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<nettime> Noortje Marres: Why Take the Detour? (from Multitudes #9)

(first posted to the multitudes list and forwarded to nettime with
permission of multitudes)

From: "matheron francois" <>

Ce texte sera publié en français dans le numéro 9 de Multitudes (mai-juin
2002) dans un dossier intitulé "Philosophie politique des multitudes",
contenant notamment des Textes de Toni Negri, Etienne Balibar, Jacques
Rancière. L'ensemble des numéros de Multitudes peuvent être commandés à
l'adresse suivante :, en entrant dans la 
rubrique "Revues". Amicalement, François Matheron

(The text below will be published in French in the 9th issues of Multitudes
(May-June 2002) with the topic The Political Philosophy of the Multitudes,
containing, amongst others, articles from Toni Negri, Etienne Balibar and
Jacques Rancière. All the issues of Multitudes can be accessed online via (go to 'Revues'). Yours, François Matheron)


Why take the detour ?
A small exercise in tracing displacements of protest, and issues, accross
the Web.
By Noortje Marres

Translated into English by Anne

I. On the sites that host the political on the Web (just how multiple are
they ?)

The range of sites on which you may encounter the political on the Web is
practically unlimited. Trying to track down the political on the Web, you may
run into a campaign to boycot Bacardi rum, into a personal homepage dedicated
to " basic income " (in Spanish), a movement for " global solidarity ", into
dispossed Guatamalan landowners, into a page introducing the " groundwork
collective " previously hosted by the University of California at San Diego,
into a project to save the fish in the Murcielagos Bay, and into a Dutch
student association committed to the logo-free classroom. As it hosts these
multiplicities, the Web drives home the point that politics has migrated well
beyond the conventional settings and circuits of the political, the channels of
representative and stakeholder democracies. It is not just that these sites
make the point, obvious to some, that there may be lots of politics hidden in a
bottle of rum, in Guatemalian farmland,  in the intererior decoration of a
classroom and in the Murcielagos Bay. The campaigns presented on these Web
sites also resist reduction to the standard formula's of political action put
forward by conventional democratic theory and practice, the representative and
stakeholder models. Elsewhere on the Web, and off the Web, stakeholder debates
may be organised, and citizens may be invited to please let themselves be
informed or register to vote. But myriads of other sites -  of the boycotters
of rum, of the environmental scientists taking up the cause of the fish in
Murcielagos Bay, the individual campaigning for assured basic income - host the
political on the Web,  alongside such more easy-to-recognize (and from some
vantage points, more easy to find) political platforms. We can thus still agree
with the argument which the political philosopher Jodi Dean made a couple of
years ago : one of the prime features of the political agencies that the
Internet discloses is that they resist established conceptions of democracy.

As Jodi Dean puts it, the Net does not present a public sphere, but loose
associations among strange, as yet unencountered, actors, that do not fit the
picture of reasonable citizens engaging in reasonable debate. As it presents
these irreducable social actors, the merit of the Internet is that it seriously
undermines and severly complicates this vision of democracy.[1] Even if over
the last years, representative and stakeholder democracies moved online en
masse (if only judging from the hosts of e-democracy initiatives deployed in
recent years), irreducable multiplicities continue to stir themselves on the

However, a conclusion that cannot be derived from the fact that multiplicities
of sites host the political on the Web, is that politics may here erupt in any
setting, and be instigated by any actor. Besides offering living proof of the
migration of social politics beyond the established channels, the Web also
provides abundant evidence of the fact that politics follows highly particular
trajectories. We get a glimpse of politics on the Web, only at particular
moments, at particular sites, of particular actors, relating to particular
issues. To give an example, at the time this short article was written, the
sites of a New York protest network (, a Belgian social movement
(11.11.11), the Dutch branch of a transnational non-governmental organisation
( all refered to two particularly " hot " events, an EU summit in
Barcelona, Spain and an UN summit in Monterrey, Mexico. If you want to get on
the tail of the political this week, these sites seemed to say, you better fix
your gaze on Barcelona, Spain and Monterrey, Mexico. The Web thus equally
reminds us of the truism that even if politics may erupt in myriads of places,
not everywhere there is politics. The Web makes us familiar with the
specificity of trajectories of politicization.

