Tag: Arab Spring

Talks on Virality (part three)

(Goldsmiths 22nd Oct)

…. Continuing on Milgram.

Agentic states are generally traced to the disposition of an individual caught up in a natural chain of command rather than a disassociated state.

 For Milgram, imitation leads to conformity, but obedience ultimately requires the explicit social action of the individual.

Nevertheless, Milgram was famously the great manipulator of the social encounter. His triggering of crowd contagion was unquestionably socially engineered.

In Virality Milgram is positioned as a hypnotist, planting suggestibility — via the points of fascination provided by his skyward looking actors — into the neurological, biological, and sociological composition of the crowd.

From this privileged position, Milgram not only observed, but also controlled the implicit, involuntary, and contagious responses his experiment induced.

Virality also makes an important distinction between Tarde and his contemporary Gustave Le Bon.

 First, these two crowd theorists seem to be at the base of two distinct theoretical lines of influence.

One characterized by Le Bon’s direct link to Freud’s psychoanalysis.

The other by Tarde’s role in the development of Deleuzian ontology.

Second, there are conflicting ideas about the role contagion plays in social movements.

Unlike Le Bon’s conservative concerns for the stability of an old aristocratic order, Tarde introduces a novel media theory that considers both the potential and improbability of rare movements of democratic contagion.

Last, there are two very different notions of hypnotic power at work in Le Bon’s The Crowd and Tarde’s Laws.

The former falls back on a direct representational means of control (the crowd that thinks, or hallucinates, in images), while the latter speaks of indirect subrepresentational and reciprocal hypnotisms.

The coupling of Tarde/Deleuze and Le Bon/Freud presents a very different relation between conscious and unconscious states. As Deleuze and Guattari argue, Freud tried to approach the crowd from the point of view of the unconscious. But he didn’t see that the unconscious itself was fundamentally a crowd.

He was perhaps myopic and hard of hearing insofar as he misconstrued the crowd for a certain individual. In contrast, schizoid analysis does not “mistake the buzz and shove of the crowd for Daddy’s voice.” Daddy’s hypnotic authority is grasped instead as symptomatic of the psychoanalyst’s predisposition to repress the desiring machine by locking it away (inside) the representational space of the unconscious.

Like this, Le Bon’s crowd contagion acts on the social, forcing it to reproduce a unified collective mentality.

As an alternative to The Crowd’s delusional fantasy, Virality explores how the tendency to pass on real and illusory contagions can be attributed to phantom-events.

Significantly, phantom-events are outcomes, or effects, of actions and passions, not their Oedipal representation. The phantom is paradoxically without a body but is nevertheless a material thing (an incorporeal materiality). The event becomes detached from its causes, spreading itself from surface to surface. This is not the point at which affect turns into fantasy, but rather where the ego spreads to the surface.

It is the hypnotized subject’s distance from the phantom-event that makes her prone to variable appearances of the real and the imagined.

Arguably, this is the logic of sense apparent in the spreading of chain letters, Trojan viruses, false rumors, and fake video virals.

These are the emergent forces of a contagious encounter, in a social field, which function according to an action-at-a-distance. The phantom-event contaminates those caught somewhere in the loop between the imaginary and the real events she encounters and believes in

(see part four)

Hardt and Negri on the desires and accomplishments of the cycle of struggles that erupted in 2011

Continuing the theme of The Return of Crowd Contagion…

From: A listserv devoted to Cultural Studies on behalf of Gerry Canavan
Sent: Wed 09/05/2012 23:54
Subject: [CULTSTUD-L] announcement: Hardt and Negri book on occupation and encampment now available at 99-cent Kindle single

Hardt and Negri have written a hundred-page pamphlet on the occupation and encampment movements of 2011, which is available from Amazon as a 99-cent Kindle single (and will be coming out in other formats eventually as well). 

The introduction is copied below.


