I’m in the midst of grading student essays that respond to the challenge of defining either activism/activist, social movement(s), or documentary (the film genre). Not an easy task. Especially when their teacher continually destabilizes the terms without mercy. To the point that he can’t quite respond with any coherent definition of his own.
Perhaps this is why I’m intrigued by Manual Castell’s approach to social movement definition, which is essentially to sidestep all generalization and focus on the particularities of each movement. He is adamant that social movements be “understood on their own terms: namely, they are what they say they are. Their practices (and foremost their discursive practices) are their self-definition” (original emphasis 70). In effect, Castells is releasing himself from the duty of definition, but for the purpose of placing attention on the movements in all their distinct singularity (his case studies include the Zapatistas, the “Patriot Movement” of American militias, and the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo).
But while it’s clear that Castells wants to avoid the typical trappings of social movement scholarship (an admirable move) he still has to fall back on some type of organizing structure, in this case adopted from Alain Touraine, a notable social movement scholar whose works remain largely untranslated to the English speaking world. Castells follows Touraine’s typology for identifying and researching social movements:
- 1) Identity
- 2) Adversary
- 3) Societal Goal (its vision)
Of course, the stakes are raised for using this typology in an age of decentralized, networked operations of resistance. Using this scaffolding, for instance, Castells notes that the adversary of the three movements mentioned is the “new global order.” Each specifies this new order in various ways, with Zapatistas highlighting NAFTA, but contextualizing it within the larger spread of capitalism, the militia focused on creeping Federal control, and Aum Shinrikyo emphasizing the multi-national corporations that are harbingers of a unified world government. The “new global order” may be more properly called neo-liberal capitalism, a sort of movement in its own right. Neo-liberalism, as mentioned before on this blog, is not just the modes of production of raw materials, but the production of subjectivity—the production of tastes, desires, and affects. This is a crucial factor to recall when we see that the “vision” of each of these movements is rather weak, because they are primarily defensive movement
What’s interesting about these movements is the reliance on ICTs for dissemination of their rhetoric, whether it’s recruitment or mission oriented. “Without the Internet, Fax, and alterantive media,” Castells notes, “the Patriots would not be an influential network, but a disconnected, powerless series of reactions. Without the communication capacity enabling the Zapatistas to reach urban Mexico, and the world, in real time, they may have remained an isolated, localized guerilla force, as many of those still fighting in Latin America” (107).
But while these movements are presenting obstacles, symbolically and physically, to neo-liberal capitalist expansion, we would do well to keep in mind that they’re using the very tools that facilitate that expansion. Now, I’m hardly of the mindset that one can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, an argument that for some reason quickly devolves into the non-violence/violence debate, but I am saying that scholars and activists remain vigilant about the use of ICTs by social movements. Nothing shocking here—just a reminder.