Monday, November 26, 2007

Mobilizing the universal for social action

I was very interested in Tsing’s concept of the “universal” as a way of motivating social action. While noting that “in socialist Europe, universals opened possibilities for reform and even led social criticism by articulating a larger frame of reference than state-led patriotism,” she argues that universals are “limited by the practical necessity of mobilizing adherents” (8) and can therefore never move far beyond the local. This necessity of making a universal locally relevant to gain adherents is the point at which the global meets the local—and also the point of friction. Tsing goes on to say that “universals are effective within particular historical conjectures that give them context and force,” (8) and it is because of friction that a given universal cannot have a global reach.

So what a universal does in social mobilization is morph. Tsing argues that “social mobilizations are facilitated by their appeal to diverse social groups, who find divergent means and meanings in the cause. … Universalist causes are locally reconfigured, even as they are held by a wider-reaching charisma” (246). If a universal is to spread beyond a given locality with any hope of long-term virility, it must be taken and reshaped by each separate locality as its own personal brand of universality.

Tsing then discusses this cooperation and collaboration between very different and potentially disagreeing partners as making “wide-ranging links possible: they are the stuff of global ties” (247). This, obviously, brought me back to the “strength of weak ties,” in which the more seemingly incongruous connections the more possibility for efficient and widespread communication of a single message. Is it then necessary for a universal to be spread through disparate collaboration between groups who each interpret the same universality in a different way? It appears so, and indeed may be the only way for universals to move beyond the local. This means that any group seeking to mobilize action on a large scale will need to carve and craft its message in varying forms to gain any kind of critical mass of adherents. Is this friction doomed to failure, though? Will so many differing interpretations ultimately collide and break apart, resulting in less unity—or less significant progress toward a given goal of social action—than you had in the first place?

No comments: