Schlagwort-Archiv: power

“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,

By Orianomada – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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”.

From subjects to cyborgs

By Copy of Lysippus - Jastrow (2006), Public Domain

By Copy of Lysippus – Jastrow (2006), Public Domain

One of the key questions to answer when doing political theory is the question of what or who these humans are whose political world shall be described. And that is not an easy feat. In Classical Aristotelian philosophy, humans – like the other objects of nature – are defined by an innate purpose, a telos. Political life, hence, is essentially about realizing that purpose in living together with others – being social animals. Conceptions of the self drawing on this idea can be found, for example in Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Hannah Arendt as well as some communitarian positions. One could further argue, that political theories of human progress towards as specific goal, such as for example Karl Marx‘s philosophy of history, pick up that idea of a human purpose to be realized.
A lot of modern political thought, however, has rejected the presumption that humans are social by nature. In contrast to pure classical ideas much of modern political thought focused on negative aspects of human nature. Niccolo Machiavelli describes human beings as unreliable, untrustworthy and prone to fail to do the right thing. Thomas Hobbes goes so far as to call man man’s wolf – its own worst enemy. Consequently, political institutions are designed around the idea that this dangerous nature must be controlled. Human nature as purpose makes way for human nature as somewhat of a natural force too be reckoned with. Later modern philosophers, such as for example John Locke, diversify this idea by complementing human nature with natural rights. Liberal positions acknowledge human nature as not necessarily good, but build their political theories based on the idea that innate rights must be realized by any system.
The twentieth century has brought about another, quite distinct idea. Thereby human nature is not something natural that must simply be known, brought about or realized. Instead, who we are is socially constructed and not fixed. This is not at all unrelated to the previous strands of modern thought, on the contrary. Machiavelli is the first famous proponent of the idea that the individual does not in fact live in a natural order, but that order itself is man-made and can be changed and re-arranged to suit man’s purposes. If our social order is not natural and we are influenced by this order that we ourselves created, it is not so far out there that the way this order is arranged makes us who we are. Michel Foucault’s big feat was to trace the ways in which modern systems of government shaped individuals themselves and how, in fact, the individual was unthinkable without the discursive order that presupposed it. Foucault focuses on some very specific institutions to show the pattern – hospitals and prisons in particular. In his studies on govermentality he exemplifies the modern system of government as one producing a particular kind of self – the liberal self.

Michel Focault Mural, photo by thierry ehrmann [CC BY 2.0 ]

Michel Focault Mural, photo by thierry ehrmann [CC BY 2.0 ]

At work are mechanisms of subjectivation, mechanisms of making subjects. I myself have never quite understood how this works until I became a mother. As a pregnant woman in Germany you are inserted into an elaborate machine which monitors any aspect of your pregnancy. At your first doctor’s visit you receive a “Mutterpass” (Mother-Passport). This document essentially transforms you into a mother. Your medical data is inserted and always marked in relation to the normal (i.e. averaged) development of mother and child. You progress along this expected “normal progression” of the pregnancy is measured and any deviance raises flags. Surely, no-one forces any exams and a wide variety of deviations may be perfectly normal. But the “mother” is created in a permanent struggle between the woman, the child, the data, the law, the doctor, the midwife and the statistic – as well as any other persons or institutions voicing an interest such as employers, insurances or social welfare actors. Between natural events, rules, discourses and normalization pressures one is turned into a mother. No two mothers are alike, but they all share that struggle for who they are. This, to me, illustrates vividly how subjects emerge.
Michel Foucault calls these relations power relations. He is known as the theorist of power who lays out the horizontal workings of power and proposes to think of power as something dispersed in the capillaries of society rather than centralized in few places. He insists, however, that his main interest has always been the subject, or rather the way we are made into subjects. “The subject and power” was written to illuminate what this means. It talks about the subject, the relationship between power and freedom and the struggles of the subjects. It is one of the texts that merit re-reading every once in a while, even as they fail to tell the whole story.
This text was written for my current seminar blog. This semester I am teaching a course on conceptions of the self and I will be writing (and cross-posting here) a post each week to reflect on the context of our readings.

Way to go – publishing my first monograph

I have completed my first monograph. A while ago, actually. Ever since I have been pondering over the question, what the most appropriate road to publishing should be. For me. I seem to have two options. I can look for a renowned publisher, undergo their peer review and then hope for the best. If they publish me, my book will cost something like 60 € and be available in libraries. You know, dead tree. People will be able to go there, read it and quote it. Most won’t, because their library doesn’t have it. Or because they aren’t ready to gamble and spent time looking for a book they don’t know will be of much use to them. If I am lucky, my text will be available as an e-book. Although in that case it is not unlikely it will be accessible through one of those DRM-protecting portals that render actually reading a book almost impossible. I will be able to put it on my list of publications though – and impress people (or not) by how well (or badly) I have done in finding a publisher. I am not kidding myself into thinking many people will read my book that way. Unfortunately, I really want it to be read by anyone who is interested. I really wanted to say what I said, although I might say it differently at a later time.

So, there is option two – I could just put it out there, for anyone to find, to browse, to read, to like (or find boring). In one variation, I just put it there, for example on my university depository, and wait. In another, I actually put some work in it and go over the text one more time, change some things, have a graphic designer make a smashing cover and a layouter make the text look great. And get him to do that in all kinds of formats. My expense, but also my treat. I would upload it on GoogleBooks and all kinds of other platforms. And maybe even ask some people to write a review somewhere. What would change? Well, anyone could find it, browse it, read it. It would lack the credibility that comes with a publisher and have to rely on its own content and history. Tough sell. But I believe my argument to be able to stand to that scrutiny. And I want it to. I am not kidding myself – not many more if any people would actually read it. They could, though. Nothing more than Internet access would be needed and – you are good to go!

I have pondered the pros and cons for a long time. I have weighed scientific reputation, the chance of a career in academia and my conviction that knowledge simply wants to be free. Bgesamtut who am I kidding, mostly I have just been a tiny bit scared of simply doing what I decided a long time ago. That’s a very stupid reason not to do something you believe is right – so here it goes: The 2011 version of my first book is available online. And I will do all the above things and make a beautiful even better version – with cover, some changes on the text and everything. I hope, you find it of interest. And even if you don’t, I know it is not just the lack of money or the long way to the library that kept you from reading. It is more honest that way.

Fermat’s challenge

Pierre de Fermat (Quelle: Wikimedia Commons)

Pierre de Fermat (Quelle: Wikimedia Commons)

I shouldn’t and won’t ever claim to be as brilliant as Fermat. When he scribbled his famous theorem by the margins of a book he was reading (or so the legend goes), he was certainly referring to a proof that he had somewhere on paper and not just an idea. Else, he might have felt like I do right now. Weiterlesen