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Material vs. immaterial resonance in spreading social change: the issue of speed

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
13th April 2011


1.

The current wave of revolutionary insurrections seems to be the fastest in history. Revolutions always come in waves, but insurgent shockwaves that once expanded across continents over years or months are now making states crumble, one after another, in a matter of weeks. As the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are rapidly followed by widespread rebellions in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and now Oman, it is clear that these are not just events but nodes of acceleration, which shoot out high-speed resonances in all directions and make millions of bodies fight oppression in myriad places at the same time. This political whirlwind is a distance-dissolving machine.

2.

The emancipatory potential of the internet does not mean that Facebook, Google, and Twitter are the main weapons of the 21st century democratic rebellions, as the media often simplistically claims. These are important channels, crucial at points, for the dissemination of resonances produced in the streets by bodies that for the most part do not tweet. The main weapon of democratic, non-violent rebellions still is, and will always be, bodies in the streets producing resonance. And the trends of global unrest that preceded Egypt seem to indicate we are entering a wave of transcontinental anti-elite resonances that are encountering receptive bodies across disparate geographies. This wave began in Europe in 2010, is spreading like wildfire into North Africa and the Middle-East, and is now ricocheting back into Europe.

The following is from a long and rather difficult essay on ‘resonance’, i.e. how people are being affected by dreams of change which they see occuring elswhere, and are then willing to put their own lives at state to effect similar change in their own locale. For the author, resonance is NOT a metaphor, but a real physical process. In the second excerpt, the author offers a comparative case study of the different effects of resonance in Egypt vs. Lybia.

The following is excerpted from the part where the author discuss immaterial resonance. In my opinion, while I agree that the physical is primary (to the degree one can indeed separate ‘material’ from ‘immaterial’, which is indeed a problematic distinction), I disagree that it necessarily needs to originate there. In other words, resonance can be create first in the immaterial spaces of communication, before it is actualized on the streets.

Gaston Gordillo:

“The resonance expanding from Egypt is being channeled through a planetary network of instant communications that has reached a density, spatial reach, speed, and sophistication unparalleled in world history. Karl Marx’s utopian vision of a wave of emancipatory energies interconnected across the nations of the world is only materially possible today. Yet this internationalism will continue being a utopian projection if reactionary resonances based on fear prevail. This is why current struggles for global democracy are over the smoothing out and striation of the primary space that facilitates resonance expansion, the internet. State and corporate power are rapidly joining forces to police the web. The recent attempts by the Obama administration to demonize and shut down Wikileaks express that the United States and Chinese government are not that different in this regard, for both fear the power of uncoded, anti-state resonances travelling globally through unrestricted, unpoliced channels.

The emancipatory potential of the internet does not mean that Facebook, Google, and Twitter are the main weapons of the 21st century democratic rebellions, as the media often simplistically claims. These are important channels, crucial at points, for the dissemination of resonances produced in the streets by bodies that for the most part do not tweet. The main weapon of democratic, non-violent rebellions still is, and will always be, bodies in the streets producing resonance. And the trends of global unrest that preceded Egypt seem to indicate we are entering a wave of transcontinental anti-elite resonances that are encountering receptive bodies across disparate geographies. This wave began in Europe in 2010, is spreading like wildfire into North Africa and the Middle-East, and is now ricocheting back into Europe, as illustrated by the protests and potential court actions for human rights violations that have just forced George W. Bush to cancel a trip to Switzerland.

Meanwhile, the material resonances created in central Cairo continue expanding toward the world. I began writing this essay the day the Egyptian Revolution began, and these pages’ tone, layout, and configurations have mutated and evolved in parallel with the effect that that those equally evolving resonances coming from the margins of the Nile, and that I was trying to understand with words, had on my body. The images and voices of those determined bodies in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, or Suez resonated with my own embodied memories of having been raised under one of the many dictatorships that the United States sponsored, trained, and funded in Latin America to destroy the revolutionary resonances of the 1960s and 1970s. Those riveting images created an affective empathy with their plight as fellow human bodies determined to put an end to their oppression.

The main intention of this essay is to partly contribute to spreading the inspiring resonance created in the streets of Egypt. The obstacles to the expansion of resonance are clear within the territory of the United States, a space in which a powerful propaganda machine has been effective in repelling or neutralizing resonances coming from elsewhere. This repulsion, which was only eroded by the American multitude in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is crucial in the ongoing reproduction of the United States as the central node of imperial machinery and can only be undermined by further resonances produced in American streets. This is why, as Slavoj Zizek observed in The Guardian, it is important that liberals in the US (and across the world) stop fearing the Egyptian revolutionary spirit.

