Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Collective Action & Viral Engagement

Political theorist Hannah Arendt's definition of power is a surprising one. Contrary to previous definitions of power, she posits that 'power' does not necessarily need violence, or force, or even authority. Instead, Arendt argues that power is created through collective action. Granted, Arendt developed her theory on power in the aftermath of the student uprisings in Western Europe and North America, but in light of recent political events her thoughts have regained prominence.

In reading Didier Fassin's account of how 'suffering' became social fact in France, I immediately recalled Arendt's definition of power. Fassin claims that the vocabulary and discourse of 'suffering', while largely individualized, gradually developed into "a collective focus" (26). The way news was consumed, and portrayed, was deeply mediated by the idea of 'suffering'. Fassin's text points out elements of 'Oh Dearism', or a way of framing subjects in categorical themes for mass consumption. In light of the readings these past couple of weeks, including Rafael and Thrift, the question I have formulated and in turn have tried to answer is why. What are we hoping to achieve in imagining our shared narratives through networks; imagined, electronic, physical, or emotional? I believe Arendt's concept of power provides the answer.

Part of what Fassin is trying to unpack is the creation of social facts, and our reliance on them in social, political, and even economic spheres. Arendt would argue that we depend on these social facts because we are always clamoring for collective action. As we learned from studying Thrift's analysis of the way political performance and presence can change and occupy the affect of a space alongside the experience of navigating both the web and the political sphere as a purely anonymous entity, the ability to be apart of something, or to lose oneself in it, is a desirable one. Rafael's explanation of the joy felt when joining in the protests is telling - because of our desire for collective action, or to feel powerful by ridding oneself of the vulnerability of being a singular actor, there is an inherent demand for the potential of collective action.

Technological means like Txtmob, and eventually Twitter, enable these desires. They enable the creation of imitations of collective action, like flashmobs, to be able to recreate the experience of power.  What complicates this argument, however, is Professor Muhanna's lecture and the idea of overcoding, or an overload of information. Does the recreation, piecing together, and evolution of truth in media simply an obstacle to collective action, or does it somehow enable it?

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