I love the phrase ‘rhetorical rapture-race’ used by Thomas Frank to describe the mobilising dynamics of the far-right resurgence in the U.S. From his Pity the Billionaire loc 960:

Conspiracy theorists have always been with us. But Glenn Beck brought them into the mainstream. And so began one of the most distinctive features of the right-wing renaissance: a rhetorical rapture-race in which pundits, bloggers, and candidates for high office competed to paint the most alarming end-times picture.

Is this something uniquely applicable to deliberately mobilising fragile movements i.e. inciting crowds of individuals to act in a co-ordinated way without seeking to build relational bonds between them?

On loc 992 he cites a Republican blogger describing the results of the aforementioned mobilisation. Is the rhetorical rapture-race necessary in order to cut through the fog of depoliticisation?

Many Americans who had never been politically active, never walked a precinct, never interrupted their golf games, family gatherings, or vacations to discuss politics, government, or the Constitution, were suddenly gripped with the sense that their government, nation, and way of life were being stolen from them. 4

I wish I’d read Zizek’s Trouble in Paradise before writing my fragile movement’s paper, because this is exactly what I was trying to explore: how does this ‘imaginary unity at its most sublime’ inform popular perceptions of the mobilising potential of social media? From pg 97:

The ongoing events in Egypt provide yet another example of the basic dynamics of social revolts, which consists of two main steps traditionally designated by pairings like ‘1789/1793’ (in the case of the French Revolution) or ‘February/October’ (in the case of the Russian Revolution). The first step, what Badiou recently called the ‘rebirth of history’, culminates in an all-popular uprising against a hated figure of power (Mubarak, in the case of Egypt, or the Shah, in the case of Iran three decades ago). People across all social strata assert themselves as a collective agent against the system of power which quickly loses its legitimacy, and all around the world we can follow on our TV screens those magic moments of ecstatic unity when hundreds of thousands of people gather on public squares for days on end and promise not to go anywhere until the tyrant steps down. Such moments stand for an imaginary unity at its most sublime: all differences, all conflicts of interest are forgotten as the whole society seems united in its opposition to the hated tyrant.

I take him to be saying, from pg 104, it must be the case that a ‘we’ is invoked in order to mobilise across divisions, but that in an oppressed and divided society this ‘we’ cannot be anything other than imagined. The real work starts with the building of a substantial ‘we’, something that happens through the transformation of the social order.

It is only after the first enthusiastic unity disintegrates that true universality can be formulated, a universality no longer sustained by imaginary illusions. It is only after the initial unity of the people falls apart that the real work begins, the hard work of assuming all the implications of the struggle for an egalitarian and just society. It is not enough simply to get rid of the tyrant; the society which gave birth to the tyrant has to be thoroughly transformed. Only those who are ready to engage in this hard work remain faithful to the radical core of the initial enthusiastic unity.

From David Frayne’s Refusal of Work pg 222. My first paper on this topic is coming out soon.

Indeed, perhaps one of the reasons why democratic debate is currently in such a moribund state is that our busy lives leave us with so little time to study policies, collectively organise, or find out what is going on in our communities. The strength of democracy depends on people having the time to engage and participate in this process. The difference between the politics of time and the prescriptive utopias of the past is that the former does not seek to enrol people in some pre-planned utopian scheme, but to gradually free them from prescribed roles, furnishing them with the time to become politically active citizens.

Via Tom Dark:

Protests in the Information Age: Social Movements, Digital Practices and Surveillance

 Lucas Melgaço (CRiS-VUB) and Jeffrey Monaghan (University of Ottawa) launch the following call for chapters for their book on protests in the information age. 

Editors: Lucas Melgaço (Dept. of Criminology, Vrije Universiteit Brussel) & Jeffrey Monaghan (Dept. of Criminology, University of Ottawa)

In recent years, the role of information and communication technologies has been central to large-scale protests and social movements in different parts of the world. Ukraine, Syria, Iran, Canada, Spain, United States, United Kingdom, China, Brazil and Belgium are only a few of the numerous examples. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter and devices like smartphones have increasingly played an important role in facilitating and mobilizing people to take to the streets. Concurrently, the same technologies have been scrutinized by public authorities (including security agencies and the police) and have served to detect and curtail the activities of certain demonstrators. In addition, public spaces used by demonstrators are being increasingly monitored by surveillance technologies that range from video-surveillance and police body cams to drones. This book intends to explore the complex and contradictory relationships between communication and information technologies and social movements by drawing on different case studies of protests from around the world. The contributions will analyze how new communication and information technologies impact the way protests are carried out and controlled in the current information age. The book will focus on recent events that date from the Arab Spring onwards and will pose questions towards the future of protests and digital landscapes.

