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Aggregation vs. networking: a conversation between Paolo Gerbaudo and Jeff Juris

December 19, 2014

These are the first few exchanges of an ongoing public conversation between the social movements scholars Paolo Gerbaudo and Jeff Juris, with Sasha Constanza-Shock and myself chipping in as required. It all started on Twitter a couple of days ago, but we then decided to move the conversation to a much roomier platform: Pirate Pad.

[JP update 19 Dec 2014. For readers new to this topic, here is the abstract of Juris, J. S. (2012). Reflections on# Occupy Everywhere: Social media, public space, and emerging logics of aggregation. American Ethnologist, 39(2), 259-279.

This article explores the links between social media and public space within the #Occupy Everywhere movements. Whereas listservs and websites helped give rise to a widespread logic of networking within the movements for global justice of the 1990s–2000s, I argue that social media have contributed to an emerging logic of aggregation in the more recent #Occupy movements—one that involves the assembling of masses of individuals from diverse backgrounds within physical spaces. However, the recent shift toward more decentralized forms of organizing and networking may help to ensure the sustainability of the #Occupy movements in a posteviction phase. [social movements, globalization, political protest, public space, social media, new technologies, inequality]]

John

I suggest we let Paolo begin by making his point about aggregation vs. networking, with citations if need be, and then Jeff can respond. Either Sasha or I could be the moderator (one moderator is better than two, I reckon).

Paolo

Hi Guys what if you (John and Sasha) raise some questions about our views of aggregation and networking and we respond? That would give a stronger framing to the discussion.

Sasha

I’m not so sure either aggregation or networking are new logics 🙂

Paolo

Come on Sasha don’t open another battle line in this logic battle 😉

John

OK, here’s my kick-off question. Paolo, could you take us back to Sasha’s original tweet, give us a paragraph or two or three about the point you were trying to make? Then Jeff could respond, and we’ll take it from there. In other words, we’re reinitiating the original Twitter conversation from scratch but this time with room to develop points and respond, something that was not possible on Twitter. (NB. Bear in mind that some readers won’t be familiar with your work or Jeff’s).

Jeff

Just finished grading, have a bit of time now. Remember: my initial query about Sasha’s tweet was in response to the implication that I somehow saw aggregation as negative. This was likely more a result of the specific properties of Twitter than anything else (John’s point: affordances anyone?). So, hopefully starting from scratch will allow for a more productive discussion. BTW, who reads this pad (nice to know something about audience)?

John

Re: who reads this pad, well it’s a public arena which anyone can read if they know where to find it, although we haven’t really explicitly publicised it other than indirectly via our Twitter exchanges. I was thinking we could publicise it once the conversation gets under way?

Paolo

[why don’t we use this as a draft for an interview to be published somewhere on da web?]

John

An interview sounds like a great idea to me.

Paolo

Hi folks. Thanks for getting this conversation started. I think the small Twitter misunderstanding we had is a perfect excuse to start a conversation I was very eager to have.

Jeff’s discussion of a logic of aggregation as the emerging communicative logic of the Occupy wave, and its difference from the logic of networking of no-global activists, which he had described in Networking Futures, has been one of the major sources of inspiration for the theorising I have been developing in Tweets and the Streets and thereafter (I have a book on protest culture coming out sometimes in 2015, which discusses very much these issues).

To start from the tweet, my reference during the Media Activism conference to the fact, that I had a more positive view of aggregation, was based mostly on two critical points made by Jeff on aggregation vis-a-vis networking in 2 separate articles.

1) in the Occupy Everywhere article, Jeff argued that the logic of aggregation had some problems compared with networking and in particular a more serious problem of sustainability than the logic of networking, because of its flash-mob tendency to aggregate and disaggregate. Connected to this diagnosis he saw in decentralized organisation (collectives, affinity, groups, community projects) a possible solution.

2) in another collective article ‘Negotiating Power and Difference Within the 99%’ while not referring to the notion of aggregation, some related criticisms emerged which I think ultimately have to do precisely with aggregation. In particular the collective tag 99% was seen as homogeneising, with the risk of eliding differences (class, gender, ethnicity).

Both articles are pertinent and they are right in signalling some risks. Yet, as far as I am concerned, online aggregation and its manifestation in unifying identities as the 99% constitute a clear advancement vis-a-vis the networking practiced by anti-globalisation activists and one which matches well the challenges of the present times.

In particular aggregation – as a process by means of which atomised individuals can be grouped in a collective category  as “the people” or “the 99%” – can allow to

a) supersede the profound divides created by decades of identity politics and the particularism and separatism it has engendered (this is were the 99% identity was useful – to say let’s leave differences aside for a minute, let’s use the economic battlefield as a gathering point. Otherwise they’ll do “divide and rule”)

b) construct a cross-class alliance to face the challenge of an oligarchic society, characterised by an alliance between the business class and the political class, and the presence of so-called “cartel parties” (Katz and Mair, 1995) that is parties that do not really compete with one another

c) overcome the atomisation of contemporary society (in the form of a networked individualism), and cope with the lack of strong categorical identities to be mobilised. As the historian of social movements Charles Tilly (1978) taught us with his concept of cat-net (network within a category) we need both net and cat . Imho at the moment we have too much net and too little cat 😉

d) overcome the self-ghettoising tendencies of small group politics (affinity groups, collectives), which I think were ultimately detrimental for the anti-globalisation movement and autonomous movements (if you are not part of the scene, you are not part of ‘us’)

This is why I think that developing an understanding of online aggregation is very a urgent political task and I welcome this discussion. This is a good point to end my first round.

