evolving ecological media culture(s)

Week 13: Politics in global network society


As we wrap up the course, let’s weave together some of the threads we’ve explored over the last few months.

  • We have looked at theories of new media, social media, Web 2.0, and media convergence, and examined a series of definitions of “media ecology.” These included the medium theory of Marshall McLuhan and others; the mental environmentalism of Adbusters; the cultural environmentalism of James Boyle and Lawrence Lessig, with their ideas of a mental or informational commons; the global network society theories of Deleuze (“society of control”), Galloway and Thacker (whose article we didn’t talk much about), and others; the “greening of media” assessments and proposals of Toby Miller and Richard Maxwell; and (briefly, this past week) the “three ecologies” of Felix Guattari.
  • We’ve looked at the relationship between contemporary media and the public sphere; distinguished between three variations on a radical-democratic public sphere politics (Habermas’s deliberative democracy, Laclau & Mouffe’s agonism, and Hardt & Negri’s autonomism); and focused on a range of media uses in relation to public or political goals. Some of these included those of culture jammers and tactical media practitioners like Adbusters, Banksy, and the Critical Art Ensemble; location-based cyberdemocracy initiatives; the mediated environmentalism of Greenpeace; the movement against SOPA and PIPA; and the locative media and experimental public art work of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, REPOhistory, and related groups.
  • We’ve looked at the changes in global political-economy over the last several decades: from the Fordist “grand compromise,” the broadly social-democratic or welfare-statist “settlement” between industry, the state, and labor that followed World War 2, to the various social and resistance movements of the 1960s (peaking in 1968), followed by the rise of post-Fordist neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s (and its incorporation of elements of the 1960s), the anti-neoliberal movements of the 1990s and 2000s (the Zapatistas, the Battle of Seattle, and the Occupy and “Arab Spring” movements of 2011); and the organizational and structural forms — networked, distributive, global — that seem to be shaping the terrain for any further political-economic changes today (as discussed, for instance, in the “sentient cities” readings).
  • And we have planned, implemented, and assessed a class project that brought together a place-based eco-activism with the use of social media (less so locational media; that would have been the next step, which we could have taken more decisively had we given ourselves more time to develop it).

This final week of the class, I would like us to return to the topic of neoliberalism and its alternatives. Two required readings can serve to pivot our thinking here:

1. The section entitled “The Abstract Machine of Neoliberalism” in Chapter 6 of Jeremy Gilbert’s Anticapitalism and Culture (pp. 169-176). (Note: If you’re interested in reading more of the Gilbert book’s remaining chapters, I would recommend the following sections: pp. 179-183, pp. 198-201, pp. 203-209, and the Conclusion.)


2.William Connolly’s article “Steps Toward an Ecology of Late Capitalism,” from Theory & Event 15.1 (2012). (Note: To access this article, you need to work through your institutional library portal; or see Blackboard.)


A few notes on the Connolly reading

William Connolly is a political theorist at Johns Hopkins University who has authored over a dozen books on pluralism, identity, secularism, culture, and subjectivity. He is a proponent of a “deep pluralism” and of “agonistic democracy” (related to the views of Laclau and Mouffe, which we examined earlier), and has recently been developing a philosophical project that extends from a pluralistic democratic political theory to an understanding of the universe itself as pluralistic, open, self-organizing, and unstable — a universe of “becoming,” in which interacting systems with “differential capacities of metamorphosis” align with each other in various permutations, resulting in periods of relative stability punctuated by periods of rapid change. This world is a world of intersecting networks (which connects this reading with the reading by Galloway and Thacker from some weeks ago — refresh your memory of that if you don’t recall it — and of Deleuze, Hardt and Negri, and others).

Ours is one of those periods of rapid change, and much of the article deals with the question of how we can better account for and cope with the “fragility of things” that greets us as we look around ourselves today: with impending climate and ecological changes, economic collapse, rapid social change, and the rest. The article attempts to contextualize neoliberal “late capitalism” within this larger set of cultural, ecological, and cosmic milieus, and ends with a proposal for us to consider seven “sites of potential action.”