The above example, however, does not just testify to the particularity of the
sites that host the political on the Web, at a given moment. It may also be
said to complicate the claim of the migration of politics beyond its
conventional settings, for which the Web offers such convincing proof. Also
those actors that have become associated with the migration of politics beyond
enthrenched platforms - social movements - may lead us to sites that fit the
description, if not of the traditional centers of democracy, at least that of
centers of big decision-making, with the global summit as a case in point. To
some, this tendency of centralisation in social networks on the Web can appear
to undermine the claim of the proliferation of the political, that has become
associated with the Web. Social actors mobilizing around issues of
globalisation may even appear to simply follow that other, scandalous
development of the displacement of politics of recent decades : the migration
of institutional politics beyond the channels of national democracy, to
international conference dinners and into the hallways of global expert
meetings.[2] Instead of a proliferation of politics, the claim would then be,
we are witnessing, on the Web, displacements of social politics that merely
runs after the displacement of big politics. But of course it is not so simple,
or at least it shouldn't be. We may account for the highly specific political
trajectories plotted by social actors on the Web, in keeping with the
proliferation of politics beyond the usual circuits of decision-making.

Thus we ask : why do social actors go out of their way to make a detour via
sites of big decision-making, given the displacement of politics beyond the
conventional settings ? Here  we take up this question by tracing social
movements mobilizing around global issues on the Web - the passage via a
global summit site being a most radical example of such detours.

II. On following the issues

Why do the social actors that have become associated with the migration of the
political beyond its conventional settings, congregate around sites of big
decision making ? A first, incomplete answer to this question that the Web
leads us on to, is that these actors are following issues. Tracing social
movements accross the Web, it appears that the causes with which these
movements have associated themselves lead them to zoom in on these sites. Two
examples can make this clear. In the first case, we witness on the Web how
Dutch climate activists follow the issue of climate change all the way into the
conference rooms of the Okura Hotel in Amsterdam. In a second example, the
Tobin tax leads French, Dutch and American organisations to flock to the UN
summit in Monterrey, Mexico.

To begin with, we read on the Web site of the Dutch magazine Ravage about climate activists disturbing a meeting of representatives from the oil industry, at the Okura hotel in Amsterdam in February this year. Links provided by Ravage lead us to two Dutch climate action networks on the Web, and the Climate Independent Media Center, which also report on the event, under the heading of a "poke in the eye for energy ". (The meeting at the Okura hotel was hosted by an organisation called " Eye for Energy ", a lobby for the emission trading solution to climate change.) Here we find first hand accounts of the event, in which, we read, a handful of protestors, with costumes and wigs evoking an " acquatic theme ", walked into the conference room at the Okura hotel early in the morning of the 20th of Febraury. A small protest-network has thus configured on the Web. Now an answer to the question " why this ado around this particular meeting of  some particularly obscure or!
ganisation (I at least never heard of Eye for Energy), at this particular location, the Okura Hotel in Amsterdam " , emerges when we take into account the trajectories that the issue of climate change has followed on the Web (and off the Web), over the last years. Asking what the issue of climate change is made up of these days, the corporate and governmental networks dealing with climate change on the Web, tell us it is mainly about bureaucracy and markets.[3] Whereas back in 1998 the definition of climate change as it circulated among governmental and corporate sites consisted for a significant part of the threat of environmental disaster and the findings from climate science, in 2001 the ecological dimensions of the issue figured much less prominently in these networks. (The climate change network on the Web also changed composition itself. Where in 1998 the network was dominated by the UN,  oil companies and international ngo's, in 2001 the Whitehouse had aquired a central!
 position in the network, to the oil company's were added technology and transport companies, and activist sites now engage in the issue on the Web besides the ngo's.) Thus, judging from the governmental and corporate networks on the Web, the issue of climate change has to a degree been
transformed from an environmental question into a policy and market answer.
While the activist concern with climate change may be an ecological concern,
the trajectory of the issue has over the last years been rerouted via "
bureaucracy " and " trade ". That is also to say, if you want to re-define
climate change as a matter of environmental danger these days, you first have
to go and find where the issue it at, at the trading trajectory. If you want to
re-introduce " the rising sea levels"  into the climate change equation, you
have to go and find the issue at its current location, on the the market
solution track, and re-introduce the aquatic theme right there and then.

The detours that social actors make via sites of decision-making, in this case,
the Okura Hotel in Amsterdam, can be described in terms of the trajectories of
issues, and the ways in which social movements interfere with them. Flocking to
this site, the Dutch climate activists are staying on the tail of the cause
with which they have linked their fate (and that of globalisation).

