There is something strikingly similar between the events taking place in Turkey and in Brazil. It is the momentum, intensity and force of these uprisings. It is the connection between profoundly context specific roots of social unrest and broader global political issues. In this post I want to focus on the issue of social media technologies. This is not to propose yet again a techno-deterministic analysis on social media and social protest. In fact, as argued elsewhere, in the understanding of the relationship between Web 2.0 technologies and social movements it is of fundamental importance that we move beyond techno-deterministic analyses that emphasize pervasiveness, agency and change (Barassi, 2012, Barassi and Treré, 2012, Barassi, 2013). What I want to do in this post is to consider the events in Turkey and Brazil by raising some points on the connection between social media, collective emotion and transnational resonance. In order to do so, I want to focus on the issue of identity.
The issue of identity is central to the understanding of the connection between social media and mass protests. It is central not because of its ‘presence’ but because of it’s apparent ‘absence’. Reading mainstream media we are constantly reminded that the people who are demonstrating in the streets of Istanbul or San Paulo do not have a political identity, in the sense that they do not belong to any political party or organization. We are also reminded that they come together thanks to Twitter hashtags and the social media buzz. Of course the situation on the streets is far more complex. It is not true that all the political demonstrators do not have a political identity or are not linked to specific organizations (the case of the Muslim brotherhood during the uprising in Egypt was a vivid example of this). Yet it is true that Twitter hashtags and other social media practices create a space of convergence of multiple political singularities, and establish networks of affinity that are then enacted in the squares and the streets.
In order to understand this process of convergence of multiple singularities we, of course, have to look back at the debates of the late 90s, when journalists, activists and academics tried to make sense of the relationship between the global justice movements, internet networks and new forms of political belonging. At the time the autonomous discourses of the global justice movements were creating the basis for a new reformulation of political identity. During the eighties, identity was a key word in any debate that related to social and political struggle (Laclau and Mouffe, 1984, Touraine, 1985). Yet during the 90s it became evident that amongst the movements for global justice, people were no longer interested in achieving recognition through the state for their marginal ‘identities’. This is because they no longer believed that the state could be perceived as a neutral arbiter.
Instead, largely influenced by anarchist currents, the global justice movements tried to replace the logic of ‘identity’ with a politics of affinity, which is based on an understanding of ‘groundless solidarity’ and ‘infinite responsibility’ (Agamben, 1993; Holoway, 2002; Day, 2005). By looking at the changing political repertoires of the global Justice movements of the 1990s, many scholars have focused on the power of internet networks’ and relied on generalized and essentialist concepts such as swarms/multitude’ (Hardt and Negri, 200; Virno, 2004) ‘mobs’ (Rheinghold, 2002) or networked individualism (Castells, 1997) to describe the connection between new technologies and new forms of political participation. Although insightful in mapping the connection between new repertoires of collective action, political imagination and internet technologies, most of these works were based on a unjustified techno-determinism, which assumed the causal agency of technologies, without providing empirical evidence.
In the analysis of mass uprising of the recent years and their connection to social media, such approaches today have been criticized and re-framed, through the exploration of the complex relationship between political participation, digital networks and the construction of public space. In this framework, whilst Castells (2012) remained anchored to the idea of the power of internet networks’, Juris (2012) considered how the networking logic of social movements is now coexisting with a new ‘logic of aggregation’ (Juris, 2012) and Gerbaudo argued that contemporary movements are based on a choreography and performativity of assembly (Gerbaudo, 2012).
One element that is emerging from this body of literature – together with what I believe is the more spurious debate on whether we need to move beyond the logic of networks (Gebraudo, 2012) – is the understanding that social media are becoming a space for the diffusion of collective emotions, which are constantly reinforced within public space. According to Castells (2012) social media networks have created the basis for the sharing of two forms of emotions: hope and outrage, and he argues these emotions have been enacted on the streets from Iceland to the Occupy Movements. Gerbaudo’s (2012: 38-40) argument is less techno-deterministic as he draws from a Durkheimian framework to discuss the ‘collective effervescence’ and emotion created on the streets and shows how this collective emotion makes the choregraphy of assembly possible via social media.
From an anthropological perspective, these arguments are problematic. Part of the problem with these approaches is that they are not only ‘ethnographically thin’ – and thus over-simplify the emotional complexities of social movements (and the Durkheimian framework is surely an expression of that) – but they also do not take into account crucial cultural differences. As I watched the unraveling of the events in Turkey and Brazil and participated in the mediation of the anger, the outrage and shock in front of the police brutality, I have started to come to the conclusion that one way to understand the emotional intensity of these exchanges and how they were enacted on the ground was not to focus on a generalized concept of collective emotion – as Gerbaudo (2012) and Castells (2012) do – but rather to draw on the concept of transnational resonance.
In analyzing the influence of the Zapatistas on the global justice movements, Khasnabish (2008) argued that the concept of resonance was fundamental. For him resonance had to be understood as an unpredictable dynamic by which meaning constructed in a particular context becomes important in another in ways that are at the same time expected and non-expected. According to Khasnabish, “rather than diffusion – which signifies migration – resonance signifies movement, mutation and active translation” (Khasnabish, 2008:8).
The concept of resonance, I believe, is of particular importance in the understanding of the role of Twitter in the events in Turkey and Brazil. This is because it enables us to appreciate how through the practice of combining Hashtags, and through the constant diffusion of images of police brutality, people are constructing a ‘transnational resonance’ and creating a shared ground of social outrage against the violence of Neoliberalism and against state repression. Yet in contrast to those who have claimed that social media create forms of viral and emotional contagion (Castells, 2012; Gerbaudo, 2012) the concept of resonance would also enable us to have a more culturally sensitive approach. This is because resonance implies ‘active translation’ and thus highlights how political participation is constructed on social media not through a transmission of generalized feelings of hope and outrage (Castells, 2012) or through some kind of Durkheimian centering logic (Gerbaudo, 2012), but rather through the active mutation of these emotions to different social and culturally specific issues. In order to fully understand this process of resonance and cultural adaptation, I believe, contemporary studies on social movements and social media technologies are in urgent need of greater ethnographic thickness.
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