Monday, November 14, 2011

Can a Big Thing be Subversive?

I was doing the Veterans Day shift, when a young man asked me if I didn't think the locking down of Harvard Yard was "subversive."  The question sounded odd; and I wondered, "Why does this question sound odd."  It was the word "subversive,"  which, in academia usually has a positive value.   Note these titles of academic articles and books:
Das entfremdete Subjektsubversive psychoanalytische Denkanstösse bei Lacan und Derrida
LinkA subversive voice in China : the fictional world of Mo Yan
Unvarnishing reality : subversive Russian and American cold war satire

In modern academic literature, "subversives" are the powerless chipping away at the Powers That Be.  They are intellectuals challenging received wisdom. They are avant-garde artists.  They are despised minority groups.
Probably this positive spin on "subversive" is a reaction to earlier (mostly conservative) uses of the word:

LinkGuide to subversive organizations and publications (and appendix)

Subversive activities control act of 1950. Report ... Eighty-fourth Congress, first session

Interim report of the Special commission established to study and investigate communism and subversive activities and related matters in the Commonwealth. April 26, 1955. [Appendix A ... Resolve reviving and continuing the Special commission ... until February 1, 1956.

Subversion in racial unrest, an outline of a strategic weapon to destroy the governments of Louisiana and the United States. Public hearings, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, March 6-9, 1957

The web of subversion; underground networks in the U. S. Government..

However, in both cases we are talking about small subverting large.  Small communist cells would be slowly subverting the whole United States.  So, can a big thing subvert a small thing?  There's nothing in the definition of subvert to suggest that size is important.  So I suppose the question was not odd.

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