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Between Autonomy and Vulnerability : the Space of Movement

Kevin McDonald
p. 49-63


Analyses of the contemporary alterglobalization movement increasingly emphasize dimensions of autonomy, whose ultimate origins lie in theories of agency understood as sovereignty. This paper argues that critical dimensions of the alterglobalization movement involve practices of embodied action and forms of responsibility that point beyond autonomy, to a paradigm of relational vulnerability. Recognising this is central to understanding ethics, agency, and subjectivity and to understanding movements as a space of experience.

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I. New paradigms of action and culture

1There has been extensive and polarised debate about how to interpret the constellations of action and culture commonly referred to as the alterglobalization movement. One school of authors argues that this movement can be understood essentially in terms of existing theoretical models. For those who argue that movements consist of strategic action aimed at the political system, globalization is understood primarily in terms of international political and economic institutions, regarded as creating new political opportunities (Passy, 2001). From this perspective, the alterglobalization movement is understood in terms of new cross-border coalitions between old actors (Tarrow/McAdam, 2003). Ch. Tilly, for example, argues that in this movement we encounter essentially the same «repertoire of contention» that we have witnessed over the past century and a half : marches, public meetings, leaflets… (Tilly, 2006). D. Della Porta and M. Diani acknowledge the emergence of new types of action, such as Reclaim the Streets in Britain or Direct Action, but insist it is «far too simplistic to conclude from these examples that a radical transformation of collective action has actually taken place» (Della Porta/Diani, 2006 :132). While new actors may engage in «subcultural and countercultural activities», M. Diani and D. Della Porta insist that the key to understanding the global justice movement remains «organizations and organizational identities» (Della Porta/Diani, 2006 :132).

2However many other observers and analysts of movements propose that the contemporary global justice movement involves the emergence of new paradigms of action, culture and movement. These analyses point to the shift from building organizations to creating events, from hierarchies to networks, the importance of new media, and the important cultural dimensions present in alterglobalization action (McDonald, 2002 ; 2006). In attempting to name what is at stake in this transformation, many analyses underline the theme of “autonomy”. This concept is increasingly used to explore the contemporary global justice movement. In this paper I argue that while highlighting important dimensions, the emphasis on autonomy may in fact prevent us constructing key questions about experiences of vulnerability that are evident in this movement. I point to two of these : the grammar of vulnerability associated with the use of large papier maché puppets, and emerging forms of responsibility that can be understood in terms of vulnerability to the other. Through considering these, I want to advance two propositions. Firstly, we need to construct far richer understandings of agency than is possible using dominant models constructed in terms of “intentionality”. Second, we need to begin to understand movements not simply in terms of intentional action, but as spaces of experience. I argue that a key dimension of the alterglobalization movement is the struggle to constitute experience as located between autonomy and vulnerability.

II. Autonomy : emerging paradigms

3The theme of autonomy recurs at the level of actors and analysts of the alterglobalization movement in a number of overlapping ways. These are important to understand, because they clearly offer an insight into critical dimensions of this movement.

4A first cluster of understandings emphasize the autonomy of social movements from political parties, and through this, the autonomy of social actors from the political sphere. Particularly important in Latin America, the affirmation of autonomy from political parties and logics played a key role in the emergence of movements such as the Moviemiento dos Sem Terra in Brazil in the 1980s (Stedile, 2004) or the Zapatista movement that emerged a decade later in Mexico (Le Bot, 1997). This is particularly important in Latin America. Its long tradition of asserting the primacy of political over social actors (Touraine, 1988), sustained a guerrilla tradition of foco based on the irrelevance of social and political actors to social change. A similar emphasis on the independence of actors from the state and political parties emerged in Eastern Europe in the period leading to the birth of Solidarity, and it plays an important role today in countries where political parties seek to “channel” social movements. This dimension of autonomy clearly plays a critical role in contemporary antiglobalization movement.

