Constituent Power in a Minor Key: Carolyn Pedwell’s Revolutionary Routines

by | 15 Sep 2021

There is a tendency in discussions of constituent power to focus on the groups involved, the subjectivities produced and the discursive significance of the events themselves. Revolts are full of conflict and violence, they pull down sovereign orders and generate constitutional structures. So we can see why they might be thought of as the quintessential ‘big’ event – politics in a major key. Carolyn Pedwell’s new book Revolutionary Routines challenges this mode of analysis, by adding to the burgeoning literature on the ‘minor politics’ of social change.

The concern of the book is with the affective dynamics of ‘habit’. As the subtitle explains, the book is about ‘the habits of social transformation’. But for many ‘habit’ and ‘transformation’ seem to pull in opposite directions. Habit suggests stasis (a certain stuckness), transformation implies dynamism. From the outset Pedwell underlines the ways in which habit can run through transformative moments, and the ways in which the transformation of habitual relations can operate in a prefigurative manner. In short, there is no contradiction here. Habit becomes the object-target of analysis and intervention, allowing a minor politics of everyday life to open out onto broader questions of social change. 

At the core of the book is a double sense of habit: both an already existent patterning of the social field but also an embodied practice wherein new affective patterns might emerge. In the first sense, habit sensitises us to the ways in which a form of power might move from the conscious to the unconscious. Thus, Pedwell explores the shift in the US from white supremacy to white privilege. Drawing on the work of Shannon Sullivan: ‘what differentiates habit of white privilege from more active and explicit practices of white supremacy… is the formers frequent operation as ‘unseen, invisible, even seemingly non-existent’ (65).[1]  This is a shift from an explicit ideological position which winds its ways through laws, policing practices, housing patterns and employment to a de facto racism of the apparently ‘colour-blind’, ‘post-racial’ society . A focus on habit sensitises us to gesture, tone and other fields through which more than meaning is conveyed. Pedwell is critical of those who focus on becoming reflexive, as though a society might think its way out of its habits. From W.E.B. Du Bois she argues that ‘A ‘thinking approach’ could not necessarily engage deeply ingrained habits of white supremacy nor was it able to grapple effectively with white people’s irrational feelings of racial hatred towards Black people and people of colour.’ (72). Pedwell conceives of habit, through Dewey, as a mind-body-environment assemblage, and so rather than simply engaging a thinking approach, she insists upon the importance of the assemblage itself. It is never enough to ‘think’ your way out of racist habits, but always a matter of shifting the bodily, the discursive and the environmental context. ‘social change cannot be thought of as a project of changing the subject but of adjusting ‘mind-body-environmental assemblages’’ (46).

As I say, habit is conceived through Dewey’s analysis, which privileges the assemblage (not Dewey, obviously, but a Deleuzean gloss) of mind-body-environment. No fan of Dewey myself, I was initially sceptical, but throughout Pedwell shows that when paired with contemporary affect theory (in all its multitudinous forms), he can be used productively. The book seeks to explore the ways in which habits are constructed, governed and produced, but also the ways in which they escape. At its core therefore is a commitment to habit as a series of practices, a field of operation which is striated by power relations, but which may be opened in new directions. This commitment is woven into the methodology of ‘speculative pragmatism’ – pragmatism as an attention to how things work, and a speculative inquiry which opens onto how things might become. The chapters engage with nudge theory (as a denuded neoliberal approach habit), mediatised affects of empathy and the solidarity of Occupy! and Black Lives Matter.

There is very much to commend the book to a readership, but for me, the most important aspect is the way it adds to the literature that explores the ‘minor politics’ of the event. Because analyses of constituent power tend to happen in discussions around constitutionalism, they end up perpetuating a politics of big moments where major actors come dominate the scene. Constituent power is seen as the ultimate space wherein the sovereign decides on the exception, just as the people (or maybe the multitude) say a big ‘No’. But in this key, politics is a gargantuan clash of the titans. By recasting social change in a minor key, other actors, environments and practices come into focus. Pedwells book demonstrates, with great acuity, the importance of the transformation of habitual relations to a project of social change. This minor politics is essential not simply in and of itself, but also because it runs through (perhaps even constitutes) the event of constituent power. In this way, Revolutionary Routines provides fresh resources for anyone who seeks to explore the question of constituent power, protest and social movement. It is well worth a read.

[1] Citing Sullivan Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege.


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