While the reading is challenging in its reference to numerous thinkers and ideas well outside the bounds of our course, I’d like us to try to follow Connolly’s overall argument in its full scope to see what we can get  out of it. What are the relations between political ideology, economic and ecological systems, and the cultural and religious (or spiritual) dimensions of our understanding of the universe? What sorts of alliances across all of these domains — and what would it even mean to seek alliances across such different domains? — could help us navigate the precarious near future of this planet?

See if there is an idea or two in the article that resonates particularly well with you. Then bring this idea (or two) out in your comments and maybe follow up on it to do a little more research on what you think he means with it (the endnotes could be helpful there) and what we might make of it.



  1. I struggled with this week’s readings, especially Connolly’s piece. With the semester ending, I’ve been working on tangible projects like the seedbomb project for this class, and other applied design projects. Suddenly shifting into such abstract writing as Connolly’s is an unwelcome change: it seems like a move away from the energizing spirit that we felt in the seedbomb project. I find it difficult to draw meaningful understanding or inspiration from a sentence like “This is so in part because the powers of market self-regulation are both real and limited in relation to a larger multitude of heterogeneous force-fields beyond the human estate with differential powers of self-regulation and metamorphosis.”

    I do like the idea of a “universe as pluralistic, open, self-organizing, and unstable — a universe of “becoming.”” I think in some sense the universe is like that, and we are now going through a period of rapid change. It’s interesting to note that many people in the 1800’s probably considered their society as undergoing rapid change, and it’s only accelerated to the point where we see that as slow. It’s also difficult to predict WHEN or HOW our current period of rapid change will start to “slow down” when we can only speculate from our current perspective.

  2. Throughout this week’s readings I could not help but find myself thinking about how abrasive neoliberalism is to the natural world. Coupled with capitalism, neoliberalism pays no mind to its effect it has the natural world from constant consumption and production of waste as well as externalizing public misfortunes to people not as well off in other countries. Instead of working in unison with natural systems it seems to do the near exact opposite and gives no value to functions provided by the earth. At one point in the Connolly piece he has a rather long winded section describing interconnections of the earth system. After reading that I immediately compared the natural checks and balances of the earth’s complex connections to the traditional view of non-regulating markets, where it was mostly accepted and believed that intervention in the market system would cause bubbles and busts or even market failures. They believed in markets as naturally regulating systems that should not be tampered with. This spurred the question in my mind: why can we accept that messing with or mucking up the market will produce bad consequences yet we cannot accept as a whole that careless actions and tampering with a system such as the earth could ever produce problems for us? I am aware it is a silly comparison since they are remarkably different but the general concept still perpetuated in my head while I continued reading the selections.

    The hegemonic system that is neoliberalism as Gilbert explained takes many forms and is the collective efforts of many different perspectives and methodologies with a unifying goal. I found it interesting to consider the idea of neoliberalism uniquely revealing itself in each of its unique surroundings or environments, never in its completely pure form. This evoked the idea of neoliberalism actually being a form of pure evil or something to me, especially while reading what Gilbert wrote about manipulating society and distracting consumers from what it was influencing them to do. The view that neoliberalism has virtually no real challengers and leaves little to no room for alteration and evolution also supports this notion. While I hope it is not the only way, I feel what Connolly wrote about requiring an event like climate change to shift ways of thought and current paradigms may elicit such a change. I felt his concept of marrying the political-economic system with the non-human force fields of the world to be intriguing. I hope that such a marriage is not only possible through global catastrophe and still could be made possible by motivated, organized people with a shared and driven vision.

