“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”.

The work of the imagination

Last week I re-read two texts for my class From Subjects to Cyborgs, Arjun Appadurai’s Modernity at Large and Jean-Francois Bayart’s Global Subjects. Both may be read as attempts at grasping the ways in which the production of subjectivity takes place in the global age. Bayart talks about the practices of appropriation (p. 209) at work. They are a paradox, in that they affirm and deny the techniques of domination. These practices often find, according

to Bayart, a realization in objects, i.e. merchandise, or spaces such as malls. Appadurai is quoted by Bayart as an example of an inherently optimistic view of the ways subjectivity is produced under conditions of globalization (p. 215). Modernity at Large is part of a debate that, indeed, was not primarily concerned with the darker aspects of globalization, made an effort to rehabilitate the concept of globalization as something that was more than mere increase of global commodity flows and financial interdependence. In chapter 9 of this essay collection Appadurai focuses on the ways in which local subjects are produced and produce locality, i.e. neighbourhoods. This production of locality underlies a similar paradox as Bayart’s practices of appropriation – neighbourhoods are context-providing as well as context-generative. They are produced by the practices of the subject.

Life in the minds of children by archanN CC-BY from Wikimedia Commons

Life in the minds of children by archanN CC-BY from Wikimedia Commons

A key role – and this goes for both texts – is played by something that Appadurai calls the “work of the imagination” (198). Appadurai details this further in an earlier chapter of his book. He introduces the work of the imagination as “a constitutive feature of modern subjectivity” (3) which in the past decades has become “a collective, social fact” (5). What does he mean by that? The ability to imagine is no longer just present in arts and myths, imagining is not merely a solitary and extraordinary activity but a prevalent and essential social skill. The modern world relies on imagination to reproduce itself – as the reality of the world is socially constructed. At the same time the relationship between ritualized and imaginative activities has become much more dynamic. The projective nature of imagination introduces a plurality of imagined worlds into the everyday life of ordinary people. The parallel existence of these multiple worlds is amplified by mass media and provokes resistance, irony, selectivity, and, in general, agency (7).

“The imagination is today a staging ground for action and not only escape.” (7)

Applying this argument to Bayart’s analysis provides an interesting perspective. Appropriation than appears as a creative activity in which the techniques of domination are translated into local and individual techniques of the body. Merchandise acquires meaning, places are created and maintained. In all these cases imagination is a collective, sometimes even social activity (211). This is why I have argued, imagination as a social skill has some stabilizing and some dynamic potential. In the end, the active, conscious use of the imagination may infer radical change while the passive and uncreative use of it serves to reproduce the existing. Imagination is more than mere fantasy, it is the ability to rearrange the elements of the world in novel and ingenious ways. Transcending the world not by denying it, but by re-interpreting it. this is why Appadurai is quite right in observing, that the escape of the imagination from the realm of arts to everyday life is quite significant.

As Bayart shows, however, there is no telling if imagination is used in ways which encourage critical engagement with what Bayart calls merchandise. A lot of the work of the imagination is about keeping the Global Subject coherent in a complex world. Maybe we could say, that as the traditional means of maintaining as sense of self, such as culture and tradition, come under pressure, imagination is employed in order to fill this gap. In a way, the imagination works for the social. However, maybe we could argue with Heidegger, that even if the imagination employed in order to maintain just one pattern of order – the social -, its existence will be known and that may, in th eend, be good for employing imagination in power as well.

Story telling as political theory

Political theory comes in many forms and variations. Currently it follows academic modes of speech, which focus on the analytical distinctions and a language which connects to academic discourses. But we don’t have to go far to see how it could be different. The writings of Foucault would hardly pass the hard muster of academic peer review as they often lack the clarity and structure expected of academic papers. So would Hannah Arendt’s and those of many others, who reference discourses with great knowledge yet not necessarily systematically. Political theory comes in many shapes and forms and always has.

Le Soldat en Semestre, by Sigmund Freudenberger, Public Domain

Le Soldat en Semestre, by Sigmund Freudenberger, Public Domain

Story telling has been one of the more prominent modes in which political theory was presented. It is easy to think of obvious examples such as Thomas More’s Utopia – which lead to the naming of a whole genre of political theory. At the juncture of theory and literature a number of author’s have used stories to reflect upon societal and political conditions. Remember Lilliput? Gulliver’s Travels may well be read as critique his contemporary society.

But fictional accounts are not the only way in which story telling matters in political theory. Drawing historical analogies may also be understood as a form of story telling. Machiavelli uses history in his arguments on good governing quite excessively. He tells stories of failed wars and titles won, of great strategies and bad luck. I believe, anyone who argues from historical experience in political theory, in a way, chooses to tell a certain story.

A third way of using stories turns out to be common: that of allegory or parable. This is a technique that tells neither a fictional story nor refers to historical arguments in a strict sense. Instead it constructs an artificial setting in order to make a certain point. Plato’s Cave Allegory is an example. But one could think of the use of parables in the bible in a similar manner. By telling a story such as that of the Good Samaritan certain moral and ethical values are illustrated and put in an easy to understand context (admittedly, doesn’t seem to have worked too well, but that’s true for Machiavelli too…).

