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On Not Televising The Revolution

January 14, 2015

The importance of media–both “traditional broadcast” and new media–in the Egyptian revolution and other revolutionary activities of the last four years is often framed as having refuted Gil Scott-Heron’s performance poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

But it doesn’t. Not really.

A friend recently sent me a short article about Scott-Heron which led me to actually listen to his performance of the poem for the first time in years.

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is not about the technology, but about content. It was about what was on television in the 1960s and 1970s as the Civil Rights movement was getting underway.  It contrasts the commodified worlds of desire, and the pablum of television shows–including supposedly “ground breaking” shows like Julia–with the idea of struggle and sacrifice.

In other words, the revolution is not a commercially-sponsored TV show you can switch on and off for your viewing pleasure. You have to live the revolution.

That’s not the message many of us are using Scott-Heron’s phrase to convey when we write about the Egyptian Revolution.

Catchphrase and Revolution

Before we had memes, we had catchphrases.

The idea of a catchphrase is that it arrests your attention, and is extremely memorable, while capturing some essential message of the discourse of which it is a part. Commercials have catch phrases, and do do poems.

Revolutions often get their catch phrases from poetry and protest songs.

And these catch phrases continue to do work in their original meaning. The boy in Ferguson who shouted “the revolution will not be televised” was, through this phrase, linking Ferguson to the larger Civil Rights movement.

But he was also calling on people to resist the seductions of television’s seductive view of the world: seeing President Obama on TV doesn’t mean the revolution is over. The rise of Oprah Winfrey to billionaire status by selling a kindler, gentler world view to mostly white audiences does not mean the revolution is won. The emergence of Black sex symbols, box office superstars and icons of global pop music does not mean the revolution is won.

I think Gil Scott-Heron would recognize, and applaud, this use of his slogan.

Catchphrase and Commentary

But would he approve of the ways many of us are using the phrase in scholarship, journalism and commentary?

One of the things about catch phrases is that as they travel their range of meanings accumulates. People appropriate the catch phrase, transform it, and use it as they wish to evoke meaning in new contexts.

In the wake of the global rise in protest activity since 2011, and the widespread use of social media as tools in those protests, the imagination of scholars and journalists is caught by Scott-Heron’s juxtaposition of revolution and media. And so they use the phrase, or variations of it, as titles for their speculations on the roles media play in revolutionary, or potentially revolutionary social change in ways often quite removed from the meanings Scott-Heron’s poem had in its original contexts.

The Egyptian Revolution, for example,  is often ironically contrasted with “the revolution will not be televised” because, of course, that particular revolution was televised, and very thoroughly so, in spite of powerful efforts by the Mubarak regime to suppress it.

And then there are these:

  • In his now famous New Yorker column “Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” Malcolm Gladwell made the point that Internet apps and platforms, from Facebook to Twitter, weren’t really tools of revolution because they increased participation but not motivation, and because they are good at creating networks but not hierarchies. Historically, he argues, revolutions have been won by highly motivated people working in hierarchical organizations under charismatic leadership.
  • And in “The Revolution Will Not Be InstagrammedForeign Policy blogger Alexa Oleson points out that China simply eliminates apps as they come to be used to communicate protests–most recently the disappearance of Instagram because it had become one of the most widely used apps by protesters in Hong Kong.
  • The very tools that help mobilize social movements as diverse as Occupy and the Tea Party, such as blogs and Twitter, actually create contexts that undermine the production of protest songs like those of Gill Scott-Heron, says Sean Kate in “The Revolution Will Not Be Available on iTunes.
  • In a freewheeling post on the difference between data, information and knowledge, “the Revolution Will Not Be In Open Data,” Duncan Edwards from the Institute of Development Studies says, “Heron’s point, which holds true today, was that “’the revolution’ or change, starts in the head.”
  • Even before the Egyptian Uprising, the authors in Tara Brabazon’s book The Revolution Will Not Abe Downloaded argued that the digital divide between rich and poor meant that most of those who needed revolution were unlikely to be able to use the Internet to create one.
  • And in “The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged,” Mother Jones columnist George Packer, back in 2004 wrote, “the blog documents, comments, and participates.” It does not, he argues, create social change.

Many of these are very far from the original meanings of Scott-Heron’s poem indeed.

Origin and Intent

Origin and authorial intent do not determine the meanings of signs, but they do serve as an interesting starting place for analysis of how signs move through time and space and acquire new potential meanings. This is, as best I can learn from articles about the man, the story of how Gil Scott-Heron came to write this poem:

In Spring 1970 Scott-Heron and some friends were watching TV in one of the dorms at Lincoln University, where he was a student, when a news report came on about a demonstration. The newscaster was commenting on how few people took part.

Scott Heron reportedly said, “People ought to get out there and do something; the revolution won’t be televised.” And one of his friiends said, “You ought to write that down.”

As he began writing possible lyrics for the poem in his notebook, Scott-Heron started paying more attention to what was being shown on television, especially the deviously persuasive power of ads for everything from gasoline to toilet-bowl cleaners.

He was particularly taken by the contrast between the commercials and the occasional  footage of the demonstrations in the streets.  The commercials, and the socially and politically disconnected entertainment, were a dramatic contrast with the actual demonstrations. Yet the appropriation of the demonstration footage into news programs, interspersed with cheery advertisements, transformed news of these protest activities into just more entertainment.

The revolution was happening on the streets, he thought, not in the news, not in the sitcoms, and not on the commercials. And with that in mind, he penned the poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

References

Brabazon, Tara, Ed. 2008. The Revolution Will Not Be Downloaded: Dissent in the digital age. Oxford: Chandos.

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