5A second cluster of understandings emphasises autonomy as a mode of action and organization. This recurs as a central theme in affinity groups, networked forms of action and the wider insistence upon horizontal as opposed to vertical forms of organization that we encounter in the alterglobalization movement. Autonomy is central to the forms of direct action that have emerged in the alterglobalization movement and in the search for forms of coordination that are not structured in terms of delegation and representation, but rather in patterns of action focused on events and convergence (McDonald, 2002 ; 2006). This understanding of autonomy takes different forms in different national cultures. In the United States, for example, the Direct Action Network invested a great deal of energy and resources into forms of deliberation and decision making, breathing new life into forms of coordination such as “spokescouncils” that had emerged in the utopian communities associated with the us antinuclear movement of the 1970s. These forms are now globalized and are widely practiced in the global justice movement (McDonald, 2006). This form of coordination permeates the culture of events, with an emphasis on diy (food, music…) as opposed to central organization.

6One attempt to understand the origin of these patterns of action and organization looks to the culture of the actors, underlining a culture of individualism. P. Litcherman suggests the personalism of middle class culture means that many people no longer accept the functional depersonalising logic of bureaucratic forms of organization (Lichterman 2003). This argument overlaps with a Habermasian/Kantian tradition that places discourse and deliberation at the centre of movements. In the United States, for example, F. Polletta proposes that freedom takes the form of «an endless meeting» (Polletta, 2002). This affirms a Kantian understanding of autonomy as the source of ethical action. From this perspective, what makes an action ethical is that it has been arrived as a result of a process of rational deliberation. This Kantian view of the actor is very influential in theories of globalization, playing a central role in the understanding of the actor proposed by thinkers such as D. Held, who insists that the basis of ethical action lies in the autonomy of the actor and the impartiality of his or her reasoning (Held/Patomäki, 2006).

7Many analyses of autonomy in organizational structure point to the importance of networks, and seek to analyse these in terms of the role of informational infrastructure. J. Juris, for example, argues that the networked forms of organization we encounter in the alterglobalization movement are a reflection of the technological patterns required by information technologies. From this perspective, the working class organized hierarchical, standardized trade unions as a reflection of the organizational principles of the assembly line, while alterglobalization actors create networks as the «cultural logic of informational capitalism [as] internalised by activists», leading to forms of action and organization emphasising decentralization and autonomy (Juris 2005 :192). This analysis echoes M. Castells’ contention that the structure of information networks increasingly shapes social practices (Castells, 2000).

8A related cluster of analyses of organizational autonomy attach less importance to the technological infrastructure, and draws instead on theories of complexity and autopoeisis that emerged in the 1980s (Prigogine/Stengers, 1986). G. Chesters and I. Welsh theorize the forms of creativity evident in the alterglobalizaiton movement, emphasising themes such as non-linearity and feedback (Chesters/Welsh, 2005a ; 2005b), while J. Urry draws on similar traditions to articulate models of global complexity (Urry, 2003). These theories of complexity underline processes of emergence that can only come about in totalities characterised by fuzzy boundaries and high degrees of internal autonomy, underlining the extent to which complex systems are both creative and unstable. They echo the work of H. Atlan (Atlan, 1986) in asserting that movements can only exist on the «edge of chaos» (Chesters/Welsh, 2005b).

9A third cluster of analyses emphasise cultural autonomy as critical to the practice of the alterglobal movement. N. Klein sees subjectivity in capitalist societies increasingly shaped by markets and the purchase of goods and brands, and insists on the importance of the cultural dimensions of antiglobalization action, in particular culture jamming and «no logo» (Klein, 2002). A more theoretical articulation of this is proposed by H. Bey who argues that action increasingly takes the form of creating «Temporary Autonomous Zones» (Bey, 2003). The work of N. Klein and H. Bey has been taken up by actors seeking to theorise the alterglobal movement as constructing spaces of resistance to a dominant cultural and economic model, such as the Social Centres in Italy or in the cultural practices in actions paralleling major economic and political summits.