Jeff

Here’s my first post- think I got carried away:-)

Thanks for the clarification, Paolo, definitely helps flesh out your arguments a bit more than a twitter post! The twitter post was great for grabbing my attention and pulling us all together to have this conversation (perhaps a mini-example of aggregation), but then other tools/structures were needed to really flesh out our ideas and build a productive and more sustainable discussion (essentially a wiki, one of the classic tools of collaborative, networked writing that was widely used during the heyday of the global justice movement). This can serve as a kind of metaphor for the way I see the relationship between logics of aggregation and logics of networking. Each has specific effects, including significant advantages and challenges with respect to movement building and strategy, and I think movements would benefit from understanding how these logics work and incorporating elements of each. I actually don’t think it is possible that one is a clear advancement over the other in such an absolute sense. That’s the gist of what I argued toward the end of my American Ethnologist piece. I actually think this began to happen more and more within the Occupy movement, but, ultimately I don’t think it was enough, and the movement wasn’t really able to sustain itself in the same way for too long after the evictions despite the rise of many exciting initiatives like Occupy Sandy, Strike Debt, Occupy Boston Radio, etc. I was actually more optimistic at the time of writing that piece than I am now.

Paolo provided a lot to chew on and I want to briefly address his point about subjectivity, but before that let me address two potential misconceptions. I am NOT arguing for a deterministic relationship between certain technologies and particular movement logics. Rather, I am making an argument based on the idea of affordances: that certain technologies are more facilitative of certain kinds of practices and interactions than others, but that these practices and interactions are mediated by a host of social, cultural, and political factors. Nonetheless, it is interesting to think about the wider movement logics that may be partly shaped, at an early stage, by certain kinds of technological platforms and practices. Additionally, I use conceptual binaries like logics of aggregation vs. logics of networking as heuristic devices. In practice, these logics are never complete, they are always contested, and there is never an absolute divide between them. That is why I emphasize the potentially productive inter-relationships between them. Nonetheless, they can be helpful in terms of ethnographically interpreting (which is what I do) key movement dynamics as well as key cultural-political tensions and struggles within movements.

In terms of broad populist subjectivities like “the people” or “the 99%,” I think these played an extremely important and productive role within the Occupy movements (like the category of los Indignados in Spain). And I have specifically argued that they are related and partially shaped, if not determined, by the wider logics of aggregation within these movements (they are of course also a reflection of a widespread populist critique of the banks, Wall Street, financial capitalism, etc.). In a short Cultural Anthropology blog (http://www.culanth.org/fieldsights/72-the-99-and-the-production-of-insurgent-subjectivity) I try to ethnographically capture some of the visceral and political potency of these emerging insurgent subjectivities and to think about how to think about them more in performative than in representative terms (given the obvious pitfalls of trying to “represent” the 99%, which I don’t think is what people were actually trying to do). 

All that said, one potential problem of relatively universalizing categories, despite their clear productivity (again, I think in terms of strategic pros and cons, not absolute differences) is that they provide a language where it is often more difficult (not impossible) to articulate differences in ways that recognize internal stratifications, power relations, and exclusions. This means that members of historically marginalized groups may feel that their experiences are not recognized. This is precisely what we began to see in Occupy in relation to critiques of the notion of the 99%, the controversy over the Occupy Wall Street statement of occupation, etc. The point I have been trying to make in my writing is that 1) networking logics and discourses like unity through diversity, networks of networks, movements of movements, etc. provide a more fully developed language for incorporating difference (not that difference and power were effectively addressed in practice during the global justice era either!) and that 2) strategically, at least in the United States and other multicultural societies, it will be impossible to build the kind of diverse, cross-class, multi-racial movement that will be needed to win (whatever that means to you: to topple global finance, to achieve socio-economic and racial justice, to build an alternative society from below, etc.) without engaging difference. Again, rather than setting up logics of aggregation against logics of networking, this is a call to figure out ways of combining elements of each to find strategic ways of expressing broad populist sentiments that can produce powerful affective solidarities and link movements and communities together, while still recognizing differences and internal power relations.

This last point is perhaps shaped by my location in the United States, but here it is very difficult, if not impossible, to build cross-class, multi-racial coalitions by deemphasizing racial and ethnic differences and focusing primarily on class. This is independent of whether you think this would be a good thing. In strategic terms it is a non-starter. The goal, it seems to me, should be to find ways of conceptualizing and productively engaging differences of race, class, sex, gender, privilege, etc. in ways that lead, not to fragmentation and isolation, but to the building of links and connections across communities. This is where logics of networking have something to offer I think. But again, in my most optimistic moments, I believe there are ways to combine different logics and modes of subjectivity to move us forward and not continue falling into the same cultural-political stalemates. For me, conceptual and strategic innovation comes from creative mixing and mashing, not black and white kinds of oppositions (although those can be useful when confronting our political enemies!).

Continued here…
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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2014 8:52 pm

    Hello all. First, I’m not sure if the comments section is the right place to step into this post with a critique but I’ve been thinking (uncomfortably) about transnational activism and networks for some time. I’ve been working in ‘solidarity activism’ in Palestine for the past two years and the interjection I’d like to make here is that this practice encompasses ‘differences of race, class, sex, gender, privilege’ (Jeff) not merely as a network or aggregation but as a community. I posit this not just as an observation but as a way to ‘overcome the self-ghettoising tendencies of small group politics’ (Paulo) for as we coldly categorise the collectivity of difference as networking/aggregation so we deny it an affective sense of belonging. Though businessmen certainly ‘network’ to realise their ends, this is referred to as the business ‘community’ – inferring a positive/natural structure. In the same sense we often talk of spies and terrorists as networks, but never communities. I thus argue that partly because of our descriptive ‘logics’ transnational dissent remains a illegitimate, disempowered and mostly unimagined community.

  2. December 20, 2014 2:09 am

    Many thanks Brian. I’ll add your comment to the Pad conversation further down the line.

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