This is not a manifesto. Manifestos provide a glimpse of a world to come and also call into being the subject, who although now only a specter must materialize to become the agent of change. Manifestos work like the ancient prophets, who by the power of their vision create their own people. Today’s social movements have reversed the order, making manifestos and prophets obsolete. Agents of change have already descended into the streets and occupied city squares, not only threatening and toppling rulers but also conjuring visions of a new world. More important, perhaps, the multitudes, through their logics and practices, their slogans and desires, have declared a new set of principles and truths. How can their declaration become the basis for constituting a new and sustainable society? How can those principles and truths guide us in reinventing how we relate to each other and our world? In their rebellion, the multitudes must discover the passage from declaration to constitution.

Early in 2011, in the depths of social and economic crises characterized by radical inequality, common sense seemed to dictate that we trust the decisions and guidance of the ruling powers, lest even greater disasters befall us. The financial and governmental rulers may be tyrants, and they may have been primarily responsible for creating the crises, but we had no choice. During the course of 2011, however, a series of social struggles shattered that common sense and began to construct a new one. Occupy Wall Street was the most visible but was only one moment in a cycle of struggles that shifted the terrain of political debate and opened new possibilities for political action over the course of the year.

Two thousand eleven began early. On 17 December 2010 in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, twenty-six-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who was reported to have earned a
computer science degree, set himself on fire. By the end of the month, mass revolts had spread toTunis with the demand, “Ben Ali dégage!” and indeed by the middle of January, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was already gone. Egyptians took up the baton and, with tens and hundreds of thousands regularly coming out in the streets starting in late January, demanded that Hosni Mubarak go too. Cairo’s Tahrir Square was occupied for a mere eighteen days before Mubarak departed.

Protests against repressive regimes spread quickly to other countries in North Africa and the Middle East, including BahrainandYemenand eventually Libya and Syria, but the initial spark in Tunisia and Egypt also caught fire farther away. The protesters occupying the Wisconsin statehouse in February and March expressed solidarity and recognized resonance with their counterparts in Cairo, but the crucial step began on 15 May in the occupations of central squares in Madrid and Barcelona by the so-called indignados. The Spanish encampments took inspiration from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts and carried forward their struggles in new ways. Against the socialist-led government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, they demanded, “Democracia real ya,” refusing the representation of all political parties, and they forwarded a wide range of social protests, from the corruption of the banks to unemployment, from the lack of social services to insufficient housing and the injustice of evictions. Millions of Spaniards participated in the movement, and the vast majority of the population supported their demands. In occupied squares the indignados formed assemblies for decision-making and investigative commissions to explore a range of social issues.

Even before the encampments in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol were dismantled in June, the Greeks had taken up the baton from the indignados and occupiedSyntagma SquareinAthensto protest against austerity measures. Not long after, tents sprang up on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard to demand social justice and welfare for Israelis. In early August, after police shot a black Briton, riots broke out in Tottenham and spread throughout England.

When a few hundred pioneer occupiers brought their tents to New York’s Zuccotti Park on 17 September, then, it was their turn to take up the baton. And indeed their actions and the spread of the movements in the United States and across the world have to be understood with the year’s experiences at their backs.

Many who are not part of the struggles have trouble seeing the connections in this list of events. The North African rebellions opposed repressive regimes and their demands centered on the removal of tyrants, whereas the wide-ranging social demands of the encampments in Europe, the United States, and Israel addressed representative constitutional systems. Furthermore, the Israeli tent protest (don’t call it an occupation!) delicately balanced demands so as to remain silent about questions of settlements and Palestinian rights; the Greeks are facing sovereign debt and austerity measures of historic proportions; and the indignation of the British rioters addressed a long history of racial hierarchy—and they didn’t even pitch tents.

Each of these struggles is singular and oriented toward specific local conditions. The first thing to notice, though, is that they did, in fact, speak to one another. The Egyptians, of course, clearly moved down paths traveled by the Tunisians and adopted their slogans, but the occupiers of Puerta del Sol also thought of their struggle as carrying on the experiences of those at Tahrir. In turn, the eyes of those in Athens and Tel Aviv were focused on the experiences of Madrid and Cairo. The Wall Street occupiers had them all in view, translating, for instance, the struggle against the tyrant into a struggle against the tyranny of finance. You may think that they were just deluded and forgot or ignored the differences in their situations and demands. We believe, however, that they have a clearer vision than those outside the struggle, and they can hold together without contradiction their singular conditions and local battles with the common global struggle.

