Snap as Revolutionary Time

This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 15,  Revolution

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A REVOLUTION CAN REFER to the forcible overthrow of an existing regime. It can refer to a dramatic change to existing circumstances brought about by something or by a combination of things. When a revolution has happened we are no longer where we were before. A revolution can seem sudden; what was is not. Yet the word evolves from revolve: to turn back or roll back. A revolution can mean the time it takes for an object to orbit around a center. These meanings of revolution seem to be in tension; fast forward, a break from before; going back; going around.

My task is to hold on to these tensions, not to resolve them. Snap is a way of holding on. Why snap? A snap is the sound something makes when it breaks. Something snaps because it is under pressure. A snap happens after the pressure has reached a certain point. You can hear the sound of snap, but it is hard to notice pressure unless you are under it. A snap can sound like the start of something. But a snap would only be the start of something because of what we do not notice: the pressure on something that can break something.

When we snap, it might be that we speak in a certain way; we might snap at someone, break a bond with someone. Even this kind of snap can take time to reach. You might be in a relationship with someone who is violent. Relationships that are hard to endure can be hard to leave. You might have been told by a person that you are beneath that person; that you are worth nothing, that you are nothing. But there can be a point, a breaking point, when you can no longer put up with what had previously been endured. Something snaps; you snap. It can seem sudden. A refusal can appear to come out of nowhere. But a refusal comes from somewhere. Perhaps the slow time of bearing can only be ended by a sudden movement. Or perhaps the movement only seems sudden because we do not witness the slower times of bearing. If snap breaks with what came before, snap comes out because of what came before; going back as coming forward. Maybe in snap something or somebody spins off their axis, a revolution as how you no longer revolve around somebody or something.

See how she spins; out of control.

Snap seems here firmly embedded within a situation; snap as interpersonal. How do we get from a situation to a revolution? For an individual, a snap, that moment when she does not take it anymore can be experienced as revolution; snap as how an existing order is overthrown. Snap: a moment with a history. A moment can be a movement. Snap might be already implicated in how movements come about. Consider the Stonewall riots. In an interview with Eric Marcus conducted in 1989, Sylvia Rivera describes what happened on that day. Sylvia Rivera as a trans woman of color tends not to be remembered in how those events are remembered. She describes how that day was a day like any other day for those who gathered at the bar; those used to living with police violence; those for whom it was violence as usual. Rivera says: “This is what we learned to live with at that time. We had to live with it.” You learn to live with what makes it hard to live. You take it, knowing there will be more to take.

But something happens on that day. Something happens: you just don’t take it anymore. “We had to live with it until that day. And then, I don’t know if it was the customers or it was the police. It just [snaps fingers], everything clicked.” The snapping of fingers, that sound, snap, snap, allows Rivera to convey the sensation of things falling into place, when suddenly, though it only seems sudden from the outside, really it took a long time, a collective comes out with a “no,” a collective that is fragile, fabulous, full, and furious. She says: “Everybody just like, Why the fuck are we doin’ all this for? Oh, it was so exciting. It was like, Wow, we’re doing it. We’re doing it. We’re fucking their nerves.”

We can hear the sound of snap in listening to Rivera. You can hear how a snap can be catchy, igniting a crowd, passing from one to another. We can hear how you can be picked up by other peoples’ refusal. All those years of frustration, pain, all that is wearing, can come out, get out. It is electric, snap, snap; sizzle, so much comes out when you tip something over. To make snap part of how we tell the story of political movements is to show how exhaustion and rebellion can come from the same place. Attending to snap allows us to re-picture the revolutionary not as the upright agentic figure filled with capacity but as the one who is just plain exhausted. And yet, even when snap comes from sap, from being tired out, depleted, snap can reboot; snap can boost.

Snap that moment when the pressure has built up and tipped over, is revolting, a revolt against what we are asked to put up with. Snap here is not only about individual action, those moments when she does not take it anymore, when she reacts to what she has previously endured, though it includes those moments. A movement is necessary so a moment can happen, a moment when the violence comes out; spills out. A movement is necessary. Snap makes what is necessary possible.


Sara Ahmed is a feminist writer, scholar, and activist. She is the author of Willful Subjects (2014), On Being Included (2012), The Promise of Happiness (2010), and Queer Phenomenology (2011). Her most recent book is Living a Feminist Life (2017).