Zooming in on the trajectory of issues in this way, the question of the passage of social actors via sites of decision-making has already changed face. We can now give at least one reason why the detour social movements make via such sites cannot be equated, at least not initially, with a mere following of the displacement of big politics. In first instance, the actors are following the issues,  whose trajectories happen to run via these sites.[4] Thus, in the second example, the Web sites of organisations that have associated themselves with the Tobin Tax - the charge on traffic in currency markets that is supposed to stabilize these markets and generate ressources for aid - point their links to the UN summit on Financing for Development in Mexico, as this issue figures on the summit agenda. It could very well be that it is the Tobin tax which attracts them to this site. To deduce from the references and links to global summit sites on the sites of social movements, that thes!
e actors may suffer from a pre-occupation with big decision-making is in that sense the wrong conclusion, or rather this question now gets displaced. The question of the displacement of politics effectuated by social actors gets hooked up with that of the fate of issues. The degree to which social movements indeed move in the direction of the migration of the political beyond the usual settings, beyond meetings in conference rooms, now has been linked to the question of the trajectories of issues. This is the second way in which our question about the passage of social actors via sites of decision-making has changed face. The re-direction of issue trajectories comes to the fore as one of the stakes in the detour movements make via such sites.[5] Passing via the sites of big decision-making, social
movements may be said not only to pick up on the causes found in those
locations, they may also send them off onto diverging courses. As " the aquatic
theme " was added to " emission trading "  in the Okura Hotel in Amsterdam, how
did this affect the trajectory of the issue of climate change ?

III. Irreducable actor presence in the streets, and protest-networks on the

In what way are the passages via the trajectories of issues, in keeping with
the proliferation of politics beyond its usual settings? The answer to this
question that I'd like to foreground here, and which can be read from the
traces that social movements leave on the Web, is that these movements may
redefine the issues and redirect their trajectories. (In some cases we may even
witness a short-circuiting of the circulation of issues in enthrenched
channels, but this seems to be a very rare event. It may have happened in
Seattle in 1999, as there was no agreement reached at the WTO summit, but if
didn't occur at the summits I focus on here.) However, this proposition could
invite a serious objection, which we can no longer avoid to adress : " weren't
social movements supposed to be all about people ? "

Many of us know it from tv, and also from the Web (see below), and some know it
from personal experience, that when it comes to the manifestation of social
movements, it all depends on the presence of irreducable social actors in the
streets. While it has been argued that protest is no longer about the
manifestation of a singular subject (the citizen, the masses, the workers),
protest is still often considered to be about the question of the political
subject. Even if it is the contestation, dissolution or reinvention of the
singular subject  by multiplicities of irreducable social actors that is now at
stake in protest (this is also what the proposition of the multitudes
suggests), there are many reasons to stick to the assumption that protest
principally revolves around the subject.[6] One of them being the
aforementioned crucial fact of the presence of actual people in situ. However,
this is what I'd like to foreground here, the Web adds to subject-oriented
accounts of protest, the dimension of the interference with the trajectories of
issues. Especially in a context of a radical multiplication or even dissolution
of the position of the political subject implied by the notion of the
multitudes, a focus on the trajectories of issues may add interestingly to the
definition of social movements and the proliferation of politics they may bring
about. Again two examples point us in this direction : the displacement of
protest towards the EU summit in Barcelona, Spain, and the UN summit in
Monterrey, Mexico, as they can be traced on the Web.

(I will thus follow through the links on the Web towards the EU and the UN
summits, and leave the trail of the issue of climate change. The next Eye for
Energy meeting is scheduled in London, and it is more than likely that the
larger issue of " emission trading " and the still larger issue of climate
change, after having briefly touched at the Okura Hotel in Amsterdam, will also
get displaced to elsewhere. However, in the weeks in which I wrote this piece,
the issue of climate change went into a slumber, at least judging from the Web.
Little happened in the climate change networks on the Web. Besides, the
question of how detours via sites of decision-making can be in keeping with the
proliferation of politics, is most pertinent when social movements cross the
global summit trail.)