10While H. Bey and N. Klein emphasise cultural action as resistance to a dominant order, a more pessimistic version is put forward by I. Blühdorn. He also regards autonomy as the central characteristic of cultural action, but he sees this ultimately as “functional” to the dominant order : «in order to confirm or regain their autonomy vis-à-vis the system, in order to reassure themselves of their subject status and experience themselves as distinct from the market, individuals are constantly engaged in activities of self-construction, self-expression and self-experience» (Blühdorn, 2006). He asserts that such cultural action plays an important functional role in late modern societies, proposing that these cultural processes «simulate» forms of subjectivity that existed in earlier forms of society, but which have no place in a contemporary consumer society where identity is constructed through consumption. Rather than see such anti-consumer cultural practice as liberatory, as N. Klein does, I. Blühdorn argues that through such practices contemporary social movements play a role in stabilizing consumer societies that would otherwise be threatened by a crisis of meaning. Movements offer «a supplementary form of identity construction which helps to compensate for the shortcomings of consumption-centred identity formation» (Blühdorn, 2006 :36).

11These theories of cultural autonomy draw heavily on earlier theories of identity, where identity came to be understood as group culture or the culture of a collective. The political theorist P. Markell has developed a subtle analysis of these theories, noting the extent to which they are embedded in a theory of sovereignty and the sovereign actor (Markell, 2003). We can see this in the work of D. Held, for whom the «metaprinciple of autonomy» shapes «a distinctive conception of the person as a citizen» that includes «self-determination» and «self-governance» (Held/Patomäki, 2006 :117). P. Markell notes that we encounter the same understanding of sovereignty in theories of the sovereign state and in similar concepts of identity, and points to the work of political theorist J. Tully, who regards identities as struggles for recognition, efforts to achieve «self-rule in accord with one’s own customs and ways» (Markell, 2003 :11). These are not liberal, atomistic theories of agency, but models of agency that refer to communities and their struggle for recognition. In such identity theories, as Markell has shown, we encounter a theory of agency framed within a wider theory of sovereignty, one which ultimately understands agency as an «aspiration to be able to act independently without experiencing life among others as a source of vulnerability, or as a site of possible alienation or self-loss» (Markell, 2003 :12).

12These different analyses we have examined converge to assert that the key to understanding the alterglobalization movement lies in the concept of autonomy : political autonomy, personal autonomy, organizational autonomy, cultural autonomy, complex autonomy, or the autonomy manifest in impartial reasoning and rational deliberation. While located in different intellectual traditions, they converge to assert that moral agency is made real through the exercise of autonomy. Such references to autonomy are now so widespread that the action we encounter in the alterglobalization movement is itself increasingly defined as «autonomous activism» (Deslands/King, 2006). While autonomy takes on multiple meanings, these analyses affirm that the struggle to be an autonomous agent lies at the heart of a movement towards freedom. They thus locate the alterglobalization movement firmly within the broader history of movements that make up modern self-understanding.

III. The limits of autonomy : vulnerability, embodiment and imagination

  • 1 This perspective on understanding agents plays a central role in the work of J. Rawls (Rawls J., 19 (...)

13The Kantian approach to movements understands moral agency in terms of autonomy and impartial reasoning. As the anthropologist S. Mahmood notes, this understanding of ethical action attaches little importance to the actual forms that moral practice takes; rather priority is attached to reconstructing forms of reasoning that lead to action. The Kantian tradition, she notes, telescopes moral action down to the movement of the will (Mahmood, 2004 :26). A key to this is the impartiality of the reasoner, who strives to free himself from attachments1. As J. Alexander notes, with this approach to moral action, «good comes from abstracting away from the particular, from getting away from who we are and setting our sites on the “view from nowhere”… If we are to be moral, according to these philosophical beliefs, we must find a way of staying inside principle, inside of abstraction, and of keeping away, as much as possible, from the concrete messiness, the irrationality of everyday life» (Alexander, 2006). But it is precisely this concrete messiness that is the terrain of the embodied actors we encounter in the alterglobalization movement.

14The limits to the model of autonomy emerge clearly when we explore one of the forms of action that emerged as important in the alterglobalization movement, namely the construction and use of large puppets during actions in both North America and Europe. Puppets are very different from the banners of the social movements of industrial society, that proudly proclaim the presence of strongly structured collectives and their unambiguous demands. Puppets in many ways appear to be the opposite of banners. They are fragile, often made out of discarded materials, and they may take weeks to produce, in a process that is often physically exhausting for those involved, and more structured in terms of a narrative than aiming at objectives (McDonald, 2006).