    • One element of the lack of challenge to the neoliberal hegemony that truly troubles me is a claustrophobic sense of increased government control over the populus. I have never considered myself a conspiracist, but recent activities in our government have led me to be far more skeptical of the people’s ability to overthrow their domination. These activities include the secret passage of the Monsanto Protection Act, which allows corporations like Monsanto to grow and distribute GMO seeds and plants without regulation regardless of public outcry and health concerns. Others include the authorization of drone strikes abroad and the potential use of drone surveillance domestically; the potential passage of CISPA, which would allow the US government to obtain individuals’ personal information from ISPs and websites without a warrant; and the massage accumulation of student debt, which is sure to cripple our generation’s democratic freedoms. To drive this point home, I’ll conclude with a quote from Noam Chomsky that perfectly illustrates the danger of financial obligation to the state, but also subtly precludes the sort of authoritarian regime that these aforementioned symptoms may be signalling.

      “Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society. When you trap people in a system of debt they can’t afford the time think. Tuition fee increases are a disciplinary techique, and by the stime students graduate, they are not only loaded with deby, but have also internalized the disciplinarian culture. This makes them efficiency components of the consumer economy.”

      Now, doesn’t that sentence sound like the EXACT goal of a neoliberal regime obsessed with consumerism? And with these disciplinary techniques in place, we are less likely every day to arm ourselves with the adequate tools to free ourselves. I would be lying if I said I weren’t fearful for the future of a free America.

  3. Gilbert is suggesting that neoliberalism is a strategy in which individualism is at its fullest, its “the new spirit of capitalism” featuring musicians and artists and creative lively minds encouraging competition and freedom. The idea of Fordism, suburbia, two kids and a back yard, has been re-commodified into “feminists, hippies, jazz musicians, bloggers, etc.” Gilbert relates this neoliberal concept to England’s parliament in that there are numerous gay members of both the liberal and conservative parties, which is a newfound individualistic freedom that would have never happened twenty years ago.

    I agree with Diego in the sense that the reintroduction to abstract concepts after completing our seedbombing project brings down my spirits a little. However, I’d like to think of Connolly’s idea of “late capitalism” and Gilbert’s idea of our current neoliberalism as moving change. Gilbert frames this as negatively as basic capitalism, but I’d like to think of it as the beginning of a paradigm shift, and that the capitalistic ideals reigning will not be around forever.

    I guess in a way, this last blog entry is sort of a reality check. Donella Meadow’s says while discussing systems thinking that “the bounded rationality of each actor in a system—determined by the information, disincentives, goals, stresses, and constraints impinging on the actor—may or may not lead to decision that further the welfare of the system as a whole. If they do not, putting new actors into the same system will not improve the system’s performance. What makes a difference is redesigning the system to improve the information, incentives, disincentives, goals, stresses, and constraints that have an effect on specific actors.” In other words, our seebombing project was absolutely an awesome way to get the community aware of Vermont native species, urban gardening, community involvement, how their local landscape is constructed, and so on.

    However, it’s important to always have the dual perspective of local based changes versus large system changes. I see it as a positive thing that our society is gaining more creative thinkers and diverse political leaders. If this neoliberalism brings upon more social justice, so be it. I think this will only tip the “worn out” capitalist view over the edge even more.

  4. As the last week closes on this class, I was hoping for an idea more tangible then the two articles posted this week. For the most part, I rarely can understand a lot of the abstract thinking we are introduced to in this class. So this week, I looked up so articles on neoliberalism in the world today that I personally could make more sense and in turn draw my own opinion on the subject.

    After reading Connolly’s piece I wanted to relate neoliberalism to the environment in a less abstract way. In “Governing through disorder: Neoliberal environmental governance and social theory” which was published in the journal Global Environmental (Pellizzoni, 2001) and describes neoliberal ideas as being the influence for market based environmental governance, like patenting biotechnology or the financialization of climate. Mansfield, 2004 gives more specific examples of this neoliberal way of environmental governance in her example of the control of ocean fisheries. She discusses a shift in North Pacific fisheries towards neoliberal approaches of regulations, approaches that were influenced by past policy that were centered on closing off the oceans with property rights. Her paper critiques that assumption that market rationality is rational in environmental management. She dismisses assumptions based on market rationality;

    “For example, to the extent that control over access to resources and places can be about protecting traditional livelihoods, assigning property rights can actually challenge purely market-based approaches to resource use. One example relevant to the case study in this paper is the ‘‘Community Development Quota’’ program for communities of Native Alaskans in the Bering Sea region of the North Pacific (Holland and Ginter, 2001; Tryon, 1993).” (Mansfield, 2004)

    This program she describes is one in which communities have a set percentage of annual fish catch as a quota which provide social benefits. However the quotas used in this example are not any different from market regulation; but instead property rights whose benefits are aimed at providing economic prosperity to a marginalized group of natives.

