Castells :: The Power of Identity :: (Part II)

1 05 2009

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.

Communicative Capitalism :: Complicating Networked Resistance

1 05 2009

Since settling on the rhetoric of social movements–specifically the impact of digital communication structures on social movements and their dissemination and articulation of persuasive messages–as my scholarly field of focus, I’ve been honing my skeptical eye.  After reading so many articles that express a naïve joy about the use of information communication technologies (ICTs) in confronting the ruling powers, about how Web 2.0 is ushering in a revival of democracy, I’m wary of any argument that too eagerly posits technology as that last tool collective resistance needs to achieve its variegated goals.  Lurking in my thoughts through all these readings was a simple, nasty, “Bah.”


Now, “Bah,” is as reductive as it gets; thus, it’s hardly satisfying, let alone adequate after a few utterances.  Which is why I must express some gratitude to Jodi Dean and her article, “Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics,” from the book, Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times.  It comes at the perfect time.

Dean’s main claim is that ICTs, our globally networked communication structures, aren’t exactly helping in bringing radical change to neo-liberal capitalism.  Actually, they’re hindering. “The proliferation, distribution, acceleration, and intensification of communicative access and opportunity,” Dean writes, “far from enhancing democratic governance or resistance, results in precisely the opposite, the postpolitical formation of communicative capitalism” (102).

This is, of course, speaking “on the whole.”  We can point to plenty of examples where ICTs were instrumental in mobilizing large amounts of people, several in a remarkably short amount of time.  Just look to the recent show put on in Moldova, organized in large part through Twitter.  But while we should never downplay these occurrences or shy away from attempting to find powerful theories and terminology that help explain them, neither should we valorize them unnecessarily or lump all technological use by actors of resistance together.  Dean’s article is not addressing this use of ICTs in mobilizing people; indeed, she points to it as solid grounds on which to disagree with her article.  But, she still questions, if  “such instances of intense social meaning will drive larger organizational efforts and contribute to the formation of political solidarities with more duration” (119).

Dean’s argument is structured around the debunking of fantasies/fallacies, two of which I’ll outline here:

The Fantasy of Abundance:  Lots and lots of stuff (opinions, polemics, statistics, etc.) on the net = Democratic potential.  To debunk this, Dean contends that there’s been a shift from “message” to “contribution” and now the exchange value of a message is more important than the use value.  Phrased differently, what’s important is not that messages are being understood and responded to, as much as the fact that they contribute to the constantly enlarging steam of content.  For Dean, messages lose their specificity in communicative capitalism; stripped of their singularity, their “contexts of action and application” (107), they simply become part of a massive data flow.  It’s not that messages aren’t important, as I read her argument—it’s that the circulation of them is more important, so much that it overshadows the message itself.  Of course, the easy counter-claim is to point out that high circulation is because of the message’s importance.  What Dean is driving at, I think, is that there’s too much reliance on the high circulation = active change equivalence, coupled with a vague fetishization of circulation itself.

The Fantasy of Participation: A key point here is that the Net displaces political activity.  Struggles of everyday life are moved to a virtual sphere, obviating push to organize at street level.  Because we feel like posting a blog (like this one) is participation, political energy is redirected, or perhaps distracted, away from “real” organizing.  Here, too, Dean’s argument hinges on the “boots on the ground” dilemma, as she notes that “Internet politics” can remain solely at that level without translating over to street mobilization (cf. Dean campaign of 2000).  We feel like we’re participating, but it’s a protected space, containable, predictable, etc.

This issue spills out over the issue of digital communication, even though Dean doesn’t explicitly state it.  Ontologizing the political, she astutely notes, has worked to foreclose the political, collapsing “the very symbolic space necessary for politicization, a space between object and its representation, its ability to stand for something beyond itself” (114).  Because everything is political, the real politicization that’s needed for change gets divested of energy.  Because file-sharing is political in itself, the larger context in which it operates is forgotten.

At the end Dean contends that, “Even as globally networked communications provide tools and terrains of struggle, they make political change more difficult—and more necessary—than ever before” (119).  What makes me nervous, of course, is precisely this course of passivity with the conviction of active resistance.  As Zizek writes, “You think you are active, while your true position, as embodied in the fetish, is passive” (The Plague of Fantasies 21).

A New Subjectivity is Being Produced

24 04 2009

A few days ago the IMF released a report that claimed the world was in recession.  The news was delivered on the same day as the curious celebration of “Earth Day,” a well-intentioned but problematic event.  So symbolizes the dominant threads of thought in this hour of our species: the interlocked and always competing aspects of environmental awareness and sustainability and an capitalist economy.



Now, you may be anticipating a tangent on how an economy based on perpetual growth is by definition unsustainable.  And, as Derrick Jensen has insightfully pointed out over and over again, it’s stupid.  And immoral.  And stupid.

