Agency, Resistance, and Orders of Dissent in Contemporary Social Movements

From P2P Foundation
Jump to: navigation, search

* Article: Athina Karatzogianni and Michael Schandorf. 2012. "Surfing the Revolutionary Wave 2010-12: A Social Theory of Agency, Resistance, and Orders of Dissent in Contemporary Social Movements

Available at:


"The theorisation and understanding of contemporary social movements, socio-technological phenomena, and the intersection of the two are limited by an incommensurability between the conceptualisations of individual agency and the disciplining powers of social structures. We introduce a theory of sociotechnological agency that bridges the individual and the social through a reconceptualization of the conventional notion of intentionality. Drawing from recent theories of affect and embodiment, posthuman-influenced materialisms and realisms, postmodern critical theory, and critiques of network theory, we introduce a model for understanding sociopolitical action and dissent that accounts for individual human agency as a nexus of overlapping and often competing subjectivities, as well as both nonhuman technological agencies and assemblages of the two. The theoretical framework presented avoids the tendency of much critical theory, new materialist theory and speculative realisms to discount or dismiss human agency altogether, and the predilection of situationist technosocial research to ignore the constraints of technological systems of production and reproduction. This theory of agents (as actants) and agencies (as force vectors of action) is situated within an ecological model of competing systemic social logics dominated by the global-hegemonic capitalist code, in order to conceptualise the intertwined possibility spaces of individual and social resistance. The article introduces a conceptual framework to theorise resistances against the present global order and national suborders based on the type of agency, the order of dissent, the mode of labor, the logic of action and the level against which resistance is directed at."


Introduction: The Problem with Networks

"The highly contingent contemporary global order and its hierarchical social logic expressed in state and capital has been unable to negotiate and productively harness the energies unleashed by technologically enabled networks for the equitable betterment of global society. Systemic problems have manifested in the global financial crisis, with permanent conflicts (e.g. 'the war on terror'), and constant pressure for reform and revolution by radical media movements and ad hoc mobilized networks. This pressure has partially succeeded in regime change in the Arab world for example, but has failed to intervene meaningfully at most levels of governance to reform or radically replace aggressive capitalisms of profit accumulation and uneven development or respond effectively to demands for equal rights, struggles against censorship and electoral authoritarianism, social marginalization or forced migration, displacement and poverty (Morozov, 2010; Fuchs 2011; Shirky 2011; Castells 2012; Harvey 2012; Lovink 2012). ‘The question remains why does this network logic fail to transform the global system for the better?’ (Karatzogianni and Robinson, 2010: 26), whether through the fluid channels of power available to networked capital, or through the possibilities for networked resistances afforded by social media and other digital communications technologies. The answer would seem to lie at the intersection of individual agency (as the power and capacity to take effective and significant action) and social structure. This was the idea behind the critical problem of agent versus structure Giddens sought to resolve with his structuration theory – the focus on social practices across space and time (The Constitution of Society, 1984), Latour (1987) proposed to solve with his actor-network theory to accommodate agency for non-humans, and which Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (1987) theorized as rhizomatic versus arborescent mappings of the world in material-semiotic terms. However, while network theory focusing on the microlevel of sociotechnological mediation and interaction tends to overlook the importance of technology production and the power of collective and corporate socioeconomic structures, macro-level scholarship privileging the analysis of political and economic power has a tendency to neglect the agency of individuals (Mansell, 2011).

As suggested by Giddens, Latour, and the Deleuzo-Guattarian contributions, the analysis of political action in the contemporary highly mediated world must address the intersection of the micro- and macro-levels of agency, action, and resistance. This article presents a theorisation of individual and collective agency, bridging the technosocial individual and the disciplinary order of social structures, as a means to better investigate, contextualize, and understand processes of political action, resistance, and dissent in the contemporary world. Our theoretical position is that we cannot continue with a conception of agency that is not embodied, or which views affect as immaterial or even spiritual. Such a view of agency does not take into account the technosocial transformations that must be addressed when we produce theory and analysis of resistances, movements, and especially digital activism. In developing another view of agency, we argue that different types of agency reflect different orders of dissent in ideological terms and different possibilities for resistance to the established order, however contingent this order may be."

