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On Amorphous Politics by Patrick Lichty

09/12/2011
Patrick Lichty

Since the turn of the millennium, there have been shifts toward new forms of sociopolitical dissent. These include strategies such as cellular forms or resistance including asymmetrical warfare like global insurgencies, the use of social media. Examples would be Twitter and Facebook in their ability to lens dissent for actions in Syria, Egypt and Tunisia, Wikileaks and its ability to mirror, and politics that use anarchistic forms of collective action such as the Occupy Movement. Although my focus is more concerned with the Occupy Movement, what is evident is what I call an amorphous politics of dissent. Amorphous is defined as “without shape”, and can be applied to most of the mise en scenes listed above.

The dissonance of power in regards to conventional politics can be seen in its structure. For example, the nation-state has a tiered, hierarchical structure of power relations. There is a President or Prime Minister, a legislative organ of MPs or Representatives, Parliaments, Houses, and the like, a Judicial organ, and a Military organ that includes any number of militia and police. Although I am referring mostly Western forms of government, we can also argue for the hierarchical form in terms of the Corporation, with its CEO, Board, Shareholders, Managers, and Workers. This can be expanded historically to Feudal lords with their retinue of Vassals, Nobles and Warlords with their coteries of Warriors and support personnel. The point is that conventional power typically operates in a pyramidal command and control hierarchy with a centralized Leader at the “capstone”. One can argue that the pyramid may have different shapes, or angles of distribution of power, but in the end, there is usually a terminal figure of authority. To put it in terms of stereotypical Science Fiction terminology, when the alien comes to Earth, the standard story is that it pops out of the spacecraft and says, “Take me to your leader.” This signifies the hegemonic paradigm of Leadership as the central gestalt of First world power. Leadership, then, is the conventional paradigm of power in Western culture, and dominates the industrialized world.

Territorialization refers to the exertion of power along perimeters, or borders. Functionaries expressing the constriction of territory include customs agents, and border patrols; but are terminally expressed by the military wing of the nation state. This military is also generally pyramidally constructed in terms of Generals, Colonels, and other officers leading Battalions, Regiments and Divisions, which are organized as defenders of a nation’s sovereignty. These military organs are conversely best optimized to exert their power against either parallel or subordinate structures. Parallel structures include the armies of other nations, their Officers, et al, and their troops and ordnance that possess a similar organization. Conversely, subordinate structures over which military powers can exert power over are domestic masses that can be overrun with overwhelming power, although these forces are more specialized (such as National Guards or Gendarmeries). In the conventional sense, power is expressed orthogonally, whether it is against equal or subordinate forces.

Another aspect of this conversation relates to the expression of power/force through conflict and violence, but has its inconsistencies The examples I will use from American pop culture I will use in this missive to explain amorphous action may be violent in nature, but the violent nature of these examples do not relate to the paradigmatic jamming of conventional power. Their citation is related more to the fact of conventional power’s orthogony, or parallelism of exertion of power to similar structures or dominance of the subordinate, and the panic state it experiences when confronted with non-conventional difference or passive resistance. We could express the power relationships between amorphous politics and conventional power in terms of a tetrad in terms of examples of violent and peaceful exertion of amorphous dissent as well as orthogonal conflict. We could cite the Occupy movement as a site of passive, and the Tunisian uprising as violent exemplars of amorphous conflict or dissent. Conversely, the Gandhi/King is a non-violent model of as orthogonal/hierarchical/led action, and World War Two as conventional orthogonal conflict. What is important here is the inability of the conventional politics and power to cope with leaderless, non-hierarchical, non-orthogonal discourse that refuses to talk in like terms such as centralization, leadership and conventional negotiations that include concepts such as “demands”. This is where the site of cognitive dissonance erupts, often resulting in a panic state or in the “figureheading” of dispersed networks of power.

The need for the traditional power structure to focus identity on the antagonist in terms of figureheads is evident in the Middle East and Eurasia in the personification of terrorist and insurgent networks, but is more simply illustrated in the films Alien and Aliens, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Both of these feature their respective antagonists, the “alien” as archetypal Other, and the Borg, symbol of autonomous, collective community. In Alien, the crew of the Nostromo encounters an alien derelict ship that has been mysteriously disabled to find a hive of eggs of alien creatures whose sole role is the creation of egg factories for further reproduction. At the onset of the franchise, pilot Ellen Ripley is positioned as the “everywoman” placed in the center of cataclysmic events. In the Alan Dean Foster book adaptation, and an extended edit of the Scott film, Ripley finds during her escape from the ship that Captain Dallas has been captured and organically transformed into a half-human egg-layer whom she immolates with a flamethrower. However, in the Aliens sequel, the amorphous society of the self-replicating aliens has been replaced by a centralized hive, dominated by a gigantic Queen that threatens to impregnate the daughter-surrogate Newt. This transformation from a faceless to centralized threat creates a figurehead for the threat and establishes a clear protagonist/antagonist relationship, and establishes traditional orthogony.

This simplification of dialectic of asymmetrical politics is also evidenced in Star Trek: The Next Generation by the coming of the Borg, a collective race of cybernetic individuals. Although representations of the Borg vary as to fictional timeline, in televised media they began as a faceless hive-mind, which abducted Captain Jean-Luc Picard as a mouthpiece, not as a leader. It was inferred that if one sliced off or destroyed a percentage of a Borg ship, you did not disable it; you merely had the percentage left coming at you just as fast. However, by the movie First Contact, the Borg now possesses a hierarchical command structure to their network and, more importantly, a queen. With the assimilated and reclaimed android Lieutenant Data, the crew of the Enterprise infiltrates higher level functions of the Borg Collective, effectively shutting down the subordinate elements of the Hive. In addition, the Queen/Leader is defeated, assuring traditional figurehead/hierarchy power relations rather than having to deal with the problems of the amorphous, autonomous mass. There are other “amorphous” metaphors in cinema that address the issue of amorphousness. These include the 1958 movie, The Blob, in which a giant amoeba attacks a small town and grows as it engulfs everything. Another is The Thing, about a parasitic alien that doppelgangs its victims, creating another form of faceless threat. Lastly, we have the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers where alien plant “pods” would bear fruit of duplicates of living people, giving a metaphor for the Communist threat of the Red Scare originating during the Cold War. Perhaps these are historical references to mediated expressions of anxiety in regard to autonomy’s threats to regimented/striated hegemony, stating that this sort of anxiety and terror are not new.

One of the most asymmetric cultural Western interventions in relation to constructs of traditional power is the involvement of Anonymous as part of the Occupy Movement. Anonymous, which has been called a “hacker group” in the mass media, is a taxonomy created on the online image sharing community 4chan.org, arising from the practice of posting “anonymously” unless one wants to use a name, or handle. Although the idea of Anonymous is at best an ad hoc grouping, the use of the “group” name has been ascribed to various factions. According to The State News, “Anonymous has no leader or controlling party and relies on the collective power of its individual participants acting in such a way that the net effect benefits the group.“ The idea of Anonymous fits with the “faceless collectives” mentioned above, and certainly presents an asymmetric, if not non-orthogonal, exercise of power. Anonymous first rose as a voice of dissent that emerged against the Church of Scientology (see Project Chanology), where flash mobs of individuals in Guy Fawkes masks and suits arrived to protest at sites around the world, with boom boxes playing “The Fresh Prince of BelAir”, a popular agitational or “trolling” anthem. It has engaged in other activities, including hacking credit card infrastructures opposed to handling donations to Wikileaks and creating media around Occupy Wall Street. However, without a clear infrastructure and only transient figureheads, Anonymous functions as an organizing frame for a cloud of individuals interested in various collective actions, and represents an indefinite politics based on networked culture. In an expected exercise of force, during the actions against elements opposed to Wikileaks, conventional power struck back wherever it could against members of Anonymous, by arresting over 21, some violently, in July during the actions against credit providers boycotting Wikileaks. This exercise of power was repeated in September, with admonitions about the arrests appearing on YouTube thereafter. Anonymous has also posted videos in support of the Occupy movement. Such a response is not surprising, but is the exact response to non-orthogonal dissent under our model. The problem is that in arresting any number of Anonymous members, traditional power is confronted with the first, distributed model of the Borg that merely exists minus two or twenty members.

Photo courtesy Hamburg, Germany Anonymous.
Photo courtesy Hamburg, Germany Anonymous.

Another dissonance between the Occupy Movement and conventional politics is the perceived lack of agenda. This is due to its dispersion of discourse in giving its constituents collective importance in voice. What is the agenda of the disempowered 99% of Americans, or world citizens marginalized by global concentration of wealth? Simply put, the agenda is for the disempowered to be heard. What does that mean? It means anything from forgiveness of student loans to jobs to redistribution of wealth to affordable health care, and so on. It isn’t a list; it is a call to systemic change of the means of production, distribution of wealth and empowerment in political discourse. It isn’t as simple as “We want a 5% cut in taxes for those making under $30,000.” It’s more akin to “We’re tired that there are so many sick, hungry, poor and uneducated, and we want it to end. Let’s figure it out.” It is the invitation to the beginning of a conversation that has no simple answers other than the very alteration of a paradigm of disparity that has arisen over the past 40 years through American capitalism.

The last challenge to the traditional power discourse is that of passive resistance. This is not a new strategy, especially under the aegis of Gandhi and King’s movements. However, it is traditional power’s mere tolerance of nonviolent resistance that does not result in violence. As we can see from the UC Davis assaults and the dispersions after the second month anniversary, conventional power exerts its force against, as Brian Holmes put it, “anomalies” so that the system can be restored and the commodifiable classes are reintegrated into the system to reproduce its agendas. As long as resistance does not present undue inconvenience for the circulation of power and capital, it is allowed. Once it loses its patience with non-orthogonal forces, or if materially sacralized spaces, like Wall Street are threatened, the hegemonic order is reified. The irony of the technical loophole of Zucotti Park being privately owned and having few rules allowed the Occupy movement also highlights the tenuousness of public discourse in Millennial America. However, even with this oddity, on the two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, force has begun to be used against the occupiers as traditional power’s patience grows thin with amorphous politics. In the streets, the marches are split up, and rules about occupation begin to be enforced with cupidity. As said before, hegemonic patience has worn thin, with assaults/dispersions taking place in Oakland, Davis, Philadelphia, and New York, among others. However, the movement moves forward for the moment.

Amorphous politics is based on plurality, collectivism, dispersion and ideas. The hierarchical nation-state has no idea what to do with the amorphous blob as it grows except to try to contain it, but as with Anonymous, it is a whack-a-mole game. If one smacks down one protest, two pop up across town, or five websites pop up on the Net. Shut down Wikileaks, and a thousand mirror sites show up. People in the streets swarm New York and other cities throughout the US, and the world, and conflict arises. Asymmetry and amorphousness are dissonances to traditional power. Ideas in themselves are not hierarchical.

Desires sometimes have no agendas.
Sometimes people want what is right, and all of it.