Potential authors are invited to submit a paper proposal on topics such as, yet not limited to:

• Surveillance of public demonstrations (including technologies like CCTV, body cams, drones and so on; The increasing monitoring of spaces of protest;

• Social networking sites and protest mobilizations;

• The use of smartphones by demonstrators; Sousveillance (e.g. the use of surveillance technologies to record police brutality in protests); Resistance;

• Mainstream and alternative media coverage of protests (including real time broadcasting of protests through apps like Periscope or Meerkat);

• Police use of information technologies in the control of crowds and riots;

• The reemergence of the Black Bloc tactics and negotiations of (in)visibility in public spaces;

• Political profiling of demonstrators, databanks and security intelligence; Big data;

• Geolocation technologies and demonstrations;

• Transnational flows of security practices and information; Policy transfers related to information and protest control;

• Usage of digital technologies in the regulation of public spaces; The right to protest at risk;

• Theoretical and methodological developments on the relationships between social movements and the digital

Submissions 

Submissions in English and of a maximum of 700 words should be sent before November 30th, 2015 to lucas.melgaco@vub.ac.be and jeffrey.monaghan@uottawa.ca. In your proposal please provide details of the theoretical framework of your work, methodology, the empirical case(s) studied and how your chapter engages with the main theme of the call. Together with the abstract include a short bio of no more than 300 words. Selected abstracts will be combined in a book proposal to be submitted to Routledge – Taylor and Francis Group, who has already expressed strong interest in the publication (Routledge is also publishing the forthcoming book “Order and Conflict in Public Space” edited by L. Melgaço together with M. De Backer, G. Varna and F. Menichelli). Accepted authors will be notified by December 15, 2015 and they are expected to send the full chapter (7000-9000 words) by March 31, 2016. Proposals must be original and not yet published or under consideration for publication by any other book or journal. All chapters will pass a double blind review process. The expected date of publication is March/April 2017.

From InfoGlut, by Mark Andrejevic, loc 1384:

One start- up sentiment mining application, for example, claims to “understand how the web feels ” via a “vibology meter.” 56 This version of prosopopoeia – attributing an imagined and unified voice to a dispersed and invisible aggregate that cannot speak for itself – enacts the fetishistic disavowal of contemporary capitalism, according to Slavoj Zizek: the simultaneous dismissal of the ability to comprehend or represent a totality and its reassertion as an autonomous, anonymous imaginary entity. For example, when “the people speak” through aggregate voting results that allegedly provide a candidate with a “strong mandate,” this combined sentiment may not reflect that of any particular individual or group (since widespread weak support combined with significant strong opposition might result in the apparent mandate). As Zizek puts it, “no one is personally responsible for it, all just feel the need to accommodate themselves to it. And the same goes for capitalism as such.” 57 The logic of aggregation is distinct from that of collectivity – the former seeks to create an imagined consensus out of an overview that makes up for what it lacks in depth, comprehension, and meaning with breadth, speed, and predictive power.

This is a really important point I’d like to incorporate into my analysis of fragile movements. As durable collectives, capable of articulating collective concerns and formulating collective projects to pursue them, become more difficult to generate and sustain, do we see a corresponding increase in prosopopoeia: a fetishistic faux-collectively that stands in as a purely affective substitute for meaningful collectivity?

Notes for the talk I’m doing a couple of times next month. First at the Political Agency in the Digital World conference in Denmark then at the Global Cultures of Contestation workshop in Amsterdam. Given I’m going to these places without funding to get feedback, I can’t stress enough how keen for pointers & ideas I am about this project. I basically know what I’m doing with the distracted people stuff (i.e. I spent 6 years doing a PhD on individual reflexivity & years working on digital sociology in various capacities) but I’m completely out of my intellectual comfort zone with the social movements stuff. I’m also totally intimidated by the size of the social movement studies literature. 