Or perhaps you’re ready for a rousing rant on how we should be paying very close attention, even as land-locked midwesterners, to phytoplankton levels (once they go, we go).

But instead I’m using this news to frame a very brief outline of Jason Read’s recent article in Foucault Studies, “A Geneology of Homo-Economicus: Neoliberalism and the Production of Subjectivity.”  With a global economy in crisis, a population skeptical of government and bank representatives reassuring us that everything is going to be just fine, and the increasingly obvious plight of the planet’s health, I contend that we’re at a juncture where a new subjectivity is being formed.

While many may hear Foucault and think of his famous works on disciplining technologies or the governing of sexuality, Read picks up on a lesser known Foucault.  In his College de France lectures in the late ’70s, Foucault explores neo-liberalism under the title, The Birth of Biopolitics.  In these lectures, Foucault claims that the key element that distinguishes liberalism from neo-liberalism is the switch of emphasis from exchange to competition.

Of course, the rationalities of exchange figure prominently in both classical and neo liberalisms, sharing at its base the idea of “homo economicus,” where every individual is, as Foucault puts it, “an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself” (Birth 226).  But as Read notes, in neo-liberalism we have the move from a “‘homo economicus’ as an exchanging creature to a competitive creature, or rather as a creature whose tendency to compete must be fostered” (28).  Put more accurately, individuals are encouraged to think in these terms of the market; there is a production of subjectivity, in short, that privileges rationalities governed by the logic of the market.  In asking every one to think of themselves as entrepreneurs, companies of one, the distinctions between “worker” and “capitalist” are at the very least blurred and at the most entirely collapsed, producing new forms of subjectivity.

As a mode of governmentality, neoliberalism operates on interest, desires, and aspirations rather than through rights and obligations; it does not directly mark the body, as sovereign power, or even curtail actions, as disciplinary power; rather, it acts on the conditions of actions.  Thus, neoliberal governmentality follows a general trajectory of intenstification. This trajectory follows a fundamental paradox; as power becomes  less restrictive, less corporeal, it also becomes more intense, saturating the field of actions, and possible actions. 29

Quick example: Someone gets a beautiful sleeve tatoo on their arm and the general response is, “Won’t that limit your job prospects?”

“It is not the structure of the economy that is extended across society,” Read writes, “but the subject of economic thinking, its implicit anthropology” (32).  Constant strategizing of economic self-interest perverts collective relations.  Indeed, what capitalism destroys is our ability to sustain healthy collective relations.  As Wendy Brown puts it in her book, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics, “The model neoliberal citizen is one who strategizes for her or himself among various social, political, and economic options, not one who strives with others to alter or organize these options” (43).

In framing the argument this way, the work that needs to be done is understanding the production of subjectivities and identities in neoliberalism, to combat a society comprised entirely of self-interested individuals.  Neoliberalism, as Read understands Foucault to say, “operates less on actions, directly curtailing them, then on the condition and effects of actions, on the sense of possibility” (36).

These claims at once raise the stakes of understanding the possibilites for collective action in a digitally connected, neo-liberal world, and make it immensely more difficult.  But, as I mentioned at the beginning, the powers that produce neo-liberal subjectivities are in crisis and being vigorously questioned.  The combination of environmental devastation (it’s estimated that 3 species of plant and animal life go extinct every hour) and a global economic downturn may open up the possibility for critique and the production of new subjectivities, where life and relationships are prioritized over profit.

Castells :: The Power of Identity :: (Part I)

19 04 2009

It’s been a rich week for thinking about social movements and identity construction.  In addition to my first exposure to the writings of Manual Castells, I spent a good portion of the week with the work of Jason Read, who visited Ohio State for a lecture and seminar.

There is considerable overlap between the two in regards to their fields of inquiry.  Both are interested in identity construction, particularly collective identity, in an age of globalization, a term denoting extreme connectivity in the structures of communication and the nearly unmitigated expansion of capitalism.  In this time of massive restructuring of our social and economic relations, the search is on for an explanation of how people mobilize under shared conditions of belonging.  Castells is writing in the later half of the 1990s, exploring the elements of what he calls the network society, characterized “by the flexibility and instability of work, and the individualization of labor [and] a pervasive, interconnected, and diversified media system” (1).  413mnbjrwbl_sl500_aa240_Read is equally interested in these issues, though he frames the debate through different terms.  He notes in The Micro-Politics of Capital, “Capitalism must simultaneously develop the flexibility, cooperative networks, and potentiality of the subjectivity of labor while at the same time reducing the possibility for conflict and antagonism” (17).  The economic conditions that foster a flexibility and instability of work and individualization of labor is for Read none other than neo-liberalism.

