Politics, emotion and identity performance

7 ‘The playing protesters’

Pantelis Vatikiotis, Kadir Has University

In its long history collective action has been studied in the context of the social conditions it emerged. The wide spectrum of perspectives on the subject includes reflections on both questions of ‘how’ protesters are mobilized and ‘why’ protests take one or another form. Accordingly, a number of variables have been considered in different times: the emotional and irrational nature of ‘crowd behavior’; the ‘mobilization’ of rational actors seizing political opportunities; the creation of spaces of autonomy and ‘new collective identities’; and, the transnational character of struggles against the ‘neoliberal, globalization order’. What is more, the compelling contribution of social media to the wave of uprisings that shocked the world the last five years, and the snowball inspiration of related protest movements, has favored the study of their ‘networked’ nature.

The research on collective action has predominantly focused on the instrumental features of the social struggles (political structures, material resources, organization, framing, cognitive aspect of identity), determining their very rational, ‘political’ qualities. Still, the renewed attention to emotions in the research agenda of social movements the last two decades (see Jasper 1998; Goodwin, Jasper & Polletta 2000) has enriched the understanding of social movements by exploring ways emotions condition collective action. Being engaged in social movements involves material, organizational as well as emotional dimensions. The recent, global interplays between social and media activism register significantly cognitive and affective elements in their repertoires.

Drawing on the events of May 1968 in France and May 1970 in the United States, Katsiaficas (1987) used an affective term, ‘eros effect’, to describe the spread from one ‘revolution’ to another. The current uprisings in different parts of the world, teemed with feelings of ‘indignation’, set more complex, open-ended intersections among them, and they ask for approaches and conceptual tools that fully address the dynamics of collective action across different contexts and cultures. Moreover, user generated practices facilitate diverse modes of political self-expression articulated on public and private social spaces, enhancing emphatically the realm of civic engagement.

In this regard, the metaphor of ‘play’ is employed here to grasp the diverse practical and symbolic activities of the protesters. ‘The playing protesters’, paraphrasing Alberto Melucci’s (1996) work (The playing self), point to the ambiguous connection between collective processes and individual day-to-day experience. Prominent is here the account of subjective and intimate experiences in relation to social structural dynamics, expanding the agonistic terrain of everyday politics beyond purposive actions, including non-rational deliberation exchanges too.

The dominant analytical framework of the ‘networked movements’ starts from the very assumption of the emergence (or not) of another paradigm, assessing, uncritically or critically, commonalities to these movements: the popular nature of the movements (large number of people joined for the first time a protest); the lack of organizational leadership (institutional, formal mechanisms of representation); the role of social media (conveying open/participatory spaces and networking protesters); the occupation of public spaces (central city squares and protest camps functioning as laboratories for the development of discursive practices); and, the overall context, the economic and politico-ideological crisis, of the multifarious protest movements.

However, these approaches fail to acknowledge the diversity of interests and emotions expressed in the different backgrounds. Building on this field of inquiry, the perspective of ‘playing protesters’ acknowledges the challenges of the intersection of differing and conflicting forms of engagement, including deliberative, active as well as of monitorial, reactive ones. For this reason, research on social movements needs to explore collective action beyond the dominant framework of instrumental rationality. Namely, the research agenda has to be expanded to study the interplay of interests and emotions across different (western and non-western) cultures and along networked platforms of activity.

A number of epistemological and methodological issues are raised here. The study of ‘playing protesters’ requires first, starting from experience rather than indubitable assumptions, and second, privileging the more processual and relational notion of activity over the western notion of goal-directed action (Lash, 1999). In addition, the evaluation of negotiations of social configurations, formations, identities and imaginaries – regularly and irregularly, privately and publicly, individually and collectively, deliberately and non- deliberately, in mediated and non-mediated terms – that produce multiple meanings and ambivalent accounts of social actors’ experience asks for transcending prevalent dualisms (mind-body, reason-emotion) in the research tradition, and to rely more on ethnography and visual sociology to fully capture the fluid dynamics of emotions (Yang, 2007).

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Pantelis Vatikiotis is Associate Professor in the Department of New Media at Kadir Has University, Turkey. His research interests cover the areas of social theory and media, political communication and culture, political economy of media, alternative media, collective action, globalization, new media and cyberculture. His publications include several book chapters and journal articles in international academic publications on the subjects of democratization of communication, public sphere and civil society, grassroots media practices, social movements, social media, and TV programming/scheduling.