15Let’s listen to the words of a puppetista, a builder and user of puppets :

She turns from the other protesters, seeking level ground. Moving in a stately manner, she is part of a group of performers, protesters, mourners, and public witnesses. She walks slowly in a circle to the beat of a dirge-like drum.

Her face, hair, eyes, and skin are all black in the manner of a powerful ancient carving. Black tinged with gold. Hair and skin are smooth, stylized waves and curves. Eyes open with a shocked expression, lips seeming as if about to part. Her eyes mourn, her mouth does not speak. Beneath her neckline falls a long organza drape, shimmering in the sun and billowing in the wind. She is a giant papier maché (sic) puppet borne along by a living human walking inside. All we see of the human are hips, legs, arms, shoes, hands, all clad in black. She is a shadow, a spirit. She floats. The human underneath has lost her own identity; the puppet staggers through another mourning, stands wordlessly in another vigil while truths are told.

During some protests I have been inside one of the puppets. I get dizzy during rains, when the drape can get fogged with water (it's organza, which doesn't really wick) and because my visibility is very limited then (glasses don't help). It's like walking through a John Singer Sargent painting of a rainy day; all I see are blurry legs and slick slippery sidewalks. Sometimes I bump my head. It is hard to know how high the “head” (puppet head) is. Usually about 8.5 feet, from what I can figure. It's comical to be head-bumping in such a serious setting. We can't see our feet too well, either, so perhaps it is like being very pregnant. Peripheral vision and mobility are limited. Balance can be tricky in windy or slippery conditions. Sometimes a guide walks with the puppet-bearer, giving silent signals so that we can move and bend under obstructions. It reminds me a little of a parade (with the puppet as a mini-float), but this is a peace vigil. We are alone with our feelings inside the puppet. Fear, sadness, grief, longing. Alienation, hope. They are all with us in this wire and paper cage. The emotions transporting us are real.

Often, puppets' compelling grief and fascinating beauty have a magnetic effect. A puppet's silence and emotion are larger than a human's. Eyes are drawn to the large sculptured faces moving along on top of little human legs and bodies. Masks and puppets change the emotional dynamics. They inspire awe. They push the edge of what it means to make our thoughts and feelings publicly known, what it means to resist fear (Winslow, 2002).

  • 2 See, for example Eyerman R., 2004

16This brief insight underlines the limits of analysing cultural action uniquely in terms of autonomy or the culture of a community. Rather than point to symbolic display of community culture, the experience of the puppeteer underlines embodied, communicative subjectivity. As T. Zarcone argues, within the western tradition the body has «never been a medium for a philosophical or spiritual experience of the world» (Zarcone, 2003 :50). This is evident in those analyses that understand action as an expression, or representation, of intention. This approach to action draws on the Cartesian tradition that asserts the primacy of the mind over a body understood as «inert, passive, and static». From this perspective, meaning is understood as a «sign» (Csordas, 1993 :137). This locates cultural action within theories of intentional, instrumental action, as a sign, or a display, of the intention of the actor2, where cultural action is understood as the display of an inner state.

17However there is something clearly more at stake in the experience of the puppeteers. This is not action to affirm the culture of a community. To understand this action, we need to engage with what Th. Csordas calls embodiment as a «mode of presence and engagement in the world» (Csordas, 1993 :135).

IV. Strangeness and fragility

18While a puppet may take weeks to build, it may be destroyed by wind and rain in a day. The puppet is not cute or sweet, but often seems lost or out of place. The puppet is fragile and silent, yet it can command space and communicate beyond words (the encounter with the puppet is an encounter with beauty and grief).