His interest in identity construction, one could say, is focused more on the conditions that allow for its instantiation than any specific, historically contextualized formations, like Castells.  Read is exploring capitalism’s production of subjectivity; in other words, he’s theorizing on how the economy produces a particular logic in its participating subjects and produces certain tastes, 9781405107136 desires, and conceptual modes of problem solving.  While Read’s work is mostly theory, interspersed with powerful examples from everyday practice, Castells first chapter of The Power of Identity is focused on practice, observing social movements and their origins in various contexts as a foundation for theorizing the network society.

Beginning with Islamic fundamentalism, Castells then sketches out its close cousin, American Christian fundamentalism; he follows this with a discussion of the Soviet Union and Catalan, making distinctions between Nation and State and the implications they hold for understanding identity construction through nationalism, finishing with some reflections on ethnicity and localized territory as factors in identity construction.  Castells argues that the cases of fundamentalism are in response to and symptomatic of a network society that is “shaking institutions, transforming cultures” (2), creating the sense of “an increasingly unpredictable and uncontrollable life” (27).  Although he doesn’t use the term postmodern, Castells continually characterizes our age by the fragmentation  of identity, where traditional roots of meaning-making are being “twisted, divided, reprocessed, mixed [and] differentially stigmatized or rewarded, according to a new logic of informationalization/globalization of cultures and economies that makes symbolic composites out of blurred identities” (59).  Sounds like postmodernity to me.

While I have great respect for the methodology of Castells (he is “communicating theory by analyzing practice” (3) and will not allow himself to go down a path of endless abstract theorizing (12)), and I found his historical genealogies impressive, I’m much more interested in the theoretical insights his study has to offer.  To extract some of the conceptual models that seem useful I will outline here some of his terminology and main claims.

First, Castells separates out identity from roles, or role-sets, but acknowledges the obvious connection between the two.  Roles, like “being” a student, a smoker, a bike messenger, or a Freemason, for example, are sources of identity construction, but their “relative weight in influencing people’s behavior depend upon negotiations and arrangements between individuals … institutions and organizations” (7).  Identities, sources of meaning constructed through the process of individuation that are given priority over other sources of meaning, are much “stronger sources of meaning than roles” (7).  By this I take Castells to mean that societal roles do not operate under the “hypodermic needle” theory, where the meanings attached to a certain role are directly and completely injected into a  person’s identity.  As he puts it succinctly, “identities organize the meaning while roles organize the functions” (7).

In a trialectic worth sketching out, Castells proposes three forms and origins of identity building:

  • Legitimizing identity: A set of logic and meaning introduced and propagated by the ruling powers, in order to rationalize, reproduce, and expand existing rule.
  • Resistance identity: Constructed in response to devaluation and stigmatization; where social actors build “trenches of resistance” in opposition to the ruling norm.  This formation leads to communes or communities of resistance.
  • Project identity: the construction of a “new identity that redefines their position in society and, by doing so, seek the transformation of overall social structure” (8).

Obviously, there is traffic across these zones of distinction.  Project identities can be seen as when resistance identities, as Castells puts it, “move out of the trenches.”  I am particularly interested in this movement from resistance to project: where a fundamentally defensive (or resistive) identity, framed largely in terms of dominant system simply by its oppositional stance, becomes fundamentally productive of new values, new meanings.  In modernity, Castells claims, project identities were born out civil society; in contrast, in the network society, they are constituted communal resistance.  Legitimizing identity, he argues, is in a state of crisis.

I’m only 70 pages in to The Power of Identity, but I’m eager to hear more of what he has to say about the movement between resistance and project identities.  This shift, as I see it, is perhaps the most central question of activism of the past ten years.  At the Battle of Seattle the mantra was, “Another world is possible.”  A decade later in London the chant remains; but what that political alternative looks has gained little consensus.

In the next post I’ll attempt a brief sketch of some of Read’s claims against this backdrop of Castells.

Setting the Stage (part II) :: Social Movements & ICTs :: The Basics

13 04 2009

The study of the intersections of social movement rhetoric and digital media isn’t the easiest task, no doubt in large part because what a social movement is exactly remains rather elusive.  Definitions that establish a set of criteria to be met are often too rigid to encompass the range of action that is actually happening on the street; such is the fate of earlier social movement scholarship, which set parameters more around what they understood than what was emerging.  More refined definitions are cautious, offering disclaimers and reservations, or defining in the negative: by describing what it’s not.  Here’s how the editors of Cyberprotest: New Media, Citizens and Social Movements put it:

As stated time and again in and beyond this volume, these [social movements] tend to be fuzzy and fluid phenomena often without clear boundaries.  Although they may include formal organizations as components, on the whole they are not an organization.  A social movement typically lacks membership forms, statutes, chairpersons, and the like.  It may expand or shrink considerably over relatively short periods of time, and exhibit phases of visibility and latency.  Also, unlike political parties, social movements may have significant overlaps with other movements.  Moreover, a social movement may quickly change its forms, strategy, tactics, and even some of its goals.  In sum, a social movement is a ‘moving target’, difficult to observe.  3

They rightly continue on to observe that there is organization within this chaos—often a multiplicity of overlapping organizational forms: “This structure, however, is not an organization but a network, or even a network of networks, that both rests on a maintains a sense of collective identity” (3).  With much of the digital innovations over the past ten years focused on connecting networks with other networks, it should come as no surprise that there is an “elective affinity” (to borrow a term from Max Weber) between digital communication technology and social movements.