In so far as political theory analyses and criticizes existing conditions and suggests how thinks might be differently, story telling can be a central tool. And there is some very obvious reasons why:

  • stories are easy to understand and to remember
  • good stories are interesting – people want to hear them
  • complex problems, when explained in form of a story, may be more easily seen in their complexity, because the also communicate an affective, emotional dimension that academic papers do not/ should not

Of course, there are also limitations – stories lack conceptual clarity and leave much to interpretation. But when it comes to political theory problems which touch upon people’s identities, fears, hopes or values, a good story may well help to navigate the complexities of the issue. That is one of the reasons why story telling of sorts has some repute even in contemporary academia. In particular sociology has recovered the art of story telling to play out the future effects of contemporary trends. Anthropology uses it to describe complex social interactions for example when retelling the way rituals are lived. In political science scenario development is used to explain how various changes today may impact the future.  All these attempts may be pursued as a subversive activity of developing a new narrative, a new way to see that which is there. When Foucault talks about the ways in which discourse may be subverted, he remains vague. I believe, that story telling – which allows the breaking of certain rules of truth and adequacy – may work as one way of subverting dominant discourse. This happens – for example  in this video:

Clearly, story telling is no cure all. But if it helped Thomas More condemn land crabbing and displacement of the poor as thievery, maybe it is a good tool today, too.

The proliferation of discourse

Clearly Foucault’s later writings, such as “The subject and power” and the “Technologies of the self” lend themselves more easily to an interpretation of Foucault as by no means opposed to the idea of an acting subject.* His earlier writings, which focused more on language and discourse, at first glance seem to negate such acting capacity for subjects. This aspect of Foucault’s thought may well be the most contested and has been the origin of such vibrant debate**, that it cannot be repeated here. I would like, however, to point out some of the elements of Foucault’s understanding of discourse which fuel, I believe, his later focus on the technologies of the subjects.

"Blühende Landschaften" by Thomas Kohler on Flickr (CC-BY)

“Blühende Landschaften” by Thomas Kohler on Flickr (CC-BY)

“The Order of Discourse” is the title of his inaugural lecture at the College de France held in December 1970.  In it he lays out concisely (for a postmodernist, that is) the concept of discourse, which is derived from his works on the order of things and the archeaology of knowledge.  Discourse therein is language, struggle and sometimes even equated to power itself. I find it easiest to imagine this discourse as a fragile network of related (speech) acts which follow and transgress rules and restrictions, somethings which changes slowly, sometimes catastrophically but never entirely. Subjects participate in discourse, reproduce it and are produced by it.

You are wondering how a discourse can even do that? Create a real living breathing thing? Aren’t we there, even if we have no name, no colour, no shape? Maybe. But we can only be who we are – living, breathing, things – in relation and through discourse. There is an episode of Star Trek, in which the Picard’s Enterprise encounters an strange alien species (ok, that’s all of them but wait for it!). This species apparently has no concept of “living” and “breathing” so that the universal translator translates their understanding of human beings as “bulky bags mostly filled with water”. While this description is technically correct, it defies the way we see ourselves. It references an entirely different discourse, hence causing irritation.

Discourse (or power) can only be noticed as the restraining, limiting and enabling phenomenon as which Foucault describes it when such irritation occurs. As discourse works through the creation of truth, which relies on differentiations, exclusions and the permanent reproduction of its own rules. Discourse hence implies an outside, a wild external to the truth discourse. This external wild side is at the same time the greatest danger to discourse. Its mere existence is proof, that the truth of the discourse is fragile. Exclusion and differentiation are the origin of dissonances. Or, as I think of it, reality is always messier than any of the ways in which we make sense of it. At the same time, if we do not make sense of it, reality has no inherent structure of its own, it cannot be perceived as reality.

What we have here, is a circular argument: Discourse produces reality (and in it subjects) and those are the source of discourse itself. None exist without the other. Many people struggle with the idea, that everything should be so fragile, preliminary and most importantly without inherent meaning or value. It is, for example, diametrically opposed to a simplified reading of Marx’s concept of history where material (!) changes and conditions drive historical change.

Even more pertinent to the question of the subject is the resulting question of how – if discourse really simply reproduces its distinctions and rules, which produce subjects which are conditioned by these restrictions and rules – discourse could ever change. Wouldn’t everything converge and remain bound by its discourse for all time, only reproducing the ever same patterns? Clearly, even this ‘early’ Foucault does not believe so. In fact, he describes the “proliferation of discourse” (in German usually translated as the ‘mushrooming’ of discourse) as a wild and chaotic process (p. 66). Yes, discourse seeks to eliminate that which does not fit, to bring order and clarity, but it fails to ever achieve this. There is an undeniable wildness about discourse over time which continuously threatens its stable continuation. And then, there is the outside, which stabilizes and threatens truth claimed by discourse.

It amazes me time and time again, how similar Arendt and Foucault argue, albeit coming from such very different places. But that is another story and must remain for another time.

*Mark Bevir has written a very thoughtful essay on the subject of agency and autonomy in Foucault’s thought.

** For first insights into the Foucault Habermas debate consider Nancy Love (1989)