Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tunisia and the Expansive Resonance of the Multitude

The events in Tunisia mark the first explosive manifestation of the global multitude in 2011: that complex rhizome of human bodies that coalesce as a political force in public spaces in different parts of the world. And the mass uprising on the streets of North Africa is important because it is creating a spatial shift in the global turbulences that emerged last year. It means that the political forces created on the streets of Europe in the preceding months spilled over across the Mediterranean and onto the shores of Africa, and resonated with previous patterns of local and regional unrest.

As with any struggle, the rise of the Tunisian multitude responded to myriad local factors. But drawing on my earlier entry about the shifting geographies of the multitude in the past decade, I want to briefly and tentatively bring to light how political resonances travel in space and across borders and continents.

In the past few decades, the spatially expansive political resonances created by the multitude reached planetary proportions on several occasions. This is why “1968” or “1989” evoke a state of global turbulence, with uprisings shaking multiple parts of the planet at the same time. Vietnam, Paris, Mexico City, Berkeley, Nicaragua, Prague were all brewing radicalized multitudes in 1968 the same way that Berlin, El Salvador, Venezuela, Beijing, and Budapest were all shaken by radicalized multitudes in 1989. These different places on different continents suddenly became politically interconnected. Expanded globally through media transmissions, struggles “here” resonated with struggles “over there” and created eminently trans-local forms of political empathy.

And while current political turbulences have not reached that level of planetary resonance, 2010 was certainly a year in which people took to the streets in impressive numbers, in places as diverse as Bankgok, central Asia, Toronto, and particularly in the United Kingdom and Mediterranean Europe.

Because the global multitude is empowered through the expansion of transnational forms of resonance, the imperial machinery works hard to contain them: that is, to prevent that the unrest against entrenched elites “over there” resonates with anti-elite sentiments “here at home.”

This is why the first reaction of the global media conglomerates, such as The New York Times and CNN, was to try to spatially enclose the significance of the uprising of the Tunisian multitude. It became “an Arab” event, whose repercussions could not but be limited to “the Arab world.” Pundits emphasized, not without alarm, that there was a real possibility of a “domino effect” that could turn the whole (largely pro-US) "Arab world" upside down. Yet this attempt at spatial enclosure, this zeal to contain Tunisia within the confines of North Africa and the Middle-East, reveals the fear of a global contagion, which could spread this unrest toward other parts of the planet.

An important expression of this resonance crossing over the Mediterranean to North Africa from Europe was the role played by Wikileaks, originally based in servers in northern Europe, in disseminating details about the utterly corrupt nature of the Tunisian political elite. The actions of Wikileaks resonated with the local concerns and passions of the Tunisian people and added a transnational political factor to the revolt. The same way that the concerns for the corporate looting of the welfare state and the unchecked power of elites in Greece or France resonated, across the Mediterranean, with the concerns of the Tunisian people for the elite looting of public resources and the unchecked power of their own elites. Let us not forget that a regular flow of people moves back and forth between Tunisia and France, where the restless presence of the multitude on the streets shook the country for months.

The resonances emanating from Tunisia are now reverberating across North Africa, so far in explosive, anarchic, and localized outbursts. The most remarkable are the men who set themselves on fire almost simultaneously in Egypt, Mauritania and Morocco, imitating the actions of the Tunisian man who did the same in December, inspiring an uprising that after weeks of street clashes and over 100 dead toppled a 23-year old dictatorship. The message from these self-immolated men is clear: they want their suffering to resonate with the multitude of their own countries.

Yet resonances expanding through space coalesce nationally and locally in unpredictable ways, and the “domino effects” are not part of the realm of futurology or physics but belong in the always unpredictable, conjunctural realm of politics. This is why resonances may be brewing for a long time before they coalesce on the streets into a mass revolt or before they dissolve, as they often do, into thin air.

The importance of resonance, first brought to light albeit in passing by The Invisible Committee, lies in the fact that it makes us think about the interconnectivity between politics, space, and the impact of instant forms of media transmission. More importantly, resonance brings to the fore the power of transnational forms of empathy created when local and trans-local concerns intersect. This means that our first task is not to reduce the revolt in Tunisia to an “Arab” event, as the media instructs us to do, but to see it as an anti-elite, democratic uprising we all relate to: the opening salvo, in the early days of 2011, of the global unrest to come.


  1. "The importance of resonance, first brought to light albeit in passing by The Invisible Committee..."

    I would point you to page 228 (and passim.) of a little book called Posthegemony:

    "The multitude forms as bodies come together through resonances established by good encounters, but it is always open to new encounters, and so to new transformations."

    Not that I would claim to be the first, either, though I do think that my gestures (and I admit that they are only dangers) towards the dangers of resonance are somewhat novel:

    "A more complex account would stress that there are good multitudes and bad: bodies that resonate and expand versus dissonant bodies or bodies whose resonance hits a peak that leads to collapse." (247)

  2. Oops, I mean "I admit that they are only gestures."

  3. Yet another reason for reading Posthegemony in more detail! Thanks for the heads up. But couldn't a "bad multitude" also resonate and expand?