Collective, Assemblage and Distributed Agents

"The single act, like the single agent, is an abstraction that can be fully accounted for (rationalized by motivated human understanding) only within an encompassing spatiotemporal context of interaction, which is always ‘a crucial element in how humans think’ (Rotman, 2008: 91). And the generation of, the carving out of context—as with the perception and conception of any object or whole, the setting of any boundary—is itself a motivated, rhetorical act. However, the effective reach (the agency) of the motivated agent is, more than ever before, extended by the instrumentalities and intentional agencies that partly define it for the very reason that individual cognition is itself a social phenomenon. Human technology, made possible by social cognition, has always been a generative constraint on human subjectivity (e.g., Leroi-Gourhan, 1964). Our networked digital tools, by expanding the possibilities of connection and interaction among both intentional and motivated agents, expand the range of influence of motivated agency (deterritorialization and reterritorialization, see Bringhetti, 2011), while also expanding the possibilities for, and strengthening the constraints (territorialization, see De Landa, 2011) of the affective, social identifications of motivated agents with intentional assemblages: both fundamentalist or ‘tribal’ and progressive or revolutionary causes are able to foster deeper commitments through more active and affective engagement while simultaneously broadening their reach by casting wider nets and through the ‘relentless co-presencing and distribution of the psyche’ (Rotman, 2008: 104).

As an example, recent research regarding conflict in digital migrant networks ([email protected], 2012) shows that new forms of agency enabled by digital networks and social media unsettle closed and fixed ‘tribal’ identities that rely on religion or ethnicity. However, migrants are more inclined to ‘stick’ to such ‘thick’ identities of religion, nationality, ethnicity, and culture than agents engaged in sociopolitical networks of resistance, a finding consistent with previous research on resistance in digital networks (Karatzogianni and Robinson 2010). More specifically, broader study of resistance networks finds that active-affective structures characterise sociopolitical affinity networks, while reactive-affective structures characterise ethnoreligious groups and reactive collectives, generally (Karatzogianni and Robinson 2010). Earlier studies on the politics of cyberconflict show that enthnoreligious groups adhere to hierarchical notions of ethnicity, nationality and religion to form and transfer ‘real’ communities to digitally networked spaces (Karatzogianni, 2006). The reliance on nationality, ethnicity and religion to repress (or utilize) emotions such as fear, suspicion, and hatred demonstrates the operation of the politics of emotion and affect in digital cultures (Karatzogianni and Kuntsman, 2012). The migrant, meanwhile, mixes and matches her loyalties and tests the primacy of one identity, identification and subjectivity (home country, ethnicity) against others (host country(s), new social affiliations), depending on the immediate social context and the fear and uncertainty that needs to be exorcised at any given time in the diverse, hybrid media environments in which she lives. Research into religious practices in digital networks ([email protected] 2012) reinforces the idea that agency, and especially communicative agency, is extremely contingent and volatile and is used by migrants to defend older loyalties or new religious revivals, old and new friends and enemies, in a constant negotiation of many different—often dissonant—worlds (home country, host country, online and offline) at the same time, and to be loved, appreciated, and safe in each of them.

The evolving forms of agency available to individual actors negotiating such identities are directly afforded by networked communications technologies and social media (e.g., Leurs & Ponzanesi, 2012; Leurs, 2012; Madianou & Miller, 2012), but they are not (and cannot be) solely technological: these novel agentic forces are highly political/intentional and affective/motivated. Emotions, affect, and technologies get negotiated in rapid rhythms against the old constants of religion, nationality, ethnicity, generation and public life, all of which digital networks make somewhat ephemeral and far more contingent than in the past.