Ralph Ellison’s invisible man, after an arduous journey through a racist society, developed the ability to communicate with others in struggle. “Who knows,” Ellison’s narrator concludes, “but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” Today, too, those in struggle communicate on the lower frequencies, but, unlike in Ellison’s time, no one speaks for them. The lower frequencies are open airwaves for all. And some messages can be heard only by those in struggle.

These movements do, of course, share a series of characteristics, the most obvious of which is the strategy of encampment or occupation. A decade ago the alterglobalization movements were nomadic. They migrated from one summit meeting to the next, illuminating the injustices and antidemocratic nature of a series of key institutions of the global power system: the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the G8 national leaders, among others. The cycle of struggles that began in 2011, in contrast, is sedentary. Instead of roaming according to the calendar of the summit meetings, these movements stay put and, in fact, refuse to move. Their immobility is partly due to the fact that they are so deeply rooted in local and national social issues.

The movements also share their internal organization as a multitude. The foreign press corps searched desperately inTunisia and Egypt for a leader of the movements. During the most intense period of the Tahrir Square occupation, for example, they would each day presume a different figure was the real leader: one day it was Mohamed El Baradei, the Nobel Prize winner, the next day Google executive Wael Ghonim, and so forth. What the media couldn’t understand or accept was that there was no leader in Tahrir Square. The movements’ refusal to have a leader was recognizable throughout the year but perhaps was most pronounced in Wall Street. A series of intellectuals and celebrities made appearances at ZuccottiPark, but no one could consider any of them leaders; they were guests of the multitude. From Cairo and Madrid to Athens and New York, the movements instead developed horizontal mechanisms for organization. They didn’t build headquarters or form central committees but spread out like swarms, and most important, they created democratic practices of decision making so that all participants could lead together.

A third characteristic that the movements exhibit, albeit in different ways, is what we conceive as a struggle for the common. In some cases this has been expressed in flames. When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, his protest was understood to be against not only the abuse he suffered at the hands of the local police but also the widely shared social and economic plight of workers in the country, many of whom are unable to find work adequate to their education. Indeed in both Tunisia and Egypt the loud calls to remove the tyrant made many observers deaf to the profound social and economic issues at stake in the movements, as well as the crucial actions of the trade unions. The August fires of rioting in London also expressed protest against the current economic and social order. Like the Parisian rioters in 2005 and those in Los Angeles more than a decade before, the indignation of Britons responded to a complex set of social issues, the most central of which is racial subordination. But the burning and looting in each of these cases also responds to the power of commodities and the rule of property, which are themselves, of course, often vehicles of racial subordination. These are struggles for the common, then, in the sense that they contest the injustices of neoliberalism and, ultimately, the rule of private property. But that does not make them socialist. In fact, we see very little of traditional socialist movements in this cycle of struggles. And as much as struggles for the common contest the rule of private property, they equally oppose the rule of public property and the control of the state.

In this pamphlet we aim to address the desires and accomplishments of the cycle of struggles that erupted in 2011, but we do so not by analyzing them directly. Instead we begin by investigating the general social and political conditions in which they arise. Our point of attack here is the dominant forms of subjectivity produced in the context of the current social and political crisis. We engage four primary subjective figures—the indebted, the mediatized, the securitized, and the represented—all of which are impoverished and their powers for social action are masked or mystified.

Movements of revolt and rebellion, we find, provide us the means not only to refuse the repressive regimes under which these subjective figures suffer but also to invert these subjectivities in figures of power. They discover, in other words, new forms of independence and security on economic as well as social and communicational terrains, which together create the potential to throw off systems of political representation and assert their own powers of democratic action. These are some of the accomplishments that the movements have already realized and can develop further.

