Prelim 2: Hegemony and Counter-Politics in the Arctic

Today was dedicated to my second question, which led me into the political geographic realm of hegemony and counter-politics. Read on to find out more:


How might political theories of hegemony, counter-publics, resilience and resistance usefully inform your efforts to “explore the smoothness and striation of digital spaces within the context of constructing environmental relationships with the Arctic.”?


This question’s juxtaposition of the concepts of hegemony and resiliency[1] comes at an interesting moment for me as I explore the interrelationships between Nature and Society. At first glance these terms conjure up strong connotations related to opposite sides of the Nature/Society binary, yet they also parallel one another quite closely within their respective domains. Before directly addressing the political theory invoked by this question, therefore, I would like to take a detour through ecological work on resiliency. I will argue that processes of hegemony and counter-politics can be productively understood as political aspects which contribute to the resiliency of broader socio-ecological systems. In particular I argue that hegemony functions to augment the resilience and adaptability of systems, while counter-politics affect the capacity of systems to transform. The question of the smoothness or striation of digital spaces can then be shifted to a question of how these spaces exert hegemonic or counter-political pressures on the wider Arctic socio-ecological system. This framing is useful because it allows me to insert nuanced forms of political theory within narratives of the Arctic which have traditionally been dominated by ecological thinking. This could be particularly useful in exploring digital technologies as components of the Arctic’s ecology, and in underscoring their potential for affecting how this ecology responds to climate change.

Socio-Ecological Resiliency

The most recent scientific research into the effects of climate change on the Arctic, as well as the principles of adaptive management emerging out of this science, tend to be based on post-positivistic approaches which view ecosystems as complex, adaptive systems characterized by higher-order emergence, nonlinearity, many inputs, and resiliency (Berkes 2012; Ruhl 2004). This latter concept, resiliency, arose within the discipline of ecology in the 1960s and 1970s and focused on the processes within ecosystems which produce or mitigate system-wide change as a result of disturbances like climate change (Folke 2006; Pisano 2012). More recently resiliency perspectives have also incorporated some insights from the social sciences, in order to extend analysis from just ecological systems to socio-ecological systems (Adger 2000; Folke 2006; Young 2013). This perspective emphasizes that the long-term trajectory of socio-ecological systems are determined by three key attributes: resiliency, adaptability, and transformability (Walker et al. 2004). Here resiliency is defined as the “capacity of a system to absorb disturbance […] so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks,” (Walker et al. 2004, 6) while adaptability refers to the ability of human actors to influence and manage resiliency. Adaptability is largely described in terms of human actions to prevent systems from reaching thresholds which could result in system-wide collapse. In contrast the transformability of a system describes the potential of that system to react to disturbances in a way that fundamentally changes the logic of that system and allows for “the emergence of new trajectories.” (Folke 2006, 259) Transformations can avoid system-wide collapses, but produce a fundamentally different (productive) system.

Many ecological studies have explored the ways in which climate change may be pushing the Arctic ecosystem beyond a range of important biophysical thresholds (Amstrup et al. 2007; Arrigo 2013, 2014; Barber et al. 2008; Haalboom and Natcher 2012; Hallowed, Planque, and Loeng 2013; IPCC 2007, 2013; Pfeffer 2011; Post et al. 2013; Stabeno et al. 2012). Although both the adaptability and transformability of the ecosystem are important in understanding possible responses to climate change, management and policy recommendations have demonstrated a strong preference for strategies of adaptation (e.g. Carmack et al. 2012; Ford and Smit 2004; Smit and Wandel 2006; ). This reflects a broader tendency in socio-economic systems to seek to solutions to ecological problems in the form of technically-oriented management measures, rather than through the transformation of social and political values (Folke et al. 2010). Thus, for instance, many eco-philosophers point out that deeper logics of exploitation continue to operate in and through conservation policies (e.g. Braun 2006; Morton 2010). This points to the robust resiliency of these social aspects of social-ecological systems, which can be problematic given that it “may prove very difficult to transform a resilient system from the current state into a more desirable one” (Folke 2006, 259). Two questions follow from these conclusions. First, what aspects of the political dimensions of socio-ecological systems make those systems resilient against transformation, despite evidence that such transformation is increasingly necessary to avoid the collapse of Arctic ecosystems? And, second, what political processes may increase the capability of these systems to transform? Ecologists have recognized the importance of understanding resiliency and transformation in political institutions, but also recognize that their studies to date remain exploratory and relatively uncritical (e.g. Andersson 2008; Folke et al. 2010; Smith and Stirling 2010; Turner 2013).[2] Here I argue that the concepts of hegemony and counter-politics can greatly supplement these studies.