The shifting resonances that this essay has tried to outline are, as I hope it is by now clearer, both patently solid and elusive in their patterns of dispersion. Yet we are socialized to assume that passions on the streets are sheer elusiveness devoid of materiality, and that the shock waves, contagions, and domino effects are just metaphors to refer to something else. Yet these words dance around the potent and bodily political materiality of resonance, which we should be able to see clearly if we looked at the streets of Egypt with a slightly different sensibility.”

2. Case study: Egypt vs. Lybia

In Libya, the Gaddafi regime withstood the deterritorializing charge of the initial uprising by acting fast and with ferocity. In contrast to Egypt, high-speed state terror in Tripoli territorialized the revolution. And the relative weakness of an internet-savvy youth in comparison to Egypt has limited the synergy between the unrest on the streets and the speed allowed by rhizomic social networks. Because of this widespread violence, the Libyan Revolution is now a territorial insurrection, solidifying its control of cities like Tobruk and Benghazi and confronting a regime entrenched in Tripoli. Gaddafi’s swift and violent response, in other words, created the battlefronts favored by states, which allow them to move troops and high-speed weapons systems outwards from the safe node of its arboreal structure. And while it is likely that this strategy will run its course the way it did in Egypt, the Libyan case reminds us of the power of state velocities and, more importantly, that revolutions are decided in bodily confrontations in actual spatial terrains.

Gaston Gordillo:

“The current wave of revolutionary insurrections seems to be the fastest in history. Revolutions always come in waves, but insurgent shockwaves that once expanded across continents over years or months are now making states crumble, one after another, in a matter of weeks. As the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are rapidly followed by widespread rebellions in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and now Oman, it is clear that these are not just events but nodes of acceleration, which shoot out high-speed resonances in all directions and make millions of bodies fight oppression in myriad places at the same time. This political whirlwind is a distance-dissolving machine. It is also an evolving constellation that shifts its form and pulsation because of the striated nature of the global terrain, one day creating moments of joyful exhilaration on Tahrir Square and a few days later facing unrestrained state violence in Libya. In these mutating territories, we seem to be witnessing an epochal clash between new revolutionary velocities and the old, increasingly eroded supremacy of the state in controlling means of speed-creation.

In Egypt, the Mubarak regime was overwhelmed by a revolutionary resonance that, while emanating from its node in Tahrir Square, became a high-speed deterritorializing force that saturated the space of the nation with millions of bodies on the streets. This insurgent deterritorialization was fueled by a fast-paced rhizomic synergy between bodies in the streets and instant forms of communication that outmaneuvered the state and disseminated images with high affective impact (passionate bodies and bodies killed by the state) that resonated with even more bodies, outpacing the state modulation of fear through TV and radio and inspiring further action on the streets. These are rhizomic, leaderless, affirmative velocities that follow multiple lines of expansion independent from each other yet empowered and made resilient by their interconnectedness (an amazing, real-time visualization by André Panisson, shown here, illustrates the rhizomic velocities of tweets about the Egyptian Revolution, and the spatial interconnections they generate, during key moments of the uprising).

The state, in turn, has responded throughout the region with an arsenal of velocities of its own: arboreal patterns of speed that respond to centralized nodes of command, with vast means of destruction at its disposal, and with nodes of resonance modulation with few entry points under its tight control (the TV, radio). This mobile, powerful, but heavy machinery has unleashed violence to prevent the formation of multitudes producing resonance in the streets and has tried to shut down multi-entry nodes of resonance expansion like the internet and phone systems. These are reactive velocities, which follow the tempo and initiative of revolutionary resonances on the streets. These are also murderous velocities, which can indeed slow down or disrupt these resonances by killing the bodies producing them.

In Libya, the Gaddafi regime withstood the deterritorializing charge of the initial uprising by acting fast and with ferocity. In contrast to Egypt, high-speed state terror in Tripoli territorialized the revolution. And the relative weakness of an internet-savvy youth in comparison to Egypt has limited the synergy between the unrest on the streets and the speed allowed by rhizomic social networks. Because of this widespread violence, the Libyan Revolution is now a territorial insurrection, solidifying its control of cities like Tobruk and Benghazi and confronting a regime entrenched in Tripoli. Gaddafi’s swift and violent response, in other words, created the battlefronts favored by states, which allow them to move troops and high-speed weapons systems outwards from the safe node of its arboreal structure. And while it is likely that this strategy will run its course the way it did in Egypt, the Libyan case reminds us of the power of state velocities and, more importantly, that revolutions are decided in bodily confrontations in actual spatial terrains.

