Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Opposing the Opposition? Binarity and Complexity in Political Resistance

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Opposing the Opposition? Binarity and Complexity in Political Resistance

Article excerpt


This article explores dimensions of political action that transgress the limitations of traditionally modern, opposition-focused conceptualisations. While there has been a turn to new nonoppositional ontologies in the last decades, there has been less exploration of what this could mean concretely for a political activism that aims to go beyond mere 'micropolitical' transformation. To address this lack, this article examines the tensions between binarity and complexity through an engagement with political resistance against genetically modified organisms. This brings to light that the ontology of complexity pursued by some anti-genetically modified organism activists is ultimately grounded in a binarisation of both politics (one is either 'for' or 'against' genetically modified organisms) and life (which is either 'natural' or 'unnatural'). Whilst problematic, this binarisation also informs the success of anti-genetically modified organism activism. An engagement with the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, especially through the notion of the 'encounter', brings out this paradox and serves to radicalise the ontology of complexity argued for by anti-genetically modified organism activists in order to open up different avenues for thinking about and 'doing' political resistance.

Keywords Resistance, genetically modified organisms, Deleuze, complexity, encounter, politics


This article explores the question of how to pursue and encourage political contestation from a position that acknowledges the significance of binary conceptualisations, but that is at the same time uncomfortable with a mode of politics that is exclusively geared towards them. While binary understandings might be indispensable for the success of political action, it is important to understand what ways of thinking and acting they render invisible; what they (necessarily) exclude. As Brian Massumi (Massumi and Zournazi, 2003: 220) points out, if you want 'to critique something in any kind of definitive way', you need to 'pin it down'. You need to separate it out, 'attribute^..] set characteristics to it' in order to enable 'final judgment'. What is lost are 'other more moving dimensions of experience'.

As we will maintain, acknowledging these other, non-binary dimensions of political action requires a different ontology of life; one that moves beyond traditionally modern understandings that prioritise bounded entities and their clear-cut binary identities. We aim to draw out such a different ontology by exploring a particular example of political activism: the anti-genetically modified organisms (GMO) movement. As the next two sections will show, at least in its earliest manifestation, in parts of the movement the opposition to GMOs was grounded in a different ontology derived from complexity science, according to which all life develops in complex, non-binary and unpredictable ways. However, as we will demonstrate (particularly in 'The potential and limits of complexity science' section), this (scientific) understanding of complexity is limited insofar as only a certain direction of evolving life is acknowledged and tolerated, thereby generating new sets of binaries, such as the 'natural' versus the 'unnatural' or the 'harmonious' versus the 'disturbing'. In addition, '"Natural" democracy and "Authentic" identity? The dangers of binary politics' section of the article examines the dangerous implications this has for the--once again binary--organisation of political resistance, whilst acknowledging that the binaries that have emerged also ground the political force, and ultimately the success, of anti-GMO activism.

We engage the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze (and Felix Guattari) to make sense of this paradox, as well as to radicalise the different ontology of life emphasised by anti-GMO activists, and to thereby open up new avenues for thinking about and 'doing' political resistance more generally. …

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