19The language of “identity”, embedded within a theory of autonomy, is too impoverished to explore the pragmatics of the puppet, just as it is impoverished to seek to understand a work of art as an expression of the identity of the artist. The encounter with the puppet is sensual, we experience colour, space occupied, the grace and hesitation of movement, a paradox of strength and vulnerability, silence as communication in a culture of noise, stillness in a culture of movement, loss in a culture of presence. The aesthetic of the puppet is one that is strange, and such strangeness is a recurring aspect of cultural action within the alterglobalization movement. Strangeness is important, because it steps outside the continuum of sameness/difference (Shildrick, 2002). The puppet disturbs. The encounter with the puppet involves something that cannot be reduced to words or reason, it does not offer us a proposition that we can process through impartial deliberation while we maintain our autonomy. The puppet alerts us to the importance of embodied imagination in the action of the alterglobalization movement. The encounter with the puppet is an encounter with strangeness, an encounter that displaces. This encounter is not primarily an encounter with a set of ideas, but is one that takes place through the senses. Is it possible to think about a form of agency present here ?

20The fragility of the puppet alerts us to our own fragility, its displacement and loss opens us potentially to our own displacement and loss. The encounter with the vulnerability of the puppet is an encounter with our own vulnerability, one that can become what M. Shildrick calls a «condition of becoming» (Shildrick, 1999 :86), one embedded not in a form of impartial reasoning, but in an embodied ethic of risk. There is a form of communication here that echoes Talal Asad’s discussion of agency and pain, where he argues that we can consider pain not simply a cause of action, but also a kind of action (Asad, 2003). As an example, he considers the way a mother experiences the pain of her child. The child in pain is not simply producing symbols that the mother interprets as information. Instead, the mother as agent suffers when her child suffers. This suffering is embedded in a relationship, and indeed, argues Asad, such suffering is a condition of this relationship. The person who suffers because of the suffering of the other doesn’t first consider evidence, nor seek to enter a zone constructed in terms of impartiality. Instead, the mother experiences the suffering of her child as a dimension of her own subjectivity.

21The encounter with the puppet is not an encounter with one’s child, but an encounter with strangeness. Both, however, are mediated through the body. The puppet is displaced and lost; it communicates an experience of grief but also possibility. The anthropologist V. Das argues that «in the register of the imaginary, the pain of the other not only asks for a home in language but also seeks a home in the body» (Das, 1997 :88 ; cited in Asad, 2003 :82). The puppet is a form of cultural creativity to explore pain, not simply as a private experience, but as a form of public relationship. As Asad writes, «what a subject experiences as painful, and how, are not simply mediated culturally and physically, they are themselves modes of living a relationship. The ability to live such relationships over time transforms pain from a passive experience into an active one… The secular emphasis on the integral human body as the locus of moral sovereignty makes it difficult to grasp the idea of pain as an imagined relationship in which such “internal” states as memory and hope mediate sociality» (Asad, 2003 :84).

22The puppet underlines the critical dimension of corporeal experience to the alterglobaliztion movement. These are central to the way public spaces are constructed and experienced. Action does not take the form of a linear march, with its emphasis on order, sameness and strength. The pragmatics of the public events constructed in the alterglobalization movement are radically different. The pragmatics of corporeal experience sustain a form of corporeal imagination, where, as V. Das suggests, the pain of the other seeks a «home in the body» (Das, 1997 :88).

V. From collective to shared responsibility

  • 3 See Rawls J., 1971.

23Important shifts in forms of responsibility are evident in the alterglobalization movement. The Kantian tradition emphasises impartial reasoning and disembodied deliberation, within a field of moral responsibility understood as the national society (a proposition affirmed above all by J. Rawls3). As the political philosopher I. M. Young notes : within this tradition, claims of justice occur within the space of shared political institutions (Young, 2004). This helps us understand why Rawlsian thinkers such as D. Held attach such importance to possible global political institutions. Within the Rawlsian tradition, our moral responsibility extends only as far as our political community, understood as those with whom we share political institutions.

24There are important signs of a changing understanding of responsibility emerging in global culture. The classical understanding of responsibility attaches greater importance to our actions than to our omissions, is more involved with those who are closer to us than those who are distant, and attaches greater moral importance to individual actions than to collective actions (Scheffler, 2002). This understanding of responsibility is being profoundly transformed in the context of globalization, and is increasingly linked to problems such as global warming or vast disparities of wealth or life expectancy. Pointing to such transformations, however, the philosopher S. Scheffler is pessimistic, and cautions against the view that would see each person take responsibility for the whole world. Rather, he argues, we lack a «set of clear, action-guiding and psychologically feasible principles that would enable individuals to orient themselves to larger processes» (Scheffler, 2002 :39).