My route into this topic has been a slightly surprising one to me. Last December I found myeslf working on a book chapter that had balooned to 17,000 words. I realised at that point that my book chapter was in fact a book in embyronic form, one which I’ve recently begun to work on. My interest was in how digital capitalism is changing the conditions of existence for people within it: how phenomena such as the pluralisation of communication channels, constant connectivity and the destructuring of careers were radically intensifying the social production of distraction that has always been a feature of modernity itself. I’m interested in how the escalation of demands, something which is of course not evenly distributed, renders triaging necessary for ever greater segments of lived experience: attending to the urgent rather than the important, thinking about the day and the week, rather than the month and the year.

I want to develop a philosophical anthropology of triaging, concerned with its implications for evaluation and temporality, connected in turn to an empirical and theoretical account of the social and cultural changes which are generating this uneven proclivity towards triaging. I’m particularly interested in the second-order effects of triaging strategies: how phenomena such as information diets, life hacking, the quantified self, extremely early retirement, lifestyle minimalism and others can be seen as regimes for coping with distraction that also in turn intensify the underlying change in the self. Agency is partially recovered but at the cost of a narrowing of horizons.

I’m also concerned with how many of the factors which lead to the necessity of triaging in turn leave us enmeshed within the filter bubble: being tracked, scrutinised and modelled by a mobile army of opaque overseers, leaving us succeptible to manipulation, in some cases in a manner we willfully embrace for the convenience it affords. Again, I’m interested in the second-order effects: we can escape the filter bubble but there are cognitive costs entailed by it. Total escape can prove all consuming, going off the grid could easily come to constitute a life defining obsession. Continuing to live meaningfully under digital capitalism entails compromise, but the nature of that compromise is something which in itself entails cognitive costs, necessitating that we reflect upon our own information ecology, keep ourselves up to date with current developments and spend time conisdering how to best orientate ourselves towards this rapidly changing edifice.

Considering these issues in terms of individual lives has led me rather inevitably to thinking about them in collective terms. If I’m right about distracted people then what are their implications for collective life? The relationship between the individual and the collective is an issue that I’ve always been fascinated by and that I’ve written about in the past: some collectives we enter into involuntary but later leave, others are ones we discover as we make our way through the world and many exist between these two extremes. I’m interested in understanding collectives as relationally constituted, made and remade through the engaging of individual biographies, unfolding in concrete spaces of interaction but with a collective reality that extends beyond them.

In this approach I’m heavily influenced by the relational realism of Margaret Archer and Pierpaolo Donati. On this view, relations are not just patterns of interaction but an emergent reality which is produced and reproduced through interactions. Their analysis hinges on how such relational goods (shared projects and commitments, features of our relationships that we value) constitute collectivities: the co-ordinated actions of individuals become something genuinely collective through their shared orientation towards relation goods & the actions which these generate.

The same factors which I’m arguing constraint individual reflexivity (clarifying what matters to someone and trying to develop projects which enact those concerns) also constrain collective reflexivity. Developing collective projects requires sustained engagement of a sort which personal distraction by no means prohibits but does inhibit: it leads to a multiplication of obstacles at the individual level which, though individually trivial, manifest themselves through their aggregative consequences. In essence, my approach to understanding the politics of digital distraction is through trying to systematically think through the possible consequences they have for how fragmented individuals might attempt, or fail to attempt, to exercise some collective influence over social and political life.

I’m trying to understand how individual distraction manifests itself aggregatively in the characteristics of collectives (or the failure of those collectives to form). But I think the same socio-technical factors contributing to bringing this about at the level of individuals are having autonomous effects at the level of collectives: the ease of assembly using social media, the affordances which make it possible for a small number of people to lead many to congregate, make it unlikely that collectives constituted in this way will develop the organisational capacities to sustain themselves through change. I entirely credit Zeynep Tufekci with this insight, though I think I understand the point somewhat differently to her. The mundane effort of mobilisation, so easily dispensed with if it’s no longer necessary, served a consolidating function which allowed a nascent collective to develop capacities which allowed it to respond to changing terrain, adapt tactically and develop strategically as other conflictual collectives responded to its emergence and actions.

