The formation of massive public assemblies and crowds, across both physical and digital spaces, is a defining feature of contemporary politics. One needs only to think of the Women’s Marches that occurred around the world in the wake of the 2017 election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America, the mobilization of people around the Black Lives Matter movement, Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, or the Occupy Movement to understand the increasing power of physical and digital public assembly in the contemporary moment. Of course, public assemblies are not a new phenomenon, and there is extensive theoretical and philosophical discourse that considers the relationship between official structures of power and expressions of popular will. The intention here is not to offer an historical overview of these debates, which, as Judith Butler (2015a: 1) notes, “tend to be governed either by fears of chaos or by radical hope for the future,” but rather to listen to the noise that the crowd produces.
Following a lineage from Spinoza to Deleuze, I understand the crowd as a type of body, where a body can be understood as that which has the capacity to affect, and be affected by, other bodies. A Spinozist-Deleuzian conception of the body is not defined by its materiality or substance and, as such, is not limited to the human body or body-as-subject; it also accounts for nonhuman bodies. In Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza, a body is defined by the dynamic relations of its parts and by the way it affects and is affected both intensively and extensively. Bodies comprise shifting relations and are subject to affective forces. As such, they are subject to constant variation and exist only in temporarily stable relationships. Subject to a continual process of composition, recomposition, and decomposition based on all its relational encounters, the Spinozist-Deleuzian conception of the body is one that remains open to change. Here we can understand the body – following Spinoza’s (1996: 71) oft-quoted dictum that “no one has yet determined what a body can do” – as oscillating between potentiality and actuality.
Subject to continual change, a crowd or assembly is constantly composing and recomposing itself according to relations of motion and rest, quickness and slowness (intensively) and by its interactions with its wider milieu (extensively). As such, we can understand the crowd as a body from the Spinozist and Deleuzian perspective. Listening to the murmur of the crowd is a way of attending to the dynamic and affective relations of this collective body. The murmuring crowd produces a noise that both affects itself and other bodies which it contacts. To understand the crowd as a Spinozist-Deleuzian body is to understand it as a dynamic assemblage of relations and affects rather than a static, homogeneous, and immutable entity, as protesters might be defined by conservative politicians and the right-wing media. Recall, for example, US President Trump’s (at the time the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination) labelling of protestors in Chicago as "thugs" or Fox News anchor Sean Hannity's description of protestors as "violent agitators" that "hijacked what was to be a peaceful campaign rally" (Gauthier 2016).
I am specifically interested here in those assemblies and collective bodies that have emerged in recent times as a response and a challenge to the increasingly intertwined power of state and corporate institutions. What might listening to these murmurs tell us about the conditioning and conditions of contemporary collective bodies? While such public assemblies cannot be defined according to a stable set of characteristics or encapsulated by a single theory, they are also not so disparate that we cannot find resonances between them. Formations of the crowd – such as those that have formed around Black Lives Matter protests or the Occupy movement, for example – are linked by an ever-increasing exposure to precarity. That is, such gatherings of bodies in public spaces (both physical and digital) are a collective and embodied response to a state of precarity that can be understood “not as a passing or episodic condition, but a new form of regulation that distinguishes this historical time” (Butler 2015b: vii). An instrument of contemporary governmentality, precarization describes a process that produces a subject defined by vulnerability and establishes security as the ultimate political ideal.
