The Arab Uprisings and the Blossoming of a 'Global Imaginary'

By Tristan Smaldone
2015, Vol. 7 No. 06 | pg. 3/3 |

The Global Imaginary as a Rhizome

This enjoins a second look at Laclau’s ‘floating signifier’ in the construction of political frontiers. This term can undergo its own elaboration that not only unlocks the potential to dissolve division within the social imaginary, as previously discussed, but also the illusive boundaries between states in the global anarchic system. An important distinction to reiterate is that this frontier cannot move towards a specific endgame, or cosmopolitan utopianism, without violating subjectivity. This is precisely the difficulty that is encountered in Habermas’s deliberative model, which glorifies rational consensus building and the establishment of universal principles within the parameters of a global civil society.

His idea is problematic because its constitution involves an oppressive binary, which favors Occidental rationalism over its inversion, Orientalism.7 Furthermore, it relies entirely on rational communication in the public sphere, a space historically dominated by the values of a privileged class, race, and/or sex. In its symbolic arborescence, Habermas’s model also fails to account for the more complex workings of modern communication, such as the interconnectivity circulating through the vessels of modern media, onto which it is impossible to ascribe a specific teleological purpose or desired ending.

The signified, ‘grassroots’ civil society, should either be amended or simply left out of the context currently under consideration. The usefulness of its implied vertical and lineal direction, its fixidity to a hierarchical order, is limited when looking at populism in Tunisia and Egypt and the wave of pro-democracy protest that ensued. Civil society, whether domestic or international, failed to provide reliable mediation, in many of these cases, between the social and political spheres. In fact, that vertical relationship was de-legitimized and abandoned. Neither did the democracy being practiced on the streets, explicitly move in the direction of consensus building, or immediately fallback into a vertical or aggregative formation. Rather, ‘grassroots’ momentum spread rhizomaticaly, traversing the globe, and finding moments of articulation at different nodal points in an interconnected schema.

Here, a metaphor of the ‘Rhizome’, introduced in Deleuze and Guitarri’s, A Thousand Plateaus, becomes helpful in mapping the erratic logic at play in the journeying of social movements. The Rhizome departs from the linear structuralism proposed in Chomsky’s linguistic tree, which traces the development of language along pathways leading back to deeply-rooted, innate knowledge (Deleuze and Guittari, 1987, p. 12). It also deviates from the structural logic of Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action, where the trees branches represent movement towards the higher unity of fully rationalized ideal speech- or to continue the metaphor, towards the finality of the leaf, as was previously problematized. Instead, they propose,

A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggle. A semiotic chain is like a tuber agglomerating very diverse acts, not only linguistic, but also perceptive, mimetic, gestural, and cognitive (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p.7).

To visualize this arrangement, one might imagine a stand of Aspens, which appear as a colony of individual trees, where in actuality, it is a single living organism with multiple outgrowths, or nodes. A forest fire might destroy these outgrowths, while the subterranean life form, the rhizome of the Aspen, remains unscathed- to regenerate, multiply, and resurface at a later point.

As demonstrated in recent pro-democracy protests around the globe, the articulation of different social movements may be silenced by violence, physical or discursive, but they will never be eradicated. The connective rhizome in the social imaginary can manifest somatically, as in examples of stasis, but can also spread through the astral plane, the intangible space where symbolic identity resides, in the unconscious and the collective unconscious. What this novel form of globalized populism has created is a symbolic identity, structured on basic polemic logics, that is no longer confined to a particular geographic location, or reducible to a specific historical sequence.

Concluding Remarks

This analysis has focused on recent, consequential developments in Tunisian and Egyptian politics, which have led to a social discourse of hysterics. These protests spread to Libya, Bahrain, North Sudan, and Syria; then to the Spanish Indignados movement, the Aganaktismenoi movement in Syntagma Square, and the Occupy movements in Zuccotti Park, along with hundreds of locations throughout the world. It was a display of democracy in motion, a politics of becoming, linked together by an ‘equivalential chain’. This intra-national, counter-hegemonic articulation was an expression of solidarity against systemic hierarchy and marginalization. There was also a common demand for horizontal and multifarious democracy, more malleable, reflexive, and pragmatic systems, capable of appropriating a variety of democratic practices and models.

The democratic ethos that manifested has immense positive potential, demanding both esteem and further development. However, this potential can be severely tempered by a range of ‘institutional deficits’ (Howarth, 2008), which raises serious questions about responsibility in advancing the ideals of social populism within dictatorships. With this being said, it is clear that when the power-potential of the social imaginary is repressed, within our contemporary state of meta-connectivity, when the rhizome is dismembered, new growth will be established, and its nodal points will multiply, in infinite reincarnations, emboldened in the eternal promise: ‘If you don’t let us dream, we wont let you sleep’! 8


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  1. This term is an embellishment of Jacques Lacan’s social imaginary, which describes the illusionary unity between people that allows them to form social bonds, based on an unconscious, collective desire for security and love (Bracher, 1993, p. 22-23).
  2. Butler’s positive usage of this term is a slight departure from how it was first explicated by Thucydides, to describe violent internal feuding within ancient Greek city-states (Butler & Athanasiou 2013, p. 150-151, Listas, 2013).
  3. Describing a scene in Alexandria, Egypt on 28 January, one observer writes, “As protestors approached a line of truncheon and shield-wielding CSF, they moved to kiss, hug, and embrace individual soldiers, all the while disrupting their formation. While individual troopers attempted to maintain their distance, others were physically encircled, remonstrated, and pleaded with. The effects of these interactions were profound: both protestors and soldiers visibly moved to tears” (Ketchley, 2014).
  4. This term was Laclau’s adaptation of Jacques Lacan’s, points de capiton, a metaphor describing certain articulations that become signifiers in the language of discourse, allowing the subject to identify with a group (Bracher, 1993, p. 29).
  5. Passive narcissistic desire underlies the subject’s perception that they are somehow included in and loved by a symbolic order (Nature, Society, God). Active narcissistic desire refers to the subject’s identification with, and admiration for, a symbolic order (Bracher, p. 20-21).
  6. Antonio Gramsci’s, historic bloc, describes a specific course of events, determined by a relative ideological and hegemonic position (Gramsci, 1999, p. 345).
  7. Edward Said states that in Western Orientalist discourse, the Arab is often depicted as, “that impossible creature who’s libidinal energy drives him to paroxysms of overstimulation- and yet, he is the puppet in the eyes of the world, staring vacantly out at a modern landscape he can neither understand nor cope with” (Said, p. 312). Despite the focus of this analysis being on hysteric discourse and ‘unconscious drives’ in North African populism, the argument being made is that these ‘drives’ are inherent to the social and political struggles of all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, or nationality.
  8. This was a slogan used by protesters in the Egyptian uprisings (De la Torre, 2015).

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