repertoires of contention


Last week, cell phone footage emerged on Youtube that purports to be taken by a Saudi Arabian woman in a mall, of her clash with the Saudi religious police. The woman is righteously indignant, insisting that they have no right to harass her, that it’s “none of [their] business if [she] wears nail polish”. She also tells them to “smile for the camera”, as she’s filming the entire thing and is sharing the footage.

The pattern of this particular encounter isn’t necessarily novel, and by Western standards a claim on the right to wear nail polish in public seems fairly mundane, but there is something worth noting about the specific dynamics inherent in sharing this kind of footage. Most obviously there’s the fact that in countries with repressive laws based on gender, wearing nail polish in public may indeed be an extremely subversive act, but that leaves aside the question of the cell phone footage itself, and what uploading it to Youtube does.


Egyptian solidarity protest in Paris, Jan. 2011. Image by Jacques Delarue.

When it comes to thought and research on social movements and technology (separately and together), emotion is that crucial piece of the picture that everyone technically sees but hardly anyone explicitly acknowledges as worth paying attention to in its own right. Some of this is likely because emotion is hard to study in any way that social science would consider rigorous; it’s often taken as something fundamentally irrational and therefore fundamentally inexplicable. It is highly subjective. It is culturally and situationally constructed, and therefore conceptually slippery. It is interior; it is a difficult thing to see and to know. If explicitly drawing it out as an important factor is problematic for some, identifying it as a variable capable of carrying any causal weight is even more so.

Regarding technology and social movements combined, there is the question of how the digital and physical play out as far as what ends up really being important. What is the relationship between the two? Where exactly is the body in augmented contention and is the way in which it matters changing? What is really going on when we see a bunch of street protesters carrying smartphones?


Photo by David Shankbone, September 30th, NYC

Two days ago, Nathan Jurgenson wrote on what has become one of the central questions around Occupy Wall Street: Now that the encampments are closing up and the winter is coming on, can Occupy survive? The crucial point that Nathan makes is that we need to think about Occupy not just in terms of space but in terms of time – that permanence has been a part of what’s given the movement so much symbolic and discursive power. Nathan brings up an additional point, to which I want to respond here: that the role of physical permanence that the encampments represented was powerful because it resulted in a form of cognitive permanence in the minds of everyone who saw them (and heard them; the auditory side of Occupy is also vital to pay close attention to).

While I clearly agree with Nathan that the physical permanence that tents represent has been what’s given Occupy a lot of its power, I think we can glean enough evidence from how things have proceeded so far to at least make an educated guess at an answer to his question. For me, the answer is yes: I expect that Occupy will survive the winter and emerge in spring, albeit – like a bear emerging from hibernation – perhaps in somewhat of a different shape. There are several reasons why I come down on this side of things.


When the occupiers in Zuccotti Park began setting up tents, it was an inherently practical move. After cold, uncomfortable nights on tarps and huddled into sleeping bags (a situation imposed by a no-tent policy in the park, which was eventually not enforced), tents were a welcome way to make an occupied space more of a home, and closer to familiar conceptions of an established community.

But we need to understand tents as more than just tents.


Occupy Berlin!

With all the rhetoric around “Facebook Revolutions” and “Twitter Revolutions”1 that we’ve had to endure over the last couple of years, it’s easy to get the sense that there’s something new about the character of contemporary political protest and revolutionary action, and that this newness is, in some fundamental way, the practical result of the omnipresent nature of technology. It’s difficult to miss the profound interweaving and enmeshing of the physical and digital aspects of protest as we see it in both the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street – the weight of the protests produced by the occupation of physical space by gathered human bodies, coupled with the constant documentation and nearly instantaneous sharing of images, video, and text that have chronicled these physical occupations and arguably helped them to grow – in short, the augmented nature of contemporary social action. We see this and to us it feels new. Even if we recognize that there are old things at work here – symbolism, patterns of mobilization and diffusion, pieces of the past reclaimed for the purpose of the present – we at least feel instinctively that there is something novel about the Arab Spring, Occupy, and all the other movements and events that have birthed themselves in correlation.


Given the recent events in the Middle East (and elsewhere, as protests continue in Wisconsin and ominous rumblings begin to issue from the direction of China) a great deal has been written in the past few weeks on the topic of social media and social movements/revolutions. Some of it has been a bit frothy, while much of it—including this, this, and this commentary on the Cyborgology blog—has been very insightful. However, while commentators have come at this issue from various angles, there hasn’t yet been much in the way of writing that seeks to wed an analysis of these forms of social action with existing theories of social movements and contentious politics.

The speed at which events have moved is a point on which a number of people have remarked. The wave of political anger expressed as protest that spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and points beyond has been likened to dominoes falling—or, and this is more appropriate to the point I want to make, to the spread of a contagious disease. Democracy, it has been said, has “gone viral”. more...