Contemporary conceptions of neoliberal precarity are simultaneously connected to a long history of instability in industrial capitalism. Capitalism thrives on instability, and the accumulation and expansion of capital has always been underpinned by the precarious labor of women, children, migrants, and slaves. The normalization of neoliberal precarity in the contemporary moment is marked by the ways in which precarization has become a key paradigm of contemporary governance, producing a mode of regulation and subjectivation that revolves around exposure to insecurity, instability, vulnerability, contingency, and danger. Increasingly precarity is mined and invoked for political gain. Here we can understand precarity, following Isabell Lorey, “as a category of order that denotes social positionings of insecurity and hierarchization, which accompanies processes of Othering,” and precariousness “as a relational condition of social being that cannot be avoided” (Puar et al. 2012: 161). The gathering of bodies in public spaces can be understood in the context of this socio-economic fabric, that is, as a response to the ongoing processes of precarization. As Butler tells us:
when bodies assemble on the street, in the square, or in other forms of public space (including virtual ones) they are exercising a plural and performative right to appear, one that asserts and instates the body in the midst of the political field, and which […] delivers a bodily demand for a more liveable set of economic, social, and political conditions no longer afflicted by induced forms of precarity. (Butler 2015a: 11)
Of course, vulnerability is unevenly distributed among different groups and bodies; there are many different types of precarity, and it is vitally important that we acknowledge these differences and attend to their specificities. Consider, for example, the precarity of those who are subject to extraordinary surveillance and violence at the hands of the state, or the precarity of those who lack basic access to social or economic infrastructure, or the precarity of those who seek asylum. Even though precarity can be understood as a defining feature of capitalism, we must be careful not to reduce the concept to a generalized and ubiquitous condition that subsumes difference under the umbrella category of economic precarity.
The consideration of race, gender, and nation would not simply be additive (we are also precarious) but transfigurative. To reintroduce difference into theorizations of precarity is to insist, paraphrasing Spinoza, that we do not yet know what a precarious body can do. In particular, we do not yet know how it comes into contact, into assembly, into collective and distributed agency, into ‘being singular plural’ with others. (Nyong’o 2013: 159)
In listening to the murmur of contemporary crowds as a strategy for understanding emergent forms and modes of collectivity, we need to tune in to the differential forces that also make up a crowd’s formation. There is a resonance between Nyong’o’s articulation of the precarious assembly and Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s (2013) notion of the undercommons. For Harney and Moten, the undercommons refers to a space of fugitivity and radical commonality that is indebted to the black radical tradition and based on an acknowledgement of a precarity that is both shared and differential. The undercommons is not bound by physical space, nor does it simply refer to subjects marginalized and excluded by dominant systems and structures of power. Instead, it describes a coalition based on the acknowledgement of what Jack Halberstam (2013: 6) refers to as “the brokenness of being.” Harney and Moten work against the traditional conception of the commons, positing instead the undercommons as a space of fugitivity that runs through the private and the public, the state and the economy, institutions and communities. The undercommons is situated in the “break,” a space of refuge where one may study, plan, and chatter in ways that refuse the call to order that is imposed by the nexus of the state and the market. It is an already existing space where we can “plan to be communist about communism, to be unreconstructed about reconstruction, to be absolute about abolition” (Harney and Moten 2013: 82). We can think of the polyrhythmic oscillations of the murmur as a possible expression of this undercommon sociality. Arising from the differential force of many voices sounding at once, the murmur is a fugitive mode of speech that moves simultaneously in multiple different directions. It evades capture and resists being reduced to a univocal expression.
The undercommons is a theory of difference that is based on the notion that the structures that inhabit us and that we inhabit are broken beyond repair. For Harney and Moten, this “brokenness of being” does not simply refer to a generalized state of precarity, rather it attends to the specific forms of insecurity that are (re)produced by racial capitalism. That is, the undercommons is an intersectional assemblage attentive to the ways in which induced precarity holds different subjects in specific forms of vulnerable relationality. This attention to difference moves us towards a concept of precarity that is not singularly focused on the economic but is instead “concerned with compassion, with co-passion, co-presence, a being in common with that which we do not know, and with those whom we cannot speak for” (Nyong’o 2013: 159). Listening to the sound of the crowd’s differences – the murmur as a fugitive speech act – moves us toward an undercommons’ conception of collectivity. The crowd generates cacophonous relational noise that cannot be reduced to a univocal demand. The indistinct and indecipherable murmur of the crowd is the enactment of a being in common that both affirms interdependency and preserves incommensurate difference.