Slacktivism Matters

I found a post on Cyborgology of particular interest a number of days ago, posted a reply, which led to an interesting email exchange with Jenny Davis. We agreed to start a dialogue about the new media and the politics of small things, specifically about the case of Occupy Wall Street. Her post today, my reply in a bit when I finish my work at the European Solidarity Center in Gdansk. -Jeff

Two recent posts on Deliberately Considered, one by Scott Beck and the other by Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, examine the role of social media in social movements. They demonstrate the way in which social media allow us to harness the power of the people, contest the interpretations of mainstream media, organize, and mobilize. They show how, through communications on digital networks, physical bodies have come together in physical spaces, protesting both ideological and material conditions.

The points made by Beck and Goldfarb are important ones, yet I believe they should be extended. In particular, we need to address not only  the ways in which these new media technologies work to bring together and document the physical bodies who occupy physical spaces. We also must examin the role of those whose activism never goes beyond the digital realm. We must look at how this latter group, colloquially referred to as slacktivists, matter.

Slacktivism matters in two interrelated ways: 1) increasing visibility and 2) generating a particular zeitgeist surrounding social movements.

Not everyone reads and/or watches the news, and in the age of the 24 hour news media, those who do read and/or watch the news must necessarily be selective in what they consume. What we share on Facebook or tweet on Twitter, therefore, works to increase the visibility of particular news items. Moreover, by linking a news item to a familiar other, to someone inside an actor’s personal network, is to imbue the news item with relevance. Status updates and tweets about Occupy Wall Street, for example, not only spread information about the protests, but also locate the protests in the digitally networked space(s) of everyday life, designating them as part of a relevant conversation.

This sharing, of course, is rarely (if ever) done in a neutral manner. Rather, Tweeters and Facebookers accompany shared news stories and web links with commentary that reveals a particular bent, or interpretation of the content. The content is therefore not just made visible, but impregnated with meaning in a web of social relations. When shared and interpreted on a larger scale, this meaning-laden content generates a “feel” or “zeitgeist” surrounding a historical moment and the related social movement. This is clearly seen in the vast international support for both the Arab Spring (and now Arab Fall) and the Occupy Wall Street protests. We understand these as movements by and for the people. We share a sense of anger towards oppression by the powerful few. We applaud those who strive to have their voices heard, and condemn those who wish to stifle the voices of the small and (individually) powerless.

Visibility and zeitgeist are not without material consequences. Theda Skocpol argues that social movements spread through visibility and modeling (see Sarah Wanenchak’s excellent discussion of this on Cyborgology). Just as the nations of the Arab world took cues from each other, the U.S. has now taken cues from the Arab world, resulting in feet on the ground, posters in the air, and bodies occupying lower Manhattan, L.A., Boston, Austin and numerous other cities. By spreading the word, making it relevant, and generating a zeitgeist of freedom and rebellion, slacktivists not only show support for the recent international social movements, but actively augment them in symbolic and tangible ways.

  • Barbara

    I agree with David’s comments made on Facebook in response to this post. There is no ‘head’–only a chimera. As such, it follows that the use of media will be chimeric and, we as sociologists may want to take this into account as we develop responses to and expressions of the occupation.

    “Anybody who participates in these movements knows of this link and these interactions, between theory and practice, between idea and mood. Anybody who takes the trouble to talk to a regular participant with some readiness to listen, rather than simply to ask the usual questions about long hair and violence, can in fact discover this. Yet even people who are normally well-informed go on saying: to the demonstrators, that what they need is some theory, some serious political position; to the theoreticians that it is all very well, but rather remote and abstract. Some part of this must be put down to ignorance, some part again to certain real difficulties, for of course there is no single line among the demonstrators as anyone…can very quickly see. And in the same way, there’s no single theoretical line. There are varying emphases including some bitter controversy, and in important ways the ideas are still being developed. Nevertheless, it is to that general view of the world, a developed view of the present nature of imperialism, of state-supported capitalism and of managed politics, that most of the demonstrations are now practically related…After a certain point, to go on saying that the demonstrators have no serious political ends, or that we’re still waiting to see in cold print the detailed arguments that lie behind the slogans is to incur the very pointed suspicion of bad faith. Bad faith, I believe, is just what it is—a very characteristic kind of liberal bad faith…I’m more interested…in the body of opinion which takes itself as liberal. It’s been confused by propaganda, which has raised prejudices against demonstrators and against students. But this couldn’t happen if it weren’t for the confusion that we’re all now living in, when a major political tradition, a tradition which taught most of us to think, is under pressure and in crisis, beginning to break up, and when its habits of thought, its descriptions, its categories no longer enable us to see and respond to what is happening in the very rapidly changing world.”