For Mitchell (2004) the question of hegemony is both one of how “the social thinking of a particular historical bloc come to form the dominant mode of understanding how the world works,” (16) and also of “how this social thinking can change.” (17) This concept can be directly tied back to turn-of-the century Russian revolutionaries and democrats, including Lenin, but owes much of its current critical use to the influential work of Antonio Gramsci (Laclau and Mouffe 2001; Stoddart 2007). Gramsci was interested in exploring hegemony as a combination of coercion and consent (Sparke 2004), but spent much of his time exploring the latter. Hegemonic consent works through the construction of hierarchies based on voluntarism rather than through physical violence or domination. In particular it functions through the spread of a particular world view through cultural and civil institutions, such that those that do not hold this world view (or, more importantly, are disadvantaged by it) are forced to constantly negotiate with it. The acquiescence of the subordinated is therefore “based primarily on the insistent and inexorable effects of numerous unequal institutional apparatuses in society that take on the characteristic of the self-evident, the normal, and the correct.” (Mitchell 2004, 20) It is domination through the production of common sense (Stoddart 2007).

While Gramsci’s analysis of hegemony focuses primarily on the structures of the capitalist state, two other sets of theories can supplement his analysis at other scales. First, Foucault’s[3] work on governmentality and (bio)power provide important micro-political insights into how particular notions of truth (or common sense) attach themselves to individual bodies. Throughout his genealogical analyses Foucault examined shifts in the triadic relationship between truth, power, and normative rightness (Butler 2004; Foucault 1965, 1994a, 1994b, 1995; Kelly 1994). In particular he focused on a recent historical shift from the sovereign-subject relationship of power, as exemplified by the Machiavellian sovereign, to a disciplinarian model of power (Foucault 1991). Foucault argued that the Christian church first helped shift power away from sovereign relations in the Middle Ages, by employing a configuration of power which individualized its subjects, made them responsible for their own salvation, and then prescribed certain means for obtaining that salvation (Hekman 2004). More recently the strategy that attaches an individual to her identity has shifted from the telling of religious truths to scientific truths. In many cases these scientific truths are related to statistical understandings of broad populations, thereby directly connecting individual behavior to population-level norms as represented by governmental bureaucracies and other nodes of expert power (Foucault 1991; Rose 1999). I believe that these conceptualizations of power can help to describe the ways in which the ‘common sense’ that Gramsci finds in social institutions come to channel the behavior of individuals, even when those behaviors run counter to their own interests.

Second, just as the resiliency of the global environment has become a greater concern, so hegemonic forces have increasingly asserted themselves through global networks which exceed the nation-state. Thus, a range of political thinkers have urged for greater attention to “the ‘scattered hegemonies’ of subordination and resistance in the context of intensifying global interdependency.” (Sparke 2004, 788) For instance many political geographers have become interested in the ways in which processes of globalization act to spread neoliberal ideologies, norms, institutions, and practices across the globe (Peck and Tickell 2002; Sparke 2004, 2006; England and Ward 2007). In my case I think it is particularly useful to think about neoliberal hegemony in terms of development discourse. For instance, development assistance funneled through organizations like the World Bank is often framed in terms of fiscal discipline, privatization, deregulation, and financial liberalizations, thereby producing and reinforcing neoliberal norms while foreclosing discussions about alternative forms of development (Ferguson 1994; Lawson 2007). As Ward and England (2007) point out, these forms of neoliberal hegemony are driven not only by class-based alliances, but are also “informed by gendered and racialized power hierarchies.” (11) The concept of geographical imaginaries can be helpful in describing the ways in which different racial and cultural groups are categorized and brought into hegemonic projects. Following Said’s (1978) seminal work on Orientalism, Gregory (2004) defines geographical imaginaries as “constructions that fold distance into difference through a series of spatializations.” (17) Geographical imaginaries work by dividing the world into regions based on perceived distinctions, and then uses processes of surveillance and discipline to guarantee that actors within those regions perform these identities (Gregory 2004; Nash 2002; Parry 1992; Young 2001). Indigenous peoples, in particular, are often subjected to geographic imaginaries which depict them as ‘backward’ despoilers of ecosystems in scientific debates, or as noble savages in development discourses (Berkes 2012). These geographic imaginaries thereby encourage indigenous peoples to improve their condition through the engagement of Settler-imposed treaty and legal systems, leading them to consent to those systems and reproducing hegemonic relations (Alfred and Corntassel 2005; Byrd and Rothberg 2011; Sparke 1998).

