Concepts of Resistance in Political Anthropology

Originally produced June 2012

“If resistance … appears to be everywhere for some, it is nowhere for others, a chimerical vision that disappears under a cold stare” (Weller).

For Foucault power is omnipresent; it is produced in every relationship and produced anew at every step. In this model, resistance too is everywhere, as the “odd term” in relations of power. However, Foucault emphasises, as he sees it the “strictly relational character of power relationships” where resistances appear everywhere as does domination within an inter-connected network of power relationships. This view of resistance is in some ways incredibly broad and inclusive: as an analytical tool it permits us to locate resistance in all aspects of day to day life.  However, the idea of resistance as the irreducible odd term to power also lends to this conception a fatalistic edge, since revolution, as a “strategic codification” of points of resistance, will only result in the rearrangement of power relationships within this network. This conception is far removed from an idealised idea of resistance as organised opposition to domination. Consequently, this problematises our studies of resistance in a conventional sense, as what we might problematically consider ‘meaningful’ resistance becomes harder to define. For Foucault the modern state survives thanks to governmentalisation – “the problems of governmentality and the techniques of government have become the only political issue, the only real space for political struggle and contestation”. Perceived resistance to the state is often in fact contestation of the state space. Similarly, Deleuze considers voting in a democratic society similar to being taken hostage. The citizen has no choice but to actively legitimise the authority over them themselves or to be deprived of a ‘voice’. We might consider the recent public sector strike in the UK in such terms: a strategically codified grouping of points of resistance, in other words, a grouping of resistances brought under one umbrella of resistance for strategic reasons, even if the individual actors may have differing perceptions of what and why they are resisting. Secondly, on the one hand, the strikers are protesting the government’s decision with regards to their pensions; on the other, they are not protesting against the model of state institutions deciding how their pensions are dealt with. Of course, this is a somewhat glib interpretation of events but this simplified version of events demonstrates some of the issues that Foucault and Deleuze wish to confront. While, resistance is seen to be everywhere, it can also be seen to reinforce an existing network: this leaves us wondering if a (perhaps more ‘naive’ view of) effective resistance can be found. Abu-Lughod asserts that any resistance will ultimately also be an accommodation to another form of domination in an envisaging of relationships of power influenced by Foucault’s interlinking points in a network. Deleuze seem to see effective resistance requiring a fundamental change in desires of actors with relation to society.

For James Scott in his weapons of the weak, resistance to domination is found in all the small acts of subversion carried out by peasants on a day-to-day basis. Scott wishes to demonstrate that although the peasants are subject to domination, by carrying out these small acts they do not succumb to the ideology of hegemony – they maintain a resistant attitude. These small acts are everywhere; this view is different from the conventional view of resistance, as Ortner describes it, of resistance as organised opposition to domination. This again gives us an incredibly broad understanding of what we mean by resistance. With this we again have the difficulty that although resistance is everywhere, we are left somewhat cold in our search for a resistance that effectuates change. If we consider this in Foucauldian terms, we see these small acts of resistance as the “odd term” in the relation to domination. Mitchell, criticising Scott’s book, argues that by maintaining a resistant attitude through these small acts, the peasants in fact accept the wider logic of their domination; they internalise the hegemony of the ruling classes and see the world in these terms – a binary opposition between themselves and domination. This can be seen as similar to Deleuze’s view of citizens being taken hostage through their own acts – by participating in this binary opposition the peasants confirm its existence and internalise it. Similarly, for Achille Mbembe power is banal and grotesque and in post-colonial society wears out all the actors concerned resulting in excessive displays of wealth and power that no one takes seriously and yet are reinforced through mutual zombification, whereby all ridicule and yet ascribe to dominant symbols of power. People ‘splinter’ their identities rather than engage in active resistance. Mitchell goes on to argue that academics describing the world in this way have bought into this idea of power working on two distinct and separate levels, that of mind and body; that in fact such writing is a product of modern forms of domination, which successfully creates the illusion of this effect – holding citizens hostage whilst letting them believe they can resist. For Mitchell, challenging modern forms of power requires and unravelling of the pervasive metaphor that distinguishes between physical and ideological coercion. This concept of effective resistance, like Deleuze’s, seems to require fundamental and difficult-to-locate shifts in thought. For both theorists, the analytical value of these ideas is significant in providing different perspectives on resistance, however, with both we may end up never finding the chimerical vision that is effective resistance or change.

Ortner speculates as to whether to be considered resistance the resistance needs to be intentional and also whether it needs to be effective. For Foucault, resistance is not merely a reaction to domination it is an active force in power networks and consequently guided by an objective or aim of some sort, whether the actor is aware of it or not. However, in this view, we once again expand our definition to an overwhelmingly inclusivity, consequently making our actual useful examples incredibly vague. Ortner, questioning the usefulness of Scott’s breadth of possible examples of resistance, asks whether a man stealing from a rich man is resistance or an act of survival. This raises the question as to whether the concept of resistance with such a breadth is analytically useful. Ortner cites Stoler and Cooper who propose focusing on transformative processes, irrespective of the intentions of the actors involved. Let us to consider once again our strikers: they do consider their acts to be ones of resistance, hoping to effect change. Nonetheless, as we have seen earlier with the example of Deleuze’s approach, Mitchell’s arguments could also be applied in a modified form to protestors in a democratic society, who have internalised the binary opposition of domination versus resistance. Once again, I would emphasise that this glib interpretation of events need not be taken as conclusive but merely as illustrative. In Stoler and Cooper’s approach, the arguable lack of coherence of a strategic codification of points of resistance is of little import, what matters is how this fits into wider processes of transformation or lack thereof. For Ortner, as problematic as she finds the term resistance to be, sees its use in highlighting the presence of power. Similarly, Abu-Lughod sees resistance as a means of identifying power and therefore a useful analytical tool.

Ortner notes that resistance groups are generally not unified bodies whose actors have coherent aims. For her the immediate solution to improving the analytical approach to studies of resistance is to employ thicker ethnography, to better understand the complexity of the groups engaged in resistance and to, as she sees many studies doing, not ignore the subjectivity and lack of coherence of many of these groups. Despite our analytical scepticism with regards to the term, there are undeniably many actors engaged in acts that they themselves consider resistance or who label the acts of others resistance for particular ideological purposes. Whether resistance is everywhere or merely chimerical or even both, this chimerical vision still holds considerable pull over many actors across the world. In this sense, even if the term itself is problematic, it has analytical strength in enabling us to identify certain groups engaged in conflict with power and to explore their motivations. Furthermore, we might postulate the emergence of some reflexivity with regards to these theories on resistance among resistance groups. One of the slogans of the current Occupy movement “occupy everything, demand nothing” could be seen in such a light, as a reaction to Foucauldian and Deleuzian ideas that suggest that engaging with the state on ‘its’ terms legitimises ‘it’, whatever this ‘it’ might in fact be. Scepticism among what we might traditionally consider resistance groups to the concept of resistance could potentially add another dimension to the problematisation of the ‘contestation of power’.


















































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