Irrepresentable Collectivity?

Abstract: Anonymous is a model of collectivity that operates within the biopolitics of software and emerges at the intersection of human beings, affects and codes. It materializes the demand for “community without unity“ (Thacker) and inspires to (re)think the constitution of the social/political beyond a logic of antagonistic relation. By concentrating on Anonymous as a phenomenon that strives to escape representational logics and disciplinary borders I use it to question traditional research approaches and ask for a transversal perspective.

“Hackergroup“, “hacktivist organization“, “cyber terrorists“, that is how many journalists have described Anonymous. With “Operation Payback“, the campaign for the support of WikiLeaks in December 2010, and the contribution to the Arab Spring 2011 Anonymous has become famous in the mainstream media. But the outdated descriptions in the newspapers don`t capture a new phenomenon: Anonymous is not a group that can be defined by its members or leaders and it has no roster or base of operations. “We are all anonymous“, it shouts as it swarms and attacks. Within processes of online (co)operation, a rhetoric of inclusion is activated that undermines traditional logics of representation by creating new logics of relation. This spontaneous figure of inclusion works differently than traditional identities of inclusion like “the Italians”, “the women” and “the socialists”. The momentary representation of the group is based on the swarming and shouting, linked to the brief appearance of Anonymous which therefore no longer fits the traditional sociological definition of a group anymore. Is Anonymous a new kind of collectivity?

Analyzing a “new” appearance challenges traditional empirical methods of social science. Researchers like Tsianos/Pieper/Kuster (2011) have problematized the sociological approaches of investigating “making connections” within and with the digital and asked for the invention of new methodologies (Lovink/Patelis 2011). Their ideas are reflected in the challenge of analyzing Anonymous that confronts the researcher: To analytically approach the processes of collaborative constitution raises the question of a “beyond” without recourse to an analytics of transcendence and essential identities (Zehle/Rossiter 2009).

Beyond representation: How can we analyze new collectivities that escape the logics of representation that the traditional methods of research and knowledge production are based on? Anonymous cuts across the logics of empirical research approaches as it flees representation, unifies emergence and existence, and exists never as fully constituted but only in the process of constitution – it is only in actu. Researching Anonymous one never encounters the same content, as it changes on a representational and on an algorithmic level.

Beyond disciplinary borders: Anonymous claims to be a “community without unity” (Thacker 2004) and specifies that the idea of a collectivity that is decentralized, without homogenizing identity and is thus open to everyone can only work based on the internet and with anonymous communication online. But the space that Anonymous emerges in is structured by an architecture of code and protocol, by the dispositives of communication and the biopolitics of software in which the machinic and the human become entrenched and impossible to disassociate (Haraway 2004).

How does the distribution of sense perception and the processes of translations work in this socio-technical system that constitutes Anonymous? How do we investigate the circulations of affect and the materiality of code data (and hardware)? (Parikka 2011)

Researching new forms of association under the conditions of the ongoing informatization requires to reflect the movement of mutual constitution of dispositives and media techniques – and the social practices that Reichert (2008) emphasizes, because in his perspective using the infrastructure means producing and potentially modifying it.

To understand the processes of collaborative constitution online it therefore seems necessary to combine research methods like the multi-sited ethnography and analysis of algorithms and the modes of control, power and production in the age of networks (Galloway 2004). These research and documentation methods are informed by power and hegemony theory as well as by new materialist approaches and take into account the role of the researcher. By considering Anonymous a phenomenon that only exists within the emergence of the connection of digital and analogue components, of human beings, affects and codes this new collectivity inspires to (re)think the constitution of the social/political beyond antagonism.

Cited works:

Galloway, A. R. (2004): Protocol. How Control Exists After Decentralization, Boston.

Haraway D. (2004): A Manifesto for cyborgs: science, technology, and socialist feminism, in D. Haraway, ed., The Haraway Reader, London.

Lovink, G./Patelis, K. (2011): Unlike Us: Understanding Social Media Monopolies and their Alternatives. Invitation to Join the Network,

Parrikka, I. (2010): What is New Materialism,

Reichert, R. (2008): Amateure im Netz. Selbstmanagement und Wissenstechniken im Web 2.0, Bielefeld.

Thacker, E. (2004): Networks, Swarms, Multitudes,

Tsianos, V./Pieper, M./Kuster, B. (2011): ‘Making Connections’. Skizze einer net(h)nographischen Grenzregimeanalyse, in: Leistert, O/Röhle, T., ed.: Generation Facebook. Über das Leben im Social Net, Bielefeld.

Zehle, S./Rossiter, N. (2009): Organizing Networks, in: Cultural Politics 5.2.


3 thoughts on “Irrepresentable Collectivity?

  1. Hello Carolin,

    To start analyzing Anonymous it might useful to break it down in three elements:

    - A small core of individuals who are using the term as an umbrella for various operations and which modes of organization have barely evolved from the early 90s script kiddie scene.
    - A wider “community” of followers, fans, wannabees and copycats who are sharing the same playground but are not in a stronger position of control. In some case this community is used and manipulated as much as it provide strength and support for the core group(s).
    - An imaginary entity that is haunting the public sphere, academia, tech communities, etc, where everyone projects their wildest dream of decentralized avenging social organizations.

    • Hello Aymeric,
      thanks for your comment! You are absolutely right, I should make this analytical distinction clearer. Presenting my phd project I normally mention that there are of course these two other dimensions but that I have decided to concentrate on the one that you call “the imaginary entity” for the reasons that you just pointed out: I can project my wildest dreams of decentralized avenging social organizations etc in it and at the same time analyze for example the neoliberal assumptions behind this discourse.
      I haven`t worked with the term “imaginery” yet but you remind me that I should take into account Lacan…
      Looking forward to meeting you next week!

  2. Hi Carolin,

    With regard to social interfaces, it could be interesting to think about anonymous in relation to #Occupy, where I see an encounter at the juncture between the virtual and physical. How does Anonymous’ Global Wikistrike (“We are ONE and we are here for ALL, including the 1%!”) reflect Thacker’s ideas on community without unity? With regard to this, I thought about P2P models that often encourage co-operation on specific issues, rather than insisting on shared (or antagonistic) ideologies.

    ‘Beyond’, I think, also concerns this sense of unity. De Angelis, I understand, is one writer to have recently challenged the idea of completely encompassing shared social space. I hope there will be an opportunity to discuss this more. There were some posts around this topic in July’s discussion on Empyre (see, for example:

    You also touch on bio-politics and representation, which to me seems quite relevant to the moment to moment, emergent character of Anonymous, that you also describe. Putting these aspects beside Aymeric’s invocation of Baudrillard seems to me a very interesting prospect.