Politics without a Net
by Meghan Sutherland — University of Toronto
October 03, 2012 – 00:00
On the weekend of September 17th, Occupy Wall Street held its “First Annual Occupy Wall Street Convergence.” In order to help participants navigate both the events scheduled that weekend and the online videos and informational resources it provides, it distributed an Occupy “Convergence Guide” through its website and listservs. As these enigmatic uses of the word “convergence” suggest, throughout the guide the term brokers a slippage between the technological convergence technologies that coordinate both the movement and the event; the convergence of actual people in New York City; and the convergence of personal, affective, and organizational bonds the event is designed to forge between the factional elements of the movement that have arguably undercut its political force more recently.
Contemporary thought privileges some basic paradigms for interpreting the relation between politics and networks that inheres in this “convergence.” Prevailing political theories cast politics as an aesthetic demonstration of disruption, disproportion, incompletion, and/or disagreement in the existing order of representation. In other words, they define politics against the technological qualities associated with networks—a term whose constituents, “net” and “work,” link connotations of systematicity, coverage, infrastructure, and profit to connotations of labor, completion, functionality, and yes, representation. Here, then, the terms “politics” and “network” negate or displace one another; networks are what get disrupted, not what disrupts in itself.
Prevailing theories of networks tend to use that word quite differently: as a name for the fluctuating assemblage of people and things that distribute the coordinates, subjects, and objects comprising political existence itself. In other words, they generally define networks in relational terms that eschew technological connotations of infrastructural fixity and elide concrete objects of hardware with the virtual relations they animate. Here, then, the term “political network” is redundant; because networks always already reveal the unstable connectivity of a representational order—not the material system of objects they appear to concretize—they are always already political. The same is true of “convergence” in this example.
I’m sympathetic to much in these approaches. So forgive me for asking an impossibly unfashionable question: if the principal challenges for radical political movements in the Middle East, Montreal, London, and various Occupy outposts involve articulating demands, building organizational representation, and sustaining the exhausting human work of political resistance, can we afford to imagine the relation between "politics" and "networks" without countenancing the complex supplementary logics of their human, aesthetic and technological fixations?
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