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Resistance Refuted And Reimagined

Is cultural resistance, resistance at all? Malcolm Cowley (1898–1989) raised this question in Exile's Return (1934), his memoir of Bohemian days in Greenwich Village. He pointed out that while the cultural conservatism of the Victorians may have served an era of capitalism predicated on hard work and savings, by the 1920s a new ethic was needed for what was becoming a mass consumer economy. Within the context of consumer capitalism the bohemian call to be freed from yesterday's conventions translates easily into freedom to buy tomorrow's products. More recently, Thomas Frank has taken up the refrain, writing in his journal The Baffler (1993):

Over the years the rebel has naturally become the central image of this culture of consumption, symbolizing endless, directionless change, an eternal restlessness with "the establishment"—or, more correctly, with the stuff "the establishment" convinced him to buy last year. (p. 12)

As a purely political strategy resistance also has its critics. Resistance only exists in relation to the dominant power—"bonds of rejection," are what Richard Sennett calls these in his discussion of Authority (1980)—and without that dominant power, resistance has no coherence or purpose. This is not a difficulty if resistance is a tactic on the road to revolution (and thus the end of resistance), but once this goal is discarded resistance becomes problematic, for what is the point of resistance if the very thing being resisted must be maintained?

In the early twenty-first century, theorists and activists are rethinking and redefining resistance, approaching it less as a stand against the world and more as means with which to actualize a new one. This is a central theme of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire (2000). Resistance, they argue, has two sides. Yes, it is opposing the current world, "but at the same time it is linked to a new world." This new world, however, unlike the revolutionary utopias of times past, "knows no outside. It knows only an inside, a vital and ineluctable participation in the set of social structures, with no possibility of transcending them" (p. 413). This is a strange resistance. What sort of opposition counsels participation inside the system? What sort of new world cannot transcend the old one? The answers lie in Hardt and Negri's analysis of empire. Within the social structures of the system of global capitalism they discover resistant elements: global interdependence, social networks, systems of communication, affective and immaterial labor, and the formation of cooperative consciousness. These ideas and practices are as useful to a new world as they are necessary to the old one. As such, these experiences lived by the multitude are both conformity and resistance, depending upon how one understands and mobilizes them.

Hakim Bey (also known as Peter Lamborn Wilson) shares Hardt and Negri's suspicion of a world "outside," but believes that through resistance one can catch a glimpse of an alternative. His model is the TAZ, or Temporary Autonomous Zone (1985), an immediate experience—a happening—that temporarily reverses the rules, laying bare the structures of the present and experimenting with a model for the future. The TAZ is necessarily limited in time and space. "But," Bey argues, "such moments of intensity give shape and meaning to the entirety of a life" (p. 100). Protest groups such as London-born Reclaim the Streets put this philosophy of resistance into practice in the 1990s: throwing large, illegal street parties that literally demonstrated to participants what the experience of a participatory public culture feels like. What is being created, through acts of resistance, is a revolutionary imagination. As the rebel-poet Subcommandante Marcos of the Zapatista army in Southern Mexico writes,

In our dreams we have seen another world. A sincere world, a world definitively more just than the one in which we now move.… That sincere world was not a dream of the past, it was not something that came from our ancestors. It came from ahead, it was from the next step that we had taken.


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Stephen Duncombe

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Reason to RetrovirusResistance - Conservative Roots, Anti-colonial Resistance, Totality, Cultural Resistance, Resistance Refuted And Reimagined