Is this news or….?

Nigel Farage - By Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Greece CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Nigel Farage – By Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Greece CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This morning I got a link to an article claiming that Nigel Farage (of all people) had applied for German citizenship following this summers Brexit vote. That he would do such a thing sounds somewhat absurd, seeing he has been fighting for Brexit for more than 20 years, and it has since been denied. But, my first reaction was not to think of it as absurd, it was “Is that news or satire?”. I genuinely could not tell, even after reading the article. This is happening to me more and more often lately, something utterly strange turns out to be true.Political developments have become unpredictable and I would not dream of saying something is impossible just because it sounds unbelievable, stupid or outright mad anymore. Brexit and the Columbians vote on their peace treaty are really just prominent examples. I have taken to watching Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, because somehow he manages to still clarify fact from fiction…. Seriously, watching satire to get the news?

Something called “fact-free politics” or “post-truth politics” has achieved a notoriety that has earned it its very own wikipedia article. Essentially the phenomenon means a kind of politics that appeals first and foremost to the emotions of people. Post-truth politics is said to be derived from communication habits developed through social media interaction and features prominently in the US Presidential Campaign. The trouble, of course, is, that just because it is factually wrong, it does not mean a political statement won’t be taken serious, I always have to consider every statement as true until…. Well, until when?

Discourse theory has taught us, that it matters what is said. And that things can become true by being said. Not because they are facts but because if everyone acts like they were true, the world will be like they were true. Discourse theory, however, never sufficiently explored how and why statements that are wrong in that they do not follow discursive rules (like appealing to certain speaker positions or relating to established discursive patterns) can gain traction. They shouldn’t be believed so easily.

I fear there is some deeper development at play here. The dawn of modernity came, when people realized that the world was not as is but made through the actions of people. It began with a select few but this sense has since extended to everyone, culminating in the belief, that everybody is the maker of their own fortune and one’s achievements are purely the result of effort and ability. Through these efforts we have created a world full of stuff that people just thirty years ago might have considered pure magic. My kids don’t flinch at the sight of a 3D-printer, they just shrug. Anything is possible. In a world, created through our own words and actions, down to its material substance, in which ever new developments make impossible things possible, how is one to distinguish the plausible from the implausible? Anything could be true. If we make it so.

That, however, is not the solution to the aforementioned morning problem, but the beginning. The trouble lies in the “If we make it so.” We used to be constrained by lack of technology, communication, knowledge. Like small children who simply lack the skills to light a candle or reach the knifes. They can do little permanent harm. It is when we learn to do more that we must learn to decide, what to do and when to do it. It seems to me, that the world has arrived at the stage, where we must learn to transition from trying everything and be amazed at our ability to just do it to deciding what it is we want to do. And this may even be less about reasserting ethics. I think about it like coming of age: the purpose of the teenage years is not (just) to learn to do the right thing, but to learn to decide who you want to be.  Like teenagers we drift, we don’t want to be tied down by choices. That is why we keep believing anything is possible and avoid the tough questions. fact free politics suggests to us that there is no limits, not even facts. We want it to be so, it is so.

We have the means to make a world to our liking. We have the means to destroy it. The whole spectrum of opportunity is infront of us. But not forever. It seems like we can ignore the facts of climate change, world poverty, war, technological change and no consequence results. Sometimes the facts come back to haunt us, sometimes they don’t. There is one fact, however, that we all must learn personally at some point and that the world will feel, too: Not making a choice does not leave all options open. It just makes the fading of opportunities follow a path you have not chosen. Of course, we could keep drifting and just see where it takes us. But I had much rather, we make decisions. We ask ourselves, who we want to be and then try to be that. Sure, we can fail. But it beats the feeling of realizing that we could have a built a great world but somehow missed the opportunity….And let’s be honest -  in an age of fact-free, why not dream?

