Compléments de Multitudes 9

Why take the detour ?

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A small exercise in tracing displacements of protest, and issues, accross the Web.Version originale de art36, rub12, rub28On the sites that host the political on the Web (just how multiple are they ?)

The range of sites on which you may encounter the political on the Web is practically unlimited. Trying to track down the political on the Web, you may run into a campaign to boycot Bacardi rum, into a personal homepage dedicated to ” basic income ” (in Spanish), a movement for ” global solidarity “, into dispossed Guatamalan landowners, into a page introducing the ” groundwork collective ” previously hosted by the University of California at San Diego, into a project to save the fish in the Murcielagos Bay, and into a Dutch student association committed to the logo-free classroom. As it hosts these multiplicities, the Web drives home the point that politics has migrated well beyond the conventional settings and circuits of the political, the channels of representative and stakeholder democracies. It is not just that these sites make the point, obvious to some, that there may be lots of politics hidden in a bottle of rum, in Guatemalian farmland, in the intererior decoration of a classroom and in the Murcielagos Bay. The campaigns presented on these Web sites also resist reduction to the standard formula’s of political action put forward by conventional democratic theory and practice, the representative and stakeholder models. Elsewhere on the Web, and off the Web, stakeholder debates may be organised, and citizens may be invited to please let themselves be informed or register to vote. But myriads of other sites – of the boycotters of rum, of the environmental scientists taking up the cause of the fish in Murcielagos Bay, the individual campaigning for assured basic income – host the political on the Web, alongside such more easy-to-recognize (and from some vantage points, more easy to find) political platforms. We can thus still agree with the argument which the political philosopher Jodi Dean made a couple of years ago : one of the prime features of the political agencies that the Internet discloses is that they resist established conceptions of democracy.

As Jodi Dean puts it, the Net does not present a public sphere, but loose associations among strange, as yet unencountered, actors, that do not fit the picture of reasonable citizens engaging in reasonable debate. As it presents these irreducable social actors, the merit of the Internet is that it seriously undermines and severly complicates this vision of democracy.[[J. Dean, ” Virtually Citizens “, Constellations, Volume 4, Number 2, 1997, p. 266 and p. 274. Even if over the last years, representative and stakeholder democracies moved online en masse (if only judging from the hosts of e-democracy initiatives deployed in recent years), irreducable multiplicities continue to stir themselves on the Web. However, a conclusion that cannot be derived from the fact that multiplicities of sites host the political on the Web, is that politics may here erupt in any setting, and be instigated by any actor. Besides offering living proof of the migration of social politics beyond the established channels, the Web also provides abundant evidence of the fact that politics follows highly particular trajectories. We get a glimpse of politics on the Web, only at particular moments, at particular sites, of particular actors, relating to particular issues. To give an example, at the time this short article was written, the sites of a New York protest network (, a Belgian social movement (11.11.11), the Dutch branch of a transnational non-governmental organisation ( all refered to two particularly ” hot ” events, an EU summit in Barcelona, Spain and an UN summit in Monterrey, Mexico. If you want to get on the tail of the political this week, these sites seemed to say, you better fix your gaze on Barcelona, Spain and Monterrey, Mexico. The Web thus equally reminds us of the truism that even if politics may erupt in myriads of places, not everywhere there is politics. The Web makes us familiar with the specificity of trajectories of politicization.

