Patrick Lichty on Fri, 18 Nov 2011 10:29:22 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Rough notes - On Amorphous Politics

On Amorphous Politics
Since the turn of the millennium, there has been a turn toward new forms of 
sociopolitical dissent.  These include strategies such as cellular forms or 
resistance like asymmetrical warfare in terms of global insurgencies, the 
use of social media like Twitter and Facebook to lens dissent for actions 
like those in Syria, Egypt and Tunisia, Wikileaks and its mirrors, and 
political movements that use anarchistic forms of collective action such as 
the Occupy.  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 âwithout shapeâ, 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 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.  Although I am referring to US/UK 
forms of government, we can also argue for the hierarchical form in terms of 
the corporation, with its CEO, Board, Shareholders, Managers, and Workers, 
and even Feudal lords with their retinue of vassals and nobles and Warlords 
with the coteries of warriors and support personnel.  The point to this is 
that conventional power operates roughly pyramidally with a centralized 
figurehead.  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, âTake me to your leader.â  Leadership 
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, border patrols, but terminally is 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 
nationâs sovereignty.  These military organs are conversely best optimized 
to exert their power against either parallel or subordinate structures.  
That is, parallel structures include the armies of other nations, their 
generals, colonels, majors, et al, and their troops and ordnance.   
Subordinate structures over which military powers can exert power over are 
the (relatively) unarmed masses that can be overrun with overwhelming power, 
although these forces are more specialized (National Guards and 
Gendarmeries).  In the conventional sense, power is expressed orthogonally, 
whether it is against an equal or subordinate force.

Another aspect of this conversation relates to power and force through 
conflict as expressed by violence, but has its inconsistencies.  Most of the 
pop cultural examples I will use later in this missive to explain amorphous 
action are violent in nature, but is not related to the paradigmatic jamming 
of conventional power.  It is more related to the fact of conventional 
powerâs orthogony, or parallelism of exertion of power.  There are examples 
of violent and peaceful exertion of amorphous dissent as well as orthogonal 
conflict.  In amorphous conflict or dissent, we could cite the Occupy 
movement as passive, and the Tunisian uprising as violent, and the 
Gandhi/King model of non-violent action as orthogonal/hierarchical/led, and 
World War Two as conventional orthogonal conflict.  What is important here 
is the inability of 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.

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, 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 âalienâ as archetypal Other, and the Borg, symbol of 
autonomous, collective community.  In Alien, the crew of the Nostromo 
encounter 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.  In the Alan Dean Foster book adaptation 
and an extended edit of the film, Ripley finds during her escape 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 impregnated the daughter-surrogate Newt.   This transformation creates a 
figurehead for the threat and establishes a clear 
protagonist/antagonist/threat relationship, and establishes traditional 

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 possess 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 âamorphousâ 
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 at it engulfs everything,  The Thing, which is about a parasitic alien 
that doppelgangs its victims, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers  that was a 
metaphor for the Communist threat of the Red Scare.

Perhaps one of the most asymmetric cultural forms in terms of traditional 
power is the involvement of Anonymous as part of the Occupy Movement.  
Anonymous, which has been called a âhacker groupâ in the mass media, is a 
taxonomy created on the online image sharing community, but has 
been ascribed to various factions using the term. According to The State 
News, âAnonymous 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.â  The idea of Anonymous fits with the 
âfaceless collectivesâ mentioned above, and certainly presents an 
asymmetric, if not non-orthogonal, exercise of power.  Anonymous is an ad 
hoc 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.  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.

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?  The agenda is for the disempowered to be 
heard, simply put.  What does that mean?  It means anything from 
forgivenesss of student loans to jobs to redistribution of wealth to 
affordable heath care, and so on.  It isnât a list, it is a call to systemic 
change of the means of production, distribution of wealth and empowerment in 
political discourse.  It isnât as simple as âWe want a 5% cut in taxes for 
those making under $30,000.â  Itâs more akin to âWeâre tired that there are 
so many sick, hungry, poor and uneducated, and we want it to end. Letâs 
figure it out.â  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 

The last difference the traditional power discourse is that of passive 
resistance.  This is not a new concept, especially under the aegis of Gandhi 
and King conceptions.  However, it is traditional powerâs mere tolerance of 
nonviolent resistance that does not result in violence.  As long as 
resistance does not present undue inconvenience for the circulation of power 
and capital, it is allowed.  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 
powerâs patience grows thin with amorphous politics. In the streets, the 
marches are split up, and rules about occupation begin to be enforced with 

The new forms of politics are based on plurality, collectivism 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.

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