The thing about doors

Actor-Network-Theory starts from the assumption that all the ways in which we have hithereto understood actors – as natural, social or constructed – are inadequate in an age in which technology plays such an important role (Latour 1996). Instead, Latour and others have suggested to think of humans and things as networks – or associations – which form an integrated whole. The argument is not, that they are the same. But the argument goes so far, I believe, to argue that there is no reasonable way to differentiate between the ways things and technologies shape the world an the way in which we humans do. In fact, they are so intermingled, that we can never attribute an action purely to one or the other. My personal favourite is the example of the door:

By robertsharp (originally posted to Flickr as Downing Street) CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

By robertsharp (originally posted to Flickr as Downing Street) CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Walls are a nice invention, but if there were no holes in them, there would be no way to get in or out; they would be mausoleums or tombs. The problem is that, if you make holes in the walls, anything and anyone can get in and out (bears, visitors, dust, rats, noise). So architects invented this hybrid: a hole-wall, often called a door, which, although common enough has always struck me as a miracle of technology. The cleverness of the invention hinges upon the hinge-pin: instead of driving a hole through walls with a sledge hammer gently push the door (I am supposing here that the lock has not been invented; this would over-complicate the already highly complex story of this door). Furthermore, and here is the real trick, once you have passed through the door, you do not have to find trowel and cement to rebuild the wall you have just destroyed; you simply push the door gently back (I ignore for now the added complication of the “pull” and “push” signs).” (Johnson 1988: 298)

The door, in other words, ‘acts’ in the sense that it is replacing and thereby transforming the action of biological and social actors. This effect may well be used to create certain behaviours – for example when hotel keys are given out with large heavy metal objects hanging from them to make people remember not to take them home…

So far, so simple. In a way, this kind of thinking is just one variation of the ways in which human-technology interaction has been described in Science and Technology Studies, the strand of sociology focusing on just such interactions. It comprises a broad spectrum of ideas, from more deterministic perspectives to the favouring of social construction. However, ANT has its own distinct perspective. We must rethink any social actors ability to act and consider the ways in which we encounter technology that – in fact – acts upon us. To a reader pof Foucault, of course, this is no entirely alien idea. The panopticon may well be viewed as a a technological representation of the surveillance society. However, with Foucault that is as far as this goes. Latour (with Callon and others) goes further and asks us to consider society not as constituted by social actors but think instead of associations.

In a way this asks us to abandon the idea of a natural self. The individual is inseparable not just from the next individual or its social relations (as in constructivism), but also inseparable from the material objects that surround us. It is not so much that we are cyborgs but that we must acknowledge that our being cannot be understood unless we think of ourselves as part of associations of things and humans/animals. Our mobile phones are mediating and shaping our social interactions – and we would be different if they did not exists.

Of course, thinking of my phone as doing something rather than a tool is challenging and slightly disturbing. It has its charms, though. And the anthropomorhisms we use with regard to many technological objects are an indicator that the whole idea is not as counter-intuitive as one might suspect: Computers can have bad days, traffic lights have it in for you and the printer usually tries to screw you over just when that paper is due – like they knew. Surely, this does not mean that the theory is useful with regard to scientific analysis of social and political phenomena.

Latour’s analyses, interestingly, do not focus on current network technologies – he works with much simpler and seemingly antiquated examples. However, in one paper he addresses the issue of globalization and clarifies some things with regard to the ways in which ANT relates to the problems we look at in political science. He raises one question, that I find most interesting:

“Is space this inside which reside objects and subjects? Or is space one of the many connections made by objects and subjects?” (Latour 2009: 142)

What if we, as well as the world around us, were constituted by the connections we make? These connections would be spatial, social, material and temporal. They would make each one unique and at the same time make them only possible as part of a wider network of things and beings. I believe this networked understanding of the self opens many possibilities. Instead wrapping our head around a mutual constitution theme, we can then imagine how a complex process of self-construction would work – it is about making connections. However, this is a spatial metaphor and it remains to be seen, if different kinds of ties, e.g. temporal and emotional, between networked individuals are indeed better imaginable in the network metaphor.

The cyborg as imaginative resource

I have to admit, Donna Haraway‘s “Cyborg Manifesto” – despite its shortcomings – wows me every time I read it. I am not sure if it is the fact that this text – so eloquently describing changes that seem so very real today – was actually written in the 1980ies, when none of the things that seem to make us cyborgs today were part of everyone’s everyday life. Or it might be the sheer amount of different ideas brought together and interwoven, from science fiction to Marxism to feminist theory. Could be this text wows me because its style is so radically different from the usual academic writing, because it dares to speculate, antagonize and call for action. Or maybe, because it does all of those things at the same time. If I look closely, I find that the argument is not all that clear and some twists seem out of place to me. I am not always sure, there is even such a strong conclusion in there. However, this texts achieves what good political theory – in my humble opinion – is supposed to do: it provokes thought and triggers the imagination. In fact, it sends me down a spiral of exciting new thoughts whenever I return to it.

Haraway and companion, By Rusten Hogness, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Haraway and companion, By Rusten Hogness, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Haraway introduces the cyborg as what she calls “an imaginative resource” (292). The cyborg is an image that stands for embracing what Haraway identifies as three “crucial boundary breakdowns” of the contemporary world — between human and animal, between animal-human (organism) and machine, and between the physical and the non-physical (293/4). She suggests this image in order to launch a criticism of feminist discourse that questions its very basis – the idea that there is something about being a woman that naturally binds women. according to her there “is not even such a state as ‘being’ female” (295). The contemporary self, she argues, is fundamentally fractured. She asks then, “what kind of politics could embrace partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves and still be faithful, effective – and, ironically, socialist-feminist?” (297).  This is usually where I associate the Zapatistas and the peculiar way the Zapatista discourse manages to connect different struggles without levelling out the differences. Of course, their inspiring example also teaches us about the possible limitations.

Having tackled the concept of identity, Haraway goes on to question the postmodern conception of “biopolitics” and argues instead to think of the contemporary self as being constructed within the “informatics of domination”. This kind of domination works not through division and the imposition of categories but through permanently dissolving them, by blurring all distinctions and thereby disabling the crude (post-)modern tool of resistance – identification. Coding and information processing (rather than categorizing and subjectivation) are the ways in which this domination manifests itself. In its most advanced form it can eliminate the natural unity altogether – when in microlectronics there is copies without originals (303) or, as we would say, the digital copy is indistinguishable from the original. This is evident not just in purely digital environments but also, for example, in genetically ‘identical’ beings such as clons or identical twins where there is indeed differences inscribed in the genes themselves (Casselmann 2008). Even the genetic code of a living breathing person may change over the course of their life. In other words, coding always means recoding and there is never a wholly identical copy. The process of communication transforms all information and negates the possibility of complete identity.

Seven of Nine, a borg made from a human currently recoding as a human

Seven of Nine, a borg made from a human currently recoding as a human

The cyborg as a resource for political imagination – how does that work in the informatics of domination? Haraway draws on literature in order to give her answer. I have a “literary” cyborg of my own in mind. In the Start Trek universe there is a race called the Borg (clearly, not the most original of names). These Borg procreate by “assimilating” other species, making their “technological and biological distinctiveness” part of their collective consciousness. The Borg absorb difference and create a unified whole in which individual distinctions are denied in favour of a collective unity. They are awfully efficient and – needless to say – the ultimate villains of the liberal consciousness. In one installation of the franchise, a young female, designated Seven of Nine, (incidentally dressed in a very revealing costume for the rest of the series…) is “freed” from the collective. It turns out, however, that she cannot be fully re-transformed into a human – some cybernetic implants remain as well as – more importantly – many character traits. Throughout the series the character remains trapped between being Borg and being human, never fully emerging as one or the other. She struggles with defining and re-defing herself and there is no choice for her than to remain in between. Interestingly, the franchise offers many more of these characters – the robot “Data“, who looks so much like a human and interacts with humans like a human but lacks emotion like a radicalized version of a vulcan. The half-klingon B’Elanna. The holographic doctor with the complex personality subroutines. Outside the Startrek Universe we could consider the Terminator or Marvin, the paranoid android. If we think of their struggles not as ones that seek to cross the border between human and machine but rather as continuous struggles for acceptance of the lack of any clear boundary, we may find the inspiration Haraway sees in the image of the cyborg. Just like Seven of Nine can never be fully human nor return to be Borg, we may never be woman or man, German or European, white or black but only ever the something that struggles to cope with lack of clear distinction between these categories.