    I posted more excerpts from her article that summarize her ideas and findings, it is a much more tangible idea when looking at neoliberalism in ocean fisheries. The link to both articles are as follows;



    “…unlike neoliberalism, this program is not based on the idea of market efficiency but instead on property rights, in which property is the basis for rational decision making and market efficiency, not economic protection. My claim here, however, is that fisheries scholars and managers have focused on using property rights specifically to harness supposedly natural market-oriented behavior; in this sense, the development of property rights in fisheries is tied into the neoliberal focus on markets as the central form of governance. Thus, privatization and marketization are not the same thing, yet in neoliberal approaches they are tied together through the presumption that private property rights are necessary for markets to work, and that markets are necessary for optimal economic and environmental behavior. This contrasts to neoliberal approaches, in which property is the basis for rational decision making and market efficiency, not economic protection…” (Mansfield, 2004)

    “As long as these theorists treat open access as a realm in which economic rationality prevails, rather than itself as a social relation in which different sorts of institutions and power relations are at work, they are limiting their critique of orthodox economic approaches; they more carefully specify existing models of social behavior and resource management, but do not offer completely different models that do not rely on the assumption of economic rationality and market behavior. The result is that even though these different groups of scholars seem to have quite different perspectives, they can all agree on plans for neoliberal privatization of fisheries to solve the economic and environmental problems that are assumed to result from open access.” (Mansfield, 2004)

    “It is in this sense that putting property at the center of fisheries problems is a neoliberal, market-based approach to ocean governance. All the approaches discussed in this paper––whether private-, state-, or group oriented–– start from a particular economic logic that takes economic rationality (meaning individual profit maximization) as a given. From this starting point, the problems in fisheries stem from the ways that open access regimes inherently create irrational incentives: incentives to overuse, to use inefficiently, to race for the resource, and so on. In this view, open access represents a market distortion: what should be rational economic behavior becomes distorted under open access so that outcomes are inefficient and environmentally destructive. The solution, then, must eliminate the market distortion.
    Government regulation, these theorists argue, cannot in itself do this; instead governments can assign
    property rights that allow the market itself to be the solution.” (Mansfield, 2004)

  5. Gilbert mentions the idea of neoliberalism as a “hegemonic project” on page 175. The concept behind this is that “things like neoliberalism happen in part because someone, somewhere wants them to.” The hegemonic tendencies of capitalism seem to fly in the face of the commonly accepted “ideals” of capitalism & the free market. It’s supposed to represent equal opportunity for all, but the reality is really quite different. He gets very deep into the details of this claim, but what I found interesting was the basic principle—the state of things is not an accident, but rather, the work of a larger system controlled by a few.
    The globalization of society means the liberalization of society, which means that norms that were once accepted and enforced are becoming relics of the past. This creates new markets that strengthen capitalist hegemony. Hippie culture, for example, is now a marketable commodity. I can’t remember the specific context, but Adorno and/or Horkheimer once said capitalism has “something for all, so that none can escape.”
    I’m reminded of an episode Mad Men: in an earlier season Pete Campbell, largely painted as sort of a dirtbag, raises the idea of studying minority communities in order to market specifically to them (he’s initially denied by the older executives). His views on race are more pragmatic than progressive—opening up new markets will bring in more income. While this appears to be, and is, a “normalization” of a once marginalized group of people, it also represents a strengthening of capitalist structures, therefore furthering means of indirect oppression.