These theories of hegemony can quite clearly be applied to the current marginalization of the Inuit. In the mid-20th century many colonial pressures, including missionary influence, Canadian policies of permanent resettlement and acculturation, and the geopolitics of the Cold War, challenged the Inuit’s traditional way of life and pushed them into vulnerable positions (Chaturvedi 2000; Laugrand and Oosten 2010; Penikett and Goldenberg 2013). Today Inuit communities still face high housing and food costs, lack of job opportunities and health care, high incidences of mental health issues, and the exploitation of natural resources from their traditional lands (Nuttall 2000). These various pressures have led the Inuit to strongly engage in national and international politics, such as pushes for greater rights to land and to corporations in Canada and calls for the recognition of indigenous rights by international organizations (Penikett and Goldenberg 2013). While these engagements have led to material gains for some Inuit, they also lead these Inuit to adopt the dominant ‘common sense’ of Southern Settlers. Most related to my own study is an example from the development of polar bear management practices. The traditional relationship between the Inuit and polar bears is highly holistic and regulated through spiritual practices of respect performed during hunting (Laugrand and Oosten 2010; Wenzel 1991). These practices stand in stark contrast to the techno-managerial forms of environmental management often imposed on polar bears by nation-states like Canada and the United States, which have led the Inuit to try to gain more control over conservation strategies. However, through this process of contestation the holistic view of the environment espoused by the Inuit is often re-coded into co-management regimes or exertions of indigenous rights, both of which subsume Inuit ideas under scientific or Western sovereign frameworks (Bielawski 1992; Coombes et al. 2012; Murphy 2011; Robards and Lovecraft 2010; Tremblay et al. 2006). As a result, today many Inuit hunts are often regulated far more by hunting quotas determined by co-management boards than they are by the traditional rituals of respect (Nicklen 2007). This is not to say that the emergence of co-management regimes lacks any value for the Inuit,[4] but rather to point out how these forms of resistance are also repositioned to lead the Inuit to consent to hegemonic relationships.


The question, then, is whether any type of political action is possible which might lead to broader transformations of the hegemonic relations driving current environmental policies, and whether digital technologies might provide a space for such action. It is here that the concepts of resistance, political resiliency, and counter-publics become useful. As I mention above, both Gramsci’s description of hegemony and Foucault’s description of power are intrinsically ambivalent, in that domination and resistance always go hand-in-hand. As Foucault says, the technologies of domination are often the same technologies of self-transformation, and the tools we use to self-police are often, at the same time, the tools we must use to fight for our freedom (Ferguson 2004; Valverde 2004). How, then, is it possible to stage resistance which more radically transforms prevalent hegemonic structures? Mouffe (2005) argues that subordinated groups need to shift from s strategy of individually demanding extensions of rights, which often results in the preservation and extension of hegemony, to one of constructing and articulating radically democratic and collective identities. This reformulation of identity should shift us from a politics of hegemonic domination to a politics which recognizes and proliferates a multiplicity of relations of domination and subordination. Within this political regime:

A single individual can be the bearer of this multiplicity and be dominant in one relation while subordinated in another. We can thus conceive the social agent as constituted by an ensemble of ‘subject positions’ that can never be totally fixed in a closed system of differences, constructed by a diversity of discourses among which there is no necessary relation, but rather a constant movement of overdetermination and displacement. (Mouffe 2005, 77)

This radical democratic and agonistic politics will allow for the constant production and emergence of fluid counter-publics capable of changing dominant public views before giving way to new counter-publics.

