Artifacts of Revolution

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There are moments in time when we know that something fundamental has changed.

Maybe a scientific discovery alters how we do medicine.

Maybe a subtle political shift portends shockwaves to come.

Maybe a new system upends the world order.

Before the action comes the idea. Some ideas find expression through words, others through art, and still others through objects in space. These artifacts help us begin to recognize the ways ideas persist and change. The questions prompted by them are both enduring and urgent. Students in Davidson’s Humanities program are contemplating artifacts that represent global seismic shifts. In these pages, humanities faculty bring to life artifacts that mark pivotal points in history.

Collage of images of the Bronze Horseman sculptureThe Bronze Horseman monument to Peter the Great looms large in St. Petersburg. The city’s founding father astride a rearing steed appears on everything from calendars and refrigerator magnets to candy bars and t-shirts. The image borders on kitsch. Busloads of tourists pause for photos by the monument as the occasional bridal party stops to leave flowers to the tsar. Vendors hawk their wares and, for a price, will take your photo alongside a baby bear. In summertime, at the height of White Nights, the square around the Bronze Horseman bustles with energy. But let’s pause for a moment. Step back. Contemplate Peter anew and wonder why we congregate here, on this relatively out-of-the way spot along the Neva river. What can this enigmatic monument, which has stoically observed 235 years of tumultuous Russian history, teach us?

What do we see when we contemplate the Bronze Horseman?: The bearskin saddle, the snake, the laurel crown, the competing Latin and Russian inscriptions, the “thunder rock” upon which it stands, the symbolism of the horse itself and whether Peter controls it. These details naturally lead us to investigate the monument’s historical and cultural context and relevance to perennial debates in Russia about whether Peter’s westernizing “revolution” represents a fatal wrong turn or the only path forward for the nation. We must consider the creation of the very concept of “West” by 18th century Enlightenment thinkers and Russia’s place in their cultural and political imaginations. The Bronze Horseman, by Russia’s national poet, Alexander Pushkin, helps us to appreciate how Russians see this image of Peter upon a rearing steed within a tradition of often apocalyptic imaginings about Russia’s destiny:

And in that steed what fire, what force!
Where are you galloping, proud horse,
And where will those hooves plunge and trample?
Fate’s mighty master! Was not this
How you, with curb of iron halting
Her flight, reined Russia back from vaulting
Into the bottomless abyss?
— John Dewey, Translation and Literature, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1998), p. 70.

Amanda Ewington, Professor and Chair of Russian Studies

Collage of vintage images of the Sanger Center, Women's Rights movement and generic birth control devicesThe path to legal birth control began with a single pamphlet—Margaret Sanger’s “Family Limitation” (1914). As a child from a family of 11 and a nurse providing care primarily on New York’s Lower East Side, Sanger witnessed the plight of poor women enduring frequent pregnancies and suffering from self-induced abortion. Believing that these women had the right to control their reproductive health, Sanger published a pamphlet that explained how to prevent pregnancy. The Comstock Law banned distribution of materials deemed to be obscene through the U.S. mail, but several hundred thousand copies of the pamphlet made their way into the world through the first family-planning and birth control clinic Sanger established in Brooklyn in 1916, as well as through networks of women at rallies and political meetings. The print revolution of the 16th century made Sanger’s and earlier texts available to the masses, including Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792). More widespread knowledge and acceptance of family planning methods laid the groundwork for the landmark 1965 Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut, which legalized birth control for married couples.

Anne Blue Wills, Associate Professor of Religious Studies

Collage with images from the film, Triumph of the Will.You may be forgiven for thinking this is Adolf Hitler. Photos like this still image from Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film, Triumph of the Will, documenting the Nazi party rally held in Nuremberg the year before, have become commonplace. Rarely is it acknowledged, however, that we are being presented a carefully constructed image designed to sway opinion and shape consciousness. What we see is how Hitler wanted to be seen. Viewed from an awe-inspiring low angle, Hitler appears as the one who descended from the heavens to save a people craving strong leadership, still mired in the Great Depression and still suffering from the “shameful dictate” that ended the Great War. The Führer’s resolve to lead Germany back to greatness is visible in his eyes, his ability to do so manifest in an outstretched arm that can split the clouds.

