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Steps towards understanding the #SpanishRevolution

July 3, 2011

Notes towards my participation in the “Communication and Civil Society” seminar series, Open University of Catalonia, 4 July 2011. This session is titled “New movements, mass self-communication and new fields of possibilities: What does the 15-M Movement open?” (“Nous moviments, autocomunicació de masses i nous camps de possibilitats. Que obre el 15M?”).

    • As with any social phenomenon, we should start by trying to understand the 15-M (aka #spanishrevolution) movement on its own terms, not those of other social phenomena. This requires time.
    • Once we have understood it – at least partially – on its own terms, then we can start comparing and constrasting it with other movements. 
    • Premature comparisons can be counterproductive, e.g. with previous mobilisations in Iceland, Egypt, Argentina, etc.
    • How do you do this? How do you understand a social phenomenon on its own terms? (a) you avoid pointless debates of the ‘Twitter revolution’  or ‘How new is this ‘new’ social movement?’ ‘Haven’t we seen all this before?’ variety, (b) you keep your normative biases out of the inquiry, e.g. your desire for a more democratic and just global order, or your dismissal of the movement as pure wishful thinking with no impact on the status quo, (c) you learn the phenomenon’s own internal logic and dynamics, just like you learn a foreign language in that language and not by translating it word by word into your mother tongue.
    • One useful first exercise is to make an inventory of the actors, collectives, technologies, arenas and actions that make up the movement. This can take a while.
    • Then you identify the key phases in the unfolding of the movement; in this case it is reasonable to divide the events so far into two broad phases: pre- and post- 15 May demonstrations. Within those two main phases, one should be able to identify smaller sub-phases.
    • Within each sub-phase you ‘zoom into’ the main arenas (Turner 1974) where the conflict has been put on stage, acted out, e.g. streets, squares, buildings, websites, TV studios. It is at this level that you can ask interesting questions about the specific socio-technological mixes that made up the arena, and with what outcomes.
    • Another issue to pursue is virality. My contention is that we should not only pay attention to the movement’s ‘virals’ (videos, photos, slogans, etc.) but also to the possibility that the movement itself has undergone phases of viral growth, especially following the first 16 May sit-in at Puerta del Sol in Madrid. What analytical tools have we got at our disposal to study the digital epidemiology of 15-M?
    • What are the media ecology dimensions of this phenomenon? Is it taking place in an age of ‘viral reality‘, i.e. an age in which virals play a crucial role in framing the political reality? (see this blog, ‘viral reality’)
    • Like many others, I ‘caught the 15-M virus’ through direct contact with fellow participants, in my case at Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona. Like others I got goose bumps and felt other somatic reactions at peak moments of participation and communitas. I experienced an epiphany, as if I had crossed an invisible threshold and I now ‘got’ the movement, as if a gestalt switch had been turned on. How do we account for these mindbody reactions? And for the fact that many others do not seem to have been ‘infected’ by the movement?
    •  Two final quick thoughts: (a) 15-M participants seem to exhibit ‘archival hubris‘ (Kelty 2008, see this blog), that is, there already is a mountain of self-documented evidence about the movement, very little is left undocumented (b) To assess the repercussions of the movement we’ll need to take into account not only its more spectacular moments but also the long tail (Anderson) of small episodes, epiphanies, goose bumps, virals and so on that together could add up to a considerable influence on this country’s circuits of culture.
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