In approaching these complex set of interactions, the introduction glosses some established methodologies:

Resource Mobilization:

  • This approach highlights the processes and ability of social movement organizations’ leadership to gather and distribute resources such as labor power (which includes time, skill sets, brute strength, etc.), money, and information.  Resource mobilization, however, often overshadow aspects of the communication interplay of social movements, because of its focus on the organizational structure, and as a result, only the communication within an organization; furthermore, it often only examines that internal communication with a lens to see how it mobilizes resources, consequently eliding its impact on areas such as identity and ideology.  Thus, we might say that it focuses on a particular micro set to the detriment of the larger macro issues and “the structural setting in which social movements act” (9).

Political Opportunity:

  • While aligned with resource mobilization in its positioning of social movement actors as “rational and instrumentally oriented”—in contrast to social behaviorist models that posit actors in social movements as irrational and lacking clear goals—political opportunity approaches center the attention on external relations of communication, departing from the internal focus of RM.  Here the attention is drawn to how movements communication issues broadly, across media structures, or to authorities and/or opponents.  As the pendulum swings the other way (towards the macro), however, there is a neglect of the “concrete communication and mobilization processes that underlie direct action” (10).

Ideology/Identity/ Persuasion:

  • The editors seem to choose this broad banner to identify the various methods that focus less on organizational structure and more on the expressive, persuasion-oriented practices of social movements.  The dominant model with this spectrum is “Framing,” which comes from sociology studies.  This discursive strategy identifies the perceptions that are trying to be changed and evaluate persuasive appeals based on those.  I believe that with this approach offers the bets opportunity for bridging the micro and macro is sensible and productive ways.

The introduction to Cyberprotest finishes by outlining some of the main issues that social movement scholars must pay attention to with the increased reliance of digital tools, that although rather obvious, are good to list nevertheless:

  • Use of information communication technologies (ICTs) to circumvent mass media outlets; information can be distributed both internally and externally to large audiences at a low cost and without the interference of the established media.
  • Forges alliances between organizations, linking issues together sometimes in the process.

Throughout this post I’ve used the term “social movement” without making any reference to which contemporary movements are operating today: What is the most dominant social movement?  The Green movement?  The anti-globalization movement?  And how might we interrogate its status as a “movement?”  To put us on that track we might turn to the recent rabble-raising that took place in London . . .

Bridging Micro and Macro :: Setting the Stage

6 04 2009

I am interested in thresholds.  I am interested in critical masses, tipping points, decisive moments.  More specifically, I’m interested in the rhetorical strategies used to move people to action, particularly the action that many refer to as activism, or the direct action taken to bring about significant shifts in the social and political way of life.

A quick story might help contextualize what I’m after with my studies.

Derrick Jensen, the most brilliant eco-philosopher alive today in my opinion, will often tell the story of how he came to use the word apocalypse.  I’ve heard him relay the tale in his lectures, but he’s recently recorded it in his two-volume book, Endgame:

A few years ago I began to feel pretty apocalyptic.  But I hesitated to use that work, in part because of those drawings I’ve seen of crazy penitents carrying ‘The End is Near’ signs, and in part because of the power of the word itself.  Apocalypse.  I didn’t want to use it lightly.

But then a friend and fellow activist said, ‘What will it take for you to finally call it an apocalypse?  The death of the salmonGlobal warming?  The ozone hole?  The reduction of the krill populations off Antarctica by 90 percent, the turning of the sea off San Diego into a dead zone, the same for the Gulf of Mexico?  How about the end of the great coral reefs? The extirpation of two hundred species per day?  Four hundred?  Six hundred?  Give me a specific threshold, Derrick, a specific point at which you’ll use that word’ (3).

This is the question I want to ask people everyday.  What’s your threshold?  What would/will it take to put you in a mental state where collective action against those that steal, exploit, or destroy the very things that make your life possible (air, water, food) is perhaps not just necessary, but the only conceivable ethical option?

There are, of course, a thousand different ways to ask such a question, framing it at various levels of engagement and with different focuses; for me, the questions will always be centered on the communicative process—the rhetorical strategies and structures—that are in play with these issues.  For example, what persuades someone who purchases organic groceries to actively fight industrial farming?   What persuades someone to move along the scale of activism?

And with that comes this week’s question: what forms of persuasion are occurring in the process of those smaller practices becoming common enough that they tip over into a much larger collective action?  Put differently, what connects micro-political practices to macro-political movements?  What processes of persuasion are occurring along that scale of micro to macro (in either direction)?