The insurgent velocities flowing through North Africa and the Middle-East, likewise, are inseparable from the speed of global networks of instant communication. And this requires a brief overview of the nodal spatiality of different media technologies: that is, the spatial layout of the nodes that produce messages and the nodes that receive them. In the twentieth century, radio and TV opened up and democratized access to nodes of message-reception but within an arboreal structure originating in a handful, and tightly-controlled, nodes of message production. The structure of both the radio and TV is hierarchical and their flows are unidirectional and emanate from a root that anchors the whole system: a handful of nodes based in a building somewhere (TV and radio stations) and controlling the messages sent out to millions of bodies who cannot but listen and watch. That the most influential TV nodes are controlled by the state or corporations gives these actors unparalleled power to modulate the reactive, fearful, inward-looking resonances necessary to reproduce exploitative bodily constellations based on profound inequalities.

The internet and mobile technologies, in contrast, are built on a multi-sited and rhizomic physical infrastructure with countless nodes of message-creation, even if the network has arboreal nodes such as Google or Facebook (as pointed out by Ian Buchanan). The dense arborescent knots that exist within wider rhizomic networks can be clearly seen in the picture to the right. On a daily basis, a complex, multilayered system like this channels billions of multi-directional flows created by millions of bodies who can potentially reach wide audiences without the mediation of media conglomerates. In 2010, Wikileaks brought to light with devastating clarity why the internet, while coded by state-corporate arboreal forms at multiple levels, does offer a liberating potential: a small group of bodies can make classified information about imperial operations accessible, in principle, to billions of bodies all over the planet. More importantly, they can do it despite the fierce opposition of the imperial elites. And that Wikileaks survived myriad cyber-attacks through the rapid creation of rhizomic networks of solidarity (the Wikileaks mirror sites) reveals that insurgent velocities on the web can outpace the speed of state censorship. Yet what recent debates about the political salience of the internet overlook is that what the web amplifies is the power to mobilize and coordinate bodies in actual spaces through equally rhizomic forms of speed.

In the Egyptian Revolution, the synergy between the velocities generated on these networks of instant communication and in the urban terrain was decisive in allowing the multitude outmaneuver state violence and state propaganda. The revolution was fought at different yet inseparable velocities: the speed of swarms of bodies clashing with the police on the streets and the much-faster speed of the affective resonances generated by those clashes and amplified over the internet and TV networks not controlled by the Egyptian state like Al Jazeera. Disembodied and projected instantly as images, sounds, and text onto countless computers and TV screens, these resonances became embodied again by affecting the millions of bodies watching, listening, and reading. Not all bodies were affected the same way. Yet millions resonated positively, and not just in Egypt.

Nikolai Grozni wrote about the affective impact that the resonance travelling at instant speed from Egypt had on his body following the news in Paris. “Ever since the uprising in Egypt began on Jan. 25, I have hardly moved an inch away from the TV screen. I may be in France, but my spirit is in Tahrir Square. I’m throwing stones. I’m breathing in tear gas. I’m lighting up Molotov cocktails. I’m dodging bullets. I’m fighting thick-headed policemen. I’m cursing every symbol of the regime until my voice cracks.” Contrary to what he claims, Grozni’s body (not just his spirit) was affectively and fully in sync with those bodies on Tahrir Square, to the point that the spatial distance between Egypt and France seemed to had dissolved. His body resonated, via his TV, together with those bodies on Tahrir Square. This instantaneous affectation amplified through global networks was the same that, a few days earlier, had inspired millions of Egyptian bodies following the news about the uprising in Tunisia to take to the streets to topple Mubarak.

The synergy between the streets and online social networks was in fact what triggered the opening salvo of the Egyptian Revolution on January 25. As analyzed by Charles Hirschkind, in the previous months social networks became a potent resonance machine amplifying what the Egyptian media made invisible: bodies terrorized by the state. The affective power was epitomized by the widespread circulation in June 2010 of the photo of the disfigured, tortured face of Khalel Said, who had been beaten up to death by two police officers. The visceral resonance created by the image of the corpse led to the creation of a Facebook group (We Are All Khalel Said) that was to have a central role in the organization of the January 25 demonstrations. This image reached myriad computer screens and affected millions of bodies, as Jon Beasley-Murray would put it, at a non-discursive, non-ideological level. “That was the turning point,” said Heba Morayef, the Human Rights Watch advocate in Egypt to The Guardian. “Prior to that, demonstrations in favour of political reform struck many ordinary Egyptians as somewhat abstract.” The tortured face of a 28-year-old man dissipated those abstraction and made many bodies resonate out of empathy with a young man tortured and murdered by state agents. Activists on Facebook turned that bodily trace of terror into a deterritorialized weapon of resonance expansion.

