Resistance is a response to power; it is a practice that challenge and negotiate, and which might undermine power. Depending on the definition of power, different types of activities will count as resistance

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Resistance is a response to power; it is a practice that challenge and negotiate, and which might undermine power. Depending on the definition of power, different types of activities will count as resistance. But resistance is, as power, a part of social life, not exceptional or asocial, but often relational within networks of productive social interactions. Resistance is distinctive yet manifold and continually invented. It embraces alliances, assertions, accommodations, and rejections, which sometimes produce agreements and inclusive forms of democracy and at other times, isolation, violence, and polarizations. When power becomes (perceived as) dominance, resistance is likely. If power is understood as the creation of subordination through discourses that structure performance, label and rank identities, create boundaries, reduce complexity, and then promote power-loaded images of identities to be invested in, then resistance might be performed by the usages of identities, images, and discourses in order to alter stereotypes and hierarchies.

Resistance is a multidimensional and complex practice, appearing in different shapes with different aims. As such, it is not evil or destructive, as well as not intrinsically good, progressive, or democratic, whereas specific resistance acts in certain contexts might be. Not only do fascist resistance and religious fundamentalist resistance exist, but they are common examples of how people aim try to undermine established legitimate power relations.

Because power relations may involve different categories or relations (e.g., patriarchal, sexual, ethnic, and capitalist), with manifold relations within each, resistance can be directed toward one power relation without attempting to disturb others. Instead, resistance might actively support some power, even depend on one and defy another. Thus, the production of resistance does not mean that power is not created. Parallel use of power and resistance sometimes also produces integrated or mixed forms, for example, the military discipline of a terrorist group.

A common mistake is to make no explicit differentiation between power and resistance, instead speaking of “power struggle” or a matching of “forces.” But analytically speaking, resistance has to differ from power. If not, we are by definition not speaking of resistance but simply of another form of power.. If resistance is not a different phenomenon, it makes the nexus between power, resistance and social change difficult to understand. It is only through distinguishing between power and resistance that we are able to discuss the empirical opposition, combination, integration or implication of power and resistance.

The existing conceptual confusion is connected to a lack of development of the concept and theories of resistance. Resistance studies are an extraordinarily underdeveloped social science area. Generally social sciences focus on understanding established social structures. While power is a well-developed and even contested concept, resistance is commonly either reduced to another version of power or misrepresented as a destructive rejection, thus both unproductive and uncomplicated. And “resistance movements” are typically reduced to (underground) military opposition to (foreign) rulers.

With a simplified understanding of resistance, it becomes difficult to distinguish between different forms, dynamics, conditions, ideologies, and effects of resistance toward different kinds of power relations. Movements’ continuous experimentation and invention of new forms of resistance become even less possible to understand. But why would not resistance as other similar social activities be complex, productive, and a part of everyday life? While particular attention has been given to the studies of social movements and their organized protest, only a few researchers have studied actions that are neither organized nor politically articulated. One of the few resistance researchers, James Scott, has shown how resistance rarely appears as the expected violent eruption on urban streets but rather as “hidden transcripts” and “everyday resistance” behind the public discourse and open scene, masked as irony, theft, slander, slow-downs in the workplace or playing dumb. Hidden forms of resistance are especially crucial when resisters’ basic needs and security depends on the regime they resist, for example, for hospital patients, prisoners, children, soldiers or factory workers. It is those who can afford to lose who wage open battles and dare public challenge. The silent and veiled resistance is not a formally organized or explicit confrontation but one that avoids creating awareness of ongoing challenge yet de facto might undermine power relations. As “nomadic resistance,” it avoids control and the scientific gaze of power and is resistant even to identification. As such, resistance also creates counter-discourses. Yet scattered, random, and individualized everyday resistance may be understood as building material in an emergent resistance culture which then might feed occasional open confrontations.

Despite being a specific phenomenon—the attempt to undermine power—resistance displays an impressive variation. The means of resistance might be violent or nonviolent, confrontational or circumventing, deconstructing or reconstructing, productive or hindering, individual or collective, accommodating or enforcing, materialistic or virtual (as in digital resistance).

Resistance often transcends the being-against-something, constructing alternative or prefigurative social institutions (i.e., confrontative alternatives or constructive resistance) as, for example, the landless workers’ movement MST in Brazil, which not only attempts to expropriate non-used land through land occupation but also undertakes to create a cooperative farming society on that very land. Thus, their alternative institutions enable increased confrontations. Accordingly, such groups attempt to fight the existing system by replacing it with a new society.

Resistance might also emerge in the shape of reversed discourses, when subalterns (those suffering from domination) involve the categories and vocabularies of the dominant force or superior norm, precisely in order to contest it. Since the subject is repeatedly and only partially constituted in subjection, reversed discourse is possible. In other words, different users may add different values to the same word. While the first speaker gives a pejorative meaning to the term, the second may add a new and different value to the word by repeating it differently. This allows subordinates to reinvest the name applied to them with new, positive meanings (note, e.g., the different use of “nigger” in white racist versus black hip-hop cultures).

It is often assumed that the subaltern is the typical resistance fighter. But at least public resistance is so resource demanding it seems foremost to engage people with a combination of enough frustration and resources. As a resource, taxing enterprise resistance is connected to processes of empowerment. Empowerment involves individual and collective resources. Agency, or rather a sense of agency, is pointed out as the most significant dimension of empowerment and is thereby discussed as the key to changing and transforming power relations. Empowerment involves the undoing of internalized oppressions. In this regard, empowerment can be related to Foucault’s notion of resistance against disciplinary power. However, feminists take this reasoning a step further, arguing that empowerment is not only a matter of self-confidence and dignity but also what happens as a result of having self-confidence and dignity. Empowered people might be subordinated but do not act as such. Then the normalizing processes that direct women to perform subaltern identities are resisted. Thus, in this sense, resistance is performed from a new empowered subject-position. Even though power is reproduced, the subaltern position is (temporarily) abandoned and power undermined.

—Stellan Vinthagen and Mona Lilja

See also Anarchism; Civil Disobedience; Deconstruction; Dissent; Fanon, Franz; Gandhi, Mahatma; Guevara, Che; hooks, bell; Performativity; Power, Theories of; Queer Theory; Spivak, Gayatri

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