Also when following the social movements that mobilized around the EU summit in
Barcelona on the Web, it becomes clear that the presence of irreducable social
actors on the actual summit site sums up the event of global protest most
poignantly. After the EU summit in Barcelona had come to an end, the fact that
circulated most intensily in the protest-network that had configured around the
event on the Web, was the number of protestors that had been present - it was
the biggest globalisation protest ever.[7] (What is so crucial about such an
impressive presence of irreducable social actors in situ, becomes obvious when
we listen, for a moment, to Tony Blair. When Tony Blair descended from his
plane at Genoa, and was asked to comment on the protestor presence on site, he
replied something like : the Britisch people are back home, so these can't be
the people, these are just people.  Blair's absurd dismissal makes perfectly
clear how protest disrupts enthrenched circuits of decision-making. National
representational circuits are expected to stay in place, while politics gets
displaced beyond these channels, to the global summit trail - and to all those
other destinations of displaced politics, as refered to in the introduction, to
bottles of rum, Guatemalian farmland, and classrooms, among others.) Also in
other ways are the flaws in enthrenched representational circuits made apparent
on the Web. On the official Web site of the Spanish presidency of the EU, we
can visit a photo gallery of the representatives participating in the summit.

The Barcelona protest-network that has configured around this site casts
serious doubt on the representativeness of these representatives. The pictures
of people in the streets circulating in this network, but also the URL's of the
protest sites that it is composed of (,,,, among others), do this more than effectively. The same fact of
non-representation is in our face when we compare the list of civil society
affiliates available on the official site of the Financing for Development
summit in Monterrey, Mexico, with the actors composing the protest-network that
has configured around this summit.  The Web however, adds to this definition of
protest as interference with routine assumptions of representativeness, a view
of social movements interference with the definition of issues.

The protest-networks that have configured around the EU summit in Barcelona,
Spain, and the UN summit in Monterrey, Mexico, on the Web are not just composed
of actors, but contain just as many slogans, demands and, indeed, issues.[8]
The Barcelona protest-network consists, besides the URL's already mentioned, of
a campaign against a spanish law that will open up the way for the
privatisation of education, an international farmers movement, a site on basic
income, a support site for the convicted Safiya Hussaini (hosted by the spanish
branch of Amnesty International),, and,
among others. The Monterrey network contains, besides  a set of
spanish-language-only sites which unfortunately are mostly unreadable for
me,[9]  the site of the sustainability Web ring,,, and  (where you can find the
fish of the Murcielagos Bay  mentioned before), among others. These
protest-networks thus substitute for the issues on the agenda's of these two
summits (according to the newspaper headlines,  the Barcelona summit revolved
around the privatisation of energy markets, and the Monterrey summit was mainly
about the size of US and EU aid budgets.) Or rather in these protest-networks
on the Web, the issues on the EU and UN summit agenda's get displaced, so as to
include and become these other issues : moving into the protest-netowork, the
question of Western development budgets becomes the demand to drop the debts of
third world countries and the scandal of the closing of Monterrey steel
industries,  the project of the privatisation of Europen energy markets becomes
the issue of basic income, among others.

Tracing the Barcelona and Monterrey protest-networks on the Web, the question
whether social movements, in passing via the sites of big decision-making, do
not simply move onto the global summit trail, loosing sight of the
proliferation of the political, can be answered with a firm no. Even as the
sites of Belgian, Dutch, French, American and Spanish social movements have all
pointed their links to Barcelona and Monterrey, in one and the same go they
send us off to elsewhere. Following the hyperlinks from these sites, we do not
end up at " the one place ", the authoritative summit or protest site in
question. We are lead onto the trail of multiplicities of actors and issues.
Even if the protest networks around these two summits have at their center a
protest hub (, in the case of the Barcelona network), and a summit
hub (, in the case of the Monterrey network), they disclose hosts of
other entities, leading us away from the EU and UN summits, or rather
displacing the issues on the agenda there. In protest-networks on the Web not
only political representation in the strict (subject-oriented) sense of the
word is contested, even if this form of contestation can be pointed out here
too. On the Web, we follow how the definition of issues, as they are
transported along the global summit track, how  the composition of big agenda's
and the worlds they stand in for, are being challenged.[10] The displacements
of isues that social movements can be seen to effectuate on the Web  further
points towards a  specific filling in of the claim of the displacement of
politics. Where the displacement of politics before was rather vaguely
described as the eruption of " the political "  beyond its conventional
settings, we now can now add to this definition, the formation of issue
trajectories that cut accross enthrenched tracks of decision-making. As the
question of aid budgets becomes the question of closed factories, as the
question of the privatisation of energy markets becomes the question of basic
income,  it is not just that the setting in which politics is done has changed
(we're on a Web site, clearly not in a conference hall), different trails of
politization are being plotted.

