Random reading notes (Apr-May)

30May09

While recognising the importance of culture in the process of social change, Melucci (1996, 36-37) artificially separates the cultural from the political. In his view there are social movement actors who prepare the public for political change through cultural discourse, and other actors who then “process” the issue through “political means”. But cultural politics is itself part of political change. Politics can’t be divorced from everyday life, from the opinions expressed in living rooms, from the discourse that occurs in classrooms, workplaces and online forums.

He celebrates the way that contemporary movements “challenge the modern separation between the public and the private” (Melucci 1996, 102) while maintaining a corresponding dichotomy, that between the cultural (private) and the political (public). This seems like an unnecessary distinction to draw, especially in light of his analysis of the way in which political conflict is bred of personal experience. He explains how “society […] intervenes in the very roots of individual life”, breeding “crucial social conflicts, in which new powers and new forms of resistance and opposition confront each other” (Melucci 1996, 106). In light of this explanation, the distinction between the cultural and the political is superfluous, since politics takes place at the level of everyday life.

Melucci (1996, 121) describes power as “so finely interwoven with the structures of daily life” that “the call for the power to be rendered visible, for the asymmetry of social relationships to be laid bare” is therefore itself antagonistic to power. And yet this apparently occurs at the level of “culture” rather than “politics”. Feminist discourse carries this call to lay bare the foundations of inequality, yet the discourse of women is elsewhere described as a “useless surplus” of “cultural production” (Melucci 1996, 138). While Melucci here is arguing, in fact, that this apparently useless surplus has productive results in the women’s movement, he is also constructing women’s politics/discourse/culture/surplus in an unnecessary subdivision which removes women twice from approaching political agency. He does this first by separating women’s cultural production from the intentional cultural work of social movement actors described above – the surplus of women’s cultural production (the “waste”) unintentionally or even accidentally leads to discursive change. He then does this again by separating the cultural from the political, locating cultural change in people’s heads.

Something I find very frustrating about social movement theory in general is the tendency to break social movements up into increasingly abstract constituent elements which are also defined abstractly in terms of “processes” and “structures”. We need to find a balance between the abstract and the specific; an approach that is conceptually rich but not bogged down in term definition and term coinage or the division of “processes” into their various “aspects”. Such a theoretical approach actually conceptually removes us as theorists from the reality of people-in-social-movements and obscures rather than clarifies our understanding of social movements. This is partly because the reification of social processes removes social agency from individual actors but also because the division of social movement “processes” into “aspects” through the use of abstractly defined terms which are then repeated mantra-like in social movement literature is essentially the reproduction of meaninglessness.

We need to use words which have meaning in and of themselves, to describe social action, i.e., the ways that individuals act to change their worlds. This is an inherently interesting subject, so there is no need for papers to be cluttered with double-barrelled abstractions.

Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity: So Bauman’s conclusion that society has become individualised to the point that an individual blames herself for her problems rather than blaming the system is a useful one. However, Bauman’s other conclusion that network communities are ‘peg’ communities (Bauman 2000, 37), momentary and thus meaningless, erratic responses to temporary anxieties, is premature. Firstly, this conclusion, in its denigration of the value of sharing intimacies (described here as the invasion of public space by “the private”) fails to note that recognition of systemic failures will never be understood without the recognition of shared private problems (since he has already argued that social problems have been privatised). It also reifies the notion of “public life” as a space free of emotion etc. and thus a rational space, a problematic position that yearns for a return to a neat division of these spheres, a position that leads to the exclusion of those who are associated with “private” concerns – the affective and the emotion (i.e. women).

Thoughts on reading In a Winding Snarling Vine:

It’s important to understand people as the primary agents in social processes, rather than reifying the processes themselves. Such a reification leads to determinism, whether technological, structural, linguistic or otherwise. The recognition of the agency of people is a guiding principle in my approach.

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2 Responses to “Random reading notes (Apr-May)”

  1. 1 Rachel

    I believe we may have a supervisor in common. 🙂

    • 2 frankiesayscollapse

      That wouldn’t surprise me! I saw you on the UNSW FASS research students group as well, I had no idea you were even at UNSW. What program are you doing?


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