Resistance and Difference

– By Jack Johnson|  November 22, 2016


Image from Flickr Commons

Traditional forms of resistance have often been unsuccessful in creating the change desired, or when they have triumphed, have brought into existence different, but no less authoritarian regimes of power (Revel 2008). But why is it that resistance as traditionally conceived has faced such difficulties? I will aim to argue that a contributing factor to the failure of traditional resistance is that it does not recognise or engage with difference/excess, and instead either operates within systems of power, or creates its own systems of oppression. I will examine what this difference or ‘ecology of practices’ might mean, and their relation to affect. And in exploring difference I will also draw upon ideas from the Buddhist philosopher Dogen. Finally, I will explore how forms of affective resistance may avoid the pitfalls of traditional opposition and explore briefly what affective resistance might resemble.

Traditional forms of resistance are conceptualised as being in opposition to power (Hollander 2004). Such forms of resistance have been criticised for being both inadequate and for reproducing oppressive power relations (Revel, 2008; Hynes, 2013; Rose, 2002; Massumi, 2002; Massumi, 2008; Stengers, 2002). The first major criticism of traditional resistance argues that such resistance is ineffective because by positioning itself in relation to power, it reaffirms that power. To expand, traditional resistance theory conceptualises agents as responding to a dominant system (Rose, 2002: 384). Resistance theory thus necessarily establishes the system as a pre-established force, and whilst the system can theoretically be destabilised, the structured nature of the system is constituted as primary (Rose, 2002: 384). In regarding itself in opposition to power, resistance defines itself primarily in relation to it, approaching power on power’s terms, and defining itself within the dominant ideology (Revel, 2008). Resistance thus ironically reaffirms what it is opposing. Ultimately, by identifying power and approaching it on its own terms, traditional resistance movements define a fixed point around which to organise opposition. As such, they enter into a static position where they are subsequently included in the definitions and ideology of the oppressive regime and are easily controlled (Stengers, 2002: 254).

The second and more damning critique of traditional resistance aims to problematise the way traditional resistance movements conceive the world, and argue that their metaphysical outlook is in many ways as oppressive as the regimes being resisted. Traditional resistance regimes tend to approach the world from an abstract, ideological and detached position. They operate fundamentally in the world of linguistic ideas, in a world of Cartesian dualism where reality is subject to the will and gaze of the conceptual mind, or alternatively, to use a Derridean concept, they attempt to engage with the world through a logocentric metaphysics of presence. Critical practices, whilst aiming to increase freedom, are fundamentally inadequate because in order to critique something in this way, it must be separated out, objectified, sedimented, defined, and finally judged. Therefore, the act of resistance necessarily removes itself from the practices it is attempting to improve (Massumi, 2009: 11-12). Traditional resistance therefore approaches the world as if it were separate from it, and carves the world into ideological categories accompanied by normative judgements. It approaches the world in the same way traditional forms of power do. The problem with this method is that it denies complexity and difference and instead attempts to convert the excess of the world into generalised abstractions. Resistance either slides into mobilisation, whereby all ‘obstacles’ are quietly destroyed (“the victims never had a place in the socialist future anyway”) (Stengers 2002, 253) or it establishes itself as a new and oppressive regime. It may be different to the prior regime yes, but it falls into the same seductions of creating new categories, new dispotifs and new oppressive structures (Revel 2008). It suffers from the same myopia of power that seeks to violently constrict an excessive and fluctuating world into an artificial framework. Oppositional resistance thus enters into a cyclical dialectic whereby power, oppression and violence are continuously reproduced.

The major problem with traditional resistance movements then is that they buy into abstractionist and oppositional practices that are not too dissimilar from the powers they are opposing. The question remains then, whether there is an alternative way of perceiving the world, and if so, how can resistance be performed so that it takes this perspective into account and avoids the pitfalls of traditional resistance? I believe that an alternative perspective can be found in affect theory and the philosophy of Dogen, as both approach the world from the inside (rather than attempting an external gaze); ultimately affirming and working with difference.