This is further compounded by what Nick Couldry refers to as the ‘myth of us’: which I understand as the conviction that social media has liberated a natural sociality, allowing individuals to take action as individuals. Here comes everybody! Watch those seemingly intractable problems disappear in their wake. Who needs organisations? In this sense, I think it’s a particular contemporary articulation of a much long-standing myth of self-organisation, with a naive view of social media and liberal individualism jointly engendering a belief in homeostasis. Now people have social media, everything will take care of itself. It is of course a myth which the social media platforms have a commercial interest in promoting, having corralled the ‘us’ and built a business upon monetising it.

Now it follows from a stratified ontology of collectives, in which collectives are constituted by individuals over time (i.e. biographically) but are irreducible to them, that individuals will in turn be changed by their participation in such fragile movements. In this sense, I’m extremely interested in the biographical consequences of social movements. I’d like to better understand these in other eras in order to develop my hunch that the distinctive characteristics of distracted people and fragile movements generate very specific trajectories of engagement with collectives. I’ve been playing with the concept of ‘seeding’ here: do engagements in fragile movements perhaps seed the social world with emancipatory potential by generating a proclivity towards future movements on the part of distinct individuals? But these are ultimately empirical questions and I’m not entirely sure of how to explore them without making this study into something much bigger than it already is. It’s already a bit too big.

In parallel to this, I’m interested in how distracted people constitute an environment to which collectives (fragile or otherwise) find themselves forced to respond. I’d like to analyse professionalisation of communications in these terms, as well as the kind of messaging that can be found more broadly. What kind of strategies thrive? If attention is effectively finite but divided between an ever greater number of claims upon it, what sort of strategies emerge to ensure competitive advantage? More broadly, how do collective engage with their members? In some cases, I think professionalised relationship management approaches could thrive in these circumstances (e.g. how to keep track of distracted people & keep them engaged) but these in turn undercut the collectivity upon which relational goods depend by setting up a hierarchical relationship between professional staff and managed participants.

Any thoughts much appreciated!

The notion of fragile movements is an integral part of my new project. I’ve tried to explain it at various points on the blog, as well as in a book chapter which will be published as part of the Centre for Social Ontology’s annual Social Morphogenesis series. But I just encountered a really apt description of the sense in which I mean ‘fragile’ in a George Monbiot article of all places. This is what I’m trying to explain in the project:

The trajectory of leftwing mobilisations in Britain has in recent years followed a consistent pattern: they go up like fireworks and come down the same way. People gather in a fiery rush of creativity and hope, then implode and fall to earth. The tumult of ideas, so inspiring in the early days, leads to confusion and dissipation. A thousand voices clamour to be heard, and competition and atomisation sometimes seem to dominate movements that claim to stand against such forces. Wars of attrition fought by the police grind hope into dust. People become burnt out and disillusioned. A few months later a new enthusiasm takes hold, and we repeat the pattern, apparently gaining little from experience.

While the mobilisations of our grandparents’ generation lasted for decades, ours struggle to survive for months. We create spectacles and debates; we raise interest and awareness. But we seldom generate lasting change.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/15/leftwing-evangelical-christianity-corbyn

I’m on the verge of finishing my first article for this project. Once it’s done, I’ll put this on hold until Social Media for Academics is finished. But from the summer onwards, this will be my main project. Here’s the abstract I’ve submitted for  a number of conferences later this year:

Distracted People and Fragile Movements: a relational realist theory of social movement in a digital age

It is clear that the emergence and normalisation of social media entail affordances for mobilisation that have important implications for social movements. However there is little agreement upon precisely what these implications are and whether they can or should be evaluated in general terms. I argue that much of the problem with the emerging debate stems from a lack of clarity about the social ontology of social movements, suggesting that digital technology should invite us to reconsider ontological questions in light of the empirically observable changes in mobilisation dynamics that have been the impetus for popular and academic debate.

Using the relational realist theory developed by Margaret Archer and Pierpaolo Donati, I offer a novel account of the constitution of social movements that invites us to ask questions about the emergence and durability of new movements that are obscured by alternative theoretical approaches which fail to recognise both the emergent and relational constitution of collectives. In doing so, I begin to develop an account of what I suggested are the ‘fragile movements’ being constituted through the collective endeavour of ‘distracted people’ under digital capitalism.