The above example, however, does not just testify to the particularity of the sites that host the political on the Web, at a given moment. It may also be said to complicate the claim of the migration of politics beyond its conventional settings, for which the Web offers such convincing proof. Also those actors that have become associated with the migration of politics beyond enthrenched platforms – social movements – may lead us to sites that fit the description, if not of the traditional centers of democracy, at least that of centers of big decision-making, with the global summit as a case in point. To some, this tendency of centralisation in social networks on the Web can appear to undermine the claim of the proliferation of the political, that has become associated with the Web. Social actors mobilizing around issues of globalisation may even appear to simply follow that other, scandalous development of the displacement of politics of recent decades : the migration of institutional politics beyond the channels of national democracy, to international conference dinners and into the hallways of global expert meetings.[[ This development forms a big part of the displacement of politics as theorized by the german sociologist Ulrich Beck. Instead of a proliferation of politics, the claim would then be, we are witnessing, on the Web, displacements of social politics that merely runs after the displacement of big politics. But of course it is not so simple, or at least it shouldn’t be. We may account for the highly specific political trajectories plotted by social actors on the Web, in keeping with the proliferation of politics beyond the usual circuits of decision-making. Thus we ask : why do social actors go out of their way to make a detour via sites of big decision-making, given the displacement of politics beyond the conventional settings ? Here we take up this question by tracing social movements mobilizing around global issues on the Web – the passage via a global summit site being a most radical example of such detours.

On following the issues.

Why do the social actors that have become associated with the migration of the political beyond its conventional settings, congregate around sites of big decision making ? A first, incomplete answer to this question that the Web leads us on to, is that these actors are following issues. Tracing social movements accross the Web, it appears that the causes with which these movements have associated themselves lead them to zoom in on these sites. Two examples can make this clear. In the first case, we witness on the Web how Dutch climate activists follow the issue of climate change all the way into the conference rooms of the Okura Hotel in Amsterdam. In a second example, the Tobin tax leads French, Dutch and American organisations to flock to the UN summit in Monterrey, Mexico.

To begin with, we read on the Web site of the Dutch magazine Ravage about climate activists disturbing a meeting of representatives from the oil industry, at the Okura hotel in Amsterdam in February this year. Links provided by Ravage lead us to two Dutch climate action networks on the Web, and the Climate Independent Media Center, which also report on the event, under the heading of a “poke in the eye for energy “. (The meeting at the Okura hotel was hosted by an organisation called ” Eye for Energy “, a lobby for the emission trading solution to climate change.) Here we find first hand accounts of the event, in which, we read, a handful of protestors, with costumes and wigs evoking an ” acquatic theme “, walked into the conference room at the Okura hotel early in the morning of the 20th of Febraury. A small protest-network has thus configured on the Web. Now an answer to the question ” why this ado around this particular meeting of some particularly obscure organisation (I at least never heard of Eye for Energy), at this particular location, the Okura Hotel in Amsterdam ” , emerges when we take into account the trajectories that the issue of climate change has followed on the Web (and off the Web), over the last years. Asking what the issue of climate change is made up of these days, the corporate and governmental networks dealing with climate change on the Web, tell us it is mainly about bureaucracy and markets.[[The words that currently figure most prominently on the governmental and company’s Web sites dealing with climate change are ” decisions ” and ” finance “, whereas in 1998 ” ecology “, ” scientific uncertainty ” and ” danger ” were among the main keywords on the sites of the UN and the oil industry lobby involved in the climate change debate. ” Climate Change Now and Then “, research presented by Noortje Marres at the workshop Social Life of Issues 4, organised by, C3, Budapest, June 2001. Whereas back in 1998 the definition of climate change as it circulated among governmental and corporate sites consisted for a significant part of the threat of environmental disaster and the findings from climate science, in 2001 the ecological dimensions of the issue figured much less prominently in these networks. (The climate change network on the Web also changed composition itself. Where in 1998 the network was dominated by the UN, oil companies and international ngo’s, in 2001 the Whitehouse had aquired a central position in the network, to the oil company’s were added technology and transport companies, and activist sites now engage in the issue on the Web besides the ngo’s.) Thus, judging from the governmental and corporate networks on the Web, the issue of climate change has to a degree been transformed from an environmental question into a policy and market answer. While the activist concern with climate change may be an ecological concern, the trajectory of the issue has over the last years been rerouted via ” bureaucracy ” and ” trade “. That is also to say, if you want to re-define climate change as a matter of environmental danger these days, you first have to go and find where the issue it at, at the trading trajectory. If you want to re-introduce ” the rising sea levels” into the climate change equation, you have to go and find the issue at its current location, on the the market solution track, and re-introduce the aquatic theme right there and then.