Affect is defined as the capacity to affect and be affected (Massumi, 2002: 3). It is not a thing, but an event, a happening, and the two facets of affect are not separate, rather when one affects, one simultaneously opens themselves up to be affected (Massumi, 2002: 3). Affect does not operate at the level of rationality or cognition, rather it operates pre-rationally, and even before the formation of a subject (indeed the subject emerges from the field of conditions and capacities that affect acts upon) (Massumi, 2009: 4). Affect operates during the in-between, where bodies pass from one state of capacitation to an augmented or diminished state (Massumi, 2009: 2). This change in state is post-hoc labelled as emotion; the quality of the change is felt, but one is never aware of affect itself. Affective events are happening constantly and every body at every instant is in thrall to any number of them (Massumi, 2009: 5). They are micro-events, micro-perceptions, and they are felt without registering consciously in the form of linguistic thought.

Affect is primarily considered as bodily or as bodily movement from the point of view of its potential (Massumi, 2002: 6). This means that every thing which impacts the body is ultimately affecting it. Events can range from physical contact with walls and pipes while skateboarding to complex messages triggering fear and hope (Sharpe 2013). We are even affected when we watch television or go for a walk. Increasingly capitalist society operates at the level of affect, with advertisements selling capacities, lifestyles, emotions and energy, and targeting our bodies with colour and noise. Power operates also at the level of affect, playing upon our hopes and fears. These states are heightened by the media that creates apprehension surrounding such things as crime and terrorism. Affective politics works on many levels and at many rhythms of bodily priming in an attempt to ensure that the results of their technologies are uniform; aiming ultimately to achieve societal conformity (Massumi, 2009: 6). What is common to all ‘events’ however is that they affect the body and the minds’ capacities. Events do not have pre-determined outcomes – they do not dictate; rather, they are a relationship between two objects that can serve to empower or limit (Deleuze 1988, 19). The important thing to take away for our purposes however, is that affect is not limited to, or indeed even operates at, the level of linguistic, conceptual thought. What this means is that the world is not limited to denotive language, or ideology, but is in fact much more varied and complex, it is a world of difference and excess.

A good expression of this difference is Restless Dance Theatre. RDT is a dance company composed primarily of members with some form of disability. The dancers create a new reality through dance, one which is tailored to their bodies. In such a situation they are no longer handicapped by the myopia of a world built for an alternative body, and therefore can conceive of fresh expressions of the body. By experiencing these freer and different forms of bodily movement, the audience are able to be truly affected. Indeed, it would be uncommon for an audience member to lack some sort of emotional or bodily response. But what have the dancers said? From the standpoint of traditional representationalist resistance which views the body as a metaphor for ideas, one should be able to ask, ‘what did the dance mean?’ Such questions, however, miss the point. RDT communicates at an affective level; what the dance means, is the dance itself. The audience experiences the dance, and at a level before cognition is affected by it, the dancers and the audience relate to one another, communicating through movement, sight and sound. The dance makes sense, even if we consciously cannot make sense of it. This is why RDT is so impactful on performers and audience members alike – dancers are able to affectively communicate and relate to an audience through an embracement of their bodies. The distance between ‘abled’ and ‘disabled’ is temporarily suspended and the two can ‘speak’. The audience’s capacities are affected by the sheer experience of the dance, allowing them to leave the theatre having incorporated something new, and equally the dancers themselves have exchanged with the audience leaving also in a new state of being.

This idea of non-conceptual meaning can be explained and extended with reference to the Zen Buddhist philosopher Dogen. Dogen provided a radical new re-reading of the Buddha-nature doctrine, arguing that it was the fundamental nature of reality (Curtin 1994, 198). All sentient beings did not have Buddha-nature, they were Buddha-nature. Dogen extended the doctrine further, asserting that not only sentient beings were Buddha-nature, but that everything was, from blades of grass to thickets and forests. Because of this, all things for Dogen were sutras (texts) in and of themselves, everything was an expression of the Buddha. This is expressed beautifully in the ‘Mountains and Waters Sutra’:

   The green mountains are always walking; a stone woman gives birth to a child at night…Mountains do not lack the qualities of mountains. Therefore, they always abide in ease and always walk. You should examine in detail this quality of the mountains walking.