Given the discursive character of social identification, to which we alluded above in relation to Burke, and the subjectivities (Smith, 1988) such symbolic and affective identifications make possible, we are now in a position to better understand the individual, motivated agent’s process of negotiation among the various collectives and assemblages with which she identifies. Rotman (2008) has provided a useful threefold model of what we are referring to as the motivated agent. At the center is a physical Person – a body/brain, an affective and affected mind, an emotional body – that physically inter/acts in and with the world. But this Person is both enabled and constrained by discursively instantiated social and cultural formations that generate specific Subjects through which the Person interacts with the world and others in it. As all inter/action is necessarily constrained by such social formations (e.g. Deleuzo-Guattarian assemblages and machines), generated by and evolved in symbol systems (e.g., language), all interaction between Persons, all representation and interpretation, all affective-discursive practice (see Wetherell, 2012) must take place through the mediation of a discursively generated Subject. Each Person may be constituted by a multitude of such Subjects, some compatible and overlapping, some inconsistent and conflicting, with the contingent of available Subjects determined by access to various discourses (or ideologies, rhetorics, cultures, disciplines, paradigms, frames, etc.). Further, each Subject actively constitutes an Agent that is able to act—and only able to act—within the bounds of the specific symbolic/discursive subjectivity. The Person’s agency in any given situation is both enabled and constrained by the affective-discursive (social and cultural) practices that constitute the Person as Subject. In other words, a Person can only act as an Agent (only has agency) through a socially and discursively constituted Subject. This anti-essentialist Person-Subject-Agent model allows us to differentiate (without requiring the analytical separation of) the ‘embodied’ individual from the discursively generated subjectivities that constitute her multifarious (social) identities, as well as from the agencies (options for and constraints on action) that each of those identities or subject positions carries by virtue of its specific, relational, social positioning. Persons are affective, Subjects are constrained by affective-discursive practices, and Agents are bound to and within the constraints of discursive subjectivities.

Rotman’s model (2008), therefore, directly binds individual agency, as the capacity for action, to affective-discursive ideological practices. But subjectivity does not arise solely or directly from a formal matrix of ideology(s). The real target of the Person-Subject-Agent model for Rotman is the theorization of novel forms of technologically mediated agency. He argues that ‘any act of self-enunciation is medium-specific’ (p. xxxiii). From this perspective, the technological instrumentalities through which we effect the affective-discursive practices motivating and shaping our actions in the world are themselves Subject-forming assemblages. Rotman’s notion of ‘distributed’ agency examines the potentialities of the dense web of shifting Subject-Agent forces available to an individual Person as an evolving mediological extension of the technosocial self. Technologies, especially communication technologies, are, from this perspective, subject-forming agentic forces, no single one of which is or can be wholly constitutive of the individual (motivated or intentional) agent’s power to act, just as no single social identification can ever be (except in the most extreme circumstances) fully representative of the self, which is constituted, precisely, by the nexus of discursive and technological Subjects available to the embodied Person. The theorization of agent, agency, and action in the contemporary world, therefore, involves the examination of the points of contact between Person and Subject, on the one hand, and the actional territories instantiated at the intersection of Subject and Agent, on the other. When combined with the distinction between intention and motivation, motivational forces can be seen as those that bind Person to Subject, while intentional forces can be understood as those binding Agent to Subject. The motivated agent is anchored in an embodied, affective Person; the intentional agent may or may not have a consistent physical form beyond a material pattern of energy (e.g., a computer program). Both, however, are subject to the generative constraints of discursive (i.e., symbolic) subjectivities instantiated in ideological and technological (technosocial) assemblages. Returning explicitly to the main thrust of the current argument, the theorization of political action must address the relationship between the motivated agent (as Person-Subject) and the assemblage and/or collective agent (as Subject-Agent).

