“there may be a dimension of social resistance by a group against exploitation, against alienation, and against any kind of oppression, while at the same time, within the problems of the group, there may be microfascist processes on a molecular level.”1
— Félix Guattari
Theory and Practice
Since being introduced to critical cultural theory and political ideas relating to anti-oppression, a key phenomenon shaping my learning interests has related to how a group perpetuates the behaviours it defines itself against.
My deepened engagement with critical theoretical ideas took place during my MFA. The course I studied puts high emphasis on theory within an educational framework questioning the role of art in society. In the context of an institution priding itself for its radical critical approach, I felt affected by what I deemed as the limitations of theory to provide practical tools for engaging and dealing with concrete situations.
In Molecular Revolution in Brazil, Félix Guattari describes social dynamics as consisting of flows, assemblages and stratifications, shifting interacting forces and states. Guattari uses the idea of the ‘molecular’ to describe political bodies and phenomena that individuate, evolve and deviate from authoritative ‘molar’ processes regulating and standardising the social sphere.
We studied these concepts and their social manifestations for one year in a class where, due to various factors, we came into conflict with our teacher. Not knowing how to address this conflict directly, we voiced our dissatisfaction to a higher authority. Our teacher reacted defensively and although a collective discussion took place, many of us, our teacher included, were left with unaddressed feelings that impacted the subsequent iterations of our class.
What struck me in this situation was the correlation between the concepts we had been studying and the manifestation of these concepts in ‘real-life’. When it came to dealing with the complexities of molecular and molar forces in our own experiences and relationships, we lacked the practical tools to handle and study what was happening. Despite the all round discomfort, my sense was that this troubling situation contained something valuable, an opportunity for us to deepen our understanding and anchor our philosophical learning from the previous year. The question for me was how to do this?
The Personal and the Political
The conflict with our teacher is a relatively harmless example of experiences I had in this institution and other contexts where, despite good intentions, there were a lack of skills for addressing underlying dynamics amongst those working together. I got the sense that this wasn’t unique to my personal context, but a more general condition recognisable across many spheres of life. The dominant attitude towards difficult situations seems to be to deny, pacify, remove, move on and/or divert from the troubling issue at hand.
My impression of academic circles engaging with critical theory has been that it is commonplace to engage with trouble from a distance, analysing and speculating about it ‘out there’, rather than acknowledging its presence in our midst. I empathise with this in many ways and am also guilty of it. The inevitable intensity arising from addressing something personal feels much more complex and confronting than theorising about things in abstract terms. But since learning more about dynamics of oppression, I have also experienced an increasing urgency and demand building in me for means to put theory into practice. Particularly of organisations and people who define themselves as challenging normative standards and advocating for expressions of difference I ask, how do you apply and model in practice what you talk about in theory? I ask this of myself too.
Guattari defines both the molecular and molar as consisting of assemblages of processes comprised of different orders such as the biological, the social and the imaginary. It would be misleading to understand them as separate oppositional states because “they intersect completely”.2 Molecular and molar are co-dependent dimensions, aspects of which are simultaneously present in all relational interactions, whether on an intimate or mass scale. This suggests that analysing and critiquing what is politically ‘out there’ also requires taking into account the molar dynamics within ourselves. Whatever is happening ‘out there’ is also happening through the ways in which I relate to myself and others, making inextricable the relation between the personal and political.
This might shed more light on why I am likely to repeat what I fight against. It doesn’t excuse it but perhaps acknowledging it is the first step to bringing more awareness to this prevalent multi-dimensional phenomenon. It makes me realise that looking either outwards or inwards isn’t enough, both are needed. And it inevitably leads to further practical questions: how can I develop awareness of and acknowledge my part in social dynamics of oppression? Can my personal experience be explored as a resource in relation to these dynamics? What forms of knowing and doing are needed to become more congruent in what I say and do? How can a more just society, one welcomes difference and addresses diverse needs, be supported?
1 Guattari, F. & Rolnik, S. (2007) Molecular Revolution in Brazil, Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), p. 185