25We can see changing forms of responsibility in the alterglobalization movement that go beyond the choice of a traditional emphasis on actions and immediate relationships, or more abstract forms of responsibility where the individual takes responsibility for the whole world. We can see this change at work in one of the important forms of action that has led to the development of the alterglobalization movement, namely the anti-sweatshop campaigns that emerged in the United States over the 1990s, and which play today an important role in struggles for a minimum wage in various countries. This movement emerged among university students who sought to oppose their universities’ purchasing sports clothes, university uniforms,… from sweatshops located in Central America. I. M. Young points to important changes in grammars of responsibility in such action (Young, 2004). Firstly, it is based on lived awareness that responsibility to others extends beyond national boundaries, as the lives of American students are deeply involved with workers in Central America who are involved in the clothing industry. As I. M. Young notes, immediate forms of social connection extend beyond national borders, and these forms of connection bring with them moral claims. But this is not a form of moral claim that is based on “impartiality” or an ideal speech situation, it is one that is embedded in relationships that extend beyond national boundaries.

26We can also see an important transformation in the grammar of responsibility in this movement. I. M. Young draws on the work of L. May (May, 1996) to distinguish between a “collective” responsibility and a “shared” responsibility. In the case of a collective responsibility, a collective may be responsible for an action or a situation, but each of the individuals who makes up that collective is not deemed personally responsible. An example of such responsibility is the corporation, where while a corporation may be deemed responsible for an action, responsibility does not extend to the individual shareholders who own the company. Such collective responsibility is «non-distributed», such that «a group may be collectively responsible for a harm and yet no member of the group individually shares responsibility for the harm» (May, 1996 :106-107). In the case of shared responsibility however, a responsibility is held both collectively and personally. It is not simply the university that possesses a moral responsibility for the conditions of labour in sweatshops; this responsibility extends to the students who purchase and wear these products.

27The philosopher R. Goodin explores what he calls «task responsibility» (cited in Young, 2004 :384). This captures forms of action widely encountered in the alterglobalization movement, where organization and responsibility, rather than structured in terms of completion of functional tasks, is linked to the contribution and skills of each person involved in action. A functional model of responsibility reflects a model of collective responsibility shared in an abstract way by those in the collective. In the case of forms of action in the alterglobalization movement, responsibility for collective action translates into personal rather than functional responsibility. Each person must look to their own skills, abilities and capacities (a model of organization that is very different from the functional coordination that we encounter in the movements of industrial society). This is an ethic of responsibility that leads to forms of skill sharing, the emphasis being on the subjectivity and responsibility of each person as opposed to a model based on the division of labour and the functional division of tasks. Collective responsibility translates into functional organizational forms; an ethic of shared responsibility translates into forms of action based on skill sharing.

28There is an important shift at work here that is not the product of the technological paradigm of informational capitalism. Nor are we dealing with a form of cultural museum (this is not an archive of simulated cultural forms). Nor are the forms of action we encounter here the products of «self-rule» (Tilly, 2006) or «impartialist reasoning» (Held/Patomäki, 2006 :116). T. Asad’s exploration of modes of responsibility helps understand something of the shift at stake. He suggests that the modern, Kantian, understanding of responsibility draws on the French and American revolutions, and is understood within a grammar of choice : for the Kantian tradition, the actor is free to choose to accept or reject responsibility that is the precondition for ethical action. But T. Asad argues that there are forms of responsibility that go beyond this, that are not grounded in a grammar of choice but in forms of moral agency experienced as part of «what one is and what one must do» (Asad, 2003 :93). These are forms of responsibility that are embedded in intersubjective and intercorporeal relationships, such as the responsibility a parent experiences for a child, that are part of making up the very condition of being a parent. When a mother feels the pain of her child as part of her own subjectivity such pain is a form of relationship that is clearly not impartial. T. Asad seeks to articulate such forms of responsibility in terms of Marcel Mauss’ concept of habitus : «an embodied capacity that is more than a physical ability in that it includes cultivated sensitivities and passions, an orchestration of the senses». Habitus, as a mode of ethics, is not something that one accepts or rejects; «it is part of what one essentially is and must do» (Asad, 2003 :96-97).

