Ethnographic Encounters with Destituent Power

Emergent Conversation 15

 Edited by Nikola García

Roman History / Third Servile War (Spartacus Revolt) 73–71 BC / A decisive battle in Lucania between Crassus and Spartacus, 71 BC.  “The Romans in a battle with Spartacus”. Copper engraving by Matthäus Merian t. E. (1593–1650). More than 120,000 men, women, and chlldren, kidnapped and enslaved by the Romans as they subjugated people throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond, liberated themselves and subsisted in bands across Italia, raiding and battling Roman legions remarkably successfully for more than two years.

The Argentine Colectivo Situaciones (2002) and Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (2014) define a destituent power as one which “doesn’t create institutions but rather vacates them, dissolves them, empties them of their occupants and their power.” [1]  The past three years have been marked by a wave of social upheaval and uprisings around the world, many of which have been written about by anthropologists in POLAR, such as the November 2020 issue, Extricating Justice from Law,” and in POLAR Online. In the contemporary global context, destituent power has emerged as a framework used to understand the diversity of worldwide social movements operating outside classical notions of political reform and revolution. [2] According to Marcello Tarí, author of There is no Unhappy Revolution: The Communism of Destitution, these disparate uprisings across diverse contexts are undergirded by a renewed faith in popular rebellion to enact sorely needed systemic change. At the heart of each uprising, within its powerful disruption and creative content, rests a new theory of social change and societal well-being.

The collection opens with an interview conducted by POLAR Digital Editorial Fellow Nikola Garcia with Marcello Tarí, a self-described “barefoot” researcher of contemporary political movements and struggle, who explains how the framework of destituent power responds to the growing need to revisit the concept of revolution and move beyond the concept’s western-centric origins. Then, rather than a theoretical exegesis of destituent power or genealogy of social movements, five scholars in this Emergent Conversation have been asked to begin their engagements with destituent power through ethnographic attention to three questions:

  • How are everyday practices outside of “the political” deployed to evade governance and governmentality?
  • How do people speak truth to power in ways that reveal the contingent and possibly arbitrary dimensions of governance?
  • What strategies of politics and living gesture towards other, potential ways of doing politics?


Introduction to Ethnographic Encounters with Destituent Power

Nikola García


Revisiting the Concept of Revolution: A Conversation with Marcello Tarí

Marcello Tarí & Nikola García


For the Children Lost and Yet to Come: Restitution and the Indigenous Genocide

Philippe Blouin


Sustaining “Ungovernability”: Housing and Evictions during Covid-19 in Durban, South Africa

Kerry Ryan Chance


The Destituent Assembly in Santiago de Chile’s Dignity Plaza

Nikola García


Building Urban Autonomy: The Construction of Communal Form of Life in Mexico City’s Peripheries

Sam Law


The Ungovernability of Anarchist and Liberationist Political Imaginations

Maurice Rafael Magaña


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