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.

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 . . .