Rotman’s model, therefore, provides us with a point of intersection between the individual and the social, the micro and the macro, by reminding us that just as we can understand a collective as a singular whole, we can recognize an individual—even a human individual—to be an assemblage of agents and forces: all wholes are ultimately collective, just as all action is ultimately interaction. An examination of this commonplace in the terms of the current argument allows us to understand agents as collectives enabled (actualized by) agencies, which are in turn understood as interacting forces of motivations and intentions inherent in the given situation. As pointed out above, we can, for example, make a distinction between collective and assemblage agents wherein collectives are understood to be predominantly aggregations of motivated agents, and therefore more tightly bound to and by motivated agencies. The notion of collective agents, therefore, points to the ‘thick identities’ and affective/motivational bonds of religion, nationality, ethnicity, and culture, while the concept of an assemblage agent—encompassing the category of the collective—reflects the programmatic intentionality of an ensemble of motivated and intentional agents, such as a corporation, a sports team, or less coherent rhizomatic assemblages of the Deleuzo-Guattarian variety. The cohesion of collective agents is more tightly bound to affective motivations, while assemblage agents are more intentional in being ontologically driven toward (constituted by) particular goals or outcomes. As ensembles of motivated and intentional agents, assemblage and collective agents are inherently distributed in Rotman’s sense, being themselves intentional Subject-constituting agents programmatically generating, extending, and manipulating affective motivations through a variety of technological instrumentalities while, by definition, having no inherent motivations of their own because no individual embodied Person anchors such ensembles as ‘wholes’, ‘singularities’, or individual agents. Assemblage agents are, in function and effect, subjectivities.

Deleuze and Guattari similarly view the subject as a collective assemblage of enunciation, with subjectification being one such assemblage, which ‘designates a formalization of expression or regime of signs rather than a condition internal to language’ (1987: 30). In their understanding (using, of course, somewhat different definitions of these terms, particularly in the sense that for Deleuze and Guattari, ‘assemblage’ is a process, more verb than noun) assemblages are only machinic assemblages of desire and collective assemblages of enunciation (ibid. 22). Resonating with Burke, Baudrillard, Foucault, and others, they understand subjectification as a regime of signs, ‘an organization of power that is already fully functioning in the economy, rather than superposing itself upon contents or relations between contents determined as real in the last instance. Capital is a point of subjectification par excellence’ (ibid., italics added). Assemblages, according to Deleuze and Guattari, are passional compositions of desire. An assemblage cannot exist without the desires that constitute it as much as it constitutes them, while passions are effectuations of desire that differ according to assemblage. Assemblages mobilize passions of different orders. Deleuze and Guattari put it this way:

This is the passional regime of feeling and its resistances, a direction (sens, also ‘meaning’) to form and its developments, an economy of force and its displacements, an entire gravity. But the regime of the war machine is on the contrary that of affects, which relate only to the moving body in itself, to speeds and compositions of speed among elements. Affect is the active discharge of emotion... Affects are projectiles just like weapons... (ibid. 399-400)

The Deleuzo-Guattarian reliance on desire is seen by Hansen (2000) as problematic, because it discounts ‘technical autonomy in all forms, and, ultimately, [perpetuates] technesis through a global subordination of technology to a mathematically and technically embodied semiotics of the social’ (p. 186). Nevertheless, Hansen appreciates the Deleuzo-Guattarian take as a deployment of

the notion of machinic internalization as the foundation for a model of molecular agency that would appear to be capable (on initial glance at least) of addressing technology’s impact on human experience in a nonreductive fashion… [As] the transformational movement of subjective desire, becomings [i.e., assemblage processes] forge machinic connections between molecular singularities that entirely bypass the molar threshold of perception/representation… [B]y forging rhythmic connections between those assemblages of singularities we call human beings and the material real, becomings hold out the promise for a robust account of technology’s experiential impact (ibid. 187).

Hansen looks at this work as tracing the practical connections immediately generated by the human incorporation of technology’s inhuman rhythms.

In a continuation of this tradition, DeLanda (2011) offers certain qualifications on assemblage. First, the identity of an assemblage is not only embodied in its materiality but also expressed by it (p.200). Assemblage reflects an individual singularity as the product of a historical process: ‘the process that brought its components together for the first time as well as the process that maintains that the identity of an assemblage is always contingent and it is not guaranteed by the existence of a necessary set of properties constituting an unchanging essence’ (p.185). Secondly, DeLanda argues that an ontological commitment must be built into the definition of the term ‘assemblage’ because these emergent wholes are defined, not only by their properties, but also by their tendencies and capacities—or in our terms, their intentional agency. He explains that tendencies make the properties of a whole vary, sometimes even changing its identity, while capacities make wholes exhibit aspects of their identity that were previously hidden. The term he introduces, ‘structure of possibility of space’, resonating with Kenneth Burke’s idiosyncratic concept of ‘entelechy’, explains how tendencies and capacities can be real even when they are not actual. In relation to the digital, this is quite similar to the ‘revolutionary virtual’ devised to denote the plane of consistency where the affective potentiality for change is materialized: ‘When the affective structures, residing at the interface between the actual and the digital virtual, enable revolutionary moments, this is an actualization of the Deleuzian virtual – the virtual full of potentialities’ (Karatzogianni 2012). Thus, in terms of the current argument, Rotman’s distributed agency is understood here as the tangible materialization of the rhizomatic self, with intense technological extensions in the interfaces between human and computer, human and society, society(s) and culture(s).