    Sound familiar? This is Raymond Williams’s response to the question raised by his colleagues as to why he demonstrates. In his statement from 1968, Williams raises many important points that we (as social scientists) might want to consider in understanding our participation (or lack thereof) in the current occupation of Wall Street. There is a legacy of suspicion about any movement, and action that aims to sidestep political procedures that have ceased to provide true democratic dialogue. Sociologists in particular have been disciplined to think about political process and procedure, even when dissident, as passing through certain stages. Moreover, sociological practice dictates that political actors are categorized and understood through taxonomies. Much of what I have read from sociologist about the current occupation also maintains not exactly objective distance, but certainly a liberal distancing from the protesters. This sociological stance seems ineffective in engaging or explaining what is happening now.

    As I participate in Occupy Wall Street, I find myself critical of the common protest tropes and then thrilled when these tropes are sidestepped or ignored. The intermittent reluctance to follow the scripts for resistance that have been handed down, seem to be the most promising tactics of the movement and they are almost accidental, almost always improvisational, almost always by default. However accidental, these movements often end up being graceful and elegant in the way they bypass the scripted obstacles for change and create new (dis)positions.

    The occupation resonates with the potential for developing new methods of negotiation and lends itself to a study that does the same. Sociologists should take this seriously. For example, the ‘demand for demands’ shows how wedded we are to the script and stages of protest. The publication, The Occupied Wall Street Journal, distributed at the march to Brooklyn notes:

    “What are the demands of the protesters?
    Ugh, the zillion-dollar question. Again, the original Adbusters call asked, “What is our one demand?” Technically, there isn’t one yet. In the weeks leading up to Sept. 17, the NYC General Assembly seemed to be veering away from the language of “demands” in the first place, largely because government institutions are already so shot through with corporate money that making specific demands would be pointless until the movement grew stronger politically. Instead, to begin with, they opted to make their demand the occupation itself—and the direct democracy taking place there—which in turn may or may not come up with some specific demand. When you think about it, this act is actually a pretty powerful statement against the corruption that Wall Street has come to represent. But since thinking is often too much to ask of the American mass media, the question of demands has turned into a massive PR challenge. The General Assembly is currently in the midst of determining how it will come to consensus about unifying demands. It’s a really messy and interesting discussion. But don’t hold your breath. ”

    “Messy”—there is potential here. This is the background noise that propels movement and provides meaning. Messiness avoids packaging, branding, political platforms tied-up in neat little packages. We need to consider how the rejection of demands repositions—how this repudiation might be another (as in an ‘Other’) way of imagining politics, a way of making something else sensible. In Rancière’s terms, aesthetic acts that reconfigure experience to “create new modes of sense perception and induce novel forms of political subjectivity.” He argues for the potential in dissensus, a rupturing of our understanding of cause and effect—at least I think that’s what he means and if so, there is significance here for understanding the movement (in both senses of the term—(non-linear) action and social force) at the occupation. He notes:
    “Aesthetic experience has a political effect to the extent that the loss of destination it presupposes disrupts the way in which bodies fit their functions and destinations. What it produces is not rhetorical persuasion about what must be done. Nor is it the framing of a collective body. It is a multiplication of connections and disconnections that reframe the relation between bodies, the world they live in and the way in which they are ‘equipped’ to adapt to it. It is a multiplicity of folds and gaps in the fabric of common experience that change the cartography of the perceptible, the thinkable and the feasible. As such, it allows for new modes of political construction of common objects and new possibilities of collective enunciation.”

    If we can embrace the messiness and avoid the impulse to demand demands, we open the possibility for a lateral move, a way of stepping out of the scripted nature of protest. Social scripts exist as normative and invisible guidelines to shape our performance as social subjects. These scripts maintain order and have the capacity to oppress—The American Dream, for example. The overwhelming power of that ‘dream’ (and this is pure fantasy at this point, not a product of an informed collective imaginary) maintains inequalities and virtually guarantees that people will not take to the streets. Even now, without the reality of sufficient labor and growing inequalities, the general populace continues to focus on working hard as the way to salvation and success.

    I would argue that an equally powerful script dictates our ideas of how to protest and develop a movement. This consists of demands, the shaping of a collective body, resisting (something/someone), and forms of protest—particular ways of performing—that have a history and, as a result, are easily compartmentalized and generalized without careful consideration. Although we should not ignore what can be learned from history, resisting maintains the structure to which the force is applied. Often, the structure is so ossified, so rock hard, that to resist is akin to banging your head against a wall. And when the system becomes afraid of the blood on the wall, they respond—but this response is generally only an accommodation insofar as it does not disrupt the status quo. Hence, the resistance and demands are swallowed by the system they aim to critique.

