The Fourfold Matrix
of Contemporary Social Movements
Published in the catalog of Living As Form. Dedicated to Graciela Carnevale.
Texto en español.
Art into life: Is there any more persistent utopia in the history of vanguard expressions?
Shedding its external forms, its inherited techniques, its specialized materials, art becomes a living gesture, rippling out across the sensible surface of humanity. It creates an ethos, a mythos, an intensely vibrant presence; it migrates from the pencil, the chisel or the brush into ways of doing and modes of being. From the German Romantics to the Beatnik poets, from the Dadaists to the Living Theater, this story has been told again and again, each time with a startling twist on the same underlying phrase. At stake is more than the search for stylistic renewal; it’s about transforming your everyday existence.
Theory into revolution: Is there any more ardent desire for the future of leftist thinking?
The fundamental demand of the thinkers and rioters of May ’68 was also “change life” (changer la vie). But from a revolutionary viewpoint, the consequences of intimate desire should be economic and structural. Situationist theory had no meaning without immediate communization. “Marx, Mao, Marcuse” was a slogan for the streets. The self-overcoming of art was understood as just one part of a program to vanquish class divides, transform labor relations and put alienated individuals back in touch with one another.
The ’60s were full of wild fantasies and unrealized potentials; yet significant experiments were undertaken, with consequences extending up to the present. Campus radicalism gave new life to educational alternatives, resulting in large-scale initiatives like the University Without Walls in the United States or the Open University in Britain. The counter-cultural use of hand-held video cameras led to radical media projects like Paper Tiger Television, Deep Dish TV and Indymedia. Politics itself went through a metamorphosis: autonomous Marxism gave rise to self-organized projects all across Europe, while affinity groups based on Quaker conceptions of direct democracy took deep root in the U.S., structuring the anti-nuclear movement, becoming professionalized in the NGOs of the ’80s, then surging back at full anarchist force in Seattle. Since the AIDS movements, activism regained urgency and seriousness, grappling with concrete and progressively more complex issues such as globalization and climate change. Yet, society still tends to absorb the transformations, to neutralize the inventions. The question is not how to aestheticize “living as form,” in order to display the results for contemplation in a museum. The question is how to change the forms in which we are living.
Social movements are vehicles for this metamorphosis. At times they generate historic events, like the occupation of public squares that unfolded across the world in 2011. Through the stoppage of “business as usual” they alter life paths, shift labor routines and career horizons along with laws and governments, and contribute to long-lasting philosophical and affective transfigurations. Yet despite their historic dimensions, the sources of social movements are intimate, aspirational: they grow out of small groups, they crystallize around what Guattari called “non-discursive, pathic knowledge.”1 Their capacity for sparking change is widely coveted in our era. Micro-movements in the form of trends, fashions, and crazes are continually ignited, channeled and fueled by public relations strategists, in order to instrumentalize the upwelling of social desire. Still grassroots groups, vanguard projects and intentional communities continue to take their own lives as raw material, inventing alternate futures and hoping to generate models, possibilities, and tools for others.
Absorbing all this historical experience, social movements have expanded to include at least four dimensions. Critical research is fundamental to today’s movements, which are always at grips with complex legal, scientific, and economic problems. Participatory art is vital to any group taking its issues to the streets, because it stresses a commitment to both representation and lived experience. Networked communications and strategies of mass-media penetration are another characteristic of contemporary movements, because ideas and directly embodied struggles just disappear without a megaphone. Finally, social movement politics consists in the collaborative coordination or “self-organization” of this whole set of practices, gathering forces, orchestrating efforts and helping to unleash events and to deal with their consequences. These different strands interweave, condense into gestures and events, and disperse again, creating the dynamics of the movement. A fourfold matrix replaces any single, easily definable initiative.
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