The detours that social actors make via sites of decision-making, in this case, the Okura Hotel in Amsterdam, can be described in terms of the trajectories of issues, and the ways in which social movements interfere with them. Flocking to this site, the Dutch climate activists are staying on the tail of the cause with which they have linked their fate (and that of globalisation).

Zooming in on the trajectory of issues in this way, the question of the passage of social actors via sites of decision-making has already changed face. We can now give at least one reason why the detour social movements make via such sites cannot be equated, at least not initially, with a mere following of the displacement of big politics. In first instance, the actors are following the issues, whose trajectories happen to run via these sites.[[ The notion of following the issues is inspired by the concept of Bruno Latour of the laboratory as an ” indispensable point of passage “. In his argument, as social problems get displaced to the laboratory, social actors become obliged to pass via these places in order to get to the solution to their problems. Here the analogy is made with the passage through sites of decision-making, even if, of course, in the case of politics, points of passage rarely seem to reach the point of indispensability that may be attainted in science. Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1988. Thus, in the second example, the Web sites of organisations that have associated themselves with the Tobin Tax – the charge on traffic in currency markets that is supposed to stabilize these markets and generate ressources for aid – point their links to the UN summit on Financing for Development in Mexico, as this issue figures on the summit agenda. It could very well be that it is the Tobin tax which attracts them to this site. To deduce from the references and links to global summit sites on the sites of social movements, that these actors may suffer from a pre-occupation with big decision-making is in that sense the wrong conclusion, or rather this question now gets displaced. The question of the displacement of politics effectuated by social actors gets hooked up with that of the fate of issues. The degree to which social movements indeed move in the direction of the migration of the political beyond the usual settings, beyond meetings in conference rooms, now has been linked to the question of the trajectories of issues. This is the second way in which our question about the passage of social actors via sites of decision-making has changed face. The re-direction of issue trajectories comes to the fore as one of the stakes in the detour movements make via such sites.[[ One way of ” turning politics into an ontological question “, as today is often proposed, I would say, is to reconceptualise political processes in terms of the articulation of issues. Passing via the sites of big decision-making, social movements may be said not only to pick up on the causes found in those locations, they may also send them off onto diverging courses. As ” the aquatic theme ” was added to ” emission trading ” in the Okura Hotel in Amsterdam, how did this affect the trajectory of the issue of climate change ?

Irreducable actor presence in the streets, and protest-networks on the Web

In what way are the passages via the trajectories of issues, in keeping with the proliferation of politics beyond its usual settings? The answer to this question that I’d like to foreground here, and which can be read from the traces that social movements leave on the Web, is that these movements may redefine the issues and redirect their trajectories. (In some cases we may even witness a short-circuiting of the circulation of issues in enthrenched channels, but this seems to be a very rare event. It may have happened in Seattle in 1999, as there was no agreement reached at the WTO summit, but if didn’t occur at the summits I focus on here.) However, this proposition could invite a serious objection, which we can no longer avoid to adress : ” weren’t social movements supposed to be all about people ? ”

Many of us know it from tv, and also from the Web (see below), and some know it from personal experience, that when it comes to the manifestation of social movements, it all depends on the presence of irreducable social actors in the streets. While it has been argued that protest is no longer about the manifestation of a singular subject (the citizen, the masses, the workers), protest is still often considered to be about the question of the political subject. Even if it is the contestation, dissolution or reinvention of the singular subject by multiplicities of irreducable social actors that is now at stake in protest (this is also what the proposition of the multitudes suggests), there are many reasons to stick to the assumption that protest principally revolves around the subject.[[However, proposals have been made to move away from such a subject-oriented approach to protests. Andrew Barry has suggested, precisely because of the multiplicity of actors involved in staging protests, to shift attention from the question of the constitution of the political subject in protests to the event of ” telling the truth. “. Andrew Barry, Political Machines, Governing a Technological Society, Athlone Press, London, 2001 One of them being the aforementioned crucial fact of the presence of actual people in situ. However, this is what I’d like to foreground here, the Web adds to subject-oriented accounts of protest, the dimension of the interference with the trajectories of issues. Especially in a context of a radical multiplication or even dissolution of the position of the political subject implied by the notion of the multitudes, a focus on the trajectories of issues may add interestingly to the definition of social movements and the proliferation of politics they may bring about. Again two examples point us in this direction : the displacement of protest towards the EU summit in Barcelona, Spain, and the UN summit in Monterrey, Mexico, as they can be traced on the Web.