  • David Peppas

    A Specter is Haunting Sociology: The Specter of the Chimera

    The chimera combines features of three creatures in a monstrous manner. Its hindquarters are those of a huge goat, its fore parts are those of a lion, its body sports dragon wings and it has three large heads. It can claw with its forelegs, its goat head is armed with two long horns, its lion head has powerful jaws and sharp teeth, and the dragon head is like wise equipped. If a chimera desires (50% chance) its dragon head can breath fire with a range of 5” and causing 3-25 points damage (no saving throw available). Chimerae speak a very limited form of red dragon language.

    – Advanced D&D Monster Manual
    (See Gary Gygax Advanced D&D Monster Manual. 4th Edition Random House, 1979: 14.)

    Jeff, nice piece, and I want to hear about your presentation. In reading this and listening to the mainstream left lamenting Occupy Wall Street’s lack of message or leadership, I got to thinking about Bataille and his friends secret Acephale society and its more public counter part the College of Sociology. From what I understand, it was a playful attempt to create a sacred or ‘headless sociology’. Perhaps verging on something truly interdisciplinary, its members included not only ethnographers—some whom had been students of Marcel Mauss—but also philosophers, painters, poets, and writers. Many were exiles of the Surrealist movement. I think the Occupy Wall Street movement has similar qualities, which I find wonderful, namely, non-centralized leadership and a confusing multiplicity of messages. Why must the social body always have a head, a head that always seeks to understand rather than not-understand? Why is it a problem if a social body does not have a head that is fixated on ‘articulate’ understanding? Why the need to look at how (explain why?) ‘slacktivism’ matters? Jeff, why the need to identify patterns, to figure it out, to project order onto these movements, is this always such a good idea?:

    It is notable how major events in our times follow this pattern. First, people with common concerns find each other. Then, they talk to each other. Then, they act, and sometimes people notice. The noticing, of course, is not random. There is a pattern to it.


    This compulsion, which is so prevalent in sociology, to decode the movement, and understand it is perhaps the problem. In much of sociology (and all ‘ologys’) it is typical to point and wag fingers at such movements. Sociology says something like, “The problem is you don’t have a head ” or maybe “The problem is you have a head, but people just don’t see it, so I’ll enlighten them and show them where it is.” But we have to ask are we as sociologist, in such instances, really just attempting to stick a head onto something that is headless, because the headless body scares us?
    It is also typical in sociology to reduce a headless movement to a kind of collective cry of feelings, or zeitgeist with a function. This kind of reductionism can be seen in President Obama’s recent ‘acknowledgment’ of the movement:

    It expresses the frustrations that the American people feel that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all throughout the country, all across Main Street.

    He’s telling us that it “matters” while distancing himself from it. Note how his rhetoric reduces the headless movement to ‘feelings’ resulting from some thing going wrong with the normative system. In doing this he does two things 1) He distances himself from the headless movement. 2) He distances himself from its intrinsically revolutionary aspects—by revolutionary aspects I mean here aspects that have the quality of challenging the normative social structure. In doing these two things he puts a head on that which he perceives as headless and effectively contributes to the neutering of the headless movement. It is my contention that sociology is guilty of a similar yet slightly more sophisticated form of distancing and neutering. Sociologist Avery Gordon puts it well:

    Bloodless categories, narrow notions of the visible and empirical, professional standards of indifference, institutional rules of distance and control, barely speak able fears of losing the footing that allows us to speak authoritatively and with greater value than anyone else who might…Our methods have thus far been less than satisfactory for addressing the very nature of things and the problems it is our responsibility to address, leaving us not yet making something new enough out of what are arguably many new ideas and novel conditions.

    (See Avery Gordon Ghostly Matters The University of Minnesota Press 1997: 21.)

    What might happen if sociology actually started listening, learning and lord have mercy even emulating those folks sleeping in the park, as opposed to trying to understand them and explaining to us how or why or they matter? What might happen if sociology emulated impossible and headless forms of theory and practice rather than try and figure them out? Can sociology assume the form of the chimera—which incidentally had many undulating seemingly contradictory heads, goat, lion and snakes? What would happen if it did, an apocalypse? My answer is yes, and I mean apocalypse in terms of its meaning in ancient Greek “To pull back the veil”. By assuming the form of the chimera, sociology would indeed pull back a veil, and in thus doing reveal truth par excellence—not the cozy Enlightenment truths that it has been serving up to rationalize its existence and perpetuate the status quo. No I’m talking about pulling back veils that reveal truths that are so powerful that they destroy sociology’s entire symbolic order, and in thus doing give rise to a host of new accidental languages.