“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 very 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 that prides itself for its radical critical approach, I felt affected by what I deemed as the limitations of theory to provide sufficient tools for practically engaging and dealing with concrete situations.
In Molecular Revolution in Brazil, Félix Guattari describes social dynamics as consisting of flows, assemblages and stratifications, a metaphor that might be likened to shifting interacting geological forces and states. In this philosophical model, the idea of the ‘molecular’ is used to describe political bodies and phenomena that individuate, evolve and deviate from authoritative ‘molar’ processes regulating and standardising the social sphere.
We studied this model and its social manifestations for a 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 particular instance 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 experience and relationships, we lacked the practical tools to handle and study what was happening. Despite the all round discomfort, it was my intuition 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 that followed for me was how to do this?
The Personal and the Political
The conflict with our teacher is a relatively harmless example along with other instances I experienced in this institution and beyond where, despite a high level of intellectual rigour or good intentions, the tools for addressing and acknowledging underlying dynamics amongst those working together were decidedly lacking. In these cases, I got the sense that this wasn’t unique to my personal context, but a more general condition that is recognisable across Western society. The dominant attitude towards difficult situations is to deny, pacify, remove, move on and/or divert from the troubling issue at hand.
My impression of academic circles practicing 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 approach in many ways, I too am guilty of it. The inevitable conflict that would arise from addressing something real is much more complex and confronting than theorising about something in abstract terms. But since learning more about political discourse, I have also experienced an increasing urgency and demand building in me for the development of tools and means for putting theory into practice. Particularly from 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’ does not take into account the molar dynamics of situations we are personally involved with. Acknowledging our part in social dynamics of oppression brings together and makes inextricable the relation between the personal and the political. It implies that whatever is happening ‘out there’ is also happening in here in the ways in which I relate to myself and others.
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 that has the capacity to welcome difference and engage with diverse needs, be supported? What kinds of tools, attitudes and approaches are needed? What kinds of approaches engage with the personal and the political and understand them as expressions of one another?
1 Guattari, F. & Rolnik, S. (2007) Molecular Revolution in Brazil, Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), p. 185