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Rethinking Social Movements

ESRC Conflicts in Time Research Networks: Workshop 4 

Rethinking Social Movements: Political Times and their Mediations

Theories of social movements developed since the 1980s have emphasised politics as a provisional process coordinated in time that builds to events of collective protest. From Touraine's structural class analyses to Castell's emphasis on the interpretation of movements in terms of their surface content all discussions share a focus on the sequential production of political moments. Yet in spite of this turning towards an emphasis on time there are still many questions about temporality and social movements that remain unanswered. We argue that time should be taken seriously not just as an analytical metaphor through which to understand the conjunctural form of social movements. Nor should we assume that time is a neutral dimension in which the process of a movement unfolds. Instead social movements should be understood as profoundly shaped by mediations and conflicts between diverse representations, technologies, social disciplines and rhythms of time. This becomes visible, we argue, if we focus our analysis on political time as an object of inquiry.

In particular we wish to explore four issues in relation to political time. First we want to understand the modes by which the present is made pre-eminently political to participants in movements. Secondly we wish to address the representations of the relationship between a desired future and an inadequate present that animate political acts within social movements. Thirdly, we would like to explore when, how and if political time is bracketed off from other representations and rhythms of time. Fourthly we would like to examine the complex temporal reality of political events such as campaigns, protests and revolutions. These involve mediations between different rhythms, technologies and representations of time. We argue that this emphasis on political time will also help to supplement the recent focus in the influential work of anthropologists such as Tsing and Subramaniam on the importance of spatial, scalar idioms in the building of social movements. It will also offer a more far-reaching approach to political time than many of those already proposed by anthropologists, which has often assumed that single representations of time confront each other in encounters between social movements and public institutions.

Making the Political Present

It is a long-held truism that social movements work to render the present an urgent site for transformation. But less explored are the representations, technologies and acts through which this truth of a political present is evidenced. Riles has explored the networks of documents and acts that form environmental politics, but even she has not examined how political times are produced. It is the production of the present as containing evidence of politics and of the necessity of acting on this evidence that we wish to explore. How are various diverse rhythms of life and society made to evidence this reality? How are time-scales that are beyond usual human perception manifested and made a cause for politics? How is the present framed as pre-eminently political? How do various technological and documentary forms affect the materialisation of and experience of political time?

Political Futures

Social movements often attempt to bring about a future forged from an incomplete present. Alain Badiou has provided a theory that could help us to understand this mediation between a desired utopian political future and a flawed present. He argues that new ethical positions begin from an 'event' or break. This involves a sudden recognition of the excess in a situation and of another reality that can be envisaged as a universal truth. Faith in that truth unfolds in a movement towards its realisation, even while having to deal with the current imperfect situation. The obvious parallel with Pentecostal and other ruptures with the past has been recently discussed by Robbins. Yet this apparent parallelism requires much more interrogation and Badiou's theory may be limited by its Protestant frame. Do all social movements attempt to move from constraint to freedom or from a corrupt material present to transcendence as Badiou's theory assumes? Or are there other background sources for their concepts of mediation and realisation of truths through a temporal trajectory (as Varzi has shown for Iranian Nationalism)? What divergent concepts of the relationship between past, present and future and the unfolding of universal truths exist within the same movement? Do social movements always involve a sense of a problematic mediation between a flawed material present and a desired future? Through what specific techniques and idioms other than 'faith' are sudden individual moments of ethical recognition routinised and joined to a project for the realisation of a new future? Do all social movements require a concept of a universal truth that has to be brought to fruition?

Political Time and its Others

In contrast to older approaches that had argued that civil society was an elite pedagogic project a wave of theories in the 1980s suggested that the public sphere was exclusionary and involved a performative project of acting on behalf of an absent public (Bhaba, Asad). Partha Chatterjee extended this notion of the performative to develop a concept of political society that is a mobilisation around the claims to entitlements administered by a government (2004). He argued that it was organisations of semi-legal groups using extra-legal means and concepts different from those of the bourgeois public sphere who claimed to represent 'the people' that brought about changes to legal, property and welfare rights. Yet all of these approaches rely solely on a spatial metaphor of exclusion from a political space and a seizing back of it. How does it change our understanding of exclusion and protest if we think of the public sphere as a timespace and as an exclusionary sequencing of political time? How do representations of political time and the rhythms of protest, legislation, campaign and governance act to exclude the public they are supposed to enfold? What are the barriers faced by members of social movements who do not work with scales and measurements of time that are widely recognised as having a relationship to political time? How does a concept of political time rather than political space problematise the rigid conceptual and physical boundaries between bourgeois and popular political life that exist in spatial models such as that of Chatterjee?

Political Protest and Mediations of Times

Campaigns, protests and agitations in which networks of people are linked in a crescendo of overt activity aimed at social change are political moments in their purest form for both theorists and participants. Social historians and anthropologists have written widely about riots and protests as expressions of the revolutionary or carnivalesque. But we would like to examine how these moments are experienced by participants as an acceleration of change or ceasing of previously unstoppable social rhythms. We also would like to analyse these political moments and their representations not as a realisation of concepts and programmes but as moments in which ethical positions are being worked out and made material in acts. Most importantly for this workshop we would like to explore how within these moments there is a synchrony of networks and associations with aims that posit different futures and which are acting to realise distinct temporalities. Can we build into analytic conceptions of social movements a model of protests as a synchrony of conjoining different temporalities? How do participants in these acts of agitation during and after them mediate these times between themselves? How might we build a theory of political protest and ethics that would recognise these practices of mediation?

Your contribution

These thematics and the authors mentioned are only suggestive, not prescriptive or limiting. In the desire to make common ground on the theme recent anthropological work that has addressed social movements is not directly mentioned here. You will have other concerns and casting off points too. But we would like you to rework the research you have already done to address some of these questions about political time.

Laura Bear and Stephan Feuchtwang


2003. T. Asad Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity

1988. A. Badiou Saint Paul|. La fondation de l'universalisme (1997, 2002), L'Être et l'Événement

1990. H. Bhaba Nation and Narration

2004. P. Chatterjee The Politics of the Governed

2010. M. Castells The Power of Identity

2000. D. Holmes Integral Europe: Fast Capitalism, Multiculturalism, Neo-Facism

2000. A. Riles The Network Inside Out

2009. A. Subramaniam Shorelines: Space and Rights in South India

1981. A. Touraine The Voice and the Eye

2004. A. H. Tsing Friction: an Ethnography of Global Connection

2006. R. Varzi Warring Souls: Youth, Media and Matyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran

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