Structurally and spatially, many authors have argued for the importance of private spaces for the production of these counter-publics (e.g. Benhabib 1996; Coles 1996; Mansbridge 1996; Staeheli 1996; Staeheli and Thompson 1997). As Mansbridge (1996) points out, civil societies and states must always perform coercive acts in order to perform action, and many individuals will become marginalized regardless of what act was performed. These individuals need private spaces and enclaves for two reasons. First, they need to be able to retreat to them for “more comfortable relations that provide types of strength and nurture mostly absent from coalition activity.” (Coles 1996, 377) These enclaves allow individuals to regroup with others in safety. This can be useful for supporting what Cindi Katz calls practices of resilience, or the ability of individuals to “survive without really changing the circumstances that make such survival so hard.” (Sparke 2008, 424) Second, however, these spaces can also support the more radical practices of reworking and resistance (Sparke 2008) in their ability to act as a platform for the reemergence of counter-publics. These spaces must therefore allow individuals to have access back into the wider political public so that, once individuals have re-gained power, they can emerge as a new counter-public capable of producing political change. Effectively, these private spaces produce the conditions whereby a marginalized view constantly “seeps through the veins of mass culture, reinterprets and readapts it subtly from within.” (Portelli 1999)

Implications for the Digital

This framework of hegemony and resistance leads me to several useful questions in exploring the smoothness and striation of digital spaces within the context of constructing environmental relationships with the Arctic. First, it allows me to ask whether digital spaces are strongly controlled by the hegemonic forces which control the international political arena (identified above), and/or whether they offer a platform for the development of counter-publics. Second, if they do offer such a platform, to what extent does this platform allow for practices of resilience and/or resistance? Of critical interest to my project is the extent to which resistance within digital spaces produces broader transformations of the socio-ecological system in which those spaces are enmeshed. Put differently, identification of hegemonic interests within digital spaces is evidence of striation, while identification of the production of resistant counter-publics is evidence of smoothness.

Some initial work has been performed on each of the two questions identified above, although this work hasn’t always been framed in terms of hegemony and counter-politics. In response to the first area of inquiry, many scholars have traced out the ways in which discursive, technological, structural, and institutional factors work to constrain the logics, practices, and politics possible within the Web (e.g. Bittner et al. 2013; Burke and Goodman 2012; Burns 2014; Crampton et al. 2013; Dalton 2013; Dodge and Kitchin 2005, 2007; Graham and Zook 2013; Graham et al. 2013; Leszczynski 2012, 2014; Pasch 2008; Wilson 2009, 2011, 2012). Leszczynski (2012) offers a particularly pertinent analysis, since she is one of the few authors to tie such studies directly to literature on hegemony and political economy. In doing so she traces out the ways in which neoliberal practices of restructuring the state, including processes of rolling back government services and rolling out principles of technoscientific capitalism, have driven the development of the geospatial Web. Later work by Leszczynski (2014) and Dalton (2013), respectively, extend these analyses to the concept of neogeography and to a specific understanding of military-corporation linkages in the development of Google Maps. Perhaps of even greater interest to my own work, though, is Pasch’s (2008) description of the ways in which digital technologies are being taken up by the Inuit themselves. He argues that the optimization of many Web applications for English users acts as a form of cultural hegemony, such that traditional knowledges and skills are eroded by Inuit use of these technologies. In this way technology can work against efforts to “encourage Inuktitut use, preserve traditional knowledge, and more strongly connect a new generation of Inuit for the purpose of resistance to global pressures by profit-based appropriation of the land and resources.” (Pasch 2008, 2) I would like to extend this analysis beyond a focus on language-use, to an exploration of how Inuit traditional ecological knowledge emerges online.

