This book, provisionally entitled ‘Radical persons’, and contracted to Indiana University Press, puts forward a new theory of social mobilisation that places subjectivity centre stage. Premised on an ethnography of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, more commonly known as the MST, the book argues that contrary to the politics that have underpinned previous calls for change, it is not the collective that empowers the individual, but precisely the opposite: individuals who engage in reflection from within wider collectives give the collective its huge significance and transformative potential. Premised on fieldwork on-going from 2007, the objective of the book is to contribute more widely to social movement theory, highlighting how the making of radical politics is an intimate and contested process in which we all have a stake.

The first section of the book details how the MST, the largest social movement in Latin America, was founded. Building on a wider body of research, ‘Radical persons’ proposes a closer analysis of how the movement came into existence, placing specific emphasis on the founders’ utopian ideals. The book argues that in founding the MST, a duality came to exist between those members that saw utopia as the radically different political situation they wished to achieve, and those who saw utopia as the means through which to transform ideals into the reality. The book argues that in the inherent tension between a utopian vision of future, and the more everyday aspiration towards horizontal organisation, the seeds were sown for the contestation of individual and collective subjectivities that followed. The first section of the book argues that to realise wider goals, debate was restricted for pragmatic purposes: one important factor was the MST’s rapid expansion, another, police repression. In suppressing these debates to drive toward a utopian goal, the book argues that identity-politics were foregrounded, sacrifices were requested, and individual subjectivities were subsumed into the collective.

The second section of the book provides an ethnographic analysis of the consequences of this dialectic between the destination and the means to get there, throwing light on how meaning is created and contested within the MST. This section focuses on the centrality of the ‘landless’ identity, horizontal and vertical structures of decision-making, and the formative environment of the encampment, the single most recognisable motif of the MST.

The third section points to more recent developments within the movement, drawing on detailed ethnographic data to illustrate how members of the MST are engaging in processes of meaning making that call into question how the movement moves between ideal and material worlds. This section focuses on the land that settlers win and what they do with it, the family structures that they build, and the cultural life of the movement: the short, mute performances that are called mística. Through an analysis of these spheres, ‘Radical persons’ demonstrates that movement members are elaborating diverse subjectivities through contested processes, and in this manner, regenerating the radical politics of the movement from within.

The contestation of meaning has become one of the most important areas within social movement research. But how more precisely is such meaning elaborated and peoples’ subjectivities expressed? A key objective of ‘Radical persons’ is to detail how these processes occur without presuming a simple dichotomy between the ‘collective as determinant of the individual’ and the ‘individual as determinant of the collective’. Drawing on the contemporary art scholar Nicolas Bourriaud’s theory of relational aesthetics (1998), ‘Radical persons’ finds subjectivities being elaborated in intimate, and yet relational spaces, in a terrain that I term ‘relational reflexivity’ (Flynn and Tinius 2015). The book argues therefore, that while the collective provides a broader context characterised by hybrid agreements, compromises, and mediations, it is the ‘relational reflexivity’ of individuals and attendant processes of ethical self-cultivation (Lambek 2010, Laidlaw 2014) that regenerates movements from within.

auflynn [at] arts.ucla.edu

Alex Ungprateeb Flynn is an Assistant Professor at the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, University of California, Los Angeles. Working as an anthropologist and curator, Alex’s practice explores the intersection of ethnographic and curatorial modes of enquiry. Researching collaboratively with activists, curators and artists in Brazil since 2007, Alex explores the prefigurative potential of art in community contexts, prompting the theorisation of fields such as the production of knowledge, the pluriversal, and the social and aesthetic dimensions of form.