How we tell stories has a lot to do with how we understand ourselves and our world. My obsession with story-gathering and storytelling (otherwise known as researching and writing) is probably why I find myself working in and studying media and communications. One of the things I have learned is that once ideas and experiences are mediated, there is no way of reducing them to a single objective truth. Many voices are speaking, some are being spoken for, and many others are interpreting the stories. Canadian author Thomas King, one of my favorite writers, understands this kind of entwining of storytellers and listeners. He writes novels and plays in which there is always at least two stories happening at all times: the dominant story and a more subversive, sometimes sinister and playful one. His work draws on the myths of Canada’s First Nations people, but it’s equally relevant to all kinds of situations in which an established order is perceived as illegitmate, and in which cultures and people are telling and retelling their own, resistant stories.
At moments of crisis, tension and change, the question of which stories are told, and how, becomes especially relevant. In the past weeks and months, we have been experiencing a deluge of events -and thus a deluge of stories. Students have demonstrated on the street in London. Websites have leaked documents and reproduced them around the world, to the ire of major companies. Hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated on streets and in squares across the Middle East, provoking responses from changes in government to retaliatory attacks. How are we meant to understand all of this?
We can start to notice how these stories are constructed, and how they fit in with the broader stories we hear around us. We might notice that a lot the stories we hear about about DOOM. Immiseration, collapse, social decay, general feelings of “the end of things as we know them.”
No more tugs of war
I think that this story has appeared because what’s going on in all of these places is so antithetical to the way that we understand power. The way we’ve been understanding power up until now has largely been in terms of binaries or oppostions. For every form of dominant, top-down power there is a resistant form of counterpower. We can locate things as either being, or not being. For example: much of our welfare state depends on an assumption that we are either “in” work or “out” of it, and therefore if we are “out” then the state should try and find a way to put us back “in.” This assumes that we are living in what Foucault calls a “disciplinary” society where there are clear markers for initiation, for graduation, for retirement. There are clear distinctions between “in” work and “out”. This is the world of institutions, of fixed relationships. Power structures like hierarchies fit well here. Conflicts in this world can include the clash between labour and capital, government and demonstrator, and its wars are the wars of armies.
Considering how important this kind of power structure is, it’s no wonder that media stories try very hard to support and reproduce it. The mainstream coverage of the student demonstrations in London, for example, told a story from the top: in which David Cameron stated that students needed to understand the policies before opposing the policies, or the view from the BBC, which presented students as a “mob” creating terror in the streets. The “terror in the streets” and the focus on violence of both demonstrators and police maintains the narrative of power versus resistance.
Similarly, early coverage of the demonstrations in Egypt focused on the opposition between demonstrators and the government. Reporters followed clashes between police and demonstrators, published photographs of protesters draping flags over tanks. These were reassuring images: they showed us a story that we had all seen before.
Coyote messes up the narrative
But then things got confused. Other stories appeared. Perhaps they were always there, like Coyote in Thomas King’s books. In King’s work, as in much work that listens to and retells traditional stories, conventional narratives unfold, with beginnings, middles, and ends, with heroes and villains. Underneath, though, something else is happening. Coyote, the trickster, is playing. No one can tell whether he’s good or evil. His intentions are unclear, except that he messes things up. For those of you who have never met Coyote, or coyotes in general, they are wily animals. They are a bit like foxes, only larger, and wilder. You can find them all over North America, out on the prairie and in cities as well. They are good scavengers but wary of people.
Coyote, as a character, turns up in stories and myths from across North America’s “Indian Country.” He’s known for breaking rules, like the rule that humans don’t talk to animals any more. He muddles things up, confuses things, and pisses people off. Most irritatingly for everyone, he gets in the way of the narrative, interrupting the easy progression from beginning to middle to end. Under the influence of Coyote, Thomas King’s characters alter the progress of narratives we thought we knew, from John Wayne westerns to Columbus’ arrival in America.
Likewise, another story has started to disrupt the narrative of power versus counterpower we expect from the media. From Egypt, we first began to hear about demonstrators self-organizing, cleaning streets, distributing food and maintaining order. Slowly, the media started to tell us about the complexity: the army defecting, the people self-organizing, the tactics of announcing protests in one place and staging them in another place. Similarly, in the case of the student demonstrations in London, reports from the street describe the demonstrators’ reaction to police kettling. It was not to push back directly. It was, instead, to fragment, to redistribute, to swarm. Instead of being kettled, protesters swarmed around Central London. Now, several months later, the emergent organization and decentralization of the swarm are helping to maintain projects like the Really Free School, that don’t fit in to an obvious narrative of resistance. The Really Free School, for example, has irritated journalists by refusing to adhere to a narrative of disruptive student squatters. The activists have instead impressed their neighbours, hosted street parties, and invited weeks of presentations, discussions, and workshops taught by – and for – everyone.
The story under the story: The Exploit
This is the story under the story. Not just the Really Free School, not just the details gleaned from demonstrations far away. The whole thing: the whole unravelling of the rigid frame of disciplinary society.
Within media theory, Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker’s book The Exploit: A Theory of Networks has developed a few ideas that help to explain this. The authors argue that disciplinary power has been strained by our development into a “networked” society in which control exists in the relationships between entities. It’s no longer sufficient to exert power from the top down. Instead, control is exerted over the relationships being built in between things, or people. A good example of this form of power is the incredible value that social networking systems generate simply by understanding the relationship in between people. That’s how Facebook has made billions.
Yet, this form of power means that resistance has changed too. Despite the media stories still reproducing the old way of telling stories, we can now see that resistance is no longer only about standing up en masse and become an oppositional bloc, but about disrupting the way that control operates across the network of relationships. Galloway and Thacker describe it this way:
To be effective, future political movements must discover a new exploit. A whole new topology of resistance must be invented that is as asymmetrical in relationship to networks as the network was in relation to power centres… It’s not enough though to just have a horizontal form of organization. Protest movements show that what is significant in shifting power is not a threat of violence or only a massive response, but also a shift in the understanding of power. It’s not about overthrow, its about shifts in the story – not assuming that the narrative will resolve in a specific way, as it always has. (p. 227)
In other words, power and resistance don’t work symmetrically, even when we are thinking of power as a network form. As tempting as it is to think that networked topologies or technologies (like the Internet) are automatically linked in with distributed resistance, there is no necessary equivalence between forms of power and topological or organizational structures.
In other words, the terrain of power is changing. This makes things very confusing. The good guys and bad guys are not isolated on opposite sides of a chasm. Everyone is discussing everything with each other, and information is often much less scarce and harder to control than it was before (though not always). More importantly, many of the ideas we had about who gains legitimacy and how they get there, are shifting. It’s very exciting, and very confusing. And so far, many of our media stories have not caught up. Thus, DOOM! the media says. It is the end of things.
I am personally not so sure. I can hear Coyote laughing.