With regard to the second question, a range of authors remain interested in the potential of digital technologies for democratic practice and have explored how this potential has manifested itself in identity politics (e.g. Elwood and Mitchell 2013; Graham et al. 2013; Kelley 2013; Loader and Mercea 2011; Warf and Sui 2010; Wilson 2009, 2011, 2012; Young and Gilmore 2014) and institutional change (e.g. Benkler 2006; Bennett 1998; Bennett and Segerber 2013; Castells 2004; Elwood and Leszczynski 2013; Meier 2011; NOAA 2012; Young et al. 2013). Christensen (2003) connects some of these discussions to the case of the Inuit, arguing that technologies ranging from email to websites do allow individuals to actively assert their own cultural identities. To my knowledge, though, none of these studies connect democratic practices to Mouffe’s conception of radical democracy or to Katz’s framework of resistance, reworking, and resilience. Questions therefore remain in terms of the extent to which these digital practices either allow for broad structural transformation or work within and only narrowly revise the prevailing hegemonic logic. Additionally, none of these examples explicitly connect online environmentalism to the concepts of hegemony or resistance.


We can now connect these discussions of hegemony to my original concerns about the resiliency of the socio-economic system which is quickly forcing the Arctic beyond safe ecological thresholds. One might say that the hegemonic control of the Web functions as a factor in the adaptability and overall resiliency of this system, while the emergence of counter-publics in the Web may act to increase the system’s transformability.[5] In this way a combination of resiliency and hegemonic theory allows me to conceptualize digital technologies as important socio-ecological components in the long-term health of the Arctic. Put another way, this approach helps me to understand the coevolution of digital politics and the Arctic ecosystem, or the ways in which they are “historically interdependent in their constitutive, nonteleological evolutions.” (Bergmann 2012, 519) Of course, there are also other ways to connect Internet-based politics and ecological systems. In fact this question was difficult for me because I have most recently been trying to think about my project in Deleuzian terms. For instance, I believe that much of the conceptual work described above could also be framed to include a discussion of the Deleuzian processes of deterritorialization and reterritorialization. Unfortunately, though, I am not confident enough in my grasp of Deleuze or of hegemony to really understand their theoretical relationship. Additionally, I suspect that quite a bit of work in political ecology, and especially that work which draws on early peasant studies, directly connects notions of hegemony to ecological systems without recourse to resiliency theory (Paulson, Gezon, and Watts 2003). Unfortunately, this area of literature remains a major blind spot for me. It would therefore be quite useful for me to more fully discuss these alternate ways of addressing hegemony, ecology, and digital technology. Perhaps even more importantly, it would be useful to get some additional perspectives on the relative advantages and disadvantages of choosing any one of these approaches for my particular project.


[1] Here I am using the term resiliency in a slightly different manner than, for example, Cindi Katz’s more political usage of the term (Sparke 2008). I will try to connect these two different interpretations of the term later in the paper.

[2] In his comparison of resiliency theory and political ecology Turner (2013) goes further in his criticism of resiliency theory, by arguing that resilience perspectives “sound either disturbingly ‘top-down’ (e.g. society as organization) or laissez-faire” and “from a social change perspective […] could be seen as highly conservative” (5). I argue that engagement between resiliency theory and theories of hegemony may help to overcome some of these limitations.

[3] I should note that serious tensions do exist between Gramsci and Foucault, particularly around the Marxist notion of ideology. However, as Leszczynski (2012) points out, Gramscian theories may nonetheless help researchers to overcome the inability of Foucauldian theory to analyze interest-driven domination.

[4] In fact, Inuit activist and leader Sheila Watt-Cloutier (2014) argues that a key strength of the Inuit is their adaptability in the face of hardship, which connects to the discussion of community resilience below. My concern is that practices of resilience may play against practices of transformation, or resistance (Sparke 2008), necessary to prevent long term and irreversible disruptions in the Arctic ecosystem.

[5] While I am arguing that one can view hegemonic forces as a component of complex socio-ecological systems, that does not mean that one can directly apply models from biological complexity approaches to studies of hegemony. New approaches will be needed to make these connections. As Bergmann et al. (2009) point out, “[w]hile many existing particular ‘complexity’ approaches are inappropriate for import into human geography, in our view, there is still much to gain from engaging with the modeling processes which were critical in generating the abstract principles of complexity” (267).

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