“Yes We Can” and The Politics of Transformation

The promise of transformation lurks around many corners this election season. Even when I turn on my television, I watch a show like Eli Stone and find transformational mythology at play. The main character has a brain aneurism that causes visions, and these visions change him. In the third episode, he proclaims himself to be “the new Eli.” When I was a teenager, I used to wake up every morning and likewise believe I was somehow “the new Jackie.” I would perceive that ideas and experiences of the previous day had transformed me completely. I am obviously not alone in this aspirational imagination. I see myself in the premise of Eli Stone. So must many others since that concept, that a momentary experience can transform a life, make a person new, has appeared in a variety of television shows, movies, songs, novels, you name it.

One small viral video likewise typifies this longing for transformation, the will.i.am music video, Yes We Can. This musical alteration of Barack Obama’s speech, itself a riff on Dolores Huerta‘s classic “Sí se puede,” promises change in the moment that we move to the ballot box and vote for Senator Obama. Parts fascism and Internet youth culture, the video moves us to conflate the solitary moment of a vote cast with instantaneous transformation into the change we seek.

In the language of Western Christianity, the longing for transformation has focused itself upon moments of conversion and apocalypse. These stories are not original or unique to the Christian tradition, but those Christian tales are among the most familiar. The myth of transformation has been encoded into the evangelical Christian term of “born again,” a play on John 3:7. Practitioners have often turned to the model of Saul riding to Tarsus, repeated three times in Acts (9, 22, and 26), though Paul in his own letters does not describe this particular transformation, nor does Paul allude to a name change. In Acts, Saul, a persecutor of the early Jesus movement, finds himself surrounded by heavenly light, and he falls to the ground. A voice then speaks to him, and in that moment he ceases to be Saul. Paul rides on to Damascus a changed man, striving as ardently for the Jesus movement as he had once worked against it.

Many are we who also find ourselves drawn to apocalypse, whose original Greek meaning is “revelation,” and not “the end of the world.” Yet the end of the world is bound up with that earth-shattering moment of understanding that the concept of apocalypse embodies. In critical theory, thinkers like Alain Badiou have become fascinated by “the event,” somehow another term for the apocalypse, the transformational revelatory experience, the event that is, in which things are changed and the world sees itself anew. Scholars of the Book of Revelation, like Adela Yarbro Collins and Jean-Pierre Ruiz have signaled that the liturgical practice of reading Revelation was meant to draw people into a ritual experience of communal revelation. The transformational experience of conversion/revelation/apocalypse tracks from Left Behind in Christian circles to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, and through to Eli Stone in broader culture.

Contemporary sociologists and psychologists who study conversion and scholars who study the mysticism that grows out of apocalyptic thought in Western traditions have long noted the simplified narrative of events contained within our popular retellings of mystical conversion. When we tell our life stories, even to ourselves, we create a narrative arc deeply informed by both the audience of our story and the people with whom we have surrounded ourselves. We tell our own stories, looking back, picking on that moment when we most see the seeds of whom we have become. We focus upon that moment because it makes a better story. Yet, that moment is not the only moment that really mattered. Tat-Siong Benny Liew’s recent querying of Asian American biblical hermeneutics lifts up the relationship between apocalypse and the practice of everyday life, and Liew reminds us that the transformational moment and the continuous exchanges of the everyday are not mutually exclusive. While apocalypse may give a vision of transformation, only the practices of the everyday make transformation possible.

Saul’s moment of transformation cannot have been just one moment. When we change communities and networks of friends and colleagues, we may have a moment we look to that signals a shift. Yet such a change is a long-term practice of socialization into a new community, even if the new community is so closely connected to the one in which we started. The mystical practices that lead one to revelation are likewise long-term. A practitioner can often find one moment that signals conversion and one moment that typifies the revelation that directed her/his life, but the moment is only part of a larger practice of life.

I find important lessons in Liew’s reflection, that transformation can be typified in a moment but only truly experienced in the long haul. Like many others of my generation and social location, I found myself drawn to Senator Obama precisely because of the hope of transformation. But those, like my own brother, who struggled against Senator Obama and in support of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton often did so because the politics of the transformational moment can feel empty if one does not grasp the politics of daily life needed to carry it forward. I felt Senator Obama had both, but watching the will.i.am video, it is easy for me to see how people like my brother can be wary of the promises of the moment. The empty feeling of that video is part of why I’m so fond of the mocking done in “john.he.is,” not for its mocking of John McCain, but rather of the original “Yes We Can” video.

The moment of the primary season’s end leaves me contemplative. My main hope, however, is for people like my brother and I to share both the transformational moment and the daily practice it demands as we move out of the Bush administration and, yes, I also hope, into another chapter in this nation’s history.

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