Oliver Marchart asks the same question in his essay, “Bridging the Micro-Macro Gap: Is There Such a Thing as a Post-subcultural Politics?”  “What criteria,” he asks, have to be met by micro-practices in order to ‘go macro’? Do we need a new concept of ‘organization’? Can there be a subcultural politics of pure particularism or does it take a dimension of universalism?’

Marchart begins by debunking what he sees as a heroism myth that dominates subcultures and those who study them academically.  While others have certainly critiqued the narrative of “co-optation,” it’s still necessary to do so, and Marchart does it swiftly and with eloquence.  I say that it’s still necessary becasue there are still plenty of folks (punks, activists, liberals) who believe they can “drop-out” of capitalism in many ways and narratives of “selling out” continue to proliferate.  In this set-up, a subculture is designated as “authentic” to the degree that it remains unappropriated by the mainstream.  The group or set of practices remains heroic in relation to how much it resists commodification and recuperation.  Marchart notes that this narrative of the process of subculture’s incorporation into the mainstream construes “subcultures as some sort of substance–noise from the viewpoint of the dominant system, and the precedes any cooptation by the latter” (author’s emphasis 87).

This myth is used to show how the “defending of micro-political practices eo ipso” obviates any move to the macro-political, since those micro-practices are always already political, “simply by virture of resisting cooptation” (88).  Some theorists laud this indirect, style-driven form of dissent and its oblique challenge to exploitative powers.  Not Marchart, for sure.  And I have some pretty serious reservations about it, too.  Who has time to take direct action when one is busy looking like they’re constantly dissenting?  (This also becomes an issue, as we shall see in later posts, when dealing with internet cultures of protest.)

Much of postmodernism and cultural studies in particular has done excellent–and needed–work in revealing the political nature of our everday acts.  The cultural and the political have been blurred for some time now.  But you can see where this may stunt the move to macro action: if we’re always already political, how do we judge a scale of action?   I agree with Marchart that, “What is needed today is an analysis of the passage between culture and macro-politics, that is, an analysis of the process of ‘becoming macro'” (90).  We’re missing an understanding of the links between everday life and organized, collective action, especially with regard to the communicative process.  So we must ask, is an answer to be found in the micro-politics of everyday life or in the marco-political movements of collective will and deep structural and cultural reorganization?  Where do we start in attempting to make sense of this line between micro and macro; and what role do information communication technologies play in the communication process of this movement between micro and macro?

Marchart lists four preconditions for the passage of micro going macro:

1) A situation of explicit antagonization;

2) The emergence of a collectivity;

3) The function of organization;

4) A movement towards universalization.

So, for Marchart, what is necessary is a swing towards the macro, a recognition that as long as resistance to hegemony remains at the level of symbolic rituals of the micro-political, we’re in trouble.  Only when these tactics form a collective will they become politicized.  Despite using a term like micro-political, Marchart argues there is no politics of the individual; politics is collective.  And that is why he argues for theorization to begin at macro-levels.

A few points of reflection:

* While I’m in agreement with Marchart that collective action is the only option for deep, systemic change towards a more sustainable and sane way of life (a culture that produces the means to destroy itself ten times over has certainly lain waste to a considerable part of its sanity).  However, I’m not sure why this means we must start our thinking at the macro level.  Although I’m sure he would answer this question if he had space beyond a small essay in an edited anthology, I’m still not convinced as to why the answer dictates the point of departure.  There are also seems to be a bit of fallacy of the excluded middle here: why choose sides?  If the goal is to illustrate the line between micro and macro more forcefully, why not approach it from a myriad of directions?

* Marchart’s list might provide a good structure for the next post, which will begin to outline some of the issues we will have to deal with when bringing in the changes that digital communication structures have brought to formation and functioning of social movements.  Information communication technologies (ICTs) have obvious implications for the emergence of collectivities and the functioning of organizations–and certianly movements towards universalizations.  For that post, I’ll turn towards Cyberprotest: New Media, Citizens and Social Movements.

* The mention of movement towards universalization has me intrigued and nervous in equal measures.  The intersections between globalization, ICTs, and social movements are complex and non-totalizing, but I remain hesitant to accept “movements towards universalization,” precisely because I don’t want a different culture to replace this one, I want 10,000 cultures to replace it.

Anti-Genealogy as Methodology ~

15 07 2008

I’m intrigued by Deleuze and Guattari insisting so often that the rhizome is the anti-genealogy. If we do indeed read it as a methodology of critical inquiry (as I think is clearly one of their intentions) then we come head to head with a number of critical projects that profess the opposite as the their method. Most notably, of course, are Foucault’s genealogical studies, coming out of the Nietzschean vein (though Nietzsche is much more in line with Deleuze and his notion of constant “becoming” than Foucault is). But for some reason I’m thinking of Kevin DeLuca’s (fantastic) book, Image Politics. His methodology is drawing heavily upon a blend of Laclau & Mouffe with McGee’s ideograph. DeLuca traces (“trace” is a very much a no-no word to D & G) the term “progress” through a sequence of texts, mostly focusing on how radical environmental groups (once again, Earth First! is in the academic spotlight) are attempting to shift the meaning behind that ideograph, and how they approach it as a rhetorical challenge.

