Introduction to Ethnographic Encounters with Destituent Power

 By Nikola García

Emergent Conversation 15

This essay is part of the series Ethnographic Encounters with Destituent Power

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Demonstrators take the Plaza de la Dignidad in Santiago, Chile, on October 3, 2020. Photo by Felipe Vargas Figueroa/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

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?

In their responses, each contributor has drawn on fieldwork from diverse sociohistorical contexts. Dr. Kerry Ryan Chance (University of Bergen) examines ungovernability as a dynamic set of practices used by populations in order to protect forms-of-life, through exploring how squatter settlements employ tactics of ungovernability against emerging orders of governance in “post-apartheid” South Africa. Philippe Blouine (McGill University) compares the politics of destitution with the Indigenous politics of “restitution” through an incisive look at the Indigenous demands for justice in response to resident school mass graves, a recent discovery that has forced Canada to confront its settler colonial foundations once again. Nikola García (Emory University) examines how contemporary uprisings have broken away from the classical framework of public assembly, central to the 2011 “Movements of the Plazas,” by analyzing the October 2019 to present Chilean social explosion through an interactive map of weekly protests in Santiago de Chile’s “Dignity Plaza.” Dr. Maurice Rafael Magaña (University of Arizona) explores how militant practices unsettle the distinction between violent and non-violent struggle through his analysis of how urban youth in Oaxaca transformed a teachers’ strike into a movement that refused the state’s legitimacy vis-à-vis its monopoly on violence and its capacity to govern. Sam Law (University of Texas: Austin) explores the practical responses to question of how to live together, here and now, through examining the projects of the Panchos, an urban movement for autonomy in the southeastern peripheries of Mexico City, where participants seek to build communities capable of collectively establishing the conditions of una vida digna, a communal and dignified form of life.

Nikola García is a cultural anthropology PhD Candidate at Emory University, Atlanta, GA. Their research interests focus on whether cross-racial interdependencies provide the conditions through which participants can articulate, debate, and implement their visions of how to rectify historic inequalities and colonial legacies. Their dissertation project, “Emergent Citizenships: Mapuche (Indigenous) and Chilean (non-Indigenous) Politics and Belonging in the Peri-urban (Santiago, Chile)” examines how Mapuche and Chilean neighbors have cooperated since the 1960’s land occupation movements to develop organizations and manage shared resources. They utilize traditional ethnographic methods, archival methods, and visual ethnography and employ ArcGIS and online mapping to spatially represent the transformations in neighborhood projects. In doing so, their research tests the hypothesis that Mapuche and Chileans’ history of neighborhood co-management has led to the emergence of intercultural citizenship practices that enable residents to articulate broader visions of how social and political life should be organized in Chile that contrast to the national discourses of neoliberalism. As a 2021 Digital Editorial Fellow, they have curated Emergent Conversation 15, “Ethnographic Encounters with Destituent Power.”


[1] Colectivo Situaciones is a collective of militant researchers from Buenos Aires, Argentina who began writing in the late 1990s. They are best known for their writings on the Argentine riots in December 2001, in which they sought to vividly capture the street actions that occurred—such as factory strikes, neighborhood assemblies, barter clubs, Cacerolazos—as a form of life that exceeded singular demands for political reforms. In doing so, they sought to expose the inadequacy of analyses that fail to acknowledge the heterogeneity and multiplicity of the events—which they called an “insurrection without a subject,” and the creative agency of what they called “the new social protagonism” (la nueva protagonismo social). Instead, they argued that scholars must attune themselves to how events disabuse their prior notions of revolutionary processes, political subjectivity, and political agency (see Gavroche 2020).

[2] For a timeline on how political theorists and writers have developed the term “Destituent Power” see Destituencies. 2020. “Destituent Power an Incomplete Timeline.”

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. 2014. “What is a Destituent Power?” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32(1): 65-74.

Colectivo Situaciones, and Fontana, Edgardo, eds. 2002. 19 y 20, Apuntes Para El Nuevo Protagonismo Social. Buenos Aires: Ediciones de Mano en Mano and Colectivo Situaciones.

Gavroche, Julius. 2020. “Colectivo Situaciones: Complete Works.” Autonomies. August 17, 2020. Accessed March 28, 2022.

Tarí, Marcello. 2021. There is No Unhappy Revolution:  The Communism of Destitution. Translated by Richard Braude. Brooklyn, NY:  Common Notions.


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