt Bauman calls “liquid modernity” and Grant McCracken’s description of consumer culture as a space where “meaning flows.”

    Your focus is revolution. Your analysis points straight to the heart of our contemporary predicament and central issues it poses for anthropological theory.

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