I’m intrigued if only because I seem to simultaneously agree with both methodologies. DeLuca’s approach, I think, is systematic without being dogmatic and yields excellent results for the rhetorical study of social movements. However, at the same time, I can see the impulse to force the movements into a Tree-like/Single-Root metaphorical model – precisely what D & G warn against. As the anti-genealogy, rhizomatic approach suggests, how Earth First! operates and came to be is much more messier than what’s presented in DeLuca’s text.

But a crucial point that’s easy to pass over: The dualism they set up between Rhizome/Tree & Tracing/Map is that it’s purposely false and in the end, quite compatible The rhizome can integrate the tree and maps can integrate tracings:

It is a question of method: the tracing should always be put back on the map … the tracing has already translated the map into an image; it has already transformed the rhizome into roots and radicles. It has organized, stabilized, neutralized the multiplicities according the axes of signifiance and subjectification belonging to it. It has generated, structuralized the rhizome, and when it thinks it is reproducing something else it is in fact only reproducing itself. That is why the tracing is so dangerous. It injects redundancies and propagates them (13).

And again, a bit further along:

The important point is that the root-tree and canal-rhizome are not two opposed models: the first operates as a transcendent model and tracing, even if it engenders its own escapes; the second operates as an immanent process that overturns the model and outlines a map, even if it constitutes its own hierarchies, even if it gives rise to a despotic channel (20).

So in the case of Image Politics, we must take DeLuca’s findings and put them back into the teeming mass of activist networks in order for the tracing to gain it true contextual import.  Not exactly sure what this would look like as a piece of scholarship, but I’m going to mull on it and see what I come up with.  Like D & G say, “Plug the tracings back into the map, connect the roots or trees back up with the rhizome” (14).  Or a bit later when they’re even more explicit in their language about collectives: “[S]how at what point in the rhizome there form phenomena of massification, bureaucracy, leadership, fascization, etc., which lines nevertheless survive, if only underground, continuing to make rhizome in the shadows” (14).

Apart from being an exquisite literary sentence, I think D & G are offering something there that will ultimately be productive for explaining how activist networks function (globally perhaps?).

I’ve been stumbling around the first chapter of a book by an Australian Professor of Criminology—Deleuze and Environmental Damage.  He outlines in meticulous fashion how forcing various conceptual and discursive sets into a “tree” model (which he calls a “monolith” model) and the dualistic (dialectical?) thinking it engenders can lead to disastrous results:

The problems with modernist conceptions of environmental damage are twofold.  Firstly, there has been a tendency to write the ‘causes’ of environmental problems in monolithic fashion – the irresponsible consumer monolith under liberal ecology, the capitalist monolith under ecomarxism, the patriarchal monolith under ecofeminism, the hierarchical monolith under deep ecology, and the domination monolith under social ecology.

The (unintended) consequence of these monoliths has been the proliferation of precisely the kinds of configurations and dichotomies that have long underpinned the processes of environmental damage and its discursive production.  Configurations such as: ecologically benign policies versus irresponsible citizens; economically powerful owners of the means and forces of production versus environmentally conscious but powerless labourers; ecologically destructive men versus environmentally mindful women; ecologically damaging humans versus ecologically benign nonhumans; humans as creatures of domination versus Nature as symbiotic entity: (35). {Hasley, Mark. Deleuze and Environmental Damage: Violence of the Text. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2006

More on this later.  Perhaps after a revisiting of DeLuca’s Image Politics (since it is indeed based of a binary methodology, but a post-structuralist, post-modern Derridean account).

Unity through . . . Rhizome?

15 07 2008

So yesterday we had the first meeting of “Schizophrenic Summer”, a Deleuze and Guattari reading group. We have a wonderfully diverse crew, from undergraduate to PhD, with disciplines ranging from Geography to Film, Rhetoric to Comparative Studies. We began with the introductions to What is Philosophy? and A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

Having just written about the rhetoric surrounding “activist unity,” reading the rhizome chapter through that lens was fascinating. Why so? Simple: Deleuze and Guattari detest the drive to make everything a unity. To plot a center-point, they suggest, is the first step towards misunderstanding something that functions rhizomatically. And if we read the current range of activist networks and groups as a web that functions and expands rhizomatically, we may not only learn more about how activism functions rhetorically, but we may be taking steps towards redefining success in activism.

So what does it mean when one says, “It’s like a rhizome”?