   Mountains walking is just like human walking. Accordingly, do not doubt mountains’ walking even though it does not look the same as human walking. The buddha ancestors’ words point to walking.” (Dogen 1985, 97-98).


What Dogen may mean by this is that the world is not limited to denotive language, to conceptual thought, it is a world that is in excess of these descriptions and conceptualisations. Instead of this limited description of the world, Dogen affirms a world composed of the ‘myriad things’ that relate and talk to one another, each in their own unique way. To ask “what does a mountain mean?” is to miss the point. A mountain means mountain. It affects us as a mountain. The world then for Dogen, and for affect theory, is a world in which there are an infinite number of things expressing themselves, and each of these things is affecting and communicating with one another for better or worse. The world is one of difference, it is an ecology of practices and meaning – it cannot be limited to realms of ideology and conceptual thought. I propose that it is precisely this difference, this ecology, that traditional forms of resistance fail to take into consideration. And it is this failure that contributes to either their impotence or violence.

More importantly however, taking note of affectivity and the ecology of difference, resistance can avoid the pitfalls of becoming oppressive itself. Traditional forms of resistance, which act in opposition to power but using power-thinking (privileging ideological, abstractionist and conceptual practices), operate as if they are separate to the world in which they are situated. They attempt to subjugate the world to their own rigid definitions and categories. The reason this results in violence and oppression, even when undertaken with the best intentions, is because there is no vantage point from which to encompass the whole world; there exists no shared perspective to build consensus or generalise practices, and so inevitably such regimes need to be forcefully imposed (Massumi, 2009: 13). This ultimately results in oppression because by refusing to engage with the numerous practices and things which exist, the regimes necessarily attempt to limit capacities. They try and force a world of difference to conform to an abstract fiction of uniformity. The ‘disabled’ are engaged with only as disabled, and the enemy is engaged with only as the ‘enemy’. And whilst affectivity ensures hope, as no event can ever be pre-determined, traditional forms of resistance tend to limit capacities. This criticism of resistance is analogous to Spinoza’s distinction between ethics and morals. Morality refers to transcendent values, a system of judgements that must be complied with in all situations (Deleuze, 1988: 23). Morality is an imperative, it demands only obedience; and for Spinoza, this meant it could never provide knowledge because it separated us from life itself. When obeying morals, we stop acting in relation to our capacities, but instead bow to an arbitrary system (Deleuze, 1988: 23). Ethics on the other hand means acting in accordance with one’s nature and seeking encounters that increase capacities. Ethics ultimately celebrates and engages with life.

Resistance in the same way should not rigidly adhere to a strict ideology, or to strict definitions. Rather it should be welcoming of difference. The complexity of dissensus should be the starting point for resistance; this is what ecology means (Massumi, 2009: 13). If resistance does this, it fosters an environment whereby the myriad things are able to affect each other in a positive way. A positive pluralism undertaken with love and compassion allows many different practices to relate with each other and produce new connections (Stengers, 2002: 261). By allowing the ‘myriad things’ to affirm themselves and to relate with each other, rather than attempting to define everything using a universal language, resistance movements are able to be dynamic. Previously oppressed peoples can collectively invent their own position and strength (Stengers, 2002: 265). By relating to things compassionately and on their own terms and embarking on an impossible attempt to understand the other (as opposed to dictating), we are able to teach and learn, to affect and be affected; even if ultimately we cannot express how we have changed in words. Resistance that operates on this level, whilst it might not be spectacular in its immediate results, can have far reaching consequences as every experience will inevitably affect future ones. When recourse is had to affect and difference, practices can remain fluid and avoid becoming habitualised, sterile, or oppressive. Resistance can affirm life, allowing people to develop fully, and ultimately relate to one another in a way that enhances being.


Jack is studying a Bachelor of Arts/Laws at the Australian National University. This essay was originally written for the course Sociology of Resistance at ANU and was adapted for demos.

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