(I will thus follow through the links on the Web towards the EU and the UN summits, and leave the trail of the issue of climate change. The next Eye for Energy meeting is scheduled in London, and it is more than likely that the larger issue of ” emission trading ” and the still larger issue of climate change, after having briefly touched at the Okura Hotel in Amsterdam, will also get displaced to elsewhere. However, in the weeks in which I wrote this piece, the issue of climate change went into a slumber, at least judging from the Web. Little happened in the climate change networks on the Web. Besides, the question of how detours via sites of decision-making can be in keeping with the proliferation of politics, is most pertinent when social movements cross the global summit trail.)

Also when following the social movements that mobilized around the EU summit in Barcelona on the Web, it becomes clear that the presence of irreducable social actors on the actual summit site sums up the event of global protest most poignantly. After the EU summit in Barcelona had come to an end, the fact that circulated most intensily in the protest-network that had configured around the event on the Web, was the number of protestors that had been present – it was the biggest globalisation protest ever.[[ Between 200.000 and 500.000 people participated in the Barcelona protests, see and , among others. (What is so crucial about such an impressive presence of irreducable social actors in situ, becomes obvious when we listen, for a moment, to Tony Blair. When Tony Blair descended from his plane at Genoa, and was asked to comment on the protestor presence on site, he replied something like : the Britisch people are back home, so these can’t be the people, these are just people. Blair’s absurd dismissal makes perfectly clear how protest disrupts enthrenched circuits of decision-making. National representational circuits are expected to stay in place, while politics gets displaced beyond these channels, to the global summit trail – and to all those other destinations of displaced politics, as refered to in the introduction, to bottles of rum, Guatemalian farmland, and classrooms, among others.) Also in other ways are the flaws in enthrenched representational circuits made apparent on the Web. On the official Web site of the Spanish presidency of the EU, we can visit a photo gallery of the representatives participating in the summit. The Barcelona protest-network that has configured around this site casts serious doubt on the representativeness of these representatives. The pictures of people in the streets circulating in this network, but also the URL’s of the protest sites that it is composed of (,,,, among others), do this more than effectively. The same fact of non-representation is in our face when we compare the list of civil society affiliates available on the official site of the Financing for Development summit in Monterrey, Mexico, with the actors composing the protest-network that has configured around this summit. The Web however, adds to this definition of protest as interference with routine assumptions of representativeness, a view of social movements interference with the definition of issues.

The protest-networks that have configured around the EU summit in Barcelona, Spain, and the UN summit in Monterrey, Mexico, on the Web are not just composed of actors, but contain just as many slogans, demands and, indeed, issues.[[These protest-networks were located with the aid of a piece of software, the Issue Crawler, with locates networks on the Web, through co-link analysis, i.e., who’s linked to whom. The linklists of social movement sites refering and linking to Barcelona and Monterrey summit and protest sites – notably, Attac and Indymedia, together with spanish protest sites, in the case of Barcelona – served as starting points. The IssueCrawler was developed by and OneWorld. The Barcelona protest-network consists, besides the URL’s already mentioned, of a campaign against a spanish law that will open up the way for the privatisation of education, an international farmers movement, a site on basic income, a support site for the convicted Safiya Hussaini (hosted by the spanish branch of Amnesty International),, and, among others. The Monterrey network contains, besides a set of spanish-language-only sites which unfortunately are mostly unreadable for me,[[ Because I don’t speak spanish, most of the mexican-based sites in the Monterrey protest-network (which, as opposed to the sites in the Barcelona network, were spanish only), remained inaccessible for me. It is one of the ways in which I experienced the cacophony into which, according to Bruno Karsenti and Saverio X, we are drawn if we follow the politics of the multitudes. I can only account for the english-language sections of the network. the site of the sustainability Web ring,,, and (where you can find the fish of the Murcielagos Bay mentioned before), among others. These protest-networks thus substitute for the issues on the agenda’s of these two summits (according to the newspaper headlines, the Barcelona summit revolved around the privatisation of energy markets, and the Monterrey summit was mainly about the size of US and EU aid budgets.) Or rather in these protest-networks on the Web, the issues on the EU and UN summit agenda’s get displaced, so as to include and become these other issues : moving into the protest-netowork, the question of Western development budgets becomes the demand to drop the debts of third world countries and the scandal of the closing of Monterrey steel industries, the project of the privatisation of Europen energy markets becomes the issue of basic income, among others.