By viewing such an apotheosis uncritically, we run the risk of falling victim to Nazi propaganda. Unlike the personality cult following Lenin’s death, the Hitler cult was deliberately assembled, and systematically reinforced, throughout Hitler’s political career. In the young Leni Riefenstahl, the dictator had found his perfect image-maker—Triumph of the Will would remain the only film ever made about him in the Third Reich. Riefenstahl, for her part, would later insist to anyone who cared to listen that she had not made a propaganda film; that she had merely documented the event and accentuated its beauty. She would have employed the same artistic techniques, she claimed, had she been commissioned to make a film about fruits and vegetables. It is in settings like the Humanities course that we get to study the historical context and challenge her claims, but also to interrogate our own responses to this cultural artifact and ask whether we can separate aesthetic judgment from moral concerns.

Burkhard Henke, Professor of German Studies

Collage of images of the Berlin WallWhat do we need to know to understand the Berlin Wall? For an entire generation, the Wall exists not in their memories, and rarely in stories, but instead in photographs—thousands upon thousands of photographs.

So in order to understand the Wall we first have to understand how to look at photographs. To understand a photograph, Susan Sontag says, we need stories. We need context, actors, background, history. In her book On Photography (1977) Sontag, a leading critic, novelist, public intellectual and MacArthur Fellowship recipient, wrote from the early 1960s until her death in 2004 on everything from pop culture to illness (including her own). In Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), she wrote on how we see war, and the suffering it brings about, in photographs.

Sontag’s first series of essays presents a history of photography and makes the general claim that photography is about aesthetics—that photos provide a way of representing the world that prioritizes artifice, self-awareness, depersonalization and irony. We paid special attention to her analysis of the photos of Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Diane Arbus. But after Sontag realized her focus on aesthetics had nothing much useful to say about empathy, and how we see others suffer in images like this one, and how we become empathetic viewers, and how—just maybe—we may act on our empathy, she revised her earlier thinking.

“Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock,” she writes. “But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand.”

This is the story we need to understand Wolfgang Bera’s photo. Eighteen-year-old Peter Fechter attempted to cross the Wall in central Berlin on Aug. 17, 1962. East German border guards shot him. He lay moaning at the base of the Wall for two hours as he bled to death. The guards and police then carried his body away. And the world watched. Sontag might ask: Now what do we see, and what do we do?

Scott Denham, Charles A. Dana Professor of German Studies

Collage of images of Martin Luther King Jr and notes and typewritten copy of Letter From a Birmingham Jail.On Good Friday of 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama. On that same day, eight white clergymen of the city issued a statement condemning the peaceful demonstrations in Birmingham as “untimely.” The clergymen acknowledged that the demonstrators might feel some “natural impatience,” but advised them trust established judicial and political processes to redress their grievances. Instead of deferring to those processes, King responded at once. As soon as Easter weekend was over, and as soon as King’s attorneys could negotiate for him to have access to pen and paper, King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Handwritten on an advertising notepad, the surviving draft shows the intensity of King’s composition, with rearranged paragraphs on separate sheets. This touching artifact reflects a rush of inspiration and anticipates the briskly monosyllabic title of King’s book, Why We Can’t Wait.

Yet the finished “Letter” takes the time to map a range of cultural references: Hebrew scriptures, Gospels, and Epistles; Martin Luther and Martin Buber; Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Stearns Eliot; Jefferson and Lincoln; and, as befits King’s doctorate in philosophy, lots of Socrates. This formidable list might seem out of place in the urgency of an imprisoned man’s writing on behalf of an oppressed people. But by surveying some of the most important texts of the humanities, King can represent his movement as a culmination of the story told by these texts. That survey also makes clear that we have waited, across thousands of years, for profound ideals of human dignity to include each person.

Randy Ingram, Professor of English

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