Over the last couple of days an interesting discussion surrounding religion, Enlightenment, reason, and a host of other issues has been unfolding over at I Cite between me, Adam Kotsko, Anthony Paul Smith, Discard, N.Pepperell and a few others. I’ve been approaching the discussion from the perspective of religion as a material social reality, bracketing questions of whether or not it’s true, and how that reality might come to disappear within the social field. But the discussion has touched on a number of interesting issues surrounding history and the nature of reason and grounding that are worth, perhaps, taking a look at. As always the discussion has been heated, at points less than noble, but I would say that it’s been more productive than other discussions we’ve had in the past.
I’ve found myself inspired by a number of the themes in this discussion, which led me to write the rather underdeveloped post on populations today. I have a difficult time articulating clearly what I’m trying to get at in these meditations. Perhaps it could be summed up with the word “infrastructure” or “assemblage”. Increasingly I’ve come to find myself dissatisfied with ideology critique and forms of political theory that search for the “right theory”. In this connection, I’ve begun to focus on the material dimension of how movements are formed and maintain themselves in time, and also how they pass away… That is, the material dimension of communication. Here I’m thinking about communications that circulate around the public sphere: Political pamplets, newpapers articles, public email exchanges, discussion lists, regular group meetings, blogs, certain repetitive phrases like “I’m an Oscar Myer weenie” that stick in ones head or “Gore said he invented the internet”, media stories, etc., etc. What has interested in me is not so much the content of these things, their truth value or accuracy, but the way they become formative of certain ways of conceiving the world and certain identities. I’ve tended to notice– with the help of N.Pepperell –that theorists coming out of the Frankfurt school and contemporary French political theory tend to suffer from a kind of sickness: Theoretical pessimism. Here I wonder whether this doesn’t arise from thinking about politics in abstraction and at the level of content, and ignoring the material dimension of how messages are produced and disseminated throughout the social sphere, how movements and groups are formed, and how institutions have successfully been short-circuited in the past, allowing for new institutions to be formed in their stead.
These thoughts have been on my mind for a long time… Since prior to the 2004 elections. But they also resonate with me personally having just witnessed such a transformation within my own neck of the woods. Here an utter transformation was made possible through public email exchanges, among other things, that galvanized a group of people and which had the effect of leveraging a tremendous amount of pressure on higher management, demanding a significant degree of change. Here the form of communication– email –had a massive impact on what was and was not possible. Had the very same complaints been levelled in private to management in this organization, no change would have occured as the complaints would have been seen as 1) personal, and 2) as easily swept under the rug and ignored. It was the rendering public that allowed for a collectivization of identity– there was a creation of identity that took place –that had to be recognized and responded to, lest the business explode. This was all made possible by mediums of communication, but also by forms of rhetoric that created a particular collective identity and that worked to transform concerns that might have been seen as personal into systemic problems requiring organizational change. As a result of this encounter, a new identity was formed that didn’t exist prior to this and that is now capable of things that it wasn’t before capable of.
When we treat any institution as a monolithic fact that cannot be changed, we are ignoring the manner in which this institution must perpetually reproduce itself through time through the agency of those that belong to the institution. We forget that the institution or form of social life is just as much produced by these agents as they are produced by it. We then resort to ideology critique and other forms of ingenious analysis, hoping to awaken these subjects from their attachment to the institution. What we don’t do is begin forming other institutions and subjectivities that get discourses on the table in a very public way– not academic, public, accessible –that force existing institutions to acknowledge them and into becoming through that very force. For a long time protests were able to do this but their messages are now too diluted by being filtered through media machines that frame what is heard and not heard, allowing political power to ignore their acts, while complacently reassuring those involved that they’re doing something. More recently blogs have been very effective in producing tangable and concrete results by getting information and certain themes out there to millions of people through linkages among blogs, raising money, organizing boycotts, and organizing letter writing campaigns that are very difficult for politicians and major media outlets to ignore. The impact of these media technologies on major media and politicians has been palpable and profound for anyone who has carefully followed how major stories have been broken and brought front and center in the last three or four years. This is transformation through viral infestation and contamination. I’m beginning to think there needs to be more concrete analysis, almost case studies like what Hallward is doing with his book on Haiti, or what Foucault did, or what Deleuze and Guattari allow us to theorize, and less abstract theorizing detached from context such as we find in Zizek, Ranciere, and Badiou. We need to look at those small skirmishes where profound change has been produced, and look at the mechanisms that allowed for the production of new identities, new institutions, and significant shifts in distributions of power.