This is why the Mubarak regime tried to shut down rhizomic networks of instant communication (internet, phone systems) transmitting these resonances, turning off the famous “internet switch” in key buildings in Cairo (especially the Telecom Egypt Building) and going after the bodies of on-line activists. Khalil Said, after all, was killed because he was a blogger exposing police corruption and Wael Ghonim was captured on the street and detained for twelve days because of his activism on Facebook. This is the same state tactic of reterritorialization involved in imperial attempts to imprison the body of Julian Assange, which shows that state velocities also seek synergy between their repressive actions on the networks of communication and on actual bodies in the streets.

Since bodies coming together in space are the main source of revolutionary resonance, the primary aim of the state in all cases has been to disband those bodies and take them off the streets. The resulting clash between arboreal and rhizomic velocities was particularly dramatic in Egypt. In planning for the January 25 protests, activists decided to take over the streets through patterns of high mobility and dispersion in order to avoid being pinned down in space (“kettled”) by the police as it had happened in previous rallies, a strategy of swarming also adopted by activists in the UK to challenge kettles. An Egyptian activist told The Guardian, “This time we were determined to do something different – be multi-polar, fast-moving, and too mobile for the amin markazi [central security forces].” And they were indeed too fast, mobile, and multi-polar for the state, stretching riot police units thin and outmaneuvering them over several days. At one point, an overwhelmed police gave up and withdrew from the streets of Egypt. In this urban terrain, as The Invisible Committee would put it, the centrifugal force of the multitude prevailed over the centripetal force of the police. The footage of the epic, several–hour battle for the control of the Qasr El Nile bridge on January 28, shown here, illustrates how amid clouds of teargas these mobile swarms came together, dispersed when attacked, and pushed the police back even in a narrow space such as a bridge. The successful occupation of the bridge anticipated the occupation of Tahrir Square and, a few days later, the toppling of Mubarak.

Few events embodied the Egyptian Revolution more dramatically than when on February 11, the day Mubarak fell, a multitude surrounded the building of the state-run TV in Cairo on the Nile, while determined masses were taking over the rest of the city and the nation to topple the regime once and for all. That dangerously resonant bodily saturation encroaching on the root of the state propaganda machine was powerful enough, despite the protective ring of soldiers, to make the bodies inside the building change the tone of the modulation emitted from the arboreal state node. Instead of propagating fear, the state TV began endorsing the revolutionary resonances emanating from Tahrir Square. In Egypt, rhizomic speeds prevailed by saturation not only in the clashes with the police but also in the modulation of resonances in arboreal networks of mass communication.

These mobilities were politically effective not so much because of the speed of individual bodies, which for the most part walked or ran, but because of their multi-polar nature, which was able to saturate the urban terrain and outpace the state. The systemic speed of this human swarm was enhanced by its myriad pulsations, widespread spatial dispersion, and bodily density. A gripping example are the videos (hereand here) quickly posted on YouTube that show police vans and unmarked vehicles driving at very high speed amid large crowds without even trying to avoid them. On the one hand, these vehicles’ lightning speed made them run over and kill several bodies. On the other hand,this is a desperate velocity of escape from a hostile space controlled by resonant bodies. And while the videos were posted online to highlight state brutality, they also signal a rapid retreat by the state from streets saturated by the multitude.

These rhizomic speeds are constitutive of an insurrection without leaders, hierarchical organizations, or parties (most of which had been neutralized or decapitated by the regime). This non-hierarchical bodily form is the multitude as multiplicity. And as Stathis Gourgouris observed, this multitude never gestured toward any transcendent or superior authorization. No leader, no vanguard, no revolutionary party, just resonant bodies on the streets. The most popular slogan chanted in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain or Libya has been and is, “The people want to bring down the regime.” Originated in signs and on Facebook pages in Tunisia, this chanting by myriad resonant bodies materializes the constituent, leaderless power of the multitude.”

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One Response to “Material vs. immaterial resonance in spreading social change: the issue of speed”

  1. gregorylent Says:

    just wait until the end of the year, november, and into 2012 … and “resonance” does not cover “frequency shift” … and it is not humans doing this, they are only reacting to a higher-order cause.

    enjoy. you were born for now.

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