The problematic aspect of DeLanda’s theory of assemblage is that he seems to distinguish between the material and the expressive (between matter-energy and information) since he finds it relevant to discuss ‘simulations as emergent wholes composed of information existing above the computer hardware that provides their material and energetic substratum’ (p.201). DeLanda hopes to avoid the danger of making universal singularities into transcendent entities, entities existing independently of the material world, by introducing the concept of the ‘diagram’ which denotes different processes sharing some of the same singularities: ‘In these terms, the isomorphism between models and what they model can be explained as co-actualization of the same diagram, or of different but overlapping diagrams… by always treating diagrams as immanent to matter, energy, and information: while the objective existence of diagrams may not depend on any particular material, energetic, or informational mechanism, it does depend on the actual existence of some sort of mechanism or another’ (ibid.202). This is nevertheless deeply problematic; this stubborn distinction between the material and the expressive does not avoid the danger of making universal singularities into transcendent entities, entities existing independently of the material world, but reifies conceptualised fractal patterns."


"A distinction between material and immaterial becomes unnecessary when the distinction between motivation and intention is applied to the different orders of agents and agencies. We can understand assemblage processes as intentional agents that programmatically generate and manipulate ‘desire’, understood as the affective (inherently embodied and material) motivational forces binding Person to Subject, while also generating and manipulating instrumentalities (intentional agents) binding Subject to Agent. The distinction between motivation and intention would also seem to mitigate Hansen’s concerns about Deleuze and Guattari’s over-reliance on ‘desire’ in the theorization of technology since assemblage agents are understood not to have affect of their own (in the sense of motivating human emotion) but to be parasitic upon motivational agencies which they intentionally manipulate. To understand a specific technology as an intentional agent, on the other hand, is understand it as an Agent (in Rotman’s sense) generatively constrained by the Subject-constituting assemblage, both of which are intentional but, by definition, have no motivations of their own. Corporations, for example, are not people; they are made of people, among many other things. They are intentional, but not motivated, agents.

In terms of political action and resistance, then, the distinction between motivation and intention in relation to human, technological, and collective/assemblage agents points towards the examination of affective-discursive identifications as agencies that push political agents into virtual ‘possibility spaces’ of action toward particular sets of goals. Assemblages can be understood as agents in their own right, without giving up (as with Foucault) or undermining (as with the new materialists) the categorical difference of the self-conscious and self-determining motivated human agent. We can understand the motivated agent as self-determining because, as a Person defined by a nexus of overlapping and interacting Subjects, the motivated agent has the capacity to choose from among the range of assemblages available to her. Self-conscious human beings, in other words, can choose not only their actions, but the guiding (motivating) discourses that shape those actions. This claim does not require downplaying or ignoring the disciplinary power of social structures. The ability and willingness to choose one’s guiding discourses, as opposed to the capacity, are themselves socially and politically constrained. Access to discourses is access to power (Halliday 2007). Constraints of access are political; constraints of willingness are social. Social, fundamentally emotional and affective identifications are discursive, symbolic constraints upon identity (Burke 1989). While emotion is itself socially and culturally (discursively) constrained to a significant degree (Wierzbicka 1999, Kövecses 2003, Levinson 2003), the capacity to choose our guiding discourses in response to affective social reactions is the inherent qualitative difference of the motivated human agent in contrast to the technological and/or assemblage intentional agent. A motivated agent has (goal-directed) intentionality, but those intentions are motivated by largely pre-conscious and often pre-rational, embodied, affective social identifications and constraints that can be potentially acknowledged and accepted or resisted.