IV. What trajectories for the issues ?

Our initial question has been answered : the detours social movements take via
the sites of big decision-making may very well be in keeping with the
proliferation of politics. First of all, these actors are not necessarily
following big politics, they may very well be following the issues, whose
trajectories, it is recognized, often run via the sites of big decision-making.
Such detours, moreover, lead to further displacements of politics, or more
precisely, issues. This particular filling in of the claim of the displacement
of politics, however, gives rise to hosts of other tricky questions. Most
importantly, if we want to foreground the ways in which social movements
succeed in carrying issues beyond the conventional settings of politics, beyond
the conference room at the global summit site,  what type of trajectories would
we see in store for them? In what directions would we want to see the issue of
climate change develop, as it, after touching the Okura Hotel, once again
includes the aquatic theme? Also, as we run into the Spanish law that may open
up the way for the privatisation of education, and the (dissappearing) fish in
Murcielagos Bay on the Web, the question that announces itself, is,  how would
mobilizations around these issues, eventually be felt in Spanish classrooms,
and in the Murcielagos Bay? Here, we did not follow the issues through far
enough for us to get a view of such further displacements. The Web provides
abudant proof of the migrations of politics beyond the enthrenched circuits of
decision-making, but much may still  be learned about the trails of
politization as they are plotted by social actors on the Web. Between the
proliferation of issues and the particularity of the courses they follow, one
of the questions that remains is, what forms of trajectories, as they are
traced by multiplicities of irreducable social actors, on and off the Web,
would treat the issues well ?


[1] J. Dean, " Virtually Citizens ", Constellations, Volume 4, Number 2, 1997,
p. 266 and p. 274.  

[2]  This development forms a big part of the displacement of politics as
theorized by the german sociologist Ulrich Beck.  

[3] The words that currently figure most prominently on the governmental and
company's Web sites dealing with climate change are " decisions " and " finance
", whereas in 1998 " ecology ", " scientific uncertainty " and danger " were
among the main keywords on the sites of the UN  and the oil industry lobby
involved in the climate change debate. " Climate Change Now and Then ",
research presented by Noortje Marres at the workshop Social Life of Issues 4,
organised by, C3, Budapest, June 2001.  

[4]  The notion of following the issues is inspired by the concept of Bruno
Latour of the laboratory as an " indispensable point of passage ". In his
argument, as social problems get displaced to the laboratory, social actors
become obliged to pass via these places in order to get to the solution to
their problems. Here the analogy is made with the passage through sites of
decision-making, even if, of course, in the case of politics, points of passage
rarely seem to reach the point of indispensability that may be attainted in
science. Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France, Harvard University Press,
Cambridge, 1988.  

[5]  One way of  " turning politics into an ontological question ", as today is
often proposed,  I would say, is to reconceptualise political processes in
terms of the articulation of issues.  

[6] However, proposals have been made to move away from such a subject-oriented
approach to protests. Andrew Barry has suggested, precisely because of the
multiplicity of actors involved in staging protests, to shift attention from
the question of the constitution of the political subject in protests to the
event of " telling the truth. ". Andrew Barry, Political Machines, Governing a
Technological Society, Athlone Press, London, 2001 

[7]  Between 200.000 and 500.000 people participated in the Barcelona protests,
see and, among others.  

[8] These protest-networks were located with the aid of a piece of software,
the Issue Crawler, with locates networks on the Web, through co-link analysis,
i.e., who's linked to whom. The linklists of social movement sites refering and
linking to Barcelona and Monterrey summit and protest sites - notably, Attac
and Indymedia, together with spanish protest sites, in the case of Barcelona -
served as starting points. The IssueCrawler was developed by and

[9]  Because I don't speak spanish, most of the mexican-based sites in the
Monterrey protest-network (which, as opposed to the sites in the Barcelona
network, were spanish only), remained inaccessible for me. It is one of the
ways in which I experienced the cacophony into which, according to Bruno
Karsenti and Saverio X, we are drawn if we follow the politics of the
multitudes. I can only account for the english-language sections of the

[10] In tracing social movements on the Web, we get a glimpse of an ontological
politics that has some similarities with the cosmopolitics Isabelle Stengers
has articulated for the sciences. Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitiques, VII, Les
Empecheurs de penser en rond, Paris, 1997.

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