Pushing the Stone of Progress: Rebellion v. Reform


In the April 9th edition of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has a brilliant–and I mean brilliant–piece on the French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus. As a reader, timing is everything. And as a vegan advocate, so is perspective.

It happens that I read Gopnik’s article (twice) the night after giving a talk to a wonderful group of students at Augustana College–a small, liberal arts school in Sioux Falls, SD.  One of the issues that arose during my presentation was the difficulty of advocating a cause–veganism–that most people find alienating, unrealistic, threatening, and, much of the time, just plain bizarre.  And it’s on this point that Gopnik’s article spoke to me like an oracle.

“We are all Sisyphus,” writes Gopnik, analyzing Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Indeed, those who choose to defy convention are “condemned to roll our boulder uphill and then watch it roll back down for eternity, or at least until we die.” Nevertheless, as Gopnik explains, this fate need not provoke despair. “Learning to roll the boulder while keeping at least a half smile on your face,” he adds, isn’t such a bad idea. If you’re going to tell a bacon lover to avoid bacon, an uncompromising but joyful disposition–hell, even a sense of humor–only helps.

Gopnik next analyzes this quote from Camus’ The Rebel : “He who dedicates himself to the duration of his life, to the house he builds, to the dignity of mankind, dedicates himself to the earth and reaps from it the harvest that sows its seeds and sustains the world again and again. Finally, it is those who know how to rebel, at the appropriate moment, against history who really advance its interests.” (italics mine)

Heavy duty stuff, here. As an historian, I love the whole idea of rebelling against history. It’s one of the finest ideas I’ve ever contemplated.  After all, it’s history that we’ve inherited. History is the inevitable foundation over which we have no say–sort of like our parents–and its flaws happen to be unfathomable. To rebel against it demands a complete rebuttal, a radical rebuke of everything that time has etched in stone and deemed normal. It demands not a shift in perspective, but a shift in how we see.

Rebellion, of course, tends to parade as reform. But reform is boring. Reform takes a dirty speck of the past and polishes it into a shiny gem that casts a virtuous glow on the reformers. Most advocates of improving our broken food system are reformers. They do things like suggest purchasing animal products from small, non industrialized farms, failing to realize that, in making such a claim, they merely reify the problem they want to eliminate. This is not so much rebelling against history as cuddling up with it. That’s the last thing history needs, but exactly what it wants.

Having (as of about two years ago) decided to forget caring about what others might think about my ideas–that is, having decided to say exactly what I think–this observation from Gopnik inspired a little fist-pump for academic freedom: “It is in the nature of intellectual life–and part of its value–to gravitate toward the extreme alternative position, since that is usually the one most in need of articulation.” Ideas that exist between the extremes are being enacted everyday by all kinds of people. The fringes, though, need their sisyphian articulations.

Time creeps through history. To think any extreme alternative position will become popular in one’s lifetime is overly hopeful, I think. Seeing ideas translated into action is rewarding, but it shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of rebelling. Those who wanted their ideas to be put into action, writes Gopnik  (of Sartre), “didn’t think that ideas would actually alter life; he expected that life would go on more or less as it had in spite of them.”

Still, those ideas, once powerfully presented, wouldn’t vanish. There would always be “another chance to make them better.” The purpose of rebellion is thus to insure that future architects of change have better material with which to work. The bridge to betterment, the bridge that allows us to escape history–deserves at least that.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

4 Responses to Pushing the Stone of Progress: Rebellion v. Reform

  1. John says:

    The purpose of academic life should be to make rebellion against outmoded ideas acceptable. One might say Gopnik’s very dubious “genius” lies in essentially restating ideas Thomas Kuhn wrote about in the 50s and 60s as philosophy-lite which is more or less the stock in trade of the usual suspects such as the New Yorker, the Atlantic and the New York times all of which pander to neoliberal nation state views and essentially reinforce the status quo. Why doesn’t Deleuze rise from the grave to discuss real intellectual and social transformation when we need him in the francophiles at Conde Nast context? By the way, I think Gopnik once wrote he bought a puppy so in my worldview he is actually the person shoving the wedge in front of the rock Sisyphus to prevent us all from shoving the rock of transformation uphill.

  2. CQ says:

    My deep thanks to Albert Camus, Adam Gopnik and James McWilliams for validating rebellion, and for verifying that I am a full-out rebel, not a mere reformer. An uncompromisingly joyful one, at that. 🙂

    This is so beautifully articulated, I have nothing to add, except two thumbs, five stars, and numberless smiles.

  3. brian lindberg says:

    The human aspect of evolution is cultural, and necessity is (can be) obvious, so rather than the SIsyphean metaphor (though I find it to be powerfully relevant in my personal existence), I like to conceptualize what is sometimes apparently quixotic in the context of the “the drop which presages the monsoon”. Now isn’t that encouraging?

  4. I agree with CQ – this post was so well articulated and timely.

    I love the idea of rebelling not to necessarily change the present (a very tall order which in its immensity can lead to hopelessness), but in order to “insure that future architects of change have better material with which to work”.

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