The agonistic politics of anonymous

I’ve recently been writing about the fragility of many contemporary movements: the organisational weakness that can emerge from digitally mediated assembly because the logistical labour formerly necessary to bring people together provided an important foundation for collective reflexivity. Collective projects become harder to sustain without regular face-to-face meetings, shared practical challenges and other forms of mundane encounter which facilitate the emergence of collective bonds. Movements that are fragile in this sense struggle to adapt to changing circumstances, revising tactics and strategy in light of new factors which are relevant. They fracture and break, though potentially in a way which leaves those active within them more motivated than ever to participate in new movements.

I think political culture can intensify this problem. Specifically what Nick Couldry calls ‘the myth of us’: the assumption that digital technology has liberated a natural sociality, allowing a rehumanisation of the world that can lead to the spontaneous amelioration of social problems through the power of the crowd. This could be seen as a particular recent spin, in part propagated by social media platforms for obviously self-interested reasons, upon an older faith in the power of self-organising systems.

Now I want to incorporate Anonymous into this analysis. This line of thinking has left me cynical about the whole notion of digitally native politics. Therefore I’ve come to find Anonymous increasingly fascinating, in terms of their (basically) apolitical origins but also their growth ‘offline’. However I’m discovering that the political culture of Anonymous is much more complex than I realised. From Gabriella Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy loc 4670

In the midst of all this, a pastebin.com message titled “Anonymous is NOT unanimous” was picked up and read by many participants: Anonymous has a perception problem. Most people think we’re a group of shadowy hackers. This is a fundamental flaw. Anonymous is *groups* of shadowy hackers, and herein lies the problem. Anonymous has done a lot of good in just the past 9 months. It has helped with other groups in providing aid to people on the ground in countries where “democracy” is a bad word. The mainstream media needs to understand that Anonymous isn’t unanimous. I’ve yet to see wide scale reporting make this distinction. A destructive minority is getting a majority of the press, while those of us who toil in the shadow doing good work for people at home and abroad go unthanked. 22 This statement captures Anonymous’s commitment to difference, plurality, and dissension— similar in form to the type of adversarial politics advocated by radical theorist Chantal Mouffe. 23 Anons often disagree and engage in a strong war of words. But very little energy is spent on systematically trying to eliminate difference, or carving out some “middle ground” resolution. Instead, differences are loudly voiced, listened to, responded to, and reluctantly accepted; Anons widely acknowledge that nothing drastic or meaningful can be done to eliminate differences, and they carry on with their interventions or, if the disagreements are unbearable, break away to form a new node.

The idea this leaves me with is of collective reflexivity taking a fractal form. Collective projects and commitments are precarious achievements, something which I’m arguing has become much more true under digital capitalism. But the breaking off of new collectives, pursuing new projects, after the open confrontations of accepted differences complicates my understanding of collective reflexivity. I also wonder if the communicative affordances which characterise a polymedia environment help facilitate this because my hunch would be that fractal collective reflexivity presupposes an intensivity of exchange which would harder to achieve with older modes of mediated communication.


Categories: Fragile Movements, Outflanking Platitudes

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