The view of agency, intentionality, and materiality described thus far, is particularly close to the Sartre of the Critique of Dialectical Reason (1976). Although the nano-detail of Sartre’s philosophy is not our concern here and his Cartesian assumptions notwithstanding, he does have an important contribution to make to our analysis. Materiality, praxis, and the Sartrean notion of the practico-inert, point to a subject that cannot be collapsed into an inert totality or identity. His realist materialism is ‘the thought of an individual who is situated in the world, penetrated by every cosmic force, and treating the material universe as something which gradually reveals itself through a “situated” praxis’ (ibid.29, his italics). The Sartrean quest is about comprehending the materiality of praxis and its relation to other forms of materiality (ibid. 79). Relations between man and matter produce the domination of man by matter, through the praxis of Others, and through his own praxis as Other (ibid. 153). But contrary to Hegel, Sartre sees matter as a mediation between individuals (ibid. 113).

Sartre’s concept of seriality can be employed to show how individuals –albeit as series of Subjects/subjectivities (centered on the nexus of a Person) serially extend through Agent-capacities -- relate to classes and modes of production, and by extension how they resist these relationships. In fact, Iris Marion Young (1994) in Gender as Seriality uses seriality to solve the problem of how to conceptualise women not as an essential category. Matching this understanding with a schematic typology of agency – the dominant agent and agency, process and logical type – to the order of dissent as shown in Table 2 above allows these to be viewed as series of fused groups in agency and resistance. Ahrne (1990) argues that in Sartre’s social philosophy there is a dialectical movement between seriality in the practico-inert field and the ‘fused group’: ‘In this version, the constitution of a fused group is a dramatic event which happens when people in series suddenly face a common threat that abolishes their being before and after each other… However, after some time the fused group will be dissolved into a new seriality, often in the form of an organization’ (ibid. 82). This is where the seriality parallelism could be a future direction for research especially in relation to Rotman’s work ‘Going Parallel’ (2000) and Bringhetti’s (2011) views on territoriality.

It is in this way that affective labor, not as ‘immaterial’ but as distinctly material technosocial practice, constitutes the point of potentiality for both ideological reproduction and resistance. Motivated action is constantly negotiated among often dissonant and competing assemblage and collective agents and agencies, some inescapably visceral (e.g., the necessity of and available options for keeping oneself and one’s family fed, clothed, and sheltered) and intensely disciplining (e.g., normative social pressures of ‘thick’, ‘tribal’ identities), others more ephemeral (e.g., generalized desire of consumerist society; ethical and moral inclinations). Affective labor materializes at the nexus of Person and Subject, a point of potentiality where Subject-forming assemblages and motivational and intentional forces converge to instantiate choices of action (or inertia) actualized by the Agent. Ideological reproduction and resistance, therefore, can be understood as motivated choice within a ‘possibility space’ of constantly shifting generative constraints on affective labor actualized through the distributed agency of intentional instrumentalities including, importantly, the communications technologies that afford the generation, extension, and reproduction of those spaces within the overarching, globally systemic, capitalist code.

To conclude, such a conceptualization explains how the capitalist code subjectivizes, at a certain order (Local, National, Global), a certain type of agent (Motivated, Intentional, Distributed) enabled by particular form of agency (Human, Technological, Assemblage) that mobilizes a dominant labor process (Symbolic, Informational, Affective) with a specific logic (Affective, Hierarchical, Rhizomatic). This theorization can help specify what occurs when we witness resistance movements, dissident individuals, organizations and agencies communicating their opposition and alternative conceptions and practices of modes of production to those of capitalism. The modes of being in the world and the solidarities projected when these circles overlap – in spite of and despite how these are currently repressed and fought under the state or neoliberal democratic society signifiers and their sociopolitical logics. The overlapping fields where new zones and new forms of agency can be activated or reactivated are the critical interfaces where the remoulding of the material order through revolutionary virtual spaces might be indeed possible. "