A few crucial quotes from A Thousand Plateaus, broken up into some categories:

Rhizome VS. Tree:

  • “Any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order” (7).
  • “A rhizome may be broken, shattered at any given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines” (9).
  • “Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of the rhizome is that it always has multiple entryways” (12).
  • “Thought is not arborescent … Many people have a tree growing in their heads, but the brain itself is much more a grass than a tree” (15).
  • “Arborescent systems are hierarchical systems with centers of signifiance and subjectification, central automata like organized memories. In corresponding models, an element only receives information from a higher unit, and only receives a subjective affection along preestablished paths” (16).
  • “Such is the principle of roots-trees, or their outcome: the radicle solution, the structure of Power” (17)
  • “The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance. The tree imposes the verb ‘to be,’ but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, ‘and … and … and …’ This conjunction carries enough force to shake and uproot the verb ‘to be’” (25).

• Unlike a tree …

  • A rhizome’s “traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states.”
  • “It is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion. It has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle.”
  • “Unlike a structure, which is defined by a set of points and positions, with binary relations between the points and biunivocal relationships between the positions, the rhizome is made only of lines.”
  • “The rhizome is not the object of reproduction: neither external reproduction as image-tree nor internal reproduction as tree-structure.”
  • “The rhizome is acentered, non-hierarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automaton, defined solely by a circulation of states.”

Methodologically Speaking:

  • “A method of the rhizome type, on the contrary, can analyze language only by decentering it onto other registers” (8).
  • “Transversal communications between different lines scramble the genealogical trees. Always look for the molecular, or even submolecular, particle with which we are allied … The rhizome is the anti-genealogy” (11).
  • “[E]stablish a logic of the AND, overthrow ontology, do away with foundations, nullify endings and beginnings” (24).


  • “Multiplicities are rhizomatic … There is no unity to serve as a pivot in the object, or to divide the subject … Puppet strings, as a rhizome or multiplicity, are tied not to the supposed will of an artist or puppeteer but to a multiplicity of nerve fibers” (8).
  • “Unity always operates in an empty dimension supplementary to that of the system considered (overcoding). The point is that a rhizome or multiplicity never allows itself to be overcoded” (9).

Collectives / Assemblages:

  • “An assemblage is precisely this increase in the dimensions of a multiplicity that necessarily changes in nature as it expands its connections. There are not points or positions in a rhizome, such as those found in a structure, tree, or root. There are only lines” (8).
  • “To these centered systems [are contrasted] finite networks of automata in which communication runs from any neighbor to any other, the stems or channels do not preexist, and all individuals are interchangeable, defined only by their state at a given moment—such that the local operations are coordinated and the final, global result synchronized without a central agency” (17).

Problems with forcing a tree/root metaphor on things that don’t function that way:

  • “[They] do not reach the abstract machine that connects a language to the semantic and pragmatic contents of statements, to collective assemblages of enunciation, to a whole micropolitics of the social field” (7). {Note to self: explore what “collective assemblages of enunciation” means from a rhetoric of social movements standpoint}
  • “The State’s pretension to be a world order, and to root man” (24). {Insert Bush Sr.’s quote on New World Order here}

Identification and Unification ~

11 07 2008

There’s a quote that has been haunting me the past few weeks. I received it in a late-night text message from a friend of mine in Brooklyn, a few hours after a conversation we had about the weaknesses of various activist projects. It’s a Brian Eno quote; he produced several Talking Heads albums and is therefore very, very cool. Anyway, here’s what he said:

There are many possible futures and only one status-quo; that’s why conservatives appear as if they all agree and the radicals will always argue.’

So often I see right-wing pundits point to the fissures and altercations between reformist collectives as a reason why they’re weak or simply wrong (just flip on any episode of Tucker Carlson to see this tiresome argument played out relentlessly). “Unity = Strength” is no doubt the underlying assumption being spoken here.

This same argument is also pitched frequently by activists — something like, “If only we could all get on the same page we could make some real headway.” Take for instance the otherwise excellent article by Marilyn Cooper on environmentalism in an age of hegemonic politics, where she essentially argues that if groups like Earth First! and The Nature Conservatory could find more middle ground, the consequences could really move environmentalism along in the right direction (this is reductive of her argument, but not by much).

Of course I would agree that there is a certain strength in unity, whether it’s a physical group of people or a particular attitude of mind. What I’m interested in is how it’s used as an argument either for or against activist collectives. Especially, given my reading today, how this argument and its attendant assumptions plays out among individual identity formation.

Here’s the quote that spurred this post:

Opening discourse to the theoretical critique rejected by Foucault and, to an extent, Althusser, [Laclau] maintains that, while the black, feminist, gay, and ethnic social movements properly defend their separate interests or their political independence, each movement must construct equivalent ideals establishing a new hegemonic bloc because what establishes identity is contextual oppostitions, antagonisms, or exclusions, not essences or transcendent selves.

