6 lectures, 4 days, 3 countries, 1 collaborative consultation, weekending with my grandson and his parents: my schedule for last ten days. I spoke with colleagues and students in Berlin at Humboldt University and the European College of the Liberal Arts, in Poland, as the Wroclaw Visiting Professor, and worked with my friend and colleague, Daniel Dayan, in Paris about a book we are planning on writing together. As a children’s classic I gave to my grandson summarizes: Busy Day, Busy People.
In Germany, the primary focus of discussion was my newest book, Reinventing Political Culture. In Wroclaw, the focus was on my previous book, The Politics of Small Things. I was there for the book launch of its Polish translation and to discuss with a group of students and colleagues the key theoretical chapter in it, “Theorizing the Kitchen Table and Beyond.” I spoke about the chapter in light of the uprisings, occupations, flash mobs and demonstrations in the past couple of years. In Paris, I talked with Daniel about our prospective new book, which would be a development of the themes I raised in my Wroclaw lecture.
Our major thesis will be: the politics of small things + the media = political transformation. One possible transformation is the reinvention of political culture: changing the way people relate power and culture, challenging the bases of power, moving culture from inheritance to creativity, rewriting the story people tell themselves about themselves.
Daniel and I want to explain how the interactions between people, face to face, but especially virtual, mediated interactions, yield the possibility of large-scale social, political and cultural change. We will link his work as a student of semiotics and media, with mine as a student of micro-politics and political culture.
In Wroclaw I shared an outline of a part our project, in a very preliminary form. I reviewed my idea about the power of the politics of small things, the power of people meeting with shared principles, speaking and acting in each other’s presence, working in concert. This is how I account for the “on the ground” democratic supports of the great changes in 1989, of the anti war movement and the Dean campaign in the United States in 2004, and the Obama campaign in 2008. And it is how Dayan and I will analyze the changes of the past couple of years. In order to do so, we will have to consider systematically the role of new and old media.
We reject the idea that the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and the like can be explained simply by referring to the new media. We will question the notion that the new media automatically create fundamental challenges to the order of things. But we do understand their centrality. They facilitate and amplify the power of social interaction. The process of amplification is of special interest.
The social media expand the reach of the politics of small things. The resistance to people meeting is greatly reduced. The possibility of coordinating common action is greatly facilitated. Thus, the story of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia and the work of Wael Ghonim in Egypt spread among people who were critically predisposed, and became visible to broader and broader circles. The way actions become visible is a special concern of Dayan’s.
My lecture in Wroclaw, in a sense, took off where my chapter on theorizing the kitchen table ended. I discussed the new evidence of the importance of the politics of small things, but I also started to address two of the key questions that my recent books left unanswered. When do small things matter? And why?
I pointed in two directions: to the foundations of public action and to links between publics. Sometimes actions in a particular place, at a particular time, resonate beyond those who are immediately involved. An extraordinary case in point is Occupy Wall Street, or as I have put it here, the ground zero social movement, a few steps away from the former site of the World Trade Center, and steps away as well from a center of global capitalism. This needs further study. I suspect all social movements that reach a broader public have such a basis, whether it is given or simulated.
I also know that publics can be linked through new media and old. There is meaning to the chant of the sixties “the whole world is watching.” Getting people to watch beyond those who are immediately involved is required. Dayan names this the challenge of monstration. If not the whole world, at least broader public attention is necessary for social movements to succeed. There were ways that this was conventionally done through television, radio and print media. It still is so, we think, strengthened and supplemented by new media. Dayan and I will work on this together. A new puzzle is why the new developments supplemented by the new media, often lack clearly articulated goals and leadership. Sometimes this seems to be a matter of principle, but often not. We think it is also related to how the new media work.
I started talking about these matters with students and colleagues in Wroclaw. My next appointments to go public with this, ironically, will again be in Wroclaw. I am scheduled to speak at the Wroclaw Global Forum, an international meeting of political and business leaders, and academics, this year’s topic “Reinventing the West: Prosperity, Security and Democracy at Risk?” I will be there to reflect on movements that present alternatives to the prevailing political economies. Later, in the summer, I will teach in The New School’s Democracy Diversity Institute a course on what I am calling The New “New Social Movements.” Strange, I hadn’t been in Wroclaw for twenty years, now I am becoming a regular visitor.
I am now thinking about what I have just done and what I am planning on my plane flying over the Atlantic. I will post it on my arrival. Busy day busy person (and quite tired).