VI. Moral grammars, between vulnerability and autonomy

29The Kantian tradition emphasises freedom as disengagement, because it is this that allows freedom of deliberation. This shapes the way this tradition understands public spheres. Confronted with the challenges of a globalizing world, this approach does not challenge the Rawlsian limitation of the sphere of responsibility to those with whom we share political institutions, rather it attempts to extend this paradigm to the planet as a whole ; the key to reconstituting politics thus becomes new forms of global regulation and institution (Held/Patomäki, 2006). This theoretical approach is important in theories of social movements; M. Diani and D. Della Porta, drawing on theories of «discursive democracy», regard such movements as vehicles for «dispassionate, reasoned, logical» communication processes (Della Porta/Diani, 2006).

30No one would deny that there is a great deal of deliberation and discussion in the alterglobalization movement. But we need also to recognise the critical dimension of the orchestration of the senses, forms of action where the actor experiences the world, the self and the other through the body. To explore these forms of action, we need to break free of the dominance of the autonomy paradigm : action here is not an example of displaying an identity to others seeking self-rule, or dispassionate impartial reasoning. In this case, the construction of ethics does not take place through the reasoning of the sovereign agent, but through forms of experience of vulnerability. This is most clear in the tension between strength and vulnerability that is so critical to the puppet, where through action we encounter an openness to risk, to «experiencing life among others as a source of vulnerability… as a site of possible alienation or self-loss» (Markell, 2003 :12).

31Important traditions in political and social theory are attempting to explore such questions. D. Campbell points to what he calls a «politics of responsibility» where the relationship to the other reduces our autonomy. He draws on the philosopher E. Levinas to point out that important dimensions of an ethical life are not in the domain of autonomous reasoning, but integral to subjectivity (Campbell/Shapiro, 1999 :35). M. Shapiro explores similar philosophical traditions to argue that «ethics redefines subjectivity as heteronomous responsibility, in contrast with autonomous freedom». From this perspective, morality is «a recognition of and vulnerability to alterity» (Op.cit :63). Similar questions emerge as central to J. Butler’s recent attempts to rethink the opacity of the subject as the source of ethical action (Butler, 2005).

32It is that market that promises us limitless freedom, it tells us we can be anything and choose anything. Engaging with cultural processes at work in the alterglobalization movement means that we need to respond to the challenge of «fundamental theoretical revisions» in the way we attempt to understand the dynamics of social change, where the importance of contemporary movements lies less in the organizations they build than in their capacity to «create and sustain new forms of meaning» (Alexander 2006 :43, 207). The «orchestration of the senses» (Asad, 2003 :95) that we encounter in the alterglobalization movement is not simply “countercultural” or “subcultural”. Nor are movements dispassionate, logical reasoners, grounded in a metaprinciple of autonomy, with cultural action a sideshow on its edges. The forms of autonomy we encounter in the alterglobalization movement are clearly important. But to listen to what these mean, we need to break with theories of disengagement and identity, and explore movements as spaces of experience, where actors experience vulnerability to the other as both the possibility of loss, and as a condition of living.

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1 This perspective on understanding agents plays a central role in the work of J. Rawls (Rawls J., 1971).

2 See, for example Eyerman R., 2004

3 See Rawls J., 1971.

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Kevin McDonald, « Between Autonomy and Vulnerability : the Space of Movement »Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques, 38-1 | 2007, 49-63.

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Kevin McDonald, « Between Autonomy and Vulnerability : the Space of Movement »Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques [En ligne], 38-1 | 2007, mis en ligne le 09 mars 2011, consulté le 01 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Kevin McDonald

University of Melbourne; Goldsmiths College, University of London.

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