I gather from this quote that Laclau and Mouffe, coming out the Gramscian line, see the New Social Movements (NSM) as a productive step in fighting oppressive living conditions, but they must unify into a “hegemonic bloc” in order to be effective. In other words, all the marginalized groups must come together as one large marginalized unit. (I mention Gramsci because Laclau and Mouffe agree that hegemony is not something that can be destroyed and simply done away with — rather, it’s just a matter of which hegemony is ruling.)

But what might this mean for the various idenitification processes of individual activists? While the suggestions almost always seem to refer strictly to the collective conscious (Greenpeace as an organization must show solidarity with Earth First! as another environmental collective, even if they differ sharply in their philosophies and tactics), is it implied that the same indentification must take place on an individual level? Is Laclau (and all others that use this argument, whether Post-Marxist or not) suggesting that the marginalized pro-queer activist must build “equivalent ideals” with individuals of the Black Nationalist Movement? What do these equivalent ideals look like? What type of discourses might sustain the connections that Laclau & Mouffe want to see borne out?

And now I’m wondering if our modern digital communication structures open new doors for this possibility (at the same time, I’m not necessarily endorsing this as the best route to take). The NSM took root just slightly before text-messaging, instant-messaging, and e-mail became pervasive and fundamentally changed the way activist networks function.

Hmmm . . . more on this later . . .

First musings ~

10 07 2008

This site got off to a slow start, but work is indeed happening behind the scenes. Right now I’m simply getting a foundation in what the term “historical materialism” refers to and why its had such an impact in scholarship (especially given the relative dearth of primary writings by Marx on the subject).

My goal in the beginning is to simply outline several of the major tenets of historical materialism. But first I’d like to quickly say why I’m chasing after Marx and historical materialism:

Why Marx?

Like Anthony Giddens, I believe that Marx’s analysis of the mechanisms of a capitalist society “remains the necessary core of any attempt to come to terms with the massive transformations that have swept through the world since the eigtheenth century” (A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism). Even though there are many times we must move beyond Marx in our critiques, his theories provide more explanatory power than I’ve been able to find elsewhere.

Also, it would be impossible to profess any knowledge on the rhetoric of social movements without having a solid foundation in Marxist thought. His writings have spurred more collective action than any other secular thinker.

Why historical materialism?

Strangely, in our overwhelmingly materialist society, we’re pretty ignorant of the processes those very materials go through from beginning to end.

By that I simply mean that although we prize material objects first and foremost as the indicators of success in our society, we remain dangeously unaware of the ‘how’ of these objects — and even more importantly, the ‘why’ for these particular means of life. This is no doubt because someone profits off us not knowing, or because we ourselves profit off of pretending not to know.

This claim is easily proved by simply taking a look around your house. Start with your food. Then your clothes. Where was the food you purchased grown? Who grew it? Who profits from it? How did it arrive in your kitchen? Where was your shirt sewn? (I just checked mine: Korea) Did the person who sewed it get paid adequately and fairly for their labor? Again, who profits from that shirt?

I, of course, am interested in the rhetorical practices that help shape and develop these productive forces. What type of communication takes place that keeps such an obviously exploitative system as ours afloat? What type of communication is needed to bring down this exploitative system and what rhetorical strategies are needed in the process of replacing it with something more sustainable, sane, and humane?

Historical materialism seems to me like an extremely viable model for scholarly inquiry because it attaches the specific and particular to the abstract and theoretical. As an empirical theory of history, it offers some guidelines on how to explore and explain the way humans collectively develop their means to live and the various patterns of distribution and exchange.

Another reason (and surely more will be added to this list) for studying historical materialism is its emphasis on praxis–the fusion of theory and practice into everyday life. The stress laid on the practical raises my heartrate; perhaps because I feel so strongly that we need more scholars writing with practical change for their readership in mind. Regardless of my personal beliefs, I’ll end this post with a great section from Nathan Rotenstreich’s Basic Problems of Marx’s Philosophy that explains, in part, the synthesis that took part for Marx to reach the methodology now known as historical materialism:

Marx rejected materialism ‘up to now,’ because it lacked a practical side. He rejected idealism because the active side in it appeared only from the point of view of abstract Spirit. He urged a synthesis that would integrate sensuousness as projected by materialism and activity as projected by idealism. The actual practice of the actual man, therefore, because central to his system. Practice is the practice of a natural creature–as distinguished from and opposed to an abstract creature–who creates actual objects. Marx himself established this synthetic position. His theory was given two names: naturalism, which brought into prominence the natural side, or the domain of the natural-real-sensuous in which his theory was gounded; and humanism, which brought into prominence not nature external to man and the world of things subsuming man but man himself. Naturalism and humanism were, according to Marx, to be distinguished from both materialism and idealism, although they continued to be the unifying factors fo these two contending philosophical streams. The actual expression of this synthesis was the new view, which in its later development was called historical materialism.