To consolidate and heighten the powers of such subjectivities, though, another step is needed. The movements, in effect, already provide a series of constitutional principles that can be the basis for a constituent process. One of the most radical and far-reaching elements of this cycle of movements, for example, has been the rejection of representation and the construction instead of schemas of democratic participation. These movements also give new meanings to freedom, our relation to the common, and a series of central political arrangements, which far exceed the bounds of the current republican constitutions. These meanings are now already becoming part of a new common sense. They are foundational principles that we already take to be inalienable rights, like those that were heralded in the course of the eighteenth-century revolutions.

The task is not to codify new social relations in a fixed order, but instead to create a constituent process that organizes those relations and makes them lasting while also fostering future innovations and remaining open to the desires of the multitude. The movements have declared a new independence, and a constituent power must carry that forward.


This intro was posted this morning at Jacobin: http://jacobinmag.com/summer-2012/take-up-the-baton/

You can get the text here: http://www.amazon.com/Declaration-ebook/dp/B00816QAFY/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1336438242&sr=8-1

You don’t actually have to have a Kindle to read it; it can be read on any device, including the computer.

Pamphleteering seems to be a new trend; Chomsky has done much the same thing with a new book he calls “Occupy.” http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13565012-occupy

The Age of Viral Reality and Revolutionary Contagion

student protests
Revolution in the heart of London?

John Postill sees this age of protest as synonymous with an “age of viral reality.” His work on viral media, protest and the potential for rebellion is indeed a very welcome intervention into a debate so often marked by the puff of the popular press. In the UK, for example, the BBC recently broadcast a documentary claiming that “Facebook Changed the World.”  Of course, social media has had a demonstrable influence on events in North Africa and the Middle East. However, such claims concerning the Arab Spring need to be seen alongside the growing impetus of a desire to fight on the streets with authoritarian regimes that are prepared to kill their own citizens. What triggers such a desire is not simply the product of Facebook or Twitter. See the references in the BBC documentary to Imbaba and how taxi drivers were used to spread the word of protest. To be sure, it took years of cruelty, injustice and poverty under these brutal regimes to trigger revolt. Revolutionary contagion needs to exceed the information cascade.

The role social media plays in building such a momentum for rebellion cannot however be ignored. Certainly in “democratic” countries, where protests and riots have spread as a result of anger expressed at the unequal imposition of austerity on people who had nothing to do with the financial crisis, the impact of social media is yet to be fully appreciated.

In the UK the student protests went viral for a while, but they never reached the magnitude of an epidemic of celebrity gossip. The necessary leap from social media to mainstream media is still a difficult prerequisite for all-out-contagion, unless, that is, the story concerns a footballer cheating on his wife. Why is it that this kind of mindless trivia seems to spread well while social rebellion does not? This is not simply a problem of the old media. I suspect that Facebook, along with wall-to-wall coverage of celebrity crap on Twitter, plays a bit part in suppressing anger as much as it provides ignition.

It is also a problem for democracy. After staging some of the most potent protests in recent UK history (smashing up Tory HQ and clashing with a royal celebrity couple on their way to the theatre) student desire has, it would seem, been snubbed out by bourgeois democracy in action. The British are free to tweet their protests, they can mobilize protesters online, and in some cases put a million people on the street, but successive UK governments still go on to fight illegal wars in our name, break election promises (on student fees and health care), hang out with the Murdochs, and cut social benefits and living standards for the 99% while cutting the taxes of the 1%.

So the promise of a confluence of anthropological cultural work and media epidemiology seems like a good way to cut through the popular media hype and try to get at the real potential of virality. Postill’s focus on Spain, where unemployment is currently running at 23%, is particularly fascinating. If some kind of tipping point is to be breached in these so-called democratic countries then it is perhaps more likely to be where the pain is felt most.

Madrid Protests
Madrid Protests

Many questions still remain though as to what is driving virality. What can be learnt from protests that actually “go viral”? Can these contagions be repeated or are such contagions mostly accidental and largely unpredictable? Is it possible to steer virality? What tactics help to push an informational pandemic from 2,000 Twitter users in April to over 94,000 followers in August! I’m now following Postill’s work…