Tracing the Barcelona and Monterrey protest-networks on the Web, the question whether social movements, in passing via the sites of big decision-making, do not simply move onto the global summit trail, loosing sight of the proliferation of the political, can be answered with a firm no. Even as the sites of Belgian, Dutch, French, American and Spanish social movements have all pointed their links to Barcelona and Monterrey, in one and the same go they send us off to elsewhere. Following the hyperlinks from these sites, we do not end up at ” the one place “, the authoritative summit or protest site in question. We are lead onto the trail of multiplicities of actors and issues. Even if the protest networks around these two summits have at their center a protest hub (, in the case of the Barcelona network), and a summit hub (, in the case of the Monterrey network), they disclose hosts of other entities, leading us away from the EU and UN summits, or rather displacing the issues on the agenda there. In protest-networks on the Web not only political representation in the strict (subject-oriented) sense of the word is contested, even if this form of contestation can be pointed out here too. On the Web, we follow how the definition of issues, as they are transported along the global summit track, how the composition of big agenda’s and the worlds they stand in for, are being challenged.[[In tracing social movements on the Web, we get a glimpse of an ontological politics that has some similarities with the cosmopolitics Isabelle Stengers has articulated for the sciences. Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitiques, VII, Les Empecheurs de penser en rond, Paris, 1997. The displacements of isues that social movements can be seen to effectuate on the Web further points towards a specific filling in of the claim of the displacement of politics. Where the displacement of politics before was rather vaguely described as the eruption of ” the political ” beyond its conventional settings, we now can now add to this definition, the formation of issue trajectories that cut accross enthrenched tracks of decision-making. As the question of aid budgets becomes the question of closed factories, as the question of the privatisation of energy markets becomes the question of basic income, it is not just that the setting in which politics is done has changed (we’re on a Web site, clearly not in a conference hall), different trails of politization are being plotted.

What trajectories for the issues ?

Our initial question has been answered : the detours social movements take via the sites of big decision-making may very well be in keeping with the proliferation of politics. First of all, these actors are not necessarily following big politics, they may very well be following the issues, whose trajectories, it is recognized, often run via the sites of big decision-making. Such detours, moreover, lead to further displacements of politics, or more precisely, issues. This particular filling in of the claim of the displacement of politics, however, gives rise to hosts of other tricky questions. Most importantly, if we want to foreground the ways in which social movements succeed in carrying issues beyond the conventional settings of politics, beyond the conference room at the global summit site, what type of trajectories would we see in store for them ? In what directions would we want to see the issue of climate change develop, as it, after touching the Okura Hotel, once again includes the aquatic theme ? Also, as we run into the Spanish law that may open up the way for the privatisation of education, and the (dissappearing) fish in Murcielagos Bay on the Web, the question that announces itself, is, how would mobilizations around these issues, eventually be felt in Spanish classrooms, and in the Murcielagos Bay? Here, we did not follow the issues through far enough for us to get a view of such further displacements. The Web provides abudant proof of the migrations of politics beyond the enthrenched circuits of decision-making, but much may still be learned about the trails of politization as they are plotted by social actors on the Web. Between the proliferation of issues and the particularity of the courses they follow, one of the questions that remains is, what forms of trajectories, as they are traced by multiplicities of irreducable social actors, on and off the Web, would treat the issues well ?