  6. What I have been most interested in in both of these pieces and the comments here is the vast anxiety in the general population around economics and political life. Most of the pieces we have read throughout the semester seem to view neoliberalism as one of the most harsh, disciplinary forms of capitalism that is truly novel. Gilbert suggests that neoliberalism has led British children to be some of the most depressed in the industrialized world, despite a high living standard. Depression and other forms of chronic mental illness have proliferated in the US and Britain. What seems to be one of the main problems for neoliberalism in the industrialized world is not poverty per se but vast inequality. A significant amount of research has suggests that poverty does not necessarily make people necessarily unhappy whereas inequality does. There are poorer countries than the US who have significantly rated as significantly happier. It seems this hyper-individualism which Gilbert sees as the driving force of neo-liberalism has led to vast anxiety. Hyper-individualism leads to a loss of democratic conversation. As Gilbert notes, even the very wealthy are unhappy in this system as it requires extreme discipline and long working hours. Overall, I am most interested in the seeming consensus of despair and attempting to think about how this could be used to create resistance?

  7. After reading these articles and a few of our comments, I feel like a true concern is the ties to over-popularized ties to academic history. As some classmates already stated, I could not truly relate and was not that impressed with the voices of these articles. I appreciate the effort, would definitely love the person behind the word, and would be interested in having a genuine discourse, but that’s both beside and part of the picture they paint. What continues to separate these thinkers from most people, however, is their general aptitude for what has already been thought. Philosophy is now an esteemed field due to the great thinkers that made it so. When majoring in philosophy through higher education, one becomes a scholar of these great thinkers. Much is similar with other fields in academia. However, there seems to be a great separation between the scholar of others and a scholar of the self. This seems backwards – if one does not know where their own intellect and passion stem from, their own philosophies, how can they begin to interpret, for the reason of positive change, another’s? And that is why positive change is not the main discourse. The main discourse is memorizing popular theories by minds other than our own. Many writers, like those writing the articles read of this week, outline their teachings by these established intelligences. What’s strange is that they tell you to use your own through these channels when everyone has different ones… And the popular interpretations of past philosophers is most definitely only a minor piece of the channels they were tuned in to…
    Whatever is seen as tangents aside, I’d just hope that, with whatever debt and feelings of pressure to “do good” in the world people leave this university with, it is remembered to be authentic of the self. If joining a non-profit that fits an idea of good-will, don’t forget to question and attempt to change what does not. If one wants to work at Walmart or Wall Street, don’t forget the similar.
    Backtracking through popular intellect seems to be a weakness of our culture due to how much recognition the white, male professors of past have influenced it. However, since most heads today don’t seem to agree the culture is working out so well, perhaps the focus should come from within instead of from where it is not working.


  8. I agree with Diego, as the Connelly piece was a serious change of pace from the work we have been most recently doing. even still, I surprisingly found that reading very enjoyable. It seemed to being the course full circle now. I am still lacking the vocabulary to say I fully understood it all, but with the knowledge I have gained from our course work I was able to grasp the overarching concepts discussed. I especially enjoyed the part where Connelly outlined the correlations between our political economy and the way it relates to other environments…

    “Indeed, it is partly because of advances in complexity theory in the domains of biology, oceanography, neuroscience, geology, and climatology that it is now possible to draw a philosophy of becoming, the trajectory of political economy and appreciation of the fragility of things into close communication.”

    “I am not saying, then, that few political economists are interested in environmental issues; I am saying that too few bring a philosophy of becoming to the inquiry.”

    I also really enjoyed this piece because I feel like it ended with a call to action. Instead of researching and reporting this article took it one step further.

    “It is to push for a new ethos of economic life closer to the cosmic sensitivity of Sophocles than to that of theorists, philosophers, talking heads, preachers and citizens who insulate extant images of social life from the volatile, interacting force-fields in which they are set. ”

    He stresses a very holistic view, where all systems are interconnected and can impact one another. It is nearly impossible for us to predict the consequences of all our actions, yet we can see the economic infrastructure is already flawed, and the consequences are only amplified as we continue on this course.

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