What sounds like a grim outlook may be the one strategies that alleviates the effects of the informatics of domination. As nothing is fixed, the domination is constantly challenged by the very mechanisms that maintain it. Resistance is not about overthrowing domination but about continuing to struggles along the lack of clear boundaries. It is about turning the struggle into the purpose. Maybe that is why Haraway ends on the optimistic note:

I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess. (316)

“We have to try and construct a better world…”

The movement called Zapatismo has a loaded symbolic significance in the context of global social movements. Somehow, this (largely unsuccessful) movement of indigenous people and failed Marxist revolutionaries in Mexico has inspired many an activist around the world (Khasnabish 2010). This is not, because the movement was so awfully effective or because their goals were so absolutely universal. I believe the reason is, that they captured what many felt needed to be done – to fight inequality and injustice through collective practices of the self.  Some argue, that in their approach new political spaces emerge and a new political culture is practiced (Dellacioppa 2009).

By Orianomada - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6488461

By Orianomada – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6488461

The example is worth considering because it gives some indication of the complexities that lie in resisting. In way, the Zapatista movement playfully enacts, what postmodern theory so elegantly disguises in bloomy language. In the Zapatista movement we see what it means to use techniques of the body in order to induce change. We learn how appropriation is at once a struggle and transformative for both sides. And we may learn about the limits of the strategies.

Let’s consider techniques of the body. The Zapatistas have been called a leaderless movement – but nor for lack of leadership. In fact, a person called “Subcommandante Marcos”, is widely considered to be a significant face of the movement. But it is a face behind a mask and his (her?) real identity was long unknown. Subcommandante Marcos is the symbolic representation of leadership, of the voice of the Zaptistas and it has long since become irrelevant to find out more about the person. Marcos is a constructed person with features – such as the mask – that make sure he (she?) could be anyone. Indeed, this is a reflection of a central idea of the movement – that all struggles for justice are related and that the individuals behind them are merely the diverse representations of these struggles. In hiding the face and creating anonymity, the road to identification for many different actors is opened.

Let’s consider appropriation. The Zaptista movement of the 199oies emerged out of an encounter between indigenous people and (failed) Marxist revolutionaries. Two worlds of ideas came together and merged in an unexpected way to form not so much an ideology as more an ongoing process of re-appropriation. Furthermore, new issues were taken up and appropriated in the process, which were dominant in neither indigenous societies nor capitalism and its Marxist critique. Khasnabish shows this in relation to the participation of women (Khasnabish 2010: 74 ff.). The process of reappropriation did not just allow dominant ideas to mingle, it made room for new ideas.

Most striking to me is the how this came about. It begins with a simple (?) redefinition of the self:

“It fell to the lowest citizens of this country to raise their heads, with dignity. [...] We cannot let ourselves be treated that way, and we have to try and construct a better world [...] This is what we want. [...] We have dignity, patriotism and we are demonstrating it.” (Subcommandante Marcos 2002 “Testimonies of the First Day”)

The Zapatistas decided to have dignity at the beginning of the struggle, they redefined themselves as acting subjects. They gained dignity by claiming it. It reminds me of a discussion on the 1989 revolution in East Germany a couple of years ago.

Plauen Oct. 30th, 1989

Plauen Oct. 30th, 1989

A participant asked one of the then-activists why they had suddenly begun to demonstrate, what had changed? And the activist said, that nothing had really changed, they had simply not been afraid anymore. She didn’t really know why the fear was gone, but it was and that changed everything. Should it be that easy? Maybe not. But it is worth debating, in how far the understanding of the self impacts the ability to act and if we cannot find ways in which this has had real life consequences.

In “Power and Imagination” I have argued that this, in fact is a very good appropriation of what (intransitive) power looks like in reality. But not calling it power, we are obscuring the importance. And, I believe, we are understating the limits of power. because this example also shows us clearly what these are. Clearly, the Zapatistas have not destroyed global capitalism nor has the East German revolution quite lead to the world people imagined. By any such measure these movements – just like Occupy, Podemos and so many others – remain unsuccessful. But should movements (and reconstructed selfs) be judged by how far they got? Maybe, power of this kind not ‘succeed’ in reaching ends (Arendt would certainly say so). Maybe the true “success” of these movements is not in the goals but in the change it enables within people. The sense of belonging and self-efficacy it creates. Maybe we should be looking for the places where these experiences resurface – as urban gardening initiatives, girls in schools in the Mexican jungle, new businesses, migration and the political imagination of new movements – which is where Khasnabish finds it.

This is the slightly revised version of a post prepared for the seminar blog “From subjects to cyborgs”.